Amid growing insecurity in the country and President Muhammadu Buhari’s taciturn, Senate Minority Leader, Senator Eyinnaya Abaribe, who represents Abia South in the upper legislature, in this interview on Africa Independent Television, analyses the trends, warning that Nigeria might be on the road to Somalia and Afghanistan if the Presidency fails to take urgent and decisive action. DAVID CHUKWU reports
The Senate just resumed on Tuesday; I hope you enjoyed your recess?
Well, I don’t know whether any Nigerian can be said to be enjoying anything within this country. The difficulties that we face everywhere are making it very difficult for anyone to relax and say ‘okay, all is well.’ All is not well.
You will soon be 66 years. Looking at when you were growing up as a child and now you are in active politics, after being in private sector, what will you say has changed in your life time in terms of the country’s political development?
In terms of political development, I can only talk about 1999 when I became an active participant in Nigerian politics. But talking about what has changed in Nigeria, I put part of it as my birthday celebration in a book I am going to present; an autobiography. In the book, I also put in some stories that will capture what Nigeria used to be.
Do you think we could get those good old days back?
Yes. All that it needs is a few good men; men who are committed to Nigeria. What we see today are people who are committed to an ethnic group; and not to the country as we thought.
Democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999; at what point did we begin to miss the road, was it during the military dictatorial era of under this democratic dispensation?
I think we lost it from 2015. All along, every leader that we had, had always tried to make sure that they accommodated everybody. Once you are in office, you know that you no longer belong to a particular ethnic group. It was the fact of the present leadership that saw some people as adversarial and saw some people as not worthy.
And of course when the present leadership came and went to the United States and made a statement 97 per cent, five per cent and all that; so that emboldened those who would prefer to benefit from keeping everybody else outside, and we have come down since then.
Sheik Ahmed Gunmi recently visited the bandits in Zamfara forest and came out to advise the government that one of the effective solutions to the insecurity in the country is to grant the bandits amnesty because it was done for the Niger Delta militants and it worked. What’s your take on this?
I think that every time you think that Nigeria will not sink lower, it surprises you that we sink to that level. So, let’s just put this in proper perspective. Some people go on a rampage, murder, maim, rape and do everything; yet we go to visit them and then we say let’s grant them amnesty. If you continue to pay a blackmailer, he will never stop. He will continue to up the stakes. The question of amnesty is not today that we heard it, it has been done.
There is even what they call the repentant Boko Haram terrorists. And one of my colleagues, Senator Ndume, gave a graphic example, saying that one of the repentant people came and killed his father and mother, after the so-called rehabilitation. So, if it didn’t work with the Boko Haram, how will it work with this set of murderous people and the Fulani militia that we have, giving us trouble all over the country?
Look, I think that government has given up on its responsibility of providing the necessary details. The reason we have a government is that we have given up our rights to an institution, which has the necessary state apparatus to take care of us. What is happening today is that every part of the country now feels that they have to provide for themselves for that which government has not done.
But government has deployed military operations to the North-East to address the security challenges in the area or do you think that it’s not working?
If it is working, somebody will not go there and asking government to give the bandits amnesty. So, you can see that it’s just not working. The solution is not there. Do you think that it will work if you just raise up your hands and say you have given up to them.
What if you give up to them, and they say that they only way they can surrender is if you give us a part of this country as our caliphate, what do you do? Will you do that? So, we have found ourselves in a very difficult situation, and that situation needs focus.
There is need for government to say, this much and no more. I think, the other day too, Prof. Wole Soyinka while answering a question in one of the media outfits in pidgin, said this is what needs to be done by the President of Nigeria; the President needs to come out and say A, B, C. He needs to give orders to the military, to the police, that the insurgency in the country cannot be accepted anymore.
What brought us to this point is the lip service that has been paid to serious intervention in the crises that we have, because these people who are perpetrating this, see themselves as being provided the necessary cover. So, they go ahead and do what they feel like.
Until that stops, what we will continue to see is a degeneration of the crisis and I don’t know where it is going to lead us. Maybe, as some people have said, we are gradually going to Somalia Afghanistan.
Some narratives even from the Presidency say that some of these bandits are from outside the country. If an amnesty is an option, who are we likely to offer this amnesty?
You see, the problem that we have when a simplistic solution is provided for a very serious problem. So, we may need to go back to find where this started. At the beginning of this insurgency, most of us cried out and shouted and pointedly accused the government of being lackadaisical in its approach.
And there were a lot of reasons given. And one of the reasons given by the same Presidency is that this is influx of people from outside the country, after the war in Libya.
Then we said, if these were foreigners, why would they treat them with kid gloves, and your own citizens you don’t treat them with kid gloves? Every little on the citizenry, you come after them with brute force, yet these foreigners are coming and you leave these foreigners.
The former PDP acting Chairman, Baraje, the other day, on his 70th birthday, gave us an insight into how this whole thing started and said that, prior to the 2015 elections against former President Goodluck Jonathan, elements within this particular government actually invited these Fulani militias to come and cause mayhem if they lost the election. And he said that they were telling these people that this was going to go to unimaginable proportion.
Nigerians have been waiting to get reactions either from the APC or from the government, to ascertain the authenticity of that allegation from Baraje but that has not come. Why the silence?
They have not responded or reacted because it is true. These people were brought in and of course they have said that they are not going anywhere again, that they were being told that this whole area called Nigeria, is theirs for the taking. And so, I am sure that even those who invited them can no longer reach them, and can no longer tell them to go away.
So, what do you do in this circumstance? And I want every Nigerian to please look for Wole Soyinka’s recipe; you will see that these are things that need to be done.
The President of Nigeria can no longer continue to pretend that all is well, and that he is not going to talk to anybody. He must come out. The reason we elected him is that the buck stops at his table. And this problem we have today is this raging insecurity of kidnapping, banditry and so on. You know what happened, when the Boko Haram people tilted to the North-West, and the media started shouting that these people are moving, they say, no longer call them Boko Haram, start to call them bandits.
Of course, they are Fulani militias. The Sultan of Sokoto said the other day that out of every 10 persons caught kidnapping, eight were Fulani.
But he also said that’s not enough to begin to stereotype them. What is your take on that?
Of course, you cannot stereotype people because of what some people do. What now happens is this, why would the Fulani that are law abiding, that live all over Nigeria and occupy responsible positions not be able to come out and say ‘no, this can’t happen, you can’t bring the Fulanis to disrepute?’
They always say, people come from Niger, Mali, Chad, and of course the Nigerian government continues to pretend that all is well. All is not well. We are not sure that that Nigeria of 1960 to 1985 down to 1990 that I know as Nigeria of today, will ever come back to us.
The President, recently, while addressing a Summit of the African Union, put a charge on the table for the pan-African group to either reform now or you die; the same pressure people are putting on the President of Nigeria, to reform, restructure, reengineer the country or it goes the way of Rwanda of Afghanistan. What’s your take on this?
Well, let’s just put it this way. Some of us have given up on this government but I have not given up because we have to eternal optimists who believe that things can get better.
When the President was talking about reformation, he was just indicting himself because all that people are saying is that this contraption is no longer working; let’s all come together and have a discussion. They don’t even want to have a discussion, and you could see the consequences of not talking about it. The consequence of not talking about it is the increasing failure of government; and that is a big problem for every one of us who is a patriot in Nigeria.
Why is that all those skewed appointments pass through the Senate, with the senators from the South endorsing them? Why can’t they stage a walk-out to protest the imbalance?
Most of those appointments do not need confirmation in the Senate. Up to 80 per cent of the appointments do not need confirmation. For those ones that need confirmation, what normally happens is that when they come to the floor, then it becomes a vote. And when it becomes a vote, some of the ruling party members are arm-twisted to just toe the party line.
They tell them that the President cannot make mistake, and if we say no, it means that we are indicting the President, even though they will come back and tell you that they don’t accept the appointments but what can they do.
So, they are just arm-twisted. In a parliamentary democracy, it is always the numbers that determine what happens at the end of the day. I think what Nigerians need to also do, which they don’t do is to pressure their representatives; send messages to them, try and go to their constituency offices and say this is how we feel.
A lot of people are complacent; they just lie back and expect that things will be done. Yes, it’s true because people react to such pressure because if a politician knows that he will go and seek election tomorrow; he will act in the best interest of his constituency. That is the position.
You are part of the leadership of the Senate, and some people have described the National Assembly as a rubber stamp. Does this affect you?
Of course, it is not just that people say it; people have told me to my face and there is no other way you can put it but I think the question of being a rubber stamp also depends on the way you see it. I have my own feelings, and I make it known. If my colleagues find it difficult to put national interest before party interest, well there is nothing much I can do about that.
But we make it very known at all times, this is the way things ought to have been done, so that things can be better. What we see today coming from the Federal Government of Nigeria under APC, is a situation where some parts of this country are not seen as equal partners in the business of Nigeria. That’s all.
You once called for the resignation of the President due to grave insecurity in the country, do you still maintain that stance? What kind of reaction did you get from other Senators and even from the government?
Well, that was in 2017, and since then of course the talk about resignation has resonated and people are saying the same thing. But as at the time I said it, I was actually saying let us try and head off the catastrophe facing us.
And usually, when you do that, you are usually misinterpreted. But one thing I continue to say is, if you are incapable of doing the right thing, quit, so that those who are capable can come and do it.
The bane of Africa is that we have the “Kabio Osi” (deification) syndrome. It is part of what is in my book. When somebody gets into office, he is imbued with extraordinary powers, and everybody says he is a god and whatever he says is right. But I am an Igbo man, and we use to say, ‘when the King is going wrong, you put a basket on the head and tell him the truth.’
So what I have seen is that people are not putting basket on the head and telling the king the appropriate thing. If we call our President the king, our President is a public servant we have elected into office to serve us but somehow, when you say that he is not doing well, some people take it upon themselves to attack you daily for being vocal. They say that you are not loyal because you are saying, this is wrong.
One other thing that the APC government needs to do today is that they need to do a rejig; go back and think through all the promises that they made to Nigerians because they failed in all.
So, they need to start themselves the question, why and do we come out of this problem because if you don’t do it, I am afraid that this may be the last government to be in this country.
This is because right now, what you see is that every part of this country is getting ready to resort to self-help. And if everybody resorts to self-help, then the essence of government at the centre is no longer rational.
The Isukwuato area of Abia State where you come from is becoming notorious for kidnapping. However, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), which tries to provide security in the South-East has no legal backing like the Amotekun in the South-West. What’s your position in all this?
Well, let’s put it this way, there is another Igbo proverb which says that ‘it is only a tree that will hear that it will be killed, and you come out with a knife and it will still be standing until you cut it down’. Human beings react to such situation because self-preservation is the first law of nature.
You can’t continue to wait a legal one because the legal ones are the army, the police, the DSS, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and others but they are not doing anything. Also, people have a right by the law of self-preservation to go ahead and preserve themselves. I think Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution says that you have a right to life.
Nobody can come and take it away on the basis that you are waiting for people that will not come to assist you. And it is not just happening in Isukwuato, it is all over Abia North, in Bende and in other areas.
They talked to me about what is going on, and my duty is to stay here and talk to the IGP on what is going on. And I am really very sorry to say that we don’t see the required response.
We are yet to see the South-East governors coming out to show concern by forming a South-East security outfit like other geopolitical zones. What is your view on this issue?
I think the Governor of Ebonyi State, who is the Chairman of the South-East Governors the other day told us that they have agreed that they will set up the network. I am going to give them the benefit of doubt, believing that they are going to do it. What I see is that each state does its own thing separate.
Don’t think that the ESN needs some legitimacy; what stops them from incorporating it by passing enabling laws through the state assemblies to legitimize the network?
Well, I will adopt what you have just said and ask the governors of the South-East to do the needful.
What is your take on a President of South-East extraction come 2023?
My take is very simple. There are six zones in the country. When you look at the distribution of power, so many zones have also had opportunity to rule this country except the South-East. And all that the South- East needs to do really is to go out and be able to convince the other zones because election is question of number and no zone actually has that number to go it alone. They all have to come out and discuss together.
Do you hope that it is going to be fruitful?
Yes, because of this simple fact that there is nobody called a Nigerian that is not Igbo because we are the only people that go everywhere in this country, settle there, be part of the local populace and contribute to the economic development of that place; not any other group.
Why will the Senate confirm the ex-Service Chiefs as ambassadors when the Chamber had severally called on President Muhammadu Buhari to sack them for their failure to tackle insecurity in the country?
One, the ex-Service Chiefs are Nigerians. Number two, we have a process and the way the process goes is this: they will be taken to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and that Committee is headed by Senator Bulkachuwa. And that Committee will look at their credentials.
On my own as a person, I do not agree that they ought to be confirmed, and I am also going to make it very clear. You don’t reward failure, and every Nigerian agrees that this set of people failed. So, coming around and trying to do this, I think, is just looking down on Nigerians. But that is my personal opinion.
Once the Committee brings their report, and I will expect that all those who said that they have charges against these people will also come to the Committee or send letters to the Committee and express their concerns because there is something that happens, Committee comes to work but there is so much noise about issues outside, but there is no paper in front of the Committee; what will they do.
They can’t rely on newspaper report; you have to come to the Committee and submit your petition on any issue you have concerns about. The Committee can also allow you to come and defend it.