It’s easy to imagine the abstemious politician taking a cursory look at some documents on the shiny, transparent coffee table as he steadied the glasses on the ridge of his nose. A sombre smile on his lips lingers fleetingly as he reminisces about his past, present and future political battles. Atiku Abubakar has walked a chequered path to power. In the build-up to the historical 1993 presidential election, he was edged out as Chief MKO Abiola’s running mate by the Social Democratic Party’s powers that be. By May 29, 1999, he was sworn in as Nigeria’s Vice President – a position he held until 2007. Since that time, he has shown express desire to be Nigeria’s president. His hope is to see a time when Nigerians of different tribes and tongues will see one another as brothers and sisters. As suave as he is, the former Vice President cuts the figure of controversy with some believing that he is more after self-gratification than salvaging a nation said to be undergoing political ravaging. Saying he was forced out of the Peoples Democratic Party, he joined the All Progressives Congress and with just few years spent in that party, he turned in his resignation and returned to the PDP. Just as the public guessed right that he would leave the APC and return to the PDP, not a few feel that he will run for president of Nigeria in 2019. In this interview, Atiku tells Bayo Akinloye what he will do differently if he is the president of the country amidst the country’s current chaos and disruptions. He also talks about the need for the country to be restructured, arguing that restructuring will unite –not dismember –Nigeria
A few weeks ago you resigned from the All Progressives Congress and returned to your original party, the Peoples Democratic Party. By doing that you livened up the polity, momentum was in your sprint, that all seems to have ebbed away. What happened? Did you suddenly developed cold feet about your return to the PDP?
Cold feet? Not at all. I think what has happened is that some people may have confused an event with a process. Resigning from the All Progressives Congress was an event. Rejoining the Peoples Democratic Party is a process. The law of process is one of the most vital laws of leadership. Worthwhile processes happen over time; they do not happen overnight. You must remember that unlike the APC, the PDP is a party governed by processes. And then on a wider scale, there are other processes that are controlled by the Independent National Electoral Commission. I understand that standards have slipped in the last few years and people expect ad hoc behaviour from the political class. But I come from a tradition of discipline.
I had a Facebook live video interface with Nigerians where I announced my resignation from the APC on November 24, 2017. The leadership of the PDP in the North-East geopolitical zone paid a solidarity visit to me on December 3, 2017. I visited the PDP national headquarters on December 5, 2017 where I was received by the party’s caretaker committee including the then caretaker Chairman, Senator Ahmed Makarfi. I was a participant and major speaker at the December 9, 2017 convention of the PDP. Thereafter, I began national consultations. I was in Ekiti State to confer with the Chairman of the PDP Governors Forum, Governor Ayo Fayose, on January 25, 2018. Between February 1 and 2, 2018, I attended the funeral of Dr. Alex Ekwueme, and was energised by the legacy of that great man and fellow founding father of the PDP. So the issue of cold feet does not arise. If anything, my feet are warm. Let me add that politics is not about delivering activity. It is about having a positive impact and that I have been doing.
We are hearing yet again that you are perfecting plans to defect to the Social Democratic Party, the SDP. Can you clarify this once and for all?
The SDP? This is news to me. Yes, I was a member of the Social Democratic Party along with Chief MKO Abiola, the late Shehu Musa Yar’Adua and many other patriots. As a party, we worked with Chief Abiola and helped him win the June 12, 1993 presidential election. However, that party was made defunct by the military on the 17th of November, 1993. I have no plans whatsoever to join any party known as the SDP. I never left the PDP. I was pushed out. I did not go looking to join the APC. It was the APC that came to me at my house on December 19, 2013, appealing to me to join their party because my party, the PDP was factionalised at that time. I am one of the founding fathers of the PDP. I have absolutely no reason to contemplate leaving the PDP as those challenges which caused it to be factionalised have now been fully resolved.
You have been at the forefront of calls for restructuring. Do you really believe in it or you merely see it as a vote-getter in 2019? The truth is: many are skeptical about your position on this. How do you convince them that you are serious about it?
I have been a consistent advocate for restructuring since 1995 when I was a member of the National Constitutional Conference. My brother in arms in the push for restructuring was the late Dr. Alex Ekwueme. The idea for the six geopolitical zones is a fruit of our restructuring advocacy from that conference. Rotational presidency was another fruit. If I have been consistent about restructuring since 1995, which is 23 years ago, the question cynics should ask is this: Is it possible for a man to pretend for 23 years? I am passionate about restructuring. I believe in it. Restructuring does not mean the dismemberment of Nigeria. Rather, it would lead to a more perfect union for all of us. It does not matter what tribe you come from, you have got the identity of a Nigerian. We must get rid of the unhealthy rivalry that exists amongst our people and create in its place pure harmony. But for this to happen we must build true unity with fidelity to the principles espoused by our founding fathers which were the ground upon which Nigeria was built. The reason we have been having these negative disruptions and periodic chaos is because we have drifted away from those ideals that ensured that between 1957 and 1966, Nigeria was one of the most stable and economically prosperous nations in the world.
Harmony does not mean uniformity. This nation is too large and heterogeneous to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather than force all of our ethnic nationalities to have a uniform voice, I believe that the mark of a true leader is the ability to craft a blend of the various voices within Nigeria into a harmonious tune that produces pleasant music that is conducive to unity. Any forced unity that is not founded on justice is a unity of oil and water. They will never mix. But justice is the bonding agent. The glue, if you will, that binds many pages into one book, and if I were to title that book, I would call it ‘Great Nigeria’. This is the only motive behind my consistent call for the restructuring of Nigeria. I vividly remember the healthy rivalry that existed amongst the three regions in early pre-independent Nigeria. Unity founded on justice was the reason for that healthy interplay amongst the three regions.
The Western Region was allowed to exploit its resources and they set the pace which was followed and sometimes surpassed by the other regions. Those saying that we should forget our differences and just forge ahead as if they (the differences) do not exist need a reality check from Sir Ahmadu Bello, the late Sardauna of Sokoto. The Right Honourable Nnamdi Azikiwe had told the Sardauna thus: ‘Let us forget our differences’ to which Sir Ahmadu Bello responded as follows: ‘No, let us understand our differences. I am a Muslim and a Northerner. You are a Christian, an Easterner. By understanding our differences, we can build unity in our country’. It is this ‘understanding’ that I am championing, using restructuring as the only vehicle that can bring it about. Without this understanding, we will continue taking one step forward and two steps backwards as our very recent history atte sts to.
As a Fulani yourself, how do you feel about ongoing security crisis largely caused in many parts of the country by killer herdsmen of Fulani extraction?
The herdsmen crisis has arisen because of a failure of leadership. Nations are not static. They grow and change. Fifty years ago, desertification was not an issue in northern Nigeria. Now it is an issue. The changing environment has placed a great strain on people who live off the land like the herdsmen. Leadership is essentially about anticipating the consequences of these changes. When I gave the keynote speech at this year’s Silverbird Man of the Year ceremony, I addressed this issue. I said Nigeria is caught up in a Malthusian trap where population growth has far exceeded GDP growth. For the specific issue of herdsmen, in my private capacity, I established a company called Rico Gardo that provides animal feeds at very affordable prices to pastoralists so that they do not need to graze their cattle on private lands. This firm has been very successful in reducing herdsmen-farmers clashes in its area of operation. John F. Kennedy said, ‘When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.’
I think our current set of leaders are too focused on the danger side of crisis and are not as focused on the opportunity side of it. Turn this crisis into an opportunity. New challenges require new thinking. If I were to advise the Federal Government, I would counsel them to learn from Rico Gardo. Just as Nigeria has built government and privately owned fertilizer plants, the government should build and encourage the private sector to build animal feeds factories. Sell the feeds to the herdsmen and make money from them. The value chain this industry will create will generate jobs for Nigerians and revenue for the government. But most important, it will end these clashes. I am not telling you of what I have heard. I am telling you of what I am doing. And what I am doing is working in the area where Rico Gardo is operational. My plan for the future is to expand nationwide. However, let me also say that it is a misnomer to use the term ‘killer herdsmen of Fulani extraction’ or ‘killer Fulani herdsmen’. When kidnappers kidnap, we do not identify them by their ethnicity. We identify them as kidnappers, pure and simple. The vast majority of Fulani people are peaceful and live in harmony with other ethnicities. There may be fringe elements with criminal tendencies. Some may be Fulani. Some may not even be. Let us identify them by their activities and not by their ethnicity.
What is your reaction to the kidnap of 110 schoolgirls from Dapchi in Yobe State?
Let me paraphrase Oscar Wilde and say that to lose one set of girls to Boko Haram may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose another set, looks like carelessness. As an opposition party, the APC was vocal to the point of exploitating the issue of the Chibok girls’ kidnapping. They did not cut the Jonathan administration any slack. They criticised that government every step of the way and some may even claim that they undermined the then government’s efforts at resolving that unfortunate incident. So it is rather surprising that a set of people who were so unsparing in their critique of the previous government would be in a situation whereby they have allowed these same terrorists to kidnap 110 girls. And not just the girls; I am very sad about the killing of United Nations’ staff and aid workers in Rann. We have also had policewomen abducted by Boko Haram.
What would I have done differently? Recently, the Chairman of the Police Service Commission, Chief Mike Okiro, revealed that 150,000 policemen are guarding various elites and those we know as ‘big men’. If I had my way, I would have recalled all of those 150,000 policemen who are not performing core police duties and send them to provide security for every school in the North-East region. That to me would be a better use of their time and services. We already know that Boko Haram has an agenda to cripple Western education in Nigeria. So how could we have left those schools unguarded? Why should the police be guarding VIPs who can afford personal guards and leave vulnerable girls unguarded? We are spending billions of Naira trying to encourage girls to go to school only to allow them be abducted by terrorists. I gave a number of Chibok girls scholarships to school at the American University of Nigeria, Yola. I did this in part because I wanted to reverse the damage done by Boko Haram to girl child education in Nigeria. I condemn these abductions and I urge the Federal Government to take firm action to ensure that it would never re-occur in Nigeria.
If elected in 2019 what will be your first action as president?
That is a hypothetical question because I have not declared any ambition to run for president in 2019. However, if what you are proposing should happen, my focus would be on jobs. I have ideas on how to make jobs for all a reality and in God’s good timing, I shall make this public. For now, let me just say that I strongly believe that a man who has no hair cannot lend you a comb. It is wishful thinking to expect a man who is unable to create wealth in his private businesses to create wealth for the public. I have been creating jobs in the private sector for over 30 years. Modesty is my nature and is the tradition with which I was brought up. But personally, the employees in my firms number in the tens of thousands. There is no state in Nigeria that is not represented on our payroll. In essence, my first action would be to remove the impediments that militate against job creation. The budgeting process would be disrupted. No more would recurrent expenditure attract the lion’s share. I would reverse this. We would have a budget heavy on capital expenditure. Roads will be built in every state. Mass housing schemes would pop up in every local government area. Railways will be extended to every state capital. Rivers would be dredged to open up the hinterlands of the North. Licences would be given to state governments to begin immediate exploitation of resources in their jurisdictions.
I would turn Nigeria into a massive construction project. I will not be doing this for fun. The purpose would be to get Nigerians working again. If our youths are busy building roads, mass housing, power stations, dams and schools, they will not have time to be Boko Haram, kidnappers and militants. Our youths are some of the most intelligent and innovative youths on planet earth. But if we do not give them positive outlets to express their innate intelligence, we can be sure they would express them negatively.