Alhaji Tanko Yakassai (OFR) is an elder statesman, former presidential adviser and founding member of Arewa Consultative Forum, the foremost political and cultural association of leaders in the northern part of the country.
In this interview the 93-year-old politician spoke to Akanni Alaka on the 2019 general elections, the insecurity in the country and the emerging controversies over which region of the country the President should come from in 2023.
What’s your impression of the way the 2019 general election was conducted?
I have watched general elections conducted in Nigeria since 1951. And I can tell you that the last general election is the worst in terms of rigging, involvement of the military in the electoral process and in terms of violence. There are so many areas the election can be faulted, but these are the unique things that happened during the elections.
But some have argued that the election is generally credible, especially with the ruling party losing some states to the major opposition PDP?
Out of the 36 states, if any party is able to win five states that should not be an excuse for the people, who organised the election to allow violence to be perpetrated all over the country or for people to employ the military to rig the election, as we saw in Rivers and some other places where soldiers were present in the collation centres and were involved in snatching ballot boxes and interfering in the process of the election. The military should not be in the vicinity of elections.
Looking at the future, what will be your suggestions for the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, and other stakeholders on how to have more credible electoral process?
INEC chairman is appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari and I hope officials of INEC will ensure that future elections under their control will be more credible, better organised and conducted than the last election. But there is no gainsaying that in many cases, INEC officials were compromised in favour of the party in power.
But some have also argued that the penchant of our politicians to win all costs or what some call the ‘do-or-die’ attitude of Nigerian politicians was at the root of most of the problems we are having conducting credible elections in the country?
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The reason for the do-or-die attitude on the part of the politicians is because politics is now a source of livelihood and people, who have made money one way or another have the tendency to now invest that money to win elections. Now politics in Nigeria has not only destroyed itself, but it has gone on to destroy businesses and other professional endeavours, because you will find that the people who are in politics have now made money to become wealthy businessmen, company chairmen, contractors and so on.
The way out is to get it right in the way we conduct the elections. If your election is credible, it will correct the polity as it has happened in other countries. If your election is not monetised, the right kind of people will be able to come out and contest. But when you monetise the electoral process, no matter how competent, credible, popular a person is, if he doesn’t have the money or he is not willing to spend money, he cannot get elected.
But once you correct the polity, the election is made free, fair and credible, that people can contest elections on their own merit, not because of the money they are going to make, you will discourage people, who want to be in politics just to be in positions of influence in which they can make money.
And we can do it because other countries in worse positions than us were able to use democracy, use credible elections to correct their situations for the better. You can easily cite as examples: Brazil, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and the rest of them. So, the way to get out of this debacle is to ensure that votes matter.
I don’t know whether you supported Buhari or Atiku during the election…
I have never supported Buhari. I am not convinced of the picture of him being presented to the public – that he is a credible person, that he is an honest person.
So, you don’t believe that the President is a man of integrity like many of his supporters are saying?
I don’t believe it and I have said it many times before. The question of belief is like religion, you believe in Christianity, I believe in Islam – these are our beliefs; nobody should quarrel with it. My belief is that all the attributes given to Buhari are not correct. I don’t believe that he has integrity. And I will tell you why – in Nigeria or anywhere else, where the military is given weapon by the state and it turned the weapon against the state to take over power for itself, any person that led such a process, in my opinion cannot be termed a credible person.
The president has been re-elected now, what will be your advice to him on his second tenure?
Don’t say ‘he won the election’; he is said to have won the election. We don’t know what will happen in court, but he is still in power.
Okay, but pending the outcome of the challenge of his victory by the PDP presidential candidate, what will be you advise to him on how to tackle the problems confronting the country?
During the elections, political parties present their programmes as a manifesto of what they are going to do for the people. I can ask you in the name of Almighty God, what manifesto did the APC present to Nigerians before the elections? On which programme was APC elected into office in the last election? What did they promise to do for Nigerians?
They talked about intensifying the war against corruption, investment in agriculture…
They have been saying that all along
They also talked about what they will do in agriculture, revival of the economy…
Even, if they have talked about agriculture, what have they done? We have well over 20 dams across Nigeria. What have they done in terms of irrigation farming? The quickest way to empower farmers is through irrigation farming. If you use rain water for farming, you can only do one crop in a year.
But If you are on irrigation farming, you cand do three crops in a year. It happened in Kano where I served as the Commissioner For Finance under Audu Bako and it can also happen anywhere. So, the moment you make a farmer to be able to grow three crops in a year instead of one, you are automatically empowering him and you are opening big opportunity for other Nigerians to go into farming, so that they can take care of themselves. What has the government done in terms of farming, particularly, irrigation farming that will empower ordinary farmers to earn three times of what he is earning before?
What about the Buhari government’s fight against corruption?
Since 2015 when Buhari came in, I only know two people who have been convicted on account of corruption – former governor of Plateau State, Joshua Dariye, and former Governor of Taraba State, Jolly Nyame. But their cases started under Obasanjo. How many high profile cases of corruption have been initiated and concluded since 2015?
The most pressing problem Nigeria seems to be having now is the question of insecurity – killings going on in different parts of the country. You have the attacks by bandits in Sokoto, the entire North West, Middle Belt and kidnappings all over the country. What do you think is responsible for this and how do you the Buhari government can tackle the insecurity problems?
I was telling somebody before I came back from Kano some days ago that we should be worried. We, in Kano, because these kidnappings and armed robbery are going on in Kebbi State, Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna and now, everybody is afraid of travelling from Kaduna to Abuja except by the train and there is now congestion of passengers at the railways because of the fear of kidnappers and robbers. People would prefer to leave their cars here and join the train to Kaduna.
I was reading yesterday that even, there was racketeering in the sale of tickets. Security is the first priority of any government in the world. Once a government cannot guarantee that, the government is failing. By the time Buhari came, the only area where security was prevalent is the North-east and even in the North-east, there were three states-Borno, Yobe and Adamawa-involved. Now, it is all over the country. Insecurity now is a national problem. So, I told somebody that we should be jittery because we are being encircled.
If something will start from Kebbi, coming round to Katsina, jumping to Kaduna, it will not be long before Kano is targeted. And you see it also in Benue, Kogi, Kwara and even in Niger. Now, the thing is spreading- kidnapping is taking place in the South – South-east, South-west, South-south. The government is not able to provide security for the citizens. So, the government has failed woefully. If the government in any country cannot provide security for its people, that government is not doing its job. Now, the reason for the insecurity is poverty. What brings about poverty is unemployment.
When this government came to power, they promised to give a number of graduates employment, but they did not create enabling environment to provide jobs for graduates and non-graduates in the country. If people don’t have the means of taking care of their families, sooner or later, they will begin to think of the extra judicial method of getting resources to take care of their needs and the needs of their families. So, poverty and unemployment are driving people into these crimes and unless these evils are effectively tackled by the government, they will continue to spread and there will be no place in Nigeria where people will feel safe and be able to sleep with their eyes closed.
The easiest way to create employment is to engage people in agriculture and provide power to create enabling environment for industries, particularly the small, medium scale industries, which in the United States of America today are the main providers of jobs and the driving force of the American economy. We do nothing here. Before Buhari came, we were getting an average of 10 to 12 hours of power supply per day. Some get up to 18 hours. Today, you don’t get up five hours of electricity in some parts of this country. Sometimes, you will stay three days without getting electricity – It is happening here in Abuja, it is happening everywhere.
There are places where they stay for one week without electricity in this country. And if you don’t have a plan, you cannot solve any problem. The government has no plan and I challenge anybody to come out and say this is the plan. When you are making a plan, you are targeting a period – you will say in the first year, I will be able to achieve ABCD. In my second year, this is what I am going to achieve in my second, third year.
And people will see and be able to judge if you are able to achieve them. We don’t have anything like that in this country. They will tell you that they are handling the problems of the country, but they are doing nothing. Leadership requires essentially five ingredients. One is capacity, two is competence, three is vision, four is a plan, and five is integrity. Any leader that is wanting in these five critical areas cannot deliver.
In which of these five areas would you say Buhari is lacking?
All of them – tell me which one he is not lacking in – tell me his capacity, competence, vision for Nigeria now that he is back in power and what he is going to leave as a legacy. He ruled Nigeria before for two years, he didn’t leave any legacy. He has now ruled for four years, making six years, no single legacy. When Jonathan was the President of Nigeria, there were so many things he did for Nigerians, but I can easily tell you three.
This railway he is talking about – the Kaduna – Abuja railway was initiated by Jonathan. Kano to Lagos and Port Harcourt railway was initiated by Jonathan. Jonathan built 12 brand new federal universities and allocated nine to Northern Nigeria because of our backwardness in education. Jonathan is not a northerner, but he realised that about 11 million Almajiris in Kano are roaming about the streets and he decided to initiate a project of the Almajiri schools in the North.
The intention is to integrate Quranic education with Western education in the same system, so that all these millions of young men who are roaming about will gradually be equipped with Western education and they will be available for employment in the long run. These are the three of his legacies – there were so many others. And whether you like Jonathan or not, he has achieved all these.
Yar’Adua before him appointed Justice Uwais Committee to address the question of electoral malpractice in Nigeria. At least, you would say that Yar’Adua has a programme for tackling the issue of election malpractice in Nigeria, attempting to make the votes count in Nigeria. There are other legacies – his seven point agenda to tackle the problems of agriculture, unemployment and so on. I know of a plan to transform agriculture that will provide three times the amount of revenue Nigeria is getting from oil through agriculture.
It was adopted under seven-point agenda of Yar’Adua, but the day he died, he died with the plan, nobody picked it up. So, which programme that is brand new, apart from the one inherited has the Buhari government introduced?
But government says rice is now being produced in large quantity locally as a result of its agricultural programmes and policies?
After four years? There is nothing the government can do this year because this budget was prepared by the government last year. You cannot execute any project without budgeting for it. So, the budget now is not for this year. It is next year that all the projects in the budget for this year will be implemented whether anybody likes it or not.
Now, in the third year, they will conceive their new programmes and before the budget for the new programmes is passed, the fourth year is here and the fourth year is always an election year. Nobody can implement any budget in the election year.
Talking about elections, people are already talking about the 2023 elections, though the people elected in the just-concluded elections have not been sworn in. One of the issues being discussed is the issue of zoning. Some are saying that the presidency should rotate to the southern part of the country in 2023, while some have said it can be retained in the North. You were part of similar campaign of zoning ahead of the 2011 presidential election. Where do you stand on this issue now?
I did not embrace the idea of zoning by accident. I was a member of National Party of Nigeria, NPN in the Second Republic. Zoning and rotation of power were cardinal principles in NPN. And the origin of zoning and rotation in NPN to ensure that minorities in the North and the South are given the opportunity of also producing the President, so that anybody in the country will be able to one day become the President from his own side of the country.
Why did NPN decide to do that? It was after examining the political equation in Nigeria. They found that the two bigger tribes, Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba or Hausa/Fulani and Igbo can join forces and be dominating the politics continuously. We started with a president that comes from the North, vice president from the South-east, Senate president from the South-south or the Eastern minority and Speaker to come from the Northern minority.
But then, NPN was not able to get the majority in the National Assembly, so the party was forced to enter into accord with NPP. So, because of that, the party conceded the position of the Speaker to NPP. And NPP ultimately recommended the Speaker of the House of Representatives. But if you look at it, the way the positions were distributed, every part of the country was given a sense of belonging. The founding fathers of NPN regarded the issue of rotation and zoning as an article of faith, so that every section of the country will be able to produce the president of Nigeria and will be given sense of belonging.
So, are you in support of the argument that the presidency should rotate to the South in 2023, because some political leaders, including members of APC are saying that it is not compulsory?
With the current arrangement in APC, if Buhari is able to complete his term, the tradition in Nigeria is that the area where the vice president comes from should be able to field the next presidential candidate. So, in APC, the area that should provide the presidential candidate after Buhari should be the South-west. Without the votes from the South-west, Buhari could not have won the first election in 2015 or even, maybe the second election.
So, APC cannot afford to ignore the South-west in the future political dispensation in this country. Now, in Nigeria, there are two, out of the six geopolitical zones that have never produced the president in Nigeria. The two zones are the North-east and the South-east. If the people of South-east will seek for allies in the North, they will be able to produce a president in 2023. I’m sure that Northerners, after the coming dispensation will support them to produce a presidential candidate in their party.
Is that PDP?
Well, in the PDP, if Buhari did not complete his term and Atiku took over, then, the North-east would have taken its own turn.
Atiku was saying he will do only one term if he was elected…
That is not the basis of the discussion. The basis of the discussion is that if he is able to get the Presidency through the court and Buhari is not able to complete his term, the Northeast is out of the zones that have never produced the president. So, it will remain the South-east. And South-east will team up with the people in the North to be able to produce the President because the South-south is prepared to support anybody. But that will be in 2027? Any time from now.
But some are saying power should remain in the North in 2023. Why do you think the zoning and rotation arrangement is important for the country and why should the presidency rotate to the Southern part of the country in the next dispensation?
Every section of the country should be allowed to have a sense of belonging and until it goes round. When Abacha was the military Head of State, his 1995 Constitution provided for zoning, but when the document was presented to Abacha, he could only see four positions that could go round, so he said, ‘but we have six political zones, what about the other two?’ The four were the positions of the president, vice president, the Senate president and the speaker.
And Abacha, in his own wisdom, decided to create the position of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to make up for the two that were not included in the zoning arrangement. And he made it part of the constitution that they will only be entitled to one term of six years, so he calculated that in 30 years, every geopolitical zones would have been able to produce the president.
So, zoning is important for the unity of the country. If we want the country to be united, everybody must be given sense of belonging that is a Nigerian, that he can aspire to any position in the country and that will make him commit himself to the country. The Biafra people are doing what they are doing because the South-east has not produced the president. Once the South-east is able to produce the president of Nigeria, the thing would have gone full circle.
The agitation for the restructuring of the country is still on, but it seems you are not in support of the clamour?
I am not against restructuring, but I want to know what it is. When Buhari was contesting in 2015, he came with the slogan of change. Everybody in Nigeria accepted. So, Buhari was supported on the basis of change, but nobody bothered to ask the question, ‘what type of change?’ So, what I am now asking is, what is the blueprint for restructuring Nigeria?
What would Nigeria look like when it is restructured? I am not doing it for myself. I’m now 93 and whether I like it or not, I have very little to aspire for – nobody will think of appointing anybody who is 93 years old for a ministerial position. I cannot contest elections. I don’t have money, even if I have money, I would rather leave it to my children. I have 19 children and my 19 children have gotten 61 children, so I have 61 grandchildren today.
So, apart from myself, what would restructuring mean for my children, grandchildren and the children and grandchildren of other Nigerians. So, it is those who are advocating for restructuring that have the responsibility of coming up with a blueprint that will explain that when Nigeria is restructured, this is how it is going to take care of the Yoruba, the Igbo, the minorities in the South and the North, the people in the North-east and the North-west. So, everybody will know that when Nigeria is restructured, this is what is going to happen. We shouldn’t leave people guessing.