In a recent media interview, Dr. Paul Unongo, The Chairman of the Northern Elders’ Forum and Minister of Steel in the Second Republic, , reaffirms that contrary to reported agitations and calls for cessation, the many factions that make up the Nigerian nation truly want to “stay together”. He said this in an interview with The Punch as excerpted below.
How will you define restructuring?
We struggled with this issue at the London Constitutional Conference. The late Head of State, Gen. Murtala Muhammed selected 60 of us, including the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, to discuss the modern Nigeria and the militarisation of the political process. Murtala (Muhammed) talked to us about the type of Nigeria he wanted; he wanted to develop an African model that would run our government. He was of the view that the African continent should not be depending on the developed nations while each nation of Africa should have decentralised power. We all felt at that time that the parliamentary system which we inherited from the British, had failed. So, Murtala assembled us and said, “I charge you to draft a constitution that will encompass all the African ideals of ‘my brother’s keeper’ and accepting somebody’s leadership not because he has money but he being the overall head, like we have in our African system.” I think I was the first to speak and I said, “Mr. Head of State, if this is what you called us for, the thing exists already. The United States of America fought a war against the colonial masters, defeated Britain, and decreed a type of government for themselves, which they tried to make different from the British. The US presidential system catered for the numerous interest groups, the social and tribal tendencies in America.”
We said we will look at the proposal of Murtala and that we were capable of producing something completely new or tincture a little bit of the American system to suit our own needs. This was how we brought about the constitution of 1979. Great thinkers and great people wrote papers. I think I did about four papers.
What do you think of fiscal federalism?
If we say everybody should keep all the money that is found in their own state, under the guise of true federalism, I’m quite sure that arrangement will still not suit Nigerians. We will have to revert to the same system that we are practising now. I think we have tinkered too much with the constitution. Let’s give the constituents, the sovereign people of Nigeria the opportunity to discuss this. I believe Nigerians are super-capable; they will fashion out a constitution that is not forced on them by the military. We are not saying that the young people that are now in the parliament are not knowledgeable or qualified to amend the military constitution. But, I think it is best that those talking about restructuring should consider also a sovereign national conference and there should be honesty. And it can be done. Nigerians want to stay together, but when politicians lose elections, lose money or commit crimes and are being pursued to ‘return the money they stole,’ they gather and give the impression that this is the worst country or government on earth. It is not true. We in this country need to talk to ourselves.
We need to ask questions. We tried this one (democracy), we tried the military, but first we tried the British colonial system. We tried our own so-called democratic system, the parliamentary system, which we inherited from the British. I believe if we had allowed it to stay, it would have settled all the agitations that we have now. But the military interrupted the political process and I think it was the greatest misfortune of this country. From that time till today, money has taken over patriotism, commitment, Africanism, and so on. The Awolowos, Azikiwes and so on of yesterday, who compared creditably with all other men in Africa that were freedom fighters, don’t exist anymore. Everybody is at one another’s throat, looking for more money and you hear people looting incredible sums of money from the treasury for themselves. This is not the essence of a nation-state.
How do you view the Buhari government’s move to restructure?
I believe that if these people are sincere about the issue of restructuring, I think they should give it to the Nigerian people, not out of fear, because Nigerians want to stay together. Most educated Nigerians know the meaning of being big in the international community. You can see how huge even Russia is. It is the biggest country on earth; look at them trying to acquire Crimea. The US is important because it is very big. I believe we cannot afford to break up and I think that nobody sincerely wants to. We need to discuss all these things in a straight forward and free manner under a democratic, sovereign national conference. Everything should be on the table for us, Nigerians, including those ones who were privileged to see how our elders did it. I was privileged to see Dr. (Nnamdi) Aziwike, Awolowo and Joseph Tarka. I saw the Aminu Kanos, and so on.
Nigeria is a great nation. It is not a nation, in terms of the physical definition of the word ‘nation.’ A nation is composed of one nationality. But that should be an advantage. That is why the US is great. If the white man can make it in America, I believe we have not been given Nigerians a chance. Nigerians are capable of writing their constitution without a gun being pointed to their heads by the military. This military-imposed constitution is difficult to operate. I participated in it four times. I believe that, now that we have a semi-military, so-called democracy, we should summon Nigerians to discuss instead of wasting money by organising a national conference which to me, is a waste (of money). But this time, it is not a talking shop; call a sovereign conference whose decisions would be automatically implemented and this country will become great.
None of us wants to go away from this wonderful Nigeria. Give Nigerians a chance to discuss freely what they think they should make of their own nation. They should determine the type of nation they want and this can only be done in a sovereign national conference. There should be a truly representative of the people of Nigeria who shouldn’t be imposed or handpicked. It shouldn’t be a question of ‘my friends, come, and I will give you N6m in one month. So, this is how I want Nigeria to be.’ Nobody has a monopoly of knowledge.