JUWE OLUWAFEMI and GODWIN ISENYO
Former lawmaker in the National Assembly, Senator Shehu Sani, shares his views with JUWE OLUWAFEMI and GODWIN ISENYO on the coup in the Niger Republic and the threat of a military invasion by the Economic Community of West African States, among other issues
Is it right for Nigeria to go to war with Niger Republic?
Well, the issue of Niger Republic has become more sensitive at this time more than at any other time. I just came back from Kano State where I was invited as a guest speaker at the Mombaya House, Aminu Kano Centre for Democratic Studies, where scholars and academics were invited to give their opinions. The military takeover of the government in Niger Republic is not new in this part of Africa. From 1966 to 1999, we had our experiences of military rule. Recently, the military took over the government in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, and now, in Niger. So, it appears that there is a contagious effect of military rule now. But the question we need to ask ourselves is why democracy is collapsing in West Africa or in Africa at this time.
First is the decay or destruction of our democratic values. When elections are rigged and there’s a breach of fundamental rights, the constitution is violated by people in authority, an atmosphere is created for coups. Secondly, when you have so much poverty as it is in West Africa, the gap between the poor and the rich is expanding, there will be social discontent and by doing that, an atmosphere is created for a coup.
The third is insecurity. Terrorism, the activities of ISWAP, Boko Haram and other terrorist groups have made it easier for democratic administrations to mortgage governance to the military, putting them on a very risky and dangerous foundation. So, whether there will be a war between Niger and Nigeria, the question can be answered this way. When the military took over in Niger Republic, Nigerians were in a confused position, not knowing what to do and what to say or what position to take. But there are people who applauded the coup. One of the reasons for supporting the coup is that people are frustrated with the 2023 elections and they believe that it (coup) is the best way to go.
Where Nigeria got involved was at the very time when the President of Nigeria, who happens to be the Chairman of ECOWAS, made an open threat of a military invasion of Niger Republic. Now, every citizen knows that it was a call for war. It will have a residual implication and consequence on the entire country and that was when people now said this cannot be. People like me openly condemned the coup but upon the pronouncement of the possibility of a military invasion, we retraced our steps and said, ‘Look, a war between ECOWAS countries and Niger Republic is simply a war between Niger Republic and Nigeria, because Nigeria funds almost 75 per cent of the budget of ECOWAS. I don’t see the possibility of the Ghanaian Army, the Togolese Army and the Cote d’Ivoire Army being at the forefront of war to take over Niamey.
So, what will be the consequences of a war between Nigeria and Niger Republic? The first is that northern states will also be under attack by being the states located in the border region with Niger Republic. Secondly, there’s the possibility of this war becoming broader. It is not going to be simply between ECOWAS and Niger Republic. The Burkinabe junta, Malian and Guinean juntas have made it clear that they are going to support Niger Republic. So, it may be an intra-African war. The third aspect of it is that currently, there are half a million Nigerian refugees in the Niger Republic that have been sacked by Boko Haram and ISIS. So, a war between ECOWAS and Niger Republic will be contained with such people that we will not know what to do with them.
Another aspect of it is that Niger Republic has been so helpful to Nigeria in fighting this insurgency and terrorists. A war between ECOWAS and Niger Republic or an armed invasion will give the terrorists the opportunity to launch more deadly attacks. So, President Bola Tinubu has to be enlightened that he’s the President of Nigeria and not that of ECOWAS, and that the mandate of ECOWAS on armed intervention cannot be effective because if you say that ECOWAS has the right to use force to restore democracy, what if it happens in Nigeria? Which of the West African countries will launch a military invasion of Nigeria to restore democracy in this country? So, it’s not something that is feasible.
Again, you can’t declare war against any country because it’s a member of a regional body. Niger Republic is a sovereign country and ECOWAS is founded on economic realities, not political and not military factors. This is not a NATO alliance. Let us be very clear about this and in that aspect, there is a limit to what sub-regional bodies can do. So, will there be a war in Niger Republic? Well, there should not be war in Niger Republic and our approach should continue to be to support human rights and civil organisations to restore democratic order just the way we did in Nigeria, because when we had our own experience, there was no invasion to restore the late Shehu Shagari; and there was no invasion to restore the late Chief MKO Abiola to power. We fought, we went to prisons and we went into exile. Newspapers were proscribed; labour and student union leaders were arrested. We fought to restore democracy. Allow the Nigeriens to fight to restore democracy.
President Tinubu has sworn in his ministers and a former governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike happens to be among them. What is your take as a strong party man?
The Peoples Democratic Party has found itself in a very uncomfortable position of not being able to take action in terms of dealing with people who worked against it in the 2023 general elections. There’s no doubt about it. The actions of (Nyesom) Wike and his colleagues after losing the presidential primary seriously undermined the presidential ambition of Atiku Abubakar and also the chances of the party. So, they betrayed their political party and have now found a new camp. Wike was a man who described the PDP’s problem as malaria and the APC’s as cancer, and he has now found himself in a cancerous position.
As far as I am concerned, I think the PDP has to choose where it wants to be in the history of Nigeria’s politics at this time. Does it like to be a strong opposition party that will stand up to the excesses, brigandage and the antics of the APC? Or does it like to be a subordinate of the APC? I say so because if those who betrayed or undermined the party were allowed to go scot-free, it would encourage others to do the same. An opposition party must distinguish its position, principle, stance and focus. The PDP has lost power to the APC and it is now losing the role of the opposition to the Labour Party. If you look at what is happening, most of the attacks are coming from the LP. So, it has reached a point that even most members of the APC don’t consider the PDP as a serious opposition party.
As a party man, what do you think about Wike’s action?
My advice is for Nyesom Wike to simply defect to the APC where he will be able to serve the party and also leave the PDP to play its role as an opposition party. It will be more respectable for him to join the APC and work without being distrusted by both sides because if he continues to divide his legs between the APC and the PDP, he will lead a very confused, disorganised and unstable political career. So, he has a lot to deliver. As a minister of the FCT, I have no doubt about his capacity as a performer. He will bring sanity to Abuja, but he is still being seen as a Judas and the position he is occupying is his own 30 pieces of silver and that is not a good position. The best thing is for him to defect so that he can work very well for President Tinubu and also for the APC.
How will you rate the performance of the President so far?
You know we are coming from eight years of (Muhammadu) Buhari’s disastrous reign. Buhari is one of the worst presidents we have had in this country. He left Nigeria in a very desolate and paralysed situation. Under Buhari, over 100,000 Nigerians were massacred by terrorists. Under Buhari, we piled up over N77tn debt. Under Buhari, Nigeria became more divided than it has ever been. Under Buhari, corruption was at its peak. Buhari demonstrated ineptitude and incompetence in the leadership of this country. If a minister is removed under Buhari, it takes up to six months for another to be replaced. Anyone who finishes his tenure, whether as Controller of Customs, Immigration or Prison Service, finds his tenure being extended by six months or by two months or more. This was the kind of leader Buhari was. This was a leader who would sit down and see that the Police Service Commission and the Nigeria Police Force were in court and he would have no solution to the problem.
These are all parastatals under him. This was a leader who had no solution when the DSS and the EFCC were exchanging fire. This was a leader who could not even choose his successor. He wanted Ahmed Lawan, and the chosen one was Ahmed Tinubu. So, in almost all indices, he kept on borrowing and destroying the economy of this country. Now, this is where we came from. Bola Tinubu took over power not with the support of President Muhammadu Buhari because he was not his candidate in the primaries. Despite that, he managed to win. These are the issues that came with the general elections. So, what can we say about Bola Tinubu? It is now three months since he took over power. We have seen the bold decision to withdraw the subsidy on petrol, but the problem we have is the lack of coordination and orderliness in terms of tackling the consequences and implications of this subsidy removal. So, the government has been found wanting in that aspect.
Secondly, the quality of the ministers; Tinubu has built a reputation and career of selecting the best. He had selected some of the best commissioners and aides in Lagos for the period that he served as governor and even after exiting government. For all his successors, from (Babatunde) Fashola, (Akinwunmi) Ambode to (Babajide) Sanwo-Olu, they are all performers. So, people expected that as he took over power on May 29, 2023, his ministers should be men and women of impeccable character, people who are competent and who are Nigeria’s first eleven. But we have found the President being held hostage by former governors, who felt entitled and that they should be given ministerial positions; most of them are northern governors.
If those northern governors said they brought in Tinubu because they believed in rotation of power and in capacity and competence, why did they insist that they must be made ministers? Don’t they have anybody in their states who is competent and capable? So, Tinubu has two issues; he has competent people whom he has nominated as ministers. The Minister of Health is competent; the Minister of Foreign Affairs has experience. Those in Finance and Economy are also competent. These are all ministers with requisite experience and records of accomplishments. So, they can be said to be assets. But the liabilities are the former governors, whom he brought to himself; people who have looted the treasury of their states; people who have misgoverned their states and people who have nothing to show in their states.
If you are to meet with President Tinubu today, what advice will you give him?
The advice, which he has already surpassed, is to appoint people based on their credibility, competence and capacity to deliver. If the government fails, he is to be blamed; if it succeeds, he will be commended. So, the buck stops on his table. I wanted to see a sports minister like Jay Jay Okocha, Segun Odegbami, Daniel Amokachi, or Mary Onyiali, or people who have worn our national jersey. I wanted to see the power minister as one that has experience. He has worked with Siemens, and global power agencies and he is going to take over the issue of power in Nigeria. I wanted an aviation minister who has the requisite experience in the aviation sector, someone like Allen Onyema, the owner of Air Peace, and others who know the problem of the aviation sector and how they can solve the problem.
I wanted to see a minister of works as an engineer; a competent man who knows what civil engineering is; an architect who knows what it is to build infrastructure. These are the kind of people that I want to see. But he could do that in the area of health with the appointment of (Prof Muhammad) Pate, a reputable medical professional known globally. The Minister of Foreign Affairs was also a Nigerian Ambassador to Germany. These are the kind of people who are good. He still has good people in his cabinet who don’t deserve to be ministers. An example is the Minister of Defence in the person of the former governor of Jigawa State. That man would have been better in the transportation ministry as the minister because transportation used to be his business before he became the governor.
What is your view on the security challenges in some parts of the country?
Just a few days ago, about 36 soldiers were killed by terrorists. There is terrorism in the North-West and North-East, and communal clashes and herdsmen killing people in Benue, Plateau and Nasarawa states. Look at what is happening in the south-eastern part of Nigeria with separatists. You should have a minister of defence who is either a retired army officer, naval officer or air force officer with a good record of accomplishment even if he is not in your political party.
How did you spend your ‘enjoyment allowance’ while in the Senate?
Lawmakers at the National Assembly know that each time they go on a public holiday or recess; there is a certain amount of money that is credited to their accounts. This time, it would not have been controversial if it was done silently. I happened to be the first legislator in the history of Nigeria to disclose allowances and payments made to legislators and I know it came with a price to me because I earned the anger and distrust of many of my colleagues, who felt that I was coming to the National Assembly and should not have unveiled such payment that ought to be done in secret. Well, I did so to clear my own conscience and to send a message to the whole country.
My defence was that I didn’t say that all of you were getting N13.5m and I just said that I had been receiving an alert of N13.5m and a salary of N720,000. So, if you are not receiving that, you can tell the world that you are not receiving that. But I became an enemy to many of them until later when time took over. I think Bukola Saraki, the then Senate President, saved me because I could have been penalised and suspended from the Senate at that time. That time, Saraki and (Ike) Ekweremadu stepped in to ensure that I wasn’t suspended. They also stepped in to save the Senate because if I had been penalised and suspended, Nigerians would have stormed the National Assembly. So, they allowed the matter. Now, for the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, traditionally, one needs not disclose, but he mistakenly blew the alarm and triggered this.
A female senator said I got her into trouble with her husband. She took a newspaper clip of what I said and put it on my table. When she told him that the N13.5m was a running cost for the office, he never believed her. So, this is the implication of disclosure. Our political system in Nigeria is such that it has not been able to differentiate between the work of the executive and the legislature. When people visit senators and members of the House of Representatives, they come there to collect money. They are constituents and many are not interested in the motions and the bills you raised at the Senate.
Did you regret that action?
I am so happy to have done it. If I had not done it, my conscience would have pricked me forever. I didn’t go to the Senate as a politician; I went there as an activist who went into politics and couldn’t have imagined myself collecting such a humongous amount without saying anything. Before I went to the Senate, I was one of those hammering on the humongous amount of money that is paid to legislators and I found myself receiving that humongous amount. I thought of it as an activist; what would I have become if I had left the Senate without disclosing what I was earning while at the National Assembly? I would have been simply termed a hypocrite.
Nigerian politicians are preaching transparency and accountability but they don’t practise it themselves. Look at what has happened in 2023; you can vouch for people that you support and say they are honourable people, not one person in office today has publicly declared his assets. None! So, if you are a saint, a holy man and a man of integrity, why are you hiding? Nigerian governors, senators and ministers; nobody is willing to tell Nigerians how he bought his houses, cars and how much he is worth. Buhari did it; Osinbajo did, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua did it and I did it. If you know that you are honest and not corrupt and there to serve your people, why are you afraid to tell people how you come about the mansion, cars and foreign money that you have in your account? Why can’t they do it? They cannot. So, it is the same thing with the National Assembly.
So, what factors will you say conspired against your return to the National Assembly?
I had a fundamental difference with the former governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-Rufai. First, we don’t come from the same ideological background. In all my life, I had been an activist at a time when he was unknown until he was appointed the Director-General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises. You can never hear anything of El-Rufai before 1999, but we have been in the struggle. So, we found ourselves in a party that is called a merger, and by merger, people came with different political tendencies, ideas and inclinations. So, we found ourselves in the All Progressives Congress. It is until you marry a woman before you know if she is good or bad. So, we came to a party where we differed. I differed from him ideologically in the way he ran the affairs of Kaduna State.
He failed to realise that people elected him into office and that his policies and programmes should carry people along. What did he do? He wanted to borrow $350m. Now, he didn’t explain to us how he was going to pay the money; what he was going to do with the money; and how the money would be spent. We were not convinced. First of all, Kaduna State doesn’t have the resources to pay this money. Secondly, there was no transparency with the way that money was going to be managed.
There is nothing wrong if you expand the city but you can do that with federal allocations and internally generated revenue. But you don’t have to go to Washington and borrow money when your state doesn’t make one dollar out of Nigeria. So, we differed on that and I said it. Today, Kaduna State is paying the price for it. Kaduna is indebted to about $600m and when this money was received from the World Bank, a dollar now is N940. So, it means that with only $600m, Kaduna will have to pay over N500bn. This is a state that depends on 80 per cent of federal allocation. The amount of debt in Kaduna State, if you factor in our federal allocation for a year, it’s within N120bn. So, if we are going to pay this loan, we will have zero federal allocation for five years.
Nasir El-Rufai met me on the national scene as a man who was already known. He also met me in the field of activism and also in politics. He just contested in 2015. He had never contested an election before then. And I won my election without anybody’s support. Buhari had to raise his (El-Rufai’s) hand for him to win the primary in 2015 and he (Buhari) had to also come to campaign for him to win. So, he was a product of Buhari. That’s why I said we differed ideologically in the way in which the state is being run. I told him that he’s used to fighting different people and getting away with it. But he’s fighting an old prisoner and a man who had spent over four years in prison, who had eaten with prisoners and had lived with warders and had been to many cells in his life and not like him when he was chased out by the Yar’Adua’s administration. People asked why I was still attacking him. When I left the Senate in 2019, Nasir El-Rufai kept attacking me for four years.
I wasn’t the first person that a governor would remove. Adamu Mu’Azu of Bauchi had removed a senator; they removed Kwankwaso; Yuguda removed a senator, Bafarawa removed senators but when you remove a senator, you should let him be. For four years that I was out of the Senate, he (El-Rufai) was consistently attacking me in every media house and I told him that power was transient and that I would respond when he attacked me and I would continue to attack him when he must have left power.