In this exclusive interview with Daily Trust on Sunday, the Chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum and immediate past Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, reveals how Northern Nigeria lost no fewer than 126 industries in Kano alone between 1999 and 2020.
The Benue-born elder statesman also speaks about the newly formed North Central Peoples Forum (NCPF) and other pertinent issues. Excerpts
Sometimes in March this year, you were announced as the new chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), how did you emerge as the leader of this forum?
Well, there was really no election.
The forum was preparing for its 20th anniversary and the existing structure was that those who had served their term were about to be replaced.
I think the forum decided to go round and search for somebody whom they thought could fit into the job as chairman.
That was how it came about as I was later informed.
After looking around, they thought I should fill in the gap.
There was really no contest or election.
They decided and then I was informed.
You’re coming at a time the Northern region is bedeviled with a lot of challenges, especially security challenges, ranging from kidnapping, banditry, and the rest of them, what is your agenda in tackling these challenges?
I have always felt, considering my age that this danger was going to come.
I was invited by the ACF in 2005 shortly after I left the PDP to give a talk in Kaduna at the Trade Fair Complex.
It was attended by close to two thousand people. And the late Chief Awoniyi, the late Adamu Ciroma, and the late Abubakar Rimi were there.
Many top political functionaries were there, and I was asked to choose a topic.
The topic I chose was ‘The North and the future of Nigeria’.
The thrust of my argument was that we were in danger of major violence in the not too distant future.
I gave my reasons I thought that agriculture was declining in the North, industrialization has gone under completely, and perhaps the only industry that was available was politics.
I don’t think that politics alone has ever developed any society.
It is full of arguments, contentious debate and descent and so on in the struggle by one person, two or three for one position and I thought we were in danger; this was 2005.
There were those who said to me then that I was being a bit too academic, that the North was not in danger, and that Northerners don’t behave like that.
I actually said we were on the verge of violence, even to the extent of emirs and chiefs being in danger and so on.
But few others said, well, this thing you were saying might happen.
Exactly five years later, in 2010, Boko Haram broke out.
Since then, the story is now known to all of us.
So, it is a difficult time, but the new ACF, will definitely tackle the issues.
Just yesterday, all of us were here, discussing our strategies.
It is not something we can jump into, go to the press, and announce immediately but we are working to find lasting solutions to the problems.
Then, what are those solutions?
Genuine growth in agriculture where we have always been great, although we have declined.
Combining education at all levels both Quranic and Western education, so that no child is denied the benefits of both forms of education.
Then, industrialization, we are very backward there since the outbreak of the civil war, and even before the civil war, the north has simply lost everything.
Kano alone has lost 126 industries. Big names in the 60s and early 70s in the industries, the Dantattas, the Rabius in Kano, and people like Mai Deribe in Maiduguri, Tilley Gyado in Benue, Bako Kotangora, Dongoa from Niger State, Dan Boyi Gyang in Plateau, and many others.
These were Northern stars in the industry.
Many have passed away and apart from few in Kano, we have not replaced them, and that is a tragedy.
A country doesn’t grow just on the back of politics.
Today, all the way from local governments to states, we are not doing much.
You arrive a state and not a single industry is functioning.
For some of exists us, this is where we are going to start doing what we have to do, especially through agriculture and agro-industry but it is to take planning.
We are not the government.
We don’t really have resources of our own.
We are going to ask members, men and women of goodwill in the north, in the South, across the globe to come to our help when we reel out our agenda.
We have to get our younger people and women into productive activity; that is the only solution.
You are from the North Central, a zone that has always cried out for marginalization, and you are coming at a time when this alleged marginalization is still there. How are you going to use your position to address this?
I think we will work on the basis of equity.
First of all, we are not a government.
Secondly, we are not necessarily out just as an opposition group, opposing other groups within the region.
We want to see ourselves as looking at the entire area as our own base.
Where there are shortcomings, we will address them.
People talk of marginalization usually because of positions in government to which we expect that there would be equitable appointments.
Sometimes, the appointments are not well-balanced, so, people complain and that’s fair for them to complain.
But the problem is, there is far too much attention on these appointments as if the appointments themselves had ever made any difference.
They haven’t. People imagine that because a Head of State is from your part, that your area was fun and enjoying.
Yakubu Gowon was here, IBB was here, Abdulsalami, all of them were from this same region.
Did it then mean that they would simply and automatically spread all the amenities in this area?
You don’t do that!
Gowon was Head of State in Lagos.
Under him, the flyovers and the bridges and so on were built.
He didn’t transfer them to Kaduna state, where he was born in Zaria or Plateau.
Heads of State don’t operate that way.
Shagari was here, he did a huge job in agricultural expansion in the River Basin and so on.
He didn’t necessarily put everything in Sokoto.
Jonathan just left; he didn’t put everything in Bayelsa because he came from there.
Here is Buhari now, doing the second Niger Bridge in Onitsha, he’s not from there.
There were other Southern leaders before him, they didn’t necessarily do it.
Jonathan did Almajiri schools in the North, he’s not from there. So, there is a limit.
And Yakubu Gowon who began the whole idea of Abuja, people don’t know this, that at the end of civil war, Gowon sat down with the soldiers.
He did the review of the war and the security situations that arose as a result of the war, and they realized that Lagos was too near the ocean, so, they began discussing how to move the capital to the central area.
There were those who said to Gowon and this is the story I was told recently that they should move it to Zaria or Kaduna. Gowon said No!
If I do that, I would be accused of taking the capital to Kaduna and say Kaduna mafias have seized capital from Lagos.
Then, they said take it to Jos, and he said No!
If I do that, I would also be accused of taking the capital to my own base.
So, Yakubu Gowon took his leave, came to Minna here, took an army helicopter, and flew around from Minna to Kaduna, Kaduna to Jos, Jos to Gidan Waya to Keffi, they landed there, flew from Keffi to Lokoja.
Lokoja back to Minna and then said, it seemed this central area looks like an area that will be suitable, and nobody would accuse me of one thing or the other.
To tell you how fair-minded leaders can be at the centre. Now, Gowon’s regime came to an end in 1975.
Luckily, in Gowon’s cabinet, were Murtala Mohammed, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Shehu Shagari.
It was Murtala who now signed the Decree establishing Abuja.
After he left, Obasanjo came in for a period, actual work didn’t start but there was a committee going around the world headed by Akinola Aguda.
They went to Brazil, they went to Morocco and they went to Kambarra in Australia and came here and saw the plans of what a new capital looked like.
It was Shagari who began the construction in 1981.
I commissioned the first post office in Abuja in 1982 and the first telephone exchange.
That is how government works.
But people had a sense of alienation and said look, we would be left out, this and that.
But for me, what I would advise people to do is that there is no substitute for actual participation in the economic activities by the people themselves.
Political appointments alone don’t solve any problem.
Even Ajaokuta, it was Shagari who started.
Ajaokuta and the other five rolling mills, I was a minister there briefly after the minister of Communications.
None of them was cited in Shagari’s home village.
So, national leadership means a lot more than just this business of ‘when I get there, I will put my people alone’.
But when appointments are made, those are the visible signs of power, and when certain things happen, and they do happen quite often here, people have reasons to be angry, they will say look, why are you loading your people in the system, forgetting that we exist, and I don’t blame people when they feel that way.
But the day will come and should come quickly when people remain totally indifferent to who becomes what.
Take a state like our dear Benue, we are rich.
Benue is the size of Holland; Holland has no land; it is below the sea level.
Can you imagine what will happen when we really tackle agriculture in Benue?
We can have millionaires coming out of every village and the Tiv people are particularly the people in Agric.
These are the issues, and that is where we in the ACF are now looking at – create wealth, create opportunities, engage the youths and women, create agro-industry.
A day is coming when nobody will really want to be in government because it is really not as attractive the way it looked.
Southern Kaduna has been in the news lately, and it is one area in the North that has witnessed a lot of bloodshed that seems to defy solution. How would the ACF under your leadership tackle this?
We intend to set to work.
You know we came in and Corona came in and all that, so, we haven’t been able to do much.
We’ve been meeting with leaders – the governors, SOKAPU, and so on.
But what we learned from the distance is also that some of our national political challenges have gotten rot in the problems of Southern Kaduna.
Those problems have to be dealt with.
We will meet with people and propose solutions, appeal to them. Nobody gains from the killings.
It is a rich area in soil and possibilities but the killings won’t help anybody.
Recently, there was the formation of the North Central People’s Forum, which many people see as a breakaway of the ACF, what is your take on that?
We are not upset by the development.
People are free to form associations to express their views.
That is the essence and beauty of democracy.
So, people want to express some concerns about the North Central zone after all we also have the Middle Belt Forum and now, it is the North Central.
We are not going to go to war tomorrow and say you can’t form.
If Northeast decides tomorrow and say look, we too are battered by Boko Haram, we too want to form an association; or the Northwest, says we have also been battered by violence, we are not going to rise and oppose them.
We will work with them.
We welcome them on board, hoping that the agenda is the same as ours, targeting developments, eliminating violence, and backwardness in the north.
So, we have no quarrel with them.
Many people see it as a sign of disunity?
We prefer not to see it that way.
I guess we haven’t fully seen or been told all the objectives but they’ve said, from what we read that they are going to fight against marginalization and neglect of the North Central area including the abandonment of Ajaokuta and so on.
Ironically, Ajaokuta is about to come alive.
I think that observation is a little bit late in the day but we were all here.
From 1983 when Ajaokuta was almost commissioned; I was a minister then, I repeat.
The medium steel section was to be commissioned in February 1984 to produce railway tracks – 2km of tracks per day.
We wouldn’t have needed to go to China to take any loans now if we were making tracks here – 2km a day of tracks but the coup came and everything was halted.
But if they express their views and say they are going to be drawing the government’s attention to shortcomings and shortages of infrastructure and developments in the North Central area, fine!
We are not angry with anyone, we are not quarrelling with anyone, and we welcome them.
I’m sure at one point, our desires and targets can converge.
The ACF has been accused of having failed in its objectives, especially by the minorities within the ACF, who allege that the ACF has failed to address the challenges of the North which has given rise to other groups like Northern Elders Forum and others. How are you going to use your position to change this perception?
Like I said earlier, as long as we have groups which draw our attention to our backwardness, but are not in a position to do anything about them, those associations would always be seen to have failed.
You can complain that you have been neglected, that doesn’t mean they have found a solution.
You can complain that there is partiality in the distribution of amenities, that doesn’t mean you have changed anything.
You can criticize the government of the day, that doesn’t mean you’ve changed anything because sometimes, these criticisms hardened those in government and turn governance into circles of indifference.
The man at the top would tell you I’m doing my best! If they are not impressed, it is too bad.
We are saying, like I said earlier, that we intend to do a couple of things and we will do them but we need help to get it done.
We need resources, beginning with young people and women, tackling poverty.
Politics alone will never make us richer or stronger.
We’ve been here for long.
I have been in politics since 1978.
The mere fact that somebody has become a minister or one thing or the other, or governor or Head of State, doesn’t automatically make the area and make everybody shout for joy.
Why is there still violence in Katsina?
Ordinarily, everybody in Katsina should be dancing with joy that their son is President.
It doesn’t work that way. Why is there still violence in some states?
Their own sons and daughters are leaders there but there is still violence.
The point is, as long as developments leave so many people behind, as long as many of us retire into nothing, the moment we put government, we are going to be angry with the government because we have nothing.
We have no bank in the North today, not one.
Obasanjo’s reform of a banking system took away the Bank of the North, took away the Lion Bank from Plateau, it took away Inland Bank from Bauchi, it took away Habib Bank, Highland Bank from Gongola, they were all sold.
How do you grow an economy without a banking infrastructure?
Sometimes, I have had the experience of applying for a loan and being denied.
And some of my counterparts from other parts have got these loans.
When I was told that I was politically exposed, they got money because they own the banks.
We sat here when these things were happening, some of us protested, nobody listened, they claimed it was restructuring of the bank but I think it was a punitive design by the government at the time to deal with us.
Somebody had boasted then that by the time he finished with the North, we would all be beggars like our brothers on the street, and he implemented it.
So, one doesn’t need to go emotional about this but these things have happened.
When people complain that the ACF has been ineffective, what can it do?
It is not a government, it has no budget, and it has no capacity to build industries, to start a bank, to do anything.
We have all carried on, thinking, and complaining about all our problems.
Look, complaining will make us laughable and ridiculous in the eyes of the rest of the country because down there, our counterparts in the South believe that because the Northerners are in government they are enjoying everything.
No! Few individuals acquired their monies legally or illegally, but it doesn’t change anything.
We, in the North at the level of Local Governments, state governments, and at the federal level must recognize where the shortfalls are, where things are lacking and begin to develop this place ourselves through enterprise.
If not, there can be ACF for two hundred years, there can be all sorts of fora here and there, they would not go beyond talk shops and association of protests.
There have been agitations for restructuring and the other socio-cultural groups in the country – from the South West, South East have made their positions known on restructuring. What is the position of ACF?
We haven’t sat down as ACF yet to deal with the issue.
But some of the arguments and proposals I have seen made sense.
Many of the States today can hardly survive if the federation account dries up.
Lagos State IGR is bigger than the entire north added up because Lagos state is the New York of Nigeria.
72% of Nigeria’s currency circulates in Lagos.
Out of every Naira in circulation, 72 kobo is in Lagos, 28% is what’s left and most of that is in southeast and South-South.
Up here, we are really just sharing poverty.
We have the potentials to grow the economy, we haven’t done so.
When they talk of restructuring, and they talk of the regions taking control and contributing to the centre, as was in the case in the 60s, before the coup of 1966, one question I want to ask them is that, who destroyed that structure?
In those years, the North actually contributed more, to the centre than any other region, the records are there.
The native authorities were very active.
They gave scholarships, they built hospitals, and they built schools.
The coup in 1966 introduced a unitary government, and since then successive governments have carried on with that structure with the centre sending money to the regions.
So, all the complaints today are made by people who refused to recognize the history of where true federalism came from, and why it has been so pervasive and why they are now shouting for true federalism.
Sometimes, there is a bit of hypocrisy in those shouts.
They knew what happened.
I was at King’s College in the lower 6 when this began.
So, restructuring or none, the issue is, if the federating units are not strong enough to take care of their interest, no matter how much you restructure, those that are not contributing to the growth of the country will remain liabilities to the centre.
They will remain centres of protests, crimes and discontent.
We have not yet examined it.
We will set up a committee to examine it this year and make our positions known.
But I am saying this that we have to work harder at regional levels.
Let me ask, today everybody is protesting about the centre, what has Buhari done and all that.
I’m not holding brief for him necessarily.
Every one of us belongs to one local government in Nigeria, and every Nigerian belongs to a State.
Are the local governments functioning?
Are all the states functioning?
How do you come to a state when there is no single industry working?
You go to local government areas, nothing! You don’t know what they do with their allocations!
You only hear that the chairman gets N2 million, and the rest of the money, nobody knows where it goes.
We knew in benue here when the Tiv NA and the Idoma Native Authority and so many native authorities were governments of their own, building roads and bridges.
They had tools, farms, and hospitals. What happened to us?
And where is the money?
And nobody asks! If we, the new political class have become grossly irresponsible, and we think complaining and shouting is the solution, we can be shouting for the next 50 years, nothing will change.
Governments have to be accountable and responsible at the lowest levels.
Why can’t a local government in the period of 3 years set up a small agro-industry relevant to the raw materials produced in that area?
Allocations are given out every month, where is the money?
So, it is very nice to attack the centre – saying ‘this regime has failed; this regime is the wors!’.
Ask your local government chairman; ask your governor, is he running the state?
And I am also talking to the elite, do that! Check!
What is happening in your state, in your local government, your environment? Is there any progress when you go home?
Is there any grader to open village roads to allow them move their agric products to the market?
Grader, just to grade the road in some states!
What right do they have to complain to someone else?
What efforts are they making? These are serious issues!
Are you still a member of the APC?
Yes, I am.
Being a member of the APC and your position as the ACF chairman, will it give you a sense of objectivity to be critical of the government?
Absolutely! I speak my mind any day, anywhere because when I criticize, it is not because I hate, it is because I love, and it is because I want us to do better.
We can be happier, richer. God gave us too much!
The problem with all of us at the leadership level is that we have never paid attention to where the wealth is.
Once oil and gas came it became federation account and all that, let’s go there!
Soya beans, from Benue state, the Chinese are looking for 2 million tons of Soya beans and they want the hybrid, not the GMOs they are buying from Brazil and the US.
They are buying it because there is no alternative.
1 ton of Soya beans is $850. Imagine Benue shipping out a million tons per year, we can do it.
The Tiv people have been growing Soya beans for long and in my area, my people don’t want to learn how to grow Soya beans.
The Chinese are looking for white sorghum, they us it for alcohol which they love.
They are looking for cassava chips.
Between 1956 or early 50s and 1967 when the civil war began, Nigeria accounted for 44% of the world’s total production of palm oil. We are now down to 3%.
What happened? We did export cashew nuts to Vietnam where they roast and export to Europe.
Why can’t we roast cashew here and grow more?
We import hibiscus to Mexico, each year, worth $30 million.
The Russians are looking for it.
The Turks are looking for it. We can do more.
We import milk worth $1.6 billion a year.
If we know how to keep our cattle and stop them roaming around, the production of milk will double in a year or two.
Then, we cut down all those things.
India has 33,000 rice mills, integrated rice mills. We have only 34 here.
They grow 155 million tons of paddy per annum.
We are still in short of paddy to run our mills.
And for a long time, we were spending $5m a day importing rice until we stopped 2 years ago.
On cocoa, we are now number 7. Coffee, we don’t even produce! Maize, we are going to import now because there is a shortfall and the poultry farmers are complaining.
I can go on and on. So, what are we doing?
We have to change and intensify activities on that sector, and then the complaints will simply die down!
But as long as it is federation action account, money sharing, as long as the pay is the answer from federal purse to all our problems, as the wells are drying up and as the whole world is going,
India has told us now that by the end of next year, none of their trucks would be using diesel, we are going electrical.
And then we turn at the government and say what are they doing?
This government has failed, since they came, we are suffering.
That is it! I will speak my mind! I was a founder of the party.
We sat down for four months in Tom Ikimi’s house, putting the APC together.
I was the chairman of the manifesto committee of the party and Hadi Sirika was the secretary.
In that manifesto, I said it that every year, the party should have a conference, examining its performance.
But I have been pleading with the chairman but they never did!
We should ask ourselves, have we done well? Where did we fail? Where can we do better, we never did! I did that when I was in PDP.
We did one and later people said that why should we call the President to come and tell us how he’s performing! Why not?
We put him there! He should come and tell us his problems, area of challenges, where he has done well.
We can ask him questions and sit down and examine ourselves and say, we are failing in this sector, we have done well in that sector, but as typical Nigerian politicians, we don’t like that.
Review like you taking your cars for servicing. Sit down and ask yourselves are we doing well? Aren’t we doing well? Why are we not doing well? What is wrong with economy? How can we improve?
Nobody wants to do that kind of thing! When I am still in ACF, I will always be objective in all what I do on my views, issues of governance and our existence as a people!
Are you saying you are not satisfied with the state of affairs within the party and the nation?
We should do better!
We’ve brought the party to a very bad shape now! They all know it! What happened in Edo!
How do you sit and allow that to happen before you take action?
As I have said it earlier, how does that challenge our capacity for 2023 because challenges will keep coming?
If a party can’t sit down and ask itself what’s going on, where are the problems coming from, then, how does it go before an election would come and say let’s look for money?
Talking about 2023, recently, Mamman Daura stirred the hornet’s nest when he spoke about jettisoning zoning, what’s your take?
Honestly, it is too early to jettison zoning.
Someday, it would come like in the US, when George Bush, the son of another George Bush took over within less than 20 years, it would come but not now!
As of now, there is high level sensitivity as to who is at the head and which area he comes from and what would appear as domination and exclusion of others.
I have always belonged to political organisations that believe in zoning.
I will tell you this story. In 1998, we met in Jerry Gana’s house, Adamu Ciroma, Rimi, the late Awoniyi and all of us were there.
The issue was about election of 1999.
And there, Chief Awoniyi said to us that look, I am a Yoruba man born in Kogi and all my life had been in North and I was very close to Saradauna, and I knew his greatness and openness.
He said this election coming after the confusion of June 12 and the bitterness that emanated from it, we should allow the South to contest and the debate began.
The late Alhaji Abubakar Rimi wanted to run and the argument began, it went on and on till 2 O’clock in the morning.
Believe me, the late Awoniyi burst into tears.
Later we took him to the bathroom and washed his face because Rimi was insisting.
Rimi argued that, look; I will tell you there is no secret.
The South had economic power and to go and give them political power, how do we survive?
My argument then was, South has economic power, yes, they built it.
We didn’t build! We did partially, and then it crashed.
So, that is enough argument to say that the North should always be in control because they would now feel very bitter!
Finally, we persuaded him.
We told him, that he could run for the post or office of Vice President.
Let the South contest. A few days later, the ANPP also resolved that Shinkafi who was running should withdraw and be running mate to Falae.
In 1999, there was really no Northerner running for an election.
At the Jos convention, there was just a Northerner from PDP contesting.
I was Director-General of Alex Ekwueme’s campaign before I had unfortunate incident in Benue where assassins came into my house and I survived. In that election, no Northerner was a candidate.
We did it. We were not forced by law.
We saw the reason behind it that okay, let’s have peace.
Let us in the North try and concentrate for once on agro-industrial activities in economic development and so on.
Yes, it is very nice that a Northerner is in charge and we are all very happy but it really doesn’t make any difference.
A few people get appointed but how does my appointment change the position of entire North?
I’m supposed to be a federal minister.
So, I have always believed that zoning makes some sense.
Especially in a country that is sensitive where people believe one party is about to cheat the other and so on, there is nothing wrong with allowing zoning to continue.
What is your position on the current hardship that is occasioned by the rising food prices and others?
One of the hidden factors in food prices going up is transportation.
It is not that there is no food in the market, there is! Like I said earlier, you can’t move your products to the road.
The pick-up driver who is coming to convey it would charge you so much money that the value of your goods there is lower than the cost of transporting it.
I was going to send some rice to Lagos last December; they asked me to pay N4, 000 per bag – 50Kg of rice.
A bag of rice cost N15, 000 in Kebbi but to take it to Lagos is N4, 000 which is why we need a railway network.
These are factors which the critics don’t know because the roads are bad.
They are fixing them, they are trying.
The trucks moving on our roads are being part of the truck heads that is beyond 15, 16 years old because our currency is so weak that we can’t buy new trucks.
You hear tankers falling, hydraulic systems failing, and petrol burning everybody up.
It’s as a result of the policy we had of bringing very old trucks to Nigeria because we can’t afford a better one.
I’m in agriculture, I can tell you that the food is not lacking; it is moving the food.
Then, on the way, are police and customs, stopping people and saying, pay this, if you don’t pay, you can’t pass.
So many fake task force groups stopping you and saying you’re paying revenue for passing through.
All these are added factors.
If you see a driver from here, ask, they will tell you that you will loose a tyre before getting to Lagos.
What will be your personal view on the present government’s approach to agriculture and the issues of food security?
Well, I was there briefly as minister and the current man who is there is doing his best.
We have to produce more food, we have to preserve the food, and we have to find a way of transporting these foods.
Presently, there is no other way other than road or rail.
You can’t fly yam from say, (Benue) to Lagos. But a lot of food wastes in Nigeria.
Old yams are still in the market and new yams are here! You can’t exhaust them.
Each year, we waste at least one-third of the yams we grow.
So, we should begin to look at solar storage for yams because it brings the temperature in a warehouse, to 14 degrees Celsius.
You can keep your yam for more than a year and half.
Production is really not in short supply, it is the storage, management and transportation handlings that are issues threatening our capacity to produce.
Of course, there are diseases like the army worm threatening the maize and the ones threatening tomatoes and so on, they will always come.
Luckily, we have local cures for them now.
Chemicals have been produced by our own professors, organically produced here, which can be used to deal with these.
There is this controversial bill that is presently before National Assembly, ‘Water Resources Bill’ which many people have expressed fears about , what’s your take on that bill?
I have asked for a copy of that bill, I haven’t read it. So, I can’t comment on it.