Prof. Ango Abdullahi, Chairman of Northern Elders Forum has warned that the North will only support candidates from the region in the race for 2023 presidency. He condemned outspoken Afenifere leader, Chief Ayo Adebanjo for blaming Hausa/Fulani as being responsible for Nigeria’s problems saying it is an illusion to create a new Nigeria without the Hausa/Fulani. He emphasized that zoning or power shift, which many southern leaders are agitating for is unconstitutional and would not be supported by the North. He spoke further on these and more in this interview by ABDULLAHI HASSAN in Zaria.
Northern elders have been silent on national issues for quite some time. What happened?
It is true that for quite some time especially in the month preceding the 2019 elections, the Northern Elders Forum had found a common platform with the southern leadership to the extent that a number of meetings if you like summits were organized by these elders, I think three or four times. At that time, the elders were discussing on what will be the fate of the country particularly if the elections of 2019 were not conducted fairly or with honesty or if Nigerians themselves failed to realize that there are challenges facing the country and there is need for Nigerians to have a leadership that will tackle these serious challenges. This was the platform that formed the basis on which the Northern Elders Forum worked closely with the southern elders’ groups, up to the last summit. The Northern Elders clearly came out with a communiqué which recommended the election of a candidate provided by PDP, Atiku Abubakar against the re-election of Muhammadu Buhari on the platform of APC for the simple reason that in the last four years by our honest assessment, he did not perform to a level that he should be re-elected. That was our last recommendation before the elections. So, we waited for the outcome of the elections and every Nigerian today knows the result. Obviously, I commented on the outcome of the elections and other forums from the south recommended that Atiku should challenge the result at the Tribunal and the Court especially because of the fact that it was quite apparent that the election was not the free and fair or credible election. We support Atiku’s legal action with the hope that the issue could be redeemed. Again on this ground, Northern Elders Forum was at the forefront with counterparts in the South to support any group that challenges the 2019 elections. In fact, we have not seen the end of the Court process yet because there are appeals before the Supreme Court. We are now waiting for the final verdict of the Supreme Court on the 2019 elections. The important thing here is working together by the same major socio-cultural groups namely, Afenifere, Ohaneze, Northern Elders and Niger Delta groups. Of course, other debates are going on not necessarily on the election itself but on other issues and challenges, which the country is facing. So for me, I feel there is a need for Nigerians at different levels to always look at events in the country and see whether these events are positive or negative to the interest of Nigerians. That is why Northern elders require careful study and examination before making any comment on any particular issue.
So, what has become of the alliance between southern and northern leaders after the 2019 elections?
You see, there is a difference between alliance and understanding. I think at the level of leadership of the country I don’t think there is any common alliance since the election is over. What we have in the country is the search for future political partnership, which only time shall tell. But on our part, the socio-cultural organizations, there was only common interest on the 2019 election from the beginning to the end, in fact, even after. Our common expectation at that time was a change of leadership but to most Nigerians, we did not have a free and fair election.
Do you think there is an unwritten agreement among northern leaders to oppose the return of the presidency to the south in 2023?
Well, you see the question of where power goes, has multi-dimensional bases. If you go back to the period, from 1990, there have been politics that made it possible for power to go to where Nigerians have generally agreed to go. This is regardless of the relative definition of democracy which says on the basis of one man one vote, power resides with the majority while the minority will always have their say. But victory remains with the majority. From my personal experience, I can count three occasions where the issue of power shift was determined by the plurality of the voters, I could start with my personal friend, General Obasanjo. He was elected mainly by the North. Obasanjo’s first term was entirely determined by the North. He did not get any votes from the southwest. Chief Olu Falae won the western part of the country while south-east and south-south voted against Obasanjo’s candidature. In the second term, few things began to emerge which shows whether the northern support was enough or worth it to determine his continuous support. Obasanjo’s success was determined by northern votes. My understanding of this issue has gone beyond party formation rather than social; some of it historical. Obasanjo was a former military officer, former head of state as a military officer, he made his own friends and enemies while he was serving in the military. But by and large, when this discussion settled down, the next civilian president after General Abubakar Abdusalami should come from the South. That was a general understanding within the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, which I was there, and I took part in designing the manifestoes and the party’s constitution at the time. The party agreed that power from time to time should rotate between the North and the South. Though not all agreed, my friend late Abubakar Rimi objected and insisted that he would contest the election and I think Senator Gemade also objected and quite a number of others. But it was their constitutional right to contest and of course, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria supersedes the party’s constitution. We left the South to determine whom to choose. Later, south-west, southeast, and south-south produced General Obasanjo and Dr. Alex Ekwueme, while Obasanjo ultimately emerged as candidate and president in 1999. So if you are looking at that, you can say yes. The rotation was a practice in Nigerian democracy. After the tenure of Obasanjo in 2007, based on the principle and understanding built on his own election, the party started shopping for who will take over from the North. Despite all rumors of the third term, the power later shifted back to the north and late Umaru Yar’Adua became the president. So on that basis, one could see that if this had continued, perhaps the definition of democracy in Nigeria would have been slightly different from the universal definition. This rotation was modified democracy to suit the circumstances and challenges facing the Nigerian state particularly our diversity. So Umaru Yar’adua died after three years, now the question would arise; has the north finished its term? No, the north was supposed to finish its eight years, which Obasanjo had. So north should continue keeping power for another four years after Jonathan must have completed the remaining one year of Yar’adua’s tenure as provided in the constitution of Nigeria. We expected the PDP to say that the next president would come from the north. But it never happened which marked the beginning of the breakdown of the spirit of power shift. The south largely insisted that with the support of the Northern governors, Jonathan should continue which means that the north has been shortchanged in terms of the period agreed for power to rotate between the north and the south. You can see that it was the PDP itself that first truncated the sprit of zoning or power shift especially on the basis of time. It was the beginning of the crisis. That was the time when we in the Northern Elders Forum and others fought Jonathan’s re-election in 2011, though we did not succeed because the north supported him. Again, he wanted to continue in 2015, that would have been a serious violation of the constitution, we insisted no. The spirit of power shift or zoning under the platform of PDP had been broken down. I think the reason for the breakdown was influenced by the position taken by President Jonathan because he challenged that there were no documents to show the agreement of power shift or zoning. We rejected his position and insisted that it was a violation of the agreement in principles. Eventually, he contested but failed and Buhari won.
It is also important to remind ourselves whenever you are talking about power shift between the South and the North that, it was only PDP that had a power shift agreement; it is not in the Constitution of the country. However, the issue of zoning was part of the recommendations of the 1999 constitutional conference but the then military head of state said no; it is difficult to change constitution of the country therefore that arrangement should not be included in the constitution instead it should be left with parties to use it for the purpose of getting party’s spread around the country. That is why it was not put in our constitution. So, zoning has no place or ground in the Constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria. It was a political party affair based on the willingness and agreement of members. No party has that arrangement except PDP.
81% of Buhari votes in 2015 and 2019 came from the North. Though I am not a card-carrying member of any political party, I am not sure whether APC has any arrangement like this. Hence, they don’t have the issue of power shift and zoning does not arise. It could be right or wrong to adopt it, yet the decision is left to the party. I think it’s something that we have to be careful about. I think there is nothing wrong at all if the north keeps power for a century because democracy is all about numbers and we have it. You see, the North is the most liberal voting block in Nigerian political history. For instance, Abiola defeated Bashir Tofa in Kano and other parts of the North in the 1993 presidential elections. This liberal attitude of northerners in the political environment made it possible to prepare the ground for a democratic system to have a foundation and solidify. I don’t think there is any public debate as to whether the north will vote in one direction or party. In fact, we are yet to have political parties accepted by northerners in 2023 talk less of a candidate presented to the North to vote for. Maybe in the near future, we shall unveil our plan to Nigerians. The beginning of our resistance to Jonathan was not for him in person but to some people around him and PDP, which betrayed our agreement to hand over to North. With respect to personal integrity and honor of President Jonathan, if he had come out to say that yes, it is not my turn but I need your support to continue, that would have been a different thing but he did not do that, instead, he kept challenging. I wrote an open letter to Chief Edwin Clark during the controversy, reminding him on agreement we reached between myself, late Olusola Saraki and himself on the need to keep the relationship together on the nomination of candidate where if the north presents a presidential candidate, the deputy should come from south-south, this arrangement we worked for eventually produced Umaru Musa Yar’adua and Jonathan Goodluck as Vice President. You see with the support of the North they succeeded and in 2015 the south-south wanted to cheat the north again. This is a clear indication that some people did not care about the right of others in the north. That was why we in the Northern Elders Forum fought against it. I kept saying since and will repeat it that any party that gives us a candidate of northern extraction will be supported in 2023.
What do you make of the recent calls for Nigeria’s break up especially from southern leaders allegedly over the refusal of the north to agree to a full-scale restructuring of the country? What is your position on this?
Well, my recollection as per what I read in Saturday Sun newspaper of September 29, 2019, our respected elder statesman that made that statement on break-up is Chief Ayo Adebanjo, a chieftain of Afenifere, a group that Northern elders had worked with especially before 2019 elections. When I read details of the interview, I saw his reason behind his angry comment that the north, in fact, did not the say north alone but he said Northern Muslims. He used the word Northern Muslims. This is really less expected from someone who has been part of Nigerian history like him at the age of almost 90 years. Specifically, he said Northern Muslims are responsible for the crises that Nigeria found itself in today. The question to ask him is that how does he expect the Northern Muslims referred to as responsible for problems in Nigeria today come to work with him or anybody he represents because these are his words, not mine. If he doubts this, he should go and check his words in the interview, to the extent that he was suggesting that Southwest, Southeast, South-South and what he described as progressive Middle Belt should work together to solve the problem of Nigeria. So that has an implication, yes, his definition of Northern Muslims and the area they live should be excluded from the future Nigerian state of his dream. Now obviously, it was his suggestion that if Northern Muslims did not change their ways, which I don’t know which ways he is referring to, we shall be excluded from Nigeria. He has not spelled out what the Northern Muslims have done or have not done that led to crises of Nigeria today. So if that is the thesis, then, of course, Adebanjo has to find a solution. How the rest of the country could come together and exclude the Muslim North out of present Nigeria; that is maybe to nurture a baby and see whether it will survive. He was emphatic on Muslims North, which perhaps means Hausa/Fulani. If we were not going to do their bidding which he did not make it known, then we shall be excluded from this nation. So, that made him say that the country can break-up. Well, first and foremost, he has to work hard to see that he galvanize these areas that he prefers to work with and see whether it is possible or feasible or workable. From all indications, I can assure him or whoever holds the same illusion that is not possible. Not even to the level of breaking up the country into the units. If he is saying the present federating structure of Nigeria is not working enough, or efficient, then he can call for a summit so that all the units would agree and restructure. Because I agree that some arrangements of our states are not working enough. Look at some states who claim because they are producing oil are taking a lot of money from revenue derivation against other parts of the country. If he is looking at the restructuring on the basis of viability of the various units that constitute the federating units, then we will be partners in that discussion but if the discussion is already on prejudice against a tribe or ethnic group then it is already dead on arrival. Northern Elders believe so much in the unity of this country but not at the expense of any part of the country. If Adebanjo and any other person with the same view are serious about a break-up, the North is not afraid and is ready.
The Vice President Prof. Osinbajo seems to be facing some challenges, do you think this is normal or there is more to it especially 2023 permutation?
No, no I have not read it anywhere that the vice president is quarreling with his boss. I have not seen or heard it from any strong source. But if there are controversies, and if I want to avoid commenting on this, I will just say that it was an in- house, family affairs thing in the presidency. Osinbajo has been very active; viable vice president the failure of the president includes him. If they have an internal problem they should settle it in a smooth manner. Unfortunately, the controversy looks like the usual Nigerian issue, that whenever one of their own is involved in a disagreement with any other, they quickly rally round and back their own, they protect him, back him and fight back.
I know I have been part of the three constitutional conferences if you look at the constitution of this country; the only position where the vice president has been mentioned in the various structure of government is the national economic council where he presides as chairman. The national economic council is made up of governors and some captains of agencies and by function; it is just an advisory body to the government. That is the only constitutional role assigned to vice president. I could remember, maybe Obasanjo did much where he engaged his vice president in governmental activities and functions. From what I have seen for four years, Prof Osinbajo, a very intelligent person has been very helpful to the activities of the presidency by representing Mr. President at so many fora and making sound pronouncements on policies. I don’t think Osinbajo would be making pronouncement without clearance from his boss. So what I guess is happening is that apart from Osinbajo as vice president and ministers responsible for looking after government departments, there is a strong indication that there are other people who commonly referred to as cabals who are faceless and some are known that are perhaps trying to get into government much more than required. In other words, there could be a controversy between those recognized by law and those not recognized by law. I can assure you that I am among Nigerians that are keenly watching events from that direction. Cabals or whoever they may be I believe there are many people doing things without being recognized by law.
Why do you think it’s difficult for the government to curtail the level of insecurity across the country?
The Northern Elders Forum in various formal meetings and at individuals level have been making appeal on the deteriorating insecurity in the country and also in the north where there was relative safety some years ago, except in the areas of Boko Haram but today, the entire North is engulfed in one form of insecurity or the other. Banditry in the northwest, more kidnapping and frequent attacks of armed robbery and so on. So I don’t see any improvement in the situation in terms of security. Certainly, if people want to be honest, an objective with our situation today, we are in a worse situation than we were in 2015. Now the question has always been what should be done? I remember we submitted documents to the Jonathan administration specifically on Boko Haram, which was the only major insecurity issue at that time. We gave suggestions on what should be done. The most important assertion made in our document was that you couldn’t solve this insurgency by force alone. There must be some areas that must be worked on. We saw that the security of any place is the responsibility of the people, the authority closer to the people; both traditional and non- traditional and of course, the authority that is responsible for the overall security of the nation. We said Jonathan should re-assess the military option and bring in a combination of military action and cooperation with civil society groups. Because it was the civil society groups that will provide information, intelligence and so on. We made a recommendation that he should explore the possibility of dialogue because Boko Haram had started organizing structure and leadership. In honesty, President Jonathan had accepted that recommendation and created a dialogue committee headed by Sheik Ahmed Lemu, which started working. I remember some of our members were in the committee; they have started reaching out to these people and spelling out their grievances. The committee did not stay long; the government was harassed by some people on the emotional ground that the government should not dialogue with terrorists. Forgetting that the most powerful nation in the world today is America, it had lost virtually all its wars because it failed to contain insurgency. Right now, the U.S is dialoguing with the Taliban to be able to get out of Afghanistan. We also raised the issue of root causes or remote causes of the insurgency. The major root cause is poverty. We asked the government to look at the economic implication of this area. So the solution to insecurity is not necessarily all about acquiring armored tanks or guns. Though they are important government should also look at the heart of poor Nigerians to avert poverty and hunger. Unfortunately, Nigeria has been classified as the capital of poverty in the world. Poverty is the root cause of the present insecurity in the north and the country as a whole.
How do you see the dialogue already embarked upon by some state governments in the North with bandits?
You see what these governments are doing is not different from what Jonathan tried to do. They have faced the serious root of addressing social insecurity. The pressure the society is going through is forcing frustrated children to go into drugs and other vices. Look at the children that are out of school. Minister of education agreed that they are nearly six million who cannot proceed to junior secondary school. And there are ten million who don’t have access to primary education. What happens to these children if they grow up? These are things that have not been looked at properly. Without education, there will be more poverty, without employment there will be more criminals and as long as there is poverty there will be more insecurity in the country.
So what the state governors are doing is right and wrong, because you must approach the problem holistically. My advice to the government has always been direct and honest. The government should do the same to Fulani as they did to the Niger Delta militia. Thousands of Fulani herdsmen lost their cattle to rustlers; meaning their economic strength has been broken completely. Many may have no option than committing criminal activities just like the so-called Niger Delta militants – who claimed to have no jobs to do. I learned there are compensations for farmers but none for a Fulani man. The government should create a foundation to assess the loss of cattle by herdsmen and pay compensation by at least providing 30 to 40 cows to the person that lost 100 to 150 cows. I believe this will cushion the economic frustration of herdsmen thereby keeping them away from alleged criminal activities.