By Taiwo Okanlawon
Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Emeka Anyaoku; the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar, and other eminent Nigerians have given different opinions on how to rescue Nigeria from the brink of total collapse.
Others including Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi; former Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II; and former Deputy Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Obadiah Mailafia, all spoke at the 112th posthumous birthday lecture in honour of Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
The 2021 Obafemi Awolowo virtual Lecture titled, ‘Whither Nigeria?’ held onSaturday 6 March 2021, and was organised by the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation led by his daughter, Dr Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu.
Professor Wole Soyinka chaired the event which was moderated by Professor Michael Faborode.
Soyinka, while speaking re-echoed the call for restructuring the country as a means of tackling some of the major problems confronting it.
Soyinka stated that there was a consensus among Nigerians that the country must be restructured urgently, saying anybody still asking what restructuring means despite the numerous explanations already provided should be ignored because such persons had chosen to be ignorant deliberately.
Soyinka said, “There is a consensus that this country whether in terms of governance, economic relations, security, educational policy, cultural policy, etc, requires restructuring. Even the word ‘restructuring’ has been restructured in many directions, in cogent expression which will mean the same thing for everybody.
“For me, for instance, I emphasised decentralisation, reconfiguration…We all know what we have now is not working, it’s obvious, and we can’t continue along the same line and say that it will work, it is sign of madness.
“I want to make a plea to all governors, stop being so timid. Push this federal envelope as far as it can go, even while we undertake the technical aspect of restructuring whether in terms of dialogue, evolving the constitution, or whatever, something has to go on, after all, we’ve had so many of these confabs.
“My plea is to governors to start with: You are charged with the immediate responsibility of the welfare of your own people in whatever term and if you study the constitution carefully, I have done this with lawyers, and it seems that a lot can be done at this moment.
“You need a season of greater autonomy for your own states and that is what I mean by pushing the federal envelope as far as it can go even with this impossible document that we have to cease what power, what authority you can derive from the constitution.
“Consult with your lawyers, I have consulted with mine and they also expressed the view that the governors are too timid, there is too much centralised mentality embedded in their minds, and they are afraid to come out of their cocoons.
“Please remember that your primary responsibility is not the centre but the people, the state. So, take in your hands any form of authority that you can get even from this constitution as it stands while we are working on a more honest, a more people-oriented constitution.”
Chief Anyaoku, former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, the guest of honour, spoke about economic underperformance, poverty, worsening insecurity, killings, kidnappings, and divisiveness.
According to him, that human lives in Nigeria have become so cheap. He then asked: How long can the leadership of this nation ignore the inevitable calamity if the problems are not solved? He said that the problems cannot be effectively tackled under the federal arrangement that the country operates.
Anyaoku also said the nature and the management of Nigeria’s federalism is in urgent need of evidence of “equity, justice, and fairness for all ethnic groups” as well as the guarantee for the economic freedom of citizens.
He argued that the federalism model for Nigeria should, not be the United States of America, but India in which component parts live in unity, economic development, and political stability. To arrest the current drift, he called for dialogue.
He said, “There is no section or ethnic group that does not stand to gain from belonging to one country that is the size and resources of Nigeria. Therefore, it is and should be in the common interest of ethnic groups and component parts to sustain and nourish one country.
“The growing level of distrust and divisiveness among ethnic and religious groups are undermining the cohesion and threatening the continued existence of one Nigeria. For how can the leadership of Nigeria continue to ignore this fact?”
Anyaoku also said Nigeria needed a new constitution which would be produced by the people.
The guest lecturer, Odia Ofeimun, who was the private secretary to Awolowo, spoke about ethnic, economic and political crises in Nigeria.
According to the poet and writer, “this pursuit of ethnic agenda has always blurred Buhari’s vision.”
The country under Buhari, he observed, has become a heart of darkness.
Ofeimun said that Buhari is not so interested in mass education. Rather he is more interested in the cattle republic.
He condemned a situation where Fulani herdsmen are allowed by the security forces in Nigeria to take over other peoples farms, asking the owners to choose between their lands and their lives.
He, however, said Nigeria is a country worth defending, and part of this defence is the recognition of ethnic identity.
He said, “Every child in the North should go to school. There is an ethnic argument against education. They are using that argument to stop the rest of us from moving forward.”
Ofeimun had hardly finished speaking when the former Emir of Kano tackled him, saying the problem was not ethnicity but the failure of the government to provide schools, train the teachers and provide everything needed to encourage the children in the North to go to school.
Sanusi said he also believed that the problem was ethnicity until he became the emir and saw the situation differently.
He also argued that the British colonial masters did not want the North to be educated like the South.
“I think building a consensus is a process but the process itself has to be guarded. We have had many so-called national conferences and reports have been written. What happened after that? Nothing.
“Have we thought that the bloated structure of elective offices is the absolute recipe for irresponsibility? 109 senators and 360 rep members. Who is responsible? 36 state legislatures? Why not reduce the number, make it unicameral, improve quality so they know why they were elected beyond “constituency projects”?”
Speaking earlier in her welcome address, the convener of the event and the Executive Director of the Foundation, Dr Olatokunbo Awolowo Dosumu, set the tone for the discussion. She said with the current unsavoury events in the country, it was necessary to act in time situation.
“As many of you may be aware, the 2020 event had to be postponed due to the then emerging global health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic. Little did we know at the time what a seismic effect that situation was going to have on the entire world.
“We certainly had no idea that the relevance of our chosen topic then, ‘Whither Nigeria?’, would assume such incredible intensity one year later, even in the midst of the ravaging pandemic.
“It would not be an overstatement to say that Nigeria today faces an unprecedented threat to its very existence. The security situation throughout the country has brought into bolder relief citizen discontent with perceived governance deficits and with the apparent insufficient concern about their well-being by those in authority.
“Ethno-religious tensions, irritations and rivalries, social justice practised more in the breach, and deep-seated inter-class resentment, all simmering before, now threaten to explode into multi-locational theatres of conflict, in which no-one is in charge and no-one is safe.
“Increasingly, the perception by most Nigerians is that they are on their own. The country is, no doubt, in a serious crisis.
“If, as a Chinese proverb says, ‘A crisis is an opportunity riding a dangerous wind’, then perhaps this time, dangerous as we deem it to be, is the opportunity for a ‘reset’ for Nigeria.
“This is why, in our usual way at the Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ Foundation and in the tradition of the man in whose memory the institution was founded, we are seeking through this event, not to criticise gratuitously, but to actually provoke a national dialogue that will ultimately arrive at a consensus about the way forward for this country.
“We are convinced that doing nothing or allowing the nation to drift towards a nebulous destination is not an option.
“We, therefore, invited, and are immensely honoured by the acceptance of, today’s line-up of some of the most credible voices in the country today, to, hopefully, encourage those who have the power to do so, to initiate the process towards an all-inclusive national dialogue.
“None of our eminent guests this evening has been known to paper over or sugarcoat the many challenges that we face in Nigeria. We are also sure that they will dissect the Nigerian situation frankly, honestly and with characteristic courage.
“To the end that, whichever direction Nigerians opt to pursue ultimately, it will be one that is not only patently fair and just and, therefore, accepted and respected by all, it will also be one that will be applauded by future generations.
“We are at a crossroads, and ‘demons wait at crossroads attempting to influence our decisions’ (April Smith). Demons of fear, self, greed and political dissimulation, to name but a few. But history will judge our generation most harshly if we fail to seize the moment, grasp the nettle and do the right thing.
“Permit me to end this address with excerpts from the poem, ‘The Present Crisis’, written in 1844 by James Russell Lowell, an American scholar, poet and diplomat: ‘Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side… Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust… Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ‘tis prosperous to be just…Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside… Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand…They were men of present valour, stalwart old iconoclasts…But we make their truth our falsehood, thinking that hath made us free… Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne… Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own…,’ she told the virtual gathering.