Hakeem Baba-Ahmed is the Director of Publicity and Advocacy, Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF). In this interview monitored on Arise Television, he speaks on the state of the nation and rising insecurity, among others issues. ANAYO EZUGWU reports
Governor of Benue State has said that insecurity is threatening the 2023 general election and that if the government fails to address it, there would be no elections. Do you agree with him?
I think what the governor of Benue State stated was obvious. The level of insecurity in the country is so high and we are not just talking about physical insecurity, we are talking about the insecurity of the state, the Nigerian state.
The way people are responding to the vacuum which is being created by weak and ineffective leadership, creates all sorts of threat not just physical threat that everybody is under banditry, kidnapping and sundry criminal activities but also the threat to the Nigerian state that politicians and leaders like him are creating in the country. So, he is right to that degree but I’m sorry to say that he is not stating anything new.
We have always known this and we said it in our statement. The way we are going in this country; if anybody is planning for 2023, they must be planning the wrong thing in the wrong direction. This country is in dire danger. We have never been exposed to threats and security.
We have seen a threat to the Nigerian state and we even fought the civil war but we have never seen the combination of weak and ineffective government combined with opportunistic and very dangerous politics. And the result of that could be not just the 2023 election but the future of Nigeria, which is very uncertain and being threatened by criminals and our leaders.
In your statement, you also criticized those you said are trying to balkanize Nigeria. Can you elaborate on that?
What we said is that there appears to be an unprecedented clamour for secession. Everybody is now talking about ‘want some Nigerians out of our territory, we want sovereignty and we want to pull out of the union.’ We have never had this kind of clamour before for as far as the North is concerned. So, we are worried because we have been to this road before and we know how dangerous it is.
The North is not the custodian of Nigerian unity. We have played our role to keep this country together and we will continue to play our role to keep this country together to the degree that it serves everybody’s interest. We have seen a situation where people single out the North as the only target and the only obstacle to their desire to either continue to be in Nigeria or outside Nigeria and we reject that role.
We have issues with Nigeria, we have very many problems with Nigeria but we would like to sit with other Nigerians to discuss them if they are willing to. But what you see as we said in the statement is the capitulation of irresponsible opinions by people like Sunday Igboho and irredentists from the eastern part of the country or even from the South-South. When people like that speak glibly that they want this republic or the other, we don’t want to be part of Nigeria, there are supposed to be Nigerians who know the implications of this.
They should speak up. Unfortunately, they have lost their political grounds to adventurers, and to be honest with you, this people are not better than the thugs and bandits, who are terrorizing everybody in this country. This people are now occupying the centre stage and they are speaking languages that scare everybody, including the politicians who have abdicated their responsibilities.
Now, we are beginning to see politicians, who are helping these adventurers. Just look at what is coming out of the South-West now; this is supposed to be one of the most enlightened parts of the country. Quite possibly the region with the biggest stake in the continuation of Nigeria and enlightened community that always say, it is in the front as progressives, and can find solutions to the problems of to the leadership of the country.
The South-West is speaking the same language as the politicians in the ineffective leadership of the country at the centre and this is a real threat. Yes, we are worried about these languages and we know some of them are being targeted at the North but we are quite capable of defending our own interest and we can speak our own language. However, we don’t want a situation where the North is adding to some of this rhetoric because, clearly, we need to bring down the temperature. We need responsible people to speak and in our statement, we appealed to responsible Nigerians not to yield this country to criminals, lawbreakers and people who are only relevant when they threaten Nigerians. Don’t allow it to happen but it appears as if we might have lost that battle.
It may not be true that certain voices in the South-West have not been speaking up but perception is a different thing when it comes to self-determination.What do you think about self-determination as a different idea from secession?
Let me correct you, first of all, we never said Nigeria must remain as it is. The North wants a different Nigeria. The North wants Nigeria to address its weaknesses, challenges and problems. Nobody is happy with the way Nigeria is. Our security is not working. Our economy is not working. The way we live with each other is not working and we do not want to keep Nigeria the way it is. It doesn’t serve the North.
In fact, we are greater victims of the way Nigeria is today than any other part of the country. They may not believe this but northerners know the situation. On the statement by a group called Fulani Nationality Movement (FUNAM); my reaction is that the security agencies should find these people and bring them to book.
If there is such a group called FUNAM, which is taking credit for shooting at Governor Ortom, in the name of God, find this people and bring them to book. Until we do that, as far as we are concerned these are words printed on a piece of paper and anybody can claim responsibility for that. But we would love for this people to be arrested, paraded and identified as Fulani people and let them tell us why they shot at the governor of Benue State.
The governor has had a lot of policies and he said they are in the interest of his people, so why is he being attacked now? What did he do in the last few weeks to deserve to be attacked? I’m not saying he hasn’t been attacked, but security agents must find members of this FUNAM wherever they are and bring them to book.
We do not want to protect any Fulani who is a criminal. On the issue of self-determination, secession and sovereignty, I was smiling on my way to your studio this morning because I saw a comment by someone from Ondo State, who said we don’t want secession, we want sovereignty for our people. The sad thing about this is that this is how low the debate has descended.
It is very sad and the Yoruba is supposed to be the most intellectually sophisticated community in this county. And you don’t have anybody who would come out to actually say to people ‘be careful, this does not just word you start banding around.’
What is the distinction between sovereignty and self-determination? What does self-determination mean? There are people who talk about the Yoruba nation, there are people who say we want to pull out of Nigeria completely and there are people who say we want self-determination. Everybody wants self-determination.
A federation is actually an expression of self-determination. It says there would be one nation with units and sections, where substantially people in that place have some powers to determine how they want to live. At the same time, they also agree to live in a country.
That is what a federation is all about. If we want a loose-federation, let’s talk about it but this tendency for people to say we want it our way or nothing else is very dangerous to them and to the rest of the country. If Nigerians cannot agree on the definition of what they want, going forward. If Nigerians think that threatening each other or threatening some abstract country called Nigeria, and it is not abstract, it is our country. What happens in Borno affects people in Zamfara and what happens in Katsina affects people in Akure and that is a simple truth.
We don’t want to accept this but that is the truth. This is one country and to the degree that we are still one country, anybody who offers a solution that threatens someone else is not a solution. That is a threat to him and the person he threatens.
The problem really is that there is a huge vacuum around governance. The government is not governing and our governors themselves are not helping the situation by the manner in which they respond. Half of them want to say there is a serious problem in the country but they are too busy politicking for 2023. So, they are both the solution and the problem. But the biggest vacuum is the vacuum of responsible honest Nigerians.
I will like to say this even though it would sound a bit arrogant but northern elders have been consistence and responsible. We have offered opinions that are in national interest. And we always say that our hands are stretched and willing to talk to anybody not because we are in a position of weakness but we believe that we should continue to play the responsible role the North has always played in the protection and projection of interest of Nigeria. We have no apologies for that and we are very proud of the role of the North.
We need to do this, but where are the elites, leaders and elders of this country? Why are we leaving so many vacuum and space for bandits, terrorists who terrorize us if not for the gun but by the way they speak or by the way they chase away other Nigerians or the way they create tension and fear.
What do you think Nigerians need to do between now and 2023?
I think we need to take strong initiatives on our own as citizens. We cannot rely on the president or governors or the National Assembly to actually address the foundational issues that affect us. The truth is that there is enough on the ground to question the efficacy and legitimacy of the Nigerian state in terms of its commitment to protect us, to improve the way we deal with each other and to shield the country from abuse.
The way to go about it is that I think we need to talk to each other. There are enough Nigerians of goodwill, they are being scared and most of them are being scared to say anything. And most of them think they can weather this storm. From the Northern Elders Forum point of view, we are talking to other groups from other parts of the country.
We want to see if we can re-engineer some kind of arrangement and consensus between us and other groups on the basis of mutual respect and recognition of the fact that no part of this country is going to get any advantage over other parts just simply because that is what they want. We want to talk about restructuring; we want to talk about an amendment to the constitution.
We have said this before; people who think that the solution lies in the National Assembly are making a mistake. The National Assembly is made up of people we sent there to represent our interests but they have drawn a line around what is our national interest and what is their interest. It doesn’t appear to be in their interest that they can decisively exercise an amendment to the constitution to the point where it addresses at least the most minimum requirement.
In addressing the issue of security, for instance, you have a system where the Federal Government controls the police, military and every other intelligence agency. And when they are not working, it means that every other thing is not working as far as security is concerned. We know that we need to decentralize, we need to allow some state policing to exist, but what is the National Assembly doing about it? We know that we need to address the issue of the nature of our federal system.
It is not working because there is too much responsibility at the centre. It needs to be decentralized, will the National Assembly do this? The way the National Assembly is going now, it will eventually bring out the result of its current constitution amendment.
But we don’t think that Nigerians should raise the hope too high that the National Assembly initiative is going to produce any tangible result. And this is what is worrying every responsible Nigerian. They know on the basis of tradition that the National Assembly is not exactly an activist in terms of addressing fundamental issues about our federal system. We want to go beyond this and the first step would be to have Nigerians talk to Nigerians. There is no law that says we can’t talk to each other. There is no law that says we can’t create a forum that will help us to look at the nature of the Nigerian federal system and make input when necessary.