Nigeria is Teetering on The Brink of Disaster, journalist Chidi Onumah, and coordinator, Africa Centre for Media & Information Literacy warns.
Chidi will present his third book, ‘We Are All Biafrans’ in Abuja on 31 May.
In this interview with AYORINDE OLUOKUN, Onumah gives an insight into the book which he said focuses on the crises of nationhood in Nigeria and the need to urgently restructure the country in line with true practice of federalism to avoid a looming catastrophe.
We Are All Biafrans is your third book, what is the motivation for it and how is it different from the two you have written earlier?
The reason is the same, but a little bit more. I have always focused on the structure of Nigeria, our federalism- my argument for many years have been that Nigeria is a very flawed national, structurally. And that many, if not all of the problems that confront us emanate from the flawed nature of our federalism. So, this is just one more intervention in that line of argument. I think it is coming out at appropriate time considering the many crises confronting us today as a nation. My argument basically is that we need to, as Chinua Achebe would say; go back to the place where the rain started beating us. The structure of Nigeria we had at independence was different from what we had today. We had to go back to the structure of Nigeria we had before the creation of the 12 States in 1967. I am not in any way arguing for a regional government. My argument is that we need to redefine what federalism means for us. The way we practice federalism is not my understanding of that term and it is not the way it is practiced in countries around the world that practiced federalism. I think the bad nature of federalism we practiced here made the states that are ought to be component part of Nigeria irresponsible. We need to go back to the system of federalism in the proper sense- that comes with responsibility, so states can be talking about how to generate rather than how to share resources. So, that is basically my argument. And to use the term specifically, “We Are All Biafrans,” the agitations for Biafra have been going on for a while now and I look at Nigeria generally and I saw that in every part of the country, there is one form of agitation or the other. So, for me, the “Biafra” in this book could be replaced by agitations or protests, like: We Are All Protesters. We are all being messed up by the Nigerian State in one way or the other and therefore, we need to collectively try to do something about it. That’s basically the idea behind the choice of the title. It has nothing to do with the Biafra agitation itself. For me, it was a metaphor for the many problems confronting us as a people.
So, how did you address these national problems in the book?
The book is a collection of essays and I try to divide it into five chapters, looking at the various themes around the issues covered. Chapter one for instance deals with the politics of 2015, chapter two deals with the issue of the national conference and what I would like to refer to as Nigeria as a country appears to be dancing on the brink. Chapter three is titled, Unmaking Nigeria. The argument here is that many of the decisions we take as a people, particularly at the governmental level does not serve the purpose of unifying Nigeria, but it serves the purpose of destroying unmaking Nigeria, of destroying Nigeria. It is one thing to say the unity of Nigeria is not negotiable, it is another thing for the government to make efforts to unify Nigerians knowing that this is a country torn apart by so many different forces. I think there is something peculiar about Nigeria which many Nigerians don’t seem to know, I mean Nigeria is a country like no other. It is a wonderful place, with a lot of wonderful people, great human resources. But we need to get together first for all of these to come together. When you look at Nigeria as a country, you will find out that Nigeria is perhaps the only country in the world where you have the two major religions in equal strength in terms of number of adherents. And at the same time, you have three major ethnic groups. India at independence in 1947, you had Pakistan, which was the Muslim part going its separate way. So, basically, another country came out of India. But if that had not happened, you would have had an India where there is a huge Muslim population alongside a huge Hindu population.
But in the case of Nigeria, Muslims and Christians, depending on who you ask, but relatively, we are at equal strength, then you now have three major ethnic groups. So, it is always like is a war situation. There is a balance of forces, nothing can give, because if you have a country where one group is dominant, more often than not, that group would stamp its authority, its way of life, its religion on the rest of the country as you have in different parts of the world- Europe, Asia, America and so on. That’s for religion. If you also have a situation where you have one or even two dominant groups, those two groups- if they are not fighting- they can come together and impose their culture or system on the rest of the country. So, we have to really sit down to see how we can manage this peculiarity which we haven’t done as a people.
At Independence, Nigeria seems to be working. So, what went wrong?
So many things went wrong with the military intervention in Nigeria. The military virtually destroyed this country and it ought not to have been so. It should have been possible, considering these peculiarities that I mentioned to have a military government that is nationalistic, patriotic. You saw what happened in the case of Turkey for example. There were situations around the world where you have patriotic and nationalistic soldiers who would come and say, look, this country has this peculiarity, how do we deal with them? How do we build structures that would ensure that in 10, 20 years time, people would be united, people won’t bother where they come from, people won’t bother about what religion they profess. Their interest would be in the national interest. But in the case of Nigeria, the military created more confusion, created more division and with their command and control structure, institutionalized those errant behaviours that they impose on Nigerians. And that’s what we are living with today.
The third chapter of the book treats the issue that all the things we are going through today emanated from the structure of the country which the military handed over to us. The fourth chapter, Of Scoundrels and Statesmen was just trying to highlight some of the silly things that our politicians either say or do, all in the name of being in the position of authority. For example, I look at (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo’s satanic letters. Here is Obasanjo who was in power for eight years as civilian president after serving three years- from 1976 to 1979 as the military Head of State. He had so much goodwill to turn the country around, but he messed it up big time. A few years later, he comes around; he is writing letters as if it is letters that will solve the problems of Nigeria. I take on people like Dame Patience Goodluck Jonathan who literarily ran amok as the First Lady of Nigeria, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tambuwal, the issue of Kudirat Abiola and the judgment of Major Hamza Mustapha which I thought was a travesty of justice. The issue of corruption also is discussed in the book. I took on the case of former Akwa Ibom State Governor. I just use his case as an example-when he left office, he gave himself fantastic benefits, salaries and so on. And that’s part of the challenges I keep talking about- if states are responsible for generating the money they spend, I don’t think they would be so irresponsible in spending it. And if they do and the state assemblies can’t hold them responsible, that’s their problem. I hear from my state even that the House of Assembly has been hijacked by the Governor, that nobody questions what is happening in the State. Somebody said the Mace- I don’t know if he is joking or serious- said it is at the Government House, that the Governor has impeached the State. That’s part of the crises of Nigeria. Everybody focuses on the Federal Government. Nobody takes into account what the Governors, the local governments are doing; it is important that we focus on that. Let’s restructure Nigeria and have states being responsible. We need to go back to a system where there will be proper debates, proper arguments in our State Assemblies.
Then chapter five talks about the Last Missionary Journey. The focus really is looking ahead. The argument, as I mentioned earlier is that many, if not all the problems that confront us as a people is rooted in the structure, the Constitution of Nigeria. So, what do we do then? We have to restructure the country. As far as what passes as the 1999 Constitution today is nothing more than a military decree. The government’s idea of constitution making is to decree certain things- you want to decree national unity like you want to decree a marriage. It doesn’t work like that. Nigeria is not a huge military barrack. Nigeria is a multi ethnic, multi cultural, multi religious nation of about 200 million people. So, you can’t decree these things. How do you decree local governments from the constitution? It means for you to add a local government, you have to literarily change the constitution. How can that makes for progress? It is the central government and states that makes up the federation. The military created these local governments and shared it, in some cases to gratify their wives, girlfriends, in laws and those around them. Now, these local governments have become a burden. A few months ago, the Governor of Nasarawa State said he was dissolving a local government because the local government made N30, 000 as internally generated revenue in a month. And I was asking myself, ‘how possible is that?’ A young man or woman selling oranges on the streets can make N30,000 in a month, not to talk of a local government, a constituted authority that can impose charges on a lot of things- tolls, markets and so on. The N30, 000, is it to buy the papers to run the office or what? So, it comes back to the issue of power without responsibility. Let every state create local governments they are able to manage. If Nasarawa State, because of its size and population can manage two, three local governments, let them create the local governments. So, if any money is coming from the federal level, it should go to the states. Of course, the states would need to have their own security apparatus, have their own police. In a world where universities have their own police, there is no reason why states in Nigeria can’t have their own police. You go to different places all over the world, especially where federalism is practised, local governments have their police; universities have their police, big institutions have their police. At the end of the day, they all have to defer to the federal police, if a crime crosses from one state to the other, the federal police will come. If you look at the issue of the Fulani herdsmen, I don’t even want to use the term “Fulani,” for me, a crime has been committed, if it is by Okada riders, Herdsmen and so on, we don’t need to tag it with their religion or where they come from, they are Nigerians. So, if a crime has been committed, let the state, the local government deal with that crime. If for any reason, they are unable to do that and they need the help of federal government, they can call for it and if the crime crosses the boundary, it becomes a federal crime. So, these are the arguments that I am pushing. And I think we should not be afraid to have this debate which very few people seem interested in. We just want to be managing this country. We wake up every day, we hear about this crisis, we try to proffer solutions, we moved on to the next crisis- whether it is militancy, whether it is those agitating for Biafra , whether it’s land issue. There was a time in this country when communal fight over land was a big issue.
You devoted a chapter to 2015 general election in the book. What would you say is the significance of that election to us as a nation?
Of course, we all know what the issues were in 2015; religion, ethnicity was very paramount which is typical of politics in Nigeria, then, the argument about Nigeria disintegration, the so called prediction by the United States and so on. So to a great extent, we are happy to have dodged the bullet. And also, we managed to do something that the country hasn’t experienced before which is to change government from one political party to the other. So, to that extent, 2015 overall could said to be positive. And I also think that overall, in broader terms, what I argued in my book is that we have managed to do it, let’s hope we will able to repeat the feat. If we are able to repeat it, that means our democracy is sustainable, we would probably not have any military incursion again; people can be voted into power or out of power. And that comes with a level of responsibility- people know that at the end of the election, certain things can happen. Now, we have a new government in place. People voted for the government based on certain promises and I am happy the way Nigerians are carrying on that even in the midst of all the crises, economic meltdown, people are still endeavouring each day to hold the government to account-whether it is Occupy National Assembly, the campaign on the social media, the Buhari meter that different organizations are involved in, just to keep the government on its toes.
But having said that, I think there are big issues about Nigerian politics which is also rooted in the nature of our federalism and it is something that when we started talking about we may not be able to finish. We need to seriously reform our election process. Even though the 2015 election had more or less become history, you could see that apart from the partisans, not many people enthusiastically took part. It is important to have a system that takes everybody along- whether you believe in a political party or not. It is also important to have a situation in which people are not coerced to come and vote, our election is not militarised. But the major argument is about how we elect our leaders. We still have the godfathers and at the end of the day, we just elect charlatans and all kinds of dubious characters who are not interested in the welfare of the people. I think we missed it many years ago when IBB tried to streamline two political parties without founders and in which everybody is a equal joiner. If we had sustained that culture, by now the political parties would have been owned by the people. Of course, influential people in political parties will always wield influence, but not the kind of thing in which some chiefs or elders of the party will sit down somewhere and appoint the party candidates and the party primaries are just formalities. We need to have a system, in which the process which our leaders emerge is democratic with a measure of integrity. Until we are able to get to that- I don’t know how long it will take us – maybe another 10, 15, 20 years of sustained democracy. I don’t know where we will go from here; it is quite a challenging time for Nigeria. But at least, we have a President that even with all the criticisms of the fight against corruption, who I personally do not see as any of the other Presidents before him; we have a President who is not engaged in primitive accumulation, who is not fighting with his boys for contracts and so on. That is the positive. How we can build on that is another thing. It also important therefore that that President has the capacity to also deal with those around him, it is not a one man fight. We need to institutionalise the anti corruption. And I don’t know how far the government can go on that because the issue of corruption is about systems.
I have been part of a project that does some research on corruption and I keep asking myself, “What kind of system makes it possible?” The IG stole N50 billion, that is it the accountant or the cashier that gave him the money? The governors, the senators stole so much, what kind of systems makes it possible? So, we are back to the issue of the system, the structures- because there is so much free money flying around the country, people are stealing. If people work for their money, if they generate the money they spend, they won’t be stealing it the way they are stealing it. So, I don’t know how the Buhari administration will do it, but they need to tackle corruption institutionally and structurally. Look at what the government has done with Treasury Single Account, we need to go beyond such issues and talk about so many things about why there is so much free money floating around. It is also about the issue of nationalism I talked about. People do not believe in this country. So, they can steal. I was speaking to one lecturer who said her daughter went to a local government in a part of this country to give birth and they have to bring lantern to take the delivery because even when they have a generator, they don’t have a battery to power the generator. You can imagine that level of irresponsibility, putting human lives at stake because of lack of batteries. It is important that we emphasise the point that if people know that if they steal from this country, the future of their children and grandchildren will be in jeopardy, then they would have to think twice about it.
You said the book is a participant observation of a country walking to disaster. Is our situation that bad?
It’s the sub-topic, a participant observer- I am a Nigerian, I just turned 50 few days ago and from my teenage years, I have been interested in this country because I sincerely believe that we have no other country than this one. I don’t know for other people, but for me, this is the only country I feel comfortable in. Comfortable not in terms of material things, but in the sense that when you have ownership of something, nobody can mess you up- this is my own, this is my country. No matter what you achieve, whether you are professor or whatever, you still look at yourself if you look outside that this thing doesn’t belong to me. So, I have always been interested in the Nigerian situation- how we can build a peaceful, prosperous, egalitarian modern society. But we can’t do that until we address the fundamentals. For example, I read a few days ago about the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources talking about government’s commitment to the prospect for oil in the Chad Basin. And I said this thing has been going for as long as I can remember.
Saudi Arabia just made a commitment few weeks ago that in the next four, five years, oil will be a marginal part of their GDP and foreign reserves. This is Saudi Arabia, a country swimming in oil, trying to wean itself from oil. Oil is about $30 per barrel and we are spending money prospecting for oil. So, why don’t we spend that money to prospect for some other alternative means of energy- ethanol or some other kind of energy? Is it the geopolitics of it, to satisfy certain interests? These are the kinds of petty challenges that we need to confront as a people. And I think it is because we have not come to an agreement of what Nigeria means to us as Nigerians. And I raised this issue in the book, what is Nigeria? Who is a Nigerian? What does being a Nigerian mean? I raised arguments there that it is for this same reason that people steal money and go and buy pent houses in Panama, hide their money in Dubai, buy houses or hotels that they would never, ever be able to stay in. if people spent one quarter of the money stolen in this country at home, Nigeria would not be like we have it now. But it’s like we have come to an agreement that there is really no country.
How is that…
Because look at it, only a mad person will steal from himself, if you believe that this thing is yours, you and your family, you have a stake in this country, you children, grandchildren have a stake in this country, you won’t steal money to impair the future of that country. But because it is convenient for us- we steal the money, we go and buy houses, we go to foreign hospitals, and we are not ashamed of it. We send our children to schools abroad- the governors, the ministers are all involved. And now, Nigeria is heading into crises and people are not even worried about it. I tell myself that nothing screams “I don’t believe in this country” more than the issue of our leaders, from the President down, sending their children overseas, going overseas for medical attention, holidays. Three things arise from this- it means one, you have to steal enough money to cover the expenses or to maintain the lifestyle. Two, you insulate yourself from the problems of those you governed. Three, once you insulate yourself from the problems of those you governed, you would not be thinking of solutions to the problems. I asked a question when UNILAG was closed for example, I said, “imagine if our President had one or two children at UNILAG, they would come back home and our President would ask, ‘why are you sitting at home, what is the problem?’ Even if the President doesn’t ask, the children can ask their father, “Daddy can you please do something?” The father will call the Vice Chancellor or the Governing Council. But because we detest ourselves, the school can remain closed for one year. Within that one year period, even the VC would send his or her son to a university outside the country. That’s the challenge. There is crisis in every aspect of our national life-whether it is in education, health, infrastructure and so on. Then, the issue of law and order, the economic crises partly due to the global economic meltdown and mismanagement of the economy over the years and so on had combined to create a cocktail of problems. And if we did not deal with these problems frontally, Nigeria is going to explode into one of the most dangerous places to live in the world, that’s the idea for me. I have taken time to travel around this country, I have taken time to look at many problems confronting us, I have taken time to the different dimensions of the Nigerian crises as a nation. Look, there is no aspect of Nigeria life that is safe.
Do you want to talk about corruption? Look at the revelations. And give it to Buhari, whatever you say about him, that is one aspect of his administration that you can’t, but at least gives thumbs up for because without him, generality of Nigerians will not know the magnitude of corruption in this country. And it’s really a big deal because virtually most of the problems we are going through today can be attributed majorly to corruption. Do you know that if we invest in education, the state government can create infrastructure, build public schools, you can almost instantly employ 100,000 teachers, provide jobs. The government said it want to employ 10,000 policemen, look at the number of people who applied? But for me, that is even not the problem. The problem now is that you have 10,000 people added to your bureaucracy, it means you have to pay 10,000 more salaries, profiled all sorts of employment benefits and so on. You have to train these people. If for any reason, one or two years down the road, you are unable to pay salaries to these people, what do you expect them to do? Many of them would go into crimes. Corruption will be rife and you trained them, arm them at the expense of the state and there is the danger of them using the arm and the training you have given them to be collecting money or killing people. So, as far as Nigeria is concerned, the issue of employment goes beyond saying “I am going to employ this number of people.”
We need to invest in infrastructure. If government is building roads, naturally people would be employed. If government is building rails, naturally people would be employed. If we get our public schools right, there would be more teachers needed. We have about 11 million or so children out of school. Imagine taking 11 million children back to school, the number of teachers, administrators, schools, the structure for them to study, people would have to build those structures, you have to provide all kinds of sundry services around those children. If you go around the country, public education has collapsed. How can you build a nation when the future of your country is not educated? The future we are building is armed robbers, drug addicts, all kinds of criminal elements and we expect the country to survive?
No. So, when you have over 10 million children out of school, it means that country has no future. It means the future you have is a future of Boko Haram, anarchy and so on. So, that is the way I see the disaster. The disaster may not be immediate. Look at what’s happening now- more and more people getting out of school, not having the benefits of education, more women particularly. And you know what they say about getting women educated? If more women don’t have education, you are going to grow a generation of young people who can’t even think. They can’t even think. They don’t understand what it means to live in a nation as diverse as Nigeria. Every simple trouble becomes a crisis. In an okada incident recently, a young man, an active member of the civil society, going home, allegedly hit an Okada driver (motorcyclist) and I heard the Okada driver was okay, nothing happened to him. The guy got down to say sorry and people descended on him and he was stabbed to death. You got a feeling that we are living a stone age, that this is a country of Barbarians. But these are the things that education can help solve. When you grow a generation of young men and women with very little education, you are going to get anarchy and disaster at the end of the day.
But there is also another part of this problem which is even about the health of young people. And I have been doing some work with UNICEF around the issue of malnutrition for example. The number of young people in Nigeria who dies from malnutrition and malnutrition is not just about your physical appearance, maybe a bloated belly and all that. In fact, the major issue is mental, because you now see somebody who is 10 years old and is unable to understand what a 10 years old should understand. So, it means you are growing a generation of people who may be able to function physically, but not mentally incapable. So, these are the challenges that I think we face as a people and until we sit down and confront them, treat them holistically- not the problem of the East, of the South or whatever. We see it as the problem of Nigeria. For me, I do not subscribe to those saying this country should split for many reasons.