Hilliard Eta, a former National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) South South and an ex-Acting National Chairman of the party is one of the great supporters of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Presidential candidate of the party. In this interview with select journalists, Eta spoke on the choice of the APC Vice Presidential candidate, religion in politics and other issues. Johnchuks Onuanyim was there and writes.
How ready would you say your party is for the 2023 General Elections?
There is something I want to first address: sometimes I used to wonder if there is any reason for members of the media not to accord respect to the decision of my colleagues in the National Working Committee (NWC) to select me as the acting National Chairman of the party. The Nigerian press seems to not recognise that fact, and so even if I am not a man that is enamoured with titles, or driven by self-aggrandizement, I think it is true and that it must be noted because it is a statement of history that I was elected by my colleagues as the Acting National Chairman. And because I am no more in office, I think it is proper I am addressed as the former acting national Chairman of the APC. Having said so, I would like to say that our party is very ready for the General Elections of 2023.
The 2023 General Elections going by what we are seeing today is going to be one election that will bring Nigerians out in terms of participation, what will the APC be going to the market with for Nigerians to look their way again?
When you say that it is going to be one election that will bring Nigerians out, I begin to wonder whether the other elections did not bring Nigerians out. You see, I applaud the work of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in terms of registering voters, I think they have done a fantastic job. I also applaud Nigerians from all walks of life especially the young ones who have come out to get registered. But Nigeria has always had a very high number in terms of registration and one would urge that we even increase in terms of the numbers of those who vote in the elections. What we are bringing to the table is a ticket of very competent, very transformational, very epoch making individuals: first in the person of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu whose outing in Lagos cannot be disputed no matter how much anybody will try and Senator Kashim Shetimma whose outing in Borno cannot be disputed. In fact, I dare to say that this is the first time in the history of Nigeria where two of such transformational leaders have come on one ticket for the acceptance of Nigeria. So, we are in a pole position, we have what to campaign with that will stand the test of scrutiny, test of research and the test of interrogation. These two people represent the paradigm shift as we have it today in Lagos and Borno. We are going to the market with people who are insensitive to all our fault lines; ethnic, religious, creed and even gender. They have shown that they can be trusted to become the catalyst for the birthing of the new Nigeria, just like in 1999 when Asiwaju took over Lagos and has transformed Lagos to what it is today.
You have spoken eloquently as a party man trying to bring out the qualities of your presidential candidate and his running mate, but I also know that some Nigerians feel very differently, that your candidate is enmeshed in controversies of age and identity and to cap it all, the candidate of the Peoples Democratic party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, has said that your candidate cannot stand a one hour interview, how do you react to this?
Well, first of all, I would like to say that you cannot trample on facts; you cannot cover fact with a bushel, like light it will shine through. You cannot discountenance his work in Lagos, no matter how hard you try. Also, you cannot discountenance the work of Atiku Abubakar in Nigeria, no matter how hard you try. We are not coming to the political firmament with Tinubu believing that the entirety of Nigerians would believe in our narrative. No! But we have preponderance, not so many of our supporters are on the social media and I want you to find out how many Nigerians are on the social media and which area of Nigeria they are from. So, we are not going to contest on Instagram neither are we going to contest in Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. We are going to contest on the ground and let me tell you that within the nooks and crannies of Nigeria we have numerous booths on the ground, a legion of booths to carry the message of Asiwaju, the message of the fact that Asiwaju has and perhaps has shown the proclivity, the talent to headhunt the best Nigerians and bring them together for the interest of Nigeria and this is what Nigeria is lacking. The president is just like a manager, a coordinator; you must bring the best people together and the man at the helm will coordinate activities for the growth and good of Nigeria, he has shown it in Lagos. And for those who say that Asiwaju cannot withstand the rigours of a one hour interview to please bring to the table what they did when they were in government. We are not going to interrogate their personal life because that has been properly done by their principals in the past and so we can venture to leave that aside, but what we cannot leave un-scrutinized and un-interrogated is their stay in the public space. Your candidate, Bola Tinubu is not an independent candidate, he is running under a political party, APC and it is being assumed that APC has performed woefully in government and the former National chairman has said that Tinubu should not be judged by Buhari’s government, which is an admittance of failure… (Cuts in) (Adams) Oshiomhole did not say that, I have seen the video; he did not say that Asiwaju should not be judged by the failure of the government. He said that Asiwaju cannot be judged by the government that he is not an appointee of; he is not an operative of the government. Buhari is still in power, he has a minister for information, Buhari has people who speak for the government, what we can answer to is Asiwaju’s antecedent, what we that are campaigning for him can answer to. You are talking about the antecedent of Buhari, it is a different matter and we can deal with that.
The question is where are you people going to lean on?
We are going to lean on his success in Lagos, as a private individual; we are going to lean on his success as a fighter for democracy, a leader of NADECO, a man who brought us this democracy that everybody is jumping on. We are going to judge him on those things; we are going to judge him as the only voice in the senate against an (Sani) Abacha when those who are superintending over the PDP today said nothing. Iyochir Ayu was in the Senate; I like history and would like the people to please tell us the contributions of Iyochir Ayu as the President of the Senate against the transformation of Abacha from a military man to a civilian president. These are some of the things you people in the media should bring to the fore. I want the media to question Atiku as a private individual, as a customs officer, as a recruit in the Nigeria Police Force. I have not seen those things; I think that people should be questioned so that we know the character of the persons that we are selecting as the President of Nigeria. It is not enough to talk whether the President has succeeded or not, that is a different matter entirely. Still on this issue, I know that Asiwaju is not an appointee of this government, I wouldn’t know whether he has done contracts or not, but I know that he campaigned for this government, I know that he made all manner of promises on behalf of this government, I also know that many Nigerians today are beginning to question some of those promises like making the Dollar to be at par with the Naira, that they will build one refinery each year… (Cuts in) No, these things are beginning to take a life of their own. Nobody promised that, go through from 2013 to 2019, go through all the videos of the presidential campaigns, if you can bring out one, then I will believe the rest. But let me tell you that when you are running for election, your supporters seem to be even more overzealous than you are. I have seen somebody campaigning that Asiwaju will make the Naira equal to the Dollar, but Asiwaju has not said that. While it is not my business to defend the President, I am telling you that I followed the President to almost every campaign stop and at no time did he say he was going to make the Dollar equal to the Naira and no time did he say he was going to build a refinery every year. The only thing I heard him say and you know he is a very reticent man, the only thing that I heard him say is that he was going to tackle corruption, improve the economy and that he was going to tackle security. Those were the things he promised. But if you want to know whether those promises could be part of his campaign, you put that question to Asiwaju, but for me, I know that Asiwaju is the best thing we can have in 2023. Well, Nigeria is a country that has her own peculiarities, and one of such is that religion has become an issue unfortunately so, Asiwaju has picked a fellow Muslim and ever since, the party has not been stable… There is nothing wrong with our party, you cannot say that the party has been unstable; you can say that a few members just like in other parties are grumbling.
Would you say that the former Speaker, Yakubu Dogara and the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal, don’t matter?
They are ordinary members of the party, they enjoy the same membership that I enjoy, and there is nothing special about them.
Okay, what do you say about the feelings of the Christians especially in the North?
First, let me tell you that I am a pastor’s son. My father was a Bishop of the African Methodist Church, so I speak from the perspective of a man who grew up in the Church; we used to hold prayers in our house both morning and night, every day until my father passed on. He used to preach to us, the only thing my father told me about politics and leadership is that God admonished them who are the leaders of the Church to pray for leaders, to pray so that the righteousness of Jesus Christ may envelop them because they say when the righteous rule, the people rejoice. It is when there is unrighteousness in the land that you see a lot of reproach and no time did my father tell me that a Christian for any other matter; that adherents of other faiths must bring their faith into the political trajectory. Let me also say that even as a clergyman, my father also had a leaning to the NPN, for reasons I do not know, he did not like Obafemi Awolowo. But when I became a teenager, I was completely enveloped in my love for the teachings of Awolowo because I had read almost all his books and so, I became an Awoist at a very tender age. I was a very argumentative youth, so I engaged my father in political debates and at no time did my father demonise any party on the basis of the faith of their candidate. Remember that Awolowo was a Christian while Shehu Shagari that my father supported was a Muslim. Further, down the line in 1993, Nigerians from all walks of life and all ethnic nationalities, whether from the North or South, whether Christians, Muslims or animists, trooped in the numbers on June 12 and voted overwhelmingly for a Muslim-Muslim ticket and rejected a ticket that had a Christian. Now 30 years after, what has made us come to this point?
Yes that is the question?
I will tell you why, for there are very many reasons, but there are two fundamental ones; one is the level of underdevelopment that has bedeviled us as a people and has attended our education and social life and everything. Then the second one is the PDP. In 2015, in their desperation to hang on to power, they brought religion in politics in the way that we have never seen in Nigeria where the sitting president was going from one Church to the other, using the pulpit of God to preach the sermon of PDP. And at the end of the day, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), an umbrella body of all Christians of different political persuasions, decided to support the candidate of PDP regardless of the fact that a pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God was a candidate of the other party. That is when politics took this dangerous dimension that it has taken. You see, the moment you bring religion into a delicate and emotional matter like politics, you are going to get the kind of results we are getting now.
So after winning the election, what did your party do to redirect Nigerians away from that trajectory?
We are doing it about now. We tried everything; visits, the President was always inviting Bishops and other Church leaders but still in 2019, it did not deter CAN, even when a Muslim Fulani became the candidate of the PDP just like in the APC and an ordinary member, Peter Obi had become the vice presidential candidate and here in the APC, Osinbajo a pastor was still on the ballot, it did not stop them from still supporting the PDP. Now what to do as a politicians is to first of all take very difficult decisions which is when you want to win elections, you must take some very hard decisions that may be unpopular. The decision to take Shettima is not a religious decision; the APC is not a religious organization. The APC was formed to win elections, the first consideration is to win elections and the second consideration is to begin to take religion out of politics.