Dickson: Protecting minority rights in project Nigeria

Dickson: Protecting minority rights in project Nigeria

Extemporal Remarks of the Bayelsa State Governor, Honourable Henry Seriake Dickson, at the Southern Senators Forum Retreat in Calabar, Cross River State on Friday, November 24, 2017.


1. On behalf of the government and the good people of Bayelsa State, I thank the leadership of the National Assembly and particularly the leadership of the Senate, the Chairman and indeed all the members of the Southern Senators Forum for your thoughtfulness, dedication to duty and service to our country by creating a platform like this for the discussion of clearly one of the most topical issues facing our country today.

2. On that account, I bring you greetings, warm felicitations, support and solidarity from Bayelsa because we are very serious about this issue of restructuring, and you have created this national, non-partisan platform to discuss it.

3. Let me also thank you as Chairman of the South-South Governors Forum. I also co-chair the Southern Governors Forum of which Governor Akinwunmi Ambode is our Chairman and my dear brother, Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi is also a co-chair. Again on behalf of my colleagues of the South-South Governors Forum and the Southern Nigeria Governors Forum, I bring you greetings and felicitations.

4. We think that this is a great initiative, which I believe, Mr. Chairman and members of this forum, that no sooner than we leave here, contacts should be established to see how those of us who are members of the Southern Governors Forum will also collaborate with you in this great endeavor so that we can talk to ourselves and among ourselves, to understand and break down the barriers of misunderstanding and misrepresentation that have bedeviled this issue of restructuring.

5. Thank you Mr. Chairman for inviting me to give my perspectives on how best we can protect minority rights. How best can we do so than by supporting restructuring? The rights of all Nigerians can be best preserved and protected within the context of a restructured, truly federal, truly egalitarian and democratic Nigeria.

6. I have not come here to deliver any lecture, not being a professor like our host. I have only come to raise some issues that will provoke our thoughts and hopefully provide some clarity of thoughts on some of these issues as we move forward.

7. You have asked me to talk about protection of minority rights and I was thinking of how to define the word ‘Minority.’ Very often and particularly in our context, when you talk of minority rights, a lot of people may think of mineral rights. But minority rights are far bigger and more all-encompassing than property rights and even environmental rights because we have so-called minorities in non-mineral and non-oil producing environments yet they qualify to be minorities. Being Nigerians, they are entitled to the freedom that our laws and Constitution provide and guarantee for all.

8. The next question about minorities would be: are we talking in the ethnic sense, or are we referring to minorities in terms of sexual orientation, political views or religious beliefs?

9. I know also that, contrary to what a number of people may say, our country has actually done very well in the area of protection and recognition of the rights of the “so-called” minorities in the area of political or leadership participation. I say “so-called” because I believe that even in this country, the “so-called” minorities are actually the unstated majority of this country. So, if you are out there as a so-called minority, or you have subscribed to that propaganda that says you are a minority, or you have created room for people to refer to you as such, then please listen attentively.

10. In this country, the so-called minorities are the majority, but I say Nigeria has done very well because if you look at the statistics of those who have had an opportunity to lead and to serve this nation at the very top level, and I am not just talking of President or Head of State, I am also talking of those who command our Armed Forces and other heads of critical branches of the government of the federation, we need to tap ourselves on the back because a number of people that have been Presidents and Military Heads of State in this country, contrary to the language they may speak or the religion they profess, ethnically belong to this group of so-called minorities, who as I have said over and over again are the actual majority.

11. I also come from a state that just a few years ago had a wonderful opportunity given by all Nigerians to offer service at the topmost level as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and I think we should congratulate Nigerians. We have done better than a number of countries. We have done better than most people expect, and I thought I shoud highlight that fact. There is however still plenty of work to do.

12. The other issue I would like to throw some light on has to do with the definition of restructuring. Restructuring simply means a call for constitutional reforms, an amendment of the laws of this country to guarantee a more stable and inclusive country, and for a return to the original founding principles of our nation. In other words, it is the return to federalism as agreed to by the founding fathers of our country. Restructuring does not mean secession. I agree that there may be so many interpretations to restructuring and what some people may want out of a restructured Nigeria, yet the call for restructuring does not mean a call for secession or break up of Nigeria.

13. While it is clear as stated above that restructuring may mean different things to different people because of their experiences and expectations, we should be clear from the onset about what the call for restructuring does not mean, connote or necessarily imply. The call for restructuring does not necessarily imply secession, breakup or disintegration. Its proponents are not less Nigerian or less patriotic than others. I think that portraying restructuring as being coterminous with secession or disintegration is missing the point. The call for a restructured Nigeria, as I said earlier, is a call for constitutional amendment and that is why we must thank the President of the Senate, the Senate leadership and particularly the Chairman of the Southern Senators Forum, and all the members for creating this platform. And why not the Senate? Why not the National Assembly? Because you have the most legitimate platform to talk about and to lead initiatives about constitutional amendments and reforms, and that is what you are doing today.

14. What other stakeholders need to do is to work with you and give you support so that we can have a meeting of minds to see the areas that can be agreed upon. This is why I agree completely with all the lectures and opinions already given by the Senate President and the keynote address delivered by his Excellency, the Deputy Senate President and the remarks by the Chairman of the forum, all pointing to the need for us to engage with ourselves more and build more consensus around these pertinent issues.

15. As the Senate President and the Deputy Senate President rightly said, we should not shy away from decision making, consensus building nor be afraid of negotiating. For me, the more divided opinions are, the better because we are a diverse nation building a virile democratic culture, and we should not stifle views and opinions. The only lesson we need to learn is to agree and disagree but to do so in the national interest.

16. The Senate President talked about what is happening in the United States of America, where there is a lively, healthy and robust debate going on there right now about what it means to be an American, especially in this era of Trump. That is a legitimate discussion they are having. If you go to the United Kingdom, you just saw how it went with the Brexit vote and the debates that are going on there about the United Kingdom’s role within the European Union, around the world and within itself.

17. Two years ago in the United Kingdom, they had a legitimate referendum as to the future of the United Kingdom, that is the Scottish question. Those who colonised us did not treat their own unity as something that is not negotiable. So, do not tell me that Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable. That is not the right way to put it. I am a Nationalist, I am a Pan-Africanist and I believe that if I have an opportunity, Nigeria is not even large enough for me. I and most of us want this country to even be bigger than it is. So there is no room for disintegration of Nigeria or secession. That is not what we are talking about. What we are saying is how do we make Nigeria’s existence and our greatness more apparent, reliable and sustainable?

18. Just as the United Kingdom subjected itself to a vote on the issue of the Scottish independence, I believe that if we were to conduct a referendum, majority of Nigerians will vote for the unity of Nigeria because the unity of Nigeria is desirable and I dare say in the best interest of all. We are better off in a large country and a large population. So, do not listen to extreme elements in this country who are for disintegration. We have enough people of goodwill in every area of this country who believe that our best interest, collectively and individually, are best secured, protected and preserved in a united Federal Republic of Nigeria. But we must do the hard work of creating that Nigeria; a Nigeria of equal citizenship, a Nigeria that is fair and just, a Nigeria where the rights of all are protected, a Nigeria of inclusive growth and a stable Nigeria. Not a Nigeria of endless agitations and inequity, not a Nigeria that is perpetually at war with itself and therefore unable to fulfill its manifest destiny. Not a Nigeria that is tied down by its internal contradictions. Not a Nigeria by its internal contradictions is a threat to itself and the world. The call for restructuring, therefore, is a call for self-examination by Nigerians for the benefit of Nigerians and the world.

19. I have told all my people and I say it here openly, my state has over 30 per cent of the oil and gas reserves in this country (a number of you do not know). Yet I do not want to be a citizen of one tiny oil-rich country that one neighbouring country can overrun in five hours as in the case of Kuwait. Mineral wealth alone, as in the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan in contemporary times, does not guarantee a stable and prosperous nation. I am a proud Nigerian citizen. I want to be a member and I am proud to be a member of this great Nigerian family. This is one of the greatest nations on the face of the earth. But you and I, and all of us, have a duty to perform, that is recreate the ideal Nigeria. Just as our founding fathers had patience, patriotism, accommodation and wisdom to listen to themselves by holding different conferences and consultations at home and abroad, the present leaders of this country must rise up to this challenge of nation building.

20. So, we call for leadership responsibility, And Mr. Attorney General (of the Federation), while I agree with you on the state of the legal position as it is, on the views you expressed in your paper, the truth is that Nigeria’s unity or the unity of any country for that matter cannot be sustained by strong military and security forces centrally controlled. No, we are getting it wrong again. Nigeria’s unity cannot be sustained merely by the constitutional provisions that we know are ineffective. You talked about Federal Character Commission. For example, good idea, good provision of the law as cited by you. However, a state like my state is grossly under represented in all federal establishments in Abuja. The constitutional provisions are there. But these are the very reasons we need that debate to make them more efficient. That is the reason we need that reform. If, despite the strong military might of the former USSR, they could not prevent a collapse of that big empire, whoever says that Nigeria’s unity is dependent on a strong military and security is not telling the truth. Yugoslavia is another example. Of course, the military have their roles to play and it is our duty to encourage, support and build strong defence and security forces for the protection of our territorial integrity but not for intimidation, oppression nor repression of any Nigerian.

21. In the end, Nigeria’s unity and our greatness depends on us Nigerians. Every nation exists out of the sense of solidarity, ideals, identity shared and allegiance freely given by the citizens of that country. Every nation is a product of historical accident, some less arbitrary and more natural than others. This country was not a mistake. even if the British did not create it, some of us who believe so much in Nigeria being the beacon of Africa, if we found good friends like this in sufficient number, could have recreated even a bigger Nigeria. Hence, this country is not a mistake. If a mistake, as most claim, then Africa, the black race and the world needs a huge mistake such as Nigeria to be able to advance the African and black agenda in the world, which is the next frontier. Our duty as Nigerian leaders is to make that ‘mistake’ more perfect. That is what the call for restructuring connotes.

22. Let us therefore challenge ourselves including our very common assumptions and then go to the National Assembly, consult ourselves and see how we can truly create a Nigeria that will last for the next 100 or even 200 years like America. This country can be bigger than every other nation on the face of the earth.

23. My dear friends, in the next 30 to 50 years, Nigeria will be the third most populous nation on the face of the earth. So, can we afford this nation at that time with about 500 million human beings to still be dealing with agitations from within? That is not sustainable. That is not the Nigeria we should hand over to our children and our grandchildren. We have a duty and a responsibility, Mr. President of the Senate and distinguished Senators, and my dear colleagues to create mechanisms for closer interactions and consensus building so as to quickly identify areas of common agreement that can form the basis of a constitutional amendment before our nation is consumed by its contradictions and challenges. Every nation I agree has contradictions and challenges but what makes the critical difference is the response by its leadership.

24. Let us break down the barriers of communication and understanding and let me in this forum propose the following – that Mr. President, who is the leader of this country, be treated with respect and should be accorded the opportunity to operate as our leader. Mr. President has to rise to the occasion on this issue of restructuring. How will he do this? My proposal as I have said before is that the President should convene a meeting of representatives of the Federal Government, the leadership of the National Assembly, the Governors Forum, the speakers of the various State Houses of Assembly that have the role of making amendments to the Constitution, leadership of the leading political parties, traditional rulers, socio-cultural and religious groups, professional and civil society groups and so on. This committee should not be a talk shop, so that we can lock ourselves up and develop common grounds and positions. A starting point will be to look through previous reports.

25. There are things that we all here, irrespective of party affiliations or where we come from, can easily agree on. As the Deputy Senate President and the Distinguised Senators here rightly proposed, let us start gradually. We do not need to amend everything at the same time. American democracy has been there for many centuries yet how many amendments have they done so far? So, let us start with the most basic fundamental constitutional reforms that will make our country more stable and generate the kind of loyalty and confidence that citizens need to have in their nation. That I think is at the core of the restructuring in Nigeria.

26. Finally, the best guarantees for protection of minority right, which you have asked me to speak about, are to be founded on proper constitutional amendments and the amendments of other laws of this country because in the end we should aim at protecting the individuals irrespective of where the person comes from, whether majority or minority. Once we guarantee individual rights, property, political, economic, religious and environmental rights, then you have created the basis for a sustainable and egalitarian Nigeria that can stand up as the beacon of Africa. This was exactly what the Henry Willinks Commission set up by the colonial administration to examine the fears of the minorities prior to Nigeria’s independence recommended and did. That is, separate development agency for the Niger Delta as well as the entrenchment of a charter of human rights. But as we have since learnt from 1960 till date, the constitutional safeguards for the protection of minorities as envisaged by the Willinks Commission, which was adopted in the 1960 Constitution, have been eroded by various military decrees, including the decree establishing the present Constitution. So a sustainable mechanism for the protection of minority rights whether in the Niger Delta, as intended in the Willinks Commission, or the protection of minority political, sexual or religious views, be they personal or group, must be founded in a restructured truly federal Nigeria where these rights can be best secured as originally agreed and enshrined in the pre-independence and independence constitutional order. The military interventions from 1966 till date and the various decrees and laws made by military fiat, including expropriatory legislations taking away property rights as in the case of Niger Delta, removal of policing and judicial powers in the federating units and the consequent stifling and over-concentration of powers at the centre has created over the years a progressively unbalanced, unstable and potentially explosive nation. This has been the cause of all agitations.

27. I thank you all for listening and I do hope to work with you and all other well-meaning Nigerians to attempt to recreate a Nigeria that is equitable, egalitarian, democratic, fair and inclusive. God bless you all and may God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

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