Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed is the director, Advocacy and Engagement of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF). In this interview, he spoke on the reason for the group’s recent position on the security situation in the country, the establishment of regional security outfits, and the Forum’s position on the 2023 presidential election, amongst other issues.
Recently, the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) came up with a position on the issue of national security and poverty, particularly in the North, with a sort of vote of no confidence on the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration. The NEF said the president had failed the nation. What informed that position?
We took a long time assessing the security situation under President Buhari. We had spoken earlier on a number of cases, where we drew the attention of President Buhari himself in private and public, to the fact that the security situation, particularly in the North, was deteriorating under his government.
Many people may not have noticed, but the NEF had not said much in the last four months, and it was deliberate. There were many things that were clear to many people, but we decided that in order to be fair to the administration, and in order to make sure that what we would say was supported, we held back, and by the time we spoke, we were ready to use words we believed were fair reflection on the situation.
When we said President Buhari had failed in the area of securing Nigerians, we knew that many people would say the words are strong, but the situation on ground is rare; there is never a time when more Nigerians are living in fear of insecurity or fear for their lives and property, never like now; not even when we fought the Civil War.
More Nigerians have been relocated and chased away from homes, or are running away from violent crimes under the administration of President Buhari.
President Buhari has been the chief security officer of the country for the last six years, so if you have to blame someone for the failure of security, you have to blame him.
There were people who felt we were being too hard. But it is not the time for niceties, it is time for telling the truth.
Unfortunately for the country, the day we released our statement was the night that Boko Haram people went to Auno and killed over 30 people who were literally sitting down outside the gate of Maiduguri. For those people who thought we were hard on the president, they should see what happened on Wednesday in the streets of Borno (Maiduguri) when the president visited. You would never have thought that we would get to a stage where ordinary citizens in the streets would shout such things at the president.
So, when we say the president has failed, in simple terms, it means that Nigerians are less secured than we have ever been, and it is so because President Buhari has failed to secure us. There is no other way of putting it.
Still on security, there have been calls from different quarters, including the National Assembly, on the need to sack the current Service Chiefs following the escalation of security problems in the country. What is your take on that as a Forum?
When we released our statement, we were very careful in our choice of language. We said there was the need for the president to overhaul the leadership of the military and the security agencies of this country. Overhauling is a general term; there are many things you can do about it. We refused to specifically say, remove the Chief of Army Staff, the Chief of Naval Staff and the Chief of Air Staff; we said, overhaul. The president is an Army General who even fought the war. He knows what it means to overhaul. It means there’s something deeply wrong with these agencies. Overhaul means that you look into the system, identifying the weaknesses and then doing something about it. Just simply tolerating it and telling Nigerians you will fix it and you are not fixing it is not good enough.
We raised a second issue which is fundamental. We said there had to be an injection of greater level of integrity and competence in the manner our military is engaging the Boko Haram elements. It is not a secret; everybody knows the military is fighting with massive demoralisation. We know this and we are not happy to say it, but it is no more a secret. They are demoralised, underfunded, under-equipped, under- supported; and there is a lot of corruption. So we said there should be a higher level of integrity.
The rising insecurity has fuelled agitations for the establishment of regional security outfits, such as Amotekun in South -est, Shege Ka Fa Sa in the North and others yet to be named; what is your take on this?
Again, these are symptoms of the failure to secure the country. When everybody begins to feel that the central government, which under the constitution has the responsibility of policing and for national security, has failed to secure them, people will go for all these opportunistic submissions. We as a forum said in our statement that in principle, we are not opposed to anybody increasing the policing capacity of a nation. We are not fighting against it, provided two things are secured here – they have to operate within the law, and in their designs and operations, they must not target a particular group or interest. This is important. But as far as there’s an establishment of an outfit or organisation that improves the manner in which Nigerians live, we have no problem because already, the military is over-stretched and theipolice are overwhelmed by the multiple nature of the internal security challenges we are facing. Clearly, the police have to be helped.
The North has governed this country for a long period, with many of them occupying key positions, yet, the level of poverty, unemployment and an out-of-school children is still alarming. What do you think went wrong?
First, let me correct you. The North has not governed this country. Yes, we have had heads of state from the North, but that doesn’t mean they governed this country. They were interests of the North that were betrayed by northerners, the same way some southerners have complained that people from the South have governed the country but their interests were not represented. That is the key mistake being made, and we reject that idea. Of all the poverty in the North, none is more pronounced than the poverty of leadership. And this is very uncharacteristic of the North. So, we have total leadership collapse. In truth, anybody can become a leader in this country. It is a very sad and damaging situation. That is why the country is into the mess.
In the build-up to the 2019 general elections, the Northern Elders Forum pitched its tent with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and that action has made some people to view your Forum as being partisan or biased. How would you react to that?
Let me take you back. Long before the election in 2015, this Forum had consistently monitored the administration of President Buhari. This Forum worked for him. Virtually everyone in the Forum I know, including those who are hard core PDP members, all worked for him.
Femi Adesina referred to Prof Ango Abdullahi as a general without an army. There is an army but we don’t even need to tell Nigerians who we are. President Buhari and a few people around him know. If people like Adesina don’t know, we can excuse him because they were not there. There were not near anywhere. We know what we went through and we worked very hard to put President Buhari in office because what we saw in Jonathan was a weak president who left the North at the vagaries of insecurity.
We didn’t see strong leadership in President Jonathan and we ditched him. But sadly, we never saw in Buhari any benefit in terms of improving on his capacities to govern.
In early 2018, we had a meeting in Kaduna long before the election started and we said in a statement that was published, that from all appearances, the North had lost out. There was more poverty and insecurity, and President Buhari, who promised to address northern problems, had never met the expectations.
What people are talking about is that we pitched our tent, but we never pitched our tent with anybody. What we said was that we weighed President Buhari after four years of governance and the PDP candidate, Atiku Abubakar and found better prospect in him, in view of the poor performance of President Buhari. That was what we did. And we did this publicly in collaboration with Afenifere, Ohaneze Ndigbo and the Middle Belt Forum.
Ahead of 2023 presidency, some are advocating zoning of power to the South, particularly the South-West region; what is your take on that?
As far as the Northern Elders Forum is concerned, I will say there are interests that we would like to see addressed in respect of the 2023 elections. The North is not for sale. We are looking for a Nigerian who will improve our security, economy, stop all these killings and ensure the wellbeing of the people.
Well, if you come from the North, certainly we are going to scrutinise you. If you come from the South you have to convince us seriously and genuinely that you will protect our interest.
We don’t want a situation where people are coming to tell us that northerners have done their turn, therefore, we should not put our eyes in the presidency of 2023. For those people, we will tell them that we will put our eyes because your voting card doesn’t say whether you are a northerner or southerner. It says you are a Nigerian who is free to exercise a choice and we will make that choice.
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