Former Yobe State Governor, Senator Bukar Abba-Ibrahim, has said the Federal Government must discuss with Boko Haram in the interest of peace. He spoke with Onyebuchi Ezigbo. Excerpts
Recently, there were two bomb attacks on telecommunication facilities in Kano, despite moves to dialogue with the Boko Haram sect. How can government resolve the security crisis?
My advice to the government is that when a situation like this arises anywhere in the world, you cannot fight and defeat it by force. So, dialogue, I believe is the best solution. Yes, they are faceless but I believe there must be a way if government is totally committed to finding it. We can find a way really to have dialogue with this group after all they are all Nigerians, at least as far as we know. Even if there are foreigners, obviously, the vast majority of them must be Nigerians for them to execute this kind of violent campaign for two years running.
They must have the support of some Nigerians and if so, then dialogue must be the solution. You’ll remember that twice, my name was mentioned as being nominated as people who will be witnesses to the proposed negotiation between government and the Boko Harsm sect. If they can come out and talk like this and recently, the sect has even issued the so called letter of appointment to the people who are supposed to be witnesses to the dialogue. On my part, I hope a way out can be found if there is total commitment on the side of government.
I believe we can find a way. The group has proposed a dialogue to be held in Saudi Arabia and it is left for the Federal Government of Nigeria to contact the Saudi authorities to know if they are willing to host the talks. If the Saudi Government is not opposed to the idea of dialogue, then they (Saudi authority) will definitely reach the sect. Let us all together go to the place and find a lasting solution to the problem. The fundamental thing is anywhere you see this kind of thing rearing its ugly head, it is a product of inequality and injustice. There are fundamental issues which every country should really embrace in order to have a permanent peace. Where there is no justice, fairness and equality, there can never be peace and there is bound to be social crisis. Nigeria must look deeper into what is causing this kind of thing.
There’s a study that talks about educational imbalance in the north/east, showing that the region accounts for the largest number of school drop-outs and those who don’t even have access to education. What do you say of the performance of governors when you were one?
Well, it is all part of the problem. They also have to fasten their belts and be up and doing just like we are urging the Federal Government to do a similar thing. You cannot blame any particular government or person for this kind of thing, but even when such a thing happens, you must find all encompassing solutions to the problem, but you have to know that the problem first before you starts by looking for the solution. How was the insecurity problem in the South-south solved if not through a Federal Government peace intervention?
It was done through dialogue with the government declaring amnesty and committing a lot of resources to calm frayed nerves. We can do the same thing in the North-east. I think that is the best solution to the current situation, where there is a will, there is always a way. I just told you, since they are faceless, I do not know them, I do not know anybody who knows them physically, and as you have rightly said, they are not even in one group, they seem to be divided.
So, whichever group or faction that has decided that there should be dialogue in Saudi Arabia, all I am saying is that through the Saudi Arabian government, the Federal Government can get to these people, it may not be direct as they have refused to come out for Nigerians and Nigeria’s government to know them.
You just talked about the possible cause of the insurgency. It is worthy of note that during the presentation of 2013 budget, you personally expressed reservations about the content of the Appropriation Bill, which you said was skewed against the interest of the people of North-east where you come from. Is this part of the injustice you were alluding to?
Of course, it is part of it. I gave statistics when I spoke. The media people did not quote me completely correctly. When the Architect Ibrahim Bunu committee studied projects all over the country- abandoned and ongoing projects- they came with very disturbing findings that in the north/east zone, there were abandoned and ongoing projects worth only N99 billion on the ground. Whereas, the South/east has over N160 billion worth of projects on the ground, the next one is the South/west with over N500 billion worth of projects on the ground.
The North/west has over N500 billion worth of projects on ground, the North/central has nearly N600 billion worth of projects on ground; the South/south has over N2 trillion worth of projects on ground. This is for a year or two. This very government established that committee; they studied and gave the report. These are parts of the problems we are talking about. When you go to the North/east geopolitical zone, you’ll know; nobody needs to tell you that this is the most neglected, the most marginalized part of this country as of today.
How do you feel winning an international award by the prestigious Mo Ibrahim foundation as the best grassroots politician in Nigeria?
I feel elated. I feel fulfilled. I feel very happy about this kind of award that is internationally recognized. I have received very close to 200 awards internationally, nationally and locally, including traditional titles. Beside my national award of CON which was conferred on me by the President, this is the award that I value the most. Moreover, in all the other awards that I have received so far, it is me who takes care of basic cost of everything but this is the first award which I am not going to spend anything.
Since your efforts earned you the award, which project in specific terms has the Yobe State government undertaken, and to what extent has it been able to check desertification in the state?
You see, the areas are two: poverty alleviation and desert encroachment control. Poverty alleviation is fought in various ways and ever since I came to government in 1976, almost everything I had done in my life has been fighting poverty, helping students, particularly those from poor background to go to primary schools, secondary schools and even beyond that, organising communities to do what is the best for themselves.
That’s what I had been doing all my life. As Commissioner for Works for example, I introduced direct labour in former Borno State before Yobe was created and with direct labour, we were able to save hundreds of millions of naira to do more of the good things we have been doing. Building schools, dispensary, hospitals, roads and all sorts of things that develop the society and raise the standard of living of the people and at the same time, do a lot more through the direct labour. And I believe one of the best ways to fight poverty is through education. As governor, I established over 600 primary schools; over 35 full fledge secondary schools, 285 day secondary schools before I left office in 2007.
In fact, I literary introduced free and compulsory education in Yobe State though we didn’t have sufficient resources to implement it, we were moving towards it by the time I left. I also established nine tertiary institutions including a university, college of education, two polytechnics even the Federal Polytechnic in Damaturu, I started it and then, General Ibrahim Babangida took over and made it a federal polytechnic.
The three major opposition parties- ANPP, ACN and CPC have been talking on possible merger but it seems the ANPP is not forthcoming. Why?
That’s not true! ACN has appointed their team; ANPP is appointing and I’m part of the committee. We have met several times here; we have even toured the zones; we have toured north central and we are collecting all our supporters in North/central in Lafia. We went to address them and they all cheered us over what we’re doing. We were in Enugu South/east Nigeria for a whole day. We are going to visit other zones. Before March, this year, we are all going to reach an accord on this merger. That is the deadline for the merger materialising.
ACN is doing a similar thing but the only party that I was not too sure of what they doing now is the CPC. But they have also set up their own committee. From all indications, the parties are looking forward to forming a totally new party where all the opposition coalition will come together as one entity. We are talking with the APGA through the Imo State governor, Chief RoChas Okorocha, on joining the coalition.
We are also hoping that part of the Labour Party will join us and then, we’ll form a new party. That I think will happen. This plan appears to be more popular than any other arrangement and I believe there is sufficient time to register a new party. All the groups were together before- CPC, ACN and ANPP were all one when we started the political process in 1999. It was all because of fragmentation over the years that we became what we are today. It is not impossible for us to get back together, whatever caused the break up at that time; we can now rewind everything and find our ways back as one family.
With regard to the issue of the presidential candidate, I must say that in politics, who gets what is always important. But the most important thing for now is not who gets what but for us to get together and merge. Let us get a new arrangement, under which anybody can look for whatever he wants, or on the other hand, we can say as a group that we’ll go with the zoning formula that will be on a permanent basis but the most important thing to pursue now is the merger.
Since we are all now in opposition and we have been calling ourselves members of the progressives, we are going to join hands with some others groups that are on the other side, the conservatives to confront the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). I feel it is healthy for our democracy to have at least two strong political parties. I am convinced that this experiment will work this time around.
Remember, everyone involved in this merger has gone through it in the past and has learnt lessons from the failed attempts and has known also, how their views and ideas have suffered all these years. I believe the ideologies of the opposition groups are quite different from that of the PDP which is more of conservatism, whereas the ideology of members of the opposition parties is progressive in nature.