Hakeem Baba-Ahmed is the Director of Publicity and Advocacy of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF). He recently appeared on PIVOTAL, a news programme on Channels Television, where he spoke on agitations for secession in some parts of the country, calls for restructuring as well as the trial of Sunday Igboho and Nnamdi Kanu, among others. ANAYO EZUGWU reports
People have expressed divergentopinions on the issue of restructuring and self-determination. For some, it is a bargaining chip to have access to power, while for others, it is a genuine call. How do you perceive these agitations?
There are two issues involved in self-determination. One is the principle of self-determination, which is almost as human as breathing because man is a political animal. Freedom is vital to men and communities and you must never design a system that forecloses key options like the right of communities to decide whether they want to be part of any association. It is also a basic foundation of the democratic system. Even under colonialism, colonialists continuously looked for ways in which it can address the issues of diversity in Nigeria. A democratic system is fundamentally based on the willingness of citizens to submit to authorities that they feel that they are part of. And our country’s federal system is designed around the idea that diversity must be managed and be managed well. If you fail to manage diversity, pluralism, inclusiveness in a nation, either by individuals or groups, then you actually threaten a country. Now, those are principles but as far as Nigeria is concerned, the real problem has been what we have witnessed in the last few years, maybe in the last decade, has been an abuse of the responsibility of leadership to address diversity, to manage it in such a way that it builds a country rather than breaks down the country. That is the first stage of leadership. It is a fundamental responsibility of politicians to manage diversity. If you fail to manage diversity, you get all this wide spectrum of opinion between those who think we are not being treated fairly, we don’t belong, we don’t feel we are part of this country, those who just want to go out, who don’t want to be part of this country and we want to leave. So, this is the huge spectrum somewhere in-between. You are likely going to find the hand of a state which has been inept or actually complicit in abusing the trust and confidence of citizens in a state like Nigeria.
So, I think that what we are dealing with here is where do you strike a balance that addresses grievances that are genuine and can be managed in the context of a nation that continues to exist without any part of the country feeling that the only solution to these problems is to leave the country.
What is your assessment of how the government is handling the cases of Sunday Igboho and Nnamdi Kanu?
As far as Kanu and Igboho cases are concerned, I consider these things as a matter of law and order. I think both individuals live in a country of laws. We are a nation of laws and if they have broken the laws of the country, they should be processed through the laws of the country, through the judicial process. They should receive a fair trial and if the state feels they have broken any laws, they should be tracked and processed through a fair process. That is how I feel about it. The fact that we are trying to put serious political colouration and trying to politicise this is very dangerous for the country. We have already done enough damage with politicians hiding behind individuals, who feel that they can actually capitalise on genuine sentiments about marginalisation, alienation and injustice, which has always existed in this country. And which will always continue to exist in this country. There are boundaries you cannot cross and you should not cross. This is my view about this. If you do cross them, then the laws of the land should be out to judge whether you have actually broken the law.
There seems to be some kind of confusion on what is secession and what is devolution of power, can you help us bring out this dichotomy and probably some of these agitators will get it correctly?
My understanding of secession is just an outcry. People feel we don’t want to be part of this country. We have grievances and we believe that these grievances cannot be resolved in the context of Nigeria and therefore, we want out. So, that is what I understand as secession.
Would devolution of power solve it?
Devolution of power will address a huge part of the resentment and the frustrations that give rise to this sort of thing. However, you always have people who think no matter what you do, the only way they become politically relevant is by saying we don’t want to be part of this country. Now, the question to ask here is, what is it that gives the marginalised people the opportunity to move to the centre stage? It is poor governance, failure to appreciate how to manage diversity, failure to address issues like local policing, giving local communities power to decide how their lives should be run, giving them the power to decide how resources can be generated and used, keep creating an environment where they feel both local and Nigerian. This is vital. You need Nigerians who feel they are relevant to governance but they are also Nigerians. So, restructuring the country, given huge responsibilities down to the local communities, is vital to do. So, they will be the ones to deal with these issues, it is not everything that should be decided by Abuja. The way we run things now is that you put so much power and responsibility in the centre. When things go wrong people, have nowhere else to go but to blame the centre.
How do we ensure equity and fairness because every ethnic nationality is crying marginalization? How do we ensure equity and justice?
First, is by genuinely trying to find out why so many Nigerians feel alienated and being treated unfairly. It is important and part of the responsibility of the leaders to listen and find out why, for instance, in the South-East, the demand for and total lack of faith in leadership is high. It is not just about Abuja. In the South-East, the reason why political leaders are so thin on the ground is that the community feels that they didn’t vote for them, they are not their people and they are not representing their interests. There is something fundamentally wrong about the political leadership that cannot inspire confidence, even enough confidence to say can we complain to you that we have a problem. And those problems are across the whole country. When you have an administration like the one we have now that just simply knocks out its problem, says look we don’t want to hear about restructuring because National Assembly is dealing with constitutionalism; we don’t want to hear about grievances and agitations because that is just trouble makers. We don’t want to hear about communities saying we don’t feel we belong. We have a President who says he got five per cent from a whole part of the country, and in a way, he doesn’t owe that part of the country anything. These are not the kind of things that make for a stable and peaceful nation. We need to put Nigeria on the table and actually understand what is going on. Why is it that we have never had a national dialogue and get Nigerians from all parts of the country to talk to each other and try to see if we can solve this problem? If the government doesn’t want to provide a platform or opportunity to do this, there is nothing stopping us from doing it ourselves. We can talk to each other and we can influence change. What is failing is the Nigerian elites. Where are those Nigerians who believe that this country is worth saving? Where are those people who believe that Nigeria is actually a great country and can be even greater? Where are those with responsibility, why are we leaving the country for politicians to run it aground?
Is it too late to rescue Nigeria?
It is not too late and we must never ever think that it is too late. We owe the next generation the responsibility and duty to keep the flag flying. This country was built in great pain and it took a lot to build this country. It is a resilient country. It is a strong country and it can be salvaged. We should not give up, we are not giving up and there are enough people who are committed to the country to actually pull it over. It is not over and we must never allow naysayers, people who want to break us and those who want to fight if they cannot have it their way. We must never give them the chance to decide what happens to this country.