The leader of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), Professor Ango Abdullahi, says the region will resist any attempt to restructure the Nigeria based on the current agitation.
In this interview with PAUL ORUDE in Bauchi, the former Vice Chancellor, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, speaks on the focus of NEF under his leadership.
He has harsh words for Northern Governors, who he calls irresponsible leaders over their statement calling for the establishment of ranches as solution to the clashes between farmers and herdsmen in parts of the country.
“We have all personalized restructuring with a view to targeting a section of the country and this is the area that we feel very sensitive about and we will resist it. Even if we don’t resist it objectively, we can resist it politically”, he warned.
Why did you decide to take the leadership of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) at this critical time? What is your focus, and what do you hope to achieve for the body?
Well, let me start by saying that I did not seek the leadership of the Northern Elders Forum. The leadership of NEF was foisted on me by members, so let me make this very clear. Ango Abdullahi has never been ambitious in terms of positioning wherever he finds himself. All my political life you will never see me frantically jostling for position. I have always believed in teamwork and the team players in the Northern Elders Forum decided that I should take on the leadership of the forum so that is why I think I should make very clear from the beginning. Number two relates to the issue of what is the focus; the focus remains what brought out the NEF in the first place. The focus of the forum has always been that as a civil society organisation it has responsibility in ensuring that there is a role in the socio economic and political development of the country and wherever it seems that things are not going according to the expectations of Nigerians, especially according to the constitution of the country which stipulates how Nigerians should live in the country and so on, of course the northern elders forum will come out and make its views known.
The Forum has been searching for a presidential candidate that will be acceptable to the northern region and Nigeria. Are you looking at the younger generation or the age you belong or even where the incumbent president belongs?
Well let’s go back to 2015. The north insisted then that the north should produce the next Nigerian president and this is what we worked on. Thank goodness some of the parties or some of the players responded and this was what brought about the dislodgement of the PDP as a government and the loss of the presidency by Jonathan and takeover of government by APC and the presidency by General Buhari. This is what we did and I like to correct that we have not started searching for a presidential candidate but our eyes and ears are wide opened. We are looking at all options on the table -old, middle age, young- all are options on the table and irrespective of which politics they profess, what we will be looking for is a good presidential material that is going to serve the needs of the county effectively and so on so all our options are on the table. It has no age limit and perhaps our age limit is the voting age. If there is a very competent 18 years old may be but this is not very likely but all options are on the table, we have not started searching yet but we will keep our eyes and ears opened to ensure that the principles upon which we argued and argued in the previous elections will still be the principles that will guide us in supporting a presidential material from amongst many that perhaps would like to offer themselves for the position.
Some are suggesting that NEF is almost pushing itself as an opposition to the Buhari administration. How true is this?
But how could this be true? If there is any group that stood firm for the principles of equity and justice for all sections of this country, that was our platform and then on the basis of this principle one party decided that a presidential candidate of northern extraction should contest on its platform while the other party decided against our wishes that presidential candidate of non-northern extraction would contest on its platform. This was the basis on which we supported that party and that candidate. That party that said yes, candidate of northern extraction should emerge and one emerged and we didn’t determine who emerged. This is one emphasis that I want to make in this interview: we didn’t determine in the course of the primaries run by the APC which of the contestants will win the primary. But we waited until one emerged and once one emerged, we came out in support and this is perhaps what gave birth to Buhari presidency. But we also made it clear that irrespective of the geographical origin of the candidate, we want to make sure that the candidate performs and wherever his performance is below what we consider a good standard, we will be able at all times to say no, where no is needed and yes, when yes is needed and perhaps this is what must have given the impression whenever we say no to certain policies, people construe that this is an opposition but it will be irresponsible of any civil society organisation like the one we lead to see things going wrong and will not say that things are going wrong. So if this our honest assessment of situations as they developed is what is construed as opposition, then it has to be but there is no way we will back out of telling the truth whenever one is required. There are a number of interviews I gave, I remember personally and sometimes officially, saying that we want to see internal democracy in all the political parties. I want to say and this is a personal opinion, that I am opposed to automatic ticket- from councillor to presidency, so if a party has a constitution that spells out a way for candidates to emerge, they should follow it even if it is mere endorsement, let them follow the procedure. We have advocated and these are some of the positions that people are misconstruing that this is opposition to the presidency or his government. This is not true.
The man heading the Benue Livestock Guards, as recently revealed by Saturday Sun, was a wanted Boko Haram suspect. How do you react to this?
My first reaction is to congratulate The Sun newspaper for carrying out this investigation. This is what the media are supposed to do. They are supposed to be watchdog of things that are going right or wrong in the society. When it was brought out, appropriate reports were made to authorities that they should take action and this is part of the crisis we are going through in this country. People are not being honest. Now that you have mentioned this issue of Live Stock Guards in Benue, and so on, this now brings me, even though you haven’t asked the question, this brings me up to the media reports of Friday, March 2. The Northern Governors Forum to me, irresponsibly, came out with a statement that the northern governors should adopt a policy of ranching as solution to whatever their own understanding of livestock development or peaceful co-existence between herders and farmers is. It is an irresponsible statement. Emphatically, because these governors have been sitting there for years, virtually with no policy on how to develop agriculture generally let alone how to develop livestock industry in this country and they have waited until some of these crises started manifesting and now we know we are in election year and a lot of the statements that seem to come out from the politicians including the governors are self-serving statements. I don’t know whom they are trying to please or where they are trying to escape to in terms of responsibility that they have to bear. You see, either they are speaking out of sheer ignorance, tactical ignorance of what agriculture is or what livestock development or industry is or they are speaking to the gallery, or speaking to both during elections. I am a professional agricultural scientist. I was at one time Director Agriculture Research Institute of Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) before I became its Vice Chancellor and we know what agricultural development is in its comprehensive forms in terms of crop development, in terms of livestock development, in terms of other branches that are relevant to agricultural development and we have been working on this for years and we have the relevant information available on our shelves, sometimes information that has been passed on to the Agriculture Extension Services of the states and this research information is supposed to be used in each state for the benefits of farmers, whether they are crop or livestock farmers. And these are things this government has consistently ignored and these are things that have taken us to the crisis stage that we are in now. And the fact that we have arrived at this crisis point will not allow anybody, governors inclusive to hoodwink Nigerians into projects that are unrealistic and cannot be achieved. I challenged any governor to go and show me his ranch so that livestock owners can go and learn from the ranch. I challenge any governor to go and show me how he has successfully or his state government has successfully created a pilot scheme to demonstrate how a ranch is established and operated. I challenge them. And they have failed to read history. If they had read history of agricultural development correctly in terms of livestock development, they would have seen responsible governments in the past, particularly our regional government, here I want to make a distinction between a responsible regional government which we had, and I served under one of the them, the Northern Nigerian Government-they tried their hands, and honestly and genuinely tried their hands on grazing reserves which were established and gazetted. They also tried model ranching scheme. The most famous is Mokwa Cattle Ranch. If they had forgotten their history, they should go and read their history books particularly on ranching development that was. But all these failed, some for careless reasons, some for purely unavoidable ethical reasons, they failed. So for them to be talking to us about ranch now, I consider it irresponsible and deceptive but I challenge them, we want to see model ranching in each state that talked about ranch now within the next 12 months. I try to restrain my comments over this for some time now. I have seen this now more or less in the light of 2018 where we are, one year to the election and politicians including governors, politicians from all levels here, I don’t make any exception, are trying to play to the gallery, in playing to the gallery, they are looking for votes. Well, we are not going to allow them to deceive the people by way of these cheap, irresponsible statements, in trying to hoodwink us into believing that what they are saying is correct and the solution to the problem. Certainly, they should know that this is not a solution to a problem that had been with us for hundreds ofyears. Even when the British came, they saw livestock as an important component of agricultural development policy and they did everything to make sure that it thrived and the way they did it was not necessarily to go for ranching even though they came from an environment where ranches were working or worked. They decided that they had to create something that fit the Nigerian environment. The circumstances of the Nigerian environment include lack of education on the part of the crop farmers, lack of education on the part of the livestock farmers and all manners of policies that had to be introduced that will enhance crop production and that would also enhance livestock production. First and foremost in the case of livestock, they decided that grazing reserves should be created as models for people with means, they could create their own pastures where their animals could feed throughout the year, and that is why they created a number of grazing reserves across the country.
Unfortunately again, irresponsible governments ignored this element that are vital to livestock industry, allowing the grazing reserves to disappear. They created cattle routes right from the border with Niger republic down to the coast and gazetted them. As you speak to me, when Buhari was the Chairman of PTF, he engaged me and my firm to trace these cattle routes and that was how I drove in a four wheel drive between the border in Niger and that was how we were able to locate the cattle routes gazetted even during the colonial times but all of them are gradually being encroached by farming, which again shouldn’t have been allowed by any responsible government, and they have done nothing about that. The steps required to be taken to ameliorate the difficulties of livestock farmers in relation to crop farmers is to demarcate these routes so that there is easy passage from one part of the country to another with livestock that is looking for grazing and I cannot accept the argument that it is shortage of land that is creating this. Again, ignorant statement. At the moment, only 35 percent of Nigeria’s territory is under cultivation. The remaining 65 percent is open range forest. So you cannot argue that it is shortage of land that is causing conflict between farmers and livestock owners.
And if you look at this 35 percent I am talking to you, as an agronomist, we don’t require even the 35 per cent to do all that we require in terms of food production, including exports and raw materials; you only need a quarter of it. If you apply the technology that we researchers have developed over the last 40 or 50 years, I as a farmer knowing what to do, I can produce seven tonnes of maize on one hectare today, given the knowledge that is available, not only in research institutes but should be available to our agriculture extension workers, they should be teaching farmers. As I speak to you now, our farmers are only able to produce 13 bags, 1.2 tonnes of maize per hectare because the extension services of the state governments are not working and the policy supports services, which include subsidy to agriculture and so on are not being applied. The livestock farmer does not even know that there is subsidy while the crop farmers are being given subsidies on fertilizer. As a Director in the Research Institute 30 years ago, the minimum fertilizer requirement in this country is four million tonnes 40 years ago. So you can imagine what has happened to our soil 40 years ago, we probably require 10 million tonnes of fertilizer now. Go and check the total fertilizer that is available to famers in Nigeria today, it is less than one million tonnes. So where are these policies that talk about agriculture development. The livestock farming where we need our meat, where we need our milk and other things gets nothing except this vendetta, I call it political vendetta. The summary is this: what is driving all this noise about herdsmen-farmers clash is political, mixed with ethnic and unfortunately in some cases, religious bigotry. I want to emphasise that this is dangerous. The time has come for us to stop it before it gets worse than what it is now.
Atiku has made restructuring of Nigeria a focal point of his subtle campaign and appeal to other parts of the country. Does NEF support the idea of restructuring as being championed by the former VP?
Well, let me speak first on a personal note. When I started politics 1987, I started together with Atiku under the umbrella of Shehu Yar’Adua group so I know him very well. In fact, the first party we formed was People’s Front of Nigeria and Ango Abdullahi was its first National Chairman and Titi Ajanaku was its first Secretary, so we know ourselves well. Of course, he is a Nigerian politician and whatever may appear to be a soft spot for the Nigerian politician to press his finger on in order to gain support he will do. Restructuring if you look at it objectively and dispassionately, when Nigeria was put together in 1914, that was the beginning of restructuring of the country so that it can eventually come to be what Nigerians will wish it to be. When the amalgamation took place in 1914, that was the first restructuring that the colonial masters did bringing the Southern and Northern Protectorates together into one country, and eventually over time, began to introduce structures that will begin to bring the different structures together. So many constitutions were enacted between the amalgamation and 1960 when Nigeria attained independence; so much has been going on in the country which is all restructuring of the Nigerian arrangement that will make the system work, not for anybody, but work for the people of Nigeria. In 1960, Nigeria was granted independence under a federal system of government, with a parliamentary system of government, with three regions, Northern, Western and Eastern regions. The first additional restructuring that followed 1960 was the adoption of the Republican system of government in 1960 and the same time brought about the fourth region, the Midwest Region. Of course, the military intervention in 1966 brought about certain changes, in that we moved from four regions to 12 states created by the Gowon administration. I think this is restructuring from what it used to be-one amalgamated country, to three federating regions, then later four federating regions, then 12 states and so on and these processes continued. My skepticism of the current call again takes me back to the issue of politicizing everything that we do.
If we want Nigeria to be restructured, the only thing that is required is for us to call a Sovereign National Conference. It is the only conference that Nigeria has not experimented. But can you call a sovereign national conference while there is a sitting government? And there is a sitting National Assembly, there are sitting States Assemblies and governments and so on? They have to step aside. They have to be brushed aside for a sovereign national conference to take place and the verdict of the sovereign national conference must be binding. But as long as these are enshrined in our constitution, the only way is for amendments to be proposed to the appropriate bodies that have the responsibility of amending our various provisions. That is the only sensible thing to do but if this would be discussed sensibly
without apparent blackmail and furore about so so and so, we have all personalised restructuring with a view to targeting a section of the country and this is the area that we feel very sensitive about and we will resist it. Even if we don’t resist it objectively, we can resist it politically. But if there is sense and genuineness, nobody will be against change that will benefit the people. For example, I am an advocate of state police. Personally now, I am not talking about Northern Elders Forum. I am also an advocate of the abolition of the State Independent Electoral Commission because they are even worse than state police. The State Independent Electorate Commissions do the bidding of the state governors. I can give you a recent example in Kano. How could in Kano recently a PDP state, PDP failed to win even a council seat? Something is basically wrong. So the manipulation of State Independent Electoral Commission is for me, today, the most dangerous threat to democracy in Nigeria.
So for me, if there is going to be restructuring in the country, first, we should change from the presidential system of government to parliamentary system, and in terms of institutions that are in charge of elections; we should abolish the State Independent Electoral Commissions and we should ban any party from contesting elections unless it has direct primary where all its members will come out and decide who is going to contest council chairmanship up to the presidency.
What does the nation expect towards 2019?
We are expecting a very peaceful transition of power from the present set of leaders at the national, state and local levels based on free will and free choice of Nigerians. That is our expectation.