Emmanuel Ugwu interrogates Mr. Elliot Uko, founder of Ogbo Youth Movement, deputy secretary of the Professor Ben Nwabueze led Igbo Leaders of Thought and secretary general of the Eastern Consultative Assembly on nagging national issues
You appear to be unusually quiet for a while a lot has been happening in the polity with the nation tottering and tension rising very high due to insecurity and political wrangling. Are you no longer worried about the fate of the Nigerian nation?
Point of correction, we don’t have a nation yet. I don’t want to repeat myself. Everybody knows the solution to our problems but for some strange reasons the powers that be have kept the solution in the archives to gather dust. I will be playing to the gallery if I speak every day. For decades, I screamed myself hoarse speaking truth to authorities on the need to reconstruct our polity through a new people’s constitution that will enthrone true federalism, devolution of powers and equity. I can tell you that 95 percent of our troubles flow from the unworkable unitary constitution inspired by the military. Repeating myself everyday would either mean that I crave to be relevant in the media always or that I am desperate for political accommodation within this wobbly crazy structure. Since neither is the case, that explains why I have been turning down your request for interview. Moreover, I set out decades ago to inspire, influence and awaken youths of my region from slumber all through the 1990s till date, I moved about from city to city organizing Igbo Youth Movement (IYM) monthly seminar for Igbo youths. I was privileged to have great Igbo leaders attend my IYM seminars, conferences, conventions and rallies. The idea was to inspire the younger generation first of all to understand their precarious condition in Nigeria and then to reject it. I organized 172 conferences all over Nigeria for Igbo youths within 25 years. Late Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu attended 24 of them. Whether I succeeded in waking up the youths will be left for posterity to judge. Since I am not looking for a job from government and I am not hungry for publicity, my religion does not permit me to play to the gallery; that is why I refused to repeat myself. Moreover, there is nothing new to say since everybody, including those who called me “Elliot onye ala restructuring” (mad man of restructuring), 20 years ago, have finally come to see that restructuring remains the only solution.
But the current president, Muhammadu Buhari has demonstrated in words and body language that he does not believe in restructuring. What then should be the way forward?
That is unfortunate, but his stand cannot change the truth. If you do not believe in addressing the malaria parasite in your blood stream by applying anti malaria drug, you will only be deceiving yourself if you choose only to address the fallouts of your malaria sickness. Stubbornly choosing only to address the symptoms piece meal will never solve your problem. It is unhelpful and useless if you swallow dozens of paracetamol daily in order to address the headache alone, and then you buy drugs for the high fever and then you rub mentholatum at the painful joints and then you buy another drug for the loss of appetite you are suffering from and yet another drug because you are very weak and have no strength and so on and so forth. You are not only wasting your time but you are also complicating your problems. The only solution is to address the Malaria parasite in your system with anti-malaria drug and all the symptoms will go away. The headache will disappear, the loss of appetite will disappear, the painful joints will go away, the dizziness and tiredness will go away, all the symptoms of malaria afflicting you will evaporate into thin air and you’ll be as fit as a fiddle again, because you addressed the problems from the root. If we do not restructure our polity, our problems will only get worse. So it is unfortunate if Mr. President only chooses to address the symptoms instead of the root cause of our malaise.
Don’t you think that the ongoing talks about amending the constitution by the National Assembly could be a veritable solution?
Our problems are beyond constitutional amendment by the National Assembly. Our problem is that the framework of our constitution as designed by the military cannot move the country forward in unity and cannot also engender economic and political growth of any country. We are only surviving as a country purely as a result of the oil money shared by all tiers of government. The day the oil stops flowing and cash stops coming in, Nigeria will disintegrate. Our structure is crazy, strange and funny at the same time. People all over the world do not believe it when you tell them that the state of California, New York, Texas, etc do not troop to Washington DC every month to collect monthly allocation to run their states and pay salaries. That Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rush to London every month for monthly allocation and that all the regions in Canada, Germany, India, Australia, etc all troop to the nation’s capital for money every month in order to run their governments, build infrastructure, pay salaries etc. They will not believe you because that is not done anywhere in the world. The regions and states can only develop when they source their own resources and manage it to develop their region to the envy of other regions. The rivalry between regions will engender competition like it did in the First Republic, forcing each region to look inwards, think outside the box, mine and market every mineral under their soil and then manage their resources so well thereby discouraging sleaze and waste. It is impossible for one man to effectively run a behemoth of 200 million people from Abuja. It is also impossible to force down the same rules, style, format and system on the people of Sokoto and Akwa Ibom at the same time or on the people of Borno and Bayelsa. Because the religions and social cultures of the Fulani and Kanuri is completely different from that of the Ibibio and Ijaw. Nigeria will only experience growth, peace and concord when regions are allowed to develop at their own pace. We have tried for decades now under this unitary structure and we have failed woefully. Why do we find it difficult to face the truth and restructure Nigeria without further delay?
Where then did Nigeria get it wrong in the journey of nationhood?
Through the militarily inspired constitution. It all began in the late 1960s, when General Yakubu Gowon unilaterally created 12 states through a decree, thereby destroying the regions and burying the 1963 constitution. He also set up the Chief Dina Committee that advised the central government to annex all revenues and grant states allocations according to their needs. This made the Nigeria Head of State the most powerful in the world. There was a Civil War going on and everybody thought that was good to enable the Federal Government prosecute the war effectively, especially since General Gowon had not borrowed money externally to prosecute the war. Most Nigerians did not know that for the first year Gowon ruled Nigeria that the revenue formula of 1963 still applied. That each region kept a certain percentage of the earning and contributed a certain percentage (as enshrined in the 1963 constitution) to the centre. That the military governors shared, received and distributed the revenues and earnings of each region strictly according to the dictate of the 1963 constitution. Hassan Kastina, Adeyinka Adebayo etc ran their regional government according to the revenue sharing formula of the 1963 constitution. Most Nigerians do not know that it was General Gowon and not General Ironsi who unified and centralized all the revenues at the centre in order to prosecute the war. Ironsi’s decree 34 of May 1966 merely changed the nomenclature from regions to group of provinces. Ironsi never altered the revenue sharing formula. The facts are there in the files of government. After General Gowon centralized all the resources at the centre, the victorious cabals at the end of the war, who now saw that power was so sweet, especially with oil boom, then decided that it will be difficult for any other region to ever take power out of their hands. They therefore preferred centralizing all the resources and the revenues at the centre, only to be dispensed by whoever was in charge of the centre. Therefore they decided at the end of the war to inspire and influence a new constitution that will centralize power because they believed they will always be in charge and control of central power in Nigeria.
So none of the constitutions supposedly inspired by democratic transitions has been able to solve the national problem?
Both the 1979 and 1999 constitutions were influenced, inspired and manipulated by this line of thought of the victors of the war. For them the East had been pacified through military force, the West had been co-opted and settled, the minorities were so excited that they all were now being empowered by the total exclusion of Ndigbo. During the heady days of the 1970s nobody saw that this unitary structure will only make Nigeria the poverty capital of the world 50 years later. Where states cannot pay salaries, where a huge unemployment rate has turned kidnapping into a profitable business venture and lotto betting as the only pass time, as the hope in winning bet actually helps in reducing the suicide rate. Nobody knew that 50 years later, the fierce struggle for central power in Nigeria will deepen our ethnic and religious fault lines to the point where hatred, division and acrimony rule the land. Nobody knew that this structure would ironically make the region that has produced 80 percent of the rulers of Nigeria the poorest region. So the mistake of 50 years ago that inspired the post civil war constitution brought us where we are today. Everybody made mistakes but some are so proud to accept their mistakes. For instance, the delegation led by Okoi Arikpo after their meeting with Chief Awolowo borrowed Awolowo’s telephone to call General Gowon to give him the good news that the Chief has finally agreed to join the government, General Gowon was so elated that he gave instructions for the news to be announced immediately. As the convoy drove away from Park Lane Apapa, on their way to Dodan Barracks to report to General Gowon, they heard in the car radio the breaking news from Radio Nigeria that Chief Awolowo had joined the government to help Gowon prosecute the war. That deal consolidated the game of playing the East against the West, and the West against the East when convenient for the North. Everybody took decisions that benefited their immediate ambition. Most of the permanent secretaries and cabinet secretaries that endorsed centralization of the revenues by General Gowon thereby strengthening this unitary structure that inspired our unjust constitution, were from the Southern minorities. They didn’t realize the mistake they were roping their progeny into. They even opposed the Aburi Accord. Akenzua, who later became Oba of Benin, Philip Asiodu, Tayo Akpata, Horatius Agada etc, they all supported Gen. Gowon as he centralized the purse and commandeered all earnings to the center. Our own constitutional gurus also made mistake of endorsing this unitary structure during the making of both the 1979 and 1999 constitutions. We cannot come out of our problems as a nation unless we face the truth. Only devolution of powers through a new constitution can save Nigeria.
The agitation for secession in the East has resurfaced and . . .
(Cuts in) I have said all I have to say on the fact that the younger generations of Easterners have rejected Nigeria as presently constituted. I have said that louder than anybody else. I have also been consistent for more than two decades. There is nothing new to add except may be to repeat myself or play to the gallery by making noise every day. I don’t want to do both. I am on record as having warned the past governments that the younger generation of Ndigbo will not accept the continued humiliation and mistreatment. Right from the Babangida, Abacha, Obasanjo governments till date, I have remained consistent through God’s grace. All the IYM events are organized in public halls in big hotels, attended by very prominent leaders and always covered by the media. My message has always been simple and direct: Restructure Nigeria, devolve powers back to the regions, enthrone equity by giving everybody a fair sense of belonging. The younger generation will not accept this continuous oppression of Ndigbo. They will resist it. If you don’t believe me time will tell. I screamed from the mountain top to the roof tops for decades. I have nothing new to say or add except that the delay is dangerous, the earlier we restructure the better for everybody. No region benefits in real terms from this unwieldy unitary structure whereas every region will definitely gain from a restructured Nigeria.
Finally, what do you have to say about the Buhari led government and its . . .?
(Again cuts in) I don’t want to talk about Buhari’s government. It wasn’t the Chinese nor Mexicans that brought in this government. It was Nigerians that brought him. Those who brought him should enjoy him. I humbly suggest that Nigerians should amend this sick constitution to make him life president. Those who brought him must enjoy him to the full. Moreover, I am not going to criticize Buhari’s government when it is obvious to everybody that the opposition party leaders are all mute, crawling discreetly at night to the same All Progressives Congress (APC) government to ask for favours and protection. I will not do the job of the opposition for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leaders who are hiding under their bed in fear. Let them enjoy Buhari. The entire political class on both divides are selfish, ruthless, uncaring and blinded by greed all of them.
Nobody knew that this structure would ironically make the region that has produced 80 percent of the rulers of Nigeria the poorest region. So the mistake of 50 years ago that inspired the post civil war constitution brought us where we are today. Everybody made mistakes but some are so proud to accept their mistakes