-A Lecture Delivered by Dr Orji Uzor Kalu, MON, Former Governor of Abia State, Nigeria,
Organized and Hosted by the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Calabar, Nigeria,
on Friday, September 29th, 2017.
Theme: Devolution of Powers and the Future of Nigeria-
-H.E., Dr Orji Uzor Kalu-
Ladies and gentlemen, when I was invited to speak on this topic, I felt that I was being set-up against our youths, whose future we are actually discussing. In the next 15 years, most of us who are calling the shots today may be old or weak to do the sort of things we are doing today. Then, it is the youth of today, some of them seated here, who would be calling the shots. Therefore, if we fail to do what is necessary today for the sake of our tomorrow, we may live our old age regretting the opportunities that we lost to help this country rise to its full potentials and make the sort of impact that our youths want to see.
Before I proceed, let me affirm that the University of Calabar is making giant strides, with significant contributions in diverse fields of human endeavour. I am delighted that the university has continued to produce a cream of creative, innovative and wealth creating alumni set to become pacesetters in the globally competitive space. While recognizing and appreciating the sacrifice of your teeming academic community, I urge you to keep up with the standard of Eagle you are.
Today’s discourse comes at a time when Nigeria is undergoing structural transformation and challenges instigated by both internal and external developments, and ‘Devolution of Powers’ is today, a hotly debated topic. But it is not new in our journey to achieving nationhood. The exploits of Isaac Adaka Boro, whose early journey ended on May 9, 1968, after just 30 years on earth, marked a high point in the quest for the Nigerian youth to seek a new meaning in country and also feel the impact of his government in his life. Since the time of Boro, as he was fondly called, Nigerians have called for devolution of powers so that government will grow from the grassroot and therefore work for the people.
If you take a look at all political or constitutional conferences we have had in this country since after independence, you will find that devolution of powers featured prominently but under different disguise. Therefore, like the Igbo people will say, where a child is crying and pointing at, if his father is not there, his mother must surely be there. So, I think there is need for us to fully review the call for devolution of powers within the context of our current realities and as permissible by our constitution.
In my eight years in office as governor of Abia State, we engaged federal authorities on some of these issues including resource control and eventually Sovereign National Conference. So, whether we call it resource control, Sovereign National Conference, Restructuring or by any other name, we are saying the same thing – that we want power to devolve so that our states and local governments can have constitutional powers to do much more than they are doing today.
We make that demand because we agree that there is too much power concentrated at the centre. When people ask me questions like: “How were you able to handle the timely payment of salaries of every institution during your eight years of governance? How were you able to achieve so much within your first three years of office?” I simply tell them that it was because we didn’t allow power to concentrate at the centre. We gave the local governments autonomy and the legislature were given full independence to operate. Every ministry and agency operated with no interference from the centre and that was what made the government functional and active.
Ladies and gentlemen, with this, do you think you need further discussion on this?
If you check, we have a lot of young Nigerians on the streets. Ask what they are doing and you will find that many have no jobs. Many have no means of livelihood. Many don’t seem to have a future and they remain hopeless about tomorrow. Many have no education. For such people, whatever statements we make about the future make no meaning because even today is not guaranteed for them.
So, you begin to wonder why a country so rich and so blessed like Nigeria cannot use its wealth to create an environment where its own people will feel belonged, loved and participate in development activities. Why should our own people be destroying oil installations on their own land when government is making efforts to push forward their developments? These are some of the issues that I am usually confronted with when engaged with business associates and friends from foreign countries.
But let me say this; agitation for devolution of power, restructuring or a referendum, are all legitimate democratic demands. They form part of the conversation that must take place to strengthen democracy and make it a real system of government of the people, by the people and for the people. It means that if “the people” is lost in any government system, then, we no longer talk of democracy but dictatorship. For it is only in a dictatorship that people have no say on how they are governed or over what happens to their resources.
So, I lend my support to all legitimate actions and voice seeking to help us redirect our democracy towards a path where it will serve the interest of the majority and not that of a few. This is so because in essence, those who are in power are actually holding such power in trust for the people. That is why we have the concept of elections where the people come together periodically, to review the performances of those they had given power and either re-elect or vote them out if they have done so well or very badly.
However, I will insist that we keep our agitations within the bounds of our laws and constitutions. Once your agitations are within legal limits, and devoid of insults and name-calling, then, you will have no issues with the law. You would also attract support. Doing otherwise means attracting the wrath of the law; and as you know, it is not always a sweet experience.
A good student of history will remember that the American rights activist, Malcom X, was just 40 when he was killed. His compatriot, the great Martin Luther King was about 39 when life was taken from him. If you have heard of Ernesto Che Gueverra, the man who helped Fidel Castro to take over Cuba and also led the revolution that once swept through South America; he was 39 when he died. Joshua Wong, the high school boy that disturbed China with his umbrella revolution for devolution of powers in Hong Kong, was only 18 when he took to the stage as elders watched. Our own Nelson Mandela was 25 years old when he became involved with anti-colonial activism. You must have heard of Tom Mboya of Kenya or Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso or Steve Biko in South Africa or Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and so many others who died in their 40s because they agitated for devolution of powers or political changes in their countries.
I have not recalled these for you as a way of inciting you to revolt against your country and elders, or to lead revolutionary uprising. No! I have only used this to show you that agitations have always been part of the political development of every country. So, what we are experiencing in Nigeria is not exactly different because man, as a political animal, will continually seek for more even if you give him the world. In economics, we are told that human want is insatiable. So, people will keep agitating especially in an environment where the source of livelihood is negatively affected.
So, when we ask for the devolution of powers, what comes to mind is what exactly are we asking for? This is a question that will be asked time and time again. Those who see meaning in the question will not dwell so much on it. Those who do not will keep asking you what you want. I have read several comments and statements suggesting that devolution of power will lead to a break up of our country. Some have suggested that those asking that power be devolved to the federating unit are trouble makers. Well, everyone has an opinion. That is one of the beauties of democracy, but as people from a part of the country where the only singular national export is extracted from, there is need to ask more questions and seek answers.
What constitutes devolution of powers to me, a Nigerian from Abia state, a state which is blessed with hydrocarbon reserves, is not necessarily the same with what constitutes devolution for a man whose land is blessed for rice cultivation, for instance.
Therefore, I would like to know why the oil, which is a mineral resource, in my state is not working for the benefit of Abia State. I would like to know why the gas reserve in Abia State is not being exploited for the good of Abia people? Why do states not have powers to mine mineral resources in their land?
Why are states in the north central not empowered to mind all the solid minerals in their land and develop with them? Statistics show that under the soils of north central lie various solid minerals, much more than you can get in the whole of Asia. So, why do the state lack powers to participate in their exploration?
I would like to ask why a child in south-south Nigeria who scores 150 in the national common entrance examination, for instance, may not be able to get admission into a federal government college, while his counterpart in the far north, who scores five in the same examination, is admitted into school.
I would also like to know why, for instance, the south-east has five states while North-West has seven and others have six each. I would like to know why states don’t have powers to create local government but governors have powers to administer local government funds as they wish?
I would like to ask why the coal in Enugu state is not being exploited by the Enugu state government to generate electric power for the state and adjoining states. Does it make sense to have such huge coal deposits that can fire turbines for power generation and still not have powers to explore them?
I would like to know why the federal government keep retaining the power to collect tax from vehicle registration and not the states. Why don’t states have power to issue driver’s license for instance? How come it is only the federal government that can issue license to anyone who is ready to mine the oil in Ukwa area of Abia State?
Why wouldn’t the state government have a say in that? Why must all the states go to Abuja every month to collect money to run their affairs? Why not Abuja going to the states to collect its share of their income?
Sometimes, you find out that you are helpless because some federal law has limited the capacity of your state government to provide you some basic amenities. For instance, while it is easy for some states to utilise gas that is flared by oil exploring companies to build gas-powered electricity turbines, the governors soon realise that the best they could do was to build the turbines, generate electricity but cannot evacuate and distribute what is generated because of a law which says that only a certain company, owned by the federal government, can transmit the power and sell to distribution companies.
In the mind of the young people like you who might not be close to government, the state government has failed to provide electricity. But for the state government, it is the federal law which is frustrating its effort. When the people eventually find out what is happening, they begin to agitate and ask that power be devolved to the state to enable it to distribute the electric power it had generated. In some cases, some major and very strategic roads become very bad and impassable. While it stands as a sore point in the governor’s performance, you may not know that he is not allowed by the law that designated it a federal property from fixing it. While the governor may be agonizing over the situation, he is constantly insulted and called names. I faced that as a governor. So, I know.
There are some roads you would like to fix because of its economic importance. But you would be told by the Minister that you cannot go ahead because it is a federal road and the federal government has plans to fix it. If you insist and push too hard, you may get them to fix it. In some cases, you may go ahead and use state funds to fix the road because of the people, but you may never get the money back. As a governor, I had to do that to take the pain off the shoulder of my people.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are a lot of questions seeking answers and if I am to keep raising them, we may not conclude with this lecture. Those are the legitimate questions which we must find answers to and through that re-assure our people that we are as worried as they are about the future of this beautiful country which God, in his goodness, has so greatly endowed and handed over to us. I have asked same questions in the past and will not fail to ask them again. If you recall, I fell out with President Olusegun Obasanjo, while we were in office because I asked same questions and insisted on answers because the people of Abia state, who elected me to lead them, were also asking questions and seeking answers.
However, one thing that I tried to do then was to go back to the constitution to see how I could use it to address some of the questions that were asked. I realized that the constitution mandated that local governments must be administered by an elected leadership including a legislature. I upheld that and allowed local governments to run as the constitution recommended. In so doing, I did not go about imposing myself on local governments and micro-managing them. By allowing them to have elected leaderships as enshrined in the constitution, I gave life to the concept to the rule of law, which I believe is our best bet towards addressing so many issues in our democracy. I think that somewhere along the line, the states may have to start challenging some of the issues at the Supreme Court.
You will recall that recently, the National Assembly voted on some amendments to the constitution. During their voting, the Senate voted against the devolution of powers. But the House of Representatives voted for it. The 2014 National Conference voted against devolution of powers but agreed that mineral rights should be liberalised such that states and host communities will have a say in how their resources are mined. By having a voice, they meant that states and host communities must have a share of the proceeds from their minerals. However, though the Senate voted against it, I am glad that President of the Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, has hinted that the decision would be reviewed. I guess they will do so when both chambers meet to harmonize positions. I also hope that our state assemblies will vote for it.
If you ask me, I will say that the Senate and House of Representatives have achieved a lot in other areas by making independent candidates constitutional. They also did very well by removing the cap on age to contest the Presidential election. What that means is that one of you here can aspire to become the President of Nigeria even as an independent candidate. You can do it. You can also win. The country we are seeing evolving now is one where our people are in a haste to catch up with the rest of the world.
Therefore, the radical change you hope to see may have to come from you. If you are able to articulate your visions and develop a manifesto that will convince all, and sell that effectively to Nigerians, you may become the next governor of your state or Nigeria’s next president. If Emmanuel Macron, who was once a French embassy staff in Lagos, could do it in France, who says one of you listening to me cannot re-write history in Nigeria? What that also means is that you must understand the power of the youths. Don’t forget I was chairman of a bank at 25 and governor at 38.
From my experience as a politician who had been on the field canvassing for votes, I know that a greater percentage of voters, those who come out on Election Day to vote, are youths. That is an advantage that youths have. So, I will challenge Nigerian youths to arise and take advantage of the constitution amendment on age of contest for the presidency.
I challenge you to give it a try. You may not get it the first time, but you would have made a statement and a positive impact. I challenge our youths to take the plunge. Go for governorship. Contest for Senate. Show us what you can do. Defeat us. Take over the space. Effect the change that you want which we are afraid to offer. After all, it is about your future. Remember that the next generation is one that will be propelled by information technology. A lot of you are crazy with IT. You know how to manipulate IT systems. In other words, you are built for the future.
Grab that future and don’t look back. Reach for the skies. Try and surpass Macron. Go beyond what Justice Tredeau achieved in Canada. Challenge and win. Develop the winning mentality. Go beyond what Mark Zuckerberg has achieved with facebook. Beat him to it. Tell the world that you can also do it. And when you step out, don’t look back.
There is no doubt that the future of our great country lies with our youths. That is why many of us are worried about the opportunities that you have to grow and prove yourselves. In our environment where power is devolved, our youth must rise to show mettle. I know that our youths want to experience 24 hours supply of electricity. I know that they want to experience good roads, have regular supply of pipe borne water, have equal opportunities with all others across the country, enjoy social services that their states can offer and also explore the limits of their abilities and talent.
While these are dreams that every leader wishes to offer his people, we must also go back to our constitution to see what sections we can take advantage of at the moment while still pushing for other changes to come. Let us not sit back and wait till power is totally devolved. Rather, I think we should begin to build bridges that will help us to get our states, as presently constitutied, to work for us and not just the governor and his friends. We should be able to hold our leaders accountable to us. We should be able to exercise our freedoms as guaranteed by the constitution, and meaningfully engage our leaders and also task them.
I learnt early enough to canvass and insist on anything I believe will benefit the majority. At the University of Maiduguri where I served as President of Student Union Government, I was popular for always pursuing and guiding my fellow students to stand up to their rights. But in doing that, I ensure that the laws of the university were not violated. Till date, the then vice chancellor of the University, Prof Jubril Aminu still treats me like his child.
During my time as Abia State governor, Nigeria was at crossroads over third term. Despite belonging to the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) I formed an alliance with some progressive minds and we dealt a blow to the plan. I did that not because I hated then President Olusegun Obasanjo but on the ground that it was self-serving and unwanted by majority of Nigerians.
I have taken similar stand on the issue of devolution of power. It is what the nation, at the moment, needs to move forward. Yes, some, for whatever reason(s) may stridently oppose it, democracy allows plurality of views on any issue. What counts is our ability to remain focused and to continue to push for it because that is where the future of this nation lies.
Finally, other politicians must also play their own roles. Those of us who have come close to the corridors of power should be able to see the good sides of devolution of powers. We need not get stuck in anything that is not positive. Once we remain positive to changes, we shall be able to make progressive changes that will be in the overall interest of our country and people. The main thing is letting go.
Let me share with you something I learnt recently: I watched a video where the hand of a monkey got stuck in a coconut. It was narrated that coconut used to trap monkeys and how they did it was by cutting open a side of the coconut such that the hand of the monkey would be able to enter. Then, some fruits will be placed inside the coconut and left somewhere. When the monkey comes and sees the fruits, it will stick its hand through the hole to pick the fruit. Once it gets hold of the fruit, it will get stuck and won’t be able to pull it out because its fist is clenched. The thing is that because the money is foolish, it does not know that if it let go of the fruit, it can escape the trap. But with his fist clenched and holding on to the fruit, it is stuck and the hunter comes around and picks its game.
I think that narrative tells our story in a simpler way. The more we let go, the more growth we record and the safer we are. If we keep holding on to whatever we have, we may end up losing everything.
May God bless our country and help us never to dull our sparkle.
- Dr Orji Uzor Kalu, MON
Former Governor of Abia State