INTERVIEW: ‘We Must Tinker With Our Political System To Tackle Our Challenges’

Chukwuemeka Ezeife, former governor of Anambra State

Former governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife describes challenges bedeviling Nigeria as a creation of the present political system. In this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, Ezeife says returning the country to the system it operated between 1954 and 1965 can serve as the relaunching pad to reclaim the lost glory and enthrone it as a super power among nations. The octogenarian also airs his view on corruption in public service, local council administration and ongoing efforts to diversify the economy through agriculture.

What is your take on the inability of Nigeria’s political leaders finding lasting solutions to problems confronting the country since independence?

Well, I don’t know. We are talking about Nigeria, a gem of a country. There are not many countries like Nigeria. God gave us everything. From the climate that is very friendly to no earthquake, no tsunami and nothing so naturally devastating. But it has turned out that the politicians of Nigeria have become the tsunami of Nigeria. Politicians create problems; and the major problem they created is corruption; corruption in every direction. There is no exclusion.

So, why are our problems persisting? We are the problems to ourselves; politicians are the problem. And the wise thing to do in the circumstance is to go back to God in prayer because our country is so good. We should be proud of our country. Look at Nigeria; look at other countries and see why we should go back to God.

The first thing I want to emphasise is that there was a time Nigeria was working. There was a time the World Bank said that parts of Nigeria were growing faster than the rest of the world. And there was a time we were happy with ourselves. From 1954 to 1965, we did have small political problems that were not so bad. That was the season when the World Bank praised Nigeria.

What happened was that in 1966, there was a coup, which appeared to be the start of the problem. The coup was followed by a civil war. And the Nigerian government led by Gowon wanted to win that war very fast. In fact, they called it a three-month police action.

In order to win the war, they wanted to isolate the Igbo. Therefore, they created 12 states. That was the beginning of problem because our heroes past had chosen a federation based on regions as federating units. But Gowon created 12 states, which made the Igbo isolated, in order to win the war fast. But even after the war, more states were created to the extent that the number came to 36 plus Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Even with 36 states, what is important is the centre because the centre became more of unitary government. Too many things were exclusive to the Federal Government in the constitution. So, we started growing backward; we started taking giant steps backward and today you have seen where we are. It is unfortunate now that there is no direction in which we have not gone backward. The worst and most recent is the judiciary. And I thought it was said that the court is the friend of the poor. Today,

I think political justice is bought and sold.

Now, you asked me what the problems are. The problems are magnified. Formerly, we had more peace; we had no ethnicity problems. Yes, because of the prominence of Zik and Awolowo, Yoruba and Igbo were suspicious of each other. But if you ask me, I will tell you that the greatest problem Nigeria has is lack of integration.

Your narratives seem to agree with those who say that prolonged military rule laid the foundation for the deplorable state of the country today. But civilians have governed the country for over 20 years now yet the challenges remain, why?

I understand you. The military created 36 states plus Abuja and people occupy those states. Also, when the British left, they left some people in charge and those people felt God gave them Nigeria. They are very intelligent people, very good planners. But I think time has come for all stakeholders in the Nigeria project to renegotiate terms of living together as one Nigeria. I think this is the sole objective of the call for restructuring.

Some small groups are opposing the restructuring of Nigeria, which is what will save us from the problems we are facing now. Going back to what will save Nigeria; the 1954 to 1965 system worked. May be we should stop using the word restructure; some people misunderstand it. So, instead of calling it restructuring, we can say, ‘let’s go back to the system that worked for Nigeria; the system we operated from 1954 to 1965’.

Some people are opposing it because they don’t understand that there is a solution to their problem. When you talk about restructuring, they think of resource control; they think you are saying let the oil producers enjoy the oil while revenue dries up for those who are not producing oil. That is what comes to the mind of some people when you say restructuring. This is not true.

We have brains; we are politicians. The restructuring can be done without too much emphasis on resource control. We can find ways of building up Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) for every local council and every state. We can guarantee to every state and local council that the same money they were getting under the present system will continue for at least five to 10 years by which time effort is being made to develop alternative sources of revenue. This can be easily agreed and we grow. That is one.

There is also the ethnic problem. The Nigerian people are putting the Igbo down politically. And for as long as long as the Igbo are put down politically, for so long will Nigeria be down economically. If we organise and let the Igbo play effective role in the system Nigeria will take off. The Igbo man wants his child to be superior to him; he wants his child to achieve more than him. The Igbo man wants his apprentice to become bigger than him. Therefore, egalitarianism is a trademark of Igbo system. Under Igbo system, we will grow; everybody will grow. There will be no almajiri; there will be no talakawa. People will be what God made them. Maybe some people are opposing Igbo because of this egalitarianism but everybody will gain and Nigeria will become a world leader, a super power among nations.

I will tell you again that on religion, we are on the same page. God of Abraham is the God of the Christian and God of the Muslim. Only small, small human errors in the holy books lead us to major disagreements.

How can the problem of national integration be addressed especially now that it appears as if the North-South dichotomy is getting worse?

I can say without any doubt that the problem of Nigeria is caused by the Igbo and Yoruba. If the Yoruba and the Igbo were to integrate a bit, the problem of Nigeria will disappear. But when they disagree and one part will try to support Hausa/Fulani while the other suffers for not supporting, that’s a major source of problem.

But I think things are changing too slowly. Understanding ourselves is increasing. In fact, there was a time we were in Lagos at a meeting and many of us cried when we realised the harm we have done to ourselves and to the country. I used to boast among Yorubas that no Yoruba man could claim to have done more for Abiola than myself, Chukwuemeka Ezeife. I make that strong claim. I think if we are to understand ourselves better, things will be all right.

Let me tell you another story. When a former governor of Akwa Ibom State, the person who was there when I was also governor of Anambra State died, I went for the funeral. I was given the microphone to pay tribute to him on behalf of Nigerian governors. I took the microphone and said that I brought no tribute but a bomb and there was a kind of uneasiness in the place. I said that I was going to detonate the bomb immediately. Then I said that for as long as the South-south and the Southeast play lone rangers in Nigerian polity, for so long will they eat their frustration. But should the South-south and Southeast integrate properly, what they ask Nigeria is what they get from Nigeria. People were really touched.

The good thing was that the moment we came back to Abuja, we went to Chief Edwin Clarke where we held a meeting and integrated the regions. It didn’t take long before the West saw it and then we formed Southern Nigeria People’s Assembly. And it didn’t take long either before the Middle Belt saw it and they joined. Now we have the Southern and Middle Belt Forum. Gradually, I think people will do things that will lead to the collapse of the ethnic problem in Nigeria.

So, I thank God for the effort we have made so far and for the leadership qualities of Chief Edwin Clark who is supported very much by Chief Ayo Adebanjo. I believe that the integration problem will solve itself especially when others that are yet to join look into the future and find reason to come down from the mountain and integrate with the rest of the people.

Your explanation here points to the fact that Nigerians are going back to their enclaves instead of building bridges with the Southern and Middle Belt Forum leading the pack. How would that help in national integration?

We formed the Southern and Middle Belt Forum; that is not everybody going back to his enclave. In fact, the Southern and Middle Belt Forum is Gideon Orka’s Nigeria. He removed five states mostly dominated by Hausa/Fulani from Nigeria and called the other one the real Nigeria.

In fact, we don’t want to divide Nigeria. For me, I believe in the permanence of one Nigeria but not at all cost. I’m Igbo but the present government has been pushing the Igbo out of Nigeria by all kinds of actions. And young Igbo people are taking offence. The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) is not reacting to nothing; it is reacting to actions of the Federal Government pushing the Igbo out of Nigeria. We the elderly ones are just hoping that time can bring common sense into system and the country may still remain one and we enjoy the large market of one Nigeria.

So you support rotational presidency as a vehicle for national cohesion?

Look, rotational presidency is already into practice. And in this rotational presidency, the North has dominated it. The West has got a fair share and South-south has also got. But Southeast has not got elected president of Nigeria ever. Therefore, if there is justice, equity and fairness, then it’s automatic for the Igbo to produce the president in 2023. But I can tell you now that I’m looking at a new Nigeria coming. Because of the things I say in the press, I am receiving messages from every part of Nigeria supporting Southeast for president in 2023. In fact, the Middle Belt people have gone beyond everybody; they have even selected a person. They made about eight people to compete and one of them won the election by wide margin. So, they now have a candidate for Nigerian president in 2023.

Then there is a group headed by an Oyo man who came to me and gave me strategies to follow. They are working on their own. There is also a group called Justice Now, which is also talking the same language.

I was shocked when some young people comprising a Fulani, a Yoruba and somebody from the South-south came to me telling me how we must go about Igbo presidency in 2023. I can see a new Nigeria coming. God has seen the problems and it seems He wants to join us to solve these problems.

Among all the problems facing Nigeria today, insecurity has taken the driver’s seat. What are your thoughts towards curtailing the spate of insecurity in the country?

Well, insecurity is not on its own. Insecurity derives from the political system, from the way things are. How do we solve this insecurity? We should go back to regional government, regional police, regional control of things and insecurity will disappear. So, I can say that it is a creation of the unitary government, which we have now.

Look, we are just building bombs to detonate across Nigeria. We know what is wrong and when you say the truth they try to look for you. I am 81. During the Abacha era, I was listed for killing but God didn’t allow it. So, I will tell the truth – the Nigeria we have now is wrong. How can one group control all the security outfits in the country? And our constitution makes it clear that Federal Character should reflect in the appointment of positions in Nigeria. So, what are we talking about? We know what our problems are. The present government is doing very badly. The problem of Nigeria is the present government.

From 1999 till date, high cost of governance has been a major concern with the politicians earning huge sums to the detriment of capital development. What is the way out of the situation?
You are right. It is not just their salaries and allowances that is the problem but the ones they steal are more than the ones they earn. The main problem is stealing. When people get to office, they ask the question, ‘how do I gain from this office’ and then they begin to steal from the office.

I think we should reshuffle our government somehow. We should restructure our government. For example, we can go back to parliamentary system and prune down all the allowances.

But what I want us to do, which many people would think is because of my position, is to make sure that for each position there is appropriate pension so that people do not go stealing money to use when they leave office. If you have enough to keep you and your family alive through pension, at least that will ensure that if you are not a thief, you will not be tempted.

I remember when I was leaving office; we had money to be called a lot in those days in the system. And a person who likes me so much called me on the telephone saying he wanted to see me to tell me something.

He rushed and said I should take at least N20 million from the system to make sure that I can eat for the next few years. I looked at him and said, ‘thank you for liking me. Thank you for thinking about my future but my future is in the hands of God. And God will never make me suffer. So, I won’t touch the money. Let it be for the government; it belongs to them.’

I was a federal permanent secretary; I was governor. When you are out of office and you have difficulty taking care of your family and dependents that will come to you to get help, it is not good. Therefore, there must be adequate provision for pension so that nobody has any reason to give for stealing government money.

You earlier talked about increasing the IGR at the local council and state levels. How do you think the current efforts at diversifying the economy with special focus on agriculture can be better pursued?
You answered the question by yourself because when you go back to basis – agriculture – you find that it reaches all levels of government. The federal, state and local governments can promote agriculture. First of all, we are sure of food. Then from the income of farmers, they pay tax and you begin to generate internal revenue. From the farm produce, you go for industries and the manufacturing industries will pay tax. They will export things and you get tax from it. So, indeed it is not going to be left to the local councils and states to develop internal revenue. We will, at the federal level, create zonal offices for encouraging IGR. Why? It is because each zone may have different agricultural endowments. So, we can from the federal level control it and make sure that every state and local council is developing according to the endowments it has, according to everything that helps in its development. So, if any local council can at least pay salaries and do what it is expected to do, then we have won; and that should apply to states. And then the oil revenue may not go only to the oil producing states. It has to be shared; we are one country but of course the oil producing states will get more than others. But it should be shared fairly enough that people will not suffer.

What then is your recommendation for better functioning of the local councils?

The new National Assembly has done something good. They have allowed the local councils to have their own account and not to share with the states because what happens is that the states just cash them enough for salaries and a few things. So, the National Assembly has started to do what requires to be done.

But to recognise the third tier of government as independent of the second tier of government is what we need to do. When you restructure, you have regional government and local government and they will have the power, as given by the constitution, to organise their own things their own way. I hope you know that not even the election of chairman and councillors helps a lot because when you come to Anambra and there is chairmanship election, you will find that all the chairmen are from the same party, all the councillors are from the same party. If you are governor, you select all the chairmen, you select all the councillors and whatever you say is the law in the place. There is no integrity in the system. We are cheating ourselves thinking that we are doing the right thing. So, if you give fair independence to the local councils, they can do something. But as it is now, the states do what they like and the governors are the power houses.