Tuesday Column By Emmanuel Yawe
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The questionnaire from Godwin Esanyo of the Punch newspaper to me as the spokesman of the Arewa Consultative Forum ACF was pointed and specific. The Punch expected us to react to a statement by the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo that Nigeria was experiencing cracks at present which may lead to a break- up of the country. What did the ACF think of such statement from the number 2 man?
The statement by the Vice President did not come in a vacuum. It followed a sequence. First was the statement from former President Olusegun Obasanjo and a new group he assembled. They announced that Nigeria was about to qualify as a failed state. The former president said, “I do appreciate that you all feel sad and embarrassed as most of us feel as Nigerians with the situation we find ourselves in. Today, Nigeria is fast drifting to a failed and badly divided state; economically our country is becoming a basket case and poverty capital of the world, and socially, we are firming up as an unwholesome and insecure country.
“And these manifestations are the products of recent mismanagement of diversity and socio-economic development of our country. Old fault lines that were disappearing have opened up in greater fissures and with drums of hatred, disintegration and separation and accompanying choruses being heard loud and clear almost everywhere”.
A few days after the Obasano outburst, Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate on literature said, he agreed with Obasanjo and that Nigeria is “a contraption teetering on the very edge of total collapse. We are close to extinction as a viable comity of peoples, supposedly bound together under an equitable set of protocols of co-habitation, capable of producing its own means of existence, and devoid of a culture of sectarian privilege and will to dominate.”
The Presidency had earlier reacted to Obasano’s pronouncement on the state of the nation. A statement by Garba Shehu, the presidential spokesman described Obasanjo as a man who had descended from the lofty heights of a commander in chief to the lowly one of divider in chief. Thus by the time Punch sought our views on the matter, issues had been joined and positions taken by the presidency and its critics. Sadly, the pronouncements of Osinbajo seemed to be on the side of governments critics. That was how it sounded to the public and this public perception forced the Secretary to Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha who delivered the first message to issue a clarification.
It is of course common knowledge that when the framers of our presidential system decided to dump the parliamentary system we practiced in the first republic, they had the sad experiences of the defunct republic in mind. That system had an in-built instability in the relationship between the President and the Prime Minister. The president had a ceremonial role to play in the affairs of state while the control of government was effectively in the hands of the prime minister. The first republic started in 1960 with a coalition government between the NCNC and the NPC. The NCNC provided Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe as President while the NPC came up with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister. When the coalition ran into troubled waters, this affected the running of the government and the health of the nation. The executive arm of government was split between the president and the prime minister. The President refused to call on the prime minister to form a government after the first post-independence election in 1964 thus dragging the nation into a constitutional crisis. The consequences of that crisis were a coup and a civil war.
To avoid this kind of crisis, the new presidential system opted for a united executive in which the president and his vice vied for office and were elected on one ticket. The hope was that we would have a single and not a split executive. That hope was largely realized with the excellent relationship between Dr Alex Ekwueme, the Vice President and Shehu Shagari the President from 1979 to 1983.
That hope was soon dashed when Olusegun Obasanjo became President in 1999. Immediately he was re-elected in 2003, he launched a bizarre campaign against his vice, Atiku Abubakar, stripping him of all powers of his office. Atiku was even denied his official driver and aide de camp. Obsano went to the Supreme Court seeking approval to sack his Vice president. The court told him to go away; the constitution did not give him such powers. After demobilizing his vice, the president secretly embarked on a scheme which was presented to the public as an amendment of the constitution but was actually a plan to make Obasanjo a perpetual president.
It is to the credit of Atiku that he fought the evil scheme bravely. He won many landmark cases in that fight, some at the apex court. Nigeria owes him a debt for deepening democratic practice in the country using the instrumentality of the law. But it was a frightening experience to have a president and vice president fight the way Atiku and Obasano fought. They put the country through a wrenching ordeal. Only God knows what will happen to our country next time we are put through a similar ordeal.
What my highly regarded Editor at the New Nigerian Mr Dan Agbese called a “myth of fragility” is to me not a myth but a reality. Our country is always dancing on the brink. The freedom of speech guaranteed in our Constitution has only limited application to people like Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. Once he took oath of office on 29th May 2015, he lost the absolute freedom to talk freely. His words are very weighty and that is why the Arewa Consultative Forum cautioned him. Everybody in Nigeria is free to talk about Nigeria breaking up but not Osinbajo. Not Buhari.
Historically the exchange of words between Azikiwe and Balewa during the constitutional crisis of 1964 set in motion a chain of events: the 1966 coup which he suspiciously survived in the eyes of many northerners, the counter coup and the civil war. The hot exchange of words between Obasanjo and Atiku almost took Nigeria to the precipice.
Is the ACF still wrong to caution men in high places to watch their words?