15th December, 2010
Excerpts Of The Interview With Pini Jason In 2005 Under The Chinua Achebe FoundationÂ Series
The first and obvious question to ask you, chief is â€” at 82, why are you stillÂ in the struggle that you started around the age of 21?
I have often said, in answer to this question, that we â€œthe youth of myÂ generationâ€set out to struggle for freedom, modernization and democracy. As youÂ know, we succeeded with freedom. We also succeeded, to a great extent, withÂ modernization, but it is sad that Nigeria has had a deplorable record withÂ democratization. We have failed so far. Until that goal is realized, I consider it aÂ betrayal of the dreams of my generation and colleagues â€œ many of whom died in ourÂ struggles â€œ to retreat. I refuse to believe that destiny has let me live so long inÂ reasonable health for me to betray our struggle and selfishly confine myself toÂ personal matters.
What would you say, to use Chinua Achebeâ€™s memorable term, is the trouble withÂ Nigeria ?
Trouble with Nigeria is monumental. The countryâ€™s structures are wrong, itsÂ system of government is wrong, and the policies of the party in power are wrong. CanÂ right come out of so much that is wrong?
You were part of General Gowonâ€™s wartime cabinet. Given the trend of agitationsÂ today, which tend towards ethnic self-determination, would you say, with hindsight,Â that the civil war was necessary, given that the Biafrans insisted on aÂ confederation?
I have always held that the civil war was unnecessary and avoidable. TheÂ delegation of the Midwest Region, which I led at the 1966 conference, heldÂ behind-the-scenes, discussions with leaders of each of the other delegations; weÂ made proposals, which the leader of the Eastern delegation, Prof Eni Njoku, agreedÂ to go to Enugu to try and sell to the then Military Governor of the Eastern Region,Â Colonel Ojukwu. The Conference therefore adjourned for a short period; but ProfÂ Njoku and the Eastern delegation never returned to the Conference, and that was theÂ end of our efforts.
You were the leader of the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, which foughtÂ the military for democracy. The question people often ask is â€” how come many of theÂ pro-democracy activists are not active participants in the post military politics?
Many of us in NADECO, including myself, held the view that it is not the businessÂ of the military to impose a constitution on the country. We believed that thisÂ constituted the danger of a subtle continuation of military rule, and that if weÂ participated in validating military rule by supporting Gen Abdulsalami (Abubakar),Â the military might find a way to impose one of its own on the country as Head ofÂ Government.
When, in the fifties, you moved the motion for independence, what type of aÂ nation did you have in mind?
There was no general agreement on this question. What was important was that weÂ should be free from alien rule. Some of us, particularly the youths in all parties,Â were agreed on the issues of democracy, the parliamentary system of government, andÂ staying in the commonwealth. On the latter, I can say that if India had not chosenÂ to remain in the Commonwealth, we the youths would have been opposed to NigeriaÂ remaining in the Commonwealth.
Some say our glory is in the past. And they say this when they look back and seeÂ that Nigeria , no matter the post-independence problems, was on the right path.Â Where would you say we missed the road?
Some might say that the turning point was the 1959 elections when the Premiers ofÂ the Eastern and Western Regions decided to compete personally for control of theÂ central government while the Northern Premier, the Sarduana of Sokoto, chose toÂ remain in power in Kaduna in the Northern Region, and send his subordinate, AbubakarÂ Tafawa Balewa, to Lagos as Prime Minister. Briefly, the consequence was that theÂ National Prime Minister was superior to the leaders of the East and West, butÂ subordinate to the Leader of the North. The consequences were weighty.
Nigeria was an emerging economy, so much that the Eastern part alone wasÂ described as the fastest growing economy in Africa . But today we are a poor-richÂ country. How, in your view can we begin to fix the economy?
My theory is â€” through Agriculture and Exports. We must feed ourselvesÂ adequately, and we must produce abundantly for export.
If you were in any government, what would be your recipe for reviving ourÂ agriculture?
I would call it developing rather than reviving. We are importing too much of ourÂ food, and exporting too little to other African countries. We have no justificationÂ for being a poor-rich country, given our abundance of raw materials and ourÂ production potential.
There has been a controversy over our debt relief. Should we exit the debt trapÂ the way the government has gone about it, or would you have recommended aÂ repudiation of the debt?
It has been suggested variously that repayment should have been spread over a farÂ longer period, and that debts of dubious credibility should have been repudiated. IÂ have not heard persuasive arguments against these propositions.
Part of the nationâ€™s problem relates to corruption and unethical conduct inÂ public office. It seems that the fine line between the ethical and the unethical hasÂ disappeared. For example, in your time, would it have been ethical for, say, AwolowoÂ or Zik to have appointed their wives or sons to boards of corporations then?
It would generally have been considered unethical, and it would certainly haveÂ been resisted. I assure you it would have been not merely unacceptable, butÂ unthinkable! None of the parties in power would have accepted it in their areas.
Do you think that the Immunity Clause â€” as set out in the Constitution â€” hasÂ contributed to the level of corruption in public office today?
Certainly! There may be a strong case for immunity to apply to the Head of State,Â but there can be no case for immunity to apply to the Head of Government from theÂ consequences of his misdeeds!
There are people who point out that corruption started not with the military, butÂ with a particular military regime. Considering the influx of retired militaryÂ officers into politics, and the speculated return of some Generals to power, wouldÂ you support a blanket ban on retired military officers from politics?
The promoter of corruption is not so much the profession of those in power as theÂ system by which they come to power!
There are people who say the just concluded National Political Reforms ConferenceÂ was a failure. Others say that it was a success, notwithstanding that it wasÂ inconclusive on the issue of resource control. Has the conference offered you anyÂ incentive to go on with the PRONACO conference?
Very much so! If what you say is correct, and some Nigerians allege that theÂ Abuja Conference was a success, while others argue that it was a failure, I can onlyÂ say that such differences are natural. After all, there are very many people onÂ earth who justify the presence of evil by arguing that without evil, freedom ofÂ choice would not exist.
What value can the PRONACO Conference add to the production of a peopleâ€™sÂ constitution?
It is a vital aspect of the PRONACO approach that the options should be explainedÂ to the public, and that the decisions of the conference should be submitted to aÂ popular referendum, for a free choice by the people.
What important political act do you think needs to be taken to fix Nigeria â€™sÂ problem?
As I have said earlier, delegates must represent the views of theirÂ constituencies, and the consensus decisions of the Conference should be subjected toÂ a popular referendum.
The National Population Commission is planning to count Nigerians withoutÂ annotating their ethnic origin or their religion. As a man who takes ethnic identityÂ seriously, how do you feel about this?
Can you imagine a census of the United Kingdom in which citizens must not stateÂ whether they are English or Scottish or Welsh or Irish, or a census of the UnitedÂ States of America in which you must not state whether you are Native American orÂ some other race?
You are reputed to be Nigeria â€™s youngest Newspaper editor ever. At that time,Â what were the challenges of an editor, vis-ÃƒÂ -vis the nationalist struggle?
In those days, a nationalist newspaper was a monitor of wrongdoings by theÂ colonial government of the day, and the newspaper was an advocate and promoter ofÂ the termination of colonial rule. Our newspapers were advocates of democracy andÂ social advancement.
Kingâ€™s College today is a shadow of itself, and that is true of many greatÂ schools; meaning that a lot has gone wrong with our educational system. First, whatÂ was life like in Kingâ€™s College in your days? Secondly, what must we do to bringÂ back the old glories in our educational system?
Kingâ€™s College was inevitably different from what it is today, in many respects.Â For example, the anglicisation of students was the rule everywhere-in the classroom,Â in the dining hall, in the chapel and in other ways and other places. I do not thinkÂ you can restore the old glories in our educational system purely as it was. As theÂ system was intended to promote anglicisation, it paid no attention to the diverseÂ cultures of our people. I think the way forward is through re-orientation of theÂ system based on our present and future needs and ambitions.
Your political life has seen you as chief editor in Zikâ€™s paper, then as a memberÂ of the Action Group, a cabinet member of Gowonâ€™s Â military regime, a member of theÂ National Party of Nigeria, a leader of NADECO, a pro-democracy group againstÂ military regime, a leader of MNR which was once in alliance with the ruling PDP, andÂ now PRONACO chairman. What informed your political choice at each stage?
As I said earlier, the grand goals, to my generation, were independence,Â modernization and democratization. To these I would add the integrity of ourÂ country, a concept usually referred to as One Nigeria. In retrospect, these haveÂ never been far from the forefront of my option, at any given time.
How far and how much longer are you prepared to be in the trenches?
Who knows? The answer to that question depends partly on destiny, and partly onÂ desire. I am a deep believer in destiny, so I would say that the answer to yourÂ question depends on destiny, of which I do not believe that anyone has ultimateÂ control!
Are you grooming successors to the struggle? I ask this because people would sayÂ that the fact that you are still at the frontline of the struggle is a sign of aÂ failure of the leadership of the past to nurture successors?
If the challenges of today were the same as those of yesterday, and if our meansÂ of meeting the challenges were the same as yesterdayâ€™s, Â I might agree with what,Â according to you, people might say. Besides, it is arguable whether there hasnâ€™tÂ been at least as much failure of followership as failure of leadership.