‘With sincere leadership, Nigeria will overcome present challenges’
Former Minister of Transport and Aviation, Chief Ebenezer Babatope believes that sincerity of purpose by President Muhammadu Buhari and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) would go a long way in addressing Nigeria’s present security and social challenges. Babatope, who is a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Board of Trustees (BoT), in this interview with ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, also wants the ruling party to respect the country’s federal structure, warning that it was its abuse that plunged the country into the 1967-1970 civil war.
As an elder statesman, what is your dispassionate assessment of the state of the nation?
Honestly, I am alarmed about what Nigeria has become. Things have gone bad and rotten. The economy is in shambles, the security situation is nothing to talk about and the safety of the common man means nothing to those who are in government. President Buhari is 76 years old; I am also 76. So, I have a kind of feeling in me that I would want him to succeed, because we are of the same age. But believe me, things are so bad.
Imagine what is happening today; there are killings upon killings in the country because nobody can guarantee anybody’s security. The Fulani jihadists are everywhere. Recently, it was reported in the newspapers that soldiers murdered three policemen in Taraba State and a kidnapping kingpin was allowed to go. I mean what kind of country is this?
So, I am one of those praying to God about this country; let Him give us security. These were the things at play when we had Biafra in those days. Then I was a young man; I was in the university. I thank God that I was one of the Biafra fanatics. I supported Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu to the very end. I didn’t even know that Ojukwu and I would be in the same prison after the 1983 coup. But Ojukwu raised issues; Biafra raised issues and after the war, Nigeria had peace and stability. But now we have gone berserk. We have gone upside down in our quest to make Nigeria a great nation. Nobody is safe now. You can be in your room and people will knock on your door and take you away.
You just revealed that you were a Biafra fanatic…
(Cuts in) O yes! I was pro-Biafra. I was then in the University of Lagos. I supported Biafra because the issues Biafra raised were so germane. Apart from the security issues, Biafra also questioned the right of some people to believe that power is theirs for life.
So, when I met Ojukwu in Kirikiri prison after the coup of 1983, where his cell was opposite mine, we discussed a lot. I thank God the issue Biafra raised about a group of people believing that they have been ordained to rule Nigeria forever was solved for sometime when people from other states of the country particularly in the South were allowed to rule. But now we are back to it.
The other time they were talking of one boy who runs Sahara Reporters being arrested. And I heard a young man from the North on television saying that the North should not participate in the protests. We should be off that now. I’m not saying that in the federation, the issue of ethnicity should be driven to the background. I am saying that we should be off it because Biafra had raised that issue and we thought we had solved it but now we are back to square one.
So, do you support the present agitation for Biafra by the IPOB?
I do not support that any more. I’m an old man and so I want Nigerians to be one. But I do not agree that the issues that these young men talking about Biafra are raising are not true; they are true. Therefore, we should not dismiss those issues. We should be tolerant of their views, ensure that we give heed to what they are saying, ensure that we have a country that guarantees the right of every Nigerian to national leadership and traditional rulership and also ensure that we have a country that respects everybody. So, on that basis, I won’t want them to be punished. But honestly, I was pro-Biafra and I am still pro-Biafra for as long as we have people inside this country who are talking of enslaving others.
Why haven’t the initiatives of this administration towards tackling insecurity yielded the expected results?
It’s because we are not sincere. The leadership is not sincere.
Yes, why are we having the Fulani jihadists moving all over the country, keeping stock of arms in the forest and then terrorising people. So, the leadership is not sincere; the leadership is not honest. So, until we have sincerity of purpose from the leadership, we will not get the solutions to these problems.
I remember one time and I hope that President Buhari will be honest enough to admit it. When a friend of mine, the late Lam Adesina was the governor of Oyo State, President Buhari was much younger then. There was a political skirmish in Oke-Ogun area of the state where some Fulanis live and Buhari travelled down to see the governor to complain that Fulanis were being molested in Oyo State. And Lam said, ‘why are you complaining about this because they have been living with us for a long time. We only had a problem which is not one that warrants you travel down.’
So, if there is leadership honesty in the country, we shall have a solution. But we cannot have it now. When you do things that aggravate situations, when you don’t respect the fact that Nigeria is a multi-religious and multi-tribal state, you are wasting your time.
Look at what they are doing to the Shiites. I lament that innocent people were killed. But what we are doing to them is it right? Courts have ruled that the man, El-Zakzaky and his wife should be granted bail so they can go for treatment but nobody listened until many lives were lost in Police-Shiites clashes all over the place. The court has again granted them bail to go and take their treatment. I was told that they have been released. But then there are others too that the courts have granted bail that this government has not released. One of them is the former National Security Adviser (NSA) to Goodluck Jonathan, Sambo Dasuki. The court said the man should go on bail but they won’t allow him to go. They will wait again until the situation deteriorates and there is problem all over the country. I don’t know what is happening.
APC has been leading Nigerians by deceit. They will tell you that they are going to turn a man to a woman or that they are going to turn a woman to man. We haven’t seen it. All is noise. What we see is Fulanis ravaging the land all over the country and proclaiming themselves as the new messiahs of Nigeria. President Buhari has been talking and we have been listening to him properly.
For example, when traditional rulers from the Southwest met him under the leadership of the Oni of Ife, he spoke and promised us that some measures would be taken. We are waiting. But as it is now, he must convince us by what his government does that he is seriously committed to ensure that we have security in Nigeria.
You call the late sage, Pa Awolowo, your leader. Does it give you concerns that since his death, the Yorubas have not been able to enthrone another political leader. Rather, what has obtained is a situation where even the pan-Yoruba socio-cultural association, Afenifere, is factionalised and then sharp political differences among eminent Yoruba elders some of who even attack themselves on the pages of newspapers?
It doesn’t worry me. The Yoruba people have got very sound culture. We respect our elders. Don’t mind whatever disagreements we have in the papers; we respect our elders whether they are of the APC, PDP, Afenifere or non-Afenifere. And Papa Awolowo in his lifetime did not say that he was a Yoruba irredentist. All he said was to guide Nigeria to success. He didn’t deny the fact that he was a Yoruba man from Nigeria but he was very progressive in his mind; he was very broad-minded to say that Nigerians must accommodate each other if we are to make progress. I remember very well that he used to say that you can only be a good Nigerian citizen when you are first and foremost a good person from your place of birth. So, you have to be a good Yoruba man first and then you can cheer up to say you are a good Nigerian.
So, we haven’t got skirmishes or political turmoil in Yoruba land to make us close our eyes to the fact that we respect elders. There are so many of our elders who have done a lot in terms of aggravating situations but we won’t go and be abusing them. To abuse them is in fact to cast a slur on the political situation of the country.
Do you see somebody like the National Leader of the APC, Bola Tinubu, as a pretender to Awo’s seat?
Bola Tinubu belongs to the APC. I’m of the PDP. Tinubu is my junior brother. Anybody can lay claim to anything but I know he himself will not deceive himself to say that he wants to father his own fathers. In Yoruba land you can’t do that. No matter the political wisdom and political sagacity that I have, I want to assure you that I can’t tell Papa Fasoranti, who has just lost his daughter, Ayo Adebanjo and all these elderly gentlemen that they should back my side. No! You can’t do that in Yoruba land; once you do that you are already destroying yourself.
So, I don’t think Bola Tinubu will deceive himself to say that he would want to lead his own fathers. He can do whatever he likes in the APC; that is their party. I can do whatever I like with my colleagues in the PDP. But like Abdel Gamal Nasser, a former Egyptian leader, said many years ago when there was a rift in Egypt, “there at the battle field lies the final answer over imperialism.” You cannot do it in your house; it’s on the field. So, anybody who says he is the Yoruba leader or the Nigerian leader, let him go to the field and prove it.
What critical steps do you think the government should immediately take to douse the rising tension in the country?
Honestly speaking, they must be committed to truth of events. You must not falsify any situation; you must be honest to admit that Nigeria has problems. For example, we must not criminally manipulate elections. When Goodluck Jonathan was there, one of the greatest mistakes we made was that we did not understand the essence of power. So, we joked with power and power was taken away from us. And Jonathan was right when he gave up power because if he didn’t do that, the bloodshed would have been so much and these forces that are massing against Nigeria would have seized the opportunity and said they rigged elections. We didn’t rig elections; we allowed you to rule. Now you are rigging elections.
So, let us have the boldness to admit the truth of events and stay by them. For instance, if the tribunal says the PDP has won a case, let those people who are there vacate. Power belongs to God. Let all institutions of government ensure that they serve the best interest of democratic principles.
Look at what happened in Kenya. They had an election; there was a particular party already put in power but the Supreme Court in Kenya ruled that the election was irregular and criminally manipulated. The court ordered a new election. It can’t happen here in Nigeria.
Two, those who are in government must be sincere and honest to themselves, because Nigerians are craving for good, sound, progressive and forward looking leadership.
Three, we must all respect the federalism we operate. What caused Biafra was that we were not respecting the federalism we operate then. And Biafra stood up to fight under Ojukwu. Ojukwu made mistakes like any human being but he led a principled fight, particularly the fight that any Nigerian can vie for leadership for as long as he believes in the corporate existence of Nigeria. They must not throw away the essence of that fight. They must allow what Biafra taught us to stay. If they do not do so, they are wasting their time. The day that this country will disintegrate, and I don’t pray for it, it will happen without a single shot fired to heaven to say we are going our places.
Finally, they must copy the example of our elders, the nationalists such as Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa and Papa Awolowo, who led Nigeria very honestly. They had disagreements but didn’t allow those disagreements to overshadow and becloud their sense of judgment. Nigeria is a country that is blessed and we must not allow this country to slip by. If we allow it to slip by, generations unborn will cause us.
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