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DEMYSTIFIED: Why Presidency rebuffed Ango Abdullahi’s Northern Elders’ Forum

The response of the Presidency to Sunday’s press conference of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) indicates increasing lack of regard and respect for such groups, writes Akani Alaka  

Since he left office as the Vice Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University in 1986, Professor Ango Abdullahi has successfully set himself up as the authority and the ‘go-to man’ on any issue related to the northern part of the country.

His expansive farm, located along Kaduna-Kano Highway in Zaria is constantly a bee-hive of political activities, as the former university don plays host to people of variegated political interests, who believe that he has a compass capable of helping them chart the path to their desired political destination. As the convener of the self-declared Northern Elders’ Forum, NEF, Abdullahi is constantly sought after by the media to give his opinion on the ‘thinking of the North’ as nationhood controversies of different hues come up in the restive Nigeria’s political firmament.

NEF itself, as it did on Sunday, constantly organises press conferences or issues statements purported to be the standing or reaction of the North to any burning political, economic and social issues at any point in time.  In its Sunday press conference held in Kaduna, for instance, the NEF had rolled out the criteria the people of Northern Nigeria would consider in deciding the presidential candidate to support in the next general election coming up in 2023.

“We want to make it clear that people of the North will be very careful in committing to persons seeking their support on the basis of their region or wealth. The North knows its interest and will stand together to elect only persons who meet the standards and interests of the people of the North,” Abdullahi, whose statement was read by the Forum’s Director, Advocacy and Engagements, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed said, while warning that “the forum has observed that political maneuvers around the 2023 elections are targeting the North as a region available for exploitation.”

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Before now, Abdullahi had been a prominent voice in the debate on where the next President of Nigeria should come from, which began soon after the 2019 general election. Therefore, his or NEF’s intervention in the brewing controversies over the next Nigeria’s leader, even when the incumbent has not spent up to a year of his four years second term in office may not be considered strange.

Clash With Presidency

However, it was Abdullahi group’s rating of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari in terms of the problems of insecurity and growing poverty in the country that drew the ire of the Presidency.  “The forum regrets that by any standard of judgment, the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari has failed the nation in the vital area of improving its security. Poverty, particularly in the North, and massive social security have worsened under this administration. The relationship between insecurity and poverty is fundamental, but the administration does not appear to have any idea on what will provide relief or solution,” NEF said in its statement while recalling that it had warned Nigerians that the President Buhari lacked the will, the competence and commitment to lead the country into a secure and prosperous future before the 2019 elections.

Worse still, NEF noted that the president had failed to heed the calls by Nigerians that a new resolve, approach and leadership is needed to tackle the multiple security challenges confronting the nation. “With this type of mindset, it is difficult to see how President Buhari can accept the challenge to radically improve his handling of our security situation. Nonetheless, we believe that Nigerians must continue to raise our voices and organise through all legitimate means to demand that the administration addresses major failings in his perception of our situation and his response to our demands for our rights to security,” the group noted. 

A General Without Troops

The response from the Presidency was quick and swift. Femi Adesina, the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari in a statement described NEF “as a quasi-organisation that boasts of no credible membership, and its leader akin to a General without troops.

“Prof. Ango Abdullahi on Sunday signed a long-winding statement on many issues relating to the North, and purportedly to the country. The former vice chancellor signed the statement under the banner of Northern Elders Forum (NEF). Hearing that title, you would think the body was a conglomeration of true elders,” Adesina said in the statement. 

“But the truth is that NEF is just Ango Abdullahi, and Ango Abdullahi is NEF. It is a quasi-organisation that boasts of no credible membership, and its leader is akin to a General without troops, the presidential spokesperson said while recalling that “the one-man army called NEF had shown its antipathy against Buhari, and its preference for another presidential candidate who all “got beaten together,” in the 2019 general elections. ”NEF is merely waving a flag that is at half-mast. Buhari steadily and steadfastly focuses on the task of retooling Nigeria, and discerning Nigerians know the true state of the nation. They don’t need a paper tiger to tell them anything,” he added.

No Love Lost

Indeed, like it was noted in the statement by the Presidency, Abdullahi had ahead of the 2019 told journalists in his farm in Zaria that power brokers in the North will not support Buhari’s re-election in the 2019 polls, describing the president’s first four year-tenure a failure.  “They should be prepared to suffer rejection, in the same manner the votes of the North rejected the attempt to continue with impunity, corruption and indifference of the Jonathan administration,”

The NEF Convener was particularly bitter that the President believed he won the 2015 election after three failed attempts without the support of the Northern elite.  “It is unfortunate that most supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari, including the president himself, think that he won the 2015 presidency because of what they described as ‘Buhari Magic.’ If Buhari had any magic at all, how come he could not win the presidency in 2003, 2007 and 2011? For 12 years, he failed to make it to Aso Rock, until we rallied round him and helped him to power in 2015,” queried the former Vice Chancellor.  “I, Prof Ango Abdullahi, stuck out my neck for Buhari’s cause. I was nearly killed for my support for President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. I was attacked in Bauchi and nearly got killed. There were 11 bullet holes in my Jeep,” he said.

Aside from this, he noted that after assuming office, President Buhari ignored the advice of the Northern Elders conveyed to him through the late Maitama Sule: “I and other Northern elders of like minds tried to advise him, but he arrogantly ignored us. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed was the one who took our advisory letter to him. And even after he followed up with another copy of the letter after the President claimed to have forgotten receiving any such letter, we never got any response from him till date.”  The octogenarian had warned then that NEF would not support Buhari’s re-election. 

Dissension in NEF’s Rank

The bottom fell off Abdullahi’s claim to be speaking for the entirety of NEF when some other prominent members of the Forum  distanced themselves from his claims. Key member of the Forum led by the by zonal conveners, Sani Zangon Daura (Danmasanin Daura) and Maj-Gen Paul Tarfa; and director of Logistics, Capt Bashir Sodangi, had disowned claim by Abdullahi that NEF would not support Buhari’s second term as they argued that there was no time members of the group came together to take that decision. 

“For clarity sake, NEF has not met in recent times and adopted a common position on the rejection or acceptance of the reelection bid of President Buhari or any other candidate vying for the office of the President of Nigeria in 2019,” Ameh Ebute, former President of the Senate said in a long treatise while also disassociating himself from Abdullahi’s  claim. 

The former Senate President accused the former VC of violation of the core principles of core mandate, doctrine and operational principles of neutrality and non-partisanship of NEF.  “I wish to remind Prof. Ango Abdullahi that NEF was conceived as an apolitical organization. Therefore, the recent widespread public statement, published in various media, which claimed members of NEF have dumped the 2019 reelection bid of President Buhari, credited to Prof. Ango Abdullahi is extremely in bad faith. It abuses the sacred guiding principles upon which NEF was founded; derived its strength and endorsed by the rest of us,” said Ebute who argued that Buhari as the Nigerian President cannot be appropriated by the Northern part of the country.

“Other Northern elders like me, at both personal and collective level, will keep supporting President Buhari on his redemption mission of Nigeria. We have seen and felt the positive impact of his administration. Where he is lacking, we would rather advise him privately. So, the attempt by Ango to bifurcate NEF with his personal political agenda is unacceptable to the rest of us. Like others, I stand with President Buhari and the excitement of Prof. Ango Abdullahi to mask under NEF will not change it.”

Endorsement Trouble

Despite the disputations about his claims, the former vice chancellor led NEF to a ‘forum of Nigerian leaders and elders’ where he joined others to endorse the candidacy of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party about three weeks to the presidential election.

Others at the Forum called the third edition of the Summit of Nigerian Leaders and Elders with the theme: ‘The Search for Credible, Free and Fair Elections,’ which took place in Abuja include the leader of Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), Chief Edwin Clarke; leader of Afenifere, Chief Ayo Adebanjo; President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Chief John Nwodo; and President of Middle Belt Forum (MBF), Dr. Bitrus Pogu. In a communiqué issued at the end of the summit read by the spokesperson of Afenifere, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, the leaders said they adopted Atiku as the consensus candidate for the office of president “as he has demonstrated the deep understanding of the critical needs of the country at this time and possesses the capacity to proffer clear solutions in that respect.”

They, therefore, asked all Nigerians, irrespective of religious or ethnic background to vote for Atiku in the then impending presidential election and to ensure that they defend their votes. Understandably, Atiku and the PDP were excited by the endorsement.

However, the Presidency described it as a gang up against Buhari which would fail.   “They failed to stop him from coming to power in 2015 and they will fail yet again on February 16. If all these groups are ganging up against one person, that is President Buhari, it tells you who is the formidable candidate in the election. This gang up they forged, one more time will change nothing. It is for the people to decide.”

True to that prediction, the President was able to secure the second term. Sources said glaring partisanship is responsible for the seeming disdain and contemptuous attitude of the Presidency to NEF and indeed, the other groups, which were courted by other administrations before now.

Also, Abdullahi, now the acting chairman of NEF, has never allowed an occasion to pass without criticising the Buhari administration. Speaking to journalists recently, he dismissed Buhari’s anti-graft war, asserting that the prisons would have been filled with corrupt politicians if the President has been fighting corruption as he claimed: “You don’t just pick one case and make it a universal example of fighting corruption. We have just seen the conviction of Orji Uzor Kalu and it is becoming something that the world should know when there are so many people with seventy-something billion (naira) with them. Those people should be in the same prison with Uzor Kalu.”

Selfish Hijacking of Forum

But just as he was accused of selfishly using the platform for self-serving purpose when he said the Forum would not endorse Buhari for the 2019 general election, the inclusiveness of NEF’s Sunday press statement is also being called into question. Former Lagos Police Commission who was also a member of the Forum, Abubakar Tsav said members of the board of trustees of the Forum were not invited to the meeting where the decision to address the press conference was taken. “I am a member of the Board of Trustees of NEF, but for a very long time now, I have not been invited to NEF meetings. The last meeting I attended was when Wantaregh Paul I. Unongu was removed as NEF Chairman. I don’t know if the situation applies to me alone or to all other Board of Trustees members.

“The decision to discredit President Buhari may be one-sided and may not be a unanimous decision of entire NEF membership. All decision-making by NEF should involve all Board of Trustees members. It should be all-inclusive.”

Nevertheless, some Nigerians, including former Senator Shehu Sani believed that the President should accept what NEF said at its press conference as the truth. “Attack on northern elders is allergy to the truth. If Professor Ango Abdullahi is a General without a troop, the ones with troops are unable to save us from the menace of kidnappings and killings,” Sani said in a tweet on Monday.

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Politics At Play

But Dr. Abubakar Umar Kari, a lecturer of Sociology at the University of Abuja said the statement issued by NEF on the Buhari administration should not be a thing of surprise to anybody. “I think the reaction of both sides to me did not come as a surprise. On one hand, some of the elements in NEF, especially Ango Abdullahi, have for so many years now broken ranks with President Buhari and have been very critical of him,” Kyari who is also the institution’s Dean of Student Affairs told The Nigerian Xpress.

“Before and during the 2015 election, he was clearly with Atiku and his opinion has not changed. As far as he is concerned, Buhari has failed, he shouldn’t be in power anymore, he believes that Buhari has not done anything for the North and so on.

“And the person who read the statement – Baba Ahmed – not long after he served as the returning officer of Buhari at the presidential election collation centre parted ways with the President. Some people alleged that it was because he was not given any position.

‘He was actually not given any position and he later followed Saraki as the Senate President. And he was with the Saraki throughout as the Chief of Staff and they were very critical of Buhari. There was also Yahaya Kwande who has been with Atiku. 

Kari, however, said the Presidency should have reacted to the issue raised by the NEF, rather than resorting to abuse of the convener of the Forum. “But then, I believe that the reaction of the Presidency was also not dignifying because they did not address the issues – calling Ango Abdullahi a soldier without troops  is neither here nor there.

“As a Northerner and a Nigerian, I will rather look at the issues and you will see that it is very difficult not to agree with Ango Abdullahi and the NEF. It will be very difficult not to agree on the fact that Buhari has been a disappointment, he has not addressed any problem, most of the promises he has made has largely been unfulfilled. And this is not being partisan, these are facts.

Grandstanding Groups

But he was also critical of groups like NEF, which had over the years assumed the position of speaking for ethnic or religious groups without being elected or even seeking the opinion of the people they claimed to be speaking for.

“It is one of the major tragedy of our politics- their major stock in trade is grandstanding, they have elevated grandstanding into an art, posturing, They are just posturing – whether they are Afenifere, Arewa Consultative Forum, Middle Belt Congress , Arewa Consultative Congress whatever. There is even one character who called himself Shettima in Lagos and for the past 30 years he has been leading a group which is supposed to be made up of northern youths, but I don’t know for how long he is going to remain a youth. Another tragedy is that most of their utterances are inciting and highly divisive, it is not helping anybody, it doesn’t help the government, it doesn’t even help the people they claim to represent, but, of course, they are being patronised,” Kari observed.