Wole Soyinka lecture

OBINNA EZUGWU

Rights activists, lawyers and academics, including Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), Mr. Inebehe Effiong, among others, gathered at the NECA House, Agindigbi, Ikeja, on Tuesday, to chart way forward for Nigeria amid shrinking civil space, rising insecurity and poverty in the land, on the occasion of 13th Wole Soyinka Centre Media Lecture held to mark the 87th birthday anniversary of Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka,

Tagged “Remaking Nigeria: Towards a secure and Viable Union,” the event witnessed presentations from Nubari Saatah, activist and Acting President of the Niger Delta Congress; Ahmadu Shehu, assistant professor of English and literature at the American University of Nigeria, Yola; Victoria Ibezim Ohaeri, lawyer, founder and director of research at Spaces for Change; Moses Ochonu, Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University, USA; Ndi Kato, activist and founder Dinidari Foundation, among others, who took turns to share views on Nigeria’s challenges.

The event was moderated by Tolulope Balogun, radio and TV host and head of News Central TV.

In his opening remarks, Chido Onumah, Coordinator of The African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), who compiled a book, “Remaking Nigeria: Sixty Years, Sixty Voices,” featuring contributions from various intellectuals and stakeholders on the way forward for the country, said the failure of Nigerian rulers meant that they had to look elsewhere in finding solutions to the country’s problems.

According to him, “It was with this in mind that the AFRICMIL set out to bring young Nigerians from different walks of life to lend their voices to the urgent quest for national redemption.”

Chairperson of the occasion, Mr. Femi Falana in in his remarks, regretted that while the country is drifting off course, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari is busy chasing shadows.

Falana wondered why, for example, the Buhari government is still looking for cattle routes in the 21st century when there are already organic beef.

“How can you be looking for grazing routes in the 21st century, when you have organic beef? It is animal husbandry,” he said. “Look at Botswana, a small country of barely two million people, but the cattle population there is 2.5 million. That country has market and everything for animal husbandry, so it’s not rocket science to produce beef and distribute.”

The rights activist noted that while the country is facing serious security and economic problems, and amid calls for electoral reforms, Buhari is appointing Lauretta Onochie as INEC commissioner.

“For me we are in very perilous times,” he said. “But we are still talking about Onochie, how to make her INEC commissioner.”

Falana said it was time serious minded people joined politics, as according to him, the politics of NGOs can no longer help the country when criminal minded people are running the parliament.

He pointed out that today’s world has moved beyond oil to knowledge economy, and that Nigeria cannot afford to continue with people who are fixated on oil.

“Nobody has time for oil again. It is knowledge economy. We have a situation today where countries that has no natural resources are ahead of the rest, while those of us that are rich in resources are poor.

“Our economy is all about people going to Abuja to share poverty. The money we make from oil, what is it? We make about $30 billion per year. In fact, we made $15 billion last year from oil. The budget of Nigeria last year was $30 billion, the budget of Brazil was $650 billion. Brazil has 214 million people, Nigeria 206 million people.”

Falana encouraged young Nigerians to continue to demand change through peaceful agitation, noting that nobody can stop Nigerians from protesting because it is their right.

Recalling how he went to court in 2003 to defend President Buhari’s right to protest, he noted that it is very painful to see that it’s now under the government of Buhari that people are being manhandled and detained for protesting.

“Nobody can say that we cannot demonstrate. Under the military; under the most repressive military regimes that we have had in the country we were demonstrating,” he said. “In 2003 – and this is painful – the Olusegun Obasanjo administration invaded a rally in Kano attended by General Buhari and the late Chuba Okadigbo. They sprayed tear gas, Okadigbo was asthmatic, and two days after that event, he died because he inhaled poisonous gas. After that horrible experience, they came to me – I’m talking about General Buhari – to beg me to go to court for them and that they didn’t have money.

“The police had said they don’t have permit to hold the rally; That how can you have a rally when you don’t have a permit? I went to court for them, and in November 2006 the judgement came. The court declared that police permit for rally in Nigeria is illegal and unconstitutional. The police went to the court of appeal, and the court of appeal in 2008 said that police permit is a relic of colonialism and that a free people do not need permit to enjoy their freedom.”

“We mobilized the national assembly – a more serious national assembly than what we have now – and they made a law in 2016, that if you are going to have a rally in Nigeria, all you need to do is to inform the police, that the police should provide adequate adequate security.

“Section 83 subsection 4 of the police act of 2020 repeated that by saying that during protest, the police have a duty to protect you so that the hoodlums created by the government will not disrupt your rally. Yes, it is the government who create the hoodlums that disrupt rallies. The young men who have nothing doing, in peacetime they call them area boys. During elections they call them thugs. But when they are mobilized to disrupt protest they call them hoodlums.”

Falana encouraged Nigerian women to play more active part in politics, noting that the Nigeria’s colonial history, recorded stories of women like Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti, who played key roles in the fight against colonial rule.

Speaking on the topic, “The Rule of Law the Survival of Nigeria,” Inebehe Effiong, a public interest and human rights lawyer, observed that Nigeria is facing a very difficult period, while noting that the country, as far as he could recollect, had never witnessed a regime as oppressive as the President Muhammadu Buhari government.

“Nigeria is at a very difficult period,” he said. “By my collection, and I speak in the language of my generation, I have never seen a regime like this one; there had never been a time in our national history when the fundamentals of nationhood have been this challenged.”

Effiong said the basic foundations of rule of law and democratic governance, are being destroyed by the Buhari government.

According to him, “Rule of law must be anchored on human right, equality before the law and supremacy of the law. Now these three key elements; the three fundamental ingredients of the rule of law, have been totally eliminated under the current regime. And we annot speak to these issues without giving a human face to them. So if we have to mention names we must mention names.

“For me, what is more tragic about the assault on the rule of law under the Buhari regime …whether in terms of the flagrant disregard of court orders; the reckless violation of the rights of Nigerians on daily basis, the audacious intrusion into our civic space, the continuous and sustained attacks on free press; it is more shameful that this is coming under a government that pretends to be progressive, under a party that promised Nigerians change.

“But I think we must have misunderstood the message. You know, things can change positively or negatively, so it does appear that Nigerians did not read correctly the change that this regime talked about.”

Effiong called on Nigerians to take action to salvage the country, noting that the signs are very troubling.

“We must as a people take action to salvage our nation,” he said. “No, I am not very optimistic because the signs are very, very troubling. Today in Lagos State, where all of us are seated, we have a commissioner of police who will go public to say that nobody can protest. That is not a democracy.

“You have a situation where people are being arrested for exercising their right to self-determination. Whether you agree with them or not, it doesn’t matter, it is their right. We have a situation where obnoxious legislative proposals are being introduced in our national assembly to stifle the press, while the key issues besetting our nation; from the killings and the genocide that is going, have not been attended to.

“The economy is collapsing. The rule of law is under assault. Things have never been this bad. We now live in a time where security agencies conveniently tell you to go to court, and you know when they ask you to go to court, they are telling you that the court is inconsequential; they are taunting us to go to court. We now have law enforcement agencies that have become instrument of executive rascality, detaining people without a right to legal representation. Even courts are being invaded. This is not a democracy.

“The point here is that the battle to salvage our country lies squarely with the Nigerian people, because the national assembly has become a national embarrassment. We cannot depend on the Parliament when the Senate president, Dr Ahmed Lawan goes to the public to say he will rather please the president than please Nigerians.”

On her part, Ibezim Ohaeri, speaking on “Nigeria’s Unity and Cracks Within,” said the only way forward for the country is a return to true federalism, as according to her, the current unitary structure is not sustainable, and has been the key source of conflict in the polity.

Ibezim Ohaeri who cited relevant studies to show that children born into nations with little or no natural resources, have proven to more intelligent than those born in countries with oil and other natural resources in abundance, said crude oil has entrenched a culture of laziness in Nigeria, and robbed states of capacity to develop.

“We have excessively focused on natural resources, especially crude oil. How is that excessive focus also a problem? First of all, we have created a structure that guarantees free flow of cash from the centre to the states,” she said.

“So, every month, the states go with their begging plates to collect some money from the centre, regardless of what they contribute. Even if they sit all through the 30 days doing nothing, at the end of the month, they go to Abuja and get cash; that’s all. What that does is that it creates a competition among states for the centre’s attention. Those getting better share of the most attention are fiercely pitted against those that are not.

“Another problem aggravating the resource conundrum is the kind of laws that we have, which has cornered all opportunities of wealth creation and pushed them into the exclusive legislative list: aviation, seas, oceans, banking and so on. These are the major areas and resources that states could have been generating wealth, but they pushed them into the exclusive legislative list, and that has made the federal government the ultimate controller of the revenues coming from those areas. It destroyed the imaginative and entrepreneural capacity of states.

“They have even created additional restrictions like the land use act and the petroleum industry act which has vested every land in the hands of the government.

“Every point in time, there are tensions over natural resources. Everybody is clamoring for something, and beneath those agitations, everybody wants better share of the natural resources. So what we must do is to return to the fundamentals, to tackle the problem from the source.

“What I mean is that, if you have malaria and you have a window that is open where mosquitoes are coming in every night to feast on you, and your parents know that the window is open and broken, but they went to AstraZeneca and and other drug makers, to say give us the best anti malaria drugs. And each time, they give you these drugs, but the window is still broken and open. What will happen is that you will only get well for a while, then fall sick again.

“That is the kind of blueprint Nigeria is operating. We have had lots of solutions, but none of them has looked at the fundamental issues. So how do we address it? We have to go back to the fundamentals; whether you call it restructuring, whether you call it devolution of powers, whether you call it it true federalism; what it means is that all of those legislations that have made the centre the the sole controller of natural resources need to be dismantled.”

Moses Ochonu, who spoke the case for constitutional restructuring, made similar argument.

According to him, “Decentralization, which is what restructuring basically means, will create economic vigilance within the units, whether they are states or regions. The closer and institution is to the people it is meant to serve, the more interest the people developing it.”

On his part, Ahmadu Shehu who spoke on the topic, “Towards Community-Based Model For Basic Education,” said the journey to remaking Nigeria should start with the reforming of the country’s education system.

According to him, education remained the key to economic development, and that he, a former herdsman, is testimony to what role education can play in transforming lives and livelihoods.

Shehu said education in the country should be community led for better result.

“To remake Nigeria, we have to build a solid foundation which is education,” he said. “Common Nigerians no longer have access to quality basic education. Most of our kids are on the floor, under the shed of trees called schools. Worse to that, one out of five out of school children in the world lives in Nigeria.”

According to him, “current chaotic arrangement that the country has been running since 1999 till date” in terms of basic education is no longer effective.

He said community-based education is the right way to go to give basic and quality education to the people.

“We want Nigeria to hand over basic education to people, to the very community who are the recipient of that basic education by dismantling the current arrangement of a confused federal parastatal which is called Universal Basic Education,” he said.

Regarding himself as a proud herdsman, he regretted that the penchant for the media to ethnicize crime, and brand criminals as “Fulani herdsmen,” has created stigma around cattle herding. He tasked the media to do better and identify criminals as criminals, not by ethnicity.

Motunrayo Alaka, CEO, Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, who spoke on the topic, “The media the media the new Nigeria needs,” also frowned at what she called ethnicization of crime, noting that people who commit crimes should not be identified by their ethnic groups, as according to her, not everyone in the same ethnic group is a criminal.

She tasked journalists on the need to ask questions, to be able to answer who, what, when, where, why and how of every report.

Ndi Kato, speaking on “Make Room for Nigerian Women,” regretted that Nigerian women, half the the country’s population, have been relegated to the background, many of whom, she said, are denied the right to make their own choices.

She blamed Nigeria’s developmental challenges, in part, on the neglect of the women, noting that, “Almost half of the nation has been left behind and that is not tenable.”

She said men have always put roadblocks on the path of women, noting that it’s not true that women don’t support one another.

“When the issue of increasing women representation came up in the national assembly, one senator stood up and said that women are very smart, that they are very tricky, and that if you give them the opportunity they will take over everything from men. Everybody laughed and after everybody laughed, this bill did not come out for further reading, it was put down on that floor.

“A great percentage of the Nigerian women are married off before they turn 18. When we go to the poll and they say women do not support women, that is not true. The issue on ground is that a lot of the women do not have the autonomy to make independent decisions even at the polls.

“Many of the women who are going to vote at in Nigeria don’t even step outside. Their husbands tell them “OK, come out now and put your hand here.” And when they do that, they are told to go back inside.

“The literacy rate among women in Nigeria is 74.4%… And let’s look at teen pregnancy, which I am personally a victim of. I got pregnant when I was 15 years old and I am aged 31 and my son is already looking at the centre of my head and I have been a mother for more than half my life.”

Also speaking, Acting President of the Niger Delta Congress, Nubari Saatah, warned that the people of Niger Delta, would not endure the plundering of their environment for much longer if the government does not come up with genuine effort to address the challenges of the region.

Saatah regretted that the people of Niger Delta, have borne the brunt of sustaining Nigeria’s economy for over six decades, with only poverty and environmental devastation to show.

He admitted that though a number of initiatives, such as the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), have been put in place, the government has always always ensured that the people have no control over such initiatives, and thus appoints people that serve its interests rather than than those of the region.

Saatah who spoke on the topic, “Nigeria: Oil, the environment and the economy,” said over 13 million barrels of crude oil has been spilled into the region’s environment and it continues to be spilled daily.

“Whether we like it or not, in the room called Nigeria, crude oil is the elephant, and has been the economic lifeline of this country for over 50 years. Crude oil is what has made us, and crude oil is what has marred us. But in talking about oil what comes to mind is the Niger Delta region, that is where I am from,” he said.

“There is no other place on this planet that you have more negative consequences of crude oil exploration than in the Niger Delta region. Our environment has been nearly completely devastated. As I speak to you, over 13 million barrels of crude oil has been spilled into our environment and it continues to be spilled daily. Billions of cubic feet of gas is flared yearly into the Niger Delta environment.

“Now what has been the impact of this on the communities? You have communities whose livelihoods revolve around fishing and farming, but these livelihoods have been completely destroyed; the land is contaminated and the sea is contaminated. And how have we responded to these issues that have come about because we decided to an build economy that revolves around monthly meetings where commissioners of finance go to Abuja and get allocation from crude oil?

“For over six decades that we have been refining oil in the Niger Delta, we have not thought it wise to clean the Niger Delta environment. It shows from the action of the government, that nobody cares about what we go through in the Niger Delta. There was a report done on pipeline right-of-way in Ogoniland, that is only on Ogoni. What did the report say? The report found that the groundwater in Ogoniland is polluted by benzene, 900 times above the regulatory level. Benzene is a Carcinogen, so we are basically drinking cancer.

“The report went on to add that it is going to take at least three decades for the Ogoni environment to return to its natural state. You can extrapolate from that to have an idea or what we are going to see if we are to study the entire Niger Delta environment.”

Saatah argued that crude oil has been a curse in Nigeria, especially for the people of the Niger Delta, noting that decades after independence, only one state of the federation, Lagos, can sustain itself without rent from crude oil.

He said the free money from oil, has killed the capacity of states to build economies.

“We have built an economic system where, apart from one state, Lagos, no other state can economically sustain self without crude oil; not even the Nigerian government. By focusing on a system based on just extracting natural resources, not only have we devastated our environment, we have stifled private enterprise; we have disincentified production and innovation,” he said.

“Recently Katsina State governor, Bello Masari, proposed to turn viewing centres into Islamic schools. Why do you think that the governor will come up with such an idea? It’s because our state governors have not been put in a system that encourages them to think. So he cannot see any economic implication for that, because at the end of the month he is going to go to Abuja and he is going to get allocation from crude oil rent. So, he can even decide to marry off and pay dowry for every body in the state, if that is what he wants to do.”

The NDC president, said the many years of oil exploration in the region, has created poverty and devastation, regretting that Niger Delta states, have the highest unemployment rates in the country, despite being the mainstay of the economy.

He said the petroleum industry bill, recently passed by the National Assembly, is another evidence that the Nigerian political elite, have yet to learn anything, while maintaining that the Niger Delta people want resource control.

“In 2020 Maisie Pigeon, Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood and their team did a report for Global Maritime Crime Programme of UNODC. The report established a link between piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and the increasing poverty in the Niger Delta region. The gulf of Guinea is the least secure waterways in the world,” he noted.

“Now, does it surprise us that if you look at the states with the highest unemployment rate, Niger Delta states are at the top? It doesn’t make economic sense the people on whose back the economy of this country has been sustained, are having so much challenges environmentally and economically. We we are supposed to have learnt our lessons, but we haven’t learnt anything.

“Look at the petroleum industry bill that the national assembly just passed for example. The first line of that document says that all natural resources belong to the federal government. I’m not okay with that; the Niger Delta people are not okay with that. We want resource control. And if you look at that bill from the point of view of the Niger Delta, the injustice is glaring; there’s no argument there. If you look at it from the environmental point of view, you can see the disregard for the environment. Economically, the lack of foresight is astounding.

“Take for example the provision for 30 percent NNPC profit to be used for frontier oil exploration. I was reading on Premium Times where Senator Mohammed Sabo Nakudu, who was one of the people that engineered that bill, was justifying the voting of 30 percent NNPC profit for frontier oil exploration. He basically said that the reason is that the world is moving beyond oil, and that they are not longer interested in funding crude oil, so it is now better for us to use the resources we are getting from crude oil to search for more crude oil.

“We have created a system that promotes economic mediocrity, such that the only thing the political elite can think of is crude oil and more crude oil. They don’t know how to produce; they don’t know how to encourage production. We have simply built and codified laws around all these. That is one thing that political economist, Fred Bastie said. He said that when plundering has become a way of life for a group of men living together in a society, over time, they create for themselves the legal code that justifies it and the moral code that authorises it.

“Today every law in this country was put there with crude oil in mind. Almost every legislation since 1970 when the war ended, has been passed because of crude oil. But one thing we must understand is that if you are focusing on this, and you don’t address the problems, in the not-so-distant future, the people of Niger Delta will react. How much longer do we feel that the Niger Delta people are going to continue to bend their backs to carry the economic burden of this country, considering that we have benefited absolutely nothing, while our environment is devastated? I can tell you for sure that it is very short,” he concluded.

 

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