His candour is apparently unusual. To some people, it’s an affront and so, very annoying. To many, he speaks truth to power. But whichever way, he speaks out of his personal convictions on turbulent national issues. Incidentally, all is geared towards evolving a better Nigerian hemisphere for posterity for he says his generation has “finished” Nigeria.
A University teacher, former secretary to Kaduna State Government, SSG, former permanent secretary, current spokesman of the Northern Elders Forum, NEF, political scientist, critic and more, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed exclusively speaks to Vanguard, x-raying the President Muhammadu Buhari-led APC government in the last seven years, analysing the political scenario in the build-up to the 2023 general elections and prospecting into a “new” Nigeria among others.
2023 is almost here but before we dive into the major issues of 2023 polls, let’s look at where we are coming from in the last seven and half years of the current administration. How would you rate this government?
You said we should review where we are coming from in the last seven and half years. Seven and half years ago, the country was in a very high level of expectations. We had elected a president. There was no contest. For the first time, a sitting president was defeated. He didn’t challenge it. He didn’t go to court. There were no riots. There were no killings. That was a major watershed for Nigerian politics and there were a lot of expectations. People, even opponents of Buhari, thought Buhari would make an impact not to talk of his supporters.
He came to power with a huge amount of expectations; promised he was going to fix security, he was going to fix the economy, and he was going to fight corruption to the end. Seven and a half years down the road, the country is worse than it was, which means basically that President Buhari’s administration has let Nigerians down and has put Nigeria in a situation where we are a lot worse than we were.
Fixing the damage that Buhari did to Nigeria is going to take at least two or three presidents because it is a lot easier to destroy than to build. Our basic institutions of governance, security, law and order have collapsed. The economy is broke. Corruption is as high as or higher than it was before he became president. Various parts of the country are fighting each other and we are seeing things that we never thought we would see.
Critics say that you are very critical of this government. Why did you choose that route?
I didn’t choose the route. I supported this government. I even put my life on the line to get Buhari elected. I speak from an understanding of power before I joined politics and directly joined Buhari’s party. I was in government for many years, maybe over 20 years and so with all humility, I understand a little bit of governance. I also understand failure to govern. I understand how leadership can turn a nation to overcome problems and I understand also how leadership can abandon a nation or can mismanage a country, so I don’t just speak.
I speak from knowledge. I speak from experience and speak from a passion for good governance. I was part of the administration’s effort to get to power but before long, I realised that President Buhari was not the Messiah. His character was the wrong one for a president, who wanted to change things because he was opposed to changing things. He didn’t have a good team around him. Even if he had them, he didn’t inspire them. He didn’t push them. He didn’t hold them to account.
He had very poorly thought-out policies and worse of all, he just thought being elected president was good for Nigeria. He didn’t do anything. So, the problems he met just kept growing. That is why if I am outspoken, it has nothing to do with personal disposition towards President Buhari.
You said you worked for his success, you staked your own life, how was that?
I don’t know if you remembered the Orubebe incident (announcement of the 2015 presidential election results), I was there and there were some things about that incident that suggested that it was just the tip of an iceberg. I think we were all fortunate. For those of us who were there physically and the country as a whole, it was very fortunate that we got over the two hours without the plan that had been woven around being actualised. I don’t want to say anything more than this. But I can tell you that we came very close to the end of the democratic process at that time.
There would have been a coup?
I don’t want to say anything about this. All I want to say is, I won’t mention it here, I am not claiming credit for it, I am just saying that I served for three years in my state as the chairman of President Buhari’s party from CPC to APC. I was the chairman for Kaduna State which is a strategic state and I joined politics because of President Buhari. I had no business with politics. I had retired from the public service in 2009, 2010.
Even as a political scientist, you loathe politics?
Yes, I didn’t want to join partisan politics. I had retired as a federal permanent secretary after serving as a permanent secretary for 10 years. I had no interest in joining parties. I thought very low of the politicians I met on the ground but it was important to get involved because it was clear President Jonathan didn’t appear to understand the challenges Nigeria was facing particularly with Boko Haram, coupled with corruption. I joined CPC and then APC because I thought Buhari represented the answer to our problems but we were wrong.
What if he had appointed you into his government?
I don’t know what would have happened, I suspect that I would have left maybe around the time I left the party. I left the party in 2017. It didn’t take too long to realise that he was not interested in governing. He was interested in becoming the president of Nigeria. If he had appointed me and his government wasn’t delivering, I would have walked out without any doubt in my mind.
But can you point to one thing that his government has done or achieved in the last seven and half years, to say yes, let’s give him credit for this?
I would be honest with you. If you let go of security, if you allow the economy to degenerate, if you are indifferent to corruption and people right under you are stealing billions, N80 billion, N100 billion, it doesn’t matter what you do well, it would be swamped and overtaken by your failures. It is possible that he, okay, he built the Second Niger Bridge, he completed the Abuja-Kaduna train but the train has now become the hostage of armed criminality.
I don’t know whether the Second Niger Bridge is going to be the only flagship of this administration but he wasn’t the only person who wanted to build the Second Niger Bridge. But the bottom line is, governance under President Buhari nosedived to a point where we are today. We are quarrelling over who comes from what region and where the president comes from. Bandits are taking over the lives of millions of people, we have inflation; there are families who eat only one meal a day.
On 2023 presidential poll, who do you think will win the race among the front line candidates?
I think young Nigerians are desperately looking for somebody to support so that they find space within Nigeria and it is important to recognise the fact that the president who emerges in 2023 should be able to answer the basic questions of young Nigerians.
Is there space for us to get a good education? Is there an opportunity for us to get jobs? Or to get the economic environment that will help us to earn a living? Can Nigeria survive? Are we the last citizens of Nigeria as we know it? Those questions have to be answered by anybody who is going to become president. Anyone of them who is going to become president has to be able to answer these questions. Young people have registered now more than any other time. They are motivated. They didn’t just register for fun.
Will ethnic sentiments play a role in this election?
Yes, it is and unfortunately, it will play an even more important role. I feel really sad about this. Precisely, the time we need to raise issues about a new Nigeria, a new leadership, a political process that will simply focus on who is the most competent, and knowledgeable person, you now have factors like ethnicity and religion playing major roles. They will continue to play these roles all the way to the elections and that is very sad because what they will do is that they will divert attention from debate about competence and capabilities.
Does the backlash trailing the Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket of the APC really bother you?
No. I don’t think that Nigerian Muslims in the country are particularly impressed with the Muslim-Muslim ticket and I think that the Christians who are reacting the way they did are either misinformed or they are playing politics about it. If you have an entire government made up of Christians, they are not going to change a single Muslim and if you have an entire government made up of Muslims, they are not going to change a Christian and make him a Muslim.
For Muslims, the bottom line is not whether you have a Muslim president or vice- president, it is about a president whether Muslim or Christian, who does justice, who is honest, who works for the people and recognise the fact that he is eminently a servant and not just someone who wants to serve.
The faith of our politicians is irrelevant, they are all the same. If you walk into a room now of either PDP or APC and there are 40 politicians there, it is very difficult to tell their faith from the way they behave. So, the ordinary Nigerian is not an idiot. He is not a fool, he knows that people are playing politics and he recognises that. I am afraid whether you have the same faith ticket or different faith ticket, faith is not on the ticket but the manipulation of the people’s faith behind a particular candidate or candidates will be made. I am afraid if we don’t recognise its damage now, it might cause a lot of damage in the build-up to the 2023 elections.
So, what’s the way out?
I don’t know, to be honest. I hope that if there are candidates who believe that their strongest selling point is competence, they now go out and play down this ethnic and religious sentiments that shroud them and they say listen, let’s go out and convince enough Nigerians that we are not here to represent a Christian interest or regional interest or ethnic interest, we are here to represent those Nigerians who are looking for a competent leadership, an honest leadership, they need to work.
However, because ethnic and religious factors have always represented the basic steps of Nigerian politics and when you get these kinds of politicians who are now angling for power, the ultimate recourse will be to fall back on these two things. If I am running against you and I realise that you are a Christian and I am a Muslim and you are playing the Christian ticket, the chances are that I am going to stimulate and raise my own religious constituency or my constituency will emerge around faith.
So, the more you raise the church around a particular candidate, the more you trigger the rise of Muslims around a particular Muslim candidate and that is the danger.
Some people feel that if we don’t get it right in 2023, Nigeria is doomed. Do you share that?
I hope we get it in 2023, it will take a lot for Nigeria to be doomed but we are heading in the wrong direction. The 2023 elections can make a huge difference between whether we begin a turnaround or we sink deeper. If we have a very difficult pre-election period, elections themselves are disputed, post-election violence, all of these are quite possible. If we have these, then I am afraid it will be very difficult to get a leader who will contain post-election disputes, build bridges between communities which are already as we speak, far from each other and then reassure everybody that he can govern this country in spite of the huge passion and emotions that have been raised around religion and ethnicity. That is the biggest challenge. I am hoping that we can avoid it, and have good elections. I am hoping that our politicians recognise the fact that if they set fire on this country, even if they win, they will actually run a country on fire.
President Buhari and INEC chairman said they will conduct elections that Nigerians will be proud of. Do you trust them to do that in 2023?
At this stage, I trust INEC. I don’t think President Buhari has anything to say about whether there is going to be credible elections or not. I don’t think that INEC answers to President Buhari, so if INEC is allowed to continue to organise the way it has been organising, we are likely to have credible elections. The threats to the election, it’s not whether Buhari wants it or not, it is security. Is there enough threat? There is threat around security. The spaces available to conduct a credible election are in the face of huge threats. The South-East is going to become a major area where the elections may or may not hold in huge chunks.
Somewhere along the line, somebody has to find a way to contain IPOB, to contain some of those threats, people who are saying ‘you can’t campaign, you can’t have elections here.’ If you cannot send out people to conduct elections in the field because their lives will be at risk, then huge parts of Nigeria, the North will also be challenged. How do you conduct elections where bandits hold territory and populations? So, security will become a major factor. If President Buhari is serious when he says he wants to conduct a credible election, he should really tackle security and he said December is the deadline. There will be no security threats. I wish he hadn’t said that because you don’t put deadlines on matters like this.
He is the Commander-in-Chief, he has more credible intel than we do…
Well, our intel is the way we live and we know that there are bandits and kidnappers all over the place. That’s also intel, maybe he doesn’t know how we live. Maybe somebody is telling him things that are not true. Everyday people are kidnapped, bandits do what they want. The South-East, on Mondays, people are told to stay at home and they stay at home. Somebody, somewhere is in charge of security or non-security in the South-East
On the chances of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the APC candidate in the presidential election
If he has won the ticket of APC against all odds, he must be a force. So, he is a force in APC. I know his running mate, his deputy, I know him very well. See, all these people, Atiku, Tinubu, Peter Obi (Labour Party), Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso (NNPP), what they need is not whether they are a force or not, it is how they convince Nigerians to support them, how they convince more than their own immediate constituency to support them.
How do you think the North will vote this time?
I think the North is going to be wiser. We have paid a huge price for Buhari’s eight years. We are not blaming anybody, we are blaming ourselves. Substantially, we contributed to what Buhari became, not just because we voted for him but also because we gave him too much scope.
In 2019, Northern Elders Forum collaborated with Afenifere, PANDEF and Ohanaeze and we asked Nigerians not to vote for Buhari. They didn’t, he still got re-elected substantially with northern votes. So, in a way, we have been responsible for tolerating President Buhari far longer than we should have. I think the North is looking at all these candidates and saying ‘who looks more likely to stop the killings and the stealing of people that is going on.’ When the campaign starts, you are likely to see more critical scrutiny of plans and manifestoes. We in the Northern Elders Forum certainly will subject every candidate that looks promising to intense scrutiny.
Are you supporting anyone?
At this stage, no.
But will you support someone?
Eventually, if it becomes necessary to actually say to northerners and Nigerians, this is the way to go, we will. We’ve done so before. We did it in 2015. We said don’t support Buhari in 2019, we said we don’t support Buhari, and in 2023, if it becomes necessary to advise northerners on the direction where we believe we should go, we will.
Many Nigerian young people are for Peter Obi with what we could see on the streets. Do you see Obi becoming the next president of this country?
Let me be honest with you, at this stage, any one of these four people (Atiku, Obi, Tinubu and Kwankwaso) can become the next president of Nigeria. We have about five to six months to go campaigning, many things can happen. If Obi wants to be president of Nigeria, he and his party have to work really hard to raise the most pronounced qualities that he has and sell them to every part of the country. He has to remind his people, his supporters and the rest of Nigerians that you don’t get elected as a president of Nigeria unless you have at least 25 per cent of the votes in 24 states which means he has to get out of places where people are really crazy to those areas where people don’t even know about him and they exist. The North is one of them and the South-West is a hostile territory substantially.
And you should remember that every one of these four people that we are talking about has strong constituencies and is competing for other areas which are not his immediate constituency. So, eventually, I think the guy who becomes the president will be the one who succeeds in convincing more Nigerians than the others that he represents their interest as well as the interest of his constituency.