In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, Chido Onumah speaks about his book ‘We Are All Biafrans” which will be presented to the public on Friday. He also speaks about citizenship in Nigeria, restructuring the country, and how to achieve a developed and democratic society.
1. This is your third book all addressing issues of nationhood and development, are you not fatigued that most issues you and other essayists like you have been talking about remained unaddressed all this time?
Certainly, not. Fatigued? No. But I am really concerned that the issues remain unaddressed. It is this issue that will shape the future of the country. It is unfortunate that we are not giving it the attention it deserves.
I think the greatest challenge facing Nigeria today is the challenge of how to “Nigerianize” the country. We can’t expect to develop as a nation if we don’t address the issues of equity, unity and national integration. It is the elephant in the room. We talk about it in hushed tones. We revisit it when there is a national tragedy. Unfortunately, we seem not to have the will collectively to address it. Until we are ready and willing to address this issue, my duty as a writer is to continue to place it on the front burner of national discourse.
2. The title, We Are All Biafrans is provocative, and draws divergent comments. Was the choice deliberate?
The title was deliberate, but it wasn’t something I set out to do. I mean, I didn’t plan to write a book and title it We Are All Biafrans. I have always attempted to be provocative in my writings and choice of book titles. My other books are Time to Reclaim Nigeria, Nigeria is Negotiable, Politics of State Robbery in Nigeria, and Death of a Nation: Biafra and the Nigerian Question. But this was something different because of the word Biafra.
The word means different things to different people and can sometimes provoke anger or solidarity, depending on who you are speaking with. The idea came as a response to a public debate that took place at the height of the agitation by the group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in late 2015. The main protagonists were Profs. Jibrin Ibrahim and Chidi Odinkalu. I think it started with a piece by Jibrin Ibrahim published in Premium Times (as well as in other papers) on November 30, 2015 with the title “Resolving the Igbo Question.” Several public intellectuals, including Profs Chidi Odinkalu, Jideofor Adibe, Okechukwu Ibeanu, and Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri weighed in.
Prof. Ibrahim raised some contentious issues in his piece. I would like to highlight a few. He wrote: “The Igbos, we are told need emancipation from an oppressive Nigeria which has been oppressing and marginalising them since independence. Karl Marx would ask them if all groups in Nigeria have not been oppressed and marginalised as well. In addition, he would point out what history has done to the Igbos since colonisation, transforming them from an egalitarian society to one of the most unequal societies in the world in which abject poverty cohabits with the opulence of some of the richest people in the contemporary world.
“What the Igbo intellectual class has done is to develop a coherent marginalisation thesis, which the Igbo lumpen proletariat took and is running with. The thesis focuses on the issue of state creation, the Igbo presidency and the impact of the civil war.”
I followed the debate between Prof. Ibrahim and those who disagreed with him closely. Then I decided to weigh in. My intervention was titled “We Are All Biafrans.” I made the point that Prof. Ibrahim’s overall argument about the theory of marginalization can be applied to every group in Nigeria. My view is that really there is no Igbo question or there shouldn’t be one. While it is true that different groups in the country have different demands, at the end of the day we all, as Nigerians, suffer the effect of mis-governance one way or another; that we should be more concerned about the Nigerian question. So, essentially the choice of the word Biafra was a metaphor to explain our collective woes as a nation.
3. At the centre for these essays is advocacy for a new political structure in place of the current arrangement. Why do you believe that would be the solution to Nigeria’s problems?
I don’t think that is the solution to all our problems and I have made this very clear in many of my interventions. I have said repeatedly that restructuring is not a silver bullet. But is it a pre-condition for any good thing we expect to happen in this country. Just like the great Pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah, used to say, “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be added unto you.” As a nation, we need to seek first the “restructuring kingdom” because as a people we have yet to come to an agreement of what Nigeria means to us.
Restructuring means different things to different people. I don’t think that Nigeria will disintegrate—not that it is impossible. But the country has become so intertwined that breaking it would only lead to the worst civil war in human history. We could have had three, four or more countries at independence or on the eve of the civil war in 1967 but we have a completely different scenario today.
Of course, that is not to say we should take it for granted. I subscribe to the view of late Chief Bola Ige who once said that, “There are two questions that must be answered by all of us Nigerians. One, do we want to remain as one country? Two, if the answer is yes, under what condition?” This is the question every Nigerian should answer. By the time we get many Nigerians responding to this question, we will have an idea of what ails us.
I am a firm believer in this country. I see a lot of potentials. But it is just that: potentials. We need to translate that potential to something concrete, something beneficial to the mass of our people. And the only way we can transform that potential is to have a common goal, a national ethos.
4. What specifics, in your view, are the issues with the current political structure we are operating in Nigeria?
There are so many things wrong with the current structure of the country. But more than anything else, I think what we must confront is the question of citizenship rights. We must deal with the contentious issue of indigene vs settler. Nigeria is a federal republic in name. Of course, we must address the issue of fiscal federalism. The federal government is too over-bearing. The states need to be given more powers to run their affairs and contribute to the federal government rather than depending on the federal government.
Take things like rail line and airports, critical infrastructure that every nation needs. These things are in the exclusive list of the constitution which means that only the federal government should handle them (even though some states have gone ahead to build their own airports). It is not the duty of the federal government to create local governments for states. There are so many things we can talk about. Much of “structural” problem we face today is a product of years of military rule. Perhaps, successive military governments felt the only way to keep the country together was to centralise everything. But that attitude does not take into consideration the history of the country.
In many places around the world where the military intervened, they made sure not to tamper with the structure of those countries. After many years of dictatorship and corruption, those countries were able to pull themselves up and rebuild. In the case of Nigeria, the military were not only corrupt and brutal, they succeeded in destroying the very essence of the country which is federalism.
5. Those who are for the status quo would tell you that those in charge of our current sub-national structures do not justify why they should get greater power. Aren’t you concerned that giving more powers (and more resources) to the states would only create even greater problems?
I am not concerned at all. That can’t be an argument against returning to the very fundamental on which this country was created. Nigeria is a federal republic. It gained independence as a federation of three regions, then four. From that we had 12 states and today we have 36 states. That is not a problem. The problem is what you do with those states, their powers and relationship with the centre. There is nothing you accuse the states of that you can find at the centre. The states are the constituent parts of our federation and therefore should have the requisite powers. There will be states that will use their powers effectively while there will be others that will abuse their powers.
6. Patriotism and sense of belief in the country are issues you tackled in some of your essays. To what extent do you think lack of patriotism contributes to the worsening of our developmental issues and corruption?
I think it is the lack of patriotism and belief in the country that has made it impossible for the country to develop. It explains the mindless corruption in the country. It is only a mad person that will steal from himself the way Nigerians, particularly those in public office, pillage the country. We need to bring back that sense of belief in the country. In another book of mine, The Politics of State Robbery in Nigeria, I referenced the seminal work of Prof Peter Ekeh, Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement to buttress this argument about how we “conveniently and unconscionably steal from the ‘civic public’ and divert the loot to the ‘primordial public.’”
Again, let me restate what I wrote in one of the essays in the book, We Are All Biafrans. There is an undeniable link between national identity and development. As Francis Fukuyama notes in his book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, “Critical to the success of state building is a parallel process of nation-building.” This is the missing puzzle in Nigeria’s quest for development.
Let me answer your question directly by quoting Fukuyama again. “Much of what passes as corruption is not simply a matter of greed but rather the byproduct of legislators or public officials who feel more obligated to family, tribe, religion or ethnic group than to the national community and therefore divert money in that direction. They are not necessarily immoral people, but their circle of moral obligation is smaller than that of the polity for which they work.”
We have seen situations where public officers steal state funds meant for schools, roads, hospitals, etc., and then go and build churches and mosques. That is the tragedy of Nigeria.
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.
TEXT AD: To advertise here . Call Willie +2347088095401...