Chief Ayo Adebanjo is a nationalist and one of those who fought for Nigeria’s independence. He was also a key leader of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO). At 88, he is still very active and he proved this much when this reporter had to wait for the octogenarian to finish his routine morning exercise before this interview. “I have missed my morning exercise for two days; so just give me the next 10 minutes to finish my exercise, ” he said. But it was interesting watching the old man in his track suit walking briskly round his compound in Lekki phase 1, Lagos.
A stickler for time, at exactly 10 minutes, he rounded off his exercise and announced that he was ready for the interview. However, this reporter had to wait for another 45 minutes as he had to attend to a radio crew from Abeokuta who had waited long for him before Daily Sun arrived. It was a long session.
Finally, when it was the turn of this reporter, his wife who equally looked elderly passed by and told me politely that ‘he has not eaten anything.’ It did not stop the interview though and as usual, he was in his elements and he spoke on various issues.
Nigeria just clocked 56 years recently; what are your reflections on the journey so far and the state of the nation?
My reflections are that I don’t think we are where we should be. The leadership from independence couldn’t get their bearing and unfortunately, many people don’t know this – if Azikiwe had yielded to the quest of Awolowo, we would not have been where we are today. When Zik contested the 1959 elections, he didn’t win, Awolowo didn’t win also and the NPC didn’t win; Awolowo then approached Azikiwe and asked him will you become Prime Minister and he refused to team up with Awolowo. The delegates of the region at that time who believe that they would not be relevant again dissuaded and teamed up with the NPC and unfortunately, I will say, because Azikiwe should have known better, he was compromised and offered the post of Governor-general. This is the issue of the country.
The constitution we had at that time, Nigeria was on a tripod – the East, the West and the North. Ministers are fetched from each region. Whoever controlled the House of assembly will send names for those to be appointed ministers. So, all the four ministers from the West were from the Action Group and it was from the West that Anthony Enahoro moved the motion for self government. And after that motion in the House, you know nationalism was in Lagos; the reaction of the masses was that they booed the northern people who did not support the self-government motion. That was what annoyed late Sauduana. He went to the North and then made the nine-point programme.
Before then, before 1952/1953, there was no premier in the region; all they had was the leader of government business. Awolowo was the leader of government and minister of local government, Sauduana too was leader of government and minister of local government because he refused to come to the centre except Balewa is deputy.
It was after that conference(the 1956 London Constitutional Conference) that the colonial officers said what’s the problem and Awolowo said we cannot have a country like that under a unitary form of government; there must be devolution of power, there must be regional autonomy. That is the beginning of what they called federalism. We had only three regions then. The northern region then according to the population was bigger than the East and the West put together. Then, he advocated for creation of more states. It is the championing of more states from the East and from the North that gave us support. So when we were going to do the election, we won the election in all the areas where we were championing for creation of states. The slogan then was: C.O.R states forever – Calabar, Ogoja, Rivers state. I was in Aba for a whole year campaigning for C.O.R states. That’s how we were able to become the leader of the opposition there. The same thing in the North; we championed the cause of the Middle-belt.
By the time we went to England and came back, Azikiwe was converted. But what separated the NPC and the Action Group at that time was that when they got to London Constitutional Conference, Azikiwe and others said Lagos must be the federal territory to be separated from the western region. They wanted to fight back because at that time, Lagos was a part of western region. It was a big battle. If you look into the archives, there’s one pamphlet they called Lagos belongs to the west. It was published after the London Constitutional Conference. We said that if you want a federal territory, you can’t take Lagos; Lagos is a Yoruba place.
Looking at events in Nigeria today, what do you see of the future of this country?
There is no future; we should go back to basics. No future. I have said it categorically that without restructuring the country, there will be no Nigeria and that is what has given birth to Avengers, Boko Haram, IPOB/MASSOB and all these things. It is all agitation for nationalities. And those of us, I repeat, those of us who are passionately advocating for restructuring, we’re the lovers of one Nigeria; we are the people who want us to live together in peace; whatever areas of conflict we have, let us sit down and settle. Those opposed to the lopsidedness under this constitution that favours a part of the region and those who are being oppressed would always say no, you can’t have peace. So, unity in peace is restructuring; unity without restructuring is violence. You imagine the amount of money the Federal Government is using now to fight the Avengers. This is not done; give them their autonomy and all that. Half of the money they have made, they should use for development. All hands should be on deck; everybody will be satisfied and be happy to be part of this federation. It is being part of a federation that you feel you’re being cheated that made Biafra say no; we’re not going to be in Nigeria again. You are talking of the reactions; you don’t talk of the action that causes the reaction. They want to be part of Nigeria under an agreeable constitution; that is why they are talking of National Conference. That was what we did in 2014 Constitutional Conference. We sat down there; we passed 600 resolutions unanimously. All the grey areas, the constitution could have addressed them. That’s why I’m saying that if you implement it, there will be peace.
Looking at the present administration, do you think that President Buhari has any agenda to reposition the nation?
He has no agenda. I’ve said that before; I’m not just saying it now. Go back to my interviews. I said APC as they are; they have no clue to the problem of the country. All they agreed upon is that they must get rid of Jonathan and I was emphasizing then that after Jonathan, what happens? But to some extent, I have sympathy for those who are opposed to Jonathan because the corruption at that time, I can’t defend it but where I part with them is that I can see further. I told Buhari to implement the constitutional conference and that it is not incompatible with wiping out corruption. If it is fighting corruption, carry on; give us an acceptable constitution where everybody is free. So that is what some people are confusing together. No, no, no, I’m not opposed to wiping out corruption; corruption must be wiped out by all means within the rule of law. To wipe out corruption outside the rule of law is an abuse. That is not what I fought for, for independence. Many of you are now enjoying independence. But those of us who fought for it, we know what we fought for. This is not what we fought for; that is why you can find us to be very uncompromising. They don’t know how we got to this place. You’re just enjoying the benefit of independence and self-government. Remember I described APC as a conglomeration of incompatibles. You agreed to form a party but you’ve not agreed on what to do as a party. The beginning was the crisis in the National Assembly. They are disputing over the spoils of war. The problem can be foreseen. Just as I said before that the APC would not last. It can’t last. By the time they get rid of Jonathan, then their own problem begins and that was what I said because they never envisioned more than that. The only thing they agreed upon was Jonathan must go. But after the departure of Jonathan, what do we want to do for the country? This is two years after and no roadmap. Up till now, it is Jonathan did this, Jonathan did that. And it was because of those things you’re talking about that we sent him away and elected you. Solve the problem now. Obama never complained of what Bush (former US President) did. He just went on to the reorganization of the economy of America; he got it back. On no occasion did he mention Bush; he just forgot it. And now he has to solve the problem. He was voted for to solve the problem Bush left behind. If they’ve agreed with Bush, they won’t send him away. The former APC publicity secretary, Lai Mohammed will just say ah! the problem we have found is more than what we thought. How can a responsible political party talk like that? A man who has been fighting to be President for 12 years still don’t know what the problem he is going to face. You can see their stupidity. They are now going to Obasanjo for guidance and you’re accusing Jonathan of being in the party for 16 years without any progress and the man you’re going to for guidance spent eight years. You see how insensible they are. They are all jokers; they don’t understand what they want.
You talked about the issue of true federalism, restructuring. Many people think that in Nigeria today, apart from the core Northern elite, every other person wants this restructuring. Why is it that the power elite in the North continue to insist on maintaining the status quo?
But I said it much but it is the hard truth. They are the beneficiaries of the awkwardness of the constitution and I even went directly to challenge Buhari that he would not implement the thing because his people are the beneficiary of what we are complaining of in the constitution. To restructure is to deprive them of those privileges. That’s all. I am not surprised.
That question you asked now really got me worried a few days ago. I have been making exceptions about northern people. But a few days ago when Maitama Sule spoke that we can’t break the country, and Yakassai just said restructure is Yoruba agenda, that restructure means to break the country, that is mischievous. Maitama Sule was a minister under Balewa; was an ambassador under Shagari. What type of constitution were we operating? At independence when he was still there, what type, what constitution were we operating? When Sarduana was the premier of the North, Awolowo was premier of the Western region. Was it this type of loaded central government? The issue about restructuring is mischievous and dishonest for anybody to equate restructuring to the separation of the country. It is like Obasanjo saying I owe allegiance to the constitution, I’ll not do this. The constitution you’re owing allegiance to did not focus on change in it except Abdulsalami is telling a lie because Abdulsalami said he didn’t review that constitution until the day he was being sworn in. That’s what he told us. So if you swore to a constitution that is not acceptable to the people and the people now say look, this thing must change. Does it make sense for you to say no, you are going to stick to it? It’s a military constitution; we sowed it when it started. We say let’s go back to basics.
Restructuring came into existence after the military coup during the NADECO days. Why do we say restructure? What is restructure? What is the structure we have that you say you want to restructure? It is the structure that the military gave us and we said no, let us restructure it because it was the military that destructured Nigeria after 1966. Tell me what constitution we’re having during the military. Tell me who made this constitution. Did you make it? It is not our constitution. The quality in the constitution is clear that it was when the military was in power in 1966, they created arbitrary states and arbitrary local governments to favour the North. Just as Buhari is trying to turn Nigerian government now to a northern nation government. They were in charge as the military. Go back to history because we challenged some of these northerners when we were in the conference. What is the yardstick of creating states that you had? What is the yardstick of creating a local government? Some of the states in the North, they’re not up to some local governments in the South. While we are quarreling, let’s sit down at a round table and discuss. That is the origin of sovereign national conference and when Obasanjo wanted to be mischievous, he said he cannot backdate the sovereignty of Nigeria. What is sovereignty? Sovereignty of Nigeria is the people. He was thinking that that conference will compete with government of the day, no! All that were said at that conference, which is still what we are saying till today, is that whatever that conference recommended must not be amended or subtracted as Obasanjo amended the 1979 constitution by putting in Land Use Decree. The Land Use Decree was not in the 1979 constitution; it was Obasanjo that put it.
There are insinuations that the Yoruba nation is realigning and strategizing for 2019 election. Are you aware of it?
You Press men, I’m sorry to say this, try to apply some critical intelligence. What have we done to realign? Because they say we must come together? Because you know disunity among us is making the North to oppress us.
How do you feel about what is happening between the National Chairman of APC, Odigie Oyegun and the former Lagos governor, Bola Tinubu?
Tinubu caused it himself; I said it. We warned him not to go to that alliance. He does not know the Fulani people and we know them. We have dined with their fathers but he thought he knows better because he believes that Awolowo’s tactics does not pay now, it is his own tactics that pays. How it pays now, he is now seeing it.
Fulani don’t want to rule, they always want to dominate. And the only thing to stop that is the type of the constitution we are advocating. Let everybody be government in his own area; let us agree on a central government and then maintain that central government and that is true federalism. Why should that be, why should any reasonable politician say we’ve been living together and we want to continue when somebody is saying this unity we’re having, we have our complaint.
Great Britain went into European Union, after how many years, they said ah, this thing doesn’t pay us ooo. For that reason, they voted that they want to get out. If they have been satisfied there, they won’t be talking about getting out. The same thing here now, we’ve enjoyed staying together but we say well, there are certain things that are unacceptable to some of us, although we still want to live together but not under this system. The philosophy behind a national conference is what I’m telling you which some do not want. Because their own is to cheat others and those who are being cheated say no, we’re not going to have to stay with anybody under a system where you’ll cheat me, which is like the unity of the horse and the rider. They’ve been the rider and we’ve been the horse. The question of not being the horse in the unity is what is causing the trouble; that is what is causing the elite of the North not to support restructuring because they’re the beneficiary. It is because of them that the question of federal character comes in; all the things we’re doing where you put the unqualified people in position and appointments are no longer made on merit. And you know, one beauty under this 2014 constitution, we gave conditions for becoming president. That constitution would have broken this rotational North – South. When it is in the North, it won’t go to the North-West again; it will rotate there. When it’s in the South, it won’t go to Ijaw again; it will rotate there. And we have dissolved power. All the powers in the centre, we have devolved to the regions, so all areas of conflicts are gone. Why should the question of solving areas of conflict be a problem? Are they saying there’s no conflict?
Before the June 12 crisis, the Yoruba nation came together and they were bonded but suddenly after the June 12 elections and the emergence of Obasanjo, that unity started collapsing even up till now. Do you think that it is still possible to get back to that level of unity?
Go back to what caused the disunity. Ego!
Ego of who?
Of those involved. I was the Vice Chairman of the party that won that election. We won six states out of 32 hands down; we didn’t spend a kobo. And I repeat, as the chairman of the party then, let any of the candidates then tell us this is how much he gave to the party or to Ayo Adebanjo unlike what is happening now.
You’re 88 years old, what is keeping you; what is the source of your strength?
It’s the grace of God and consistency. Nothing happens because nothing worries me. Whether you vote for Jonathan or not I have nothing to lose; I have no appointment letter, I have no contract, I have no son working for him. I have got no loan anywhere he is going to get for me. Whether he wins or loses, I am where I am. That’s what gives me strength. Honestly, you must have been wondering this man was one of those Jonathan loaded with money because of the way I was defending him; the passion with which I was defending him but I told him his own mistake too. He didn’t accept the conference early until late. If at the time he (Jonathan) came in and he went into action straight and implemented it, we won’t be in this position today; everybody is sitting and thinking about it just like Obasanjo. Obasanjo could have done what we’re saying because agitation had started before he came in and he knew the problem of the country. But he wanted to take the advantage of the defects in the constitution for his own self. The first book he launched in Abuja, he invited me. I refused to go when I read in my invitation that Obasanjo was the chairman. I will never give my dignified honour, untainted honour to give credibility to the audience of Obasanjo. His home, his government, his affairs are nothing to write home about. Morally he is of no use; on corruption he’s very bad. But he is the man now you’re bringing forth.
That’s the man whom his son said he had an affair with his wife. All those things are enough to disqualify him from public office and yet, the Nigerian populace under threat and compromise still go to him.