An elder statesman, former Chairman of the Northern Elders Forum and Chairman, Governing Board of the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council, Dr Paul Unongo, discusses the security situation in the country, restructuring and other national issues
There has been a resurgence of violence and killings in Southern Kaduna for some weeks and the government seems to be incapable of dealing with these criminals. What do you see as the cause of this carnage?
I think the reason why you are asking me this question is because I have been around for quite some time and I have been in the struggle for an independent Nigeria – a sustainable, peaceful and all-interacting and interactive Nigeria. Since the good old days with people like David Lot and Joseph Tarka, we have been talking very loudly about integrating every single person and caring for every single section of the country. These are technically those we call the minority groups..
I advanced a theory when I was much younger that if the minority groups of this country came together and formed a strong political force, they would actually impose their will on the three major tribes, which, at that point, were the ones running the country. I mean the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa/Fulani regions. And I noted that the then northern Nigeria should be reorganised because we were gigantic and I knew religion was going to play a major role. So, we advocated for the reorganisation of the then northern region and we thought one of them should be called the Middle Belt region.
So, if you know the history of Southern Kaduna from the annexation of communities into the then Zaria Province, you know that the things happening today were observed at that time. The in-depth analysis would reveal that we have not handled the crisis of integration with the seriousness that it deserves. I think, by creating regions, we could have, by this time, made Nigerians happier if our leaders were more proactive and not reactive. In Nigeria, we seem to wait until a situation deteriorates, then we take a reactive action and think we are addressing the problem, whereas we are not.
I think showing intelligence is stopping a crisis from happening – that is the work of intelligence. When you get intelligence from agencies, you must work on it quickly. The Western world is not as chaotic as it is here. We are not suggesting that they don’t have incursions or crises but they are able to act promptly on their intelligence. So, I think that the criticism that applies is that our government’s reaction or action time takes too long. I don’t know what the problem is. It usually comes up with an action that would have been effective if it had acted from the beginning of the situation. It waits until the problem has festered and many of the atrocities have been committed. Such a reaction becomes suppressive and can produce a counterproductive result. This is because you are trying now to suppress what has become a very explosive situation.
The approach of the government to issues – that will explode eventually – is too slow. I believe there is nothing wrong with our intelligence network. I was attached to one of them, which used to be called the E-Department in those days and was created by former Inspector General of Police, Muhammadu Yusufu. But when the government is given correct information and intelligence and they take too long to act, there is a problem.
Also, in parts of Benue and Taraba states, we have heard about attacks by gunmen in recent times on various communities, leading to a gradual food crisis as farmers can no longer go to their farms. What is the way out of this crisis?
If we were the ones who put this government into power, we must tell it that it takes too long to react. When a situation is developing, it waits for it to fester and later drafts troops to go and suppress the communities. By the time you draft troops there to suppress the combatants and so on, it is too late.
So, on what we should do, it sounds theoretical but the way we are going to get this crisis solved is to let the government start acting correctly and promptly on intelligence. Our government should not wait until the situation gets out of hand.
The Christian Association of Nigeria and other stakeholders, particularly in Southern Kaduna, two weeks ago, said the state government had not been proactive enough. But some other Nigerians also say leaders of these communities and traditional chiefs create tension between the groups. What do you say to this?
What role do they (traditional rulers) play, according to the constitution? They don’t have powers. The blame should be put where it ought to be put. The government, by constitution, which I participated in writing, has enormous powers to solve the problem of insecurity. We should be proactive and preventive but our government acts reactively with intelligence. It does not make sense. It is so serious today that nobody is safe.
I don’t criticise the intelligence-gathering capacity of this country because I had once been in one of the intelligence arms and they did a good job. But to use the intelligence through an actionable government move is the problem.
The Senate has advised the military chiefs to step down, going by the rising insecurity in the country. Do you think the service chiefs should go?
The Senate is a constitutional establishment; the constitution gives the power to change and appoint service chiefs to the President and then they (senators) want to create confusion. They should be straightforward. They should tell the President to do his duty. Or are they giving notice that they want to impeach him? They have the power to remove him but they cannot blame the heads of the armed forces. This is a very critical situation. There is so much tension in the country and it appears that the government has abdicated its responsibility and there is total confusion.
The situation now is that somebody is the Commander-in-Chief who has the right to appoint and remove the heads of the military. That right is not shared with the National Assembly. The President can remove them for dereliction of duty.
I can understand the frustration of the representatives of the people when it looks as if there is nothing happening about the security situation in the country. We have allowed reactive application of intelligence. We have been so delayed and it is as if this country is 24 hours at war. Intelligence is to prevent occurrence (of insecurity) but we have delayed too much and our situation has gone out of control; the only solution the government has is suppression. It is not the military that is for the maintenance of internal security in the country – it is the police. Do the police have enough equipment to do their job? Do they have enough intelligence that they can bring to bear? There is already an ongoing debate about the decentralisation of this arm that maintains law and order. Let us see how it ends.
At the heart of this crisis is the struggle for lands and other economic resources. You have been a proponent of the anti-open grazing law. Do you think the state governments have been sincere in implementing that law?
I have analysed the situation; there is a good aspect of this law and there are aspects which I had advised the government to be cautious about because we are dealing with human beings. I am not a theoretical person – I am 85 years old. So, if people make laws, they should not personalise laws. Laws should be applicable across the board and it is the responsibility of the government to prosecute those who break the laws. And when you deliberately make laws to target some people, you stand a chance of having the people fight you back.
One, we need an understanding between the federal executive arm of authority and the state authority. That way, you can implement the laws passed at the state level very easily. But where the Federal Government does not support the laws passed by the state and refuses to help them in enforcing them, it becomes very difficult. The state does not have an army or a police force. It cannot solely enforce these laws. We must allow the system we choose to stabilise and we should apply the system to the problems.
The point I have been making really is that the government of this country takes time to act on matters of security. They lose time to make their interventions meaningful. When they do come, they become only a massive attempt of suppression. They have no innovation and they must confront the situation that has got out of control with military suppression – the military then goes to kill or be killed.
There are fears that, if these killings continue in Southern Kaduna and other places, there would be reprisals by the locals. Don’t you think it is high time the country rejigged its security architecture?
Anyone who is our President has the absolute power to appoint and remove the heads of the security agencies. But why concentrate on the heads of these agencies? The operatives cannot go beyond what they are ordered to do by the Commander-in-Chief. I think that the instrument applied for gathering intelligence in this country does so currently and passes it correctly to the necessary quarters but there is too much reaction time between this and the application of action. So, the solution is dealing with the delay in action. It is not with the military but with whoever directs the military. If you talk to some of these security personnel in the field, if they are honest with you, they will tell you they also are frustrated. That is the truth. Let us call for proper prompt action on intelligence, now that we are experiencing an explosion. We are in a very terrible situation. People should not go into politics if they don’t want to make hard decisions. We need leaders who want to act the right away.
As one of the elder statesmen who know the formative years of Nigeria and the struggles that brought it to being, in what ways do you think the President has not been proactive and needs to change the narrative?
I had a discussion with a young man recently, when we were reviewing these things. He was frustrated and I was frustrated. I said I have two relationships with President Muhammadu Buhari. One, I knew him personally during the first time he came to power with (Tunde) Idiagbon as military head of state in 1983. I used to advise (him) also.
I think that it was difficult for him to return to power but God decided (and I believe I am right in saying ‘God’ because he had opposition from even outside Nigeria). Some of us were called to quell the fire and I had an opportunity to be part of the process. I had so much faith that I stuck out my neck and ensured that many powerful countries that were not happy with his coming back to power in 2015 were interacted with. We spent over three to four weeks in foreign countries. If I was not convinced about something, I would not do such a stupid thing because I was not very healthy. But I was so confident and I told people that there was a so much hope, so we should not miss the opportunity of bringing President Buhari to power. The man was not looking for aggrandisement; he just wanted to correct certain things.
I don’t understand what is happening now, from my knowledge of this man, except this gentleman really was very ill (when he was taken abroad for medical attention). You know he left this country for almost seven months and people kept on postulating that he died and that another president should be chosen. But his supporters were firm and the government was firm. The Vice President was firm too.
I think since the time he was ill, the capacity of the President for independent thoughts and decision-making and the capacity of the President I love and sacrificed my life for, diminished somewhat. And may God help me if I am wrong.
In the beginning, some of us who were close to him then even told him not to try and micromanage Nigeria. We told him that he must learn to trust people because Nigeria is too big and complex for that: ‘If you try to micromanage Nigeria, you will die. So, please, make appointments.’
You know, there was some delay before he made appointments. So, the decisions that come out now are not as precise as the decisions the Buhari I know to be very precise would make. Two, the decisions that come out now appear a bit confusing. It is as if three to four persons are deciding and, sometimes, they decide against one another.
There appears to be confusion in the Buhari administration and this also has to do with delay in acting on intelligence. Someone was quarrelling with me that we were always apologetic regarding Buhari and I said, no. I speak as I see it and this is what I see.
The signals coming out now indicate that the illness had a very destructive side effect on his concentration and somebody who is helping him is not doing a very good job. If that is not true, then we will tell him that he is confusing us with some of the things that are happening. They don’t make sense. There ought to be clear decisions and they should come on time. The security situation is serious and the challenging aspect of security comes with intelligence gathering and I know that the intelligence gathering of this country is good. I know that the men and the women who work in this system work very hard.
When you bring intelligence to your principal, all you can do is say, ‘If you don’t work on it and act on this, this is going to happen.’ The leader doesn’t have to delay their action, but when they do, it becomes a reaction. I can’t understand how a precise military commander like Buhari who came to power with Idiagbon and whose actions we saw the first time he was in power (is the same one now). You cannot compare that with what is happening today; it is not normal.
The question for most Nigerians would be, what do we do about this?
I don’t know. We have to rejig. This is because the decisions this man used to make lacked emotions; they were not about ‘this or that is my friend.’ If it was for the public good, he would act immediately. But that precise action is missing – that precise action that endeared him to some of us is missing.
The solution is for him to delegate more to trusted and patriotic Nigerians that work with him. And if the people working with him are not acting on intelligence reports, he should immediately replace them. That will help us survive the remaining years.
Away from insecurity, there have been repeated calls for the restructuring of this country and a return to the 1963 constitution, where the country arguably had strong regions and a more coherent federal system. What do you think about that?
Are you not tired of experimentation? Some people believe that we should split Nigeria into six regional governments, like we have zoned into geopolitical entities. Has that solved the problem of insecurity in Nigeria? No. I think the people who are calling for that should know how many times we have written the constitution. How old is Nigeria? Compare us with the country that colonised us – Britain, they don’t even have a written constitution.
So, it is not the constitution that is a problem. The problem is with the handlers and implementers of the constitution. Nigeria is very fond of calling people to come and think in conferences, conventions and bring out reports. All these reports that Nigerians have given about Nigeria will fill the National Assembly complex and what have we done about them?
Another person will say, ‘Let’s organise another conference.’ Such conferences will come, rehash (discussions) and use a different language to say the same things. Some of us who were at the previous meetings cannot attend now – probably because of age.
I was a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee with Chief Rotimi Williams and Ben Nwabueze. We have become old now. We have enough information to build this country. Our problem is that we don’t allow the institutions we created to stabilise. We don’t apply them to solve our problems.
So, we don’t have a learning process, and we deceived ourselves into believing that, if we keep changing and changing constitutions, we will be better. No serious country I know has so many constitutions like Nigeria and they have never helped us. So, let us settle down and apply what we have got from our experience.
For example, we now know that we need decentralisation of some kind – from our practice and not from some ideological reasoning. We now know from experience that if we decentralise and give more powers to the federating units, we can achieve more. We should give them more powers to create more institutions that will help them tackle insecurity.
If we decentralise and say the people who speak the language of each federating unit should be in its police force, we would have tackled the question of insecurity. Another way to say this is that we have to redefine politics in this country. The accumulation of wealth in Nigeria is sickening. How can somebody have billions of naira where someone else is dying in hospital because they cannot afford to pay a N3,000 bill? I am a retired university teacher but I’m in a country where my mates who respect me so much have oil wells where they make several millions of dollars per day and there is no hospital where the ordinary people can access quality healthcare?
Look at this COVID-19 pandemic; if it were really to go round this country, it would have killed up to 50 million people because the required facilities are not here. The educated people of Nigeria – they rival one another with money. They go into politics to make more money but, in those days, it was about ‘how many times have you been imprisoned for opposing the people oppressing your people?’
It is interesting that the debate about 2023 has begun and the country is already talking about zoning and the region that should produce the president in 2023. Do you think we need a rotational arrangement?
The constitution of Nigeria, which I participated in writing and which Nigerians have largely subverted, states the qualifications for standing for election in Nigeria. They are that the person must be a Nigerian, among other integrity records. I remember that I stood for a presidential election around 1994 and my party then said I had no money and was a confusionist. But I insisted that it was my constitutional right to contest. The party said it had decided that anyone who would run for the office of the president must bring N500m in cash and put it on the table.
Of course, I said I would not even bring N5 and they decided to remove my name from the list of the names of contestants. So, I went to court and asked the court to enforce my constitutional right and I won. My party was forced to include my name among contestants. Now, the political practice can bring about any arrangement agreed upon within the political parties, provided that what they agree upon is constitutional and lawful.
So, zoning is committed by political practice. What I have against zoning is that the most powerful elements within the zoning system pollute it by deciding ab initio who they will give the ticket to, thereby limiting the democratic rights of Nigerians.
If Nigeria grows a bit more in developing our democracy, we should reach a stage where, like it happened in the US, a George Bush and a ‘son of George Bush’ can become president and a third Bush who wants to become president can also emerge.
That is my dream for Nigeria. But for now, tribal considerations are part of the system. And I am not ashamed of saying ‘tribal’ because I am a Tiv man from Benue State and it does not limit me at all. I also want a Tiv man who is qualified as the president. And there are many criteria to decide qualification. I want to see someone from my tribe become president. But will someone from my tribe become president in 2023? Of course not. I am intelligent enough to know that. None of them has the kind of money that this political practice brought into Nigeria has caused. It has become a monetised political system.
So, if anyone from my tribe says they want to contest in a presidential election, I will tell them, ‘You must be unserious because you don’t have the kind of money required.’ Let us allow Nigeria to grow and for the best qualified candidate to emerge. That candidate should have a clear knowledge of what is expected of a chief executive officer of a heterogeneous society like Nigeria. This time, let the political parties not limit the chances of Nigerians against their own will.
Credit : punch
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