This article was added by the user . TheWorldNews is not responsible for the content of the platform.

Regional govt best for Nigeria, states spreading poverty – Wande Abimbola

A former Vice Chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University and popular professor of African Languages and Literature, Wande Abimbola, speaks to TUNDE AJAJA on Nigeria’s 63rd independence anniversary and the way out of the country’s many challenges

Nigeria is celebrating its 63rd Independence anniversary today, as a historian, how will you assess the country’s journey so far?

I think we have fared fairly well. Democracy is thriving, and in spite of all the troubles we have had, Nigeria is still a good place to live in. Being the biggest economy in Africa is an achievement by itself. But the long period of military rule set us back somewhat. I think the greatest blemish of military rule was when late Major Gen Aguiyi Ironsi scrapped the regional system (Northern, Western and Eastern) under which we gained our independence. If the regional system was still in place, Nigeria would have had greater development. Then the second factor was the oil boom, which became oil doom. We didn’t know how to handle that kind of sudden wealth and we still don’t know how to handle it till now. But I think by and large, we have made wonderful strides, especially in the field of education.

Could you expatiate on that?

We now have excess of 100 universities and some of them are well known around the world, like the University of Ibadan, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, University of Lagos, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and even some of the newer private universities. However, I always say that there are certain ingredients of nation building which we have neglected. How can we claim to be a nation, an independent nation, when none of the major languages of Nigeria is employed in the process of education from primary to university level? How can we claim that we are independent when we don’t speak our own languages? In the legislative houses, I think except in Lagos State, where they speak Yoruba language part of the time. Others speak English. If we want to lay claim to genuine independence, the three or nine main languages in Nigeria should be used in the training of our children from primary school to the university level. I don’t know why that is not so obvious to our leaders. Is it not a shame that at the Senate and House of Representatives or even at the local government or state parliaments we speak English. That is an urgent matter that we should look into.

Do you think reversion to regional system of government remains the way out?

To return Nigeria to the three or four regional system is an urgent matter and if you want to amend it a little bit, we can recognise all the six geopolitical zones. Don’t forget that we started with three regions but later on they added Mid-Western region, making four. President Goodluck Jonathan tried to do that with that 2014 conference but unfortunately, he didn’t complete it. If he did, he would have won a second term. I strongly urge President Bola Tinubu to look into this matter; call for the conclusions and recommendations of the conference that Jonathan put in place, examine it and as quickly as possible adopt the six regions. Once that is in place, we should then begin to put in place a committee in each of the six regions to look into how our indigenous languages, say in the next three or four years, would be employed in the educational system from primary to university level.

That implies that you are proposing that the 36 states should be scrapped?

The 36-state structure is neither manageable nor sustainable. Nigeria is the same size as the state of Texas in the United States and a little state to the North-East of Texas, known as Oklahoma; it’s the same land mass. Just imagine such an area being divided into 36 states. However, the other area I want to highlight is that we should cease to be just a producer of raw materials. A Chinese adage says the happiness of a nation is like a tree; farming is its roots, while manufacturing and commerce are its leaves and branches. If the root is harmed, the branches break down, the leaves fall and the tree dies. We should pay great attention to agriculture, manufacturing and commerce. These are the failings of successive governments of Nigeria since independence to date.

When you said the military caused the country a setback by scrapping the regional system of government, conversely there have been arguments that the military regime wasn’t totally bad because a number of the lasting infrastructure in the country were built by the military and that rights abuse synonymous with military rule had been perpetuated by democratically elected leaders. What do you make of that argument?

It is not an argument, because of bridges and roads? When we are talking of development, we are not talking about bridges and roads alone. We should be a manufacturing country, we should promote agriculture and tourism. There are nations that live mainly on tourism. Some regimes were better than others, but we wanted a democratic state that is self-sustaining and has peace. However, you are right that the so-called democratic governments we have had have not done much better. And why is that? The reason is that you cannot sustain a 36-state structure. All the money that we are realising from oil is used to pay salaries and overheads for thousands of officials. Nigeria is like a father with 36 children and fixed income, compared with a father with three or four or even six children with the same income. There is no way the family with 36 children will not go hungry. We don’t need 36 states. In the history of humankind, there is no place this small that has divided itself into 36 governments, in addition to the Federal Capital Territory and the Federal Government. It’s a shame. That is the source of Nigeria’s poverty and misery.

Given the perennial suspicion between the North and the South, there are people who have argued that the amalgamation of 1914 by Lord Lugard has not helped and that the country would have been better if the northern and southern protectorates were not merged. What do you think?

That is true; I agree, but I will go further to say the regional structure was the perfect fit and we should have adhered to it. Granted that what Lugard did was wrong, when we became independent, if the late Gen Ironsi had not cancelled the three regional structure, Nigeria would have been in a different place today. That was the sin of the military government. Since then, not one inch has been added to Nigeria but we started dividing it into pieces; we had 12, then 19, then 21, then 36 states, and some people are even asking for their state. That was our doom and it’s what we need to look into. Instead of asking for more states, let us look into how we can have stable electricity, pipe borne water, exploit the minerals under the ground, which Eledumare (the Almighty) has endowed us with but is being stolen by people from outside every day. We also have to be wary of the gospel of prosperity preached in some religious houses, be it Muslims, Christians or you follow indigenous worship. Everybody is looking for money and people want to have multiple vehicles and houses everywhere. Another thing we have lost is our values, we now have strange values. We have departed from the values of our ancestors; of dignity, integrity and hard work. What we have now is how can I get money by any means? Our values have been very badly distorted, largely by the two world religions, the fever of which has gripped Nigeria and the African continent. I am not against any religion; it’s a matter of choice, but should we throw away our autochthonous values and now embrace the gospel of prosperity, which will lead to an endless chase?

But people seem to be chasing wealth regardless of their religion.

If you are a Christian or Muslim or whatever you espouse, there is a lot we can all embrace from our indigenous value system, which has been there since time immemorial. We were born into those values, such as tolerance and making peace among ourselves. We should not respond to the yearnings of these two major religions to eradicate our indigenous value system. If that happens, we would have been so distorted that we will not recover from it for the next two or three centuries. For example, look at some Christian missions saying that our ancestors are evil and they should be exorcised. Anybody who exorcises his ancestors and their values at best becomes a slave. Our ancestors are not bad people. Most of them are like saints, and we should worship them. We should embrace them, even if we are Christians of Muslims. Why are the Muslims embracing the ancestors of Islam? Why are the Christians doing the same thing?

What do you make of the new push for Isese and the resistance in some places, like the drama in Kwara State?

What happened there was slavery. Are we returning to slavery? Nigeria is a secular state, why should any authority prevent anybody from espousing what they believe in? Anybody who is doing that wants to enslave you, whereas slavery ended a long time ago, so also did colonialism. We should allow the three main religions of Nigeria to thrive. Nobody should lord it over another person if you want peace and progress, and there cannot be progress in the absence of peace. If we want progress, we should have justice and we would have peace. Anybody who arrested that young man in Ilorin, Kwara State, is our enemy and should be dealt with severely. What has he done to upset anything; because he was talking about his belief? He shouldn’t go to prison or be locked up because of that. We have to live in a society where there is free speech.

Many people practice Christianity, Islam and indigenous religion, yet Nigeria is bedeviled by many problems, why hasn’t this translated to a more conscientious citizenry?

It’s because of the erasure of our indigenous value system; like love for one another, peace, being contented with what you have and dignity. We have replaced all of those with gospel of prosperity. Like I said, I’m bothered about intolerance in Nigeria. We should be tolerant of one another. In the Yoruba pantheon of divinities, they are in excess of 400 plus one. I have never encountered a Babalawo who worships Ifa saying anybody who worships Oya should leave the town or anybody who worships Osun will not enter the kingdom of heaven. All these came with the two world religions. They should be put in check. We cannot allow that in any civilised society where you say that a certain belief system that some people have adhered to and have governed their lives with should be eradicated. Fortunately, in the constitution, Nigeria is a secular state. You can practice your religion without any hindrance. Don’t go out of your way to say anybody who is a Christian is going to hell. We should put laws in place to regulate all those preaching intolerance so that there can be peace in our society.

In recent times, some persons have been killed for what was termed blasphemy and the government has been unable to prosecute the culprits, how do you feel about that?

That’s what I’m talking about; that there should be justice and tolerance. We should aspire to live in a society where there is justice and tolerance for the beliefs of others as long as those beliefs and practices don’t offend the law.

You once said that Nigerians encourage politicians to steal, should politicians not take the blame for failing to live by example?

The politicians are part of our society. It’s like you have a big pot of dirty water, from which you can draw 40 to 50 or more cups of water. It doesn’t matter if I have a big cup or a small cup, the water that would be taken out of it will be filthy. So, it’s the Nigerian society that is filthy. People need to examine themselves and change their ways. The politicians and the corrupt people are only part of that same filth. It’s because the society is corrupt that the politicians are corrupt. We have to curb this insatiable desire for wealth and material things. That’s why I keep stressing that what we see now was not the life of our ancestors. If they put you in charge of a place, don’t steal the money that belongs to others. Preaching doesn’t really, by itself, make that much of a change, but if we can put some of our indigenous practices in place, it may help. In the absence of that, we can put in place draconian laws.

What kind of indigenous practices do you have in mind for checkmating bad behaviour?

When I was being sworn in as an adviser to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, I came from the United States that morning, and I didn’t know he had assembled many people, including journalists, in the hall. All the ministers and advisers had been sworn in about a month earlier. So, Obasanjo asked me; this is the Bible and Quran, you can swear. I told him I’m not a Christian or Muslim. He said so what are you going to swear with? He asked if I had thunder stone of Sango in my pocket and that I could use that. I said even if I had a thunderstone in my pocket, if I took out a stone, people might think I wanted to stone them and they would run away. He said if he had known he would have asked me to get an iron object so I could swear with. That is what we swear with, but in the absence of that, I said I would swear with my Iroke (the staff that a Babalawo holds in his hand to accentuate prayer and song). That was what I used and the news was everywhere. If across the ethnic groups people swear with the symbols of their ancestors, things would have been better. In Benin Republic, the government is modernising and reconstructing innumerable shrines. In 2000, they gave official recognition to voodoo and they are now refurbishing all the voodoo houses of worship throughout the country. In Ghana, they are constructing a huge museum where you can go to look at all the images of their ancestors and gods throughout their history. Now, Ghana will become a tourist destination, the same thing for Benin Republic. If we have tolerance, some of our indigenous things, artifacts, images of our ancestors and so on will become a money-making venture that people will come from all over the world to see.

You were at the Senate in the Third Republic at the same time with Tinubu, did you work together or you were just colleagues?

He was the chairman of a committee; I think it was a committee in charge of finance or something like that. He’s a highly cultured gentleman. I don’t know much about anything else that he may be or not be, and he is a politician par excellence. He knows how to make things happen as far as politics is concerned. I have met him only once since we left the Senate. He was one of the people who installed me as leader of the Senate, and the Senate that I led, we were paid only N5,000 a month. The one way fare by air from Abuja to Lagos was N2,500. When you are coming back, it’s another N2,500. That was where the money went. Every senator was to visit their senatorial district at least once a month. There were no allowances but we were catered for at Hilton Hotel. It is immoral, to say the least, that anybody should be earning millions when his fellow men and women have nothing to eat. They need to re-examine it. People are wondering why the Federal Government or the President cannot do anything about it, but the lawmakers fix their own allowances. They need to do something about it themselves and they should stop this practice of awarding money to senators to be able to award contracts for roads and the likes (constituency project). It’s a hidden way of finding more money to steal. I don’t think Tinubu himself can do anything about it, but there could be a way that it could be addressed.

Do you think Nigeria needs bicameral legislature?

We don’t. I don’t know who saddled us with the presidential system. It is too costly. We cannot afford it. We should go back to the system bequeathed to us by the British. Lawmakers should earn allowances instead of salaries. They should live in their homes and whenever there is a meeting, they go there and after the meeting, everybody should go.

Are you implying a part-time legislature?

Yes, part-time legislature. If that is not going to work, for whatever reason, reduce their salaries to the barest minimum. Nigeria is not a rich country, all of us know that. I don’t know why the people taking these salaries are not ashamed of themselves. It’s wrong. Part of the money they make are used to bribe voters. Why should election involve bribery? If you don’t want to vote for me, fine. What’s the need for bribery? If you are not up to it, that is when you bribe people. And if there is no honour in an office, what is the value holding that office? We have to find a way to reduce the monthly salaries of our federal lawmakers and governors who have become emperors. We have forgotten that we are poor as a country. We are rich in natural resources but even with that, we are not rich. I give you an example; when I came to the United States after the late Gen Sani Abacha’s coup ousted us from the Senate. I was a professor at Harvard University. That year, Harvard University had a budget of $12.5bn. That was one university. The city of Boston had a budget of $20bn and Nigeria’s budget for that year was N12bn. If we were like a small country like Kuwait or United Arab Emirate and so on, the money we are earning from oil will make all of us rich, but when you divide the money we are earning from oil per head, we are still poor. And we should not depend on oil alone. We should return to agriculture. I always say that the moment our young people left the farms and didn’t return was the end of our civilisation. There should be sufficient peace and tranquility for young people return to the farm, whether for poultry or growing arable crops and for them to live peacefully with their family. That was what we did for centuries.

Since you and the President were colleagues, would you consider leveraging your relationship as former colleagues to make recommendations to him on the reversion to regional government or you are no longer in touch?

I said earlier that I met him only once since we left the Senate. I don’t go after people, and I’m an old man. Even though I’m not tired, I don’t run after people. I don’t take money from anybody and I don’t cherish the way of life that most of my countrymen cherish. I don’t have a house in Abuja, Lagos or Ibadan. I don’t care about all those things. Anybody who needs my advice; if I cannot go there, I will talk to them on phone or on video.

Apart from reverting to regional government, do you think there is any other legacy the President can leave behind?

Yes, a safe society. It is the duty of government to guarantee our safety. You cannot even travel from Lagos to Ibadan without the fear for your life. The South-West is even like a paradise compared with the North and the East in terms of security. President Tinubu should find a way to eradicate these marauders. In those days, I was a lecturer at the University of Lagos in the late 1960s to 1972, every month I would go home to visit my parents and I would travel at night because that was the best time to travel. The place where I lived more than anywhere else was on Bode Thomas Street in Surulere. From Bode Thomas to my father’s house in Oyo was two hours. Sometimes, I could do it in even one hour, 45 minutes. Granted, there were not too many cars at that time but there was peace. I never encountered anybody on the road, shooting or disturbing the peace. That should be the number one objective of Mr Tinubu so that we can all live in peace. Where I live in the US, people visit me from other states and once it’s getting late I remind them, and they would say it’s not a problem, because it’s rare to find such attacks there. We should be able to travel to every nook and cranny of Nigeria during the day and night without being afraid of some deranged individuals.

As a former vice chancellor, how do you assess the Nigerian education system in the areas of standards, the proposed Student Loan for indigent students, and then the way forward?

You are talking of indigent students, how about indigent professors, lecturers and staff. My last visit to the university where I was vice chancellor at Ile Ife was about two months ago. I was talking to the members of my department; the department that I started, and somebody told me that the best paid professor who has reached the end of the scale for a full professor at that time amounted to like $700 per month. When I clear my garden in the US, the gardener takes $300. If I clear it twice, he would have taken $600. Another thing I want to talk about is that many people are impoverished. In a country where the naira is between N700 to N1,000 to $1, I always say that when the currency of a nation is devalued to that extent, it is not the currency that is devalued, it is the people because you can’t live the way you want to live anymore. What can we do so that our productivity will bring about the revaluation of our naira so it can have the value it deserves? We have seen what Tinubu did in Lagos and he seems to understand a bit of finance. He should put it in place for all of Nigeria. And as long as we don’t return to the farms and become more productive, for so long will our currency have little or no value compared with other currencies in the world. So, productivity is the answer.

What should be done to make the universities better?

We have many universities, maybe close to 200 of them. All the curricula of those universities should be re-examined, so that whether you go there to read mathematics or chemistry or history, if you want to start a trade, they would have taught you the rudiments of how to do that while in the university. We need to revamp the curricular of our universities so that what the graduates can do by and for themselves is included in the curriculum.

If the Federal Government is going to lend money to students, it’s a welcome development and I salute the government for that. But they did that in the US since the time of Clinton and they are still doing it till now. Sometimes, a person graduates and doesn’t easily find work or the work they find is not enough to pay back the loan. Maybe you borrowed $30,000 but now you have to pay back $200,000, so it becomes a burden.

The Federal Government should set up a commission on how graduates of our numerous universities can be self-employed. I also want to add that we should return to those early days when our country solved some of its problems through communal efforts.

The argument people often make is that they could only do little.

I was born in the village, and for the first couple of years, to go to my school in Oyo town, I had to go through the bush. Early in the morning, around 3 am, I would trek seven miles. But at a point, people rose up and said this wasn’t good and that since vehicles had started arriving, let us make a road to link some of the villages. They linked villages through self-help. Many people of my generation participated in that kind of self-help to build roads and even help people to build and roof their houses. We have to return to that practice. Why should everybody depend on the government when it does not even have all the money? Some of the people suffering basic infrastructure have successful children in different parts of the world, so why don’t they call them to help. Things that were done through such communal efforts or self help hardly fail because people nurture them. When I talk of the indigenous autochthonous values of our ancestors, that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. I told my colleagues at OAU that we should find a way to do some things ourselves. Some people can contribute their labour and those who have money can contribute, for the benefit of the people. Now, some mega churches have one or two jets, instead of that, why can’t they find a way to sustain the institutions? Some of them have universities; do they have an endowment that will be there forever instead of buying a jet with it for the pastor, or the preacher asking for half a billion if they want the grace of God. Why not use those billions that people contribute to set up an endowment for that university, which will be there forever. I’m not talking about the churches alone; it applies to everybody. We need to return to the ways of our ancestors and help with what we can without waiting for the government for everything. That’s part of what I mean by our autochthonous values.