By Kenny Ashaka
Chairman of the Northern Elders Forum, NEF, Dr. Paul Wantaren Unongo believes that some Nigerians are yet to come to terms with the North’s thinking of the need to change the way Nigeria is organized. In this interview, Unongo, a former Minister in Nigeria’s Second Republic who has just been named as the chairman of the forum to replace Alhaji Maitama Sule who died in a Cairo hospital recently, said the North’s fear for a restructure was for Nigeria. “The North is not afraid of restructuring. The North is afraid for Nigeria. The North does not want people to surreptitiously send us back again to the frontlines in the jungle that we are going to fight a civil war. Most countries and most civilized people don’t indulge in fighting civil war twice.
“If we had got things, we should go and sit down and picture a federation that would give us no pain and that would work and ensure economic development faster. How can the North be against that? We are against behind the scene attempts to re-introduce secession and civil war as an act of politics. We did that 50 years ago. Nigeria will be a very stupid country if every 50 years we go back to the jungle to fight a war. What kind of human beings are we? If that is what is restructuring we say no”, he remarked
The North seems to be divided on the restructuring of Nigeria as a country. Some have kicked against the idea outright and yet we have others like the former vice president, Atiku Abubakar campaigning vigorously for the restructuring of Nigeria. As a prominent body that speaks for the North, what is the thinking of the North about restructuring?
From our angle, the North is not afraid of restructuring and you will see that we are not afraid of restructuring. What we want to know is if we are talking about the same thing. If people are talking about Biafra, they talk of it as restructuring. I don’t believe that is restructuring. A big section of Nigeria like the North, which occupies three-quarters of the land mass of Nigeria and which has over half of the population of Nigeria is not against restructuring.
In that case, what is restructuring as far as the North is concerned?
We just want to know because there are too many things being discussed under restructuring. There is one thing that we know that has been settled on the battlefield. That is the question of secession. We settled on federalism on the battlefield. But if anybody wants to tinker with Nigeria so that we can have a better federation, so we can love each other more, we are all for it. But the discussions that are going on and people are abusing people and giving the impression that the North is not willing to look at our federation and see how we can tinker it, how we can improve on it, is not true. We are not stupid. It is not true. It is a case of giving a dog a bad name in order to hang it. We know that we fought a war and before the war there were a lot of discussions. We reached an impasse where the people in Nigeria lined up just like it happened in the United States. Some remained absolutely committed to federalism. Others said no breakup or give us war. But we fought a devastating war for three solid years.
When somebody talks as if we never fought a war on the same issue, that person is just being funny. This country sacrificed three million persons for talking the idea of a breakup of the federation. Now we have a federation and we have practiced the military imposed constitution. If we had got things, we should go and sit down and picture a federation that would give us no pain and that would work and ensure economic development faster. How can the North be against that? We are against behind the scene attempts to re-introduce secession and civil war as an act of politics. We are not interested in violent politics again. We did that 50 years ago. Nigeria will be a very stupid country if every 50 years we go back to the jungle to fight a war. What kind of human beings are we? If that is what is restructuring we say no.
Can restructuring assuage all these conflict of ideas that we have now in Nigeria?
Well, my personal view is very clear. I have no objection but I think that if Nigeria wants to progress, we must go back to what Chief Obafemi Awolowo suggested and what some of his followers are canvassing. Nigerians are not very honest people. When an idea comes from somebody they don’t like, they don’t take it. At the London Constitutional Conference, Awolowo insisted on federalism. I was a supporter of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Zik insisted on unitary form of government. When the military came, because of their structure, they surreptitiously pushed backwards to almost a unitary system, making the federal centre so powerful that we are all feeling the pains. So if we want to give ourselves a true constitution to embrace the units of this country, we have now seen how costly this presidential system is. We can now sit down in a Sovereign National Conference. Why are people afraid if people like Jonathan could call their friends to come and tinker the constitution and you elected certain number of people that you call National Assembly. Who is afraid of Nigeria? Even we Nigerians are not afraid of ourselves. Give us a proper Sovereign National Conference, invite all the tribes…and you know educated Nigerians are afraid of the word tribe, but that is what we are made up of. Give us the freedom to discover what we want, to give ourselves what we want.
If in the process it takes two to four years to write that agreement, so be it. But what comes out of the Sovereign National Conference of the component peoples of Nigeria should be given to us. Why are leaders of this country afraid to allow Nigerians talk to themselves freely? They will do it and give to themselves a workable constitution without any doubt. But when people are scheming to impose whether through military fiat or to just impose rules on people who are privileged to be in the National Assembly now, I as a theoretician and an observer of Nigeria for over 60 years, I watched Nigeria participate from the time I was 15 years old I was playing politics. So, I think Nigerians are very interested in themselves and intelligent. Nigerians are capable of sitting together, arguing and abusing themselves secretly, but they will come out with a constitution they want for their component units. They will determine how many component units it should be. If the Nigerian people are given the opportunity to determine the type of federalism they want along the lines that Chief Obafemi Awolowo suggested, believe you me we will have peace in this country.
Why, in your estimation, has the clamour for restructuring become more pronounced?
Oh! Well, people are playing politics. You see President Muhammadu Buhari became sick and people are holding him responsible for being sick and all the ills of Nigeria. You know that is wrong. Buhari inherited a thoroughly battered country where the commonwealth was completely plundered. The economy was knocked down and just one year in his administration signs appeared that he was sick. Then he took permission and transmitted power correctly, unlike the way it took place during Yar’Adua, to a highly competent Nigerian called Osinbajo and made him an acting president. Then people just want to heat up the polity. As far as I am concerned, Osinbajo is doing a tremendous job and people don’t want to know what the system is. The system produced a ticket. The President did not run alone. It is a ticket he ran with Osinbajo. Now that he is not here, Osinbajo is doing well. When he runs against the constitution of the Federal Republic, everything will be applied. If it becomes necessary for him to be removed, he would be removed. But for people to just sit up and make appearances as if this man has committed an offence because he is sick is incredible. I am really surprised. So, all these agitations and protests that Buhari should resume or resign is crazy. You don’t run a country like that.
Nigeria is not a banana republic. People know, but they just want to be funny. Osinbajo is a professor of Law, competent and is doing a competent job according to the constitution. Why are people not satisfied?
If the North is not afraid of restructuring why is it against devolution of powers?
I don’t know what you mean by restructuring. Wait. Who is a northerner? Am I not a northerner? I am calling for a Sovereign National Conference as a person. My organization did not say they were afraid of going into talks. The North is not afraid of restructuring.
The North is afraid for Nigeria. The North does not want people to surreptitiously send us back again to the frontlines in the jungle that we are going to fight a civil war. Most countries and most civilized people don’t indulge in fighting civil war twice. People who are telling us let’s resurrect Biafra, you press, help us. The idea of Biafra was canvassed by Ojukwu more than anybody else. He had English from Oxford. He was a historian. He presented Biafra’s case better than anybody that is today purporting to be presenting a case for Biafra. Nigeria rejected it and he rejected Nigeria’s position and we went to war. We fought a three-year bloody war. Biafra was defeated, the idea was killed and the victorious federalists imposed a federal system. There is nothing wrong for Nigerians to sit down and tinker with their federalism as a practice. Nobody in the North is against that.
In that case, would it be right to say that the North has a misconception of the restructuring the South is talking about?
Oh! Is the South united? So, restructuring means bring Buhari today, come and start work tomorrow or else. So, restructuring means send everybody to the front, every northerner with oil block in the South give it out on the 1st of October. Then restructuring means every northerner go back to… this is crazy. What is restructuring? We have already sat with leaders from the South. We have said the federal legislature should determine the mode of representation. But it shall not…if they are really serious they should determine it in such a way that every component unit of Nigeria, every tribe in Nigeria should be represented. Then throw this thing to these people. Why are you rulers of this country afraid of Nigerians. Nigerians are the sovereign people of Nigeria.
Give us a Sovereign National Conference so that we will now discuss what we want for this country. If you feel that this is something that is against…you should remember what Ojukwu said about the war. He said he himself was against the second agitation for Biafra. So, if this agitation for Biafra is restructuring, as they say so; if restructuring means get out of my section of Nigeria, they don’t have right. Like I said when our boys said so, I said you can’t say that because after the bitter war, the nation Nigeria emerged and it has a constitution. No matter how wobbly you must follow that constitution. I am determined to continue to support the constitution because if we don’t support the constitution we will become a banana republic. We cannot just wake up everyday and young men who never saw the war just issue instructions. I want everybody from the North to get out of my state. Every northerner that has oil block…I don’t have oil block, but I am not worried. I want Oduduwa State. I want this. These are the things that happened before Biafra came. All the things that these people are talking about now were done exactly in the same way and they led us into a brutal civil war for three years. Haven’t we learnt any lessons? If you want us to look at how we have practiced Nigeria, let us have a Sovereign National Conference convened; the North will be properly represented. I will be there too…
You want a Sovereign National Conference. Do you think we can achieve that under this government?
Do I think we can achieve a Sovereign National Conference under this government? Which government? If the people of this country want it and the government from thoughts and claims represent the Nigerian people, why would it not give them a Sovereign National Conference? Is it because those people that were in the Senate who were in the PDP and they and their friend Jonathan sat down and selected some of us who were perceived as his friends and then said go and sit there and then tell me this is what I want. They divided Nigeria in the pieces they wanted; they took the representation they wanted, they came up with a report and now there is a strong pressure on everybody that we have a National Assembly and we are proposing an amendment of the constitution. They should pass this on to this people to amend. And when they say no, this was not representative, you think they don’t like restructuring. Was that few deliberate selection representative of the people of Nigeria? Of course not. Was it representative of the interest of Nigeria? Of course not. Was it fair for the biggest part of Nigeria to have not been represented properly? No, it is not fair.
So nobody is going to stop restructuring if they don’t…I don’t believe there is anybody in the North that is against restructuring. But what we are saying is let’s not make noise. Let’s define what we mean by restructuring and I can define what I mean by restructuring. We have practiced government with what? We came into being with three states.
There were four regions. We became four regions with Midwest. The military torpedoed that in 1966. Buhari was not there. He was a very young man and the young people that toppled government toppled themselves again, then Gowon came. In 1967 Gowon said there was agitation for the breaking up of Nigeria into more than three, four. So he broke Nigeria into 12 states by military fiat. So from 12 they went by military fiat to 19. Then they imposed a constitution by military fiat. They ruled by decree.
Then in 1979, some of us participated in the Constituent Assembly they convoked. Some of us were elected by our people. I was one of the so-called 60 wise men of Nigeria that were selected by General Murtala Muhammed in 1976 to go and look at what Nigerians want and give him a type of government that he told us that he wanted. We told him, Your Excellency, if this is the type of government that you want it does exist and it works in the United States. All we need to do is to tinker it so that it can reflect our Africanism. And he said go ahead. He gave us one year and we went and sat down with brilliant minds. Only one person refused to attend, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. People like Ben Nwabueze, one of the greatest constitutional lawyers were there. And we fashioned a draft constitution, which we presented to the military and the military then convoked a National Constituent Assembly by election. The elected representatives of the Constituent Assembly produced a constitution, which they gave to the military and the military imposed it by decree in 1979.
From there, all the changes that are being made are on the constitution of 1979. Some people want to deceive themselves that all the changes that are being made are on the constitution of 1999. No, there is no 1999 constitution. It is the 1979 constitution that is being amended and amended up till today. So, within that context people who are agitating and are intelligent I sympathize with them. From this angle give the Nigerian people a chance, convoke a Sovereign National Conference. We have enough brains in this country that we can make sure that all tribal ethnicities in Nigeria will be represented and these people should sit and let them look at the constitutions we have practiced, the colonial one, then the parliamentary system, which has been practiced and the attempted presidential system we have practiced and then they should get all the advice that they want. But the important thing is that they should represent their sovereign unit within Nigeria.
Such a constitution arrived at should not be subjected to any supposed National Assembly. Then we can begin the preamble of the constitution correctly by saying ‘we the peoples of Nigeria give to ourselves this constitution’. Then for God’s sake, after that Nigerians should forget about another constitution. No country in the world changes constitutions so many times as Nigeria has done. So, to stop all these give us a Sovereign National Conference. The amount of monies spent on multiple assemblies, multiple states, 36 states, add the Federal Capital Territory, that’s 37 I don’t care. But there is something that is factual. As I am talking to you now about 32 states have not been able and are not able to pay salaries and meet up all the requirements for being a government that employ people. Some have not been paid for three months and others up to six months. What type of country is that? We must know that something is wrong. So what is the fear? Why do we fear the Nigerian people when we are supposed to be serving them and the masses are not being asked to come and speak to their problems? We have imposed this problem on Nigeria. Give us a Sovereign National Conference and let us see. If we make any noise or trouble it would be our fault.