BY OMONIYI SALAUDEEN
Dr Chukwuemeka Pius Ezeife is one of the most respected voices in the South East. Blunt and down-to-heart, he makes no pretence about issues that concern the Igbo race.
He likes calling a spade a spade, no matter whose ox is gored. In this interview, he insists that Igbo must have their own share of power before presidency returns to the North.
The debate of the PIB bill at the senate has revealed that 83 percent of oil wells in Nigeria belong to the cabal in North. What do you have to say about this?
The only thing worth saying is that there should be a re-distribution of oil wealth in Nigeria. Everybody knows it is unfair. It was a wrong use of power by those who have been in power. They don’t produce a drop of oil and they are controlling 83 percent of oil well. The other 17 percent is not just to other Nigerians, I am sure; they are directly to those friends of the North. It is like a monopoly of power. Again, by the structure of the society, the money doesn’t go down. It is only feeding the banks overseas. That is one of the reasons why we have Boko Haram. If it were those who think they can Islamise Nigeria, it would have been nipped in the bud. The mission to Islamise Nigeria is a mission impossible. When all the governors were asked to coin out a name like epitaph for their states, some chose heart of the nation. As governor of Anambra State, I chose home for all. But the Governor of Sokoto State chose born to rule. If not for lack of space, they would have added exclusively. But they were implementing exclusivity in the rulership of Nigeria. Yet, these are people who are feudal; a contradiction in a democracy. In democracy, the wellbeing of the people is the supreme goal of governance. In a feudal system, keeping the ordinary people down is the wise thing to do. This is unlike southern Nigerian people, especially Igbo where egalitarianism as well as upward social mobility is the norm. These are people who can make Nigeria great. These are people who have a social system of encouraging all for achievement. The Igbo, indeed, contrary to what people say, are the people who like money least among the tribes in Nigeria. But they like success very much. They pursue success anywhere they are and they encourage other people to pursue success. Because of achievement orientation, entrepreneurship, industry, education, everybody believes they like money more than other tribes. It is not fair; it can only happen in a society that is not normal or where people don’t think fairly, where there is no sense of justice, equity and fairness.
If the problem of Boko Haram is as a result of injustice, how will the amnesty solve the insurgency?
I support amnesty if it can stop the killing of people. People are being killed in many wicked ways. However, as the president said: do you extend amnesty to ghosts? That is a very legitimate question. In principle, you can support amnesty, but in practice, you may find nobody to give it to.
That means, if they are ready to come out to dialogue, you will support it?
I am blindly in total support of amnesty if that will stop the killing and the ruining of Nigeria. However, they have to help us to help them.
Do you support the section of the PIB bill that says 10 percent of revenue earnings of oil companies must be set aside for the host communities?
I don’t fully understand. Is that in addition to 13 percent derivation? The host communities they are talking about include those areas which host refineries and pipelines. I think ultimately, derivation principle on oil will lead to oil producing states getting 25 percent instead of 13 percent. So, it is a matter of choice. We can leave the issue of oil producing communities and emphasise derivation and give them 25 percent. Let us give them 25 percent derivation and end the incessant agitations.
Nigeria is moving gradually to 2015. Where do you expect power to shift in 2015?
Power will remain in the South in 2015 either held by Jonathan who is holding it now or held by an Ibo man. That is what will happen. And that will be for the stability of the country. Igbo forces and Jonathan forces will play a game of cooperation. Before the primary, the forces of Jonathan and the forces of Igbo will meet and look at the field. If Jonathan can win cleanly, without obstructing or damaging democratic structure already in place, Ibo will support him. If after the analysis, it is difficult for him to win, Ibo will run. And it will be a win-win situation. But anybody in the North thinking of power should think again.
You mean they should forget power in 2015?
For 52 years of our independence, they stayed in power for 331/2 years. They should just cool off. They should wait and let the South get to equal number of years before they think of power. By that time, they would have imbibed the lessons of progress for everybody; they would have imbibed the correct lessons of democracy. By that time, democracy will dominate feudalism. By then, there will be no occasion of some people taking their children abroad and leaving the children of others as almajiris. By the way, it is not only the North that is responsible for almajiris. I blame my people in the North for seeing those children and allowing them to run in the streets without setting up educational foundation from the money they are making in many areas to get the people integrated into the society in a meaningful way. It is time for Igbo to make friend with other tribes in Nigeria. It is time for Igbo to correct things that make other Nigerians jealous of them.
If you are talking of cooperating with Jonathan, will that not amount to trading off Igbo’s right to the presidency of this country?
No, you are wrong. We, the Igbo people of Nigeria dumped all our eggs in Jonathan’s basket in 2011 during election. We inspired South South to cohere and do the same. We inspired the Middle Belt to do the same. It is not our job to throw him out of office. The constitution allows him two terms. But it is not automatic. It depends on performance. That is why we are aspiring and he is also aspiring. If he has done enough to make people want to vote for him, we will support him. So, that doesn’t kill Ibo aspiration. After Jonathan, nobody will make any noise about it; it is Ibo’s time. It is automatic, no negotiation.
Will Igbo also spend eight years, if the constitution still remains the same?
When we spend four years in the first instance and the person is electable without spoiling the democratic structure we have set up, he will go for a second term. After that, another group of people will take their turn. Ibo doesn’t have to spend eight years. Nobody has automatic right to spend eight years. Constitution provides for four years but if the people accept you, you go for a second term.
This administration is already close to midterm. By your assessment, do you think Jonathan would have done enough to deserve a second term by the end of his tenure?
In assessing Jonathan’s performance, all of us must take account of empirical condition under which he operated. What is that empirical condition? It is the condition in Nigeria created by politicians who promised to make Nigeria ungovernable for Jonathan. They promised it and implemented it. We are still mourning the dead from the 2011 elections, including National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) members whose lives were wasted. In assessing performance of Jonathan, Boko Haram impact must be taken into proper account. It is like putting a bag of salt on somebody and making rains to follow the person. At the end of the day, do you have the right to ask him how much salt is left in the bag? So, assessing Jonathan is not easy. But there is progress; progress in power, progress in peace, progress in integration, progress in the image of Nigeria abroad, progress in emergency management. We didn’t know anything about flood control before. But look at what the government did with flood control when it came. It is not going to be simplistic to assess Jonathan’s performance. If you are simplistic, you will say nothing is happening. Assessing Jonathan’s performance requires deep thinking not shallowness.
If this Boko Haram insurgency continues till 2015, do you see Nigeria having a peaceful election?
The longer Boko Haram stays, the longer the North stays out of power. In fact, for each month they stay, the more years they stay out of power. The world is guided by a Superior Being. It is not easy to just short change everybody. As an Ibo man, I feel bad. But like I told you, I support unconditional amnesty, if it will end killings of innocent people.
If power remains in the South after 2015, will there not be an escalation of this crisis?
People are to choose. No group of Nigerians can walk away from a working Nigeria feeling triumphantly. The North has vested interest in Nigeria remaining one. Indeed, it was because of the North that we were amalgamated in 1914 to use the resources of the South to support the deficit of the North. The Ibo man being killed all over the place and still remaining partially in the North will want Nigeria to remain one forever. We are traveling people, we are everywhere. We pursue wealth anywhere we find ourselves. When we get it, we come home and share it with the people. The Yoruba controls the finance and industry. They need the market Nigeria offers. Ibo too need Nigeria for market for their industrial products and financial services. Hausa need Nigeria for their agricultural produce. So, everybody has vested interests in Nigeria that can be made to work and we must make it work before completing this centenary celebration. It is a matter of getting Nigerians together in a constitutional conference. Let them think freely about how to make permanent of one Nigeria. All these other ideas people are parading about are just mere details. When we get there, we can walk out the details.
But successive governments have not shown any commitment to this constitutional conference that you are talking about.
Ignorance is a disease. My people die for lack of knowledge. Our holding on to power will mean nothing, if we do not take action like national dialogue to ensure the permanence of Nigeria. Anything can happen subsequently, but if we take action now before 2014 to ensure permanence of Nigeria, that will be an achievement. If Jonathan does that, he has achieved a lot because he has given Nigeria a platform that can work. He shall have transformed Nigeria from a cheap rate situation to a country where things work. The greatest legacy Goodluck Jonathan Ebele can leave for Nigeria is a country whose permanence is assured through a peoples’ constitution developed in a constitutional conference and approved by a referendum.
Is there any indication that that will be done before the centenary celebration?
The National Assembly is doing well by trying to involve Nigerians in the various localities in the constitution they are amending. But National Assembly has no right to review the constitution of the people. It is like a tenant; you can amend cracks in the house, but rebuilding it is responsibility of the owner of the house. The people of Nigeria are the sovereign maker of the constitution. So, Jonathan must know that the greatest achievement he can make is to leave behind a country where things work. A country where things work is a country where people who make up the country agree on how they live together.
In spite of the killing and maiming of innocent lives, Igbo have decided to stay put in the North. Why do they appear to be so undaunted?
It is now an easy thing to relocate. There is what we call geographical inertia. Geographical inertia makes you stay where you are in spite of inconveniences and attraction of other places. You may not know enough from what you have said. Go to Damaturu, you may not find Igbo there. Go to Postiskum, Kano, Kaduna, and Maiduguri, what you find is an exodus of Igbo. Some women covering their faces came to interview me here and they asked me what can be done to get back the Igbo to the North. And I said, Igbo are in the North. They said yes, Igbo are there, but many had left. Igbo have a tradition of success like Jews. There are other elements of tradition. You adopt as your home where you live. And you do everything as if it is your home. There are so many dimensions of the Igbo man. The only autochthonous Nigerians are the Igbo. Nobody likes to die. Shooting and killing a person can be very painful to the relations.
Is there an end in sight to all this?
Some leaders of Boko Haram came out and called for a ceasefire. If they are serious, the end is near. But there is a development in Yoruba land that is frightening me.
What is that?
Let no one deceive himself. Any group of people can be radicalized. We use Yoruba today as an epitome of proper management of religion in the society. In a Yoruba family, you have Christians and Muslims. I live all my life in Yoruba. A woman died a Muslim but most of his friends were Christians. But the friends proceeded to the house of the woman and pleaded with the family for her to be buried in the Christian way and the family agreed. So, a person who lived as a Muslim was buried as a Christian. In Yoruba land, whether it is Christmas time, Eid-malud or Eid-Kabir, it’s all festivity. The permanence of that situation cannot be taken for granted. That is the point I am trying to make. But it is possible to radicalize Yoruba Muslims. I read a report in a paper recently of an alleged plot to kill IBB and I discovered that those who were to do this thing were Yoruba. In fact, they appear to be close to Lagos and they were trained in Iran. It is possible to radicalize Yoruba Muslims and we should do everything within our powers to stop it. For me, I have a special place for Yoruba in my mind. As a civil servant in Lagos, I observed the Nigerian politics and found Igbo and Yoruba going parallel lines in Nigeria politics. And as parallel lines, they will remain parallel slaves in Nigeria politics. When Abiola came out for president, everywhere he went in the East, he went with siren of Anambra State. Anywhere he went, I was there with him. In fact, I was punished before that election. I was summoned to Abuja by the military Head of State to be told off and tongue whipped for giving excessive support to Abiola. As an elected governor, I had to follow a plane to drop military men in Lagos before taking me to Enugu. Indeed, I was summoned to Abuja without transport at the Airport. I had to take a taxi even as the only SDP governor in the East. When the military wanted to return Nigeria back to civilian government, I became a member of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) because I wanted to stay with my brothers in Lagos. I only left when Yoruba didn’t have any space left for me anymore. Today, we have southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly made up of South West, South East, and South-South. No more parallel lines, no more parallel slaves.
Do you see Nigeria evolving a two-party system like SDP and NRC?
Yes, it is easy. It can even be done very fast. But it will not be automatic because of interests. Many conservative people are hiding in PDP. Many progressives too are hiding there. But there may be more progressives in PDP than the conservatives. So, if somehow we can resurrect SDP and define who can come into it and who cannot come into it, may be, SDP can ally with PDP. The spirit of a two-party system is integration. It shouldn’t be based on any sentiment except ideology. Our people must know the truth; SDP and NRC were not created by Babangida. If you want to give credit to anybody, you will praise John Oyegun, former governor of Edo State. He was then a Permanent Secretary. I was then the chairman of privatization. There were eight of us who were Permanent Secretaries in the committee for return to civilian government. None of us was interested in politics but we had permanent interest of Nigeria in mind. And we asked ourselves, what is the way to create a country where things work? We ended up in adopting a two-party system- a little to the left, a little to the right. One of the Permanent Secretaries disagreed and absented from voting because he staunchly believed in born to rule. Eventually, we suggested a two-party system to IBB. That man is intelligent. He is not only brilliant in memory, he is also intelligent. IBB was God’s gift to Nigeria. As human being, he probably has his own weaknesses. But when he saw the thing we crafted, he made no change whatsoever. All he did in a very simple political language was to put it as a little to the left, a little to the right. Most successive countries in the world have only two party system with independent candidates allowed.
President Goodluck Jonathan recently granted state pardon to former governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, and some other individuals who have soiled their hands in corruption. How do you see this development in the light of the government’s anti-corruption war?
Corruption is the bane of Nigerian society. It has turned our lord justices to our lord injustices. Corruption is everywhere. The conscience of the country is gone. To fight corruption is not impossible, but Jonathan has to lead the fight. But the question is: what did Alamieyeseigha do that other governors of his time did not do. Giving pardon to Alamieyeseigha is like giving pardon to the spirit of Nigeria because everything about his case was a violation of the norm. A few members of the House of Assembly who impeached him didn’t form a quorum as required by the constitution. The same thing happened to Governor Joshua Dariye of Plateau State. Nothing Alamieyeseigha did that his other colleagues didn’t do but Obasanjo picked on him and all the forces of government were turned against one man. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But if the second wrong is to correct the first wrong, we tolerate it.