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IMPERATIVES FOR A UNITED NIGERIA BY GOVERNOR OKOWA

KEYNOTE SPEECH DELIVERED BY HIS EXCELLENCY, SEN. DR. IFEANYI OKOWA, GOVERNOR OF DELTA STATE, AT THE 2021 ANNUAL LECTURE AND SYMPOSIUM ORGANIZED BY RIPPLES CENTRE FOR DATA AND INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM, RCDIJ, AUGUST 25, 2021, AT SHERATON LAGOS HOTEL, IKEJA, LAGOS, NIGERIA.

I begin my address by appreciating the strong commitment of the Ripples Centre for Data and Investigative Journalism (RCDIJ) to the Nigerian Project, which is apparent in its sustained exploration of the theme, Rebuilding Trust in a Divided Nigeria: Advancing the Conversation. I recall that RCDIJ’s maiden exploration of this theme was in 2018, when our Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, delivered a luminous keynote speech, the relevance of which still endures.

  1. I am thankful for the invitation – and honour–to be the Chairman and Keynote Speaker of this year’s event. Indeed, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the library of thought and information on the subject of nation-building. As you may be aware, Deltans are right in the middle of a weeklong celebration of the 30th anniversary of the creation of Delta State. The activities began on Monday this week and will climax on Friday, August 27, 2021, with an Award and Gala Night. It is, therefore, as a result of my high regard for the organisers of this event and the premium I place on the prospects of today’s conversation that I had to put all other responsibilities aside in order to be here today.

INTRODUCTION

  1. The theme for today’s dialogue, “Rebuilding Trust in a Divided Nigeria: Advancing the Conversation,” could not have come at a more appropriate time. It is not debatable that Nigeria is passing through perilous times. Aside from during the Civil War (1967-1970), at no time in the chequered history of our beloved country have we been as divided as we are today or witnessed such magnitude of mistrust of ourselves and of our nation.
  2. The theme presupposes that trust and unity once existed among the peoples of Nigeria. But was this truly the case? Indeed, there was a time we happily sang “Though tribe and tongue may differ/In brotherhood we stand”, but was that reality or an aspiration?
  3. On the first thought, it would seem like a reality. For, at one time, Nigerians lived freely and effectuated themselves among ethnic groups other than theirs. For example, late Mallam Umaru Altine, a Fulani from Sokoto, was elected the first Mayor of Enugu, the heartland of Igbo nation, in 1952; the Fulani herdsman reared his cattle all over Nigeria, bearing just a stick and not an AK47; the NCNC, led by Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, in the 1951elections, won all the five seats in Lagos and seven of the eight seats in Ibadan; and nationalists from the three regions of the country, namely, Nnamdi Azikiwe (East), Tafawa Balewa (North) and Obafemi Awolowo (West) were united in the struggle for the independence of Nigeria from British colonial rule.
  4. On the other hand, our history shows that about that same time and beyond, Nigeria generally battled with the issues of mutual distrust, suspicion, prejudice, with the various ethnic nationalities locked in battles for supremacy or minority rights. The early attempts to break up Nigeria derived from the above issues.
  5. According to Bayo Ogunmupe, in “The Chequered History of Secession in Nigeria” (https://guardian.ng/opinion/ the-chequered-history-of-secession-in-Nigeria/ – retrieved 6/8/2021), the first attempt dates back to 1950 at the Ibadan Constitutional Conference where the ratio of representation was fixed at “44:33:33 for the North, West and East [respectively]. Northern politicians rejected it and the Emir of Zaria said their share must be 50 per cent of the seats or they will secede from Nigeria”.
  6. Then in February 1964, “a member of the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) in the Northern House of Assembly, Isaac Shaahu, declared that the Tiv people felt unwanted and [would] pull out of the North and the federation as a whole”. Next was Eastern Nigeria, led by its Premier, Dr Michael Okpara. In December 1964, they threatened to secede, “following disagreements over census and the 1964 general election”.
  7. All the above threats to secede eventually petered out, following negotiations and amicable resolutions of contentious issues. But apparently, Nigeria soon lost the capacity, sincerity and trustworthiness to negotiate and resolve contentious issues without resorting to violence. So, in 1966 and 1967, threats transited to actual secession. On February 23, 1966, “Isaac Adaka Boro decided he was not ready to live in a Nigeria ruled by the Igbo [General Ironsi was Head of State then] and [AdakaBoro] declared the independence of the Niger Delta Peoples Republic”. In May, 1967, Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the Republic of Biafra.In these two instances, the secessionists had lost trust that Nigeria could offer them security, justice and welfare.
  8. ChukwudiUkonne, in The Republic, seems to summarize the situation at that time as follows:

The leaders of the various regions and tribes came together briefly to push for independence from British colonial rule. But having achieved this goal in October 1960, the regions had no real common ambition to galvanize their unity. Although many of the leaders of newly independent Nigeria were committed to the pan-Nigerian ideal, [this commitment was] abandoned at the first sign of tension and gave way to the parochial and tribal sentiments which had existed before independence….This post-independence state of affairs is partly to blame for the decimation of Nigeria’s First Republic (1963-1966) at the hands of the Nigerian military, who would go on to rule the country for over 30 years.

  1. Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi’s Unification Decree No 34 of 1966 was a desperate attempt to forge a sense of unity among the component parts of a deeply fractured country. In a nutshell, the Decree imposed a unitary system of government as Aguiyi-Ironsi sought to replace the regions with a strong federal government that he hoped will unify all sections of the country. This has proved to be counter-productive, as it is the root of the unitarism in governance and has become a political albatross. It was also an exercise in futility as the seeds of discord, sowed by the first coup, produced a counter-coup that ousted Aguiyi-Ironsi months later.
  2. It is, therefore, fair to say that, since her creation, Nigeria has been searching for ways and means to forge a common identity. The Unity Schools, the Federal Character principle and Quota System, enshrined in the Constitution since 1979, and the National Youth Service Corps Scheme are some of the initiatives that were introduced to elicit better understanding, foster cooperation, engender a sense of belonging, and create a sense of oneness among the component parts of the Federation.

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THE STATE OF NIGERIA TODAY

  1. Despite the above initiatives and legislation, a huge trust deficit and sharp divisiveness still prevail in the Nigerian polity. The common index of these is the various agitations for secession from different parts of the country.
  2. Other manifestations of lack of trust in the system and the state of a divided Nigeria are:

–  the unusually large number and the high frequency of demonstrations and protests, the most prominent of which was the 2020 #EndSARS nation-wide protests;

–  labour discontent and frequent strikes often due to Government’s failure to implement negotiated and duly signed agreements;

–  persistent calls for restructuring, fiscal federalism and devolution of powers to the States;

–  insurgency, banditry, kidnapping, etc, leading to barbaric destruction of lives and property. The Nigerian Security Tracker of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations reports that 54,362 were killed from 1st January 2015 to 2nd August 2021(https://www.cfr.org/nigeria/nigeria-security-racker/p29483 –retrieved 5/8/21).

  1. Still, other manifestations of mistrust and disunity are:

–  the proliferation of zonal security outfits and ethnic militias because, apparently, the Federal Security Agencies have become either ill-equipped, poorly funded or incapable to protect all citizens;

–  increasing number of non-governmental organizations for the protection of human and child’s rights;

–  increase in unemployment- and poverty-induced crimes, such as cybercrimes, human trafficking and international prostitution.

  1. All of these derive from a general discontent with the quality of governance, frustration and disappointment of the citizenry who feel betrayed by those they elected into power, and anger, raw anger, at the deplorable state of the nation.

CAUSES OF DISUNITY

  1. The crux of the matter is that the absence of a national ideology that all the component parts of the country subscribe to is why we are yet to forge that sense of oneness and unity. In the absence of a shared national vision or aspiration, primordial loyalties and sentiments largely hold sway among the citizens.
  2. It is not a secret that during elections most people vote along sectional lines, be it religion or ethnicity. In the corporate world, academia and other sectors of our national life, our default mode is to queue behind someone from our ethnic group or who shares our religious beliefs. Even the war against corruption is subjected to all manner of scrutiny based on our ethnic affiliations and religious persuasions. The sad reality is that we seem to derive more comfort, protection and security from our ethnic identity. The concept of one Nigeria is still just that – a concept.
  3. The Americans have the American Dream, the British, Rule Britannia, while, in recent times, the United Arab Emirates has developed a vision to be the biggest and the best in everything she does. What can we point to as Nigeria’s overarching vision that motivates the average citizen or that everyone aspires to actualize? How can we have and pursue an overarching vision when we think Fulani or Hausa or Yoruba or Igbo instead of Nigeria?
  4. Bad governance at different levels of government is a major contributory factor to disunity in the country. Bad governance is what results when (a)a State, “based on the principles of democracy and social justice” (as Nigeria is described in Section 14 (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended), fails to uphold, in all its operations, “the principles of democracy and social justice”; and (b)when a Government fails to fulfil its “primary purpose” which, according to Section 14 (2) (b) of the 1999 Constitution is to provide “the security and welfare of the people”.
  5. Indices of bad governance in Nigeria are legion, viz;

–              ethnicity or tribalism and nepotism – it is regrettable that over the years, we have had leaders who chose to exploit the ethnic and religious fault lines in the country to advance their selfish political interests;

–              lopsidedness in power-sharing (marginalization of some sections of the country);

–              corruption, lack of accountability and unproductivity, all resulting in poor economic growth;

–              religious bigotry and intolerance;

–              inequality and inequitable distribution of wealth;

–              insecurity – personal, economic and food insecurity – inflicted on the country largely by criminal herdsmen and bandits;

–              unemployment (the rate in Nigeria in 2020was 32.5%);

–              poverty (the rate in Nigeria in 2021 is 40%, which translates to 80 million citizens and it is estimated to be 45% or 90 million citizens in 2022);

  1. Another factor responsible for our current disunity is the lack of political will to devise a constitution that supports true federalism. The 1999 Constitution (as amended) centralizes political and economic powers in the Federal Government and emasculates the States by denying them powers to secure their own territories and control their natural resources for the development of their territories and people.
  2. Take allocations from the federation account, for instance. While the federal government takes 52.68%, the 36 States and 774 Local Governments that carry most of the burden of development get 26.72% and 20.60%, respectively! This does not augur well for effective grassroots development, inclusive economic growth and social cohesion.
  3. Also, anti-true federalism is the provision of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) regarding the creation of Local Government Areas, which is the empowerment of the National Assembly and the Presidency to ratify such creation by states. A true federal structure recognizes the autonomy of the federating units in connection with powers devolved to them. It is, therefore, aberrant for the State to create Local Government Areas and submit same to the Federal Government for approval!
  4. The disenchantment and alienation of our teeming population of youths is another disuniting factor. They feel hard done by Nigeria’s current climate of hopelessness, massive unemployment, insecurity of lives and property, poor quality disruption-ridden educational system, inaccessibility to quality health care, the rising cost of living, and a ruling class living extravagantly in the face of the widening gulf between the rich and poor.
  5. Truth be told, many of our youths see no future for themselves in this country. This was why the EndSARS protest of 2020, which began as a protest against police brutality, quickly snowballed into a mass movement against a country that has failed them. Many parents here can testify that our youths would rather migrate, even illegally, to greener pastures in other countries and, where migration isn’t possible, resort to anti-social behaviour inimical to the unity, peace and progress of the country.
  6. The last cause of disunity in Nigeria which I want to mention is the growing lack of faith in the electoral process. The great desideratum of modern democracy is that it must be participatory and undergirded by some non-negotiable fundamentals, notably the power of the people to choose their leaders as well as majority rule and minority rights. These must be in place for a country to be seen as free and democratic.
  7. The current lack of faith in the electoral process by the Nigerian electorate has resulted in the massive apathy and self-disenfranchisement prevalent during elections. The people feel that their votes do not count and have, therefore, sunk into disillusionment, resentment and resignation.

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BUILDING TRUST IN A UNITED NIGERIA: RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. While I empathize with people who lament the current state of affairs in Nigeria, I do not believe that the solution is to balkanize the country. I strongly believe that we are better and stronger together, and that, with appropriate, visionary leadership and good governance, we can turn our diversity into a great source of strength and a springboard to build a strong multi-ethnic and multi-religious country that will be the envy of other nations.
  2. Leadership is key. As 2023 approaches, the focus should be on electing a pan Nigerian as president, a person with the capacity and charisma to cast a vision for Nigeria and rally all Nigerians behind it. We need a selfless, sacrificial, sincere, broadminded, caring and capable president that will inspire hope and confidence in the country; a leader who values merit over mediocrity, competence over cronyism, while upholding the fundamental principles of fairness, equity and justice. This country brims with immense human and natural resources, which cry to be effectively and efficiently harnessed by a responsive – and – responsible leadership for the socio-economic development of the country.
  3. The experience of some balkanized countries, such as Yugoslavia, which was balkanized into seven states, shows that, until the fundamental issues of good governance – justice, socio-economic equality, mutual ethnic and religious tolerance, inclusiveness, etc. – are effectively addressed in the mother nation, each new country will be bedevilled by the same divisive problems already in their genes. So, why not tackle the problems in the mother nation that would make a greater impact on the world, unlike the tinier new nations?
  4. The Federal Government should frontally and transparently tackle insurgency, banditry, kidnapping, criminal herdsmen operations and all purveyors of insecurity in a way to obviate the popular impression that they are executors of a pre-planned genocide. The war against terror is seriously undermined when the ransom is paid to these criminal elements.
  5. Aside from a modern security architecture anchored on technology, we must muster the political will to deal decisively with criminals, regardless of their ethnic groups, religions or status. In America and other developed countries of the world, that is what makes their institutions stronger than individuals and keeps even the poorest in the society confident of getting justice before the law. For democracy to be sustained and the goodwill of the populace retained, impunity must not have even a toehold in our body polity. Our security agencies must be well funded and equipped; training of personnel to build capacity and collaboration between agencies is key. Furthermore, directives must be clear and goals unambiguous.
  6. Similarly, to help restore faith in the electoral process, there should be stiff penalties for electoral violence and other malpractices, regardless of which party is culpable. Election results should also be transmitted electronically at the point of counting the votes at the polling units to remove the opportunities for later alterations of figures. It goes without saying that the refusal by the National Assembly to include a mandatory electronic transmission of election results in the Electoral Act has deepened the distrust that the public has for politicians and the ruling class.
  7. It should be clear to everyone by now that glib, official declarations like “The unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable” or “The unity of Nigeria is sacrosanct” cannot diffuse the tension, resentment, anger and sectarianism prevalent in the country today. Only conscious, consensual action to remove the causes of mistrust and disunity identified above can.
  8. I also think it is time we embrace the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with membership drawn from the six geo-political zones. I do not canvass for a Commission that will dig into history to apportion blames and pass judgment on political leaders. Rather, I envisage a Commission that will freely discuss the current state of the nation, debate the things that bind or divide us, proffer strategies to reconcile our differences, and recommend a sustainable path to true nationhood based on good governance. I think this is important in light of all that the country is going through right now.
  9. Nigeria can only grow if ethnic, religious and tribal divides dissolve, and a pan-Nigeria goal is truly desired and pursued by all. Despite its challenges and leadership defects and the circumstances of its birth in 1914, we have come to be a nation. We must unite and make it work for all.   We had declared in our National Anthem (composed in 1960) – “Though Tribe and Tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand”.  The political class, religious/community leaders and elite must sign up to this and our leaders must begin to act the pan-Nigerian dream into reality
  10. The governance system at all levels particularly at the federal must be just, fair, equitable and seen to be inclusive. There is too much power at the centre, and this needs to be devolved to the federating units for greater effectiveness and efficiency. The devolution of powers and resources to the subnational governments, and the guaranteeing of a constitution that allows equity, justice for all and inclusiveness in governance such that none is left out or oppressed is imperative. Urgent steps need to be taken to ensure fairness in resource allocation, taking into cognizance the degradation of the environment by the Oil and Gas resources and the impact on the health and livelihood of Niger-Deltans.
  11. Inter-faith dialogue and the building of networks should be institutionalized. Different religious identities need to seek mutual understanding, respect and tolerance, which allow each faith to live, appreciates and cooperate with one another.  Government and faith-based organisations must, through advocacy, seek for the common good, and put processes in place for prevention of conflicts, peacemaking and post-conflict rebuilding.
  12. The herdsmen/farmers conflict is fast becoming the greatest threat to our nation’s unity and economic well-being. The nomadic Muslim Fulani pastoralists and the largely Christian farmers of various ethnicities have continued to clash resulting in loss of economic crops, cattle and life. This threat to our country’s stability and unity needs to be addressed urgently by our federation. It is my opinion that ranching and cattle colonies with support by the Federal Government are a way out of this challenge.  The Federal Government of Nigeria must urgently tackle this challenge to reduce the level of insecurity and to ensure food security. Criminal herdsmen must be dealt with within our Laws and Internally Displaced Persons need to be quickly resettled in their homes.
  13. The media must come to the rescue. The government at various levels should, as a matter of exigency, enlist the support and cooperation of the media in advocating for peaceful coexistence and national unity. Generally, I think the media should be more discerning and restrained in giving voice to violent extremists and criminals in our nation. Giving undue recognition to these elements has the potential to fuel ethnic conflict, electoral violence, and exacerbate the divisions among us.
  14. We must also, through persuasion and advocacy, empower the media to play a defining role in building and promoting non-violent, credible elections. The independence of the media is critical for credible journalism. We must, therefore, not stifle them under any guise.
  15. Too many Nigerians are falling into the poverty bracket daily, and the percentage of the unemployed and underemployed is worrisome. This is becoming increasingly compounded by insecurity and our rising population. Hence, we need to aggressively begin to re-tool our youths with entrepreneurship development programmes. Also, a voice of strength and policy to space out births and control our population will help.  Poverty in itself creates resentment to governance structures and unemployment heightens insecurity.
  16. Ladies and gentlemen, I have not made recommendations that are not implementable. Delta State, of which, by the grace of God, I am Governor, is a microcosm of Nigeria because she is peopled by different ethnic nationalities. She has had inter-ethnic conflicts/clashes, fatal boundary disputes, especially over oil-bearing land, and political tensions. She has had high unemployment and poverty rates. Luckily, successive governments of the State have tackled the issues in different ways, and I am building on the foundation they laid. And the ruling People’s Democratic Party in the State has a policy of rotating the governorship among the three Senatorial Districts of the State for the purposes of equity and inclusiveness.
  17. My administration has followed on the above trajectories through equitable distribution of appointments and projects across the three Senatorial Districts. We have erected structures for conflict resolution and peacebuilding. They include the Office of the Special Adviser on Conflict Resolution and Peace Building and the Delta State Advisory and Peace Building Council with a membership of 42 (forty-two) respected men and women in various fields drawn from every local government area of the State. These structures have proactively prevented crises by promptly and effectively resolving disputes.
  18. We also have a deliberate policy to tackle youth unemployment through skills training and entrepreneurship development programmes. I believe that the way out of the unemployment quagmire is to equip the youth with the technical know-how, vocational skills, values and resources to become self-employed, as distinct from one-off empowerment. This is what my administration has done by instituting various skills training and entrepreneurship development programmes, which include:

– Skills Training and Entrepreneurship Programme (STEP);

– Youth Agricultural Entrepreneurs Programme(YAGEP);

– Graduate Employment Enhancement Programme(GEEP);

–  Rural Youth Skills Acquisition Programme(RYSA);

–  Girls Entrepreneurship Skills Training (GEST); and

– Women Entrepreneurship Skills Acquisition Programme (WESAP).

  1. These programmes are trainee-centred and service-oriented. The sectors and activities covered include agriculture, agricultural value chain services, vocational skills-based microenterprises and cottage enterprises. Furthermore, the training and mentoring processes aim beyond raising entrepreneurs to produce leaders and managers that have high levels of personal responsibility and effectiveness. I am pleased to let you know that after six years of faithful implementation of these programmes, we have trained and given business support packages to several thousands of youths.
  2. Following the success of these interventions and other efforts in promoting technical education, Delta State was ranked the Best State in Human Capital Development in the 2017States Peer Review by the National Competitiveness Council of Nigeria. Also in 2020, Delta was adjudged to be the Second Least Poor State, coming only after Lagos, Nigeria’s business hub, according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

CONCLUSION

  1. I have briefly touched on issues relating to the theme of this dialogue. I trust that subsequent presentations and discussions would delve more deeply into the issues that I have raised as well as those that I may not have touched on.
  2. It is my hope that the communiqué that will emanate from this gathering will be useful in guiding our political leaders to build a united and prosperous Nigeria that will elicit the trust and loyalty of all citizens and become the envy of many nations.
  3. It is on this note that I wish us fruitful deliberations in this meeting.
  4. Thank you for your time and attention.
  5. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
  6. God bless us all.

 

 

Office of the Governor

Government House

Asaba

August 2021

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