23 November 2002

Nigeria: State of the Nation:How to Save Nigeria By Dr. Ibrahim Tahir


Former Minister of Internal Affairs in the Second Republic, Dr. Ibrahim Tahir, the man who holds the traditional title of Taliban Bauchi is a man who says it as he sees it. Tahir, a former Managing Director of NET, was one of the controversial politicians during the Shehu Shagari era owing essentially to his view on national issues which is often anthithetical to the majority views. Tahir spoke to Weekend Vanguard on Monday on the state of the nation. He expresses worries about certain developments within the polity and proffers solutions to most of the political problems besetting the nation.

How would you appraise this present democracy in relation to what we had in the Second Republic when you were a key player?

In my own opinion, the past three years of Nigeria's democratic practice give room for an optimistic view that if we keep at it, we will succeed at it. My reasons, for instance, are that there are very few states in the federation where you can talk of breakdown of law and order or breakdown of due process. That means that one way or the other, the system that is in place gets to satisfy a minimum of the aspirations of the society. And the core principle of democracy says that what you give is what you get in a system. I am not saying that this democracy we are practising is perfect, what I am saying is the conditions and sustenance of peaceful life.

Somehow, I think that those at the National Assembly level are fairly serious about the democratic principles which we are trying to enforce. And I think they are not doing too badly considering what happened over the impeachment issue. At the centre, there appears to be a legislative house that appears committed to the principles of the constitution. Also, within the context of this democratic experiment, we are on the right track in the sense that even people within the opposing parties are part of the government. But I must say we are not on the right track, within the context of the constitution, because there is a misunderstanding of the presidential system. Because people say that the president is the chief executive of the country, everybody thinks that from the buying of toilet soap and paper and amala for school girls, everything goes to the chief executive for decision. The president of a nation is a very lofty person, a very superior man in the order of things. We need to restructure this presidential system by creating an agent of both the president and the parliament while the two camps come together by nomination.

A system which allows the president to nominate anybody irrespective of his political leaning as minister is certainly an agent of instability in the system. So, to my mind, a French type of executive system that allows us only to concentrate on the things that would move the nation forward is better for our country. When people say that in the presidential system, somebody will always take decisions, I ask: would the person act within the law? Won't the person be accused of being a democratic despot as we are accusing president Obasanjo of? So, an African model of parliamentarialism as we have in Egypt would be our best bet.

In essence, is your argument that we should embrace the french executive model of leadership?

Exactly. It is the French executive model whereby Mr. President is elected on her national slate, and he is the supreme of everybody in law and in practice. But he, in turn, should work with a cabinet of elected people. Ghana is close to this arrangement but they have not got it quite right. So, the president has all the powers in the constitution but he can only exercise those powers in his discretion through the prime minister in a cabinet of people elected inside parliament who retain their seats in the parliament. These executive members from the parliament can sit in parliament only when matters relating to their ministries are being discussed. The French system is not rotatory as we have here or as we clamour for because the African system is an extreme case where families retain their office all the time through succession to thrones by sons of the deceased leader and family members. There is democratic element in that. He that is elected is part of the eligible group.

We need a system where the executive and the legislature that are part of the society as elected persons can work together. We don't have that in Obasanjo's government neither did we have that in Shagari's regime. That is the only way you will get the politicians in the heart of the governance of the people.

The problem with the Obasanjo's own presidentialism is that he has been trivialised from the very first day. Other presidents in Nigeria suffered the same fate. The day the impeachment thing started, Obasanjo was trivialised. Since the first year when he decided to favour his Ogun and Lagos people by placing them in all the key positions including the security, he was trivialised. But no such thing will happen if everyone knows that he is elected. We should avoid this trivialisation.

My fear is that the system you are canvassing for would vitiate the five-year single term arrangement which Nigerians are calling for today...

What is wrong with this arrangement is the idea that the constitution should conform to the convenience of certain people at the time they are alive. In a recent report by one newspaper, Chief MCK Ajuluchukwu was saying that the reason The Patriots (of which he is a member) proposed a five-year term rotatory system is that the group will like everybody to have a president of Nigeria from his own people in his lifetime. Constitutions are not for the lifetime of people. Constitutions are forever with modifications here and there. So, the whole concept of five-year single term, to my mind, has been reduced to people's lifetime. If you look at the problem with us in Nigeria, you will see that people look for their personal conveniences. Young men want to get into power because they want beautiful women in bed, fat bank accounts, beautiful mansions and high living. Those are things that kill societies and not promote them. I would go along with extensions of tenures and not because we want rotation or one year term, but because if you ignore political problems, if you paper them, they continue cracking even under. And what is wrong with the Obasanjo tenure is the speed with which it was brought into existence. The corners that were cut and the cracks that were papered over were in the interest of just returning to democracy and in the interest of protecting certain interests and people. So, the transition was hurried and the constitution made in a rough-shod. At the end of the matter, we got into this situation where Obasanjo who was barely out of prison and who was not debriefed by anyone was saddled with democratic governance.

Today, we have young men in the state government houses who are proving political tin gods. I think the basic principle of governance anywhere is that if you find good government, keep it. There is wisdom in giving people a chance to compete for a second term. That is the wisdom behind the parliamentary capacity to rule if you are still popular among the people. The people who return to parliament all the time are more experienced in the art of governance and they advise government better. Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had an unprecedented three or four and half-year term in office. At the end of the day when things went sour, there was an internal rebellion in the cabinet and they got rid of her. People who really should be president should be very few. What is sickening about Nigeria is that everybody wants to be president.

Don't you think that certain fora like the Sovereign National Conference or the forthcoming All Politicians Summit are best to resolve all these?

If you want to undermine the constitution of your country, you should have this so-called Sovereign National Conference. A Sovereign National Conference means that whatever decision you take is binding on everybody. It means that ministers and parliamentarians can be sacked by the Conference delegates and the government taken over. It almost happened in Togo but President Gnassingbe Eyadema sent all of them out immediately when he saw the direction that they were going. The chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Alhaji M.D. Yusufu has given the most adequate answer to this issue. We have a legal document, a legitimate presidency, governorship and legislature in place all over the country.

I don't see why we need a Sovereign National Conference. The so-called conference is meant to strip Nigeria's history of its past and its significance. And the promoters of the SNC are clear about what they want. It is in my considered opinion that a Sovereign National Conference is not a necessity. It is not useful and it is the beginning of civil war. I'm not joking when I say this because I have done my home work well concerning the foundation of this Sovereign National Conference idea. SNC was borne at the same time that resource control agitation started. So, the SNC is a piece of mischief, an attempt to deny legitimacy to the present constitutional government that we have. The same issues must be considered in relation to the coming All Politicians Summit. The past All Politicians Summit was a present from Kirikiri maximum prison in Lagos in an attempt to get some understanding among politicians. If it is the same politicians that will come, they will come with the same mentality that they have in government today. The idea of an All Politician Summit is good but will it work? That is the question. So, I think we do not need an SNC.

Why do you think we are having these incidents of crises and violence repeatedly in the Middle Belt areas as in other parts of Nigeria?

We have politicians who are heroes when they are in Abuja but who revert to their tribalism when they are at home. Such politicians promote killing as an instrument of political competition. They are promoting ethnic cleansing because they want political empire. The reason for this is that they feel forgotten and the younger politicians are filling up the political space. But it is not clear to this group of politicians that they haven't conducted themselves in a manner that endears them to everybody, so they resort to use of violence on a religious platform so that they can become the heroes of their areas.

Who are these politicians?

I just leave them to their conscience. Their names are not important in this discussion. But anybody who has been following the Middle Belt politics as well as politics elsewhere knows the very people I am talking about. I have the authority of my claims from priests who complain that these people were the factors causing these crises. Some of these people are suffering from old age. And I believe that men in their geriatric stage are not particularly rational.

Why is the North desperate to have power back or what would you think give this impression?

North is not desperate to have power back. Haven't you realised that the greatest debate going on among Northerners now is whether the South-East or South-South should be supported for presidency in 2003. I know you are talking about the North because people who are talking are from the North. But they are not acting as Northerners. They are acting because their conscience is somehow violated by what is happening. If you look at the impeachment document in the National Assembly, it did not have any regional colour. Money or violation of the constitution has no regional colour. Making a revenue allocation on your own is not a regional issue. It is an issue that affects every part of Nigeria. When president Obasanjo received the judgement of the Supreme Court, his advisers should have told him that the Supreme Court is a creation of the constitution. Therefore, it is not supreme to constitution.

What do you say about Sharia and how it has performed?

You know, we are a people great in the art of mischief in this country. And the reason why we are greater is because we are irresponsible and unconscionable people. But I must say that those people who say ugly things that they understand or do not, are the irresponsible ones among us. We are living in a country that allows people to do such improper things without penalty. Mr. President (Olusegun Obasanjo) is a rational being. He is rational and he is interested in politics and power. In Kaduna State, we have a church organisation, a Christian community that discussed Sharia and its coming into being and how it should come into being. A clear and acceptable decision was taken and Sharia was implemented. The Christians got what they wanted and so did the Moslems. Both the Christians and Moslems avoided what they didn't want and everybody is at peace. Why then are people saying that there is a plan to get Obasanjo out with Sharia? President Obasanjo is very friendly with Governor Sani Ahmed, Yerima Bakura of Zamfara State and most other governors of sharia state. So, sharia is an attempt to rescue society from anomie and complete breakdown of law and disorder. This is the fact. Taking alcohol, drugs, gang rape, sexual licence with AIDS around, armed robbery and all those vices are things sharia is meant to control in our society. And if that is the case, why should people complain against sharia?

What is your view with the privatisation programme as it is being prosecuted presently?

I pride myself in some way as an arch-advocate or promoter of privatisation. But it must be a private sector-driven economy because by and large, our people are private sector people. I once told the late Dr. Hamzat Zayyad (former chairman of privatisation programme) that we're going through privatisation the wrong way. Some things can be sold because they don't really add to anything except for decoration. To me, a hotel is just for decoration. You get a Lebanese or an Indian or Chinese or even an English or Italian person to run it and it saves you a lot of stress. But when you want to sell NITEL or NEPA or Security Printing and Minting, then something is wrong. That is a wrong way of going about privatisation. Asset stripping is a bad concept. What it means is that you are removing value to an asset and transferring it to your favoured people. I think what they should have done is to simply do a survey for the private enterprise commission.

In the case of NEPA, you can license so many power distribution companies. One perspective I have is that rampant selling of assets is a way of destroying the country. For instance, why should anybody want to sell off the mint? The mint is the pride of a nation. With it, we print our national currency and other security documents and somebody just wakes up one day and says that the thing should be sold. Why should we sell it? Why should we also sell NNPC? If you sell all these national institutions, how can someone who live in far away Bauchi town be bonded with somebody in Agenebode, Edo State or in Oji River in Enugu State because these are areas where we have NEPA installations? Maybe we should also sell the Nigerian Army, the judiciary or the presidency too. So the logic in this indiscriminate sale of public enterprises is wrong. In my own view, the privatisation is going the wrong way. We have to stop these unholy acts in order to save this country.

President Olusegun Obasanjo and his Camerounian counterpart, Paul Biya met in Geneva, Switzerland last weekend to find a common solution to the Bakassi question. How do you see the outcome of that peace meeting?

It is a beautiful choice taken by two leaders to meet and discuss the issue of Bakassi. In any dispute, dialogue is the best approach. It is a better alternative to war. The decision to set up a joint peace commission to be headed by a representative of the UN Secretary-General is also good. But my advice to the Nigerian government is to ensure that the Commission is not hijacked by external interests who may want to use it to forment further troubles between the two countries.

During the subsequent discussions, the two African countries should bring all the arguments and evidences they have to discuss the matter amicably and then reach a consensus agreement. Bakassi problem is a dicey one. But should the talk fail, the General Assembly of the United Nation is still there to resolve the matter. This has been the practice where any nation rejects the ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). I say this because the General Assembly is the highest Court within the UN Organisation just like in Nigeria it is the Committee of the whole house in the National Assembly. Nigeria has to tread with great caution. I believe that President Obasanjo's recent declaration that Bakassi is still our territory, is in principle, the right spirit but how far he will carry it, in my view, requires a high level of caution. He needs to re-examine the whole issue several times over.

If the current peace effort between Obasanjo and Biya fails and we get into war with Cameroun, we should not think of just going to war with them. We have two or four bad cases of internal wars. We have Odi, OPC in the south west with Cameroun and the Langtang-Birom killers of Benue-Plateau of the Middle Belt front. It appears that since these incidents happened, President Obasanjo has been ill-advised by his military machine. We may have had a defence pact with the United States which validity can be questioned because it was never tendered before the National Assembly. And I advise our president that should he, out of circumstance arising from failure of current peace option, decide to go to war with Cameroun over Bakassi, he should immediately go and make peace with the National Assembly and get that treaty ratified because treaties cannot be signed by the executive alone especially military alliances.

So, Bakassi will be a war subject. It will end up in the international diplomacy yes, but ultimately, it may end up a war subject. From my point of view, this is the perspective I will consider first. The second fact I will consider if I were Mr. President is; what were the real facts about Bakassi? Afterall, Africa did not come into existence with the coming of whitemen. We have accepted boundaries created by colonial powers, but are we bound to accept those boundaries? Some people will say why are we accepting our boundaries with Niger and others but not that of Bakassi? But the question is that the UN plebiscite on Southern Cameroun decided that for the time being, they will go with the Cameroun and leave Nigeria. But there will be a second plebiscite to determine the ultimate future. This has not been done. But if there is a situation where Bakassi is part of Calabar area, then I'm afraid we have to stick to it because it is not true that only colonial boundaries can create boundary identities for Africa. But I must say that whatever we do as far as the Bakassi question is concerned, caution should be the watchword. There is danger lurking. Nigeria may be walking into an international trap and conspiracy where some external interest may use the opportunity of a created war over the Bakassi matter to seize Cross River, Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom states and all that. You know what that will portend to Nigeria's economic interest.

Your postulations sound interesting but alarming. Can't a way be found out of this scenario by government?

I will suggest that as things stand now, President Obasanjo should summon one of his famous security interactive sessions with a very highly select few people, highly informed people to look at this matter very closely because Bakassi issue is very sensitive. The politics is beyond the ordinary. Obasanjo should resist the temptation of using the Bakassi issue as a rallying cry for his problems with the legislature or to pursue his political interest by postponing the general election.

We must understand that the clamour for Bakassi is not by Nigeria and Cameroun alone. I suspect some Western powers have strong interests. Here, we have very serious security problem and Obasanjo has to be several foxes than one. We may be unaware that the Bakassi interest goes beyond minerals and people but military advantage because the deep, fresh water of Bakassi is a serious military landmine for Nigeria. In whatever we do, we must ensure that we strive to save Nigeria.

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