Gyang Bere, Jos
Second Republic Minister and ex-Chairman of Northern Elder’s Forum, Paul Unongo, has said that the 2019 Presidential election was more credible than the one held on June 12, 1993. Unong who was a close ally of the late MKO Abiola premised his argument on the fact that the 2019 presidential election was conducted by civilians and thus provided a window for criticism.
He also maintained that democracy is still evolving in Nigeria, adding that with the population of Northern Nigeria that is almost equal to other parts of the country put together gave the North edge to determine the successor of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2023. Excerpt:
The country is celebrating 20 years of uninterrupted democracy and President Muhammadu Buhari has okayed the adoption of June 12 as Democracy Day, how do you look at this?
Yes, I want to thank you for giving me a chance to express my views on what is happening in Nigeria now. Democracy has so many definitions and let me look at your assumption, I think your assumption is that we have not had military interregnum for 20 continuous years and as far as you are concerned, since civilians have ruled uninterruptedly for 20 years and still counting, you feel that is democracy. But I feel that is not sufficient definition of democracy. There are attributes of democratic system and some of these attributes, we see them in Nigeria: absence of military dictatorship. If that is what you want me to answer, fine. I will say from the time the military stopped intervening in the political process or went through some kind of electoral process, selecting people who became governors uninterruptedly for 20 years; I think it is something new and very good for Nigeria, so I will say that our budding democracy that is completely militarised has survived. Again, it looks as if it is by the grace of the military because the military put down their khaki and picked up our agwada and they are still the ones ruling this country. President Buhari was a Major General, ex-President Obasanjo, the one who started democratic governance by your definition was a four-star General to whom the General Officer Commanding the Biafra Army surrendered. It is a democracy that is a hybrid or a child that was given birth to by the military to create a situation whereby they will now convert themselves into civilians and some of them may be very good, but at the intellectual level, I have not accepted that we are a democratic country because too many things are still happening.
You mean that Nigeria is not yet a democratic nation because it is retired military officers that are ruling the country?
Sure, it is. I see people killed for their beliefs, I see military people ruling when courts judgment are given, starting from Obasanjo. A democratic government is a government that is anchored by the rule of law and when a judgment is given by the court, if you don’t like the judgment, you go to the higher court and you can file it up to the Supreme Court. In our case, people who are democratic presidents, if they don’t like a judgment, they just ignore it, and I was very shocked that even in this dispensation that we think Buhari has tried, court judgments are ignored up till today. Take, for instance, the former Governor of Imo State, we don’t know why he won election, according to INEC, and certificate of return was not issued to him.
But he has been issued the certificate of return now?
Yes, it has been issued to him after he struggled, that was too primitive, dictatorial, we cannot have a democratic system that defiles the rule of law, it is the rule of law that defines a democratic system. So, if you say we are in a budding democracy, I will say yes, we have a lot to celebrate because the military ruled by draconian laws. General Buhari who is the President of Nigeria today was executing people who took drugs, if you took hemp or something like that then you will be shot.
What time was that or do you mean under his present administration?
My goodness, he was a military dictator in Nigeria. He ruled Nigeria when he kicked out Shehu Shagari, a civilian president and became Head of State of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He introduced war against indiscipline, he introduced people falling into line, but he introduced terror, if you smoke Indian hemp you will be shot, that was strange. So, by and large, that tendency is in all military rulers when they become president in civilian administration. The experience of Nigeria is that all of them, anytime they have serious crisis, they try to revert to dictatorship. Obasanjo did the same, courts ruled on local government and monitoring affairs in Lagos State, he ignored them, he just went ahead and did what he wanted. So, the agwada civilian dominated system by past military rulers is more preferred than the draconian laws we had during brutal military regime. Secondly, we now go through a very difficult electoral system that indicates that the Nigerian people have a voice. People compete, even if the government or people that are in government use government facilities to frustrate the people that are not in government, at least they submit themselves to competition and the people submit themselves to routine voting whether they buy their votes because they are too poor, whether they scare them and take away their votes, at least they go through the routine of exercising their franchise and the will of the sovereignty of the people of Nigeria in that case is determined by who is elected and who is not elected. To that extent, we have a lot to celebrate.
Will you say the 2019 election that brought Buhari for the second term was credible?
The 2019 election was more credible than the 1993 election because it was organised by civilians and a civilianized General who does not have tons of money. It is the people again that rose for Gen. Buhari in his first coming, we are the people who worked for him, we had no money. I am one of the people that travelled to the United States to convince America that the best candidate we have is Buhari, for reasons I gave and I had it in writing. I went to the Congress, that was in 2015. I was with Buhari when another candidate was chosen by the opposition party and I had already predicted, if you remember, that if Nigerians allow the election to be between that candidate and Gen. Buhari that anytime, Buhari will win.
Which candidate are you referring to?
The candidate that stood against him during the 2019 election, Atiku Abubakar. I said it in good faith and I gave reasons because that was the perception of the large constituents of the North. The poor people in the North look at Buhari as belonging to their constituency and 80 per cent of the people in the North are poor; they would vote for Buhari any time any day. He was really worshipped by the ordinary people, so within this contest, the election was freer than June 12 of 1993. But there is a significant thing that I support; the activities of President Buhari and Nigeria National Assembly in recognizing that a very serious event took place in Nigeria on June 12 and that June 12 should be immortalised and Nigeria should be remembered by June 12.
You talked so much about the credibility of the 2019 general elections, most people voted Buhari because he is a retired military officer and because Nigeria was in a very bad shape, killings were everywhere, but as we speak today people are still being killed in hundreds, yet nothing has been done, will you say he has performed?
Wonderful, are you sure you are in the North? There was a force and credible alternative organization that contested with the federation, it has started forcefully to annex parts of the territory of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, administering it and putting their own type of laws in the areas that it captured and Nigeria was unable to push these persons away, that organisation is called Boko Haram. It took more than 17 local government areas, and administered them and contested for Nigerian land as an authority before Buhari took over. There are some places in Yobe, Adamawa and Borno states, they captured and put their own administration, they were collecting payment and administering their own laws. But during President Muhammadu Buhari administration, he kept faith with the Nigerian system and said I will give these people a fight, I will degrade them, they will not be a force that will contest for Nigeria’s territory, that was what he said. He also said I will tackle this menace of corruption and I am going to make it practical, I will catch people and make them to vomit the money they stole, he didn’t say he will finish it in one day. Then, the economy that was in bad shape, it was going to crash, I will take it and push it up, we are not going to crash. We will deal with looters and I will get the money back, I will seize their property and in the whole history of this country, no administration has ever caught people and made them to bring back hundreds of millions of dollars and billions of naira. So, for somebody who has been here for the past four years, come to ask has Buhari succeeded, it is incredible, did the problems go away, no. But, could he has done better, yes, but he has achieved what nobody has ever achieved as president. The verdict I am giving Nigerians is that they acted properly when they re-elected Buhari for a second tenure because he has delivered on the promise he made, no territory of Nigeria is contested for by any force, including Boko Haram, he kicked them out, he took back the Sambisa forest, all the local governments they were running and occupying, he sacked them. So, Buhari has achieved something, but we can achieve more.
Nigeria has a new National Assembly leadership, are you expecting anything good from them more than the 8th Assembly that was adjudged to have been the best on bills presentation?
Why do we have to compare them with the 8th Assembly? You should have asked me whether they are likely going to perform better or can they perform their functions creditably. The only thing that compromises them was the insistence of the leadership of the political party that nobody else should be chosen except the present leaders, that was why I told you that we don’t have a democracy, because in a democratic set up nobody can say that, you can say that within your party, but you don’t make it public. You should tell your people to remember that it will be easier for us at the executive level if we have the people we trust in the leadership, it will be easier for us and we trust this man and the others, help us. The man has already won the election as president of Nigeria and not president of APC. Woo PDP to vote for the person you like quietly and allow the democratic process to be seen in the public, tell them to vote for any man they liked and then tell your people who you wanted; the person will still win, but to go out to announce and swear that we in the APC have won the election, so that man must be the Senate President is ridiculous.
Does this suggest that the country will likely have a rubber stamp National Assembly?
No, we will not because I know the Speaker, like the person selected for Nigeria’s political balancing from the West, he is a person with tremendous experience. Since the administration started, he has been to almost all the Assemblies and he was always within the leadership. The man has been in the house for long and he has been chairman of committees, he was always working with them, he has picked up enough experience and by disposition he is truly a social democrat, he is a good party man.
Nigerians have started clamouring for the Presidency ahead of 2023, will it be morally right for the North to contest the Presidency after Buhari’s eight years in office?
Yes, it will be morally right, that was why I told you that we are practicing budding and evolving democratic system and issues of primordial concern still exist. There was a president in the United States called Gorge Bush, his son became President of Unites State also and up to now, we have not finished with the Bushs, one of his sons was also a governor at the time, the brother was a president. This feeling that let’s choose people based on their competence, their eloquence of delivery, their capacity to convince us that they will represent and deliver on our peculiar interest should be the determining factors, not based on ethnicity, tribe and blood relationship. Eventually, Nigeria will grow to that, but for now, the North will give the leadership because they have an overwhelming population if they keep the unity of the North intact. I am from the Middle Belt and I fought the hegemony of the far North. We wanted to have our own Middle Belt region and we fought and went to the constitutional conference with the like of Patrick Dokatry, myself and the late Joseph Tarka, I was the secretary and we insisted that they should create the Middle Belt state and grant it independence, but Nigeria was too concerned about protecting what they will look at as estate and the Middle Belt never came, but Gowon came to power and many regions came from the Middle Belt, we had the Benue-Plateau state, we had Adamawa and Taraba as their own states….If you have satisfied the West, you have to satisfy the East and the North, the North is bigger than all the others put together. The challenge for the Northerners is that they have the ingredients to quicken the face and practice of democratization in Nigeria because northerners are not greedy and they don’t insist, they believe that whatever happens is the will of Allah and that only Allah gives leadership.