Professor Bolaji Akinyemi is not unfamiliar with the problems facing Nigeria, having operated at one of the very high levels of the nation’s political leadership as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Besides, Akinyemi was the Deputy Chairman of the 2014 National Conference convoked by former President Goodluck Jonathan, where he had to contend with intrigues arising from ethnic leaders trying to outdo one another. In this interview, the elder statesman diagnoses Nigeria’s challenges, situating them within the praxis of the current clamour for restructuring. Whereas this interview was conducted penultimate Monday, long before the malady going on in the South East geo-political zone, a malady involving Nigeria’s military and members of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, Professor Akinyemi had foreseen events spiralling out of control. Indeed, he expresses the fear that if improperly handled, those on both extremes of the divide would have each other to blame for, according to this former Director General of the Nigeria Institute of International International Affairs, NIIA,”nobody plans for disintegration of a nation; things just spiral out of control”. From the fears of the North to the marginalisation of the South, Akinyemi deconstructs and shatters long-held fallacies about Nigeria.
Everywhere you turn now, restructuring is what you hear, with some people claiming not to know what it means. As a political scientist, in simple terms, what does restructuring mean?
There is a lot of duplicity and shenanigan and a lot of dishonourable intent in dealing with the question of restructuring. First of all, it is politics, so, it should be expected that politicians will play politics with anything. As a political scientist, I have no problems dealing with the question. Restructuring is addressing constitutional, political and economic structures of a country, in order to address pressing issues that need to be addressed. Simple! It is not new in Nigerian history. And the struggle for restructuring is not peculiar to Nigeria.
After donkey centuries, they are still dealing with restructuring in England – the struggle by the Welsh, by the Scots and even by some of the counties within Britain about devolution of power; about redistribution of wealth and resources.
Yes, some people will be arguing in one extreme (total independence), others will be arguing for autonomy and it is in-between these two that we would find a balance because, frankly, there is no one solution to a problem, as long as it’s being managed by human beings. Go to Spain: The Catalans! After how many centuries? Go to France: Northern France. Go to Italy. Even go to Germany, not to talk about the United States, where even though they mask their own as struggle for states’ rights versus federal might and talk about interfering, they don’t argue about it as if it’s a constitutional demand, they just deal with it as a political issue which the Supreme Court then ends up adjudicating on. So, they never turn it into an issue of constitutional amendment and their system has worked in such a way that the Supreme Court in America has amended the American Constitution some times, almost out of recognition. But in the case of Nigeria, we have several problems.
Yes. The critical one – because I want a linkage with what I’ve said about the American Supreme Court – is that we have a Supreme Court in Nigeria that is so elementary in the way it addresses issues, such that it pushes things it could have dealt with under the law to now make the situation look like it must lead to a constitutional amendment. Is it not the same Supreme Court in America that once defined a Negro as two thirds of a white man; and, without constitutional amendment, they got around to say ‘one equals one?’ Was it not that same Supreme Court that said segregation in schools was constitutional and then, when times changed, judges changed with the times? But the moment you are always appointing judges based on seniority, based on ‘as my lord said in this, this, this; or this one said in this, this, this’, then you will never have progress judicially and that’s what has been happening in the case of Nigeria.
A good example: Anytime I see a judgment of the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court in Nigeria, and it’s unanimous, I know somebody is not thinking. In Kenya, just last week, it was four to two. I know in the Buhari versus Yar’Adua case, it was a split decision, that’s very rare. Our Supreme Court needs to do its job and be a constructive participant in the restructuring of Nigeria.
How do we resolve the seeming incongruity between a judgment of the Supreme Court that could mean an amendment of the constitution, on the one hand, and the provision in that same constitution which says anything outside it shall be inconsequential, null and void?
Correct. But it is a question of interpretation. That’s why I gave you those examples from the United States, where the Supreme Court reversed some decisions it took 50 years ago, without saying they overthrew themselves – interpretation. An interpretation means you look at the facts before you. The judges who disagree with the views of the majority are not dumb.
There was a Supreme Court judge in America: you know there is a provision in the constitution that nothing, no law shall abridge the right of free speech.
There was a judge who said, ‘no law means no law, no matter the justification;’ the law which says no law means no law can abridge free speech. But the majority of the Supreme Court said the law does not permit you to get up in a darkened cinema theatre and shout ‘fire’, when there is no fire and, in the stampede that follows, several people die, and you say you’re claiming your right of free speech.? Both of them are not mad, while one is a strict constructionist, the other is what I will call a socially applied constructionist and that’s why, till today, one of the most well respected judges in history, under the Common Law, the British system, is Lord Denning, because he keeps saying, use your sense. Do I interpret this law in a way that doesn’t then make sense; that causes more havoc because the wordings are plain? And this is why I disagree with the judgment of the Supreme Court in Kenya because of the chaos it is going to cause in that country – by four men.
In applying common sense, what are those peculiar problems confronting Nigeria that makes politicians always play funny, especially in this restructuring chorus?
First, issues that should be dealt with at the local and state levels have all been transferred to the centre by the federal government. All you need to do is take the Independence Constitution and take your present Constitution and you will find how many of the items are now listed in the reserved list (67). In fact, somebody may say that is the only problem because the moment you transferred those things to the centre, it also meant you’ve transferred the resources, which should have been left at the local government and state levels, to the federal government, so that the federal government can now cope, and that is the thesis wrapped around resource control. To me, that is basically what restructuring is all about: Give us back those issues that are for us, they have no business in Abuja. People know what restructuring is.
Having served in government, you need to help Nigerians understand this next question. What would make a politician agitate for certain things while serving his state or at the state level and, suddenly, because he is no longer a state governor but a federal minister, then, unashamedly, turns round to repudiate everything he had said regarding the structure we operate and pooh-poohs the idea of devolution?
It’s because the whole purpose of holding office is to monopolise the exercise of power, whether you are capable or not, of handling the portfolio you have been given. Just exercise of power to demonstrate that, you know, ‘I’m the one there now, I’m the boss, I have the power’, that’s all. Simple. Ego.
I’m glad you asked the question because people then see transfer of issues and transfer of responsibilities for those issues as transfer of power, as if what you have on your plate is not enough.
Babatunde Fashola is a good example of three heavy-duty issues, ministries. Yes, he’s not the President; he didn’t allocate them to himself. But you mean you couldn’t tell the President, ‘no sir’. Nobody can handle that job and this has nothing to do with nor is it a reflection of one’s own capability. Give the President examples of developing countries.
Take transportation: In India, there’s a whole minister in charge of just railways, a whole minister, because they’ve identified railways as being critical to the infrastructural and economic development of India, such that you need the concentration of the person in charge. Here, you make it part of transportation – he’s hooked on to waterways, hooked on to this, hooked on to that. It’s just an ego trip.
Long time ago, the Public Works Department had a head who had all he needed to repair a bad portion of a road as soon as he spotted the damage. Now, it must go all the way to the Perm Sec in Abuja. Why? Do you need a constitutional amendment to reverse that? Devolution is it.
But the reason you and I know is that you don’t want the man alone to collect the bribe for that stretch of the road; so you want Abuja to handle it such that by the time the request passes through the Director, Federal Highway, to the table of the Perm Sec, a small pothole has become a gully. So by the time he (Perm Sec) approves and sends it back with the money, it would not solve the problem; you then start the rigmarole all over again. In the meantime, the road has been destroyed. That doesn’t need constitutional amendment. But that’s the situation.
Worse still, you move that Perm Sec from Works to another ministry, say Power Ministry, and there are many issues he’s leaving behind. But must you even move the man? That’s another matter entirely. Meanwhile, the same man who was at Works, who owed PHCN and refused to pay, now settles in Power Ministry and begins to harass Works Ministry to pay up – money he didn’t pay while he was at Works. It doesn’t make sense.
In the US, the Secretary of State remains there almost for the entire two terms so you could start a project and complete it and, at the same time, you’re developing expertise but here it is different. Institutional memory is lost in our case. You asked why someone who stood for something while he was a governor now changes his tune when he becomes a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Now, if a Perm Sec at Works who refuses to pay Power Ministry monies owed, he now gets to power and now begins to harass Works for the monies he didn’t pay (he’s operating at the federal level), why should it surprise you if governor who becomes a minister changes tune.
You know people conveniently suffer from amnesia about the history of Nigeria.
Another example for you about the question you asked: Look, I was in NADECO; we spent months, years in London, under Chief Enahoro, dealing with what would be an ideal constitution for Nigeria. And for somebody to turn around and say he doesn’t know what restructuring is all about now? Even those people who were with us in NADECO, people who sat with us to take all those decisions, to now turn around to say they don’t know what restructuring means. I hope that answers the question.
You were Deputy Chairman of Jonathan’s Conference. President Buhari says he’s not interested. Looking back at the efforts of Justice Kutigi and yourself and all the members, what do you say?
I have taken a position that, as Deputy Chairman of the conference, I’m like a deputy referee. I’m neutral as regards the conference decisions. I’m neutral as regards whether they are implemented or not. I have my own personal feelings but, as a referee, we made sure that the rules were followed despite disappointments that we may have had as referees who officiated a match. So, it’s the same thing. I’m indifferent, not because I don’t care, but I don’t want any accusation that as one of those who piloted the affairs of the conference, I had preferences for this outcome or for that outcome.
Having said that however, I must say that I feel very aggrieved that all that hard work, all the resources that were expended on this venture seemed to have gone to waste.
You’re absolutely correct. The archives of Nigeria are full of reports; even under the British, reports of commissions which never saw the light of day and, unfortunately, future generations are the ones who pay the price. I was reading something recently where a British colonial officer suggested that what would be best for Nigeria was, I think, six or 12 regions; but Lugard and London overruled him, yet, some 100 years later, what are we talking about now? Six regions?
I would not want to put the whole blame on Buhari. President Jonathan had adequate time.
For ease of execution, we divided that report into three parts deliberately. One, we put issues that he, as President, could implement without reference to anybody using executive powers and we based our recommendations on the constitution, not that we were asking him to violate the constitution. He could have done so with the instrumentality of Executive Orders. The second part dealt with those that needed federal legislation and the third was those that needed constitutional amendment. He didn’t act on the report.
I raised this issue with him later and he said he didn’t want to muddle the political space because of the elections. He was sure he was going to win and he would not deal with this matter until after the elections. But I remember I told him that nothing was certain in politics and that, at times, it was better to address issues when you have the time to do so, especially when you have the powers to do so.
Some people from outside with the aid of some people within the secretariat itself.
Let’s get this clear. Sabotage to make sure that the report was not implemented? And this involved people from within government and outside government?
He was persuaded that he shouldn’t; that it was better for him to wait, so he agreed. There were even attempts to derail the conference by these people. You would not believe the politics that happened there.
It would be nice to let us into some of the politics that went on there?
But the conference, too, shocked many Nigerians with some of its very queer recommendations. For instance, even with a situation where some states are considered unviable, that conference advocated that more states should be created. What was that? Then, some people have come out to say it is those who lost election last year that are clamouring for restructuring now?
Like I said, from the time the British stepped into Nigeria, restructuring has been taking place. Restructuring turned the Colony of Lagos into part of the Southern Protectorate, then we had the Northern and Eastern Provinces, regions and devolution of power from colonial authorities to the people; these were acts in restructuring. The efforts to attain independence were all restructuring and even the creation of the Mid-West Region was also restructuring, so what the hell does somebody mean by saying that those who lost elections in 2015 are the ones calling for restructuring? I’m not a politician; so I don’t want to take on anybody.
And that’s why I said it is not peculiar to Nigeria because it is part of the process of political development, so it cannot be peculiar.
And, in any case, the conference was held in 2014, 600 resolutions, all adopted by consensus. Go there, you would find what restructuring is all about. If, out of 600, you want to adopt 200 and drop 400, that is the first step. You cannot solve all the problems of a country in one day. None of the conferences that were held under the British solved all the problems – it didn’t solve the issue of the minorities. Instead, it set up a commission and the struggle continued and the Mid-West was created. And then (former Head of State) Gowon came in 1967 and created 12 states. To now say you don’t know what restructuring is, I’m shocked about that.
You do not need to agree with everything that we did. It doesn’t invalidate the exercise.
However, let me say this: It is only under a military regime that one man can decide the outcome of a constitutional conference and that is the Head of State. If he says I want 10 states created, he goes ahead. But what is being done through civilian consultative process is about give and take; and that was responsible for the number of states we ended up having because it was about ‘I want this, please support me’, and then you say ‘okay, I will support you but I want a state’. At the end of the day, people negotiated and ended up with an imperfect compromise, but it is a compromise to which you all could append your signature.
What is critical is to have your political elites reading from the same page. That is what creates stability. It came to me as a surprise too.
This issue of stat creation you mentioned. You know, I was the one reading out the resolutions and putting them to vote; so when I got to that and saw it, state creation, I looked at Justice Kutigi, it was then I knew that bargaining had taken place behind our back. Out of the normal, formal conference proceedings, delegates had met at night and had decided a lot of issues among themselves on that matter. It was overwhelmingly approved by the delegates. My job was to put it to a vote. And you know Nigerians could be funny; so the arrangement between Justice Kutigi and I was that I would put it to a vote, they will vote and Justice Kutigi would declare the result of the vote. So you then don’t come out to say ’Professor Akinyemi had a hidden agenda’. What Nigerians must understand is that give and take is the spirit and it is still very relevant in resolving the critical issue confronting us now.
So, if people could gather like that, agree, disagree and then agree, talk down at each other and still manage to reach consensus on those issues, why can’t the same thing happen now with the issue of restructuring?
Don’t forget, that we said we reached agreement by consensus, not unanimity. Each time somebody disagrees with something or wants to draw attention to himself, he looks for an issue that would make him prominent. Trump (US President) did it. Have you asked why, Trump, with his ostentatious lifestyle, claims to be a spokesperson for the poor, the coal miners, and yet they buy it, because he was speaking their language – he had looked for what will resonate with them and he latched onto that? That is why in a developing country, I was shocked, while I was reading about Pakistan, that only about three or four major families actually dominate politics there. Even in Libya, I never thought of LIBYA the way it turned out until Gaddafi was killed. And then Jordan, it is tribal families who rule and the royal family is dependent on them for support.
It’s about tribalism and ethnicity and politicians will always use divisive elements to shore up their own support.
When President Buhari started his first wave of appointments and it appeared some parts of the country were not carried along, people complained. But then, even those who had been properly carried along, to what extent have the masses of those regions or parts of the country benefitted in the past when such appointments were evenly spread? How can you respond in a context that people would understand and begin to reason properly that it is not just about appointments alone?
People cannot understand or reason properly. You’ve got to accept that in politics, rationality takes a back seat; people refuse to reason rationally when it comes to politics. Ethnicity is a negation of rational thinking. I remember once reading something that was meant to be a joke but it wasn’t. It said if you enter a Nigerian plane and you look at the newspapers people are reading, you can tell which part of the country they are from. It’s like my mind is made up, so don’t confuse me with facts. So, when a northerner then picks up a newspaper from another part of the country, his first impression is, ‘what do you expect?’ But if he reads the same thing in a newspaper aligned to his region, then he believes it. Same goes for a westerner or an easterner and that is why I have come to the conclusion that, right now, the only person who could solve Nigeria’s problem is Buhari.
The restructuring or the solution to the Nigerian problem involves the North embracing restructuring because the North has fears – mind you, the North doesn’t say it is marginalised. No. But the North has fears that it can be marginalised and that the only way to protect itself, because of the state of economic development, educational development and others, is to control the process and to control the system.
Look, we must tell each other the truth if, indeed, we want a solution to the Nigerian problem.
Since 1966, the constitutions we’ve had in this country have been the constitutions produced under military regimes and the military regimes we’ve had have been dominated by the North; given what happened in the counter coup of July 1966, they’ve never let go. And that is why you’ve had that overweighting of issues into the side of the exclusive list. Because if they control the federal government and they have a constitution that has transferred most of the powers to the federal government, then their fears are being addressed. They are protecting themselves. It’s a rational thing.
Okay, so how does President Buhari, with the way his administration has been set up as per appointments, rightly or wrongly, become a vehicle for solving the problem?
The person, right now, who the North believes in, is Buhari. If Buhari were to tell them that, ‘for the stability of Nigeria, in order for things not to fall apart, in order for us to even protect our gains in the North, the North has to give up certain issues; we must devolve issues, certain subjects, from the Exclusive List, Concurrent List and, also now, at least reserve some issues for the local governments’, and they would trust him; that he’s not selling them out for political reasons.
The fact that Atiku Abubakar said it, that Ibrahim Babangida said it, they don’t have the same kind of gravitas in the North as Buhari today.
But this President Buhari, from his body language, do you think he has this broad world view as to understand the complexities of the issues such that he can then take the bull by the horn?
The way to do that is to seek access to the people who surround him and people know who they are. The people he himself trusts.
Obviously, he’s not going to listen to me, for reasons that we have been talking about for some time now.
‘Professor Akinyemi is a Yoruba man now, so what do you expect?’ Even if he gives me audience, at the back of his mind is, ‘I’m gonna watch out for this man. I’m gonna watch out’.
I have never felt the kind of fear that I feel now. Obviously, I know some of the things that are going on and I know that this fear is being felt at many levels. All you need to do is to see people who normally don’t speak out who are now speaking out. The fear is palpable and genuine. It is not one created out of hot air.
It makes no sense to continue to say ‘Nigeria is indissoluble; the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable’.
Nobody plans disaster. Nobody does. We are rational to that level but there are always unforeseen consequences of an action.
A Swahili proverb says nobody teaches you how to fall into a ditch; but take a false step away from the edge and all the other steps follow rapidly and, before you know it, you’re at the bottom.
Nobody is planning disintegration of Nigeria deliberately; but through acts of commission or omission, things can get out of hand and that’s my fear.
A planned dissolution of Nigeria is not to be feared because by the time you look at the pros and cons, you will come to the conclusion that it is not possible because the consequences are more. It is that unplanned one that I fear. There are too many freelance agents now. It has become a game of who is going to be more radical, who is going to be more patriotic. The type of language I see on social media – saboteur, coward, patriot, traitor – all because they are not buying into the recklessness of some arguments – is frightening.
If you say you want to go to war and you want my support, surely at my level, I need to know how prepared you are. You cannot clap with one hand. I see war, how women and children are not spared on CNN, BBC al-Jazeera, you cannot pray for that. It’s not because I am a coward. This is not an appeal to one side. It is an appeal to all sides.
You may think you can overrun the place but that was before. This is not 1966. This is 2017. The amount of weapons in Nigeria now, where they are located, they are not under the control of government.
Are statesmen like you not meeting and reaching out and the need for them to calm nerves?
That’s why I’m talking to you. You recall that for about one year now, I haven’t spoken. I haven’t talked. But now I feel I have a duty. And there are friends across the bridges that we talk. But the generation of the First Republic, the generation of the civil war, they are all dying off and those who are now playing centre stage are people who have been fed and have grown up on grievances.
(Cuts in again) Let me give you an example of what happened at the (2104) conference. The North led a delegation to Justice Kutigi to complain about me. But Justice Kutigi was such an honourable man. He told them, ‘Wait, let me call him’. They didn’t like that. You know, part of the Nigerian style of governance is to go behind a man, to dig the ground under his feet, tell all kinds of lies, then you go away and take a decision on his fate without giving him an opportunity to defend himself, but Kutigi didn’t behave that way – because of his world view, a judge, who would listen to both sides. He sent for me. So I came and they said, ‘Well, Prof, we are not accusing you of anything dishonourable, but Prof didn’t just drop from heaven; he’s a Yoruba man, Yoruba blood flows in his vein. Therefore, he may not even be aware that he is pushing a Yoruba agenda; but you know the way you’ve allowed him to conduct the proceedings, we can see…’.
After listening to them, Justice Kutigi told them that ‘this same man, whom you’ve accused of driving a Yoruba agenda, do you know the first people who wrote a petition against him were the Yoruba? They said he has sold out to you northerners. The first petition. Do you know that while the South is in favour of State Police, he is against State Police? Do you know that while the South is against autonomy for local governments, prof actually is in favour of autonomy for local governments? These are critical issues which form the bulk of the southern agenda and you come here to say this’.
At that point, the Chairman lost his temper and let them have it. He said this was the way things happened. He asked for their evidence. There was nothing. He said our habit was to consult on everything and he and I would agree on what we were going to do. But in their minds, because that was what they were doing, they believed that ‘Prof cannot be objective’.
But there are people in the North, who actually see a danger to the survival of Nigeria if these issues are not addressed. Maybe they are people who think Atiku and IBB are making sense who may, in fact, although have not come out to say so, you’ve got to then talk to them. They are the ones who would talk to Buhari. He would then listen to them.
When President Buhari took over and attacked corruption frontally and the results started showing, it created the necessary dislocation in many quarters. But soon, some people began to wonder about the effect of the dislocation such that we started getting comments like ‘we were better off before’?
Corruption is something that baffles me, may be because of my discipline. I have often found it extremely useful to adopt a comparative approach in evaluating solutions to a problem. When I used to teach and even now when I’m still delivering a lecture, the easiest way to get to people is to say ‘in Malaysia, it is done this way, in Singapore, it is done this way, in Canada, therefore, problems that we face, they also faced, how have they addressed those issues; so don’t think that corruption is in the DNA of Nigerians alone.
Corruption is in all our DNAs’. If not, there wouldn’t be laws against corruption in other parts of the world. Laws are made to address a specific nuisance. Now, I have often found out that some countries ensure that those who are in charge of their systems have a post-retirement engagement that still keep them committed to the systems.
They understand that you must leave office but there are other offices created that still make you part of the system until one dies. In the case of Britain, the House of Lords is there and you then have commitment. Before deregulation and de-nationalisation, there were boards of government owned companies where you have vacancies.
Now those companies have been sold off; even when government companies are in the hands of the private sector, they know they still need people who understand the system and who can talk to those in the system, so actually they continue with the pre-deregulation system of appointing people after retirement. In the case of the US, because there is this nexus between the private sector and the government sector, which is where the whole question of lobbyists in Washington comes in, a very powerful group.
The essence is that you’re always part of the system and you’re also committed to the system; therefore, there is no reason for the corruption DNA in you to act up because you have more to lose when you are caught. We don’t do that here. One, if you’re holding an appointive post, the moment you leave, nobody wants to know you. I’m not saying you must be a Minister or Perm Sec for life. But let us use our brain and look at how others have handled the post retirement issue that makes their people committed.
It is worse because what we have done now is that there is even no stability all the way down to the legislature and local councils. And this is done by the godfathers who want to keep calling the shots such that loyalty is to the godfather and not the system. That’s why the country suffers because there is no continuity in the system. The godfather now replaces the system. You won’t tackle corruption by just preaching, you won’t because it is self-interest.
The issue of corruption is undermining everything and that is the truth.