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2023 PRESIDENCY: Igbos Not Ripe Yet, North Won’t Accept Them — Yerima Shettima

Alhaji Yerima Shettima, the National President, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, is a member of the coalition that wanted Igbo people sent packing from the North in 2017.

He is also a member of the coalition that just established Operation Shege Ka Fasa, the northern version of the regional security outfit that was raised by the South-West, Amotekun. In this interview, the activist bares his mind on many issues of national importance including northern youths’ position on the 2023 president.

What is your take on the establishment of Amotekun and the idea itself? Do you think it should be allowed?

Yes, it is worth doing because the situation in which we have found ourselves is such that people must begin to see how they can survive, protect themselves. I am an advocate of restructuring and, within that context, I don’t really think it is right for us to over-concentrate at the centre. The way the country is right now, the centre cannot hold anymore; it is clear unless we choose to deceive ourselves. The major issues are security, economy and infrastructure.

On security, there is the need for state police to complement the efforts at the centre. You cannot just be waiting for IG’s instruction to protect your people. If you have community policing and state police, the governor will oversee insecurity unlike the situation now whereby a governor, according to the Constitution is in charge of his own state but when he instructs the Commissioner of Police to do something, the commissioner needs approval from the IG. So you can see he’s overbearing at the centre. So, for me, Amotekun is welcome. In fact, the region that needed Amotekun most is the North. It needed it more than even the South-West because the South-West is living in peace.

The rate of crime in the South-West is nothing compared to what we have in the North. But, probably, they initiated Amotekun as a proactive measure unlike our place that we are reactionary because we are only reacting now, we are being consumed already by banditry, kidnapping, insurgency and all forms of social vices, robbery on a daily basis and we count casualties, deaths on a daily basis in every part of the northern states. I do not think there is a particular state that you will mention today that has no problem. So, for me, we need Amotekun than even the South-West.

Northern youths just came up with their own version of Amotekun called Shege Ka Fasa. Do you also welcome that?

Like I said, it is a thing we should do even before the South-West. We are into the advocacy but good enough the South-West have their way of doing their own thing. They are faster, more proactive in thinking and doing things. Their governors brought up the idea; they united unlike us in the North where the governors are not active.

So we felt strongly that there is the need for us to also have community policing to complement the central police and I am happy that the IG came out recently after their meeting with the Presidency with the same idea that there is the need for community policing. So, we only set the template and unveiled it and also seek the support of the governors. If they cannot initiate anything, let us set a template for them to see reason why it is important. They should move because, in our case, we must push them unlike the South-West who are the ones initiating it, calling their people because they value lives in the South-West compared to the governors in the North. On a daily basis, they see people dying but they don’t care. So we put it for them so that they can also take the advantage and do the needful like it has been done in the South-West.

The Sultan of Sokoto doesn’t like the idea. In fact, he advised the elites in the North to rise against it and “stop that nonsense”. Are you at home with that reaction?

Ordinarily, one would have expected him to support the idea and, if he suggests that what the coalition did was wrong, one would have expected him to come out with a solution because the situation is beyond somebody sitting at home and be talking without an alternative. So if the Sultan is saying that what the coalition of northern youths did was wrong, then he should give a way out because this issue of killing and kidnapping is going on rampantly.

So, I don’t think it is proper for him to have said that. Let him suggest something different. But if actually that is what he said, where was he when the North was burning and people are dying on a daily basis, what efforts has he made? What has he brought to the table? Where was he when our people were rendered useless in the South-West? Where was he when our people were left stranded because they had no means of livelihood in the North and they ran down to the South to do Okada and, today, Okada has been banned? So it is easy for him to just wake up and condemn what we do but he cannot do same when it affects the South. Whose interest does he represent?

Miyetti Allah is opposed to Amotekun. Why do you think so?

I don’t hold brief for them. It is their opinion.

President Muhammadu Buhari, at the induction of new helicopter fighters, said he had decimated Boko Haram. And the Chief of the Air Staff, Sadiq Abubakar, confirmed that. Do you think the present government has actually fought Boko Haram to a standstill?

No, they have not. If they have actually got it right in the last five years nobody would have begun to think of self-help. But they have failed and that is what has brought about what we are witnessing today, it is sad and very unfortunate that the architecture is not put in place in the best interest of the people. People are not longer sleeping with their two eyes closed.

And it is sad and very unfortunate that the Sultan will come out to condemn this initiative; often times, some of our leaders don’t believe in whatever initiative no matter how good it is. If it is coming from them, they don’t appreciate it but they appreciate other people doing it. So one would not be surprised because I have never seen anything that the North initiates that the Sultan and the likes of him appreciate and that is why we are backward. Ordinarily, if they are doing well, we wouldn’t have found ourselves where are today. So, the time has come for some of us to not just sit down and fold our arms and begin to wait for manna to fall from heaven and posterity will judge when the time comes.

How close is your organization to the government of the day to advise the President on what is happening in the North?

There is no time we don’t advise but, unfortunately, the government of the day, to an extent, does not appreciate our advice. Ordinarily, we are stakeholders and we are always in touch with the people. On daily basis, the people troop to our offices, we know exactly where the shoe pinches them but even when you write to the government, the government doesn’t respond easily. We only enjoy when things get out of hand.

That is when we begin to think on how to react but, proactively, we cannot put anything on ground to avoid the things that ordinarily would have been avoidable. The insecurity we found ourselves in would have been avoidable if they are determined and they understand that this thing is likely to happen and we advised them long before now. Having one of our own as the head of the government, he should do better than what we are seeing today.

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Some people feel northern youths are setting up Shege Ka Fasa to counter Amotekun. Recall that one of you, Abdulazeez, criticized Amotekun and, one month after, you now came up with this.

I cannot remember if there was any official statement condemning Amotekun by the coalition of northern groups or the group I represent in that coalition, that is, Arewa Youth Consultative Forum. But Abdulazeez represents a platform in the coalition just like any other group among the 36 groups in the northern part of the country. I am not aware but I do not think the coalition made any statement opposed to Amotekun. We even commended it.

I was the first group in the northern part of the country to commend the initiative and I also said that our people too are thinking in that line. Nobody is trying to form a parallel security outfit against the government; that is not our thinking, nobody is trying to do something as if we are doing it to counter the South-West. The idea behind this is to complement the government.

Some Nigerians also feel that the same coalition was the one that at a time in 2017 gave ultimatum to the Igbo in the North to leave. Many are surprised they are still walking freely and they have not been brought to book, arrested or prosecuted for making such a volatile statement against a region in Nigeria. What really informed that move at that time?

What was the offence of the coalition at that time to be called to order or to be prosecuted? All we did was to disallow somebody to just come out from somewhere and begin to abuse our people and nobody was saying anything. We made a statement and, when we did, Nigerians realized that there was a need for that statement at that time to awaken the consciousness of people, the leaders in the South-East to call one of their own sons who was busy abusing the sensibility of people, undermining the government of Nigeria. What we did was commendable because if we had not done it, there couldn’t have been election in Anambra State and in some of the eastern parts of the country going by the way these young people were approaching issues.

What we did was to stabilise the country. We ensured that government came to its normalcy and took charge and, at the end of the day, it has become a thing of the past. The country was almost collapsing. The government was already stampeded. Anything we do is in the best interest of this country.

It is rumoured that the North wants the presidency to remain in the region after President Buhari leaves office in 2023 amid the bids by the Igbo and the Yoruba for the highest office in the land. Do you see the North retaining the presidency after eight straight years of the northern rule?

If we are practicing democracy, everybody has the right to contest. Things are no longer the way it used to be where some people will just sit down and begin to share the country as if they are sharing a cake and that is why you hardly get the best out of all this sharing arrangement and whatever. We are running a constitutional democracy and people who are competent should come forward and contest no matter where they come from.

The truth of the matter is that everybody has interest and, for us in the northern part of the country, the issue of rotational presidency has been jettisoned since 2011. In fact, I was the first to say we cannot cede power to the South going by party arrangement. The Constitution is supreme. Come forward with your best eleven and we do the same thing too. Democracy is about number. If you have the required number and support, so be it but we will definitely come with our best. We will no longer sit down and fold our arms with this situation where nothing has been achieved under this administration and say all is well and let us cede power to the South-East when we know that while our own was in government the whole thing favours South-West and some other parts of the south.

The North has nothing to show for it and the only thing we see is insecurity. On daily basis we have people dying in their hundreds. How many are we in number? If this continues in the next one or two years, you will have nobody to govern again because nobody will even be alive again. Look at the rate of poverty in the North, the insurgency, the kidnapping, everything the way it is?

In specific terms, are you suggesting that the South-East should produce the President in 2023 or the South-West or the North should continue?

The North will continue and that is our position. We will come up with our candidate and we will lobby the South-East, the South-South and the South-West. We will ensure that we have the required number to succeed. If we are talking about equity, former President Jonathan shouldn’t have contested in 2011.

If we are talking about equity and justice, we couldn’t have had former President Obasanjo who had eight years of uninterrupted tenure and subsequently there was an election in 2007 that brought the late President Yar’ Adua, and he was only in power for just one year and some months and he fell sick, and then there was an acting President who later became President and had almost two years and a half in power. And, subsequently, there was an election in 2011, and there was an advocacy because some of us saw this coming and we said, ‘look, they should have allowed a northerner going by the party arrangement at that time to still cede power to the North’ but people said blindly that the Constitution is supreme, Jonathan can contest and he did.

With the power of incumbency, he had his way and came back in 2011. Where is this justice? If you put Obasanjo’s eight years and Jonathan’s almost six years and a half together, it is close to 15 years in favour of the South. We only had our own Buhari who just came for four years and another four years now. If you put Yar’ Adua’s one year and few months together with Buhari’s eight years, we have less than 10 years in power. Where is justice and equity? Where is fairness in the whole of this?

And as a country, if we truly believe in the spirit of oneness, what is wrong in bringing an understanding that, “since Jonathan allowed this to happen, let us cede power to the North without even contesting it in the spirit of fairness and equity, let them have at least a shot after 2023 so that things can be a bit stabilized?” Then any other government that comes after 2023, they can complement the efforts of the previous government that would likely put a template so that at least we can reduce this issue of unemployment in the country, we can reduce this issue of daily threats to our lives in terms of banditry, kidnapping and so on.

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Going by this same principle of equity, justice and fairness, the South-East would be crying for having not been given a chance at the presidency at all. What would you say of the South-East in this whole arrangement?

The South-East is not prepared for presidency. If they are prepared, they couldn’t have allowed one of their loose sons to be going about threatening the unity of this country. You cannot ask for two things at the same time. If you truly want people to trust you and allow your own to do it, then you could not have allowed somebody to go about threatening the peace of this country, calling for the disintegration of this country and they are watching.

You cannot continue to be threatening the unity of this country because time has come that you cannot threaten people because you want power, you need to lobby. You cannot look us in the face and abuse the sensibility of all Nigerians and undermine the government and now say because they are scared of you; this is primitive, who is afraid of you?

Some person will really think that the group of persons you are referring to is actually calling for justice, equity and fairness in the political governance of the country instead of calling for secession. How about that because when you have a section or region that is allegedly left out in the scheme of things, not made to be part of a system at the centre or the Federal Government except what is statutory like the ministers or so, they have a right to agitate? How do you situate that?

Their approach is wrong. If you are seeking for attention; you demand for equity and justice and not threaten the entire country, it is not a good approach and if that is what the South-East is thinking, it is a wrong approach. They should call their own to order and see the way they can also participate politically without threatening the unity of this country then they can get the presidency on a platter of gold. But when it comes to threat, Nigeria has overcome that; those are primitive ideas that don’t work anymore. The South-East should have a rethink and change their method. They should re-strategize and work with the Federal Government, work with Nigerians and let us build the country together and that is how it is done anywhere.

Earlier you talked about the need for the country to restructure and the South-East has been in the vanguard of this idea too; do you support it?

I support restructuring strongly because the centre cannot hold anymore; because we cannot continue to sit down, the government is run at the centre where people only sit down, the state governors are not productive, they cannot initiate something and begin to harness their resources within their states, they only look at the centre to produce money for them and allocate. Within them they cannot generate their IGR and make good use of it and probably if we run a government that is decentralized, maybe there will be a constitutional amendment that will allow states or regions to begin to pay tax to the Federal Government and then they will begin to harness their resources without waiting for federal allocation.

When that happens, they will do better and competition will be high because everybody will tap the resources within his state to ensure that they do something and create an avenue for more employment for the teeming youths that are sitting idle. This was done in the 60s and we saw the impact. I am an advocate for restructuring and let us do it in such a way that the regions or states will have more powers and they will do their thing their own way and then pay tax to the Federal Government. It will reduce insecurity; it will reduce this issue that makes governors appear as if they are so lazy they cannot harness their resources.

Have you ever thought of this unending recovery of Abacha loot? Humorously, Nigerians are now saying that Abacha is one ancestor that keeps giving Nigerian money from the land of the dead.

The only reason you are hearing about Abacha loot is because he is not alive. As I speak with you, I don’t understand this Abacha loot. Often times, it keeps coming up and you don’t get to see the funds and what it is used for or what is it all about. I think, to an extent, Nigerians should begin to see it as another means of just collecting money from somewhere, they bring it in, maybe some people looted money and, at the end of the day, put Abacha name to it and just bring it in to share. That is what they do, that is how I am looking at it. Just recently, the former chief security officer to Abacha made a statement and he challenged people.

Even Buhari, the head of government, came out openly a few years ago to say that there is nothing like Abacha loot and I am wondering that, till date after he made that statement, he has not come out openly to maintain that truly this is not Abacha issue because I do not understand that Abacha had a good relationship with America at that time to keep the money they are talking about there.

Abacha’s then chief security officer, Mustapha, came out openly to say throughout the four years and few months tenure of Abacha, he never visited America; so who took the money there or did the money fly from Nigeria’s central bank to the account there?

The National Assembly came very hard on the Service Chiefs and Nigerians too cried and said “please let them go”. Apparently, there is pressure on the President to remove them. How do you look at that, should they go or continue in office?

They are long overdue to leave. They should go in the spirit of justice to their colleagues and I don’t understand why government believes that nobody can do better than those ones there, it is wrong. This thing has a side effect because you cannot undermine the Constitution, the constitutional provision has been crossed already; we need a fresh idea to come into the system to begin to think of what to do better. They are long overdue to go, they have nothing again to offer to this country as it is today.

You cannot overuse something and you expect that thing to be more productive, so for me they have done their best, nobody is saying they have not tried, they have done their best but, also, courtesy, tradition and Constitution demand that they allow for other people to come.

Government as a whole is a barrack; everyone has a quota to contribute. If they are done with their cake, they cannot have it again and continue to eat it over and over. I don’t just understand why government still pretends to know that all is not well; you have vibrant young officers who will do better, whatever those ones have, there are people who have it every day in the Nigerian army and the Nigerian armed forces.

How do you look at this outcry from some Nigerians that heads of security agencies are from the North? There is this lopsidedness that makes other regions of the country feel sidelined.

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This is not even the first time. It has happened under previous regimes. Those are issues that the Constitution does not say you must reflect national character in; after all you have the navy chief and chief of defence staff who are not from the North.

And you have other security agencies that are headed by southerners. Even during Jonathan’s regime, we saw what happened, even during Obasanjo’s regime. Where somebody comes from does not really count, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces has the prerogative to say this is who he wants to work with, it is not a constitutional matter, it is clearly discretional to do what he wants. He needs people he trusts and he believes are competent around him.

The US recently placed visa ban on Nigeria. Is that something to worry about?

That points to the fact that even the developed nations are not happy with the way Nigeria is being run, that things are not okay, that probably the security issue is a major threat and we fail to realize that there is the need for us to look at it and be more serious and declare a state of emergency.

60 years after Nigeria’s independence and 50 years after civil war, there are still deafening agitations. Do you do you think Nigeria will break up?

It is not good for anyone to break the country in my opinion and I also think that IPoB or whoever is clamouring for secession should have a rethink because we will all pay for it.

Yes, it is true that certain things went wrong; yes it is true that all of us are not happy but is it also ideal for us to think of disintegrating the country? The answer is no. Is it possible for us to go our own separate ways? No. The South-East, ordinarily, nobody will say it is pretending because we know that certain things are not right but also they should be mindful of the fact that something happened that brought about what we are going through today.

Nobody is happy with the situation in the country but you cannot also ask for two things at the same time. You are saying you want to break the country because certain thing are not right forgetting that certain things happen some 50-something years ago and these things are still fresh in the minds of Nigerians.

Now you think it is a thing that should be put behind immediately. And instead of you to change your approach, you want people to secede just because you are just somewhere in your small corner, with your small view, small thinking, small idea, little mindset and you think you can do that to overcome the entire country? What is the number of those clamouring for all of these things? And, if truly they are more in number, let us go to a referendum and you will find that not all of the South-East believes in this idea of secession, it is just a few individuals.

If you so think just like other Nigerians that there are quests for secession, would you also think they have genuine reasons crying against marginalization?

They are not marginalized, all they want is to have the presidency but in terms of normal sharing formulae, there is nowhere they are marginalized. Are you saying that they don’t have ministers in the government today? In fact, if you go back to previous government, ordinarily, one would have even assumed that the South-East has not been marginalized because where is Jonathan from? South-South but he is more in tune with the South-East.

And to that extent, he is more South-East than South-South. So the South-East even had their own who was there and who has done enough for them. So where are they marginalized, who marginalized them? And are we saying that in the present administration of Buhari, they have not been favoured when you have some of their sons holding key offices? If they want the number one citizen, it is a process.

Some of us who damn everything and do it right and who believe strongly that we follow our conscience and do things right, ordinarily we would be the ones even championing the cause for them, but they need to play along, they need to believe in the country, they need to work together with Nigerians so that we can build a nation that all of us can be proud of; some of these challenges happened in every developed nation today many years ago, they have overcome some of these challenges; what is so impossible for us not to overcome.

After all when something comes up, we don’t think separately outside the country, we think as Nigerians but immediately we come back home, this sentiment and madness comes to the fore and then we begin to think we are not Muslims, we are not Christians, we are not from the North, we are from the South, this cannot help the country and that is why we are still backward. We need to build the country together and it is possible we can and we will do it, let us do it.

President Buhari said 90% of Boko Haram victims are Muslims but many Nigerians wondered why he would attach religion to it, that Nigerians are Nigerians irrespective of religion or ethnicity

If you see the way the people in the South are crying about this issue of insecurity, it is as good as crying more than the bereaved. We are the direct victims of this Islamic extremism because you don’t have Boko Haram in the South and northerners are the ones paying on daily basis. So let nobody think about Islamisation because it is stupid for anybody to just sit down and think that someone or government is working on Islamising the country; you cannot even Islamise the North not to talk of the South or the entire country, it is not possible. So if somebody wants to talk something, talk something different but don’t talk about Islamisation.

Is religion and tribe tearing us apart as a people and nation?

It is not true, it is politics. No religious book comes with the message of violence. All they say is about peace advocacy. So anything outside of peace is not religion, it is another thing entirely.

If the major political parties in Nigeria come up in 2023 and they say they are bringing an Igbo man as our presidential candidate; we are zoning it to the South-East, would you lead your group to support such an Igbo man?

We would look for alternative political party; it is not only APC and PDP that are the only political parties in Nigeria. We would look for another political party and form a merger despite the fact that I understand that INEC de-registered over 70 political parties but we will still look for alternative. But I do not also think they will make that mistake because they too know the consequences of taking a position on that, they will not do it because I have said it times without number that any political party that fails to produce a northerner as their candidate is in for a doom because nobody will support that political party. Watch me. The game has just started, let them try it.

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