By Onyedika Agbedo

Civil war hero and Second Republic politician, Chief Guy Ikokwu, believes that President Muhammadu Buhari has an opportunity to write his name in gold by acceding to the agitation to restructure the country. In this interview, he prescribes how he can proceed with the exercise. He also outlines other legacies the President and his party can leave for Nigeria. A chieftain of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Ikokwu, while addressing the issue of secessionist agitation in the South-east zone, says “Igbos generally subscribe more to one united Nigeria”, stating why it is so. Excerpts:

Those opposed to the restructuring of the country say that the proponents must come out with a clear blueprint of how the country should be restructured before they can support the move. How do you think the exercise should go?

  The issue of restructuring is now widely understood by no less than 80 per cent of Nigerians. The governance of today is already restructured; it’s restructured from a federal system to a unitary system. And that has been motivated by the military, which from 1966 changed the nature of our governance to the command and control structure of the military. When you take this into the political arena, you find that it is a unitary executive system, which is an autocratic system like the monarchy. What this means is that authority and power is vested in just a few individuals at the top who give orders that others implement and follow.

  Therefore, we have seen for 50 years that the current system has been beneficial to just a few people at the top. That’s why we have military billionaires in this country. Having seen that the present system has not worked well in Nigeria, it has to be re-jigged.

So, how do you think the system should be re-jigged?

  Most Nigerians, from what we see in the media, at conferences and talk shops, agree that the unitary system is not solving our problems, that there is the need for restructuring. When I say most Nigerians, it encompasses the traditional rulers, the economic class and the politicians. There is no political party today that has come out saying that our system of governance is very good. We have about 52 political parties; we have not seen one that has come out in condemnation of restructuring to bring justice and equity to the land. The Senate by vast majority recently agreed that the present system is not working and therefore, should be changed and altered into a true federalism where powers would be devolved from the Exclusive List to the other tiers of government. And they came to the point of saying that the Presidency should immediately forward a bill to the National Assembly based on the report of 2014 National Conference for consideration.

  Now, I think the greatest burden lies on the Presidency, which is at the helm of authorisation. And surprisingly, even the President’s political party while seeking election endorsed the issue of a change of our system in their manifesto from unitary to federal. Many people have been giving different interpretations to it but you cannot fool anybody that can read and write. For them, it should be a question of implementation now, because they promised it. 

So, what do you expect the party to do now?

  The Presidency should categorically tell the nation in one broadcast that the country is now to be restructured. And the National Assembly should get the bill from the Presidency within the next one month; and when they get the bill they too should start debate and public hearings on it immediately. That is one way. President Buhari, may God help him in his recovery efforts, should tell the Acting President who is holding forth for him to move this country forward by restructuring the structure back to true federalism. He can do that in one written sentence. And the Acting President who is a professional lawyer and who has been holding discussions with a lot of people in the last one month actually has the fulcrum in his hands now because he has discussed with virtually everybody. He has seen all the memos and I believe he has read them. So, his job now is to move on for implementation. He is the president we know today; if his boss who is ailing just tells him to go ahead and restructure the country, I know that Osinbajo knows what to do now.

  The documents are already there to serve as a guide whether we are going for two tiers or three tiers. Are we using the federating units, which will serve as the second tier after the centre? Most Nigerians favour the federating units, after which the states will follow. Many people are thinking that the present states will be abolished; I say no. My idea is that we should leave the present states but have an umbrella over them, which is the federating unit. This federating unit is like what we can call a buffer zone. They are able to take and withstand the pressure from the centre on any issue.

   Also, most people agree that local government is not a matter for the centre. So, with devolution of powers, any state can create one million local governments. That is its business as long as it can fund them.

  Most people also agree that we should reduce the quantum of governance; it should no longer be as expensive as it is now. To reduce it, you have to reduce the number of appointees. How many commissioners do you need as a governor? How many aides do you need per commissioner? How many local councils do you need? Can you pay them? As of today, we know that 30 states cannot pay their workers. When you give the states more responsibilities as you are devolving from the Exclusive List down to the Concurrent List, some of the duties will go to the federating units, which will have the capacity to do things, which states ought to be doing. For example, to provide electricity in a deregulated power sector, it is the federating unit that will get the states within the unit to commit resources towards generating enough power for the people; when they achieve that and have surplus, they send the excess to the national grid. When it comes to highways and railway that will cut across all the states in the zone, it’s the federating unit that will do that. When you go to some of these advance countries, you will discover that, that is exactly how they have approached some of these things.

The All Progressives Congress (APC) from every indication appears not ready to take some of these steps you have enunciated at the moment. The National Chairman of the APC has kicked against restructuring in a way; the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) also recently said the government is not thinking about tampering with the present structure of the country. With the way the agitation is going and the disposition of the ruling party to the issue, do you think it can withstand the pressure and survive the 2019 general election?

  Why 2019? I can tell you that the agitation in most of the zones will not wait for 2019. If Nigeria is not restructured in the next 12 months, to be finished in 2018, there will be no federal elections, because the federal elections will be held under the old governance system – the unitary system. By the end of this year (I’m not saying next year), if positive steps are not taken, Nigeria is already at the brink and will fall over. And if it falls over, nobody can pull Nigeria back; it will totally disintegrate. It had happened in several countries where those who were in hegemonic control kept prevaricating until the union collapsed.

  We need to study history and see what happened in Soviet Union. Go to Asia and see what happened. Do you know that Malaysia did not want to have one corporate federal zone with Singapore? I finished school almost one year behind Lee Kuan Yew in Britain. He attended Oxford while I went to London. But I decided to stay for another two years to study more before returning to Nigeria but Yew decided to go back home immediately after graduation. When he went home, he proposed a true federalism to the Malaysians and they said, ‘you, you are a minority and you are telling us to federate.

We don’t want federation, you can get away’. And he said, ‘okay, kick me out’.  And they kicked them out and Singapore was born.

  Singapore doesn’t have arable land, oil or steel; it’s just surrounded by water. But Yew believed in brainpower; he believed in education.  So, Singapore invested a lot in education and discipline. At that time Singapore and Nigeria were Third World nations but today Singapore per capita is richer than the U.S., Germany and France, among other advanced nations.

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  So, if we put education and discipline first in Nigeria, and have comparative competition between the various zones like we had before when we had the regions, Nigeria will find her feet in no time. The competition was seriously there but it was not such that could lead them into any form of warfare because they were still under one country. I can tell you that there are very good, young intellectuals in the northern parts of the country, but the clique ruling at the top keep them as almajiris. Take 10 of those almajiris off the streets, send them to any other part of the country, give them quality education and in 10 years you may find that there is a genius among them who can solve any mathematical problem in this world or even go nuclear.

  Look at the Chibok girls that were taken to the U.S. How long have they stayed there? We saw them the other day with the President of the U.S. in the White House. Look at their appearance; do they compare to those other Chibok girls that were liberated recently? The answer is no. In the U.S., they speak very good English now; at the time of their liberation how many of them were speaking good English? So, these things are quantitative; and the cry today of all the ethnic nationalities in Nigeria is that they want to get away from poverty; they want to get away from their present conditions because they are human beings. They need healthcare, education and good foods. Anybody who does not look at the cries in this country face to face now is in jeopardy.

A lot of people see what is happening now as all politics and Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-rufai said so recently. Come to think of it, this government is just two years in power, so even if it truly promised Nigerians true federalism in its manifesto, it needs time to perfect its strategy towards achieving that and two years for a party that had never tasted power can be taken for a training period…

  (Cuts in) Two years and in Southern Kaduna, herdsmen have killed a lot of villagers and pauperised them. Many schools have remained shut in Southern Kaduna. How is El-rufai providing education to the people he is governing? You don’t have education, good life and agriculture because of armed herdsmen. So, what I am saying is that El-rufai will be among the first set of people to run out of Nigeria by the end of this year when the conundrum comes to the end.

But the fact still remains that this is a government that is entirely new to power; so even if they promised devolution of power, they need time to study the system before proceeding. Don’t you think El-rufai has a point in saying that the talk on restructuring is political opportunism?

  You think the APC is a new political party? It is not; it is a conundrum of parties. They call them strange bed fellows sleeping on the same bed and it doesn’t last. Many of them have been in other political parties. So, we cannot say that they are all new.

  Any new government in any case needs time to look at things but it doesn’t need the whole tenure. If it is studying with the whole of its four years tenure and things are deteriorating, it means the party has no solution to Nigeria’s problems. Take an election across the country today and you will find that the APC cannot get the type of majority it got in 2015. Look at some of its programmes like anti-corruption, which I subscribe to absolutely because corruption has whittled down the development of this country. But is the anti-corruption method holistic? It is not. Do you define boundaries for the anti-corruption? A corrupt minister is as bad as a corrupt servant; so corruption is corruption. So, why have many people who would have been probed for corruption moved over to APC? And since they moved into APC, has the EFCC gone after them? Tell me one of them that has been investigated and prosecuted. None. So, the anti-corruption method is not holistic. And many people hold the opinion that the government is not doing what a fair government should be doing.

Look at the police force; the police have to be fair and not take sides on issues. Take your mind back to what happened in Ile-Ife earlier in the year and you will understand me well. How can something happen in Ile-Ife between Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani communities resulting in the death of some people and the police inspectorate comes to the town and picks up only one side, the Yorubas, to Abuja and starts prosecuting them. Is it fair? Is it holistic? Can the government say it was doing the right thing? If you hold a free and fair election in Ile-Ife today, will the government win when these issues are thrown to the electorate?

Look at Nnamdi Kanu; how many Nigerians knew who he was two years ago? How many Nigerians could spell or write his name? A few Igbo people could do that but how many Igbos even knew Nnamdi Kanu and his authorisation or whatever? But because of the way the government handled the issue, because they did not employ justice, fair play and rule of law in handling his case, he is now very popular among Nigerians.

These are some of the issues. It is not that the governing party and those at the helm of affairs don’t know. They only want to buy time. But what are they buying time for? Are they buying time for the death of the country? When the country has gone down to the point that they cannot govern anymore will they be governing? The answer is no. We are at the precipice and the government’s job now is to pull Nigeria back from the precipice immediately. We are talking of governance and there is no true governance in Nigeria today.

Are you saying the APC has failed Nigerians?

  At the moment yes; and they know it. This is why they don’t want to confront issues. But I tell you, Buhari needs to lay down a legacy. And he can lay that legacy in one page. He should direct the security forces to disarm the herdsmen who are holding military weapons not meant for them and intimidating and killing helpless villagers. We have had cattle men moving throughout Nigeria before but they were not known to be killing people in their farms. That is one of the legacies he can leave.

  Secondly, the governing system today is so unitarised that it is not working. There is not much in education; government has to bail out states in order to pay the salaries of their own workers. Therefore, the workers are absolutely fed up and hungry. A worker that you do not pay for six months becomes a thief; you criminalise him. Buhari should declare that the present system of governance has criminalised more Nigerians than in the last 20 years. This is the truth.

  I read the newspapers everyday and the prevalence of crimes in the country today as reported in the media has been unheard of in the last 50 years in Nigeria. We hear of people stealing pots of soup and rice and meat; we hear of people raping girls in the schools. These were unheard of in this country. The element of criminality in our polity today is frightening. So, Buhari should immediately begin the process of devolving powers to the federating units. These are the things that will improve the economy. Buhari should pursue them as his legacy.

  Listen, the 2016 budget was a failure; the 2017 budget, which is about to be implemented, will fail under this system. But it can be corrected. And the correction lies in restructuring Nigeria. A restructured Nigeria will be the shining light of ECOWAS. Do you know that what is happening in Nigeria today is affecting other ECOWAS countries? And they are wishing that we get things right so that their lives can also become better. Our problem as a country lies in the fact that the governance system is bad and retrogressive and Buhari should correct that as his legacy.   

Finally, the gubernatorial election in Anambra State is fast approaching and Nnamdi Kanu and his Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) recently came out to say that the election would not hold. Don’t you think he is going too far?

  This happened about two weeks ago and Ohanaeze Ndigbo has taken a position on that. These are our children and I think they are listening. Nnamdi Kanu recently stated that he did not say that election should not hold in Anambra. So, I think that Ohanaeze and the elders are playing a good role. We don’t want our children to be destroyed as if they were nothing. We also want to inculcate some discipline into our children because we have been there before. As a very young lawyer, I fought in the Biafran war and spent three years in the bush sleeping on sand and stone using palm fronds as my window blind. It was a horrific experience. We don’t want to bequeath that to our children. So, I think they are listening.

  But they are saying, ‘our elders, do not be betrayed again. Do not think that the people you are dealing with are very sincere. If you keep quiet and don’t develop your own tactics and just go and embrace them and they disappoint you, we shall be worse for it’. It’s a good caution. But we are telling them that an integrated Nigeria under the correct system of governance, where there is local autonomy, will enable the developmental agenda to grow on all sides. And there will not be much betrayal and mis-governance. I can tell you that Igbos generally subscribe more to one united Nigeria, but under a good system of governance, because Igbos are emigrant people.