By Kenny Ashaka
Senator Abubakar Halilu Girei, Vice-Chairman of the northern socio-cultural group, Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, has launched a virulent attack on Igbo, describing them as naïve. Girei also spoke of President Muhammadu Buhari’s fate in the 2019 presidential poll, concluding that his performance would force Nigerians to beg him to contest. The former Senate Services Committee Chairman in the first Senate of the Fourth Republic said the Igbo are the worst enemies of themselves, adding that all attempts to make late Sen. Chuba Okadigbo to be president in 2007 were scuttled by the political elites in Igbo land. “That was the negotiation. That was our own agreement. It was our own internal agreement. If it had succeeded we would have sustained it. It would have automatically followed because Buhari would have respected that. He stood for it. We stood for it and we would have gotten Chuba to be president by 2007.” Asked why the deal flopped, Girei retorted, “Of course, the south easterners aborted it.” Girei spat fire in this interview branding the call for the restructuring of the country as a gimmick by politicians to scuttle the Buhari administration. He dealt extensively on other national issues. Excerpts:
There seems to be confusion as to Whether President Buhari should contest the 2019 poll or not. The scenario is such that while Atiku is garnering support from some politicians from your zone, the north east with Governor Bindo of Adamawa State and Women Affairs Minister, Aisha Alhassan throwing their weights behind the former vice-president, there are politicians who want the president to contest. On which side of this divide are you?
On the issue you have raised I think I will sum them up as those from the realm of speculation. All these are mere speculations. President Muhammadu Buhari has not declared his intention to contest for the 2019 election yet. Even my neighbour, my political leader in Adamawa, former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, the Wazirin Adamawa, I have not heard from him that he wants to contest the 2019 presidential election. But I have always believed that the time for people to talk about 2019 election is not now. It is mainly only you pressmen that are pushing people around them to go into the realm of speculation.
Mind you, the election is slated February 2019 and we have few months more. There is virtually no time left. By next yea, the polity will be boiling with campaigns…
(Cuts in) We are still in 2017…
In Nigeria, politicians don’t wait for the periods for campaign before showing themselves either directly or through their body language or supporters…
(Cuts in) But you will have to wait for people to declare their intention before talking about them…
Are we not going to have the elections in 2019?
Oh! Certainly yes; but now is the time for governance. We are still expecting performance from those we elected in 2015 and they are trying to discharge themselves equitably based on the mandate we gave them. So let us allow them to concentrate in discharging their mandate.
But it is while discharging their duties based on the mandate given them that northern governors like El-Rufai and another one from the south, Amosun have thrown their weights behind President Buhari. Categorically, El-Rufai said Buhari will contest the 2019 election.
Yes, El-Rufai made the statement because of the press pressure on people like him to speak their minds. El-Rufai spoke his mind; he didn’t say President Buhari told him that he is going to contest. But that is not the issue. The real issue now is: Buhari as president of Nigeria is doing a good job. I don’t want to start enumerating what he has done because they have been enumerated in several publications. Several publications have captured the main essence of what he has been able to do in the last two and a half years. And I am one of those who are a hundred percent satisfied with his performance so far. I am also very sure that if we allow him to continue at the rate he is going, by this time next year we may be able to see a lot of things done that will convince us not even to wait for him to say he will contest the election it is the performance that will make us to compel him like we did before. You know at a point he withdrew from the race. It was people that went and pressurised him to come and contest. By this time next year I have no doubt in my mind that majority of Nigerians will come and beg Buhari to continue or to offer himself again for the 2019 presidential election. But we have not reached that stage yet. Just allow him, please to continue with the good work he is doing.
In other words, you want him to continue because you said he is doing a good work.
That’s what I am saying. By this time next year all the things he has put in place would have matured and would make Nigerians to believe that we have never had it so good and therefore we must ask this man to continue. But let’s wait for that to come. But for now, all I am saying is that I am hundred percent satisfied with his performance and I am encouraging him to continue as he is doing now but paying a little more attention to the political angle because that is the only aspect I think needs to be looked into. For example the party needs to be given more vitality.
What about Atiku? You will not back him? Won’t you be swimming against the tide of your people?
Look Kenny, you are an experienced and seasoned journalist. Do not go into this personal issue. It is not about one individual or the other. I am talking about the country. I am talking about Nigeria. Nigeria has only one president today and this president was given our mandate in 2015 to achieve certain things. To the best of my knowledge the present president has done very well and I am hundred percent satisfied with what he has done so far.
And from what I know he intends to do if he is able to achieve them by this time next year I will be in a better position to even ask Kenny Ashaka to come and help me to canvass support for the president. That is a clear statement.
So the issue is not about one individual or the other. First of all I am an APC man. Secondly, I am a Buhari man. Thirdly, I am a hundred percent Nigerian whose main interest and focus is the benefit of this country and Nigerians.
Distinguished Senator, you believe Nigerians will beg Buhari to come and contest?
That is what I believe if Buhari is able to perform.
That is conditional.
So for now you think he has not performed?
No, for now he has performed creditably well and I am hundred percent satisfied and if he continues like this by next year…you know this thing is time bound. We started from 2015. We are now in 2017. We have up to 2019 to go. By this time next year you will be in a better position to assess. By the time he does three out of four years you will be in a better position to assess him. Also by then several candidates from other parties must have emerged. Out of all these people that have emerged, is there anyone of them who can withstand Buhari even if Buhari’s performance is 60 percent? Before then please allow Buhari to perform. That’s what I am saying.
Will he contest on the platform of APC?
Is there any doubt about that? He is a president elected on the platform of the APC. Why are you asking me?
I am asking you because he once dumped the ANPP to contest in CPC. It is possible he might decide to go on his own again.
I do not think he would have any reason to do that. That is why I said one of the areas I want him to pay particular attention is the political aspect. That political aspect will tidy up whatever issues there are with APC as a political party, with his political structure, his campaign organisation and so on. These issues should be addressed.
Is anything wrong with Buhari’s political arm?
Not that anything is wrong but everything has its time; time for governance and time for politics. We are now about to exit from the time for governance to time for politics. It is when you get there that you will want to assess your political machinery, oil it, service it and then put it back on the road. You don’t do that when you don’t need to do it. For now it is time for governance and he is chasing it effectively.
Some people will say he has not been paying attention to the party that brought him to power.
For long, his party, the APC has not held congress.
Well I don’t know. I am not a member of the executive. I am just a member of the APC and I do not know what challenges the party has. But I can assure you that we are now approaching the time when particular attention should be paid to the platform itself. If in the past there was no need for that I will not be surprised because his mind is occupied by the need to pay attention to governance.
What is the thinking of the North about the IPOB issue? What is the mood like?
To be honest with you, the North feels that the political naivety of the people of the south east has been exposed because I don’t see how people with the intelligence, education, experience and the spread the Igbo have in this country and even beyond could be talking about secession when you own the whole of Nigeria as far as we are concerned.
We stand to be corrected and you are now talking of limiting yourself to the south east you call Biafra. I mean this is the height of political naivety. How I wish the likes of Chuba Okadigbo were alive. With his political sagacity he would have really called the Igbo to order. As the landlord of Nigeria why should you be talking of going back to a small hamlet called Biafra? Honestly this is my opinion and I believe this is the opinion of most people in the North. People that are so blessed throughout the country. Is it not the Igbo that own this country, you think it is the Hausa-Fulani? The Hausa-Fulani don’t own this country. It is the Igbo that own this country. You find them all over this country not as shoe shiners, nail cutters or water hewers. You find them as businessmen making money, owning properties, creating wealth
Some of them will agree with you but would also say the marginalization of the Igbo doesn’t make it look as if they own Nigeria the way you are painting it and…
(Cuts in) They are the ones marginalizing themselves.
Let me tell you. You remember what happened in 2002, 2003? I was in the Senate with Chuba Okadigbo and the others. We came together and then networked with the then APP, negotiated and changed the name of the party from APP to ANPP, negotiated a slot for the vice-presidency to be given to Chuba Okadigbo. It was not Buhari that made Chuba Okadigbo his running mate. Buhari simply accepted it.
It was a negotiated deal between our group, the Chuba Group nationwide and the APP as a political party which chose to change its name from APP to ANPP. They then conceded the vice-presidential slot to us, to Chuba Okadigbo in person which Buhari accepted and endorsed. Buhari also accepted to do only one term of four years only; that is between 2003 and 2007 and then power would have automatically gone to Chuba Okadigbo, an Igbo man from the south east of Nigeria.
But does it follow that once you are a vice-president you automatically become the president once the president vacates the office. We’ve had a scenario in this country where such was not almost going to be the case…
(Cuts in) That was the negotiation. That was our own agreement. It was our own internal agreement. If it had succeeded we would have sustained it. It would have automatically followed because Buhari would have respected that. He stood for it. We stood for it and we would have gotten Chuba to be president by 2007.
So what happened?
Of course, the South easterners aborted it.
I was in it. I was in Oyi in Anambra State in Okadigbo’s village during the election. All the Igbo ganged up against ANPP. They went and negotiated with Obasanjo and voted PDP. In fact, they did not allow Chuba himself to cast his vote in his village. That was what happened. I was there. I was in Oyi village live during the presidential election of 2003. I was not alone. We were about eight former Senators and prominent northerners who went there to support Chuba Okadigbo as our vice-presidential candidate. The south east completely rejected that. That is why we always wonder if these people are really politicians.
But that arrangement may not have been made known to all the Igbo politicians and elites. Was it?
They knew. There were so many prominent Igbo that were part of it. This very Ben Nwabueze, I and Chuba Okadigbo visited his house in Lagos. We were there. His house is not very far from Chuba’s house in Lagos, in Apapa to be precise. I accompanied Chuba. We were there; I and the former NPN National Secretary, Uba Ahmed. I remember very clearly that we visited him as one of the prominent leaders of Igbo to brief him about this arrangement. There was no prominent Igbo man that we didn’t brief about this arrangement. They all knew. So, when we see them girating about this IPOB and other things…my friend, the Igbo as far as I am concerned are the ones dragging us down.
How have the Igbo dragged Nigeria down? Some of them would say it is the North that is behind our lack of advancement in this country.
This is what they keep saying but it is not true. They know the truth. They know it is not true but they keep saying it. They say they are maginalised but they also know they are not marginalized. They know it is the Fulanis that are in the village that are marginalised because the government does not even recognise them at all. You know this. You have lived in the North. What has government done to the Hausa-Fulani in the bush? He doesn’t have an abode. He doesn’t even have a permanent address.
He doesn’t drink public water. He doesn’t enjoy public electricity and public road. What facilities of government does he enjoy? What sort of marginalisation are you talking about? The Igbo know that they are not marginalised. They know. If you are greedy and you want everything for yourself, it is not possible. You cannot get it only for yourself. You must share with others.
Is that the thinking of the North?
What do you mean?
I mean you are accusing them but they are also saying the North has not been fair to them because they have also refused to share power by being in power for too long.
They can think anything, but if I tell you this as a northerner, someone who has been around, who has participated actively in most of these issues I am talking about, I wouldn’t say it as the position of the North because we did not sit in one place to decide these things I spoke about and I am not the spokesman of the North anyway. But as a major northern stakeholder, I can tell you this is an opinion shared by all northerners. It is not a question of we wanted to give them the presidency. They deserved it. This thing is not about I giving you or you giving me.
It is by people coming together to negotiate what they want for themselves. We came together as politicians, members of the National Assembly cutting across the Senate and the House of Representative then.
We set out as politicians with our leader as Okadigbo with political sagacity and arithmetic. We came out with this formula. We sold it to the APP leadership. They agreed. We sat down and negotiated. They gave us vice-presidential slot and changed the name. They gave us ministerial and quite a number of other positions. If we had won the election that arrangement would have been respected by not only the party but also by the presidential candidate and the government.
Do you think they do not deserve it now?
It is not a matter of thinking that they don’t deserve it. It is a matter of them coming back to reality and sitting down to negotiate as it was done before. This thing is not about fight. You don’t go and threaten people with violence thinking they will give you this thing on a platter of gold. It is not like that. It is on the bases of negotiation and understanding. That was how we got to that point. Nobody coerced us; nobody intimidated anybody. We are talking about them being sagacious as Chuba Okadigbo led them with sagacity in the past. Things should be done in the national interest and where you are talking national interest everybody will be negotiating for his own regional, sectional or even personal interest. That is how politics is played all over the world. It is not a question of this one liking my face or not. It is your ability to open up, embrace one another, love one another and discussing frankly and sincerely and then arriving at conclusions that are respected by all. Once they can do it this way they can still get what they want through democratic ways.
Permit me to recall a statement you made some time ago since we are talking about Biafra. You said unless and until the Igbo come out and identify solely with the Federal Government of Nigeria as one united entity I don’t see how the Igbo man will aspire and succeed in being president of Nigeria…
(Cuts in) This is a statement I made long ago not to you.
You quoted me right and I mean it and I stand by it.
You went on to say they cannot be talking of Biafra and be talking of being president. But you have also agreed that not all of them support Biafra. Why are you using the action of a few Igbo to judge over the Igbo race?
I said more than 90 percent don’t support Biafra.
That is the question I am asking. If a few, just about 10 percent are supporting Biafra why can’t they be president of Nigeria?
But it is the elites that constitute the 10 percent.
What makes you think the Igbo have not identified with the Federal Government of Nigeria?
These are the elites that are contesting election. It is the elites that are promoting these divisions. It is the elites that are campaigning for Biafra and they have shown it clearly. Let me take you back. When Kanu was in Kuje Prisons it was Professor Ben Nwabueze, Professor Soludo and one politician that contested for presidency, the one in Lagos; it was three of them that went to Kuje Prisons and visited him along with many Igbo leaders.
That is an endorsement of what Kanu is doing. Two, immediately the court gave Kanu bail it was the Deputy Senate President, the number one political leader in Igbo land along with some Senators, some governors, some members of the House of Representatives of Igbo origin…you can say the whole of Igbo political leaders, the whole of the elites in Igboland went to bail him out and escorted him in a very large convoy to his house. If that is not an endorsement of what Kanu is doing I don’t know what that is.
And nobody will contest for election outside that group. You don’t expect a spare parts dealer in Yola to come and contest election. But they are the ones dying for Nigeria, not these people who have come out openly to endorse Nnamdi Kanu who has established his radio station abusing everybody in this country, demanding that this country be scattered into pieces.