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Real truth about violent herdsmen –Shehu Sani, pro-democracy, rights activist, politician

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Senator Shehu Sani is a human rights and pro-democracy activist. Sani, who is the President of Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, represented Kaduna Central Senatorial District in the National Assembly from 2015 to 2019. He spoke to Akani Alaka on the ongoing screening of ministerial nominees by the Senate, the clashes between the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and the police, attempts to end banditry in the North-west through negotiations, controversies over establishment of ranches and others issues.


Let’s start with the issue that is grabbing the attention of all Nigerians at the moment. The president just released the list of his ministerial nominees and those nominated are being screened by the Senate now. But would you say the list is worth our wait, going by the names contained in the ministerial list?

In view of the experience we have had as a nation since 2015, I think if we have to hold the president responsible for his actions and conduct of his appointees, irrespective of our reservations, we must respect his decisions and also hold him responsible whether those he appointed are capable or not. Since he insisted that these are the people he knows and he said those people he appointed in 2015, he didn’t know many of them, we should give him the benefit of doubt to work with the people he knows.

As an executive president, he has the constitutional right and privilege to appoint whoever he wants to appoint. And if they succeed, it is him and if they fail, it is him. We have in the past seen how governors send in their cronies for political appointments and I think if the president had, by this ministerial appointment, broken away from that tradition, it is a way forward.

Do you think the president really broke away from the tradition of governors or people nominating their preferred candidates for ministerial appointments…

Well, for saying that in the last tenure, he didn’t know the ministers he appointed, but he knows these new ones he nominated, he has made a public pronouncement that these are the people he appointed without anybody, recommending them.

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But people were pointing out, for instance, that the ministerial nominees from the South-west are people that can be regarded as the ‘boys’ of the national leader of APC, Bola Tinubu, who also nominated them for appointment?

In every respect, if the Tinubu boys succeed, it will be about Buhari; if they fail, it will be about Buhari. So, if they are Tinubu boys and they fail, Buhari cannot hold anybody responsible. Nigerians have more influence on the people to be elected into office, not on people that the president will appoint into his cabinet. And those are some of the weaknesses we have in a presidential system of government. But in a parliamentary system, you cannot be a minister without being elected. So, the president can decide to appoint anybody he wants to appoint and if they fail, it is all about him.

As a Senator, you also took part in the kind of exercise, going on at the Senate now. One of the complaints then was that you didn’t even know what you were screening each of the ministerial nominees for since their portfolios were not attached. We have the same situation now. To what extent would you say this will affect the screening process and the ability of the Senators to do a good job?

I know that if a ministerial nominee has no portfolio attached, you, as a senator will simply be asking him general questions. You may end up asking a minister of arts and culture about science and technology; you may end up asking the minister of women affairs about nuclear science or the minister of environment about works and infrastructure or the minister of works about computer and technology.

So, when you don’t have a portfolio attached to a nominee, all what you are just doing amount to what is called beating about the bush. It is only when the portfolios are attached that you will be able to ask questions that are relevant and the competence or otherwise of the nominees will also be made public.

We have in recent times seen protests by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Shi’ites, which have snowballed into violent clashes with the police and the military and deaths. Some people have argued that the protests may snowball into an insurgency, like the Boko Haram terrorism we are currently contending with. Do you share such fear?

If we are very good student of history, we will handle the Shi’ite issue with caution. It is contradiction for government to want to talk to Boko Haram, a terrorist organisation, and they don’t want to talk to the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. Lest we forget, it is now 10 years since the insurgency in the North-east began and we are still unable to extinguish that fire.

So, it will be wrong of us to ignite another. The security and the defence mechanism of Nigeria have been stretched; we cannot afford to have violence. The clashes between Shi’ites are needless. It is something that ought not to have happened. But since it has reached this point, we must find a solution to it.

What are the solutions to the crises?

First, the Sultan of Sokoto and the Jama’atu Nasril Islam, JNI, should play a mediatory role. Secondly, El-Zakzaky should be released based on the existing court order and the Sultan and then JNI should provide guarantees and allay the fears of government. Thirdly, the Islamic Movement must stop all protests – whether peaceful or otherwise.

And fourthly, the government should compensate the victims of these casualties and all those who lost their lives since this crisis began. Fifthly, the Islamic Movement should severe their alleged relationship with any foreign government and domesticate within the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The solutions you have preferred now involve the intervention of the Sultan and the JNI. Many see the ongoing crises as a clash between the Shia Muslims, which the Islamic Movement belongs to and the Sunni Muslims, which the Sultan and JNI belong to. So, how feasible is the call on the Sultan and the JNI to play this mediatory role and do you really think the IMN can severe their relationship with Iran, a country believed to be the major financier of their activities?

These are all issues that should be put on the table for the solutions to be found.  If you are amenable to sitting down with the terrorists in the North-east, who have killed thousands of people, why should sitting down with the Shi’ites be difficult? After all, the most heinous crime you can commit is to kill people, but even the government has come out to say that we are negotiating –  is it with sportsmen and women? No, it is not, you want to negotiate with terrorists.

Or are you saying that the group has to up their activities to a violent level before they become qualified to be called for negotiation? I think we should understand that we have not been able to even defeat banditry. Even yesterday, some people were kidnapped in my place. On Monday, in Birnin Gwari Local Government, two Air Force officers were killed by bandits. So, we have reached a point today that our aim should be not to ignite a new front of violence, but to bring an end to the existing ones.

But do you think the Sultan, who is also the leader of the JNI, would be willing to intervene in the crisis of government with the Shi’ites, given the Sunni/Shia divide?

Well, it is very easy – if you have a law in the country, you obey the law. The Constitution of Nigeria did not say that you should violate human rights of people because of your own perception of national security. I have said repeatedly that people in power should lay good example, respecting the law of the land and respecting fundamental human rights of people because when they are out of power, that is their only protection as citizens.

If you think you are in power now, you can arrest anybody, jail anybody, you should know that you are not going to be there forever. The time will come when you will be out of that place and some other person is going to be there. And the only shield between you and that person is the law, provisions of the fundamental human rights and the courts of law.

You’ve made allusions to the issue of banditry. The Government of Zamfara has been negotiating with some of the commanders of these bandits, as a way of ending their criminal activities across the state. Do you think through such negotiations, the bandits can be convinced to end their criminal activities?

The people of Zamfara have suffered so much that anything that will bring an end to the violence is what they are after, even if it involves negotiation with the bandits. But like I advised the new governor, who is in a hurry to bring about change and the people, who are also in hurry to see that change in the security and the other sectors, he should shake the hands of those bandits with very thick gloves because bandits are bandits.

They are not driven by any ideology or philosophy; they are simply criminals, who pick up arms to kill, to maim, to raze down villages and to pillage. And when you have people with such criminal tendencies, psyche and agenda, it is a different ball game from an insurgency. Insurgency is driven by certain idea, no matter how weird or extreme it is. So, you can say these are the grievances of these people. But bandits have no grievances other than they simply want to kill and loot.

So, how viable is this negotiation option as a way of ending banditry because it seemed the president has also endorsed it, going by the statement issued by the Presidency after the recent killings by bandits in Sokoto in which the president advised other governors to follow the footsteps of Zamfara?

That was because everything that has been tried in the past has failed. Now, they are trying the option of talking to bandits and it is symbolic of the failing state of this nation – if with our military establishments, the security agencies, the billions, which we pumped into security and defence mechanisms, we were unable to end banditry in our country and we have now got to a point of sitting down and taking coffee with them. It shows the failure of the nation.

I believe that the way out is to explore the technology option to address all these issues. Our approach to ending such violence has always been how we can put soldiers on the road to open car boots and police to flash torchlight on faces or using aeroplane to bomb targets, which is too expensive. There is nothing wrong in using aeroplanes in attacking places where you are sure there are groups of insurgents. But these criminals – if they are five, six, 10, how do you see them before even using jets to bomb them?

But if we use technology, we will be able to see them. We need a special military security and technology command where drones and satellite navigation equipment, interceptors and all modern technology will be used. That Command should be located in Northern Nigeria, where every move of every criminal can be detected within the space of a second. It is ironic that a country like China, with 1.3 billion people and a land mass that is five to six times our own can secure their country, while we cannot secure our own. It is a failure of the state, failure of the system.

The banditry is spreading to the Southern part of the country and has led to apprehension and cries about attacks by herdsmen and allegations of attempts at Fulanisation…

We need to look at the fact that Nigeria is becoming a hub for West African herdsmen and just like the way extremists were moving to Iraq and Syria for ISIS, herdsmen across West Africa, the very violent ones are moving towards Nigeria because kidnapping for ransom and banditry have become more lucrative than cattle rearing. So, I am very much concerned that if this trend is not checked, infiltration to Southern part of Nigeria will even be on a larger scale than it is now.

So, rather than say ‘Fulanisation’ we can accept the fact that there is nepotism in this government, we can also accept the fact that we failed to take measures to curtail these problems earlier before it became as big as it is now. And this has to do with the fact that those of us who tried to draw the attention of the president from the beginning were considered his enemies. Unfortunately, those considered as the president’s friends were unable to properly advise him. So, they created a wall of lies and only sing his praises and eulogies without actually addressing issues that are of utmost importance to Nigerians.

So, where did you think the president got it wrong to the extent that people now accuse him of failing to act because people involved in the criminal activities are of his ethnic stock?

Because all attempts to bring attention of the president to what was happening in the last four years failed and that is because those who have the privilege to be close to him are telling him that he should ignore the message because of the messenger. And that is where we found ourselves where we are today.

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To solve the problems of farmers/herders’ clashes, people have been talking of Ruga and ranching and this has also resulted in another gale of controversies. Where do you stand on this?

We cannot continue to deceive ourselves that all is well. The truth of the matter is that we have failed in all respects to do all what we needed to do in the past. And that is, if we had predicted the crises of today, and we worked towards solving them, we would not have landed where we are today. We have pilots, even without the navigation equipment, so we just kept on moving, so we ended up in a cyclone and this is where we have found ourselves now.

The Ruga system is a time-bomb. The Federal Government can’t go to a hostile environment and set up Ruga in some people’s land and think those Fulani people will be at peace. The Fulani that are living in the Southern part of Nigeria were not allocated lands by the federal or state governments. It is the mutual relationship between them and the communities there that enables them to live in peace and when it becomes now the issue of the state or federal government building ranches or Ruga and you are now giving them lands by fiat, you are creating a lot of problems.

Secondly, if we are to solve these problems, there are states in the North, Niger State alone, or Sokoto, Kebbi states can provide all the lands that you need for the Ruga system. And cattle is wealth, it is industry if you look at what countries like Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland are making from milk and cheese, it is more than what we are making from oil.

So, if you have a national livestock programme that is attached to industry, no community anywhere will be opposed to it. If you are setting up a milk factory or a tannery and those communities know that the raw materials are from cattle, they are the ones that will give the land to the Fulani herders to come over. So, you just don’t wake up one day and by fiat, want to impose your will on people and think that, that will work.

How would you describe your experience as a Senator, would you like to go back to the Senate if you have the opportunity?

It is quite an experience to move from activism to the centre of politics. In activism, you are guided by principles, ideas or philosophies. But in politics, you are hamstrung by interests, demands and pressures. That is the fundamental difference. I can say I enjoyed my stay in the Senate. But what I have always prayed for when I go into public office is for me to come out of that office with my integrity intact.

So, my views, activism did not change when I was there and I never allowed myself to be consumed by the delusion of office and by the title of a Senator. And that is why some weeks after my exit from the Senate, I am now fully back into my office. And I am here doing what I know best how to do. This office is called African Centre for Freedom, Peace and Development.

It is an intellectual think-tank that will be involved in issues of development and peace. As far as politics is concerned, it has never been a career to me. It is something, which I passed through and I will still go back in the future. But for now, this is what I am engaged in and my hands are full.

What will be your advice to the president on what he should do differently from what he did in his first tenure of office?

My advice to Buhari is that he should know that this is an opportunity for him to write his name in gold or write it in mud. He will not know his friends or his foes until he is out of office. And he should not forget those who fought and stood for him when he was not the president. And he should not allow those who identified with him simply because he is the president to mislead him.

He should know that 80 to 90 per cent of those now singing his praises and beating his drums today will turn their backs after 2023. They are people he will call, but they will never pick his call; they are people he will meet but they will never speak to him; they are people he will like to shake their hands, but they will never give him their hands to shake.

And his enemies are not those who are very far way, sending their views and opinions about him or criticising him. Some people tell him that they are his enemies of today. But his enemies of tomorrow are those with whom he wining and dining today.