From Rose Ejembi, Makurdi

Former Deputy Governor of Benue State, Chief Stephen Lawani has warned that worst times are ahead for Nigerians if leaders fail to address the current divisive situations plaguing the country. In this interview, he spoke on various national issues.

How would you assess the ongoing revalidation / registration exercise of the All Progressives Congress?
The exercise as you know is still ongoing. It’s two weeks from February 9. So we still have more days. But so far, we have recorded success across the country than anticipated. In fact, if you went round, you would have heard that they sent about one hundred forms to each polling unit because the organisers didn’t anticipate that more than one hundred members would come forward to register. Now we have about 2000 members registering in some places. So, what they did is that after finishing the first hundred forms that were sent, polling stations nationwide got back to the organisers asking what to do next. So, we have instructed them to just register members’ names in the register without the forms. Therefore, APC has overshot expectations because more have registered than anticipated. So, in that regard, the exercise is a success. Those on ground would expect more facilities than provided to them. But by and large, I think it’s a success because as stakeholders, I expected to fill up wherever there are shortfalls. In that regard, I think so far, everything is working well.

What would you attribute the success of the revalidation exercise to?
Like you say in religion, evangelism; it is either the pastors did their work very well. In this case, the stakeholders have gone out and encouraged their members to come out in large numbers to register or that the members themselves, being overly enthusiastic about the exercise themselves have come out beyond expectations. That is why I can say that large numbers have come out to register.

You spoke about the revalidation exercise being orderly but we heard about a party ward chairman killed during the exercise here in Benue and also of crises in some other states.
I said the exercise is successful; I didn’t say it was orderly. On the question of whether it was orderly or not, a panel has been set up by the party to look into cause of the death. We will be in Gboko for that. After hearing from all involved, then we will know the next line of action.

With the large turnout of APC members for the exercise, do you foresee APC taking over Benue and retaining power at the centre in 2023?
I’m being rationally selfish now because I’m an APC member. So, I’ll want APC to win. I’m seeking to contest and when I declare, I’m declaring to win. I’m not going to come and declare and then play game. I’m declaring to win election because I think I can do something. And I’m running under the APC platform. So, naturally and logically too, I want the APC to win.

There are already agitations ahead of 2023 and politicians are already networking. At the state level, some people want the governorship seat to go to Jechira and others are agitating for an Idoma governor. What’s your take about this?
I think we should not vote along ethnic lines. We should rather look at the characters that present themselves for election based on what they think is their ability to govern the state. They should look at them. A situation where an Idoma man would rather vote for his brother who is bad or who is known to be bad and they support him on ethnic line and vice versa is wrong. So, let’s vote on the ground of merit rather than on ethnic lines. That is the way forward for now.

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Your party in 2019 lost out in Benue and one of the key issues the sitting party (PDP) used against your party was the Fulani crisis in Benue. Your party, the APC was accused of colluding with the presidency against the state especially on the Fulani invasion. What’s your take on that?
But was that accusation right? If APC colluded with the presidency, wasn’t the home of the President himself attacked recently by herdsmen? So, there’s no collusion of any kind. It’s not true. Certainly, the governor of the state, Samuel Ortom was right in crying out. It’s his job. He swore to an oath to protect his people. So, if he feels that something is going on that is not right, he has a right to cry out and he did it. Following from that, he came up with the anti open grazing law. Today, all states are following from what he did. So, in a way, he did the right thing. But I wouldn’t sit here to say that the party in Benue colluded with Fulani. When the Fulani man comes to attack at night, does he ask whether you are PDP or APC?

There have been calls from several quarters that the anti open grazing law should be repealed. Supposing you become the governor of Benue State come 2023, will you repeal the anti open grazing law?
Even those who were against the anti open grazing law are today all singing in praise of it. The only way to solve the problem of these marauding cows is to put them in one place and ranching is the answer. In fact, I give credit to our governor for setting the pace.

Now, talking about the state of the nation. Nigeria seems to be at the edge; what do you think can be done to salvage the country from disintegration?
We are all worried. No question about that. And it has nothing to do with party now. We are all worried. Today, we have Army and Police controlling affairs. If there is breakdown of security and the hoodlums take over the roads and start shooting, they don’t ask you whether you are APC or, PDP or Yoruba, Hausa, Idoma, Tiv. So, it’s something that we all are worried over. And you can see governors from all parties moving from one part of the country to another. But I think more needs to be done. I have spoken about this before in my previous interviews that if this insecurity situation is not arrested, the worse implication is yet to come. If people cannot go to their farms to farm. there’s going to be starvation in time to come and that will lead to more trouble. So, the implication for insecurity is enormous and therefore, government must do something quickly. That is why I personally would say that if the Nigerian government cannot arrest the situation and requires help from outside, let it do it. After all, we have in the past aided countries who have had similar situation. If we are not capable of arresting this situation, let us also seek assistance from outside.

Some prominent Nigerians are now advocating that responsible Nigerians should be allowed to bear arms to confront these criminal elements too. Do you support that too?
I’m one of those who said so but hang on, I’ve changed my mind because the implications are enormous. Even in the USA where people are allowed to carry arms, it has not stopped crime. Here that intelligence is at its lowest, and where there are no records, if people are allowed to carry arms, there will be problem. In America or Britain, you require license to bear arms and government can always follow if there is anything wrong. Here in Nigeria, if we say arms for all, I think it’s not good.

Nigeria seems to be more divided along ethnic and religious and party lines these days. I mean what divides us is becoming greater than what binds us together. What solution can you proffer to this quagmire?
I love my country and I have held positions of responsibilities in this country, one of which is as deputy governor of Benue State. I’m not going to come here and sit down and tell you that all is well with Nigeria. All is certainly not well. I personally have spoken against what is happening and it is to my desire that the government would put its ear to the ground and listen to what people are saying. In recent times, it has had to do with perhaps things like appointments only of people from certain parts of the country. It has to do with other factors; so many things too numerous to name. They can be solved. It has to do with the recent EndSars protest. So, a lot of things have been enumerated. It is now up to those in authority to sit down and address these issues. The parties, both the major parties including the ruling party have their solutions. It is time that we move fast, sit down and address these issues to save further chaos in the country. That’s all I can say for now. I’m not disagreeing with you. If I did, I will be lying and even my age doesn’t allow that. We, as a country, do have problems and they must be addressed.

Former Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar warned that anarchy and disintegration loom in this country. What is your take on this?
I’m happy to hear Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar say so. I’m happy to hear the former President, Olusegun Obasanjo say this thing but we have the Council of State. When they call the Council of State meeting, let them all attend and bare their minds and be courageous to say it. Some of them don’t attend. I agree with what Gen. Abdulsalami said. I’m not a Nigerian leader today but I’ve had the privilege of being in that position before. I’m aspiring to be. I’m not tired. But they should say it at the appropriate place. If you talk to the press and play to the gallery, it’s one thing; if you call a proper meeting, it’s another thing. If all the former Heads of State come together, genuinely meet with the current President and discuss, I believe it would be better.