Nigeria not playing its expected leadership role in Africa
Second Republic lawmaker, Dr. Junaid Mohammed, has described those pushing for a third term for President Muhammadu Buhari as harbingers of confusion. The outspoken politician told LEO SOBECHI in this interview that Nigeria needed to use diplomacy to get things done, stressing that the country has not been playing its leadership role in Africa, especially within the sub-region effectively.
• Shutting borders offends international law
• Buhari’s third term is invitation to confusion
Between the second republic and now, are there noticeable shortcomings you observed in Nigeria’s practice of presidential democracy?
Yes, there have been differences between the beginnings of the presidential system, which is understood universally and, of course, what is happening now is a peculiar case to Nigeria. There have been differences and some of them are phenomenal differences, which cannot be ignored or denied.
First of all, I think Nigerians take for granted what we often call the rule of law. The belief is that if you are in power, you have the right to violate the law, the law which forms the basis on which you have come to power. Secondly, the issue of integrity, which only marginally broke down the first republic, became the most serious issue confronting the second republic, because those in power were the first to violate the provisions of that power.
Thirdly, we observed an inflow of unearned wealth, particularly after the civil war, to the present day and the assumption was that whatever we want to do, money is no deterrent. So, we have been having leaders who have no economic sense; they have no sense of social economy; they have no knowledge of how you can manage and husband resources and help in growing the economy.
And growing the economy will, of course, facilitate our economic, commercial and other ambitions. And, of course, you cannot ignore the fact that in this second parliament or the fourth republic so-called, we are confronted with major challenges.
Particularly, I must admit the issues of security and overall universal mismanagement of national economy. And we are in a situation whereby, if the people at the top want you to be somewhere, whether you are qualified or it is immoral or unethical for you to be there, you will still be there. So, qualifications of integrity, competence and acceptability by the people do not matter. And, of course, we have the situation whereby elections are becoming a joke and the judiciary, which is supposed to be the cornerstone of the rule of law, is being messed around, not by outsiders, not by people who are our enemies or friends outside the country, but by the judicial officers themselves and I consider that a disgrace.
Based on the frustrations in the system, which may be inherent, some statesmen like you have called for a return to the 1963 republican constitution. Do you think that can make any difference?
What were the features of the 1963 republican constitution? It was predominantly the regional system. I think that is a lie, because I have heard that from some of the characters of the Afenifere group. The 1963 constitution is basically the same thing with the 1960 independence constitution. So, as far as I am concerned, the republican constitution is nothing but cosmetics, substituting the position of the Governor-General with that of a ceremonial president.
Beyond that, I do not know of anything that is new in the so-called republican constitution. These people are shameless liars with no sense of integrity and who have no sense of duty; they want to remain in permanent agitation so that by agitation, they think the rest of the country can reach out to them, grant them powers and privileges which they have not earned, which they are going to abuse.
I think it is important for us to realise that when these characters agitate, at the end of the day, their intention comes to fruition. Look at all the noise made about state police, for instance. Since they asked them to set up the police force, how many of them have set up their state police? None! None of them have set up the state police.
Nigeria is not America, Canada or Australia. You have to be very careful about what you say and if it were a serious country, after the legislation of state police, they kept quiet, especially now that they have the opportunity to do so.
This seems to underscore the perception of three nations-in-one or two nations-in-one as El-Rufai tried to portray recently. How do you think Nigeria can blend into a nation and move forward in unity and progress?
In the first place, I do not know any country you can call blended into a nation. No such country on earth; every country, many of them went out their separate way with ethnic cleansing. Countries like Greece, like some of the Nordic countries, many of them are not what you call a nation in terms of homogeneity; there is no such thing. Let us not deceive ourselves.
In the course of nationhood, when you come across a challenge, you honestly discuss it and see how you can resolve it. But every time you have a problem, you go and look for a change and that change must be based on the solution to other people’s challenges. Nigerians do not believe in doing independent thinking; they believe in being copy-cats – go and borrow from this and borrow for that.
Whatever you do, if you do not sit down and honestly look at those problems you are confronted with, you are not going to succeed. Are you saying that because the three ethnic groups are more or less independently identifiable and the others do not matter? In fact, without the minority group, there would have been no Nigeria. It was the minority group that fought and kept the country together.
Today, if you are honest, the minority group put together, on the one hand, are more than the population of the three major ethnic groups together. And how are you sure that if, for example, you have a nation of the Yoruba race, are you telling me that they are going to live in peace? You and I know that they cannot live together for six months in peace, when they are alone. And while we are talking about the Yoruba race, the Ekiti people claim that they are a distinct entity and the non-Ekiti also believe that they are perfect and the Abeokuta people. How are you sure that somebody will not go and get a new identity based on Yewa people, original and non-original Yoruba and how are you sure, which I find highly objectionable, religion is not going to be used against another location? For example, if the Yoruba Muslims decide to make trouble, they can do it, because they have the numbers.
We should not forget that we have differences, but those differences are not beyond our capacity. We only need to sit down and resolve them and be honest about the resolution. But if we want to do that and we want to copy somebody like France, America, England and the rest of them so be it. One of the reasons why we had to quickly move to a presidential system was that we thought the parliamentary system was too much on the loose side. Besides, the parliamentary system also had issues.
The people thought they would politically act in good faith, but that did not manifest itself. For instance, in the U.K. where we have so much rivalry, if we allow everybody to go and pass any bill, some group of people will go and pass a bill of no confidence. That is likely to set off a lot of violence and a lot of disagreement. Maybe when we now concentrate too much power in the hands of the president, perhaps, it might buy us a little more time.
And at least the president will have the time to do consultation and, of course, assign those powers he has, which include the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the country, the chief executive and so many heads of parastatals and know who to hold responsible for major issues. Beyond that, on my own, I would not mind the parliamentary system. I object to the presidential system, because it is so badly rotten and corrupt. I cannot see how anybody can operate it; even angels cannot operate it. Nigerians have shown, especially in the last part of the 8th parliament; they are liars and are prepared to do anything, no matter how extreme or reckless and bad it is to remain in power and the kind of money they are spending, both legally and illegally, is such that no system can sustain this kind of recklessness, irresponsible financial recklessness.
It has become the bane of the entire National Assembly system and when the National Assembly is corrupt it cannot be insulated from interference, because it is a question of money. If you pay, you will get your way.
Will you advocate for a moratorium on election based on the rigging that has attended subsequent elections and the need to firm up Nigeria’s electoral process?
I do not know how you place a moratorium on election, when you are talking about democracy because democracy is not only a game of numbers. In a democracy, the people have a choice; democracy is an opportunity for people to make their own choice and let their own choice also count and matter.
So, how you do what you said could be done is something I find impossible, because the moment you say there is no election then there is no democracy. So how you place a moratorium on the choice of the people, only you can answer, but I am not advocating that and I know it is not practicable.
But it happened sometime ago when the military set up a Government of National Unity. Do you not think that based on the recriminations over 2023, there could be such a government to really settle contending issues about the Nigeria project?
Are you saying there was no rigging whatsoever throughout the First or Second Republic? These are perversions of the system. By and large, the system works. You cannot tell me, for example, that the governors, who have won the elections, rigged or did not rig themselves. The moment you say you are going to have no election you are not only proscribing election, but also democracy itself.
You talk about the military. Who voted for them to go and carry out a coup, because they represent nobody and were elected by nobody? They get people overthrown, blow the whistle on radio stations, go round the presidential villa and say they have taken over power. They did that before and got away with it, but I don’t think you can do so now and get away with. But even if you do, you can never put legitimacy on that government. It is illegitimate ab initio.
In the light of this, there are muted calls for a third term for Buhari while some southerners insist that unless power comes to the south just like you observed in 2015 that if Jonathan rigged himself back to power, that the country would be in chaos. How do you think this will also affect the nation?
I do not know, because in the case of (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo and Jonathan, what they attempted to do was to have the laws in place but ignore them. In the case of Obasanjo’s third term, it was a brazen attempt to remain in power through bribery and corruption and abuse of office. If Obasanjo had succeeded, he would have destroyed the democracy he claimed to have brought. If Jonathan had been a gentleman, not with an act of a fraud, but if he had been a gentleman with his own sense of propriety, when former President Umaru Musa Yar’adua died, he committed himself by saying that he would complete the remaining term. After he did a full term, he then came up and wanted to come a third time. But he never had the numbers. We are having serious problems in Bayelsa; the man is not sure that he can deliver Bayelsa, his own home state, or Otuoke to his own party, the PDP. So, what makes you think Nigeria will just play deaf and say, ‘yes, Jonathan is so great so we must allow him what we denied Obasanjo, a third term?’
What if Buhari succeeds in having a third term?
He is going to have only confusion. I cannot see how he will survive it. He may attempt it, but I do not see how he will get away with it. As I am talking to you now, he has more enemies even in the northern part of the country more than I ever know in my life.
If those who opposed Obasanjo, as a matter of principle, and I know that quite a number of people in the north who will oppose it even if they do not uphold the idea of a free election without even this incubus of zoning. There will still be people that will say it is the north that wants to manipulate power and that is the beginning of the problem. When I opposed Obasanjo or Jonathan, I never made it a northern affair. I never said because he is from the north or a Muslim, or he is from here or there; that is irrelevant. I have always spoken based on the strict implementation of democracy being based on the principle of choice. The man ought not to have behaved the way he did and I gave the reason. I assess performance and do not assess people’s identity beyond that.
How do you see the perceived friction in the presidency between the president and his vice president, as happened also under Obasanjo and Atiku Abubakar. Do you think the issues are political or relational?
The issues are not relational; they are purely political and have to do with human emotions and sentiments. As far as I am concerned the relationship between Buhari and Osinbajo has been the best. The noise emanates from people who are around Osinbajo, but they forgot that when Buhari was incapacitated the vice president did not have inherent power vested in him by the constitution. And so every power was delegated upon him. The National Economic meeting, it includes the state governors and other people who held public office in the past are also members and if they want to push Osinbajo into crisis then the executive branch would make mincemeat of him. But if you are talking about him being corrupt or clannish, he surrounded himself with his people. As far as I am concerned, if God has decided that he would be the next president then so be it, but for him to create crisis now so early in the new government, it is improper. There is no law that says the boundary commission must be under his supervision. That is not how government is run. When Buhari was sick, over 130 days, every power vested in the president was also vested in the acting president and nobody complained that I know of.
If they want problem, let them go and create problem, but the issue becomes deadly when they persuade their friends in the name of zoning or restructuring to go and do something funny; they are welcome. Everybody knew how the civil war came about. They were busy making noise, that if the East goes, the others would go. But they turned around to take Igbo bank accounts and properties in the Southwest. I was chairman at that time and there was no abandoned property throughout northern Nigeria.
Go to his office and find out that no ethnic group is represented there. They are entirely from his ethnic group and his own church; he should not complain. Those who do not complain do not complain, not because they do not know, but they do not complain because they believe all these are a matter of time. Where is Obasanjo today? Where is Atiku today? Where is Namadi Sambo today? We have to be very careful.
From the ECOWAS sub-region, do you think Nigeria is playing her leadership role expected of it quite appropriately?
No, we are not. For example, this idea of shutting our borders is a violation of the international law. The law of the sea conference made provision for countries which are called the land-locked countries. They have the right reserved for them. So you cannot, for example, shut out Niger, Burkina Faso or even Chad. We cannot do that and, of course, the way we go about diversifying the economy, because we are in some dire situation is simply wrong and I do not think it is going to work. To behave as an elder does not mean throwing your weight around. Sometimes, you need to persuade others and say, ‘look, my way is the best way; so, come along let us go.’ We never shut down our borders even during the civil war and I sincerely hope that at some point, that rule is going to be relaxed. So, even when you shut the border, Benin Republic is not land-locked. How we can shut border with them I don’t understand.
So, we require some wisdom, some compassion, because these people have nowhere else to go through road and railway system. And in terms of guarantee that Nigeria is too big and too intimidating; so, you can see why some of them avoid us, and recent behaviour has not quite given them reason to want to embrace us completely.
But President Buhari cites smuggling, banditry and violent herdsmen crossing over as reasons for shutting the border. Do you think these are sufficient to warrant a permanent closure?
In the first place, we cannot permanently close down that border. We don’t have the wherewithal, and we don’t have the immigration or armed forces or customs to do that job. The borders are porous; even if we send every immigration and custom officer, they cannot man the borders. They are only creating room for people to be corrupt. The border between Nigeria and Niger is about 2,000 kilometres stretch. If you want to do such a thing there should be a bilateral agreement between us and Niger so that we can now know how to do the money which they call douane. We have to rely on our Nigerien counterparts. We have to sit down and learn to be diplomatic and not being crude and bossy. We should think of how to derive the advantage by been diplomatic and not being crude. What is happening now is odd. For example, I know the customs’ men have been going round and stealing people’s food, rice in particular. So, if I have bags of rice it does not mean the customs officer has the right to take my rice. There will be war, because I bought it and paid for it and if they do that it may be completely counter-productive. When they imposed it in Kano, rice was N8,000; now it is N15,000. So, tell me how the system will benefit the ordinary Nigerian.
During the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Nigerians rose in one voice to condemn the barbarity and criminality, but some observers have also said that instances of local xenophobia have occurred in certain places.
Do you think Nigeria can achieve the understanding that we are Nigerians and joint owners of this country?
Yes, we can. Xenophobia has been part and parcel of human existence for thousands of years and where political leaders think they can gain something politically by playing the xenophobia card, they use it. I was encouraged by what happened, because Nigeria came together and condemned what happened in South Africa. And not only that, other countries like Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, DR Congo also came and condemned what was happening in South Africa. So, you can see that we are not alone and that the position we took was not excessive. Of course, Nigeria enjoys good relations with South Africa. But there were those who called that we break relationship with South Africa and I wondered how that would influence the South African government.
There are also those who believe that we can even instigate a war, but I cannot see how we can take our bombers to go and bomb Cape Town or Pretoria and some other major cities of Southern Africa and then come back to refuel. It does not make any sense. I think we have made our case and the world has sympathised with us and condemned the act.
I think that is good enough and that has diminished South Africa in the eyes of the world, which will take a while for them to recover. I think that is good enough. But the Nigerian embassy should pay more attention and cooperate more with those living in that country. But criminals and those that start transporting narcotics or armed robbery, they deserve to get what they get if they engage in criminal activities. I believe what happened was just the right thing; not too little not too much and Nigerians themselves, who are very difficult to satisfy have publicly appreciated the embassy, the Foreign Ministry and the Diaspora Commission and that is all we can do.