Chief Ayo Adebanjo is the acting leader of the Pan-Yoruba socio-political group, Afenifere. He is a lawyer, politician of the Awolowo school of thought and activist. In this interview, the elderstatesman reminisces about the early days of Nigeria’s independence and speaks about how the country has derailed from the path of through federalism as a result of sundry issues. Excerpts:
You are probably the oldest practicing politician in Nigeria, or do you have contemporaries?
I have a senior in the North, Tanko Yakasai. We were in politics together in the First Republic. He is the radical one. He is 95 now and I am just 93.
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At your age most people would have retired to a quiet life, but you seem to be very active in politics, are you not going to retire?
You are very right; if the atmosphere and the condition of the country have been right, I have no right to still be in the trenches. But the circumstances of Nigeria, particularly those of us who took part in the fight for independence, what we hoped to achieve, we find it difficult to just sit down and look.
If we have young men who share our vision for a peaceful and united Nigeria irrespective of ethnicity, religion and everything as we hoped for when the independence of this country was negotiated in 1954, I have no right to be here; I have no right at all. But it is just sad that we haven’t got the young men who we could say have learnt from our ambition to keep the country where it should be.
Are you saying you are disappointed with all the young men and women who are governors, senators, members of the House of Representatives?
The whole thing changed when the military came in 1966; they disrupted the system. It was a sad incident for Nigeria. Before the military, if there were differences, we disagreed, we talked, we didn’t kill ourselves, and we agreed. All those who are causing confusion in the country today are products of post-1966 coup, including heads of state.
We were very conscious that we are a country of diverse ethnicities, religions, cultures and political views, but we still reconciled; and that was why the first independent constitution we made had customary courts in the South and sharia in the North. Under a federal system you have autonomy; you keep your sharia, we keep our customary courts; that was what we had.
All the questions about what could divide us were all negotiated in London before the Secretary of State for the Commonwealth.
At that time the clamour by the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) under Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was for a unitary form of government. This didn’t go well with Sir Ahmadu Bello (Sardauna of Sokoto) of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC). So when we said we wanted self-government for Nigeria in 1956, Sardauna said, “Count me out”. He didn’t support the motion.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the Action Group (AG) was talking about federalism as the only thing that could keep us together. We were not a nation, we were nations: Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Ijaw and so on. But we came together under a federal system where every ethnicity and every region would develop at its own pace; that is the practical meaning of federalism all over the world.
We must not forget that we are not together willingly; it was the colonialists that brought us together in 1914 without the consent of anybody; they brought us together for their own interests.
So we have been brought together and many of us have appreciated the value of a big country, and that was why Chief Awolowo wrote the book, “Path to Nigerian Freedom” in 1947, saying that, “We are good but you cannot run us from the centre.”
Despite the colonial imposition and military rule, there has been democracy in Nigeria since 1999; are you not satisfied with the progress made by all the governments, beginning with Obasanjo’s?
I am not going to talk politics, I am not going to talk to please anybody. I am going to talk reality. We have never accepted the 1999 constitution.
Don’t forget, I have always said the constitution is a fraud. We didn’t make it. In 1966 when the military came in they set aside the independence constitution which was negotiated. Mind you, the problems we are having now are all the problems introduced by the military from 1966 by a section of the country dominated by the Fulani and the Muslims, and we say we are all Nigerians; we are deceiving ourselves.
These were the things we settled in London – Sardauna, Awolowo, Azikiwe, Balewa, Aminu Kano, Nbadiwe and all the prominent leaders – went there before the Commonwealth secretary general.
In the Macpherson Constitution before independence there was no premiership. It was when they fought for the constitution of federalism in 1954 that premiership was created and the function of each state or region was written.
Chief Awolowo said, “I am not going to the centre because the power is in the region.” Sardauna was the leader of the NPC, party that won majority in parliament, and he should have gone to the centre, but Chief Awolowo advised him that, “If you want to serve your people, it is at the region level; not the centre.” That was why Sardauna stayed in the Northern Region as premier and left Tafawa Balewa at the centre as prime minister.
By the time they were returning from that conference, Dr Azikiwe, who was a unitarist, at the airport, declared federalism as imperialism.
If we accept your critique of the 1999 constitution, what kind of Nigeria do you want to see?
Don’t forget that the military said they were going back to the barracks. They came in and did this constitution, so when they were going back to the barracks they should have gone back with it and brought us back the old one they met; simple!
Are you saying we should go back to the 1966 constitution?
No; to the 1960 constitution, because it was in 1966 that they changed it.
But most people have said it is practically difficult to collapse the 36-state structure and go back to the three regions?
That is the mistake we are making. We are not going back to three regions, who created the 36 states, is it our own? If we are going to have a federal system, each federating unit must be autonomous. They will be complementary to the federal government; not supplementary. So by the time we have 36 states we are bringing in the unitary form of government through the back door.
So how many federating units do you want to see?
A federation must be based on linguistic principle. If you say the Yoruba, you know who they are; if you say the Hausa, we know who they are; if you say the Igbo, we know who they are; and if you say the Ijaw, we know who they are.
And all those minorities which confuse people. These minorities in the North and in the South should be grouped in each of the regions.
But are you sure they would want to be grouped; are you determining for them?
No; that was why I said I don’t want to use the word “group” because I know all those who are confusing people; they are just being mischievous.
But the problem is real; we have over 250 ethnic groups, like in Benue State you want the Tiv and the Idoma in one group, they may not agree, so how do we group them?
For instance, when we got independence there were only three regions, and at that time they were not talking of regions. Awolowo was talking of states, the minorities must have their states; it was the agitation.
In a programme like this, you can write the history of Nigeria, and those of us who know about it, it pisses us when people confuse issues.
You cannot have a federation where one unit is bigger than the two other units put together, there must be creation of states, and it is that creation of states we are advocating for that made the AG popular.
Example, those in the East know that there is a clamour for core states like Calabar State, Ogoja State and River State, to be separated from the current states, and likewise in the North.
Who created the states, was it not the military?
Is it not why I said it is a fraudulent constitution; and they created more states in the North than in the South, what was the yardstick? They created more local governments in the North than in the South, what was the basis for the creation? It was arbitrary. At that time every general wanted a local government in his village.
For instance, Lagos and Kano are identical in population, but more states have been created out of Kano than Lagos. Kano now has 44 local governments while Lagos with an identical population still has 20 local governments.
And where the fraud of this constitution comes in is that these local governments were created arbitrarily but they claimed it was on the basis of distributing revenue. Whereas we agreed at the London conference that revenue must be based on derivation, and that was why Chief Awolowo told Sardauna that, “How can you have VAT on tobacco and alcohol when you don’t drink, you don’t smoke?”
So how do we move, how do we create this new structure that you think will solve the problem, and do you see its practicability between now and 2023?
That is where the fault comes in; don’t tell me that. Since when have we been talking of changing this constitution? The restructuring you are talking of is not now.
In 1999, when Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar wanted to conduct elections, Afenifere, led NADECO, said no, we were not going to have any election until we changed the constitution to where we were. We said we must have a sovereign national conference; have you heard that one before?
Yes, but the reality is that…?
No, don’t talk of reality that is artificial reality created by the military. When people like you talk about it, you are not knowledgeable than those of us who know the beginning, that is why you read about those who want to defend the iniquity in the constitution; how did it come about? Have you asked yourself that question? And when I ask it they say how can we collapse the 36 states? Who created them, is it the wish of the people that created 36 states or the military?
At the time the military wanted to conduct elections in 1999, we said we were not going to do elections under this constitution; it is on record, and we talked of a sovereign national conference. And when Gen Abdulsalami came in after the death of Gen Sani Abacha, but for Abdulsalami, the Alliance for Democracy (AD) wouldn’t have been registered; that is one of the respects I have for him.
Part of what I am saying which you have just proven, you were part of AD and it took part in the elections…?
That is what I am telling you, we took part in the elections amid protests, and I can prove it; the man is still there.
But you still took part in the elections and had a candidate for the presidency, Olu Falae, but he lost…?
Go and ask Gen Abdulsalami, we said we were not going to take part in the elections until after the conference, but Abdulsalami said, “I haven’t got time for the conference, when you get to civilian rule, go and have it.”
Let me ask you, the Southern Kaduna people who are being oppressed under Kaduna State, are they Fulani?
In 2014 under President Goodluck Jonathan there was a national conference of which you were a member and a document was produced; were you satisfied with that document?
I am happy that you are referring to that document. That was why I said if you meet honest people we will have no problem in Nigeria; except you want to deny.
When Jonathan was handing over to Buhari, he said it was the most important document. You will see that all those who have been talking of restructuring and all that, they don’t know what it is, go back to that document.
So you would be happy if we go back to the 2014 document?
Many of you talking about this 2014 document, you have never read it, if you read it you will know what I’m talking about.
Sure, I was part of the conference, I represented the media, and…?
If you have read it and President Muhammadu Buhari is sincere about it, when they handed it over to him what did he say, “Go and put it in the archives”.
That was why I asked you, would you be happy if it is brought out of the archives and implemented?
Certainly; not only that, the Governor of Jigawa and the Chairman of APC, Gov Mai Mala Buni, they came to me here and they referred to it. But I don’t trust any Fulani man.
However, do you know that I campaigned for Buhari, have you read it in my statement that in 2014 Afenifere campaigned for him, the first time he contested when he said he was going to do restructuring, because when I say I don’t trust any Fulani, I have a personal friend among the Fulani, F.B. Yusuf. You will be surprised we became friends when I was in detention, he was a radical Northerner.
Which means you can trust some Fulani people…?
It is because the present Fulani don’t talk the way F.B. Yusuf talked. Those who are sincere with me; that we should come together, they keep quiet and I have said it openly.
They said the Yoruba said the Fulani must go, is that correct? We said the Fulani carrying arms, kidnapping us, raping us and taking our lands should leave our land. Have we asked Dangote to go, is he not a Fulani? Have we asked Rabiu to go? The best of your richest Fulani are all in the West, have we attacked them? Say the truth.
So what transpired between you and the governors of Jigawa and Yobe states when they visited you?
When we refer to the sovereign national conference that Buhari has failed to implement, when he was going to contest with Tunde Bakare, Bakare said openly that it was in their programme. Number two, I continue to say when Tinubu foolishly had an agreement with him, because Tinubu and AD had no common ground, and CPC was a conservative party. Tinubu claims to be the product of Awolowo, what is the meeting point, I described them then as a congregation of incompatibles.
Number one in the APC manifesto is it not restructuring, why? In 2018 when the pressure was much, they set up the El-Rufai committee, and what did they recommend, restructuring; where are they now?
On the restructuring of El-Rufai, I said you Fulani people are not trustworthy. The restructuring you have been talking about, have you implemented it? Restructuring is not a political philosophy; restructuring just says restructure the country back to federalism; that is all.
Now, has APC not been promising restructuring of late because elections are coming again soon? Tinubu never said a word all along when we were talking of restructuring. He is now saying restructuring with his boss. Who are you deceiving?
Do you support Tinubu becoming president?
That is not the question now. I am talking of the principles that bind us together. The question you are saying, oh, there are so many, let us destroy that foundation, it is those who don’t want us together that are breaking that.
And I had said it before, I hope it won’t be too late for Buhari to know that those who are saying restructure are those who love him, anything to the contrary they are just deceiving him.
Have you ever had a chance to discuss with Buhari on some of these issues?
Better than Bakare. Gen Abdulsalami suggested to me, he wanted me to meet him; and I said I don’t talk to dead people. I am being frank; you know why? He said he wanted an outsider to talk to him. I said can I be closer an outsider than Bakare to Buhari.
Here is somebody who stood by you thick and thin, agreed to be your running mate, and he said how can you say you don’t know what the situation is now? It was what we agreed before I ran with you, he said it openly.
All the time we were talking about that, Tinubu kept quiet and all his stooges kept quiet. Now that elections are coming he is saying the country must be restructured; who is he deceiving?
So you don’t support it now…?
I don’t believe; not I don’t support. They said once bitten twice shy. You want to trust somebody who has deceived you two or three times, would you do that?
I have given you four instances which I have challenged Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, ask your boss this is what I am saying, am I lying that I campaigned for him?
But a senior citizen like you, I thought if you have the chance you will sit with Buhari and talk this over?
If he could betray or spite Bakare, I don’t believe I am in a better position, because Bakare was supporting him, and you are attacking Bakare, you are wasting your time. Bakare was trying to convince us, I told him this man has his own agenda.
Unfortunately, many of you honest Fulani allow this man to cast aspersions on you. I use the Yoruba proverb that, “One bad slave makes us to condemn all slaves”. All slaves can’t be bad, but somebody who is a slave behaves in a bad way, you will say look at this, no wonder you are a slave.
All those of you who are honest, who believe what I am saying, you haven’t got the courage to speak out. Why is Dangote not like them, he is my personal friend, we share the same boundary. He employs people, he doesn’t discriminate; that is what we want.
In the First Republic when Chief Awolowo had rapport with Sardauna, he offered told Sardauna to send some of “your children to my school here in the West until you build your own”; it is on record.
Awolowo’s intention was let the Northern people be well educated so that they shouldn’t blackmail us. We have been living with the Northerners. The herdsmen I grew to know in Yoruba land were with sticks, not AK-47; this is what you people are not looking at. They didn’t rape, they didn’t kill, they didn’t murder, but you are not looking at that.
But aside the Fulani, there are criminals in all parts of this country killing, kidnapping and doing all sorts of…?
I agree, this is where people are deceiving people today. When we are saying Fulani herdsmen, when Buhari came in, they said they are Fulani just like you are saying, but not all are Fulani.
However, the pressure was much that it was clear that everything in Southern Kaduna, in Makurdi is Fulani, Buhari said no, it is not the local Fulani; that it is the Fulani from outside Nigeria; and then I said that is even worse.
Foreign Fulani doing damage to your country and you are the chief security officer to protect lives and property. You are in charge of immigration, you are in charge of customs, how did they enter the country?
Even after entering the country and you know that they are doing havoc to your people, what is the reason you cannot arrest them and prosecute them? Why have you turned a blind eye to their carrying of arms to destroy your citizens who you are by the constitution supposed to protect? Let us face facts.
I want the Northerners and the Fulani to know our grievances, we have nothing against them. Buhari is not the first person to be president, did we have these problems? Was Yar’adua not there?
Even kidnapping has been going on…?
The first president from Sokoto, Shehu Shagari, after defeating Awolowo, conferred the honour of the president on Chief Awolowo and held a dinner for him, to which I was honoured to be present at the Government House in Marina. He was a Fulani man, he was one of the good Fulani, and nobody can say we hate the Fulani.
Unfortunately, the good Fulani, when all these things are happening, they don’t speak out, but the Yoruba don’t do that. I want you to carry this message home because we want to stay together.
I have invested in one Nigeria more than Buhari, and I can prove it. Where Boko haram is troubling now, in 1979 I spent one year there campaigning for the UPN. Awolowo sent more people to the North to campaign for his party; is that the action of somebody who didn’t want the North?
So all these things are what we always want the Northerners to consider and not blackmail us, and that is why I say Buhari should stop blackmailing us when we say we want restructuring. We are federalists; we are not separatists.
Another point I want you to carry to the people of the North; I don’t know Igboho and Kanu, and I told Buhari. Igboho is the reaction to the inaction of the federal government to protect its people. Before Igboho came out I didn’t know him.
The Fulani are raping and killing his people to the extent that his uncle came from America to invest in agriculture and made a farm and employed about 500 people, the Fulani raided the place and killed him, killed the oba there and kidnapped his wife; that was when Igboho came out.
Constitutionally, the federal and state governments have a duty to protect lives and property. While all these things were happening, Buhari kept quiet, but when Igboho now said I am going to resort to self-help, which is guaranteed in the constitution, they said he is killing the Fulani. How did it all start, that is the honest question you should ask?
At 93 years, you seem pretty strong; how do you keep well and fit?
It is the grace of God.
Everybody says that, but beside the grace of God what do you do?
I try to eat well and exercise.
Is it true that you have a very strong exercise regimen?
I don’t want to place too much emphasis on that because I know a lot of my colleagues who did that are all dead, and that is why the grace of God comes in. And that is why the Bible says, “Paul can plant, Apollos can water, but without the grace of God it cannot grow”. So those of us who are Christians we believe in whatever we are is by the grace of God.
I give the instance because as you are interviewing me now, I can say please excuse me, let me use the toilet and I will not come out. Will my children say the devil has done its worst to a man of 93, when they have been attending parties of 70 and 80-year-olds?
Besides politics, are there things you do?
I try to be a good Christian in my church and in my village and everywhere else.
What about your family life, do you have a large family?
I have only one wife. My wife and I married at the Embassy of Western Nigeria in 1960 in London, the one Awolowo created to show the autonomy of Western Nigeria. Our first daughter celebrated her 64th birthday last October. I came back as a student to celebrate her delivery.
One thing I would wish people to understand, honestly, when I hear people say that the Yoruba don’t like the Hausa, it pains me, when I know how much we have worked together.
In 1979 when we were campaigning we had somebody in Kano and all over the North, and when Awolowo was campaigning in Zamfara, I met a lady, a judge. So when I met that lady, I thanked God that that was what we had been fighting for, female education.
All these free education and free something, Sardauna didn’t want it. One of the things he had against Awolowo was because Awolowo was forcing him to be campaigning for it.
People like me who talk out of experience; when we are talking of unity, unity and unity, it takes two to tango. And I have always said the unity that Buhari wants is the unity of the horse and the rider; where the Fulani are the rider and we are the horse in the South; it will not work.
Transcribed by Idowu Isamotu