EKWEREMADU: We Need Conversation to Reassure More People that Restructuring’ll Not Harm Us

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Chairman of the National Assembly Joint Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution, Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, in this interview on ARISE News Network, the broadcast wing of THISDAY, spoke on restructuring and how it could be achieved through constitutional review process. He also addressed other topical national issues. The interview was conducted before the National Assembly voted on the constitution amendment bills. Damilola Oyedele presents the excerpts:

As the Deputy Senate President, and a member of the National Assembly, are you for or against the type of restructuring that was described by former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar?
I agree entirely with him, but I said not every other Nigerian will accept. It is just that you need to let them understand what it is all about. So, if you like call -it change, so you can use it interchangeably with the word change and then they will be able to understand and follow it. But if you use the word restructuring, a lot of people will not understand. So if you want everybody to understand what you are saying, you may say change and then they will be able to ask, ‘what type of change are you talking about?’

This question revolves around the feeling that people have. They have tried what is available since the coup of 1966, that euphoric hope generated by independence, which is being consistently eroded in the minds of a lot of people by a central government, which has simply not worked the way they would like it to work. In their minds, all they seem to have gotten is corruption, tyranny and poverty. Most people agreed that the situation is so dire and is quite simply unsustainable, which is why they are calling for restructuring. Do you think popular pressure can force political change here in this instance?
Already we are going through some level of restructuring and that was why when I said, if you use this thing (restructuring) in the abstract you will begin to create unnecessary problem. Presently, there is an ongoing amendment to the constitution and one of the things we are looking at is how do we devolve powers from the federal government to the state? A situation, where you have over 60 items in the exclusive list of the federation, those are the things that only the federal government can make laws on, to be able to draw policies, and the one within the states government, which is called the concurrent list of about 16 items, so we say that is reversal of what should be the true position in a federal system.

So, when we are talking about restructuring, which I said you may use the word change for, all we need to do, is put it in such a way that the states, which are the component units of the federation, will be able to have more powers. But it comes with a lot of issues, because if you give them more powers they need to also have more resources. So, when you are talking about the devolution of powers you are also talking about fiscal federalism. These are the issues we need to look at.

And then, of course, I spoke about the issue of security, because prior to 1966, we had some level of policing at the regional level and if you recall too, in the 30s before the national police came, we had native authority police. So, we had some kind of decentralised police before the government of Nigeria introduced national police, which became federal police when we became a federation.
So, in 1966, when Aguiyi Ironsi came, they set up a panel to look at the issues. As usual, before military answer to questions, they said let us just do away with these people, and have a federal police, instead of fixing the problem, which came with a decentralised policing. That was where we got it wrong in terms of the internal security and we have not been able to make progress since then. We have armed robbery, kidnapping, we now have terrorism and it will continue until we go back to the basis of making sure that there is a policeman in every part of Nigeria. This cannot happen in the federal set up that we are practising now: federal policing, because no country does that in the world.

So, if you have a multi-ethnic society, the usual recommendation is to run a federal system for which decentralised policing, not just the state police, decentralised policing goes beyond just having police at the state level. You may have to have police at the local government level, in some critical institutions like the universities and the National Assembly. The important thing is how we coordinate it, to make sure that nobody is abusing it, that it is well coordinated, that there is a database where everybody keys in. This is what we should be talking about, but if we continue to do what we are doing, we are going to run into problem.

I was once taken by armed robbers or kidnappers if you like. They took me for like two days. I saw the deficiencies of our police, because we passed several checkpoints. The type of policing we have is not sustainable and it is not good for the type of our structure. So, we need to find the type of police that can suit our purpose. If we do that, we will be able to secure the people and their properties. Remember that the constitution says that the primary purpose of government is the security and welfare of the people. The first thing we need to do is to make sure we are secured, even if you don’t provide them with jobs they can look for their own job. But if you provide jobs and then you don’t provide security, then nobody goes out for the job. But the only way you can provide that is to build the internal security, which only a decentralised police can achieve. That is one aspect of restructuring we need to look at.

Is this one of the issues you have been looking at as the chair of the committee on constitution amendment?
Remember that we have been on this business for a while. The first attempt was by the then Deputy Senate President, Senator Ibrahim Mantu. The exercise ended when we had this third term introduced into the amendment process. Eventually they brought in a lot of issues, and so once that was defeated, the whole thing went down the drain. When I came on board in 2007 as the deputy Senate President, I became the chairman of this committee on constitutional amendment. One of the things we did was to say we are going to do an incremental approach. We want to do one thing at a time instead of doing everything. In 2010, we pioneered the first amendment; nobody has ever amended the constitution in this particular republic except when we came in.

Can you now see why people are impatient if you have been there since 2007 and you are citing one instance in 2010?
I am going to cite several instances but the point I am making is that it has to be gradual; it has to be incremental. If you want to do everything at the same time, everything will collapse and as you do these things, you need to build consensus. That is the way it will work. Others failed because they thought they could just come and put it on the floor and start voting. It will fail. So, that is the issue.
What we did was that in 2010, the first problem we had was when President Yar’Adua became ill. In the constitution, the provision there was that if the President wants to travel, maybe if he is indisposed, he has to handover to the vice-president. The constitution did not provide what happens if he goes outside and failed to give that transfer. And so when it got to a point we needed to amend the constitution to provide the time frame of 21 days: that if the President had travelled and he was supposed to handover to his Vice and he has not done that, after 21 days he (vice-president) becomes an acting president.

Now there was an election coming in 2011 and experience had shown that the bulk of the problems we had were with the electoral reform. So, we started to deal with electoral reforms. Prior to 2011, if you run an election, somehow it ends at the tribunal, where you may be for four, five, or even six years. When I got into the Senate in 2003, I had some of my colleagues who came in 1999, whose matters at the tribunals were not determined until they came back to the Senate in 2003. Some had finished their tenure and the tribunal was saying that they ought not to have been elected in the first place. So, we said we cannot continue with that kind of misnomer.
In 2010, we focused on electoral reforms. One of the things we said was that if there was election tribunal, you must file the election petition within a particular period – it has to be concluded within 180 days if there are appeals – in 60 days maximum it is concluded. So, that gave people a sense that the election was going to end sometime; the petitions arising therefore must also end. So, we fixed that and we continued in that manner and we have been doing it gradually as matters arise.

In 2014, we did a more comprehensive amendment, which was taken to the president then and we had some controversies as to whether it was signed or not. But the important thing was that it was not signed, so now we had to start all over again when we came back to this 8th National Assembly. Some of the issues that we ought to have put behind us are what we are dealing with now, like we dealt with the amendment on the issue of devolution of powers comprehensively. If it was signed then, now we would have been talking of maybe state policing and stuff like that. At that time that we were doing the amendment many people were opposed to that kind of policing but now it is beginning to get some acceptance and even the acting president himself is saying that is the way to go.

What do you feel when you think of the things that have gone fatally wrong in Nigeria for which some people are now advocating for restructuring – do you feel anger, pain, despair?
Well, I prefer to be optimistic that we will get there, because the process is on. What we need to do is to ensure that so many people key into it.

What difference has the National Assembly made as the problems of the people in 1999 are pretty much the same problem in the current order of things?
That is why we are now talking of restructuring, because there are some things which we are doing presently that we need to do differently. As I mentioned on electoral reforms, things were so bad up to 2007, so when we came in, we then decided to first of all tackle it, because this is the recruitment process of our leaders and we needed to purify that system. Before then, the INEC was virtually tied to the executive. We had to make sure that it was independent financially, and in terms of administrative relationship with the executive.

We cut that, it became truly independent. They receive their money as first line charge. Also, any member of that commission has to be non-partisan. Prior to 2010, when the constitution was amended, to be a member of the electoral commission, one has to be a member of a political party. So, we made sure that they are truly independent and that they are able to recruit leaders, because you cannot get anything on a false foundation and that was pretty important to us.

The issue of security is critical, so we need to address that and we cannot get it right if we don’t get so many people to key into it. So, if we decide to amend the constitution just to introduce a decentralised police, most people are going to reject it. So, first of all, you need to explain to them why we have the type of security we have today, and the reason is that the police structure we have is defective. You cannot have a federal system of government, where there is one Inspector General of Police somewhere issuing orders to a Commissioner of Police in Enugu or Port Harcourt and he has to take orders from him before he can do one or two things. You cannot explain a situation where you have a policeman from Maiduguri, who they transfer to Cross River State, and then half way into the year, you transfer him again to Akwa Ibom and expect that to work? It doesn’t happen anywhere. So, that is why people are not secured and unless people are secured, they cannot be able to function.

That is a very good one, but that is just one aspect of it. The other one is the cry of marginalisation by virtually all sections or certainly a significant percentage of the segments of this country, some of which is manifesting itself by way of violent extremism, some of the people calling for something as desperate as secession. The argument of the supporters of restructuring is that obviously the structure of Nigeria is clearly not balanced and it has not been for decades. When the military ruler Gen. Yakubu Gowon split the four regions and created 12 states, he gave the northern region 6 states and left the remaining three regions to share 6 states and since that time following the subsequent creation of more states, the imbalance has remained skewed in favour of the North. Today, the former northern region alone has 19 states and the remaining three former regions collectively have 17 states. Is that an argument that you think could win support in the North and especially with northern lawmakers in the parliament?
One thing we have to understand is that what goes on in this country, if you have an advantage you try to take that advantage, you don’t care what happens to the country. That is the mindset we need to address, because first of all, we must address the common good, and unless we have a situation where there is an environment that is workable for everybody…

(Cuts in) In a sense, the perception in Nigeria is that the system is skewed in favour of the North. You are a member of the National Assembly and you have constituents in the South-east, they obviously come to you and tell you about issues that they have. Isn’t it?
The natural thing for our folks in the North is that “look, we have advantage, why are we going to restructure? Why do we talk about regional government or maybe reducing the size of the states or the number of states, because they have the advantage already?” But you have to remember that if there is agitation against that type of system, say for instance in the Niger Delta or some part of the South-east, where oil is also produced, it is going to disrupt the flow of oil and the flow of revenue. Whatever advantage you have will also be affected because if the oil is not sold, you won’t receive the money, so that you can be able to have the kind of advantage you have in terms of state or local governments.

The point I am making is that there is the need to have equity; to be just to all concerned; to be fair to every person, because when you do that, that is the only way you can ensure that everybody is happy and everybody can stay peacefully. So, it is important that everybody needs to key into the restructuring mantra. Let us ensure that there is equity, fairness in the structure of the federation, in the powers of the various states, in the issue of opportunities.

Isn’t that something people like yourself should be advancing at the National Assembly? You have constituents and they are in the regions that feel that they are marginalized, the system is skewed against them. To what extent have you advanced their course at the National Assembly?
I am not looking at it as the South-east or Igbo question. I am looking at it from a national point of view, because I believe that for you to resolve it, it is not about going to parliament and then start making trouble and all that, you need to convince the others.

In other words, calling for justice in a sense is making trouble?
It is not making trouble; it is calling for justice instead of making trouble. What we need to do as I said, in the first place, we try as much as possible to explain to our colleagues that it is important that every part of this country is treated fairly, that there is equitable distribution of resources and opportunities and once you are not doing that, you are going to have problem and that is why we are having problems now in different parts of Nigeria, because of inequalities and inequitable distribution of opportunities.

But because there is a constitutional process to do that, it is important to get everybody to buy the idea that this has to happen for everybody to live peacefully in this country. It is not a thing that you say because you are the chairperson of the committee I am going to get extra. The creation is stipulated in section 8 of the constitution, the amendment process is also there and you have to go through all those processes. The best way to do it is to ensure that you convince your colleagues that this is the best way to go. It is difficult like I said, because people are already keeping the advantage that they have, but those advantages will completely disappear if you don’t address those inequalities.

Do you think this restructure issue is now split along regional lines in Nigeria with the South generally in support and the core North broadly against it?
I don’t want to see it that way. There are elites in the North, who also believe that we need to restructure, a lot of them.

What about the North Central?
Yes, North Central if you like, but even as far as the North West and North East, there are some people too. Atiku Abubakar for instance is from the North East. It is like a plural society, you don’t expect everybody to have his own opinion on an issue. But maybe the preponderance of those supporting restructuring is from the South, yes it is understandable, but it is something we can build a national consensus on. It is not like it is something that can be achieved in a day or two, but it is something we need to keep talking about, engaging ourselves on, until we are able to do it peacefully, because the best way for us is to restructure in a peaceful manner.

If that is the case, that the core South is generally in support and the core North broadly against; how much more difficult will it make the passage of a restructuring bill in parliament, because the northerners who appear to have the majority in the National Assembly as well as in the state assemblies can tear it down, can’t they?
Yes, it may have initial problem but we need to keep engaging ourselves. It is likely we are going to soften the ground. There are so many issues in the last exercise that nobody wanted to hear about but today it is beginning to get some acceptability. Let us take, for instance, the issue of Land Use Act: initially what we wanted to do was to take the Land Use Act from the constitution and be able to put it as an ordinary legislature so that it can be easily amended to reflect the changes and the complexities of the society and also the contemporary realities.

Initially nobody wanted to hear about it but presently it is one of the issues we are going to vote on in the next few days, because we have built sufficient consensus on it. It was only locked in the constitution but now everybody is beginning to see that it is important that happens.

On the issue of police, when we were talking about decentralised police earlier, nobody wanted to hear about it. Our colleagues in the National Assembly said the governors will use it against them and stuff like that. Sometime some of them will move from being a member of the National Assembly and become governors so when they become governors they become champions of state police, because it is convenient for them.
We therefore need to find a way to make everybody understand that it is not about the temporary gains we have today. We must ensure that everybody understands that this is the best way to go and that is why other countries are making progress but we are not making progress. That is the point I am making about restructuring. We need to ask ourselves: what is it that these people are doing and they are making progress that we are not doing?

Are you saying people have identified that this is why Nigeria is not developing; that she needs to devolve powers to the state and control of resources, because the federal government is too far removed from them, just like you talked about security? These are obviously revolutionary political and constitutional changes that people are advocating and that clearly is a process which could be lengthy, laborious, demanding. What are the ups and downs and even surprises that you anticipate as this process unfolds?
I prefer to be optimistic. Right now, about 80% of the people in the South-east, South-south and South-west are keying into this possible change and it was not the situation before. In the North Central, for instance, let us say 50%, in the North East maybe about 25% and maybe the same figure in the North West. As we continue with the conversation, I guess that the number will continue to increase and more people are going to see the need. It is going to be continuous engagement with our people, it is not something anybody is going to do by force or impose on any person and I believe we are making progress with that engagement.

You said progress is being made, where are we now in the legal process of sending a restructuring bill to the National Assembly?
Restructuring may not be an event.

How do you mean?
By saying, look, this is a restructuring bill. It is not going to happen that way.

Why won’t it happen that way?
It won’t because it will not work; it is not going to succeed.

But it has got to go through a legal process?
It is something you have to do in an incremental manner.

Let’s talk about fiscal federalism…
What we need in terms of fiscal federalism, two things will happen: first is that we are going to look at section 162 of the constitution, because under that section of the constitution, all monies go to the federal government. What we have done presently in the exercise, we say if you put all the monies in the federation account, before you start distributing it, you have to take away 10% of it and save, that was not there before and the other one is now going to be shared based on the accrued formula and one of which is that not less than 13% will go to where the derivation is coming from.
If you now say instead of saying not less than 13% is given to them, we can now say not less than 50%, we can also say let us remove that aspect let everybody be in charge of their state resources and then pay a certain tax to the federal government for the common good and then we will also have sufficient funds in the federation account that can also take care of the less endowed states. This they do in Canada to ensure equitable growth, to make sure that everybody is on the same standard in terms of health, education and all that. With that level, everybody is benefitting.

Don’t forget it is not just about oil, we also have some minerals. So, if we are talking about fiscal federalism we are not limiting it to oil. What we need to do is to make sure that there is opportunity for everybody, that there are also available resources to go round. We are going to create an enabling environment for each state to be able to exploit what it has. I can say on strong authority that every state in Nigeria can be viable, because of the resources that are buried in the ground.

So what is stopping the National Assembly from going forward with this idea of fiscal federalism?
It is because they will say the National Assembly is doing a dictatorship kind of stuff.

But can you come up with a bill?
Coming up with a bill without building a consensus will not work. This is part of the conversation going on. It has to be a conversation so that people need to understand that they are not going to be worse off because of restructuring. I just outlined how it would work, because there are some states that are less endowed than Rivers State and they are worried. If you say let Rivers State take everything that comes to it, then what happens to them? You need to assure them that there is going to be a fund that will take care of them and if you don’t explain that to them, they will never support it.

What stage are we in that process?
What I just said it is part of the conversation.

Is that part of what you are discussing in your constitution amendment?
Definitely. We have gone to different parts of Nigeria and spoken to a lot of people and because we have not been able to build consensus on that aspect of the restructuring, we cannot introduce it now. But we are building consensus on the issue of the devolution of powers. That is why we are going to take some other items from the exclusive list down to the concurrent list. So, that is the way to go. If we are patient with ourselves and we begin an incremental manner, I give 3-5years, I am sure it will fly.

Will it help to move the process forward if for instance this becomes a big campaign issue in the 2019 Presidential election and you have a presidential candidate, who makes this a central issue? In other words, will it help if there is an executive that is supportive of the concept of restructuring?
The APC in the last campaign were talking about restructuring but they were unable to say how it is going to work.

But you are in the PDP. Can you make this work?
When they came with the change they promised, they could not deliver the change because they didn’t have any plan on how to effect it. So, if you are now telling Nigerians that you are going to effect another change, you need to explain to them how this change will come, whether you call it restructuring or change. You need to explain to those who have fears about the restructuring how they can be protected. So, these things need to be conveyed to the people.

People have been talking about it, people like Emeka Anyaoku, Atiku Abubakar, lots of intellectuals…
These are intellectuals. We need to take it to the grassroots, because some people are really worried like you said earlier.

Do you think a referendum should be called on this?
No, it is not necessary. We don’t need a referendum.

But you said taking it to the grassroots. How are you going to know what the grassroots wants or how they will react to it if you don’t?
We need to explain to them, government has agencies that explain programmes of government to the people. Part of the job of political parties is the education of the electorate. So, if you are now saying you are going to come on a ticket that support restructuring, you need to tell them that we are going to remove the issue of resources of section 162 and let everybody be a master of his own business. You need to explain to them how that is going to work.

Also, if you say you are going to move solid minerals from the exclusive list, you have to explain to them how they will benefit from it. For instance, in Zamfara, they have a lot of gold. They can make more money than Akwa Ibom if they have restructuring in such a way that solid minerals are now moved to the concurrent list. A lot of states in the North West are blessed with bulk of gold, which is actually sustaining most economies even in Central Africa. And remember too, that if people are in control of their resources and then they are able to pay tax, there is going to be more competition. But right now everybody is now falling on oil which makes all of us lazy. But if we challenge ourselves, remember that in some countries like Norway they are not touching their oil revenue, they are saving it. In places like Saudi Arabia, they invest this money and it is the return on the investments that they are using.

So if we try as much as possible to discipline ourselves by now beginning to reduce the amount of money that we can share, and saving part of it, as long as we start reducing it, there will be less money to be shared and people will be more innovative on how to generate revenue to run their states and there are available resources. We have agriculture in large quantity. We have also vast area of land in the North that can support massive agriculture and they can add value by not just selling the raw materials, they can also add value and be able to export and government needs to put infrastructure that can encourage that. So, once we do that and explain to them how it works, everybody will be comfortable with the issue of restructuring. It is not a matter of saying restructuring without breaking it down: how it will affect everybody either in the negative or in the positive and how we can survive under a restructuring regime?
Everybody wants a better country and you cannot have a better country in a system that is not working. If you are doing something over and over and it is not working, then of course, you have to do something about it. Remember we talked about the issue of devolution of powers. Look at the issue of electricity, we have problems with electricity because as a federating unit just like the issue of police, it is difficult for you to stay in Abuja and be able to provide the power for everybody, it is not going to work as long as you continue in that process, just like the same thing with police.

What we have done with this present constitution amendment is to move electricity generation and transmission from the exclusive down to the concurrent list so that states can now, if they want to, generate their own power, transmit and distribute. In that case, maybe Benue can be self-sufficient in power. It might be policy of government to make sure that everybody has electricity.
I was watching a clip on the internet about how GE (General Electric) can deploy a turbine that is capable of giving power to a whole state and it can be deployed within two months. You cannot do it in this type of structure. So, if we restructure and like I told you we are moving some of these issues from the exclusive list to the concurrent list in the present exercise. If that succeeds, then we have tried to solve at least 50% of our problem in the power sector, we are doing the same thing with railway as well. Railway used to be the exclusive preserve of the federal government but now we are moving it to the concurrent list. It means that states can build railway lines and be able to deploy coaches to move people from point A to B and that eases movement instead of everybody putting his vehicles on the road and then you have traffic all over the place.

That is why I said this issue of restructuring, first, we need to understand it that it is something that is going to help, not something that is going to harm us. Two, it is going to be incremental. We are going to do it one at a time. You cannot put all of them on a table and expect it to succeed. It is not going to work.

Do you sense now that there appears to be this awakening as it were across Nigeria that the route to the restructuring destination that many seek is now shorter and the journey towards restructuring in this country now inevitable?
The point I am making is that restructuring has started and all we need to do is encourage the momentum to ensure that we sustain what we are doing, because there are processes. Don’t forget that we are in a country that is under a rule of law, so, whatever you do has to be in consonance with the constitution and the constitutional process of bringing this about is an amendment of the constitution. That is where again government needs to help. If the government is interested in a holistic arrangement that will bring all these things about in one whole swoop, then we also have to introduce a bill that will define how a new constitution will come about and then we can now build a new constitution and then review the process that will bring it about. All these things can be taken in one fell swoop, where everybody will agree. But if we cannot do that, then, it has to be an incremental manner so that we take one thing at a time.

The question was raised about whether it should happen within the confines of the constitution as an amendment or outside it. Can it be done without amending the constitution?
It can be done under the present constitution through the process of amendment, because it is going to take more time because it has to be incremental. We have to take it one at a time. We need to make sure that we build consensus as we go on. The second option is for us to go and amend Section 9. We started to do this in the past but we ran into problem, because most of our colleagues misunderstood it. So if we amend section 9 and introduce how a new constitution can come into force, they have done it in Kenya and if we agree on how that happens, we can now set up a process, maybe a commission that will be able to draft a new constitution after we have done the amendment. Then that constitution will now follow the same process which is now enumerated under an amendment to the constitution and that will bring about a new constitution. But we cannot do something outside of this. There is no point saying let me call a national conference.

QUOTE: For instance, in Zamfara, they have a lot of gold. They can make more money than Akwa Ibom if they have restructuring in such a way that solid minerals are now moved to the concurrent list. A lot of states in the North West are blessed with bulk of gold, which is actually sustaining most economies even in Central Africa… But right now everybody is now falling on oil which makes all of us lazy. But if we challenge ourselves, remember that in some countries like Norway they are not touching their oil revenue, they are saving it. In places like Saudi Arabia, they invest this money and it is the return on the investments that they are using… That is why I said this issue of restructuring, first, we need to understand it that it is something that is going to help, not something that is going to harm us. Two, it is going to be incremental. We are going to do it one at a time. You cannot put all of them on a table and expect it to succeed. It is not going to work