Professor Ango Abdullahi is the chairman of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF). The onetime vice chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, and former special adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo on Food Security spoke to Trust TV on his early days, how he became the vice chancellor of the ABU at 40, as well as other interesting matters.
By Kabiru A. Yusuf
Continued from last week
You had a difficult tenure as vice chancellor inspite of this support, is that right?
I really had it difficult because my approach to administrative job, whether it is in the university or outside, is to stick to the law, rules and regulations.
But as young students we were aware of the controversy between you and Bala Usman about professorship.
May his soul rest in peace. He was the commander-in-chief of my being a VC of the ABU.
So he supported you?
More than support; he was the one who insisted that they wanted nobody else.
How come you fell out later?
It was very simple politics between him and his other academic colleagues. He did not get along well with Ibrahim Tahel and Prof Femi Adekunle.
There was an incident in Femi Adekunle’s department. We used to say that Bala Usman was a member of staff in Femi Adekunle’s department.
Yes, Sociology. He is now a professor. Femi Adekunle died some months ago. The head of department reported to me that XYZ had done XYZ and I said a small committee should be set up to confirm whether there was an infraction, allegations and so on. They did and the report confirmed that the head of department was right.
Bala didn’t like it and he complained about professorship.
Some people didn’t quite understand the university system. I was one of those directors who refused to be re-designated. Most of the directors said they wanted to be re-designated professors and it was in the power of the Council to do it. The qualifications and procedures for them to be directors are the same as that of any professor.
That is why I challenged them. Why did they even get my curriculum vitae? And they said it didn’t matter, adding, “We got your CV because your last promotion as principle research fellow went through the procedure; it is a matter of designation.”
In any case, the Council had only the power to appoint XYZ, with or without the assessment of something, in the case of fresh people coming into the university. There are those who come qualified, so the VC qualified to be a professor without an external assessment, and so on, let alone those who are internal members.
So many of my colleagues asked for re-designation and got it, but I refused, explaining that I was a research fellow in the Institute of agriculture.
But you were not a professor.
I was not even in when they did the re-designation in the Council appointment and promotion committee. They instructed the registrar to say that the acting VC had been re-designated as professor.
How would you describe your relationship with Bala?
We were very close friends. There was politics of sorts between him and his archrival, Prof Adekunle, and later, Ibrahim Tahel, who eventually left early and went into politics. They didn’t quite agree. But we remained very close. They said they didn’t want this fundamentalist to be their VC.
Who was the fundamentalist; you?
I don’t want to mention names.
You were a special adviser during the Obasanjo government; how did you enter and why did you leave?
In the first place, the question should have been: How did you come into politics? When I retired from the ABU in 1987, before they asked me to come and take my two-year sabbatical, which was my entitlement after eight years in office, I said I was in a hurry and wanted to go back to the practical of the profession I know – agriculture.
I told Prof Danaya that I had waved my entitlement for sabbatical leave and I didn’t want any monetary compensation; so I left.
I started agriculture business. I started poultry with my late senator and friend, and later on, with Waziri Kusima, Ahmed Zeyad. We went into agro-business. We established our first bakery in Kaduna, known as Capital Foods; then later in Zaria, Katsina and so on. My intention was simply to do agric business.
One day, I came back from the farm and found on the table, forms for me to fill and go into a constitutional conference in 1987, the one organised by the transition programme of the then military president, Ibrahim Babangida. I asked the boys who brought the forms and they said Kiumaga.
He said they wanted me to fill the forms so that I would attend the constitutional conference on behalf of our constituency. But I said I was not interested.
He said, “You have to be interested.” I said okay, if I had to be interested I would not go into contest for the assignment. I said, “If you want me to go, then tell others that I will go on behalf of the constituency.” So they asked others to drop; and they did.
Not too long after that, the late Gen Shehu Yar’adua went to see my brother in the village, who was seen as a hard person, saying he heard I was reluctant to come to the constitutional conference. He said he had some thoughts about the future of Nigeria and wanted to get people of like-minds to begin to think of what to do for the future of the country. That was why he came to the village to seek the support of my family, particularly my brother.
He came back and told me that he had gone to the village and had a hard time with my brother. I asked why he didn’t seek my advice before going because I would have stopped him.
Eventually, Shehu caught me when he said he had retired from the army and he saw what the country was as chief of staff, and so on, and something had to be done about the future of this country and we needed to put heads together.
I had just finished my assignment in the ABU, so I agreed to come into small discussions and see what ways we could face the political future of this country.
Would you say it was the people’s front?
Sure. He said the starting point would be for all of us, like-minds (he had selected quite a number of people from all over the country) from all political formations, but mainly from the radical side of the PMP to go to the conference.
Can we talk about the Obasanjo years?
Obasanjo was very close to Shehu. They also worked together in government. From time to time we saw them together but we never knew what military or other relationships they shared.
Finally, we formed a political association. Before we finished the conference, we formed the People’s Front of Nigeria (PFN) and I was the first national chairman. It was launched in Lagos, with Titi Ajanaku as the first national secretary. But the soldiers didn’t give us registration as they decided that none of the groups would be registered. They formed two parties – a little to the left and a little to the right.
A little to the left was the Social Democratic Party (SDP) while a little to the right was the National Republican Convention (NRC). We debated in our group and decided that we should go a little to the left. Eventually, we took over the SDP.
But all along, we didn’t know Shehu’s relationship with his former military colleagues, Aliyu Gasau, Babangida and the rest of them. We didn’t know because we were not military people. I personally didn’t know much about their relationship. But there must have been something that was linking them up.
It looked to me that each time Shehu wanted to do something, there was some level of consultation between him and his former military colleagues, particularly Gusau and Obasanjo, who first met me when he was chief of staff.
Some of you will not recall that I was commissioner in the Abba Kyari military government in North-Central State. And when we were sacked after the coup, we were subjected to an enquiry.
One morning, there was a signal at the police station near the institute that I was wanted in Lagos. I said my crime had gone beyond Kaduna. My director said I should pick my bag and go to Lagos. When I went, I was told to go to the office of the chief of staff, who was Obasanjo.
He started shouting that they had been looking for me at Samaru. There was an enquiry about governors and their commissioners, and I was one of them.
I asked if my crime had brought me to Lagos and he said, “No, we are looking for you to do an assignment. Your colleagues have already been to Benin, you are to join them there.” I asked what assignment and he said they had selected some people to go and investigate agricultural activities in the farms of some former governors, Audu Bako and Ogbemudia. They stopped the plane that took me to Benin. That was my first link with Obasanjo.
How did you join his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-led government?
The politics of variety took us to a position where we were looking for a president from a section of the country.
We took over the SDP from the so-called southern progressives. They thought they would overwhelm the PF, but we overwhelmed them and took over the party completely, appointed and anointed Babagaba Kingibe as the first national chairman of the party.
Finally, Obasanjo and Shehu supported an interim national government and there was damnation eventually.
I think it was my closeness to Shehu Yara’dua that took me close to Obasanjo.
Then something tragic happened and Obasanjo and Shehu were both convicted of a coup plot. That was virtually the beginning of the end of the case of Shehu, who died in prison. After pressure, Obasanjo got his own death sentence converted to life imprisonment.
So northerners were persuaded to support leadership from the South?
I don’t want to go into some of the tricky details. It was decided that somebody neutral should be supported.
Should be. We didn’t know that those who worked with him as security officers knew him. We did not know him. They gave us some reasons the south should have it. Those of us who were in G34 thought it was going to be Ekwueme, but they said he was in support of confederation. When we did our constitutional conference, their proposal was confederation for Nigeria, so they said we would not support someone with a confederate idea to be our president.
Only the soldiers knew who was neutral, from the South-West; and they recommended Obasanjo. He was in prison but they brought him out. It was from there that I began to be assigned to be close to him. I was the one assigned to sit with him when he was to declare that he wanted to run for president on his farm, while the others were sitting behind Atiku.
You didn’t stay long in that government; did you resign? What happened?
No. When he became president, I was there. After winning the election I returned to Zaria. And he did not see me for weeks; then he called my late emir, Shehu Idris, asking after me. The emir called me, saying the president-elect had been looking for me. That was how I went to see Obasanjo. When I saw him, the Defence House was filled with lobbyists all over, including those who were abusing him to his face during the campaigns.
“Where did you go?” He asked. I said I was at home because there was the need to allow him run his government. He said. “Okay, I have called to let you know that you are the minister of agriculture.” I said it was something I could do. So he said I should prepare, and I said fine.
I started preparing in less than a week or two. I was again called to go and see him and he said, “Ango I have been under pressure.” I asked what pressure and he said he had given lopsided appointments, as northern Kaduna had got nothing. I asked if that was my business, but he said there was a lot of pressure. He asked if I would agree to be his special adviser because we remained close, and I said no, “If I cannot be your minister, I would not be your special adviser,” and walked away.
He applied a lot of pressure on my late emir, saying it would be a shame for him to start the government without me. After a lot of pressure from my emir, I agreed to go with him but didn’t do any work. I was sitting there as a friend doing very little. Sometimes we argued in meetings.
One day, there was a meeting with Americans and I was arguing with him, then he stopped the meeting and pointed at me and said, “You know that man is my personal friend. Outside we do a lot of friendly things together but in the office we always quarrel.” General Muhammad was chief of staff.
So you just spent three years?
Not three years. I found that I was just wasting my time because of the things I thought agriculture deserved. Although my friend, Salisu Gandarau, was the minister and allowed me to do anything, psychologically, politically and everything, I didn’t feel comfortable at all.
In 2019, you backed Atiku for president. Are you going to do the same in 2023?
No. The story is not like that. I took the brunt of doing what I had to do with others to dislodge Jonathan. But it is important to go back to that because it was our decision that Jonathan was not treating the country evenly and fairly, especially the North. Secondly, there was a renege of an agreement. I was part of it. We agreed that Obasanjo would be president for eight years, and after him, a northerner would take over for another eight years. Of course he did his eight years. Unfortunately, he almost wanted to go beyond that, but we stood against it and succeeded. He eventually brought my younger brother, Umaru Yara’dua. I called him my younger brother because of his brother.
Initially, we kicked because he didn’t go through the normal process, but Sunday Awoniyi, our leader said no. We got what we wanted and supported Umaru and helped him to work. That’s how it happened.
When Umaru died (hardly three years in office), under that gentleman’s agreement, was there any need for an argument that the North would contest the presidency in 2011? Umaru did three; let’s say we had to concede that last one year constitutionally, 2011 belonged to the North. But these people, including northerners, especially governors, said no. They were the ones who did a lot of the betrayals in 2011 for the North not to get its right of place for presidency in 2011. They supported Jonathan.
We did a consensus arrangement quickly to see whether we could challenge the opposition. Eventually, Atiku emerged out of that consensus and contested, but the governors rallied round and defeated him in favour of Jonathan. And that really kept haunting us, such that some of us decided that we should set up another organisation to fight for the political rights of the North. That was what gave birth to the Northern Elders Forum.
Maitama Sule became the leader while I became the spokesman. That was the vehicle we used to fight Jonathan’s illegal ambition to contest election in 2015. He was president when Umaru died, according to the constitution, and he was president when he contested in 2011. And he wanted to be president in 2015. He would have been president for nine years, which is against the constitution. So with all these things put together, we said we had to fight. Our position was that there should be a candidate of northern extraction, whether from Benue or wherever, not Jonathan.
Going by this your strong logic, it seems that now that the shoe is on the other side you will support a southerner to take over from Buhari after these eight years?
No. I still want to keep the logic. But from all indicators, Nigerians don’t seem to be looking for the best material to look after their country. We were still on this platform of ethnicity, religion, even religious politics.
If you noticed, the meeting of 17 governors recently in the South comprised three different political parties. If it is politics, they should not be sitting together to say they want the presidency to move to the South. Some of them are APC, PDP, some are from the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), yet they came together as a bloc. That bloc is not political, it is ethno-regional. The issue of power sharing based on regions has already been demolished through the activities of what happened with Jonathan. We are insisting that the best candidate be sought from wherever. If the best material happens to come from the South or North, let it be. This is our position; it is open.
Do you share General Babangida’s idea that maybe we should leave it to the younger people, those in their 60s?
Age has something to do with it; I agree. In this case, if you offer me the seat of the president of Nigeria today, I will politely and even vehemently decline because at 83 going to 84, what business have I got to do with the presidency of Nigeria.
A president should be up and doing and I haven’t got that muscle now, but maybe part of my brain is still working, but no.
I agree with Babangida, but again, the qualification is not necessarily for youths because our experience with the youth has been very disappointing. The crimes you accuse elders of committing against the country are the crimes you have been committing, either as governors, chairmen of councils, ministers or commissioners. Just do a research and you will find that no local government chairman is more than 45 or thereabouts, yet they are the ones destroying the system. It is the same with the chief executives of states.
So age may have little to do with it, but I agree with him that we should scout for a person within the range of 50 to 65. We should be able to find the other complements of the good leadership. We need strength of body, mind and integrity.
Some people thought that Babangida did this to edge out some people, specifically Atiku. Well,
I supported Atiku in 2019 because there was an effort to find from among nine or 10 of them contesting against Buhari. I was the one who interviewed every one of them, including Atiku, and they insisted that each one of them had already gotten the support of a certain per cent of Nigerians; they, therefore, would want to be allowed to go for primaries. We had to allow them to go for primaries, after which Atiku emerged. It showed our gut to come out and say that Atiku should be elected rather than Buhari. As far as we are concerned, our assessment of that time and today is that Buhari has failed.
How do you keep well at 83? Do you still have any particular routine to follow?
Well, I look well.
That is your assessment from a distance, but you have not bothered to find how I feel inside.
I returned from a medical check-up in Cairo not too long ago. My only habit of being very active when I was younger was football at Bayero College. Apart from that, maybe it is genetic. My father died at the age of 100 but I never saw him sit down to pray. But now, I am praying on a chair. We thank the Almighty God for his mercies. He gives life, health, and we thank him for his generous gift to us.