Chief Olasupo Shonibare is the National Treasurer of Afenifere, a pan-Yoruba socio-cultural organisation and scion of Chief Samuel Olatubosun Shonibare, National Treasurer of the defunct Action Group. In this interview with Gboyega Akinsanmi at his Ikeja, Lagos, residence recently, Shonibare provided verifiable evidence to disprove widely circulated claims that his father betrayed the Action Group and the first Premier of the Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In addition to this, he warned that unless the country returns to the ideals of the First Republic and the vision of its founding fathers through restructuring and devolution of powers, Nigeria might fail eventually. Excerpts:
After 57 years of statehood, Nigeria is still embroiled in deepening crises that now challenge her corporate existence. What in reality explains the problems with this 57-year union?
For 57 years, I think we have been trying to evolve a nation. We have a collection of ethnic groups and settlements. Some have evolved and claimed they are no longer ethnic group. Really, there is no common Nigerian agenda or Nigerian identity. Ultimately, Nigerian identity will be when each component finds something of itself within Nigeria. This is the character of a union without any group dominating others.
Hopefully, I think we will get there eventually. But the trouble is that nations that have not done the needful in the process of building a nation-state have ended up in disintegration. I hope all parts of Nigeria, various ethnic groups and political interests will see the need to invent a different structure for the country. We have been doing something for several years now.
As a matter of fact, those of us that seek return to parliamentary system forget we only practised it for three years as a republic. Prior to independence, the practice of parliamentary system was done as a self-governing entity. But as a republic, we only practiced it between 1963 and January 1966, when the first coup took place. It should be obvious to all of us that it was a working system. It is not appropriate for us as a country.
In the light of the sustained calls for restructuring, do you think the North will wholeheartedly support the idea?
First of all, there are two categories of people in the North. The same categories of people are in the South as well. Those who I will describe as cultured northerners have realised that it is essential to change the parts that are not working. It is not working politically. It is not economically. If you look at all indices, we need to change the present system that we are operating. I believe the majority of the people in the North will come to that conclusion.
I am indeed encouraged by some northerners, who may not be speaking on the pages of newspapers. True, some northern youths are speaking against restructuring. Who are they? You cannot even trace them to any support base. It is really the minority that does not mean well for Nigeria. They are fanning the embers of separation, because if we do not restructure and other people are contented with the system, the alternative is that the entire system disintegrates.
I do not see any option for all of us. The question is: how do we now restructure in a manner that we will appreciate the fact that we have been coming together as one people? How do we restructure in a manner that we will look at the anxieties in other parts of the country and see how it is equitable to meet those anxieties? Those anxieties cannot be something you compel others to appreciate. It has to be something we must decide the most equitable way to precede.
A lot of people have called for restructuring, but have yet to come up with how it can be done equitably and fairly. How then do we restructure equitably and fairly?
I think the South-west has done so. The Yoruba Agenda, as contained in the Ibadan Declaration, is recommending a unicameral National Assembly. No one has explained to us why we need bicameral National Assembly. So, we say what is important is that we have unicameral National Assembly, a parliamentary system of government where the president sits in the Parliament and where the entire executives are elected members representing their constituencies and exercising executive functions as a government in power. The opposition too will be in the Parliament.
Under the First Republic, that was how it was. That system is highly recommended for Nigeria. We also think there should be six regions. It is a reality that states are a critical level for development. So, we think states should exist. There is even the clamour for more states. There is no template that determines the 36 states we have. The Ibadan Declaration suggests that we have six regions. We have six geo-political zones already. We are operating and using six zones in what we do in the country already.
The geo-political zones should transform into regions. Each region will have constitution. But within each region, it is the states that will decide common economic and social services that Regional Assembly will exercise on their behalf. Within each region, the Regional Assembly should have power to create more states so that we remove the issues of states being contentious. At the same time, we adopt states as a critical level of development and allow other regions that want states to create for their people.
In this structure, how many levels of government are we going to have?
Well, it is the same. At the moment, we have two levels at the national level. What we suggesting is that instead of two levels at the national level, we should just have one. The second chamber should be devolved to the regional level that exercises the power of making laws and delivering services for the states within each region. It is in the interest of the states within the region to have neighbouring states develop as much as their own states.
For instance, it is in the interest of Lagos State to be interested in what happens in Ekiti State. It is in the interest of Osun State to be interested in what happens in Lagos State. If we have underdevelopment in a part of the region that has similar ethnic settlement, we will keep having migration from the weaker states to the prosperous states. For this reason alone, states should be interested in what happens in their neighbouring states. That is why regional structure is critical.
In the real sense, it is not really additional level. We still have four. It is just that instead of having two at the centre, we have one at the centre. And the other one becomes a structure that coordinates the economic and social services of the states within the region. And then, that will really have a composition of all states comprising the region. In this instance, we will not have somebody from Lagos determining what happens in Sokoto or somebody from Imo determining what happens in Osun State.
It is only those who are part of that region, who will constitute various corporations and parastatals that are set up to exercise those economic and social functions. It will be the same four structures. Instead of having two at the centre, it becomes a level coordinating economic and social services at the regional level.
With the Ibadan Declaration, are the Southern leaders engaging the federal government on the possibility of restructuring Nigerian governance structure?
Let me first state this. The Yoruba agenda is a document adopted to become the Ibadan Declaration. Basically, they are the same document. The South-east has seen it. It has equally adopted it. The South-south is looking at it. We will soon hear from them. It protects states and links states with the power they presently have. They are entitled to have other functions they may wish to have. The states will determine what the regional structure, functions and powers should be in coordinating common services. Even the judicial system will be structured in a way that certain cases terminate at the regional level. Certain cases will still terminate at the state level.
But inter-state issues should be something that terminates at the regional level. It should just be agreed that litigations on the exclusive legislative list that remains with the federal entity are adjudicated upon by Federal Court of Appeal or Supreme Court. Constitutional matters go to the Supreme Court so that we can decongest the volume of cases. With this, we will fast-tract the delivery of justice. These are recommendations that the people, even the North, will accept as a good way to proceed and restructure our country.
Aside the South-east and the South-south, which other groups the Ibadan Declaration has been presented?
We have presented it to the Middle Belt groups. There was a meeting in Abuja between the Southern leaders and the Middle Belt leaders. The Middle Belt extends beyond the present North-central states. We had a very good representation of the Middle Belt leaders in Abuja penultimate week. There is a committee too, which intends to engage the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and other groups from the North. We are working to building groundswell consensus on the way forward.
It is obvious that we can no longer depend on crude oil. The suggestion to restructure is what will make the North to survive. It is what will make the South survive as well. We need to diversify our capacity to produce. What is being suggested will encourage production in all parts of Nigeria. It will allow the states to keep most of the revenues they generate within their territories. That was how we started the Nigerian entity. I think that is the best to proceed.
Are you sure restructuring can take place as soon as possible?
Definitely, it will. Look! The bottom line is that there is no multi-ethnic country in the world that has not already devolved powers as a nation, where you see some reflections of each ethnic group within that has survived the unitary system. They have all collapsed. So, what we are suggesting is a truly federal system. It is only truly federal systems that will enable this country survive.
Look at the United Kingdom. Even some parts of the United Kingdom that are homogenous like Liverpool or Manchester, the central government is devolving power to them. Already, they are having local government in those areas. They have been devolving more powers to another structure to ensure that the delivery of social and economic services can be determined by the people in the area. That is what we are asking for.
With the increased agitation for restructuring, what is the implication for the 2019 general election?
It should not affect the 2019 elections, because we are operating a constitution that has tenure for the elected officers. Those who are now there have a tenure that will lapse in 2019. What we are suggesting is that we adopt a new structure that will be used for the 2019 elections.
Are you convoking another constitutional conference?
The most ideal thing is that we have a sovereign national conference. That is the most ideal thing. But in some other jurisdictions, parliaments that have been alive to the need to be truly representative of the country they have elected to serve have risen to meet this kind of challenge. I am in doubt the present parliament we have can rise up to meet the challenge of adopting the necessary structures that sustain Nigeria. Even the mere tinkering with the existing structure and devolving more powers to local governments that are not as fundamental as what we are demanding, they have not been able to do. I am not so sure that the National Assembly, as presently constituted, will be able to do the needful.
But the President said the National Assembly remained the appropriate institution to restructure Nigeria. Do you share his view?
To be fair to the President, we are operating constitutional democracy. In constitutional democracy, those exercising legislative functions have to initiate the process. But what the President did not mention is that he is a leader of the country. As a leader, it is incumbent upon the President to propose the structure to the National Assembly. He can propose it by the way of initiating a bill. If he does not like the recommendations of the 2014 constitutional conference, he can come up with his own and present it as a bill to the National Assembly.
And the National Assembly can do the needful and pass it to the State Assemblies. It is possible to achieve restructuring with those who are exercising legislative functions now. But I doubt if they will be able to rise up to the demands of the occasions. I will be surprised if they are able to because they will save us from the challenges we may have if we do not restructure. People are fearful that it is difficult for those who are enjoying the benefits of a system to bring about fundamental changes in that system.
On the other hand, it is like an adage when people think you can employ hardened criminals to be the ones assisting the police to overcome the operation of the criminal gangs. Those in the National Assembly, State Assemblies and governors should be able to rise up to these challenges. They would have seen the weakness in the system. That should have normally encouraged them to bring about the process that will close up the lacuna that has allowed bad governance or excessive expenditures.
From their experience, that should have made them to be the better people to bring about a new system. In the past, they have not demonstrated the will to do so. That is why people are clamouring for national conference, where those who are elected by their groups and people are specifically chosen to write the constitution. They are looking at doing the needful from their own jaundiced view.
With all you have said, what will be the consequence if we fail to restructure?
I think the country will disintegrate if we fail to restructure. There are secessionist groups pulling us apart already. They are not just in the South-east. They are even in other parts of the country. I believe those secessionist tendencies are in the minority now. But if we do not do the needful, the blame of not being able to provide jobs will automatically be put on those operating the unitary system. That will bring about ethnic discontent.
And ethnic discontent leads to an unstable polity. So, all we are asking are obvious necessary political maneuvering that those who are interested in the continuation of Nigeria should see as being urgently required to stem us from the precipice of being a totally failed state. We are almost there. But we need something to pull us from the brink.
If your father, Chief S.O. Shonibare and other founding fathers of the Action Group were alive, what do you think would be their thinking today?
My father, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and seven of them were the founding fathers of the Action Group. The Action Group was an Afenifere Group, of which I am now a part. The vision of Nigeria was a federal entity in which various components have a great degree of self-government in determining economic and social common services. When we say we should revert to the Independence and Republican Constitutions – that was the vision of our founding fathers.
It is basically being mischievous when some people say we are going back to three or four regions. That is not what we mean when we say we should go back to the Independence and Republican Constitutions. What we mean is that we should go back to a situation whereby we have a federal entity, where economic and social rights are determined by the component governments. It should be obvious to everyone apart from people, who are being mischievous or not well-informed.
Our founding fathers – Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello and their colleagues gave us a federal constitution. It is the military that came in and somehow transformed the polity to adopt a unitary system. Since 1966, we have tried the unitary system. It has not worked. We would have achieved faster rate of growth if we had stuck to the true federal system. We need to revert to the values our founding fathers entrenched in our constitution when we became an independent country.
Some people believed your father breached the trust of the Action Group and Chief Awolowo. Can you shed more light into what happened then?
That is not true. It was a piece of rumour that had no foundation. I spoke with Chief Obafemi Awolowo myself, when he was alive. He said there was no foundation about it. Chief Awolowo was very close to my family. He brought me to Nigeria. He facilitated my working with Chief GOK Ajayi. There was nothing like breach of trust at all. If you read Chief Awolowo’s books, I think it was very clear. The property of the Action Group, to which my father contributed, was the Nigerian Investment & Property Company (NIPC). The NIPC was taken over by the Chief Ladoke Akintola regime under the old Western Region.
It was an attempt by the Action Group to do what my father had done at Maryland Estate. Even the report of the Coker Inquiry was very clear about the Maryland Estate. My father bought the land from Onigbongbo family even before the Action Group came into government. The estate was financed by Barclays Bank in London. It was clearly stated in the report of the Coker Inquiry. There was an attempt to even take it away. The Akintola government confiscated it.
It was court that gave it back to the family, because it was a private business. My father bought the land while he was with the UAC. The estate was built in phases. He had built the first two buildings you will see after entering the estate on his own. He was trading in timber. He had mobile PR Company and several entities that he was running. Everything was in his name. When he sought bank loan, the bank asked him to form a limited liability company, which he did. He took loan from the bank.
He was paying it from his business and rents. It was completely a private business. But the NIPC was conceived, because Chief Awolowo did not want the Action Group to depend on my father, Dr. Maja, Pa Alfred Rewane and others for funding. He asked for suggestion of what the party could do and make independent of these individuals. And they talked about something similar to what my father had done. With his experience, he appointed the managing director of the company that the party founded.
The NIPC took loan from a government agency that gave its excess fund as loans to Lebanese and other individuals. I think that was Cocoa Board. The loans were well-secured. That was what they said was improper, because it was government parastatals. But the NIPC was not the only company that took loans from the parastatal. Various properties from the leading members of the Action Group were donated to secure the loan.
The land on which the Western House was built was donated by a party chieftain. The same was the case of Cocoa House in Ibadan. People sometimes confused NIPC with my father’s private company. The subsequent case between the Shonny Investment & Property Company (SIPC) and the Government of Western Region was clear about it.
Can you speak more about the private company your father established?
The SIPC was the private company my father established to enable him access loans from the Barclays Bank. After my father had died, the loan was being serviced. I read a post someone uploaded on the internet recently. He asked: how did Shonibare even make his money. He also asked: how could just a minister under Chief Awolowo make such money. My father was never a minister. He was among the first set of African managers in the UAC.
Then, UAC was the entire country. Anyone that rose to the top management properly had more business acumen than an average person. So, my father was never a minister under Chief Awolowo. My father, Alhaji S.O. Gbadamosi and Pa Rewane were three associates of Chief Awolowo, who were only interested in supporting the Action Group. Although they were offered appointments, they were not interested in participating in government.
They had businesses and were supporting the party with their hard-earned income. In one of his remarks, Chief Awolowo said even in private development, which was Imoba land deal in Ibadan that could have been of benefit to my father, he did not sign it. He did not approve it while he was the Premier. Even in NIPC, all the directors had undated cheques which was kept with Chief Awolowo to confirm that it was meant for the party and not individuals listed as the directors. On the face of it, it was a private company.
Unfortunately, people tried to play down the effort of a man who built up the first modern estate in this country. The Maryland Estate was not necessarily the foremost business that my father had. He was probably more active in timber trading. Pa Rewane too was active in timber trading. Both of them made their money long before they went into politics. And they never depended on politics. They only participated in the party and never in the government.