Former People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Senator representing Okigwe/lmo North in the current Eighth Senate but whose election was annulled by the Appeal Court in Owerri, Senator Athan Nneji Achonu, has urged biafran agitators to push for true federalism rather than secession. He told JOURNALISTS,SUNDAY in this interview that restructuring is the only recipe for peace in the land.
In recent times, the unity of the country has come under severe test with the Biafran agitations and consequent expulsion notice given to the Igbos resident in the North by the Arewa Youths Organization. Igbo people like you are happily married to Fulani women of northern extraction which has somewhat encouraged the kind of ethno-religious unity so much desired in Nigeria. What are the implications of this tensed atmosphere for the future of the country?
I want to say that irrespective of the current development in the polity, the unity of this country is very much intact. No individual or ethnic group can successfully divide this country and l want to be proved wrong on that. Nigeria is a wonderful country that is so much envied by others. The problem that we have been having in this country is simply visionless and inept leadership that does not have the welfare of the people at heart. That was what motivated me to go into the Senate in the first place. I was seeking an opportunity to correct some of these things. One of the very first bills that l introduced in the Senate is that nobody should be allowed to export any mineral product from this country without processing and adding value to it. By doing that, you get more value from what you are sending out. You also create jobs here and at the same time, you acquire technology and ultimately build a virile economy. That was my first bill as a senator which incidentally passed the first reading. So Nigeria is a rich country with a lot of human, ethnic, economic, cultural and sundry potentials. I have interacted with all tribes in Nigeria and l know we have a lot of intelligent and well endowed people. Nigeria will go places with her God-given endowment and it will not disintegrate. We will remain united despite every odds.
But it appears that the actions and volatile utterances of some of the ethnic leaders in the country is not helping this unity you have so much faith in?
All of that will not make our unity tenuous. I have spoken with some of my Hausa-Fulani friends and l know that what we are reading, listening or seeing in the news media today does not reflect the reality on ground. The problem we have in the land today across all the tribes in this country is simply mass poverty and deprivation. I was in Lagos recently and l saw over a million people on top of Eko bridge trekking. My heart almost cut! I have not been to Lagos in a long while. Is it not an irony that in this 21th century age that we have more cars, more people are walking on foot at the top of the bridge as a result of poverty. So if you have that level of poverty in a place like Lagos, you can then imagine what the poverty situation is like in places like Kano or sokoto states. The ruling class in this country are just heartless! They amass a lot of wealth while people suffer every day. The worst of it all is the Electoral system and the judiciary that have been so corrupted such that there is no hope for the common man. There is nowhere in the world where dictatorship endures. So the ethnic leaders you talked about who are making unsavory comments that is aggravating passions in the society are mere collaborators with the political leadership of this country to pauperize the people. Those are the enemies of the people because they often use the masses and manipulate their intelligence just to suit their personal interest in every circumstance, not that they really care for the people.
The real cause of all this embrogilo is the Biafran agitation spearheaded by Nnamdi Kanu and his eventual arrest, detention and trial in court. Would you blame the IPOB leader as crossing line or rather the Buhari government for taking necessary actions to restore order. How do you situate it?
I sincerely think that the federal government was a bit excessive in its reaction to the Biafran protests. If you recall, this misgiving by the Igbo people started with the mindless killing of the defenseless Biafrans by the security forces who were engaged in peaceful protests. They (security agents) killed them (Biafran youths protesters) for nothing and the next day they took them to court. Till today, some of the boys are still languishing in jail without trial. So if the killings had not taken place, the agitations would not have succeeded. That is the way l see it. I am happy that a man like Muhammadu Buhari emerged as president and that a young man like Nnamdi Kanu also emerged as IPOB crusader. Nobody wants war! I lost my right arm as a result of the last civil war. Nobody is praying for war but nobody also is praying that he should live in his own country as a second class citizen. Nobody wants to live in a country where he can be detained without trial or where he or she will be punished for doing a wrong and another citizen in the same country will be left to go scot free for committing the same wrong. That is what is playing out now. Nobody will imagine that southern kaduna, southern Kebbi, southern Bauchi, Kogi and the whole of Taraba states are not part of north, that they are Middle Belt, which they are in the real sense. This kind of mindset often creates the problem. And again, the state governors are a major cause of this social tension. The governors killed the local government system that guarantees all these minorities a voice in the polity. Minorities are covered in all the council areas in the states and so they elect their own chairman. But what we have is a situation where the governors select somebody from their own majority tribe probably, and impose that person on the minority tribes. The people who framed the Constitution had in mind that people should give vent to their feeling through their local government system. That way, you accommodate every view, everybody. And if elections are conducted by INEC for every local government, a governor can’t impose anybody of his choice. The people can truly elect who they want to serve them because it is service really. That was what happened when the governors took over the local council management. And because the governors have control over the local governments, they now determines who emerges at the party congresses. They now impose people who goes to the State Houses of Assemblies, who goes to the Senate or House of Representatives and even who should be appointed Minister from their state. So the problems we have today is from the governors. Most of them hate me because l tell them the truth. Look at the powers most of those former governors thought they wield. It has become an illusion. Most of them are even irrelevant in their states just so soon after they left power. But if they had served their people very well and the system worked perfectly under them, even when they leave office, they will have influence because they did well while in office. People will respect them and they can even be stronger than the incumbent governors if those governors are not doing well. That is what they don’t see when they are on that seat.
In that case, you are sympathetic with the advocates of national restructuring?
Totally! Restructuring of the country is the only answer. I vote for true federalism not secession. It will help the regions or the zones as we have them now to develop faster according to their ability and capability. We will have a healthy competition among the federating units. For instance, that will make the Middle Belt to struggle to outdo the South West or the South West striving to outdo the South South or South East, or even the North East aspiring to beat the South East or North West in terms of development. It will engender healthy competition. Countries like Japan does not have mineral resources. They import it from other countries, process it or add value to it and ship back to those countries they imported the primary products from.
Interestingly, you mentioned the issue of faulty electoral process which people like you have been victims of. Your election as Senator representing Okigwe/ Imo North under PDP was annulled by the Appeal Court in Owerri in favour of your APC opponent, Senator Benjamin Uwajimogu (former Imo Assembly Speaker). In this circumstance, would you agree with the Ken Nnamani Committee recommendation on Electoral Reform, that all pre-election and post-election cases should first be dispensed with before the ultimate winner of the poll assumes office?
Well, it makes a lot of sense. But what makes more sense is that all national offices like Senate, House of Reps, Governor and Presidential should have their cases go up to the Supreme Court. That does not mean that anybody in that category can not get justice at the Appeal Court, but there is a likelihood that an opportunity of justice would come from that apex level of the judiciary. There are so many incidents at the Appeal Courts that makes one to begin to wonder what actually is happening. Those days when we were young, judges were highly regarded. I went to school with people like Charles Aniagolu and Charles Oputa (aka Charley Boy). They are children of respected late former Supreme Court Justices (Justices Anthony Aniagolu and Chukwudifu Oputa). When you are passing their residences, you almost tip-toe so that you don’t make noise or appear to be disturbing the judges who are at home resting. You can see the kind of prestige accorded judges then and the respect they command including magistrates. These are men who have the power of life and death over you and l. We don’t have a jury system here in Nigeria. When we hear that these kind of people are now involved in the sale and purchase of judgements like crayfish sold in the open market, your heart grieve. It’s sheer madness! I can’t imagine myself bribing a judge. Judges should be paid very well. There should be financial autonomy for judicial officers so that state governors and presidents can not control them because they represent an arm of government for God’s sake. Some policemen and INEC Commissioners were alleged to be carrying ballot boxes during elections. It happened in my own senatorial election in Imo state. So the National Assembly election petitions should be taken up to the Supreme Court and the cases should really be dispensed with before the eventual winner assumes office.