Like Abacha days, Nigeria is on the edge of a precipice – Dan Suleiman
The first Military Governor of Plateau State and a leader of the defunct National Democratic Coalition, Air Commodore Dan Suleiman (retd.), speaks to HINDI LIVINUS on the 2019 elections and herdsmen attacks, among sundry issues
What role are you currently playing in the national polity?
The role I have been playing in the national polity is bring the Middle Belt Forum back to life, especially since the demise of our former president, (in the region) Bala Takaya. I am also actively involved in the meeting of the Nigerian Elders Forum, as a representative of the Middle Belt, of which I am the leader. We just concluded one of those meetings at Sheraton Hotels, Abuja, attended by (Chief Ayo) Adebanjo as the South-West leader; Edwin Clark as the leader of the South-South, and John Nwodo as the leader of the South-East. These are the meetings I have been involved in until very recently when the Arewa Consultative Forum joined with Ango Abdullahi as its leader. Some may even have asked why we are not taking a deserved rest even at our ages but still pushing for a better Nigeria. Unless you are coming from the moon, you should know that all is not well with Nigeria. It would be irresponsible for any of us now to say we are retiring and forgetting about the issues of Nigeria. If we do so, what are we handing over to the younger generation? A chaotic nation or a failed nation, which is the situation we are apparently in now. Edwin Clark is close to 92 years. Adebanjo is over 91. Ango Abdullahi is about 80. I’m 76 years old and probably a little bit older than the current president. We should be resting, if all is well with Nigeria. But all is not well with the country. Our concern is to ensure that the right people run the affairs of this country.
What did you identify to be at the root of this dysfunction?
I don’t want to be critical because I am a member of a political party now in the opposition; so, I don’t want to sound like an opposition leader, though I am in a way. Nothing is working in the nation now. There are the problems of herdsmen. Boko Haram is not receding; it is instead, escalating. If allowed to continue, it will ruin the nation’s economy because farmers cannot farm. People cannot carry out ordinary commerce because the roads are not safe. Nowhere is safe for Nigerians. The economy is in decline; all these factors are facing us starkly and Nigerians are divided along various fault lines — religious, tribal and so on. It is not a situation where anybody will be happy to live in. We have had better days in Nigeria before but these are worse times.
Do you think the efforts of your group would make any impact especially with the thinking of the younger generation that seems to be in contradiction to yours?
I and other statesmen are worried because we should be resting and not be making our current undertakings. At some times, some people were even asking why we were quiet. There’s this saying that when things are bad, good people should not keep quiet; if we kept quiet, it would mean we were encouraging the bad situation to get worse. We don’t want to be complicit in dividing Nigeria. We want to hand over a better Nigeria to the younger generation. Even now that we are back to the field, we are grooming younger people. We are not doing it alone because there are younger people with us who are learning from us. Hopefully, we will hand over a better Nigeria to those who have the zest and mindset of improving the current situation we have on our hands. We pray to God to bring changes but God always uses people. We are convinced that God has a better plan for this country of ours. He needs people who are willing to make changes and to present themselves.
Why have you not contested any elective office since you helped usher in the democratic era through NADECO?
What office do you want me to contest? Do you know that President Muhammadu Buhari is my age-mate and people are saying he’s already too old (laughter). Is the presidency a position for old people? Since the emergence of this democratic dispensation, people have been complaining that the polity has been dominated by military people. So, what that means is that some of us have to step behind and not all of us have to come forward. I was happy that I took a part in ensuring that democracy was brought back as a form of government in the country. In the era of (the late) Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria was also on the precipice of collapse. The country was virtually being destroyed and we (NADECO) ensured a return to democratic rule and normalcy was restored. I’m a believer in the view that once there’s music, if you have climbed the stage and danced, you should leave the stage for others also to come up and show their own abilities.
Are you impressed with the nation’s performance since its return to democratic rule from 1999?
If I was I impressed, I and others wouldn’t be back on the field trying to correct situations. No, I’m not impressed at all. Nigeria is not heading in the direction we hoped it would go. There’s too much division in the land along tribal lines, religious divides and economic inequalities. There’s so much injustice in the land. All these are not elements that would please anybody that has democratic beliefs in his heart. We were hoping that if democracy was practised the way it should be, there should be equal opportunities and elections should not be a do-or-die affair. Right now, election is virtually a do-or-die affair. Either that or it is highly monetised, which has brought so much corruption. This is an aberration of the norms of democracy.
What are those things that you think need to be done now?
We need to encourage the younger generation who are sincere and well-equipped to run the affairs of the nation. These young people must also have integrity and the nation at heart. One of the things that had plagued our democracy in the last 16 years is corruption. Nigeria today is also at the lowest rung of the economic index. Even the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, echoed that in her recent visit. This is very sad indeed for the nation.
As a Board of Trustees member of the Peoples Democratic Party, do you think the party can bring about the Nigeria of your dream?
Yes, but certain things have to be done. The PDP had failed; that was why it was removed in 2015. There are some elements which caused the party to lose elections. Those elements must be removed. However, I’m hopeful now that the party can do that as it has started imbibing those values. The party has started imbibing the values of integrity of elections, integrity of leadership, free and fair elections, free and fair primaries and refraining from impunity and imposition of candidates. The PDP is definitely better placed now, having learnt from its mistakes of the past to lead the nation to a better place.
Why do you think that the All Progressives Congress misused the opportunity given to it by Nigerians to bring about change?
The APC handed back the opportunity to the PDP. The same thing that happened to the PDP that caused it to lose power is now happening to the APC. In spite of the errors of the PDP, the developments that have taken place since 1999 can be attributed to the PDP. The issue of corruption, which dogged the PDP and caused it to fail, is today very fierce under the APC. Besides, all the projects being inaugurated by the APC were started by the PDP. The PDP grew the Nigerian economy, making it the fastest growing economy and the largest by GDP growth in Africa. All this happened under the PDP, but today those economic potential have suffered a reversal of fortunes under the APC. Therefore, the PDP looks better placed to take Nigeria to where it ought to be as long as we put our house in order.
What is your take on the registration of new political parties, bringing the total number of political parties to 91?
It is in fact crazy. It is crazy to have 91 political parties. Very soon, every local government in the country will have a political party. Is that not rubbish? The best time we had a stable polity in Nigeria was when we had two political parties, the National Republican Convention and the Social Democratic Party, which produced ‘June 12’. If we had maintained that, or reverted to that, maybe Nigeria would be more stable. Having 91 political parties is a crazy situation. Most of the civilised nations do not have more than two dominant political parties; there may be smaller ones but the major political parties are usually two. In the United States, you have the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. In the United Kingdom, you have the Labour Party and Conservative, but then there are smaller parties like the Green Party and what have you. But in Nigeria, from two parties in the 90s, now we have 91 political parties. This is crazy.
Do you think that the coalition against the APC by the PDP and others would work?
I told you, it is a reverse situation, which has brought the current political scenario into play. Before the 2015 elections, the APC was a coalition of parties that came together to oust the PDP. The same scenario is presenting itself now; people who are fed up with the current situation in the country agree that only a coalition of parties will take away power from the APC and change the situation. This is where we are. History is repeating itself within five years, but we pray that this is the last time this kind of thing will happen. We have to get it right so that whatever comes out must endure. It is also hoped that the coalition will be able to give us a two-party system, depending on the success of the coalition. But for it to be sustained, people must join political parties because of ideology and not out of their own selfish pursuit.
Are you confident that the current meeting of Middle Belt and southern leaders will achieve its objective, especially its main push for restructuring?
It is already being achieved. The movement started with Middle Belt and southern leaders calling for restructuring, but the meeting now has people of the far North who didn’t believe in restructuring before. Restructuring is now a national issue; it is no longer an agitation by the Middle Belt and its brothers from the South. It is the entire nation that is involved. Even people who never believed in it are now talking of restructuring.
The ACF, through its chairman, Ango Abdullahi, chaired the meeting. Abdullahi, you know, is a prominent member of the ACF. It shows you that the issue of restructuring, which was considered to be a southern agenda, has now caught on to be a national agenda. People, who are on the other divide (ACF), now agree with us that restructuring is the way to restore stability in Nigeria. That augurs well because, in the past, we were talking from different sides of the divide. Now, we are talking from the same platform.
Is the ACF making any demands or seeking any concessions on restructuring?
The demands they are making are that we work together as one group and to ensure that the leadership in the country next year is a leadership that would ensure that there’s peace and stability in Nigeria because the problem of poverty has no barrier. A hungry man in Sokoto is the same as a hungry man in Delta. The issues that are confronting Nigeria are common to us. You talk of insecurity; it is all over Nigeria. The killings that we thought were localised to the Middle Belt are now affecting people in Zamfara, Kebbi and other states in the federation, making it a national disaster. So, their presence is also to help find solutions to the problems.
The leaders of the Middle Belt and their counterparts from the South demanded the resignation of the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission but the man is still there. What’s your reaction to this?
Yes, we demanded the removal of the INEC chairman or his resignation because of certain factors. We are also worried by his continued stay in that office. You can see that in the outcome of recent bye-elections conducted in certain parts of the country have justified our calls for his sacking. In Ekiti State, for instance, we heard that elections were done for the first time with so much vote buying in the open. Perhaps this is a foretaste of things to come in 2019; then we are in a bind. That’s why the INEC chairman ought to be changed. Our call has been justified by events. Unless the INEC chairman is changed, we have no confidence that the 2019 general elections will be credible.
What are the changes that need to be made to restore confidence in the conduct of the 2019 elections and make it credible?
The revised Electoral Act should be passed without delay. Without it, we cannot guarantee the conduct of free and fair elections in the next polls. The Ekiti State election, for instance, was dogged by open vote buying in the presence of security personnel. Those are some of the fears. The other has to do with the number of security personnel deployed in the conduct of the elections in one state. The electoral bill (amendments) has to be passed; the security situation has to be reviewed to make sure that a proper security arrangement is adopted that will give all parties confidence that their votes will count.
As a retired general, what do you think should be done to tackle farmers/herders clashes in the country?
Insecurity is a very serious matter. I’m a retired general, but how many retired generals do we have in Nigeria who are being consulted? Even as retired military generals, we have our association. We have not been consulted. If we have been consulted, perhaps we might have good suggestions. Most of us served in a time when there was no issue of insecurity in Nigeria. A responsible government would have called us to ask how we did it in the 70s, 80s and 90s and ensured we had a stable and secure country. Of course, there are people who served in those eras who would have given good proposals of what could be done to reshape the security apparatus that will ensure peace and security. But that is not being done. You remember, General TY Danjuma is a retired senior military officer. Was the speech he made in Jalingo received well? Instead, he was vilified. Those are the kind of reactions that we get when we, as retired generals, speak out against insecurity. One would have expected the Presidency to take keen interest in the statements made by Danjuma, given his reputation and stature, and not vilify him.
Is the insecurity bedevilling the country a conspiracy?
I have told you of herdsmen going into people’s farms to destroy their crops. Why should this be? Why should the farmers be afraid to approach security men if all is well with the military and security set up? If anybody offends you, under the rule of law, the only person you are to go to is the police. The duty of the police is to ensure redress but people can no longer go to the security agencies because they cannot get redress.
Is this why there’s a call for restructuring?
It is. Even when you meet some of the governors that are affected; meet the governor of Taraba, for instance, or the governor of Benue, whose states have been affected by the direct attacks of these herdsmen, they will tell you straight away that if they had a security outfit of their own, they wouldn’t be faced with insecurity because they would know how to deploy them to solve the situation. They are not in control of the security apparatus of their states but they are being called the chief security officers of their states.
Do you think the creation of cattle colonies would help to address the issue?
Why don’t you go and call back the British to come and recolonise you? Why do you want the Fulani herdsmen to re-colonise you? On a serious note, even the name being chosen to address the problem doesn’t sound right. Look across the world, people are adopting proper practices which we have seen even here in some parts of Africa. Ranching has worked in addressing these problems. So, my advice is, let’s look at the things which have worked for other people and adopt them. If it has worked for them, it will also work for us. Once you begin to bring issues of cattle colony, you introduce a matter that will raise an eyebrow.