“Corruption has ruined us and it caused a lot of damage to the country and if there is something I doff my hat for President Buhari it’s his fight against corruption.”
Raphael Ede, Enugu
Elder statesman and an acquaintance of the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, pioneer president of Nigeria, Chief Maximus Ukuta, has proffered solutions on how to make Nigeria great again. The First and Second Republic politician, who was also the National Assistant Secretary of the defunct Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), as well as a former Commissioner for Industry and Local Government in the old Anambra State, regretted that the country has degenerated so much to the level the founding fathers did not dream about.
Chief Ukuta, who is presently the Chairman of Nsukka Elders’ Forum in this interview with Sunday Sun, however, said that there is still hope to rebuild the country if the necessary steps are taken, one of which being going back to the Republican Constitution of 1963, which he said gave Nigeria peace. He spoke on various national issues and the Nigeria-Biafra civil war.
What’s your assessment of Nigeria having been involved in politics in the 1st and 2nd Republics?
I will prefer to look at the situation in the country from a patriotic angle; definitely things are not going on well in the country as of now. There are lots of areas where things could be done better, but then the task in my mind rests on all of us. All hands should be on deck for us to have a better country. The issues are unnecessarily over politicized. People are more concerned about scoring political points, but I am more concerned about what will give us a good country, what will make us as much as possible near the spirit and the aim of our founding fathers. Things are not going on well, but they could be corrected.
Looking back, could you compare politics in your era and what is happening presently?
We were undoubtedly at a great advantage. In my era, I was in the government in 1979. I became a national officer of my party, Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) in 1978 comparatively at a young age, but we have this singular privilege that the masters were very much around. They were advising our leaders and as a matter of fact, most of our leaders were very young as well like Governor Jim Nwobodo. He was a very young man, it has never happened in this part of the world. He was a very young man when he became governor, but we had the singular advantage having the masters particularly, the Rt. Hon. Dr Nnamdi Azikwe and he never abandoned us. He always offered his advice and we also had some of the people that worked closely with Dr Azikwe in the 2nd Republic. We have solid men like Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya, M. T. Mbu, R.B.K. Okafor name them, these people were constantly contributing on what we should do and what we should not do and they were always there. They were like watchdogs and we took their views seriously and so there was no room for us to be unguarded. You can’t compare it with what is happening now. Most of the things happening now are like ‘moving vessel rules’ leaders. You just don’t know where we got to this stage, but I think there is too much politics. We don’t bother so much about the health of our country; we bother so much about scoring political points. There are stands, for instance, taken by the President that you find out that no matter what he has done some are very good instead of all of us supporting him to achieve the aim that is for the overall good of the
country, anything he does must be condemned not criticized, but they are condemned vehe- mently by the other party. When I said the other party, I belong to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), but this is the attitude of my party and I am not very much in support of that attitude. So, I hope there is room for a change because I believe very much in dialogue, but time will sort these things out.
What do you think are responsible for this sharp contrast?
I will rather say it’s economic in a way and secondly the quest for power, the struggle for power; who will control the wealth of the nation; that is the main thing. Unlike what we had in the First Republic, the nationalists were there, they were more concerned about the good and welfare of the country. They wanted independence for our country. They wanted us to take over from there, but here what we are struggling for is the economy, who will be issuing oil blocs. Can you imagine if you are given oil bloc for not doing anything; you become a millionaire in any currency? These are the things people are fighting for, not the welfare of the citizens of this country. If we bothered about the welfare of the citizens, we wouldn’t have medical tourism, people going to India and all that. We have all it takes to make all parts of Africa to be coming to Nigeria. Look at recently, US President Trump described Nigeria as amazing citizens because of the feat being carried out by our citizens in the US, more especially in the medical field and other fields of endeavour, but here we are talking of medical tourism. As a matter of fact, as a young man growing up, our people were reluctant in the general hospitals to go to the wards where Indian doctors were in charge. These were in the late 50s and early 60s, but today the story is different.
It then means that Nigeria of today is not the Nigeria of your dream?
Definitely not; I will go back again to say that we were brought up in a culture of service. We cared about the welfare of the country. This was not the country we dreamt of. So, much indiscipline is being exhibited even along party lines, even in government, everywhere. Nobody dreamt of an unruly country. We looked up to a country that will not only be number one in Africa, but we’ll rightly be moved from a third world country to a first world country and we have all that it takes to achieve that.
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What is the way out?
I wish I could handle it, but things had started getting bad and it didn’t come overnight, it took quite sometime before we got to the present level. This was why I marvelled when some of us challenged President Buhari about his state policy on fighting corruption. I don’t know how corruption could be fought successfully in three years no matter who is trying it. It has eaten deep in our country and it requires all of us, all hands must be on deck; it’s not something you can win just overnight or within three years and we all have to think about our country. We have to think about the welfare of our country, we don’t have to say we are fighting Buhari who is Mr President, we must not destroy our country because we are fighting Buhari because if we destroy our country we have not achieved anything we have rather destroyed everything. So, it’s left for all of us to appreciate the problems we have, to know that the problem lies on all of us to find equitable solution to it. We cannot achieve much by force, it had been tried in many countries and it failed. You succeed by dialogue and by being equitable and applying justice in your policies.
There have been cries that the President is sectional; what’s your take?
Let me start with appointments. I don’t go out to condemn the president for the lopsided appointments, but I blame his officials, those who are close to him. For you to succeed in government depends on your ability to put up a competent team because as president you are just an individual, you can’t do everything at the same time and remember that some of the issues you are raising now were not even raised in the First Republic. In the First Republic, we had a gentleman, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister, he was the head of the Federal Government, but nobody quarreled. Some of the manifest issues now were non-existent then because he tried as much as possible to be equitable. I remember that there was one particular incident where they wanted to effect an appointment and Alhaji Sule Katango was the Chairman of the Federal Public Service Commission, Balewa was the Prime Minister and a particular candidate over a health position was to be appointed from the North and Sule Katango said in conscience he will not be able to do it after he had looked at Curriculum Vitae of the individuals nominated by the then Western Nigerian government and the Eastern government. The refusal infuriated the great Sardauna, Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, and he flew into Lagos, shook others who were waiting at the receiving party at the airport and refused to shake Katango, and called him ‘Sariki Inbukuru’ and it was alleged that later in the meeting that night in the house of the Prime Minister, he alleged that Sule Katango wouldn’t be the Chairman of the Commission if the high standard he was now trying to maintain were to apply. But notwithstanding, there was room for favours to the privileged and those that were in charge, but it wasn’t manifest; people were working towards the same goal. So, when it comes to President Buhari’s appointments, I blame strongly those top officers appointed by Buhari. Ordinarily, the bulk stops at his doorsteps, but in trying to condemn those things you should try to share out the blame. Today, every other person is complaining; it does not engender peace and good governance and what have you.
What will you say about the level of bloodletting going in the country today?
It has never happened in this country in this way, it had never happened before even at the height of the Tiv riot in the First Republic; we never had this type of bloodletting. Even at the height of Maitasine activities in Kano during the Second Republic when we were very active, it never happened. This is strange. So, I don’t know where we are heading to with the situation we are now facing or we found ourselves in. That notwithstanding, I believe that steps are now being taken to correct it; I know that relevant groups have made representations to the president, especially the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria, the Christian Association of Nigeria, some eminent Nigerians. I think steps are being taken to correct some of these criminal activities. It is after one of these representations that it was quite assuring that those responsible for the recent onslaught on Plateau have all been arrested. It didn’t happen this way before. These lawless bandits kill at will and escape.
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What’s your view on the growing clamour for restructuring the country?
As far as I am concerned this country needs to be restructured. You know things were working fine during the First Republic and the Second Republic; maybe the constitution we had contributed very much to the success of these Republics more especially the First Republic when we had parliamentary system of government and again later when we became a republic on the regional arraignment. All the regions had scope to work and develop the region at their own instance. This time, I am talking of the Eastern Nigeria was referred to as the area having the highest growth of economic activities in Africa. So, each region was moving on its own and there was no problem and it was smooth. So, suddenly, I think we had this brain wave that it must be presidential and when the presidential issue now came up and we rushed into the presidential arraignment and with the military coming and giving us what they considered as the best constitution, according to them, we now found ourselves in a very big problem. Again this issue of restructuring has been politicized. Some look at it as if we are saying this against a particular section of the country, but it is not true. I would rather suggest we take it gradually step by step. Let us first of all go back to what gave us peace. Let go back to the constitution we had that gave us independence. Let go back to the parliamentary system; I am very much in support of the Republican Constitution of 1963. I am saying this so that there will be no victor or vanquished because people are vehemently divided on the issue of restructuring and most of those issues would be taken care of by the constitution we had in 1963 without causing any controversy.
Is that realistic considering that we now have so many states?
Yes, it is possible and realistic. After all, the country is with very high hopes and the world has looked up to us, Africa looks up to us. There will be a stage when we would have outgrown some of the suspicions issues; when young people from any part of the country come together and they are talking with one voice. Previously, it used to be where you are from; myself; and my people are in the other side and yourself and your people are in the other side. We are improving; it is not as hopeless as we think. Corruption has ruined us and it caused a lot of damage to the country and if there is something I doff my hat for President Buhari it’s his fight against corruption. It has ruined us so badly that we are looked as a pariah state. At least, he has restored respect to us as a country. I was pleasantly delighted watching him and President Trump and Trump was referring to him as President of Africa. This is very good to our country and you know there are wonderful things, but the way our brains work in illegality is something you cannot imagine. Suddenly now we hear that in Maitama alone, the exclusive area in Abuja; 200 houses have been located and the owners have disappeared into the air. Nobody accepted that he owns any of those property; but with time you will see these are not the things that could be done in three years. Corruption has eaten deep into our system for long time and it’s not something you are going to solve overnight and again not only that, the fact that you are doing well fighting corruption you must not stop other activities of government. Like the amount of hardship in the country is so more, it’s so pronounced. You know the instability we have is showing up everywhere. I was taken aback that in Nsukka, I sent somebody to the market and people cannot find yam to buy. I was shocked no yam to buy because of criminal activities in Benue and Kogi and this is the time we should be having a lot of these products. So, we have to think out of the box. It is beyond politics.
How would you react to the proposed building of ranches in states, including the South-east?
First of all, we should respect our constitution as it is today. Ranching could be a solution to check the clashes between the farmers and the herdsmen, but ranching should be applied also according to the constitution of the land. If there is a state that does not approve of ranching, we should respect it; okay! Ranching or cattle breeding is a very private business and the breeder should be in a position to negotiate either with individuals or groups to effect what they want to do, but definitely ranching would stop the clashes between farmers and the herders and would reduce the killings.
What was your experience like during the civil war?
I was young, but then some aspects of what we are experiencing now in this country were experienced in Biafra; almost bothering on total breakdown of law and order, people were doing what they liked, but lo and behold, there came the great proclamation ‘Aharia Declaration’. And the moment Aharia Declaration came in and some sacred cows were brought to look over anything they did, of course, Biafra became a beautiful place. There were no top men who were supposed to be quite close to General Ojukwu as Head of State of Biafra, but when they went wrong there was no discrimination, the law had to take its cause. As a matter of fact, I lost a promising friend who was a multi-millionaire who they used and they carried out illegal activities that resulted in death of one person; of course, they were all rounded up, including the multi-millionaire and sent to the tribunal. The tribunal under the late Justice Nkemena who was a strict jurist and the situation then was that there was no discrimination, the laws were being applied to the lowly placed and to the highly placed and there was order instantly. There was order till the end of the war after the declaration of Aharia that stipulated the dos and don’ts; the philosophy of Biafra what we intended to achieve. So, if that could be done in Biafra it could be done in Nigeria. But then, you remember the secret of success in Biafra, which include there must not be any discrimination, there must not be sacred cows across board; the law must be equally applied to everybody whether you are the high and the mighty or you are the lowly placed individual; the law should not respect you.
With the state of Nigeria today, do you think that going back to Biafra is the way out?
Most of these young people involved in the agitation never saw war and Biafra was a call for unity in the Eastern Region because of injustices, especially, the killings during the 1966 pogrom and it was quite interesting. I think the Igbo have paid their dues. We are now loyal Nigerians. We should watch and allow situation to run its course. Biafra is not even necessary now. The strength and advantage we all have, we have it in a large country like Nigeria. Nigeria is more advantageous to the Igbo than Biafra will ever be. So, we should remain loyal to the country called Nigeria, knowing we have paid our dues if we play our politics properly, we will get what is due to us and there wouldn’t be any need for agitation.
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But what gave birth to Biafra seems to still be at play again?
No! The killings were a large-scale conspiracy and some forces they said were hands pointed to the British Government. As they said, the coup of January 1966, to my mind, was purely a military affair, but propaganda and falsehood converted it into Igbo coup. If you consider the population of the Igbo, how many Igbo are in the army and as a matter of fact, later, the truth started coming out. Who were the people that executed those entire coups; in strict terms; they were executed mostly by non-Igbo and then you descended on a whole tribe. What did a pregnant woman have to do with a coup that will warrant slitting her tommy? I mean, the destruction was too much and was uncalled for. As long as I am concerned, it was purely a military affair; a coup removed a government and another coup came and established their government; it ought to stop at that. The killings were very unnecessary and that was what led to the bad fate and people couldn’t stand it and then again the selfishness of the top civil servants. Maybe we couldn’t have gone to war even. There couldn’t have been the civil war; the military, for instance, understood themselves. Gowon as Head of State setup constitutional group to find a solution to the problem, they had finished what they were doing now, sought permission to present their findings to the head of state. I remember it was four members from each of the regions they had agreed. Now, some privileged top civil servants came in and sniffed around; told General Gowon that these people wanted to destroy the country, that he should not even listen to them and they were instantly dissolved. They didn’t submit their findings. Now, great Lt. Gen. J. A. Ankrah of blessed memory of Ghana took a decision on his own inviting his colleagues to come to Ghana and arranged a place; Aburi and specifically said the civil servants shouldn’t be part of the meeting and they were not. At Aburi the military leaders agreed and took decisions on all issues. General Gowon coming back to Lagos; the same group of selfish top civil servants advised Gowon not to accept Aburi and Ojukwu said ‘on Aburi we stand’ and one thing led to the other and the rest is now history. This was what happened.
Are you saying that Nigeria owes Ndigbo an apology then?
Yes. Gowon has given one, but it was limited, he referred specifically to one incident at Asaba, you know he apologised to the people of Asaba who happened to be Igbo. Remember he started first of all as the rest of Nigeria against the Eastern Region as it progressed; it became the rest of Nigeria against the Igbo, Ndigbo only. As I said earlier, what has the ordinary farmer in my village got to do with a coup or the trader in Kaduna or Maiduguri that happened to be Igbo, what has he got to do with a military coup? So, that is why if you passed through it you pray you wouldn’t see it again. All I am saying is that war is not necessary. We can get all we want through discussion; okay. If we play the right politics we can get all we want. Take the Yoruba, for instance, to the best of my knowledge they have been playing opposition politics in this country, but the same people now played the good politics and they are now having the best from the country. As a matter of fact, when we are talking about being left out, it is true because now, if the people from the North take what they want, the people from the West will take what they want. We are left out completely, so we should think about the politics we are playing. We should learn and re-order the way we play our politics and play the politics of a federation and learn to be in a federation for the good and benefit of our people.
Does going back to the 1963 constitution mean suspending the 2019 elections and reorganizing the country?
No, we should go on with our election. We should then have a referendum to find out what the people want; do we continue with the present constitution and all it provided or should we go back to the 1963 Constitution and the parliamentary system of government? That is my humble opinion.