Hakeem Baba Ahmed, spokesman, Northern Elders Forum:


The National Director of Publicity and Advocacy of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, has said that the incoming administration must prioritise  exploring roots and dimensions to the nation’s multiple and varied sources of insecurity in order to tame the menace in the country. The former permanent secretary in the Federal Civil Service also said terrorism can be defeated in the country by a combination of multiple strategies, strong political will,  and a regenerated military.Amongst other issues, Baba-Ahmed spoke on the outgoing administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, the forthcoming elections and the contending candidates, including Nigerians’ quest for a credible leadership in 2023. He spoke with AIDOGHIE PAULINUS.What are your thoughts about the security threat in Abuja? Do you believe in the Federal Government’s handling of the situation?Security matters are sensitive, and public comments on them must be measured, informed and responsible. What is safe to say is that in the last two weeks, starting from the  travel advisory issued by the United States Embassy, followed by a near-stampede by other countries, all of them ordinarily friends of the country, we have witnessed  a curious chain of events that suggest that we are clearly worse off in our security management than we were a few months ago. Our relationships with friendly nations have suffered major damage, and we do not know if they are now part of the problem or the solution. No bombs have gone off in Abuja, and we do not know if we are still in danger or we are over the worst. In a few months, we will resume normal lives as an endemically-frightened citizenry like every one else in Nigeria. Staff of embassies will return. There will be no consequences in diplomatic relations. Terrorists may or may not attack us, but now we know, from the advisories to our government’s reaction, that we in Abuja are perfectly within reach. The only clear winners here are terrorists whose activities appear to have caused all this frightening drama. We do not know if our own government is right in dismissing the threats and then scurrying to put up defences in case they are real. We hear of deeply-worrying conspiracy theories that hint at friends becoming dangerous foes in pursuit of their subversive interests. We cannot understand how entire batteries of diplomatic channels all collapsed, and strategic partners behaved  as if our end of the world had come. This is how we will continue to live and die, until we are able to have the type of  leadership that will successfully lead the war against terror in this country.What are your thoughts on the general insecurity across Nigeria? What should the government do to tackle the problem? Do you believe the government is overwhelmed and helpless?The next leadership must prioritise  exploring roots and dimensions of our multiple and varied sources of insecurity. The unwillingness or failure to understand the motive and motivations of the enemy means that you have deprived yourself of the chances of defeating him by engaging him around  what he is fighting for or what keeps him going. We have to explore all strategies that could reduce or eliminate these threats, from fighting with stronger commitment to engaging in dialogue, encouraging accommodation, making restitutions, engineering concession and other forms of dispute resolution. We must accept the reality that the Nigerian state has been considerably weakened by poor political leadership, as well as compromised defence, intelligence, judicial and public safety  institutions. Most of the terrorists we live with understand this, hence their persistence and even audacity. Citizens lose faith in leaders who cannot protect them, and damaging distances grow between leaders and followers. We must rebuild our defence and security assets, paying close attention to merit, integrity and inclusiveness. The next President must be tough on accountability and personally lead as C-in-C.Why do you think terrorism and banditry are thriving in Nigeria?Terrorism is pervasive, and no country is entirely immune. Nonetheless, when you live with terrorism the way we do in Nigeria, you have to ask why they persist in the scales they do. You have a state that is continuously weakened because its sole asset for dealing with multiple and varied threats is itself weakening. There are a number of critical turning points we missed in our relationship with Boko Haram, and now ISWAP is adding a complicating dimension to the conflict. Still, it can be defeated by a combination of multiple strategies, a strong political will and a regenerated military. International support will continue to be critical in the conflict in the northeast and the Sahel as a whole, so we need to cultivate and retain it. There is deep and complicated relationship between politics of the South-East and organised violence such as is seen around IPOB and ESN. Fragmentation of Igbo  political elite is both a cause and a consequence of the state of security and economy of the South-East. The basic push and pull involving tendencies that give Igbo politics a split personality is very evident, and will be more prominent as we move nearer to the elections. Basic contradictions among Igbo elite will have to be resolved, but they will need a hefty push from the political process and a Nigerian state that recognizes that it must play a direct and even decisive role to secure the South East more firmly within Nigeria.Banditry says a lot about how we allowed our time-tested traditional administrative institutions and systems to rot in the last few decades. This is a conflict that would have been the easiest to nip, but we had lost the institutional mechanisms to deal with it when it was growing beyond old boundaries. Kidnapping in large scale is both a function of the evident failure of the state to eliminate sources of grievances and failure to provide basic protection around citizens. Policing as a foundational instrument for effective governance has collapsed. The bandit and kidnapper is still within reach to engage, but we need imaginative and informed approaches to disarm, rehabilitate and reintegrate them, or deal appropriately with those who choose to remain outside attempts at full and final resolution.As ordinary Nigerians, what should we do to save ourselves?As citizens, we have a historic and quite possible the only opportunity left to use the democratic process to save the country from going under due to the sheer weight of organized violent crimes and other opportunistic assaults. We must be very careful in choosing who should take over from President Buhari. The next President must have a good understanding of the complex relationship between security, politics, poverty and the quality of leadership. A good, committed and intelligent President with a good team can make all the difference to our future. His ethnicity or faith should be the least of our concern. All citizens should support the conduct of credible elections and a peaceful transition. Violence will dig deeper into our lives if we elect weak leaders or bring the house down because results do not give us candidates we want.It is politics season now. Are you satisfied with the way the campaigns are going?There is still a long way to go, but a few tendencies are worrying. One is the dangerous trend of tapping into ethnic and religious sentiments. These are powerful, emotive factors that can threaten the entire contest and even the nation. Another is the fear that barricades will go up, reinforced by actual or threatened violence against free and secure election-related activities in parts of the country. If candidates are prevented to campaign freely everywhere in Nigeria, we are likely to see more pronounced violence during campaigns. Then, you have large populations of registered voters who may not vote because their rights are hostages to organized violence. These are mostly in the North and the Southeast. INEC’s deployment will be contingent substantially on security of personnel and the ballot. A lot of work needs to be done to reduce vulnerability of registered voters to violence.Are the candidates addressing issues? What are the thoughts of the Northern Elders concerning the leading presidential candidates?At the recent Arewa Joint Committee-organized engagement with five of the candidates, we made efforts to encourage all the candidates to speak to issues and challenges which we thought are central to the interests of the North and Nigeria. It was evident that candidates made efforts to address them. Ideally, other platforms should be created to get candidates to be more specific in terms of their plans and vision. If we allow ethnicity and religion to get in the way of our search for he best, we will pay a price we cannot afford as a country. Northern Elders Forum (NEF), and indeed most  northern groups, believe that Nigerians should interrogate all candidates and support a crisis-free campaign and election. Northern voters are sophisticated. In the end, they will vote for the person that is most likely to address their problems.How is the NEF guiding the average Northerner on what and what issues to consider before voting? Can Nigerians vote for another Northerner after Buhari’s eight years in office? What would that portend for Nigeria’s unity?NEF has many ways of engaging the northern voter, but we respect his right to choose. In 2015, we successfully campaigned for President Buhari. In 2019, we were not successful in convincing the northern voter and other Nigerians not to give President Buhari a second term. We are not happy that our projections over a second term for Buhari were correct, and the northern voter’s respect for NEF has grown.We will defend the rights of the northern voter to vote for any candidate he chooses, even if the candidate is from the North. I should remind you that this time last year, loud voices from Southern Nigeria were shouting down even the mere prospect of any political party fielding a Northerner. NEF stood firm behind the rights of all Nigerian to contest for tickets of their parties, and for parties to field which candidate they choose. Today, out of the 18 Presidential candidates, five are from the  North. They are not there to make up the numbers. If one of them becomes President, it will not be because northerners alone voted for him. Majority of Nigerians would have preferred him over all others. That is how the constitution prescribes it. If the next President is from the South, northerners would have voted along with majority of other Nigerians for him. He will be their President too. We have voted Nigerians from the South into office as Presidents in the past. Nigeria’s unity is trifled with when we make it subject to who becomes President by means other than what is prescribed by the constitution. Nigerians who believe that it will strengthen national unity if the President is from a particular part of the country should canvass for his election. What we need is a credible election that should leave no doubt over the winner, and mature and responsible politicians who will accept results of free and fair election. Whoever becomes our next President should be aware of a major task of improving the bonds of national unity, and must prioritize inclusiveness and re-integration as key goals of governance.What’s your take on INEC? Are you confident they’ll perform creditably? Do you think INEC can refuse to be influenced by the political elite?I have confidence in the leadership of INEC. They have worked hard to improve the electoral process. I know enough about some of them to say I cannot see them being bought by politicians. But they have little control over the environment in which the elections will be conducted. Challenges such as violence and vote-buying could compromise the integrity of the elections. The President says the legacy he plans to leave is credible elections. If he means that, then he needs to do a lot, directly, to reduce the spectre of violence and corruption of the ballot. He must watch out for people that will try to give his party an unfair advantage owing to incumbency.Is the recent plan for a new design for some naira denominations by the CBN a good development? What’s your take on the confusion between CBN Governor and the Finance Minister about the redesigning of the naira?The currency re-print may be good for  the economy and national security, but it is being undertaken by an administration that has lost the confidence of Nigerians that it can do anything good, or do anything well. The context, the timing, the rationale and the key players are, unfortunately, all wrong. There are suspect motives being attributed that could sink the plans. The price the nation will pay for an otherwise routine exercise are already becoming unbearable. Look at the rising cost of the dollar by the day. Nigerians who have no N10,000 hidden under the bed will suffer as cost of living soars in a war involving people with billions tucked away and a government that has just woken up to its responsibilities. If this were a listening administration, it will be advised to submit  its plans to more rigorous scrutiny. If it will make life more difficult, it may be the type of decision that is not difficult to stand down. If, on the other hand, there are considerations behind the policy and timing that cannot be made public, then the administration should make sure that its outcome exceeds its cost. Nigerians have had their backs against the wall for too long.

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