Alhaji Lateef Femi Okunnu began his career in 1960 as a lawyer and was appointed Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing in 1967.
He served in this capacity for seven years, a tenure that ended in 1974. He was leader of the Federal Government Delegation to the Organisation of African Unity, OAU, Consultative Committee on Nigeria Peace Talks to end the Civil War in 1968 and in 1969, he led the Nigerian Delegation to the OAU Ministerial Conference. In 1980, he was a member of the Nigerian Delegation to the General Assembly of the UNO.
Okunnu was later appointed deputy legal adviser to the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, in 1981, and Pro-Chancellor of the University of Agriculture, Makurdi in 1982. In this encounter, Alhaji Okunnu x-rays the current situation in the country, taking a swipe at both the leaders and the led for the tension in the country.
Let’s start with Lagos, there was apathy at the local government election of Saturday. Many people didn’t go out to vote and where they did, it’s mostly the elderly people. Why was this so?
I think public events needed to be that way because of Covid-19 pandemic which has engulfed the world. The rules are clear. We should not gather as crowds. The third wave of Covid-19 is here and this will affect every election, be it local government, state or even the forthcoming general elections unless the virus disappears very soon.
This is something we should take very seriously but unfortunately, the government has not tackled it the way it should. The government has not really tackled the propaganda the way it should and we, the people, are not helping matters. Go to gatherings: funeral gatherings, religious gatherings, political gatherings, crowd everywhere. The vaccine ought to go all over Nigeria. We are begging for vaccines. I think Covid-19 should be taken more seriously.
Young people are a different entity altogether. If I will talk about them, it will be a two-hour interview.
On youths, what’s your take on the activities of youths like Nnamdi Kanu and Sunday Igboho who are agitating for the secession of the Igbo and Yoruba?
That is a large issue but my question is, who gave them the mandate for self-determination? Who gave Sunday Igboho the mandate for Yoruba independence? Who gave Kanu the mandate for Biafra nation? Who gave them the mandate that the Igbo should break away from Nigeria or that the Yoruba should break away? Who told them that there was a Yoruba kingdom or an Igbo kingdom? Where is it in history? People just misread, or misinterpret or misconstrue history for their self-purpose. I am firmly for the unity of this country. I am strongly for it. As I stood against secession from 1967-1970 when I was in government, I will still stand against secession by any group in Nigeria, be it Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa or any group. Nigeria is a collection of many groups and we should leave it like that.
The problem with Nigeria is bad governance. Like I said about vaccines, if we are still begging for vaccines instead of buying and making sure it goes around; I’m saying the same thing about bad governance. Bad governance has been the problem with Nigeria.
On the menace of herdsmen, kidnapping and bandits invading communities and sacking them, is it not enough reason to say, no, we can’t associate with these people anymore…
No. There are answers to some of these issues. For example, the herdsmen, the Fulani herdsmen have been there 50 or 60 years before independence. The herdsmen to my mind, belong to the ages. Look, there should be no herdsmen today. Even the Sardauna of Sokoto when he was the Premier of Northern Nigeria established ranches in the North. In Borno, he established a meat processing company.
What we have now is herdsmen anachronism. We should move forward. Today, people should not be moving on foot grazing and selling animals especially now that they invade farms and people’s private properties. It is wrong and against the law for your herds to come into my land to eat my grass and my crops, threatening people’s lives and even killing or kidnapping them. That’s against the law. It’s an anachronism that should not be practised in this age. The government is doing something. The government is building railways which should have been done years ago. This is the only thing apart from constructing roads that I will give them credit for. The railway wagons should carry the rams and other animals. We don’t need herdsmen. This is 21st Century. We don’t need herdsmen any more. Railway wagons should carry the herds to their destinations to avoid the problem of herdsmen.
Currently, there’s tension in the country, it’s as if Nigeria is an accident waiting to happen and something could snap and Nigeria will break up… .
People make up all these problems. The country should not break up. The country will not break up. If the country breaks up, you can imagine what would become of us. We have been talking of many countries fighting against themselves. History has made us to be one country. Look at the other great countries. Look at the United States. Look at India. Look at other great empires. There’s no ancient empire of the Fulani or Igbo or Yoruba or people from Borno to come back and say 400 years ago, there existed this Igbo, Fulani or Yoruba kingdom. Let’s continue to manage Nigeria. Indeed, there are good people in leadership, there are honest people among the bad leaders who want to serve the country and not themselves.
Unfortunately, there are many bad leaders who are serving themselves and working for their own pockets.
But if we don’t restructure Nigeria, dont’t you think it could snap?
My answer to restructuring is that we should go back to 1963 Constitution with the 12-state structure which was introduced by General Yakubu Gowon on May 27, 1967. Incidentally, the Gowon government followed the 1963 constitution. The oil-producing states: Mid-West, and Rivers State were receiving 50% of the oil revenue from Lagos and the Federal Government. It was in 1970 that the Federal Government passed a decree that oil from the offshore belongs to the whole country, otherwise, General Samuel Ogbemudia received 50% and Diette Spiff received 50% of the oil revenue as enshrined in the constitution from Lagos and FG as enshrined in the constitution. Police should be as it was in 1963. It was not 100% federal.
The court of Justice, that is high courts within the regions have jurisdiction over all matters within the regions. The FG was not appointing judges or paying them under the 1963 Constitution.
The chief judge of each region and the judges were appointed by the governors of the regions. Let’s go back to the old time. That’s my answer to restructuring.
The FG has stolen many functions of the governors, like housing and other things like lands. The FG has stolen many Lagos State lands, for instance, Osborne and Banana estates. These are not federal lands but Lagos State lands by the constitution. Even when judgement was given against the FG on Osborne Estate by Justice Odunowo, the judgement was against the FG that Osborne road is not the property of the FG and cancelled all allocations by the FG but up till now, the FG is in violation of the federal high court on Elegushi case.
I was Federal Commissioner for Land and Housing. The FG was stealing functions of the states. The exclusive list was the only area preserved for the FG like banking, railway, Immigration but the FG is stealing from residual powers which belong to the states like federal registries, land registries. It’s against the law.
Now, let me tell you about the obnoxious decree that IBB signed in 1993; a land titled decree which I challenged a few years later when Abacha was in power and won against the FG . Now, that decree stated that all the lands beginning from the Ocean or Lagoon whether the land belongs to state governments, such land belongs to state governments, corporate organisations or individuals, the title of such land belongs to the FG and it cannot be challenged in any court. You can’t challenge or argue that it is unconstitutional that decree operates in all the coastal states, not Lagos State alone but Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Rivers, now down to Bayelsa, Calabar and down to the South-East but the decree is about Osborne Road.
On controversies over the National Assembly’s partial inclusion of electronic transmission of election results in the Electoral Bill
I have sympathy for electronic system of election result transmission if it can reach the remotest part of the North, West and East. It is what applies in other parts of Africa and if it can work in Nigeria, why not?
Between the North and South, who should produce the president in 2023?
As a schoolboy and a young professional in the UK, a co-founder of Nigeria Youths Congress, organising protests, I alerted this country about things going on in governance from the UK. My orientation is one Nigeria, free and strong. To me, there is no North or South, no Muslim North or South. We are all in different states.
I don’t care if all members of Nigeria Olympic team come from Awka or Oturkpo as long as they are Nigerians. I don’t care who succeeds who as long as he is true and genuine.
If Ekwueme was alive and wanted to contest for presidency, as my senior in Kings College, I would come out for him.
I support the youths in their 30s, 40s, 50s to come out for elections, this is their time, let power return to the states. What we are running today is military government wearing the garb of federalism.
I don’t believe in party politics. I want those that would genuinely serve Nigeria and have the interest of the country at heart, people who are not ethnic-minded. I don’t want Igbo or Yoruba or Hausa but a true Nigerian. I want less power at the centre and more power to the states.
The National Assembly is on another move to amend the 1999 Constitution. What areas of the constitution would you want reviewed?
That’s waste of time. Constitution-making should be left to the Constituent Assembly who are delegates, nominated or elected by the states. The National Assembly should mind its business of passing bills.
The National Assembly review committee didn’t reach out to people like us. I was a member of the Lagos State Review Committee in 2005, we spent six months, our recommendation was to go back to the 1963 Constitution. President Goodluck Jonathan after dilly-dallying for a while, tried to do something but did nothing. It is not the duty of the National Assembly to amend the constitution. They should stick to their duty of passing laws. If we want a constitution amendment, there should be another Constituent Assembly or we take the 1963 Constitution. The only thing would be to remove Governor-General and put President.
We should go back to the 1963 Constitution, the FG has no business paying salaries of high court judges, or stealing some of the residual functions of states. The 1963 Constitution worked very well for us.
What’s your take on the Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB, passed by the National Assembly?
It is most unfortunate.
Today, the FG sits on more than 60% of the oil revenue. And that is the major problem in the country. The state governments and oil-producing states should give from its share to the host communities whose land has been devastated and who could not farm because of the effects of oil pollution on their land, communities whose waters have been polluted and they cannot fish again. The FG has its share and the host states too. We should go back to the 1963 Constitution if we want things to go well with the country.
The 1963 Constitution worked very well for us. And let me end this talk about restructuring. Part of the agitation against the North was its size and population. The Northern region is too large in both land and population. It is larger than the Western region, Eastern region, and Mid-West. And what General Gowon did was a sell-out of the North by allocating six states to the North. The whole North is gone and cannot come back again.
The Western region returned Ikeja, Epe, and Badagry to Lagos Colony. Lagos Colony was created by the British in 1861. The Lagos State today was the same Lagos Colony that was created in 1861. The rest should be western region. It was the Yoruba themselves that divided the Western region into states. They fractionated themselves and they are now agitating about coming together to form Oduduwa Republic.
The Eastern region, populated by mostly Igbo-speaking Nigerians fractionated themselves also. And they are now agitating for Biafra.
If western states had remained one, there would be no agitation for Oduduwa. If South-East states had remained one as Gowon made it, there would be no agitation for Biafra. There was no Igbo kingdom or Yoruba kingdom in history. We were comfortable with the 12-state structure but we fractionised ourselves into 36 states. So, we have 36 governors, 36 chief justices instead of 12. The cost of governance has consumed the states.
Today and tomorrow belong to the youths but unfortunately, no employment, no money for them and they have resorted to criminality.
In my days, there were youth clubs and fields where youths play football and had area competitions. It was then people like Hogan Bassey became world champions.
But the football fields have disappeared. The government has sold the football fields. I played football at Teslim Balogun Square but it has become a motor park and business area. Race Course is now a business outlet. Ikoyi Parks have disappeared. Other fields and clubs where the youths used to gather have been converted to homes, motor parks, or markets. Race Course was given to Lagos Colony for all manner of sporting activities but go to Race Course today.
Was it ever stated anywhere that from 1914-2014 which was 100 years, Nigeria would expire as a nation?
There was nothing like that, Nigeria did not come together in 1914. Lagos Colony remained Lagos colony until independence and it had its own government although there was a governor for the whole country.
Nigeria did not have a unified government in 1914, but on paper as a colony, it became an amalgamation of Southern protectorate and Northern protectorate which remained until the Richard Constitution of 1936. So, Nigeria, as we know it today as a unified country began in 1936. For the first time, there were nominated representatives from the North, five from the West and five from the East and three elected from Lagos and one elected from Calabar. For the first time, they met under a roof to pass bills. The government was still in the hands of the British. The next stage was federation when Nigeria adopted a federal system of government and that was in 1954 under the McPherson Constitution. That was when the regions became strong in power and the federal government was given its own area of control in the exclusive list.
So, how did we get to where we are if all these were spelt out?
Mismanagement by people, some of them elected and some by military intervention. The civilians must blame themselves, they have been there since 1999 what have we achieved?