BY JIMITOTA ONOYUME
*Advocates a parliamentary system
*Expresses confussion at the renaming of UNILAG
Alabo Tonye Graham-Doughlas was a four-time Minister. He was first appointed Minister for Social Development, Youths and Sports by former Military President, Ibrahim Babangida. He was later reassigned as Minister of Aviation in the same administration.
When former President Olusegun Obasanjo came on board, he appointed him Minister of Employment, Labour and Productivity. The former President later made him Minister of Culture and Tourism.
Tracking the four-time former Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria for an interview was not an easy task. When finally he obliged, it coincidentally fell on the time he needed to break his monthly spiritual fasting exercise. As soon as this correspondent stepped into one of his sprawling sitting rooms upstairs at his Port Harcourt residence, Alabo, as he is fondly called, took him to join the family downstairs at a prayer session to break the fast for the day.
At the table, Alabo took time to explain the reason behind the monthly spiritual exercise. According to him, it was to say ‘thank you, God Almighty’ for being there for him and his household. He said he and every member of his house do the fasting once every month and he had kept faith with the spiritual practice for almost four decades. He recalled that God made him survive two plane crashes.
In this interview, Alabo speaks extensively on issues bordering on national security, development challenges in the Niger Delta and matters for constitutional amendment. Excerpts:President Goodluck Jonathan recently clocked one year in office. What is your assessment of his performance?
I have read through the papers and there are diverse opinions on his one year in office. I will say that he has done fairly well, taking into cognisance the enormity of the problems in the country. He came in as a Vice President; he inherited a lot of problems which people may not appreciate. So it will take some time to plan his course. The very good thing is that he is now beginning to find his course, you will appreciate that it is not just easy in one year to fulfill the expectations of people, especially in the midst of human and biological factors.
The common man who voted for him will be full of expectations, he will look at the economy which is biting because it is being restructured; unemployment is there, people will grumble, health care and educational system are not so wonderful as people want to see them; so it will bring about some bit of unhappiness but these are efforts aimed at trying to look at what is wrong, what are the remediation you want to introduce to the system. To answer your question, one will say that the President to whom we have strong confidence should be given the opportunity to settle down. Mark you, he has the advantage of being a technocrat. He has a Ph.D, the amount of research methodology and the ability to analyse the situation will dispose him to face the challenges.
What is your response to this emerging culture of terrorism in a section of the country?
As a leader of the Ijaw extraction, when I served in the cabinet, one appreciated the disparity, injustice and marginalisation of the Niger Delta in virtually everything. By our individual and special endeavour, we were able to have some bit of economic survival. The younger elements were bitter with the situation in the region and almost lost confidence in the elders. They were unhappy with the marginalisation and deprivation; no development, no infrastructural development yet 90% of the wealth of the country is from the region. They felt they could no longer take it.
Majority of them were graduates, some with second and third degrees. When you saw the level of jobless graduates in the region, you will understand their feelings. They got to a breaking point. The reaction was for them to carry out rebellion against the government.
What did they do? They did not kill people or intentionally bombed installations or main and kill people or completely destroy the fabrics of society.
But they also…?
What they did was to attack the economic source with the feeling that if they could not have the good things from the source nobody should. Then oil production dropped drastically. You can imagine the loss. They had a cause and government listened to them, introduced the amnesty programme and created the Niger Delta Ministry to meet with the people of the region.
You see that the movement or action of the youths was not terrorism in any way; it was an agitation by those you will call freedom fighters, liberators, they were not militants, but liberators pursuing economic emancipation; of course their action gave leeway to the country; by divine intervention, one of our own became President.Before the last presidential election, the attitude of some of our northern brothers, who vehemently were opposed to Jonathan succeeding Yar Adua, was that, if that happened, the country was going to be ungovernable and things would be very difficult.
None of the elites or leaders from the north has been able to outrightly come out to stop the boys from what they are doing. So you can’t divorce the political aspects from the insurrection that is going on in the name of Boko Haram.
Again, unemployment, deprivation could be responsible but the question is that, for thirty eight years, their people ruled. Today, some of us are not too happy with our own President because we are not gaining much in the Niger Delta region; he tilts more to other people than giving attention to the Niger Delta situation.
The initial terrorist thing, I want to be very careful of nomenclature because when your son suddenly gets up and starts behaving funny, as the father, you want to find out what is happening. Jonathan is the father of the nation; so the Boko Haram operators and so on are his children.
Government cannot just be apathetic; government should be able to find out what exactly a rebellious child wants. His reasons may not be obvious as the Niger Delta situation but, all the same, as an elder, I will think that we should find out, we have the security apparatus to really find out and determine what exactly is the grievance of the principal operators, come to a table and talk. I believe in dialogue in any situation to get the correct picture.
You believe that the government should dialogue with Boko Haram?
No, don’t put words into my mouth, when a child rebels, you must give him opportunity to hear him out, it is not going to sit down. Dialogue is two parties sitting down. What I am saying is that when a son rebels, the father should find out why a son rebels.
How will you rate President Jonathan’s performance in the Niger Delta region?
Very frankly, I am sad, very sad that the Niger Delta has not gained prominently from the presidency by the fact that we have our son as President. Mark you, the resources that he is going to use is for the development of the Nigerian nation but that is not to say that there should not be visible gestures in the Niger Delta . In virtually every field and endeavours of government, the Niger Delta has nothing serious to look on to and, to that extent, we will say that we are unhappy.
A case in point that will meet the heart of everybody is the East West road, which cuts across the geopolitical zones. We cannot be taken to ransom by just one contractor. It will take another three years which will dovetail into the period of election. And if during the election nothing happens and the place becomes abandoned, it will be a white elephant in perpetuity; so that, in itself, is a glaring example to say we are sad.
Generally too, empowerment, curtailing of the unemployment are issues of concern. We must say it is incumbent on him to ensure that when he takes care of the rest of his country, his home base must not be forgotten.
Constitutional amendment is around the corner, what are the areas you want the National Assembly to focus on?
First, whatever members of NASS are doing, they must ensure preservation of the unity of Nigeria. I have never been comfortable with the presidential system. I am one of those who believe in the parliamentary system because it has got the check and balance. Most of the Commonwealth countries practising the parliamentary system, we see them flourishing. The presidential system is a very expensive, intricate and complex system of government which the National Assembly should look into dispassionately.
The regional system in those days brought competition and progress. We advanced more and better with that type of structure than what we are doing today. The late Obafemi Awolowo did not need oil to develop the West. The first stadium, first television station, free education, all these he did not do with oil money. Then other Premiers also followed. Today, we have six geo political zones, they could be used as regions, components of what make true federalism works. Federal Government structures should be reduced to not more than defence, internal affairs, appellate judicial systems. Saddling the Federal Government with the present structures whereby roads, schools, etc depend on the Federal Government should be looked into.
Do you think this restructuring you talked about, particularly having a parliamentary system, can be achieved within the context of the National Assembly or through a Sovereign National Conference, SNC?
I belong to a body, we earlier in the year called for a national conference not SNC whereby representations will come from the various political zones and the 774 local governments in the country for people to sit down and talk about their problems. Let us evolve a proper indigenous acceptable constitution. This will enable us define true federalism, resource control and what can bind us.
I am a strong believer of a strong united and indivisible Nigeria. I will be the last to think of pulling down the country. But we need a very serious and honest attitude to the restructuring of the country.
A state like Bauchi, I have always said is the richest state in the country. Most of the northern states have a lot of minerals. Switzerland does not have oil, Japan does not have oil, Thailand and so don’t have oil. I was in Bangkok, they were selling Nigeria stones to me – the ones they mined from Nigeria. But we don’t seem to know what to do with them here.
You recall we had a national conference in 2005 that did not lead us anywhere as a nation?
Well, it depends on the President in office. Nothing came out of that because it was directed towards a wrong motive, a personal motive. If the President is to give it his support, organise a genuine one that will be all embracing, all encompassing, we will be able to get the best for the country. It mainly depends on the President.
As an old boy of the University of Lagos, UNILAG, how did you feel when your school was named after the late Moshood Abiola?
I felt downcast. We don’t know the details and reasons for which government takes an action. I worked very closely with Abiola, he was a very good friend and he was a pillar of sports in Africa. If adequate consultations were made and the stadium in Abuja was named after him, it would not raise rancour. But the renaming of my alma mater after him, as I said, it was a big surprise. I am still confused.
Do you see the ongoing amnesty programme for ex-militants in the Niger Delta as a success?
There have been comments on the amnesty programme. I think the young man handling it is doing a good job. Some of the people being reformed had been written off in society but they are now being made to be productive. It is a complex task, giving very fundamental training to people that were in the swamps for so long a time; people that took over the habitation for animals, you know it is not easy.
First, you need to debrief them to that height of competence. I think it is a Herculean task. What we don’t know is whether the programme is adequately funded and then the spread. You know the militancy thing started in Rivers but it extended down. So it should go to cover most of the Niger Delta areas and the Ijaw areas
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