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More than 27 years after he and other radical young military offices rolled out tanks in a bid to flush out former military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, from power, Colonel Tony Nyiam (retired) is unapologetic over their failed mission.
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In this interview with KUNLE ODEREMI, Nyiam, who was the most senior military officers involved in the onslaught generally referred to as the Orkar coup of April 22, 1990, warns of the dire consequences of the rising ethnic agitations, structural imbalance in the polity, and the undercurrents of the botched coup against IBB in 1995. Excerpts:
YOU are aware of the details of the amendments carried out in the 1999 Constitution, by the National Assembly, some of which have been generating public controversy and strong reservation?
It is not surprising. In the first place, the Senate’s rejection of the devolution of powers from the Federal Government to the federating units has clearly demonstrated what we have been saying all along. They have demonstrated the reasons making a major constitutional reform are never handled by a National Assembly. This is purely for many reasons: first to avoid self-serving reasons. For example, you would have seen that what the Senate was concerned about was how to serve themselves and preserve their interest; how to protect the Federal Government, which they are part of. I hope you realise that the Federal Government consists of the National Assembly, the Executive and the Judiciary. And it would be wrong to expect the Senate to commit as it were suicide to devolve powers to the region, because by doing so, they would be losing the areas they have oversight on. So, the action of the Senate is self-serving and that’s why in most parts of the world, they don’t entrust making major constitutional reforms or making new constitutions to members of the National Assembly. They are done usually by a Constituent Assembly, which is made up of statesmen, representatives of the civil society groups, clerics and trade unionists; people who are concerned about the long-term interest and future of the country. Politicians, who are elected into public offices, are only concerned about the next election, whether they would win or not. This is why the universal practice is that they should not be included in making major constitutional reform or amendment. This is the universal practice everywhere, as we have seen in South Africa, Northern Island and as we saw in Scotland. So, people must not lose sight of reality as per global practice and standard. When it comes to making a constitutional reform or constitution, it is about giving back to the people who have a Constituent Assembly, such as what the 2014 National Conference did. So, we keep on making this mistake of not being clear as to the distinction of making a constitution and duties and functions of the legislators. When it comes to a major constitutional reform, it goes beyond the legislators.
The other point people forget is that the existing Constitution of the country has given unfair advantages to the people from the North-West and the North-East zones of the country. Going by the infamous constitution, there are more states in the region than the other political zones. For example, the North-West has seven states. Automatically, it means that the North-West has more senators compared to the South-East, which has five states, as each zone is being represented by three senators. In other words, when there are just 15 senators from the South-East, the North-West has 21. And if you do an aggregation, there are more members of the National Assembly from the North-West compared to the South-East. So, what I am saying is that the present structure of government has been deliberately done to give what is obviously a veto power to both the North-West and the North-East. Therefore, it is this veto power we are seeing being exercised by their rejection of the devolution of powers.
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Don’t be fooled; this rejection of devolution of powers is a rejection of the restructuring which Nigerians are demanding for. Remember that four regions are demanding for restructuring: South-West, South-East, South-South and the North-Central. And even a half of the North-East is demanding for restructuring, as evidenced by the position of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and General Ibrahim Babangida. It is only the North-West, led by Mallam Nasir el-Rufai that is against restructuring.
But, he is the chairman of a special committee set up by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) to look into the issue of restructuring?
Yes, this takes me to what I call institutionalisation of mischief-making in Nigerian politics. Let me begin with some pertinent questions: why is the majority of the ruling APC leaders allowing themselves to be disgracefully controlled by a small minority of APC governors from a particular geopolitical zone of Nigeria? Why are the APC leaders from the South-West, North-Central, South-South, South-East and the southern half of the North-East, allowing their party, APC, to be turned into Northern politicians’ self-serving political party? Why are the majority members of the APC permitting their National Working Council (NWC) to be dictated to, on the choice of making a well-known over-ambitious (to be the President of Nigeria) North-West governor and an anti-restructuring character, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, the head of APC panel to define restructuring, which he is biased against? Why has the APC majority not woken up to realise that the APC panel set up to redefine restructuring is a plot to give Mallam Nasir El-Rufai and his North-West zone unfair advantages?
Do the APC leaders from the South and the central belt of Nigeria realise that they have been hypnotised to be acting likezombies by their counter parts from the North-West? Why are, at least, two governors (from a region of Nigeria whose leader feel that the whole of North- Central, South-West, South-South and the South-East zones and over half of the North-East zone’s people are conquered colonies) condoned in their ensuring that the governance of Nigeria is not returned to a fiscal federalism arrangement? Isn’t it the case that APC leaders from this geopolitical zone, which has benefited the most from the existing imposed ‘fiscal centralism’ system, are being allowed to continue to dominate the Nigerian political space? Isn’t it being taken into account that the APC governors in question, are from a community of people who are led by leaders, some of who have triumphantly declared that they are ‘born to rule’ Nigeria? Why have the majority of APC members allowed themselves to be reduced to pawns of the usual North-West leaders’ resort to double-speak type of mischief making to divide and rule them? Isn’t it obvious that it is those like El-Rufai, who are against restructuring that are now spear-heading the mischief making? An example of their claim is that they do not know which type of restructuring is being advocated for? So, El-Rufai, and his type, did not know what they were rejecting? Who is fooling who? Don’t the South-West, North-Central, South-South and the South-East APC leaders see that they are gullibly being led by their North-West peers to institutionalise mischief-making in the Nigerian polity, especially as the mischief is aimed at confusing them? Isn’t it high time we the people of Nigerian learnt from the words of my friend, Charlie Boy, that our mumu don too much?
These questions may, partially, not have arisen, if there was not a deliberate move to ensure that the numbers of the APC’s committee for re-defining restructuring came more from the North-West than any other region. It is the Nigerian majority, who has, for decades, been demanding for social, political and economic justice, fairness, equitable access to the National Assembly and federal revenue, and so on that the APC is trying to sideline. This is clearly obvious from the ruling party’s succumbing to the control of a minority of governors. So, it is ridiculous and nauseating that it is one of those opposed to restructuring that has been charged with re-defining restructuring for the ruling party of Nigeria. The El-Rufai dictation to the APC by way of the so-called assignment is an attempt to throw spanner in the fast moving work and the wheel of the advocates of restructuring vehicles.
Let’s look at the issue beyond the assignment given to el-Rufai. Don’t you think that the entire country will gain from a stable nation devoid of current encumbrances impeding the attainment of nationhood?
Let’s look at this way and that is my position. The objective of the mischief makers is to protect the unfair advantages that the present system has given them and their kinsfolk. For example, Kano and Katsina states’ share of Federal Government revenue allocations in terms of the highest numbers of local government arrears they were allocated, is more than what goes to the three southern regions. So, I believe that the majority of Nigerians should have by now seen clearly why the North-West leaders are in the forefront of those who are bent on defending the present political-economic order, a system in which the Southern and the Middle Belt’s four regions of North-Central, South-West, South-South and South-East are being perpetually short-changed. Is it fair that the North-West has seven states and the South-East has five? For instance, old Kano which is presently Kano and Jigawa states, and which are jointly less populated than Lagos have more than three times local government areas. And one of the antics of the mischief-makers is their tendency to characterise any strategic thinker’s articulation of a way out of a recurring Nigeria problem as speaking turenchi. They detest any attempt to think through the persistent challenges we face in our nation building. They habitually encourage policy makers to rush into an action without well thought-out options of actions to be chosen from. An example of the ‘double speak’ is in the APC pretension as if restructuring has not been promised to Nigerians in the party’s 2014 Manifesto. The continuation of the double-speak goes on to declare that “the APC Committee for defining restructuring is not a committee to set up modalities for restructuring.” What’s the difference between defining restructuring and coming up with ‘modalities?’ The obvious double-speak is in the portrayal of a definition of restructuring as if it’s mutually exclusive of coming up with modalities for restructuring.” All these are deceptive attempts to distract us from what is clearly spelt out in the APC manifesto. The double speak of those against restructuring smacks of mischief designed to achieve their ulterior objectives. They talk of leadership as if it is mutually exclusive of the framework on which the leadership will be based.
The examples of the mischievous plots to distract are such that they have a Fatwa on Referendum: that plebiscite is forbidden. They see ‘self-determination’ yearnings as yearnings for secession. They mischievously portray the need for restructuring the framework of Nigeria political-economy as a call for the disintegration of Nigeria. They are usually confusing unity for uniformity. They deliberately ignore the truth that: unity presupposes the existence of diversity. These internal colonisers objective to establish a melting-pot federalism is not possible in Nigeria, a country with many indigenous people. We all cannot be assimilated into one ethnic federalism, particularly, with their continued aim of colonising the people of non-Hausa/Fulani ethnicities, the pre-empting of how we co-exist, by decreeing that “Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable.”
However, to contain the expected mischief makers’ tactics to divide and rule our people, we must correct the misleading impression that leadership and restructuring are mutually exclusive. Nigerians need to know that good leadership cannot come if there is no appropriate system of governance. For instance, the water of a river flows in accordance with the course of the river. Such is the importance of structure to a leader. The type of co-existence which most Nigerians desire is one in which our sub-national identities are not wished away. So, our system of federalism cannot be one in which the different indigenous peoples of the country are assimilated into one melting pot of federalism which is advantageous to those who are, in fact, immigrants to the indigenous people’s homeland. We must debunk the double-speakers’ plot to mislead the advocates of restructuring on the need to overhaul the processes of governance, as well as correct the impression that those pro-restructuring do not see immediate challenges, such as the unemployment of youths and national security as priority. Far from the truth, our position is this: for a sustainable resolution of unemployment and national security problems, we need to make our national economy much more competitive. There will be the enhancement of productivity when the federating units compete against themselves. There is an urgent need to move away from over dependency on the centre’s illegitimately mobilised revenue to the encouragement for the federating units to be self-reliant. At the heart of the initiative to restructure is the need to do away with the existing chop-chop national economy and in place, establish a wealth creation economy.
The deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, was quoted to have said the process of amending the constitution will be incremental, that the process cannot be carried out in one fell sweep, ostensibly in response to agitations for restructuring?
Look, the objectives of the advocates of restructuring are to restore what I will call ‘home-rule’ to each of the existing six regions. The closest example of the majority aspiration is a return to a major constitutional reform similar to the 1963 Constitution and the resolutions of the 2014 National Conference. It also includes turning the country to the position where the federating units again, according to Professor Banji Akintoye “are the active and vital agencies of development,” correcting the imbalance of power which has been tilted in favour of the Federal Government at the expense of the federating units, as well as correcting the imbalance of the distribution of states, such that the equality of the member of states bar geopolitical zone is enthroned. Through this principle of equity, the people of each of the zones would have equal access to both the federal revenue allocation and to representation in the National Assembly. Part of the objectives is designed to restore healthy and robust competition between the federating units, such as competition for the attraction of inward investments, both Nigerian and foreign direct investment (FDI) to the states. The competition will come about when the people are allowed to have control of their resources provided the agreed federal taxes are paid by the federating units to the federation account.
Competition will certainly stimulate good governance and higher productivity of goods and services. Besides, there is the need for all stakeholders to be compliant to the spirit of the letters of the constitution. In addition, there is nothing which can stimulate the people much more than the restoration of the unavoidable provisions for plebiscite, that is, referendum in the constitution of Nigeria. For a national constitution to be legitimate, it must have been subjected to a referendum approval by the people. Sovereignty is the attribute by which ultimate authority is exercised over every other institutions, including the National Assembly or a person in the sovereign’s domain. We must realise that in accordance with global best practices, sovereign has since the 1789-99 French Revolution (which saw to the end of the French monarchy) increasingly become the collective will of the people of the various communities of a country.
Are you saying all the amendments made so far have not addressed the question on why the country has not found its bearing?
Let me make a distinction that is not clear, restructuring entails vertical and horizontal formats. By horizontal restructuring, I mean that which the National Assembly is engaging in at the moment is all about the members’ concern on the relationship between the three tiers of government to their own advantage, and to keep, sustain and retain the status, so that they can do oversight and get kickbacks. They are avoiding the vertical restructuring, which is to restore a balance between the centre and the federating units, which is the real restructuring Nigerians expect and deserve. The vision guiding the advocacy behind political economy is actually one of nation building, based on the universal liberal principles of justice, liberty, love and the wellbeing of the entire citizen of Nigeria. The mission of true restructuring is to return the country to the practice of governance in compliance with universally applied principles of fiscal federalism. The aim is to change for good the entire leader’s mindset of the sharing of revenue in the federal capital which people do not partake in the contribution. This is the mission we intend to achieve and which the National Assembly is trying to throw away.
As one of the army officers behind the coup against the regime of the then military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, do you think those factors that you considered to have necessitated the botched coup have been addressed in the country?
No, those issues are still hunting the country, and what we are trying to do is to correct the situation, which is to correct the undue advantages that are given to their kinsmen in the North-West and the North-East. I repeat, those are the issues we tried to challenge then, so that we can return to a situation where we can have equal number of states and local government areas in each of the three zones we have now. The uprising arose as a result of the situation, because some politicians in military uniform took over government to perpetuate a situation in which the North-West and the North-East were given undue advantage over others. The people of the Middle Belt region and those of the entire South are still being short-changed. Take for example, why would the Ijebus in Ogun State not have a state, while the people in Gombe, who do not have the population or the economic viability (of the Ijebus) have a state? Why is it that Ibadan does not have a state, whereas a place as small as Yobe, which is not up to Molete in Ibadan, in terms of population or economic viability, is a state? I have lived and served in Ibadan and Yobe. As a military officer, I had a unit under my command in that part of the North, so I know what I am talking about. So, that is why when you go to that part of the North, you see long tarred highways that are not in use, while in parts of Ijebuland, there are bad roads. This is what we are talking about. There must be equity, justice and fairness.
In effect, do you regret participating in the coup to dislodge the administration of IBB from the seat of power?
I will answer your question this way: I am much more concerned about the well-being of Nigerians. I will be up and doing to ensure that the North-West and the North-East are not short-changed, that is if they are being short-changed by my own people. I am for fairness, equity, justice and equitable distributions of power.
In other words, you are saying you have no regrets for being involved in the failed uprising against IBB?
Look, it is the duty of any military officer to overthrow a government that takes power from elected people. So, it will be a failure on the part of any military man to accept that. For example, I will not favour a coup against this elected government. However, we should no longer over-stretch our luck as a people. It is in our collective interest to do the needful now to avert a time bomb that would the nation no good, because there is subdued anger and frustration all over the place over the present defective and wobbling political structure. We can longer afford to continue to sit on a keg of gun powder.
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