Chuks Okocha and Onyebuchi Ezeigbo
Nigeria’s political heavyweights, including President Goodluck Jonathan, gathered in Abuja Tuesday to celebrate one of their own: former Vice-President Alex Ekwueme who will join the octogenarian club on Sunday.
The occasion provided them an opportunity to discuss the state of the nation and proffered solutions on what they thought was wrong with the Nigerian nation.
Discussants at the event titled “International Colloquium on ‘Nigerian Federalism: Building on the Ekwueme Legacy” and moderated by THISDAY Newspapers Chairman/Editor-in-Chief and President, Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, expressed divergent views on whether Nigeria should retain the extant six geo-political structure or not, as well as the focus of the ongoing constitution amendment process.
Among those who spoke at the occasion were President Jonathan; Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola; Anambra State Governor, Mr. Peter Obi; Niger State Deputy Governor, Mr. Musa Ibeto, representing the governor, Dr. Babangida Aliyu; Governor of Kano State, Dr. Rabiu Kwankwaso, who was represented by his deputy, Alhaji Umar Ganduja; Leader of the South-south Peoples Assembly, Chief Edwin Clark; former Minister of Finance and Chairman of the Northern Leaders Political Forum (NLPF), Alhaji Adamu Ciroma; former Minister of Police Affairs, Brig-General David Jemibewon; as well as former Vice-President of the World Bank, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili.
Jonathan, represented by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, described Ekwueme as one of the architects of modern Nigeria and a founding member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
He said the only way forward for all Nigerians was for them to commit themselves to the cause of national integration.
“The challenge of our time is the failure of our constitution. Fifty two years of independence, it is clear to all of us that there is the need for everyone to commit to national integration,” he added.
On the debate on federalism, Jonathan said what was paramount was the people's loyalty to the nation and not the present recourse to the pursuit of zonal interests.
He urged Nigerian leaders to stay away from divisive tendencies and to collectively build the country.
Earlier, former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who represented former President Shehu Shagari as chairman of the occasion, had set the tone for the occasion with his rejection of the call for the convocation of sovereign national conference to discuss Nigeria’s problems.
Rather, he said he would back a national constitutional conference to provide a veritable platform to redesign the way forward for the country.
Gowon, who extolled Ekwueme, said the former VP had been outstanding in his conduct and in his ceaseless pursuit of justice and equity in national affairs.
Fashola, in his paper on the colloquium’s theme, disagreed with the moves to introduce the concept of six geo-political zones into the constitution.
He said he opposed the idea, which incidentally was first proposed by Ekwueme during the last constitutional conference organised by the military, adding that the constitution does not provide for the creation of any entity without means of funding it.
According to him, with the present agitation for more funds between the existing tiers of government, the zonal structure would find it difficult to survive.
While faulting the numerous agitations for constitutional amendments, Fashola said nothing was wrong with the 1999 Constitution but for the manner of its implementation.
“Those things that frustrate our people and make them pursue a separatist agenda could not have been caused by the inadequacies of the constitution.
“We should not put the cart before the horse in our quest for national development. This means that we should first change our values before embarking on constitution amendment,” he said.
He described Ekwueme as a gentleman and one of the few good men Nigeria could boast of.
Responding to Fashola’s presentation on the constitutionality of the six geo-political zones, Obi said there was no need to amend the constitution.
“The six geo-political zones are based on injustice and inequality because some zones have seven states, whereas other zones like the South-east zone have five states.
“There is therefore the need to amend the inequality as contained in the six geo-political zones. The six geo-political zones as presently constituted are not an agreement based on equality,” he added.
Kwankwaso also rejected the geo-political zone structure, which he described as a military creation during the 1994/1995 National Constitutional Conference.
He said when the structure was introduced, the North did not oppose it so as not to create tension in the country, as the introduction of the geo-political zone structure coincided with the June 12, 1993 crisis.
He said: “The creation of the six geo-political zones was full of deceit. It was not based on land mass and population. We are deceiving ourselves; the six geo-political zones are not acceptable to the people of Kano State.”
Jemibewon, in his contribution, queried the rationale for including Kogi State within the North-central zone with core Northern states of Niger and Plateau. He called for a review of the geo-political zone structure but not to scrap it.
The governor of Niger State called for the strengthening of the zonal structure, saying: “There is nothing wrong with the six geo-political zones, what I will advocate is that the zones should be strengthened to perform. We need to strengthen the zones by providing the enabling environment.”
Ezekwesili, on her part, called for the establishment of law and order in Nigeria, saying that what happened in Port Harcourt and Mubi, where students were killed, remains a challenge to the country.
On the controversy over the six geo-political zone structure, she said what mattered most was good governance.
In his contribution, Ciroma said if the calls to abrogate the zonal structure were to succeed, the states as a federating structure would have to go.
He therefore called for the strengthening of the states so that they could perform effectively.
He also expressed doubts over the ability of the constitutional amendment to solve Nigeria’s problem and denounced what he described as the overwhelming concentration of power at the centre.
Clark also called for equality in the composition of the six geo-political zones if they were to continue to exist.
He said some states were dependent on others and could not even initiate or generate funds on their own to guarantee their continued existence.
He called for the scrapping of such states and for them to be replaced with the six geo-political zones as the federating units.
Clark also accused the National Assembly of arrogating the powers of amending the constitution to itself alone, while calling for a national conference for the purpose of amending the constitution.
Clark, who opposed the calls for the decentralisation of the Nigerian Police Force, accused governors of behaving as if they were above the law.
According to him, “The governors are more authoritative than the military regimes,” adding “The governors use the governors’ forum to undermine everybody in the country.”
In his contribution to the raging debate, former Akwa Ibom State Governor, Chief Victor Attah, called for a national conference to decide the future of the country.