JOS (SUN NEWS) -- Paul Unongo is the former Chairman of Northern Elder’s Forum who resigned during the peak of herdsmen killings in Benue and Plateau states.
In this interview in Jos, he advised the Igbo not to wait for other Nigerians to give them the presidency, but to organise themselves as Nigerians and not Igbo to canvass support for the slot.
He also expressed fear that Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo might not sacrifice their ambition of becoming President in 2023 for the Igbo after working so hard to capture power from the PDP.
Unongo praised Nigerians for rewarding President Muhammadu Buhari with a second tenure, saying that the president has demonstrated courage in the fight against corruption in the country. Excerpts:
There has been this debate about whether Nigeria should be restructured or not. Where do you stand?
There is need for us to understand what we mean by restructuring and this can be traced back to history. In Nigeria, when you benefit from goodness you don’t do good to others, you do terrible things to pull anybody else down. I think the British sowed a seed and they had divide and rule. They were loyal to their metropolitan powers in their metropolitan countries and they taught us that we are a bunch of African natives brought together to work for the metropolitan powers and it was true. They didn’t teach us that this education was supposed to be applied to now work for our country. They didn’t teach us how to work for our tribes and we too, when we gained freedom to do it on our own, we didn’t even disabuse our minds that government is not a body you steal from; government is an organization that organises human beings and shares the values and the good which they have in a proportionate manner that will allow for the society to develop and at the same time allow us not to kill one another.
So, do you consider restructuring as an option to solving Nigeria’s problems?
That is another thing entirely. When you are talking to a Yoruba man that is in Afenifere, he has a different conceptualization of restructuring. When you are talking to an Igbo man who is a Biafran at heart, he has his own definition of restructuring. When you are not an Afenifere member, and looking at the economic benefits of Nigeria, as long as he is benefitting, he has a different definition. When you are talking to another Igbo man who is not an Ohanaeze Ndigbo member and he is thinking about his businesses, where he has to be free as an entrepreneur, he is talking about where he can go and sit down to be the greatest entrepreneur, he has a different definition of restructuring. I think if Nigerians will have a dialogue, let us agree on what it is we are talking about, and if restructuring is a game politicians who feel that the British came to this country and divided us into power blocs and one power bloc is dominant and we don’t like the domination of that power bloc because the British has effectively done that and we are consolidated into dividing Nigeria into the North and South. The more educated and wise people came from the South. In those days, the less educated people came from the North and this was the thing that you can trace as the cause or factor of the Nigerian civil war or the first coup, you can trace it back to this first major issue. If this is what people are talking about restructuring, let’s say so. Is it that the British came and divided Nigeria into two uneven houses, gave over a half of the land of Nigeria, in fact, almost three quarter of the landmass of Nigeria to the North and divided the remaining one set of the landmass of Nigeria for the West and the East and we in our own wisdom created Mid-West which didn’t make sense. If this is what we are struggling with, let us say so…. So, what do we mean by restructuring? If by restructuring, you say restructure Nigeria physically so that we can have components that will be recognized by the constitution that power will be given to them to maintain federalism so that they can be equal in physical shape, say so; let’s put it up for discussion. If by restructuring you say you want to change people’s way of life, have you found a way of life that will be common to everybody and things like that; or like the British made a mistake. Are the Yoruba enjoying power with the Fulani so much that they are now saying restructure Nigeria into Yoruba, into Igbo, into Fulani and they have created something called Fulani/Hausa, then what happens to a Berom man, what happens to a Tiv man and so on?
So, what will you recommend as restructuring?
Wait, I can’t talk about what I don’t know. Are you saying that democracy should be defined by another means instead of one man, one vote?
People expected that their votes would count in the last general elections, but some people felt that their votes didn’t count, how do we handle that?
Look, you are not going to build a country by day-dreamers. There is a reality confronting you and you are afraid of taking it up. I always get angry with my Igbo friends.Why are you afraid in Igbo land? You want to talk about something for which you went to war and three million human beings were killed and you think this was a joke. Why did you go to war? You went to war because you thought Hausa people were dominating you and when you talk about restructuring you don’t want to be dominated by Hausa people and you said they are not educated, and you insult them yet you came down and accepted a system of governance without qualifying it. Why didn’t you present a proposal to the British and say look, a man who is not educated up to Masters degree level should not have one vote so that three people from the North will make one person from the East. Who will agree to that kind of rubbish? That is what you people are talking about. People want to have preferences on the basis of democracy, not on the basis of one man, one vote. If you tell me that because I am a Tiv man, that my one vote should not be one vote, but my one vote should be one over 10 of one vote of a Yoruba man. You take 10 Tiv people you join them to become one vote, you take 10 Berom people, you join them to become one vote of somebody from Yoruba land or somebody from Igbo land, I will never agree. This is the debate they are afraid of. The British gave the North advantage by giving us a political system based on democracy and the definition of democracy is that the majority people will always have their own way while the minority might have their own say, not their own way, that is the meaning of democracy anywhere in the world, that is why it becomes necessary to socialize human beings, it is not an issue of right, but socialization; that it is right for these other minorities in terms of their population, let one of them also rule. And when a society develops to a particular place like in the West, even the children of one person can be president three times. In America, Bush was President, another Bush came and he was President another Bush came to try to be President and if he tries it again he might be President. Nigeria is avoiding debate, Nigeria wants us to wait, vote so that the majority population which God gave us in the North should be vitiated so that 20 people from the North should be equal to one person in the West or in the East, it can never happen. We must be very truthful to one another and if Nigerians had allowed the Azikiwes on what they were doing, nobody would have been talking about the North. Awolowo introduced tribalism into Nigerian political process. He was so grossly involved in regionalism that Azikiwe ran away and nobody was talking about Nigerianism any more. Now, we from the North have found out that power is in our number, we will do everything to make sure that Northerners perceive that they have interest in maintaining some fragile unity so that they can always determine who is going to be in power because these people don’t respect us, they felt we are not educated.
Based on the theory of population you have propounded, are you saying that the North will remain in power because of their population?
Yes, if they remain united, but they are not united.
Do you see justice in what the British did when they structured a particular section of the country in such a way that they will always have advantage over others?
It is my dull brain, your dull brain and your sister’s dull brain that brainwashed us into giving tribe such important expression and political evaluation. That is what is stopping Nigeria from developing. My own theory is that, I have been given an assignment. I am the Chairman of Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council, I accepted that not because I need a job, I don’t need any job at 84. I felt that if I could stimulate Nigerian thought, what do we really need as a nation-state? Federalism? Look I am so disappointed, Nigerians are so bright, they can put a man on the moon and bring him back if they want with their own technological advancement. Nigerians can think out any problem, I see what Nigerians are doing in the white man’s world. When I come to this country, I see Nigerians who are stopping other Nigerians from doing what they are doing in the white man’s world in their own world.
There has been this agitation that the Igbo people from the Southeast should be given the opportunity to produce the president in 2023. What is your take on that?
Given the opportunity by who? What do you mean by giving the opportunity? Okay, the tickets by people, the Berom people and other tribes should be given the opportunity to contest too.
Presidential election in Nigeria is done through zoning. Don’t you think that the position should be zoned to the Southeast?
Election by the wisdom of political parties is by zoning. What you people don’t know, is that there is a young man from Cross River who was a governor who insisted on contesting and becoming a presidential candidate of a political party with Prof Jerry Gana. Telling him that he will not, Jerry Gana was proved wrong by the courts and the young man was right. He is the only one I respect as a Nigerian, because you people created a cocoon for yourselves and forced yourselves into the cocoon and then you cry wolf and the wolf is in you. It was the political parties that said, there should be power sharing between the North and the South. I can start agitation that this is North and South thing; when it comes to the North it is always Fulani so I want it to be on the basis of my tribe. If a Fulani has been president, nobody from the North who is a Fulani man should be president again, this will be a ridiculous country, but that is the thing that is being asked.
Looking at the agitation for Igbo presidency…
I will not look at the Igbo Presidency, I will look at Nigerian Presidency. I am not going to be boxed, I am not going to be forced, I am not going to be pushed to play the foolish thing that some people are playing by talking about Igbo Presidency. Tell me why you are not talking about Berom Presidency, tell me why you are not talking about Mangu man?
If a Nigerian comes out from the East in 2023 to contest for presidency, will you mobilize Nigerians to vote for him?
Of course yes. I am encouraging my son, Rochas Okorocha, to come out and stand as president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He has more guts and courage than anybody I have seen from the East. I will support him if he comes out.
Where do you want the Presidency to be zoned to in 2023?
Is that what you mean by restructuring? Let’s say you break Nigeria may be into 24 provinces as it used to be and this time don’t make the mistake of the British, break them evenly, because when you talk about democracy, do you know that Borno State is about four times the total population of Southeast Region and my Benue State in terms of space and land is about one and half times of the total Southeast. What is called South East today, what are you after, do you want us to divide Nigeria in terms of landmass?
But landmass does not translate to population?
That is another lie that you people don’t know. Lagos is not the smallest, you are talking about a metropolis during the colonial days, you are talking about a place that was the headquarters of the Federal Republic of Nigeria for many years, you are talking about a place that all the industries were concentrated, you are talking about a place that is so cosmopolitan. If you go to Lagos you will be shocked that the proper Lagos, there are more Igbo than Yoruba and that is what Lagos is and you have that phenomenon reflected in Kano with one exception. I want to summarize what I have told you: those of you talking about restructuring, the intellectuals are little bit dishonest, they are talking about power sharing and they have at the back of their mind as I do too, an element of, ‘are we being fair to the three mega tribes built by Britain – Yoruba tribe, Hausa tribe and Igbo tribe? These things have entered the intellectual capacity that the Igbo man, the Yoruba man and even Hausa Fulani people daydream that Nigeria is a country of three tribes. It is not true. If you are going to talk about tribes, there are so many tribes in Nigeria and some of these tribes also have political ambition. It is because they didn’t have somebody to lobby for them, they would have wanted to produce the president. Did we award presidency to other tribes and decided that we will not award to the Igbo? Let an Igbo man organise a political party that will involve all the people of Nigeria.
Organise a political party? How?
Yes, we have seen how APC was formed, look at how Buhari came in with other little political parties and it became something that could win an election. Will it be fair to now tell people like Prof Yemi Osinbajo or Tinubu who came into this alliance that at the end of the day it becomes something that should be captured, that an Igbo man has to be president, so after Buhari the ambition of Tinubu should be quashed, the vice president should not nurse the ambition to be president. Tinubu that is the leader of a political party that is winning election should not nurse ambition, will that be fair? Since the presidency is going to the South only somebody from Igbo land can stand as president. I think what I am telling you is that, the Igbo should stop destroying potential Igbo people that are old enough to take up this challenge. I want an Igbo man to organise me like the Yoruba people organised us and I want an Igbo man who will organise us just like the way a Bousa man organised us and we will get to a point that we will not be calling on tribes. If Rochas Okorocha comes and wants to be president of Nigeria I will support him, if Ben Nwabueze is strong and says this place has become upside down, so we men of ideas should try to be president, if I am standing as presidential aspirant and Ben Nwabueze is standing, I will step down for him and I will canvass for him. I canvassed for Zik, I took him across the whole of this nation. I was the General Secretary of the Party that pushed Zik to become the president of this nation. He was Igbo, but we didn’t sit down in one place and said since he was an Igbo, let him be president, no. I presented him to Nigeria and said this is the best material we have as president. We didn’t have money and he was the best material and I was very proud. I didn’t feel I was being disloyal to the North, I didn’t feel I was being disloyal to the Fulani or Tiv, no. I just felt that out of the human beings in the country the best person that could be president then was Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe.
How do you think we can improve on the electoral system in Nigeria, drawing from the 2019 general elections?
I think the election was very good. INEC has tried, Nigeria is a place that you cannot satisfy all, but I said we should adopt the electronic system. I was one of those who went to the last constitutional conference and I insisted that we should all go electronic. I think all the problems that we are having now, ballot box snatching, violence, if we have electronic voting we will go to sleep. As the man is voting at his polling booth, his vote goes straight to the collation centre, elections will be finished in three hours, you can even vote in your house. That will prevent the issue of somebody breaking somebody’s head, there will be no ballot box snatching because there will be no box to snatch. I am hoping that this INEC of Prof Mahmood Yakubu should be bold enough to recommend complete electronic voting. It should be designed in a way as you vote here, result should appear at your polling unit, the state headquarters and at the collation centre in Abuja. The voter should be checked to know if he is the right person that is voting, when we do this and if anybody is trying to cheat, it will be difficult and if he does, he should be taken and put in jail. There will be no killing, there will be no fighting.
How do you view the anti-corruption crusade of President Muhammadu Buhari. Some say it is lopsided, has he achieved anything?
Nigerians are afraid of giving a person who is their political opponent credit, but I am not. I think in the whole history of Nigeria, we have paid lip service to anti-corruption except the man called Buhari. It is only during Buhari’s time that I saw hundreds of thousands of naira seized and displayed on television and people touched them with their hands. We have seen people who are trusted with the responsibility of organising the welfare of people and these got away with it except in Buhari’s administration. So, I say with all sense of responsibility that only one leader in Nigeria has attempted to recoup that which has been stolen by wicked people who ought to be called leaders, but unfortunately they are not leaders. Also, I have been in this country’s public life for not less than 50 years, I have seen only in the administration of Buhari people showed fear that if I steal maybe they will catch me, and if they catch me, this man will disgrace me. So, I say let’s reward Buhari and I thank Nigerians for rewarding Buhari with a second tenure and he deserves it.
Nigerians had high expectations when Buhari came on board…
He didn’t come with high expectations, he came when the country was almost dying and people said he will do better, many people believed in him. Anything that was better than PDP at the end of Jonathan’s administration was the time Buhari came and the man told us that he was going to concentrate on three areas, security, economy and corruption. He said that he cannot allow a sovereign country like Nigeria that boasts of the biggest army in Africa to be humiliated by Boko Haram. Boko Haram had captured, retained and was running administration in 17 local government areas in Nigeria. He said he will beat Boko Haram and he will regain all Nigerian territory back and he will drive them out of existence, he did it. He also said that this economy has been battered and so terribly treated by impunity, he would bring order to this economy, that he will know how money is going out and how it comes in, by streamlining N1 billion account that people take money out. I will streamline all proceeds and receipt of government into one account and I will know how the money is going out and how it is being used, and I will put it to developmental projects, I will develop the infrastructure, I will develop projects that have consequential bearing on the welfare of the people, and I will leverage and dash money to the very poor to help themselves, he did it. Then he said those who steal and make it like a joke, the joke is up. If you steal any money in this country I will make you vomit it, we will show the people when we catch them, if you bring it back I will announce and keep it and use it as Nigerian money, he has done it. So, in terms of his announced policies, he has delivered in all the three, Nigerians were right when he asked of their mandate to re-elect him.
After he won his re-election, he announced that the next four years will be tough. Looking at when he came on board in 2015, Nigerians couldn’t afford a square meal again, price of goods has risen in the market. What should we expect in the next four years?
I think he meant that this is not the time we shouldn’t say we are going to fold our hands and sit down that we have done very well, we will eat and enjoy for tomorrow we die, no. It used to be owambe without work; people eat and enjoy and he said he was going to drive Nigeria to work harder and if I were in a position like him I will say the same thing, because I want an opportunity to lead Nigerians to work.
You were the chairman of Northern Elder’s Forum and you resigned at the peak of herdsmen killings in Benue, Plateau and Taraba states. What informed your decision?
I resigned based on three reasons: one, I felt our government took too long on acting to separate the killers from the poor farmers. I felt that they should have sent police, soldiers to come and stop the killings and I requested for it. I said it, I even went to Mr President with the pictures of people that were killed and women that had their stomach split, I showed these pictures to the Minister of Internal Affairs, but I thank God they are men of honour. The government acts, but sometimes they act too slowly on critical issues that involve human lives. So, men may misunderstand and interpret wrongly that Mr President was interested, I mean even if you are Mr President’s biggest enemy, will you believe that Mr President will organise Fulani herdsmen to kill your people to conquer their land, so that he will gain what? But when you give room for people to say you have sympathy for what is happening and I do know that these people are not Muslims because most of the people who take these cows around are not Muslims. So, I wanted us to have a position and we had a position paper, which we wanted to talk to the President about. The second reason I resigned was that some of the younger people within the Northern Elders Forum that didn’t know what we were fighting requested that I show too much interest in the killing in Plateau and Benue that I called the people my people, I did it, they are my people. To show interest, yes I showed interest, so they said if I couldn’t lead the whole of the North, I should resign because they were pro-Atiku and I said that in the North, if Buhari stood election with Atiku that the people of the North will vote massively for Buhari against Atiku, so did that happen? They said I was partial, I was too concerned about two people which I was happy, I was too concerned about Buhari, I am an intellectual, I am a specialist. So, I couldn’t have been arrogant by telling them that the theoretical thing has happened, so who is right?
Were you compelled to resign?
I was not compelled, I am too old to be compelled by anybody in this world. I don’t want to be anybody’s leader. Those who think I am taking side with anybody they don’t like. Before I was appointed leader of Northern Elders Forum, I was not told that I should not express my opinion, and they said I cannot express my own personal opinion. I cannot tolerate that, so I had to go away so that I can express my own opinion. The last reason was that people were beginning to feel I was enjoying this position. They were feeling that when I am called leader of Northern Elders Forum that I was enjoying it and that I was being compensated. I want to state categorically that there was no financial compensation or social compensation. I was only doing a job which brings my people together. I felt it was good for the people of Northern Nigeria to also have unity.