Ninety three years old Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, who has played an active role in politics since 1951, does not hesitate to express his views on national issues. In this interview with Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI, the Kano-based politician traces the genesis of the problems facing the country to the military intervention in politics. He also proffers solutions to the challenges.
How old were you at independence and did you play any role as a political activist or observer?
I was 34 years when Nigeria got independence in 1960 and I participated actively in the events leading to it, because I have played an active role in politics right from 1951. I started as a member of the Northern Elements’ Progressive Union (NEPU) and I became its youth leader. After two years, I became the publicity secretary and after another two years I became its national secretary and so on and so forth. During the Second Republic, I was in the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and I served as adviser to President Shehu Shagari on National Assembly affairs. So, I have never been an onlooker from the beginning.
Nigerians were full of dreams of a good life 59 years ago. But, today it is a different ball game. Where did the country go wrong?
Military rule, which is an aberration, derailed our journey to greatness. Unfortunately, we are still in the woods. Our system of government today can be described as half military, half civilian. Until we return to a proper civilian democracy, where political parties would play their role appropriately as agents of change, the country would not move forward. Without strong political parties we cannot develop Nigeria. This is because political parties are supposed to formulate manifestoes that would constitute the trajectory for development; they are empty promises, but one made after a painstaking research to find out why things are going wrong, what can be done, how much it is going to cost and how to source the money to finance it. Without such an approach, you cannot get things done rightly in government. This is not what we are doing now.
Are you referring to the lack of ideological orientation by the current set of political parties?
I am saying that the parties we have today are not really political parties in the true sense of the word. For instance, if I ask you to tell me the difference between the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC), you can only tell me about the personalities in the two parties, but would not be able to point out differences in terms of ideology, programme and manifesto.
Do you recall the agenda that was set, prior to the independence in 1960, by the country’s founding fathers?
At the time, we were all fighting the colonial masters, agitating for independence. We did not realize that by 1957 the British would agree to grant us independence in 1960. When the British colonial masters actually conceded to our demands, it was like a wake up call, so the reality dawned on us and every region started to think about what to do after independence. At the end of the day, the defunct Western Region, through the leadership of the late Obafemi Awolowo, settled for free healthcare and free education. The Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC), which was in control of Northern Region, focused their attention on how to get northerners to run the affairs of Northern Nigeria. This was because when the motion for independence was moved by an Action Group member, Chief Anthony Enahoro, nobody was thinking of the situation in the country at the time. We suddenly realised that the North had only one graduate. That was when everybody understood the seriousness of the challenges and started to prepare for it. By and large, through the northernisation policy of the NPC, we were able to train people and prepare them to handle the administrative tasks of running the country particularly. Every region had its own programme and to some extent achieved a degree of success.
Today, Nigerians appear to have an idea of the challenges facing the country. Why is it difficult for them to summon the political will to address those challenges?
Nigerians of today are not the same as Nigerians of yester years. Unfortunately, for Nigerians, when the military took over the political scene, they introduced the idea of ‘self first’ and the nation second. Whether people like it or not, that was the genesis of the collapse of the ideal of nation building. The big guns in the government then suddenly turned out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing, who were only interested in their own personal aggrandizement. This was inculcated in their method of governance. Unfortunately, the politicians of today are dancing to that tune. They have no interest of the people at heart, but are only concerned about how much money they are going to make. That is the central idea at the back of their minds when contesting elections. As a result, politicians have killed people’s zeal to serve the nation; they have ruined the civil service and they have also killed professionalism in all ramifications and everything is now degraded. Now people are not thinking of the service they can render to the nation, but the money they will make, whether they are contesting for councillorship position, local government chairmanship or other bigger elective positions. This is the unfortunate situation we have found ourselves.
Does this explain the general perception that governance has not been as impactful as it should be, after 20 years of unbroken civilian rule?
May be, we should say 20 years of civilian-cum-military rule. If you work out the number of years former President Olusegun Obasanjo spent in power, you will understand that people with a military background have been ruling us for a long time. If you recall, he did not envisage contesting for the presidency in 1999. In fact, it was the military that released him from prison and asked him to contest. He made a statement which was published by national newspapers to the effect that he was invited to join politics then by the ruling military authorities. This is because the military did not genuinely want to hand over power to civilians; they wanted to hand over power to their friend and colleague, who will ignore whatever atrocities they might have committed while in office. The same thing can be applied to the current Buhari administration: it is an extension of military rule. Even the period when the late Umaru Yar’ Adua and Dr Goodluck Jonathan were in power cannot be considered as outright civilian era. If you recall, again, Yar’ Adua did not indicate intention to contest for the presidency in 2007. Obasanjo drafted him into the race. In fact, I read in the newspapers at that time that he was not interested and that he was returning to the classroom. But Obasanjo said whether you are interested or not, you are the one I think can do it. Yar’ Adua insisted that he was not prepared, but Obasanjo assured him that he (Obasanjo) would back him (Yar’ Adua) to succeed. That was how Yar’ Adua became president. Surprisingly, Obasanjo did not provide money for Yar’ Adua’s campaign. It was his friend that facilitated the campaign.
Similarly, when Yar’ Adua died, Obasanjo campaigned for Jonathan to be president. By virtue of the constitution, Jonathan had the responsibility to succeed his principal when he died in 2010. But the 2011 presidential bid of Jonathan was the handiwork of Obasanjo. Given the zoning arrangement in place, somebody from the North should have been fielded in the 2011 race in the PDP, to complete the region’s two terms of eight years.
Indications are that the country is more divided today than it has ever been. In your view, what is responsible for this?
Nigerians are now divided because we have political parties with no programmes; if we have political parties with programmes and they communicate same to the electorate, the people will concentrate on getting what the parties promised them after the election, rather than engage in inanities. It is said that the devil finds work for idle hands; where there is no prospects of getting anything tangible from the political parties, people tend to engage in unnecessary bickering out of frustration. Look at the politicians today, the amount of money they have in their pockets determine the position they aspire to occupy, not the ideas and programmes they have. Anybody who can come up with the money to run for council chairmanship position would go for it, while those who can afford higher elective positions like in the state legislature, the National Assembly, governorship and even the presidency will naturally aspire for those positions. It is either that they have the money or they have people who can back them financially. Political parties in Nigeria today are not autonomous or independent; they are for the highest bidder. This started many years ago, when Obasanjo said he is the leader of the PDP at the national level and bribed the governors to be leaders at state level. Since then, 37 persons have determined the outcome of political contests in the country (the president and the 36 state governors).
What is the way forward for Nigeria today?
Until the political parties are handed back to the members, to determine who emerges as party leaders and flag bearers in different elective positions, the situation will not change. The way forward is for you and I to struggle to free Nigeria from the stranglehold of the people holding the country down. Let us freely voice our feelings, let us be the ones that will determine the trend of development in this country. Until that happens, we cannot get it right.