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One-North era is gone–Uranta

Sunday, February 19, 2012

By WILLY EYA

Tony Uranta
Photo: Sun Publishing
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Mr Tony Uranta is the secretary, National Summit Group (NSG), which recently organized a national conference attended by eminent Nigerians from all the geopolitical zones of the country. He believes that with the mood in the country, the nation does not have a choice but to convoke a Sovereign National Conference. In this interview, he speaks on a wide range of issues. Excerpts…

What is your take on the national conference which the National Summit Group organized?
If you listened carefully to the opening remarks of my co-convener, Prof Pat Utomi, you would know that Nigeria is at a precipice right now. This is whether we like it or not. We have had unrest, both spontaneous and orchestrated since the end of the 2011 elections. Immediately the elections ended, we started having people being killed barbarically enmasse all over the north especially.

This was after some people had said that they would make the nation ungovernable. That seemed to have died out but may be the government not too sensitively, proclaimed a deregulation of the downstream sector which I, was one of those that opposed it in the beginning. And these brought about what I had predicted a natural reaction from all Nigerians saying no, you cannot add more weight to our suffering when you have not yet shown us a good will or intention to bring about respite to us.

This blossomed into what became as I saw, a politically motivated opposition and nearly transformed into an unrest that would bring about deaths and calamity. But we thank God Nigerians submitted themselves to the leadership of labour which called off the strike. I supported the strike but I did not support going on the street. We are now in the phase where they are negotiating with government. But whether these issues are there or not, one phenomenon has been prevalent and that has been the birth of a new radical fundamentalist sect in the north calling itself, Boko Haram or whatever other name they go by.

They carry out massacre of innocent Nigerians whether in uniform or not in a bid according to them to islamise at least the northern part of Nigeria and hopefully the whole of Nigeria. Of course, recently, we have heard reports of a possible resurgence of the Movement For the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) but we will return to that later because that was not what brought about the conference. The National Summit came about mainly because we saw that the Boko Haram-created insecurity could have been avoided if this nation had right from the beginning or recently sat down to work out its modus vivendi.

The terms on which it wants to live together as a nation. I am a nationalist who believes in the unity of Nigeria, who believes there is strength in numbers and who does not want Nigeria to fragmentize in any way. But I believe that we must have equity. Everybody must tell everybody else exactly how he wants to live with everybody else. If some people believe they want Sharia law to guide them, I think it is their right. But their rights end where my own right begins.

There are some states for example in the north that Christians are more predominant than Muslims but if the Muslims say we want Sharia laws to prevail, you now find that there is an imbalance. Nobody can say automatically that the north should become Islamic and the south should become Christians. In Rivers State, there are Muslims and there are Christians in Borno and we cannot run away from it. So, we need to sit down and accept our diversities, recognize them and take them into reckoning and from there, work out positions that would be mutually beneficial and can move this nation forward.

We need a constituent assembly but more than a constituent assembly because a constituent assembly as it has been since 1966 is appointed by the government. We need the convening of an assembly-call it a conference, a national conference or a sovereign national conference that would emanate from the people. Grassroots up and they must throw up delegates to come up on a national stage and sit on a roundtable and decide what the grundnorm of Nigeria should be; fashion out a draft constitution. Let the people carry out a referendum of the people on that draft.

And when the people decide that this and this are acceptable to majority of us because we are in a democracy, then, let that become the basis of a new Nigeria. But it was not enough for any of us to sit down and presume that that is what Nigeria really wants. So, we decided to bring recognized leaders of groups, ethnic bodies, professional bodies, even self governance groups like the OPC, MASSOB, MEND etc and say let us all sit down and start from a blank page; what do you think Nigeria needs to be done now. As you saw, at the end of it, everybody voted for a national conference.

But with the National Assembly in place, do you think that a national conference is possible?
There are three things we resolved. One is to have the national conference. Two is to have a conference that would produce the grundnorm or constitution that would in no way impact whether negatively or positively on the tenure of the current elected officers of the state whether federal, state or local government. For example, no senator or House of Representatives member, governor or whatever would be affected by what comes out of this national conference.

Everything would now date from the day when elected office holders within this era are in office but we would not do anything to threaten their tenure or control their affairs. And they all shall be party to this. But to work out the modalities, we fairly decided to create a steering committee. The committee would be able to work out in fine details how we shall bring this about without in any way creating situations that are inimical to the status quo or in any way upset the apple cart. It can be done and just takes some creative imagination. It is just like bringing the national summit about.

It took some creative imagination. We did not have the money but had to create the money without involving government. But we got support from the Lagos State government, the Inspector General of police and the Lagos State commissioner of police. For the Lagos government, the support was mainly from the Lagos Television who gave us live coverage; the same way AIT gave us live coverage and post summit coverage. The only station that was paid was Channels.

The IG and commissioner of police provided security but we did not receive cash from Lagos State or any other body connected to government. There are many people who gave us support but I would not fail to mention Lulu Briggs, Oscar Ibru, Albert Okumagba, Ken Etete and others who stood up and brought out substantial sums even though they were not delegates. They did not participate but they believed in the vision and put their money for its realization. Right now, my people are still retiring the funds because there has to be transparency but this time not to the Nigerian people. This is because they did not fund it but the people who were behind the summit have to find out how every Kobo was spent.

During the conference, a group protested that the participants did not represent the interests of Nigerians. What is your take on that?
I heard about that group. I saw a few of them on television. I know most of them to be COSEG and I know COSEG to be an arm of the OPC. I also know that the OPC was founded by Dr Fredrick Fasehun. So, what are they talking about. If their creator was there, how were they not represented? There are people who are virulently negative even on the floor. We invited as many as our purse. Somebody had said we should hold it at the EXPO centre but we could not afford it. And as you saw, we could not afford two days of the Banquet hall. It was just a simple question of economics.

Those people that protested, I am happy they did. It showed Nigeria is a democracy. People still have a right to virally oppose any situation but it was just much ado about nothing. There was really no need for them to say they were not represented. But the steering committee will now work out the modalities inclusive of the protest and other comments that were made including comments that they were fools at 70 and 40. The comment was made by Nasir el-Rufai, my colleague in the Thisday Editorial Board and it was interesting. I have since been noticing exchanges going back and forth between him and Fani Kayode.

Many insist that the northern bloc would not be in support of convoking a Sovereign National Conference as that is likely to further reduce its influence on the polity. What’s your take on that?
As to whether the north would not support the Sovereign National Conference, I would like to say that Balarabe Musa represented Maitama Sule and he was the first to speak. Musa spoke often and a lot during the two days and he was persistently saying we must have Sovereign National Conference. The old idea of there being one entity called the north has been overtaken by events. First of all, there is a class war going on in the whole of the Middle East, Islamic nations and northern Nigeria.

There is a class war between the haves and have-nots. If you cast your mind back, you will realize that Boko Haram, when they started, were fighting and killing governors’ families, Alfa’s families, Imam’s families that they felt were not in synchronization with what they stood for which is exactly the same thing that Al-Qaeda is doing. It is why Bin Ladin was exiled even from his own Saudi Arabia. This is not about a section of the country being able or wanting to oppose this any more. In fact, it is more beneficial for every section to come and talk so that if the people of Borno for example decide that Sharia is what they want, they should have Sharia. But they must do it in such a way that they do not infringe on the rights of any Christians residing in Borno.

They must be able to carry it out at the very least in the way Zamfara State is carrying it out. But then we might also come to ask ourselves, is a unitary system of government which is what we are undergoing now, and not a federal system the best form? Or should we have a federal system or confederal system of government. These are the different questions that must be answered in the national conference. This is why every Nigerian has to be there. It is the same reason Anko Briggs put forward there on the floor that people say our oil when it comes to sharing the booty but nobody says our challenges when it comes to addressing the issues of environmental despoliation or human degradation or other issues that affect the region in particular.

And Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, my friend has postulated in fact that may be, Boko Haram is killing because they do not like the principle of derivation. Well, we need to sit together to ask ourselves the questions on what basis Nigeria was formed by the British or what basis did we decide to move ahead in 1960 and 1963. What were the constitutional requirements or treaties? Did we have regions or did the regions have their different constitutions? Or where they free to exploit their resources and pay a tax of 50 per cent to the centre? Is there anything wrong with that? Is that not a principle of derivation? If it was right then, why is it wrong now even though the people that are supplying all the money have been cheated out of over 37 per cent?

This is because if we were going by 1960 and 1963 constitutions, the Niger Delta would be receiving 50 per cent of revenues accruable from resources derived within it. Now, these questions must be addressed and when we address them, we shall have learnt that every state of Nigeria is rich. We shall learn that the main problem that Nigeria has is that we lack leaders with vision and creative imagination as to how to exploit the resources available to them especially the human resources.

What would be the implication of the political class failing to convoke the Sovereign National Conference?
I remember at one stage, I gave an interview and said why was Henry Orkar being held. I said I am MEND and I have no apologies for it. When we decided to carry out the Niger Delta struggle before amnesty got proclaimed and all MEND Generals surrendered and keyed into the peace process, a lot of people were asking me the question, what if government does not do what you want? If you spend a lot of time asking yourself the if, you would not make any move.

I am a pragmatist and I also believe in action. I have heard many people say we must have a conference but what are they doing to bring about the conference. So, I decided to bring Pat and a couple others together and we said, we must start the move toward a conference. When the move gathers momentum, not even the Nigerian Army would be able to stand against the national conference. When it gains momentum, it would be owned by even the government at every level.

The three tiers of government across the different areas own the national conference. This is because sovereignty resides in the people. All you have to do is get the people to realize that they have the power to make the government do what they want. We are going to make them realize that and that is my vision and that is what I am about to make Nigerians realize the power that they have. This is because people think that democracy ends with voting. No, democracy starts with voting.

Democracy continues really by your influencing those you voted into office to act along certain directions. That is the objective of the national summit group and I know that considering the people that turned up and the meetings that were held behind doors that government would before the next six months embrace it wily nilly, easily or by force. We, the people must not continue to be ruled by a decree. We must create a peoples constitution which would allow us to be led by servant leaders.

What makes you think that what happened to the 2006 constitutional conference would not happen to the present one being packaged by the National Summit group?
It takes a Goliath to promote a David. It takes conflict to show up the strength in a person or a people. If you do not have arguments and altercations, conflicts and disputes, then you have not had truths. I am an Izon man. Do you know the meaning of Izon. It means truth. We of the Izon believe that before you arrive at truth just like the Yorubas, that if two brothers go into a room that they are going to resolve a dispute and they come out all smiles, they have lied to each other.

If you want to come out with a consensual position, there must be some give and take. Nobody would be there to insist on a position without being able to give in on certain other positions. It was the problem with the 2006 National political Reform Conference which I was invited but I opted not to attend. I opted to be one of the leaders of PRONACO. The reason why I opted out was that the people there were not fully representatives of the feelings of everybody in their ethnic nationalities. When we come down to it, we are a nation state built up of an amalgamation of ethnic nationalities.

My town Opobo had treaties with the Queen and King of England and for you to have treaties with the king, it means you are recognized as a sovereign state. So did anybody ask Opobo to cede its rights under those treaties before the creation of Nigeria? These questions need to be addressed. Did anybody ask the man in Borno to give up his Islamic education and embrace national integration? You must answer those questions. If a man in Borno wants to study along Islamic way, bank along Islamic way, he has a right to do that. We have to ask ourselves, will we be able to live together. And since I believe that most Nigerians desire to live together, we have to give and take. There is no extremist position like what Boko Haram is doing.

That is extremism. I have repeatedly posited that Boko Haram uprising being like the Niger Delta uprising is just like comparing leprosy and eczema. The Niger Delta unrest was born out of a people being deprived of the opportunity to benefit maximally or at least equitably from their own resources or of a people being subjected to a lot of unnecessary repression; of a people that any time they lifted up their voice, you found out that the villages are ravaged.

Odi was completely wiped out. Gbaramatu the same and others. When these were happening, what did they do? Yes, they went against the nation. They committed crimes but what are the crimes? They attacked pipe lines. They kidnapped people which is a very heinous crime which we must never support. This is because a person’s right to freedom must always be respected. But in over 99 per cent of the kidnap cases, these people were returned unharmed and in fact when they were released, they ended up supporting the cause of the Niger Delta insurgents.

The only time that they blew up the devices within public areas, they were condemned by every reasonable leader in the Niger Delta. And we supported whatever punishment were meted out to them. But what is Boko Haram? This a group of people who are asking people to change their very life style, morals, culture, religion and values of their different areas and subject them to one culture and religious values. They are doing it indiscriminately by exploding improvised explosive devices within and amongst the civilian populace and even the uniformed populace. But the Niger Delta insurgents never attacked any military formation except in self defence. Of course, there are criminal elements everywhere but those are exception to the rule.

The rule in the case of Boko Haram is kill everybody, tell the Christians to return to the South. Is the man from Zaria who is a Christian not a northerner? Where does he return to? I am I to put him up in Opobo? He should leave his town and come to Opobo because you want Islam. That is not Islam. Islam means peace. They told us categorically that they would attack institutions of learning including secondary schools. I think this is abominable and I support Fani Kayode’s call on the government to strengthen its arm against this type of insurgency. This is not to say that I do not, like I said earlier, support their right to any position they want to pursue.-Sun

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Posted by on Feb 18 2012. Filed under Latest Politics, North-Central, North-East, North-West. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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