Chief John Nnia Nwodo is the President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. In this interview monitored on Arise Television, he speaks on the state of the nation, zoning debate over the 2023 presidential election and the clamour for restructuring of Nigeria, among other issues. FELIX NWANERI brings the excerpts
There is a raging debate on the issue of zoning as regards the 2023 presidency. What are your thoughts on the issue and what is the position of Ohanaeze Ndigbo on that?
It is wrong for people to keep changing their views according to when it suits them personally. A few years ago, the North trended that President Goodluck Jonathan was assuming the tenure of President Umaru Yar’Adua, which was a Northern tenure and that he should not do a second term.
So, the 2015 election was run on the basis that it was the turn of the North and the North has been prevented from its tenure.
Now, in a fragile democracy of the kind that we have, the greatest threat to our country, which should have been a strength is our ethnic diversity.
We tend to be more loyal to our ethnic configurations than to the nation and this led us to even the military contrived constitution, providing in section 14 that in composing the government of the federation, regard must be had for the federal character. I don’t think we need anything more directional than a specific provision of the constitution say that we must respect federal character.
Now, if you look at the governance of our country, the entire security apparatus of Nigeria is headed by people none of whom is from the South-East; not the Army, not the Navy, not the Air Force, not the Police, not the Customs, not the Immigration, not the Road Safety Corps and not even the Civil Defence.
This tends to give some concern to people from that part of the country that they are not accepted in the country and that the war is not yet over. This dangerous for the country!
You alluded in your introduction that some people are saying that Igbos have to reach out to other parts of Nigeria in order to be more accepted, but you know that if there is any ethnic group in Nigeria that has reached out to other ethnic groups more than others, it is the Igbos.
There is no part of this country that you will go to and you do not find an Igbo man, living and carrying on a useful enterprise. In every section of this country, whether the North or South, once you remove the indigenous population, the next largest population are the Igbos. This means that Igbos see abode in all parts of Nigeria; Igbos contribute to the development of every part of Nigeria.
They invest in schools, they invest in hospitals, they invest in hotels, they have retail businesses as well as manufacturing businesses. If you go to Sokoto, there is an Igbo man with a tomato factory; if you go to Ogun State, there is an Igbo man with a university.
Are these not indications that Igbos are more Nigerian than the average Nigerian. So, anybody questioning the loyalty of the Igbos because we went to war and the issues for which we went to war are still in existence in our country is being totally unfair to the Igbos.
The civil war ended over 50 years ago but agitation for Biafra did not end. Don’t you think it is impeding the quest by Igbos to produce a president?
First, we are running a constitution that is not a peoples’ constitution. In other words, we didn’t make the constitution but yet it starts with a sentence, which says that ‘we the people of Nigeria made this constitution.’
The constitution is devoid of public approval either by a referendum or by some kind of votes – yes or no votes. The military made this constitution.
I was part of the government of General Abdulsalami Abubakar that made this constitution but it never came to our Executive Council, it went to a Supreme Military Council composed of military officers who were not chosen on equal geographical representation. In fact, we didn’t see a copy of the constitution until after General Olusegun Obasanjo had been sworn-in as president in 1999.
You will notice from history that the National Assembly was not convoked because of the late arrival of the constitution and whoever was amending it while it was in print, John Nwodo does not know.
That cannot be a document binding to the people of Nigeria. So, for the people of the South-East, it is painful that our constitution does not reflect the agreement of our forefathers at the time that we got independence. In the South-East, there has been tremendous marginalization; all standards in the zone have fallen.
If you look at the mineral resources that the zone has, which sustained the eastern economy before the war, they have been de-invested. Look at the Coal Corporation, we generated power from coal but the Coal Corporation is now a nightmare.
The Federal has annexed all assets of the corporation, including its headquarters in Enugu, residential quarters of its staff as well as its land. In other words, the Federal Government thinks that coal is not worth it anymore, notwithstanding that the United States and Russia, which have very strong economies, still explore coal as a source of power. The first oil well in Nigeria was in Oloibri and was commissioned by my father as Minister of Commerce and Industry; an Eastern Nigeria resource.
We have oil wells and gas wells in the South-East but nobody is taking them serious; they ones that are being exploited are not for our usage in any way. In Imo, Enugu, Abia and Anambra states, we have oil and gas wells but you will be surprised to know that Owerri gas reserve, which is the richest gas reserve is been piped all the way to Lagos without any part of it reticulating in the industrial reserves in the South-East.
You will be surprised that it is been piped all the way to Ajaokuta and from Ajaokuta, it is going Kano and Katsina, and from there to North Africa without any of it reticulating in the South-East.
If you belong to the South-East and the natural resources of the zone is been taking away without any them reticulating in the area and Federal Government’s expenditure on capital expenditure is in trickles, you will necessarily feel the same way the boys in Indigenous People od Biafra (IPOB) feel.
This is why Ohanaeze says that our priority is restructuring of the federation; that we return to the system that we had before the war and that every part of Nigeria has sovereignty over its resources, develops at its own pace and its own standards, while we deal with common services as a federation.
In every political dictionary, a federation is any government in which the federating units have donated some of their powers to the federal structure and some these powers include powers of foreign relations, powers of external defence, immigration and customs, but not economic power.
Our country is going down economically; the system hasn’t helped and for those who are pontificating about the fact that we need to move to areas of choosing leadership on the basis of competence; we find it insulting that when it is obvious that it is time for the South-East, somebody is giving a suggestion that there are no people of competence in the zone.
That is denigrating and hurtful, and I detest this kind of argument because we know that people have filled this position on the basis that ‘it is our turn’ and not necessarily produced the best. But I am confident that there are a lot of people in the South-East, who have so much qualification for the position and if they are given the chance, Nigeria will smile for it.
There was a newspaper report of February 16, 1958, the day crude oil was first lifted out of Nigeria, which had it that the region from where oil was being lifted from was going to be given 12.5 per cent of revenue made from oil. Is that an indication that restructuring would be best for the country?
The report was definitely wrong because the region was not going to get 12.5 per cent instead the region was going to pay royalties to the Federal Government.
That 12.5 per cent was probably referring to royalties to the Federal Government.
In the 1979 presidential election, the candidates of two of the leading parties, Alhaji Shehu Shagari of National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and Chief Obafemi Awolowo of Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) had Igbos – Alex Ekwueme and Philip Umeadi – as running mates.
When are we going to a point that we will have that again?
You might also allude to the fact that there was also a time in this country that we had Chief Olu Falae, who is now talking about forgetting about zoning as well as General Obasanjo as candidates of the two leading political and they came from the same area.
This was because it was felt at that time that Chief MKO Abiola won the 1993 election but was deprived of his victory; a monstrous political crime that this government has apologized for. It was said that the only way to
make up for that crime was to say that it is the turn of the Yoruba, so the two leading political parties nominated Yorubas and it was a matter of Nigerians choosing the one they wanted.
Chief Falae’s argument is that zoning the way it is being talked about in Nigeria amounts to shadow and that we really need to do is to restructure. But some people are saying that before restructuring, the presidency should go round and that after the South-East would have had the presidency; restructuring can come. What do you think should come first?
If I had my way, I would want Nigeria restructured today before anything else. Right now, the emphasis is on the benefit of power rather than the use of power to activate our resources in order to capture with development trend in the world. Right now, we are carrying a debt burden and we need to spend 70 per cent of our annual earnings to retire its interest without retiring the principal. In other words, we are committing our children and grandchildren to a life of perpetual indebtedness.
No country survives that. While we are doing this, we have neglected the activation of agricultural endowment, mineral endowment and the development our education. The world have left us!
Today in America, there is drone technology that enables you to go to war without putting a booth on the floor.
Americans killed an Iranian general on his way to another country without leaving Washington; even located him in a car, shot him to death and when members of his entourage were exiting to run for their lives, they shot them accurately and finished them.
Benjamin Netanyahu told us how he can use drone technology to scan a farm to determine the chemical composition of all plants in that farm and also remedy it with drone technology. Now, why is that the world’s largest of cassava cannot export ethanol? Why can’t we use cassava as animal feeds?
Why do we have tomato in Gombe and other parts of north eastern part of Nigeria as well as grown in every part of the country, but we still have to import tomato purée?
Why do we have cattle in abundance and don’t milk them, rather we still import milk from Holland?
It shows you that the latent potentialities, which a micro-government with power has, are absent. If we had state governments that were independent of the Federal Government in terms of control of their natural resources and capacity to invest them on their development, we will go far.
Today, there is a trending move for solar energy to grow exponentially with a new mineral called peroscovide, which has the capacity to give the panels a higher retention capacity of power.
What does this mean? Right now, the number of electric cars demanded in Europe, China and America has outstripped the number of cars based on fossil oil. So, in the next 10 years, our major source of revenue is going to go. The Federal Government has no capacity to sustain its responsibilities if don’t restructure.
So, to answer your question, I will first go for restructuring. Restructuring will also promote national unity because it will engender competition as there is no zone that doesn’t have endowments they can catalyze to bring production, wealth and life more abundant for the people.
Secondly, it will dilute the ethnic fractions in Nigeria about who becomes the president because the president will only preside over an executive council composed of equal representation of the zones and this kind of blindfolded domination of government positions and allocation of government resources will cease to exist.
Therefore, it will no longer be in anybody’s favour to say one area or the other should produce the president. But under the present circumstance, if Nigeria remains in this false structure, which it is, it will be totally unfair to the Igbos not to give them the opportunity to have a shot at the presidency.
When you talk about restructuring and you refer to the First Republic, are you suggesting that we return to the 1963 Constitution and parliamentary system of government although some people keep reminding Nigerians that it was Army officers of Igbo extraction that torpedoed that constitution and arrangement and therefore put the country where it is today?
I think that is not fair to narrate history in a selective way. We’ve had numerous coups in this country and even the one you ascribed to the Igbos had some Yorubas as well as Northerners.
According Major Emmanuel Ifejuna, who was at the centre of the planning of that coup, it was done to make Chief Obafemi Awolowo president or prime minister of Nigeria.
So, if the Igbos were working to enthrone Awolowo, to describe that coup as a sectional putsch would be most unpatriotic and unfair to them. But ever since then, we’ve had coups that were organised by only one section of the country and they never led to any dramatic change in the quality of governance.
So, I take serious objection to characterizing the coup of January 1966 as an Igbo coup because Igbos in the army, who were involved in that coup, did not hold a conference at which they consulted their leaders and told them that they were going to stage a coup. Yorubas and Northerners in the army, who were also involved in the coup, equally did not consult their leaders.
So, I think it is unfair to single out the January 1966 coup and label it an Igbo coup; a number of history books have corrected that narration.
Cumulatively, the army had been in government than even democracy has been, so the Nigerian military ought to take the responsibility for giving our democracy a military style characterization.
I am in court with other members of Southern and Middle Belt Leadership Forum, challenging President Muhammadu Buhari on his oath of office and on his compliance to the Federal Character provisions over his appointments and I believe that it is important to go through this declarative action to define the constitution imposed on us as it is obeyed in breach rather than in character.
Going back on your question on whether I support a return to the parliamentary system of government; I am of the opinion that the presidential system is too expensive.
What is happening today in the National Assembly is a terrible scam; no reasonable country can contain it. As journalists, I am not sure you can tell exactly how much a member of the National Assembly takes home and revelations from several authorities, including that from a former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, indicate that we are paying people for work that they are not doing. We are wasting resources of the government and the National Assembly is virtually a rubber stamp. Look at the investigation into affairs of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC); you cannot be a judge in your own matter.
The National Assembly has been painted in all kinds of characterization and involvement in the distribution of largesse in that commission and yet it is sitting in judgement on it and the government looks away from it.
A lot of criminal acts have been unraveled in the revelations of both the ministry and the commission nut the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Attorney General of the Federation are looking the other way. What kind of government is this?
In a parliamentary system, the premier has executive responsibility but the parliament has the control because the premier is also a member of parliament. I think that we have fooled ourselves for too long; following the American example has not helped and it wouldn’t help in the future. Why do you maintain that Nigeria should continue with zoning?
Should we not be looking at zoning, rotation of power and competence at the same time? You presuppose that when people zoned in the past, they didn’t take competence into consideration.
When General Buhari was running for the presidency, everybody talked about his anti-corruption posture and it was felt that since corruption was the greatest problem of Nigeria, a man who had been in government, the height he attained and remained unblemished was probably the most qualified person to be president. This was apart from the fact that there was a strong argument that President Jonathan has taken over the turn of the North.
Now, you are changing the goal post according to who is talking and I find it outrageous and provocative. In any event, it is wrong for anybody to say that if we must rotate the presidency in Nigeria, it is antiqualification or competence.
That is an assumption that exclusivity is a characteristic of a certain part of Nigeria. There is no part of Nigeria without extremely qualified people to be president; the problem is the process of recruitment.
The process of recruitment of leadership in Nigeria is corrupt; it is monopolized by a few people.
You cannot become a councillor in any state in Nigeria unless you are nominated by the governor in that state. It has nothing to do with adult suffrage or your popularity in your constituency and the dominant political parties have acquired usage and control of the electoral process in a manner that it is difficult for new parties to upset them unless there is a mass uprising, the kind of which tried to hold in Abuja today (last week) but was suppressed.
There is no country that had grown into a strong political democracy that has not been accompanied by a mass movement of political organisations. Look at our electoral commission; this is the only country in the world, where you will have an election and one year after, you are still having disputations as to who won the election.
So, there are lots of challenges for the next leadership of Nigeria to face; the challenge of giving character to our nation; the challenge of returning sanity to our systems; the challenge of holding public officer to account.
What will it take to have a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction and would you name one two persons, who are ready for it?
I won’t name anyone because I know that all the political parties have people who have the requisite experience, knowhow and integrity to run for the office of president.
There are three political parties that have produced members of the National Assembly for this country – All Progressives Congress (APC), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). In all three of them, Igbos are strongly rooted.
APGA is the only political party that does not belong to the two main parties that has a governor, so there is a superfluity of Igbos in the three main political parties in the country. So, asking me this question is begging the question or looking for a joker for a headline that will say ‘Nwodo endorses A, B or C.’ As the President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, I am not supposed to be partisan and I it won’t be my duty to ask any of the parties, who among the Igbos it wants.
As journalists, you should begin to look at Igbos in public terrain and say; what are their records and which of them can be president. There are many Igbos who in service in office have shown transparency, who are focused, who have the grasp of what our problems are and how to deal with them, who have friends across Nigeria and can reach out.
Earlier, you said that Igbos are more Nigerian than people from other sections of Nigeria and I guess that it is on the basis of this that you are opposed to the idea of secession. But there is an Igbo group led by Nnamdi Kanu, which has been insisting on secession and the group seems to have large following among Igbo youths. Is there a disconnect between the elites in Igbo land and the younger generation?
The problem in Igbo land is an example of the problem with the greater Nigeria.
The young people of Nigeria are fed up with government. Young people in the South-East feel that they don’t belong to Nigeria.
None of them can get a job in the civil service of the federation on the basis of merit; none of them can get a job in the armed forces on the basis of merit. Even in the latest employment by the National Directorate of Employment, we are getting the lowest share, they are being allocated according to who you know, there is no transparency, so my people are fed up. You know that Igbos are very talented and energetic people as well as gregariously enterprising in commercial and educational issues.
They believe in triumph of the best, they are competitive people but they don’t see any avenue for competition in Nigeria.
They have lost confidence in the country called Nigeria and those of us who fought the war and who know that it is wrong to have the rhetoric that stampedes us from what we were coming from, we would rather feel that it is better to renegotiate Nigeria and have a restructured Nigeria.
God did not make a mistaking by putting all of us together, but I can tell you that if Nigeria continues in this presidential system and with this military contrived constitution, her future is questionable. It wouldn’t be just IPOB people but the rest of the young people of Nigeria will not allow this to continue.