Nigeria’s former Ambassador to the Netherlands and daughter of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. (Mrs) Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu has noted that it would be unwise for the government to continue to ignore calls for the restructuring of Nigeria as according to her, it was the only way to put the country on the right trajectory.
Awolowo-Dosunmu who spoke on the state of the nation in this interview with BusinessHallmark, warned that Nigeria has got to a breaking point where urgent steps must be taken to avert possible spill over of accumulated grievances. Excerpts:
There is this growing calls for restructuring and true federalism to which you have added your voice. But some people have asked what is meant by these terms because for them, we already have federalism and the country has been undergoing restructuring?
When we say restructuring, we are saying we want to go back to the federal system of government which we had before independence, at independence and after independence until 1966. The components of federalism are very simple; first of all, a federal structure recognises the constituent units as equal partners to the central government. You also hear about devolution of power, resource control, and so on… these are elements of federalism, it comes as a package.
When you talk about federalism all those elements have to be present. If we say we are practicing federalism right now, but there is no resource control, there are not enough powers guaranteed to the constituent units to work and to deliver to the people; then you don’t have federalism, which is why we talk about true federalism.
Strictly speaking, there is nothing like true federalism or untrue federalism, once you have a federal structure, it has to contain in it devolution of power. In order words, the constitution empowers the administrators of the constituent units to do certain things and to deliver, truly, to the people. And in order to do that, they need the funds, so there need to be resource control.
Before 1966, each of the regions had its own constitution; they were able to retain a significant portion of the resources they generated in their areas. Constitution guaranteed them the powers to do so much. What I’m saying in essence is that a federal system must devolve power to the constituent units and must guarantee resource control. The federal government in those days had duties of foreign affairs, defence, ports, railways and few others, but everything else was administered from and within the constituent units which were the regions at the time.
People also talk about what will be the constituent units this time, but those are matters of details. I think we all recognise that there are six zones now, and a lot of things are done on the zonal structure. For us in the South West, the region works best for us. You notice that all the governors have spoken about it, and they have opted that the zones should be the constituent units. Our own realities may be different from those in other zones, these are details that we need to talk about in order to accommodate the peculiarities of different zones.
For example, at the constitutional conference of 2014, there was recommendation that, those for whom it works can institute regional cooperation. So, we can work out the details. What doesn’t work is for us to refuse to talk about it, and refuse to put it on the table. That breeds frustration, anger and that’s probably why those who are calling for secession are doing so. They may feel, well, if we are not even able to voice our discontent, we are screaming but nobody is hearing us, then why can’t we leave? Maybe that’s why they feel that way, but it doesn’t have to be, we need to put these things on the table and talk about them.
We hear on a daily basis that the states are struggling, most states of the 36 are actually struggling; they cannot pay their bills, they cannot pay their workers and so on. For me as a lay person, I think we would be better off if we collapse these bureaucracies. In a zone for instance, where there are six states and you have six bureaucracies; you have six houses of assembly and other retinue of government officials, won’t it be just better to collapse everything into one? The states as they are would remain as administrative units. Of course, the details can be worked out.
You spoke extensively on the progress made in the 60s, but you would also remember that even then, we had crisis in the regions which eventually led to the civil war. To this extent, some say returning to that arrangement is not the solution…?
What was the cause of the crises at the time? Was it because of the system of government? If I remember correctly, in the West, it was party issue. The Action Group had issues within it, and that was what spilled over into governance. It had nothing to do with the system of government. Right now, are we saying that there are no crises? There are crisis of the economy, we are in serious crisis now. As a matter of fact, this kind of agitations and even terrorism as we have now didn’t exist then. I believe that irritation with the system has developed into anger, and almost hatred. Things are escalating, and do we allow it to continue to escalate? Why don’t we look at what we are doing and see what we can do differently to make things better?
The Buhari administration has made it clear that it would not implement the 2014 conference Report, would you advise them to do otherwise?
I would certainly advise the government to consider that report. Unless we wish to deceive ourselves, the agitation for restructuring, for a new way of doing things have reached an all time high. I don’t think it is wise to ignore it, so my advice definitely, would be that they find a way in which we can address these issues. And I think that where there is a will, there is a way. Once there is a consensus within the country… which is already emerging as you can see that there is already a consensus that we need to restructure.
Remember, that conference was attended by delegates from all over the country, and everybody signed on and accepted the report. There were no dissenting voices, so I think that should be the starting point. We can discuss the details and make compromises. Once we do that, it means that I don’t go away with everything that I have come to the table with, but at least, we will all go away with what we can all live with. Once everyone is happy in their own area, there will be peace; there would be opportunities to work and develop the economy.
On the issue of federalism, what do you think Papa’s major concern will be with the way things are panning out?
He would be really distressed. Based on what is happening to the man on the street, there would have been no doubt in his mind that in order to address the problem the man on the street, which was his constituency, government must be structured in such a way that his aspirations can be better achieved. Throughout his life, Papa stood for the street, things that would work well for them were what he stood for. He believed that the individual had a right to expect of government to provide him access to whatever it takes to help him achieve his maximum potential.
People have asked, where did we get it wrong as a country?
I think it is the interregnum; there was really no proper hand over from his generation of politicians to those we have now. Although there was probably no way that his generation could have handed over to this generation, but there should have been a succession; his generation would have handed over to the generation coming after them and they themselves would have handed over to those after them and so on, such that the ethics of politics would be handed down from generations as has happened in other parts of the world.
That way, there would be a standard of behaviour below which you are not permitted to fall. That didn’t happen, unfortunately, people just barged into the system, bought their way in with money and all that, and just dislodged everyone that was saying this is the way to go. Sadly, the ethos that has been in place is not what is working for Nigerians.
During those years he was running for the office of Prime Minister and later president without success, how did he feel at the time knowing that he had these good ideas?
Yes, he couldn’t understand why people failed to see what he saw, especially when he wrote everything down and said them repeatedly. He was never tired of repeating himself, but he could not understand for the life of himself, why people couldn’t see that not doing it this way would lead to where we are right now. So, he was worried, he knew the kind of opposition that he faced; he always knew that, but there was never any time he considered compromising his stand on what was best for Nigeria.
He used to say that he had three prayers that he prayed to God towards the end, and two of them had been answered and the only one that had not been answered was the prayer for Nigeria. He also was a believer, and he believed that God would do it in his own time. I’m sure he would have died satisfied that he had given it everything he could.
The speech you presented in Ibadan touched on the key elements of what we need to address now. Are we going to see you as a rallying point for this movement, especially in the South West?
I think it’s not for me to say. These things just emerge, all I know is that wherever I am or whichever corner I’m speaking from, I would speak as loudly as I can. My stint in politics, when I ran for office, was never about me becoming something or holding office, it was always about attempting to move Papa’s legacy forward, which was why it didn’t matter to me that I had to quit when I met so much opposition. There had to be other means by which we can do that, it wasn’t a big deal.
So, I moved to the foundation, and in any case, I felt that if my person; my presence in partisan politics was going to attract so much negativity to Papa’s legacy and his message, then it wasn’t worth it. Because for me, Papa ceased to be a partisan figure on May 9, 1987. His message stopped being partisan from that day, it became universal. That’s the way I see it, he was talking about what was best for everyone, but because he was the one passing the message his message was rejected.
It happened, but since he has left us, his message it should be for everybody because he was talking about the development of the entire nation, and I felt that if I could move that forward in non partisan way, it would be a lot better.
One of the things that Awo is appreciated for is education. He did a good job in pushing it, especially in the South West. What would be your assessment of the quality and state of our education today?
You only need to take a look at the table in national exams and see where we feature. It should not be like that, Papa would weep if he were here, I feel we need to get our priorities right and realize that we cannot build a nation without developing our people. Let’s look at Japan, South Korea and all those countries. They did it through education, for them it was like a military campaign, particularly in South Korea. They were single minded about it, and look at them now.
I can’t remember the actual GDP figures, but by 1961, Nigeria had more than times three the GDP of South Korea, but today we better not even talk about it. The key was education. If you look at other developed countries, I tried to look at the state of the nation addresses over the years, and there is hardly one in the US that doesn’t talk about education, even till today. What excuse do we have? We need to get our priorities right.
Nigeria clocked 57 as an independent nation this October. Is there any area you will say we made progress? And what kind of future do you see in the country, especially in the immediate, considering the way things are going?
Have we made any progress? I think you just need to look around. Maybe this debate about restructuring won’t even arise if things were in the right trajectory. So, which sector do you want to look at that you can say we have tried? Our industrialization project is facing serious challenges; we talked about education and healthcare. I look around, and I don’t like to deceive myself. I think we will be doing disservice to the generation yet unborn if we continue to lie to ourselves that we are doing well anywhere.
There is a huge room for improvement. In the immediate, unless we actually become realistic about our situation and put all hands on deck, and this has to do with leadership, if we don’t do that, it is not rocket science to know what the result will be.
What’s your worst fear about the country?
My worst fears is that this country would be dismembered, and we would become a country where you have pockets of warlords within such a vast area. And the refugee situation, in fact, life would just be unbearable. Those are my very worst fears, but I’m confident that we won’t let ourselves degenerate to that level. But obviously the level of anger, pure anger that is building is worrisome, and like I said before, things won’t have degenerated to this level if things were going well, if people had jobs to do.
Some people argue that it is not about how we are configured, but the kind of people in leadership. So they say that no matter the kind of configuration you have, problems will persist as long as the leadership is not right.
My answer to that is that if when you have those smaller units like the zones that have the powers, and the people know that this is where our solution lies, it would be much easier for us to call our leaders to order under that kind of arrangement; it would be easier for us to insist on accountability. Right now, because of this unitary system, we have a coalition of people who think differently from what we want. And we are all screaming but they are not hearing us.
But if we have a bad leader in the South West for example, or a crop of bad leaders, and we know that these are the ones that we can hold accountable for our suffering, then you know how it would be. Nigerians are not stupid, it is simply because power is so far away from them and they appear helpless. That’s why it looks as if they cannot do anything.
Some people would say that Nigerians have become docile, unlike in the days of old when you had people like Tai Solarin with his khaki in the street, Wole Soyinka, students union, Segun Oke, you had people, but today even the student unions are docile?
Yes, but again, it’s a question of leadership and vision that everybody buys into. But I know that Nigerians are not docile, I have found out by coming to live among the people here; because when you live in Lagos you are a bit distant from the real people. Here, they are not docile, however, there is a disconnect between them and the leadership. It’s like us and them, that’s not docility, it’s actually worse.