Ango Abdullahi: The North’s Considering Other Presidential Candidates Apart from Buhari

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SATURDAY COVER STORY

• Federal Government Has Handed Over Its Economic Responsibility to IMF, Others
• North’s Money Was Used to Exploit Oil in Niger Delta

The Chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum’s Political Committee and Convener, Northern Elders Forum, Prof. Ango Abdullahi, in this interview with Bayo Akinloye says the North is ready to negotiate with other parts of Nigeria the unity and continued existence of the country and adds that apart from President Muhammadu Buhari, northerners are considering other viable candidates for 2019 presidential election

You were a vocal critic of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s regime talking about northern interests but have become silent now with President Muhammadu Buhari in charge. Why?

No, no, I’m not. I am not silent; I am not. Why did you say I’ve been silent? I have been part of the history of the civilian administration that came into this country in 1999. I was part of the formation of the Peoples Democratic Party. I was one of those who signed on the dotted lines for PDP to become a party. I was also a major player or participant in drafting the constitution and manifesto of the PDP. I was also part of the drafting of the manifesto and constitution of the party in the direction that for this country to have social and political stability; we don’t have to apply the strict meaning of democracy –one man, one vote –and that’s why we adopted the so-called rotation of power at the apex between the North and the South. I played a major role in getting (Olusegun) Obasanjo –whether he accepts or not –to be president because our structure created with that of Shehu Yar’Adua’s was the platform that was really used to support Obasanjo’s election in 1999. My quarrel with the PDP, including Obasanjo; my first quarrel with Obasanjo was his attempt to extend his tenure beyond what the constitution allows –not only the constitution of PDP but the constitution of the country. He wanted a third term even though he pretended that he didn’t know anything about it –that’s a big lie. Eventually, he succumbed and handed over to Umaru Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua died having spent three years in office; and this is after a clear understanding that Obasanjo’s eight years would also translate into eight years of northern presidency. But Yar’Adua died after spending three years in office. The logical conclusion –the sensible, gentlemanly conclusion –would be that the North would be required under the PDP to present another candidate that would run for the presidency in 2011. But there came all manners of debates by people, including Obasanjo and Jonathan, denying the existence of this agreement and this is the basis of my personal distrust of Jonathan’s integrity. But eventually some northerners connived to help Jonathan to the presidency in 2011 thus violating the power-sharing agreement concerning the presidential candidate of the party. I told Jonathan directly that I don’t trust him anymore. And despite all that had gone wrong, the man was even trying to win an election in 2015. If he had won, he would have violated the constitution of the country: he was sworn in as president following the death of Yar’Adua; sworn in the second time when he contested the presidency in 2011 and he was trying to vie for the presidency in 2015 that would have been four years plus five; that would have been nine years of presidency. But the Nigerian Constitution says nobody will be president of this country for a day more than eight years. Jonathan was intent on violating the constitution; that’s where I was against him. I wasn’t against Jonathan because he’s Ijaw or that he’s from South-South –no. I felt that he’s not such a person that can be trusted because if he could deny a gentleman’s agreement of which he was a party and also a beneficiary, he’s not the kind of person to deal with. So, it wasn’t that I had any special quarrels with him. Concerning the current administration, in various interviews I have granted, I stated that Buhari did not constitute a good team in his administration. I also pointed out that there would be no automatic ticket for anybody. It is not fair to say that I was hard on Jonathan and not as hard on the current president.

Going by your comment, which do you put first: national interests or northern interests?

Nigeria’s, until we reach the red line and say that Nigeria is no more. Then, we may be calling ourselves people from Dahomey; people from Niger or wherever. For now, we are all Nigerians and we’ll wish that Nigeria could be better managed. Our founding fathers did much better than the self-serving leaders. In fact, the crisis of this country began around 1974 and 1975. Our founding fathers did so well – the Awolowos, the Azikiwes, and the Sardaunas; Yakubu Gowon did so well; he continued with the philosophy. But by the time we ran into some of these self-serving leaders who saw Nigeria as a personal property; Nigeria’s resources are converted to personal gains by virtue of their being in public office. This is why we’re in trouble today.

The argument of some people is that the northerners have ruled Nigeria for so long without real development in the North and thus urged the region to seek leadership in other ethnic nationalities. Don’t you agree?

No, no, no. In fact, it’s the other way round. Now that you raised this point; it is the northern leadership from the beginning, starting with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa that had insisted every part of Nigeria should be treated fairly and equitably even at the expense of the area he came from. This is why he was the first to set up the Niger Delta Development Authority when oil was becoming apparent. It is northern leaders that created all the facilities –in fact, it was virtually the North’s money –that was used to exploit oil. The problem here that people see as northern foolishness is that we are being leaders but have not denied others to develop ourselves as we have seen in some southern leaders like Obasanjo and Jonathan that developed their areas to the detriment of other parts of the country, particularly the North. We’re not going to be given to that concept. We refuse to accept that because we’re leaders of the country we should look after ourselves and then deny others of their rights. We’re not going to do that no matter what happens. But we’ll also now not allow anyone from other parts of the country to deny us our rights and that is the position we’ve taken.

What do you think about Boko Haram’s stance against Western education?

The Boko Haram phenomenon has nothing to do with Western education. It has never been the basis of its coming into existence. Many of the members of Boko Haram are graduates; many active members of Boko Haram are graduates. Also, I can tell you that –in fact –some of them are PhD holders. So, it has got nothing to do with Western education. It has more to do with the manner in which the socio-economic structures of the country are being managed. The areas where there is easy recruitment of Boko Haram members are the poorest areas of this country –North-East. But it might interest you to know that quite a number of the active leadership of Boko Haram are from Kogi State. It has nothing to do with Western education; in fact, many of the Boko Haram members are more educated than those who claim to have had Western education. The crisis of Boko Haram –either the current type or the future type of Boko Haram –that this country will end up having must be related to our willingness to manage this country so that we avoid all those ingredients that cause disaffection, anger, and distrust. Seeing people affluently mismanaging our resources to the detriment of the majority that are wallowing in abject poverty; this is what will breed either new Boko Haram or a new version (of extremists) in the future unless something is done about it. The level of unemployment of graduates in this country is frightening and this is a recruiting ground for the banditry we’re witnessing in our society today.

What’s your assessment of President Buhari in his handling of corruption, security, and the economy?

My assessment is in the communiqué we issued last Saturday. I’m the leader of the forum now. I will not be able to give you a different opinion from what the group had stated in its communiqué. Now, my personal opinion in many cases will not count. And, I do not want my personal opinion in this case to count. I wish to act according to the wishes of the group.

According to that communiqué, you stated that the federal government has not performed well in terms of the economy, security, and the fight against corruption. Similar assessment was made concerning other levels of government in the country. Is that correct?

You see, it’s theoretical for you to separate the economy of the federal government and the rest of the economy of the country. It’s one economy; Nigeria must have one economy and where you have a failure, the failure affects the rest of the country. Read that communiqué properly, the leadership that we should worry about could not be related to the federal or central government. We should work harder to restore good governance at the state and local government levels.

Are you saying the federal government shouldn’t be blamed for the country’s current economic and security challenges?

Look, you’re the one asking a question that’s totally inappropriate. The federal government in any case regardless of what financial proportion it gets, has the responsibility for national planning. It should provide leadership for national planning and that’s why it has the National Economic Council. But this country has abandoned national planning for many years now. There’s no planning for development. This is the real issue that we have to revisit. The federal government, as I have said before, doesn’t have a good economic team.

Many people were relieved when they heard about the return of many of the abducted Dapchi schoolgirls. But some believe their abduction was stage-managed. Is that how you feel too?

I’m not going to go into speculations. There were speculations when the Chibok girls were abducted with some people saying it wasn’t true. But it turned out to be a painful truth. Therefore, I cannot also run the risk of speculating that this abduction was arranged. They cannot stage-manage this kind of thing. If it was stage-managed why haven’t the remaining Chibok girls been released?

The communiqué issued by 18 northern groups which you lead said political office holders from the North ‘are hereby served notice that they have failed the test to lead the region towards economic recovery and growth’. Do these politicians include Buhari?

The communiqué means exactly what is written in it; referring to northern politicians –all of them. Or, rather, most of them – in fact, that is the word (most). We debated that word. So, we had to settle for the expression, ‘most of the politicians’ in the North.

That’s what the communiqué said. What’s your opinion?

I have no opinion there. No opinion there. The opinion I have is the opinion of the meeting as contained in the communiqué. That’s where my opinion rests.

The statement talked about the ‘worsening economic fortunes of the vast majority of northerners.’ Are northerners worse off under Buhari’s government?

Again, the issue of the economy is a very delicate and widespread phenomenon; it was part of our discussion. Indeed, the economy of Nigeria has experienced dramatic challenges including our own. And, of course, we’re not sure whether groups outside the North do not feel the pinch of the economy. I believe that is not the case considering what came out of the papers concerning debts incurred by various states of the federation; the number of months that have passed without salaries being paid. The number of months that have passed without pensions being paid to pensioners and so on and so forth. So, obviously, the economy is a very critical factor in the country. And, we’re not claiming that poverty is exclusive to the North. There are poor people everywhere in the country. If you look at the National Bureau of Statistics, it gives you a summary of general state of poverty in the country zone by zone. Therefore, from all what we can read; the human development indices that you referred to mainly related to the economy are lowest in the northern part of the country, particularly North-East and North-West. I think we’ll be speaking quite fairly on behalf of those who are poor in these areas. We have to hold accountable those who manage the economy. Remember that the essence of a government is the welfare of the public and if people are not happy because of their welfare, their means of livelihood, apparently, we have a responsibility to talk about it.

The northern coalition said it has some ‘available options’ at its disposal ahead of the 2019 elections. What are those options?

The options are everywhere. I mean, you can see the political scenarios that are developing. There are the old parties that are referred to as the ruling and opposition parties; they are the so-called major parties. But you’re also aware that quite a number of new parties are also emerging. All of them are emerging not for fun, I suppose. I think they’re emerging because they want to partake in the political process. And, this is why we’re saying that our doors are wide open. We can subscribe to any group that has ideas that are similar to our own, particular as regard the political future of the country.

That presupposes that beyond the possible re-election bid of Buhari, the northern coalition is considering other presidential candidates for 2019?

That’s what our communiqué said. Our communiqué expressly said that all options are on the table. In that case, all options will include people of various backgrounds from various jurisdictions, various political persuasions, and so on, who will want to offer themselves for political leadership of the country are all part of the options that are on our table.

In that statement, your group also claimed that ‘FG spending is severely tilted against the North. Are you saying the Buhari government is anti-North?

The budget that was spelt out in 2016 and the budget of 2017 as well as the budget that is on the ground waiting for approval by the National Assembly; these are the budgets we examined in the context of resource allocation and distribution both for human and infrastructural development. It is from these figures that we deduced that, yes, the North both in terms of territorial expanse, population, and so on has not been equitably treated in this administration.

Is that what your coalition referred to as the ‘routine denial of rights’ of fair budgetary allocation by the federal government? What are the ‘rights’ that the communiqué referred to?

I mean if you look at the constitution and the revenue allocation formula which has been adopted by the country based perhaps on the recommendations of committee or the body that is responsible for determining revenue sharing in the country and it appears to us these recommendations are not being strictly respected and adhered to. It is on this basis that we looked at the allocation in the 2016 budget, 2017 budget, and now 2018 budget and conclude that the government has not been equitably fair to the North – in terms of size, in terms of population, and in terms of the constitutional provisions that I want to emphasise in Chapter 2 of the Nigerian Constitution; which says that there should be every effort by the government to ensure even development in the country.

Did the routine denial start with the Buhari administration?

No; the routine denial couldn’t have started with the Buhari administration. It has been going on particularly since Obasanjo became a civilian president. It has been going on for a long time. The Chapter 2 of the Nigerian Constitution was completely discarded; that part of the constitution places responsibility on the government to ensure that it creates a platform for the commanding heights of the economy for the benefit of the masses. But it handed it over to bodies like the IMF (International Monetary Fund). It is the responsibility of the government to control our resources. For example, look at the oil industry: we did a study on it and we found that all the borrowing that is going on in terms of oil resource control and so on; we found out that constitutionally, 80 per cent of the benefits of the oil industry are offshore. Nigeria gets only about 18 per cent of the benefits of our industry – we don’t control the technology of the exploration, we don’t control the technology of the distribution, transportation, export and so on. We hardly have control on this vital resource that is causing so much disharmony in this country. Only 18 per cent is what we’re quarrelling over. The remaining 80 per cent is already elsewhere. We have low private sector participation in the economy; public sector is shrinking and bloated by over-employment; that’s why salaries and pensions are not paid. The totality of this is poverty and this poverty is the stimulant of various vices that we see today; banditry, robbery, kidnapping are all products of poverty. These are not exclusive to any section of the country; it’s all over. So, these are things that we’re talking about. In all fairness they did not begin with the current government. They’ve been going on for years, particularly since we returned to the so-called democracy in 1999. I say so-called in the sense that a democracy that I understand is one that caters for the responsibility of the welfare of citizens. I say so-called in the sense that there’s been impunity in punishing people guilty of corruption, stealing of public resources, etc. In a democratic society –serious democratic society –you cannot allow this to happen. This is why I said so-called. Democracy means rights of everyone are equal in the eyes of the law but here, you will agree with me that in some countries like France, a former president of France has been sitting with the police for hours being questioned over what happened to be a gift but considered to be bribery. He may end up in court, perhaps in jail. You can relate that to other examples where democracy works; where the laws also work without discrimination.

Are you suggesting that past leaders who have been accused of corruption should be tried?

That’s what we mean by democracy. Democracy is government of the people, for the people, and by the people. The democracy we’ve copied is from the so-called Western countries. It’s a democracy where an offence is an offence. And, an offence is supposed to be investigated and if found to be true, the offender should be appropriately punished. But you cannot list the number of people that have been punished for stealing public funds in Nigeria in the last 20 years. You can’t; except the small fry –the clerks and people who stole goats and so on. But we’re talking about people who had custody of our treasury and seemed to have violated it –and they’re walking free today. There must be no sanctuary for offenders.

The group also said it’s willing to ‘put our union as a nation on the table and discuss with other Nigerians the relative values of all options and negotiate them.’ Are you talking about negotiating the continued existence of Nigeria with other ethnic nationalities?

We’ve spoken extensively about this. Nigeria has been on this persistent debate about the country not really structured the way some people believe it should be structured. Everyone appears to have his own view of how Nigeria should be structured. This structure started in 1914 when the Lagos Colony, Southern Protectorate and Northern Protectorate were amalgamated by the British colonialists. Today, the efforts of all Nigerians should be how to build a country but we’ve not succeeded in doing that. Before the independence, in fact, we did better than we’re doing now. Therefore, the issue of restructuring, of course, it’s a subject that we’re ready to discuss with anyone. The issue of the country and its existence is also an issue that we’re prepared to discuss with anyone who questions the very basic need for having the country as it is now; because there are some people who are arguing along those lines that Nigeria, ab initio, had been mistakenly put together by the British. Although some clergymen say it is God, it’s not God. It is the creation of the colonial masters. We should also be able to learn from history. Many countries started the way we started. Take India as an example: In 1948 when it got independence from the British colonialists, it was India as a country. But a couple of years later, problems emerged; before you knew it India split into India and Pakistan. Another couple of years, Pakistan also split into East and West Pakistan; the present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. No country to my mind should be seen to be permanently structured to the satisfaction of all generations that are coming through it. If you consider the Soviet Union, one of the so-called superpowers, only two decades ago or thereabout it was one super country but now there are nine countries that came out of the former Soviet Union. Even in Britain, only two years ago, there was a referendum that Scotland wanted to opt out. Even now, there are problems regarding the Ireland and Northern Ireland and so on. There are other countries that started as one but for one reason or the other they decided that they should part ways –even in Africa; the latest example is Sudan and South Sudan. Hence, Nigeria should not shy away from discussing the future of their country particularly if this debate is going to affect the lives of the generations that are coming after us. We can’t be selfish and insist that this country must remain one if all the indicators show otherwise. That’s what we mean; we’re saying that all the options should be open for discussion at any time.

A former Minister of Defence, Lt. Gen. Theophilus Danjuma, has called on Nigerians to defend themselves in view of the spate of killings going on in the country while accusing the Nigerian Army of bias in resolving the violent conflicts across the country. What do you think about that comment?

TY Danjuma’s remarks –now that you’re asking me –I almost would have turned it down. But I will say this: TY Danjuma was a military officer; he rose to the rank of a general. Perhaps, he had the opportunity of being the head of state of this country. For him to have spoken the way he did, I found it rather unfortunate; very, very unfortunate. Why? Because coming from someone who could have been the head of state of Nigeria, coming from someone who was Chief of Army Staff of this country, coming from someone who was Minister of Defence of this country; for him to come down to this level is most unfortunate. But if this is the way he feels I advise him to go and wear his uniform and start defending his people in Takum and Taraba State. He should wear his uniform and come out in defence of his people.