Charles Ahize, a lawyer, is the leader of Obigbo, an Igbo socio-political/cultural group. He spoke on the fate and marginalisation of the South-east in the Nigerian entity.
How would you say the South East has fared in Nigeria 18 years after the return to democracy?
The Nigerian state has treated and continues to treat the Igbo unfairly. The South-east governors met recently and lamented what they called the government’s poor, inequitable, sentimental and sectional implementation of capital projects in the 2017 Appropriation Act.
The government’s response was to publish what it called a list of 69 on-going projects in the region.
Unfortunately, when you look at the list, you will see projects like the ‘Rehabilitation of Umuahia-Bende-Ohafia Road’ which was awarded in 2005.
It means 13 years after the contract was awarded, it is still an ongoing project. That is a stretch of road that can be rehabilitated in one year.
The government also published as an ongoing project the Umana-Akwa Road Rehabilitation project awarded in 2006, imagine that the Igbo should be happy about that?
A look at that list published by the federal government shows that since this government came to power it has awarded road construction/rehabilitation contracts of less than N70bn in the entire South-East.
The Delta/Anambra Second Niger Bridge project was awarded by another regime at a total cost of N214billion with the federal government providing just N70billion counterpart funding.
The bridge would be tolled unlike other much more expensive projects across the length and breadth of Nigeria yet there is little or no work going on there.
I feel ashamed for some of our brothers who because of selfish interest drive the narrative that this government is investing heavily in infrastructure in the South-east when the Mambila Power Project is a N1.79trillion Project and the Bonny-Boddo Road is N120billion project. I don’t even want to talk about the rail projects.
To upgrade the Enugu airport to a truly international airport would cost about N32bn but this government allocated a mere N2billion to the project in the 2018 budget meaning that it may take 16 years to achieve that.
The government has borrowed nearly N13 trillion, including overdraft from CBN, in the last three years but cannot find money to fund its N70bn share of the Second Niger Bridge.
To travel from Aba to Port Harcourt, a journey of less than 20 minutes now takes more than five hours if it rains. Since 1999, Julius Berger has only worked on one project in South- East, a section of the Onitsha–Owerri road awarded by the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration.
Apart from the Onitsha-Owerri road, the Okigwe-Afikpo road and the Enugu-Abakaliki road, no other major road project has been completed by the federal government in the South-east since 1999.
The Owerri airport has more traffic than all the eight international airports located in the north, yet the federal government finds it difficult to upgrade it to a full-fledged international cargo airport.
The inland port in Onitsha has been abandoned. The Oguta lake dredging project is dead. No one is talking about any inland port in the South-east, yet we are a people who invest heavily in commerce.
The fate of the average trader in Aba is that he imports goods from Asia and travels 600 kilometres to Lagos to clear it when the goods can easily be sent to Onitsha. At the end of the day the entire nation suffers.
You have spoken about what appears economic maraginalisation, what about in terms of politics?
In the political space, the Igbo has not fared any better. Under Obasanjo, the Igbo occupied the position of the Senate President for eight years.
The Yar’Adua /Jonathan government appointed the first Igbo Inspector General of Police and Chief of Army Staff for the very first time since the civil war. Presently, there is no one from the South-east in the National Security Council.
These are deliberate policies to frustrate the Igbo but the strongest weapon we have is the faith of the majority of our people in the Nigerian project.
Essentially, to answer your question in one sentence, the Igbo has not fared well in Nigeria not just in the last 19 years of democracy but since the end of the civil war, as our people have been relegated to the background in recruitments in the civil service, public sector and security agencies.
The Federal Character Commission doesn’t seem to have the South-east in its schedule.
What do you make of the state creation, which left the Igbo with just five states?
This question is essentially a progression from the first one. There are six geo-political zones in Nigeria.
Ordinarily, there should be zonal equality but that is not the case. Since the 1966 coup, there have been deliberate and consistent efforts to box the Igbo to a corner.
Records from the British Museum and Oxford University library show clearly that by 1921 the Igbo was the largest ethnic group in Nigeria with a total population of 3, 927,000, the Yoruba was 2, 113,000 and the Hausa/Fulani was 2,000,000.
These are facts which stand to be contradicted by anyone. There is therefore no mathematical formula to justify the allocation of numbers called census in Nigeria.
The Igbo may have smaller land space but Russia is 17m sq km in size but has a population of only 144 million. Canada has a land area of 9.9m sq km but has a population of 36 million whereas China is 9.596sq km but has a population of 1.4 billion people.
This shows that land area does not approximate to population. Our neighbour Niger Republic with a land area of 1, 267,000sq km which is far bigger than Nigeria’s 941,000 sq km has a population of just 22 million people.
In the North-east you have Chad with a land area of 1,284,000sq km and a population of 15 million but you have Kano which shares the same topography, climate, flora, fauna, culture and religion, but has a population alleged to be over 16m people in a 20,000sq km land area.
The truth is that the Igbo remain the biggest black ethnic nation in the world. The tragedy here is that allocations of resources are measured both by the false population figures the country is parading and by land mass. Resources are for people not for bare land.
The smaller number of states to the Igbo means smaller allocation of resources. The National Assembly should revisit the issue of an additional state for the South-east zone so that it will be on an equal footing with the other zones.
However, the Igbo is not fundamentally worried by the number of states we have, we only want a truly federal structure that provides the enabling environment that guarantees reward for hard work.
It was alleged recently that the national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu is angling for power to return to the South-west in 2023, instead of supporting the zonal arrangement that would ensure that a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction emerges. What do you say to this?
The allegation by Senator Bukola Saraki regarding Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s scheme to return presidential power to the South-west in 2023 is both worrisome and offensive.
While it may be premature to start discussing Tinubu’s alleged ambition, which is constitutionally legitimate, it is my humble and respectful view that we commence a national conversation on the fundamental principles that should guide the emergence of the Nigerian President of Igbo extraction in 2023.
However, care must be taken not to aggravate the fault lines that threaten to tip us over the cliff into the abyss of political turmoil.
Bola Tinubu can only be judged by his actions going forward. He doesn’t come across as a man impelled by selfish ambition who would recklessly waste the integrity of his political capital.
He represents the progressive blend of leaders who have made promising transformational strides to enhance diversity and inclusiveness in our national life through the pursuit of equity and justice.
In politics, there are people who are always ready to justify the most bizarre conspiracy once it would favour them.
That is why we have policies like zoning meant to advance the growth and stability of the country. We must be ready to radically nurture our political growth points.
We must begin now to interrogate the action plan of all political parties in upholding the unity of the country.
Tinubu, President Buhari and APC must speak up, because a culture of silence is not acceptable in this instance.
It would amount to playing into the hands of agitators. The Igbo having only occupied the position of the Senate President for eight years in the last 19 years refuse to believe that we cannot have a decent chance of progression to the top echelon of political leadership in our own country.
The Igbo must have a frontline role in leading successful efforts to reposition the country on the path of sustainable development and to provide all Nigerians with good quality of life.
I urge our people to begin now by engaging the long octopus arm of politics to seek understanding and cooperation with all groups in the country.
Those who seek to exclude us from the Presidency of Nigeria are relentless in their pursuit and that calls for eternal vigilance on our part.
There are agitations around the country for restructuring. What is your position?
The urgent need to restructure Nigeria cannot be overemphasised in view of our current realities.
It has become abundantly clear even to the most optimistic that the Nigerian project as is presently conceived cannot make meaningful progress unless the structure of the federation is tinkered with.
How do you justify a situation where the 36 states go cap in hand every month to Abuja to share tax and oil proceeds? It portrays us as the most unserious people on earth.
Kaduna has more gold deposit than South Africa. The vast arable land of the north can feed the entire West Africa. The human capital of the West is incalculable.
The commerce of the East is very sustainable. The fossil deposit of the South-south remains abundant for their needs.
The nation should be grouped into regions with each region responsible for its resources, internal security, development, education and health, leaving matters of currency, defence and external affairs to the federal government.
All regions should be paying taxes to the centre. The need to make the centre lean, efficient and less attractive has arisen. The entire nation cannot continue to rely on the proceeds of oil which is fast loosing value for its development.
We must go back to the 1960 constitutional model and I bet you that no region would grow at less than 10percent per annum and Nigeria would be a trillion dollar economy by 2030.
For those who oppose restructuring, let it be known to them that we will continue to move in circles if nothing radical is done to change the way we conduct our affairs.
The restructuring should be discussed and terms of coexistence agreed upon by a Constituent Assembly elected by the people on the basis of equality of states.
We should go back to Regional Governments as federating units. This will certainly result in competitive federalism thereby unleashing the hidden potentials of our people.
It will result to rapid development and engender a greater sense of justice and equity.