Comrade Uche Onyeagucha, a product of the radical student politics of the late 1990s, a lawyer, a former member of the House of Representatives in Nigeria who resisted corruption and a gubernatorial candidate in Imo State in the 2011 elections tells Intervention in this interview that it is the ethnic minorities that are holding the country together and they should wake up, assert themselves to the fullest and get the country out of cyclical ethno-religious standstill.
The language of the struggle has changed from what you and I knew it in the student movement in the 1990s to an extremely ethno-regional articulation of grievances. Is it that the logic of the struggle has changed without some of us knowing?
Ethno-regional consciousness has taken over everything but ethno-regional considerations must come to an end as a way of moving this country forward. And how it will be ended is for the ethnic minorities to wake up. Nigeria is the only country in the world where minority ethnic groups are opposed to their own liberation. What is holding Nigeria together are the ethnic minorities. What is holding the Southeast and Southwest together if not Edo and Delta states? What is holding the Northeast and Southeast if not Idoma and Tiv? What is holding the Northwest and Southwest together if not Kogi and Kwara states? So, they are the only ones holding this country together. And it is because, out of their confusion about where to go, they say we must stay together. So, it is not Igbos, Yorubas or Hausa-Fulani that are holding the country together. Actually, these three are the most destructive elements in the race to build a Nigerian nation.
It is the high level of tolerance of the minorities that that has kept us going because these three have been very destructive. Otherwise, how do you take their money to promote the language of the three big ethnic groups? It is even given a legal cover in the constitution which mentioned Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba as national languages along with English. Why should that clause be there? The correct clause should have been English and any other language. But the minorities are pretending as if they haven’t seen it. The minorities should wake up and assert themselves to the fullest. They should ask for the clause on creation of states to be altered. Why shouldn’t Apa State be created for the Idoma? Why shouldn’t Ogoni or Ishekiri have their states? Why should states be equal? Are the states of Virgina and California in the US equal? Look at the injustice being done to the Gwaris – scattered across Niger, Kaduna, FCT and perhaps one or two more states? Who says Ishekiris want to have three senators. Give them a state and let them manage themselves. Every state doesn’t have to have equal number of senators.
It is understood that the spirit of the Willinks Report is that the minorities would know how to organise and be the powerhouse in Nigeria. Is that the sort of thing you are arguing?
Yes. We have to revisit the Willinks Report. The only reason we experience the standstills is because oil is the only aggregate factor. The day the oil in Nigeria is exhausted, we would have arrived at another Berlin. Oil is now the only magnetic pull.
Are you ruling out new oil finds, both in the Niger Delta and elsewhere in the country?
Is oil relevant? Even if there are new finds, is it relevant? The people of Kenya are generating electricity from volcanoes. Look at coal in Enugu, nobody is interested but there is enough coal deposit there from which to generate enough energy to serve the whole country. We are running behind, far behind. The world is moving ahead and the gap may soon be too far to close.
A transformative leader who could have put industrialisation on the agenda is one way that has been argued in terms of our fastest way of getting out of this cycle. Where do you stand on that?
Has anybody been asking when we are going to industrialise? Nobody! Neither the leaders nor the people are asking. But, unless we can produce cheaper than China, we have no future. Nigeria is the only country in darkness without protest. Rising poverty and unemployment level, the same thing, no street protests! Our political parties believe in nothing and nobody complains. Nigeria is a dumping ground for even South Africa. Meanwhile, our elite are looking for all the pleasure islands to spend oil money, from Dubai to wherever you can think of. The rich are too foolish – they send their children to private schools rather than improving on the educational system. We are neither a unitary or confederal state. What is the business of the Federal Government in secondary schools, health centres?
So, you are for restructuring?
Totally! Absolutely! I think we should, at best, be a confederation of states. These minorities, the smaller ones in particular, should be allowed to develop. The Idoma are larger than the population of many nation states.
Why do you trust in the capacity of the type of elite we have to organise anything? Restructuring or devolution of powers is a very routine thing that can be done noiselessly but you can see it is bringing the country to a standstill. That is one thing against restructuring as have been articulated so far. Secondly, why are federal institutions still the best across the country? Why hasn’t any state got anything that can compare, from roads to hospitals to universities? I do not think it is just the differential in financial capacity but also the psychology of those Femi Falana called local emperors
The federal level is the mechanism without which those emperors or characters who do terrible things and make the states unable to deliver quality will not even contest elections. It is because the federal level you are talking about is the way it is that the people back in the states need gangsters as elected representatives because they perceive that they need gangsters to go and get their own share from Abuja. You think the people do not know these characters culturally? They know them to be bad people but they also know that it is those people who succeed in Abuja. They made their money in Abuja where they connected with the IG of Police who connects them to commissioners of police and they arrive as important warlords. They drive into their villages with siren even there is no traffic to clear. They are fully escorted. So, they elect them even though they know they won’t deliver quality at home. And that leaves federal projects higher in standard, not because it is a functional federal system. For this reason, anybody who makes the kind of argument you have made is only correct half way. Let them go to their town union meeting and let’s see if their people will not ask them.
Can elections in 2019 change this following the great improvement in electoral management in 2015?
We have never had any free and fair elections in Nigeria. Since 1999, they have all been manipulated. So, there is still no chance we would get it right just like that. No, not without a revolution! No reform can change that. The people who have messed up the system would have to be uprooted by a revolution. It is not in politicians, it is civil society, civil service, churches and mosques, labour, student movement, business that will make elections meaningful in this country.
How does Nigeria make progress in 2019?
That’s like asking me the way forward. There are too many forces at play that I am not sure. If Buhari were to run and win, they will abuse his stay because he will be a mentally and physically much weaker president. If he doesn’t run, the vultures will set in. So, the future is gloomy. Will APC win? Yes. Will they draw up anything radical? Very unlikely except if the Makarfi faction of the PDP moves fast, attract others and try to grow a new party. Some radical elements should attempt to seize power there. If nothing of this sort happens, it will be an easy ride to Aso Rock in 2019 for the APC.
That is if they are still intact by 2019
APC is intact and they will be intact in 2019. Few people might pull out but it will remain. When interests coalesce, the binders are greed for power, greed for material acquisition and the search for self-preservation. So, they will remain
But there is also the talk of a mega party
They need to move from talking to acting fast. This country will be in greater mess than what we are witnessing if no strong party rises to challenge the APC for power in 2019. A new party, strong and formidable enough to stand up to the APC in 2019 is the only guarantee because the people in the presidency will take everyone for granted and trample on them.
Including on Igbo presidency and the Ohaneze challenge?
The Ohaneze challenge is not a potent challenge because it is yet to emerge
I should have called it the MASSOB/IPOB challenge
It is about Igbo marginalisation
Can the Igbos really talk about marginalisation when they just left controlling nerves of the government under Goodluck Jonathan?
To find out Igbo marginalisation is not by political appointments they held. It is by looking at how much of the budget is set aside to be spent in Igboland. It is insignificant.
From what you know, has this been deliberate?
And the Igbo appointees could not do anything about this for over five years under Goodluck?
How were they there? Anyim was SGF but SGF has no powers. He just announces appointees of the president. He didn’t appoint anyone. Igbos should have fought for Senate President or Speaker. Any of them can add projects worth billions to the budget. Igbos started asking for the SGF in this dispensation because they failed to play the part in the process of bringing the Buhari government. If they had elected Senators and so on, they could have asked for a substantive position
But Ike Ekweremadu is there as the Deputy Senate President
Ike Ekweremadu is not there as Deputy Senate for Igbo interest in any ways but for his own selfish interest. He doesn’t serve Igbo interest. His continued stay in office serves the personal interest of Ike, not even that of Enugu. Whatever he puts in the budget, he has to beg for. And he knows it. He knows he is weakening the Igbo quest. He knows the appropriate thing to do is to hand it over and give it to APC. He cannot attend any caucus meeting of the APC. There is no meeting he attends. So, I am calling him to take necessary action to kick himself out. Enough of this selfishness!
Taking all these together, what might then be your snapshot of Nigeria as of today?
As at today, Nigeria has been woken up to the rape the economy has been subjected to more than ever before. The truth has dawned that we are totally empty and extremely dependent on others for the things we can ordinarily do for or by ourselves. For those who really care, the truth is that the country is on something worse than life support. So, my snapshot is the situation you get when you produce nothing and consume everything that others produce without thinking of how we can pay to satisfy insatiable appetite.
So, you are taking up the elite!
Of course! It is the elite that have messed up the country, leaving the informal sector to bear the brunt of what the so-called technocrats and the political leaders have made of the Nigerian political economy.
Why are our elite like that?
It might be sad to admit but the ideology informing this elite has been a backward ideology of tribe and ethnicity. Each ethnic group that finds its way to power sees an opportunity to rape, loot and rob the nation under the pretext that it was its turn to do so.
Where might this have come from?
It has come from the fact that the Nigerian nation has not emerged. We are still pretending, with everyone running to his ethnic cocoon without caring for Nigeria. Where is Nigeria on our minds when not a single project is designed with any nationalist or patriotic feeling? I want to point out that no project is ever designed for the Nigerian people without a plan by the technocrats and the political elite to steal from it. Not one single project. No exception. There is no road project without an inbuilt mechanism to steal from it. There is no area that is a taboo in this or exception in this. None! Even water supply schemes or health projects do not escape being tied to what can be stolen. They steal from road projects and cause it to be abandoned and, of course, they suffer the consequences too. Many have died in road accidents where they could have been taken to hospital and saved if there were good roads or good hospitals in the first case. But many others suffer the consequences of their actions. They deny different groups the opportunities that should have come with full implementation of such projects such as employment. By doing so, they create tension and turn around to ask why the people are fighting. So, in that regard, what describes the Nigerian politicians and technocrats is a wealthy man having a guard carrying a sophisticated gun to protect the wealthy man. But the wealthy man is thoughtless by denying him his salaries and starving the guard to a point of lunacy. What I am saying is that, everyday, the power elite empower the masses to rise up against it.
There is an anti-corruption war in place. How far does that respond to the situation you are representing?
We mount anti-corruption as if it will clean up the system just by saying so. We are afraid of building institutions that will tackle corruption itself. For example, 10 million EFCC cannot achieve what the introduction of BVN has achieved in checkmating corruption. Yet, this is something that should have been introduced 30 years ago. I have been advocating that if we are serious about anti-corruption war, we should also introduce Property Verification Number, (PVN) which would match every property in this country with the documentation of the owner, (his Driver’s license, his international passport, his ID card, etc). Announcing this alone today as a policy to be implemented will cause the abandonment of 20 million houses in this country by those who own them but who cannot explain how they got the money to own them. Because any property you cannot explain how you got the money to build or buy it is like having money in your account without knowing how it got there. Some people say Nigerians are so clever, they will write the property in the name of their children, drivers or in-laws and all that. No problem with that because that is one way of achieving redistribution. And such approach can never work for them because there are no tricks without their contradictions. What is the guarantee that their drivers would not take real possession of any such property? Are they not being detected and charged along with their children in deals they thought nobody would ever get to know? We need institutional mechanisms such as these and there are many more.
In other words, you are standing shoulder to shoulder with President Buhari in his anti-corruption war!
Yes, but he’s not going far enough
What would be far enough?
I think the president should make up his mind to run for one term and he should then start sanitising his cabinet and creating the momentum. Or it would not fly.
Can he really go faster because 2015 is not 1984 when he was not constrained by a judicial process that moves at its own speed?
The problem is a function of his method would have been to ignore the politicians yet. EFCC should have taken their time to dig up other players there first who are easier to get rid of than the politicians. After that, then you land on the politicians who employ all else. The politicians are tougher to get rid of. They are more resilient in their denial.
What I hear people say to this is that there is no time left and he is ill too
Buhari over focused on anti-corruption that he didn’t pay the required attention to the economy. Every day, you opened the newspapers, it was EFCC arrest, detention, court. It became a daily affair whereas what is most prominent should have been the economy. If you were managing the economy well, people would applaud you. But, in this case, they were hearing of anti-corruption which had no bearing on bringing food to the table. Subsequently, you can see that the government lost the opportunity to connect the anti-corruption with the people.
Can he get back his grove?
I think he has lost the momentum. The kind of revolutionary transformation he needs to regain the momentum, he would be incapable of getting that before he leaves even if ill-health is not part of the problem. At 74, he sees himself in the image of the typical grandfather who are never in a hurry because they have seen it all. Meanwhile, time is of essence.
So, how would you then score him, every other thing considered?
I think I would like to mention where he has done well. Hate him or like him, he is destroying the impunity with which people steal. That brazenness is going. He has at least instilled some fear. He has also brought the situation where appointees are gradually appreciating service. The idea that this is the wrong time to be in government is sinking in. I have met not a few people and they separately used that expression. If he were much younger and has a Second term opportunity, he would have cleaned up the system so much. Now, he has problem of age, health and team and the masses are getting impatient.