Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, former minister of Sports and Youths, former spokesperson of the All Progressives Congress (APC), former editor and an author is always a reporter’s delight. He says it the way he feels, punchy and straightforward.
Fielding questions from Sunday Sun in Abuja, Abdullahi spoke on wide range of issues, bothering on Nigerian politics, the Almajiri menace, the impact of COVID-19 on the future of Nigeria, the crises that will engulf political parties in Nigeria ahead of 2023 and the new Nigeria political trajectory. Excerpts:
How will Nigeria handle the Almajiri menace in the North, considering the fact that they have now become agents for the spread of COVID-19?
What is going on regarding the Almajiri children now is quite tragic. They are only victims not criminals. Regardless of what anybody may think about them, they are only victims of cultural practice that have gone very wrong and cannot be justified under any circumstance. If it was justified in the past, it cannot now. Another angle to it is to look at the constitutional right of these children. Does a Nigerian state governor have the power to forcefully remove or deport Nigerian citizen, against his will, to another state when he has not been convicted of any crime? The answer is no; even as I am not a lawyer, yet, today, we hear that some governors are deporting citizens from one state to the other, forgetting that they are Nigerian children. However, I think it is about time we came up with a national strategy for dealing with socially dislocated children. We can call them Almajiri, but they are socially dislocated children. And even if we behave as if they are not Nigerian children, we cannot wish them away as one. The governors can remove them from their states, but cannot wish them away as Nigerian children. We have to handle it the holistic way like desertification. We have to adopt regional approach in handling Almajiri. The northern governors must form a coalition to tackle the menace. Deporting them is a disgrace to the country. They must make it their number one agenda at one of their meetings. It is good to build schools for them, but the challenge we must recognise is that, that they are not in school in the first place is not because there are no schools for them to attend, but because of the fundamental reason that existed previously. We need to go beyond just building the school to changing their mentality that does not embrace schooling. We need to go beyond giving them food, but come up with programme deliberately targeted at them. If I use my bias, I think sports should be a major entry point towards dealing with Almajiri problem. If we can engage these children in sporting activities, like putting about 100 of them in sports academy, allowing them to learn Koran if they want to and once they are rattled by their inability to count game scores because they cannot read numbers, they will have reason to want to learn numbers and write things down thereby embarking on education.
The governors should just set up sports centres across the Northern region where you have Almajiri problem. Engaging them in sports can remove them from the streets and before long many of them will start winning laurels for the country.
Did it surprise you how Oshiomhole survived the sack threat hanging on his neck before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic?
I think I have said enough about the removal of the APC National chairman that I don’t need to repeat myself again. I am no longer in the APC, it is their problem they will solve it. COVID-19 has put a halt to whatever crisis they have, but it will not last forever. The parties are in a state of illusion and a lot of things will happen. There will be many other underlining crises across the political parties. There is going to be realignment which may not be formal that will change the direction of Nigeria politics. I strongly believe that it is desirable because look at someone like me, I was in PDP and left for APC, back to the PDP again and don’t even know where I am now. There are so many of us like that in APC with PDP background and vice-visa. Nigeria seems to have become a two party state. We may have preponderance of political parties, but at the end, Nigerians seem to have preferred just two parties. I don’t know how the two parties will emerge, whether it will still be APC and PDP or amalgamation of another merger. There is likely going to be a political party crisis in Nigeria and because we are in a period of transition, something will happen. Each time we have an incumbent leaving office like in 2023, it will generate a lot tremor within the system, which will come with some consequences.
Are you supporting the reduction in the number of political parties in Nigeria?
We don’t actually need so many political parties especially as many of them don’t exist anywhere apart from Abuja or wherever they are located. Even when we have fewer political parties in the first and second republic, they still had presence in every part of the country. They have their areas of dominance, but with measures of national spread. It has even become difficult to manage and make rational choice among the hundreds of political parties we have now. Politically, it may be okay, but it is not good for us in terms of strengthening our democracy. I think some rationalisation and concession need to happen. The numbers, making our ballot paper to run into several kilometres, is not helping anybody especially as many of them don’t get a single vote even from their party chairman.
How much of impact has CODIV-19 had on Nigeria politics?
I think that in terms of how it will affect Nigeria politics in the years ahead rather than how it has affected it now can be viewed in two ways. The challenge COVID-19 posed now is testing the utmost capacity of government to handle major crisis and pandemic of this nature and magnitude. We have never seen anything like this in our life time, but it is also a learning curve for the government and all of us alive now. Secondly, it is a major test of our social protection programme which is one of the cardinal programmes of the APC’s social safety net. This pandemic has shown that lots of things need to be done to deliver social protection to the majority of Nigerians. The real challenge that COVID-19 will bring to Nigerian politics is that over the years, it has been driven by how much money available to be shared. The interest of many people that want to be president, governors or National Assembly members is based on the expectation that some allocation will be shared at the end of the month. Now, we have found ourselves in a situation where our major foreign earner which is the crude oil is no longer selling and nobody is even willing to buy because all the industries, systems have shut down because of the health pandemic. I am afraid that the drop in demand for crude oil is going to continue for a very long time. The vessels carrying crude are even stranded in the high sea, looking for who to take them on credit or free of charge. Nigeria is certainly going to face major crisis in that respect which will change many things politically. The crop of people that will be coming into politics will be people that have contribution to make. We are going to graduate from the era of every Tom, Dick and Harry coming out to be president, governor and other political positions because at the end of the month national cake will be shared. Now, that money will no longer be available, all cadres of governments are reviewing their 2020 budgets. The Federal Government started it, benchmarking it $20pb. There will be no money as it used to be and lots of things should have to change. All the wastages, profligacy, will certainly reduce. As it is now, nobody can accurately estimate how far the impact of this COVID-19 pandemic will go, but as far as we can see, I believe it will create opportunity for genuine people with ability and competence to contest elections in the country.
Will it shape the 2023 general elections?
It should certainly shape the 2023 general elections because if the conversation was largely about the ethnicity of the president whether he should come from the North or South, whether rotational at the centre, state and local governments level, the conversation is likely to shift beyond those parochial considerations to the issue of competency and suitability. We are going to face an unprecedented challenge and we need people who can re-enact the economy of Nigeria and who can reengineer the economy of the states to come forward. Only recently, Atiku Abubakar came up with ideas of how Nigerian economy can move forward and how the Federal Government should respond to crisis that will likely come out from CODIC-19 pandemic. Few days after, Asiwaju Ahmed Tinubu came up with his own prescriptions on what Nigeria should be doing to mitigate the crisis ahead. What these suggestions mean is that the conversation is already shifting. These are people that will likely come out among others in 2023. The crisis will certainly come whether we like it or not because we are not likely going to recover from this situation in maybe another one or two years or even forever. It is certainly going to change lots of things. There is going to be counter narrative in 2023 because there are children born in 1999 after the return to democracy that will be voting for the first time in their lives. They never lived under military rule and there is so much of history that they don’t understand, there is so much of the future that is cloudy for them that they can’t fathom. They want a different kind of future especially as almost all of them are educated except in extreme situation. Their understanding of politics and the factors they consider in making electoral choices should differentiate them from what it used to be. Many of them don’t have that ethnic consciousness that has bedevilled the country. Those living in Abuja, Lagos or other major cities have taken it as their state of origin. For them visiting village is like visiting their fathers’ village not theirs. All these will change the trajectory of Nigerian politics starting from 2023 and I think that the future is very gloomy because a lot of things are not clear. However, from the ashes of COVID-19 pandemic, a better Nigeria will emerge.
You mean there is likely going to be generational shift in 2023 general elections or ethnic consciousness will still determine the trajectory?
Those who canvass ethnicity and regionalism will still continue with it to gain advantage. But we have gotten to a point where the majority of Nigerian youths that have been battered and affected by the COVID-19 and the general overall poverty index released recently by the National Bureau of Statistics will be asking a different kind of question. We used to think that those who read abroad have advantage in terms of contributing to the national productivity, but that advantage is not there anymore. It no longer makes any difference whether parents spend millions of dollars training their children abroad and those that read at home because they all are trapped by the problem of unemployment. I don’t know if it will be in 2023 or beyond, but all these youths will come together as a group to demand a different kind of result from our politics. An average Nigerian does not trust government at all levels anymore or the politicians. So, what should be the most important question to every Nigerian politician is how to regain the trust of the people. This reflected in the 2019 general election when new people came on board. Even though they did not make the impact they are expected to make, it was vote of no confidence on the traditional politicians. It shows that if the youths have the war chest to mobilise the kind of resource and coalition, they will really make impact on the ordinary Nigerians who want someone to envision their future. If we politicians don’t propose a new beginning for Nigeria, people will no longer take us serious anymore. They no longer think that politicians have solution to the problem of this country anymore. So, post COVID-19, the issue of ethnicity of the president will not be the first consideration. Equity will be very important and there is nothing contradictory in demanding that the president comes from a particular side of the country, but we must insist that the person should be suitable. We should cautiously know that eligibility is not the same thing as suitability. The fact that someone is eligible does not make him suitable for the challenges ahead. The president can come from a particular region, but must meet certain basic criteria, have the ability or competence to make Nigeria a better country. We are essentially entering into post non-oil economy and need a different kind of fuel to run it. We need a person suitable to drive that new engine that will not run on crude oil. If we are still stocked in the parochial politics of where one comes from or ‘chop-I-chop’ kind of politics, we are going nowhere. Unfortunately our politics is defined that way, but going forward, we need to graduate beyond it. Look at the consideration for academic qualification for the president and governors, requiring only First School Living Certificate. It is possible to be a president, a governor and or local government chairman of Nigeria without any education. Other climes chose their leaders from the best of the institutions because it counts for something. If you are not educated and don’t have experience, what will be your reference and take off point to analyse the situation you meet on ground. We have to correct it going forward because how do we hire the best hands and brains to run banks, industries, but go for illiterate to run government which has serious impact on the lives of the majority of Nigerians. How can this country make progress with such decisions? These are the kind of issues we should start laying emphasis on not ethnicity. We need to look at pedigree, educational background, technical and political skill.
Are old politicians facing existential threat in 2023?
I don’t see the majority of those that have dominated Nigerian politics post-independence having the kind of influence like before in 2023. Many of them have advanced in age and will not be in the position to wield the enormous powers they had previously. We are likely to see younger people that will change the dynamics of Nigerian politics. A coalition is likely to emerge as a pan-Nigeria group to guide the political direction in 2023. I suspect such will likely happen. There is beginning to be that consciousness to build new political direction and culture for Nigeria. The generation that led us from post-independence will likely retire by 2023. It is going to be a new dispensation and a good opportunity for younger people to emerge. How far the younger generation can go in 2023 I cannot tell, but I also envisage danger because of the vacuum to be created by the retirement of the majority of the old politicians, which will see new people coming forward to posture as new order, but will they really be the new order? If they had been part of the decadent of the past, it is very unlikely that they will push the country in different directions. The challenge is that if the right kind of persons don’t come forward to step into that void to be created in 2023, we are likely to find a solution where people that are part of the past generation posturing as the new order will still occupy for another 20 or 30 years. It is going to be a major risk and major opportunity. Our priority now should be how we can be part of the effort to fix this country. If we don’t do that our generation will go down as the worst in Nigerian history. We must start to give direction to the younger people in this country. We need to reimagine this country and refocus it along the trajectory of comity of nations.