Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu is the President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo. In this monitored interview with Sunday Vanguard, the leader of the Igbo apex socio-cultural organization says he thinks the demolition of properties belonging mainly to Igbo people in Abule Ado area of Lagos State was politically influenced. Iwuanyanwu also speaks on former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s visit to him, alleged marginalization of Ndigbo in Nigeria, restructuring, detention of Eze Nwajiaku in Lagos as well as the reason Ohanaeze leadership set up the Peace and Reconciliation Committee. Excerpts:
You recently played host to former President Olusegun Obasanjo at your residence in Owerri, Imo State. The meeting was described as symbolic. Would you like to share some of those issues of mutual interest that the leadership of Ohanaeze Ndigbo discussed with Obasanjo?
The visit was purely a private one obviously but the situation in Nigeria today is so bad, so critical that it must be discussed when leaders meet and I don’t think anybody needs to be told the situation of the country. Things are not good and it is important to underline the fact that it is not proper to blame this government for what is happening because this is a combination of errors and failures of many past administrations. But the worst situation is in not taking step, not taking action.
I believe that the government in the past few days has taken some steps which have given some confidence to Nigerians. When they have taken step to suspend somebody who actually was suspected to have done a wrong thing, mind you, she has not been convicted by any law court but it’s normal to suspend her and if she is free, that is, if she is not found guilty, she will come back to her job. The government has taken practical steps to show they identify with the sufferings of the masses by cutting down the entourage because the entourage of Mr President’s recent visit abroad was embarrassing. We are talking about over 500 people following an entourage, it is very embarrassing.
One thing is clear, in 1914 when Lugard amalgamated Nigeria, the country had ethnic nationalities, people with different cultures, languages and religions. It was clear to us at that time that the survival of Nigeria would depend on our ability to manage our differences. And of course, our forebears, before independence, were able to manage it. The military intervention in 1966 was absolutely very unfortunate; it was the saddest thing that ever happened to Nigeria. Unfortunately, that was blamed on the Igbo but there was no reason for Igbo to topple that government but it was blamed on us.
Now, that particular government before independence had a constitution, a true federal constitution, a constitution that could actually apply without a lot of strain to a people who have diverse backgrounds like Nigeria. We had a true federal constitution in 1960/1963 that worked for us. Later on, they changed to unitary constitution which is not right.
Now, that is why we in Igbo land are saying please, let us have a true federal constitution. What we are operating today is a unitary government. It doesn’t work for a people who have diverse backgrounds.
Take many countries for instance, if you go to a place like Britain, you have Scotland, you have Wales, and you have England. They have a constitution that binds them together and it’s working for them. If you go to America, we are supposed to be following their kind of constitution, what they have is not a unitary government.
Every state in America has got a certain level of autonomy. Now, I believe that the government of Bola Tínubu should take steps to see if we can actualize this restructuring of Nigeria. Without a proper restructuring, Nigeria will continue to have problems. There is no way this country can survive. Today, everybody is talking of presidency; in a restructured Nigeria, the presidency will not attract so much attention as it does today. Because today, every power is vested in the President.
As I said last time, for example, a child who is born in South-South or South-East in the past 30 to 40 years has not even seen a train before. He doesn’t know what it’s all about. But we have borrowed money and the whole money we borrowed was invested in railway line from Western Nigeria to North -West. So these are some of the problems we have because South-East and South-South were not in power. Now, coming specifically to one of the Igbo, our own is very serious. It’s very, very serious. We feel very sad about what is happening to us.
When we came together as one country, Lagos became my capital. Naturally, in every country in the world, people all work together to develop their capital. The moment Lagos was made the capital of Nigeria in 1914, it was the duty of all Nigerians to come together to develop our capital. Our capital, Lagos, became the pride of our country. Ndigbo came in and participated. I must tell you, Igbo, by nature, once they say they are with you, they are with you.
They are people who, when they commit, they keep to it. They did a lot to develop the place. We are not saying that Igbo built Lagos alone. No, they couldn’t have built Lagos alone. We didn’t say that there were no other inhabitants, there were.
So, the point is that they played a major role in shaping the destiny of Lagos today. Now, the same thing with Abuja. When Abuja was made the federal capital, Igbo moved in. Today, Igbo are being abused and insulted, people call us greedy because of our efforts to develop Abuja and Lagos.
Following reports of anti-Igbo activities in areas like Lagos, Abuja and other parts of the country, could you give us a bit more detail into that, the experiences of your people, and what the Peace and Reconciliation Committee being set up by the Ohanaeze Ndigbo hopes to achieve?
Before the last elections, there had been information, unverified information circulating in many circles that Igbo had dominated and had major investments in Abuja and Lagos. There is no statistics that proved that Igbo have majority investments in Lagos and Abuja, but people believe and peddle the unverified information.
Now, after the elections, the presidential candidate the Igbo supported won in Abuja and Lagos. It was now confirmed by all these people who were against the Igbo that the only way to handle Igbo is to cripple them. They used the word ‘cripple’. Several clandestine meetings were held in places where people said that it was now important to cripple the Igbo and that the only way to cripple them was by crippling their businesses in Lagos and Abuja.
This information gets to us, it gets to me as the leader of Ndigbo. I have got this information, I don’t believe the information but, you see, when I see certain things happening, for example, suddenly after the election, Igbo buildings were demolished in various places with excuses. I have investigated the demolitions in Lagos for example, and it is very clear to me that some of them didn’t follow the process of law.
You cannot come anywhere and start demolishing somebody’s structure without telling him. In the first place, in every place, when a building is going on, if the person has violated the construction, the building people must go to that place and mark it.
But these people just come in without any court order and demolish the buildings. This is not a proper thing. We have raised our objection and I’m glad to observe that I think the government of Lagos State and all those doing this have stopped. I’m happy because we are not objecting to the government acquiring any property for overriding public interest. They can, it’s the right of any government. But the government must follow the right process.
However, it is sad for somebody who has come into a place, invested his life saving, and suddenly wakes up one morning and sees his building demolished or a child who went to school and before he came back, the house where he left in the morning was demolished. There is also the threat that whatever the Igbo have licensed for would not be renewed. Igbo may not get contracts too. But on the issue of contracts, to be honest, most of the Igbo businesses buy contracts from other people because we don’t get.
Let me tell you about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. This matter has become so much that I have decided that the best thing to do is to expose the fact and let Nigerians know the truth. One malicious falsehood against the Igbo was the Civil War and then the coup of 1966. Igbo were blamed for the 1966 coup.
The coup was a military operation and many other coups have come after that led by other groups. I believe that it’s unfair for Nigerians to brand it, of course, the coup was very bad.
We are not happy that great leaders like Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa and others were killed. But they forget to say that that coup failed and the person who made it to fail was an Igbo man, General Ironsi. And even Ironsi was later killed. And that is how all these troubles we have started.
Even this secession, we went to Aburi in Ghana for peace conference and, in Aburi, we agreed on certain restructuring of Nigeria to make it easy for us in the South-East and South-South but it was violated. Today, young Igbo are talking about secession and they are serious about it. They are serious because they don’t see any future for themselves in Nigeria.
They think they don’t have any future in politics, business, and so on but we the older ones have been begging them because we know there are potentials, there are a lot of opportunities and, above all, we believe in God Almighty.
So this committee has been set up and we’re going to produce our own story about the events in Nigeria from 1966. We’re going to produce a book which we are going to keep in Nigeria for posterity to know the position of Igbo because, today, a young northerner, for example, will think Igbo hate northerners by killing two great leaders from the North. It’s not true.
So, the committee will put the story, it will be clear what the position is. The committee will also make contact with leaders in all the various ethnic groups and then find out. I’m not saying Igbo are angels, Igbo definitely must have made some mistakes, must have done things wrong in those places. So, this Committee on Peace and Reconciliation will also find out what Igbo are doing wrong in all the various places and then, we will try to make effort to get them through because it’s not only going to tell our story, but also visit all these places because Igbo are everywhere and it is our culture and tradition to invest and develop any place we live in.
You said you’ve been able to investigate that most of these demolitions were racially motivated. Where is your proof?
The demolition of Igbo properties in Lagos was brought to me as the leader of Ndigbo. I sent some members of the National Assembly to go and find out the facts. They went and brought me reports. I sent some leading Igbo in Lagos. They brought me the facts. Most of the reports were conflicting.
Some of them said that the people didn’t obey (rules); some said they were given notice and so on. I know Igbo very well, I know that no Igbo man will go and gamble with his money when he knows it can be lost. Igbo have lived in Ikeja, Yaba, Apapa, Ebute Meta, Ikoyi, Victoria Island and many other areas in Lagos, and we have never in history heard the story that Igbo don’t obey laws, that they go and build without obeying law. That is not part of our character. And knowing my people very well, so I decided to go and find out myself.
I traveled and went to Abule Ado (site of demolition of Igbo properties) and I spent over six hours there. I was there that day until about 8 pm. I saw everything. They told me their story. The truth is that one, the land was not government land. They bought it from the villagers, they call them ‘Omo onile’.
It’s a native land. That means at the time they bought the land, there was no municipal planning. You know in some parts of Nigeria today, natives sell lands and you can buy and build. So they bought land from the villagers and started developing. At the time they bought land, they didn’t know if there were any issues.
Later on, the government planned a layout there and put roads. That is fine. As a people, we are not objecting to it. We want anything the government think it can do to develop Lagos.
However in doing that, the government must take the following steps: One, go to court, get a court injunction, assess the property and pay compensation to property owners because these people have bought it from the villagers. So, the government should first of all value the land and pay compensation. That is all we want. We are not telling the government not to carry out their duty. Government has a right anywhere to do that but citizens must be paid. We are all Nigerians and this time people are suffering, people are in difficulty. Part of the thing the government should do now is to produce, bring unity, peace and happiness.
Again, there is a man, one Nwajiaku, an Eze in Lagos, one of the prominent Igbo in Lagos. He has been in detention because they said he mentioned the name of IPoB. This man has been in detention. Every effort to get him out has failed. By the time I went to Lagos, I went to Lagos about three weeks ago, and he was still in detention. The offense he was alleged to have committed was bailable offense. I don’t see why Eze Nwajiaku should be kept in prison because it’s a bailable offence.