Chief Innocent Audu Ogbeh is the Chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and the immediate past Minister of Agriculture. In this interview on Hard Copy, a programme on Channels Television, he speaks on some vital national issues and how Nigeria can escape the current socio-political quagmire. ANAYO EZUGWU monitored it
The fact that you are the chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) may come to a number of people as a surprise. They might expect you to play a prominent role in the Middle Belt Forum. Do you get that kind of reaction sometimes?
Yes, I do. People do ask that same question because to some people, the Arewa Consultative Forum is supposed to be an association of the far northern social and political interest. As a matter of fact, it is not. I’m not the first to be the chairman, who is not of far northern origin. The late Chief Sunday Awoniyi was from the modern-day Kogi and he was there.
And what we realized is that we are looked at by the bulk of Nigerians as the north. Anything from Kwara going up and then the problems that we experienced are intertwined. It is difficult for you to say I don’t care about what is happening in Kaduna or Zaria or Kano or Ilorin or Makurdi or Niger. It is a large area and we also realized that we have a region with intense challenges you can imagine. We are way behind in education.
Our economy is not growing very well. We are very strong in agriculture but all that has disappeared. And then, we realized that if something goes wrong in one of these parts, it has a way of reflecting on us quickly.
So, I was here in Abuja and they held a meeting and said that our past leader, the late Ibrahim Coomassie, the former Inspector General of Police, has passed and we would like you to lead.
I wasn’t there at the meeting but I got pressure on phone calls to come and lead because we are in trouble and bring us together, focus us on the serious issues confronting this regional area.
You are not the first chairman who is not from the far North but it seems that there is a deliberate policy to ensure that the chairman is not somebody from the far north. You pointed out Mr Sunday Awoniyi, who was also a Christian as well from the North-Central, an area that increasingly what to be called the Middle Belt. How are you managing that particular challenge?
Those are matters of details that people say we are Middle-Belt. Some people say we are North- Central. Some people say we are North-Eastern. Some say we are North-Western. These divisions have always been there. The idea of Arewa is to say listen, we began as a region in the 60s, what they called the northern region. That concept hasn’t quite disappeared. I’m aware of the Middle Belt Forum and their desire because there is this feeling about marginalization and that we are left out of what is going on. And the question some of us ask is; if you pull out and decide that you are just Middle Belt, no longer part of the north, you have your reason but do you solve the problem? By being part of it, you also help to minimize whatever problem you think you are facing. Number two, the biggest challenge facing us is not political necessarily, it is economic. And this is what I keep saying to people. We don’t have the wherewithal even to stand and put up a fight should there be one see to be necessary. Number three, the things you are complaining about, you can bring to the table and say to them, listen, we are part of this area from the earlier times. Why are you doing this and not doing that and so on and so forth?
Your organization can prove quite useful especially when you look at the fact right now that there is a growing suspicion especially with the problems. Yes every region of the country has its own security challenges, which it is dealing with right now but that which is confronting the North-Central region is viewed many times with suspicion by the people of the region. They suspect a plan to grab their land, to wipe out the people. How is your organization taking this on board and addressing it with other members of the far north?
The current chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum is from Plateau State.
That was also deliberate …?
Exactly! It happens from time to time. These things move. Awoniyi and I are the only Christians but before then, we had non-Christians. Aliko Mohammed was a Muslim. Coomassie was also a Muslim. So, it moves around. The big issue is to provide a forum. Something is wrong, put it on the table. You are doing this, you are not doing that. We should do this and we shouldn’t do that and keep talking about it. I’m telling you this! At the bottom of all this crisis is our economy. At the bottom of the Nigerian social and political crisis, today is an economy that is simply not growing. There are suspicions of course that some people want to take your land because the Benue Valley is a very fertile area for cattle rearing. From Taraba to Benue to Kogi, going all the way down to the south and people say, look, if these herdsmen are coming, it is to take our land and drive us out and we can’t allow that because it is actually hurting agriculture, leading to fight and people getting killed. And I will say fine, why are you doing this and this is where some of the things I’m going to talk about came along. It is not just today. Cattle rearing has been on before we were born. There was no crisis like this. The herdsmen came and ate waste agro harvest and then moved on and didn’t touch people’s farms. When they did, the matter was resolved between traditional rulers and herdsmen. All of a sudden, we are seeing herdsmen matching in with two-three thousand cows in large numbers from distant places. They speak no Nigerian language, not even the Nigerian Fulfulde. They speak languages from West Africa and they are coming. They don’t want to hear about your state, your zone, your religion. They don’t know about that. So, they move in, destroy agriculture and fight with people. We are saying that this is heightening tensions.
How are people from the far North preserving the suspicions of the people from the North-Central?
They are aware of that but the North-West is in as much turbulence as the North-Central. Katsina, Zamfara stretching to Niger, state there is a lot of tension there as well. They do view it that way but on the other side, they are essentially a large Muslim population in the North-West, experiencing the same thing we are going through and the same thing as Kaduna South.
So, it is this thing about the economy driving people from outside the country into our areas conducting themselves in a manner that suggests that they are indifferent to the wellbeing of Nigerians in many parts. And they are prepared to just move in, destroy your crops and leave the emotional and social fallout for you to manage. In fact, they don’t really think about it.
The herdsman is not worried about which is North-Central or North-West. He is simply interested in grazing his cattle and if you argue, he will put up a fight, which is also absolutely unacceptable.
How have you been able to manage these suspicious views among people that ought to be potential members?
It is not very easy to manage. But a few people also realize that this matter is very difficult to deal with by simply saying we are not part of you, don’t come near here because again, there are linkages in trade and people are in school in ABU Zaria, the University of Jos, University of Makurdi and students from all over the country are mixed up. It is difficult to sever by simply executive fiat.
We are not part of this. In fact, it is like saying I’m not a Nigerian because I don’t come from this part. Therefore, those of you in the South-West are not part of me. We are all intertwined somehow. The thing is more intensive discussion and concert solutions to some of these problems. The problem of cattle rearing has heightened the anger more than anything else in recent times. Like I said, in Zamfara, they are essentially 99 per cent Muslim. They are not all that Hausa-Fulani.
There are other ethnic minority groups. Even in Katsina, the crisis in Katsina is quite intense. Maybe not from herdsmen alone but criminality is very intense in Katsina. And then, of course, you don’t need to talk of Yobe and Borno, now with the theatre war since 2010 till now.
So, these things are coming and the danger is to see it as purely ethnic or religious. It is not. 85 per cent of people in Borno are Muslim or maybe Kanuri but they have a crisis on their hands.
You were once in government. How have you been able to push this? I don’t know if you have this understanding while you were in government and now that you left maybe, you are seeing things a little more clearly, perhaps, as a result of your current position which you are occupying.
Absolutely! Before I left government, I started working on cattle rearing. It was very difficult to get the message across. Maybe, I used the wrong expressions but I definitely knew as soon as I was appointed that this style of cattle rearing is no longer fashionable. It can’t last and that is where the intensity has manifested itself. We have to find a way to confine these cattle and rear them the way they do elsewhere and remove the visible areas of daily conflict. And when you do that, then, you can sit down on a political table and say, listen what of this? What of that? When do we get a chance to play this role and that role?
Only recently, we saw Southern governors coming together to issue a declaration, what is now called the Asaba Declaration, saying no to open grazing; saying they believe in one Nigeria. They want more fairness and they issued a number of things amounting to about 10 points. And then we saw the response of the Attorney General of the Federation, which was not received very well by those in the South. For a number of people in the South, they wonder why is it that the Northern Governors Forum has said no to open grazing and now the Southern governors are saying why is it that their declaration is causing a bit of uneasiness among the leadership of the country?
The Attorney General expressed the view, which he said was a constitutional interpretation of the matter. For some of us, I also supported the position that open grazing is not viable. And I supported the position of not only the Southern governors but the Northern governors. I said so in 2016 that it can’t go on. He said it was of doubtful constitutional viability and I said it is not just about the constitution. Having been in the ministry, being in agriculture myself, the social and emotional impact that open grazing is having on the country is too much for us to bear. We have to find a solution. He spoke his mind. He is the lawyer and I’m not but the rest of us saw it differently.
What do you make of the current public hearing on the 1999 Constitution review and do you think that some of the memoranda which have already come to light would really provide the solution Nigerians are looking for as the answer to their problems?
Some of them will and we have our own. For instance, the issue of state police, we think it is about time from the experience we have now, we just don’t have enough policemen to police this country. It is a huge place and we probably need about a million policemen to make an impact. And the Federal Government can’t cope with that. State police are something we must have in the end, however. How many states can set up a police force and pay them because that is one force you don’t want to set-up and tell them you are owing them salaries. They are armed men. But the state will need a police force. There is another talk about the federal structure itself and there are those who now say this amendment is not what we want. We want restructuring. Is
that what the ACF is asking for as well?
We are talking about it and supposing it happens, it will touch some areas of the exclusive list. It will touch in particular, the control of resources and the control of revenues and the contributions to the centre. And these are the main issues that were raised in the 1963 Constitution, which a lot of people say was a near-perfect one for federalism. Then we ask, why did we kill it? If we do decide, fine. Readjust, let’s do restructuring. Are we likely later in the future to come back and say no, it is no longer working? There are issues we want to raise. First of all, we are saying that certain blanket immunity for chief executives for certain levels of government should be reviewed. If it is social issues, keep it but if it is crime, whoever commits a crime in office shouldn’t have immunity. Number two, allow the local governments to function. This so-called joint account has been the cause of terrible rift and when I was the PDP chairman, it was one of the issues I complained about with the governors. They didn’t like it. Why would money go to the local governments and be under the control of a state governor?
Afenifere is saying let’s go back to the 1963 Constitution …?
They are saying that was the closest to true federalism.
What is the stand of ACF on that?
We are going to study that constitution and see if it is the view of Nigerians that is it. The next question is; are we returning to the regions? Is that feasible? When you think of the amount of work that needs to be done to get many parties satisfied, do you think that first because this done as a matter of routine, every assembly comes and they do a constitutional review and these issues are turn up? We are in the second year and a lot of governors celebrated their second term in office and the president as well just celebrated the second term in office and we have less than how long to get to the next electoral circle. In fact, to a number of people, it has already started. How do you think that this conversation would yield meaningful reasons looking at just how good we are in making a lot of motions but no movement especially as elections approach? The thing is to start and to encourage everybody to exact what pressure they can, bring in more ideas and in the process, some of the restructuring issues are definitely going to be taken up under this review. Maybe, not all. We as regional bodies will begin to set up committees to say what does restructuring entails? I’m asking the questions, is somebody suggesting that we should go be to north, east, west and Midwest regions? Is that feasible now? Are people willing to give up their states as constituted today? Are we returning to the zones as the constituent part of the new federation? If we have to, what are the implications? These matters are not as simple as they look. But like you say, this amendment may not solve all the problems. It may deal with some but let’s keep talking. Arewa is hoping that soon we will have a major meeting between Afenifere, Ohanaeze and Arewa. Elders not in government, let’s sit down and the thing we don’t want is a crisis, another war, another chaos. Nobody gains from it. And we must avoid it. We must not allow it to happen because I’m not a soldier but in 1966, when the Nigerian crisis began, I had to help classmates, who were in my school in Benue escape to the East. We dressed up as if we are going to play our football match, drove to Otukpo, met one major, who luckily was from my place and he asked me where are you going. I told him we were going to play football. He said: ‘Are you stupid, which football?’ Then I whispered to him that these are classmates and I don’t want them harmed, please. I kneeled down and he said, ‘go drop them and come back.’ I’m very near the border with the East. That is where I come from. It was in that same local government where we dropped them that the first bombs and booms of the guns happened. They were not sounds from a movie. War is evil and we cannot in this generation and our lifetime allow it to happen again.
What do you think should be done to foster unity because if you take a poll and listen to a number of people, they will continue to tell you how they are optimistic about Nigeria or how they believe in the unity of this country and that there is a lot more to achieve together than going our separate ways?
You know something! I’m going to say something that sounds very strange. At the bottom of this crisis is a faltering economy. Don’t invite somebody to your house for dinner and give him an empty plate while you are eating Turkey and tell me enjoy yourself while his plate is empty.
The big debate today is, is it democracy or development we choose? The second question is, are the two mutually exclusives? They are not. The third I’m asking is, is China a democracy? The big problem and what is really crushing people today is the extreme decline in the economic wellbeing of our people.
None of us is really comfortable. Young people in particular are wondering what tomorrow is for them. Unless and until you strengthen the economy and make it viable and functional; unless you stop the slide in your foreign exchange rate; unless you stop being a major importer of every imaginable thing; unless you industrialize, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your constitution is. It doesn’t matter how you preach. The big debate, which nobody may be interested in attending is the economy. What is going on? How do you run a country when industries can’t grow, when your interest rate for 35 years has stood between 25 and 35 per cent? I can’t take a loan and build a factory. How do I prepare for my grandson when I can’t set up a small industry even processing brown sugar but I have to import it? So, unless and until we face the economy and get it going and compel every state, you got to get busy growing your economy. That is your primary assignment as governor. We have 194 universities now. I don’t know how many polytechnics and colleges of education that are turning out these boys and girls every year. They have nowhere to go. You go to a family, where there are six graduates, not one has a job and they are saying what is this and you have no answer to them. They are back at home to start a second childhood, begging you for recharge cards and underwear and shoes but they have a degree. Down there is the cancer and we are treating it with Panadol, hoping that the pain will go away.