Professor Yima Sen, Director General of the Northern Elders’ Forum, Nigeria, speaks on issues relating to the war against insurgency and insecurity in the North, and the topical question of political zoning in Nigeria, in a conversation with Udu Yakubu.
Udu Yakubu: Recently, the Northern Elders’ Forum asked President Muhammadu Buhari to dwell less on politics and pay more attention to security. Could you throw some light on what you think are the issues or distractions that may not be giving the Presidency the desired results in protecting the citizens and the sovereignty of our nation?
Yima Sen: I’m not sure about the distractions. As you know, President Buhari is not your typical Nigerian politician. He made his entry into Nigeria’s public life as a military person; as a no-nonsense military person. He was a military Head of State and it seems that it has been difficult for him to convert into a typical Nigerian politician. So, I doubt very much if the statement by the Northern Elders’ Forum saw politics as a distraction. As would be expected, he is the arrowhead of the security apparatus as Commander-in-Chief and President, and is primarily responsible for protecting lives and property in the country.
I think the Northern Elders’ Forum, and many other concerned persons, have been worried about the degree of insecurity, its continuation despite apparent efforts to tackle it. I think there have been repeated statements from the Northern Elders’ Forum about the President paying attention to insecurity. I don’t know really whether there is a lack of capacity within the whole system, or whether there is a problem of commitment from lieutenants and those who have the responsibility of providing security in Nigeria. There have been talks of a change of the service chiefs, but I will tell you that I’ve personally looked at the service chiefs as part of the system. The service chiefs are at the frontline of the machinery and if you remove them, if you are not sure of the next set of military leaders or security leaders, then you will not achieve anything.
So, I think there seems to be a fundamental issue, and we need to ponder on how or why the security problem has persisted. It was an issue during the regime change exercise in 2015. Many people felt that President Goodluck Jonathan was not doing enough maybe because the security challenges were not from his own part of the country. But in this case, the President is from the North and had his whole career in the military. So, we begin to understand that it is a lot more complex than we had thought. The direction of worry here would be at the level of capacity and commitment to these security challenges.
Udu Yakubu: When you talked about the level of capacity, what exactly do you have in mind? Does this have to do with funding, arms and ammunition of the military, human power in terms of the military strength?
Yima Sen: Well, I don’t think it is funding. As you know, we have had the Sambo Dasuki case, which is still pending, and what that tells us is that there has not quite been a shortage of funds for security work. Certainly, as Head of State, he would know the funding needs of the military. And really, we have seen budgets passed, allocating money for defence and security. Maybe it’s a problem of what happens to those funds, then you can call it a problem of funding.
In terms of capacity, we have been with the military for a long time, and know a bit about soldiers’ work. If we picked on any of the top military commanders, let’s take someone like the late General Victor Malu. If they gave him an assignment to go and crush Boko Haram for example, unless he’s not the Malu that I knew; if they said the terrorists are in Sambisa Forest, he would probably burn down the whole place and kill or smoke them out. There were so many other commanders who were involved in the Second World War, who we call the no-nonsense people, and who delivered results. Yes, I have a problem with the capacity. I’m not a military person, but I suppose that these things are pretty well known. So, if you are a military tactician, you’ll know how to deal with these challenges. We have the military of a supposedly powerful African state.
Udu Yakubu: You’ve made an illustration with the ruthlessness of a General Victor Malu. Recall how he razed the entire Odi community killing many innocent civilians. Don’t you think that approach is extremist and comes with very fundamental problems?
Yima Sen: I don’t want to go there. I wouldn’t want to go there. There are two major examples of military tacticians in history – Sun Tzu who talked about how you can actually win a war without fighting, and Carl Von Clausewitz who propounded that if you’re going to fight a war, then you better fight it ruthlessly. I’m sure that officers are taught all these theories of war in the military academies. The American General Tecumseh Sherman was very brutal when he entered Atlanta during the American Civil War. He belonged to the Clausewitz school that says, if you are going or want to fight a war, you better fight it. During the Nigerian Civil War, we also had military officers on both sides, who had this Clausewitz approach. There was Benjamin Adekunle of Third Marine Commandos on the Nigerian side, and ‘Hannibal’ Joseph Achuzia on the Biafran side.
I know that General Malu, when he went to Liberia, he more or less ended the conflict there. From what I heard, when he was posted to Liberia, he called Charles Taylor and told him, ‘Look man, I was sent here because some people don’t like me in Nigeria and they sent me here to come and die.’ But he told him that between Charles Taylor and him, Malu, if anybody was going to die, it was going to be Charles Taylor. So, he told him to keep about 50 kilometers away from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. And, as they were speaking, a message came to Charles Taylor on his radio that General Malu’s troops were shelling the camp of Charles Taylor. If you want to end an insurgency, you will end it, if you want to play with it, you will play with it.
Udu Yakubu: The President recently told the media that, concerning security in the Northeast, the current government was doing its best. What do you say to this?
Yima Sen: With the situation lately, I don’t believe that the security situation in the Northeast has improved. There could be an exception in terms of the occupation of some territories by the insurgents. The insurgents have been pushed back to the Sambisa Forest, or the border of Cameroon and some banks of Lake Chad; but the problem still persists. And, more than that, we have now seen other problems of a similar terrorist nature – from herdsmen operating deep into the South to sets of bandits operating in the Northwest. So, when you look at the reality on the ground, the effort is far from our best.
Udu Yakubu: Yes, you’ve talked about capacity, and then we see how the problem has gone beyond the Northeast into the herders’ issue in the North Central and the banditry issue in the North West. Yet, we are talking about the same military, the same army, etc. Do you think that our military actually has the capacity in terms of human power, because that has been a major issue? You have the military involved in various crisis situations in over 30 states of the federation. Doesn’t this throw into focus the issue of human capacity, not having a military that is numerically strong enough to protect the citizens and the sovereignty of the nation at the same time across the entire country?
Yima Sen: Well, there’s a problem of capacity, and we can define capacity in various ways. Also, it is problematic to narrow down the attempt to some of the security challenges to the military alone. Recently, I offered that perspective about how we need a holistic approach in dealing with the security challenges in the country. Of all the 774 local governments in this country, there are people in these local governments that are in a position to tell you what the security reality is in these territories. We have all these DPOs and the DSS operatives; we have traditional rulers, local government chairmen, and numerous vigilante groups. These kinds of groups, they know what the security realities in their territories are.
What I’m saying is that, in any given local government, even from the lowest level of human interactions in the wards for example, you know who is where. You know who is a thief, you know who a pastor or the imam is. You know who the teachers are – primary school teachers, secondary school teachers. You know who is who in your community. So, if there’s a security threat, there are people who know the sources of those threats. So, if you have a mechanism that fits into a central control system, you will be able to get the required information about security challenges in all the local governments in this country. You’ll understand what the challenges are, and how to deal with them.
More than that, many of these issues are also tied to the various economic circumstances – the poverty levels, illiteracy, and ignorance. Why do we have people who can be easily mobilised or recruited into some of these terrorists’ gangs? You want to deal with those kinds of issues. So, we have to look beyond the narrow approach of tackling security threats. We must appreciate the fact that, corruption for example can breed insecurity; the same way underdevelopment does.
So, I always shy away from a militaristic approach, even though it is very important. There should be the political commitment to get to the core of these problems and not to attempt to solve the security problem through the military alone solve some of these problems. We need a holistic approach at dealing with insecurity. This will include the military certainly, but will also go beyond the military and involve the communities and various stakeholders.
Udu Yakubu: The Northern Elders’ Forum has been expressing its criticism on some of these issues and there have also been responses from the presidential spokespersons, criticizing the position and statements of the Northern Elders’ Forum. What has been the relationship between the government and the Forum lately and how has this affected this relationship?
Yima Sen: Well, let me tell you that, personally, I’ve found those exchanges to be very unfortunate. I can be very uncomfortable with them and the reason is simple. In 2015, we were virtually in the forefront of regime change, from President Jonathan to President Buhari. So, in a way, we could say that it was or is our government. So, if you have seen any exchange taking place between the NEF and the government at any level, it must have been out of frustration, at least on the part of the Forum. That would be frustration based on the fact that we helped to bring about this government initially, and we expected a lot from it. Some of the expectations have not been met. On the ground of some of the opposition to the government which was replaced, the new government came with the promise of improving security, fighting corruption, battling the economy in such a way that poverty will be addressed. These three areas of focus of the government are inter-related. I believe that poverty can be eradicated, and like I said earlier, if you don’t deal with the question of poverty very well, it will probably lead to the creation of what we call the youth bulge. Where you have a large pool of unemployed young people, they will become available to be recruited for all sorts of criminal activities, including insurgency. This has created a huge security problem for us. Thus, our problems become compounded. The relationship between the three areas is so intertwined that you have to deal with the three at once, decisively, otherwise, one will affect the other.
So, I think, the frustration from the Northern Elders’ Forum has been mainly because of its perception that the government could do more in these three areas of focus that it promised Nigerians.
What is the current relationship between the Forum and the government? I can tell you that as the Director-General of the organisation, I would have loved to see that the Northern Elders’ Forum is able to meet with the President as we used to and advise him on governance issues. I do hope that, that kind of relationship can be reestablished, and that we will not need to be talking to each other in the press.
Udu Yakubu: Moving on to a topical political issue, Mallam Maman Daura recently made a statement on political zoning, and this has stirred some controversy. In fact, the controversy is still on-going in the public. Although, the Presidency has distanced itself from Mallam Daura’s statement, the shadow of that statement is still very much around. First is to ask if there was anything amiss in what Mallam Daura said. And second, how much of political zoning at the level of the presidency have we actually practised in this country since 1999?
Yima Sen: Mallam Mamman Daura’s statement clearly seems to be his opinion., except for the other sensitive area of national politics and governance. The principle of zoning and rotation in political offices at the federal and state level was something that was introduced into Nigerian politics and governance during the Second Republic, thanks to the paper that was presented in 1983 at the Institute of Administration, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria by the then Governor of Benue State, Mr. Aper Aku. The paper that he presented was later published as a pamphlet, and I had the privilege of writing the foreword to that paper. The idea of introducing six zones was based on the need to give the minorities in Nigeria a voice, and this seems to be an attempt to move away from what we may call the WAZOBIA arrangement of Nigerian politics, whereby you had to be either Yoruba, or Hausa/Fulani, or Igbo for you to be reckoned with in terms of power sharing in Nigeria. What he was proposing was that, if we had what we have now – North-Central, North-West, North-East, South-South, South-West, and South-East – you would have given three slots to the minorities, and it would be three versus three. As history will later come to prove, this is the same arrangement that enabled President Jonathan to emerge on the basis of the South-South geopolitical zone.
This arrangement was taken from his own community, the principle of eat and give your brother. So, it had at that time been introduced within the NPN (National Party of Nigeria) as a policy of the party. Subsequently, the issue of zoning or rotation became an arrangement that political parties have used to distribute power or to share power in terms of who gets what.
What has happened is that, this arrangement has been seen as a rotation between the North and the South. And in looking at the North and the South, when it’s the North, it is the whole of the North, and almost usually, it is taken up by the Hausa-Fulani bloc of the North which has been able to get the other northerners to tag along on various issues of national governance and development since the civil war. So, that arrangement has continued to be an important factor in national politics and governance. So, at this point that you have a northern President, there’s the expectation that the next President should come from the South. It becomes a very sensitive issue then. If it goes back to the South, and you’re to rotate in the South, it would be the turn of the South-East, at least at this stage. We have had a South-West President, and a South-South President. You might argue that, well, Nnamdi Azikiwe was the first ceremonial President, followed by Aguiyi Ironsi. But, in electoral terms, you have not really had a South-East President. So, it becomes really sensitive that we do not deprive the Southeast of their chance.
But, on the other hand, there are more issues to just rotation or zoning when it comes to the presidency of Nigeria; electoral issues come up. MKO Abiola, I’m not sure if he was going to become president on the basis of rotation or zoning; he seemed to have just taken the country by storm. And many of us believe that at some point, this question of rotation or zoning will become a non-issue, and that we’ll all be looking for competence and other attributes or qualities of a leader in the mold of the President of Nigeria. But the problem then is, when are you going to terminate the rotation or zoning of political offices and how are you going to do it? But, beyond the present arrangements and non-arrangements, are we going to base our considerations on the six geopolitical zones, or on the more than 600 hundred ethnic groups we have in this country?
Udu Yakubu: Based on the idea of political zoning, and where the pendulum could swing come 2023, one would say as you have also said that no Igbo person has been president or Head of State since Aguiyi Ironsi. That argument has its own validity which you have also talked about. But it comes with its own issues. If we talk about zoning in the context of all you have said, how do you cater for the interests of other geopolitical zones, minority ethnic groups, especially those who have had deficit in terms of political zoning, not only the Igbos or the South-East. The agitation in the North that followed the death of Yar’adua was that the North had not completed an eight-year tenure. That same logic could be applicable to the South-South, which had only four years in office, or five as could be argued. Importantly also, if you’re not going to regard the period that Aguiyi-Ironsi was Head of State, then the other parts that have produced military rulers like the North Central, can as well say that they haven’t had a shot at the presidency. And then you know, we have several other minority groups outside of the major three that have not had a shot at the presidency and will likely not have one in the next 100 or more years. There are lots of questions and contradictions with the way things have played out over several years. How do you reconcile some of these?
Yima Sen: You want me to reconcile all these contradictions? Well, I’m not a magician, but I can, by way of analysis, say that the question of zoning or rotation of political offices is complex and has many dimensions. When you talk about catering for the WAZOBIA arrangement that recognises three majority groupings, or the six geopolitical zones, or the more than six hundred ethnic groups in Nigeria, then you know that you are getting into troubled waters. So, how do we handle this kind of situation? The North Central could say that they’ve not had an elected president, and the south-south could argue that their own rulership at the level of presidency was truncated. The South East could argue that they have not had a shot at the leadership of Nigeria since Ironsi. In any case, Ironsi was also a military Head of State and Zik was a ceremonial President. We have all these arguments, and we can look at the merits of the arguments.
We can start with the South-East by saying, what do you people actually want? Do you want to be a part of Nigeria or you want to opt out? The reason would be simple because they actually fought a war which was about secession. And then you have the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) that are still clamoring for a state of Biafra and young people in the social media have been very wild in the ways they have engaged other Nigerians, in most cases in very unsavoury ways. So, it looks like Mallam Mamman Daura has initiated a debate, and I hope that between now and 2023, we’ll make a whole sense out of all the arguments.
But I can see that, at some point, political zoning is going to end and that may be better for everybody, since each group in this country will have a chance of putting forward their ‘competent’ leaders at the federal, state and local government levels.
Udu Yakubu: Talking about the interest of the South, we have politicians from the area positioning for the presidency. To what extent would you say that the interested parties have been building bridges with the rest of the country? Because one thing is definite, the North could not single-handedly produce Buhari as President. No part of this country, as it seems so far, can singlehandedly turn out one of its own to become President without the support of some other parts of the country. Would you say for example that there is serious building of bridges across regions by interested parties, especially those from the South-East?
Yima Sen: Well, let me tell you something. This thinking that one section cannot produce a president single-handedly is not correct. One section can, and I’ll tell you why. You require a spread, a certain geo-political spread of votes in the country to win an election, right? Failing to produce that, what happens next? You go into a bye-election. And what are the requirements for a by-election? Simple majority. That means one vote. So, you cannot say that one section of the country cannot produce the President. Majority vote in a bye-election means only one vote.
Udu Yakubu: Which means power could just stay for as long as the North wants it to stay with it?
Yima Sen: I will tell you that the confidence that has remained in the North now about its power in Nigeria is that it can always win a presidential election whether we have the South with us or not. That could have happened in the case of Buhari. If it went into a bye-election, he was only looking for one vote. If you look at the pattern of voting in 2015 and in 2019, Buhari was in a position to have won the election, because one vote would have been enough.
Udu Yakubu: Your analysis is correct. But that hasn’t happened in our experience before.
Yima Sen: But it could happen, right? In other words, we could move from hypothesis to reality?
Udu Yakubu: Yeah. So, could this have informed the reasoning in some sections of the North that there should be no zoning, even though the whole idea of zoning itself is questionable in terms of practice? I mean, apart from 1999 when it was a military arrangement in favour of the Southwest, we haven’t really had at the presidential level a uniform political process across parties critically founded on the principle of zoning. We’ve always had contestants across regions challenging one another for the office of President. Only in 1999 did the military force a choice on the country. It was fait accompli. 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019 all had question marks around them.
Yima Sen: What was done in 1999 was a concession to the Southwest because of the annulled June 12 Presidential election. But that didn’t become the starting point of the zoning formula. Remember that Buhari contested against Obasanjo in 2003. But, after that, the North reclaimed power. President Obasanjo had done 8 years from the South; so, let the North take its own 8 years. In some ways, I’ll say zoning has been operational at the party level.
I don’t think you can say that what Mamman Daura said is a reflection of Northern thinking. I’m not sure I would say that because anybody could be a beneficiary of zoning and rotation. It could be an Igbo, Ijaw, Kanuri, Tiv. It could be anybody. Anybody could also be a beneficiary of a system based on competence. But, like I told you earlier, I believe that political zoning and rotation is going to die; but I don’t know when that would happen.