You were one of those who vehemently opposed Muhammadu Buhari’s presidency from the outset. How would you describe the quality of leadership in Nigeria in the immediate past era?
Vehemently opposed to Buhari? Where did you get this from? I think you were sold this dummy in the heydays of ecstasy, frenzy and euphoria of the Buhariphilia, who jumped out of every corner of Nigeria believing that their redemption was at hand. Sadly, today, a good chunk has since apostacised. I never doubted the sincerity of the President’s intention to fight corruption. However, no matter how much you hate leprosy, you cannot cure leprosy by just giving Panadol to the victim.
My fears were threefold and based on experience. First, no matter the goodness, holiness or devotion of any human being, wait until he or she has power entrusted to them and see what they become. So, even in the most optimistic of situations, set goals and expectations and let the person prove himself or herself. Secondly, what Buhari kept saying about corruption did not seem to be the result of some deep reflections. His claims and strategies had never been interrogated. And finally, I insisted that national cohesion was far more urgent a task than just saying ‘we are here to fight corruption’. That informed what you may have referred to as vehement opposition. I was simply warning against too much blind trust and now we are where we are today.
What worries you most about this administration?
I am worried over the lack of fresh ideas, focus, vision and a seeming insensitivity to public feelings; a kind of contempt for how people feel and the impact of policy choices, on the part of this government. This is a season of anomie and alienation. The (Buhari) government seems closed to ideas that challenge their assumptions and apparently does not care what Nigerians think and what they feel. Else, there is no way that you can have a government make the mistakes that this government has made; refuse to engage citizens and simply refuse to give a damn. It is disturbing and, clearly, the government is listening to other drummers. Technically, no one suggests that their views should be taken, but this government has given Nigerians a feeling that they were sold a dummy. This is sad; very sad indeed.
Buhari and the military under his government have continuously claimed that Boko Haram has been defeated. Do you believe them?
Well, this is part of the problem and I think we should let the evidence — not the sloganeering and propaganda — do the talking. The government has refused to listen to the views of Nigerians about the rather incestuous and non-plural ways it has dealt with security and the appointments of their heads. Perhaps the government has a reason for allowing members of only one faith to monopolise the security apparatus, perhaps because it thinks Boko Haram is a problem within Islam and only Muslims can address the issues. Either way, our country is haemorrhaging in a way that ending the Boko Haram conflict will only open a new chapter in a country of people suffering the collective trauma, fear, self-doubt and a feeling of being totally disconnected from the state that has no empathy. With the government seeing this purely as a military operation, we can spend all the money in the world, but we will be nowhere near having a united nation or people. This battle has become a military operation with all its consequences on the economy and the dynamics of the engagement.
What was your reaction upon hearing the news of the Dapchi girls’ abduction?
My reaction was that of shock, sorrow; a tragic sense of déjà vu, and some level of near despair.
Do you agree with Buhari that his response time to the Dapchi girls’ abduction was better than that of the previous administration to the abduction of Chibok girls?
This comparison does not arise. One tragedy is bad enough; a repeat is a disaster. It is like asking whether dying by injection is better than drowning.
Do you think Buhari owes Nigerians an apology, considering his commitment to rescuing the Chibok girls and defeating Boko Haram within the first few months of his presidency?
Why should he apologise? I believe this government has done its best and this is about all it can offer. So, they should be judged not on speculation but on the reality. The issue of an apology does not arise because what we are seeing is the best that is on the table and this is the best team for the job in their view.
Buhari’s health was a major talking point last year with the President spending several weeks on two medical trips. Do you think Buhari owes Nigeria an explanation about what he was treated for?
You mean he should apologise that he was sick? I think we should respect everyone’s privacy. You don’t lose that by being a public servant. I was not happy the way we handled the issue of the President’s health. Others behave differently and I think we should learn not to play politics with everything in Nigeria.
Does his physical fitness worry you, given the possibility of his running for a second term?
There is a Hausa proverb which says, ‘You cannot borrow someone else’s mouth to eat onions’. No one has the right to decide on anyone’s health and as to whether they are capable of a particular function. It is left for the insiders of a party to decide whom they will field as a candidate even if the person is on a stretcher. Today’s weightlifter could fall sick tomorrow. Let the party decide who their best candidate is.
Three of the major promises of this administration are to fight corruption, boost the economy and conquer Boko Haram. Would you say the government has made any significant stride in these areas?
I have said repeatedly that personal opinion does not matter in the long run. Look at the reports from the Federal Bureau of Statistics, the United Nations Development Programme, Amnesty International or Transparency International. What does the evidence suggest? You cannot pick and choose what you want to believe. Or look at the entire Nigerian landscape littered with corpses, destroyed businesses and buildings, all the ravages of war. This is very painful.
What achievements do you think the Buhari government has made?
There is a minister for information; he has that duty, not me. They said they have technically defeated Boko Haram, reflated the economy, and brought back some Chibok girls and the Dapchi girls, bar Leah. We now have 7,000 megawatts of electricity and so on. They are also telling us about new multi-billion-naira projects which they are embarking on with no idea when they will be completed. The faces of Nigerians tell a different story and, sadly, we are not communicating with one another.
How do you feel about the recent revelation that senators receive N13.5 million monthly as running costs and that House of Representatives members receive N12m monthly?
Senator (Shehu) Sani has done his job. It is left for Nigerians to decide what to make of it. It is a pity that we are in such a state of stupor that nothing can rouse us from our apathy and this country will continue to sink. Will the president, vice president, governors and ministers ever come clean or does it require reverting to the Freedom of Information Act? In the mafia, they call this destructive secrecy ‘omerta’, an oath of silence under pain of death. This is why Senator Sani deserves our respect for taking the decision he took. We hear that the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) is claiming ignorance as to these sums. But, as I have always said, governance in Nigeria is a criminal enterprise which functions above the law.
What are your thoughts on governors’ transition to senators when their eight-year tenure is completed?
Well, what else is there for some of these people to do? Can they go anywhere to deliver a lecture or write books on their experiences? This country stands or falls depending on what the governors do.
What is your grouse with Governor Nasir el-Rufai?
What do you mean by grouse?
You recently criticised el-Rufai on his handling of the Southern Kaduna massacre. Do you think there is room for reparations?
Did you read my sermon in its entirety and why do you single out Governor el-Rufai? It was a funeral and there was the need to set the records straight. I simply articulated an evidence-based side of a story that I had played a role in. If that is what you mean by criticism, then fine. We are all entitled to our opinions but we are not entitled to our facts because facts are sacred. I presented my side of the story based on my personal experience with the claims he made.
What can the governor do to make amends?
Amends with, or to, whom? That is within the realm of governance which requires consultation and consensus building.
You have been vocal about the role of the northern elite in the poverty and underdevelopment plaguing the North. Can you elaborate on this?
My field of doctoral research was on Religion and Power Politics in Northern Nigeria and the result was my book, ‘Religion, Politics and Power in Northern Nigeria’. It opened up new frontiers and it was a pioneering research on how religion has been used to mobilise and retain power by the northern Muslim elite. I had over 100 recorded interviews with a cross section of northern politicians across the divide.
This has given me an appreciation of the issues. It does not make me an expert. However, it is because of this that those who do not want to follow the arguments keep falling back and accusing me of being anti-northern or anti-Muslim. This is the easy line for those who benefit from this manipulation but do not want to face the consequences.
There is a noble obligation that all elite owe to those they represent; those on whose shoulders they may have stood; those who voted for them or those who helped them get an education. In the rest of Nigeria, this elite have met these obligations by building schools, hospitals, clinics, and so on for their people. They have bridged the gap between government’s absence and the welfare of their people. This is the story of almost all of southern Nigeria and parts of the Middle Belt.
In the North, the evidence of this dereliction of duty litters the entire landscape, millions of out-of-school children, federal and state government projects such as irrigation and power-generating dams that now lie abandoned in remote communities, structures, such as the Almajiri schools, all in decay in many communities, and so on.
Look at the World Bank, UNDP and other reports on development in Nigeria and look at northern Nigeria. The sad thing is that for the elite, these lives of destitution, illiteracy and squalor are reservoirs of investment from where they draw their oxygen of political relevance. The grinding poverty leaves the people permanently below zero and all they do is continue to look at the stupendous wealth of the elite with awe. In exchange, they (the elite) pretend to offer them (the poor) dubious religiosity through the manipulation of pilgrimages and construction of mosques.
Could that be the reason for the emergence of Boko Haram?
In my view, it is the long historical experience of this distortion of the religion of Islam with its exclusionist tendencies that Boko Haram has exploited. Boko Haram exploited the fact that this elite proclaimed Sharia in 1999 and 2000, while in reality, they did not believe in the religion itself. So, Boko Haram simply has asked them to step aside.
Indeed, the Buhari project presents us with an interesting view. The average northerner has become far more impoverished under Buhari than he was under (former President Goodluck) Jonathan. But they will still vote for Buhari because they see him as the only one who can help bring their derelict elite to order. It is a strange appeal but that is it. They believe their corrupt elite are above the law. They were seduced with Sharia because they believed it was going to help them punish their own elite, who they see as being above the law of Nigeria. These are the issues.
Did the northern elite act against the interest of their people intentionally?
If they were mistaken, 50 years would have been enough to correct the mistake, but as I said, this culture of ignorance, poverty and squalor is an investment. Aminu Kano spent his life trying to open the eyes of his people, the Talakawa. The late Bala Usman, a phenomenal intellectual, made massive contributions in this regard by subjecting this charade to critical social analysis. The result was a ‘saner’ environment for the generation of fresh ideas among Christian and Muslim scholars. Ideology replaced the divisive tendencies of religion among the elite. Fighting the Kaduna mafia and other mafias was an ideological project. Today, Alhaji Balarabe Musa and some of the remnants of NEPU (Northern Elements Progressive Union) politics remain the last of the best wine.
What are the interests for the northern elite?
They want to permanently hold on to power. Inherently (there is) nothing wrong with that if it can be used for the good of the people, but after all these years of monopoly of power under the military and civilians, we northerners are still the weakest, the most sickly, the poorest, the most illiterate, and the most vulnerable. We have the highest number of childhood stunting, which is a danger to the future. The elite have brought shame on us and made us too weak to fight.
Do you believe in restructuring?
Does it matter what I or anyone believes? Even if it determines the outcome of the elections, did the All Progressives Congress not promise us restructuring? Promises have never been a problem. The saddest part of it all is that even the politicians do not expect to be believed, but somehow, we stupidly do. The Kenyan scholar, Patrick Lumumba, once said the tragedy with Africa is that those with ideas are not in power, while those in power have no ideas. The sad thing, he said, is that when the people have a chance, they still vote for those with no ideas.
What do you think the North has to gain or lose in restructuring?
They may perhaps gain the chains of poverty and the fear of those who hold the chains over the majority of our people.
What do you make of the APC committee on restructuring led by el-Rufai?
I have not seen it.
Many have described the APC panel on restructuring as an afterthought by Buhari to score political points. Do you agree?
No idea. Nothing is ever late. It is when honesty appears that matters.
What are your thoughts on the Catholic Church in Nigeria rejoining the Christian Association of Nigeria?
How can we rejoin what we started?
Do you still maintain a relationship with former President Goodluck Jonathan?
I don’t know what you mean by ‘a relationship’. The last time I saw him was when the Peace Committee had a consultative audience with him after the swearing-in of the new administration.
Do you have any expectations concerning the outcome of the 2019 elections?
Let us pray to be alive first. 2019 is a long way away. But I tell you that I have never felt this sense of foreboding. Things could change, but we have to plan how to cross this wide river that lies ahead of us.