In an interactive session with journalists in Jos, the pioneer chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and one time governor of Plateau State, Chief Solomon Lar, spoke on corruption, insecurity, unity and issues that the constitution review should look into. ISA ABDULSALAMI was there. Excerpts:
AS a First Republic politician, what can you say about the state of the nation today?
It is heartwarming to know that since 1960 when we became independent, the country has been facing different challenges. Despite those challenges, Nigeria is still one indivisible nation. In life, we must have challenges; they are a part of the system. In those days when we had independence, I consider myself lucky to have been there as I was one of those who watched the Union Jack being lowered and our national flag, green-white-green, hoisted. We sang the wonderful national anthem and we were full of hopes. Some of those hopes have been fulfilled and they are still being fulfilled. For example at that time, there was not a single person from Plateau who was a journalist. But that is different today. This couldn’t have happened if we didn’t have independence. I always say that there was only one University College of Ibadan. But now, we have over 100 universities in the country. This is another big achievement. We have embassies all over the nation. Recently, the President was asked or selected to be joint chairman of a country, Norway. This is a big achievement. If you are not known, how will they select you to be a chairman of an international community for such a sensitive issue? Apart from that, Nigeria facilitated the independence of many nations. In South Africa, we fought the apartheid. We helped Nelson Mandela to get out of prison. South Africa became completely independent with the assistance of Nigeria. I remember Nigeria severed relationship with Barclays Bank, which was aiding South Africa then and this was why the name was changed to Union Bank. The bank refused to follow Nigeria’s directives that we must at all costs see that apartheid was defeated, and so we did away with it. Nigeria facilitated the independence of Zambia and a host of other countries. And when some of these countries like Angola got when these countries had got independence, some people tried to cause trouble. But Nigeria resisted and refused to allow it happen. Nigeria refused to sit down and see these nations swallowed up. For example, in the West Africa region, Nigeria championed the establishment of the Economic Communities of West Africa Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). We provided the manpower and restored the independence of the nations that were affected. Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia were in shambles. We did everything and restored order to that country and we have a woman there who is a friend of Nigeria. She is always grateful to Nigeria for the role Nigeria played in bringing that country to where it is now.
At independence, there were only three regions the North, West and the East and the minorities in the North and the West wanted their own regions. For example in the North we wanted the Middle Belt region and we formed a political party known as the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC). When I was elected to the Federal House of Parliament, the first statement I made on the floor of the House was to call for the creation of a Middle Belt Region. I said that if it didn’t happen, Nigeria would never know peace. But the Caliphates shouted me down. I was told that no part of North would be taken away. That was the same thing in the East.
The British had said that, “if we were to create regions, then we have to nurse them, we have to look after them and that will delay the granting of independence.” But the big people in the region said that they would look after us. But after independence, when you talked of Middle Belt, they would lock you up, they would say that you abused Sardauna and when you talked of COR, they would lock you up, they would say you abused Okpara or Zik. The agitation ended up.
So, it was as a result of independence that brought all this. Independence made it possible for us to have more states. Even with the present 36 states, Nigerians are still asking for more. Independence has given us freedom of speech. In the colonial days, it wasn’t possible. The universities created after the University College Ibadan were all because of the independence. So, there are many things.
Do you think there is any truth in the statement by former National Security Adviser, Gen. Andrew Azazi, blaming the PDP for security lapses?
The PDP has no hand in Boko Haram and PDP will never have any hand in that because PDP as a government wants a peaceful co-existence of the people in Nigeria and wants investment to come into this country. It is the enemies of the PDP government that are doing these terrible things to see that the PDP does not operate. I am not the only one who believes this. Those who do these things are not patriotic. They forget that we are Nigerians first before our respective states or tribes.
What is your view on the ongoing review of the constitution?
The problem with the 1999 Constitution is that the people never debated at any national constituent assembly. It was a collation of what some of the boys working with the military wanted and it is becoming a problem to some extent. The peoples’ representatives in the National Assembly will identify the areas that need to be amended and they will do so with the views of the people. We live in a dynamic society and so the needs of the people will change accordingly. They change from time to time.
Would you support the calls for a return to the parliamentary system in the constitution?
I understand the parliamentary system because I practiced it as a parliamentarian. I never practiced the presidential system. But I took part in the constituent assembly in looking which system is better suited for our democracy. We had a lot of debate before we decided to adopt the presidential system because there are a lot of checks in the presidential system. In the presidential system, no one can wake up and dissolve the government just as it is done in the parliamentary system. In parliamentary system, a motion can be raised anytime for the removal of the Prime Minister and if the motion succeeds, the PM takes his exit and fresh elections are called. If that were allowed in Nigeria, they would have dissolved so many state governments. The presidential system rather has checks and balances and if there is any need to impeach the president for example, he is served with the necessary questions and accusations and he is allowed to defend himself. But in parliamentary, you don’t need to ask the PM those questions and the PM can leave his home in the morning a Prime Minster and comes back home in the evening as an ordinary man.
We discovered that the parliamentary system is less expensive to run than the presidential system, but then the presidential system serves the government
How do you think that the National Assembly should handle the issue of the creation of more states especially in the South East?
Let them handle it carefully. I think the creation of states is to balance the equation. So, wherever the lawmakers see that there is a need for it, let them create one. Anything that is done in the interest of Nigeria will be hailed by posterity.
You have always been talked against corruption, which is seen as the bane of development. Incidentally, a lot of blame is heaped on the PDP for condoning corruption…
We blame everybody and not only the PDP. People report something that is alarming. We should look for better ways of catching those who get involved in receiving and giving bribes. If someone is being bribed, there is a chance that the CCTV may not be there, so what do we do? People should fear God. God is All Knowing. So, if you are taking bribe, you will not be in heaven. I think it is the question of mind; what are you going to do with all the money you collect illegally?
Are you surprised that people are already talking of the politics of the presidency in 2015?
We all know that 2015 is still a long way and so many things can happen. Nigeria is governed by the constitution and we have to be guided by the constitution. We will all look at the constitution and see what the constitution says. We will go by the constitution and not outside it.
So you think the nation is united?
I think we have unity to some extent. People should not bother about Boko Haram terrorising people to say the country is not united. We are united. Some people say that by 2015 Nigeria will not be the same. That is not true. Nigeria will be stronger by 2015. Tell them. Nigeria will remain an indivisible, united one country, one hope.