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Invasion of NASS was a coup —Paul Unongo

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Second Republic Minister of Power and Steel and erstwhile chairman of the Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF), Chief Paul Unongo, speaks on the involvement of former Nigerian leaders in party politics, issues of independent candidacy, devolution of powers and Third Force. KUNLE ODEREMI brings excerpts of the interview.

The memory of the bizarre spectacle witnessed in the Senate last Wednesday will remain with most Nigerians for some time.  What was your spontaneous reaction? 
What happened in the National Assembly was a surprise bordering on shock. The choice we made was democracy; so, this is almost a coup against the National Assembly which is allowed by the 1999 Constitution to legislate for our good governance. If we want democracy, we must protect the National Assembly. So now, any madman can just walk in through some members of the National Assembly and spray all members and Nigerians, notorious for certain records would have set a record of undermining the highest legislative institution in the land. So, the invasion was terrible and should never have been allowed to happen.

It appears we are not serious about our democratic spirit. With all the security gadgets, with all the policemen, with all the armed personnel, the men of the Directorate of State Service (DSS) and others, manning all the corners, gates and points, how did those behind the incident manage to go through the network, walked through the Senate and took the symbol of the authority of the highest legislature in the land. Those elements managed to successfully manoeuvre themselves out of the chambers and ran away with the mace through all the security check-points within the complex of the National Assembly? I think Nigeria should be more serious than this.

It was awful, tragic and it shows that we are not serious as a nation-state and that we are not serious about the democratic practice. If you can do this to the National Assembly, at the level of the Senate, what stops you from doing the same thing at the executive level, why won’t Nigerians be worried and apprehensive that some ministers can walk in with some persons and pick Mr. President? So, I think this is bad, given all the gadgets and security personnel and network at the premises of the National assembly. It should never have happened.

The incident has further heated the political space, especially as the nation prepares for  major elections, beginning with the governorship polls in Ekiti, Osun, and a general election early next year. What do you think the ugly episode in the Senate portends for the elections?

It portends danger, if we are that flat. These are the same security agencies that we are going to depend on to guarantee free and fair elections that we have had some time, in the past. This kind of laxity should not be taken for granted. If we don’t improve a thousand times better than what we have done before, I think we are in trouble.

Nigerians often display traces of short memory. There is an alternative waiting for us in this country and the alternative is the military. I submit very humbly that in all the comments made about the democratic structures, I prefer a democratic government to a dictatorship of the military a million times. It has opportunities to grow; it has opportunities to reassess itself and reverse itself where necessary. So, let us use the opportunity.

The APC is a good political party; it has very brilliant people; it has a brilliant programme. They have delivered on their programmes. The president announced three major problems that were confronting the country: war on corruption; insecurity and revamping the economy. And on those three issues, President Muhammadu Buhari has delivered but it is incredible, what is happening as far as security is concerned now. He has been able to contain Boko Haram; he degraded the sect; and took back Nigeria’s territory that Boko Haram contested for. But then, the current spate of killings everywhere by herdsmen; and kidnappers on the prowl all over, this is taking away the credit. Now, the bizarre happening in the Senate which was watched across the globe. It cannot happen anywhere in the world that some people will walk into the Senate and make their way out of the place– not by killing all the people that might attempt to stop them–and go through many security points where they should have been apprehended and prevent such incident, this is terrible.

The instability within the two main parties, PDP and APC, is believed to be largely contributory to the slow pace of service delivery to the populace, hence some former leaders like ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, Gen Ibrahim Babangida,  and others are leading the Third Force advocacy. How far can they go?

Obasanjo is frustrated like many Nigerians because of the high expectations they had of and for the APC government. He participated in bringing the present government to power. People became worried that, ‘is this the Mr President that we knew, or is it somebody different, because the things that are happening are not expected? For example, there is a saying in Tiv that if you are down the river, if you see a chain, you will try to get hold of it to stop you from drowning. I think this is the political feeling of those who participated in making the present leadership and those who have high expectations about what changes we have come about as a result of getting rid of the past PDP government; people had felt that the last administration was too bad.

Now, Obasanjo and others are suggesting a Third Force and I am saying no to the idea. When are we going to settle down and grow as a country? I believe that if the military had allowed the National Council of Nigerian citizens (NCNC), the Action Group (AG), the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), and all the old parties that led us to political independence in 1960 to stabilise, we would have metamorphosed into a two-party system. In fact, we were already coalescing into a two-party state. Five years after independence, the military intervened and they messed us up till now. We miss exceptional leaders like Azikiwe, Awolowo, Sardauna and so on. Now, Nigerians are behaving as if they don’t know their history. They should look back and be careful. Obasanjo can produce a third force, but look at the people in the so-called Third Force. They have all participated in governance and leadership of the country: Babangida, Obasanjo, my colleague in the progressive movement, Chief Olu Falae, who was the Secretary to the Federal Government under the military regime of Babangida. These are the same people. What are they going to bring to the table that the APC cannot bring? What are they going to bring that the PDP cannot bring?

Nigeria is a free country to float the idea you cherish, but I don’t think the idea of a Third Force is the answer to Nigeria’s problems.  The answer to the problem of the country is to insist on democracy; we must insist on fairness; we must insist on equity; we must insist that on certain crises that are going on Nigeria by Nigerians are direct and genuine demonstration of their frustration as they strongly believe that the centre is too powerful; that there is an urgent need for devolution of powers to states and local governments; that if we rejig our Constitution, it will work. I am one of those that wrote the current Constitution and even in 1976, I was among those described as the 50 wise men assembled by the late Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed, to write the (1979) Constitution. At that level of debate then, I insisted that we should draft and allow a clause for independent candidacy. Nigerian democracy can never be complete if we don’t allow people who don’t like party politics to also participate in the governance of their country. Right now, a person that does not like the PDP or the APC is on his own, even you talk about the so-called Third Force, you cannot be anything. To become what? I think we should allow, in addition to the devolution of powers, independent candidacy. Nigerians are the sovereign; they have the sovereign power. I have a lot of respect for General Obasanjo; he has done a lot for Nigeria, but I don’t think this can fly. We have done that and chased PDP out of power. I think Nigerians should sit down and take a hard look on how we have practised and improve on it through constitutional amendment. That’s how we can get it right. We should be patient. We should cooperate to build the country; we can do it; we have enough to serve the country but for the greed that is prevalent in the land.

It is apparent that the Northern section of the country will still produce the nest president of the country, but there is a suggestion that the zone should come up with a possible alternative to Buhari; and already, some leaders in the North are shopping for one, just as names like Sule Lamido; Atiku Abubakar, and others jostling for the exalted office. Isn’t the search for an alternative candidate in the right direction? 

No, I disagree; we have a written constitution. The only thing that defines Nigeria is the constitution; it clearly defines how government should be chosen for the country. We can amend the provisions of the constitution, but as long as we have the type of constitution in the country today, you cannot ab initio, bar somebody from contesting that election; and in fact the constitution doesn’t even recognise the so-called division you are talking about. The president is free to stand election going by the provisions of the constitution, and Nigerians are free to mobilise and vote against him. To say by arrangement somebody who is a politician should not aspire to power, it is funny; I don’t play jokes. There should be freedom of choice. You cannot say because Mr. A is Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba or any other tribe, you should not stand for election. It is not that Mr. President is acceptable to majority of the people in the North and the last election showed that he was acceptable to the majority of the people in the South-West. He was not acceptable to the majority of the people in the South-East and they voted PDP. What is important is to let candidates from all sections of the country go to different parts and sections of the country to convince the people that they can Nigeria.

The acrimony over the list of looters released by the Federal Government centres on claims by the PDP in particular that the war on corruption is primarily targeted at the opposition? 

Buhari came to power on the mantra of ‘I will fight corruption’ and do something that would be visible. Politicians must learn to keep to their own manifesto. I want to state that no government in Nigeria a has recovered physical cash that was appropriated but stolen from the commonwealth as the Buhari administration has done so far. None has confiscated property as this APC administration under Buhari has seized. People should look at the facts. However, Can he do better? Yes, of course. But he has produced more results in the fight on corruption than Obasanjo, Babangida, and all past Nigerian leaders.

You cannot say, ‘Mr. President, don’t catch somebody who is a thief in the PDP. If you catch one in the PDP, wait go and catch one in the APC.’ That would be ridiculous; a criminal you have seen, catch him first; let him bring back the money he stole from Nigeria.  The one you have discovered under your nose, you should also turn around and do the same thing. Check the list (of looters); check the list of the governors that have been prosecuted. How many of them are from the APC. Check the list for Northerners. It appears fair; governors from the north have been jailed. So people are just playing politics on the list.


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