Chairman, Northern Elders Forum, Professor Ango Abdullahi, has criticized the recent celebration of June 12 as Democracy Day. He described the event as an act of hypocrisy and political opportunism by some few who claim to be democrats. In this interview with ABDULLAHI HASSAN, he spoke on various issues including the security challenge facing the country.
How will you react to recent celebrations of June 12 as Democracy Day in Nigeria?
Let me go back to my previous interview with you last year when the Federal Government officially declared and recognized June 12 as Democracy Day instead of May 29 that we had been having, especially during Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan. My immediate reaction still remains that the adoption of June 12 as the new Democracy Day is purely and simply a political opportunity by this administration because of it’s timing in terms of the history of June 12 debate which has gone on now for over 20 years. Everyone will see it as an instrument of campaign by the ruling party as we were heading toward the 2019 elections.
Various actors have been giving different accounts of what happened before, during and after June 12. Can you share your own knowledge about what transpired?
I think some people who know or who should know, should speak the truth about June 12, its antecedents and events surrounding it. I will say it’s fortunate that I was fully involved in all stages that eventually brought us to June 12 and indeed after June 12 elections. One, I am an insider and a strong witness to the June 12 saga. I held several positions including Chairman, Northern Campaign Committee that led to the victory of Chief M.K.O. Abiola after Jos Convention. Let us go back to the Second Republic first. The military held a transition programme, which brought about the Second Republic. The three principal actors were Gen. Murtala Mohammed, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo and Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. Murtala died, Obasanjo succeeded him as Head of State, with Shehu Musa Yar’Adua as his deputy and Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. They were the ones who designed the transition programme for the return of civil rule in Nigeria in 1979 and kept it firmly which eventually led to the handing over of power to the elected civilian government in 1979. So, who were the political players during the military transition of 1979 elections? It is necessary for us to bring this out so that we can really understand who were the players that eventually led to the handing over of power to the Shagari administration. The principal players were Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was the leader of UPN and one of the leaders of the progressive politics especially in western Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe who led the NPP whose origin was in the NCNC, Malam Aminu Kano who led PRP whose origin was NEPU and Alhaji Shehu Shagari who was the actor in the NPN. These were the major actors in the 1979 election. These were the players and when you look into the formations, UPN, NPN, NPP, PRP or even GNPP led by Waziri Ibrahim, you can begin to identify who was who.
The NPN eventually became the dominant party, and won the 1979 elections, while Awolowo was the leader of UPN, which at the end of the day, emerged as a strong contender in terms of votes spread in all 19 states. If you take the South West where Chief Awolowo was the dominant force, then you can mention MKO Abiola at that point. Who was M.K.O during the transition period of 1979? Chief Abiola was the Principal of NPN, a chieftain of the party. In fact, he was the one who led the fight for NPN in Western Nigeria, not only by using his enormous wealth but he also opened and established a media house called Concord Press. So, you can see that when you are talking about progressives by Chief Awolowo, you cannot count M.K.O. Abiola as belonging to that class. So, to a large extent, when you are talking of the kind of democracy, pursued by Awolowo and others, Abiola did not belong. He belonged to what we called conservative division or class.
So, we ended up with Shagari as president despite court cases and so on and all the time, Shagari had been together with M.K.O. Abiola as a chieftain. In fact, between 1980 and 1983, Abiola was at the forefront in trying to get the ticket for the president in 1983 elections. Of course, this was denied during the Kano Convention by the real operators around Shagari like Umaru Dikko and others. They edged out Abiola’s ambition for the presidency and of course, if there was any Southern candidate for the president after Shagari according to their plan, certainly, it will not be Abiola but Alex Ekwueme who was then the vice president to Shagari. This is what transpired in terms of stability of the Shagari government and hostility between the opposition and ruling party which led to the coup of 1983/1984 led by Muhammadu Buhari, at that time. And from that time on, we started a new chapter in the Nigerian politics up to 1999. One may mention here that the transition of aspiration for Nigeria to move out from military rule to civil rule was the handwork of Gen. Murtala Mohammed, Obasanjo and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. Murtala died early, Obasanjo took over with Shehu Yar’Adua as his deputy. They were the ones who followed the democratic timetable to its conclusion up to the election. So, I can’t see why Obasanjo’s role cannot be appreciated in his effort to bring democracy and civil rule in Nigeria during his tenure as Head of State as well as Shehu Musa Yar’Adua who helped him a lot to handover government to Shagari. By then, if Obasanjo had become partial, he would have given the power to Awolowo as expected by his ethnic group or helped him in any way to become president in 1979. I think if there is any accusation or offence committed by Obasanjo to his ethnic group, it would not be more than this. But the Yoruba who criticize Obasanjo have forgotten the role played by MKO in defeating Chief Awolowo during the 1979 presidential elections under NPN. The critics should have remembered all these. They should also appreciate that it was Murtala, Obasanjo and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua that instituted that there should be an early return to civil rule.
In fact, it was their action that toppled Gen. Gowon’s administration after Gowon changed the handing over date to civil rule from 1975 to another date, which consequently, triggered off the 1975 coup. These three Generals were the military democrats; so the coup of 1983 came up with Buhari taking over power, though he did not announce any handover date or transition period, up to the time his colleagues kicked him out of office which was another transition initiated by the Babangida administration. He ruled for eight and half years. It was a transition arrangement which Nigerians feared would not be translated into another civil rule. It was during the transition period, that we tried and fit into another transition programme, which we can put June 12 into that started with Babangida administration. It started with organizing a constitutional conference demanding that the country should look at its constitution and see whether there were areas that needed some changes or amendments. It was introduced as a preparation for civil rule. I attended that conference in 1987 which lasted till 1988. Soon after the constitutional conference, ban on political activities was lifted and people were encouraged to form political associations, which eventually could be registered as political parties to contest elections. Our group, led by late Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, called Peoples Front of Nigeria (PFN) was among the strong political associations formed by progressive politicians.
The progressives from western Nigeria formed an association called People Solidary Party (PSP), and principal players in that group are Chief Lateef Jakande, Olu Falae, Abubakar Rimi, and others. In fact, I was the first National Chairman of People Front of Nigeria (PFN) with Titi Ajanaku as National Secretary. We formed these parties on certain conditions which must be satisfied by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) before these associations were registered as political parties. We did all that were required and satisfied the minimum requirements to be registered as political party. At the end of the day, after all these were done, none of the political associations was registered as political party. The military government of Gen. Babangida then decided to lift the ban on political activities and created their own political parties – the Social Democratic Party (SDP) which they described as a party with ideology of little bit to the left and the National Republican Convention (NRC) which they described as a little bit to the right. So by their imagination, the SDP becomes a party of the progressives and NRC for conservatives. So, my group decided to join SDP. While our friends, the progressives in PSP from South West ,also embraced SDP. Thereafter, the struggle for control started, eventually members of PFN took over SDP. We installed Babagana Kingibe as National Chairman after defeating Alhaji Arzika Tambuwal in the convention. My group virtually took all the positions. That is how the actual struggle started and the issue of who was going to control what during the elections at the national or state level began. Gen. Shehu Musa Yar‘Adua did not want to contest in the elections as a President, but we forced him to do so. We told our team players that we shall play in accordance to the principle of members of the team. He reluctantly accepted to run for presidency, while we all agreed that some of us will run in our various states. I can remember I ran in Kaduna State as a presidential flag bearer and gubernatorial candidate, Atiku Abubakar ran in Adamawa, Sergeant Awuse ran in Rivers State, Yomi Adebo contested in Lagos, Titi Ajanaku contested in Ogun State and so on. Umaru Yar’Adua, younger brother to Shehu ran in Katsina State. The elections came, in fact, before elections, many of Shehu Yar’Adua’s supporters had been disqualified to contest in some offices. Those who suffered disqualification include Sergeant Awuse while some of us continued to run. In my own case, I won the gubernatorial election in Kaduna State, under SDP but that was not allowed by the military. So, Shehu Yar’Adua went for presidential primary election which was what translated into the entire June 12 elections saga. Shehu Yar’Adua ran his primaries under option A-4 which was then the rule. He won his election hands down at first round. He defeated all those who were running like Lateef Jakande, Olu Falae, and quite a number of others. In fact, what happened at that time was the beginning of June 12 hypocrisy as seen in the story of June 12 election.
When Yar’Adua’s primary elections were annulled and even those who could not conclude their own like Adamu Ciroma and Umaru Shinkafi of NRC who will run against Shehu Yar’Adua at the secondary election, everything was stopped, all the principal players were banned from subsequent participation in political elections. The election was annulled and it was described by both national and international observers as free and fair. But from our investigations, some people who are calling themselves democrats from within our party especially those who lost out in the primaries, went behind to encourage the military to annul the primaries on the allegations that money was used. These people are now claiming to be democrats and June 12 agitators. I thought if they want to fight for democracy under June 12, they would have fought for democracy at that time instead of bringing the military to disrupt the transition arrangement. These people were encouraged and happy to see his victory upturned. Now when his victory was upturned and political activities withheld, we sat together and asked ourselves, what next? We resolved that the struggle should continue because we wanted democracy in this country. Shehu Yar’Adua said that we should not bother because his primary election was annulled; it does not mean we should stop, we should carry on; with him or without him, the struggle in restoring democratic rule in the country should be sustained.
Why has Shehu Yar’Adua been ignored in the history of June 12, knowing his role in the activities that culminated in Abiola’s victory in the controversial election?
In fact, to me the architect of democratic struggle in Nigeria after 1979, is Shehu Musa Yar’Adua; nobody can be described as commander for democracy more than Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. So, one can understand perhaps why he was denied victory during his primaries after winning hands down; the government banned him from active participation in politics and eventually arrested him and put him away up to his death in prison. So, it is really curious that among people who struggled and sacrificed for democracy in this country, Shehu Yar’Adua’s name has not featured among those that claimed to be fighters of Nigerian democracy. This is hypocritical; in fact to me, after Shehu Yar’Adua’s struggle, Obasanjo comes next. Obasanjo is a democrat, no doubt about it. He refused to annul or tamper with the 1979 elections which were considered to be free and fair and produced Shehu Shagari as president. To my mind, it is a hypocrisy for people to talk of people who struggle for democracy or fathers of June 12 without Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. If you removed founders of Nigerian democracy, like Sir Ahmadu Bello, Awolowo, Tafawa Balewa, Dr. Azikiwe, Malam Aminu Kano and others, nobody has done much than Shehu Yar’Adua. All those noise on June 12 and democracy struggle remain hypocritical unless proper recognition is given to Shehu Musa Yar’Adua.
Do you think President Buhari did not know the role of Shehu Yar’Adua in the democratic struggle?
A military General who sacrificed his life to save the entire country from military rule for more than almost three decades! If Shehu wanted to come out from prison, he would have done so because what Abacha wanted him to do was to forget about democracy and June 12 and keep mute over Nigerian politics. He refused and said he would remain with the truth. While in prison, Shehu Yar’Adua wrote a letter to his children and told them that he preferred to die with honour than to die with money. So, how many Generals did that? Though I am not a spokesman of Buhari, but people should ask him what happened that he neglected his closest childhood friend and a well known democrat in Nigeria, Shehu Yar’Adua. That is why I told you that I suspected Babagana Kingibe, who had betrayed Shehu Yar’Adua long time ago. Since the struggle started and was compromised by joining Abacha’s government, I strongly believed it is deliberate they don’t want to recognize Shehu Yar’Adua’s role. We shall come up with documented facts about Shehu Musa Yar’Adua’s role in restoring democracy in Nigeria.
Northern Nigeria has been facing serious insecurity more than any part in Nigeria; there are cases of Boko Haram, armed banditry, cattle rustling and kidnapping. You are the Chairman of Northern Elders, what is your take on this situation?
I made a comment recently; in fact, I called a press conference, and the topic was on insecurity in the country. What worries the North or the country five years ago was Boko Haram. But Boko Haram is still there and it has picked up its mention only days ago. So many people were killed under other versions of insecurity all over the country, from the so-called Fulani headman clashes, to cattle rustling, kidnapping, banditry, cultism and so on, of course. There is nothing serious or big coming from the authority; what you only hear are lamentations by government. This is what you hear everyday, but the fact that there is this comment, it does not change the narrative of banditry and armed robbery. People cannot move freely from Kaduna to Abuja or Zaria to Sokoto; people are afraid to move and making a journey is a problem. This is the rainy season; many farmers abandoned their farms because of fear of attack from kidnappers, especially between Katsina and Zamfara State. It is true that the country is really in a difficult situation in terms of security and nothing is going very well in the area of the socio-economic development of the country. This is the major problem; we drew attention to this situation in my interview, because people were quiet, so we have opened up the discussion that security is the major problem, especially in the North.
Governors are divided over the issue of the establishment of state police. Do you think having state police will solve the problem of the persistent insecurity in the North?
To my mind, the state governments as they are, are helpless. They have no army, no police, they depend only on vigilance groups in township and villages without guarantee for security at all. This is because nobody is sure who are the criminals and the innocent. The vigilance groups constitute insecurity themselves. They use it as an official opportunity to carry out all sorts of criminal activities. That is why you see most vigilance people engage in extra-judicial execution of people.
Four weeks after inauguration of President Buhari’s second term, he is yet to name his cabinet. How long can Nigerians wait after the experience of his first tenure?
This question should be directed to Buhari; he is the President. He should know how to organize his government and the general practice around the world as you know is that the day someone is declared a winner of an election, the following day, he announces his appointments as cabinet ministers and other various responsibilities of course. The last time, it took six months but we are only four weeks now, let’s wait and see how it will go. My position as Ango Abdullahi has been there long ago. These have been the general failures of the Buhari administration in the last four years, and based on that, I thought the President did not deserve re-election and we made this declaration along with other elders from the Southern part of the country. To me, the current situation in the country is a repetition of failure.
Still related to security, there have been mixed reactions over retention of service chiefs by the President. What is your opinion on this?
You see, if you work at the totality of government operations, security issues cannot operate in isolation of society. We have not seen one minister fired or permanent secretary sacked. The system he inherited and has been complaining about, is the same he is operating and everybody is still where he is. If you look at the structure, the first thing you should do away with is his security chiefs although he called his ministers as noisemakers in an interview he granted in Europe. Perhaps that contributed to what led to six months delay in 2015. I think this is what is happening now, replacing noisemakers with noisemakers.