From being an agriculturalist to a journalist, and later, civil servant, Ahmed Joda became famous when he was tagged a Super Permanent Secretary during Nigeria’s Civil War, between 1966 and 1970. The retired permanent secretary, also served as the chairman of the transition committee that ushered in the President Muhammadu Buhari administration in 2015. He spoke to Daily Trust when he turned 90 last year on why farmers-herders crisis has continued in Nigeria and how to resolve it, and other important national issues. Here is an abridged version of the interview published on March 1, 2020.
You clocked 90 years recently, how do you feel?
I feel the same as when I was 80 and 70. As long as I can remember, I have followed the same routine: wake up early in the morning to do whatever I want to do for the day. When I am at home in Yola, I wake up at 5:30am, go to the farm, after which I will have my breakfast, lunch and rest. I also go back to the farm and come back at 6pm, then go to bed by 10pm. That is my routine.
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Do you feel fulfilled in life?
I am not sure how to answer that question; I have heard it many times. I did not expect to reach this age because life expectancy in our country is not that high, but I am here and reasonably healthy. I live a fairly independent life; eat whatever I get and move around a lot. I am not constrained in anyway, and to that extent, I feel I have to thank God. When I reflect generally on the Nigeria in which I was born, the country has moved forward a lot and made some progress. I went to school here in Kaduna for my secondary education. It used to take me at least one week to travel from Yola to Kaduna. Now, it takes less than one day to do that journey. I have seen Nigeria grow.
When I went to school in what was Adamawa Province in 1939, there was only one elementary school in Yola and seven in the entire province, which was made up of what is today Taraba and Adamawa states. There are now at least five universities in that region. I do not know how many secondary schools there are, but there are primary and secondary schools in every village and town.
Then, there used to be one hospital, but we now have many hospitals with lots of doctors and nurses. Things have changed, but it is sad to say that the progress we have made is far below my expectations.
As a Fulani man and farmer, what is your perception of farmers/herders clashes?
Since the beginning of time there has been the existence of farmers, hunters, cattle people, fishermen and so on. All these communities have lived together; cooperated with one another, supplemented the efforts of one another in order to have successful farming, animal rearing and so on. It happens that as far as cattle are concerned, it is mostly the Fulani or Bororo people that are engaged in fully rearing it, virtually to the exclusion of any other thing. When I was a child, I was a herdsman before I was in school. During my school life, I knew the two communities existed well together.
What happened that they have become enemies? One major thing I remember is that in the early 1950s, there was a census and the population of Nigeria was less than 40million people. Today, it is estimated that we are 200million people. This means that there are more millions of people who need to be fed, housed, and they need infrastructure like roads, industries and other facilities built, all on the same piece of land, which size cannot be increased.
The population of cattle is also growing, using the same land and resources. There are more farms, reducing the lands that are available for open grazing. But we have continued to use the same primitive method of farming and livestock keeping, so the land can no longer cope.
The Fulani herdsman that used to feel free, wake up in the morning, graze his cattle and go back to camp, and at the end of the rainy season, move to a land where the grass is greener, can no longer do so without going across somebody’s field. Remember that they will not own lands; it is the open land that they use. Thus, on their way to drink water or eat grass, the cattle will damage somebody’s crop or property.
What will a farmer with a destroyed farmland do? He will go to the police or court. When the police collect bribe from the Fulani to release him, then the farmer has no solution; rather, he goes back to his kinsmen to gather themselves to attack the herdsman, probably kill him in the process, or both communities fight one another, which will result in death. That is what is happening.
I happen to be the president of a non-governmental organisation that tries to mediate in the conflict between farmers and grazers and to bring about peaceful coexistence. More than 20 years ago, our organisation had drawn attention to every government, whether at the state or federal level, that a crisis was coming, and unless something was done, it would get out of control. No government paid attention to this warning. Even now that we are in the crisis, have you heard the National Assembly debate the crisis and propose solutions? Have you heard any governor, especially in northern Nigeria, where the problem is more acute, develop any plan to resolve the situation?
The only solution I can see is a purposeful development programme, which will be resolved in the total resettlement of all the cattle people, especially, designated development pasture areas that can contain them. Otherwise, we will be wasting our time.
Nigerians have expressed disappointment at some policies of the present administration, especially the spate of insecurity across the country and the presumed deaf ears of the presidency concerning the removal of service chiefs; what’s your advice?
I have access to President Buhari, so I would like to directly express my feelings and interpretation of the situation to him. These are sensitive issues and not what we can discuss on the pages of newspapers.
You became famous in the civil service and was nicknamed Super Permanent Secretary, how did that happen?
It was something the public, perhaps the press, invented and promoted. I found myself at the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War to be the permanent secretary in the Federal Ministry of Information. It was a time Nigeria was going through bad press around the world and I was new to the situation. When I arrived in Lagos and took my position, I inherited all the good and the bad. I had no experience of how to deal with it, especially the international press. I was quite familiar with the Nigerian media, but in trying to get used to the job, I found a group of very tough civil servants, among them permanent secretaries who were willing to be involved and who offered their help, and together we devised strategies and travelled around the world. And because we were seen at public events and wherever important public occasions were taking place, we were exposed to the press more than our fair share. I think those clichés just happened.
It wasn’t because we were better than anybody else, it happened that at that particular point in time, we had the opportunity to be seen and heard.
Many people say the northern part of the country is regressing because the political class deviated from the visions of the founding fathers. What is your take on this, given your experiences?
It is a very complex question. In the First Republic, when we became independent, we had leaders who were home grown, people who rose from the bottom and gradually to the top and had learned how to manage people and scarce resources to achieve certain goals, and to agree to be bound by rules and regulations. Politics was a responsibility they accepted with the background of service to the public and the development of the society.
For Northern Region, people like Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Kashim Ibrahim, Dan Mahmudu Ribadu, Isa Kaita, Peter Achimogu, were men who spoke and understood the same language as political leaders. For us who happened to be rising, serving and learning from them, we saw them as being put there by God, so we accepted them as our natural leaders. I think, for the most part, it was the same thing for the Western Region.
How many of your contemporaries are still alive and how often do you relate with them?
I was recently in Abeokuta and there were at least four or five of my contemporaries from different parts of the country who were at a dinner party by our level of permanent secretaries. There were some others who were directors or secretaries, or junior officials who are now all retired.
What would you want to be remembered for?
The way I am, the way I have been, the way people have accepted me. I don’t think I have done anything outstanding than most people have, it happens that it has received more public recognition than for most people.
Any regret in life?
I don’t think there is anyone who can be 90 and say he has never done things he should not have done. I think I’ve had my ups and downs, but I survived them without much stress.
What message do you have for the youth, northerners and the country in general?
We must recognise that we are very negligent in our approach and attention to education. We must understand that we have no other place on earth. We must change our attitudes and give maximum attention to quality education. Go to Lagos and see what is happening. It is a society that is changing in the direction the rest of the world is changing. Even the way people behave, receive and treat one another is changing in Lagos.
In northern Nigeria, among the Muslim Hausa community, it is not changing. I mean, you don’t need to interfere with the development of the youths of northern Nigeria. We need to guard it, allow them to have full access to education, allow them to be part of this new and changing world and allow them to express themselves and encourage and assist them to do so. We all have that responsibility as parents, journalists and administrators. Unless we do that, we are absolutely not going anywhere.