Gabriel Torwua Suswam
Governor Gabriel Torwua Suswam has been at the helm of affairs in Benue State for the past six years, having first served as member of the House of Representatives for eight years at the beginning of this democratic dispensation. While representing Katsina-Ala/Ukum/Logo Federal Constituency in the lower chamber of the National Assembly, he chaired influential committees like House Services, Appropriation, Federal Capital Territory and Power. This 49-year-old lawyer and politician, has a broad perpective on issues affecting the country. In this interview with Tokunbo Adedoja, he speaks on the state of security in the nation, the incessant clashes between Fulani herdsmen and peasant farmers in Benue, politics of 2015 and the unending face-off between President Jonathan and Rivers State Governor Amaechi. The interview was conducted shortly before Friday’s re-election of Amaechi as NGF chairman.
LLooking at the state of security in the country, particularly the North, which made the President to address the nation and declare state of emergency in three northeastern states, as a chief security officer of a state from that region, are you worried that the nation may be tottering on the precipice?
Well, any ordinary Nigerian should be worried and alarmed; it is not just as a chief security officer of a state. Without proper security in an environment, nothing can be achieved. People feel insecured, so businesses go down. It affects the general economic activities and then its increases poverty. As Nigerians, first and foremost, we should be worried. As one of the political leaders, I am most worried because its gives an impression that we are not doing what we are supposed to do. But then there are people who are determined that they must create this general insecurity problem for different reasons. Some are political and most of it, there are people who are seriously behind it because these insurgents or these criminals have sophisticated weapons, which are bought with money. So, there is a lot of politics involved in the general security situation. There are also people who are just evil, who want to destabilise the country. And so, the decision taken by the President, is a decision that is welcome, even by the governors of those states, because the security situation in those states was quite overwhelming and they were completely overwhelmed. And so, if that state of emergency will solve the problem, then that is what we need. This is a desperate situation that needs a desperate solution. And I think the President has asked the military to do whatever it would take to make sure that Nigerians are secured.
There are views that the soldiers had always been there for the past two years in form of JTF and that the declaration of emergency by the President was just a mere formality that would only be reflected in the deployment of additional troops. How would you react to this view?
No, with the state of emergency, the military now has a legal backing to operate and make sure that they go into full military operation to rout out these criminals who have been operating in a sophisticated manner and have highly sophisticated military weapons. When they were there, they were deployed by the President. Now, the President through the instruments of the constitution has declared a state of emergency, which gives emergency powers to even the political structures in the state to make sure that they address the security situation. Yes, the military had been there, but what has happened now is different from what was (happening before). Now they have a legal instrument in their hand to operate.
But looking at the state of emergency declared, would you say that the committee set up by the President to dialogue with Boko Haram is still relevant because there are views that military action and the work of the committee are not mutually complimentary?
You see, no war is totally won on the battlefield. At the end of the day, you must sit on the round table. You see, this people need to be confronted. If you are coming to a negotiating table, let them not come from a position of strength. Let them also be operating from a position of weakness so that we can put this thing behind us. So, the state of emergency and the military operations going on in these places do not in anyway vitiate the importance of the amnesty committee that had been set in place. While the operation is going on, the criminals have a window to come and say, ‘look , we are tired, we don’t want this any longer and so we want this thing settled’. So, I think the two-pronged approach is good for the safeguarding of the security situation.
You have also been having problems in your state in terms of the killings between the Fulani herdsmen and local farmers. How bad is the situation and what do you think is the way out?
I think that it has to do with the general insecurity in the country. You know that Boko Haram has been operating for almost a year now and there seems to be a lot of impunity. And so, the people have gotten emboldened to carry the laws into their hands. And so with what has happened with the state of emergency declared in these states and the approach that is being taken now, I think that will address even the problems of fulanis incessant attacks on peasant farmers. It is not peculiar to Benue. Even if we look at Zamfara, if we look at Adamawa, if we look at Taraba and ofcourse, the entire North and even some parts of the South, the Fulani have engaged in incessant attacks on farmers. So, in Benue, we have been taking measures to address it. I have engaged them but from time to time this happens.
The latest one, which was very unfortunate, which was quite enormous, was something that we didn’t anticipate because I have engaged the Fulani leadership in the state as to how best we can create an atmosphere of cordiality between them and the local farmers. Unfortunately, this seems not to be working very well. And so, we need to also seriously address the issue of the Fulani herdsmen because they necessarily need to graze and so, we need to do something. Across the world and even if we look at the history of the cowboys in the western world, this was what was happening. If you watch some of the movies, they reflect what used to happen. Cowboys were roaming about with cows and creating a lot of problems for people. And then the government, at some points, now said, ‘this can no longer continue, let us have ranches’. What they have all over the western world are ranches where cattles are kept and facilities are provided. I think down the road, that is the way out. We must create ranches where these Fulani could graze because it is no longer feasible for us, as a country, to say we would create grazing routes as it was in the past when the population was less. At the time that this was happening, the entire population of Nigeria was less than a hundred million. Now, officially we are a hundred and something, unofficially, we are over 200 million. So, it is no longer feasible to talk about grazing routes. What we need to do is to have ranches for these people so that there can be localised facilities provided. Then we will be able to solve this problem of constant altercations between the fulani and local farmers across the entire nation.
Let’s go to the governors’ forum. There are views that since inception, the governors’ forum, rather than serve as a force for good governance, had been serving as an interest group for the protection of the interests of the governors and had been helping them to entrench their hold on power by ensuring that they determine who emerges as President. An example was the role members of the forum played in the emergence of Yar’Adua and in the delay in the assumption of office of the then Vice President Jonathan when Yar’Adua was out of the country for a long time on health grounds. Would you agree with the view that the governors’ forum does not really serve the cause of good governance?
No, I am a bit confused in people who hold that kind of view because, even if we look at advanced democracy, we take America for instance, because we are more or less practising what is being practised in America. When we look at the contemporary history of America, it is either that you are governor and you are President or you are in the Congress. If you look at the ratio, those who are governors are more than those who are coming from the Congress. That is to show that in a presidential system of government, there are some powers that certain political office-holders wield. And in this case, of course the governor of a state, who is the chief security officer of a state, who presides over the affairs of a state, for instance, Benue with 4.7 million people, you cannot say such a person will not peddle some level of influence. Peddling influence in a political arrangement is a normal thing. And first and foremost, what is a governor’s interest? Is that interest personal? Is it the interest of the state? Most time when we discuss the interest of the state, we take the issue of the excess crude, this money does not come into the pockets of the governors.
But its helps them achieve projects that impact positively on the lives of the people that they govern. And so when somebody say that the forum is protecting the interest of the governors, the forum has never stopped EFCC from arresting or prosecuting any governor. So how are we protecting our interests? What we tried to protect is the interest of the people that we govern. Governors forum is more like a pressure group where we feel that if the Federal Government is sharing the national cake, the states, which are the component units must optimally have their own fair share of that cake.
That is what we represent. There is no personal interest in the governors forum. It is just that some people within the forum have taken that as if... you see, it has become quite personal as if it is an election to be President. Otherwise, whoever is the NGF chairman is just somebody who is coordinating the activities of a pressure group. And when you begin to feel as if you are an executive of the governors’ forum, then ofcourse, it is unacceptable to somebody like me because you are no better governor than I am. We are all governors. We just feel that ok, at this point, this person should coordinate the activities. And then somebody begins to feel as if he is an executive and he should lord it over, and then make uncomplimentary comments on behalf of the governor. That is unacceptable. That is all that you see. Otherwise, the governors’ forum is meant to project the interest of the people of this country, because the component units of this country make up what is Nigeria. So, we are not protecting our interest. What we are doing is to, most times, put pressure on the Federal Government to say, ‘look what you are doing and we are not getting our own fair share, let us get our own fair share’.
In view of that you have just said and given the apparent division among the governors in the forum, coupled with the face-off between the president and the chairman of the forum, would you agree that the governors’ forum may have become weak that it may not be able to play the kind of role it played in the past in deciding who becomes the President in 2015 or where the pendulum swings to?
You see, in any gathering, you are bound from time to time to have this altercation. But I know, especially in the political environment, it is quite normal that this will settle down. I don’t think that the forum at anytime was a super forum. When people say that it has become weak, are you suggesting that governors, individually, in their various states have become weak? No, the forum is just where we meet and discuss national issues and issues that affect the states. You know, what is happening is just some inordinate ambition of some people. That is what I think. Otherwise, what is in governors’ forum? There are governors that don’t even attend the forum. It doesn’t change anything in them. So, this whole idea of.... The press has made it appear as if the forum is where there is so much power and so they determine life and death in this country. I don’t think so.
But since inception it has always determined who rules this country. So it has enormous powers?
(Cuts in...) No, of course politics is cycles of conspiracy. You will definitely have it within political parties. There is this story about some parties merging. If the parties merged with the governors that are with them, then ofcourse, conspire to have presidential candidate and they won. Ofcourse, within the PDP, you know you have the governors’ forum, the PDP governors’ forum will have a lot of say as to who becomes the President of this country, not the governors’s forum. The governors’ forum has different political parties. Those governors in other political parties will go back and sit down because they have the delegates. They will sit down and decide who will be the presidential candidate in that party. Within the PDP, we will sit down with other stakeholders within the PDP and decide who will be the presidential candidate. So, it is not as if the governors’ forum determines and decides, because we are in different political parties. What we will be doing in the PDP is to make sure that whoever emerges as the presidential candidate in the PDP wins election.
The other political party will be doing the same thing within their own party. The advantage which a governor has, which is constitutional is that within the state, the delegates that are coming to elect and participate in the primaries are coming with the governor and if the governor says this is the person we should vote for, that is the person they will vote for. So, they have a leverage, which is not illegal, which is legitimate. And so, I don’t see anything wrong if the governors decide that this is the person we have decided that should be President. There are also other groups of people who are not governors who also have interests and who will also be angling that they will decide who will be President. So, the fact that you are a governor does not make you any less a Nigerian and so, you shouldn’t, because you are a governor, decide who will be President.
Looking at the crisis between the President and the chairman of the forum, has there been any effort by members of the forum to mediate and ensure that this face-off is resolved?
Of course, yes. There were occasions that the President and the current chairman of the forum really had to talk personally, and some governors have also taken it upon themselves to actually tried to bring them together.
So, why has the crisis not been resolved?
No, it is personal. You know if I have a disagreement with somebody, the person who is coming to bring us together is a third party to that problem. So, if I do not want that problem resolved, it would not happen. But then, why this has become the governors’ forum’s problem is that that seems to be affecting what we stand for. We are not into all of these news media hype that this whole thing has taken, the direction it has taken. That was not what we were set up for. We were set up to meet and say, ‘Look, if the Federal Government is sharing, for instance, projects across the country, are they fairly shared?’ But now people have taken governors’ forum as if it is a platform for them to achieve their own personal purpose. And some of us said that that is not the philosophy or the principle behind the setting up of the governors’ forum and it will not be acceptable. We will never accept a situation like that.
The election is coming up on 23 of May or thereabout. Do you foresee a leadership change?
Some of us are determined that we must have a leadership in the governors’ forum that is not fighting the President. That is not acceptable. A leadership that is fighting the President, we were not set up to fight the President because all of us are in government. You should collaborate to provide good governance. It is not to engage in a fight. And so, there is no way we can be in a forum where we are perceived as people who are fighting the leadership of the country. It means that we are creating a fertile ground for anarchy in the country, and ofcourse, creating a lot of confusion and distractions. We don’t need that. We are supposed to collaborate in whaterver political party that we are. We come to the National Economic Council together, we come to the other meetings, irrespective of the parties that we belong to, there are certain bodies that all of us will come together to deliberate on issues that affect this country. And so, we are not meant to be fighting the leadership of this country.
Does disagreement with the President on, may be, policy issues amount to fighting the President?
Well, that is what is being portrayed. When you disagree with somebody and you make it to be a public thing when you belong to the same party. You know party discipline, you will never see any of the ACN governors disagree with their leadership and bring them down in the public. Have you ever heard of that? Have you seen it? It doesn’t happen. There must be some control and discipline. No matter the disagreement that you have, you are within the same party.
So, the mechanism within the party should have been able to address it. But when that becomes impracticable, then some other measures need to be taken. And that is why you have some governors within the PDP saying, ‘Look, this is not right. We don’t need this at this point in time.’ We have a lot of security challenges. Instead of us sitting down at the governors’ forum to discuss issues that will make meaning to Nigerians, we are discussing the issue of chairman of governors’ forum. Something that willingly, we didn’t vote, we just sat down and said that this is the person that should take over and then it has become a problem. Why? Why? This is the question. Why the desperation in the first place? If I were the chairman, even if five of my colleagues say that, ‘well, we don’t like your leadership’, I can leave the place because it does not attract any renumeration apart from the fact that you represent in any situation where they say you are speaking on behalf of the governors. That is it. And so, that shouldn’t be something that somebody will insist that I must be there. No.
But the way the fight is going on is amazing. We read in the papers that the security aides of the Rivers State Assembly speaker had been withdrawn?
The police aides?
I think that is a state issue. I don’t think that the President will say that the aides of the speaker should be withdrawn. I don’t think that. The President is too high up for him to be dragged into an issue that is for the state. That is purely on the state level. I don’t think that the President will say that they should go and withdraw the aides of a speaker in a state.
With all that have been said and unfolding developments within the forum. Do you see the governors’ forum playing any crucial role in 2015 presidential election as they have done in the past?
Absolutely. Like, I have told you, PDP has about 23 governors. So, PDP will definitely decide where the pendulum swings. There is no doubt about that. Forget the crises that are within the party. Within the ACN or whatever party that they will eventually form, as a group, they will also decide who becomes the presidential candidate. It will be the governors who will sit down and bring the delegates. No person brings delegates from the state outside of the governors. And so, they determine who becomes the candidates of their various parties, except parties that don’t have governors. Parties that have governors, those governors are major stakeholders in the arrangement of people who will emerge as candidates in their parties. And because we have overwhelming majority in the states, of course if 23 states decide that this is the person we are voting, that person becomes the president of this country and I believe that is what is going to happen.
Looking at it against the background of the alarm raised by Chief Tony Anenih (chairman of PDP board) during the South-South PDP leaders’ conference in Asaba where he said that the emerging APC and the rising number of governors in its fold is a threat to the dominance of PDP. Would you also agree with that?
You see, in any contest that you engage in, if you have an opponent, you should not take that opponent for granted. And so, for me, I have conducted elections up to four times. I don’t take any opponent for granted. I think that what Chief Anenih was saying is that let us not take any opponent for granted, whether it is ACN, ANPP or APC, whatever name they call themselves, let us not take them for granted. I don’t know somebody who takes any political contest for granted. And so we shouldn’t take any arrangement, in whatever form, for granted. But I know that nothing will stop PDP from producing the next President in 2015. There is a lot of noise around, but we also know what we are doing and we will produce the President for this country. Nothing is going to stop that.
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