I Warned Buhari On His First Day In Office Not To Run Nigeria Through A Cabal – Unongo
Paul Unongo, a Second Republic minister of steel, has been a prominent public figure for about 50 years. He resigned last year as the chairman of the Northern Elders Forum, which is widely believed to have been established to break the dominance of the Arewa Consultative Forum in the North. In this interview with JAMES ABRAHAM, the 84-year-old speaks on restructuring, Igbo presidential aspiration in 2023, herdsmen killings and President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-graft war, among other national issues
Why is there so much division among various ethnic groups in Nigeria today?
It is due to the spate of injustice that pervades our society. This is a society where some people dine and wine and throw the remnants away, yet some kids don’t go to school. But some of us cannot see that and just walk by. We would ask, ‘Why is your child not in school?’ Some would say they have no money to send the child to school. Some of us have had to set up our own schools different from the government’s schools (to help the needy).
With the little money I was making from business, I was paying allowances to the children of the deprived people and encouraging them. By so doing, I produced (Rochas) Okorocha, who is now the governor of Imo State. He learnt from my school in Kassa, Plateau State. Poor people’s children are also brilliant. It is the opportunity that they don’t have.
If you provide the opportunity for them, they will do well. He (Okorocha) is doing well and he has more money than I will ever have in my lifetime. And I wish more people will do that sort of thing which we did for the sake of humanity and nothing else.
Do you consider restructuring of the country as a solution to its problems?
Restructuring is a cliché. When you are talking to a Yoruba man in the South-West, he has a different idea of restructuring. The same thing applies to an Igbo man who is a Biafran; he has his own definition of restructuring.
And if you are talking with a Yoruba man, who is not an Afenifere member but wants economic benefits from the Nigerian entity, he has his own interpretation of the word.
If you are talking with another Igbo man, who is not Ohanaeze member but thinks of his business where he has to be free to ply his trade, he too has his own idea of restructuring.
I think if Nigerians should have a dialogue; let us agree on what the word really means, We need to find out if restructuring is a game by the politicians who feel that the British came to this country and divided us unwittingly into power blocks and that one power block dominates and we don’t like the domination of that one power block.
Is it true that the British unwittingly did this and we effectively consolidated that and divided Nigeria into the South and the North? Is this why people are talking about restructuring? Is it that the British came and cut Nigeria into two uneven parts with the North having almost three-quarters of the entire land mass and then divided the remaining ones, called the East and West? And we, in our own wisdom, came and created Mid-West which did not make any sense. If this is what the proponents of restructuring mean, let them say so.
If you remember, without going deep into the political development of Nigeria before it became a federation, Lagos was the hub of economic activities. The men driving this intellectual hub then, Herbert Macaulay and the Nnamdi Azikiwe, were wonderful people.
Zik was the rallying point and Macaulay became the grandfather. Zik believed in one Nigeria and he worked with people from outside his region. As a nationalist in the constitutional development, Zik overcame regionalism and organised the people in a political party.
He contested power because they wanted to show what Africans could do in the areas they contested. Eventually, Zik’s party won the election where the British tagged West and was going to be the chief minister or what we used to call premier. In the night, a young man named Obafemi Awolowo came on the scene and turned the hearts of the Yoruba against Zik, saying that if you allowed him, he would take over the land.
That was how he was stopped from becoming the premier of western Nigeria and it formed the beginning of the downfall of Nigerian nationalism. After that, his people called him home and he left Lagos and was made the premiere of eastern Nigeria while Awolowo became the premier of western Nigeria and that was the end of Nigeria itself.
The North then needed to have its own premier and that they found in the Saudan of Sokoto. Nobody had the intellectual capacity to know that this kind of political arrangement would be the end of Nigeria.
So, if you begin to ask how we can stop tribalism in our national lives, and you start shouting restructuring; restructure what? Restructuring for some of them means to break the big North; nobody is talking about one Nigeria. Not that it cannot be achieved but not through this kind of proposal called restructuring.
What model of restructuring would you recommend for Nigeria?
I can’t recommend a model of restructuring because I don’t know what they mean by restructuring in the first place. People should not be afraid to define what they mean by that word. The British gave the North an advantage by giving us a political system based on democracy where the definition of democracy says that the majority will always have their way whereas the minority will have their say.
That is the meaning of democracy anywhere in the world. That is why it becomes necessary for civilisation to socialise the human race to have a conscience that other minorities should also be allowed to rule. It’s not a question of right but that of socialisation.
Nigeria is avoiding this debate and rather wants us to wait so that the majority population which God gave to the North should be vitiated and 20 people from the North should equal one person in the West. It can never happen. We must be very truthful with one another.
And if Nigerians had allowed Azikiwe to continue what he was doing, nobody would be talking about the North. But Awolowo destroyed that cohesion when he introduced regionalism. And now, we in the North have found out that we have the number to continue to determine who is going to be in power, no matter how fragile that could be in managing peace in the country.
Where is justice if the northerners think they have the right to remain in power because of a perceived political advantage conferred on them by the British?
Our dull brains make us attach so much importance to giving the tribe a place in our political expression and our evaluation of who is best for us, and that is what is stopping Nigeria from developing. I am the Chairman of the Nigeria Educational Research and Development Council. I accepted that position not because I needed a job.
I don’t need any job at 84 years but I felt that if I could stimulate Nigerian thoughts in the direction of a nation-state, the country will be better for it. This is because Nigerians are so brilliant that they can put a man on the moon and bring him back if they want. I see what Nigerians are doing in foreign countries. But when I come back to the country and see fellow Nigerians being stopped from doing a similar thing in their own country, it is painful.
We cannot continue like this as a country. And it is annoying to know that what is holding us hostage as a country is a very thing which those who are privileged are refusing a free discussion on.
They want us to believe that the population grows better in the South. How is that possible? If I sleep with my (five) wives, I possibly will have five children in a year while you, with one wife, will only have one child within the same period.
But for some strange reasons, people still believe that the population ascribed to the North is not true. They want to show statistics that the population of people with one wife has outgrown those with five wives. It’s not possible. People are intelligent.
Where would you want the presidency to be zoned in 2023?
You don’t award presidency through zoning in a democracy. But those who want to be President should be able to organise themselves in a political party and seek the support of others in their bid for the presidency. If they win during an election, so be it. That is what President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress did and succeeded.
Are you saying that after Buhari, the ambitions of (Asiwaju Bola) Tinubu, who is a leader of a political party that is winning elections, should be crushed or the Vice President should be ignored because of zoning? Will it be fair? People have talked about zoning the presidency to the Igbos in the South-East. But what I can tell you is that they should stop destroying their own people who have the potential to lead the country. Some people say that Okorocha is a mad man but I don’t see that in him because I know him when he was a child in my school.
He was very ambitious; somebody who knew what he wanted and he worked for it. The way he was making friends, I knew he was going to be a leader of people. You can’t sit in your house and expect people to come and beg you to be their President. It does not work that way. No one is against anyone becoming President. If I want to be President and Prof. Ben Nwabueze, for instance, wants to be President, will I step down and support him because he has what it takes? I personally took Nnamdi Azikiwe round the North when he wanted to be President and I didn’t feel I was being disloyal to the Fulani or Tiv. I just felt he was the best candidate to rule the country at that time. That is how it should be.
You spoke glowingly about Governor Okorocha but his critics accused him of running Imo State as a family business. How do you react to that?
There is one mistake which people always make. I am a psychologist. I am not talking about deviant behaviour; I am talking about appearances. Perception is very important in defining reality. The reality confronting the Igbo is that they want to produce the president and they want every other person to stop their aspirations to that office. Nobody is going to do that in this country. And if that is the case, I will start canvassing that no one should aspire to be president until a Tiv man becomes a president and that will be ridiculous if others follow suit.
I want an Igbo person, who wants to be President, to go to other people (and there are many who can do it) and say my name is so..so person, and I have chosen one Alhaji, or a Berom or Fulani as the case may be and begin to organise themselves properly; then, I will vote for him. But if people expect me to vote for him based on sympathy that Nigeria has not allowed them to be president and that the Tiv should not participate in the Nigerian politics unless an Igbo man is allowed to be President, I will not do that. Who is in politics that has not suffered some form of character assassination?
Talking about Okorocha; he has been governor for eight years. Can you quantify his performance in Imo State? Can you not see what he did in education with structural changes and in other sectors in Imo and the only thing you see is that he runs the government like a private business?
How would you assess the conduct of the 2019 elections in the country?
I think it was very good. It is just that Nigeria is a place where you can’t satisfy everyone. I am one of the people that wrote the constitution that we are using today and I insisted then that we should go 100 per cent electronic. As you are voting, the votes are being registered and counted at the same time at collation centres. You can even stay in your house and vote. With that, elections would be concluded in less than three hours. India with a larger population than Nigeria, up to a billion citizens, it is electronic voting and they don’t fight during elections. I think that is the way to go if we truly want to eliminate the challenge of ballot box snatching, thuggery and other ills bedevilling the system. I hope that INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission), under Prof Mahmoud Yakubu, will see reasons for this and be bold enough to recommend complete electronic voting so that Nigerians can go to sleep during elections.
Who do you think should be blamed for the herdsmen/farmers crisis in the country?
The blame game is not going to solve any problem. Present the issue as a problem which Nigeria is grappling with and look for a solution. If one thing, the conflict particularly in Zamfara State has proved that it is not a religious issue as some people would want others to believe. This is because everyone in Zamfara is almost a Fulani. And they are killing one another more than in other places with a similar problem. They are also rustling cows there more than we have it elsewhere.
So, the issue of Fulani killing others because they want to convert us to Muslims is misleading. How can that happen? The issue is that Nigerian politicians are lazy. When there is a problem, they are used to enjoying life and don’t want to apply their minds to solving an emerging problem. This is why I have supported the Governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom. No matter how you criticise him, at least, he offered a solution to the farmers-herders crisis in Benue.
He asked the herders to apply and that the government would designate areas for those who want to do cow business. Ranch your cows; it may not be the best solution, but that idea was actually suggested to the Federal Government in the 1950s that a time was coming when the growing population would not permit the existence of cow routes. So, something needed to be done. For me, what Ortom has done in that regard is in line and I believe it will go a long way in solving the problem of farmers/herders conflicts and it has been proved successful and mutually beneficial among the stakeholders where the practice has been affected.
If they will take politics out of it, this problem is so easy to solve, but people, who don’t know how to win an election except to whip up sentiments, are not helping the issues
Why then do you think the Federal Government doesn’t seem to cooperate with the governor in solving the problem?
It is not as if the Federal Government is not cooperating with the governor. The Federal Government is peopled by politicians who have something else in their minds. The Federal Government’s policy is ‘Let’s do ranching but states should give it a huge expanse of land and we will pay money, ranch the place and provide the necessary facilities to make it functional’. But some are saying that we don’t have land to give you. And in Benue, they are saying how can we give you land after all the killings? We don’t want a place where the Fulani will be there and some angry young men will go and attack them because they feel they were the ones who killed their people. This is a new phenomenon. It never happened before because these are people who lived together for many years in the past and even inter-married.
I have a Tiv father and a Fulani mother. You see, it gives me trouble when people talk in terms of the tribe because I’m Fulani and at the same Tiv. I wouldn’t want a Tiv man slaughtered or a Fulani killed. How do you handle Nigerians like me? Take us out of Nigeria? We must learn to live together as one. And I’m able to take a decision. I support Ortom and members of the state House of Assembly on the bill they brought for ranching. This is because I know the benefits that will accrue to the Fulani people moving with their cows if the ranching policy in the state is fully implemented. The problem is that sometimes, most of these people that get killed in these situations are those that are employed to rear cows for the big people who sit comfortably in their city homes leaving the herders in the bush. They know that if these practices are stopped and their employees are kept in one place, they know that they have to provide better accommodation for them, send their children to school and so on and they don’t want to do all these things because it will no longer be cheap for them. That is wickedness.
How can the present government make its anti-corruption campaign more effective?
I have been in the public eye in this country for at least 70 years. Nigerian politicians are afraid of giving credit to their political opponents when they see it but I am not like that. I think in the history of Nigeria, we have paid lip service to anti-corruption except under the leadership of the man called (Muhammadu) Buhari. It is only during his administration that I have seen monies both in dollars and naira recovered from those who stole them while in government.
This stealing of public funds has been going on for a long time and the perpetrators allowed to go scot-free except under Buhari’s government.
Secondly, in my over 50 years in public life, it is only in this government that I have seen people show fear of being disgraced if caught stealing. And I thank Nigerians for rewarding him with another term of four years because he deserves it even on the basis of fighting corruption. I think the whistle-blower policy should be strengthened to encourage more Nigerians to come up and expose corrupt tendencies in their midst. The policy should be improved upon.
How would you want the government to utilise the recovered looted funds?
My suggestion is that the recovered funds should go back into projects that have bearing on the needs of the people.
There is this belief that Buhari is being controlled by cabals. What is your view on this?
Mr President is fully in charge of his administration. I am one of the people who advised him not to micro-manage Nigeria. I told him on the first day in office that I was worried that he was not appointing advisers and that I could see the desire in him to micro-manage Nigeria. I said if he attempted it, he would collapse and die and Nigeria would continue. I urged him to get the best advisers. Who is a president? A president is a person who gets things done by applying the best minds and he is only the coordinator.
Is the ECOWAS protocol on free movement of citizens across the West Africa countries not contributing to the influx of armed herdsmen and criminals into the country?
I don’t have any problem with that because it encourages our people to move freely to other countries too within the sub-region while they also do the same. What do we have that will make us to feel self-sufficient and to make us not to be part of the protocol? It is our responsibility to be selective in admitting people to our country so that we don’t admit those who will come and cause us trouble.
And if they manage to find their way into the country and commit a crime, they should be prosecuted according to the law establishing the protocol so that the bad ones will see it and be afraid of coming in again.
You resigned your position as the Chairman, Northern Elders Forum, at the peak of the herdsmen’s killings in Benue, Plateau and other neighbouring states. Why did you resign?
I resigned for three reasons. I felt the government took too long in responding or acting to separate the killers from the poor farmers. I felt that we should have sent the police and the soldiers to stop the incessant killings and I requested it. I even went to Mr President with pictures of people who were killed; women that had their stomachs split and I showed him and said this was not good for us as a people.
I showed these pictures to the minister of interior and I thank God they are men of honour. The minister said to me that when this thing blew up in Benue, that I was the first face that came to his mind. So, the government acted but they acted so slowly on issues that bordered on human lives. When this was allowed to occur, people were made to believe that Mr President was interested.
But would one actually believe that Mr President would want people to be killed? What will he gain from that? But when you fail to act swiftly, you give room to people to believe wrongly that you have sympathy for what is happening. So, I wanted us to have a position paper on that which I even talked to Mr President about.
The second reason why I resigned was that some of the younger elders, who didn’t know what we were fighting, said I showed too much interest in the killings in Benue, Plateau; that I called them my people. They said if I couldn’t lead the whole of the North, I should resign because they were pro-Atiku (Abubakar) and I verbalised that if Atiku stood election with Buhari, the people of the North would vote massively for Buhari and not Atiku. They didn’t ask me why. So, they put pressure on me that I was partial. They said I was too concerned about my people; I was too concerned about Buhari.
Were you compelled to resign?
No, I was not compelled. I am too old to be compelled by anybody to do something that I don’t want to do. I just did not want to be anybody’s leader. If they accused me of not siding with somebody they liked, that is not a good reason to tell me to resign and I was not prepared to change my view because I was not looking for a position and they were not paying me. I can disagree with you on issues and still be your leader. They did not tell me that when you become the chairman of the Northern Elders Forum, I should not express an opinion. I was only expressing my opinion and that shouldn’t have been an issue.
What was your third reason for resigning?
The last reason why I resigned was that people were beginning to feel I was enjoying the position; that I was being compensated as the chairman of the forum. I want to state categorically that there was nothing like that.