A professor of political science and former External Affairs Minister, Bolaji Akinyemi, who is also a delegate at the 2014 National Conference, speaks with BAYO AKINLOYE about calls to restructure Nigeria, the Supreme Court, and the nation’s electoral process, among other issues
What is your view about the way the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government is handling issues in the Niger Delta?
Let me start by making a general statement which may surprise you and your readers, I am a happier man today (Friday) than I was last week (penultimate Friday). The reason is that I have seen some rays of sunshine beaming into the Nigerian landscape. What are the constituents of these rays of sunshine? The first is that I have noticed a positive shift in the attitude of the President (Muhammadu Buhari) towards the Niger Delta. I am a political scientist and I like to extract policy positions from de-constructing the body language of those in authority. And I think there are four constituent elements – positive elements that I have noticed.
The first was his ordering a ceasefire – a cessation of hostilities. The second was his appeal to the militants to come forward for negotiation. That marked a difference from what people normally perceived as a man who has a tendency towards a military disposition. The third was even the language in which he couched his appeal to them. It was not like an ultimatum; even (there was) a recourse to God (when he said) he was appealing to them ‘in the name of God’. Having spoken in that sense, he sent out a warm vibration towards the people he was addressing and of course, the fourth element was his meeting with the traditional rulers from the Niger Delta, who are part of the stakeholders in the current situation of that region.
And I welcome this move on the part of the president. It is a responsible, positive move that could only contribute to the solution (concerning resolving the Niger Delta crisis). And the fact that he did this by himself – not that he asked somebody to do it on his behalf; remember that one of the conditions by some of the militants was that they wanted the president to take personal charge of the negotiation. Now, some may see this as challenging the president. I don’t. I see it as an act of respect that ‘we want you to take charge (of the dialogue process) because we believe you hold in your hand the solution to the problem.’ To me, that is a mark of recognition; it’s a mark of respect for the president.
Does that signify a way to finding a solution?
I feel more optimistic that perhaps we are on the way to finding a solution. Of course, nobody is talking about what will be the package. But we have taken the first positive step and that has come from the president. And, to use the Nigerian language, I appreciate him for that.
The second ray of sunshine that I see is the decision of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Constitutional Making to adopt the 2014 National Conference Report as a working document. Let me stress that: they haven’t adopted the report in toto. They haven’t adopted the report as a full document that will go to the whole House. Now, this is a small step; but human progress is made up of small steps that accumulate because this marks a shift in the attitude of, at least, a section of authority from being dismissive of the report to now say ‘we’ll read it. We’ll consider it. We’ll see what it contains.’ The Chinese have a saying that a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step away from home. Thus, I hope that this is the first positive step away from home in our journey of several numbers of miles in the contribution that the 2014 National Conference report will make towards making Nigeria a better place for all of us. If you recall, when the first man landed on the moon, he said this is a small step for man and a giant step for mankind. Thus, I recognise this as a small step forward – but it is a forward step nevertheless.
Will you say the attitude of the presidency towards the confab report is positive, especially considering the language of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, who referred to the confab delegates as ‘boys’?
Let us put that issue behind us. I prefer to focus on the positive steps forward rather than that isolated issue.
Through a referendum, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Should that be a cause for jubilation for Nigeria, considering the fact that Britain can now pay more attention to the Commonwealth and also trade directly with Nigeria?
No. I don’t think there should be cause for jubilation. Brexit is an ill-wind that is not going to blow anybody any good. People have been focusing on the economic consequences for Britain, for the Europeans Union, for Nigeria, for Africa and for world trade. People have forgotten what actually motivated the setting up of the EU. What led to a group of far-seeing European statesmen to come together and propose and come up with a set of proposals that eventually led to the creation of the EU was a determination to prevent the horrors of two world wars that Europe had witnessed. Today (Friday) is the anniversary of the carnage at Somme – which is a battlefield in Europe –where the Germans faced an onslaught from the French and British troops and on both sides the number of casualties was frightening even to the Europeans; that even 100 years later they are still marking the anniversary today.
Thus, Europe faced such devastation from the first and second World Wars, leading to some of their far-seeing statesmen saying ‘look, to avoid another war, we must come up with a package that will first of all bring Germany and France and then eventually other European countries into an institutional framework of economic prosperity and political unification. This is to ensure that the rivalry among nations in Europe can be eased off within a constructive mechanism. And, that is what has eventually led to what we now call today the European Union. What worries me, as a political scientist is the devastating effects on that raison d’être of the European Union –devastating effects on the psychological, emotional and political underpinnings of the European Union.
Is the United Kingdom’s leaving the EU going to have a copycat effect on some other European countries in the union? Is this going to lead to the disintegration of the European Union?
There is no doubt the momentum has been halted – let’s not deceive ourselves. All the energies of the European leaders now are going to be channelled into applying breaks to make sure that other European nations don’t copy Britain (UK). Because problems will always be there; there is no perfect union for the simple reason that each new day brings its own new problem. You cannot have all the mechanisms that sort out all problems eternally – not anything that is under the control of human beings.
Now, how does this affect Nigeria?
This also applies to the Nigerian situation – the Nigerian federation. We talk about restructuring of the federation as if it is a new demand. It is not. The 1960 Constitution which led us to independence was what I will call the independent restructuring of Nigeria. Based on what? Based on several constitutions that we had had before then; and the British didn’t simply sit down and said ‘OK, this is your 1960 Constitution.’ This constitution came about as a result of several conferences held in Lancaster House in London and amongst our leaders. It was not a perfect constitution but it addressed the critical issue of the day and it represented the compromise that our leaders, with the British moderating, could achieve as of that time. (But) that’s not meant to last forever; no constitution lasts forever.
Then, (Gen. Yakubu) Gowon came on the scene in 1966 facing a different (problem) – it may be the same kind of problem – but a different manifestation of the problems of unity. Hence, he restructured Nigeria into a 12-state structure. Also, he transfered the power of the regions to the centre; so, his restructuring was both structural and legal framework in terms of devolution of power. Similarly, Murtala (Muhammed) did his own restructuring – again based on the assessment by the military of the problems they faced. Then, (Ibrahim) Babangida did his own restructuring and (Sani) Abacha also did his own. All along when the forces calling for change got to a particular point, the authorities of the day addressed the demand. They didn’t give in 100 per cent – no government ever does. You give in sufficiently so that the steam does not boil over. It is a delicate balancing act; that ‘these forces have reached such a momentum that they can no longer be ignored. But before it boils over let’s meet them at this point.’ Therefore, the debate on restructuring will never stop. We made that much known in the 2014 National Conference that the country needed restructuring in some areas. Take the United States that started in 1776 for instance, the debate over Obamacare – or, should it be done by the Federal Government or the state – was a debate on restructuring. Interestingly, the Americans left that decision to the Supreme Court to adjudicate.
What can Nigeria learn from that?
You need a clever, forward-looking and extremely intelligent Supreme Court to make an assessment of the forces and come up with a decision that they feel also addresses the issue of the day. Now, why did I say we need an intelligent, forward-looking Supreme Court? Look at the way they (US Supreme Court justices) vote; five to three, or five to four. All the nine judges of the US Supreme Court are very intelligent people. They are honourable people, so how come they cannot all agree (on the same issue)? It is because when we are dealing with human affairs we don’t all sleep and face the same direction. The same Supreme Court which at one time gave a judgment that a black man was three-quarters of a white man several decades later they now say one black man is equal to one white man. The same Supreme Court that said it was constitutional to have separate schools for blacks and separate schools for whites somewhere along the line decided that equality would not be satisfied by having separate schools. But it did this without going and amending in so many words the constitution. Thus, I am appealing to the Nigerian Supreme Court.
The Nigerian Supreme Court should move away from the elementary interpretation of the constitution and of the laws. They denied themselves that prerogative given to law to be an arbiter. They denied themselves when they relied on ‘what does the law say’ and nothing about when the law was made in 1911 –what were the circumstances that led to it? And what are the circumstances now? The American Supreme Court never changes the law; it will never admit that it changes the law. But you and I know and every American knows that the constitution is what the American Supreme Court says it is. Hence, the Nigerian Supreme Court must take charge because politicians often cannot resolve matters. The American Congress and the White House are often at loggerheads but who resolves it (their difference)? It is the Supreme Court and everybody accepts that. That is why the American constitution has not been amended one thousand times; no. the Supreme Court has done the job for them through its constructive interpretation – this is the appeal I am making to our Nigerian Supreme Court (to offer constructive interpretation on legal and political matters).
But the Supreme Court cannot meddle in political affairs unless the politicians and other players involved take a matter to it. Is that correct?
Yes; but cases often come before the Nigerian Supreme Court – cases come before them all the time that actually give them an opportunity (to offer constructive interpretation).
Do you think the Nigerian Supreme Court has not been using its prerogative effectively?
Not all the time. I mean, if you actually talk to lawyers they can tell you about cases that had been so fundamental that the Supreme Court had risen to the occasion. One of them was the (former Governor of Rivers State, Rotimi) Amaechi’s case; and this is what one is asking of the Supreme Court; adopt the Amaechi template, rather than debating on issues ad nauseam. (Former) President Olusegun Obasanjo had to bring up the issue of local government recently about how they have been emasculated, castrated by the state government and rendered almost a nullity.
Since 1999, all governments – irrespective of party disposition – have never allowed elected local governments to function without interruption. And yet, the constitution states it clearly that the local government shall be made up of elected individuals. The word elected is in the constitution and cases have gone before the Supreme Court. I would have expected that the Supreme Court would then say point-blank to the Federal Government ‘don’t give money meant for local governments to states that don’t have elected officials into the local councils unless they have elected members in the local governments.’ That is what the constitution says; that would have solved this entire problem. Instead we now want a constitutional amendment that will either say local governments will be abolished and everything will be in the hand of the state government or there will be a strict adherence to what the constitution says (about how local governments should be constituted). There is no need for that amendment. What we need is the Supreme Court’s directive arising out of cases before it that this is what the constitution says and ‘arising from that our judgment is that the Federal Government should no longer give money meant for local governments to states where there are no elected members’ – that ends the issue.
The British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to resign following the decision of the UK to leave the EU. What can Nigerian politicians learn from that?
While it is commendable, a decision like that will not happen overnight if a Nigerian or African politician is involved. You remember the case of someone who wanted a third term in office but didn’t get it – though he denied ever making an attempt to seek office for a third term. In Zimbabwe, you have a president who wants to rule forever because there is no term limit in that country. In Nigeria, the customs easily lend itself to rulers wanting to perpetuate themselves in power. If you look at the traditional ruling system a ruler reigns till he dies. It will take a while before we get to the point where people voluntarily resign due to moral burden they carry or because of having failed to achieve what they promised the people. We will get there. What Nigeria needs especially at this time is an electoral system that works; that is reliable and transparent. It doesn’t matter whether a politician wants to adopt a sit-tight stance, once the people get tired of him they will vote him out in the next election. I think our electoral process has to be strengthened so that the people’s will can be respected.
It is the thinking of some people that the current leadership of the Independent National Electoral Commission isn’t capable of conducting credible, free and fair elections, following its many inconclusive elections. What does the INEC need to do?
The Chairman of the INEC, (Yakub Mahmood) is a gentleman who can be entrusted with great responsibility. I do not doubt his integrity. But why will elections not be inconclusive when politicians have devised a means to outdo one another during polls. Also, in the 2014 confab report we noted that the Nigeria Police Force is understaffed. We pointed out that the number of policemen to the number of citizens was (and still is) grossly insufficient. It is nowhere near the recommendation given by the United Nations. If at a polling booth you have a policeman or two with or without firearm and a gang of thugs invade the place with cutlasses, guns and broken bottles, what do you expect the policemen to do? The recent drive by the Federal Government to recruit 10, 000 police officers will not address the issue of not having enough policemen.
How many policemen does the country need?
Nigeria will need about 900, 000 additional policemen to effectively provide adequate security especially during elections.
Nigeria is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Countries which many have described as an anomaly given the fact that the country is considered to be secular. What is your view?
I was the foreign minister when this issue first raised its head. I have nothing new to add to the position I took at that time.
What was your position at that time?
You should go and find out.