Nigeria’ll Break Up Without Restructuring –Says Former Attah, Give Reasons
Obong Attah says Nigeria’ll Break Up Without Restructuring
Former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Obong Victor Attah, speaks with PATRICK ODEY on restructuring, performance of the Niger Delta Development Commission and other issues
You were the governor of Akwa Ibom State for eight years. What are some of the legacies you left behind in the state.
I gave a lecture the other day and I will tell you the content of that lecture. Apart from quoting from an article written by a journalist in Washington Post, in 2006, that lecture focused on a statement by Sir Winston Churchill, the war time Prime Minister of Britain, who said “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we will find that we have lost the future” and I concluded that lecture, the topic of which was, ‘Setting an agenda for Akwa Ibom State of the future’. I concluded that quite unfortunately, Akwa Ibom State, after my tenure, had opened a quarrel between the past and the present and had therefore lost the future.
During your days as governor, you initiated one project which was the Ibom Science Park. That project today has not seen the light of day. What’s your take on that?
If you have the opportunity to read the lecture that I have just referred to, I spoke elaborately about the Science Park. The author of the Washington Post article had wondered why Akwa Ibom State, a backward state in West Africa would want to build a Science Park which at that time would have been only the second in Africa, the first having being established in 2005 in Pretoria, South Africa. And he went on to list the benefits that were going to accrue to Akwa Ibom State and all the things that would have happened. It would have been a big leap forward for Akwa Ibom State if we had done the Science Park. So, that quarrel between the past and the present is what killed the Science Park and not that it was a bad idea. No! But sadly, today, we lost the future.
Akwa Ibom State would have been leading in technology. Look, Akwa Ibom State had an Information Technology policy three months before the Federal Government of Nigeria had its ICT policy and we got it together from the same North Carolina Science Triangle because when we arrived, they were like oh, ‘we arrived early; we were expecting you’. Then they realised that we were not the Federal Government team; this was a team from Akwa Ibom State. We got that IT from a man called Professor Ntuen, who now teaches in Nigeria. He was working for NASAT at the time but with Science Triangle in North Carolina, from the man who is the Secretary to the State Government, Dr Ekwuwen, and one Dr Chris Wajie, they were the three people that gave us ICT policy and we were ahead of everybody in this country. Unfortunately, it was abandoned and all the things that could have come out of it; all the research projects that were going to be incubated all gone and lost. That is why we have lost some of our future.
One of the reasons the former governor, Godswill Akpabio, who is now the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, gave for abandoning the Science Park project was that the location was prone to erosion…
So, why didn’t he move it to a more conducive environment? Which environmental impact assessment study did he do to reach that conclusion?
You championed the struggle for resource control. Do you think Nigeria of today needs resources control to move forward as a nation?
Talking about resource control; this is an issue of federalism. If we had federalism, we would have had resource control and all other things that go along with true federalism as we had in 1960 and 1963. If we had maintained what had been established by our founding fathers, we would not be where we are today. In 1999, with the return of democracy, we had the opportunity to again lay a solid foundation for proper and true federalism to thrive, but we didn’t. Our forefathers took seven years to fashion out that system from 1953 when Anthony Enahoro moved a motion for Nigeria’s independence till 1960 when we actually became independent.
This system provided for autonomy of the federating units, guaranteed the fact that the government at the centre and the governments at the federating units were coordinate and none was subordinate to the other. It enthroned the sanctity of human life, mutual respect for one another and harmonious coexistence. Those were the terms that we agreed to as necessary conditions for staying together as a country. The change that we have today did not come because we faulted that arrangement, it came because there was a military coup and the military are not capable of operating a federal system. They can only function in a unitary system. But the military has gone and we are still keeping the unitary system. That is what is wrong. If as the military went, we went back to the federal arrangement rather than these military decrees here and there, Nigeria would have gone far beyond where it is today. So, I’m still appealing, let us have a rebase, let us go back and be born again and adopt a system that all of us have agreed to, which is true federalism run by a parliamentary system.
All the evils that we wake up to these days; insecurity, hate speeches, anomy were largely unknown. So, my struggle for resource control is therefore a struggle for a return to a system that had served us well and is far superior to what we have today.
I was part of a rather critical meeting. I joined that meeting virtually; the meeting was coordinated by Bishop Sunday Onouha and co-chaired by the Sultan of Sokoto and former President Olusegun Obasanjo. And he (Obasanjo) said something quite interesting; that Columbia had a similar experience with us on abuse of local police. So, they (Columbia) came to realise that certain problems should be solved locally. So, Columbia once again disengaged and re-established local police. In Nigeria, we haven’t. You know why I mentioned Obasanjo, because if he were President today, he would not have taken that position. He was one of those who preferred to centralise. We tried to tell him about federalism, he would not listen. So, I am glad today that he is a convert and a strong convert. If we had gone along with what we know to be the federal arrangement, we would not be where we are today. We had the opportunity to lay a solid foundation for proper and true federalism but we didn’t.
In fact, you can go back to the things I told you about governors and members of the National Assembly. When people are in position, they tend to forget that the position is only for a while. So, don’t make laws that suit that position, make laws that are universally okay and acceptable. If we had accepted the idea of true federalism, believe me, all these things about resource control would not have arisen, because they are intrinsic part of federalism, and that is what we want and that is why our forefathers agreed to proper federalism and I added under a parliamentary system.
Are you saying resource control and proper federalism agree with each other?
I am telling you that resource control is part of federalism. Federalism is the only system that can keep us together and keep us alive. All these talk about hate speech and all of that is because we have lost the principles of federalism. When we had a federal system, nobody tells anyone that you must respect your brother, you must respect the sanctity of life, it just came naturally because if you come to live in a community that you were not born there, you integrate with the people and you could represent them. It has happened and we know that. There was a Fulani Muslim, Altine, who was elected, not appointed the mayor of Enugu twice in this country. Our own Margaret Ekpo, who is from Akwa Ibom State, was elected to represent what is Abia State today, in the Eastern House of Assembly, because she lived in Aba, and integrated well with the people. It can happen again if we go back to this proper arrangement that our forefathers agreed to.
In 1953, Anthony Enahoro moved a motion that Nigeria should be independent in three years. The North said they wouldn’t be ready. The South insisted, the North decided to secede totally and completely because the North did not want to be part of a union they did not agree to the terms and conditions. Therefore, in 1960, we reached a conclusion, a true federalism arrangement, a good measure of autonomy, let me not say independent to the federating units, total resource control, local police. All of these elements were in there and those were the terms and conditions that we agreed to, and nobody has ever faulted that.
The President, Major General Mohammadu Buhari (retd.), as some Nigerians have predicted, has refused assent to the Electoral Amendments Bill 2021. Are you surprised at the President’s action?
I’m not going to answer that question directly; I’ll rather ask you; what is the essential content of the electoral bill? Apart from reinforcing some punitive measures against criminal acts by officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission and the electorate, there are essentially two critical issues in the bill. One is the use of electronic systems to transmit results and the other is the question of direct primaries. These issues only arise because of the faulty system that we operate. You set up the Independent National Electoral Commission, you authorise INEC to do everything necessary to make sure that proper elections are conducted; it becomes the responsibility of INEC, therefore, to do whatever it deems necessary to ensure that elections are properly conducted and the votes of the electorate are protected. So, it is INEC that should determine how best to do this. We do not need an electoral bill for this. But when our law courts deny INEC even the use of card reader, then you begin to wonder who is in charge of what and that is why perhaps the bill became necessary.
Secondly, the issue of the direct primaries; political parties are formed by birds of the same feather, who have decided to flock together regardless of the frequency with which those birds change their plumage. It is they and they only that should make laws that govern them. These political parties are expected to produce their constitutions which spell out how candidates would emerge in their various political parties but we decide that it is the government through an act of parliament that should regulate their conducts. Are we now saying that the political parties are parastatals of the government? All these things are signs of selfish impunity. Today, the governors feel that it is indirect primaries that will give them an advantage since they control the political parties. The National Assembly on the other hand feels that it is by direct primaries that the people can have a say as to who represents them, and that is what matters to them. But tomorrow, one or two members of the National Assembly will become governors and they will sing a different tune just as a number of governors will migrate to the National Assembly and join the opposing chorus. The laws are not made with any sense of altruism; the only controlling factor is what serves whose purpose at the time.
Talking about electoral laws, if we had a parliamentary system, all these Electoral Act would not have been necessary because you would elect from your own small community and when they get there, they select the first among equals; the prime minister is just a prime minister, and others are ministers and see what strength such an assembly will have. Take Akwa Ibom State for instance, a good number of people will come out, very able people come out; they want to be governors, and only one of them will be governor, then the others fall away. Each of them that waited would have got elected into the Assembly from which a prime minister would be selected. Then see how strong, how vibrant, how cerebral that kind of Assembly would be. But today, we lost all of that to a presidential system that brings only one of them out to be the leader. It’s wrong. We don’t need a presidential system.
Do you think the reasons the President advanced were cogent enough to warrant his refusal to assent to the bill?
Why should I be interested in whether he assents to it or not when I don’t even think that such a bill should have even existed? All those reasons do not matter; there shouldn’t have been such an electoral bill.
Nigerians have been agitating for restructuring. What happens if Nigeria is not restructured?
Nigeria will break up because all these things about the Indigenous People of Biafra, demand for Ijaw Nation, Oduduwa State, Middle Belt; all of them stem from total dissatisfaction with what we have today. So, when every part of the country disagrees with what we have today, what is left? Fragmentation! That’s why I can say without hesitation that until Nigeria is restructured, Nigeria will break up; that is my honest assessment.
Insecurity is one of the greatest challenges confronting this country. In your own opinion, what do you think can be done to tackle insecurity?
I agree with the Governor of Kaduna State (Nasir El-Rufai) and one of the service chiefs who said there are no repentant bandits. The only repentant ones are dead. A bandit is a bandit. Therefore, all these kid-gloves treatment; someone called it carrot and stick method, but on the final analysis, a bandit is a bandit, just like a cultist today has to be seen as a cultist. If you allow everybody and say this land belongs to you and your children, the one that is lazy will keep complaining, but the one that works hard will eat more than the others and there will be no jealousy. But if it is to bring everything to the table for distribution, everybody will become lazy because whether they work or not, when the time of distribution comes, they will distribute to them. And that’s what has happened to Nigeria. We have lost our industry; we have lost our sense of enterprise. We have lost everything because everybody has developed what a Senator called “feeding bottle federalism” For goodness sake, that cannot help this country to develop. If we don’t change it, believe me, there will be no Nigeria.
The NDDC is an agency that was established to accelerate the development of the Niger Delta region. Do you think that the agency has lived up to its mandate?
We were there when NDDC was formed. The commission was never set up to achieve that purpose. We had expected NDDC to execute major regional projects, but today, how many years later? Even something like the East-West Road has not been completed. We expected to see other regional projects such as power plants, modular refineries, regional health facilities and tertiary institutions. But what do we have? We find NDDC drilling boreholes, supplying desks to secondary schools. Where are the projects meant to uplift and transform the Niger Delta region? While we are on the subject, let me draw your attention to the fact that the name, NDDC, is now a complete misnomer. By what stretch of imagination do we want to claim that Imo State, Abia State, Ondo State, Anambra State, Lagos State and recently Bauchi State are now in the Niger Delta region? What we have is an organisation that services all the oil producing states in Nigeria and not the Niger Delta region. This must be why our late President (Umaru) Yar’Adua quite wisely established a distinct ministry for the development of the Niger Delta region. Today, I hear there are moves to merge them.
2023 is around the corner. Do you think that power should shift to the South?
Would you believe me if I were to tell you that this question would be totally immaterial and would not arise if we were practicing a true federal system? It is this abhorrent totalitarian and dictatorial system that has produced the need for turn-by-turn governance. If the Federal Government were concern only with its essential functions of currency, citizenship, migration, nobody would care who heads it and who does not head it because each federating unit would be content with its resources and the ability to transmigrate and thereby develop itself. But today, we must talk about rotation.
How would you describe the rate at which the current regime is borrowing?
Do you have a country? Nigeria isn’t yet a country, not to mention been a nation. We have yet to accept that we have a country and begin to build it into a strong nation. For that reason, we need a system we all agree to subscribe to and make it work for that to happen.
Elections are around the corner, and the fear is that 2023 may not be, what is your advice on this?
Seek the restructuring of this country. If you can use elections to achieve that, fine. If you cannot, fine; but seek the restructuring of this country.