“Nigeria Can’t Afford Another Civil War”-Chido Onuma interview



Chido Onumah is a journalist and author. His latest book is Time to Reclaim Nigeria which is due for public presentation in Lagos on Saturday, April 14, 2012. He spoke with Chiedu Ezeanah on the book and sundry national issues.

 

On December 15, last year, you had a public presentation of Time to Reclaim Nigeria in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory. How well was the book received?

CO: The book was well received. There has been a lot of interest about the book since then. I am really pleased that it came out when it did. The topical issue today is how to reclaim Nigeria from the those who have kept it down for more than 50 years. That is the thrust of the book. And I hope it can contribute to the debate.

What’s the point of a second public presentation. That sounds novel?

CO: Yes, the book was presented in Abuja on December 15, 2011. We had the privilege of having the governor of Osun State, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, as a special guest. He stirred the audience and the nation with his presentation “In Search of True Federalism”. The purpose of writing is to ensure that it gets to as wide an audience as possible. It is even more so for a political book like Time to Reclaim Nigeria. We plan to take the book not only to Lagos, Accra, London, New York, and Toronto, but to everywhere you have Nigerians. The business of reclaiming Nigeria is too serious to be left to pseudo-democrats and charlatans. Thankfully, the governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi,  has agreed to honour us with his presence as special guest at the Lagos event. He is a thorough-bred intellectual and we look forward to hearing his perspective on how to move the country forward.

 

What audience should we expect at this event?

CO: We have reached out to as many people as possible across the political divide, party leaders, governors, students, professional groups, the masses of our people, civil society, etc. From the Action Congress of Nigeria, (ACN), we have the national leader, Asiwaju Ahmed Bola Tinubu, the governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola. From the Congress of Progressive Change (CPC) we have the national leader, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, the vice-presidential candidate in the last election, Pastor Tunde Bakare, the national secretary, Engr. Buba Galadima. From APGA, we have the governor of Imo State, Owelle Rochas Okorocha. From the PDP, there is Alhaji Sule Lamido, the governor of Jigawa State. From the business and private sector, we have Prof. Pat Utomi, Mr. Fola Adeola, etc. We also have prominent Nigerians like Prof. Ben Nwabueze, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Dr. Tunji Braithwaite, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, Col. Abubakar Umar, Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, Gen. Alani Akinrinade, Odia Ofeimun, Femi Falana, Ms. Ayo Obe, Prof. Tam David-West, Mrs. Ganiat Fawehinmi, Dr. Wale Babalakin, Chief Mike Ahamba, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, Prof Itse Sagay, Col Abubakar Umar (rtd), Dr. Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu, Senator Babafemi Ojudu, Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora, Dr. Joe Okei Odunmakin, etc who will be part of this, call it national dialogue, if you want. There will be students and leaders of the NGO and human rights community. It is a very diverse audience.

What informed this rainbow coalition, if I might say so? 

My view is that whether this country will survive or disintegrate depends on all Nigerians. Let nobody pretend they have more stake in this country than others. The jostling for position for 2015 has started in earnest. While some are busy holding nocturnal meetings strategising or better still plotting for 2015, those who are raping and stealing the country blind are upping their game. Not many people are thinking about the country, whether it will survive the current onslaught of violence, poverty, corruption, inept leadership, etc., beyond 2015. I believe in Nigeria and the fact the country can still be rescued. But I have no illusions that to rescue Nigeria, require a conscious effort on the part of citizens. Just wishing is not enough. So rather than having a monologue, Nigerians must be prepared to come together and dialogue.

Talking about dialogue, you have been vigorous in the campaign for a Sovereign National Conference. What informed this position?

CO: My position is borne out of the fact I hate to see Nigeria go through another civil war. I have studied the options open to us. The few options we have are better imagined.  That is not to say the SNC is a silver bullet or the cure of all our problems, but it is a good starting point to address the multifarious problems of the country. The SNC is not about carving Nigeria into pieces as some opponents dubiously claim. Even if the SNC leads to the formation of new countries out of the existing one, it is still a safer route to travel, because Nigeria will implode anyway if it continues to be run the way we have it today. Short of a people’s revolution to clean the Augean Stable and begin to rebuild Nigeria afresh, the SNC is the quickest and perhaps best option to tackling our immediate problem which is how do you make Nigeria work? But let us make no mistake. Those who benefit from the current system will not accede to the SNC willingly. They have to be forced to convoke it by any means necessary. So, in a sense, the SNC is a social revolution, because it is the people who will drive it and its outcome will be far-reaching.

With what you have just said about the SNC, why do you think some people are still opposed to it?

CO: Well, it is all about interest. There are those who support the SNC because they think they want a country of their own and the SNC can guarantee that. There are those who are pushing for the SNC because they genuinely believe it can save this country. Amongst those who oppose the SNC, many are doing so out of insincerity. They agree, even if reluctantly, that the country is not working, but the last thing they want to do is make it work because it is not in their interest that Nigeria works. Even when they decide to discuss the problem, they would rather have a monologue rather than a dialogue. Amongst them are those who have started salivating because of what happened in Mali. They have starting flying the kite of military intervention. Of course, any form of intervention that does not take into account the mass of our people and the critical role they should play is at best dubious.

How soon then can we expect the SNC to hold and what are the immediate challenges facing it?

CO: Well, the sooner the better, We need to settle a few issues about Nigeria, and quickly too, so that the country can join the rest of the world. Nigeria is a big joke. As we speak now, we have barely had electricity for 6 hours in the last three days. What kind of country survives on this level of neglect and inefficiency? And here we are talking about Abuja, the federal capital of a country that earns millions of dollars from oil every day. Mind you, nobody is asking us to manufacture turbines and all the other things we need to generate electricity. Those things have already been done for us. We have the resources to procure these things. Yet we can’t give citizens electricity which is at the core of industrialisation. Simply because of corruption. I know you asked about the challenges before the SNC. I shall get to that. Corruption in Nigeria has taken a life of its own. Here people steal billions and invest it in their bedrooms or stash it in foreign banks they may never have access to. We just heard of a director in the Police Pension Fund who kept almost N3 billion ($20million) in his room. What kind of system makes this possible? That system ought to be destroyed. Do you know what N3 billion can do for our health system or our universities? Some people deserve to be tied to stake and shot in public glare.

Do you then agree with those who say the problem of the country is corruption?

CO: Partly. But again if we fixate on corruption, we miss the point. The question we ought to be asking is why does this level of corruption thrive in Nigeria?  It has to do with the structure of Nigeria itself. The system is broken completely. Take for example the fact that the minimum wage is N18,000 ($120). The average monthly rent for a decent two-bedroom apartment in the major cities is about N50,000 ($350). Abuja, the capital city, where most federal civil servants work, is triple that. And you have to pay for a year or two in advance. Then you talk about transportation, healthcare, the children’s education, etc. That is a sure recipe for corruption. People will have to survive and meet these needs by any means necessary. The system is broken. My only problem is our hypocrisy. People like to pretend that everything is alright. When you ask the average Nigerian how they are coping with the harsh economic reality, the refrain is “we are managing”, which is a code for “we are trying to subvert the system and survive in the best way possible”.

It brings us to the issue of what Nigeria means to Nigerians. Very few people in Nigeria, including those who preside over its affairs, actually believe in this country. Have we ever sat down to wonder why people steal so much of public fund? It has nothing to do with their mental state as some people have said. It has a lot to with the fact that there is no country. Nigeria is just a country in name. It offers nothing to its citizen and actually expects nothing in return. In Nigeria, there is a one-percent chance that people who are arrested for embezzling public fund will ever get punished. This is a quintessential rogue state. Everyone knows how to play the game. If the culprits don’t personalise their arrest, they will ethnicise it. All you need to say is that you are being victimized because your are from a particular ethnic group or you profess a particular religion as if any of the faiths condone corruption. And of course, there is enough money to bribe the media and judges.

You still haven’t addressed the challenge facing the SNC

CO: What I am saying in essence is that the way Nigeria is presently constituted can only create room for more corruption. This is where the SNC comes in. Amongst other things, there are four basic issues the SNC will address: 1) the structure of the country. Under this, the SNC will deal with the question of relationship between the various nationalities that constitute Nigeria, citizenship rights, fiscal federalism, etc. Providence has graciously divided Nigeria in 36 states or  six geo-political zones. I think strengthening these states or geo-political zones can form the bedrock of the new Nigeria. 2) State and religion. Here we are talking about the relation between the State and organised religion. 3) The kind of political system we want to operate; and finally 4) The fundamental rights of citizens, including enforceable and justiciable rights to be enjoyed by citizens. Once you define the structure of the country and states know, for example, that they have to generate money to pay workers and run the state, they will sit up. In that case, any group that wants its own state can go ahead and get it since it will be responsible to a great extent for its sustenance. Same goes for the political system which will address the issue of the current bloated and wasteful National Assembly.

Back to the challenges facing the SNC. There are two main issues which I think are procedural. That is who will convoke it and the process of representation. One, the Nigerian people would have to convoke it. That way there is certainty  that the issues and views are representative of the broad mass. There are different groups, Project Nigeria, New Nigeria Movement, the Patriots, Igbo National Union, etc., that are crystallizing and mobilising the mass of our people to bring about the SNC. They are also working on a blueprint for representation. Everyone is welcome on board so that collectively we can fashion out a process that  is acceptable, if not to all, then to the majority.  There is no way Nigeria will disintegrate without wars. And I am not sure of any group that is ready for war. So now is the time to dialogue.

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