Obong Victor Attah, an accomplished architect and scion of Nigeria’s first Master Degree holder in Agriculture, late Bassey Attah, is a former President of Nigeria Institute of Architects, former Governor of Akwa Ibom State, former Chairman of Nigeria’s Governors’ Forum and founder of InterDesign, a firm that has trained renowned architects within and outside the shores of Nigeria. Today, Obong Attah, an alumnus of St Patrick’s College, Calabar; Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA); Liverpool University; Columbia University and Kennedy Graduate School of Governance at Harvard University, is called Mr. Resource Control due to his agitation for the people of the Niger Delta. He shares his thoughts with Managing Editor of Ibom Telegraph, Mr. Darlington UDOBONG on Nigeria’s democracy, governance matrix, the future of Akwa Ibom and sundry matters. Excerpts:
It has been 20 years of uninterrupted democracy. Do you think Nigeria, perhaps, Akwa Ibom, has fared well, in terms of physical development?
As a State, I have to regrettably say that we are not where I had expected Akwa Ibom to be at this point in time. And I will be very blunt about that because when we came in, during my administration as Governor, we had a manifesto and in it we spelt out the things we thought Akwa Ibom needed to do to get to the next level. We were convinced that if we did those things, we would, in fact, very quickly get there. That is why if you look at the projects we started, there was some sort of interrelationships between them. For instance, you want to do something on Information Technology (IT) or an Airport, particularly the MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul), you will need electricity. So, we put up Ibom Power Plant. And then if people are going to come in here, they will need somewhere decent to stay. So, we had the hotel (then Ibom Le’ Meridien Hotels and Golf Resort). Then the IT, because that is the signs of the future, we put up the Ibom Science Park. Then you look at Akwa Ibom in the regional and national context, you see that it could be a hub for a lot of things, hence the Ibom Seaport.
So, we had an integrated system of development which, unfortunately, was badly disrupted immediately I left office as Governor for whatever reason. The fact that we even have the Airport completed is a miracle. The Power Plant was commissioned by former President Olusegun Obasajo before I left office as Governor in 2007. The Science Park is still unfinished. The University of Technology which we started has been bastardized and made into a conventional University with several campuses. Most of the things we started were dissipated. Let me tell you this, because it is no longer a secret. There was a time people in the Villa (Aso Rock Villa) at the time I was Governor, wondered whether I was thinking of seceding. They asked: why is Obong Attah building a Seaport? Why is Obong Attah building an Airport? Why is Obong Attah building an Independent Power Plant? Is he going to secede? That was the fear people entertained about the vision I had. And yet, people came and disrupted that vision. So, I can say perfectly that I feel disappointed that that vision was disrupted. I used the word disrupted because I believe the new regime of Governor Udom Emmanuel is unfettered. I think we are going to see the state flying again.
What about in terms of democratic development and the culture in Nigeria and Akwa Ibom?
My biggest disappointment, and it remains the major disappointment for people who want to see Nigeria progress, is that we have not gone back to true federalism. This true federalism is not something new. It is something we have always had, though it was interrupted during the civil war in 1966. It is what helped the country to grow. For example, under Obafemi Awolowo, the former Premier of the old Western Region, that particular federating unit was able to give us the first Television Station in West Africa; a Stadium; a Cocoa House, and so many things. I know this because I was a trainee architect working with Nickson and Boris in Lagos. We built Western House. It was called Western House because it was built by the Western Region of Nigeria in Lagos. We had the Cocoa House in Ibadan.
So, everybody was able to build things to develop themselves. But the military could not do that. It is just not within the setup of the military to have that kind of dispersed leadership. In the military, there must be one line of command. So, it is understandable that the Head of State was there and he appointed people to govern this and that area for him. Now, the military have left the scene and we have gotten rid of so many of the military vestiges. Why should we keep this particular one, the system of governance? And we continue to run a unitary system of distributing money instead of generating money. That is the biggest, and I dare to say, the only problem with Nigeria democracy.
Recently, former President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote about this Fulanization issue. Yes, what is going on in the country is bad, the killings here and there. But believe me; it would not have happened if we had federalism. I would like people to always go back to the root cause of anything. It would not have happened if we have federalism. You would have been able to control what is happening in your unit. You would have had your police and also control your resources. Nobody would come and dictate in your unit because that would be almost like an invasion. But because we do not have the federal system, we have this unitary system of governance, anything goes.
President Muhammadu Buhari will soon be sworn into office for a second term, looking at your pursuit for federalism, do you think his administration is going to be useful and beneficial to the Niger Delta?
Those of you that read my reactions to the results of the 2019 General Elections would know that I set an agenda for President Buhari. The first item on my agenda for President Buhari was that he should make sure he stops (absolutely, totally and completely) all forms of agitations to disintegrate Nigeria. And the only way President Buhari can do this is to re-enact a federal system for Nigeria so that every federating unit will have a breathing space. I’m not just saying to him restructure, which is a common word that everybody uses. I started with the consequence. The consequence is: if you do not do this, Nigeria is going to break up. I say it every day. Nigeria will certainly and indisputably break up if you do not allow these units to exist as they used to in the days of federalism.
So I said please, make sure you do this so that Nigeria will not break up. And I am very pleased because if you listened to what President Buhari said, and during the visit of the APC (All Progressives Congress) Governors to him. He said Nigeria at this stage of development is ready for true federalism. Those were words out from President Buhari’s mouth. So, maybe this campaign is being accepted now. Therefore, those people who said they don’t want to vote for Buhari because he has not agreed to restructure, they were wrong. It’s just a matter of you convincing somebody. And any reasonable human being, a sensible person who loves this country and wants this country to stay, would agree with you. And Buhari is beginning to agree with everything we have said about having a new birth and a new beginning. But it is not a new concept, we had it before.
How can Nigerians prepare themselves to receive this new birth if President Buhari obliges to it?
The way to prepare ourselves is to accept the fact that it had worked before. Go back and study the 1960 constitution, go back and study 1963 constitution. At first, I will say, in all honesty, that I was not convinced about this idea of returning to a parliamentary system. But more and more I am becoming convinced that that is the answer. I will give few reasons: somebody campaigns across the entire country and wins an election; he feels that he is on top of the whole country and dictatorial tendencies will make him to begin to act like an emperor. Look at the phenomenal cost of doing that. That’s why quality people are not coming out and that is why you cannot nominate anybody and say: I want this person to represent me. It’s only the party that can commandeer the kind of money from their Governors that they need for that kind of campaign. Whereas if you allow the parliamentary system today, you and I can sit down to say, look, we come from this area; who among us is good to go to so, so and so Assembly, whether it is State Assembly or the National Assembly. And nobody can come and rig it because nobody can come from outside and tell us who should represent us. We know better than anybody else outside who should represent us and we will send the person that should represent us to that Assembly, and he will do what we want. So, the cost of election will completely cut down because you’re only campaigning within your own area to be so elected. Then there will be no rigging because you cannot come from outside and tell me who should represent me. The party will not impose anybody on us, we will tell the party that this is the person we want and if the party doesn’t accept him, we just put him up as an independent candidate perhaps, or tell him to join another party platform.
So, we will have true peoples’ representation, and the possibility of rigging will be almost zero. Then when they get there they can say; this person or that person is good enough to be our premier of prime minister, and we all agree because there’ll be no one party. At first, I used to be very upset that a country like Nigeria would have 100 political parties. Now, I want them to have 200. Which means almost everybody is being elected on his individual capability, integrity and ability to represent the community he comes from. So, there will be no one party that can have majority, overall majority to form a government. And you would get a national consensus on what ought to be done, and they would put up one person who they think is capable of making that happen for all of us. And the beauty of this is that, if he doesn’t perform, the next minute he goes and we put up somebody else.
It is clear you do not support the idea of disintegration but there are some Nigerians who feel that disintegration could be the best solution to the myriads of Nigeria’s problems. Don’t you think so?
Why do they feel so? They feel so because they want a certain amount of breathing space and that is what I am saying. Did anybody ever thought about disintegrating the country when we had federalism? Nobody did. But when you come and take all my oil, take somebody else’s gold and give to somebody else, the thought of disintegration is obvious. And no matter how benevolent, the person distributing it cannot be totally fair to everybody. Even if he tries, somebody would always have cause to complain. That is why I said that Nigeria will disintegrate if you don’t do federalism because there is too much discontent. But that discontent can be completely dissipated if you allow federalism.
Many Nigerians are afraid the agitation for true federalism may not see the light of the day. Do you share the same fear?
They are afraid because they have made up their minds that President Buhari is not going to do it. The manifesto of the party that President Buhari is running, particularly the CPC (Congress for Progressive Change) component, starts with the fact that there will be federalism. Looking at the level of today’s development, Nigeria cannot but go to true federal system.
During your administration as Governor, one of the things you fought for was resource control, which is still an aspect of federalism. People said that fight hunted you. Is it true?
To just say yes would sound like a very simple answer. But I told you that people actually thought they should just stop me because they suspected I was planning secession. So, that was a very grievous thing do to anybody who was fighting just cause for his people. It is still hunting me, if you like. The problem is that even the Niger Delta people do not appreciate what I did for them. The then President Olusegun Obasanjo shouted at me and pointed his finger at me at Port Harcourt on the day flags were being given to party candidates. He said I was the cause of all the militancy in the Niger Delta and that I was the one who put the resource control issue in their heads thereby making them to be fighting and blowing up pipelines. I was accused of starting the militancy in the Niger Delta, simply because I preached resource control.
Do you have any regret for taking up that struggle?
If I have any regret it is because the people of Niger Delta do not seem to appreciate what I went through. I am still fighting it but now it is called federalism. Let me not say it is my regret.