CHIDO ONUMAH is a well known journalist, blogger and activist. Currently a doctoral candidate, he has unveiled two books previously and the third book to be launched on Tuesday (tomorrow) in Abuja, is entitled ‘We Are All Biafrans’. He spoke to Sundiata Post’s FELIX UGBOJA on how Nigeria’s structural defect has stunted the country’s development and impeded national integration
Question: The book, We Are All Biafrans has a very interesting title which would be subject to a lot of interpretations. Can you make it very clear what the title represents?
Answer: Yeah, thank you for the opportunity. You raised a very important issue, the issue of interpretation. That’s what people assume to be the challenge. When a lot of people see the book, the first impression is always followed by the question, ‘what do you mean by we are all Biafrans’? Some people just ask if I am supporting Biafra, and my response of course is No, I am not supporting the agitation for Biafra, and the next question would be what then do you mean?
Part of the choice of the question is to provoke, maybe annoy people if possible, but basically to provoke a discussion and debate that we have a crisis on our hands, we have a crisis in our country which we can’t shy away from. In essence what We Are All Biafrans means therefore is that we all go through the crisis of failed leadership, whether you are from the east, west, north or south, or you are Christian, Muslim or traditional religious worshiper. Everybody, or the great majority of people who are in this geopolitical space called Nigeria all suffer the effect of bad leadership, and the effect of bad governance that has occurred in the country since independence. That in a nutshell is the idea behind the book. ‘We Are All Biafrans’ is a metaphor for our collective agitation, and I have studied the history of this country, and I think the country has moved a long way from 1967 when Biafra was created, and till 1970 when the civil war ended, and till years after, even those who were in the forefront including the man who led the Biafra agitation Odumegwu-Ojukwu said something to the effect that ‘the Biafra of today is the Biafra of the Nigerian, and not the Biafra of the Igbo. It is the Biafra of the mind, and not the Biafra of the field’. So in a way, this book is also invoking that sentiment that people are suffering, and it is not just those who are claiming they want Biafra. Everybody in this country is suffering. So we are all in this together. As a friend of mine would say, we are all being screwed the same way by the ruling class in this country. So to that extent I think we are all Biafrans.
Q: The book is a collection of your essays that focus on issues of nationhood, and you pointed out in the summary of the book I have read that one of the major problems of Nigeria is that of structure. What do you really mean by that?
A: Yes, the structure of Nigeria, especially its federalism is flawed. There are basically two layers of government in terms of authority and power, so we have the federal government, and either regional government or state government or provincial government. So when you come to Nigeria you have a different kind of federal system where you have a third tier of government, the local government that is even in the constitution and I think that is a structural anomaly. It is not the duty of the federal government for example to create local government. It is the state that ought to have that responsibility. So the state ought to create the number of local governments that they want. But you have a constitution that states that it is the Federal Government’s role to create local governments, it means the state has no powers on their own to create local governments. The former governor of Lagos, Bola Tinubu tried it and he had a lot of problems with the then President Olusegun Obasanjo. It therefore means that to create local government in Nigeria, you have to amend the constitution, and I think that is an anomaly.
But that is just one part of it, you can also go ahead to talk about security. State police, for example. In every federation you have in the world, hospitals have their own police, universities have their own police. But here in Nigeria you have the second tier of government that makes up the federation, the states don’t have their own security apparatus, so even when the governor or the state assembly makes law there is nobody to enforce it. These are part of the structural anomalies in Nigeria, and of course the issue of fiscal federalism. Before now from independence up until the military came to power in January 1966 we used to have a system of government where revenue allocation was based on derivation. For example, the regions kept whatever they were able to produce, and then gave part to the centre, and there was competition and development among the regions. The military came and tore that structure apart and created a system whereby you have the state being dependent on the centre, rather than the centre being dependent on the regions or their states. We now have a system where the centre has become so powerful and strong and that’s why the struggle for who leads at the centre has become intense. So that in essence is what I am talking about when I refer to the structural problems we have in Nigeria. The structure of our present federalism is just not the way a federal system should be run.
Q: You also mentioned the issue of identity in the book, that there is a problem or conflict of identity in Nigeria. Can you explain this?
A: I think it is also a big problem. Last year I travelled a lot in the north-east, particularly Adamawa State during the elections and a young man who is outside the country now had drawn my attention to the fact that he had never seen a Nigerian flag in any home before, and it kind of struck me. Is there a way in which what this young man has said is a reflection of our attitude towards our country? That people do not believe in this country, that people do not respect this country? But in my own research as a journalist, as an academic, as someone who has been involved in the issues of anti-corruption in the past, I came to the realisation that there is a way in which our lack of belief, i.e. what I call existential confidence in Nigeria is affecting the way the country is being run, and the kind of things that are going on in the country. People steal money they don’t keep here, they go to Panama to stock money, go to Dubai to buy pent-houses. They invest in places that they may never even be able to re-coup their investments if anything happens. But then you ask again, why do people steal so much from Nigeria?
And I raised this issue in one of the articles in the book that it is only a mad man who would steal from himself. You can’t have this money belonging to you and you steal it like that. So our attitude to Nigeria is that we don’t believe in this country, its future, or believe that it holds anything for us.
Everybody just sees public office as an opportunity. Somebody described it crudely that Nigeria is like an an oak tree which you don’t climb twice; once you climb, you pluck whatever you can get there and come down. So that is our attitude towards Nigeria. But if we had a different attitude, things would be different for us all. From the President to the governors to the ministers, if they are sick they go outside the country, if they want to go on holiday, they go outside the country, if their children want to go to school, they send them outside the country. For me, nothing screams ‘I don’t believe in Nigeria’ more than that, because we won’t care if the hospitals are working or not. If our public officials send their children to Nigerian schools, they would be concerned if those schools are on strike and not functional, because they won’t want their children to sit at home. But because we all have our children outside, we don’t care if there is strike, or if the students are at home for a year or more. So there is that lack of existential confidence in Nigeria. There are so many reasons we can attribute to this and I still think that one of those has to do with the structure of this country.
And there is the issue of citizenship rights. Who is a Nigerian? Can I as an Igbo man, even if I am born in Lagos and have lived there for 30 years stand up and contest for an elective position even though I don’t speak Igbo, and have lived all my life in Lagos? I am supposed to be a Nigerian. Nigeria is supposed to be a federal territory. When are we going to get to that stage? That for me is the challenge. That is the issue of existential confidence I talked about. The way Nigeria is structured, and functions makes it inherently impossible for people to have confidence in this country, to believe that this country is our own property and we need to protect and care for it.
Q: You also hammered on the issue of elitism. You did mention that there is elite conspiracy to put Nigeria in the bad situation that it is today. How can you explain that?
A: Well, for those who say the solution for Nigeria is to break Nigeria into north, west, east or south, Arewa republic, Oduduwa or Biafra, I also argue that that is not the solution, because these same politicians cut across. The same inept, corrupt and indolent ruling class in the north are also present in the west, east and south. Their meeting is defined by money, profit, interest, and what they can get from screwing the rest of us. It is not about religion or ethnicity. When they steal or share money in the National Assembly, they don’t remember their tribes or religion. That is my argument.
When it is time for election, the ruling elites fall back to religion and tribal sentiments. But when it is convenient for them, they don’t remember those things. That essentially is the argument. Our people need to rise from their slumber so to realise that the man who is suffering in the north and another suffering in the south have something that binds them together, and that is the suffering. The fact that you are a Muslim or Christian won’t give you a reprieve from suffering. Both in the north and south, there are millions of school age children who are not in school. There are millions of people who go to bed hungry every day in the north and south. So there is the need for us to say let’s build a civic federation. Not a federation built on the basis of religion or ethnicity, but a civic federation that questions the ethics of living, the quality of human life, the quality of access to education and health care, and so on.
Q: How devastating can these issues be for Nigeria in the long run? What would it be like when it gets to the boiling point?
A: I don’t know. My duty as a writer is to provoke. My duty is to study the situation and make analysis. I can’t predict what is going to happen. It is left for Nigerians.
Q: There could be consequences for these problems you have mentioned.
A: Yes, there are consequences, but we cannot sit down and say this is how they are going to pan out. At worst, what I can say is that these are the options staring us in the face if we don’t do A, B, C or D. But if you ask me personally, I don’t see Nigeria breaking up amicably. I don’t think that is going to happen.
What might happen is that these situations like the Biafra agitation, the herdsmen crisis, the militancy, kidnapping and so on and so forth would get out of hand. Then add to that, the economic situation in the country. It all could get to a boiling point where people can’t take it anymore. A revolution could happen, and I hope and pray that happens in my lifetime. Of course the country could also descend into anarchy. We could have a Somalia in our hands, because the country is awash with weapons. There are many armed young men in different parts of the country. And the government isn’t taking this seriously.
And that’s what I talk about in the book. The subtitle of the book is a country sleepwalking. We are heading into disaster and we have our eyes closed. Nobody realises the enormity of the problems we face, and that we need to stop and re-trace our steps. So I agree with you, there are consequences, because we have lived badly. And there is always a consequence for that. But it is not too late for us to re-trace our steps. As Achebe used to say, we need to realise where the rain starting beating us and decide what we need to do.
Q: How potent do you think this book is? What do you think it is really going to achieve?
A: A few things. Putting this book together has cost me so much in terms of time, because I have been working on it for over a year now, struggling with the idea, the cover and so many other things, and I am happy it is coming out particularly at this moment of our history where we are faced with all these challenges. The idea basically is to draw attention. To provoke my compatriots to realise that there is no need playing the ostrich; there is no need hiding our heads in the sand. Nigeria has a problem. Part of that problem is that we have not been able to deal with the existential problem of Nigeria that started since 1914 up until 1960 when the country gained independence. We need to create a nation out of what the British left behind. This country was created in the interest and image of the colonialists. We need to create Nigeria in the interest and image of Nigerians.
Q: I have seen that you mentioned the issue of sovereign national conference in one of the chapters of the book. Do you think the one convened by the former administration was a sovereign national conference?
A: Of course it wasn’t a sovereign national conference. A sovereign national conference is not decreed by any government. Circumstances bring it about, like when a country is at the point of disintegration; a kind of no victor, no vanquished situation, when there is a balance of forces. When everybody is exhausted, then a third party would intervene and demand a dialogue. I don’t pray we get there. So now that we still have the time, let’s sit down at the table of nationhood, and say how do we create Nigeria in the image and likeness of Nigerians? Of those who live and exist in this geopolitical space called Nigeria. And I think that can be done. I have been watching this video of President Buhari’s Aljazeera interview, and I remember where the interviewer was asking him about the Biafra agitation and why can’t he talk to them, and the president answered why should he talk to them? The reporter said that there is the need to talk to them because these are dissatisfied young men, and the president said many of them where not even born during the Biafra war. And for me, I think that is even the more reason why he has to talk to them because many of them where not born during the Biafra war and they have no clue or idea of what happened, and they now feel the impact of the general economic meltdown, and they think that Biafra is the solution. So there is the need to talk to them. Talking to them is not a sign of weakness, neither is it an endorsement of their position. It is like saying I am the father of the nation, and these are my children that need to come together and express their grievances so we can discuss it on the table of friendship and nationhood. So the idea of this book is to see how we can begin that discussion.
Q: How do you want this to happen?
A: It can be in different forms. For example, at the launch of this book, we are calling young people to debate. It can start there. People can start having town hall meetings and conferences, and the government most importantly should also take the initiative at the state and federal levels. Like the herdsmen crisis for example, the government can meet with all the stakeholders and say let’s have a debate. If not that our National Assembly is so ineffective, these are the kind of conversations that they should be having then allow for public input. This is the right time for us to have these conversations before things get worse.
Q: Do you think that these conversations can prompt the elites to relinquish their power as well?
A: Maybe I am being too idealistic, but if a revolution happens today, I would be in the frontline. Perhaps only a revolution can upturn things.
Q: A revolution like the Arab Spring?
A: Yes, something close to that. A revolution of the working and suffering Nigerians who would bring about the kind of revolution you had in the United States, and in France that changed the order of things. It is a fundamental change in the process. I don’t think the elites of this country can bring about the change that this country needs. Not in the federal or state assemblies. So to that effect, I will support any process that would bring the change in the country.