Going by the position of northern delegates at the ongoing National Conference, it seems the North is against true federalism and regional autonomy. Why?
What is true federalism and what has the North said that shows that it is against federalism? There is federalism in Nigeria right now. The federal system is a system of government where certain powers are left with the federating units. The question is whether you want the centre to be strong or weak. Some want the centre to be weak, others want it to be strong. We, in Nigeria, voted for a strong centre. Chief Obafemi Awolowo kept on saying that what was needed was a complete Sovereign National Conference of the ethnic nationalities that make up Nigeria. He said these ethnic nationalities should be convoked into a Sovereign National Conference or a constituent assembly and that these ethnic nationalities should form the federating units of Nigeria. His colleagues and contemporaries rejected that and they stayed with the British-imposed regions. The British recognised the Igbo in the East; in the North they recognised Hausa/Fulani; in the West they recognised the Yoruba. The British did not recognise the other ethnic nationalities in these regions. We felt there should be a more balanced regional arrangement. We supported the Calabar/Ogoja Region, the Middle Belt Region and other regions, but we were opposed. The British dangled before Awolowo and others the idea of being a Premier and being independent within their regions. They said we shouldn’t worry, that after we get independence in the regions, the governors of the regions, who were called Premiers, would sit down with the Prime Minister and dialogue, and then create additional regions. I was just an adviser to my leader, JS Tarka then. I told him it was rubbish, that once they begin to enjoy the perks of power, nobody would do that, and I was proved right. The only region that was created, which was the Midwestern Region, was created out of spite. It was to spite the Action Group. The Northern Peoples Congress and the National Party of Nigeria collaborated to break up the “troublesome” region led by Awolowo. That was not good enough. If they allow us, Nigerians, to hold a Sovereign National Conference comprising all ethnic nationalities in Nigeria, then we can decide the type of federalism we want.
Are you saying the ongoing National Conference cannot discuss federalism?
I’m disappointed with the current national talk of Jonathan’s friends. They are not representing anybody. They are just friends of the President who were handpicked. Is that good enough for Nigeria to spend billions of naira on? Nigeria has serious problems of governance and we should be allowed to discuss them. What they are doing in Abuja in the name of National Conference is not a National Conference. It is a conference of Jonathan’s friends that were handpicked to go there and praise him. We should have leaders like the late Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the North, Sir Ahmadu Bello, who said his mind when the East and the West were agitating for independence. He said “I’m not against independence, but my people are not quite ready yet and I cannot take independence for people in my region in 1956; the East and the West were ready. Let them take independence, they are better than us. Let’s continue to bring my people up until 1959.” They laughed at him.
Even before the National Conference was inaugurated the notion has been that the North does not want the status quo to change.
We have not discussed and people assume that northerners are afraid of federalism. It’s not true. A few people have ganged themselves into political parties; I don’t believe they are political parties. And those who seize power through these parties oppose those who seek power as independent candidates. I should refuse to join a political party if I don’t want. That should not stop me from running for an election. I should be able say I don’t like the Peoples Democratic Party; I don’t like the All Progressives Congress; I don’t like the Peoples Democratic Movement; I don’t like the Labour Party; I just want to stand election as Paul Unongo. That should be my right. If my country does not allow me to do that, it means my freedom is limited.
The main issue here is fiscal federalism and the concept of resource control. The northern delegates said every section of the country has equal right to the resources of the country no matter where they are found while South-West and South-South want the regions to control their resources and pay subvention to the Federal Government.
We have fiscal federalism. By our law, the Federal Government is to share resources between itself and the federating units. We are committing an illegality in this country, which people don’t want to pay attention to because they are afraid of Sovereign National Conference. The only federating units that made up Nigeria, that were granted independence in 1960, were the Northern Region, the Eastern Region and the Western Region. There is a notion, a delusion, that the thing that the military brought by fiat, called six geopolitical zones – South-South, South-West, South-East, North-Central, North-west and North-East – are regions. They are not. They are not the federating units of the nation, Nigeria. The military imposed this division. Prof. Ben Nwabueze, my friend, wanted us to turn these six military-declared zones to regions and turn government into six regional governments. Who told them I want to be a part of a North-Central? Nobody asked me. Who told them my people consider themselves to be North-Central, when there are as many people of my tribe in Taraba State (in the North-East) as there are in Benue State (in North-Central). There are Yoruba in Kwara and Kogi states who may want to join their kinsmen in the Western Region.
But do you think the northerners should have equal rights with the people of the Niger Delta when it comes to oil and gas?
The money that was used to develop oil in the Niger Delta came from the North, especially the groundnut pyramids of Kano. If I hail from a region where Federal Government developed oil wells and now they say there is something called zones and the zones have become federating units, will it be right for me to propose that all the money made from oil should be spent by me? The issue is that the people of the Niger Delta didn’t use their money to develop the oil. Much of the money that was used to develop the oil industry came from the North. So, I wonder when people say the North is afraid. I don’t think northerners are afraid of discussing. If other parts of Nigeria want, lets us agree on the creation of new federating units and what type of federation we want. We can also agree that any resource found in any part of the country would be developed by that region and allocation should be made from the federating units to the Federal Government. But that would not include the resources found offshore. The size of the offshore territory of a country is determined by its landmass. According to international law, the continental shelf or offshore distance is determined by the landmass of the nation state. So, if a nation has one-quarter of its landmass shared by two federating units, with the North having three-quarter, therefore we can segment the discussion. We can say offshore belongs to the federation. It was like that before. It was the northerners, who are said to be opposed to it now, that passed a resolution in the House of Representatives, against the wishes of the then President Olusegun Obasanjo, to say oil is oil, whether offshore or onshore, and if we are going to dash it to one particular place, let it all go to them. Since oil and gas have become so critical and most of Nigerian oil is offshore, these issues should be discussed. The northern delegates are making a point that is legal in international law. Whatever is found in the international waters of Nigeria belongs to Nigeria. And it should be shared in the proportion of the contribution to the territorial waters, which is based on the landmass of Nigeria, three-quarters of which is the North. Each region should realise that we are inter-dependent.
Do you also support the suggestion that the 13 per cent derivation for oil-producing states should be reduced to five per cent and that the Ministry of Niger Delta, Niger Delta Development Commission and Amnesty Programme for Niger Delta militants should be scrapped?
That is politics; I’m not part of that. I’m an elder statesman. Why would they say the 13 per cent derivation should be reduced to five per cent? If something worked for the Niger Delta people and it helped develop the place, it should be applied in other parts of the country that have a similar situation. To say something that has worked should be canceled is bad politics. The people of Niger Delta benefitted from the creation of the Ministry of Niger Delta because government was pumping money through that ministry to develop the areas that were devastated by the exploration of oil. If it worked there, instead of scrapping it why don’t we apply this method to solve the problems of the desert areas in the North or in the North-East, where there has been total devastation by Boko Haram?
Some have argued that Boko Haram members shouldn’t get the same treatment as the Niger Delta militants.
They should stop this intellectual argument that Boko Haram is different from Niger Delta militants. Some say they could talk to the militants but can’t talk with Boko Haram members. But some Boko Haram members have been arrested, can’t government get Nigerians who can talk to them? Can’t they make the same kind of arrangement they made to talk to Niger Delta militants in order to talk to Boko Haram? Government should promise Boko Haram that they would be treated well, and sent to schools abroad, just like Niger Delta militants, if they would stop the senseless killings. And to prove that it is serious, government should create a ministry for the development of North-East. When you suggest things like this people would say, ‘No, Boko Haram is different, kill all of them.’ The question is: do you have enough soldiers to kill all of them? What is the difference? Killing is killing. All the policemen and other security operatives that were killed in the Niger Delta, and all the people that were abducted and killed, are they not human beings? There is no difference. Some even say Niger Delta militants are not terrorists. They killed people and you say they are not terrorists?
Would you say northern leaders did their best to stop the Boko Haram menace from getting to this level?
If by northerner leaders, you include those of us in Northern Elders Forum, I would say we did. I also think the indigenes of the places that are most affected did their utmost best to stop it from growing. They were crying and talking about it nobody listened to them, until it went out of hand. This Boko Haram started like the Maitasine, which reared its head and Maj.-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) crushed it. There was a lot of cry from the region, when Boko Haram was growing, but government did not listen to them and this is the tragedy of our country.