Biafra is Igbo agenda, Igbo’ll be happy in a just Nigeria – Attah




By  Omeiza Ajayi
Obong Victor Bassey Attah, an architect, two-time
governor of Akwa Ibom State (1999-2007) was during
his time in office, chairman of the Nigerian Governors
Forum, NGF. Obong Attah would also be remembered
for his pioneering role in advocating fiscal federalism
and resource control, an issue that pitted him against
the central authorities at that time.
In this interview, the former governor says fiscal
federalism is the answer to the several challenges
militating against the country. He also says, the unity
of Nigeria must be renegotiated. Attah who scored the
Muhammadu Buhari administration high on some
issues, however, affirms that “no sculptor can carve a
masterpiece out of a rotten wood”.
What is your view on the state of affairs in the country
today?
Things that are happening in Nigeria are really very
worrisome. There are those who feel some perception
of injustice in the system. It is a perception but
sometimes perception could be reality. We need to look
at the situation holistically, and where there is
justification, you correct them, and where there is
none, you explain to the people why they should not
have doubts or fears. But it points to one fundamental
thing, that we are still in the process of forming a
country. If we had had one firm country, you would
have found that a lot of these fears would not arise;
there would be common fears, common to everybody
but now they are sectional fears, sectional problems
which mean we have not really forged a country and
there is an absolute and urgent need for that to
happen.
So, do you subscribe to calls for restructuring of the
country?
Several people have used that word and have not been
able to say what they mean.
Zonal structure
The few that have actually attempted to say what they
mean either end up talking about going back to the
regions as we had them before or adopting the six-
zonal structure that had been proposed for Nigeria,
which actually is in current usage but has not been
sanctioned by the constitution of Nigeria. Others just
use the word ‘restructuring’ because it is almost like a
buzz word, it is a popular thing to say now. I don’t
want to be caught up in the semantics. I will subscribe,
absolutely and entirely, to the concept of fiscal
federalism. People ask what is the difference between
fiscal federalism and restructuring and I will explain. I
am convinced that fiscal federalism can be practised
with even the 36 state-structure and one federal capital
territory that we have today in Nigeria.
And in fact, I can say, it is a must, for there to be peace
and harmony, understanding among the federating
units. Fiscal federalism suggests that the federating
units are coordinate with the centre, not subordinate to
it and I will explain the main difference. It also means
that each federating unit looks after itself and pays a
certain percentage of whatever the constitution may
specify, tax or whatever, to the centre for the purpose
of the centre administering the entire federation.
The people who argue that how can that be when some
states cannot pay salaries are being very short-sighted
and they are trying to justify their argument for
regionalism or some other larger groupings. Any
grouping you have today that is imposed from outside
is artificial as we have today and Nigeria is not ready
for another artificial grouping.
It would be totally wrong to force the South-South to be
one group, the North Central to be one group and so on.
What really binds such groups together? Nobody says,
and because it does not exist.
Uniformity in a federal arrangement
What I am looking at is, today, in the United States of
America USA, there are big states, there are small
states; there are rich states, there are poor states. In
California, I think it is the one that pays the highest
salary to a governor, the governor earns just about
$190, 000 a year.
Then if you come to a small state like Maine which is a
poor state, the governor earns $70, 000 a year, and the
wife of that governor, goes three days a week to work
in a restaurant as a waitress to supplement her
husband’s salary. But here, because one governor has
money enough to fly in a private jet, every governor
must fly in a private jet. We are saying that there
cannot be uniformity in a federal arrangement.
This is what we have refused to acknowledge and
accept because we think that there must be uniform
salary. Why should there be uniform salary? Why
should the product of oil cost the same where the oil is
produced as some distant places where it has to be
transported to? These are some of the distortions that
we have in our present, so-called, and I use that word
without apology, so-called federal arrangement
because what we have is not a proper federal
arrangement. In a federal situation, you cut your coat
according to your cloth. The governor should earn what
he can; if he has to ride a bicycle to work, he should in
fact ride a bicycle to work if that is what can sustain
him and for him to keep his state going.
The governor of Kaduna was the one that said there is
more gold in Kaduna than the whole of South Africa.
So, why should Kaduna State not be able to meet all of
its obligations and put a lot of money into the
federation account? I do not want any state putting
money in anybody’s hands to go and distribute. I want
every state to stand on its own and pay whatever the
constitution says states must pay to the federation.
What is your reaction to the administration’s assertion
that it would archive the report of the 2014 National
Confab given that you were a member?
The people who today are steering the party called
APC, were in opposition at the time to the government
in place. They did not like the idea because they had
this notion that whatever the government does, the
opposition must oppose. So, they opposed the
conference and I think they are just holding on to that
for whatever reason.
Very wrong argument
There comes a time when you have to acknowledge
that, well, you did it because you had to do it or you did
it because you were wrong, then you change that
position.
I read where the current Secretary to the Government
of the Federation (Babachir David Lawal) said he is so
busy with governance and that it would take him about
seven days to go through the report; where is the time
to read the report? How can you be busy governing
without being interested in knowing how the people
want to be governed? To me, it is a very wrong
argument.
The SGF actually described the Confab as a job for the
boys. Was it so?
Job for which boys? Please, tell him that this ‘boy’
sitting here and a lot of other boys know that Nigeria
was ripe for a complete rethinking and the rethinking is
in there. If he had the idea that it was a job for the
boys, then he had better identify with the “boys”
because the boys are who he is governing. That is
really the point because it was the whole of Nigeria that
wanted that conference and made sure it happened.
They have to look at what is there and take out what
this government can use to shape the country.
What is your take on the struggle to actualise Biafra
Republic?
Strictly, Biafra is an Igbo agenda. I am surprised that it
is the Igbo as a group that would want to secede
because the Igbo, in my opinion, need Nigeria as much
as Nigeria needs them. We all need one another to
succeed in a true federation.
The Igbo, without too much of exaggeration, half of this
Abuja is owned by the Igbo. I do not know why
anybody would want to run away from that. Go to Port-
Harcourt. Go to Lagos, Kano. The Igbo cannot agree to
confine themselves to Biafra. They are not that type of
people. It is not the Igbo that I know. They want to go
out and when they go out, believe me, in certain areas
they always go out and conquer.
If somebody was forcing them to go back to Biafra,
they would say no that they want to have their own part
of Nigeria but maybe they have a reason and that
reason may be coming from the feeling of a certain
level of injustice within the federation. And that
injustice exists because of the nature of the federation
we are running.
Proper fiscal federalism
It goes back to the same thing that I said before, if we
are able to just agree to establish a proper fiscal
federalism today believe me, the Biafrans would say
now they are happy because they can be themselves
within this federation.
There are so many other splinter groups that are
fighting for their various interests; there is one that
said they are not even fighting the Niger Delta war but
an Ijaw war; another one said it is a South-South war
and they have their territory defined already and their
currency is ready. There are many secessionists
threats and these arose from the fault lines of our
federal arrangement today.
So, this leads me to this concept of whether we should
negotiate or not. You have to renegotiate. If you talk
about renegotiation, some people think you want to
split the country. No, it is like every time they tell you
to go and investigate somebody, you think it means
you must go and find that person guilty. No, do not
forget that they investigated Dr Alex Ekwueme and
came back and said in fact, he was poorer than when
he went in (to government). The people of Nigeria are
dissatisfied with the current federal arrangement or
whatever is binding them together now and are saying
they want to renegotiate the terms of staying together.
The president quoted Gowon. Gowon had said that
keeping Nigeria one is a task that must be achieved.
That task was achieved by military means. He (Buhari)
is not a military man now, he is a democrat, a
politician. So, the only means politicians have is to
negotiate. So, what did you mean by you won’t
negotiate?
If you want to keep Nigeria one today, you must
negotiate the terms and conditions of the people
staying together and it goes back to the conference
report, it goes back to the concept of fiscal federalism
friction.
Are you not disturbed by the resurgence of militancy in
your area especially now that the Niger Delta Avengers
have ruled out negotiation with the federal
government?
Like I said earlier, things that are happening in Nigeria
are very worrisome. If I may be simplistic, it all has to
do with dissatisfaction. Let’s look at that South-South
and what is going on.
As Governors-Elect, we were called to the first meeting
with the Ruling Council at the time under Gen.
Abdulsalam Abubakar. At that meeting, I clearly
remember, Gen. Popoola, I believe that was the name,
was asked to give a report on the Niger Delta.
He gave us a report that ended with the fact that the
terrain was too difficult to develop. I could not resist it.
I raised my hand and I was allowed to speak.
I said, ‘Sir, we are sitting here saying that the South-
South terrain is too difficult to develop, how come it is
not too difficult for us to drill and bring out the oil?’
When we left that meeting, my younger brother who
happened to be the Chief of Air Staff at the time called
me and said that I should thank my God that I was not
a military man; that I would have left that meeting in
handcuffs; that how could I be so audacious to say
that? But I could not resist the urge to speak. The
South-South has always suffered a lot. I have written a
paper and what I tried to explain to this country is
becoming quiet palpable.
The South South has the feeling that the rest of the
country wants to milk it, pollute it or completely milk it
dry and then tell them goodbye. There is that fear and
it is not being addressed because the question is why
are you preserving all your resources and exploiting
only this one? This one that is so polluting. As a
governor, I said look, this lack of participation is
creating a lot of problems. I put together a company,
BEDROCK Oil. BEDROCK is Bayelsa, Edo, Delta, Rivers,
‘O’ for Oil, Cross River and ‘K’ for Akwa Ibom. And I
said, give us one oil bloc. We are producing all of
these, give us one oil bloc. It did not go far.
At the time we were hearing that even a hair-dresser
got an oil bloc and was marketing it in London and the
people in whose land -let me not talk about ownership,
because as long as we are in Nigeria, yes, the oil
belongs to Nigeria, but so does all the gold and other
solid minerals, coal, iron ore and the rest also belong to
Nigeria. Why is Nigeria so determined to exploit only
one and not any of the others?
So, the fear is there and that fear is not being
addressed and do not even tell me that we have given
you NDDC; we have given you Ministry of Niger
Delta...No. That is not what we are talking about. We
are talking about the fact that you should exploit what
is yours, use it to develop your place and pay certain
amount to the centre.
I should be able to exploit what is in my area and
because it belongs to all of us, I will pay whatever is
required of me to the centre. Believe me, if we do that,
we would see near total or perfect peace.
So, nobody can possibly support criminality. I do not
believe in destruction, especially when even that
destruction is destroying the area that you are at the
same time saying is your new nation. How can you be
destroying such a place? The moment you destroy the
pipelines, you end up with pollution, so, it is not right
what is happening, but we must find a way to address
the reasons for these happenings.
Diversified source of power
We must find a way to address them very quickly.
South-South is over-exploited
Then, there is this concept of diversification. When you
talk about diversification, people just think it has to do
with going into agriculture apart from oil. It is not
sufficient. Diversification should come in more areas
than just agriculture.
If we had diversified our source of power, today we
would not feel it so much, at least certainly not in the
effect of these bombings (of oil and gas installations)
because today, we are dependent almost exclusively
and entirely on the gas turbines and then oil, but if we
had had hydro, coal and solar, those boys would see
that they are hurting themselves because, we could
say, ok, you have cut off the source of power in your
area, so you do not have power but the other parts of
the country would still have power.
They would see that they are not hurting anybody other
than themselves.
And they would see that in fact, it is silly,what they are
doing. So, diversification is beyond going into
agriculture. You will diversify in several other areas and
one of the areas you must look at urgently and you
must begin to give confidence to other people who
have these resources is in the solid minerals. Go and
look at the ownership of Itakpe Iron Ore.
It is a mineral resource but even the community is part
of the ownership arrangement but tell me whether
anybody was ever consulted before oil blocs were given
out in the South-South. You know what I mean? That is
why recently I wrote an article and said this Petroleum
Industry Bill, let us go softly with it.
Let us be sure that everything is even-handed because
if you now come by this bill and treat oil mineral
differently from other minerals and give the people on
whose lands other minerals are found greater
advantages than you have given to people on whose
lands oil is found, there would still be dissatisfaction.
Mineral exploitation
So, why can’t we come out with “Mineral Bill”? The 10
percent that was supposed to be given, they said no,
that because this one is governance bill. Is that
happening in other areas of mineral exploitation? It is a
question we have to answer.
Are you still in political retirement?
Yes, I am still in political retirement but that does not
mean that I do not have political insights about what is
right and what is wrong.
You were one of the founding fathers of the PDP. What
is happening to your baby? Why haven’t they come
back to ask you for guidance?
Why I laughed is because when you have a baby and
the baby decides that he is wiser than the parents and
that he is going to go on a mission of self-destruction
and you try to caution the baby to no avail...That is
what happened to the PDP. You can see that even
today, they know what you have just said that there are
people who founded the party.
Have they gone to any of those people to say, please
help us. You remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
He got up and went to the father and said, father I
know that I have wronged you, but the people who did
all these wrongs are still the people at the helm of
affairs in the PDP and they are not willing to let go;
they have not admitted that they have done anything
wrong; instead they look at us as people with old ideas.
They do not look at us as though in anyway we matter.
That is why they keep going astray. Look at what is
happening to the PDP now, and yet that is very wrong
because this country must not be left without a
formidable opposition because it is the opposition that
keeps the party in power on its toes and doing what is
right for the people so that they can be brought back
into office. It would be very sad if the PDP destroys
itself and there is no opposition. Actually when this
thing started, I even said to them, look, learn from APC.
There was CPC, they struggled on their own, they did
not go very far. There was ACN, they struggled on their
own, they did not go very far. There was ANPP, they
struggled on their own, they did not get very far. When
they came together and formed APC, look at where
they are. They could form the government. PDP, you
have lost so much credibility, you have lost so many
members. I doubt, it was only a doubt that I expressed,
that you can make it on your own. All these people that
call themselves Labour, I mean you have members that
have gone to Labour and come back; I said you can
woe Labour, you can woe APGA.
Let them stop being a small, tribal party. Suddenly,
instead of that, you found another SDP coming up
again. Then PDM too. PDM was the founding party,
along with the G34 of the PDP. Go and woe all these
people and as many as you can gather together, bring
them to yourself and transform; do not be so proud of
this PDP that you are not prepared to drop the name if
it becomes necessary to. You transform into a big,
strong, formidable party cutting across because all
those parties have strongholds in certain parts of this
country.
So, you would become a broad-based national party
able to make sure that APC performs properly, knowing
that there is another party the people can turn to if they
do not. But I think they (PDP) are still struggling to see
how they can make it entirely on their own. Today, PDP
is not bigger than Labour Party in my opinion. PDP is
not more accepted than APGA. Swallow your pride and
come together and form a strong party for this country.
I think that is what I can say in the form of an advice to
them.
Are you satisfied with the policy-direction of the current
administration?
In which particular direction? The government is going
in several directions. If you want to talk about the way
they are fighting Boko Haram, you could not do it
better. Even this appointment thing that people are
shouting about, believe me, if you analyse it, it is not
as nearly as lopsided as people want to claim it is. But
in the economy, they really must buckle up and do
something about it. They say okay, because we
inherited a very bad situation, we have to go through
this before we get better...I had defended this
government very strongly by saying no sculptor
however skilled can carve a masterpiece out of rotten
wood. You need to clean up the society a little bit
before you can really make something new out of it
because if you just pour new wine into old wine skins,
the Bible tells you what would happen to that. So,
whereas I had defended the government along the line,
I must also be the one to admit that there is need for
us to do something about the economy, but also, if you
want to look at the area of fighting corruption, you
could not do it better than they are doing now.
So, in asking me to score the government, that was
why I asked you in which direction? In the direction of
fighting Boko Haram, yes. Corruption, you could not do
it better and there is nobody that can fail to admire
what Buhari is doing in that area and to me, it is also
still part of governance. He did not have many points.
He came with three points. Fight corruption, fight
insurgency and provide employment. So, that provision
of employment is tied up with the economy and he has
invariably done well in those two areas and I want to
believe that he is just starting his second year, that by
the time he finishes his second year, he would have
addressed his mind to that third point and then you
have to give him full marks if you like. What I am
looking at here is not a situation that causes
despondency, at all. Instead, it gives me hope but one
area that really, I do not know how government is
going to handle is really the issue of what is
democracy? You cannot have democracy without
proper elections. How do we make it possible for
Nigerians to have proper elections so that whoever gets
elected is elected by the people? So, that we do not
have that type of situation like we are having in Abia
today. In Kogi, recently. Before that, Akwa Ibom and
Rivers. Look, I do not know, but I do not want to offend
anybody - the judiciary, they have a lot to answer for a
lot of what is going wrong in our attempt to establish
proper democracy in this country.
There is the school-feeding programme by the current
administration, a concept which you had tried as
governor of Akwa Ibom state. How feasible is it?
Well, the reason why I did not even continue with it is
different from the reason that I am going to give you as
to why I do not think it should happen now. When I
became governor of Akwa Ibom state, my wife went in
and discovered that there was a lot of malnutrition in
Akwa Ibom and started a programme called Child
Development Trust CDT, trying to feed those children. I
then decided it would be good if these children of
school-age could have one meal per day. Look, people
sat me down and said ‘don’t attempt it. The day
somebody’s child suffers from stomach ache, or God
forbid, somebody’s child dies, it is you who killed
through this your meal programme’. I said it was
nonsense because it is done in some other climes, but
they told me the places I was referring to were not like
here where there is so much superstition.
So, they kept talking until I now said, well let me not do
this thing because it is entirely possible that a child
could take ill from eating this thing and people would be
like....Let us even look at a situation where maybe a
careless food supplier does something and there is
food poisoning and quite a number of children fall ill or
some die. It would be, ‘Attah came and killed their
children.’ That was the reason I stopped my own but
the reason I am talking about this one is that I do not
see why the federal government should do it it.
FG has no need bailing out states
In fact, it even has to do with this bail-out thing. Why
should the federal government bail anyone out? Why
should the federal government bail any state out?
There is no state today that cannot pay its salary if you
would just bring down your taste and live at the level
you can afford. Those who are -in fact, insolvent,
should seek refuge in the neighbouring states and fuse.
It should be by voluntary fusion. I am sorry, I am going
back to my earlier point. There is no reason why the
federal government should come and take over the
function of primary school education. Even in the
constitution, it is not the function of the federal
government. Why do you want to do it? They say ok,
they are Nigerian children. Then where is the
coordinate position of the states to the federal
government that we are talking about? The minute you
say federal government come and take over my
functions, you are now making yourself subordinate to
the federal government. And this business of
somebody collecting money and sharing it is something
that was left for us by the military. We have discarded
so much of the military vestiges that we inherited but
why are we still keeping this one? If we get rid of this
one, believe me, we would see a better country.

About Dunio Mabushi

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