Hon. Uche Onyeagocha was the immediate past Secretary to the Imo State Government under former Governor Emeka Ihedioha. A former federal legislature who represented Owerri Federal Constituency, he was at a time the only All Progressives Grand Alliance member in the Green Chamber. In this interview with Amby Uneze, the legal luminary turned politician talks about anti-open grazing bill, IPOB agitation among other issues. Excerpts.
The sit-at-home order initiated by IPOB in the South-east every Monday was strictly observed until it was called off, but the Imo state governor denied that the order was not adhered to. Do you agree with the governor?
My answer is simple. The governor spoke to satisfy his paymasters in Abuja. He told them what they want to hear; something that would make them believe he was doing what they sent him to do in Imo State. Everybody knows that the people of the state stayed at home to respect IPOB sit-at-home directives; rightly or wrongly they respected it and believed in it. I will advise that he should stop lying to himself and to his sponsors that he is not in control of the situation. He should tell them the truth even if it would cost him his job that way his sponsors will take him more seriously. It is not as if they don’t know the truth because I strongly believe that the State Security Services in Imo state report back to their headquarters on the situation in the state and I’m sure they would be telling their bosses in Abuja a different thing from what Senator Hope Uzodimma is telling them. It would be proper to tell them the truth so that they would not perceive him as a liar. I advise him to tell them the truth because he is not telling them the truth.
On the anti-open grazing bill that the 17 Southern Governors gave September 1st deadline, Imo State governor, Hope Uzodimma deviated from the agreement by denying that there was no anti-open grazing law in Imo state to the chagrin of Imo people. What do you make of this?
Once again, I would say that Senator Hope Uzodimma is not telling the truth. Imo state does have an anti-open grazing law and it is Law No. 9 of 2006 Laws of Imo State of Nigeria and it was signed by Chief Achike Udenwa who is still very much alive. The bill was sponsored by Hon. Oliver Enwenerem who represented Ezihinitte Mbaise State Constituency. He is also very much around. Therefore, I urge the Southern Governors’ Forum to disregard the misinformation by Senator Hope Uzodimma and understand that Imo state has already moved ahead of others, having passed the law since 2006 and Anti-open grazing law is in the gazette of the state. Both the governor that signed it into law and the sponsor of the bill are all alive today to testify to this. They have started correcting themselves now by saying that the law does not cover everything. I have gone through the law myself and seen it covers everything because it says “every area that is farmed or cropped”.
It is not for the herder to decide whether a parcel of land is farmed or cropped, it is for the owners of the land to say so. When you look into a parcel of land from outside it might look bushy but by the time you enter inside you would discover that it is planted with cassava, etc in it. Sometimes people plant cassava and leave it for two years or more before they uproot it. When a herder sees the bushy part he may move his cattle in it and it destroy the planted crops. So the law is comprehensive enough. I will urge him to stop misleading Nigerians. However, the person to blame is his Attorney General, and I want to appeal to Mr. Attorney General, please advise Senator Hope Uzodimma appropriately so that he would not goof in situations like this. Imo state does have an anti-open grazing law and it exists as Law No. 9 of 2006 and it was signed by Achike Udenwa as a governor then and sponsored by Hon. Oliver Enwerem.
If the governor does not implement the contents of this law and the herders are unmindful of this law because they move everywhere with their cattle, what is the consequence?
It is an abdication of the governor’s responsibilities, because if a law is passed before he came in, he has a responsibility to uphold it. He also reserves the right to repeal such a law if he has any quarrel with it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wants to repeal such a law. But if he wants to repeal the law he should send it to the House of Assembly; and until that law is repealed, it remains the law of Imo state under that subject matter and he has a responsibility to respect and implement it to the latter.
Still on the anti-open grazing issue, recently President Buhari stated that the country has about 365 grazing routes and there are outcries that such routes do not exist and cannot conform with the present situation in the country, where do you stand on this?
With due respect to Mr. President, he claims that there is a law that gave rise to that, but I want to remind him that whatever that law was, it had long been overtaken by the Land Use Act. Unfortunately for Mr. President the Land Use Act is incorporated in the Nigerian Constitution in such a manner that the only way it can be amended is the same procedure to amend the constitution. Under the Land Use Act, every land in the state is vested in the governor of that state. It is the governor who decides on how, whom it should be apportioned, and for what purpose it should be apportioned. I know that the law Mr. President is referring to does not apply in the South because there was a Northern Nigeria then. But even in the Northern Nigeria, under the Land Use Act, the governor holds superior title and authority over every parcel of land within their states and the President does not have any power whatsoever to grant any piece of land in any state. The only thing he can do is to appeal to the governor and if the governor says he will not, there is nothing anybody can do about it.
In the case of Benue state, the governor Otom has done the right thing by insisting that there is no land to give out for ranching. Therefore, the governor has the right to exercise the powers invested in him by the Constitution by deciding to give or not give any parcel land for which Mr. President is demanding. However, I will plead with Mr. President to allow the country to move forward in peace. He is placing more emphasis on cows than he is placing on Nigerians as human beings. It is high time Mr. President begins to focus on Nigerians and not on cows. Finally, let me remind Mr. President that most of the cows we have in Nigeria today are actually being brought in from our neighbouring countries; Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso; our people are going that far to bring in cattle. We do not have enough cattle to feed Nigerians in Nigeria. The earlier we adopt modern agricultural techniques to increase our demand for beef, the better for all of us.
How do we achieve that?
It is a very simple thing; to find out how the rest of the world are raising their cattle and increasing their beef. It is for those in the cattle business to buy land and bring food for them by ranching. Cows do not need to roam around the streets. Most countries in the world that have become the biggest producers of beef do not have their cattle roaming around the streets. Moreover, cattle business is still a private/personal business like carpentry, shoe making, tailoring, vulcanizing, etc. Cattle should not be elevated to a national pastime. If you have a culture that allows you to rear cows and roam around the streets, it is okay as long as your right to rear cows does not encroach on my right to keep my farm and land safe for my own use and my own need. The earlier this country moves beyond the present culture of cattle rearing and animal husbandry that is being adopted in the traditional way into a mechanized system and start producing better yields and beef the better for all of us. Our population is increasing at an alarming rate and by the time we eat up the ones in Mali, Niger, etc, where else would we be going without replicating it through modern agricultural techniques? So I advise that those who are still interested in the business should employ some of these herders and train them in the modern way of rearing cattle in the ranching method instead of allowing them to roam around.
The bandits have taken over the country as killing, kidnapping for ransom have become their daily lifestyle; do you think the leadership of the country is active and effective?
You do not solve a problem that you create consciously and unconsciously just like that. When a government allows an army of unemployed people, they might resort to other means of livelihood including crime. Many of our youths today who are graduates from the universities are unemployed and do not have any means of livelihood. Most of them saw their parents struggle to give them education. The unfortunate thing is that after they graduate and finish their NYSC there is no job to occupy them. If you give somebody education and have nothing to occupy him or create opportunity for him to get a job, you have created a monster in the society. For example, if a young man is an ICT guru and with the experience he has on ICT, he can be a good hacker and he can hack into somebody’s bank account in bank A and dump it in bank B and withdraw it cleanly, you have already created a monster. It is important to point out to Mr. President that we have to think deeply in working in the direction of creating jobs as quickly as possible if we want to reduce the tide of banditry. The situation is very bad everywhere as the likelihood of increasing is higher than the likelihood of reducing because when people are hungry they get into a desperate mood to find means of livelihood not minding whether their actions would cost their lives. That is why I said the rate of banditry is increasing on a daily basis.
Seeing the way Mr. President seems to have a reluctant attitude toward arresting the situation, do you see an end to it because it looks as if there is no end point?
If Mr. President loves Nigerians, he can call for an emergency method of round table discussion on how to create jobs across the country. But unless we as Nigerians sit at a round table, nobody can find a solution to it. What is the population of the Nigerian Army, the Police, SSS, compared to the size of the country and the level of criminality in the country? Every other security agency in the country is over-stretched. We don’t have enough manpower and there is not enough economic power to recruit more and pay. Therefore it requires very critical thinking to create jobs. Mr. President must plug all the avenues of corruption because that is where you can find money.
I have in the past suggested in my own opinion the ways of curtailing corruption. I have accepted the fact that BVN alone has played a major part in reducing corruption in Nigeria. What BVN has done, one million EFCC cannot do it. In addition to BVN, I am suggesting PVN, which simply means Property Verification Number. What that means is that no property in Nigeria will be registered without being matched with bank account, NIN and international passport numbers of the owner. Immediately you do this so many people who have property will abandon their property, the same way many people abandoned their bank accounts to BVN and that would reduce corruption in this country by about 80 or 90 percent.
Presently, the easiest way for those corrupt people to hide their money is to use it and buy property and they prefer to pay cash; they can even pay cash in foreign currency. Then it is your headache to change it. So once this is done, you will eliminate the opportunity of hiding corrupt money through property. The only other option that is left for corrupt people is to change their money to foreign currency and hide them in the safes in their houses. I am not bothered by that method because those houses are being taken care of by messengers, house helps and housekeepers, it would not be long that those people take advantage of the whistleblowers’ right and report that their bosses have such money, so that they can get their 5 percent to change their lives. I believe this is the right way to end corruption.
Recently bandits penetrated the citadel of a military institution in Nigeria, the Nigeria Defence Academy (NDA), Kaduna and operated with ease. If you juxtapose it with the takeover of government by the Talibans in Afghanistan, what do you think is the future of Nigeria?
We must tell ourselves the truth and that truth is that we are in trouble. The future is very bleak. The fact that the Nigerian Defense Academy, Kaduna was attacked by these people speaks volumes. But I must also point out that many more military operations have been attacked in the past in Borno State. The fact that these bandits were audacious enough to attack the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna should make us take them seriously and design a more appropriate way to resolve the questions of insecurity. I will suggest that we take that attack very seriously. Let us not sweep it under the carpet, even though I do not think it is different from other attacks in other places, something serious must be done in respect to it.
This brings to the question of rehabilitating the so-called repentant bandits and Boko Haram members and reintegrate them back into the society and some are engaged back to the military formation without giving them the adequate punishment they deserve, what is your take on this?
If at the time you are rehabilitating Boko Haram, repentant bandits into the army, the Niger Delta militants, the OPC and IPOB or ESN into the army, they will go there and match themselves, but a situation you make it a one sided thing, therefore, I am calling on government to think twice of that decision, so that it does not hurt the country in the future. I am worried that it is a decision that might hurt Nigeria in future.
The question of IPOB and agitation of the Igboman over marginalization, unfair treatment, etc. is an issue of concern today; can you give us an insight over IPOB agitation?
I will answer that question in a manner that I do not know whether it will satisfy what you are looking for. There are many Igbo and non Igbo people in the Biafran agitation who do not agree with the IPOB methods. And the reason is because the Igbo elites are in denial or have been living in denial of the fact of the struggle that these boys are waging. There are several criticisms of IPOB and Nnamdi Kanu in terms of the way they are going about this struggle, but I always ask the question: the Igbo people who know about the best way to go about it, why should you not take it over? You cannot substitute your consciousness with that of Nnamdi Kanu and that of IPOB. In the United States, there were black people who felt that their struggle for freedom would be better waged by supporting Elijah Mohammed and Malcom X, but there were those who could not agree with Elijah Mohammed and Malcom X, and they chose to follow Martin Lurther King Jr in his civil and non-violent ways of protest.
Therefore, if you disagree with IPOB and Nnamdi Kanu, if you take it that IPOB and Nnamdi Kanu represent a wrong method like Elijah Mohammed and Malcom X who were preaching the struggle to Islam, you can please try to provide the alternative like in the case of Martin Lurther King Jr. into a civil and non-violent means of struggle. It is much more convenient to stay in your house and point a finger, the truth is that everybody today is grumbling and complaining that things are not going in the right way. Should we all keep quiet and allow the society to operate the way it is going knowing that it will not be in the future interest of our children. We have a responsibility to live a better society behind for our children. Are we doing enough for the country? Therefore, everybody should ask the question: how best should we wage a battle to have a better Nigeria for our children and the unborn ones. Should it be by way of keeping silent, leaving a vacuum in a situation of struggle?
Unfortunately nature abhors vacuum. If evil is being perpetrated in the society and those who should know and do something are keeping quiet and refusing to play a role curbing that evil, other people who step in may not be doing it rightly you can’t blame them. That is the danger we have found in it. The truth is that those who are fighting for self determination in Igboland have found IPOB as the umbrella under which they can wage the struggle today and they have embraced it and they will remain so doing unless anybody provides alternatives.
Do you think that Igbo believe in IPOB agitation for self determination?
There is only one way to find out; it is through referendum. Call for a referendum today and allow them to put it to vote, your guess would be as good as mine. And that is what everybody is asking for. It is the most civil and potent way of resolving the whole of these problems. Let there be a referendum. It is cheaper than violent campaigns. Referendum is easier than shooting people in the name of wanting peace. Referendum will shoot down the minority who would want to foist themselves on the majority. Therefore everybody should ask the question: what is the best way to resolve this conflict?
On Nnamdi Kanu’s detention by the federal government and the concern of many Nigerians that such an approach is not the best way to go about it, what is your take on this issue?
For now he is innocent pending if he is found guilty. However, I know that it is a political struggle. And political struggle should better be resolved politically. Detentions, imprisonments, wrong trials and dubious judgements are not the way out. We have seen so much of it in the past without resolving the issues. People have been sentenced to death wrongfully. The only way to resolve this matter is by dialogue, you cannot dialogue with a man in chains. You cannot dialogue with a man in incarceration. You invite him and sit on the table and dialogue one on one. Do not make an effort to bribe him. You may decide to bribe somebody in a difficult situation but it will not change anything. Hear him out. Release him and dialogue with him. If you win him, then it means you have a superior argument. Let us dialogue with him and find out the issues that are leading to these agitations.
The way to go is that we must all meet as equals, sit down on a conference table as equals, and discuss as equals. We must jettison that idea that makes us think that Nigeria is not negotiable. It is very negotiable. Nobody should come with the mindset that he owns the country. This country belongs to all of us. Nobody should bring in the mindset as if he is a messiah who wants to save Nigeria. Nobody can make the claim that he loves Nigeria more than the others. If Nigeria is good enough nobody would want to opt out from it. It is the responsibility of those who believe in one Nigeria and want to remain in Nigeria to continue to convince those who want to go to remain. If you are not able to give them enough reasons, then you must let them be. And if indeed we are equals you must not offend anybody if any of us wants to opt out of the marriage. I have seen why the rest of Nigeria doesn’t want Igbo people to go. If Igbo people go, the rest will go equally and there will not be Nigeria again.
In a national dialogue I had with my good friend, Baba Hakeem Ahmed, the National Secretary of Northern Elders Forum (NEF), he said that Nigeria is fast drifting towards Somalia and Afghanistan. And I told him that if we end up in the situation of Afghanistan and Somalia we may not be able to come out of it. I agreed with him and my point of departure was that we are already in what he said that we are moving fast into Somalia and Afghanistan and nothing is stopping us ending up there and I said I am opting out of the vehicle that is fast moving us to Somalia and Afghanistan, and I requested the driver of the vehicle to please match the break and allow me to get off from this vehicle that is taken us to Somalia and Afghanistan and some people are saying no. I wanted to force myself by trying to jump out and they are holding me because I can see we are getting close to Afghanistan and Somalia, they said I am violent because I don’t want to follow them to Afghanistan and Somalia. I have seen the way the driver is driving, the bus conductor, the brake has failed, and the steering is so stiff that the driver is no longer able to veer off to the right or left to save us from getting to Afghanistan or Somalia. That is why I am saying gentlemen let me jump out.
I have seen that if Igbo people go, you can’t guarantee that the Yoruba people will remain, the Niger Delta will agree to remain, the Middle Belt will want to go and that would mark the end of Nigeria. Because if the rest of them agree that they can stay together without the Igbo people, they would be so happy to get rid of us. Afterall Mr. President had referred to us as “a dot in a circle”, so why would he be bothered about a dot in a circle. As I am talking I have seen two African countries that are embedded in other African countries. The two of them are called Lesotho and Swaziland. They are within South Africa and South Africa never bothered them. South Africa is happy for them to be independent countries. If we are so small like those two countries, then treat us like them. Grant us a country of our own because I know that the population of Igbo all over the world is not less than 50 million. That is much more than the population of about 80 percent of all the African countries. I think we should be allowed to either move peacefully or you give us reasons why we must remain with you.