In this interview, three-time minister and current Chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), Chief Audu Ogbeh, speaks on the socio-economic challenges facing the North, the politics of zoning and several other national issues
Does the emergence of the North Central Peoples Forum a challenge to the cohesion in the Arewa Consultative Forum which you chair?
This is a democracy and people should be free to associate as convenient and expedient to their needs in particular areas. The North is a very large area hopelessly underdeveloped and facing a very severe crisis. I had warned against this crisis in 2005 at a lecture I gave in Kaduna in the same ACF when the late Chief Awoniyi, the lateChiroma, and the late Abubakar Rimi were there and they invited me to talk. I had just left the Peoples Democratic Party then and the topic was: “The North and the Future of Nigeria.” I warned that there was going to be violence on a scale that had never been seen looking at the economic and social developments of the North.
There were those who didn’t agree with me, there were others who said well, in the North, we don’t behave like that. But I saw it because my worry is that for a very long time now, since the end of the 70s, the only industry in the North is either politics, armed services or civil service. Before now, we had industrialists in Kano, Benue, Jos, etc. So, we are declining. The most tragic thing that happened which nobody mentions when we complain about marginalisation is the fact that under President Olusegun Obasanjo, the so-called banking reforms took away every bank in the North. How do you develop a region where there are no banks? We shouldn’t pretend, we are all very ethnic and regional in our thinking. Many of these other banks are not willing to finance anything up here no matter how hard you try. As at today, there are no northern banks. There is a new one now called Taj coming up. We can’t take a loan. Even when Yar’adua launched the N200bn commercial agricultural scheme credit programme and put the money in the hands of two big banks, everyone of us who applied from up here was denied; the argument being that we were politically exposed. But I know some friends of mine, active politicians, who got the loans in other parts of the country. How do you build a farm worthy of mention? How do you expand the agricultural industry which was our strong point before if you can’t access credit from the banks?
So before our very eyes, we lost 126 industries in Kano alone and the rest of us went down? I remember vividly that Senator Abdullahi Adamu tried to borrow from that commercial credit scheme but he was denied; Professor Jerry Gana was denied; the current Governor of Katsina State, Aminu Masari, (he was not governor then) was denied; I was also denied. These are some of the issues. Some people will form other associations thinking the ACF has failed; they can do this or that. They are free; we are not quarrelling with that. People are free to organise themselves at any level, either in associations or in spite of their membership of the ACF, and try to solve the problems but the problems are far more serious than people think.
If you talk of political appointments, yes; they are the flagships of participation-the poster cards of being part of the government, but they don’t change anything. They make you minister today, fine; you do your bit for two or three years and you go. If you become a governor today, fine; after two, three or four years, you will go; as the governor, you can do some things in your state.
While you were in the PDP, the party institutionalised power shift or zoning as some would prefer to call it. Presently, there are those who are saying it has outlived its usefulness. Do you agree?
My position on that is clear -zoning must be maintained. For there to be peace and stability in this country, it is too early to talk about scraping zoning. I will give my reasons. Does it follow that because the North is in power, it is flourishing in joy and affluence? So, what’s the big deal? It is only a few people who want appointments who insist that it must be around here. Number Two, I belong to a tradition that has always welcomed zoning. While I was in the National Party of Nigeria, I was the Deputy Speaker in Benue State and later became minister twice under Shehu Shagari. As you would probably remember, Shagari was the President while late Alex Ekwueme from the East was the Vice President; the party chairman, Adisa Akinloye, was from the West; the Senate President, Wayas, was from the now South-South; that’s how we saw it-spreading it around. Shagari’s cabinet was loaded mainly by Middle Belters-occupying very key ministries.
So, I don’t think that throwing it (zoning) away and saying power should remain in the North for a while will even solve our northern problems, it will only provoke people. Number Three, in 1998, we had a meeting in Jerry Gana’s house and the late Chief Sunday Awoniyi said to us, “look, after this June 12 thing, let us be careful, let’s not put up any northerner to contest the election.” Awoniyi said to us, “I am a Yoruba man born in the modern day Kogi, I am a northerner and very close to Sardauna; the mood of the South is that if the North continues to behave like this, they may as well stay away.” The debate went on from 9 pm to 2 am and the old gentleman burst into tears and said, “please, we can’t afford another conflict.” This was because the late Abubakar Rimi was insisting he was going to contest. We said no, allow a southerner. We took the old man to the bathroom and he washed his face. We decided that night that no northerner should be a candidate in the PDP. Then two days later, Shinkafi withdrew his candidature as the ANPP candidate and became a running mate to Olu Falae.
At the Jos convention in 1998, there was no northerner, no one was contesting-they all withdrew. It was Obasanjo, Jim Nwobodo, Alex Ekwueme, Graham Douglas, you can name all of them; that was a decision taken in a room in the night. Iyorchia Ayu was there; you can ask any of them. For the sake of peace, this was allowed to happen because we wanted Nigerians to stay together. We didn’t want another conflict or civil war. We took that decision and it worked. At the convention, I was backing Ekwueme because I was the one directing his campaign but I had been attacked, there was an assassination attempt on my life in Makurdi. It wasn’t by law, nobody forced us. We just took that decision in the interest of Nigeria’s survival and well-being and it happened. Somebody raised the issue that the South has economic power, why would you give them political power? I said to the gentleman, they didn’t steal it from you, they built it. So, build your own. Your weakness in the economy is not an excuse for the eternal domination of the system. If you don’t want Nigeria to be a united country again, then you can say so. As long as it is, let us rotate power. Today, I am telling people that it’s a bit premature to start talking about scuttling zoning.
A day will come if the economy of this country grows, then like in the United States when George Bush would take over from another George Bush, father and son within a space of 20 years, nobody would care; but not now. We are Africans-highly emotional and highly sensitive to tribal and religious issues; that is the way we are. And any little attempt to do things that suggest that your neighbour doesn’t exist will cause disaster. Again, somebody also said that it is a question of competence. We shouldn’t suggest that in the whole of the South, we can’t find one competent person (to become the next President) in 2023. Let’s keep zoning. Even in the United States, they don’t say so but in their practice of governance, you have a President from Massachusetts, he picks his running mate from Texas (Kennedy and Lindon Johnson). You have a President from California, he picks somebody from Delaware or from North Carolina-they balance it without saying so, they do. President Barack Obama was from Chicago where he was resident; where did he pick Joe Biden? Delaware of course, spending more time in the South-West.
I think for the sake of peace and stability, we should allow the South to present the next president. In the South, the parties can then decide which part of the South they want to give the office to. Having said all that, let the North remember we cannot make progress purely because we are focused on politics. Politics will not grow an economy, it won’t. It can put one or two infrastructural things in place, in one place or another, but it cannot be a substitute for industry, agriculture and education. Who says because a president is from the North, South or East then development will happen there? General Yakubu Gowon was the Head of State from 1966 to 1975, nine years right?
Considering the number of overhead bridges he built in Lagos, was it because he comes from Yoruba land? And how about the universities and the highways he built across the nation. How about IBB who built the Third Mainland Bridge? Was he because he is from Lagos? Shehu Shagari did the massive River Basin Development Authorities across the country, did he concentrate in Sokoto? Here is Buhari now building the Second Niger Bridge, is he from there? Were there no southern leaders before he came? Jonathan started building Almajiris schools in the North, is he from Katsina or Sokoto? The head of state is not driven to act purely because of the interest of his area. Some of IBBs most brilliant programmes were DIFRI and NALDA. Unfortunately, we didn’t sustain DIFRI; if we did, the crisis we have today of migration to the cities will not be there.
That was how Malaysia and Singapore left us behind. They developed the rural areas, they put things there and people found it unnecessary to migrate to the cities. Why would you want to come and squat in Nyanya here, paying horrendous rents when in your rural area you have money and what you need? You can come to Abuja on visits but now everybody is coming; you even find people going into prostitution to survive. The urban poor are the deadliest people in the world, they are into kidnapping which has become an industry. I am telling the northerners that keeping the presidency in the north doesn’t solve your problems, it will never solve the problem. For the sake of peace, let us rotate power, it doesn’t do any harm. We are finishing our eight years, let the South presents somebody to do their own eight years and let them find good material.
What then is your response to those who express the fear that a southern president will implement policies like Obasanjo’s banking reforms you just talked about to further impoverish the North?
The point then is that they should be more vigilant. They have a majority in the National Assembly-rise up and say no. Take a delegation to the president and say look, this policy is unacceptable, it will hurt our people. The point is that we don’t pay attention when this is happening. Be vigilant, if you think a policy is going to hurt your people, get up and say no. Today, it is impossible to grow in the North.
There appears to be a conspiracy of silence by the current National Assembly … (cuts in)
My response is vigilance. Let elected people represent their people. Some of the lawmakers never attend sittings. We had the big textiles companies in Kaduna and Kano, they were not owned by the government. I told you Kano lost 126 industries; I have a booklet containing the list. The textile companies died then we started smuggling. Pakistan, Nigeria and India were the top three in textiles. We have lost that position; nearly three million jobs vanished along with them. The point you raised is true but the answer is not to say let’s retain power because, in the end, the noise will be so loud that you would think you are superior to them.
When a leader is there-whether he is from the North, South, East or West- keep a watch over his policies. When they bring out a policy, analyse it quickly and if you don’t know, get experts to tell you the consequences and raise an objection; but we don’t do it. We are too busy and happy with the offices we hold. We come under too much pressure once you climb out from the poverty of your environment. Everybody wants you to give them financial help-to bury their dead, pay school fees and rent as well as give them cash. How much do you earn? If you must satisfy them, you must be a thief, there is no pretence about it. As a minister, my salary, rent, housing allowance and everything was N900,000 a month. The party took N100,000. I had N800,000 left but I would be in the office and there would be 50 people waiting to see me. Some requests N2m, N5m, N200,000 each week on my visiting day. Now, if you don’t give them, you are described as a very stingy and useless man who has got there and doesn’t want to help people. If you must give, you have to take it from illegal sources- that is the plain truth. And because the North has this affliction of poverty, this is the problem of northern leaders, the pressure they face is out of this world.
There is currently a debate in the public sphere about the Water Resources Bill. What is your take on it?
Let people go to the National Assembly and air their views because if a river passes through my place and you take absolute control and say I can’t do a canal and take water to irrigate my land, then I need to talk. Take River Benue for instance, it runs through a canal here and there. Take water inland and irrigate 5,000 hectares of land and do two crops each year, what harm does that do to the Federal Government? The river is not going to dry up because we are taking some water, we have Niger and many rivers across the country. The riverine space in Nigeria is almost 400,000 square metres, when the bill comes, people should go there and make their views known.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo recently said the ship of state is adrift under President Buhari’s watch. What do you make of his assertions?
Chief Obasanjo is a man for whom I have a great deal of respect, he is very intelligent but one of my biggest problems with him is his love for mischief. As a former Head of State, he should show respect for the incumbent president. Imagine if IBB, Shagari before he died, Gowon, everyone was spitting such missiles. As a tradition, former Heads of State are very circumspect in their interventions or comments. You may have some observations, you may make your views known to the person by visiting him or when you are putting it out, you don’t do it in a way that denigrates and diminishes the office, position, person and authority of the incumbent.
We are facing serious problems no doubt, some of them engineered by the problems left behind by the previous administrations and some by deliberate rascality too. He has always said things that baffle. When you reach that height, you don’t pour acid on your environment because you say things that people repeat and swallow. Nigeria is now the poverty capital of the world because somebody said so, has he been to India? We talk about poverty here, yes there is poverty. If you go to a place like India, there are families living on the pavement, that’s where they live till they die. Even California where there are more millionaires than anywhere else in the world, people live in cartons on the pavement.
The average poor man here in the village has a piece of land where he lives; that may not be rated high by the World Bank and these commentators know everything more than everyone else. When foreigners say something derogatory about Nigeria, we like repeating it; it is disappointing. The white man keeps trying to persuade you that you are the lowest of beings; that is exactly what is happening in the US now with the violence against Blacks. Do we endorse it? A Head of State has to be a bit cautious about the comments he makes; you don’t set fire to the house which you took part in building. I respect Obasanjo, a very bright man, I worked with him, he is a bit thorough in his analysis but the love of mischief is a part of him that I advise him to try and get rid of. – Culled from Punch.