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Anyaoku: Why I Didn’t Resign When Nigeria was Suspended From the Commonwealth

20 Jan 2013

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Emeka Anyaoku


Chief Emeka Anyaoku, a former minister of foreign affairs, was the third Secretary-General of the Commonwealth  (July 1, 1990-April 1, 2000). He has had over 35 years experience in international affairs, spanning the United Nations, the Commonwealth and Nigeria’s external affairs ministry.  Anyaoku, currently the chairman of Orient Petroleum Resources Limited, clocked 80 two days ago. He bares his mind to Vincent Obia and Jaiyeola Andrews on some crucial national and international issues. Excerpts: 

As Secretary General of the Commonwealth, you championed the Harare Declaration on Human Rights and Democracy in 1991, which was meant to advance democracy in the world, but Nigeria became the first test case when Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight Ogoni compatriots were hanged on November 10, 1995 by the Sani Abacha junta. How did you feel supervising the suspension of your country from the Commonwealth at the time?

I was very keen that the Commonwealth should become a potent force for the promotion of democracy and human rights and this was a decision I took very early in my tenure. Indeed, when I became Commonwealth Secretary-General, there were no less than 10 Commonwealth member countries that were either in military regime or one-party state. I chose, in keeping with this determination, to try and help them convert to multiparty democracy. So the Harare Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was my first CHOGM as Secretary-General. I was keen that the review of the Commonwealth which the Commonwealth Heads of Government had put in place before my appointment should conclude with the Harare Commonwealth Declaration. That put the Commonwealth firmly on the path of the promotion of democracy and human rights.

You are quite right that the test case was in my country because in November 1995, on the eve of CHOGM, Abacha executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight colleagues. I must tell you that when the information reached me, about three or four days before the execution, I telephoned Abacha and pleaded with him not to carry out that sentence. I also got Nelson Mandela, who was president of South Africa, to do the same. But, of course, Abacha was not persuaded by us and he proceeded to execute Saro-Wiwa and the others. And that immediately attracted a reaction from the Commonwealth Heads of Government. The reaction was to suspend Nigeria’s membership of the Commonwealth.

As I said, I had undertaken to make it my priority to achieve the conversion of the Commonwealth to an agent for promoting democracy and human rights. So it was very logical that although I was greatly saddened that my own country was the first serious violator of the Harare principle, Nigeria had to pay the price.

How would you evaluate the relevance of the Commonwealth to the aspirations of member countries in contemporary times?
The Commonwealth is extremely relevant to the interests of member countries and, indeed, the interest of the global community as a whole. If you believe, as I do, one of the greatest challenges the global community faces is the challenge of how to manage diversity. How can all the countries of the world, which are different in race, culture, stages of economic development, size, etc, cooperate in the interest of international peace and stability? That challenge is there and continues to challenge the United Nations, which is the biggest global organisation. The Commonwealth is a microcosm of the global community because in the Commonwealth, you have different races, religions, sizes, stages of economic development. Yet, there is a common bond that facilitates their capacity to cooperate among themselves. In that, they are setting the pace for the wider global community. So in terms of the global community’s interest, the Commonwealth is serving that by being a practical exemplar of countries, irrespective of religion, cultural and racial differences, to be able to work together.

For the Commonwealth member countries themselves, the things that they have in common facilitates international dealings, international trade, international investment, and that serves the interest of all the countries. Educationally, it is easier for Commonwealth countries to exchange students, experts, etc, from one country to the other. So they benefit from that too.

One of your publications is titled The Race Factor in International Politics. How much of an issue is race in international politics today?
Historically, racism has been described by me as the most abiding legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Because Africans were the victims of slave trade, the slave trading nations, in order to pacify their populations had to represent the victims, namely, Africans, as subhuman. If their populations had viewed Africans, who were the victims of slave trade as the same as themselves, many of the populations would have protested, they would not have allowed slave trade. But in order to sustain slave trade, the notion was encouraged that the victims were subhuman.

And I think that colonialism was facilitated by the issue of race. The European powers were claiming to be on a civilising mission in Africa. So it was justifiable, in their view, to colonise Africans. That notion had all the time, particularly, before the African countries became independent, projected itself into the foreign policies of the colonial powers. Even after independence of African countries, Africans still had to prove themselves in various areas.

The idea of race, that black countries or non-white countries are to be treated in a particular manner, was very evident in the foreign policies of many white countries. But, of course, this is now something of the past, because since the 1970s, the white countries have come to accept African countries, non-white countries in Asia – because racism also affected their policies towards Asia and South America. But all these have now changed. I think the notion of a common humanity is gaining ground. And I believe that is the most effective answer to racism.

Given your vast experience in international affairs, from the United Nations to the Commonwealth and down to Nigeria’s external affairs ministry, how do you see Nigeria’s chances of becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council?

The prospects for Nigeria becoming one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are very good. But that depends, of course, on whether the UN moves ahead with the proposals for the reform of the international body to include the creation of six new permanent members of the Security Council of whom two should come from Africa. In terms of Africa and even in terms of the global performance, Nigeria has a very creditable record. Nigeria has been one of the main providers of the United Nations peace keeping forces around the globe. Not just in Africa, but also in the Middle East, the Nigerian contingents have played important role in the UN peace keeping efforts. Again, within Africa, Nigeria played a very prominent role in the decolonisation of African countries, particularly, in the southern African region, and in the removal of the greatest blot on humanity, which was apartheid. And, again, in terms of size and population, Nigeria is the largest black country in the world. These are qualifications that I believe equip Nigeria and give it a very good chance if and when the UN moves ahead with its reform.

You played a key role in the efforts to release Chief Olusegun Obasanjo from Abacha’s detention, during the General Abdulsalami Abubakar regime, and after Obasanjo’s release, you were said to be one of the early callers at his house in Ota. Was the possibility of his emergence as president discussed during your visit?
No. I never discussed the issue of Obasanjo’s presidency because I was not part of the Nigerian political groupings at the time.

At independence in 1960, Nigeria held a lot of promise in terms of capacity to develop. In sharp contrast to that huge promise, Nigeria is today considered an awfully weak link in the global development chain. At what point did the country go off course?

Nigeria held out immense promise at its independence. I was one of those who came of age at the time of Nigeria’s independence. I remember how in 1963, when I was first posted to New York, at the Nigerian permanent delegation to the UN, it was a pride to carry Nigerian passport and to represent Nigeria at the UN. And then, we held out promise of rapid economic and national development because all the social and economic indices that Nigeria had at the time were very promising.

I think that things began to go wrong in January 1966 with the first military coup d’état. The incursion of the military into Nigerian politics has been one of the most responsible factors for Nigeria’s slow development. I think the military, by coming into politics, disrupted Nigeria’s civilian political evolution and facilitated the incursion of corruption on a massive scale and the culture of impunity. These are the major handicaps in Nigeria’s development and I think the military must hold itself responsible for that.

In 1968/69, the Yakubu Gowon military government made attempts to recall you from the UN based on their doubts of your loyalty to the country. Given this experience and the fact of your supervising the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth due to the action of the military, how do you view military administrations, particularly, in terms of according former military Heads of State the privileges of former Nigerian leaders?

The events you described occurred in totally different circumstances. In 1968/69, the military government of Gowon sought to recall me from the Commonwealth secretariat because I had refused to take oath of allegiance to the federal military government. It wasn’t at the beginning; it was rather at the middle of the civil war. The Nigerian federal military government required of all the Nigerian foreign service officers to take oath of allegiance to it. Remember, I was not in the country, I was abroad and I had been receiving reports from my family – my uncle and his family were in Kano at the start of the crisis – and from friends, generally, from people in the northern part of the country. They had been reporting to me the large scale killings, people suffering other people, I could not in good conscience swear allegiance to a military regime that had allowed that to happen to my people.

But soon after the war, when I came here, in one of my early visits as special envoy of the Commonwealth Secretary General to Gowon, who was Head of State, I met with him and told him then that his policy at the end of the war commanded the loyalty of all Nigerians, including myself. The policy of “No Victor, No Vanquished,” the policy of “Three Rs” (Reconciliation, Rehabilitation, Reconstruction) that Gowon adopted, was a very noble policy. At the end of the war, my reconciliation – if you may put it that way – with my own national government was complete. Gowon is one of my very good friends till today.

The other incident you mentioned about suspension of my country, I had commented on that, why I took the view that I took. Perhaps, I must tell you that when the Heads of Government decided to suspend Nigeria, some of them who knew me knew that I was likely to resign. And they, in an unusual manner, adopted a special resolution expressing their full confidence in me as Secretary General in the hope that I would continue to serve the Commonwealth. So the communiqué that recorded Nigeria’s suspension also recorded this expression of confidence in me. It made it easier for me not to resign as I might have been inclined to do.

Your view on the status of former Nigerian military leaders…
I think that the country faces a challenge of having to sustain the difference between a civilian elected head of government and a head of government who shot himself to power. It’s important that that difference be maintained. But in terms of pension and after service treatment, they did occupy the post, they did serve as heads of government, even though not as elected heads of government. If you have a package for ex-heads of government, it would be illogical not to extend the package to them. But, as I said, the difference in terms of concept and perception of people should be maintained because military government cannot be recommended to any nation. I am not a supporter of military regimes.

You said it is good to maintain the difference in perception between civil and military governments, where does the country then draw the line, to serve as a deterrent to military men who might still be getting ideas in the future?
By sustaining the notion and belief that military regime is an unacceptable form of government. That we should do and we should do it from now. God forbid it that we have another military regime, but if we ever do, we must not accord any respect to the emerging heads of military government.

You championed the first African Commonwealth Roundtable to promote democracy and good governance in the continent. What is your take on the quality of leadership in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic?

Political leadership in Nigeria in terms of the collective leadership has been disappointing. We have had patches of good performance and patches of disappointing performance. Leadership in a country is not just one individual. It is the political group that leads the country and it includes leaders of political parties that produce the leadership and the elected leaders. In our country, we have not been fortunate to have as good political leadership as we could.

How would you rate the approach of the Nigerian government to the Boko Haram insurgency and other forms of insecurity in the country?

I recognise the prevailing mood of insecurity in the country – Boko Haram phenomenon in the northern parts of the country and the kidnappings and lack of security in other parts of the country. I believe that the government of President Jonathan is tackling the Boko Haram problem as effectively as it can, with the cracking down on those suspected to be involved. I think we’ve probably now got to a point where a more intensive effort should be made to identify the leaders of the group with a view to engaging them in some form of discussion to see whether we can make any headway with them in discussing their grievances. So I would think that we’ve not got to a stage where the cracking down must continue, but at the same time, a search for the possibility of dialogue with their leaders should be intensified.

Under you as chairman of the Presidential Council on International Relations in 2011, Jonathan directed that the country’s foreign policy should be reviewed. What are some of the highlights of this review?

First and foremost, President Jonathan’s request was actually inspired by his own view that the foreign policy of Nigeria should become more productive in terms of serving the national interest. As a result of that, I think that the foreign policy of the government is far more geared to serving national interests such as promoting more foreign direct investment into the country.

I think the way that is being achieved now is much better than in the past. Secondly, in terms of facilitating the entry of potential business men and women into Nigeria from abroad, Nigeria’s missions abroad are now much more alive to the need for facilitating the visits in terms of the process of granting visas to visitors to Nigeria. Things are being done more promptly now. Thirdly, in terms of looking after the interest of Nigerians in the diaspora, Nigerian missions abroad are now much more alive to their responsibilities, their consular responsibilities to Nigerians abroad. Nigerians living abroad now feel a little more protected by their national embassies than in the past. All these contribute to raising the profile of Nigeria abroad.

But I must hasten to say also that the drawback, which is still with us, is the domestic conditions in Nigeria, because there is always a nexus between the foreign and domestic policies. You can do very well abroad, but if your domestic conditions tend to negate your image abroad, they create a drawback and the challenge that the government continues to face is how to make the domestic conditions much more supportive of its image abroad. 

Talking about domestic conditions, what do you think is the greatest trouble with Nigeria today?
Corruption. In my view, the scale of corruption, the pervasiveness of corruption in the country is the greatest handicap to our development. And I think that should be tackled head-on.

What are some of the greatest incentive for corruption in the system?
There are two incentives. One is the culture of worshipping money. Now, wealthy people are instantly adulated and worshipped without people asking how they made their wealth. The notion of worshipping money, regarding money as the yardstick for success and achievement is an incentive to corruption. The other is inadequate punishing of people indicted for corrupt practices. I think that if people are indicted for corrupt practices, and are seen to be adequately punished for their behaviour, it would be a disincentive for others who might want to be corrupt. And again, if society were to change its attitude to rich people, that also would help in dampening people’s enthusiasm for money.

The anticorruption agencies, particularly, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, have been accused of selective prosecution and, in fact, persecution in some cases. Do you think Nigeria is sincerely tackling corruption head-on?
I think there is what you said about general perception of attitudes of EFCC to people, whether they are in support of government or not in support of government. That may be a valid perception, but I am not in a position to really say that that is correct or incorrect.

How do you view the attitude of the National Assembly to the Petroleum Industry Bill?
I believe that the PIB is a very good and sound move on the part of the President Goodluck Jonathan government and I would strongly support its passage by the National Assembly. I think that the National Assembly should be alive to the fact that the Nigerian population is in support of the PIB and the National Assembly should reflect that by giving the bill a quick passage.

Rotational presidency is a hot topic in the country currently. What is your position on this?
My view, which I hold very strongly, is that the present structure of governance in the country encourages this destructive competition for control of power at the centre. The centre has become so strong that we are no longer practising true federalism. The centre has become so strong that whoever controls the centre controls the country, by and large. I would advocate a return to regionalism, a return to no more than six federating units for the country. Six federating units with a lot more powers devolved on them from the centre. They should be responsible for their economic development, education, health, and infrastructure. By doing so, you would remove this factor of destructive competition for control of the centre.

This question of rotational presidency, it’s our turn or not our turn, is fuelled by the power that the centre has, it’s fuelled by the fact that we are no longer practising true federalism. I would suggest that we return to truer federalism by having six federating units, which would on one hand, remove the cause for this destructive competition for control of the centre and on the other hand, remove the heavy cost of administration in this country. We are spending over 70 per cent of our revenue on recurrent expenditure, leaving very little for capital expenditure. We cannot develop at that pace. No country that has developed, particularly, the countries that were comparable with Nigeria, progressed that way. They developed by putting much more of their resources on capital development. But we cannot, with 36 federating units and enormous powers given to the centre.

What is your take on your native South-east’s quest for the presidency and more states?
It makes sense, it’s logical, it’s in keeping with equity and justice. If the current structure of governance in the country is to be retained, it makes sense that the South-east zone should have the number of states to be compared with the others. But I am an advocate of changing the present structure. And once the present structure is changed, if this country were to become a federation of six units, the existing states could become development areas within the regions. It will not matter how many more such development areas you create. Each region will then be responsible for creating its development areas. In that case, if the current agitation for more states were to be subsumed within the regions, it will be up to the regions to create them.

From your experience of other multiparty democracies, how do you view the de-registration of some political parties by the Independent National Electoral Commission?
I think in a pluralistic state like Nigeria, INEC should be very alive to the need to have national parties. Where parties do not meet the criteria for qualifying as national parties, they should cease to exist. So, by and large, I think INEC did the right thing.

Reflecting on Nigeria on your 80th birthday (January 18), what are some of the upsides and downsides in the country’s journey so far?
The comments I’ve been making throughout this interview are reflections, my reflections on the state of affairs in our country. At the age of 80, I have lived through periods of Nigeria’s great promise, great and inspiring advancement. Between 1960 and 1966, Nigeria was making very creditable progress in terms of development. In the West, Premier Awolowo had introduced free primary education, which was a great achievement. The cocoa industry in the West was thriving. In the East, Premier Okpara had revolutionalised agriculture and was preparing Eastern Region for emergence as an industrial economy. In the North, Premier Ahmadu Bello, the Saduana of Sokoto, was developing agriculture – the groundnut pyramids, the hides and skin industry – and then the tin mining in Plateau. These were thriving and the promise Nigeria held then was very credible.

But I have lived through to see that promise virtually truncated. Now, Nigeria, which was at the same standing as Malaysia, South Korea, and Indonesia, is more than a generation behind those countries. I have lived through, and still live through, the disappointment. Now I’m living in hope that the administration we have now in Abuja is advocating and working for the transformation of the country.
So I am celebrating my 80th birthday in hope.

Do you think President Goodluck Jonathan should seek a second term in 2015, particularly, given the debate in some quarters about the propriety or otherwise of his running again?
I don’t recognise any controversy about impropriety. I believe that President Jonathan is free to run, if he decides to. Our constitution prescribes two terms of four years each and President Jonathan is doing his first term. I think he is free to run if he decides to run. I see no constitutional impediment in his way.
I have said that it is really premature to begin to discuss 2015. I think the concentration should be on what the government is doing now to fulfil its promises to the electorate. Discussion of whether President Jonathan would run or not in 2015 is an unnecessary distraction.

Some people have blamed the increase in societal vices to the removal of the constitutional role of traditional rulers in the country. Do you subscribe to this view?
I do recognise the value of some constitutional role for traditional rulers. But when I say traditional rulers, I mean established traditional rulers. One of the things we seem to be very good at in this country is the bastardisation of institutions and roles. Time there was when chiefs were few and far between. In Obosi (Anambra State), where I come from, the title, Adazie, that I hold is over 350 years old. When the treaty ceding Obosi community to the protection of Queen Victoria of England was signed in 1882, that treaty was signed by the Igwe of Obosi, Igwe Anene, and nine Ndichies. Today in Obosi, we have the Igwe and as many as 30 Ndichies. In many other places throughout the country, you now have chieftaincy titles conferred so easily. So I’m not thinking of constitutional role for the chiefs, but I’m thinking of constitutional role for the traditional rulers. They, I believe, could play a more effective role in the security of the country, if the traditional rulers were involved as members of the federal or states security councils. Not all of them at a time, but in each unit – if Nigeria were to become a truer federal state – the zones within the unit could select the traditional ruler to represent them in the security council. And at the federal level, the six units could elect three or so traditional rulers within each unit to represent them at the federal security council. In that way you will involve them in the affairs of the state and I think that will be to the benefit of the country.

Tags: Politics, Nigeria, Featured, Commonwealth

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