2023 presidency: Dumping zoning will kill Nigeria – Audu Ogbeh

Chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Chief Audu Ogbeh, has warned politicians in the country not to, for any reason, jettison the zoning of the nation’s presidency in 2023, saying it is too early to jettison zoning, insisting that it will do the nation a lot of good not to suspend it.

Ogbeh, a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and immediate past Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, in this interview in Abuja, posits that it is the turn of the Southern part of the country to take a shot at the presidency, insisting that abandoning zoning will spell doom for the country and as well lead to the disintegration of the country.

Amongst other thought-provoking issues, the former National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) also spoke on the age-long socio-economic backwardness in the northern part of the country, insisting that the trend should be revised.

He, however, said that retaining the presidency in the North was not the way out.

The Benue State, Otukpo-born elder statesman, further said that those clamouring for the presidency to remain in the North were doing so, believing that having the presidency in the North will make the North do well, which he said, was not the case.

Excerpts:

How is the ACF which you inherited in March doing?

We came in at a point of crisis with the Coronavirus problem. So, we never really met until about two weeks ago when we first met in Kaduna and we were inaugurated by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, General Wushishi (rtd). We are just about to start work.

What did you meet on ground? Is it a factionalised ACF or a united organisation?

There were no factions there. I think all that we met was an outgoing executive and incoming one. So, nothing like factions or anything there.

What is the relationship between the ACF and the Northern governors, socially and politically?

The relationship is cordial as far as I know. And from what I inherited, there is no real crisis. We begin to engage now that we hope that the Coronavirus thing is going away slowly. We hope so.

The ACF has been vocal on national issues. Now that you are chairman of the group, what is your stance on the 2023 presidency, particularly as it has to do with zoning?

My position, what I am going to say about zoning today is not the position of the ACF, it is my position. The ACF is not likely to come out with a position on zoning because we prefer to leave that to the parties. And we have been emphasising that we are not a political organization. We are a socio-cultural and multi-cultural group. But having said that, I can now talk about zoning as an individual. I think that I have been lucky in my political career from 1978 till now to have belonged to political groupings which have favoured zoning. I was in the NPN. In 1979, I was in the House of Assembly in Benue.

In 1982, I got to Lagos as minister and if you remember the structure of the NPN (the defunct National Party of Nigeria) then, the president was from the North, Shehu Shagari; the vice president from the East; the chairman of the party from the West; and the Senate president from what is now the South-south, Dr Joseph Wayas. And as we were marching towards 1983 to 87, we were hoping that the presidency will move South, then a coup came in ‘83 and all that got disrupted. So, on zoning, let me say this; It is too early to jettison zoning. The threats of national cohesion and unity are still very fragile in this country. There is still a great deal of suspicion, anxiety and fears of marginalisation in the minds of Nigerians. So, it will do us a lot of good not to suspend zoning, to allow it continue. In other words, to move on now in 2023, move South.

It should move to the South?

It should move South.

South-South, South-East or South-West?

It is the South. The Southern leaders and politicians should be able to meet and put a formula in place to deal with the problem.

Don’t you think your kinsmen from the North who are saying that the presidency should be retained in the North will be angry with you over this position?

Their anger is not what will worry me more than the disintegration of the country. I respect their opinions. I am more worried about the continued existence of the Nigerian state, the polity than perhaps, the upset I might cause a few of them. But I think that we should allow zoning to continue. It should go South, the Southern leaders will meet and I believe they have a capacity to decide which part of the South it should go to.

But why do you think those clamouring for the presidency to be retained in the North beyond 2023 are doing so?

I do not know the logic behind their reasoning. But I want to say to them that perhaps, there is this erroneous believe that it is only when the presidency is in the North that the North will do well. How well is the North doing now economically, socially? Isn’t a northerner president now? Why is there so much violence in the North? Why is there so much decay, economic retrogression? Why are we so much backward in education? The mistake many people make, northerners inclusive, is to suggest that politics is the only major industry in which we excel. It is not proving to be very, very useful to us. So, there is that feeling that we are more comfortable if a northerner is there. Nothing wrong with that feeling, but I am of a different opinion. We’ve got other things to pursue.

But why is the North the way it is, riddled with poverty, lack of education and the rest? Can you trace the genesis of the ills and odds in the North? 

Well, let me say this; like I said, we must realise that governance may be exciting, politics may be exciting and it can be unproductive if not properly managed. In 2005, after I resigned from the PDP as chairman, I was invited to Kaduna as a guest speaker at a conference held at the Trade Fair Complex under the leadership of Chief Awoniyi, the late Abubakar Rimi and the late Adamu Ciroma and I gave a lecture entitled: ‘The North and the Future of Nigeria’ and I gave a warning that there will be violence on a scale in the North never known in our history. And I gave my reasons – the alienation of the youths, the poor standards of education, the decline in industry and hopelessness among our children and grandchildren.

Some people said I was being just too academic and that it wouldn’t happen; that northerners don’t behave like that. A few came to me and said what you are saying may happen. I used to ride together, sometimes as we drove with Abubakar Rimi in the car, we talked about this. It is happening now. Five years later, Boko Haram became the issue and now, the violence, the killings.

Are you not scared that it may stretch beyond this, maybe to a kind of revolution?

It could degenerate. Again, let me say that government is tackling this matter. Whether we will achieve absolute success in the immediate future or whether it will take a while to go, it did happen in Algeria. It took close to 20 years for the rebels to evaporate into parts of Mali and so on. But I think the anxiety and the awareness is now here that we cannot survive if we don’t tackle the situation more vigorously through more intensive economic activity, better education, and greater industrialisation and so on.

So, back to the issue of zoning, we need to recognise that keeping the presidency in one part forever doesn’t solve any problem. It doesn’t even solve the problem of the North. I mean, for instance, the president, Buhari is from Katsina. Why is there violence in Katsina? If the solution was being in power, everybody in Katsina should be celebrating. But no! The younger people have an entirely different agenda. So, the people must recognise that you cannot just rely on politics alone. There has to be growth because the key problem here is the economy.

The presidency has been saying that Boko Haram has been decimated, but contrary to that, Boko Haram has been attacking everywhere, including military formations and this has been worsened by the activities of bandits. How do you feel about it?

It could have been worst frankly. But I asked a few questions recently. You are in a country where the Army is stretched to its limit, operating in nearly 34 states. How big is your Army? It is an asymmetric warfare strategy. It is not a conventional war where you are dealing with the enemy army, you know where they are, you fight them, and you use your artillery, your aircraft and so on. These are guys hiding in the bush and in the forest. So, it is a very complex situation. But obviously, the military are fighting their cause; it is an expensive business running an army. Very expensive! If you divert all the resources that the Army needs, increase the size to say 20 divisions, you may not be able to pay them and pay your civil service and build your roads and run your economy. So, this is the dilemma in which we find ourselves.

Governor Zulum’s outcry that the efforts of the government have been sabotaged, including the recent allegation of a governor backing Boko Haram; what is your take on that?

I imagine that the intelligence will deal with that, do some more research, find out if these allegations are true and investigate because sometimes, I too ask myself: How is it that Boko Haram is always more or less aware that the Army is moving in one direction and ambushing them? Who is giving the information to Boko Haram? So, there may be some truth, there may be no truth, but I really can’t say that a governor is part of Boko Haram. I really don’t want to subscribe to such an opinion. But I have no proof for all of these.

Since you are just coming out of government, you may have more information that we don’t have. What is the actual state of affairs in terms of the security of this country?

I wouldn’t know what the state of affairs is, but I am aware that the president is putting a lot of pressure on the military to do a much better job.

Your tenure as Minister of Agric; what actually were your achievements? Have they been sustained?

Well, I am no longer there. We, at least, tried to stop importing rice, saving the country about $5 million a day and we were pushing in different directions. I think the current person is obviously doing his best.

But is he sustaining your legacy?

I wouldn’t know. I can’t judge him. It will be unfair to try and make comments on his performance. But I think that is for the society to look at.

How do you rate the Buhari administration in the last five years?

He came in at a difficult time and he has tried to deal with certain things. The challenge of insecurity is still there and in some regards, rearing many more tentacles here and there. In dealing with the economy, the problems he inherited were very deep-rooted. A country cannot make progress if it is not growing appreciably. And I did say once that this economy would not grow very quickly because there was a major obstacle – the interest rate regime. When we arrived, the interest rate was 35 per cent. The rest of the world is talking of two per cent; Japan, zero, one and half. But our economic philosophers kept telling us that interest rate will not go below 35 per cent. So, we were feeding the banks, they were feeding fat and the rest of the country was going lean, which is why the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is now bringing down interest rate in different sectors because you cannot grow an economy at interest rate of even 10 per cent or 15 per cent. The rest of the world doesn’t grow that way. So, the challenges are there.

The effect of Coronavirus on the economy, particularly the agric sector; what is the way out because prices of food items are rising every day?  

They are rising. You can’t force the hands of nature. The disease is here, it is affecting everybody in the world; I guess that Nigeria and Africa have been rather lucky that it hasn’t got too bad here. And I think people are going about their businesses in agriculture, in industry; they are trying to get on, especially once the flights begin and people can move around. I think we will try and climb out of the darkness as quickly as possible.

With the rising of food prices, should the government open the borders to boost food supply in the country?

I don’t think the answer is in importation. The answer is in production, production of food at home.

Is it that we are not producing enough?

We are producing quite a lot. A lot of what we produce is getting wasted, rotting away. Preservation, processing, value addition are the factors that are away, way behind expectation.

But in terms of production, which areas should Nigerians focus on?

You have to increase your rice production, maize production. The tubers were doing pretty well and cassava production has to go up. But you must add value to the cassava products, producing all the by-products, syrups, ethanol and industrial starch. All those things, we are not doing well now which is why we are importing a whole lot of them. Even fruits and vegetables!

Elections in Edo and Ondo are around the corner and both states seem to be beating drums of war. Are you impressed so far?

Absolutely disappointing! I don’t like violence. There is no reason for it. There is no reason anybody should threaten thunder and brimstone and fireworks because of an election. Let the people choose, let the best person win and let us govern. You understand? But having said all that, you asked a question earlier about the assessment of the Buhari administration. I am a bit worried that when the elite in Nigeria assess governance, they have only one person in mind, the president. We have 36 governments at the second tier and 774 at the third level. Please, help me ask the Nigerian elite: Do they ask any questions about what their governors are doing? Do they ask any question about what their local governments are doing? Do they ask any questions about what their local governments are doing? After all, each of these has a budget and receives allocations monthly. What goes on at those levels? How is the president here to account for the lack of village roads being graded by local government? Or water being pumped from rivers and treated for the people to drink? Or market stores being roofed so that the women who sell their commodities and pay tax can have a more comfortable environment? Or primary school buildings being roofed and classrooms being repaired? Why is that the responsibility of one man?

So, how can we achieve the Nigeria of everybody’s dream?

By dealing with these things I am talking about. We can’t talk, complain about the president alone when there are two layers of government below him, a number of which are doing absolutely nothing. I am asking the elite, it is a challenge. Check your local government. Each one of us belongs to a local government. When did you last go there? What did you find? And if they are not performing, what is the reason? What do they do with their funds?

Back to party politics. There are those who believe that APC may not survive beyond 2023, that it will break at the expiration of the Buhari administration. Do you subscribe to that?

I don’t subscribe to it. The party members know very well that they have a job to rebuild the party and put it together. People are always predicting Armageddon. No! There may be challenges, but the party bigwigs, the leaders, the members, the governors, the legislators, will definitely have to put their hands together and keep the party alive.

Do you see the party retaining the presidency in 2023?

They should work hard and do so. They should work hard. It is about hard work and impressing the populace that you still have what it takes to lead them. But that is the beauty. The contest is there. If we don’t work hard, we lose. If we work hard, we win.

Leading the ACF, are you still a member of the APC?

Yes, I am a member. Yes, yes.

So, ACF does not exclude you from party politics?

No, no, no because I keep saying the ACF is not a political organisation. It is a socio-cultural group, trying to deal with the problems we have. And peculiar to us is the problem of backwardness and it is far more serious than the political problems.

So, your affiliation with the APC cannot affect the ACF?

No, no, no. I would never bring the prejudice of one to affect the other.

What is your view about the PDP, your former party? Are they a formidable opposition to the APC?

They will try to be. But they have their own challenges.

Will they ever wake up?

I wish them well. We need a challenge. We need formidable political parties, we need strong institutions. We need them to work hard so that the APC doesn’t fall asleep. They need to work hard. And other parties are there too. They may grow, they may take a while, but let everybody work hard and keep marketing their programmes. But let me remind all parties; let nobody sit somewhere looking only at the president of the country. It is the biggest tragedy in our political logic that it is always the president. There is no way the single man here can deal with all the problems of the country. No, no in a federation!

Politically, what is next for you?

I am back in my agricultural business; I am quietly retiring from politics.

When are you retiring?

I haven’t fixed a date. I have some books to read and write. When I finish, I will announce it. – Culled from The Sun.

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