Second Republic Minister of Steel and spokesman of the Northern Elders’ Forum, Dr. Paul Unongo, in this interview withALLWELL OKPI, speaks on the state of the nation, 2015 elections and the security situation in the North
The state of the nation has become a concern to many. Do you think Nigeria can survive the crisis that it is currently faced with?
This is a very serious question. And I say it because I was part of those who put this thing called Nigeria together. I loved Nigeria enough to have fought a war. We fought for the liberation and the unity of this nation. So, Nigeria is very sensitive to me. We were so sure that that was the best way we should fight for the good of our children and that was because we hoped to build a great nation. We lost about two million lives to tell the international community that these groups of African people are determined to be a nation state. Now, if you ask an old man like me, who went through the colonial days and the civil war, whether this is the kind of country we were fighting for? I will say no; this is not the Nigeria of our dream. So, I feel it’s either our children or the military; those people who have been running the country, have run it to the ground. As an active observer, I think the current rulers of this country are confused about the dream of Nigeria or what ought to be the goal of Nigeria. They have run the country like a business that was formed by a few individuals, that excludes every other person. It should not be so. Nigeria is for all of us. They have run down the little infrastructure that was left by the colonialists. Every administration that comes, tells us wonderful things about how it is going to solve the problem of power. I don’t know why we have not been able to solve the problem for over 50 years now. I’m confused. Since this younger people started running this country, after the old people such as (Nnamdi) Azikiwe, (Obafemi) Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, everything that was working has collapsed. Everybody that goes into government thinks it is an opportunity for them to make a lot of money. If Nigeria becomes a failed state, what will happen to the other African countries?
But how do we as a nation handle these challenges?
Every country has its own challenges and most of the time, they apply certain scientific laws to overcome them. The problem with Nigeria is that everything is made to look like Juju. For certain reasons, Nigeria is a country that does not bring in the people who are qualified and then tasked them solve the nation’s problems. Instead, they bring mediocre people who are not qualified. Even when they get people who are qualified, they put them in an area where they are not qualified and then they lord it over the country. If you talk to them, it seems as if you are talking to an impervious wall. Government has become a cult in my country and this was not the dream we had. The problem in the Niger Delta has a background, it did not start today. There is nothing new about Muslims fighting Christians, it has been happening and we have been managing it as a nation state. We even survived a civil war. But the difference now is that people in government are dishonest. I believe Nigeria will not experience a revolution, but with what is happening in the country, if we don’t take actions quickly, we will push this nation to a second civil war. I read history; I have not seen any nation that survived two civil wars.
As an alternative to revolution and civil war, many have suggested a sovereign national conference. Do you support that notion sir?
There are two answers to that question. Nigerians must be clear in their minds about what they want to do with a sovereign national conference. In this country, when you are talking about sovereign national conference, people start thinking about disintegration, and they put a scare in the mind of people who lost everything in the first for the unity of the Nigeria state. Some people refer to Awolowo, because he wrote that Nigeria is a mere geographic expression. But no, it is not. It was correct in the 1940s when he wrote the book, but now, Nigeria is a sovereign nation state, with a solid base on the blood of two million Nigerian Africans, that were slaughtered to water the tree of unity. But the people who have been given the responsibility to build the nation state after the war have failed us. They have lost the vision. They have to call a sovereign national conference because we cannot afford another civil war. I’m from a part of the country called northern Nigeria and I have nothing against a sovereign national conference. We need to discuss how this country is being run. These people in government are just enriching themselves. They are so rich that some of them are even richer than the country. Things cannot continue like this. I just hope the people who are putting together the amalgamation of political parties are not doing it to continue in this insensible way the Peoples Democratic Party has been running the country. There is no social welfare in this country, nothing. I believe that the PDP is not capable of running Nigeria and I’m a member of PDP. In fact currently, PDP is destabilised.
You were part of the Northern Elders’ Forum that met President over the insecurity in the North. What was the outcome of that move?
First, we were told that our suggestions were very good and that Mr. President would look into them and implement some. Second, we were told that the President would call us for a meeting in two weeks’ time. Then he said he was going to give our recommendations to a committee of ministers and he said the ministers would be from the northern part of the country. I think he did that, because I heard from the grapevine that they had finished and handed the recommendations to the President. But we are going into the ninth month now and we have not been called. And if they had implemented some of the things that are in the recommendation, the crisis would have reduced. But now it has escalated. Honestly, if I were the President and people like Maitama Sule, a Permanent Representative of Nigeria at the United Nations, myself, a federal cabinet minister and a teacher in the university and so many other technical people who had served in different capacities gave me a recommendation, I will read it carefully. If they are from the place the thing (crisis) is happening, I will take it more carefully. What made him (President Goodluck Jonathan) change I don’t know. They adopted one-line policy of killing people and giving too much power to the Joint Task Force. Yes, as the President, if anybody is threatening the peace of the country, you swoop on the person, but you need to talk too. The First World War ended by talking. The Second World War ended by talking. The Nigerian Civil War ended by talking. Are you going to kill everybody? I have not heard the President of the United States of America announcing that the government has voted several billions of dollars for security. I think the wisdom in not announcing that kind of money is that if the critical advisers of government on security hear the amount, they would think that going into government would be to make money. Ministers are making money; politicians are making money, and now security operatives are making money. Will the security situation improve, when there are trillions announced on television? It was wrong for the President to have announced the huge some budgeted for security last year. I recommend to the President, unfortunately through this medium, that he should convene the northern elders who volunteered to help. None of us is Boko Haram, but we know a bit about security; we know some theory about how to handle situations like this. We want a peaceful Nigeria.
Did your recommendations include amnesty for Boko Haram?
It depends on what you mean by amnesty. We said clearly that the President should talk to the leaders of Boko Haram. And at a point we were made to believe that there was a discussion going on between government and the leaders of Boko Haram, though not officially. But suddenly the President started saying that Boko Haram leaders are faceless and that he cannot negotiate with ghosts. That was not what he told us.
There has been expectations that a northern consensus candidate would have emerged by now for 2015 presidential election. What is happening in that direction?
Since you said the North, I assume you are talking about the initial three geographical areas – the North, the East and the West. Now, tell me, who has been produced by the people of the West as their presidential candidate? Who has been produced by the people of the East as their presidential candidate? Why would the North produce a presidential candidate and announce it. I think the question is: are we, the thinkers of the North, satisfied with the way things are being run. And the answer is no.
So is it correct to say that the Northern Elders’ Forum would be supporting a northern candidate for the Presidency in 2015?
Yes, that would be correct and that is because the people of the North have suffered a lot under this administration and everybody seem to move towards their own people. So, the people of the North are likely to vote for a candidate from the North because they believe they would be better protected when a northerner becomes the President.