I have one vote. My one vote will go towards finding a replacement. Nigerians will decide whether somebody else will be the president.
Outspoken Chairman of the Northern Elders Forum, Prof Ango Abdullahi has opened up on why the North is searching for a strong candidate that can replace President Muhammadu Buhari in the 2019 elections. He also expressed support for the Igbo clamouring for a state of Biafra, saying the region free to go if it is their aspiration. He spoke further on these and other national issues in this interview conducted by KENNY ASHAKA.
How do you assess the APC led federal government, now that it is almost running out its first tenure and wants re-election?
To me, the First Republic leaders were far more accountable to the people in terms of commitment to the people and managing public resources than what has happened subsequently over the years. In fact, what we have seen happening subsequently over the years is a complete decline of that. When recently I was giving marks to regimes that have passed, I gave our first generation leaders that took us to independence A+. The next government that stayed very long was Gowon’s government. I gave him A. From there my marks as a teacher and you know that I was a teacher, I should be able to mark scripts of students. Their marks continued to decline up till today when the mark is F. So, coming to the issues that this government campaigned on, the three major issues you talked about, security, economy and corruption. Now on the security, the reference material most of the time is Boko Haram. It was the dominant issue of national security and of course the government that they replaced, I was one of the critics of the Jonathan administration particularly in the area of Boko Haram insurgency. We wrote documents to the government making suggestions on how to deal with the issue of Boko Haram insurgency. We delivered it and he was very happy when eventually that led to the Dialogue Committee that was set up between the insurgents and the government. Of course, for one reason or the other they allowed that to breakdown. So, Buhari came at the high point of Boko Haram insurgency, no doubt and I accept that there is some significant degradation of the Boko Haram ability to engage our military to the extent of taking quite a chunk of the Nigerian territory and hoisting their flags and taking charge of those areas. I think the military under Buhari has been able to recover most of the territories that were literally taken over by Boko Haram. But that doesn’t translate to mean that Boko Haram has been defeated. It is my contention that Boko Haram has not been defeated yet. But the effort to degrade it has been reasonable. But the insurgency continues. It is quite significant even now. Suicide attacks are rampant. Only recently they overran an Army post made up of almost a Battalion even though government did not confirm this. But there are considerable insurgence activities in the North East. There is no doubt about this. So there it is in terms of that aspect; partial success in the area of Boko Haram. And now we have run into a new territory of insecurity. The herdsmen/farmers clash; whether this is genuine or it has been instigated or created by politicians or whoever. But we have serious insecurity on that front. So many people are being killed in the name of herdsmen/farmers clash. There is no doubt that this is a major security challenge that we have and unfortunately one can say without too much regret that the government has not succeeded in dealing with the matter the way they should to ensure that this relationship that has gone on for centuries be allowed just for few years to degenerate into a war between communities that have coexisted for centuries. I sometimes, as a Fulani man, ask myself what happened? Some of my relations are still in the bush with cows and their lifestyle has remained as it is. I know the country has expanded in terms of population, demand for land to farm and grazing areas. But I was talking about poor agricultural productivity and saying the country today is cultivating only 35 percent of its arable land. The remaining 65 percent is not under cultivation.
In other words, you are saying they have failed in terms of growing the economy.
They have failed. You just give me one reason why they have not failed. The currency is a failure. The import/export relationship is a failure as far as I am concerned. They talked about foreign reserve for example. But foreign reserve in a country…a country is not a business enterprise for profit and loss. That is why you do not want Accountants as your Governors of the Central Bank. You want Economists. A country is not where you sit down for Annual General Meeting or Board of Directors for the management to report your profit or loss. Your profit is how well the people of Nigeria are. How well are they? Their wellbeing is your profit. But where is the wellbeing of Nigerians today? Where? Where is it? I am asking you. You are a journalist. Okay, if you won’t answer me, this is my observation. The Nigerian of 1960 in my view because I was 20 years old in 1960, is a much happier person than a Nigerian of today. Mind you I am not saying we should blame all the woes on this government. Nevertheless, when this government was coming, those who were hoping that they would be leaders made it some points of campaign that they are going to tackle this, that and so on. You asked me how well they are tackling the promises made. Well, Boko Haram, they tried to degrade. But Boko Haram is very much alive. It is there and insecurity in other forms has arisen. In fact, more people have died in the last three years than the entire people who have died in the nine years of Boko Haram insurgency. Take the deaths in Zamfara, Sokoto, Birnin Gwari, Kaduna State, Plateau, Nasarawa, Benue, anywhere; people are dying. In fact, we had discussions on this recently when elders from different parts of the country sat in Abuja to look at the killings as part of the challenges that the country is having. My verdict on the fight against corruption is that corruption is still very much alive in Nigeria today. They say they are fighting corruption. The issue is: are they being successful? If the measure is to say EFCC… we had EFCC, ICPC and others before this government came in. So one could say yes Obasanjo tried, Umaru Yar’Adua tried, Jonathan also tried. All of them complained of corruption and tried in as many ways as they could to make examples of many people they think are corrupt. So, it is the same thing with the Buhari government. I respect his integrity as perhaps one of the people who can be described as straight forward and clean and so on, but the fact that one person like the head of government is clean does not necessarily translate to the fact that the rest of his team are clean. We have been reading in the papers about people who own property in Dubai, London and elsewhere and the president will say bring evidence and when such evidences are brought nothing happens. So, to me really, my own score is that corruption is much alive today as it was alive yesterday and the day before yesterday.
The Northern Elders Forum made a promise to work with the Federal Government in order to ensure peace in Nigeria. How far have you gone?
Of course, the Northern Elders Forum is ready to work with not only the Federal Government but any group or body that…
(Cuts in) That is why I am asking how far you have gone. Have you offered any advice to the Federal Government? Have you met with its officials in that direction?
Exactly, that one I can assure you. We offered advice, written in terms of what needs to be done, including the peaceful coexistence this country desperately requires. That’s all I can tell you.
In 2013 after the military/insurgents clash in Baga, you and your colleagues were in Maiduguri where you lamented your support for former President Jonathan and…
(Cuts in) Oh! Yes. We did.
You were there to visit the government and people of Borno State…
(Cuts in) Very true.
At that time, like I said you lamented your support for President Jonathan. You described your support for him then as ‘a stupid mistake.’ Your forum fought for a president of northern extraction and subsequently worked for the emergence of President Buhari. Now, your forum is regretting.
Again you are shopping for a consensus candidate. Is there any guarantee that you are likely to get it right this time around?
No, no, no, no. You cannot guarantee anything. Let’s be fair. It is true I was the spokesman until recently when I became the Chairman of the Northern Elders Forum. We were very critical of Jonathan, but not Jonathan as a person, but Jonathan who stood by way of injustice in the political power sharing that we agreed that PDP should implement. Let me remind you I was one of the 10 people who signed for the PDP to be formed, Alex Ekwueme, Abubakar Rimi, Solomon Lar, ten of us we went to INEC to sign for PDP to become a political party and together with Jerry Gana and others we also wrote its manifesto. In the manifesto, we incorporated power sharing, rotation between the North and the South. I think I have to make things very clear, between the North and the South. The argument followed immediately where do we start? The argument was in favour of starting from the South…
(Cuts in) What you are explaining is well known to most Nigerians and there would be no need…
(Cuts in) No, no, no, no. Let me explain why the Northern Elders Forum fought against Jonathan and I am prepared to fight against anyone again whether he is a northerner or not if we find that he is doing something that conflicts with our interests particularly as specified in our mandate.
Now you are searching for a consensus candidate.
Now we are…
(Cuts in) Tell me why northerners should take you serious again if you present another consensus candidate.
If they don’t take us serious they can refuse our consensus candidate when we find one.
Are you shopping for one? Have you found one already?
No, we haven’t yet.
You are still shopping few months to election?
Hold on. Are you aware of anyone who has found a candidate for 2019 election yet? I will be educated if you let me know that there is somebody that has shopped and found a candidate. I am asking you. You are a journalist; you are supposed to be doing investigative research. Why are you asking me if I am shopping for one?
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You said it.
We said that we are dissatisfied with the performance of this government three to four years into its administration and to that extent we will be happy if this administration is replaced by another administration that hopefully will do better. I am not a magician to be able to tell that the man that is coming is better than the one that is there. Perhaps you will be more comfortable if I use the word replace.
But would replacing Buhari not be a tall order?
Tall order to who?
I am saying this because of the votes garnered by Buhari in previous elections. In 2003 he had over four million votes when he was not in government. In 2007, he got six million votes. In 2011, over 10 million votes; then in 2015 14 million votes without being in government…
(Cuts in) Maybe in 2019, he would get 29 million votes. But I don’t know whether he would get 29 million votes or 10.
That is why I am asking whether it will not be a tall order?
But how can I…I have only one vote. My one vote will go towards finding a replacement. But the remaining votes of Nigerians will decide whether somebody else other than the one I voted for will be the president of Nigeria.
In that case why are you in league with others looking for a replacement when you should have just sat in your house, wait for the presidential election to come and cast your one vote. Why not wait for the election and wait for Nigerians to decide?
I am a stakeholder and I believe you are a stakeholder that is why you are asking me this question. You are also asking me this question on behalf of Nigerian stakeholders because we have just finished talking about security. We have just finished talking about the economy and many things that appear to be wrong and needed to be corrected. They can only be corrected by Nigerians finding people with ability and capacity to correct them. This is the beauty of having an election.
I am just wondering if this struggle of yours would…
(Cuts in) Which struggle?
I mean the struggle to undermine President Muhammadu Buhari…
(Cuts in) That is your word. You must accept that the word undermine…
(Cuts in) Okay let me use your word: to get a replacement for Buhari and to ask whether it would not end in the opposite result.
I had a right to fight against Jonathan’s re-election and I had again my reasons why I didn’t like Jonathan to win his re-election in 2015 and I am glad he didn’t. And I want this one replaced because I have a right to assess whether the one who replaced Jonathan has done the sort of thing that I was expecting he would do in replacing Jonathan particularly in view of some interests that have always driven my rejecting Jonathan to continue in office beyond 2015.
In other words, you are regretting that the person you worked for to replace Jonathan has not met your expectation.
No, no, no, no. There is a difference between regret and disappointment. I hope you will accept. If you say Ango Abdullahi is disappointed rather than is regretting…disappointed that the person he desperately worked for in the 2015 election has not measured up…I have a standard and I have a right to have a standard. People have rights to have a standard.
You and your group?
Yes. That’s right. We have a right to set standards for people who are leading us and where these standards are not met we have every right to say these standards are not met. And if they are not met and we can think of somebody else who can meet them, we should seek for him.
You met with former President Olusegun Obasanjo recently in Abeokuta.
Oh! Very well. He is my friend. Are you denying that?
That move was said to have been inspired by…
(Cuts in) By who?
By the need to unite elders and leaders of the six zones. Would I be right?
In a way, yes.
It is aimed at presenting a common front in 2019?
You said it better when you said it was our desire to unite elders across the country because we have Northern Elders Forum, Ohanaeze Ndigbo in Igbo land, Afenifere, Yoruba in the South West, PANDEF, the Niger-Delta Assembly and so on. So if you look at this in that context I think it was a good thing that these elders that come from different areas should from time to time sit down and discuss matters of common interest. And this is what we have done recently and I think many people may have criticized it as having a politically driven motives. Many people said it is high time that elders, not necessarily politicians, but elders of the country meet. In fact, it is the elders of this country that are keeping this country together, not politicians.
So, what was the conclusion of your elders meeting?
You saw our communiqué after that meeting.
I am coming to that, but let me ask this question. You saw former President Obasanjo before the meeting.
Yes I saw him. He is my friend. I met Obasanjo in 1975 and we remain friends even though from time to time we have reasons to disagree. I went to stay in his house.
You are together again in what some people will say is an unholy alliance towards 2019.
(Laughs) Well, well, well. I don’t know which alliance is holy and the one that is not holy. So, everyday whenever Obasanjo says this is a good man that is a holy alliance and if he says this man is no longer good that is an unholy alliance. Abi? People have no right to say their minds about something else. This is what I think is very unfair particularly in a very dynamic political environment you expect certain things to happen and when they don’t happen you feel disappointed. You wish they happen and if you can find a way of getting them to happen you go ahead and do it. This is what we are saying. The country needs peace, unity, understanding and so on. We have been talking about restructuring. We have been talking about too many things.
This leads me to another issue on…
(Cuts in) Yes. What issue?
The restructuring of Nigeria. You have spoken so much about the restructuring of Nigeria…
(Cuts in) What did I say?
You are on record as having said that as far as politicians like former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar who have made restructuring of Nigeria a focal point of their agenda may be wasting their time.
I said perhaps he was hunting for votes. There is a difference between wasting time and hunting for votes.
You also said restructuring has been personalized with a view to targeting a section of the country…
(Cuts in) Exactly. And this is where the difference is. Even recently when I visited leaders of Afenifere I raised it.
You said therefore…
No, no, no, no. I raised it. I said the way the issue of restructuring is being handled is giving the impression that it is only one section of the country that is worried or is concerned that the country should be restructured. I even argued with them that in fact if we sit down and objectively argue what changes need to be done in the country you will be surprised to hear that perhaps the North requires more restructuring than your parts of the country. But the way you go about speaking to us as if it is we who have denied the country progress or who have denied the country the structures that will move it forward is why we reject your approach. But if you rearrange, rethink the way we should discuss restructuring…this country had been under restructuring from 1914 to date. It had been. I have attended four constitutional conferences in this country.
But what you said at that time was that if you did not reject restructuring objectively you will reject it politically.
Exactly, exactly, exactly. That is true and it has not changed.
But that would appear to have conflicted with the stand of the meeting you attended recently in Abuja because it would seem the North has agreed with other leaders of other zones to restructure the country.
Because I told them that this disagreement surfaced as if the North is against the restructuring per se, it is the way it was handled. For example, the way the 2014 conference was bungled.
Why do you want one Nigeria?
I want one Nigeria if other Nigerians want one Nigeria. And if only one Nigerian wants one Nigeria then I want one Nigeria. You get the point? When others want one Nigeria, Ango Abdullahi would like to have one Nigeria. But the one Nigeria I would accept is the one Nigeria where my rights cannot be determined by you as I have no right to determine yours. So, this is the point. You see you cannot eat your cake and have it. That is why at some points, in the earlier stages of the controversy that was going on in this country, including when, for example, our children decided that the Igbo could go home and have their Biafra, I supported them. You know I supported them. You remember? I supported them because I am also a believer in people to have self-determination. That is why I supported the Igbo to have a Biafra of their choice.
So you support Biafra?
I do if the Igbo want it. If the people of Igbo want Biafra I support them. I said this in front of the Vice-President that I support Biafra if the people of Biafra want Biafra according to the principles of self determination as agreed in the United Nations. It is a convention people should have their self determination. See what is happening…I mean South Sudan had self determination and Nigerians if they are tired because I have said so openly that if Nigerian elites particularly those who are creating all the problems we are having today if they feel that we cannot sit down and talk honestly…
(Cuts in) You are one of the elites.
Yes I am and I am saying we should sit down and face each other and say we want one Nigeria. If we say we want one Nigeria okay let’s sit down and discuss how we will get along with the job of creating one Nigeria. But if at some point we feel that one Nigeria will not be possible except on individual terms, not on collective terms then I am in favour of quietly and peacefully going our different ways. That is what I have said. I still say so.
Would you be happy if this happens during your time?
What time? Time is endless. It has no end. In 1914 when Lord Luggard came my grandfather was not consulted neither was your grandfather consulted.
Some Nigerians, especially those from the south feel that the pace at which we are moving is too slow for their liking…
(Cuts in) What pace? We were dragged down…
(Cuts in) Who are the “we”?
The North. The North was dragged back when the British got here. We were up there. Where were you? When the British got here we were up there, where were you? We had a system; we had government, we had structures that even the British when they found we had a system they adopted what people referred to as indirect rule. They sat aside and allowed our system to operate. Our system was better than the British system when they came. But they dragged us down to say that we have to start all over again in the name of one Nigeria. We accepted. If there is any sacrifice it is the North that made sacrifice for one Nigeria.
So, now it is your turn to drag down the South.
Who is dragging you down? Who asked you not to…that’s why I said that if you want to divide this country we are for it particularly since you want to develop faster than we. Go and develop as fast as you can, we will support it.