In the early years, Nigeria had regional political parties. Now the two major political parties we have have national spread but the regional divisions remain, why?
Regional parties are gone, the divisions remain, because the only focus of most Nigerians is politics. A day may come when one George Bush would take over from another George Bush, within a period of 15 years or 20 years, and nobody cares. Here, the “my-turn” to rule notion is so attractive, but in reality, what exactly does it mean? Does it mean if there is a northerner in place, every northerner is sharing dollars every day is it true? Of course, a few people are appointed to positions. And sometimes, if it is not well balanced, it creates a very bad impression that some people have been left out of the game, which is why people complain about nepotism, and so on and so forth. But the big question is, why is the economy this weak? Why is tribalism, regional grouping so important? Because each of them is a forum for the elite to express their anger and to seek accommodation within what they think is the only football pitch where everybody’s having fun. Those are the issues that tie us down.
But how do we address this regional and ethnic tensions?
First of all, the leader must know that he’s running a large polity and he must be conscious in his appointment. When he makes the mistake of not showing consciousness, he excites the anger and the suspicions of people around. That is something a leader must learn to do from the day he or she gets into office whether at state level, or the federal level.
How would you access President Buhari in this regard?
There have been allegations and accusations of what appeared to be a concentration of appointments from the North, and even within the North from some areas. People have made accusations. At a point, I would think that it would have been nicer to spread out.
The tension is moving towards who gets to produce the next president. You’re from North central, from the nature of Nigeria politics. Would you agree that a politician from the region can aspire to occupy the position other than party chairman?
Yes, I think things will change. I mean, I’ve had this argument that the North Central has never had a chance but if you aggregate the days of the military, and the days of the civil, where did Yakubu Gowon, Ibrahim Babangida and Abdusalami come from? But some people will say no, that’s military government. So for now, if we continue with very civil discussions, there is no reason why the North Central cannot present a candidate for office.
So what do you think is inspiring the likes of Governor Bello or even Saraki?
Well, the politician is an eternal optimist. And there’s no reason why they can’t express their desire, they should put themselves before the eyes of the people. I do not know yet which way the APC or PDP is going to zone. I know the PDP plans to zone its chairmanship to the southwest. Whether that means that they’re going to pick their presidential candidate from the North is yet to be seen. The APC has not yet made such a decision. People are now running for chairmanship. If they pick the chairman from the North it almost falls in place that the presidential candidate will come from the south. These are not written in the Constitution. But there are terms of agreement which people have followed over the years. In the last two weeks, there has been a lot of heat in the system when the Southern governors met and decided that the next president must come from the South. And just two or three days ago, the Northern governors responded that they cannot accept such a conclusion. I think the Southern governors in taking their decision used the word “must” which upsets the North. You do not decree in a democracy. If you’re asking the North to concede or to consider or to allow the South to present the next time, these are learned diplomatic expressions which makes people think positively. When you use must, you are almost saying that only the South will vote. You’re almost saying that the North has no choice in the matter.
Indirectly, haven’t they made their position known why it is the must because you see groups like IPOB, and others demanding, pushing for succession?
That kind of statement provokes more resistance than cooperation. Now, let me give you an example of how that kind of thing creates a totally different political atmosphere. In 1999, when we were returning to democracy after the Abacha years, I was part of a group of people in this town who met in Prof Jerry Gana’s house one night. Many of us were there and we decided that no Northerner should contest the election in 1999. It wasn’t an easy decision. The meeting started at 8pm and ended at 4am. Some of us argued for power to return to the South. The argument went on until finally we agreed to pull out. So at the PDP convention in Jos not one Northerner was candidate because we had agreed that none of the Northerner should contest. We can always do that. It is possible because there are many people in the North who think power should go to South. Let’s have peace, but you don’t issue an ultimatum. You don’t dictate in politics, you never do that. Even though governors are big pillars in their parties they should not speak for the party. There should be chairman and party leader, the NEC of a party, or the working committee should be the one lobbying at this level.
So my advice to political leaders today is to be more civil and sober in the language we use, even to lobby for whatever we want. Somebody will emerge eventually. It could be a Southerner or Northerner and there are many Northerners who say why not the South.
What was your impression of the EndSars protest, because for many it was amazing how young people could mobilise and channel the movement on something that really bordered them?
Well, it’s something I thought would happen. It came and it was aided by modern technologies of communication. There hadn’t been sufficient indiscipline in the police force over the years.
They’re very poorly paid. Their numbers are very few and even when I was chairman of PDP, I used to say this to President Obasanjo, that the pay of the police was too low.
The few who were working with me were living in Gwagwalada and I had to buy them motorcycles. So on the highhandedness by SARS, the young men were bound to protest but the under belly of that protest was the state of the economy.
In 2005, when I resigned from PDP after my disagreement with Obasanjo, I was invited to Kaduna by the Arewa Consultative Forum, of which I am the chairman now, to give a lecture and Chief Awoniyi who was the chairman then asked me to pick my topic. The topic I picked was the North and the future of Nigeria. I predicted there will be violence in the North on a scale that was unimaginable and that there will be criminality on the scale. I gave my reasons; first, industrial decline, agricultural decline, unemployment and anger among young people.
And I used to say this to Abubakar Rimi whenever we went for rallies. I told him that these boys hanging around us here when we are talking are not here to hear anything, they are expecting somebody will throw some naira and they will fight over it. In 10 years we won’t be doing this. I gave that lecture in 2005. There were many who said Northerners don’t behave like that. I didn’t wish for it to happen but exactly five years later in 2010, Boko Haram happened. However under the Shagari administration, there were signs of this. In the North, the population growth is a bit alarming. So, I saw this coming but sometimes I sound like an alarmist. When I talked to some of my political friends, I sound like a prophet of doom. I try to see the present and to ask if we’re prepared for the future. So the End SARS protest was spontaneous, because it was driven by feelings of tiredness. And it is risky and dangerous. I pray it doesn’t happen again.
But then it’s a bit different in the North because of the Fulani issue. Successive governments, including those that you served in, refused to educate the Fulani. And today, you’re denying them land to graze their cattle. Now that they’re attending to banditry, you’re killing them? Is that really the answer?
First, there’s this concept of which most leaders are totally unaware. To begin with, Open grazing is out of date. When I became minister in 2016, the first thing I did was to write to all the governors in this country, asking them that we need to modernise cattle rearing. Can we have land in your state where we can develop large areas of land to cut up and give farmers as ranches. Sixteen of them responded, the other 20 either refused to reply or said they don’t have any land. For those who agreed I explained how it would be done. It is something I saw in Pakistan where they call them cattle colonies. So, I used the word and it started the fire. They said I was trying to take land and give to the Fulani. They said I was a stooge of the Fulani. They said when I retire, I should move to Daura and settle. We are living in a country where people are pathetically emotional, and irrational, when you propose anything new. It is very easy even among elite Fulani to say that putting them in ranches is interfering with their way of life.
They say it is their way of life. And I said to the guy who told me that that he stays in an air condition and rides a Jeep why would he think the other Fulani should be in the bush.
I am the only person in this country who has sat down with large crowds of herdsman and conversed with them through an interpreter. In 2016, I went to the Lamido of Adamawa. It was during Ramadan he took me to his inner room and said, ‘I’ll pray for you each time I fast.’ I said Why? He said ‘you’re the only senior government official to have taken any interest in this matter since I grew up. I have invited 200 of them. They are in my hall and there are interpreters. When you finish with me, go and talk to them.’
I have seen them walking around, sometimes their wives and children behind them. There is no drinking water, snakes, hyenas attack them. They have diseases. I have even seen a herdsman wash his face with his own urine and I think it’s unfair to him.
I made a statement then that we haven’t done enough for the herdsmen like have done for other segments of agriculture and I was attacked. I was looking at it from a different point of view because of our incapacity to manage cattle here. We spent 1.5 billion dollars a year importing low quality milk. We no longer export hides and skins. Some of these cows have TB. So when u told governors who agreed to the land that we will set up cattle colonies, there was an uproar. I was accused of arranging for Fulani to take over the land belonging to them. But ironically, Ondo State has a ranch set up by the British. There is one in Oyo State. you know, your seat. So I said, let’s do it in a way that will make it easier for Fulani. Then I met the Fulani in Niger State and also in Gwagwalada here with interpreters. They pleaded that they are tired of roaming around. There is school in Niger run by an American woman. One of the elders there said to me, ‘you mean you can give us a secondary school’? I said, why not? Then he said to me, ‘if you put us in one place and give us grass and water, will there be light’? I said yes. Then he said to me ‘then I can have a fan in my room there before I die.’ The ambition of a human being like me is to have a fan. When I got to the car, I almost wept. This man isn’t asking for much. This man has about 60 cows, but he’s poor.
When I returned to the ministry I mentioned Ruga. Do you know what Ruga means? Rural Grazing Areas which was instituted by the British in 1945. The moment I used the word Ruga, people viewed it differently but the idea was a rural grazing area where people graze their cattle but it caused another fuel. Interestingly, people talk about ranching but it is not easy to run a ranch. If I give you 30 cows today, and ask you that they should not roam, you may go bankrupt in two weeks. So take a large area, cut pieces of land in those areas, each man keeps his 40 cows with a common source of drinking water. Then food out from different farms as people give them to let the demand settle, let his children go to school, let the wife go to the clinic and the cows will put on weight faster. They have better quality beef. And then you’ll find the yield of milk going up from one liter a day to four or five a day. That was the concept. And then we’ll use the cow dung to generate electricity. That was the plan but it was an uproar.
Moving back to politics, is a third force necessary and now feasible move ahead of 2023?
Nothing stops a third force emerging but the problem is the viability of the third force. Politics is an expensive business. The common man in the rural area who has the bulk of the vote is not such saint as presumed by the commentators on the television and the newspapers. You pay when you go there. Believe me a Parish Priest or an Imam can lose an election in his constituency if he has no money. It makes it difficult but nothing stops such a force from emerging if they can break through the barrier of the current merchants in the business.
The debate around restructuring and devolution of powers have been on. Do you consider the debates on VAT as a precursor to that?
I think in one form or the other restructuring is inevitable especially from the economic point of view. Right now, I do not think we are doing enough even within many states to grow the economy. There is still too much attention on what comes from the center and so if the center is weak, the states gets weaker.
There is abuse of the local government system. I have complained about this since the day I was the chairman of PDP. And I was not too popular with governors. In some months you have the local governments receiving N300million. They will tell you they paid staff. If they pay teachers, staff then what is left? What do you do with the remaining? You cannot go to the villages and see grader leveling roads, no culvets built, no portable water to drink. I went to an Otukpo hospital which I have been maintaining for the past 40 years and asked the doctor there what are commonest diseases? He said cholera, typhoid and malaria. I asked the minister and he said if you remove these diseases 60 percent of patients in hospitals will not come there.
So is money going the right way? Maybe? Should we do better, I think so. When you talk of restructuring it is not just about the states making and keeping all the money for themselves. It is also about redesigning the structure of government. You can remove one third of the civil servants who operate in their state and it will still run very well because if there are no projects what are the civil servants doing. I’m not saying you should throw them away to go and die of hunger. You make N2.5billion in a month from all sorts and N2.3billion is for paying salaries. The salaries are for civil servants, for doing which work? So beginning from there, there is need to reconsider. But when you come to the major restructuring, are we going back to the old regions? Will people accept to give up the autonomy they have now in their states? Or do you want us to return to Wilkings commission? The state creation agitation actually began with a push from the South West when Delta and Edo started complaining that the Yorubas were not treating them equally.
Slowly they created those states especially Bendel. Lastly some of the states will definitely not be viable if we do a restructuring in such a way that states keeps what they have and hands over may be a certain percentage to the center because the governors complain that the center have 52 percent and that it is too much. But the center runs an Army, Navy, Air Force, foreign service, 33,000 kilometers of roads and bridges, Federal Roads, federal Universities in every state. Can you manage it that way? In the old regions each of the regions had their own diplomats in the UK. So is that what we want to do? Can we sit down and rationalise the issues around restructuring, I think we can. We have had some delays Afenifere, ACF and Ohaneze we are planning a meeting. We will sit down as elders and ask how we can get this thing back? What went wrong? Where are we going? And we will make our recommendations to the government whether recommendations will be acceptable or not I don’t know. So there is logic in restructuring.