Leader of a coalition of Arewa youth groups that gave Igbo in the North October 1 deadline to vacate the region, Yerima Shettima is singing a new tune by calling for truce. In this interview with KENNY ASHAKA in Kaduna, the Northern youths leader urged the Igbo not to leave again.
Let’s first of all correct the name because today you are called Yerima Shettima and tomorrow it is Shettima Yerima. Which is correct?
No, it is Yerima Shettima. It’s your colleagues that call my name the way they want it. But it is actually Yerima Shettima.
Your group is Arewa…
(Cuts in) Arewa Youths Consultative Forum. That’s the group I represent as the National President.
That’s the group you represent. Fine. But what does it stand for?
Basically, the organisation was formed some 18 years ago or 18 years to be precise when there was a serious dichotomy between the North and the South when there were serious issues on ground during the Obasanjo regime. There were lots of problems after we came out of the popular June 12 struggle and there was agitation from the South West on the issue of the annulment of the 1993 election. There were lots of agitations that brought up organisations like the OPC and the rest of them. Subsequently in exactly 18 years ago, we formed a movement called Arewa Youth Consultative Forum under the guise and advices of our elders from the northern part of the country who felt that there was the need to have a strong organization such as the AYCF to build a bridge across board between the North and the South. At that time there was a serious dichotomy where there was communication gap. So there was the need to have an organization that would build bridges across the south east, south west and south south. So that was why there was the need for a young, vibrant organization to come on board. That was how they suggested and began to work on the frames, terms of references under the then leadership of M.B Abubakar and subsequently Chief Sunday Awoniyi under the guise of Maitama Sule of blessed memory who passed on recently. So there was the need to have somebody and group of young men who will build those bridges. At that time I was channeled to come to the south west more to ensure there was peace because we had our people in the south west and a lot of things happened at that time. We were able to form an alliance and good relationship with the south west organizations such as OPC under the then leadership of Gani Adams and Dr. Frederick Faseun. We did wonderfully well to the extent that that communication gap was actually worked on. We talked very well and started seeing issues from a cordial perspective without violence. It was to the extent that we resolved issues through dialogue. That is what today an average northerner in the south west is benefitting. We did not only end there, we extended our bridge building efforts also to the south south where we met a group like the Ijaw Youth Council, then under the leadership of Asari Dokubo before he went to the creek for the armed struggle. That also calmed nerves because at that time, when there is an issue in the North, specifically Kano or Kaduna when there is an attack on one person it became a national issue where also everybody will begin to attack from his quarters. So we tried as much as possible to build that bridge. I was also able to, at the same time, build the same relationship with the MASSOB leader, Ralph Uwazurike because we came up almost at the same time. All those I have mentioned were my contemporaries when you talk about struggle 18 years ago. Why did you then allow it to get to the stage where you now have to issue a quit order if you have this kind of excellent relationship? Couldn’t you have put a call through?
Now, let us look back. I am one of those bridge builders that everybody knew my position when it comes to national issues. Nobody can take that away from me as far as Nigerian project is concerned today. And often times when I take decisions I don’t always look at myself as an ethnic or socio- cultural pressure group leader. I rather look at myself as a Nigerian. That’s how I look at things. So if there is an injustice against anybody in the south, even if it is under the northern leadership, I react. Everybody knows me for that. What prompted the recent happening was that if you look at my statements and how I define it was that recent happenings, time and events changed a lot of things, particularly with this new group called IPOB that came out less than two years ago. This is where my problem started with that particular group. I do not have any grudge against Igbo. But that particular group IPOB is my problem. So when I made a blanket statement I expected reactions and we got the reactions.
Why would you want a reaction from such a statement?
I want a reaction because that is what keeps us busy today. That is why everybody sat up. That is why everybody is concentrating, looking for a way out. I am glad at least a statement is being made and everybody now is keying to project Nigeria.
Must you close the normal line of communication you established just to achieve a Nigerian project that threw the country into some forms of confusion. Couldn’t you have reached Ralph Uwazurike, the MASSOB leader since you have a link with him?
MASSOB does not have a good relationship with the boy because the boy has completely run out of control. For the past five years now I have been attending Ojukwu Memorial Lectures under the leadership of MASSOB. They invite me and Major Al-Mustapha and co. Even this year, I am likely going to be there. We go there to make speeches. It’s an open day for us just like we mark June 12, Sardauna Memorial Lectures and other memorable occasions. We go to the event under the leadership of MASSOB’s Ralph Uwazurike who happens to be my very good senior brother and good friend. In fact we share a lot of things in confidence. We talk. Even when we talk about Nigeria and he has a different view about Nigeria I try as much as I can to persuade him against what he sees as injustice. He would tell me the only reason
MASSOB was established is because they have been marginalized and Nigeria does not want us. I will tell him supposing we have a system in place that will look at the issue of injustice that you perceive to be against you in form of marginalization, we can equally have a system in place where we can build a country of our own where everybody will be considered as a first class citizen; nobody will be considered as a second class citizen and everything will be good for you. Supposing we have such a thing in motion what will you do? He would say well the only reason why we are doing what we are doing is because we have been marginalized. Nigeria does not want us. I will say God willing our generation will come to that and we will address the issue until this mad boy came; this small man in struggle because I have never known him in struggle.
Let me say your group was instigated and funded by northern elders and…
(Cuts in) No, don’t say that. Are you putting words into my mouth?
No, I am only asking if the group is…
You should ask me but don’t say it is funded by elders. You look at my age in struggle. I am too big to be funded by anybody.
I came to that conclusion when you said some elders from the north saw the need to have a strong organization like the AYCF…
(Cuts in) To build bridges. You are talking about a story of 18 years ago and you are comparing it with now. No. Those are two different things please. If you want this interview let us do it without sentiments. In that case conduct it properly so that we understand because you are saying this for public consumption. Eighteen years ago was a different ball game with the realities of what has transpired and what triggered my action. And I am telling you what triggered my action. I am telling you my relationship. I am not just somebody anybody pushes around. My 18 years of struggle, proper struggle apart from the NADECO struggle and whatever I did when I was a student. Now to get to where I am, you should have known that nobody can push me to do anything at this age, even here in the North, in the northern stakeholders; even the elders. Nobody would have asked me to do anything negatively without me being convinced to do that thing before I do it.
So, nobody influenced my recent decision. My recent decision was borne out of frustration with this young man who goes around abusing my identity, my community, my people, undermining a country called Nigeria. I am a strong Nigerian, proudly a Nigerian. This man came from nowhere. He is never our class in struggles. I don’t know where he started his struggle, but he came out and within one year and suddenly because unfortunately the government made it easy for him to become popular; otherwise, Kanu is not an issue.
Who do we blame?
The government to an extent; to have even in the first place arrested this man, somebody who is being influenced by drugs. Who is Kanu in the circle of struggles? So to me it is high time when somebody behaves like a mad man and you behave like a gentleman you realize that this gentleman is getting out of hand undermining everybody, abusing everybody. You cannot… I am proudly a northerner and that’s my identity. I cannot be a leader at my level and allow this man to be talking and abusing the sensibilities of my people and you expect me to fold my hands. As a leader of the youths, it’s impossible.
Can you say the other groups in the coalition have the same ideology with you?
Of course; that is why I am the leader of the coalition. If we do not agree we would not have had the coalition. And the 16 organizations that form the coalition are popular organizations in the northern region, just like I am. But based on experience and struggle they unanimously endorsed that I lead this movement. So it is a coalition. That is why we call it Coalition of Northern Groups.
Can you convince Nigerians that the coalition is not an ethnic militia group?
No, it’s not. What do you mean by militia? We have never taken arms to attack anybody.
I asked that question because you speak as though you have what it takes to enforce your order of quit notice to the Igbo. I also remember you participating in the meeting of major ethnic militia groups that took place in Owerri sometimes in 2013. Why did you join them if you are not one of them?
That was the Owerri declaration. What brought about the Owerri declaration was simply because there was a need at that time to avert the crisis on ground. So there was the need to be part and parcel of those organizations at that time which leaders happen to be my friends. I am not a militia man by approach and it does not mean that if you have an organization that wants one thing or the other to do and talk with any militia organization…Of course, I do not know MASSOB as a militia group. I do not know about that. I do not know which of the militia groups you are talking about. Are you talking about the OPC? Those are reformed organizations. Asari Dokubo is also reformed now. He is no more a militia.
I am talking about 2013.
Even then he is a born again. But even if they are, if government can sit down with militia groups and say let us discuss ways to curtail excesses, violence or tension in the land, there is nothing wrong. And I came in to mediate. We came in to mediate. In fact, it was in company of Major Al-Mustapha that we went to ensure that there was peace. At that time the tension was high, polity was getting overheated. So there was the need for stakeholders and those who believe in Nigeria to come together with even those who do not believe in Nigeria the way forward so that there would be no violence and the polity will not be overheated. If you take a look at my role and the many years you know me I have never advocated for violence. On this recent statement people misunderstood a lot of things. One I have a face. Two, I do not believe in arms struggle. I believe more on constructive argument when the need warrants it and also on ideological struggle. I have never advocated for killing or attack on anybody. And even the recent statement we made, if you read very well the letter we wrote to the VP, it clearly defined the fact that we do not believe in violence but that those who believe in Biafra should go to their Biafra country and do their Biafra and do not abuse the sensibilities of our people. That’s what we will not accept. At no time did I wake up and look at the face of Ojukwu and Nnamdi Azikiwe or Alex Ekwueme that is still alive today to say look your leader this or that is this. We cannot fold our hands when after Jonathan government, no organization like IPOB came on board to abuse that government, now suddenly because we have a government of northern extraction under the leadership of Muhammadu Buhari we fold our hands and allow somebody to undermine that government and abuse the sensibilities of northerners collectively. No; this is unacceptable.
The problem of Biafra did not start with General Muhammadu Buhari and cannot end with him.
Your ideology sounds confusing to me because one time you are talking about peace and another time you talk of quit notice. But let me draw your attention to a statement you made in 2013. You said the politicians are busy overheating the polity and some of us believe strongly that if we do not begin to take measures to extend hands of fellowship to our brothers in other parts of the country there is possibility of pre-election and post-election violence. And then today you are issuing quit notice to your brothers. How can you reconcile this?
Let me reconcile it. Then it was under Jonathan government. The event at that time was not as bad as it is today under the leadership of this IPOB leader. And that is why I have said time and event change things. When this happens you are supposed to make an adjustment. And I keep saying that my recent statement was not to the entire Igbo. If you look at the way I have spoken I have never linked MASSOB to my issue because I also respect the right to self-determination.
But there is no way you can differentiate the Igbo man who is for IPOB and those for MASSOB.
No, no, no; unless you want to generalize it on your own. For me I didn’t put them altogether but particularly you see the way I am pointing my finger, if you see a child wake up and pointing a particular finger to a particular direction please take your time and look properly. The young man there has completely become a nuisance to the society and there is the need for someone to tell him that ‘look young man, this is not what we did to get to where we are and become popular the way we are.’ So somebody must make a point and get him to understand this. To God be the glory you can see that after this madness of quit notice everybody sat up. For the first time we saw the governors being compelled to come forward to say look we are not part of Biafra, we do not believe in Biafra. That is a plus to Nigeria. On the issue of organization such as Ohaneze, the Ohaneze Youth Council met with us three days ago and told us they don’t believe in the Biafra struggle. ‘We are Nigerians and we believe in a country called Nigeria and we want to be part of it but we are thinking of restructuring.’ That is a plus to Nigeria. To me ordinarily we would have been honoured for what we did. It should have been celebrated as a nation that there is that awakening of consciousness in our country.
The government on their part sat up under the leadership of the Acting President. You could see meetings going on to save the country. We want the country to remain together and on that note we will be making adjustment. Based on the meeting of the south east governors, jointly with Ohaneze and other organizations, even before the Ohaneze Youth Council met us, I said we will review our position on the quit notice and we are working on that. It was on that basis that we had meeting three days ago with the Ohaneze Youth Council. The leadership came to meet me in Abuja after looking for audience with us for the past two weeks. Finally we granted them audience in Abuja and they came. We sat down and discussed for over five hours. The other day we agreed that a committee should be set up. They all agreed that they are Nigerians, they want to be part of Nigeria and they want us to go together as a nation. We are saying fine but nobody should be allowed to hold the country to ransom. This young man must not be allowed to go unpunished for the fact that he has caused a lot of damage to our psyche. Some of the Nigerian people misunderstood our position in the first place. Now I am sure people are getting acquainted with our frustrations when we issued that release. At the same time they are looking at what is happening now. Events are gradually changing and I am confident that Nigerians want to be together from all I can see.
How would you respond to the statement by some Nigerians that most of your members, including yourself are characters found in Abuja who do not go anywhere but just sit there and see governance as politics of endorsement of all the North is doing rightly or wrongly?
But you have the answer to that. You know me very well. Whoever has any doubt about me should go and google me and see my struggle from time; from NADECO days till date. So the record is there and it speaks for itself. So, I won’t bother myself responding to things like that.
They claim your secretariat is in your hand bag.
Well you have seen my office and you are here in Kaduna for this interview. I have offices in almost every state in the North as my branch with massive followers. In Lagos you know I have an office. You know that. You have the story so please answer them for me. I won’t speak for other organizations that are based in Abuja. I am not an Abuja guy and those members of the coalition there is none that does not have the notion of citizens action for change and Arewa Youth Foundation platform in the entire North; a lot of us. So if we wanted those people who carry their organizations in their handbags to go and sit there we would have had thousands of them. We took our time to select the 16 organizations and for them anywhere you touch they are there. That was why the statement became weightier than expected because those who checked knew the 16 organisations are no jokers.
Would you say the North you represent today is still monolithic?
Well, that’s another issue that some of us are not comfortable with the way it is. This issue of a little division we are trying to see how we can overcome it. But the North of then is not the same today.
I am sure you are aware that the Middle Belt youths dissociated themselves from…
(Cuts in) I am coming to that, but not all the Middle Belt members. You see this is democracy where people have rights to their views. Those people who carry their offices in their portfolio moving about, ordinarily have seen business to do. So they can go to anybody who shares their views and thinking to say let’s have N200,000 or whatever amount and make a statement. Of course, they are there and journalists are ever there to balance stories. But the core Middle Belt leaders are with us in progress and working with us because they believe the North is one body that must be seen to be talking from one direction.
What we did was a joint thing. When we talk of the Arewa, we are not talking of the Hausa-Fulanis alone here, but that includes the Middle Belt, the prominent ones. They are many just like you have in Yoruba and other organizations in Igbo land. Some are for businesses. We call them Boys Must Chop. For people like us we have come a long way and cannot be moved around like those ones. I am happy you know me very well and know the kind of stuff I am made of. Nobody buys my conscience easily because I look at issues thoroughly before I take a position. If I had wanted to sell my conscience from time, I would not have been involved in southern struggles. There are a lot of southern struggles that I have been involved from NADECO to PRONACO days that I have been involved. All these were based on principles. I have been involved in the June 12 struggle even when it is in the interest of the south west in the person of Chief MKO Abiola. I am one of the key people into that struggle and yearly I am always in Lagos to ensure that that day is the rallying day for all progressive activists here and internationally. We sit down to mark the day and reflect on the way forward. We think of Nigeria of yesterday and today and how we can have a better Nigeria of our dreams. The time has come that we must take the mantle of leadership. We must insist on new order and that is exactly my position on this issue now. We ask for new order. Never again will any young man fold his arms to allow any man to say you are the leaders of tomorrow. Today is the day and we are working on that leadership issue. We understand that power is not given by anybody. It is taken and we are very determined. That’s why this issue of quit notice has raised issues to come to the fore for discuss. But we intend also to do away with this panic of October 1st, we are also going round consulting other prominent and progressive youths across board in this country to form a national movement and put everybody on board. Men of our generation must be seen to be up and doing. Men of our generation must be seen in picking interest in politics. Men of our generation must be seen to be yearning for the presidency of this country, governors, Senators, House of Representatives members, State Assembly members, local council chairmen. We must ensure we put everybody on board to ensure that our people seek for political power. Never again will anyone of us wait for somebody at the age of 60, 70 to come and say he is moving this country forward. It is totally unacceptable.
I commend your principle stand on issues and your ideology of peaceful coexistence but one thing I find inconsistent in some of your utterances is that they betray some of the kernels of the same ideology you profess. First of all, your statement in 2014…
(Cuts in) I talk about peace until we had a mad dog that lost control. That was why there was a little change in me but I still come back to the fore to say what I said in respect of the quit notice did not advocate for violence. We clearly defined it. I am sure you are privy to some of our statements. Even the quit notice we never called for violence. I shouldn’t have destroyed my career of struggle for the past close to 20 years for just now that I am thinking of going on retirement and going into politics if need be even though I have not made up my mind. I am thinking of ways whereby we can now bring up our younger ones to take over from us so that we can now devote our times to our families. I have spent close to 20 years in the trenches and my family has never had a good time to be with me. I need to settle down. I need to be close to my family. They need me and my love. They need me around them. So I am thinking there are younger people that can take over from us. We can then be doing the job on advisory basis.
You speak as though you have no regrets over the quit notice you gave. Can you assure the Igbo that they are safe in the North?
No, they are safe. You can rest assured they are safe. You can quote me; they are safe in the North.
And nothing bad will happen to them?
They are safe. Events and time have changed the mindset of the northerner, not even me who represents their interest. A lot of them have realized that truly this young man does not speak for the entire Igbo. If we had not come out with a statement we probably not have realized that a lot of Igbo are not in support of Biafra. You can now see that we have reduced the entire IPOB struggle to nothing but a fraud. So now to an extent it is a plus for the Nigerian government.
So you can publicly say the Igbo shouldn’t go?
No, they shouldn’t go. They should relax. Officially, we will make an announcement to that effect because it is a collective thing. So they can rest assured of their safety and security God willing. We have no problems with the Igbo living in the North, but there are certain things we need to put in place so that officially at the level of the coalition we can make that statement.
In other words, what you have done is to shake them a little?
I don’t know what you mean by shake. We just made a statement and the statement has gone further to expose the young man.
I was talking about inconsistency in your ideology…
(Cuts in) There is nothing inconsistent about my ideology.
You will get to know later. But first, can I have your thoughts on the Buhari government?
If you ask me at the level of my organizations, for over time our hopes have been dashed because the government truly has not done well at all. The yearnings and expectations of Nigerians have not been met at all. We expected to see that true change. We expected to see a government that will carry everybody along. We expected to see a government that will fight corruption totally without bias or protecting other corrupt leaders and also working against those who are perceived to be in the opposition as enemies. I am one of those who spoke at length. To those who know me I went further to speak against the sharing formula of offices at the start of this government. I was the only voice from the North who rose to say the Federal Government was not fair to the Igbo. This is how far I have gone and I have not changed. I am a true Nigerian because I believe in Nigeria. But recent events have made people to look at me as an antagonist and a terrible Northern leader. No, I am not. I am flexible in my decisions and here you are in my house if I find anything wrong in the northern leadership and feel certain interests are being marginalized I react because I have an independent mind. I don’t get influenced by anybody and that’s what makes me unique. So you can now look at my records. For God’s sake I have been consistent. I made that statement to pull out one idiot because the situation was very abnormal and I feel I should also use abnormal attitude to bring to the fore after applying all the necessary avenues to get an answer to what we desire. Now, suddenly the oung man refused to understand those avenues. We did everything, even MASSOB found it difficult to
manage the young man the way he is going about it. A man who few years ago Ralph Uwazurike employed to work for him suddenly became a tiger and became a tool against the collective interest of the Igbo. Now, nobody can control him. Even the governors and the Eastern leaders this boy has succeeded in holding them to ransom. They are scared of talking for fear of attack from those jobless youths around him.
Suddenly they folded their hands. And you expect us other Nigerians to fold our hands when somebody who has dual citizenship is trying to mess up the country? From UK to come and mess up the country? No, we’ll ensure that we protect the integrity of Nigeria to make sure that we remain together.