In this latest interview with PUNCH Ng, Paul Unongo,84, a Second Republic minister of steel who resigned last year as the chairman of the Northern Elders Forum, speaks on restructuring, Igbo presidential aspiration in 2023, herdsmen killings and President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-graft war, among other national issues.
Read the except from the Interview;
Why is there so much division among various ethnic groups in Nigeria today?
It is due to the spate of injustice that pervades our society. This is a society where some people dine and wine and throw the remnants away; yet some kids don’t go to school. But some of us cannot see that and just walk by. We would ask, ‘Why is your child not in school?’ Some would say they have no money to send the child to school. Some of us have had to set up our own schools different from the government’s schools (to help the needy). With the little money I was making from business, I was paying allowances to the children of the deprived people and encouraging them. By so doing, I produced (Rochas) Okorocha, who is now the governor of Imo State. He learnt from my school in Kassa, Plateau State. Poor people’s children are also brilliant. It is the opportunity that they don’t have. If you provide the opportunity for them, they will do well. He (Okorocha) is doing well and he has more money than I will ever have in my lifetime. And I wish more people will do that sort of thing which we did for the sake of humanity and nothing else.
Do you consider restructuring of the country as a solution to its problems?
Restructuring is a cliché. When you are talking to a Yoruba man in the South-West, he has a different idea of restructuring. The same thing applies to an Igbo man who is a Biafran; he has his own definition of restructuring. And if you are talking with a Yoruba man, who is not an Afenifere member but wants economic benefits from the Nigerian entity, he has his own interpretation of the word. If you are talking with another Igbo man, who is not Ohanaeze member but thinks of his business where he has to be free to ply his trade, he too has his own idea of restructuring. I think if Nigerians should have a dialogue; let us agree on what the word really means. We need to find out if restructuring is a game by the politicians who feel that the British came to this country and divided us unwittingly into power blocks, and that one power block dominates and we don’t like the domination of that one power block. Is it true that the British unwittingly did this and we effectively consolidated that and divided Nigeria into the South and the North? Is this why people are talking about restructuring? Is it that the British came and cut Nigeria into two uneven parts with the North having almost three quarters of the entire land mass and then divided the remaining ones, called them East and West? And we, in our own wisdom, came and created Mid-West which did not make any sense. If this is what the proponents of restructuring mean, let them say so.
If you remember, without going deep into the political development of Nigeria before it became a federation, Lagos was the hub of economic activities. The men driving this intellectual hub then, Herbert Macaulay and the Nnamdi Azikiwe, were wonderful people. Zik was the rallying point and Macaulay became the grandfather. Zik believed in one Nigeria and he worked with people from outside his region. As a nationalist in the constitutional development, Zik overcame regionalism and organised the people in a political party. He contested power because they wanted to show what Africans could do in the areas they contested. Eventually, Zik’s party won the election where the British tagged West and was going to be the chief minister or what we used to call premier. In the night, a young man named Obafemi Awolowo came on the scene and turned the hearts of the Yoruba against Zik, saying that if you allowed him, he would take over the land. That was how he was stopped from becoming the premier of the western Nigeria and it formed the beginning of the downfall of Nigerian nationalism. After that, his people called him home and he left Lagos and was made the premier of the eastern Nigeria while Awolowo became the premier of western Nigeria and that was the end of Nigeria itself. The North then needed to have its own premier and that they found in the Saudana of Sokoto. Nobody had the intellectual capacity to know that this kind of political arrangement would be the end of Nigeria.
So, if you begin to ask how we can stop tribalism in our national lives, and you start shouting restructuring; restructure what? Restructuring for some of them means to break the big North; nobody is talking about one Nigeria. Not that it cannot be achieved but not through this kind of proposal called restructuring.
What model of restructuring would you recommend for Nigeria?
I can’t recommend a model of restructuring because I don’t know what they mean by restructuring in the first place. People should not be afraid to define what they mean by that word. The British gave the North an advantage by giving us a political system based on democracy where the definition of democracy says that the majority will always have their way whereas the minority will have their say. That is the meaning of democracy anywhere in the world. That is why it becomes necessary for civilisation to socialise the human race to have a conscience that other minorities should also be allowed to rule. It’s not a question of right but that of socialisation. Nigeria is avoiding this debate and rather wants us to wait so that the majority population which God gave to the North should be vitiated and 20 people from the North should equal one person in the West. It can never happen. We must be very truthful to one another. And if Nigerians had allowed Azikiwe to continue what he was doing, nobody would be talking about the North. But Awolowo destroyed that cohesion when he introduced regionalism. And now, we in the North have found out that we have the number to continue to determine who is going to be in power, no matter how fragile that could be in managing peace in the country.
Where would you want the presidency to be zoned in 2023?
You don’t award presidency through zoning in a democracy. But those who want to be President should be able to organise themselves in a political party and seek the support of others in their bid for the presidency. If they win during an election, so be it. That is what President Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress did and succeeded. Are you saying that after Buhari, the ambitions of (Asiwaju Bola) Tinubu, who is a leader of a political party that is winning elections, should be crushed or the Vice President should be ignored because of zoning? Will it be fair? People have talked about zoning the presidency to the Igbos in the South-East. But what I can tell you is that they should stop destroying their own people who have the potential to lead the country. Some people say that Okorocha is a mad man but I don’t see that in him because I know him when he was a child in my school. He was very ambitious; somebody who knew what he wanted and he worked for it. The way he was making friends, I knew he was going to be a leader of people. You can’t seat in your house and expect people to come and beg you to be their President. It does not work that way. No one is against anyone becoming President. If I want to be President and Prof. Ben Nwabueze, for instance, wants to be President, will I step down and support him because he has what it takes? I personally took Nnamdi Azikiwe round the North when he wanted to be President and I didn’t feel I was being disloyal to the Fulani or Tiv. I just felt he was the best candidate to rule the country at that time. That is how it should be.
You resigned your position as the Chairman, Northern Elders Forum, at the peak of the herdsmen’s killings in Benue, Plateau and other neighbouring states. Why did you resign?
I resigned for three reasons. I felt the government took too long in responding or acting to separate the killers from the poor farmers. I felt that we should have sent the police and the soldiers to stop the incessant killings and I requested it. I even went to Mr President with pictures of people who were killed; women that had their stomachs split and I showed him and said this was not good for us as a people. I showed these pictures to the minister of interior and I thank God they are men of honour. The minister said to me that when this thing blew up in Benue, that I was the first face that came to his mind. So, government acted but they acted so slowly on issues that bordered on human lives. When this was allowed to occur, people were made to believe that Mr President was interested. But would one actually believe that Mr President would want people to be killed? What will he gain from that? But when you fail to act swiftly, you give room to people to believe wrongly that you have sympathy for what is happening. So, I wanted us to have a position paper on that which I even talked to Mr President about.
The second reason why I resigned was that some of the younger elders, who didn’t know what we were fighting, said I showed too much interest in the killings in Benue, Plateau; that I called them my people. They said if I couldn’t lead the whole of the North, I should resign because they were pro-Atiku (Abubakar) and I verbalised that if Atiku stood election with Buhari, the people of the North would vote massively for Buhari and not Atiku. They didn’t ask me why. So, they put pressure on me that I was partial. They said I was too concerned about my people; I was too concerned about Buhari.