A Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing, Olufemi Okunnu, tells TOBI AWORINDE that agitators for restructuring should rather seek changes in a few key constitutional provisions
Nigeria is no stranger to agitations against marginalisation. Why is it a hot-button issue nowadays?
Nigeria is not used to agitation about marginalisation. It is a new phenomenon in recent years. It’s one way of a community or a section of the country saying to the Federal Government, ‘We need progress. We need amenities — good roads.’ It’s unfortunate that current political parties don’t agitate for the people unlike those days when the agitation was by political parties. It’s now agitation by ethnic groups in the country. Politics is dominated by ethnicity. It’s also unfortunately dominated by religion. These two should not feature in the political arena. So, marginalisation by fellow Nigerians in the South-East is in the forefront of the agitation now. And when they say marginalisation, they want federal presence. As I’ve said earlier, they need federal roads, which have been abandoned all over the country — most of them, since I built them as a federal commissioner. In my time, I started the construction of most of the roads. Most of the roads constructed 40 years ago have not been reconstructed, repaired or rehabilitated. If you don’t even reconstruct them, do some rehabilitation.
You say the agitation is a new phenomenon. Are you saying the Civil War between 1967 and 1970 had nothing to do with marginalisation?
No way! It had nothing to do with marginalisation. It’s a pity. It was ethnic warfare in a way. It was not marginalisation at all. At the time of military intervention in politics, there were purely established political parties. There was the Northern People’s Congress, which was the northern people’s party running the government in the northern region of the country. There was Action Group, the governing party in the old western Nigeria. There was also National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, the governing party in the eastern and mid-western parts of Nigeria. But these were parties which had been tested over the years and they were the standard-bearers of agitation for progress in the country, since they were the governing parties to carry out development in their different parts of the country. So, it wasn’t a question of marginalisation.
The point I’m trying to make is that Ohanaeze, Arewa and Afenifere, Urhobo Progress Union and Ijaw National Congress should leave politics to politicians who actually belong to the different ethnic groups in the country. The All Progressives Congress has membership across the country. The Peoples Democratic Party has membership across the board. They should leave it to political parties to fight these causes of underdevelopment or neglect by the Federal Government in certain parts of the country. But right now, Igbo-speaking Nigerians cry foul over marginalisation. Yoruba-speaking Nigerians cry foul over marginalisation. The Kanuri are even voiceless; they are busy fighting Boko Haram. The Ijaw and other ethnic groups in the South-South have just relinquished power through (former President Goodluck) Jonathan, so they are not talking about marginalisation.
The oil-producing parts of the country are still talking of resource control. If the argument is about resource, for example, I won’t feel peeved. That is an economic issue. They’re talking of something which is there to see — oil or gas: ‘Give us money. These products grow out of our soil. We’re entitled to have more than you’ve given us.’ That’s a different thing. Who is marginalising who? There are Igbo-speaking Nigerians in the Federal Government. You can’t have two presidents; one from Katsina and another from Enugu. There must be (only) one (president). Today, the president is from Katsina. Tomorrow, the president may be from Ngwa (Abia State), Abakaliki (Ebonyi State) or somewhere else. As far as I’m concerned, (what matters is that) he’s competent, has vision and plans for the whole country. The Yoruba who have the vice presidency are also talking about marginalisation. So, you ask yourself: who is marginalising who? It’s just how they cry foul to get more attention.
Some of the agitators argue that President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration is not walking the talk, especially in terms of appointments said to favour the North. What would you say to that?
I would plead that we should not mix ethnicity or religion with politics. The political parties should talk about ideological differences instead of ethnic differences. They should talk about political philosophy – what they want to do for the people when they are in power and what improvements to make to the lives of the people. Also, they should talk about how to reduce poverty, if not how to eliminate it and improve the environment and public health of the people. Incidentally, some of these subjects are state responsibilities, like health. Federal Government has little to do with health. We should lay emphasis on these things through political parties, who will fight on ideological differences. Right now, you have people of (similar) political hues in various political parties. That should not be. There should be those who believe in money, instead of labour, being paramount in any economy. I’m talking of the capitalists, those who have; that will be the difference as against those who don’t have. It is ideological differences that should be the basis of politics in Nigeria, not ethnicity or religion. When they say we should calm down and our tummy doesn’t calm down, there is problem. You need food and peace. The government should be dynamic and it’s not just the Federal Government that should perform its functions; state governments, in particular, have a part to play. They are nearer to the people. So, if you have three square meals a day — or you eat twice, if you’re trying to watch your weight — as long as it’s regular, you’re happy and there would be less agitation in the society. Health, housing, lands, food, agriculture: these are areas specifically reserved for state governments.
The problem that has been identified by agitators is concentration of powers at the centre. Do you think the 2014 National Conference report, whose recommendations addressed this, should be implemented?
I’ll give you a dimensional answer. First, let’s take the conference report that they are talking about. I read the report as leader of Lagos State delegation to the conference, although I believed that it was a waste of time having that conference. That is why I didn’t attend that conference. From the little I’ve read about the conference report, we’re flogging the issue. The conference recommended creation of over 30 states. Is that what we need in Nigeria today, when 35 states cannot pay salaries of their staff for months or a couple of years? And you want to create more states? That is one of the cardinal recommendations in the report of Jonathan’s conference that they’re talking about — over 20 more states to add to the confusion of 36 states. Each state with a governor, who must receive a large salary, including security votes, and have a large army of personal assistants and commissioners who will receive salaries; a house of assembly in each new state like the others with all the salaries, known and unknown; and a judiciary. The cost of administration is getting higher and higher. These are areas to address: that a governor doesn’t need more than two or three aides, not 30 or 50. He doesn’t need more than seven commissioners.
In my time in government, each of the 12 states had no more than seven ministries in 1967, when states were created. The number of ministries was limited; the number of permanent secretaries and commissioners were not more than seven. But because of the federal character, the number of ministers at the federal level ballooned to over 30 and more, because each state must have at least one minister. The cry (is) about the report of a conference which the APC as a party boycotted, and you want the APC government to implement the report? It’s not logical.
Secondly, what is this restructuring people are talking about? What are these powers which the Federal Government has which are causing the whole hullabaloo? The power of any government, you’ll find in the legislative lists. The Federal Government is limited to what we call exclusive legislative list and the concurrent, that is, between the federal and state governments. There are residual powers — powers like housing and land, which are not in the exclusive legislative list. Like housing, which is very important — everybody wants shelter — such functions are residual and they are vested in the state government, not federal. So, there is nothing to transfer there. If you examine the exclusive list in the 1954 Constitution, which established the federal system of government in Nigeria, compared with the 1960 and 1963 constitutions combined, also compared with 1979 and finally with 1999, the functions listed under the exclusive legislative list are basically the same. I know they’ve added a few more. Nigerians have a penchant for adding more. They are agitating for more functions to be transferred from federal to state (government). People are agitating for more power from federal to state. The same people are agitating for functions, like housing, from state to federal (government). Illogical, isn’t it? The hopes and objectives, which people listed in the constitution, of having shelter for every citizen; should that make it justifiable to take Federal Government to court for not providing housing. Housing should remain a state/residual function.
What about the issue of solid minerals? The agitators argue that control of resources by the central government is responsible for underdevelopment.
That is not true. Nigeria doesn’t live on solid minerals. Very little revenue is garnered by solid minerals. Oil, yes. Agriculture, yes. I agree that there are minerals untapped in many states and I would not oppose any move to make solid minerals concurrent, which would enable states also, if they have the ability, to mine these solid minerals. But not in general terms: ‘restructure, restructure, restructure.’ We’re now talking about exclusive legislative list. I can concede solid minerals being on the concurrent list – including oil. There are five areas I’ve always advocated we need changes in our 1979 and 1999 constitutions, as compared with the ’54, ’60 and ’63 (constitutions). Number one is revenue allocation. I’m a strong advocate of resource control, not full control. I’m a big advocate of oil-producing states getting more money from oil exploration and distribution and sale. If they cannot get 50 per cent, which they used to get; if that’s too large because of the multiplicity of states, they should get certainly much more than 13 per cent.
What figure would you recommend?
I would recommend 30, 35 per cent or more. You see, that’s an area I feel strongly about. What we need to rebuild and change in the constitution is number one, revenue. Take oil or agriculture, for example. In the ’54, ’60 and ’63 (constitutions), the states of origin would get 50 per cent of the proceeds. In those days, Eastern Region used to get 50 per cent because of oil in the oil-producing states, now largely South-South. For cocoa and timber, the Western Region used to get 50 per cent and the rest (according to) the same formula. For cotton and the famous groundnut pyramids in Kano, another big agricultural product, the Northern Region used to get 50 per cent. The Federal Government would get 20 per cent and 30 per cent in the distributive pool, which the regions would share by another formula. All that has been washed away, put aside. Today, the sharing formula gives the Federal Government 54 per cent and the states of origin 13 per cent. There, it is not a question of restructuring. It’s just a question of a change in the constitution. I don’t even know what they want to restructure.
Another area where I would want changes, and I’ve been consistent over the years is local government. Federal Government has no business with local governments. And people who really don’t understand the principle of federalism, which they profess to be masters of, the federating units, are the states. Federal Government systems are a matter for each state to determine. It’s for you to choose the number of local governments you want in your state. That’s for you, the state, to determine. Federal Government should have no say whatsoever and that was Nigeria over the years before (the) 1979 (constitution); ’79 is not too bad; ’99 is worse. That’s where they interfered more in the local government systems. I would remove any reference to local government, except Section 7, which says ‘democratically elected local governments.’ I don’t want nominated local governments. I was party to that 1979 constitution. I was one of the 49 who drafted that constitution and I will defend that Section 7 but not the additions to the constitution, especially as in the 1999 constitution, which makes it possible for Federal Government to intervene in the creation of local governments. The 1979 constitution states ‘the system of local government that democratic election is guaranteed under a law of a State House of Assembly.’ Federal Government’s intervention was ruled out.
What other areas in the constitution do you want changed?
I feel strongly about independent candidature. If I don’t believe in ideology or lack of ideology of the APC or that of the PDP or any other political party, I should have the freedom to stand for election on my own. What we do now is elect parties to government, not people. Election (in Nigeria) is a charade. We elect parties, from president and vice president to governor and deputy governor, chairmen and councillors, and (members of) legislative houses. You elect APC, PDP or whatever party. We don’t elect people. Parties can therefore field dogs to contest elections. So, you may also find dogs also taking oath in the state house of assembly. That is not democracy. I should have the right to be voted for. Judiciary is the fourth item I feel strongly about. Judiciary is unitary in structure under the present constitution. I would restore it to its federal position as it used to be. Regional government had their state judicial service commissions – it wasn’t centralised – appointment, discipline and removal of judges. I would take that one out of the federal system, if we’re really federal.
Wouldn’t that create room for exploitation of the system, like we have seen in some states where governors assault judges?
There used to be checks and balances in the old order in all the regions. It wouldn’t be different from what you find in Ekiti, Lagos or Kano. So, why do you make one federal and the other one unitary? I’ve never been in favour of a unitary judicial system under a federal system of government. It doesn’t square. Right now, Federal Government pays part of the salaries of judges. Why? The disciplining of judges is also done by the Federal Government. It was never so before ’79. The government I served under operated the 1963 constitution. The last area is removal of Section 6 (6) in the constitution, which enthrones military coup. Those are the five areas; I don’t want a blanket change in the constitution. But I would look at the exclusive legislative list. Most of them are obvious functions: currency, foreign affairs and defence have to be federal. You can’t have state armies. Customs and excise, immigration, nationalisation: these are (federal) areas. But the basic things, which affect human beings, every one of us — food, agriculture, health, education — these are state matters. The military heads of state, because they wanted to please people (with appointments) and retain power, they created states right after a coup d’état. So, what’s the solution – restructuring? You think these governors want to surrender power to six zones? You’re joking. Some of them may protest it, but aren’t they also members of APC and PDP?
But some governors, like Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos State, have supported restructuring.
What is restructuring? If I can start with Lagos State, it will remain Lagos State. It was never to be part of the South-West. Lagos spent only three years as part of the Western Region, 1951 to 1954 and that was the McPherson Constitution. With the ’54 Constitution, Lagos returned to its semi-independence and became federal (capital) territory. It belonged to no one. From the time it became a British colony in 1861, Nigeria did not exist. For 40 years thereafter, 1861 to 1900, Lagos Colony was the only colonial possession of Britain in this part of the world. So, Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, which later became Eastern and Western regions, came into being only in 1900. Lagos administration remained until 1950, never part of the West, except ’51 to ‘54.
So, when you talk of South-East and South-West, history just doesn’t confirm that. And when people talk of a Yoruba race, there was never a Yoruba race – Western Region, yes. Lagos Colony was different. So, it’s misreading of history, deliberately or by accident, when people say ‘all the Yoruba.’ There was never a Yoruba kingdom which embraced all Yoruba-speaking people in Nigeria. Just like there was never an Igbo race. They were different communities; regionalisation brought them together in 1946 under the Arthur Richard Constitution, when the Southern Protectorate was divided into Western and Eastern regions. So, there was never any Arewa race. You had the Fulani, Hausa, Tiv, and Kanuri. You had Christians and Muslims. So, what zones are you talking about? There were never any six (geopolitical) zones in the country.
The idea of six zones came between 1913 and 1914 before amalgamation by (Charles Lindsay) Temple, second in command to Lord Lugard. Maybe if six (zones) had been accepted by Lugard and Nigeria had six zones or protectorates — three in what became the Northern Protectorate and three in the Southern Protectorate — maybe Nigeria could have been a wondrous country. There could have been no agitation for break-up of the huge northern region; that was the major area of contention: that the North was too large. That’s why they also demanded 50 per cent representation in the legislative council. But they had to break up for true federalism. For those who are making so much noise about Oduduwa State, there was never any Oduduwa State in the country; never any Igbo State. It’s not restructuring that matters. Mark you, 36 (states) is too large. My own ideal was (Gen. Yakubu) Gowon’s 12-state structure, which answered all the agitation.
Is that what you meant when you recommended a 10-year development plan?
No, economic development is a different thing entirely. After independence, development plans were current in the world, very much embedded in the economy of most countries, especially in the socialist world. So, Tafawa (Balewa) had a six-year development plan, which ended in 1970. We took it over; when I saw ‘we’, Gowon’s government took it over and went on with it, although with limitation because of the civil war and money to fight the civil war. So, there was not much money for development at that time. In 1970, we had a four-year development plan, and in 1974, we were planning for the 1975-1980 development plan. What you have in your plan, let me speak on the area I am very much familiar with, is road network construction. You plan what roads you’ll repair or rehabilitate; what roads you’ll reconstruct within that space of time; whether it’s a five or seven-year development plan. With your old studies, you know which roads are ready for immediate reconstruction, roads which are extremely bad all over the country.
Within the 10-year plan, this may come in the first three to five years. For the ones which are still bad, you put any repairs or rehabilitation for another period. That will apply throughout the country. If I were to suggest today what should happen, say, in the (Federal) Ministry of Works, as far as road programme is concerned, I would concentrate on Port Harcourt-Enugu-Makurdi-Jos; Lagos-Ibadan-Jebba-Kaduna-Zaria-Kano; Warri-Benin-Koton Karfe-Abuja-Kaduna; and Calabar-Yola-Maiduguri. I’ve picked these four because they are the major North-South routes. I met the first two when I got into government.
You also have the East-West routes. With proper studies, you would know which ones to tackle first in the first three years of your 10-year development plan, which ones will come next and which ones will come last, so that there would be proper planning. And the plan will cover the whole country, not just one section, so people will not be talking about marginalisation.
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