By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor
One of the founding fathers of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a major player in the oil industry and a strong voice for a united Nigeria, Mr. Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim (GOH), is not pleased with moves by some individuals to dismember Nigeria. GOH, in this interview, speaks on issues in the polity. Excerpts:
How do you react to emerging issues challenging the unity of Nigeria?
Well, I have been speaking for months on some of these issues, especially on the need for us to get a national consensus- not southern or northern consensus but a national consensus on how to move forward as articulated in our six point agenda.
And, what are they?
Principally, we said number one, while the army is being reviewed in terms of training, recruitment and doctrine, there is an urgent need to stabilize the situation through the kind of defence cooperation agreements with friendly countries and they don’t have to be the United States or the United Kingdom or any of the first world countries. Nigeria has helped many African countries and also participated in several peace-keeping missions.
There are also some African countries that are competent enough to help to stabilize the situation particularly in the north central zone and it doesn’t have to be just troops alone; sometimes it is about technical support, it is about high level intelligence, it is about training. It is a shame that we do not have a special force that can respond to kidnapping. When an American was recently kidnapped in Niger State you saw the response by the American Government.
A lot of countries have Special Forces that have been trained and once kidnappers know that we have the capacity to respond, there will be moderation in this thing. But when someone is kidnapped and the solution is just to go and pay money and the kidnappers are aware that it is like we have not demonstrated the capacity to act apart from paying ransom, this will continue to make it a thriving industry. Secondly, we have also asked for some domestic measures like decentralizing the police. Sometimes when you deploy the army, after the army has finished the job of pushing the insurgents, we leave the space bare without any kind of civil force to make adequate occupation of the space that has been won by the army.
So we must have police at the local level, which is at state levels, not just police commissioner taking instructions from Abuja, no; it is police that is taking instruction from the chief executive of the state which is the governor. We must also have local government police.
Are you not afraid that the governors can manipulate the police to achieve political gains at the expense of the real security that they are supposed to achieve?
The governors are currently manipulating even this central police for their interest. There is no governor who does not mobilise the federal police to harass the opposition whenever they want to do so. They just get the police commissioner to do their bidding. So that is not an excuse not to have local policing. All that we need to do is that there must be checks even to the powers of the governors. That is why we are talking about independent legislature and independent judiciary. And essentially, one of the most effective ways that the judiciary even at the state level must be able review the actions of even the local police, that is why the judiciary has to be independent. The protections that we seek for the citizenship right are best availed to the citizens by the courts and the people having access to the court and the judiciary at the local level being funded so that they are not just magistrate courts that the governors can deploy for their whims and caprices.
Do you think the renewed calls for restructuring is genuine or have some sinister motives? And, in any case, what should really be restructured in Nigeria?
Look, let’s not quarrel over semantics because one of the problems of restructuring is like as you have said, identified with some forces that are deemed sinister and therefore people fret unnecessarily about this. I have no doubt that some of those voices are really sinister and to be honest with you, there is nothing they are talking that we have not discussed before in the past. In 1990, we had a national conference at the national theatre in Lagos and I was the secretary of that organization and we talked about devolution and decentralization of power; we didn’t say restructuring but essentially the critical element was devolution and decentralization of power, which we are still talking about.
And I don’t think anybody in the north is against state police. You have seen the Northern Elders’ Forum’s position on this, you have seen what Governor El Rufai said on this and other governors’ positions on the same subject matter and they are essentially on building a national consensus. Some people may choose to keep to their own label even though they are saying less.
For instance, we are talking about states having control over resources within their territories, something that is more fundamental than what the southern governors are asking for, a higher share of revenue for their operations. But the way they asked for it and the drama they put into it, make it look like they are asking for something very terrible, very serious. So essentially what they are asking for is not even profound but this is the problem with perception when you have too much label behind an idea. But essentially I think we have a national consensus whether it is from the north, from the south and that is why I don’t like to use labels that have been so much discredited because in communication your words also matter.
What do you think is fuelling these agitations for secession? Is there any justification for that?
This is just nonsense to be honest with you and let’s call it what it is pure nonsense. Nigeria’s constitution starting from the one we had before independence has always provided for democratically elected leaders and not handpicked leaders. At the Lancaster conference in 1957 and 1958, the eastern delegates were led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the western delegates were led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the northern delegates were led by Sir. Ahmadu Bello and independence constitution was negotiated. One of the critical elements of the independence constitution, which remains with all the constitutions that we have had whether midwifed by the military or whatever, is the principle of indivisibility and indissolubility of the federal republic of Nigeria, this was agreed by all the regions. So this theory by some illiterates, I call them illiterates and some of them may be professors and they go about talking nonsense as if that is the truth… This theory that Nigeria was put together forcefully by the British is false because the people of Nigeria did negotiate the constitution led by democratically elected leaders. And the principle of indissolubility and indivisibility of the federal republic of Nigeria was agreed; in fact it was thoroughly debated at the Lancaster conference whether the component regions should have the right to secede or not.
The southwest wanted it; the northern region also did not mind it. In fact, the most compelling argument for national unity was from Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who said that we should have a model constitution like the constitution of the United States of America where secession is an act of treason and that Nigeria should exist in unity in perpetuity.
But given the realities in Nigeria today, don’t you think all the components of Nigeria can come together to renegotiate our unity?
I am not convinced that the unity of Nigeria is the problem. What I think is the problem is the mismanagement of our diversity. That is the issue.
What do you mean?
I am saying so in the sense that over the years, we have not allowed the elements that can guarantee efficient management of state power to operate. We had a coup in 1966 that took powers from the sub-national authorities that would have efficiently managed the situation like security you are talking about to the extent that if anything happens in a local government, the people who live in that community would know who the criminals are. It is easier when security is managed at that level than when it is managed from the central government because there is always a problem with even trust in that people will not volunteer information easily. So some of the security problems we are having are traceable to the fact that powers that were residing at the local level have been taken away and dumped at the federal level. Interestingly, a lot of people like to blame the Fulani for everything.
But it may interest you to note that the people who plotted the 1966 coup were not Fulani but Igbo from the southeast who established the unitary constitution. So it is not about Hausa or Igbo or Yoruba but about the fact that we have distorted the most essential element of managing diversity, which is to have a level of control mobilization and development and two key elements, security and the economy are the most important elements of activities in a society. And when you have taken those powers and dumped them at the centre then you snuff out creativity and efficiency and the state can no longer function at its optimum.
That is why I am of the view that when we decentralize we will regain our balance and I do not think that the issue is about our unity. The real issue is that we distorted the essential principles of managing that diversity and we must take necessary steps to restore it in order to make progress as a country.
That is the solution, not secession and I have not seen an African country that achieved secession that has been better off. Eritrea is not better off than they were; they fought for almost 30 years to leave Ethiopia. But what have they achieved after the left. South Sudan is not doing better either after many years of war. And let me tell you Nigeria is more of a blessing than a curse. When people are talking about seceding the question to ask is, secede to where? Before Nigeria was amalgamated, there was nothing called Yoruba nation but Oyo Empire and the various sub-nationalities in the present southwest were in 200 years war against Oyo; the Ekitis and all that they were all fighting Oyo to be independent of Oyo.
There was so much insecurity; this was a war for 200 years. So what do they mean by Yoruba nation, there was no Yoruba nation before the British amalgamated Nigeria; there was Oyo Empire under Alaafin and the Egba had their own flag and they had their own generals fighting Oyo, fighting Ibadan, Ibadan was the city state that was aligned to Oyo.
Even the lower flank to the north, Ilorin, that one has broken up from Oyo; it wanted its own independence. Everybody wanted independence from Oyo Empire; so what is the Yoruba nation that they are talking about? And the ones in the east that are talking about Biafra, they didn’t even have a kingdom, they didn’t have any empire.
What do you mean by Biafra, everybody was at the clan level when the British went to that place. The only thing in the southeast and south-south that was a big kingdom was Benin and everybody was either a vassal to Benin directly or indirectly in those areas. Secession is pure nonsense, secession to where?
Are you satisfied with the way appointments are being made in this country at the moment and do they met the constitutional concepts of national unity, indivisibility and indissolubility?
Well, that is the problem with the character of a government; it is not a problem with the character of country. When Yar’Adua was President, were all the appointments from Katsina? If you are having issues with appointments, there are constitutional remedies. We have the federal character commission and there is no state in this country that is not represented at the federal character commission. But have they complained about appointments? Where is their report, where are the voices of their state representatives? Why are they not saying anything?
Then apart from the institution such as the federal character commission, where is the party? In 1999 and 60% of all federal boards were appointed by the committee set up by the National Working Committee of the ruling party, of which I was a member and we zoned every big board appointment to every part of this country.
If NPA is in south-south, NNPC could not be in the south-south and so on and so on. With what we did it was not possible for even the president at the time to short-change anyone or zone in the country. So one of the problems that you have is not just with the government; virtually all the institutions have collapsed and they have to do with the character of the occupants of those institutions not because those institutions cannot work. Even if you go your way, it is not the guarantee that there will be development in those places. Some people will still be oppressive if you don’t have good leaders, if you don’t have people who are ready to speak up and take up responsibilities that they have signed for.
But it appears as if the political parties have been overpowered by the government in power as opposed to the situation that prevailed in the NPN days when the party was supreme and the President or governor could not overrule the party in any decision?
Yes, we don’t have strong parties anymore. If we don’t have strong parties, our democracy will be doomed. This is so because even in countries of Africa that have one-party states, the parties are very strong. You can see even in Zimbabwe, Mugabe could not do anything again once the ZANU-PF decided that he must quit office. He had to bow to his party and leave after many years of holding sway. Once the ANC turned against President Zuma of South Africa, there was nothing he could do to stay back. So, in Nigeria, we need strong parties to make the system work better.
But money bags have hijacked the parties and there is nothing anybody can do to take the parties from governors, president and other powerful elements that fund the parties?
It is unfortunate that we have found ourselves in this situation because some of the people, who are shouting today, are the same people who killed the parties. I was expelled from the PDP in 2000 because we were insisting on the doctrine of party supremacy. Some people in government humiliated those of us who formed the PDP because they wanted unlimited control over government.
Myself, Harry Marshal, some of the founding fathers of PDP then, we were all expelled in one day in a well programmed attack against the national executive committee by some people who are shouting that they want to be president today, by some people who are crying that democracy is suffering. They are the ones who killed democracy.
They did not want the party founders who are great men to prevail and execute their altruistic vision for Nigeria. I was one of the youngest of the group of 34 that started PDP and these were great men, those were people who had been in government and they never stole money. Chief Solomon Lar never had a piece of land in Abuja here, Alh. Ciroma never had a house in Abuja here even after being the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, minister of finance and had seen money more than anybody else had seen. We were inspired by leaders who wanted the best for this country and we respected them not because they were money bags.
We followed them and spent our money behind them because we believed in them. Then some miscreants came into government and they didn’t want this structure that brought them into government to have any influence on their policies and we were always fighting. It was war between us and some people who derailed our vision for a better Nigeria. Do you know how many times the PDP was surrounded by armoured tanks? There were times they even brought armoured tanks to the party secretariat because they wanted to get some people out of the party forcefully. The fight that happened in PDP between 1999 and 2001 has not happened since then and this was why we lost it.
Now, regrettably, the same people who caused the problem are busy jumping about pontificating. One of the problems of Nigeria is that most Nigerians don’t have a sense of history but a high sense of collective amnesia and people pretend not to even remember things that happened six months ago. So there is no way you can make progress as a country if you don’t have a sense of history. So back to the issue, it is not just about Buhari, it is not about secession, it is not about any Fulani, but we need strong institutions to have a functioning democracy. Some of the people that are saying they want to secede, how are their governors managing their states? Some of them don’t have five kilometres of functional local roads even with the money that is available right now. Is it Buhari that is doing that? I agree we have a lot of nagging issues to deal with in the country but let us first of all deal with those we can agree on and move gradually from there to the next one and be able to solve all of them politically and democratically on the field of election and not give room to troublemakers to destroy our country.
Once it is election time now, nobody is focused on these candidates to determine where they are coming from, what their pedigree is but many would be talking about how much the person is worth and how much they are ready to spend and so on.
So is a referendum necessary now before we go into 2023 elections?
That will be a distraction, referendum for what?
Referendum to say okay this is how we want to move forward as Nigeria, as various components within the state called Nigeria…
Do we need to complicate issues? What we need now is to secure the country and make the country safe for all Nigerians. That is what my six points agenda is all about. We need to immediately guaranty security in the various states and local governments. And we can write now amend the sub-sections of the constitution and get concurrence from the states. We can actually do this is within the next 60 days; in fact within the next 30 days we can do it so that the states and the local governments can legitimately raise real policemen to solve their security challenges in place of vigilante groups that are unknown to the law and they can become a terror if not well managed.
The Senate President and the Speaker of House of Representatives believe elected officials like governors should not spearhead the process of restructuring. Is that right or wrong?
Every Nigerian has got the right to say anything under the sun on how to make Nigeria better and they do not even need to be elected.
The issue for me is that the southern governors have said what they want for their own region; northern governors have been talking about what they want. But what we need now is not a southern or a northern agenda; what we need is a Nigeria Agenda and what we’ve tried to do in the past months is to say look what are the things that can create stability for the interest of all of us right now whether you’re a southerner or a northerner. These are the things that are included in my six-point agenda and that is what we should focus on and it is important also that the president should thinker with his cabinet right now.
Look you need an inclusive cabinet that is smart, made up of people who are patriots, not people who are partisan to be able to solve the problem that Nigeria is in now. That was what Gowon did when Nigeria was prosecuting a civil war. He brought in Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he even ceded part of his powers to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who became the vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council and Nigeria did not borrow a penny. You had people like Aminu Kano. We need that level of strong cabinet that can inspire hope in a new beginning and it takes nothing from him as the president to put that in place immediately so that we can save Nigeria. He doesn’t need a cabinet of boys and yes men because this is not the time for small politics; it is time for big steps to save Nigeria.
There’re fears that 2023 may not hold because of the security challenges, agitations for secession and all manner of challenges. Are you worried about it? Some people even say 2023 may not hold.
That is why anybody who is sensitive cannot be preoccupied with campaigns about 2023 now but can only be focused on how to stabilize the country. The important agenda now is not the discussion about 2023, the important agenda is how to stabilize Nigeria.