EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Our Rulers Don’t Want To Change Anything … – Chido Onumah
Chido Onumah is a journalist, author, blogger and rights activist. He has worked for over two decades as a journalist, rights activist and media trainer in Nigeria, Ghana, Canada, India, the USA and the Caribbean.
He is currently a doctoral candidate in Communication and Journalism at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain, and coordinator of the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), Abuja, Nigeria.
From 2002 to 2004, Onumah worked as Director of Africa programmes, Panos Institute, Washington, DC, U.S.A., helping journalists in West Africa, as well as the Caribbean, report on issues that are frequently underreported or misreported — issues such as HIV/AIDS, environmental degradation, and ethnic and religious conflicts.
Onumah studied at the University of Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria, as well as Western University, London, Ontario, Canada, where he earned an MA in journalism. From 1996 to 2000, he was associate editor of Weekly Insight newspaper, and assistant editor of African Agenda magazine both in Accra, Ghana. From 1997-2000, he served as coordinator, West African Human Rights Committee, Accra, Ghana, and correspondent for African Observer magazine, New York, and AfricaNews Service, Nairobi, Kenya.
Between 2006 and 2008, he served as pioneer coordinator of the crime prevention unit (Fix Nigeria Initiative) of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in Nigeria, working on a civil society anti-corruption agenda for the country, and in partnership with the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism developed programmes on ethics and investigative reporting for Nigerian journalists.
Onumah has earned a number of awards, including the Clement Mwale Prize for courage in journalism, AfricaNews Service (Kenya) 1997; Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) Award for excellence and courage in journalism (Nigeria), 1999; Alfred W. Hamilton Scholarship (Canadian Association of Black Journalists), 2001; William C. Heine Fellowship for International Media Studies (Canada), 2001; and the Jerry Rogers Writing Award (University of Western Ontario, Canada), 2002.
Onumah is the author of Nigeria is Negotiable (2013) and Time to Reclaim Nigeria (Essays 2001-2011) 2011. He has edited books on various subject, including Making Your Voice Heard: A Media Toolkit for Children & Youth (2004); Anti-Corruption Advocacy Handbook (with Comfort Idika-Ogunye) 2006; Youth Media: A Guide to Literacy and Social Change (with Lewis Asubiojo) 2008; Understanding Nigeria and the New Imperialism (with Biodun Jeyifo, Bene Madunagu, and Kayode Komolafe) 2006; and Sentenced in God’s Name: The Untold Story of Nigeria’s “Witch Children” (with Lewis Asubiojo) 2011.
In this interview with Newsdiaryonline, Onumah speaks frankly about the problems bedeviling Nigeria. Of course, he has hopes about the country as well. “I think Nigeria can survive. But we all have to join hands to make that happen. I think we will all be the worse for it if we do not act and quickly too,” he says .Excerpts:
You believe Nigeria is flawed. Isn’t this a failure on your part to see the reality of Nigeria’s existence in its unique way?
I don’t think so. I believe in this country and I see myself as a patriotic Nigerian. That is why I write the things I write. I could decide not to give a damn as former President Jonathan once said when he was asked about declaring his asset publicly and just find a way to survive and hope the country will fix itself or God will come down to fix the country. But I know that won’t happen. My categorization of Nigeria, therefore, is a result of painstaking efforts spanning decades of trying to understand the country. To say Nigeria is flawed is not to hate Nigeria.
Why do you think Nigeria is not working?
I think you have answered the question. Nigeria is not working in my opinion because the country is flawed. Nigeria is not working because people do not believe in the country. There is no sense of ownership. We see it every day in the attitude of Nigerians towards the country, in the attitude of our rulers, etc.
For me, nothing screams “I don’t believe in Nigeria” more than our rulers jetting out of the country when they want to go on vacation, sending their children to schools overseas or travelling out of the country for medical services. How are you going to fix schools and universities in Nigeria when you have alternatives, your children have alternatives? Why should you be concerned about the state of our hospitals when you can conveniently die in the USA, UK, Germany, or India? I think people underestimate the lack of existential confidence in the country. If we believe in this country and we really think it belongs to us, we will make it work. We won’t see a situation where public officers steal money and stash it away in banks in foreign countries or buy property they may never be able to live in or their children may not be able to claim. Our attitude is to steal as much as we can because if we don’t the next person will do.
We haven’t really started on the journey of nation-building and real progress and prosperity for the mass of our people. As far as national development goes, we are joking.
The argument for restructuring has continued yet the ruling class has continued to ignore it. Any danger signal or is it that those canvassing restructuring have not done their homework?
I think it is a combination of both. Many of those who are making a case for restructuring have not been able to articulate their positions properly. Most times what you hear when people talk of restructuring Nigeria or the sense you get is balkanizing the country for want of a better word. That is not my sense of restructuring. Nigeria is no longer the sum total of the “ethnic nationalities” that were the building blocks, if you accept that argument, at amalgamation in 1914. My sense of restructuring is to have a federation made of what I call civic nationalities in which every Nigerian can live in any part of the country they so desire and are adequately protected, a federation in which the federating units are given the opportunity to fulfill their potentials, etc.
The other side of the argument has to do with our rulers many of whom are comfortable with the status quo. They don’t want to change anything because the system is working for them and their accomplices. They throw up all kinds of scary reasons why the country should not be restructured. The danger signal for me really is in not restructuring. No country run the way Nigeria is being run can survive for too long.
How can Nigeria work?
Nigeria can work first and foremost if we agree that this is our country and we believe in it. It sounds too cynical but that is the truth. I keep going back to the point that Nigeria is not working because Nigerians do not believe in this country. Belief in a country goes beyond saying I am a Nigerian or Nigeria is my fatherland. It means not stealing public fund meant for educating millions of children. It means not diverting millions for naira meant for hospitals or public health. Because these things are happening that is why we have over ten million school-age children out of school according to UNICEF figures, one of the highest in the world; that is why we have one of the highest maternal mortality figures in the world.
So for Nigeria to work, we have to go back to basics, to ask the hard question and to understand as Achebe would say where the rain starting beating us. I think the rain started beating us at independence in 1960 when the colonialists departed. We had the opportunity to build a nation out of what was handed to us by the colonialists but we wasted it. Some of our rulers were more interested in consolidating what the British left behind while others were too preoccupied with their roles as new masters to do anything about the new Nigeria that was supposed to emerge. The British colonialists created Nigeria in their own image and for their own benefit. For Nigeria to work, we have to recreate it in the image and for the benefit of Nigerians.
You argue that we are all Biafrans, but what if some Biafrans decline to follow you to Biafra?
I think there is a misconception here. The idea of we are all Biafrans is not in any way in support of the Biafra agitation or the creation of a Biafra homeland. No. Even the man who led the secession in 1967 the late Ikemba Nnewi, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu repudiated the concept of a new Biafra. In his book, Because I am Involved he wrote, “All over Nigeria, there is Biafra but that Biafra of today is ‘the Biafra of the Nigerians and not the Biafra of the Igbos’; the Biafra of the mind not the Biafra of the fields.” And I think that is the position of majority of the people who come from the area that was once referred to as Biafra.
Essentially, my notion of we are all Biafrans is to ring the alarm bells to those who are agitating for Biafra that they should not see the issue in isolation from the other issues confronting Nigeria, that to a large extent we are all suffering the effects of bad leadership and years of misrule whether at the national or state level. On the flip side, it is also a warning to those in power not to see the agitation as an opportunity to bare their fangs and adopt the attitude of the leaves are falling so we must cut the branches.
My position is that we must sit at the table of nationhood and find a common ground that will be in the interest of all Nigerians, east, west, north, south and everywhere in between.
Look at the unfolding challenges: Boko Haram and now the mysterious Fulani herdsmen. What do you make of these threats?
These are serious threats but they are also the consequences of many years of misrule, corruption and lack of planning. But they are not insurmountable problems. We only need to be serious and sincere in dealing with them. Again, I go back to the issue of faith in Nigeria. We have heard the revelations about how our defence budget and the money meant for arms and ammunition to fight Boko Haram was spent.
It only tells you one thing: if the money was spent the way it ought to have been, I am certain that by now Boko Haram would have been history. People profited from fighting Boko Haram just as I am sure people will profit from the herdsmen crisis. If northern governors had focused on education clearly Boko Haram would not have thrived the way it did in the North-east. We used to have a programme called nomadic education, whatever happened to it? If that programme was implemented properly, I am sure that by now we would have groomed a generation of herdsmen who understand that the world has changed and it is no longer fashionable to move cattle over swathe of lands across states leaving death and destruction in their wake. Every country, every nation faces threats. It is how you prepare for it and ultimately how you deal with it that matters. Unfortunately for Nigeria, the country is rigged in a way that makes these constant threats inevitable. That is why the argument for restructuring becomes very important.
You have been an advocate of the need to reclaim Nigeria: Why are you dragging all of us to Biafra. Is it a product of your frustration with Nigeria?
Who wouldn’t be frustrated with Nigeria? Every sincere Nigerian would be frustrated with the country. Is it light or good roads, hospitals or what? Education? Security? There are more than enough reasons to be frustrated with Nigeria. Maybe those who are benefitting from the status quo are not frustrated. And it is understandable. Those who have stolen enough to last ten generations would have no reason to be frustrated. For them, Nigeria is perfect. You just need a particular political party or certain individuals to be in power and everything will be OK.
I say no. We need to reclaim Nigeria, to snatch it away from the bloody fingers of buccaneers and scoundrels posing as statesmen. Nothing has changed for me. We are all Biafrans is a continuation of the attempt to reclaim Nigeria. It seeks to warn us of the clear and present danger and what we need to do to avert the looming danger.
Can Nigeria survive?
I think Nigeria can survive. But we all have to join hands to make that happen. I think we will all be the worse for it if we do not act and quickly too. At the same time we shouldn’t make a fetish of the oneness of the country. We have to work hard to build the kind of country we desire. We know India went from one territory at independence in 1947 to three countries eventually ((India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). Yugoslavia disintegrated; Ethiopia went from one to two countries and lately Sudan from one to two countries. As Christians would say, that is not our portion. And I sincerely hope so.
Tell us what inspired the title for this book?
The inspiration came from an article by the same title I wrote in December 2015. Around that time, there was a debate on the Biafra issue in the online newspaper Premium Times and I contributed to the debate. The central argument of my article was that the Biafra agitation was no different from the other agitations across the country and we should approach it accordingly. By the time I wrote the piece, I had almost finished work on this collection of essays. The working title then was “Unmaking Nigeria”.
Somehow, I thought “We are all Biafrans” will attract the needed attention for the subject matter which is about our flawed federalism. Of course, I was conscious of the fact that there could be a misreading of the title which is already happening. There are those who just see the title and the question is, “How can we all be Biafrans?” Others will scream, “I am not Biafran.” But as I have explained, this book is not about Biafra or the agitation for Biafra. This book, seeks to trigger the debate that will eventually nudge Nigerians towards kick-starting the process of a genuine re-invention of our country.
Is book writing a worthy venture or is it unavoidable?
How do I answer your question? It is a worthy venture in the sense that you are able to put your ideas and thoughts down for those who come after you. It is like shining a torch. It provides light not just for you but also anybody around you. But that is how far you can go in terms of benefits. If you are thinking of making money from books then you are in the wrong country except of course you are the president, first lady, a governor or senator in which case all those looking for contracts or some favour will line up to support you even if they don’t care about what you have written.
It is a shame that in a country of almost 180 million people, publishers print only a few thousand copies of books. Even at that, they hardly sell all these copies. The economy is part of the problem. Then of course, there is the issue of reading culture in Nigeria. The same thing is happening to newspapers. While there are no newspapers in Nigeria that sell up to 25 thousand copies in a day, newspapers in South Africa with a population of about 55 million sell over a hundred thousand copies every day.
Considering this predicament, book writing in Nigeria is really a case of it being unavoidable. Writers have no choice. We have to continue to write even in the midst of the difficulties and challenges.