Chief Edwin Kiagbodo, elder statesman and leader of the Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), bares his mind on Nigeria 57 years after independence
BY HENRY UMORU
The story of Nigeria 57 years after independence is one of mixed feelings. What is your take?
It is quite correct. There is no doubt that we have made some progress, but Nigeria at 57 should have developed more than it is now. At independence in 1960, we had very progressive regions, the Western Region, the Northern Region and the Eastern Region. Even before independence, from 1953, the regions had been very active, very competitive and very progressive. On the attainment of independence in 1960, the pace of progress continued. We had the Western Nigerian government being run by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, we had the Northern Nigerian government being run by Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Eastern Nigerian government being run by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Dr Michael Okpara at a later date when Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe became the President of Nigeria.
So when you look back, what were the achievements of these people?
In 1962, Awolowo built the University of Ife; Ahmadu Bello built the Ahmadu Bello University, ABU; and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe built the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. And because the Western Region under Awolowo had more money than the other two, he was able to introduce free primary education which was the basis of development in Western Nigeria today.
Today the Western Nigerian people are very sophisticated and very well educated, more advanced in education than any other part of this country and it was the free primary education that made it happen. In the West also, you had the first television being introduced the south of Sahara, then you had Cocoa House being built in Ibadan and industrial estates in Ikeja and Apapa, and there were Israeli companies building roads across the West.
Then you go to the North where you had the stadium built just as Awolowo built the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan. There was an industrial estate in Kano, there was the Kaduna Capital Territory. Similar things happened in the East like the Hotel Presidential in Port Harcourt and Enugu; so development went on and the reason was because there was true federalism being practiced.
Whatever resources you derived in your area, you spend half of the money and the other half would be sent to the federal government to meet its responsibilities and also spend on the regions again. In 1963 when Mid-West was created, there was the Republican Constitution and each region also had its own Constitution and agents general in London. But immediately after the army took over in 1966, they changed the Constitution because, in the hierarchy, whoever was the head of government controlled everything downward.
In the process, federalism was destroyed and a unitary form of government was introduced. In fact, this was done by Ironsi when he issued Decree No 34 to impose unitary form of government; northerners opposed it and that was part of the reason they overthrew Ironsi’s government. Gowon came in and carried on with Decree No 34.
Then the war broke out in 1967 and here we are still operating unitary government in the guise of true federalism. That was why former President Obasanjo, in 2005, set up the political reform conference. I was the leader of the South-South region at the conference and we demanded for a return to true federalism. Northerners opposed us, they believed that once true federalism was reintroduced, the North will lose money and position in national affairs but they were wrong.
The reason Nigeria is not progressing the way it should is because of the unitary form of government we operate in the name of federalism. I think that is the problem. We need to restructure the country in line with the 2014 National Conference recommendations, 600 recommendations to move forward.
People talk about leadership being the nation’s problem, but leadership can only work under a good environment; leadership under the present system cannot work. I strongly believe that a return to a federal system of government like we had it under the 1960 and 1953 constitutions will make Nigeria progress.
I am happy that the 19 northern governors have set up a committee with the traditional rulers to look into restructuring and I believe that with Tambuwal, the governor of Sokoto State, as Chairman, we can have a progressive report. In essence, if all of us agree that there is need for restructuring, we would then make up here and there, have a good constitution and a good environment where good leaders can perform.
Restructuring of the mind
I do not agree with Obasanjo who talked about restructuring of the mind. What mind? Is it because his mind was not restructured when he was in power that his government did not make any progress? There is something structurally defective in the country and that is why we are calling for restructuring.
As a father who has seen it all in this country, what message do you have for Nigerians as we mark 57th anniversary, especially against the backdrop of what we are seeing, agitations in the East, quit notice from the North?
Since 1999, there have been problems, and they have been mounting. When people have no job, then they cause problems. It would be difficult to have people working in a factory coming out to demonstrate. But when the factory has nothing to offer, then the people who are not employed would demonstrate. The agitations in Nigeria are as a result of, I won’t call it bad government alone or bad leadership, it is because the Constitution under which we are working is not good enough. You cannot be working under a federal system of government and call it a unitary form of government; until we straighten out these things, you will continue to have pockets of problems all over the country.
On what is happening in the East, there was Biafra war 50 years ago at the end of which Gen. Gowon declared reconciliation, reconstruction and reintegration. And the Igbo were integrated under successive governments. An Igbo man was the Vice President of this country. But the Buhari government decided to marginalise them now, to treat them as if they are second class citizens, as if they are not Nigerians. But like I said, this is temporary; in another four years, it will be over. And that is not enough for anybody to say ‘I am no longer a Nigerian’, or ‘I want to secede from Nigeria’. Nnnamdi Kanu (IPOB leader calling Igbo to secede) has not given us the reason for the demand for secession other than saying that they want Biafra, they want referendum.
Meanwhile, I want the federal government to call the Igbo to a round table and discuss their problems. We all know that they have been marginalised under this government and President Buhari said in New York that some people voted for him while others did not vote for him and that those who did not vote for him were being penalised. So I think if this country is restructured, there will be job for everybody, there will better understanding, everybody will be equal in his own country, and there would be nobody who would say ‘I am being marginalised’. I think Nigeria at 57 should be a period for Nigerian leaders to sit down and look into what is wrong and see how things could be improved.
One cannot blame Buhari because he has been in government for less than three years and the problems of Nigeria have been mounting. And when people like us see former President Obasanjo parading himself as Mr Clean, as a man who knows government very well, who did very well, we laugh. Nigeria’s problems started with him, corruption started under him, corruption in the National Assembly got a boost under him; he sold everything Nigeria had.