…‘Nnamdi Kanu is the main stumbling block to Igbo’s chances’
By Levinus Nwabughiogu
Professor Yima Sen is the Director-General of Northern Elders Forum, NEF. In this interview, Sen says successive governments’ inability to secure lives and property is giving rise to self-defence among other issues of national interest in Nigeria.
It’s been 50 years since the Nigeria civil war ended. What is your take on the subject matter, ‘Never Again?’
Well, I have a personal experience with the civil war. I was 16 years old and I lived in Gboko, Benue State at the beginning of the war. The war started in Benue.
Nigerian troops entered Biafra territory through Benue, my community as a matter of fact and soldiers were stationed in Makurdi and Gboko principally because you can enter northern Cross River State from Gboko, so I saw it.
But more than that, there was a build-up to that war. In that build-up, there were some issues. There were riots in then-Western Nigeria and the present-day Benue State.
There was a controversial census in 1963 and the boycott of the 1964 general elections by the East which produced the government.
The build-up to the 1966 coup had to do with certain issues that probably even predated independence; maybe some people felt that the way government was formed after independence and even after the 1964 elections were not satisfactory. Crisis sometimes do not happen overnight.
There is a build-up and if you do not manage that build-up very well, crisis can explode into something that is not good for society. So, we had the 1966 coup.
There was a pattern of that coup that some people suggest was responsible for a counter-coup against the Igbo, and that led to the decision by then-governor of Eastern Region, Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu to take the region out of Nigeria.
Of course, there was some attempt at a conference in Aburi. So we had the civil war which started from the federal side as police action. But after a while, it became civil war.
And when we talked about lessons learned, if what led to that war was a problem of the national question, maybe we have not done enough to address that question.
But the other point is also that in a country of more than 600 ethnic groups, when you talk about justice, fairness and equity, it must apply to all, not just one particular group. To some of us who are nationalists, therefore, all ethnic nationalities in Nigeria are entitled to fairness, equity and justice.
In your own estimation, do you think those things have been well addressed?
Well, in measures. For example, when then-Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, created 12 states at the beginning of the war, he seemed to have addressed the agitation for creation of more regions.
You know we started our Nigerian federation with three regions but, by 1963, we had the Midwest Region created out of Western Region but there were agitations for more states.
In northern Nigeria, there was agitation for a region in the north-east spearheaded by the Borno Youth Movement and there was also an agitation in the middle-belt region spearheaded by the United Middle-Belt Congress.
And in the Eastern Region, you had agitation for Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers Region. But, more than that, when we had constitutional government under military rule in 1979, there was an attempt to introduce into our Constitution certain principles like the federal character principle.
Some people said that principle attempts to address lopsided representation in national governance but it also has the tendency to short-change competition.
That is an argument which persists. I think that agitation continues for greater equity, greater fairness and greater justice in Nigeria and one can see where that is reasonable because there have been questions of fiscal federalism for example: what happens to the resources of Nigeria?
Do we have too much of those federally generated or appropriated resources going to the Federal Government? I believe we can give more resources to states and local governments.
How far are we implementing federal character? Maybe attempts at implementation have not been good enough; so there are all these questions. But injustice is not something that can be said to be meted out to only one section of the country. I don’t want to talk about my community.
We have done a lot for this country but they pretend as if we don’t exist or they think we don’t have the capacity to threaten secession. But people from my community, about 60% of them, fought the civil on behalf of Nigeria but people pretend that that sacrifice is not important. We are nothing.
Looking at the Aburi Accord that eventually failed and other issues that culminated into the civil war; would you say Ojukwu was right in calling for that secession?
I saw an opinion piece written by an Igbo person blaming Ojukwu for not listening to Zik among others. He said Ojukwu was possibly so upset with the killing of the Igbo in other parts of Nigeria and how the crisis turned out to be that he was not rational at that time.
I like to put myself in his shoes and wonder what I would have done; it is very difficult to suggest that somebody would have been rational with those things that happened and I think whatever it was that started those things, it is possible that they could also go overboard. I think the counter-coup was probably a military thing.
So, if it was a military affair, maybe it was enough but now spilling over to the communities and the massacre of people was ugly.
The Igbo still feel short-changed in Nigeria 50 years after the war. Can that be justified?
This idea has been sensationalized. War is not good and when a war ends and you lose, you cannot celebrate. I want to give an example. The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima remains a problem in Japan up till today.
There are effects of those bombs as we speak. Germans lost the First World War and they were very badly treated by the victors.
They were made to pay reparations for losing the war and, because of that maltreatment, Hitler led Germans into the Second World War and that Second World War was even worse than the First World War for Germany, Italy and Japan.
Although Germany is a very strong economy in Europe and has very industrious people, they are very accomplished people. If you look at the five decision-makers for peace and security matters in the world, I am talking about the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia and China), those are the mates of Germany in the world. Germany should be there but they are not.
The UN system emerged after WW II. After the civil war in the United States, the southern part of the America did not produce a President until the Jimmy Carter presidency.
During the first Gulf War, Iraq invaded Kuwait and some allies from the West attacked Iraq. Iraq withdrew from Kuwait but those who attacked Iraq from the West were not satisfied and there was a second Gulf War and Iraq was virtually destroyed and the leader, Sadam Hussein, killed. Iraq has not recovered from the war.
What I am saying is that war is not nice but I think Gowon deserves commendation for his three Rs (Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction) and the ‘no victor, no vanquished’ principle.
But have the Igbo actually been properly reintegrated?
I know that some military officers from the Biafra side were reintegrated into the Nigerian armed forces. I know that in some communities, certain people who left their properties came back and people gave the properties back to them then they came back. And during the first democratically constituted government of Nigeria after the civil war, an Igbo person (Alex Ekwueme) was the number two person in government and he was most likely going to succeed President Shehu Shagari.
Specifically, what did you take away from the gathering of ‘Never Again’ in Lagos?
What I took away from the gathering in Lagos was a sobering of reflection on the war. Of course, there were one or two emotional voices but I was impressed with some of the main contributors who were calling for reasoning but one of them talked about wars in history and this was an Igbo person and how nasty they have been to people who were defeated.
One should never call the aftermath of a war as good but, to an extent, it has been because people are vindictive. Germany has not recovered from the two World Wars.
The South-West just came up with Amotekun, a regional security network, to police their environment. There has been this debate as to whether it is legal or not. Is it a thing to be commended?
I will answer that question like an ordinary person who is concerned about security all over Nigeria, not just in any part of Nigeria. If you look at the North-East, they have had to employ hunters to assist the armed forces to deal with Boko Haram. The question is who are these hunters?
There have been all sorts of vigilante groups around Nigeria. Why do we need vigilante groups? There are countries across the world where you hardly need policing; you can just go about your businesses and not be afraid of crime.
The level of insecurity in Nigeria today has reached a level where if people engage in self-help, you cannot blame them. Insecurity is no respecter of ethnicity or religion.
I know of Fulani men who have been kidnapped by Fulani bandits in the bush and they are not interested in your religious or ethnic pleadings.
So, if a community says “look, we can police our community” and if what they are doing is within the law or the Constitution, I am not opposed to that kind of arrangement.
But the Federal Government through the Attorney General has declared it illegal?
Well, I don’t know. I am not a member of the Federal Government but I think the person who made that statement is the Attorney General, who is a lawyer.
I am not a lawyer, I am just talking about my reaction as an ordinary citizen of the country that if you bring to me the logic of self defence which is allowed in decent and civilized societies, it will be very difficult for me to oppose a well organized vigilante group which can also be monitored by security agencies.
I have read statements by some people who said this is a prelude to secession or that it is an attempt to raise an army or all of that. I am not sure if I will go with that kind of reasoning. I have lived in the Yoruba communities in Nigeria and I don’t think they are really interested in a war in this country.
The region is insisting that they will go on with Amotekun…
It is obvious that something led to the formation of Amotekun. If you want that mechanism to be discontinued, has the situation improved? Has the insecurity which they are responding to been removed?
I think Amotekun is to respond to weakness in the government’s ability to secure lives and property. So, if you have not improved on your ability to do that, do you really have a reason to discourage them?
Do you think Nigeria is a failed state?
Not at all! Nigeria is a traumatized state but not a failed state at all. What has happened really is that Nigeria has not lived up its potential.
The potential of Nigeria to be a great nation is enormous for it to perform the way it is now and, this year, Nigeria will be 60 years as an independent country. You want to compare Nigeria with Rwanda and what Rwanda has done in the last 15 years, then you can say Nigeria has underperformed, it hasn’t failed. Maybe if you have a better quality of leadership, you would do better.
How do you rate successive governments since after independence? Do you think they have also tried in putting Nigeria on a better pedestal?
Nigeria has not seen his best.
Do you hope for best? Do you think it will ever come?
There are potentials for leadership in Nigeria. The problem, really, is that there is a class that has come to dominate power and politics in Nigeria by taking over the economy and governance and creating hegemony and this hegemonic bloc has not been able to provide the kind of leadership that you have seen produced in Kaigame’s Rwanda or in Morocco or maybe in Algeria or in Ghana or maybe in Botswana and in few other places in Africa.
In specific terms, how can Nigeria actually reclaim its place; move to prosperity?
You need a counter-hegemonic power arrangement where you have progressive, enlightened, proactive and patriotic leadership. That has not happened in Nigeria yet.
I am giving you a combination of factors. Some people may be patriotic but they may not have the capacity in Nigeria.
Some people may be committed to leading Nigeria but they may not have the ability to do so but they will not believe you and then you have to deal with this question of power blocs, people that are called cabals. It is not only during this present period that you have them.
They always come and hijack power for selfish and personal interests. Political scientists call that kind of politics prebendal politics and it has to do with politics and until we get rid of prebendal politics, we will not take Nigeria anywhere.
I think what Kaigame has done in Rwanda is that, yes, you will not give him an A in human rights or give him an A in probity but you certainly will give him an A in development. So you have to give something to the people because we know that, as humans, you must be deficient in one thing or the other but what you give to the people must be in excess of what you take from the people.
Going back to the issue of Amotekun, the governors of the south western states are the ones spearheading this and most of them are of APC and the Federal Government is also led by APC; do you see a clash coming? Where they disagree with the Federal Government, what do you think will happen eventually?
This question suggests that the problems of Nigeria transcend partisan politics and I told you earlier about this class dynamics of Nigeria and politics.
The people who are behind the scenes of power in Nigeria and are wealthy and are in the commanding heights of the Nigerian economy and the people who are the frontline politicians can be aggregated into one class called the ruling class.
Now, they have common interest and this interest goes beyond partisan politics and when they are threatened or when their communities are threatened and they put pressure on them and the pressure that is put on them is pressure that threatens privileged positions, they will have to appease their people and protect their interest.
Miyetti Allah has warned the South-West that if they don’t drop the idea of Amotekun, 2023 presidency may elude them. How may you react?
Is Miyetti Allah a political party? They are a community group. They are engaged in pressure group antics.
Where do the Northern Elders Forum, NEF, stand on Amotekun? What is their position?
The organization has not taken a stand on the issue. If it is discussed, you can be sure that my opinion will be that if government, the Federal Government in particular and of course state governments, has failed to provide security for the people, then they should not be averse or should not oppose community initiative so long as it is not unconstitutional and I think that there have been those types of initiatives by various communities.
I am talking about hunters in the North-East; I am talking about Hisbah police. There are all sorts of private security guards around the country that are protecting people’s businesses and all of that; I think they are registered with government.
And Amotekun, if it is constituted by state governors, I imagine that they will find legal framework to backup what they are doing and I also believe that the Nigerian security and defence forces should be in a position to monitor what these people are doing.
I think that we should be able to convert some of these things which are seen as threats into issues for national development.
President Buhari recently pledged to exit office in 2023 but was silent on which zone to support although there are agitations and interests. How do you read that?
The issue of going away after 2023 is constitutional. He is just stating the obvious. But on whether he can determine which zone or who succeeds him, you ought to look at whether he has the interest or whether he can actually do it or whether that is really his responsibility, we have to look at those factors.
From my own analysis, 2023 is open. Now, there are people who will lay claim to the principle of zoning that it should come to them. I know that there is a strong claim coming from the South-East but the problem with the claim of the South-East is that we have to deal with whether they are going to listen to Nnamdi Kanu or to politicians from that community.
Because that is a major distraction or it creates a lot of confusion. Of course, the presidency of the country has stayed in the North for a long time either military or non-military, either elected or unelected.
There are people who would say that with the presidency staying in the North, what has the North benefitted from the presidency staying in the North?
The bigger question really is that does the ethnicity or the state of origin or even the religion of the president matter? If the person is objective, caters for all and he is seen as the father of the nation, do you know that Paul Kaigame, the Tutsi President of Rwanda, that his people constitute only 16% of that country and in the civil war, the Tutsi were the target of the genocide, they were called cockroaches?
And like I said somewhere else, today a cockroach is leading that country and the people who were in the forefront of this attack were the Hutus who were the 82% of the population of that country.
That is an overwhelming majority. There is no group in Nigeria that is 82% of this country, yet in Rwanda, a minority has been accepted by the whole country and he is leading that country to prosperity.
The NEF is an important group going by its name but it does appear that these elders have not actually spoken up when it comes to 2023 politics and the presidency; why haven’t they spoken?
No, it is too early but certainly we shall speak on that but we cannot speak on that until we consult with our people and we do plan we will have a major assembly which will discuss that kind of issue.
It was planned for early this year and when it does hold, we will take a stand on these kinds of issues.
Do you see the forum supporting the South-East or do you want to retain power in the North?
I shouldn’t pre-empt things.
But what is your own position?
I am not opposed to it but there are problems of how you organize yourself for leadership of a country of this nature and the present problem from the South-East and, as I said earlier, we don’t know if the voices of secession will overwhelm the voices that want to be integrated into Nigeria.
Assuming the National Leader of APC, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, comes up to contest for President in 2023, would you buy into his ambition?
I am looking forward to a leader of Nigeria that will give Nigeria qualitative leadership irrespective of where the person comes from. I am concerned about the failure of Nigeria to develop up to its optimum since independence.
As a scholar and an analyst, I have written so much about that, that I am even tired talking about it. But, personally, I am a revolutionary and I believe that and I have inferred during this discussion that the class that has led Nigeria since independence has failed to maximize or convert the quantum of the resources of Nigeria into prosperity for the citizens of Nigeria.
The other problem is that the alternative forces, let’s say, for example, leftists or socialists, are also not well organized, so we have a problem there.
PDP leaders recently staged a peaceful protest against the Supreme Court ruling that sacked former governor of Imo State, Emeka Ihedioha, and brought in APC leadership in the state; what would you read of that Supreme Court judgment because many historians, analysts, critics are saying that no, they didn’t go in the right direction. You as a person, how would you read that and then, the attendant protest?
I can only talk about that as a layman. The legal argument, sometimes, you have legal acrobatics and, sometimes, ordinary logic is superseded by legal logic.
I think even some lawyers are also confused about this issue because, sometimes, the law is interpreted by certain lawyers differently; a judge may interpret it differently from a lawyer. So this is a whole new legal mystery. At old age, I am not going to read law. I am not interested.
I have seen the arguments for and against that and I think it looks a bit weird. I know I am not competent to comment on it professionally because that is not my profession.
I am amazed at what has happened but, in law, they will set their precedent, they will say this has happened before and this interpretation was introduced and all of that.
So I will leave that to lawyers and to other analysts. But in terms of the reactions to it, I think people are just exercising themselves within the ambit of democratic practice. I don’t know whether it is medicine after death or whether maybe it is political masturbation.
But as far as I am concerned, democracy in Nigeria, as I see it, has not fulfilled the people’s yearning for progress and prosperity.
And you asked me earlier whether Nigeria has failed, Nigeria has not failed, maybe the practice of democracy in Nigeria is failing, I think really my concern is that Nigeria has underperformed.