The spokesman for the Northern Elders Forum, Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, shares his thoughts with OLUWAFEMI JUWE about the high expectations of the North from President Bola Tinubu, among other things
As one of the elders in the North, what’s your assessment of the state of the nation?
In one word, expectant! Yes, expectant, because we expect that President Tinubu will do phenomenally better than Buhari. The immediate past President was a woeful disappointment. He failed the nation. He failed the North. He failed the electorates that trooped out to give him the kind of votes that no other President has ever had. He raised a lot of expectations but left the country a lot worse than he met it. So, we are hoping that if Tinubu continues to be the President after all these judicial processes have been concluded, he would have learnt from President Buhari’s weaknesses and failures to create a government that is radically different from that of President Buhari because this country has to move on. We don’t have another eight years to lose. There’s a very high expectation that we will have good governance, we will have a secure country, and that we will have a compassionate government.
What aspects of governance will you want Tinubu to focus on?
Fighting corruption! Please note that I didn’t say fighting insecurity, but fighting corruption, because corruption is at the root of our insecurity; societal corruption, the corruption of our values as a people, and the corruption of all the agencies that are supposed to be fighting insecurity. If you drastically remove corruption from the processes and operations of the government and from the lives of Nigerians, you can solve the problem of insecurity in a year or two. Insecurity is a problem; so, I will have to list it among the priorities. Addressing poverty is a very serious problem; finding ways to improve inclusion – the elections have polarised the country very dangerously – so, we are in a very terrible situation because our last elections polarised the nation more.
The elections opened up a Pandora’s box that we have never seen in this country. I am hoping that Tinubu will be able to bring in some bright people who will give him some good ideas on how we can de-escalate this. So, inclusiveness should be prioritised. The new administration must find a way to make all parts of the country have a stake in the government.
Then, by all means, we want fresh and new ideas in the management of the economy. The administration should pay very close attention to the impact of liberal economic policies. Poverty levels are very high, and sometimes we tend to think that ideas alone can solve problems, no! You need to pay very close attention to the state in which people live. Not all people are beneficiaries of liberal economies. So, the poor are already really under a lot of poverty. Insecurity has compounded it. And the last thing you want to do is to create a hostile citizenry. So, the President needs to be very careful and to take very informed policies in the management of the economy so that even if he doesn’t radically liberate the poor, he also doesn’t radically impoverish them.
It is generally believed that the northern governors are not living up to expectations, how do you think the North can get out of its current economic woes, insecurity problems and all of such?
I will advise them to put aside partisan politics and adopt pan-northern policies in a number of areas. On insecurity, from Sokoto to Maiduiguri, from Katsina to Makurdi, northerners are insecure. This tendency for the 19 states to create their own policies is not helpful; it frustrates governance and it fritters away the goodwill of the citizens when they don’t see the government perform. So, the first priority for them is to rise above partisanship and to recognise the fact that virtually the North is just one region and everything that happens in Niger State happens in Taraba. They need to adopt common policies on insecurity, poverty and economic development. You need to have a common policy on issues of Almajiri and girl child education; these are important issues that should be prioritised.
Talking about militancy, the Boko Haram problem, banditry and kidnapping, they (governors) must find a way of engaging the rest of the country. Unless they do this as northern governors, their weight will not be felt and their efforts will be wasted, because the rest of the country will not take them seriously. They need to remember that the Tinubu administration was voted in substantially by northerners. Tinubu got almost 60 per cent of his votes from the North. Northerners are very liberal, we are very open, and we are very democratic. We voted for everybody.
All four (main) contestants got their highest votes from the North. The North must be a beneficiary of this administration and subsequent administrations, not just by virtue of this, but by virtue of the fact that the majority of the population lives here. Most of what we eat comes from the North. If you tamper with agriculture, you are not just tampering with the socio-economic health of the North, but you will actually be threatening the country. So, the North needs to understand its own strengths and weaknesses. The governors are immensely powerful. But if everybody goes his way; this one is legislating against open herding, this one is supporting another side in the quarrel, then they wouldn’t go anywhere.
This is a problem that transcends state borders. I tell you the truth, if I had my way I would have abolished states. State boundaries are a liability. Nineteen states, 19 governors, you can imagine. Look at the amount of money we are spending.
Are you indirectly advocating a return to the regional system of government?
Sadly, I will advocate some change. The North can’t carry 19 governors, 19 legislatures, and 19 judiciaries. When people talk about the cost of governance, it is a mistake to talk about the size of civil servants. It is in the amount of money politicians spend on themselves and steal. That is really where the cost of governance is. The people of the South-East complain that they have only five states. They are lucky that they have only five states. If they get rid of their insecurities and recover the ground that they lost in terms of being the industrial base of the country, they will be in heaven. They don’t have the number of governors we have. We have 19 governors, including the weight of the Federal Government. So, governance alone just takes a huge part of the resources of the North, and until we can find a solution to that – common policies, common strategies, an awareness of their own worth to the North, an awareness of their value to the rest of the country and an informed strategy for engaging the rest of the country.
On this basis, shouldn’t that be the reason why the North should join the clamour for restructuring of the country?
The North was the first to say that you have to fix Nigeria. It was just hijacked by other groups, and they made it appear that the North is against restructuring. We are not against restructuring. We are in favour of an informed, productive, genuine, and popular restructuring. One of them must be to revisit the number of states that we have and to change the governance structure. Nigeria is carrying too much burden of the cost of governance. It is not fair. It is not right. It shouldn’t be carrying this level of burden. Most of the burden is created by the leaders we elect, who both plunder and waste our resources.
We are in support of restructuring and we hope that the Tinubu administration will find the will and the way to convene some kind of forum that will genuinely look at what Nigeria needs to be. If we can’t do it in one gulp, let’s do it incrementally. What can be fixed now? What needs to go through constitutional changes, and how do we change the constitution itself? It is our country. We created this constitution, we created this monstrosity. So, we don’t need anybody’s permission to change it. It is nobody’s agenda. It is a Nigeria agenda.
Every part of this country has a grievance. We need to bring those grievances to the table. Let’s sit down and you are likely to see that 70 per cent of these grievances are shared. We can deal with those ones, and then we move on to the most difficult ones. But issues about wealth generation, wealth allocation, these are not central to Nigerians. What we need is a nation where the citizen feels that he has a stake. And you have to give him structures, processes and systems that make him feel that he has a stake in the system. That he is not just there for elections. This nation needs to be restructured in such a way that it becomes a Nigerian state. Meaning, every citizen of this country feels that this is his country. Right now, it is a country for the leaders.
They buy power, they occupy offices, they do what they want to do, and they leave the country poorer, angrier, more impoverished and more divided. Every election produces a worse country. You can look at our electoral process. Why is it impossible for the electoral process to decide who is elected? Why do 70 per cent of people who eventually emerge as leaders go all the way to the courts? They are decided by the judges and not by INEC. There is something fundamentally wrong with our democracy that cannot decide whether at least 80 per cent of the people who were elected were genuinely elected.
If you ask the Tinubu administration to set up a forum to galvanise these grievances, it means you may be averse to the recommendations of the 2014 National Conference.
The report of the 2014 conference can be brought to that forum. There’s nothing wrong with that. Bring every report. Just make sure that the people who will sit in that forum are representatives of the people. That means that they understand the problems of the country; that they are the kind of people who can take genuine Nigerian problems to the forum; not partisan, not regional, not ethnic, not religious. This country can’t break up the way some people think it will; the North can go its way; that the South-East can move away. It can’t. So, if we are going to live in peace and in some form of happiness, we better find common solutions to common problems. I don’t think that there is anything wrong in bringing the 2014 report, but I will advise that it forms the basis of some decisions.
Taking a cue from what the immediate past governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-Rufai, said that many of the NEF elders don’t have a political base, it is generally believed that many of the northern state governors don’t appreciate the role of the NEF and don’t subscribe to your suggestions. What’s your take on this?
You’re taking your cue from the wrong person. Actually, El-Rufai doesn’t represent the 19 governors. We have a very healthy interaction with the 19 state governors. The truth about it is that generally speaking, leaders don’t like to be criticised. People get to power; initially, they open their doors and say that they are looking for good ideas and will like to build relationships. Members of the Northern Elders Forum are good people. The moment you begin to say to them that maybe you should really start in this direction, or maybe they should listen, they will shut you out; but we never ever insist that this must be done, never, and that’s because we are not the ones who are leading; we don’t have the mandate of the people; nobody elected us as elders.
We don’t worry about not having power. We don’t want it in the sense of being elected. But we have it and we use it very carefully. Sometimes, most people think we use it very recklessly when we say things that some people in the southern part of the country are not happy about. This is okay. We also hear things about the North being said in the South that we take exceptions to. But that is the way the country is.
Unfortunately, Nigeria has no political elites. It only has politicians. You can’t have elites that lead for only four or eight years and then they are gone. This is one of the many tragedies of this country. After the First Republic, you never had political elites and the military never allowed the emergence of solid, unified, national political elites; and this is one of our problems. We have many areas where we are poor. The sad thing is the absence of enduring national elites. This is what saved America from Donald Trump at the last minute. And this is what keeps the democratic processes in many countries going. When politicians fight themselves into a stupor, the elites step in. In many instances they are shadowy. You don’t see them, you don’t hear from them. But there are people who hold the strings. But here it doesn’t happen. They will draw lines as to what is allowed, and what is not allowed.
Unfortunately, many of our former heads of state, former this and former that, are scared to come out and stick out their necks, except former President (Olusegun) Obasanjo. Why is it that our political system alienates them and scares them from getting involved? Why can’t they say something is wrong and say it together? That is what we are trying to do in the Compatriots that I also belong to. We took our name from our national anthem. We thought what better to say than the Compatriots. We come from all over this country and we have been doing some great work. We just haven’t been vocal about it. We are planning a number of things, one of which is to engage this government on a number of things. I hope that they are amenable to advice, including advice that they may not necessarily like.
How good is the NEF’s relationship with other socio-cultural groups like the Middle Belt Forum, Afenifere and Ohanaeze, because from the outside there is this perception that there’s no synergy?
I think we have all perfected this system of speaking to the gallery instead of speaking to each other. You saw it during the period when many powerful voices were raised in the southern part of the country that the North should not even consider fielding a candidate at all. There were about 18 political parties, and southern groups and northerners they now call Middle Belt will get together every once in a while and throw an ultimatum to the North and say, ‘Don’t even think about it. Buhari has had eight years; this is the time of the South.
They also speak for their own people. This is what we need in this country; people who should not be ashamed to speak for a particular people, but should also recognise the fact that everybody has his own elders’ group. On two or three occasions, there were efforts to see if we could come together into some kind of a national body made up of these groups that you are talking about, but the mistake we made was that we kept sending our recommendations to former President Buhari, who just picked them up and trashed them.
That is if he ever read them because we were exactly the kind of people that he didn’t want to see. We have learnt from that. Leadership of these groups needs to go through some reviews. There are groups that I personally believe that they have no business being led by people who are in their 90s. We need enlightened, informed kind of people that will recognise the fact that you represent a faction and that you must recognise the fact that the South-West will not go anywhere without the rest of the country, and that the South-East will not go because 80 per cent of its assets and everything is outside of the South-East, but in the rest of Nigeria.
You said the elders’ forum is the type former President Buhari didn’t want. Why did you make that statement?
We made some profound recommendations; for instance, the amendment of the constitution, fixing the economy, security and tackling poverty at a time when his administration was precisely the reason why these problems were blowing; and fixing the country. I don’t think that up to the time Buhari left, he accepted that there was any problem with this country. So, when you tell somebody who is the problem about some solutions, he doesn’t want to hear it.
That is the reason I stressed that whoever is going to lead between now and 2027 should be the type of President who will be open minded, who will recognise the fact that he needs ideas on how this country needs to be restructured and how the economy needs to be redesigned so that both can serve the purposes of growth, reduce poverty and that it bring the country together. These things are very important. We can’t continue to sustain the level of insecurity in this country.
From May 29 till date, how will you rate Tinubu’s government?
I will rather hold back my assessment. All administrations find low hanging fruits – pretty easy decisions to take. You take them and the people clap. I think that Tinubu started with some evidence of courage. Courage can be a double-edged sword. You can actually have the courage to do the right thing and you do it; you can also have the courage to do the wrong thing and you wouldn’t realise that it is the wrong thing until you do it. So, courage is not enough, but you need it particularly under the current circumstances. You need courage as well as wisdom.
Everybody knew the fuel subsidy would go out, whether it was designed or not, and it was because President Buhari only budgeted for it till June. It wasn’t Tinubu that removed the subsidy; it was Buhari that removed it. Tinubu just found a convenient entry point and said, ‘There’s no kobo for subsidy, so it is gone.’ But what you do is to immediately tell people that are working with you that, ‘Listen, this may not be our decision, but it will be our decision to deal with the consequences’.
There are a number of things the administration has to do. It should be very careful about its reforms in the education sector. I think that policy needs to be looked at very carefully. I can tell you that we in the North are very worried about the potential that the policy on loan scheme and tuition fees is going to radically increase the cost of university education, and that a large number of students from the northern parts of the country will just stop going to school. So, I am hoping that, first, the policy will be studied thoroughly in the context of how people live now. Where are we going to get these loans from?
The banks that will disburse the student loans, how much authority and power are you going to devolve to them, or are you going to leave them to go and charge what they want? Are they going to provide parameters? Have we looked at the possibilities that students may take loans and not be able to pay back three, four, five years after graduation? Have you created enough employment opportunities? Recently, I saw an advert of something supposedly from the BUK in Kano, which is one of the largest universities, and I saw that they (students) are now going to be charged for various services the university renders. I say this is unbelievable. I know for a fact that it is true that a large number of students will not be able to cope.
So, we are behind now as it is in the North. If you now introduce policies where the removal of subsidies is already making life difficult for poor people; electricity tariffs are going to go up and our children can’t go to school. You must worry about the cumulative effects of these policies. Policies after policies are just making life more difficult and people have a short patience threshold. If they don’t see a difference between the pre-Tinubu government and the Tinubu administration, they will walk away from this administration. The last thing Tinubu needs is Nigerians saying, ‘This man just came to make our lives difficult.’ In simple terms, that is basically where it boils down.
But I spoke to an educationist at the tertiary level and he said if most parents were willing to pay tuition for their wards and children as high as N1m at secondary or primary education levels, why shouldn’t they pay more than that at the university level?
You said most. Yes, some parents can. I suspect that you are referring to people who are able to send their children to private universities. This is why the government needs to thoroughly analyse the society and context of policies. I teach public policy in the university now, and context is very important. So, you need to understand the context in which it is. I can tell you where N2m will be in the entire budget of a local government which runs local education authority in many parts of the world. A very good example is when Nasir El-Rufai dramatically increased fees at Kaduna State University; a large number of the students didn’t come back at all.
So, we are not just raising issues. We are saying look at the state of people before you roll out policies. That is my concern; I have a lot of goodwill and hope that this administration will make a difference. And this is why it is important for us to advise them. Mind you, these loans, from the little that I read, are not going to be available to just anybody. There are issues about who the sureties are. When you mention a policy, we say put it on the table and let us look at it. What informs a policy, who will it affect, and how will they react? And then what do you want to get from it, when you get it, will it improve or compound problems? Yes, there are parents who can afford the increase, but there are also parents whose children will literally just walk away from the universities. Okay, so, our children will not go to the university, are you investing in skills acquisition centres or technical education, so that if children don’t go to universities, they can go and learn skills or go and learn some competencies, but don’t do this in a way that appears to just simply compound issues.
How can the nation do away with the divisive religious tendencies in national politics?
It is a very complex issue, which is made more complex by the calibre of politicians we have. This is the lowest level of politicians we have ever had. Our constitution is secular, but Nigerians are not secular. We are Christians and Muslims. We have religions we take seriously. We like our religions. We don’t want anybody interfering with our faith; both Muslims and Christians. If religion is so important in our lives, why can’t we find it reflected in one way or the other in governance? Why is it that a Christian governor and a Muslim governor govern in the same way? You will not go to their states and see a single difference. Go and look at their citizens. How is it that a Muslim governor is corrupt and a Christian governor is corrupt? This is a secular country; so, as long as he doesn’t touch my faith, and he doesn’t affect my faith, I am more comfortable.
If you say Tinubu and Shettima are Muslims, the first question I will ask you is, ‘How many Christians are they going to Islamise and how does that affect the way Christians live?’ They can’t legislate and turn this country into a Muslim country. But that is not the way that we do it. So, I think that this is the kind of problem that we are talking about. That’s why I say we decide what this country needs to be. Where is the place of faith? I want to see my faith as a Muslim reflected one way or the other in the way I am governed.
What’s your take on the upcoming national population census?
You just wait and see the crisis that will follow the census because there are people who are going to insist that they want to see faith reflected and there are people who are going to say, ‘No, we don’t want to see how many Muslims, or how many Christians that we have. The year 2023 has widened the division and it is very serious. I have no immediate answers to that, but I know that if this country is going to make some progress beyond this periodic fight against religion, we have to find a way to sit down and say, ‘How do we introduce the matter of faith in our political system.’
The way to do that is to look at how good and honest people who are not interested in stealing the commonwealth can come out and get power on their merit without using religion. In Christian communities, if they like a Muslim, they can elect him; and in a Muslim community, if they like a Christian, they can elect him, but then, he has to show them his credentials and not his faith. Around the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, we used to have one North, but then the Middle Belt came up with clearer fault lines than ever before. How did we arrive here? There has always been the Middle Belt even during the Sardauna period. This is one of the sad things about this country, they don’t teach history.
After the present administration, will the Northern Elders Forum or the Northern Consultative Forum be averse to a Christian-Christian ticket?
You noticed that the Northern Elders Forum never said a word about the same-faith ticket because we saw through it. It was a gimmick. It was an electoral gimmick. It was never intended to install an advantage on one faith or to create a disadvantage on another faith. It was a gimmick and it worked. If Tinubu came out with this same faith ticket of Muslim-Muslim ticket to get him the North and the South-West, he was right. He got his votes. But how many Muslims have become Christians since then? How has that helped Muslims or Christians?
Even if we have a Christian-Christian ticket, it will still be a gimmick. Our faith is not affected by this business of the same-faith ticket, and they found Nigerians who were gullible enough. The cheerleaders were priests and some members of the Muslim clergy, but we will tell Nigerians the same way we told those who wanted our opinions to vote for good people. The fact that he is a Muslim doesn’t necessarily make him a good leader.