*1999 constitution’s anti-national unity
*Every state, community should have 100 percent resource control
*Nigerians can’t be blackmailed into silence
Dr. Nnimmo Bassey is an architect, environmentalist and human rights activist. A delegate at the 2014 National Conference, he was, for two decades, the executive director of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, ERA/FoN, and also an executive member of the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO. Currently the executive director of Home of Mother Earth Foundation, HOMEF, Bassey, in this interview, spoke on moves by the National Assembly to review the 1999 Constitution, agitations for secession, need for restructuring and the way forward for the country among others.
By Gabriel Enogholase
You were a member of the 2014 National Conference set up by former President Goodluck Jonathan. The recommendations of that Conference have been jettisoned by the present administration. Today, the Senate is going round the country on a constitutional review. What is your take on this?
First of all, let me say that there were two key sets of recommendations from the National Conference of 2014. One constituted a set of policies which the Executive could implement that does not need to go to the National Assembly. The second sets are the changes that are needed in our constitution which will have to go to the National Assembly.
We can save a lot of time and avoid needless bruises if the National Assembly picks up that document and looks at what was recommended and adopt them. There were some issues that were not conclusive, those ones could be debated. We actually had serious debates before agreements were reached on some issues.
Tinkering with the constitution, ignoring what was agreed after exhaustive debates doesn’t quite show that we respect the wisdom of our people. If we are not ready to adopt the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference, I would say we should better go back to the post-independence constitution before the 1966 coup, which is the 1963 constitution.
You can go back to that constitution and look at how to improve it because what this nation actually needs is to have a situation where the federating units actually work together with a clear understanding of why they are working together.
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If you keep running this unitary system which we mistakenly call federal system, we won’t achieve the needed national unity. The centrist military system fashioned to sustain dictatorship cannot be used to run a democratic system.
They had a structure that helped them run the country where the commanders of the states called military governors had to follow the central commands from the headquarters. The military introduced the so – called security votes for governors. Those votes were used to induce the military governors to be loyal to their commander-in-chief and to ensure that the civic space remained tightly shut. You don’t need security votes controlled by governors in a civilian administration.
On the controversies and divisions trailing the clamour restructuring with President Muhammadu Buhari saying that agitators are naïve because there is nothing to restructure
I don’t really know why there should be disagreement on the issue of restructuring. The present structure is not working and everybody knows that it is not working.
Restructuring does not mean that anybody would be put at a disadvantage. Restructuring would bring power closer to the people and would also yield better ways of executing certain tasks according to local realities and contexts.
Right now, the local government structure has collapsed, it is not functioning. That is a very big disappointment because that is where you could really do politics at the local level. The local government system has collapsed because the overall system is creaky and shaky. This indeed is very unfortunate. We need a ceremonial structure at the centre.
The states should be empowered to do things that suit the contexts of the states. I was reading one analysis by one of the governors, who was comparing the Internally Generated Revenue, IGR, of his state to that of Lagos State. He said if there is so much disparity, if doesn’t make sense to expect both states to have uniform wages for example for political office holders because they don’t have the resources to it back such up.
If we see ourselves as a country where we build on our diversities and also emphasis our commonalities, we will certainly have a much more solid country and better relations between the states or regions. But if we are running a faulty system that is creaking towards a direction we don’t want, then, we are also setting a wrong signal to the rest of the continent and the world. Africa needs a strong, united Nigeria.
Restructuring is not merely about resource governance arrangements. It is not about resource control. However, resource control should not frighten anybody. The major issue of contention today is oil and gas revenue. But everyone knows that oil and gas will soon stop being a serious revenue spinner within the next decade or two. Now, if we think that is where resources will continue to come from, then, we are living in a fool’s paradise because the world is moving away from petroleum resources.
The International Energy Agency recently said that the world should stop looking for new fossil resources if we are serious about fighting global warming. We hear that, yet we are busy issuing out new licenses for oil fields, we are busy building all kinds of infrastructure.
Uganda is building a pipeline from Uganda to Tanzania and Nigeria is planning to build gas pipeline to Morocco and to Europe. We are investing resources in areas that will not yield income in a sustainable way into the future. If we agree that fossil fuel is in its dying days, this is actually the time for us to know that there must be alternatives; we have to move into urgent economic activities that will generate income for this country. We should be investing in cleaning up the Niger Delta.
And as economic activity, oil will soon be a stranded asset. We must not have a stranded Niger Delta.
We have irresponsibly allowed the Niger Delta environment to be so damaged because we care only about the revenue that goes into the National purse. We haven’t paused to ask what is the value of money when life and the basis of living is so trashed. As we speak, there must be one or two oil spills going on. Routine gas flaring has been going on for over six decades.
These poison the people and reduce life expectancy to a mere 40 or 41 years and all we care about is petrodollars. No one cares about the environmental costs. When the people complain, the routine response is to promise a health clinic or a school building. Why build a clinic without stopping the poisoning of the people?
Before oil became a major income earner, the regions were more or less independent. Education was solid. Healthcare was solid. Infrastructure were built to specifications. The regions did the best they could for themselves. They were not sitting around and waiting for Lagos to share resources with them. Today every one goes to Abuja, sits round the table, and wait for money to be shared. We cannot continue this way. It is simply unsustainable.
Do you think the a confederal system of government which featured during the Aburi conference in 1967, should be the solution to Nigeria’s political problem?
I understand your question to be whether we should look at the past to be able to build a solid future? We have not been serious in implementing the brilliant ideas, the collective wisdom we have. As I said, we need a system where the centre gives overall political direction while the regions work together, knowing full well that they have the autonomy to focus on what will be beneficial to them and extend to the entire country.
There are raging agitations for secession. We have call for Biafra in South- East, Oduduwa Republic in the South – West while the Middle – Belt does not agree with the co-North. Do you think secession is the answer?
We are not hearing the call for session for the first time. The North also threatened to secede from Nigeria before independence. The East actually seceded and we then had the civil war. So, nobody should be surprised to hear of any region or state threatening to secede. People cannot be forced to stay together without a space to at least debate the framework for staying together.
Forcing people to stay together is building a system that will eventually implode or explode. To me, the call is just to remind everybody that we need to come together to discuss how we should live together. I don’t believe that there should be secession in Nigeria. I believe in a situation where Africa should be one country and the present countries can be realigned as regions.
There is no strength in division. And there is no end to division once the trend is set in motion. Our people are disappointed with the current structure and are disappointed with the general leadership. When people look at the nature of things and find that their interests are not properly protected and statements are made to further belittle their characters and are called all sorts of names, then, you can expect reactions and responses.
If some people feel that they are totally marginalized, they will not keep quiet. Isaac Adaka Boro started a revolution in 1969 and called for a Niger Delta Republic. He and his colleagues decried the marginalization of the region as well as the ecological damage inflicted in the process of resource exploitation. They had legitimate reasons for standing up and demanding a place at the table.
Everyone deserves to be respected and to have a say on how their environment is being treated. Every state or community should have 100 percent control of their resources. Nobody should be agitated about resource control because every part of the country is very well resourced. Every state or community should have total control of their resources and should thereafter agree on what what percentage should be paid as tax.
We can say you control your resources, but pay 50% or 90% as tax. That sense of ownership is critically important. The people own the resources and then willingly pay a tax. We need to compare the law on oil, and gas and the laws on solid minerals in the same country. The Solid Mineral Act of 2007 is a model that should be adopted for the oil and gas sector. As I said earlier, the oil and gas are fading resources.
The solid mineral law requires that before you mine in any community or in somebody’s compound, you would have to reach an agreement with the owners of that land on what activities would be carried out and how much you would pay as rent. , explaining what you want to do, There is also provision for community development as well as for mine site closure at the end of the lifespan of the mine.
The rents paid are to be reviewed every five years. But we don’t have all those when it comes to the oil and gas sector. There is injustice against communities in the oil and gas sector and this should be recognized. We must have a level playing ground in terms of resource utilization and agreement on what happens in anybody’s backyard.