Foremost Constitutional lawyer, founder Igbo Leaders of Thought and co-founder of The Patriots, Professor Ben Nwabueze (SAN), remains engaging, even at his age, 86. He is also still passionate on the Project Nigeria and a better Igbo society. These and others, he addresses in this interview.
Shortly after his inauguration, you accused President Muhammadu Buhari of an agenda to Islamise Nigeria and that he lacked the intellectual and physical capacity to lead the country. Two years down the road, do you still feel that way?
I said what I said two years ago and I don’t want to reopen it. His performance in government is there for every Nigerian to observe and assess. All I can say is that what we are passing through is the worst, politically, economically and otherwise that this country has ever had. But we are hoping that things will change for the better. I think we should leave it at that.
Were there things you saw then that other Nigerians did not see? How come you reached this damning conclusion about the President quite early in the life of the administration?
Well, I assessed his background as we know it. Here is a man who has been all his life a military man. Commander of a unit, commander of a contingent, a General and ultimately Head of the Military Government. I did not expect anything from him. He has not been anything else but a military commander. All he has been used to is absolute power. You cannot expect a man to change overnight and shed all these characteristics. I said so before the election. I spoke on behalf of The Patriots, I spoke on behalf of the Igbo Leaders of Thought (ILT) and I spoke on behalf of the people of Nigeria. I said we had to be very careful because we had an opportunity to elect a civilian president and shouldn’t throw away that opportunity.
On the warning I gave at that time, I said that apart from his antecedents, governing Nigeria is a very complex matter; very difficult. Those were the words I used. I said that it is not a job for just anybody. No, no, it is not a job for just anybody. The man who wants to rule Nigeria must have certain credentials - education, character wise. We are in a constitutional democracy. The concept itself is so complex that not everybody can understand it. You need a certain minimum level of education to understand what constitutional democracy connotes; its fundamental elements.
I said it that you needed to have a certain minimum level of education. But I was called all sorts of names and we proceeded to elect him. Knowing all these shortcomings we went ahead to elect him. I don’t think he is the man that Nigeria needs to save it. His style alone, the way he spoke to the Niger Delta people, the Niger Delta militants, is not the way to treat a people that generate a large portion of the revenue without which you cannot govern this country. Of course the Niger Delta militants, reacting, launched attacks that destroyed crude oil installations and so on and of course the revenue from oil plunged.
He was blaming the past. But I said no, the past is there but we are talking about the present. What is happening is in reaction to your style and utterances.
Look at the pro-Biafra movement, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). I said, ‘engage these people in dialogue, find out what their grievances are’. Rather, all these people were arrested and clamped in detention. That is why we are where we are today.
But indications seem to suggest that there have been a change of heart. The Vice President as Acting President has been to the Niger Delta trying and engaging the militants there.
Are you confident that we are climbing out of the situation?
I’m not sure that I would use the word “confidence”. But I hope we will get out of it. As I said in my latest book, economic recession is a passing phase. I believe and hope that it will pass and that we will return to economic normalcy. How soon it will pass, I do not know. But constitutional democracy is not something you compare with recession. If you try it you are in trouble.
Do you think some of these improvements are because of deliberate change of course by the president or they were forced on him?
May be it is a combination. A combination in the sense that they were forced on him. The changes and improvements; the realisation that we cannot continue in that way! So, it is forced. If he is willing to change, then it is a good sign for us. We must continue to hope and pray. Part of what I said nearly two years ago is ‘let us not allow ourselves to be swept off the ground about corruption and war against corruption. Let us all join hands to fight corruption but corruption is not the only problem facing Nigeria. It is not even the most fundamental problem that this country has but we all seem to have been swept off the ground about this talk of fighting corruption forgetting that corruption is only a part of the problem facing this country’.
But he is talking about corruption and corrupt officials, losing sight of the major problems facing this country.
We have been talking about the national question, which is a much bigger problem than corruption. How do you cohere more than 300 ethnic groups into one nation? But we deceive ourselves into thinking that this country is a nation. The number one problem facing any leader should be how to collect these more than 300 ethnic groups and collapse them into one nation, into one people. This requires a revolution. When I talk about revolution, people jump to the conclusion that I’m talking about war and violence. No. I am talking about social and ethical revolution. And you cannot have social and ethical revolution in any country unless the leader is imbued with the passion for it. You mobilise the whole country and get people to rise up, to appreciate what it is all about. The national question is very pertinent but nobody talks about it. People don’t understand what it means and what it requires. He is talking about corruption, corruption. Where are we getting to with war against corruption?
At the time of independence in 1960, you were already an adult with hopes and aspirations just like many of your contemporaries. 57 years later, do you think that Nigeria is still a viable project?
Yes I do. I believe that if we are willing to do what is required, Nigeria I’m sure will be a viable project, if we embrace restructuring. Nigeria cannot be a viable project as it is presently constituted. If it is restructured and we have a change in attitude to leadership, to governance, this country can be a very good project. We have 36 states but only very few of them are viable. Most of them cannot pay salaries and are in arrears of up to eight to nine months. The governors and their officials troop to Abuja to collect their share of the revenue. The states are supposed to be autonomous, independent of the federal government. But the chief executives, every month troop to Abuja and stay there for weeks to collect the allocation. When it is collected, a large proportion of it, because they are in Abuja, does not get back to the states.
The number has to be reduced to something more viable - six or seven zones or regions. I do not advocate abolition of the present states for practical reasons of visibility. It took lots of funds to create these states. Many people staked their time and money. So, to tell them that you are going to abolish the states, they won’t accept it. So do something you can, to persuade them to accept restructuring. My idea is restructure into six or seven units but let the existing states remain as units within the new structure; in effect, a federation within a federation.
A government without an organised cohesive force at its disposal is a contradiction in terms. It is pure contradiction in terms to have state governments with no cohesive force at its disposal to enforce its laws, to enforce its authority. Everybody depends on one Nigerian Police to enforce its laws, to enforce its authority. That has to be changed. Proper fiscal federalism is needed. So let’s sit down as a people and work out what will make the Nigeria Project viable. I believe it can be made viable but not as it is.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recently released the timetable for the 2019 elections. Many Nigerians are concerned that two years into the present administration, nothing tangible has been achieved and yet INEC is releasing the timetable for the next election. How would you see the development?
This question is a fundamental one tied to the issue of restructuring. I don’t believe that this country will be viable by imposing one electoral commission on the entire country. The zones or regions should have their own electoral commissions for the election of the government of the particular zones. The electoral commission for the whole country should only be for the election of officials of the federal government. I don’t think it is a viable project when the election of the state governor or regional government, whatever you call it, is controlled by one electoral commission. You will always have problems.
The timetable, the one you are referring to is for the election of not only the president but also state governors. And you think that will work? We are only moving from one problem to another especially with the powers at the centre still as they are. Everybody is fighting for the control of the centre because the powers there are too much. Part of what we are talking of in restructuring is not just reducing the number of constituent units from 36 to six or seven. It is more about the extent of the powers at the centre. Those powers are too much. Until they are drastically reduced and the importance of the centre also reduced, the Nigeria Project will not be viable.
Talking about different electoral commissions for different regions or states, what about the state electoral commissions as we presently have?
They don’t have any power. Everything is centred in the Independent National Electoral Commission. The state electoral commission is an agent of the centre. It means nothing. In a viable federal structure, can you have the election of a governor of a zone or region controlled from outside? Where in the world is that done? The election of the governor of a state in the United States of America is not conducted by the national electoral commission, it is a state matter.
They say that if you do that in Nigeria there will be corruption. Is the national electoral commission not corrupt? The regions or zones need their autonomy to operate. If you restructure and give the zones their powers, including the election of their government, all this clamour for Biafra and so on, will die down.
You need to read the judgement of the Constitutional Court of South Africa on this concept of self-determination. You don’t need to secede to have self-determination. If you restructure the country with effective devolution of powers to the zones including the conduct of their election, it will quell the agitation and you would have achieved self-determination.
If we restructure along this regional lines, don’t you see incidences of domination and feeling of marginalisation continuing even within respective regions?
You can’t remove that completely. We were brought together by the British. Don’t forget that before the British, even among the Igbo, we were all independent entities. The only way you can remove the feeling of domination is if you say that each village should go its own way. But this will create its own problems. My own village cannot be an effective unit of government in the modern world. You must have association and alliance with other groups with the risk of domination which you can’t completely abolish. You have to cultivate the spirit to live with others. We have that problem in the South East, trying to convince the people from Ebonyi that we need restructuring. They won’t support restructuring because they feel that the Igbo from other areas will dominate them. But you must have to make sacrifices, give something to get something. It just has to be so.
But the areas with this fear of domination will also have to make concessions. If we do all we can to all these fears, the fear of domination becomes unnecessary.
Prof, you predicated your hope on Nigeria becoming a viable project on a lot of ‘Ifs’. Do you see these ifs coming into play? Are you optimistic that there is the political will to overcome those things you say are the problems?
It is a matter of trying. You can’t sit here and say it is not possible. We have to do something about those ifs. At the moment, the evidence is that there is opposition against restructuring in the north. The leadership in the north is against it. You think they should be ignored? The President is against it. Fortunately, some northern leaders like former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, are for it. They are joining forces with those who advocate restructuring. If those who advocate restructuring win today then we take it from there. That is the possibility of the viability of the project. I think the project should be predicated on if we get most people to support the restructuring. But if we can’t, that is when the project will not be viable.
If you look back at the Nigerian project 57 years after, what is your biggest regret?
I regret that we don’t seem to have learnt from the point of view of good governance. I don’t think we have learnt what good governance means, what its demands and challenges are. Our founding fathers meant well but since that time, leadership that we have had, has been disappointing, very disappointing. From that time we seemed to have worsened with the intervention of the military. They complicated matters. They destroyed our core values. You see a situation where people begin to doubt whether we can ever return to those core values, the values of good governance, the values of truth, the value of integrity, honesty. Those values have been destroyed and we need to revive them. That is the big challenge facing us. Justice has been destroyed, truth has been destroyed, honesty has been destroyed, integrity has been destroyed, principled hardship has been destroyed and regrettably, the future generation who we all look up to as leaders of tomorrow seem to have imbibed the evils of the past and the present. They are clamouring to be given a chance but all looking for opportunity to partake in the looting.
Hopefully one day a leader imbued with passion for revolution will emerge, not all these ones shouting “change, change” without even understanding what change means. You can only have change when you have a leader imbued with a passion for change.
A change means revolutionary change. None of our leaders is imbued with that passion, but we must not give up yet. The most distressing thing is the destruction of our core values. Any society without these core values is finished.
At 86 you have achieved a lot and is celebrated all over the world. Do you have any personal regrets, you know, those things you hoped to achieve but haven't?
I don’t have any personal regrets. I have achieved all I want to achieve. At 86 what else could I want? I have achieved all I wanted to achieve. I am satisfied, I have no regrets. I’m only disappointed for the nation. The country is not what I had expected it will be or what I thought I would leave behind when the time eventually comes. Every day, I see the prospects of that getting thinner and thinner. But I’m still hoping that one day the leader imbued with the necessary revolutionary traits will emerge who can mobilise this country for a social and ethical revolution to revive our core values. We have to revive our core values before we can move forward. There must be a new beginning led by a man imbued with passion for revolution.
There is a new Ohaneze leadership. As one of the founders how do you feel about the leadership? What is happening in Nigeria and the desire of the South East to assert themselves?
The election of a new Ohaneze leadership is a good thing, very good thing. Initially I said let us not make mistake again, let’s make sure we have a credible election, that any election that is based on a sole candidate undermines the credibility of the whole process. That is my position. I said let’s have an election but please let’s have a contest and whoever emerges let us all support him.
I really wish the Igbo will come together behind the new leadership of Nnia Nwodo. We have had enough messing up of an organisation the Igbo need. We need an effective pan Igbo organisation. We should close ranks and support the new leadership. The Igbo are a great people. Anybody who thinks that he can rule this country without the support of the Igbos is making a mistake.
When you finally go the way of all mortals, how would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as a poor village boy born of illiterate parents. My father and my mother were complete illiterates but they knew the value of education. As illiterate as they were, they tried everything within their meagre resources to educate me.
I will like to be remembered as a true patriot of Nigeria. The organisation known as The Patriots was founded by me and my friend, late Chief Rotimi Williams. I initiated the idea and called him. I will like to be remembered as a man passionate about knowledge. Intellectualism is my passion. In trying to contribute to the advancement of knowledge, I have written 34 books, the last of which is ‘Save Our Constitutional Democracy From Emasculation,’ which I autographed for you. I hope you find time to read it.