Senator Shehu Sani represented Kaduna Central Senatorial District during the 8th National Assembly. The renowned civil rights activists and public affairs analyst recently spoke on the state of the nation, among several other issues. PHILIP NYAM brings excerpts:
It is 20 years since the return to democratic rule. What do you make of the happenings in our country today?
Can we still say our democracy is a nascent one? Yes, it is 20 years since the restoration of democracy in our nation. We fought hard to disengage the military from governance; and when I say we, I’m referring to those who sacrificed their lives and liberty in the struggle for the return of democracy to the country. Who are those? Civil rights activists, the intelligentsia, labour unionists, the media, students, youths and the progressive arm of the political class. We fought the military to a standstill to restore democracy in Nigeria. In the first two to three years, we refer to our democracy as nascent but 20 years after now, we cannot call this democracy nascent again. If there is any single achievement that could not be disputed in the current dispensation, it is that, for the first time in the history of our country, democracy has been able to last for 20 years.
But what is the content of the period between 1999 to date?
We cannot say with our right senses that this democracy we are seeing today was the wishes and aspirations and the dreams of Nigerians, when you consider the fact that some people laid their lives and sacrificed their liberty, went to jail and exile to restore democracy. It is repugnant and unfortunate that two decades since the restoration of democracy, the people in the position of power are still intolerant to criticisms and dissent. We have always nagged at the 16 years rule of the Peoples Democracy Party (PDP), but it is enough time now to probe and interrogate the democratic credentials of the ruling political establishment of today. Lest we forget, that this democracy was a product of protest and sometimes open rebellion and dissent against the military dictatorship. So, we can properly say that this democracy is a product of that conscientious objection and denunciation of the system that held us to ransom as a nation for decades under a military junta. Fast forward to 2015, the people in the position of political power today were vanguards in the protest for justice, freedom, good governance and for respect for fundamental rights and rule of law.
Could we then say that the present regime is an offspring of mass protests?
We can rightly, appropriately and adequately say that the ruling political establishment were beneficiaries of the culture of protests and objections in Nigeria. On several occasions, we saw the leaders of the ruling party; people occupying positions as senators, ministers and President today, leading the people on the streets to protest and challenge an order that was strangulating us as a nation. But this is a betrayal of the history that led to where we are today. Nigerians were promised freedom of speech and right to fundamental human rights, but we have seen a growing objection, refusal and allergy on the side of the people in the position of power to opinions that are contrary to theirs. We can say that there is a growing climate of fear that people would be arrested, intimidated and dealt with, if they express their opinions, which is at variance with the people in power. Now, I must say that inasmuch as the ruling political establishment, particularly the President is desirous of leaving a legacy for posterity and for his personal history, the most important legacy he should leave is to uphold the rule of law and fundamental human rights and preserve the democratic values that he benefitted from and inherited. If those in the position of power desire only to force people to do their biddings, then we will be dealing with a bigger problem.
What do you make of the attack on former Senate President Ike Ekweremade in Germany?
I condemn the attack outrightly and the lynching of my brother and friend, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, in Germany. But it should also be a wakeup call to each and every one of us, that if the state makes it impossible for people to express themselves peacefully, legitimately and legally, it is pushing people to be hunters rather than protesters; to be monsters rather than people criticising. In order to protect our constitution and democracy, there is that very important need for the government to protect our constitution and democracy. There is that need for the government to respect the rule of law. State apparatus must not engage in indiscriminate arrest of people for expressing their opinions; and using force to crush peaceful dissenters without inspiring people to take the vigilante option in terms of defending their rights and getting at people in the position of authority. Those who took to thuggery outside the country were inspired by the way protesters and dissenters were treated by the state. There is no difference between the way my brother Ekweremadu was treated in Germany, with the way protesters were treated in Lagos and Abuja each and every day by the government. So, the state is the main culprit in inspiring people to take the road other than the one that is legitimate, legal and lawful.
Some have argued that the government is trying to protect an indivisible nation. Don’t you agree?
No matter how we try to portray ourselves as a united and indivisible nation, the government of the day and the political establishment must demonstrate that they are for all. If we treat one part of the country with so much, and then treat another part of the country with so little, then, certainly the pillars on which the brim of the nation stand will continue to shatter. So, I have said it repeatedly that if people are desirous of protecting and defending their human rights through peaceful protests, the state has the constitutional responsibility to respect their rights and protect them to express their rights. If you crush dissent and jail dissenters, you are forcing people to take the road of violence. And other than that, I will say that it is always important for us to realise that Nigeria is a fragile state and our history tells much about that. Over a century after amalgamation, and close to six decades since the independence that was granted to us by the British, we all accept that we are still struggling to be one, struggling to be united and to be seen as a nation. The nation’s flag cannot unite the nation, when you don’t have justice; the national anthem and the creed cannot unite the nation if we don’t have justice. The coat of arms cannot unite the nation if we are divided psychologically and mentally. The president and the present government should not think that uniting the nation is just about building the second Niger Bridge.
After leaving the senate, you established a non-governmental organisation; what is it all about?
The African Centre for Peace and Development is my Centre. I set it up to fight for the fundamental rights and defend people who do not have access to justice. Our activities will take off in the next few weeks.
While you were in the Senate, you disclosed publicly what was your remuneration and most of your colleagues including those in the lower house felt very uncomfortable. Why did you do that?
It was part of my campaign promise before I became a senator that I will demystify the culture of secrecy and unveil the senate for the electorate to see. But it was not something, which I wanted to do alone. I tried as much as possible to consult some of my colleagues discreetly that we need to open up the parliament to bring an end to almost 20 years of secrecy about the earnings of our legislators. But I consulted some of my colleagues who agreed with me but later recant that it was dangerous. However, I took the risk of disclosing it; and when I disclosed it, there was a serious uproar against me and there were attempts to penalise me for making that disclosure. But the then Senate President, Bukola Saraki, in his wisdom sensed the possible public outcry and anger that may result if anything was done to me based on the fact that I revealed to Nigerians how much we were being paid. And when some of my colleagues confronted me, I said I did not tell anybody how much they were earning but I disclosed how much I was earning. So, is there anything wrong in disclosing what I earn to the public? Therefore, tell them how much you are being paid because I have opened up my own. My position was that there had been a lot of speculations and insinuations about the actual money senators were given; some exaggerated and some underquoted. So, I simply stated the reality and I have not seen anybody who has called me. Secondly, I don’t think in the near future you may have someone like me who will take the risk. It is not going to be easy for that person. About leading the protest, I have laid the foundation, let others build on it. If the 8th Senate was able to have a senator that revealed our earnings, then the 9th Senate should produce someone that can takeover from where I stopped.
There is a raging debate concerning where power would shift to in 2023. While some say it should return to the South East, others say it should be South West; yet some are of the opinion that the North should retain the Presidency. What is your position on this?
My position is that in a nation like ours that has come through a civil war, coup, ethnic violence and religious crisis, we should be careful about what we do. We have always accepted that we are not all the same, but we are members of a union and not a nation. And we differ from each other from our ethnic identities, religious and cultural affiliations. So rotation of power is what I prescribed and I stand for. Whether that power should shift to the East or West, it is dependent on the people of Southern Nigeria and what I will say is that there is a possibility of the North producing another President in 2023 if the South remains divided.
Do you mean that the North will continue to rule beyond 2015?
It may sound alarmist but it is true, because the direction of the power is not dependent on an individual like me. The North had been in power from 2015 and would be there till 2023 and it would be unfair for it to hold onto power after 2023 based on the fact that other sections of the country also have to be taken into cognisance. Now, the reason is this, if the All Progressives Congress (APC) shifts power to the South West, then it has compensated the zone for supporting the North. And if power moves to the South East, it would be another defeat of the secessionists and a formal end to the Nigerian Civil War. So, it is something which Nigerians will look at from their own perspective; but my own is advocacy for the return to the principle of rotation of power. But we must understand that my own advocacy will come to nothing if we have a divided South and also if one major political party supports the rotation of power and another refuse to support the rotation of power, there will still be a problem. So, realising the respect for the rotation of power will be dependent on three factors. First, is the common resolve from the people of the South that power should move to their zone; secondly, it is the common resolve of the people of the East and West that this is where it should move to when it comes to the South and the third is, the major political parties must accept this as a reality. These three things are inevitable; if any one of them that is not considered, we will still end up with the northern person as the President.
How do you see the detention of Omoyele Sowore?
I contributed a lot in the emergence of the present government and I want to confirm that many people in positions of power in this government went to New York and met Sowore to help them to fight the PDP some years ago. Now, how do you turn and say the same person who spoke about justice and freedom with you five to six years ago is now the enemy. The enemies of the president are today pretending to be his friends. I have always reminded those in the position of authority even before I became a senator that power is ephemeral; it is a phase in the life of a man. The life after power is longer than when you are in power. I want to be quoted on a marble that when President Muhammadu Buhari finishes his tenure, those he considers friends today, will be those that will be abusing and rubbishing him; destroying and assassinating his character and even calling for his prosecution. And those that he thinks that are his enemies today, will be the one he would rely on. President Buhari is not a product of 2015; he contested for president in 2003. The media, the civil society stood for him; they stood for him in 2007, in 2011 and 2015. Most of those calling themselves Buharists today are simply Buharist because he is the president. They were not calling themselves Buharists before he became the president and will not call themselves Buharists after he leaves office. This, I believe, will happen. Where are those who say they could die for former President Olusegun Obasanjo when he was in power? Where are those who were ready to kill for Obasanjo? Today, they cannot raise a voice when Obasanjo is attacked or criticised. If you are in a position or office, you should be able to differentiate between friends of the king and friends of the throne. The friends of the throne will continue to be with whoever is on the throne. So, I always want to bring our attention to the fact that this country is a multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation and we must always balance our differences to reflect in politics, governance and economy.
Some people see the actions of this government as marginalisation…
Marginalising or penalising a people because they did not vote for you is not good for the peace, stability and growth of this nation. Nigeria’s political leaders, when they take oath of office always swear to be fair to all Nigerians; not Nigerians who voted for them or Nigerians from their political party. Not Nigerians from their own ethnic group. If we want to preserve this union and this country, we must say what we say to our people in our languages as we say it in English; because Nigerian political leaders, when they speak in their mother tongues and dialect, they are chauvinists and tribalists, but when they speak in English, they are nationalists and patriots. I am using this opportunity to call on all of us that in the interest of peace and stability of the nation, a democratic government must subject itself to the constitution of the country and must respect fundamental rights. Those protesters you maim and kill are the ones to defend you when you are out of power. The press you intimidate and gag is the one to stand for you when all the politicians would have left you. When President Buhari was going to court in 2003, 2007 and 2011, where were the people calling themselves Buharists today? When he was detained after the 1985 coup, how many spoke for him? None!
Is it true that Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, has appointed you as his coordinator in the North for the 2023 presidential election?
I am not aware of Tinubu’s presidential ambition and I have also never spoken about that with him. So, I believe that was couched by mischief makers who wants to get at Asiwaju himself, but I can tell you that that is a false, fake. It can never happen.
Insecurity is ravaging the nation today; kidnapping, insurgency and killings everywhere. What do you think is going on?
On the issue of insecurity, I have said it repeatedly that this government has failed in securing the lives of Nigerians; and for every blood that had been shed; it is an indication of the failure of government. The insurgency in the North East and other parts of the country should be tackled not only from the security point of view but by first addressing some of the fundamental problems facing the nation. For the North East, the first step is to fund the North East Development Commission very well. It should be well funded to address the issues of poverty, neglect that have ravaged the region for decades. Secondly, the government should listen more and explore the possibility of a dialogue to end this insurgency. But dialogue would have been easier seven or eight years ago, when our local terrorists were yet to be affiliated to international terrorists organisations. On the issue of kidnapping and killings in the North-West part of the country, we should commend the governor of Zamfara State for the efforts he has put in to end the killings. But Niger State and parts of Kaduna are still under siege; and we cannot achieve peace without the use of technology. It is commendable that the President has deployed troops in most of the states, but first of all, he must boost morale of the soldiers and pay them adequately and equip them with sophisticated fire power to take on the bandits and insurgents without retreat. Thirdly, the use of technology is indispensable. Again, traditional rulers and governors in the North need to come together and address the issues of poverty and insecurity in the region. For the President, he should target three key areas and leave a mark and legacy for the North; the first is education by bringing an end to street children moving about, two is investment in agriculture so that the north will also be able to contribute to the national treasury rather than going to Abuja every month to share from the oil money. Again, I also support the South-East Development Commission to address issues of marginalisation in the region.
With your experience in the Senate, what would you say are the factors militating against the passage of the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB)?
The present Minister of state for Labour was the chairman of the senate committee that worked tirelessly for the passage of the PIGB. But it appears there are entrenched interests who have relentlessly worked to undermine the Bill. Another thing that has worked against the Bill was the frosty relationship that existed between the leadership of the 8th National Assembly led by Senator Bukola Saraki and the presidency or executive.
Don’t you think the president’s decision to appoint only people he knows as ministers would affect the performance of his administration?
In view of the fact that the buck stops at the table of the president, he is right to say he is appointing only the people he knows. If he succeeds, the credit goes to him and if he fails, the criticisms and condemnations also are his. But my position is that if we are going to have or do things differently from what has been the norm in the past, the new set of appointees should have a template of what to work with. If you are a minister of work, you should be handed over a document from the ruling party; detailing for example, we want you to complete a million low cost houses in four years, may be 250,000 each year. If you are the minister for agriculture, you are giving a template of what they want you to achieve in terms of food production, export of cash crops and so on. So, let him appoint the people he knows, but they should deliver good governance to Nigerians.