‘Nigeria’s growth retarded because original national foundation discarded’

Obong Victor Bassey Attah, former governor of Akwa-Ibom State

In this interview with Ayoyinka Jegede on the state of Nigeria at 57, Obong Victor Bassey Attah, a former governor of Akwa-Ibom State suggested that the country should go back to the original structure on which the nation was founded. Excerpts:

The journey so far
Nigerians are not where we ought to be. Let us start with that. The reason why we are not where we ought to be is because we have so distorted the foundation on which Nigeria was built that it begins to look as if we have destroyed that foundation and therefore destroyed Nigeria. Nigeria was built on a clear understanding that there will be federalism and all the federating units would have a good measure of autonomy to exist on their own, develop at their own various paces and make sure they sustain the centre with an agreed percentage of whatever they generate so that the centre can look after all of us.

It is in the nature of the military that they cannot operate a federal system; they operate only the unitary system. I am not blaming the military because to blame the military would be to say that you don’t accept the fact that military needed to make an incursion. Let us accept they made an incursion, but they have left the scene for many years now. By this time we should have returned to the federal system on which Nigeria was built. That is where I blame Nigerians for pushing out the military, but not pushing out the unitary system that they had brought with it.

We must make up our mind that the foundation, on which Nigeria was originally created and built, will see real development without any kind of envy, jealousy or whatever. We have destroyed the foundation on which Nigeria was originally created and we must return to it.

My view on restructuring
We must restructure and it is a matter of how quickly can we get it and I am empathic about that because unless we restructure, we cannot see any progress. How can we achieve that? By everybody sitting down and accepting the fact that what we started with was good, but what we have now is bad and we must restructure back to where we were. It is a matter of dialogue; it is a matter of agreement. There is nobody that will not agree to sit especially with a threat to the one source of income that we have today. We have only one source of income and that is oil and we have been told that its value will be so diminished that we will not even be able to clean up the mess. There will come a time that when you’ll even decide that you cannot bring up this oil because you cannot recover the cost of bringing it up. There is a uniform price for oil, but the margin is very different that is why for a long time, America could not bring up the shale oil, they knew it was there, but they didn’t have the technology to bring it up economically given what people were prepared to pay for oil. We have to acknowledge the fact that we are to restructure away from this mono-product economy and we also have to restructure back to true federalism so that people can use what they have to develop themselves and everybody will be happy with it.

How can the Federal Government engender this?
It takes more than the Federal Government. If the people are not prepared to cooperate with the Federal Government it will not happen. That is why we have today this rotational issue because each zone in this country want to have its own president who must come to do what ‘they’ wanted him to do to favour them. Tomorrow it is another section and so on. However, the government must have a sense of nationhood and look after every single citizenry regardless of who voted for him, who didn’t vote for him and where they come from. To make progress, no government should put religion in front of nationhood. But unfortunately we have not yet, in all honesty, been able to acquire or bring into governance, such an individual. We have to find a way to ensure such an individual emerges. It is talking about absolute national spread. It must be somebody that is generally accepted by the people but when he comes in he must do something that is generally accepted by the people, you cannot now in any way become sectional.

Nigeria is a very interesting country. People sometimes say it is difficult to govern Nigeria but I say it is very easy to govern Nigerians because in my observation, Nigeria is what I call a “follow follow country.” We follow the leaders even in dressing. For example when Jonathan was the president, everybody was dressing in resource control with hat and when President Obasanjo was there everybody wants to wear ‘babariga.’ If the leader puts the right step forward, believe me we will follow. President Buhari has come and says no more corruption and people are saying corruption is worse than ever before but it cannot be true. People are still doing corrupt things but they know now that if ‘Baba’ catches them, their own corruption would have destroyed them.

We do follow the leaders hence the leaders must be very careful. Our leaders have to come up with right policies and they will find out that people will follow but if they come with discriminatory policies then they will be in serious trouble.

Where and how did Nigeria miss it as a nation?
Insincerity. We have never been sincere to the constitution of Nigeria, and one big mistake we made was adopting the idea of multi-religion as opposed to a secular state. We are a secular state and we must return to being a secular state. There is no religion in this business of governance but when you now say we are multi-religious state and you want to introduce Islam, Christianity and all kinds of worship into it, there will be a problem. This one says you must accommodate Christianity, Islam and traditional worship, but how do you do that?

The best is to let religious worship be individual matter, distinct from nationhood and governance, and then you are a true secular state. I am not saying leave God out of it because God is the author and finisher of everything but when you make religion an issue in governance you’ll destroy yourself completely. There is a very big difference between being a secular state and being a multi-religious state.

Why is unity still eluding Nigeria at 57?
Unity obviously eludes us because we have not yet form a sense of nationhood and we have not started to be a nation. You’ll remember that when we voted in President Obasanjo, some section of the country insisted that he had signed a paper with them that this is what he will do, not for Nigeria, but for that section of the country. Another one said he had signed paper to do something different for their section. The question is did he come to rule sections? Or did he come to rule a country, a nation? That’s why I said that we have not yet developed a sense of nationhood, if we had had one nation, every president who comes in would sign one paper to do what the country needs, rather than paper with this section or with that section. We must begin to forget this idea of sections and talk about Nigeria.

We have not gotten there yet. That is why we still see sate of origin even you have to go and get local government chairman to sign certain thing that you are truly from a particular local government area before certain things can happen in Nigeria. It is not right; you should just be a Nigerian.

What are the institutions that should be strengthened?
The institutions are there. It is not lack of institutions; it is not lack of the laws but lack of sincerity in operation the institution. You have to look at every aspect of it, the political institutions, the judiciary, the INEC and other institutions. If they would only be sincere without subjecting themselves to undue influence then you will see a big difference including the EFFC.

True federalism and clamour for return to 1963 constitution 
That is what I am clamouring because that was the real federal constitution as drafted by people who knew what federalism is and unless we return to that, we are in trouble. The 1960 constitution is the same with 1963; it is just that one changed to be a republican but it is the same. What we should be talking today is not whether we want to do that, we should be talking on how we should do that because it cannot be done abruptly overnight. We have to discuss the modalities not the necessity because the necessity has been well established. You have to work out the modality because if you suddenly go and withdraw oil money which is the only thing sustaining us presently from everybody you will create a situation that you won’t have a country either. We must look into how gradually we are going to diversify and how gradually we are going to devolve power as well as make everybody buy into the concept. We must restructure, we must return to true federalism, let us talk about how do we do it and over what period of time? And what we would be doing in that period of time to make sure that things function smoothly.

Corruption is still a cankerworm, 57 years after
To kill corruption, we need cooperation. Because we have been dragging cases in court for so long then some of this case are thrown out and you wonder why they are thrown out. People are not allowed to defend themselves and so on and then the EFCC is not prosecuting its case properly and EFCC is not bringing every file forward. To succeed in fighting corruption all hands must be on deck. We must have the mindset and accept the fact that we want to fight and kill corruption, then the leader, so long as he himself is not corrupt in any way, we will achieve success.

Could these agitations lead to Nigeria’s disintegration?
God forbid that this country should be divided but we have to agree on the terms and conditions under which we want to remain together. So, when people say unity of Nigeria is indivisible, I want to agree, but we have to agree the terms and condition under which we must remain together. We must remain together but it must not be an unbalanced situation. It must not be in conditions that are unfavorable to large sections of the country. If we can declare IPOB terrorism, for goodness sake, we should declare those entire Fulani herdsmen as terrorist because that’s what they are. By the time you kill, maim rape people and destroy properties you are a terrorist. We really have to be honest and sincere about these things.

Assessing the Buhari administration
This present government did not create the present situation we are in at 57. Buhari is even trying to correct a lot of things that went wrong that brought us to where we are. If you want to assess, you have to do it from the beginning till today and see step by step how things started to go wrong. Because we went into recession you want me to blame Buhari, I cannot do that because recession does not happen over night. You build a situation until you get into recession and we have been building it.

Getting 2019 right
A lot is going to depend on INEC because I want to hope that people will sincerely, this time, examine carefully everybody vying for elective offices. INEC must make sure that the will of the people prevails. It does not matter if some wrong people crookedly force themselves in because in four years they can be voted out. The sanctity of the ballot box is what will really change Nigeria. If people know that if they force their way into political position by whatever crooked means, the people can impeach him so that he does not even complete the four years or vote him out after the four years, then people will do the right thing.



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