By Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye

In this interview on Political Paradigm aired on Channels Television, the Director of Publicity of the Northern Elders Forum, Hakeem Baba Ahmed, insists said Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, will bear the consequences of running on a Muslim-Muslim ticket. He spoke on a wide range of issues.

Are you as excited as some Nigerians especially the new voters, that we would have a new president?

Yeah, well, I’m excited that we’re having a new president after President Buhari’s eight years which haven’t been exactly a success. It is a chance for a renewal. This election is representing massive potential for Nigeria to move in a different trajectory. They represent an opportunity to allow 75 per cent of the voters decide who’s going to be their president. They give millions and millions of young Nigerians a chance to participate in deciding who should be part of making the future better or worse. So, I’m excited.

I’m also very worried over whether we will get that person who it could be and whether they really understand the state of the country as it is now. Whether they have the ideas in their heads and what to do, they are willing to hit the ground running. And they’re preparing to take on the burden of leading Africa’s largest nation, largest democracy, potentially the second largest democracy in the world. Huge young population that are frustrated, agitated, angry and all these things. My excitement that we are going to have a chance to renew the country, through leadership tempered by the concerns that we may not have the kind of people that will meet those standards. But look, it’s already a done deal; we have 18 Nigerians out of whom we have to make a choice. And we in the Northern Elders Forum, we watch, we’re studying the candidates, we are evaluating and we’re hoping that eventually, we and other Nigerians will make the right choice in terms of who has the greatest potential to offer the kind of leadership we’re looking for.

I understand that you’re not comfortable with the kind of conversations that are holding especially among the front runners, it would seem that you fear that this could degenerate into a security concern ahead of elections?

I’m not comfortable. That’s putting it mildly. I’m very disappointed. And I’m sure I’m not alone. When you see spokespersons of presidential candidates use language and behaviour that is intended to throw mud in the face of opposition, you will say that’s  okay, that’s politics. But when you see candidates, hurl insults against each other, make horrible allegations against each other, people who are going to be our president! One of these candidates exchanging horrible insults and abuse, is going to end up being our president. What do their conduct say to the young? That it’s okay to do these things?

They inflame passions. They justify politics as a dirty game. They’re not setting standards for people. They’re not showing qualities of leadership as they should be showing to convince Nigerians that they are running. Maybe, he said this about my father. Maybe, they said this, that I’m a thief. Maybe I’ve said this, but there are ways in which this can be handled in a manner that suggests that you can be both responsible and political. But we are not seeing that and that is what is disappointing. I think the candidates themselves have run out

of ideas; maybe they’ve shown us our manifesto, they’ve shown our programmes. Maybe they have understated or they haven’t understood this long five month campaign period. They’ve run out of ideas and now they’re falling back to the stage of enormous depth of politics, insults, abuses. These insults and abuses inflame the already charged atmosphere with potential for triggering unrest, particularly among young people. So, it’s disappointing.

How is that affecting the decision of the Northern Elders forum on who to support?

Well, as I said, we have a long paradigm of judgment. We look at candidates, we look at their programmes, their manifestos, what they say in rallies, what they say in media outings. Well, we look at the people around. What we’re looking for is the Nigerian president, who is going to become responsible enough to lead a nation in distress. And the Northern Elders Forum frowns on this, because it’s not part of what you require to be a leader, obviously we will score them low in that regard. And with the time that is left, if we have opportunities, we say to them, don’t get carried away. You as president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, you will be the number one citizen in this country. Everything you do, everything you say, has to show that you’re seriously concerned about setting examples, standards, and your personal conduct must be above board. And for the Northern Elders Forum, this is a major issue.

Some months ago, last year, the Northern Elders Forum held a town hall with these presidential candidates. And the purpose for that was to ascertain what exactly the North specifically would gain from whoever becomes President. Does it bother you that the other regions have not done that instead, what we’ve seen has been endorsements, from one or two notable persons in the other regions?

Look, let’s be fair, every region, every group has to take a decision on its own. After the Kaduna Arewa Joint Committee, which was tremendously successful, we suspected that it would be difficult to replicate it again, for a number of reasons. The North is more cohesive. And let me remind you that this was not just the Northern Elders Forum, it was a joint collaboration of six critical groups in the North, which came together and said, let’s get some of the candidates and interrogate them in public. So in spite of the plurality and diversity of the North, in political terms, we have more cohesiveness. So, we could do that. The other regions were left with the choice, try to get that and you will get candidates that will say no, it’s Kaduna. I’m not sure that I want to do this again. And Kaduna wasn’t exactly a soft landing for many, it was tough. We put the candidate through some really rigorous and challenging questions.

And the rush to endorsements?

Maybe, some candidates, maybe some regions felt coming out to say, this is our candidate; he is the person to go for; it has its advantage because you identify your interests early enough. We haven’t done that. And it’s deliberate. We don’t want to rush to join them. We have a pretty good idea of the criteria we apply in judging who we would advise, northerners to vote for. We have a pretty clear idea at this stage, one, two, three people we think are likely to deserve our support. And so I can’t judge the action of other candidates or other regions.

But are you saying that it shows that North has better cohesion than the rest of the regions politically?

It’s true. I think we are also a little bit more sophisticated in political thinking. Why for instance, would the North go out and simply endorse an ethnic candidate, a candidate that has a huge stamp that he comes from our region. Buhari comes from the North and the North has never been worse than it is. We now know how damaging it is to narrow things down to, he’s one of us, or he comes from our region. We know that we’re looking for quality. And if we find it, we’ll say this is the person. We fought a battle with the rest of the country, on whether even a northerner should contest, and we won that battle. Remember, no southern governors, all 17 of them from APC from PDP from APGA, gathered in one place and sent threats and say no party should give any northerner a platform; no northerner should contest, the presidency must come to the South. And we fought that battle simply by saying show us where the law says that no northerner can contest, no party should give a ticket. And we won that battle. We won it because it was the right thing. You can’t stop a Nigerian from aspiring to be a Nigerian president. The Constitution identifies the qualifications and identifies what it requires to be. If your party fields you and you happen to come from the North, or from the south, it’s up to the voters to decide. So we won that battle. And we didn’t do it for a northerner. We did it because the principle that every Nigerian must participate in the selection; the election of their leaders is sacrosanct, you cannot hijack it for political reasons.

So we’ve done well. We’ve also done the Kaduna thing. And we think that our strategy for following these candidates by reaching out, assessing them and holding back and not being stampeded or intimidated by the choice that others have made is the best strategy.

There are those who will say that the endorsement of the Northern elders forum may amount to nothing especially because in 2019, you did not support President Buhari, yet he won in the North. So how would you react to concerns that Northern Elders’ forum support for a particular candidate may not yield much?

I would say let’s wait and see. At this stage, we’re comfortable with whatever. And we’re fortunate that substantial portions of them both understand what we’re doing. And they understand the value of being cautious. They understand the value of a rigorous assessment, valuation of candidates. And the pressures are not not coming from the North but from people who have already endorsed someone. I will say who’s your candidate. As far as we know, there is no hindrance to anybody coming to the law to say, for me, and that’s great. And we want the northern candidates to have the same access all over the place. We have five weeks, we’re not panicking. If there are people who want us to endorse someone now, I’m afraid they will be disappointed. We know what we’re doing. What we’re doing is right. And there are many ways in which you can endorse a candidate. We don’t need to follow the passion of someone else, you can check out our course. And that’s what we’re doing now. And we feel comfortable, where we are, if people think that Northern Elders forum is irrelevant, we just say, Okay, let’s wait and see. We know who we are. I would say let’s wait and see. At this stage, we’re comfortable with whatever. And we’re fortunate that substantial portions of the North understand what we’re doing. And they understand the value of being cautious. They understand the value of a rigorous assessment, valuation of candidates. And the pressure is not coming from the North; it is coming from people who have already endorsed someone, and who are saying who is your candidate. And we are saying, at this stage, everybody’s our candidate. And the candidates go everywhere in the North.  In all, out of 18 candidates, five are northerners. And as far as we know, there is no hindrance to anybody coming to the North to say, vote me, and that’s great. And we want the northern candidates to have the same access all over the place.

You are a strong critic of President Muhammadu Buhari, you’ve been open about that. I’d like to know from you, is your criticism restricted to the president or perhaps the APC in general?

I think it’s both. I was a member of the APC. I was chairman of the party for three, four years in my state in Kaduna. And I participated actively in the election of President Buhari in 2015. The basis for these criticisms is basically that President Buhari has failed. He has failed to live up to the expectations of Nigerians. He hasn’t fought corruption, he has not fought insecurity, he hasn’t fixed the economy. And rather than say, look, keep quiet about it. He’s one of us and we were part of electing him, I and other members of the forum decided that we will say no. He may be a northerner but for goodness sake, he is creating more problems for the North than solving them. Look at where we are now. When he became president, only the Northeast knew of what IDPs is, we didn’t know what it was, in most other parts of the North. Today, you have IDPs all over the place in their millions. The entire economy of the North is gone. Who is supposed to be responsible for this, someone is responsible. People can’t go to their farms to harvest the yield this year, same thing last year, somebody must be held responsible for this. So our criticism of President Buhari is not based on anything other than simply an evaluation of his performance. And he hasn’t done well. Look at the mess that is going on even a few days to his leaving; the CBN debacle. All these things you hear about. And the President is still maintaining this aloofness, this hands-off approach to governance. And what you see is a lot of drifts, a lot of non-governing, you cannot treat a country, as complex as burden-ridden like Nigeria, and not have people criticizing. But it’s nothing to do with him; it is just simply a reflection of his performance.

So with the bad performance of the President of the All progressives Congress, will the Northern Elders forum still consider the APC ahead of election?

It’s interesting you asked that because I asked, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu; I was allowed only one question in Kaduna and I asked him: President Buhari’s record, especially in the North hasn’t been very good; one of your liabilities is that you’re going to step into his shoes. And you’re going to convince northerners to elect you to continue as APC. One of the problems you have is that you inherit his liabilities. Tell us in the North, what you will do different from what he has done. And how you can reduce these liabilities? His response was interesting. He said, well, I am a Tinubu, and he is a Buhari. He has his own way of doing things. And I will do my own ways. In fairness to him, he also said President Buhari has done well. And I will build on those things. But that’s what we expect to hear from any politician. You can’t denounce the president who still has considerable power to decide whether you win an election or not. We didn’t expect anything from that. But APC for me, APC has to do a lot of work to clean up the state. The eight years they have been in power hasn’t been particularly outstanding. Or are they going to say to Nigerians, trust us with power, we’re going to do a lot different. They have to say in more specific terms what it is they will do. How they will even fight the security challenges that emerged under your watch as a party. Who’s going to be your governors? We are not just looking at a candidate, we are looking at gubernatorial candidates as well, the quality because governors have very important roles. We are looking at the kind of people they will be sending to the National Assembly. So we are assessing them comprehensively and totally. We are looking at people as potential governors, legislative and executive. So, the challenge for APC I think, will be what to do with the legacy of President Buhari, which is not particularly inspiring.

You are familiar with what has happened in the past weeks,  how the candidates have been going to Chatham House including the INEC Chairman himself. Some Nigerians are not comfortable with that. They don’t see the need going all the way to London to speak to Nigerians over an election that will be held in Nigeria. Where do you stand on that?

I stand with Nigerians who think this is contemptuous. This is irresponsible. Because you spend a huge amount of your money, our money, whoever’s money going to London to speak to us, because you’re certainly not speaking to British people; the British who are not interested in what you plan to do. And it’s also demeaning, it demeans the country. It demeans you who is likely to be the president of the country, that you have to take a whole bunch of Nigerians to go to one small think-tank. I use the word small not in terms of capacity, but they have no business going out of the country, just simply to impress us, impress us here. This is where the action is. Tell us what you’re going to do about the joblessness. Tell us what you’re going to do about 50 million young people who have no hope. They’re not going to school, or if they’re going to school, it is not worth going there. They have no jobs, even if they go to school, they graduate and there’s nothing, tell us what you plan to do about this population explosion? What do you intend to do about Kanu? Are you going  to negotiate with him? All the bandits and other criminals, what do you plan to do? Talk to us here, tell us but when you go out of this country, to a place because someone has gone, it shows clearly that you’re not thinking. You’re not impressing anybody because you’ve gone to Chatham House. Anybody can go to Chatham House.  And I really mean it and again, I don’t want to be disrespectful of Chatham House. But is not a big deal. In fact, what it represents is that you don’t think much about Nigeria and Nigerians. And when you become president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, is that going to be a reflection of how you conduct foreign policy? In relation with other countries? What do foreign countries have to do? What has a foreign Think Tank forum do with elections? So if there are Nigerians who are worried about it, I want too. I wish they hadn’t done it but I know we don’t have an influence over them.

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In anticipation of endorsement of the Northern Elders Forum, a Muslim-Muslim ticket conversation has resurfaced. And now there are concerns as to whether or not that will be a factor in the decision of the Northern Elders forum?

North is made up of Muslims and Christians; religion is an extremely sensitive issue in the North as it is in the South. But in the North, more sensitive, because it’s one of the major fault lines. It has triggered a lot of conflict, unnecessary conflict, because it doesn’t have to be an issue. Muslim-Muslim ticket is a deliberate choice by the APC candidate. And he will live with the consequences of that. We can see some of it; he has alienated some elements of the Northern population, Christian elements substantially. And maybe it’s based on a calculation but all we do know is that no Christian, no Nigerian Christian, no northern Christian, nor northern Muslim will fight over the ticket because their faith will be favoured. If Tinubu becomes president, Islam is not necessarily going to be treated better than Christianity simply because both him and his deputy are Muslims. If he becomes president, the northern Christian is not going to be better off or worse because Tinubu and his deputy are both Muslims. We won’t allow our faith to be used for patently partisan interests. And we know our commitment to our faith is stronger than this. So there’s a lot of politics involved in this. But what we do know is that we will not fight over faith.

So it’s not a factor in the decision making process of the Northern Elders Forum?

No. It’s not.

But are you not concerned about the unity of the country? I say this because political analysts and some citizens have raised concerns about the level of divisiveness in the country, as it stands now. And then saying further that a Muslim-Muslim ticket, if it turns out to be a winning ticket, may further fuel agitations in the different regions?

Look, no one can become president of this country, unless they are voted in accordance with the rules and the law. They are voted by a majority of Nigerians, they must win 25 percent of the votes in at least 24 states, then they must get the majority of block votes cast. Anybody who becomes president would have had massive votes for Christians and from Muslims; you cannot become president, if all the Muslims in this country line up behind you. You can’t. Because you wouldn’t get the requirement. You can’t lose an election because all the Christians have lined up against you. You can’t. So this tendency to say, if he wins…if he wins, it will be because Christians or Muslims have voted for him. So where does all this Muslim-Muslim ticket emerge from? If the Muslim-Christian ticket wins, is because Muslims and Christians have voted for it. So, it really is irrelevant. But in the calculation of the APC, they see it as a vote winner. But you must allow credible elections to take place, whoever wins this election must have won it without doubt, transparently; the record should show it you won it, clean, free and fair. That’s the best way to solve all this.

In one of your weekly articles, you said that it would be difficult for the Labour Party presidential candidate, Peter Obi to emerge victorious in the elections due to what you describe as him battling Titans, Atiku and Tinubu. And I recall having a conversation with Professor Ango Abdullahi, who said something similar that it would almost be impossible for him to win an election of this magnitude. And some would want to interpret this to me that the Northern Elders forum,  is not looking in that direction, since you already hold these positions?

No, I think to be fair to both Professor Ango and me, you asked us a question about his prospects for being elected. And the response is, we look at Nigeria, we look at the Labour Party, we look at Obi as candidate and Datti as VP. And we look at where they stand in relation to all the competitions, and all the problems that they will have to face. To win an election for them would involve the same requirement for Atiku and Tinubu until an election. That means votes, real votes have been cast, to give you 25 percent of the votes in 24 states. And to give you the absolute majority of votes cast. Currently, he’s facing a problem of dealing with two huge parties that have massive resources and support in many parts in many parts of Nigeria; he’s got to reduce that support they have and tilt it in his direction. That’s going to take a lot of resources. That’s going to take a lot of mobilization, money, and, and marketing. Then you have people who will mobilize for you because they are also perhaps senators, governors as a APC and PDP have. He doesn’t have that. And that’s a critical requirement. Now, those are called the structures, the party persons, party officials, candidates. But Labour Party keeps saying the people are the structure. And so when Professor Ango and I say his challenges are more profound, this is because somehow they don’t appear to be paying attention to grassroots mobilization.

You need to mobilize voters. You need to go to Zamfara and say, you elect me, Peter Obi, I will do better than Atiku and Tinubu because I understand your problems. And these are my people in Zamfara that are going to run for office. They can go to Gombe and sell themselves. Now, rallies are not necessarily indicators of popularity, anybody can do rallies. So, when we make comments about Labour Party, it’s not because we don’t like them. And it’s not because we’ve already taken a decision that we would not support them. I interpret your question in terms of why do we say that Peter Obi has a more difficult challenge than, say, Atiku and Tinubu

Then I go further to ask whether you would consider supporting a candidate with that kind of challenge?

But why not? We’re not, we’re not just supporting someone who has the best chance of winning, we’re looking for a candidate who’s the best out of all of them. And when we say the best, we mean, in character, background and what we see as preparedness to lead a country. We’re also looking at the kind of government he’s going to form. Because no one single person can transform this country, you need a whole team. Who are the people who work with you. And for you, what are the kind of strategies you have to make sure that when you have power, you have some control, or a good relationship with the legislature. People say things like oh, don’t worry about Peter Obi, if he becomes president, everybody will defect and join Labour Party. And sometimes I think that’s a bit simplistic.

It’s a Nigerian thing, isn’t it?

It’s a Nigerian thing. And it is a distinct possibility. But another distinct possibility is you can have him become president and then the legislators and other people that you think will run to him would sit back because they also have a lot of power and a lot of clout. And they may not necessarily defect. The people who would be in the House of Representative…

There are concerns as to whether the average northerner  has that kind of knowledge in making his decision. Recently, Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso tweeted that the North doesn’t trust the Southeast because of the IPOB agitations they have. The North wants a united Nigeria, do you think that on that basis, the North will have a challenge voting Obi or anyone from the Southeast?

Again, so far, it’s only Obi we are talking about. So why don’t we talk about Peter Obi.

He is not the only South easterner on the ballot. You know that right?

He’s not?

He’s not.

But he’s the most prominent one. Okay, so he is the elephant in the room. Why don’t you ask him the question directly. Will northerners vote for Peter Obi? That’s what you want to ask, why not? But the concerns? The average northerner is very sophisticated. And the average northerner is very knowledgeable, he will choose what is right for him like everybody else. And if he doesn’t think that issues like IPOB…the fire of IPOB should have been put out as evidence that anybody from the South East is serious about asking Nigerians for his mandate. When I say this, people say why don’t you say the same thing about Atiku and Tinubu and the rest. And I’m saying the stakes are higher for somebody from the Southeast, somebody like Obi. If the population in the Southeast is entirely in support of him, we ought to see a serious escalation of activities of fighting IPOB. If nothing else, just to show that he can actually pull out, reduce the level of exposure because everybody has a primary constituency. Whether he likes it or not, his primary constituency is the Southeast. So that’s why it’s important. When I say this, it is not necessarily to say that, like, some people say, call out at Atiku over Boko Haram.

I was also going to draw your attention to the agitation in the Southwest as well. We think that applies to the APC presidential candidates?

Let me just say this, the more people play the ethnic card, the more…everybody has an ethnic identity. If you keep harping on this view that he’s ours, he’s Igbo, he’s ours, he’s Yoruba, he’s ours, all you’re going to do is to trigger it is ours because he’s from the North; either he’s Hausa- Fulani or whatever. That’s all you are going to do. And people will line up eventually behind people, the same way that you will line up behind yours. And we don’t want that. Believe me, this country does not want an ethnic president. They don’t want the president elected on the basis of his faith. They want a president who will be voted in because enough Nigerians are confident enough that he will actually fix the problem. So in this country, we’re receding, we’re retreating, where we are now is very dangerous; all these endorsements on the basis of faith and on the basis of ethnicity is very damaging. It’s not moving the country forward. It’s just taking us back. In 1964, long before the military came in, we had a very good understanding of history, we broke a lot of bridges that shouldn’t be there. The North is just beginning to talk to the Southeast. Right now I can say this to you. However, there is a discussion going on between Northern groups and Ohaneze Ndigbo but we don’t know where it will end. But it’s good that we’re even talking.

What is the basis for it?

Well, because we have to rebuild bridges. Some of it is political. Some of it is looking at what this country will be. The consequences of elections are very important. We’re not just going to elect someone; this election is more than an election. It is a referendum on Nigeria. So where are the responsible people? You must look at the buildup to the elections and say what is wrong? Don’t do this. You must look at the conduct of elections themselves. Between the two elections, what happens? Or some people would cause trouble because in the first election, their candidate hasn’t won. And therefore they will raise hell over the second election? You have to ask the question, what happens if you have a president and there’s a lot of dispute over the fact that he’s not your candidate. So talking at this stage, at the level of elites and elders, is very useful. If all we do is to say, look, let’s allow the electoral process to produce the next president; let’s put as little hindrance as possible. Let’s lower insecurity threshold. Let’s talk to each other. Let Nigerians see an Igbo leadership and the Northern Elders forum talking to each other. So they can say oh okay, so we can have an election without necessarily having to die and then the South-easterners living in the North can have some comfort that this is not a war. This is an election. So those are some of the values of this discussion. And I think it’s a good thing that is taking place. And there’s another forum, which has representatives from Afeniferre, PANDEF, Ohaneze Ndigbo, ACF, from Northern Elders Forum. This afternoon after this interview, we’re going to meet with the Peace Committee. These are prominent Nigerians who say, listen, somebody has got to look after Nigeria. And that’s the compatriots. Everybody is looking after ethnic groups but who’s looking after the country?

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Quote: “we have a long paradigm of judgment. We look at candidates, we look at their programmes, their manifestos, what they say in rallies, what they say in media outings”