IN Nigeria’s elusive search for unity among its separate ethnic nationalities, Professor Ben Nwabueze, a foremost constitutional lawyer, lends his voice to the agitation for restructuring, saying it is the only way to go.
Looking way back to the days of Nigeria’s struggle for independence, would you say this is the kind of country our forebears had in mind while they were negotiating for self governance?
My answer will be no; not exactly. They had a vision of Nigeria as a great country. They had in mind a country that will become one nation. At that time, everything was focused on one united nation. But that particular vision of having Nigeria as one united nation has not been realized and the prospect of that realization seems to dim. They also had in mind a vision of a prosperous nation and a leader in the African continent. We may say, yes, the vision of prosperity has been realized to some extent in that things that were not available or possible during the time of independence are now possible. Up till 1948, there was no university in the country. The University College was established in 1948 by transforming Yaba College into the University College of the University of London.
Today, the number of universities in the country both federal and state is on a steady increase. That shows you the transformation that has taken place. At that time, very few people had an idea of what television and radio was all about. When Nigeria Broadcasting Service was introduced, there were only a few people who could avoid radio box in their houses. I recall the story of some thieves who broke into a house in Onitsha, packing this and packing that.
While that was going on, the Nigeria Broadcasting Service, which had gone on recess suddenly came on air saying, ‘Here is Nigeria Broadcasting Service’ and the thieves jumped out of the window thinking that somebody was inside the house. This shows you that there has been tremendous development. But then, couldn’t we have done more than this over this period of time? Is that enough with the amount of resources available to the country? The short answer to your question is that the vision of the founding fathers has not been realized. Development has taken place, but certainly very much short of what is expected.
Will it be right to trace the mutual suspicion that exists among different ethnic nationalities to the way and manner the founding fathers played their politics in the immediate post independence era?
In the immediate post independence period, the founding fathers you were referring to, which I suppose means Zik, Awolowo, Sardauna, Akintola, Okotie-Eboh and others were flushed out by the military. Sardauna was killed in the January 15, 1966 coup. Zik was out of the country at the time and came back later but no function for him. Tafawa Balewa was killed, Akintola was killed. So, the founding fathers were no longer in control. They were out of the picture. The military takeover in January 1966 helped to plunge the country into the kind of chaos and darkness that we are in today. What the military takeover in January 1966 did to us as a country was the destruction and undermining of our value system. The story has not been fully told. It nearly practically destroyed our values, the values these founding fathers inherited from the British colonialists. Today, as far as our values are concerned, no leaders either military or civilian could be compared with Zik, Awolowo, Sarrdauna and Tafawa Balewa. The values we have today are all money-related. That was not so before the coup. Today, money dominates our values. This is the tragedy. If we have a leadership that is concerned with bringing back the old values in place of money-rated values, then things could be better. I don’t believe it is impossible. It is difficult, but it is not impossible.
Last week some stakeholders marked the 50th remembrance of Aguiyi Ironsi and Adekunle Fajuyi amidst outpouring of emotions. Issues were raised over the motive of the Northerners in the army who staged the counter coup to avenge the killing of their kinsmen in the January 15, 1966. Couldn’t we have lived beyond the past as a people at 56? What is really happening?
These were two important personalities, especially Fajuyi who sacrificed himself in order to maintain a principle. Can that happen today? Now, to your question as to what is happening. There was a vision in the past, but I don’t remember that tribalism and nepotism really shaped governance in the country as we have today.
I cannot think of a Federal Government in those days making 41 appointments and 80 percent of it going to one section of the country. It is unthinkable. In those days, they would balance it, taking cognizance of the division among the tribes. If you are making appointment into the federal level, you have to take that into account. That was how things were done, which helped to sustain the unity of the country. The idea of 41 appointments with 80 percent of it going to the North alone is unthinkable. It never happened in the past.So, you can see the difference between the outlook of founding fathers and the outlook of the leaders today. We are no longer pursuing the idea of one united country. We are now talking about Northernisation and Islamisation of the country. So, there are agitations everywhere. Those who feel marginalized by the pattern of sharing of what you might call the national cake agitate. They become disaffected and take to the streets. The idea of Biafra was revived. It does not mean that Igbo really want to secede from the country. They have tried it and they know the futility of it. What they are doing is to protest against the unfairness in the sharing of the so-called national cake. And whoever introduced this experience in the sharing of the cake must take responsibility for what is going on today. We should not blame people who agitate; we should blame the people who caused the feeling of disaffection. They should take responsibility for the agitations and what might follow. We don’t know yet, but I believe somehow the country is on the path of disintegration.
Is it possible to trace the genesis of distrust among the ethnic nationalities to the first military intervention in politics which led to the killing of Northern politicians?
The distrust within the ethnic groups had been there before the coup. It is inbuilt because of the differences among the ethnic groups in their character, in their feelings, in their mode of life, in their customs. Because of these, the distrust was there. The job of nation building is how to harmonize and reduce these tendencies. That is essential challenge for nation building. You must not ignore the fact that these ethnic groups differ in so many aspects. But then, instead of trying to close the gap created and bring them together, what military rule did was to increase the differences. There was so much money made available by discovery of oil, which was not there before. Oil was discovered during the time of military rule and that altered everything. There was so much money but the problem was how to spend it.
People tried to help themselves to grab it. And that is why we have today separatist movements in the Niger Delta. We are spending money without taking cognizance of the damage oil exploration has done to us. There are legitimate grounds for complaining. You may not agree with their methods, but they have genuine reasons to agitate. Destruction of oil installation has affected the economy. Production of oil has gone down and this is complicated by the falling price in the global market. We are producing far less because of destruction by the militants. We need a leader who can rise above all these, not a leader who will stay in Abuja, saying he is going to deal with the Niger Delta militants ruthlessly. In my view, that is not the way to go about it at all. The question of dealing with them ruthlessly is a question of addressing the cause of their grievances.