Nigeria @ 51: True Federalism, Acceptable Constitution Are All We Need

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In the sixth session of the Lagos Assembly, Dr. Razak Balogun, Chief Whip of the House, was a force to reckon with. Three months into the seventh Assembly, the representative of Surulere Constituency 2 in the House has not relented. In this interview, he decries the state of the nation at 51 and concludes that true federalism and acceptable constitution would solve the country’s problems

Nigeria’s independence is 51 years old and the question of its unity has continued to arise. Where is the place of this unity considering the many challenges facing the country?

The issue of the country’s unity is very important to all of us and in my opinion, Nigerians still believe in this unity even though they question it. The problem, really, is the fact that across the divide and ethnic groups in the country, a lot of people still feel they don’t belong to the country as it seems a group of people are superior and more important than others and I think until those questions are addressed, where you can have equality in a country that belongs to all of us, where a person is not given a job because he is a Northerner or otherwise, where somebody will not gain admission into a school because of where he comes from, where some resources would not be given to a certain part of the country because of what they have and things like that, the unity of this country will continue to be shaky.

I sincerely think that Nigeria wants a situation where, if we say we are practising federalism and not this current system, you would expect power to be a lot weaker so that people can take control of their resources and destinies. For instance, the Federal Government is considered too powerful and taking on functions to the most mundane things like public holidays. These are some of the things affecting our unity. If you have a state or local government which are closer to the people like we currently have, they can make use of their resources for their people and the people can then feel important. Then you will find out that the issue of the unity of this country will no longer be in question, the issue of your state of origin will no longer be relevant any more because everybody now has a sense of belonging and is prospering in his or her chosen area of progress. In the next few days, the country will be 51 but I think we still have a lot of challenge to grapple with. It is so unfortunate that the military came in, put a constitution together within ten months during Abdulsalami Abubakar’s regime, but after 12 years of democracy, we still cannot put a constitution together that will be generally encompassing and by the people of Nigeria. This is one area the people question—where the constitution emphasises: “We the people of Nigeria.” There is no time that we sat down to draw a constitution for ourselves. If we therefore sit down to agree on some of the contentious areas of the constitution and our method of existence, I am sure the unity of Nigeria will be much more strengthened. You will find out in the country currently, that you can easily predict who is going to be the chairman of a particular parastatal or board of government or commission because it is given to a tribe. The Immigration Service, since I have known it, is always headed by an Ibo or other areas of the southeast. As a matter of fact, one would look at the Independent National Electoral Commission as an aberration for being headed by a Northerner because over the years, it has always been headed by a particular group of people and sincerely, such is not good for our unity and I think we should, at this point in time, call for a conference where we sit down and address the issues and not just call on people on the streets. Don’t forget that some of these people you chose as leaders are not actually leaders. So, let the leaders emerge by representation of the people who have chosen them, rather than the other way round. If we sit down to discuss it well, it will help the country, our economy would blossom, power that has become our main problem will be decentralised and each area will be able to generate its own power and other things would follow.

Rather than take responsibility for some of these challenges, President Jonathan has accused some politicians of trying to frustrate the development of the country…

I don’t want to believe that our President could make such a statement because, to start with, he is a politician and without politics, he would not have got to where he is now. Secondly, there is no individual that is bigger than his or her country. The constitution is clear on the fundamental rights of individuals. This thing he is complaining about happens everywhere, even in advanced democracies and this is why their prisons are always full. So, I don’t believe in his complaints because he has been given the mandate to put them in check. For me, a lot still needs to be done, but as an opposition, I don’t think any miracle can happen with this administration since, to me, people must be judged by their antecedents and the ideals they stand for, but unfortunately, the party at the centre does not have such ideals. You cannot ask them about such ideals or even their manifesto and they produce it. Even during the campaigns, it wasn’t about issues, but about “I was poor when I was young, but now, things have changed.” These are not the things that make for an ideal leader.

We hope for the best and I think the President may be somebody who has a good moral upbringing or one with a good heart, but there are some times as a leader, you have to be decisive and at this point, it should not matter who you wrong or treat well. The issue is that you have been given that mandate and you must show to the world that you are competent and capable. Unfortunately, our people here don’t resign when they are strongly criticised like in Japan, where Prime Ministers are changed almost every year. Japan is one of the thriving economies in the world, so I think the President can do a lot better. There were people before him who carried this country to some height. All he needs to do is build on it and once he can do that and not minding whose horse is gored, I am sure there will be some progress. So, it is not acceptable to say some politicians are trying to pull the country down. He should know what to do with such politicians if there is actually any, because I know some politicians mean well for this country. Examples of such politicians are Governor Babatunde Fashola and his predecessor and our leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu.

Do you think the struggle for true federalism can yield the desired goal judging from the clamour so far and government’s lack of readiness for it?

This process we practise in Nigeria is borrowed and one of the countries we borrowed it from is the USA which is close to 240 years. America has passed through these struggles to be what it is today. The 13 original states of America actually came together to submit their sovereignty for the country to be formed, but the federalism in our country is not so.

We didn’t come together to surrender our powers to the centre and then give resources to it, instead, it is the other way round. I think true federalism is possible and when we sit down to agree on the terms by which we should be governed, it will be a thing for mutual respect.

I am not saying we should go back to the time of regional governments; let power be a lot closer to the people than it is now. Look at the issue of state police, I can tell you that if not for ego, you would see that it is one of those things that would ease the security of our country, because if you have a police that is closer to the people, it becomes more effective than having a man from Sokoto coming to take charge of policing in my area in Surulere. It doesn’t make sense.

So, it is possible to have this true federalism, it may not be total one. In the USA, there is no emphasis on your state of origin and we can copy that model to a very great extent with little difference because of our peculiarities. Just look at it, what is the country doing with the airlines? What is it doing with the distribution of fertilizers? What is the central government doing with the Ministry of Water Resources when water is close to us in Bar Beach here? Once power is decentralised, once people come together and agree on a common ground, we will have some semblance of true federalism.

In the eyes of the people, our education system is becoming a cause for concern judging from the mass failure in examinations and strike actions by stakeholders in the sector. What is the place of youths as the leaders of the future?

I marvel at issues that arise in our country because these are known facts to all of us. I will still consider myself a youth because I passed through that system. The governors and president passed through it too. I was not fortunate to experience the story of students giving food and chicken at the university, but I remember that in Federal Government College, Kaduna, I paid N90 per term as a boarding house student, while I barely paid anything as a student of the University of Maiduguri. The issue of our education system has to do with lack of will on the part of those concerned. If you declare a state of emergency on the education sector, you appraise the issues affecting it. Teachers are not motivated, people go into teaching like a second thing; people study Engineering and end up going into teaching because they have no other job, yet they are paid stipends and you want them to impart knowledge on the future of the country, it can’t happen.

You must also appraise the curriculum, the teachers and how to take care of them because some people have a flair for teaching but the country frustrates them, but then, they want to survive. Let the government invest more in education knowing that there is a multiplier effect of having a society that is literate.

The United Nations would tell you there is a certain amount that should be put into education, we don’t do that maybe because of paucity of funds, but even the amount earmarked is not properly channelled. Are they given as at when due? Are the teachers motivated? Are they given refresher courses? There is so much decadence in our society and what all parents are after is to get their children to pass and get a paper degree. Look at the quality of our graduates; ask some of them to write application and you will discover they can’t. They will even tell you they left school four years ago. It is very unfortunate and I think government must do something quickly about it.

Some people may think they are fortunate and as a result, send their kids abroad, but I tell them, “send your children to the best schools in the world, providence can make it happen that the governor he is going to work with is a product of a local school and he will take directives from the local governor who is not exposed.

So, the sooner we addressed these issues the better for us. I am not surprised with the result from NECO. I remember when I was reading for my O’levels, there was a syllabus, but now, where is it? How are we sure that what the teachers are teaching the students is from the syllabus? So if you teach me ‘a’ and WAEC gives me questions based on ‘b,’ I will fail. Then the issue of settlements and special centres are there, because the emphasis is on paper qualification. Most of the ministers and commissioners of Education are educationists, but what do they do when they get there? I am in total support of public officers sending their kids to public schools. Lead by example as a leader and I will abide by it. They keep giving licences to the private schools at the detriment of the public schools and all the inspectorates don’t even have the facilities to monitor activities in the sector and are not motivated. So, how do they work without compromise? It is a very huge problem that must be solved without sentiments. You tell me, there was 21 per cent pass in the examination when most of the candidates did not pass English. Is that good enough?

Look at our universities now, there are not ratings for them in the world and these are institutions that produced us. I went to the University of Maiduguri under Prof. Jubril Aminu. It was one of the best with a medical school because we had a one-on-one interaction—about four students to a professor and it was not operated on large crowd basis and we had all the facilities. To cap it, what Prof. Aminu did then was to give automatic scholarship to graduates of the Medical School to go and do their post-graduate studies without considering if they are Ibo or Hausa. If you go to the school now, you will see that lecturers are graduates of the institution. These are the initiatives that should be brought back. It is very unfortunate for our country and I don’t think we deserve this. We should be moving step by step to greatness and not retrogressing. Look at our industries too, it was a whole list when we were young, but where are they now? All we do now is import, majority of which are substandard products. There is still a lot for us to do in this country and a lot that the President can achieve in the next four years.