Professor Ango Abdullahi is the spokesman of the Northern Elders Forum. In this interview with PAUL ORUDE, conducted in Bauchi, Abdullahi, a former Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and one time minister of Agriculture spoke on some national issues. He did not mince words that the north wants the president to come from the region in 2015, and would persuade all political parties to present northern candidates. While condemning the molestation of four northern governors on solidarity visit to Rivers State by some youths, he predicted that the current military action being carried out by the federal government in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states will fail because of the approach.
What is your view on the recent visit by some elders to PDP national chairman, Bamanga Tukur, Al-Mustapha’s release and reported endorsement of President Goodluck Jonathan by some northern elders?
One of my friends and long-time associates, Alhaji Dauda Birma was reported to have together with some other people visited the National Chairman of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Bamanga Tukur. From what I read in the papers, the visit is two-fold. The first is to convey to Mr. President through the chairman of the party the appreciation of the people, I don’t know which people he was referring to but I suppose, the generality of people who were happy to have Al-Mustapha released from prison.
But the main point he made there is that the release of Al-Mustapha was as a result of the sole effort of Mr. President. Well if it was true that it was the sole effort of Mr. President to get Al-Mustapha out of prison, I also want to support that because many people including most of us are happy to see Al-Mustapha freed after 15 years of incarceration. If it was indeed the sole effort of Mr. President, I also want to join others in commending him for doing that job. But if it is a cheap political gimmick, perhaps seeking publicity or recognition or identification that the statement was made it is rather unfortunate considering the stature of Alhaji Dauda Birma.
Everyone knew that there were many people both in the open and behind the scenes who were in prayers and also doing whatever that was necessary to ensure that justice was done to Al-Mustapha. So I thought giving credit to only one source of these efforts, is seeking cheap popularity and one would have preferred that all those who were in prayer and making efforts in their own ways to see the release of Al-Mustapha deserve our appreciation, our commendation as their efforts cannot be forgotten for a very long time.
The other aspect of Malam Dauda Birma’s visit has to do with a pledge he made. I understand, quote and unquote, ‘In the name or on behalf of the northern elders.’ There is the obvious interpretation as to whether he was speaking on behalf of Arewa Consultative Forum where there are so many northern elders or he was speaking on behalf of the Northern Elders Forum to which I belong. But certainly after I personally cross checked whether Dauda Birma has been mandated to go and speak on behalf of ACF on this particularly occasion, the answer was an emphatic ‘No’. And obviously from what I know of the Northern Elders Forum to which I belong, I have not chaired any meeting with Malam Dauda Birma for a long time. I can’t remember when I saw him in one of the meetings or seeing him attending any of our meetings or our various activities.
So I want to make it absolutely clear that Mallam Dauda Birma was speaking on behalf of some elders outside the ACF and outside the Northern Elders Forum and I believe many other groups that I know working together with us. So he is entirely on his own and we respect his rights as a Nigerian citizen to associate and to give support where he thinks the support is needed or deserved but nobody also is saying 99.9 per cent or 100 percent of northerners of various shades of opinion are going to belong to the same political opinion.
But we concede his right to speak for himself and for people with whom he associates but certainly he cannot be speaking for the ACF that I know and the Northern Elders Forum, which I belong to and as far I can remember I try to investigate from other groups that I know are operating on ground today and nobody was aware that he in one way or the other sought their permission to speak on behalf of some elders in the north because there are elders in most of these groups.
He himself is an elder no doubt about it but, then if he had spoken for Mallam Dauda Birma as a person nobody is going to begrudge him because it is absolutely within his right to do so but speaking on behalf of others who did not mandate him to do so then obviously he must be seeking for some kind of popularity, some kind of game only he perhaps will know.
Is Malam Birma a member of the Northern Elders Forum?
No, he is not as far as I know. He is not a member of the forum.
Why are you so apprehensive about his utterances linking your organisation with his visit to the PDP national chairman?
No, but, why should somebody who does not belong to an organisation speak on its behalf?
What damage will he cause you?
It is already causing the kind of damage I am experiencing in the last few days. People are calling me on phone to find out whether this statement came from us as a group and this is why I am trying to clarify the point that he must have spoken for himself certainly not on behalf of the Northern Elders Forum. I checked with ACF and they said there was no way he could have been speaking on their behalf because he didn’t seek any clearance or any mandate from any officials of the ACF to make this kind statement.
What is the position of the Northern Elders Forum on the presidency in 2015?
We have already made our position very clear. Just like the people of the South-south want to keep the presidency in their zone so is our wish. It is our desire and demand that the presidency should also come back to the north in 2015 and we have every justification to ask for its return to our area.
In 2007, the southern part of the country produced one candidate and all of them supported the candidate while in the north many candidates emerged. What are you doing to ensure that the north comes up with a single, acceptable candidate in 2015?
Well you know that the ACF is not a political party. The Northern Elders’ Forum is also not a political party. Many other groups working in the interest of the north are themselves not political parties. Nevertheless, we know that you cannot contest for an election except you are a registered political party. So the candidate that should emerge must be a candidate of a registered political party. What we intend to do is to make sure wherever possible we persuade the parties to present candidates of northern extraction. We are going to produce a Nigeria president remember this. We want to make it absolutely clear that the president that is coming is going to be a Nigerian president of northern extraction just like we have a Nigerian president now of south-south extraction. So nobody is saying that President Jonathan is only president of just South-south or president for Ijaw, no. He is claiming and we all agree that he is a Nigerian president under our constitution. So it will be exactly the same when we find a candidate of northern extraction who will be an acceptable candidate for the entire country.
Don’t you think now is the right time to find candidate of northern extraction that is acceptable to Nigerians instead of waiting as it happened in 2001?
I think it is a political process. As I have already admitted to you that Northern Elders Forum is not a political party otherwise perhaps we would have presented some of us as candidates. ACF is not a political party but we are pressure group if you like to use that expression interested in what is going on in the polity and therefore we should be able to talk across the society, political lines and talk to all the activists in the parties for them to understand the need for them to work together towards achieving an objective, which is going to serve the interest of our area because there is nothing wrong in saying that people are trying to protect the interest of their area. This is how really the Nigerian state is organised and that is why you have initially north and south and now you are talking of geopolitical zones and every discussion, every political decision is linked in one way or the other with geopolitical formation of the country. So interests are entrenched in the regions, in the ethnic areas and so on and so forth and so is reality and there is nothing wrong in facing the reality that is on ground today.
But the important thing all along is to make sure that in whatever you are doing you remember the corporate existence of the country and secondly of course within the corporate existence of the country is to partake as best as you can in what you consider to be your interest.
Recently four northern governors were held hostage at the Port Harcourt airport when they went to pay solidarity visit to Governor Amaechi of Rivers State. The Arewa Youths Forum condemned it. What is your position on this?
I take it that responsible elders in Rivers State will not do the kind of things that were done at the airport against the governors who were visiting Rivers State. It may well be that some elders were behind it but we understand it was the youths who came, harassed and threw sachet water at our governors. We take it as youthful exuberance and our youths have already answered back that this should not be seen to happen again because they may react in the same kind.
I think well that is a fair balance. If I were sure it was one elder or the other whose name was fitted behind this episode in Rivers then I would in my position as an elder react appropriately but we leave it to that. It is still one of those political problems where some people do certain things while the real players hide behind smokescreen. But we take it that some youths have been organised and since they have agreed to pelt our governors with water bottles and so on then our own youths have reacted and said that this should not happen again and they may want to retaliate and that may not be pleasant. So I hope the message has been taken by the youths that perhaps have done this in their area.
How does the Northern Elders Forum assess the level of security now in the north eastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, where state of emergency was declared?
Well there are so many sides to the issue of security in the country but with particular emphasis on the north east. We played a role in persuading Mr. President to take the line of both carrot and stick. But it is believed all over the world that the carrot effect is likely to produce more injury effect than the stick because the stick leaves you with wounds that will not be able to heal for a very long time.
This is the unfortunate thing about crisis that leads to conflicts where limbs and lives are lost, where property destroyed, which are hardly forgotten. But where you can use some moderation and also pursue more strongly peace. For peaceful approach to resolution of crisis is likely to achieve the results better and this is why the first time we went to see the President we submitted this as one of the recommendations we made. That the tactics of sheer force by itself alone will not resolve this crisis so we must also approach the use of the entire stakeholders in terms of trying to find peaceful resolution. Thank God he accepted. We saw him in the night and the following day he addressed his security meeting and this policy was announced that he was going to set up a committee on dialogue and reconciliation because this is what we put specifically in our recommendation. He accepted it and set up the committee, which started work immediately.
What became worrisome is that few days after, the state of emergency was declared and we ask, has the reconciliation and dialogue approach failed conclusively as the emphasis was now more force because already there was force on ground. Before the declaration of the state of emergency there was already state of emergency subsisting for almost a year in 15 local governments that had virtually covered the area of the north east.
So I thought that it was perhaps better to de-emphasize the political aspect of declaring state of emergency and seeing how you can intensify the security aspect based on the original state of emergency that has been subsisting up to that point in time. But we look at the declaration of state of emergency more or less as a political decision to please a pressure group that has always been against the peaceful reconciliation approach. They believe force; brute force will bring an end to the crisis. I think they succeeded in bringing the president to make this state of emergency and pumped in more and more troops to Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. If you wanted members of Boko Haram to come forward into discussion of dialogue and reconciliation and you are pumping troops to more or less drive them into hiding within the country or even outside the country that appears to us like a negation of the peace approach and I kept emphasizing the first approach.
But what even became a little bit more convincing that the so called peace and reconciliation committee was only put in place as a short measure to see the president as accepting the views that are different from those who insist on force.
But I think those who insist on using force have the final say by ensuring that the president proscribed Boko Haram. Proscription means that something you cannot even deal with; when you proscribe something it is something that you don’t want to deal with. So by proscription, it seems that there is nobody that government should be talking to because they don’t recognise it.
But these two actions particularly the latter we are seeing it as complete negation or undermining the work of the peace and reconciliation committee because it is left first with the issue that force is the determining factor; secondly, we don’t even recognise these people. If you want to talk to them you are entirely talking to these people on your own. You are not talking to them on behalf of the government. So this is what to us is the case.
Well the way out again for those proponents of force to see whether force at the end of the day is the answer to this intractable problem. Those who have persuaded government to take these two steps soon after they set up a committee that is supposed to pursue dialogue and resolution which will lead to more peaceful resolution of the crisis have succeeded in dissuading government from really going the other way and this is why we read in the papers every day that the Nigeria Government or even the American government is being accused of not really treating Boko Haram as it should- as a terrorist organisation and so.
We saw this from the statement made some days ago by the President of the Christians Association of Nigeria (CAN) that American should have declared Boko Haram terrorist organisation. This to me is Nigeria politics being internationalised and people thought perhaps this is the way out. They have failed to learn a lesson even from the Americans that with all their military power they have failed in so many wars. They have failed in Vietnam war, failed in Korean war, failed in Iraqi war and they are now failing in Afghanistan war, they themselves setting up office for Taliban to come for dialogue in Qatar but the Talibans have refused to show up. The offices are there but they refused to show up. That should be enough for small countries like ours who can’t deal with even small security matters to say that the resolution of this kind of crisis has to be through the barrel of the gun rather than through the barrel of the jaw as Maitama Sule will put it-Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war. The way out is eventually going to be going back. We have to go back and do the correct things correctly. The so-called civilian JTF already if we are not careful is going to lead to small civil war in the area.
It has started. Boko Haram has now also started to engage the so-called civilian JTF, which means that the people themselves are being sent against each other to fight. If military JTF has failed how come sticks and nothing else but stick will succeed. So you see it is another political gimmick that if we are not careful will throw us back into more serious problems than we have been up to this particular point in time.