By Basil Chiji Okafor
The famous Ahiara Declaration drew quite some flak from not a few quarters, in Biafra. Depending on the angle of the various spectra, from which each war-weary Biafran viewed the document (and on who exactly did the critique) the Ahiara Declaration was as controversial, as it was mystifying.
All kinds of rumours flew around, all over the place and a number of people even speculated that this document, deeply rooted in socialistic principles, as they erroneously thought, was going to be part of Biafra’s undoing, in the end. How? The rumour peddlers had it that Ojukwu would brook no kind of sharing formula for Biafra’s oil and so the Ahiara Declaration bore out the suspicion of the Western powers and their allies, as regards what they had always suspected.
But then, as an Igbo saying goes, is it not when one has actually shot down a hawk and has its meat ready that one decides whether women should partake of the meal of hawk meat? How could any leader busy prosecuting a war of survival, be more concerned with who would finally own what oil well, even whilst the war still raged?
Speaking with great passion during his enunciation of the Ahiara Declaration, Ojukwu had told the enthusiastic crowd to simply call him Emeka, as he tried to illustrate to one and all that everybody was equal in the struggle. And it was out of this portion of his speech that the mother of all hilarity was finally delivered by this one interpretation of the document.
Of course, cigarettes, like food, itself, were very essential and scarce commodities in Biafra. So, sometime after the Ahiara Declaration, this audacious army recruit cornered Ojukwu at one of his numerous flying stopovers, all over Biafra. Marching up to His Excellency, (H.E. for short) as Ojukwu was fondly called, the young soldier, in that induced falsetto voice, with which shell-shocked Biafran soldiers, popularly known as ‘Atimgbo’, always spoke, he demanded for cigarettes from the leader:
“Emeka, give me some jot!”
Taken aback, completely, everyone looked in total shock, in the direction of the young soldier but unruffled, he continued, in pidgin-English:
“Okay, no be you say make we no de call you, Excellency again, make we de call you Emeka. I beg, give me some jot.”
That was his own interpretation of the ‘equality’ enunciated by His Excellency, during the historic Ahiara Declaration. But, in reality, the document was to form a basis for a welfarist state, should Biafra win the war; one that should address the issues of equity, corruption and their likes. As Ojukwu himself points out here, the Ahiara Declaration was, if anything at all, more welfarist, than it was socialistic…
The Ahiara Declaration, deeply rooted in socialist principles, as it were, was hugely popular amongst the masses of the people, but it was also rumoured that it was resisted by some of the top military brass. Yet, when you returned from exile, you joined the NPN (National Party of Nigeria) a Rightist party. Indeed, nobody expected you to join either the Unity Party of Nigeria, (UPN) or the Nigerian People’s Party, (NPP) which were both generally regarded as tribal parties. So, why didn’t you simply take a break and allow the parties themselves to woo you, given your popularity on your return?
During the war, we had tremendous difficulties and it occurred to me that material deprivation was beginning to affect morale. I decided to enunciate my own concept of what we were really fighting for and the result of that was the Ahiara Declaration, take away the propaganda first part of it…(chuckles)…the main bulk of Ahiara Declaration are my thoughts.
And these thoughts were based on a number of meetings I held regularly with what was fondly called, my Kitchen Cabinet. These were people from all walks of life that I met every Thursday and when they arrived, most informally, somebody would take the Chair and I would be just a floor-member, just like everybody else. We would discuss points, analyse and synthesise them and finally, I came up with what I considered the concensus of the aspirations of our people, in this life or death struggle.
Those army officers did not accept it? That is news to me. I don’t like to separate. I think we were fighting, at that time, a people’s war and mostly everybody supported. There must have been a few that didn’t support and within the army, perhaps one or two, but they did not really come to the fore. No. The Ahiara Declaration, a number of people had given socialistic connotations to. I don’t think it came out as such. I did not go out to be socialist in that declaration. No, what I did was to get a mass of ideas together and try to harmonise and evolve an ideology that would have sustaining effect towards what we were engaged in.
Yes, there are certain aspects of it that are Pubitan socialistic. I personally feel, actually, that it is more welfarist, than socialistic and I know a lot of things have been said about ideology in Nigeria. I think our people are not quite clear what they’re after and how to get about it. I personally do not believe you can install a socialist ideology in a society that is not yet industrial. I don’t think so. The nearest to socialism you would find in a rural type of society – we have to admit, Nigeria is essentially rural – is a welfare state, where the government helps and does more things.
The Ahiara Declaration – I still read it, from time to time – and I’m amazed, in fact, that the problems highlighted and the solutions advocated, to a large extent, apply today. I believe in a number of those things and, in fact, I’m working on bringing the document up to date.
Now, about the practice in Nigeria, the problem is this: we have not yet moved into the politics of issues. We are still involved in personality politics. There is really no political party that is truly issue orientated.
When issues are mentioned, they are purely cosmetic, they are essentially propaganda. But when you look deeper, you find that all political parties revolve around individual personalities; individual groups of persons and so on. I personally look forward to when we can break this vicious circle and move into issue orientated politics but for the time being, no…
(Cuts in)…Outside issues, don’t you think that tribalism is equally a very strong factor in the kind of politics we play in these parts?
I’m glad you raised this because, in fact, I believe that the greatest let to our progress, politically, is tribalism. I believe that it is the spectre of tribe that blocks us. We seem to be fixated on tribal politics and this is why I look at the parties in Nigeria and I find the most evenly spread. I look at the one that contains the greatest number of the various ethnic groups. I believe the answer is to strengthen that party so as to erode the walls of tribalism, because only by so eroding the walls of tribalism can we then be liberated into an issue orientated type of politics, the sort that I am really looking for.
If I remember correctly, you were once quoted as saying that the Yoruba wield bureaucratic and economic power and the Northerners, political power, while the Igbo have neither advantage. Could your joining the NPN [National Party of Nigeria] be for you to help the Igbo achieve some mileage in these areas, as well as breaking the walls of tribalism?
Breaking the walls of tribalism is vital to Nigerian progress. But let’s make no mistakes about it, I am anxious to represent the best interests of my constituency. That is why I am going into the Senate and certainly I want to gain advantage for my senatorial district. I want to gain advantage for the Igbo people. I don’t deny this fact.
That the Yoruba have bureaucratic preeminence or predominance, this is a statement of fact; that the North, today, controls political power, again, that is a statement of fact. But, if granted that the Igbo must participate and must participate in peace, then it becomes almost axiomatic that the Igbo must go where, and partake of the political power. Because political power is that power that has the capacity for balancing. I am very keen that the situation in Nigeria is balanced so that nobody feels rejected, nobody feels cheated.
That sort of balancing I cannot get by joining the UPN [Unity Party of Nigeria] – the Igbo would not have it. In fact, I put it very crudely, once. I said: what type of question, what type of argument do you put to the Yoruba, to make them relinquish 40 percent of their hold over the bureaucracy?
There is no argument. But at least if you are involved with political power you can decide, as an example, to widen the bureaucracy so as to ensure certain balancing. It is very crude, but remember that what we are trying to do is to explain very, very, complicated issues to a rural population.
Did you join the NPN, sir, because it was part of a package deal to grant you amnesty?
No, no way. First of all I’m not the type of person that does package deals. I was granted amnesty and it was totally without any strings. No, I spent some time, I analysed the situation and decided what was best. I think I’m right. But then I don’t rule out the possibility that I might be wrong, but again, even now, I am absolutely convinced that I was right.
But you seemed to have held a different view earlier. In fact, a week before you came back, you made a statement that was widely reported and I quote: “I’m not for politics, I’m coming back to my people to love and be loved by all”. You went on to say that you didn’t want to inherit anybody’s enemies.
Nobody in exile could have imagined the degree of misgovernment that exists in both Anambra and Imo States. I was quite shocked when I came back and in fact that I am in politics today is that I feel a certain urgency to change the situation.
Were you not equally shocked, sir, at the degree of mismanagement at the Federal level?
Errm, at the Federal level, the little I saw was Lagos and I must say I was shocked, also, at the chaos that is Lagos, today and coming into politics was, in fact, my own way of lending my hands to solving some of those problems. I want to contribute my own part; I want to assist in rectifying a whole lot of…err…well, let’s call it (for want of a better term) mistakes. But certainly, the situation of Lagos cannot do anybody proud. It is dirty; it is disorganised; it is violent. These things, nobody who really feels inside him that he is a Nigerian, can allow that to go on without getting involved, to try and find a solution.
A lot of people seem to be of the opinion that, world economic recession, or no, the kind of suffering imposed on the people due to the current government policy of ‘Austerity Measures’ is due largely to the exceptionally high degree of corruption at the Federal level, in this country, which even seems to make child’s play of what happened during the First Republic. How do you react to this?
To talk about corruption, it is at a very, very, high level and it is a level that should not be tolerated. But you see corruption pervades the entire Nigerian body politic: state, federal, the lot. I think we are begging the question, trying to blame one and leaving out the other. Nigeria is corrupt and up till now, I have not actually seen a strenuous effort from any part of Nigeria to try and limit corruption.
There are many things that could be done, certainly, but they are not being done. About the level of corruption, yes, it is greater now than before. Once you start counting the figures and putting figures to the amount of corruption, yes. But what I find is that our society, generally, has degenerated.
It’s a bit too much to say now but most people do not exhibit the level of public morality that can be expected. I am convinced, also, that our inability, since independence, to make examples of those who, rightly, have been found corrupt has, in fact, aided and abetted the society.
Now, it’s a question of getting away with it. Even, I notice that nobody talks about theft anymore. No. Theft is only that which you have been caught with, not the act of stealing. I find, also, that in our society, wealth is the object. This is what everybody wants. Nobody ever asks you how you have made it.
The other day in Orlu, I was telling them that actually, let’s be honest, a million naira cannot be made in four years. And anybody that makes a million naira in four years is a thief, pure and simple. [In 1983 when this interview was conducted, the value of the naira to the US dollar stood at N0.673, that is approximately, 67k to $1].
Now, these are things that Nigerians just refuse to look at. There are many people – army officers that you know when they left school; you know their first jobs, you can, in fact, add up all their legitimate salaries.
Having done that, you then know that Nigerians will troop out to open one mansion that is 10 times the aggregate of the man’s legitimate salary and nobody thinks anything about it. You see, I keep asking myself, are we really serious that we want to stop corruption? There are certain things so glaring. But if you allow them to go by then, of course, it means that we condone corruption in our society.
I’m totally against corruption. And I believe a lot can be done about it. If I have the opportunity, I would do a great deal to stop it. I don’t think I can stop corruption totally but, by God, I’m sure I can minimise it and reduce it to manageable proportions. Now, that is a general sickness in Nigeria. People just refuse to look at corruption in the face. I agree with you.
You just spoke about corruption pervading the entire society and in this regard, even if you talk about the ordinary market woman, her intention is to maximise profit, possibly kill you, if she can. Yet, these are the same masses you fight for and want to change with mere rhetorics such as this new government invention, the so-called Ethical Revolution? Beyond rhetorics, what mechanism would you device to change a totally corrupt populace, all the way down the line?
I have not mentioned the Ethical Revolution and if you would permit me I will say this: that I don’t know enough yet about Ethical Revolution. Since my return I have had so many other preoccupations. But when I talk about minimising corruption, in the first place, the person in the market selling tomatoes and making profit is a trader.
That, to me, is little profit – indeed, you have mentioned it – that is not our problem in Nigeria. Our problem is, in fact, people walking away with the national treasury. And it hurts me when I see somebody going to jail for say, a theft of N1,000, or whatever it is, something quite small. And yet, we know that people are in fact taking very substantial fractions of the national revenue and nothing is being done.
In fact, the situation in Nigeria is a funny one. Theft is, money taken unlawfully, under a million naira. What is over a million, you don’t go to court anymore, you set up a commission of enquiry and nothing comes out of it and that’s the end of it. And this is what has happened to our society because people now believe that in fact what one has to do is to make sure that they steal an enormous amount because, at that point, they will no longer go to jail.
So, what then should we do to deal with this problem of corruption, once and for all?
To start with, the basis of everything here is that we really have to do certain homework. The salary structure must reflect, at all times, the cost of living. You get a graduate, he comes out after learning or becoming a professional, you then, because you want to appear to be something you’re not, you say: oh, N300 per month is adequate! This is a fellow you know how much he is going to pay as rent for the flat he is going to live in; you know how much he is going to pay for fuel that will be in a car you impose on him; you know how much school fees he has to pay and so on. But you’re quite willing to bury your heads in the sand and say: I’ve paid him a working salary, knowing full well that his salary (if he uses the salary alone) will not last for more than 10 days of the month. And then, suddenly, you say: but oh, we’re corrupt. In fact, what you should do is that if he comes to work after the tenth day of the month, you should sack him for being corrupt…(laughter)
Would you then recommend capital punishment
…(Cuts in)…I’m against capital punishment as an individual. I am against capital punishment. I believe that there are many things that one can do. There are many sanctions that, in fact, can be imposed. The thing I have always felt that Nigeria should do – and I won’t go deeper than that – is that whenever there is visible, conspicuous opulence, the assumption should be that these are ill-gotten gains and the onus should be on the person to prove that they are legitimate. If we did that, we could slash quite a lot.
For example, if a man suddenly appears with this building, that building and a few cars around the place, the assumption should be that this man is corrupt. It doesn’t mean you immediately hang him for that. But you give him now, the opportunity, through the law courts, to show you how legitimately he acquired the means. If indeed he has a tree in his garden that the leaves are naira notes, let him take the authorities and show them that tree. But if he hasn’t got that and he cannot show how legitimately he acquired [his fortunes] then, obviously, the assumption is that he is corrupt.
Now, we are tied down by the old-fashioned notion that a man must be considered innocent until he is proven guilty. Yes, that was alright, but for this question of corruption we should just turn it round: that a man who lives conspicuously over his legitimate income should be considered corrupt until he proves other sources of income.