Chief John Nwodo, President-General of the Igbo apex socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, speaks with OGBONNA CASMIR on a number of national issues and the type of leader Nigeria deserves at the moment
You were said to have fought on the part of Biafra during the civil war. Looking back now, do you think you fought for the right cause?
Certainly, I have no regret. By the time the war was declared, our people were brought back every day as corpses from northern Nigeria. It was a pogrom. Every Igbo man was killed on sight. We were boxed into a corner. We had no choice but to defend ourselves. They declared a police action on us and we fought in self-defence, not only for our lives but to have freedom to self-determination.
Do you think the wound of the civil war has been properly healed about 50 years after?
How can it be healed when our constitution was overturned? The Nigerian Army, as soon as they won the war, our federal character was destroyed? The concept of federation in a political dictionary is the unity of independent nations. The federating units must be autonomous and that is what the 1963 constitution gave us. Each region had sovereignty over the resources in its place. Each region was responsible for its local administration as well as for its judiciary. There were Supreme Courts in various regions to decide on matters that were exclusive for regional responsibility. The Federal Government was not as ubiquitous as it is now. The Federal Government today is in education, infrastructure, environment, agriculture and in everything. Then, we had the Eastern Nigerian Development Corporation, Eastern Nigerian Agricultural Corporation; we had farm settlements all over the place growing palm produce, cashew, banana and all sorts of things which we were exporting. From the export earnings, we built a university; we built iron and steel complex and so on. So, how could anybody say that one would regret being part of a moment for our independence? Since the end of the war, they have appropriated our rights; they have made us second-class citizens in our own country. Our place is restive because our children cannot take it.
What lessons do you think Nigerians of today should learn from what happened during that time?
The lesson is to go back to a true federation, restructure the country and avoid any attempt to break up our country and go to war. But they should try and grow what will become the strongest economy in the world, where every area develops at its pace and complements one another.
Do you think President Muhammadu Buhari is wrong by saying advocates of restructuring do not know what they really want?
I think he was the one who did not know what he was talking about. He has no concept of the direction we must move. He feels happy that he can give 10 positions to one state. For instance, Bauchi State has the (acting) Chief Justice of Nigeria; President of Court of Appeal; Speaker, House of Representatives; Chairman of INEC; Group Managing Director of the NNPC; Executive Secretary of TETFund; Chief of Air Staff; Ag. Chairman of National Population Commission and Minister of Education. These are all loaded in one state and you say we do not know what we are talking about because it is to his (own) advantage. Right now, Nigeria is restive, beginning from his own area. His own state governor cried out loud the other day that there was no security in his state because of ethnic dominance of security; professionalism is gone. The governor of Zamfara State said, after meeting with the President, that he was ready to give up his position. He called for the declaration of the state of emergency in his state, saying they were unsafe. The governor of Sokoto State said their rural areas had been conquered by militants and called for help from the military. The governor of Borno State said the local governments reclaimed by the military were being taken over by Boko Haram. So, who does not know what he is talking? A country is boiling in this way because you have concentrated all powers in one place.
Has this government been fair to the people of the South-East since Buhari came into office?
No. I have told you about the marginalisation and the entire security structure in Nigeria is in favour of the North and the Fulani. Nobody from the South-East has been found worthy to be Minister of Defence, interior, Chief of Army or Navy or even Commander of Civil Defence or Corps Marshal of the Federal Road Safety Corps not to talk about the National Intelligence Agency and Department of State Services. The President, in his tour, has told us that he appointed those people on merit. Is he suggesting in one moment that nobody in the South-East and South-South has merit? Controller of Customs has never come to the South-East; Controller of Immigration has been the exclusive preserve of one part of the country. Can you imagine that the NNPC, the bread winner of the country, is managed by a board that has northern Nigeria in the majority and has only one person from the South-East and one from the South-South? This is preposterous. I don’t understand it. He has destroyed national unity and cohesion.
Why did Ohanaeze Ndigbo declare its support for Atiku Abubakar/Peter Obi of the Peoples Democratic Party instead of Kingsley Moghalu and other Igbo contestants?
Kingsley is a brilliant man. He would have made a very good president. But you know the logistics of the presidential campaign is local. How many candidates does Kingsley have for the state House of Assembly in the 36 states of Nigeria? How many local councillors does Kingsley have in all the 774 local governments in Nigeria? How many chairmen of the LGAs and councillors does he have? What is his presence in every ward in Nigeria? If it were in America, we would have an effective opinion poll and he would have seen the extent to which his campaign has permeated. He has tried very hard with the educated people. But how many people have access to television. I come from a village where very little is known about him. There are no posters of him in my village; none whatsoever; neither is there any effective group working for him there. The contest of the presidency is a struggle between the All Progressives Congress and the PDP unless you want to neglect all the data on the ground. Rhetoric is very good in terms of showing your understanding of the direction to which the country should go and I scored him (Moghalu) ‘A’ there. But in terms of catalysing this thing to votes, he does not have the machinery for it, unfortunately.
Does an Igbo person stand any chance of being elected President of Nigeria in 2023?
I think so, if we do our arithmetic correctly. We have the voting strength; forget about the fact that they tell you that we have eight million votes in the South-East. In Lagos alone, the Igbo registered about 2.4 million. Northern Nigeria, there are 11.6 million Igbo people and five million of them are registered. In other parts of Nigeria, other than the South-East, you can aggregate about three million Igbo. In every part of this country, apart from the indigenous population, the next highest population is the Igbo. We have votes if election means ethnic configuration of candidates of an ethnic area as Buhari is trying to make us believe. Then, it means an Igbo man can have the votes. A strong Igbo man in a strong political party can emerge as Nigeria’s president. But more importantly is the fact that there is consensus in the country that the presidency must move North and South after every eight years. It appears to me that right now, the people of Nigeria are aware of the fact that the Igbo man has been short-changed – that we have not had access to this position at all. The only access we had to the presidency is (the Nnamdi) Azikiwe’s Presidency, which was ceremonial and (Major Gen) Aguiyi Ironsi short-term head of a federal military government. Otherwise, we have not had a president from Igbo extraction. And it further dramatises our marginalisation, and we had independence in 1960. For crying out loud, this is about 59 years of our independence and no Igbo man has been elected as the executive president of Nigeria or even acted for one year as executive authority as a military leader! It has not happened.
What really happened between you and Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State?
I have already given my version in the telephone conversation I had with him and I am not prepared to say more.
He has denied calling you an idiot. What did he say to you during the telephone conversation?
I leave him to his conscience. He knows the truth.
You were a minister of aviation. Why did Nigeria Airways collapse?
Very interesting! I was sworn in as the Minister of Civil Aviation on November 11, 1983 and I was removed as minister by a military coup organised by President Buhari on the 31st of December, 1983. I was minister for basically one and a half months. In the one and a half months, I wrote a memo for the suspension of the Managing Directors of Nigerian Airways and Airport Authority, and for the resumption of an audit of both organisations. That memo was on Buhari’s table when the coup happened and after reading it, he sent a man called Col. Akilu to where I was in detention. Akilu showed me the memo and asked if I wrote it. I said yes. He gave me new sheets of paper and said I should write it again and I wrote a lot more. I showed that both organisations were in recurrent and capital deficit with no plan about how to overcome it. It was a place where people came to ‘chop’ money and they did not want to develop anything. A lot of money had been frittered away. A lot of useless aircraft bought; guest houses were all over the place, even abroad for members of the board to go and waste money that was not available. So, when I finished doing this, Akilu told me that the coup was not for people like me and that I had only N13,000 in my account. They opened the gate of the Bonny Camp at midnight and asked me to go. That was how I regained my freedom. I decided to go and read law in the London School of Economics and University of London. Col. Akilu came there on the instruction of General Buhari and insisted on paying my school fees. I said I had already paid my school fees and he said that I should take him to the accounts department and they showed him the record of school fees that I had paid. It was £6,000. He decided to pay for the next session. He invited me to serve in government of Buhari but I said I could not because I had served Shehu Shagari. I insisted that I would not serve a government that overthrew him in a military coup, unconstitutionally.
Are you satisfied with the anti-corruption war of this government?
No; the war is discriminatory. It has been trending lately that the chairman of the APC (Adams Oshiomhole) said if you are corrupt, you will be free if you join them. And of late, some people were fingered to have been involved in some sleaze but nobody is doing anything about it. You know we have had cases of arms not purchased properly and standards compromised? Nobody has investigated. There are leading members of the ruling party who have cases with the EFCC; nobody is going to court against them anymore. Nobody is hearing anything about the cases. I think this is unfair. Now, we have the chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal who has a serious allegation against him and he has been allowed to continue to work. He has just given an ex parte order contrary to our constitution and the President obeyed. But his case is stillborn. Transparency International has said we are still one of the most corrupt countries in the world. What do you want me to say?
What is your position on the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, by President Buhari?
The constitution stipulates how the CJN can be removed from office. There is an extant judgement of the Court of Appeal stipulating how you discipline a judicial officer who has done wrong. And all cases against judicial officers in court have been withdrawn on account of that ruling so that you first deal with that at the National Judicial Council before you take the cases to the court if they are unresolved by the NJC. In the same way, the President of Nigeria has been away from office for nearly one year cumulatively for medical treatment. The constitution places the responsibility on the Federal Executive Council in consultation with some doctors to determine his capacity to continue his function in office. We have seen him misspeak to the public in a manner pointing to dementia; we have seen him call a governorship candidate a presidential candidate in public; we have seen him misstep several times and lose balance as he is trying to seat but FEC has never tried to investigate his health. But the truth of the matter is in order to enshrine the separation of powers. It leaves FEC to establish a case against him before the President can be impeached by the National Assembly. In the same way, the National Assembly has its own rules for disciplinine among themselves and immunity from prosecution from utterances on the floor of the house. In the same way, judges are tried among themselves by the NJC, and some members of the NJC are appointed by the President himself. Allow them to be tried first so that the NJC can provide a prima facie case for criminal prosecution; otherwise, you cannot protect the separation of powers and the sanctity of the opposition of the judge. Judges are the arbiters for the other two arms of government. They are the ones who tell us what is the law and what is not the law in the country. They have the last pronouncement and the constitution enjoins us to respect that. That power is immense; it does not put them above the law but the law proscribes the way they should be protected in order to exercise that independence. If a judge is afraid that the executive may take him to court for criminal offence every day, he will not feel free to say his mind.
Do you consider the comments of the US, UK and the EU on the suspension as interference in Nigeria’s affairs?
No, I don’t. You know that we went through this situation before when (Gen. Sani) Abacha was head of state. He did whatever he liked. He arrested whoever he liked and I was privileged to become minister of information soon after he died under Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar government. I ran the public relations for Nigeria that conquered our pariah status. We were boycotted by the whole world. Our foreign minister called (Nelson) Mandela. He used a very derogatory word on Mandela. You know Mandela, who Nigeria fought for his release in South Africa, would naturally be a defender of Nigeria; but he was turned into an enemy of Nigeria. We couldn’t get anything through the OAU then or AU now. We couldn’t get anything in ECOWAS and UN. The entire world despised us and wanted to have nothing to do us. Right now, many of the developed countries have refused to sell arms to Nigeria and you are talking about the internal affairs. The world has become one global village and each part is dependent on the other. So long as you infringe on the international norms and standards, will you slide into a pariah status where the entire world will boycott you. This is what is happening with the draconian way of the current government.
What implications do you think this suspension would have on the nation’s democracy?
Well thank God, the NJC is addressing it. Otherwise, if one of the three arms of government is not functional, then we are not in a democracy. We would have been sliding into a dictatorship unknowingly.
What will you say is the reason for the large number of unemployed youths in Nigeria today and how should it be tackled?
The falling standard of education is largely responsible for this. We do not have enough teachers with skills to impact anything that could translate into a marketable skill. If you own a company and you want to employ people, you will employ people with the know-how in what you are doing. But the standard of our education has dropped drastically. There are people who graduated from secondary school but cannot speak good English. Some of them have done Physics, Chemistry and Biology but all they did was alternative to practical. You have done Chemistry but you have not seen a test tube, a burner and a bicker. You have not done a practical on crystallisation. You cannot give a clear view of what a crystal is; you only read it in a book and vomit it in the exam. People read Computer Science today without owning a computer. You can see why the education standard is falling. The teacher training schools are few and unequipped. So, when a teacher doesn’t know enough to impart in the child, the child certainly cannot know much. Now, increasingly, our public places, political offices and the highest echelon of our private enterprise are peopled by those who have this kind of education. The quality of services is expectedly bad; the quality of growth is bad and this is our problem.
And the solution is to bring into government a leader who understands where the world is going and who is prepared to take the bull by the horns. I see no other way. Our resources are not invested in correct places and that is why our country cannot move. Today, we devote 69 per cent of our national revenue to servicing debts. Our major source of income, oil, is a declining source of revenue. America will produce 12 million barrels of crude oil every day for next six months and we are producing 1.7 million barrels daily, which means we will be disadvantaged in the market.
What do you think is the reason for the sharp division along ethnic and religious lines in the country today?
Our current leadership has become so ethnic that it has reminded people of their homes. If you are Fulani and you do wrong, you will escape the law. If you are Fulani and you don’t qualify for a job, you’ll get it. If you are Fulani, you become a herdsman and kill people, you are not arrested. You hang an automatic rifle on your neck and you are photographed and shown in all the social media platforms, nobody arrests you. You break into a church in Benue State, kill the priests and choristers and turn around, wear the uniform of the choir, nobody will arrest you. It seems that there is one law for some people and another law for another set of people. If you are Fulani, you can become Chief Justice of Nigeria, whether you went to our normal Law School or you went to a Sharia school. If you are Fulani and you are a Chief of Army Staff, you can be there forever. When your tenure finishes, it can be elongated; something that has never happened in the history of our country and does not have any justification in any law that we know. Our present government has reminded us where we come from in terms of our ethnic configuration. As long as this situation persists, Nigeria will continue to remain a tribal nation.