Dr. Wunmi Bewaji is a former Minority Leader in the House of Representatives. He is also the chairman and Executive Director, CODER. In this interview, he speaks on Nigeria’s 59th independence and declares that there is need for restructuring if the country must forge ahead.
By Dapo Akinrefon
NIGERIA as a country is now 59 years old.
Is there any cause for celebration?
When we talk about 59 years of independence, it is a long time. When you are looking at a 59 year-old person, such a person has become a senior citizen. Nigeria has every reason to celebrate because there is this pessimism around that people do not see anything good in Nigeria.
Some people do not see anything good about the country, they believe that we are going in the wrong direction and things were better before. Now, some people are even of the opinion that we should not have obtained independence but you know this is a country where at independence had just two universities namely the University of Ibadan (University College, Ibadan) and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (which was established in 1960) but today, we have 43 federal universities, 48 state universities and 79 private universities.
All of these put together, we have 170 universities. When you compare that to the two universities we had at independence, you would see that we have come a long way. At Independence, Nigeria was just a mere British colony but today Nigeria has grown from being a colony to being the largest democracy in Africa. Nigeria is the largest democracy in Africa and it is a shame that the present government does not even realize the gravity of the position that we now occupy.
Nigeria has enjoyed uninterrupted democracy for 20 years and this is something worth celebrating. Moreover, we are unarguably the largest economy in Africa. We should celebrate ourselves, our freedom and independence and we should concentrate on the bright side.
Freedom and independence
Every country has its own problem even the United States is presently grappling with the unfortunate election of a right wing extremist. A few weeks ago, in the United Kingdom, the parliament was suspended. If that had happened in Nigeria, people would have said ‘oh, this is now a full blown dictatorship.’ That means we are doing well. We should be happy; we should celebrate our 59 years of independence.
Part of the challenges confronting the country has made people call for zoning of key offices in the land. How far has such worked for the country given the clamour by some people ahead of the 2023 polls that the North should retain the presidency?
On the issue of zoning of the presidency, we have a checkered history of long years of military rule. In the first 40 years of the existence of Nigeria, the North ruled Nigeria for nearly 95 per cent of that period and that was what led to the emergence of General Olusegun Obasanjo. There was an unwritten agreement that power would rotate between the North and the South. Despite the fact that our democracy is 20 years, we must recognize the fact that the Nigerian federation is very fragile.
So that gentleman’s agreement must be respected, any attempt whatsoever to bring back the era of the so-called Northern hegemony would collapse the federation.
My advice to fifth columnists within the major political parties is that we should tread softly.
Rotation has come to stay, President Muhammadu Buhari is from the North and by 2023, he would have spent eight years and then it would be the turn of the South. Any attempt to make anybody from the North succeed Buhari would be interpreted as a Third Term Agenda by the Buhari administration.
I served in the Constitution Review Committee between 1999 and 2003 and between 2003 and 2007. The idea of putting it in the constitution was muted at a particular point and I would say that the advocate of that were Northerners because at that time, somebody from Western Nigeria was in office.
We debated the idea but in the end, it was suggested that it should remain a gentleman’s agreement. This is what is sustaining the federation itself and people should not exercise fear.
You can imagine if Obasanjo had wanted someone from the South to succeed him and you know most of the problems that Goodluck Jonathan had was due to President Yar’Adua, a Northerner, who had not been able to complete the eight-year tenure.
As a result of that, even the constitution has been amended to say that if you succeed someone, you are completing the term of that person, therefore, you would not be able to run for that office again. In recognition of the fact that this federation is a very fragile one and we have to manage it in a way that is in the interest of the diversity that we have in the country.
I represented Lagos in that committee and that was the reason we did not include it in the constitution.
What is your view on agitations for restructuring of the country?
Of course, we must restructure, that is the only way to go. We need to restructure in the sense that you know we talk about unity in diversity. Nigeria is a federation and you know at Independence, we were familiar with the Lancaster Conference, the Independence Conference in London. The founding fathers of Nigeria made it known that their solution to the diversity was to be able to use that diversity as raw materials for unity. You can’t deny the fact that Nigeria is diverse; there are many ethnic nationalities in the country. All over the world where you have such diversity the solution has always been a federal structure.
Now at Independence, what we had if you look at the 1960 Constitution, was a federal constitution. The 1963 Constitution was purely a federal constitution in which the component units of the federation were allowed to develop at their pace. Look at the 1960 Constitution; we had 22 items in the Exclusive List. So the areas where the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction were limited.
But under the 1979 Constitution, they grew to 68 and that trend started since 1966 when (General) Aguiyi Ironsi came in and he thought that the solution to Nigeria’s problems was to have a Unitary System and that consumed Aguiyi Ironsi and we reverted to Decree 1 which was federal in structure. Now, from that 1966 to 1979, we had that federal structure in place but there was a problem.
I had the opportunity of meeting the late Dr. Ajayi, he was one of the drafters of Decree 1 and Dr. Ajayi identified the army as the problem. The structure they have there is command and obey structure. He asserted that when they were drafting the Decree, they had a problem about what to do with a situation whereby if you now have a Head of State at the federal level, then in those regions, the military governors were presiding.
Of course, there were very senior military governors then. The military governors at the regions or states would be junior to the Head of State and so the Supreme Military Council, SMC, headed by the Head of State was the highest organ, it’s now the parliament. So the idea was that there is no way the Head of State would sign into a law, and then a junior officer in his region or state would alter it and that was how the inconsistency clause was introduced. That where a provision of an Edict, because law at the region or state was called Edict and that at the federal level was called Decree, runs in conflict, the provision of the Decree would supersede to the extent of that inconsistency and that was what was transferred into the 1979 Constitution and that was how we ended up with Unitary System of Government under a federal constitution. I said this because your question was why do we have to restructure? So there is the need for restructuring, the need for restructuring is to recognise our diversity.
From what you have observed so far about the country, would you say we have learned any lesson and in addition, what is responsible for the failed dreams that have characterised the country march to greatness?
Corruption a huge problem
Like I said earlier, we have achieved so much. Earlier on, we spoke about the issue of corruption. Corruption is a huge problem that the country is facing because all the programmes, infrastructure, all that need money. A country that has been plagued so much by corruption since independence with the better part of our resources taken outside of our country. That is why we must fight corruption with all seriousness and sincerity. For me, I hold corruption for those failed dreams.
This is because Nigeria is blessed; we have all the resources, materials and human resources. In spite of that, we still manage to become the best economy in Africa. I think we should tackle the problem of corruption. The lesson that we can say that we have learnt is that it is a journey.
Nationhood is a journey, it is not an event, we will continue to explore. The good thing about it is that we’ve found democracy and I think the bulk of our problems will be fixed by democracy right from the problem that we had earlier on in our different associations. Some of the problems under military dictatorship, where there was no transparency, accountability and all of that will be addressed under democracy. While we say the fight against corruption is politicized, when you get there you also go after others when you take over. Then we will get to a point when everybody or each and every one will account. For me, democracy is the biggest gain.
Security challenges have been aggravated and it is likely that the president will spend eight years without addressing it, do you also see it that way?
Well, there is poverty in the land. A lot of people taking part in banditry are unemployed. This same thing has accounted for existence of Boko Haram in the West African province. You will not be able to employ someone who has something doing. It is this idle mind that you have in groups such as Boko Haram and the rest of them. Therefore, we should monitor the problem of poverty.
We must all work towards the success of any president, governor or local government chairman irrespective of whether we voted them or not. When they succeed, the country will succeed. We will wait till another four years to put your own man there. But, when we think that at all cost, we must undermine the person then we end up causing problem for the country.
The Armed Forces or police are overstretched, the same people that are fighting banditry are the same people that you want to use in fighting Boko Haram, problem of herdsmen and the militants. So we must be careful.
Again some people want to start a revolution, you still have to deploy the security agencies to go and take care of that. We must not politicize security.