In this interview with JOHN ALECHENU, the spokesperson for the Northern Elders Forum, Professor Ango Abdullahi, speaks about the Almajiri phenomenon, Boko Haram insurgency, and the 2015 elections among other issues
The way you talk about the North, some people tend to see you as someone who hates the rest of the country…
This is certainly an unfair assessment. If you look at my pedigree and my background, I come from Zaria; I went to a mixed school. Virtually all my classmates in elementary school and senior primary school came from the southern part of the country. They were non-Hausa, non-Fulani and we remained together, we went to school and finished together and this continued throughout to my secondary education in Barewa College. And you know, Barewa College was a mixture of people from all the Northern provinces and a few from the southern part of the country. I went to the Nigerian College of Arts, Sciences and Technology, Zaria.
Nigerian College as the name implies, brings in all Nigerians irrespective of tribe and geographical location. I did not study at the Ahmadu Bello University, I went to the University College, Ibadan. The North in Ibadan was a minority. When I finished, I worked in an institution that was not only national but international, the Ahmadu Bello University, where I worked throughout my academic career. There is no way anyone can look at my background and say I dislike a Nigerian based on his tribe, or based on his religion, or where he comes from.
My present state of mind has to do with what we have suffered coming from where you least expect. If you look at the present position of the Northern Elders Forum, it was given birth to by the attitude of our brothers and sisters who, either within the North or from outside the North, seem to have acquired some virus of either dislike-I don’t want to use the word -hatred for a section of the country or a particular group within a section of the country and this is what is happening to us in this country. Unless we want to be dishonest about it, this is why my recent position is that yes, if you don’t think that Nigerians deserve peace in terms of co-existence and you think that some other way is to be employed, so be it. What about those people who talk in the same tone like I talk? Why are they not being accused of being sectional? All this recent turmoil about North and South was created by the South, not by the North. The position we have taken has nothing to do with it. Some of us have done far more for the unity of Nigeria than many who are professing to be nationalists now.
You recently accused former President Olusegun Obasanjo of under-developing the North, how do you mean?
I don’t know the context in which you recorded that because what I remember saying was that Obasanjo gave the North a raw deal. That one, I am prepared to repeat. If that one means under-developing the North, it depends on your interpretation. What we said was that Obasanjo was a beneficiary of the benevolence of the North, at least politically. When he became head of state, a Northerner could have been the head of state if he wanted at the time Obasanjo was offered the responsibility. I was very close to him; I sat with him when he declared for the Presidency of Nigeria. I was the one who took him to most parts of the North but we saw what he did or did not do for the North. Of course, I disagreed with him, especially on the subject of agriculture; this is my profession. He invited me to be his adviser in that field and he did virtually nothing for agricultural development.
The number of years that the North has ruled Nigeria is more than other parts of the country, why did you blame Obasanjo?
The number of years of rulership doesn’t make so much sense; it all depends on the attitude of the leader. General Gowon spent more money in Lagos than what has been spent in Abuja, today. Gowon, a Northerner ruled the country for nine years and expended Nigerian money more in Lagos than is being expended here in Abuja. Let’s even go back to the beginning. It is the North that developed the present day oil industry in this country. It is Northern money; it is the Northern leadership that developed the oil industry. Check the statistics, the years and the people who ran the ministry of oil, energy or petroleum during the Tafawa Balewa administration. In fact, one of the oil companies raised the question, is the money coming from the North to be an investment or a loan? And I can quote Ribadu on this, he retorted by saying, ‘this money is Nigerian money and this oil, when it develops is Nigerian oil, so it doesn’t matter where the initial money comes from.’ People are either myopic or so biased that they don’t care about history. In recent history, take the time of President Shehu Shagari for example, he was the first executive president of this country. You can’t accuse Shagari of being pro-North. Go to his village, go to his house in Shagari and see what it looks like. It was a leadership of sacrifice most of the time. It was do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. For the period we led this country, we did more for others than we did for ourselves. This is why we are being referred to as foolish.
In the run-up to the election, some Northerners threatened to make the country ungovernable for President Goodluck Jonathan, people see what is happening in the North as the result of the threat. Do you agree?
No. I don’t. I don’t know what Northerners have done to make the country ungovernable for Jonathan. Can you be more specific?
Some people see Boko Haram as the creation of the North to tackle the government of Jonathan.
What about the Niger Delta militants, who created them? Was it Northerners that created them? I think this is a false accusation and it’s a product of the usual bias and myopic, holier than thou attitude that is causing all these. Jonathan is a product of the North, whether he likes it or not. If the North didn’t want Jonathan to be President, he wouldn’t have been. Go to the statistics, he would not have been President without Northern votes.
Why did you say Boko Haram is not the problem of the North alone?
Just like the Niger Delta militancy is not a problem of the Niger Delta alone, it is the problem of Nigeria. It is the same thing. Any insurgency anywhere in Nigeria should not be the problem of that section alone; it should be the problem of the entire country.
Are you not even worried that the North has turned into a pariah as far as economic development is concerned?
Well, there is no development anywhere in the country. Look at your records, look at your statistics; look at your 2013 verdict of Nigerians about the progress their country has made. If there is development, there should be power supply, there should be water supply, there would be road transport, and there would be every relevant service that Nigerians require. There isn’t any development, not only in the North-East, but there isn’t in Lagos, there isn’t in Port-Harcourt, all over the whole country. I have just done an exercise on the 2014 budget presentation in some states of the federation. States in the South-South zone have a budget of N2.4 trn. It includes the provisions of the NDDC and the Ministry for Niger Delta Affairs. The entire 19 northern states with 74m people compared to the 21m in the South-South, have the same budget combined. You can see if there is any accusation of injustice; these figures will explain it. A part of the country that has less than a quarter of the population of the North has the same budget. You see, when you are talking about development, it depends on what type of development we are talking about. In terms of general development, where we are is certainly not the best. The poor man in Zaria suffering from lack of water, lack of hospital services, lack of schooling is the same with the ordinary man in Lagos, Port-Harcourt, Kano, or wherever you choose to go in the country. There is nothing in terms of development to distinguish between sections of the country. If you talk about parts of the country that are industrialised, you can say yes, the South-West, more specifically, Lagos and Ogun states. That is where about 70 per cent of the industries are located. But where is the development in the rest of the country? What we have which of course nobody is happy about is this restlessness and insecurity due to anger, frustration and so on, that we saw in the Niger Delta. That is what we are now seeing in the North-East.
You said Boko Haram should have been nipped in the bud, how?
Boko Haram was in existence about 10 years before the insurgency. It did not just erupt like that. It had been on ground for a long time and what flared it was the way it was handled by authorities and also by rival Islamic groups that saw it as a threat to them and they used the political leadership to see whether they could bring it down. That’s why they were in a hurry to bring down the leader by eliminating him. They thought that by eliminating him, everything would come down, but it is the opposite now. This is unfortunately a mistake that was made. The police killed some of them who were arrested by soldiers and handed them over like rats. If we reflect very well, we will realise that mistakes have been made and politicians cashed in on these mistakes. If we had done what was supposed to be done, we would not have been talking about Boko Haram now. Since we have made the mistake, Boko Haram continued and expanded, acquiring more strength, more courage to challenge the authorities and some people advised government to use force. This is the tool that has been used for months but has failed. That is why we raised the issue almost two years ago that brute force alone would not solve the problem.
Why do you say so?
Simple, it has to be a combination of stick and carrot. This is still our position. This is perhaps what gave birth to the Turaki-led Presidential Committee set up to dialogue with the group. The committee was not allowed to go to the full extent of its work. It was in the course of its work that the state of emergency was declared and the group (Boko Haram) was banned. If you ban a group, why talk to it? These are series of mistakes that complicated the effort to control or contain the insurgency.
Are you saying that the state of emergency has not been effective?
Has it been?
You tell me.
The answer is obvious; people live in these places. Go there and see things for yourself.
Most people believe that the Boko Haram insurgency is triggered by the attitude of opinion leaders in the North like you.
This again is another lie. Boko Haram was a localised Islamic group mainly in Maiduguri. Most of them are Kanuri and so on. It couldn’t have been one group of Northern intelligentsia or political group that created it. It’s a local problem just like the Niger Delta militants were created by politicians seeking elections. This is what has almost replicated itself in the North-East, particularly in Borno and Yobe states. This is what gave rise to this group and when the politicians eventually concluded the elections, some lost, some gained and then they used the group against each other. Go back to your records and check. A lot of politicians were attacked by the opposition camp; some in PDP, some in ANPP and so on. It was highly localised before the politicians acquired it at the national level.
Why did you accuse the former chief of army staff, an Igbo man, General Azubuike Ihejirika, of mass killing the way he handled Boko Haram?
Was he the army chief because he was an Igbo man? I should ask you. Was he made Chief of Army Staff because he was Igbo? I am asking you? I don’t care where he comes from, we are not accusing him because of where he comes from because that does not matter. He could have been a Hausa Man, a Kanuri or anybody. We are accusing him because of the atrocities his commanders committed in various parts of the country, particularly the North. We have collected sufficient data and information about the atrocities that his boys in various commands committed. It’s not a matter for debate, it is a matter of presentation in the appropriate courts. It’s not a matter for speculation, it’s a matter of evidence. You don’t go to court based on speculations; you go to court with evidence and this is what hopefully we want to do.
The man said the Northern elders are ungrateful to blame him, what is your take on this?
Ungrateful to him? What for? Be grateful to him for doing what? He chose to be in the army, I wanted to be an agronomist; that was why I studied agriculture and became a professor of agronomy. I don’t have to thank him for joining the army to perform the functions of a professional soldier if he is one. He doesn’t have to thank me for being an agronomist. It is his choice to be a soldier, why should I thank him for being paid for a job he has chosen to do? One mistake he seems to be making is that he is saying the life of a soldier is far more precious than the lives of other people that are not soldiers. I think this is totally the reverse. The soldier has enlisted in the army and has agreed that whatever it takes, he is going to be a soldier, he is going to live and die a soldier and the rules of engagement are there in carrying out his duties. He can’t on account of anger that his comrade by his side has died, go and take revenge on innocent civilians. That is not the way to go. If somebody commits an offence, it’s left for the courts to try such an individual and deal with him/her. The soldiers can only fish such people out and let the law take care of the rest. It is not for you to go on a spree or taking it out on innocent civilians because of what happened to your comrades. There is nothing to thank him for; it is his choice to be in the army, just like it is the choice of everyone to choose what profession they want for themselves.
Some people believe that there is nothing like a united North again, do you agree?
Those who argue like that should wait and see whether there is a united North or not. They should wait for a demonstration of whether or not we are united when the time comes.
Looking at the history of Nigeria when we had three regions, the North was considered as the least developed. So, why blaming others for what is happening now?
That is not true, it is totally false. I just finished telling you that from 1914 up till the 1950s, money had to be brought from the Northern region for the Western and Eastern regions to balance their budgets. Go and check the records, it is there. There is no way anybody will make that claim; we would have been better off as we were than we are now.
Can the North afford to be on its own?
We had been on our own before the British came here. We are on our own now that the British have left and we will be on our own if Nigeria ceases to exist. That’s it.
Some people say the North has slowed the country down in terms of development, do you agree?
It is stupidity, does it make sense? Why should we slow you down and you agree? You should disagree so that you can move fast and leave us behind.
Why is the North so desperate to be in power by 2015?
We are not desperate. There is nothing desperate about our demand. Our demand is based on fairness and equity. We gave birth to zoning; the North gave birth to zoning. If we didn’t want it, other parts of the country would not be in power. If there was no zoning, Jonathan would not have become President. We are saying that this zoning should be respected. This is what we are insisting that should be done. If there is going to be zoning, it has to be respected and if zoning is going to be disbanded, so be it so that the person who has the largest number of votes should have it.
Some people believe that the energy you are putting into criticising the government is enough to end Boko Haram insurgency.
It is not our job. The security of the country is in the hands of government, not in the hands of the Northern Elders Forum or any other body for that matter. But we have been trying, we’ve gone out of our way to advise and help government in terms of how to cope with this problem. Thank God our documented reports are in the office of the President suggesting ways and means of dealing with this matter. We have been very helpful to this government in terms of how it should handle this matter. No one can accuse the Northern Elders Forum or northerners of not helping to end this. In fact, it is because people are not listening to advice, that’s why these things continue to persist. You can’t treat these things in isolation. Take for example, if you leave the people of the North-East,I, as a northerner, cannot tell you I can deal with the customs of the Kanuri or other tribes where the insurgency is raging now. I have to align myself with those who are familiar with them and find out what really gave birth to this and how to go about solving it. But all these were not done, they were ignored. People who preached force succeeded, thinking it is the only weapon at the disposal of government. Government is being assisted through constructive criticisms. Go and read any of our criticisms, they have always been constructive. It is only when people interpret criticisms as criticisms for its sake that they see things the other way. There is nothing antagonistic about our position; whatever position we have taken can be explained in terms of its history, fairness and equity.
While Jonathan is doing everything possible to establish almajiri schools, a governor in Kaduna is supplying more wheel barrows for the citizens as a form of empowerment; do you still blame the Federal Government?
If you read your papers today, the governor has denied this. He has denied ever buying 500,000 wheelbarrows for anyone. On the Almajiri schools, the approach that has been taken is totally political and we don’t think it is the solution to that problem. The Almajiri problem cannot be solved by anybody from any other part of the country. It can only be solved by those of us in the areas where these Almajiri problems are. Even in the North here, it is only in the Hausa-Fulani dominated areas that we have the Almajiri phenomenon. It has nothing to do with Islam, it is un-Islamic to beg. There are as many Muslims in North-Western Nigeria as there are in other parts of the North but you don’t see that kind of begging like you see in the North-East. There are Muslims in Kwara, you have the Nupes, the Igalas, you don’t see people begging there. It is a problem that is localised in the Hausa-Fulani areas. We do criticise ourselves for allowing it to continue this long. We don’t think it should be politicised because this is what they are trying to do. We have 15 million children out of school; what is 250 Almajiri in one school got to do with solving the problem?
Despite the fact that most Northern states are practising Shariah, proceeds from VAT are taken to the North, why don’t the Northern governments reject such?
Nigeria is not an Islamic State or is it? We cannot stop government from collecting taxes. Government has every right to collect taxes, especially when it is a government that is not an Islamic government. It can collect taxes from all known sources, including sources that perhaps Islam may not approve. If I take my money to the bank as a Muslim, I don’t want interest. The little amount I have in the bank, I never wrote the bank to ask for interest. I don’t think it is an issue.
Is it fair for Boko Haram to demand Islamisation of Nigeria?
These questions, with due respect are prejudiced questions. The constitution of the country gives everyone the right to think and act within the law, you can express your views about how you want things done and so on. Your views don’t have to agree with the views of everyone; it does not represent the views of everyone. That a few persons have expressed such views, it does not translate into the views of everyone. Somebody else may have a different idea. Let us live as a multi-religious country. In fact, some people wanted to say that Nigeria is a secular country but most Nigerians in the three (national) conferences I have attended said no. Nigerians are generally religious people: Christians, Muslims and worshippers of our traditional religions and so on. That’s why it was put in the constitution that Nigeria is a multi-religious country. Some people are saying there is a set of laws to guide their conducts, that is why we have the customary courts, the Sharia Courts, up to appeal and the normal courts. If somebody says he wants an Islamic state, he is free to think that way but it doesn’t translate into you using it to ask me. The person is using his right to freedom of speech.