Professor Ango Abdullahi is the convener of Northern Elders Forum and former Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. Abdullahi, who has been in the news for one controversy or the other over the years, especially as it affects Northern Nigeria, turned 80 years old on December 13. In this interview with Ekele Peter Agbo the octogenarian talks about his childhood; growing up among other matters
80 years on earth, how do you feel?
Well, I feel what you see from outside and I also feel what I feel from inside. The other day a friend of mine was making a comment at an elders’ meeting and he said “You don’t look the 80 years that you are claiming, or are you making it up?” And I said, “No! You may be seeing something younger than 80 years, but that is what you feel and you have to allow me to also feel what I feel inside that commensurate with 80 years.
There is nothing more to say, but to thank the Almighty God for His Mercy, for His grace to spare this life from the cradle to what it is now, 80 years. I am particularly grateful that I am celebrating 80 years in a country where life expectancy is only about 48 years. So, you can see how generous the Creator has been to some of us who are this lucky to live this long. Of course in my case, I would it is something in the family; some genes for longevity. My father died at the age of 100 years; he was born in 1890 and died in 1990 and he never prayed sitting down till the day he breathed his last.
Could you share with us your life as a young man?
I was born on 13 December 1938 in Old Giwa village, about 30 kilometers from Zaria. It is what we presently have as Yakawada. When I was two years old in 1940, my father was appointed the village head of Yakawada, so we had to move from Giwa to Yakawada. And then in 1944, when I was six years old, children were being recruited or rather captured to go to schools ‘Makarantan Boko’ at that time.
And my father being the village head, with the difficult job of getting recruits into the elementary school that was nearest to our village, concluded that I should go to school. I was too young at the age of six because the ages that were recruited were 11, 12 and 13. My mother was not happy, but she really had no choice. My mother’s only consolation was that I would be living with her younger sister, whose husband was a teacher in the school. She still wasn’t happy even though her sister was there, so she decided that one of my older sisters must accompany me to the school to do the chores that a six-year-old could not do. I was supposed to stay with the teacher. I stayed for one year, and you know, according to our cultural customs, you don’t get circumcision unless you are seven years old. Thus, I went without circumcision so one year after, I was brought back to do mine. That is how it was and I think it was God’s intervention.
Looking back now, I was actually the one that blazed the trail in the nucleus family. I was lucky I would say; even among the older boys whenever they could not answer question, the teacher would say a prepared younger person ought to be an equal companion to an older person. So each time, the older ones could not answer questions in the class room, I would be called to answer it but of course I suffered the consequence during break or after school; the knocks that would come on my head that I was disgracing them.
After four or five years of elementary school, we moved to what we called Remedial School in those days. It was a Junior Secondary School. In Elementary School in my days, the English language was not used in teaching, so you have to come to Remedial Class where you begin to pick up English. After two years in the Remedy School, I picked exams forms and passed to Barewa College in 1952 and 1953, which was the only secondary school in northern Nigeria. It was only about 50 of us. Barewa College has produced some heads of state; Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; Gen Yakubu Gowon; Shehu Shagari and Murtala Muhammed.
Most of the trained leaders of Northern Nigeria ended up in Kaduna, Kaduna being the political headquarters of Northern Nigeria. Maybe that was what gave rise to northern leaders seeing things together, working together and succeeding together.
What happened after Barewa College?
After Barewa College, I got admitted to Nigerian College of Art and Technology here in Zaria. There were three colleges at that time, one in Ibadan, one in Enugu and one in Zaria; we got admitted to that of Zaria with quite a number of friends one can remember. Even though we were not from the same secondary school, I remember we met TY Danjuma. We got admitted the same year. In fact, his room was next to mine. One day, we came out of morning lectures and we were just approaching our rooms when he said to me, “Ango I’m going” and I said, “Going where?” And he said, “I’m going to join the Army. I said, “Why wait this long?” He said, “My parents refused that I joined the Army and that is why I came to the college, but yesterday I got their letter permitting me to join the Army. I said is that what happened? In terms of culture or even religion, obedience to parents will translate into something very good for a child, I can assure you are going to be a successful military man and that is why it is still very difficult to beat TY Danjuma in terms of military records and integrity.
That was how we started our A level in the Nigerian College of Arts and Technology because there was no university in the country except the University of Ibadan, that is where we got admitted in 1961. We were the last set of university college students who would get the university of London degree because it was the University College of London. Wole Soyinka was just graduating when we got admitted into Ibadan. Of course, Adamu Ciroma was our senior, we didn’t find him there. Olu Falae was in the hall with me but he was studying Economics; he was two years my senior, Jim Nwobodo was one year my junior and we were also in the same hall. We were quite a number of Nigerians who knocked the doors of politics, business and so on, that we shared life together at the University College, Ibadan.
When did you graduate?
We graduated in 1964 and came back home. I started my career with the Northern Nigeria Ministry of Agriculture, but as soon as I reported for documentation in the ministry, they said my posting would be Samaru. At that time, Ahmadu Bello University had just been formed 1962 and the institutions that were there formed the nuclei of many of the departments and faculties of the early Ahmadu Bello University. The Institute for Agriculture Research that we know now was a research department of Northern Nigeria Ministry of Agriculture, then when it was incorporated into ABU academically, it changed into an institute for agriculture research, and that was where my first posting was in 1964.
Recently, you have added your voice to the clamour for restructuring. In what form do you think the Nigeria should be restructured?
The first step towards restructuring Nigeria should be to change our system of government and return to the parliamentary system of government. The presidential system, we know, is not for poor countries. It is a sophisticated capitalist based political system that gives special privileges and advantages to the strong against the weak. I argued that parliamentary system is more accountable, you cannot be a minister of government until you are an elected person from your base which means that you are accountable to a people. So, they can come to you and say look you are our representative and we are not happy with you.
Then you come to parliament when eventually the prime minister nominates you as a minister, you become accountable not only to your elected constituency but to the parliament which will approve and then you are accountable to the Prime Minister who nominated you, so there are various levels of accountability and each one can be important and effective. Apart from accountability, the presidential system we brought about is corruption ridden and we have seen it and since there is no accountability there is impunity even in corruption and there is nowhere for you to run to in order to get justice. If we are going to restructure this country which I believe the best thing is to move away from this presidential system to parliamentary as a more accountable system and much cheaper.
The six geopolitical zones have different versions of their restructuring, is that the kind of restructuring that will salvage Nigeria from its present quagmire?
No. That is why I’m saying that we have do it systematically and fundamentally because, if it is just legislation over a particular issue whether it is state police or resource control, for me, with these fractured inefficient units called states, it is totally inefficient and wasteful structures. I’ll give you an example of the North where I started work, there was one governor, one premier, there were 17 permanent secretaries, there was one legislative house and of course, there was house of chiefs. Those structures as few as they were, were working, we had lights, water, you could sleep with your doors closed. The hospitals were working and even those of us who were lucky got free elementary school, secondary school, university with free uniforms and pocket money without oil money. Oil money began to make a difference in 1974. Chief Obafemi Awolowo prosecuted civil war with borrowing one kobo. The issue here is leadership.
I think what we need to do is sit down and discuss the kind of restructuring we want. The North requires more restructuring than other regions. I’ve told this to my fellow elders. When we discuss it, we will come to a common understanding of what restructuring is all about and then will put a place an administration that will understand us and listen to us, we will be on the same page with this administration.
Which type of restructuring would you advise?
In fact, the restructuring we require is the restructuring of the mindset of the elite to accept that he is responsible by virtual of advantage in education which he got from public funds and so on not willing to look at the country as one problem.
How many times have we seen members of the National Assembly visiting parts of Nigeria for them to see physically the challenges facing each and every part of this country? Yes we know oil pollution, oil spillage but have we bothered to go and see sand storms and other challenges to understand the reality in the country.
These are the things that should bring our mindset to a position that If we want to holistically have a country that will be our own and that we will be prepared to defend its interest anywhere, then of course, we must address this. Even the constitution says Nigeria should strive to achieve even development and that is why it also abhors monopolistic tendencies by individuals or groups of individuals in terms of concentrating resources in few hands and this why this issue of government should not be involved in business which the Western world doesn’t want. The Western world wants free market economy because they have the technology and they have the capital, they are the ones who bought most of our assets by proxy.
When the issue of restructuring comes up, some people want us to go back to the regions what is your opinion?
I talked to many of such people and they preferred the 1960 constitution. I support completely the collapsing of the present 36 states into something more sensible, more economical and more socially cohesive because the creation of these states the way they are had created even more divisions in Nigeria. The unity we used to have is gone, so to me these 36 states should collapse into maximum of six regions. That is the major restructuring I’ll recommend and of course with the collapse to these regions, the regions will adopt a parliamentary system of government that makes elections a basic need for any body to hold a political office like commissioner or minister.
What is your take on the consensus candidate for the presidential elections in 2019?
The Northern Elders Forum came into existence as a politically activist group and it didn’t call itself sociocultural organisation, we made it clear when we formed it. Our mission is to partake actively in national politics in terms or within the context of one Nigeria that has historically regional, historical diversity. Whether we like it or not ethnicity or diversity had never disappeared much as we have worked hard to see whether we can overcome but we have not. In fact, aggravate is what some corners would say. We only know ourselves, we don’t know others in the same country so there is no convergence of interest to have a common front.
Our parents did wonderfully well for us given the number of years the British brought us together we were able to see Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Sadauna and others sitting together and looking at the country far ahead of us where they were at that time. Each time they disagreed, Sadauna’s philosophy is that if we are not one and we cannot be one immediately, our first start is to understand our differences. Once we can understand our differences at any given point, we will be able to move forward. This was the philosophy that moved them eventually. Some parts of the country become self-governed earlier than the others. The West got itself government in 1957. The North got its in 1959, two years after. Sadauna argued that if you wanted to have self government, you ought to have resources to run it particularly human resources and the North had just one secondary school when there were already PhD’s and doctors in the West and the East.
Have you been able to speak with President Muhammadu Buhari?
No. In fairness to the elders when we met Afenifere and the rest of them, in one of the resolutions, we said we should talk to all the presidential candidates. Of course, Buhari is one of the Presidential candidates so they drafted a letter but I refused to sign.
Of recent Boko Haram renewed its offensive on the Northeast; what do you think of it and what do you think is the way out?
Again whatever we do, we try to give it a base. When (Goodluck) Jonathan was in office of course Boko Haram was there. In fact Boko Haram started during Umaru YarAdua. Careless handling resulted in Boko Haram becoming more and more vicious and so on. Thus, when Jonathan started and politics came into it and I tried to disabuse the minds of people when they said Boko Haram was created to make governance difficult for Jonathan. I said no, it is because you don’t know the history of this thing. In fact it was Yar’Adua that started attacking Boko Haram and they began to generate the anger to retaliate. So we gave very thorough consideration to the problem of Boko Haram during Jonathan’s administration.
I was virtually the scribe that wrote the advisory report to Jonathan’s government on how to deal with the issue of Boko Haram and we came as a delegation led by Maitama Sule to the Villa to deliver that report. He took it and he said he would study it and call us back and see whether or not we could take the discussion further. He mentioned that he would do some work on it over night because he had security meeting the following day. I think it was that his study based on what we wrote that led to the establishment of the dialogue committee that was set up under the chairmanship of Turaki. They asked us to submit two names on the committee and we gave him Dr Akim and Sheikh Ahmed Lemu.
And they started work. They were engaging the people and getting feedback and it was becoming clear that these chaps were developing an ideological base, the issue of religion to them is just a façade but really it was an ideological group. Soon after this dialogue started, we led a team to Maiduguri and unfortunately, when we landed in Maiduguri and were preparing to move to Lake Chad, two announcements came from Abuja. One was that Boko Haram had been proscribed, so if they had been proscribed then who would we go to talk to. And second was that there was a state of emergency at the same time.
So the governor of Borno said he could not risk us leaving Maiduguri to anywhere. “You must go back,” he told us. Based on these announcements, we did not want any incident and so we came back. We tried as much as possible to bring the issues in terms of socio-economic effects of Boko Haram and even the international community that eventually came around to assess the situation said there was no way there wouldn’t have been uprising in that corner of Nigeria given the degree of poverty and lack of opportunities around the lake that used to generate or support the economy of that area. Lake Chad has receded. As a young officer, we used to go and do some experiments on the lake.
The lake has receded 70 miles from what it used to be. So poverty had increased in the area and of course Boko Haram was attacking banks to make money, stealing cows and selling them. They were thriving, so even then, we told the government that they could not win the war militarily. We advised them to learn lessons from other parts of the world. Even the almighty America found it necessary to engage in dialogue with the Taliban, so why not do something like that?
Unfortunately they had no such experience in dealing with this kind of thing when they arrived. Everybody became a suspect. They would just rush into a house and say there were Boko Harams there. How would they get the cooperation of the community if they behaved like that? You can’t get intelligence from a hostile community instead you will be misled and suffer the consequences. We raised all these in our report and that report if they were being honest is relevant to date. If they had been effective in their dialogue, these Chibok girls would have been returned long ago. I think there are also people who are cashing in on the crisis.
Take a look at what is happening in the middle east, Yemen and Saudi people were in Geneva recently, they are talking now. There is no way today any crisis will be solved by force. Even military experts will attest to that. As long as injustice is there you cannot achieve understanding not to talk of peace.
Prof are you aware that the President has rejected the amended electoral bill?
The President knows why he is doing this. His advisers know why they are telling him not to sign into law an electoral Act which is going to guide us into an election which is less than three months away. Then he must have thought of the consequences of not signing it. I don’t know the consequences of not signing it. I don’t know why he will not sign it. I’m only hoping that there will be free, fair and credible elections on the basis of peace in this country because without peaceful, credible elections, I cannot foresee peace prevailing in this country.
The constitution is very clear about the end of government in our current constitution and if an election is not allowed to take place and then we come to the date of 29 May, then somebody must be thinking of how this country is going to be run without a constitutionally elected government. I’m praying that some people will give this a serious thought to save this country because people had predicted not just Nigerians but also outside this country that Nigeria may not survive the 2015 elections and it took a lot of efforts.
Foreign governments have tried to save the situation but I insist that the election be conducted and result be respected but of course the elections that were conducted in 2015 might not have met 99.9 percent perfection or credibility but all the same an election had taken place but to deny a possibility of leadership in 2019 is extremely dangerous.
At 80 what do you expect of other stakeholders?
My hope and prayer is that Nigerians go to the polls in 2019 and their votes being respected, appreciated and accepted as a stop for a free fair and credible election which I also hope that Nigerians will be meticulously concerned about the need of wisely using this opportunity to produce the next crop of leaders that will take this country forward because whether we accept it or not Nigeria has series of challenges in several fronts which include security, economy and anything else that a country should really be concerned about.
Without good leaders emerging at all levels of government it is very unlikely that this country will move forward socially, economically and politically and this really is something that everyone should be worried about not only those that are hoping to contest or win elections but even those who are already on seat of power especially indeed need to be further counselled that under no circumstances should they abuse the laws of this country particularly the laws that will guarantee us a credible, free and fair elections and the ultimate emergence of credible leaders that will move this country forward.