Noah Ebije, Kaduna
Mr Anthony Sani is the immediate past Secretary General of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF).
He was also the Forum’s national publicity secretary and spokesman of Northern Delegates in the 2014 Confab.
He is currently a member of the Advisory Council of Sir Ahmadu Bello Memorial Foundation, as well as member of Northern Media Forum.
In this interview with Sunday Sun, Sani said that the apex Igbo socio-cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo is giving Almajirai bad name in order to hang them, pointing out that not every northern boy found in the East is an Almajiri.
The former ACF scribe also spoke on other national issues. Excerpts:
You left office as ACF Secretary General about three months ago. How has life been with you?
I handed over as Secretary General of ACF on 23/3/2020 just about a month after the report of Coronavirus index case in Nigeria. This then was followed by President’s Buhari’s lock down in Lagos and Ogun states, as well as in FCT, which took place at end of March and since then had been mimicked by variegated lock downs and restrictions across many states of Nigeria. As a result, I never got any opportunity to consider my next engagements after handing over. So, what has been occupying my time as I observe the order of stay at home has been to respond to questions by reporters on issues of national importance. I do so mostly through emails or WhatsApp, which have helped humanity in no small measures to overcome time and distance. You would note that the post of Secretary General of ACF does not attract any form of emolument. This is precisely because it is voluntary and expected to be occupied by only public-spirited individuals committed to the promotion of one united North, a society that is expected to be socially diverse, economically empowered and politically active. I am still a member of the National Working Committee and member of NEC, which provide opportunity for me to still make contributions for the improvement of the forum in whatever ways I can. I am also a member of the Advisory Council of the Sir Ahmadu Bello Memorial Foundation, which seeks to promote the legacies of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, by way of leadership qualities and values, which the premier lived and died for. The Emir does not need tombstone to remind us of his legacies and all that is needed is for northerners to avoid inflaming our worst instincts in whatever form and live up such legacies. We have been having the council meetings and summit in the foundation through virtual video even as we observe the letter and spirit of the lock downs in our respective homes. So, life has not changed substantially as a result of my leaving the post of Sec-Gen of ACF except perhaps the advent of the “new normal” foisted by lock downs and restrictions in the hope of curbing the spread of COVID-19.
As soon as you left office, coincidentally Nigeria and the entire world locked down due to Coronavirus. How do you assess the management of the case by Nigerian government?
There were initial mistakes by the governments largely because nobody thought the pandemic would be that serious. Otherwise, the governments would have effected uniform lock downs and restrictions across the nation, as well as closing of our borders and banning of flights as soon as the index case was confirmed on 27/2/2020. This would have been followed by screening of all arrivals from foreign trips. This was not done in good time. That is why many infected people brought the virus and spread it in the country. The governments have since realized their mistakes and have instituted lock downs and restrictions in order to combat the spread of the COVID-19. But because of the poor level of compliance due to some misgivings and denials by some ignorant Nigerians and lack of uniformity and consistency in lock downs and restrictions in accordance with guidelines on social distancing, the numbers of confirmed cases have not revealed discernible trends or definite shape for informed approaches in containment and mitigation. The governments have not helped matters by recent introduction of phased relaxations of lock downs and restrictions for gradual reopening of economic activities amid increase in number of confirmed cases that can lead to rebounds and crises that can overcome the infrastructure of health, testing and tracking capacities, as well as isolation. Lock downs and restrictions world over are aimed at ebbing the tides of the COVID-19 in the hope of reducing the spread and buy time needed for putting up infrastructure of health facilities, enough of testing and contact tracing facilities and isolation, preparatory to loosening up economic activities and be fully prepared for any worse case scenario that can bring about pains and sufferings from unbridled deaths, overwhelming of health facilities and slow down the economy the more due to any increase interactions. The lack of uniformity and consistency among FG and state governments have been responsible for the apparent differences between some state governments which talk of reopening churches and the mosques and by the Sultan. It is also responsible for the difference between the PTF and state governors who have been returning Almajirai to their state of origin at a time when there are increase in number of confirmed cases and ban on inter-state travels in place. I understand the topsy-turvy being observed is due to pressures from the needs of the poor who live from hand to mouth. That is to say, the imperative for preserving livelihoods amid the imperative of saving lives. But in the absence of vaccine or cure, the need to save lives through lock downs and restrictions cannot go hand-in-hand with the desire to preserve livelihoods amid increase in number of confirmed cases. Saving lives from COVID-19 and preserving livelihoods can go on concurrently only if there are enough infrastructure of health, testing, contact tracing and isolation facilities in place.
Nigeria should know that only those who are alive can talk of livelihoods and pains from poverty. It is also important to learn from what have happened to countries which loosened restrictions for opening up too early against advice by experts, and take calculated risk. No sacrifices are too much for saving lives. Let governments and all Nigerians come together and unleash their synergistic potentials against the common enemy which knows no class, no status, no religion and no ethnicity.
Following repatriation of Almajirai from different parts of the North to their respective states of origin, many of them contracted the Coronavirus, resulting to outright rejection of them from other regions, particularly the Eastern region. What is your advice here as to the rejection of these Almajirai?
My understanding of Almajirai in Nigeria is a system of Koranic schools where under-aged boys leave their parents and stay with the teachers, sometimes outside their states. It has been observed that because of poor organization and lack of interest by the parents and authorities, these snot-nosed children are left on their own without any parental care. There have been calls by northern leaders, including the Sultan, for the banning of the Almajiri system in favour of modern education. More so, that the mendicant way of life during the sojourn with the teachers tend to rob them of sense of dignity. As a result, many of them have grown up to be cannon fodders for dastard acts of insurgence, banditry, kidnappers, armed robbers and herdsmen/farmers saga. It was against this backdrop that the Northern states governors decided this time around to pay attention to the very concept of Almajiri with resolution to return Almajirai to their states of origin for their states and parents to take care of them by sending them to modern schools where students from different backgrounds can learn. That was a good development except for the timing, which was not appropriate because of lock downs and restrictions and current ban on inter-state travels. And so, when some Southeast states say Almajirai are being sent to their their states, I wonder the basis. This is because all northern governors know that no Almajiri being returned has a state in Southeast as their state of origin. I am, therefore, not sure all those people being talked about are Almajirai being transported. It may well be that they are people seeking for greener pasture in Southeast just as many people from South, especially from Southeast have come to the North in search of greener pasture. Most of them have settled and invested in the North. Yet we cannot say some of them have become kidnappers, armed robbers etc, in the North, considering every society has its own share of bad eggs. For Ohanaeze to consider anybody going to their land as an Almajirai sponsored by some northerners to cause trouble in the Southeast amounts to crossing the fiduciary mark, and is most unfair. We should stop giving ethnic, religious and regional profiling to all actions under the sun lest we provide criminals platforms upon which to stand and perpetrate crimes. Let us see crimes for what it is, and treat criminals for what they are.
Apart from the fear that the Almajirai are potential carriers of the Coronavirus, some people are also saying that Almajirai do not make any economic contributions to the society, hence the liability to keep them. What is your reaction to this?
That Almajirai have become liability to themselves and to society is obvious. But the solution cannot be to dismiss them. I recall President Bush once said that some leaders tend to use poverty as weapons of mass destruction because of the belief that poverty is directed at the heart of freedom. Former President Clinton retorted by saying the same poverty can be gunpowder keg waiting for ignition by indifference of leaders. Like joke, like play, we saw that playing out in Nigeria when the poor became cannon fodders to Boko Haram, kidnappers, banditry etc. As a result, the ensuing insecurity spared no ethnicity, religion, state, zone and no region. Let us know that Nigeria is a big river being fed by tributaries. And when one or more of the tributaries is poisoned, the whole river is contaminated. Look at how COVID-19 has known no tribe, religion and region, as well as has not differentiated the rich from the poor. Today, both the rich and the poor are in the same Nigeria being ravaged by COVID-19. They never knew time would come that they would not go for holidays in foreign lands, they would not seek medical treatment offshore and would not be able to send their wards to schools in foreign lands. It has taken Coronavirus to let Nigerians internalize what General Muhammadu Buhari said in 1984 that we do not have any other country, but Nigeria. We must stay and salvage together. Put in another words, trees which refuse to dance are often forced to do so by very strong winds which are here.
Many Nigerians have so far expressed the fear that the lockdown has destroyed the nation’s economy. How do you think Nigeria can recover from this economic crisis?
Lock downs and restrictions have stifled demands and supplies across the globe, leading the world economy to come to a stand still. Hence the dramatic collapse of price of oil from over $60 to now below $20. Nigeria cannot be an exception, since Nigeria is a microcosm within the economic microcosm. As long as there are no demands and supplies both of which constitute any economy and no activities, it would be difficult to revamp the economy amid increase of confirmed cases that require restrictions. Let us set the priority and do first thing first by applying uniform and consistent restrictions needed to tame the tides of COVID-19 before we can talk of loosening restrictions in favour of opening up the economy.
Is total lockdown still the solution to COVID-19?
In the absence of cure and vaccine for COVID-19, and given the fact that the only means of stymying the spread of the COVID-19 and buy time needed for preparations that are required for well informed methods of containment and mitigation that comes with strict observations of social distancing and restrictions, and given the fact that until everybody is free, nobody is truly free of COVID-19, total national lock downs for about 14 days seems about the only option left in order for COVID-19 to manifest in all infected persons. This will buy time needed for preparations that can manage the gradual opening ups of the economy. I say this because no gradual opening up of the economy amid increase in number of confirmed cases has worked anywhere.
What is your comment on the appointment of Prof Ibrahim Gambari as the Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari?
I have said elsewhere that there is nothing exotic or quixotic about appointment of Prof Ibrahim Gambari who is eminently qualified by way of educational attainment, his bureaucratic experiences, by exposures nationally and internationally, as well as his closeness to President Buhari under whom the Professor served from 1984 to 1985. This position of Chief of Staff is personal staff of a sort for a person whom the president has no doubt about his personal loyalty, diligence and commitment to not only the person of the president, but also to the constitution and the country. And because he manages the president’s schedules and policies, he has to know not only the president but also the polity and about good governance as an art of balancing competing demands among not only constituent parts but also among socio-economic sectors.