Senate Majority Leader, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba is optmistic Nigeria will make it as united nation because her union is not a forced marriage
NIGERIA is celebrating its 53rd independence, how far have we fared as a united nation, do you think the country should continue to be one?
It could be a nightmare for Nigeria to break up. I personally have strong faith in the unity of Nigeria, that our unity is invaluable. That unity cannot be violated, so I believe that all these prophecies by doomsday prophets that Nigeria will break up will fail.
It is not the first time we are hearing all those prophecies, it has always been there. Nigeria survived a very brutal civil war, so I don’t see any fundamental issues that will lead to the disintegration of Nigeria in spite of the wishes of the doomsday prophets. Nigeria will remain one strong and united country.
Next year, Nigeria will be celebrating its 100 years of amalgamation, which some critics have dubbed forced marriage, do you think the amalgamation has been beneficial to the country?
It is a marriage that has been there for 99 years and a forced marriage doesn’t endure that long. It is only when there is compatibility that a marriage survives that long.
Advent of democracy
But even in the best of marriages, there will be issues, the thing is, how are these issues resolved? And I believe that we have the capacity, especially with advent of democracy. We will in a very fundamental way, resolve the issues that confront this marriage. Some of those issues persist because in the many years of military rule, we did not confront them.
An issue that would have been resolved squarely long ago, stays up to now because they were swept under the carpet. So, I believe that the issues are there but the unity of Nigeria, like I said, is invaluable.
We have been there for 99 years and almost going for a 100 years. So, I think that the unity or the amalgamation is for the benefit of not just Nigeria but Africa as a whole because that amalgamation has put Nigeria politically in a very unique position to play the roles it is playing in Africa.
And the consequences of the break-up of Nigeria are to dire for the world to ignore.
Solutions to problems threatening the unity
We should continue to negotiate and re-negotiate the terms of the union. You don’t go into a union and 100 years later, you are still operating under the original terms of that union. So, we hope to every now and then, re-negotiate the terms of staying together.
Yes, we moved from four regions in 1963 to 37 states today, was it through a democratic process? Certainly, not. It was by military fiat. States were created, local governments were created by military fiat not through discussion, not through negotiation.
And the amendments to structures have come with consequences. That is because they were created under the military regimes. We have not been able to sit down and deal with the consequences of very fundamental structural issues that arose during the times of the military. So, we need to deal with some of the consequences that arose during the military.
Sitting down to negotiate is it through Supreme National Conference?
Maybe, you will have to explain the word “sovereign” to me. I keep asking people what is it that will make the conference sovereign? What ingredients should we look out for a sovereignty of such a conference?
My understanding and I might be wrong, is that our sovereignty, yes, sovereignty resides with the people, it derives from and resides with the people but that sovereignty is expressed in the constitution.
So, our sovereignty is the one that is expressed in the constitution. And the constitution has proclaimed itself as supreme and we have accepted it as supreme.
Origins of the constitution
People say that the origins of the constitution are dubious, I concede that point that we the people never met. But we have ratified the constitution by conduct because we all have submitted to a president or presidents that were elected under that constitution. We have submitted to governors that were elected under that constitution.
We have submitted to National Assembly and state assemblies that were created by that constitution. We have submitted to courses that were created by that constitution.
We have submitted to all the authorities and powers that were created by that constitution. So, we have ratified the constitution by conduct, the question of it being dubious, as far as I am concerned is being academic.
So now is that constitution that has been ratified by all of us, is the expression of our sovereignty. How, who, where and when was the sovereignty granted to the conference, who granted the sovereignty to that conference and by what act and by what method?
So, for me, the insistence on a SNC is neither here nor there because even those who are calling for it have not told us what act will make it sovereign and who will carry out those acts that will make it sovereign and how you will carry out the acts to make the acts sovereign.
I read a reaction from a senior lawyer to the Distinguish Senate President’s speech that was read by me in Calabar and he was reminding me that yes, sovereignty resides with the people, that the Senate President was talking rubbish. Nobody is debating the point that yes, sovereignty resides with the people or derives from the people. So, how do we meet with the people to convey this sovereignty? Where do we meet them?
Is it in Ohong or in Kaura Namuda or Kafanchan or in Ikom? So, which of the people will convey or convene the sovereignty and in what manner?
So, we now agree on the manner, how is that manner now decided? How is it framework done? So for me, the insistence on sovereign is where I have a problem. If you say we want to have a national conference or a national dialogue or whatever, that one is not an issue, because it is a right that is expressed already in the constitution, you are free to do so. But it is where you insist on qualifying it as sovereign that I will need to be educated.
What will amount to sovereign, how it will be conferred, who it will be conferred and in what manner it will be conferred. So, for that, I will say that there is need for Nigerians to discuss the terms of their union in whatever constitutional or legal forum.
How best to go the national conference to achieve its aim?
I have no idea about that, it is not my suggestion. Honestly, I have no clue because I have not given it any thought.
Recently, G-7 Governors advised President Goodluck Jonathan not to contest the 2015 elections for the sake of peace in Nigeria, what is your reaction?
Well, they were expressing their constitutional right and opinions just like other Nigerians who have their constitutional right to hold a contrary opinion and Mr President himself will have the constitutional right to hold his own opinion. As far as I am concerned, they had merely expressed their constitutional right and opinion.
As a political actor in Nigeria, do you hold their view that there will be no peace if Jonathan contests the 2015 presidential election?
Well, let me say this, in politics, we are motivated by interest. So if it is in their interest for the president not to contest, they certainly will canvass that position. For those whose interest is for Mr President to contest, they will canvass a contrary opinion. The important thing or the important question is does the president has the constitutional right to contest.
If he does, can you abridge or take away that constitutional right? And my answer to it is no. So, it is a choice that Mr President will have to soberly and calmly make himself. But as to whether or not he has the constitutional right, I believe that he does. And I believe that it is within his own purview to exercise his right in one way or the other and that nobody, no matter how we wish it, can abridge his constitutional right.
As a leader of the Senate, how would you say the National Assembly has so far fared since independence?
Of the three arms of government-the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, the legislature is the one that represents democratic government because the executive and the judiciary, from my experience, have existed even under military rule, which means that what give a government its character, whether it is authoritarian or military or a democracy is the presence or absence of the national Assembly.
And that is why the military strikes and it struck quite often, in our post independence era, the first thing they did was to abrogate the National Assembly, because having a national Assembly will be inconsistent with the system-the authoritarian rule.
And we have had several episodes of the military intervening. Each time they intervened, the National Assembly was dissolved. So for the almost 30 years that the military was in power, the National Assembly did not exist, while the executive and the judiciary had the opportunity of growing. So, during the military, the National Assembly did not exist, not to talk of growth.
So, in terms of growth, in terms of development, in terms of capacity, the National Assembly is the least developed of the three arms, because the other arms can legitimately claim to have 53 years of experience, continuous experience, we don’t have 53 years of continuous experience. And the experience we have had is staccato-1960 to January 1966,which is six years,1979 to 1983 which is four years and 14 years going now unbroken.
So, our own growth has not been consistent. Our growth has been episodic, you grow to this point, they terminate you, you start afresh, they terminate you and this explains the impatience with the National Assembly, because for 30 years with the National Assembly, Nigeria did not stop existing, which means that they have been without the National Assembly and they can live without the National Assembly.
And because they live without the National Assembly, every problem of the country is not hipped on the National Assembly. And you see it even on the reasons of Nigerians to the cost of governance.
The National Assembly that has less than three percent of the budget is the one that is being blamed for all the wastefulness in the system. Even recently, some people were at the gate asking us to explain how we have spent the N1 trillion since 1999 as if the N1 trillion was just brought for us to come and share to go and keep. There is a bureaucracy; there are capital projects and all of that.
It just shows the impatience of the public with the National Assembly and that is because they lived without us for 30 years. And in those 30 years, if you recall, if you go and check newspapers, those 30 years that the National Assembly did not exist, the cost of governance was an issue.
Even when there was no National Assembly, people were screaming that the cost of governance was too high. The cost of projects in Nigeria is the highest in the world. Have we forgotten? So, in terms of how we have fared, you must first of us give us this background that has just been given to you. So, we have fared as well as we can possibly fare given our historical circumstances.
There are fears out there that given the tension being generated in the polity, the military may possibly intervene in the country’s politics once more, do you have that fear also?
I mean political tension.
How? That John has a position and I have a position, that is tension? Are we in the graveyard that everybody must be in the same level? I think we must see the distinction between deferring positions and tension. In politics, everybody must come from a different position and we keep negotiating until we build a consensus. Prior to the 2011 elections, we were told that Nigeria would be broken up by that election, did it happen? We also had the same thing in 2007, did it happen? We were told the same thing in 2003, did it happen?
Autonomy of local government
Well, I have been asked this question before and I chaired the last public hearing of the South South zone in the proposed constitutional amendment in Calabar, I think it was in November last year. On the issue of local government autonomy, there were two sides that were equally passionate. There were those who said look, grant them autonomy, there were those, especially teachers who came out to say that please, don’t grant them autonomy. Are they not Nigerians? So who are these grassroots people who are angry? At the public hearing, there were two clear divides on the issue.
In 1999 when we returned to democracy, the local governments in, for instance, CrossRiverState were getting their full compliments, do you remember what happened? It was said, rumour that the local government chairmen were busy buying houses in Abuja and abroad.
Have you forgotten? By 2002 when their terms ended, I think there were only one or two local government areas in Cross River that were up to date with payment of salaries. Only one or two was up to date with payment of salaries! They were owing, in some cases, salaries for two years. Have we forgotten? So this issue of autonomy, autonomy doesn’t necessarily translate to benefits for the man in the street, not necessarily. Ask any of your relations where is the teacher in the local government system. The word “autonomy” is nightmare to him.
It was after 2002 that the government of then Governor Donald Duke sat down and reviewed the issues that the state government in agreement with local governments now decided to take over the issue of payment of salaries of teachers in the entire local government system. And the state government, from that time automatically started clearing the areas of teachers. We forget so soon but that is by the side. What is the real issue? Take the constitution, what is the contemplation of the constitution?
Did it contemplate the local government as a federating unit or they were not contemplated as federating units? What does the constitution say- that local governments are basis of state governments, so it cannot be a federating unit. So for them to become autonomous the way it is canvassed by those who believe in autonomy for local governments, is to come first to Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution and amend it, to make the local government federating units.
They have to be federating units to be autonomous. If you say I am an appendage of somebody, that the person is my master, he determines my fate where I live, what I feed, my school where I go and everything I do and then you say now say that without changing those basic relationships, I should be independent! So, you must involve the issues, first, whether local governments are federating units or not. If they are federating units as contemplated by the 1999 constitution, then they are automatically entitled to autonomy but if they are not federating units and were not contemplated as federating units, then I think the argument for autonomy is like putting the cart before the horse.
Zoning in CrossRiver
Well, for us in PDP, we believe in honour. And I think we have made a categorical public pronouncement that after Senator Liyel Imoke’s tenure from the Central Senatorial zone, the governorship would go to the North. Donald Duke who was there before him, happened to come from the South which means the South and the Central have had it. It is something that we have publicly proclaimed and we are committed to the word that we pronounced. When we say something, we mean it