As political gladiators jostle for relevance amid the cacophony over which region should produce the next president in 2011, former Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari, has sounded a note of warning to Nigerians and the political class: Get your acts together or there will be no country called Nigeria.
Buhari, a two-time presidential candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), and leader of the new party, Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), told Sunday Sun in a no-holds-barred interview that the country is tottering on the brink of collapse except something urgent is done to rescue it.
“How can we be so rich and paradoxically so poor? We are a rich nation, poor people. This worries me about our country. You look at the UNDP index. Nigerians are living on less than a dollar a day. This is a disgrace to the Nigerian leadership.” On the forthcoming 2011 polls, Buhari says: “ 2011 is critical for the country. There may be no Nigeria (if we don’t get it right).”
For one hour, Buhari also spoke on his presidential ambition, generational power shift, the contentious zoning/power rotation debate, Jega and the new INEC, President Jonathan’s alleged ambition, among sundry issues. Excerpts…
General, may we start by asking how has it been this third time around of your foray into the political minefield. You are opening offices of your new party, congress for progressive change, all over the country?
Well, I think people should realise that we are not absolutely new, technically speaking. Right from 2002, when I joined partisan politics, we came out with an organisation called The Buhari Organisation (TBO). TBO is virtually in all the states of the federation. It’s just like what people do when you have somebody’s vanguard, this movement etc. So, The Buhari Organisation tried to articulate my views, what my philosophies are, to promote my interest in politics and what I believe in in partisan politics.
But, unfortunately, there was some kind of conflict between it and the mainstream of the party. And the party said it should fuse into the mainstream, the ANPP (All Nigeria Peoples Party). When we came to 2003, 2007 elections, we had what we called the presidential campaign teams, from the national, states to the ward levels. ANPP, I must admit, came up with innovations.
If you are a state governor, for example, you are the chairman of the presidential campaign team, as well as your own campaign team. So, even if you don’t do it for the presidential candidate, you do it for yourself. So, we said, all these associations and groups: TBO, Yerima Vanguard, Tofa Boys or whatever, they all merged into the presidential campaign team headed by the national chairman of the party. I think that was a very good innovation. If it was pursued vigorously, I think we should have registered better outing.
What you are doing now is to resurrect tbo, which has metamorphosed into cpc?
Exactly! What we did was we had to leave the ANPP. And these are our reasons; we have said it so many times. So, those who are still with us in ANPP and the other organisations, all we did was to change the face of the office and put the flag of the CPC.
In a sense, you are not really ‘new’ as in new. From what you have been saying, the cpc is about the ideals of Gen. Buhari?
Well, this is what we try to reflect!
What we can also understand is that cpc was set up primarily to champion your views and possibly fight for a progressive Nigeria?
Exactly! We found out that…I think I will mention here for the purpose of clarity. I joined ANPP in April 2002. By 2003, the party gave me its presidential ticket. As they say, the rest is history. But really what happened is that the international observer team, the local observer team, they have all seen, over 30,000 people were deployed by one mission alone. Not to talk of the local Nigerian NGOs and other observer teams. They all agreed that the election was not free and fair. For that reason, we went to court for 30 months. That was in 2003.
In 2006, the party again gave me its ticket. And you know what happened in 2007. The rigging in 2007 was worse than 2003. I said, as presidential candidate, I wasn’t going to court, because I know what happened to me in 2003. But the party said I have to go court. You know how serious the rigging in 2007 was, but I said I wasn’t going to court because I spent 30 months in 2003 and didn’t get justice at the end of the day; I still lost. The party said I had to because I contested on its ticket, and technically, they were right. So, I went. They said we should raise two parallel legal teams, one for the party, the other for the presidential candidate. Of course, you know what happened.
When we were in court, they (the party) withdrew the case. But I refused to withdraw mine. Because constitutionally, I had a right to go to court as presidential candidate, whether the party agrees or not. So, I went to court and spent another 20 months. So, between 2003 and 2008, I was in court for 50 months.
So, when I went to address the press at Transcorp Hilton on December 12, 2008, I said I disagree with the judgment, if you could recall.
That the Supreme Court, as the name suggests, is the supreme authority constitutionally, but I disagree with its judgment. After I finished, the press asked several questions. But two questions were outstanding: With what I experienced in 2003 and 2007, wouldn’t I throw in the towel? Give up and say, ‘well, I have tried!’ I said no, I will not stop. Then, they asked me, you are fighting ANPP, it withdrew the case in court, joined the government of national unity (GNU) and took the positions on offer.
They did not work with the party’s constitutional structures, the National Working Committee, the caucus, comprising the governors, chairmen of the party, chairman of the board of trustees and especially, the national executive committee, which has the authority of the party. They did not take these organs into account in the three decisions the party took, that is, withdrawing from the case, joining the government of national unity and putting themselves the party leadership, instead of these party structures making the decision.
I said I will write my supporters, which I did in the first week of February 2009, and I gave them three positions to advice me on. Firstly, whether we should remain in ANPP; secondly, whether we should join any party other than the PDP; and thirdly, if we can go for a new party. They chose the third option after a survey was conducted in virtually all the states of the federation. So, we decided to come up with the CPC.
Looking at how gruesome it must be to start a new party almost from the scratch – you scout for new members, begin to popularise it and then, woo voters. This requires a lot of resources, moving round. How easy has it been?
It is extremely tough. Not that we don’t know what we are doing. We knew it was going to be tough but it was our best option.
We heard you were discussing with the action congress at a point. We also heard you were discussing with this or that party, then no news again. Is it that you found their philosophies not agreeing with yours or you just want to be a lone ranger?
(Laughs) You cannot be a lone ranger in Nigerian politics, unless you don’t want to succeed. But the important thing is that your philosophy must agree somehow with those you are going to get together with. For example, you know there is crisis in the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) in the centre and virtually every state. There is such crisis in the ANPP where the elected governors just kick the party. So, we wanted to have a party that we can manage, a progressive party with clear ideology and principles.
I am asking why you backed out of your discussion with ac. You were talking with bola Tinubu at some point and you seem to agree ideologically. The party also say they are progressive like the cpc. What happened?
AC, maybe they have got their own problems, which we don’t know! We have learnt to be cautious going by our experience. By going into the APP (All Peoples Party) then, I went and inherited all the problems. Subsequently, it became ANPP and virtually now non-existent. They started with nine governors, now virtually one. But they are supposed to have three: Kano, Yobe and Borno. But, technically, I think they have only one state, which is Kano. So, our supporters in TBO, ANPP and other parties, we thought we can realise our objectives through the CPC rather than joining another party, knocking doors and asking for a merger.
Where are you going to get the resources to prosecute elections in a heavily monetised polity like Nigeria?
You are talking of resources. Well, so many people have said, ‘yes you say Buhari has no money, how did he become a presidential candidate twice?’ But I keep on mentioning that I am the only presidential candidate that went round 34 states in 2003 and 33 states in 2007; a number of the states several times over. Those who have resources, how many states have they been to? What is the use of the resources if you cannot get to the people? Local government by local government, I talked to them. I did that, 2003 and 2007.
The bottom line is that we need free and fair election. All that we are doing will come to naught if there are no free and fair elections; and our experience as a nation agree with this. Even if we don’t agree or believe in ourselves, what about the international community? Some of them had overseen elections in 49 countries before Nigeria. And they said they had never seen the kind of fraud perpetrated in Nigeria. Mrs. (Madeline) Albright said ours, in 2007, was her worst experience.
Some people have asked why don’t you just quit running for presidency. In 2003, you came out parading your integrity, discipline and all that, you were rigged out. In 2007, the same thing happened. Why don’t you just forget it? Why don’t you give up on the presidency? What drives you in the Nigerian project?
I refuse to give up! I am not used to giving up as a soldier. And my objective is absolutely clear: It is about our people and our country. Look at the resources we have in this country, look at the human and material resources, look at the quality of people that we have, they have never been fully exploited. And I felt that if am in partisan politics, at least some people will listen to me. At least, this corrupt and undisciplined nation can be reformed somehow. So, we chose a clear objective of bringing this country back from the brink. This is what is driving me.
Some people seem to believe that it is a burning, personal ambition; that Buhari wants desperately to be president.
They ask: what is Buhari’s vision? What is he bringing to the table? Do you agree with this position?
It is absolutely not true. I don’t agree. Like I said, it’s not about me. It’s about our people and our country. When I read my declaration, I identified the problems of Nigeria: corruption, indiscipline, insecurity, Niger-Delta…We have to secure and manage this country. Secure in the sense that Nigerians all over must be able to have 24 hours a day if they like. Not everybody running home like chickens after last light and coming out after first light. No. Nigerians all over the country must be able to move and work 24 hours a day. Insecurity is the number one problem in this country. Number two is social justice. Social justice means those managing public funds must be seen to be competent and trust worthy.
This culture of throwing to the dogs all final instructions and lack of restraint on the part of those managing public institutions must be brought to a stop. They must be transparent and accountable. This is my burning ambition, which people are calling my personal ambition. Because, how can we be so rich and paradoxically so poor? We are a rich nation, poor people.
This worries me about our country. You look at the UNDP index of living. Nigerians are living on less than a dollar a day. This is a disgrace to the Nigerian leadership because they know what we are earning. At least they know the foreign exchange we are earning. Yet, we remain miserably poor.
Is the problem then the leadership or followership? Nigerians only grumble in their bedrooms and do nothing about this ravaging poverty you talk about
Both. The followership should be able to rebel at a certain level. How can they tolerate people stealing their resources and keep quiet? They refuse to give them education, they refuse to give them security, they refuse to give them water to drink, they refuse to give them infrastructure that enables them to work and earn a living themselves. Why do they tolerate this kind of leaders? In every constituency, they know them. Why do they allow them to steal them dry? What I am saying is that we have a docile followership.
You were head of state for 20 months. What this means is that you were also part of the leadership failure of our 50 years as a nation or are you going to isolate your administration?
I cannot dissociate myself from it. But when I had the opportunity to lead this country…You try and follow my antecedents as a governor, as minister of petroleum, as head of state, as chairman of PTF (Petroleum Trust Fund); have I tried as an individual wherever I have managed to be accountable and transparent? I believe you can get the answer from your archives.
Buhari is generally perceived as upright, disciplined and focused. Yet, why won’t people who believe this give you the votes? Is it that Nigerians don’t trust you enough to be president?
If you are telling me about people of this nation, then you are wrong. I told you earlier that the bottom line of our problems is free and fair election. People did not refuse to give me the votes. My votes didn’t count. I will give you an example, which I believe you know more than I do. Anambra elections, four years ago, when the Supreme Court ruled that (Peter) Obi was the governor, INEC, the constitutional body that runs election, had four years notice to run an election in Anambra. And we know that Anambra had 148,000 registered voters, but less than one-third of the votes counted. So, INEC couldn’t get it right in one state even when it had four years notice. You can see that you cannot be talking about credible polls when votes don’t count. How can you then say Nigerians didn’t vote for me?
Do you now have faith in the new inec under Prof Attahiru Jega?
I am developing some kind of confidence by the kind of actions (of Jega).
Why not total confidence?
Total confidence until and unless INEC gets what the Uwais Committee recommended. We need a credible voters’ register. Every Nigerian of voting age knows we cannot call what we have a credible voters’ register. All this nonsense that Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson were seen in Anambra voters’ register, this kind of scandalous nonsense shouldn’t happen again. So, we need an absolute, up-to-date credible voters’ register. Of course, it is possible. If the guy is given the resources he has asked for and the cooperation, the man is capable of doing it.
Do you know Jega personally?
Yes, person to person, but not closely. He got support across the country, from the press. People seem prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Do you believe that president Goodluck Jonathan, being a likely candidate in the 2011 polls, will give Nigerians a credible election since incumbents are hardly defeated in a country like ours?
Well, all I can say for now is that I am encouraged by what he said when he met with President Obama, when he gave an interview to the CNN. He promised Obama free and fair elections, which Americans are extremely concerned about. Secondly, security of the nation. All these cases of kidnapping, assassination and so on; thirdly, unemployment, and fourthly, I think power. I think these are the promises he made to the United States.
When he came back, to be fair with President Jonathan, as far as I am concerned, he has been playing the roles he promised. I saw in the papers again where he said he didn’t know Jega from Adam. But people recommended him and he approved it. He did not insist on his friend or somebody else. That means he has got this quality of fair-mindedness.
So, you are willing to also give the president the benefit of the doubt?
I am very willing. And when they started talking about this N72billion for INEC, for (voters) registration and so on, he approved it. So, to be fair, he has to be given benefit of the doubt.
The other leg of the question is, since presidents in Africa, including Nigeria, don’t ever want to lose election where they are candidates and umpires, should Jonathan run in 2011?
I think it would only appear that Nigerians haven’t suffered enough if they don’t stand against social injustice. I have the inkling that Nigerians are now getting ready for 2011 electioneering.
2011 is pregnant, only God knows what it will bear. But Nigerians know they are suffering, that if they insist on the government they have chosen, then they can have it. I gave example of Kano in 2003, Bauchi and Lagos in 2007. The electorate insisted on the government they wanted and they got it. So, if the elite of the rest of the country can say go and organise your constituencies and deliver them democratically, it is possible, it can be done. And then if we have a government we chose, we will be prepared to support it. That is the only way we can make progress.
Let’s go to zoning. Where do you stand, for or against?
What I have said since the argument started is that whatever form or agreement a political party takes is its own business. It is for the electorate to have the final decision on who it wants to vote for.
Do you believe power should go to the north in 2011?
That is PDP arrangement. It is a PDP affair. What I believe is free and fair elections. Let us have free and fair elections. As long as you are a Nigerian, if you win, you win, if you lose, you lose. But the elections should be free and fair.
Proponents of zoning say we need zoning or power rotation in a heterogenous society like ours. That it will promote unity in diversity. Some of the governors, elders and party stalwarts insist it is north or nothing. Are there times as a northerner you harbour this sentiment?
Look, I don’t know why you insist on me rationalising or accepting a PDP agenda.
I just want to know your views?
Well, I have told you that the bottom line of our problems is free and fair elections. In my submission earlier, I gave the example of Kano, Bauchi and Lagos, and said if the elite can go out and mobilise the people and deliver their constituencies; educate them and allow them to vote whichever party and whichever candidate, you will be amazed how stable Nigeria will be. But when you start thinking of north/south dichotomy; Christian/ Muslim; Christian/pagan, you have problems. Look at (late MKO) Abiola’s election. Abiola was a Muslim, his running mate was a Muslim. He chose a Muslim/Muslim ticket and nobody raised their fingers against it. So, what we need are good Nigerians whoever and wherever they are.
So, how did we get to this tragic level of zoning, power rotation, balancing etc?
I will ask you; you are the press men. You should tell me.
You should tell me because in 2003 and 2007, you balanced your ticket. You had Christian running mates from South West and South East respectively. Why didn’t you follow the Abiola example?
It’s the party. If my party made the terrible mistake, we will suffer the consequences! In 2007, the party asked me to run with Ume-Ezeoke. It was not my decision. And since I wanted the party’s ticket, I had to abide by their decision.
Nigeria is 50 and we are still bogged down by sentiments of zoning and rotation. Are we ever going to get to a time when a candidate will be judged by what he has to offer rather than where he comes from, his religion and other base considerations?
That is why, I think, for the last 18 months, in a few of my interviews, speeches, comments, I have always hit hard on the Nigerian elite. Not only political elite, but elite across the spectrum. Let them go either physically, morally and, perhaps, materially and deliver their constituencies. It’s really important. It’s now people are getting aware of this. But it is getting too late, because as you said earlier, next year (2011) is critical for the country.
Do you fear for the country, that if we don’t get it right now…
(Cuts in) There may be no Nigeria. I do, because I draw parallel with Somalia so many times. Somalia-sation of Nigeria; I am scared about that. Somalia, they are one ethnic group, one religion, Islam, but for 18 years Somalia has not been a country because the elite became so selfish, so corrupt, so undisciplined, and they have wrecked the country. And Nigeria is much better off.
So, I am passing a message to the Nigerian elite: Let them go and deliver their constituencies. Even Nigerians in Diaspora, Nigerians in Europe, the groups that are supporting us, I discussed with them. Let them connect with their constituencies at home through whichever way. And let them educate their people, persuade them to chose good people from whichever party to represent their constituencies. This is the way we can move Nigeria forward together. We all stand to benefit.
The South South and the north are currently locked in battle over 2011 presidency. While the former says it’s South South presidency or no Nigeria, the latter (north) are insisting that the unity of Nigeria will be threatened if power doesn’t go to the region. What’s your take on this volatile issue?
I have read these statements too. I don’t think there is absolute agreement among the people of these two zones. You can say some vocal people in the South South said if Jonathan is not given the presidency there will be no Nigeria. So, you can say they are holding Nigeria hostage. They will receive the shock of their lives if they think they can hold Nigeria hostage.
You also quoted the North saying power must come there or Nigeria’s unity is threatened. That position is not true. The northern governors if they represent the northern opinion, no matter how they got there, about 50 per cent agree (with zoning) and 50 per cent do not. The breakdown is there in the papers. You see, both the so-called northern governors and the South South governors are wrong.
So, on the average, what comes out is that Nigerians want free and fair election. Let the parties that can afford to field a candidate go and look for votes and let their votes count, not like the Anambra election. Thank goodness, the INEC leadership has been changed. You see, 2011, seems to be our last chance. We have to get our acts together, especially the elite to make sure the election is credible and acceptable. This is the bottom line.
The world over the emphasis is on generational power shift. You also must have been in your forties when you became head of state. In Britain today, you have a 43-year-old man as prime minister, his deputy is less than 40; President Obama of America is less than 50. Some Nigerians say Buhari is a good man, but he has had his chance no matter how brief. Can’t he play elderstatesman and advisory roles to the younger leaders? Must Buhari be president?
But our system accommodates what we are doing. You cannot vote until you are 18, and if you live up to 100, nobody says you cannot vote. So, you can vote and be voted for as long as you are above 18. Now, if our Constitution gives us that right, why should I deny myself, why should I disenfranchise myself? It is for Nigerians to mobilise against old people. If they don’t want ‘old people’ like me, then the youths will say we will vote one of us. So, a party can present a 35-year-old PhD holder, may be in sociology, ok. Others can present other candidates, ok too. That is why votes should count. What I am saying is that it is not for us to disenfranchise ourselves when the Constitution doesn’t say so… Let them (the youths) mobilise against Buhari, Babangida and whoever is 60 and above, for people who are 59 and below. But it is our right to vote and be voted for.
Do you as a person support generational power shift?
I will support whatever the Nigerian voters do, once there is free and fair election.
But you agree that all those period you were governor, goc, minister and head of state, you were young and vibrant. You had a lot of ideas, you were quite young…
Under the military regime, yes, I was quite young. But they are different systems.
What would be wrong if you give way to younger persons?
It wouldn’t be wrong, but my problem is I don’t want…You see, I have always talked about the elite going to deliver their constituencies. I don’t want my opinion, even if it is for myself or against myself, to dominate seemingly the rest of the constituencies. Let people make enough commitment in their constituencies and cause change. This is the most enduring thing. Everybody is talking about Obama. I watched the scene when Obama was being sworn in. The amount of tears dripping from the eyes of Jesse Jackson reached up to his mouth, because he was overwhelmed. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Obama didn’t become president because it was his birthright. After his qualification, he went straight to the grassroots, he went back to his constituency; he cultivated his constituency and groomed himself up from there. You don’t start talking from top to bottom. It should be from bottom up. That’s how Obama made it. And when Obama was mobilising his campaign resources, he didn’t go to the multinationals or the lobbyists. Again, he went to the ordinary people: 50, 100, 500 dollars…So, Obama owes nobody anything except the people, except the Americans, not the multinationals.
The preponderant view, especially down south, is that Buhari is a religious fundamentalist. I am sure you have heard that
Of course, I have.
How did you get that religious fundamentalist stigma?
They know they are lying; they know they are! They know they are a fraud. I wrote to most of the Bishops during my campaigns in 2003 and 2007. I visited the Bishops. I told you I visited 34 states in 2003 and 33 states in 2007, during the campaigns. Nigerians know the truth, that I am not what they are saying. You see, some Nigerians think they are being smart.
When they see they have nothing against me about integrity, competence in office or my ability to lead whichever department or state or ministry I have had the opportunity to lead, they say something must stick against Buhari, so that we can drag him down on behalf of our party or candidate. It is the state of our political development, which we cannot absolutely escape, and I assure you that I am facing all that with a lot of courage, because I have written to a lot of church leaders. I visited them, I talked to them and it is up to them to play their role as they see it.
The above interview was published in Sunday Sun of August 08, 2010. Used with the permission of the author.