‘Symptoms of revolts loom large in Nigeria’

Alhaji Yusuff Maitama Sule

In his last interview with The Guardian, published on July 28, 2013, elder statesman, Alhaji Yusuff Maitama Sule, who died yesterday in a Cairo hospital, aged 88, shared his thoughts on Nigeria and how the country can get out of the web of contradictions created by an unbalanced polity and bad leadership. Gbenga Salau conducted the interview. Excerpts:

The problem of leadership
Nigeria started very well because our founding fathers Azikiwe, Sardauna, Awolowo, even Aminu Kano, were very good leaders, who laid a very sound foundation for Nigeria. They were leaders, who in spite of their political differences, even religious and tribal differences, were always ready to come together in the interest of Nigeria.

These were people who accommodated, not just tolerated, one another. And all of them were ready to place national interest above their personal interests. They respected one another, in spite of these differences they had and Nigeria was their main concern. These were people who went into politics to serve but not to be served, to give but not to take. Nigeria was their main concern. And that was why they worked together; they cooperated with one another to move the country forward. And that was how they were able to lay a sound foundation for this great country. It was also for this reason that Nigeria was respected and Nigerians wherever they went in those days held their heads high; they were admired, loved and respected. And indeed, Nigeria, because of our population and resources, was expected to give the lead to the rest of the continent.

In the first republic therefore, Nigeria was so much respected that people thought in about fifteen to twenty years after independence, with the kind of leadership that we started with, Nigeria would join the leading countries of the world. Indeed, there was a report that three developing countries would, in fifteen to twenty years, join the most industrialized countries of the world. And these three countries were India, Brazil and Nigeria. I think it was because of the leadership, in those countries that today, India has made it, India is a nuclear power, and mark you, India has got all these political, religious, ethnic and tribal differences, one hundred times as many as we have in Nigeria. But in spite of that, they were still able to do it. They are also poor. In spite of the poverty in the country, because of the good leadership, they progressed. In the field of computer technology, India is in the forefront. It produces more doctors than any country in the world today. India manufactures planes, cars and weapons of all kinds. India builds ships. Indeed, India has the second fastest moving economy in the world, second only to China.

Brazil, another of the three countries, has also made it because Brazil’s economy is stronger than that of Britain. Brazil builds ships, manufactures planes and cars and weapons of all kinds, and it has about the best agriculture programme in the world. Brazil has made it too. Incidentally, Brazil and Nigeria established their defence industries the same year. So, while Brazil is building ships and manufacturing planes, our defense industry is yet to build a tanker.

Leadership, I think it is. In 1961 or 62, I was invited by the students of the University of Ibadan to give a convocation lecture. And I told them; I do not know how, probably a product of intuition, that Africa will face two or three major problems. One was leadership. Some leaders because of their neurotic ambition, blurred vision, will want to perpetuate their stay in office and till death do us part like church marriage. I foresaw that way back in 1961/62; that we would have problem with leadership. And I am concerned about leadership because everything that happens in a country depends on the quality of the leadership. We have a saying if a congregation’ prayer goes wrong; it is the Imam leading it that spoils it.

Descent into the abyss
What is happening today in the country is not in our character. Ours was a decent society, a disciplined one, where the leaders in spite of their political differences respected one another and cooperated with one another in order to move the country forward. Today, it is not so. Even in the family, in the past, members of a family respected one another, the juniors obeyed and respected their seniors and constituted authority. You might not be a member of the ruling party, still you will respect the authority, you might disagree with the policy, but the respect was there, even though you will express your opposition to the policy. Then, there was no corruption, or there might be little corruption. Morally, we were sound; this permissiveness now prevalent in the society was not like then. And that is why, I described the situation in which we are today in a negative way. The institution of family has broken down, respect for elders and constituted authority, which used to be a cardinal principle in our society is now at its lowest ebb. Honesty, why it does not pay has become meaningless. Symptoms of revolts loom large in the society.

In short, there is meaningless in philosophy, insecurity in politics, chaos in politics, immorality in society, and corruption in economy. It was not like that before. Our founding fathers had a dream, they have a dream that in fifteen or twenty years, Nigeria will be truly united and we would be our brothers’ keepers. We would build a sound economy and have political clout to enable us to lead the rest of the countries in Africa and inspire the black race in the world. That was their dream, that dream has not been realized.

But let me make it quite clear, although I have painted the picture black, I still remain optimistic. This is because everything that has a beginning has an end. Only God has no beginning and no end. I believe we would overcome, more especially when I look at and see the crises we had in the past and we overcame. Most importantly, Nigeria had a civil war, nobody believed that Nigeria would be the same again after that civil war but here we are today. By the grace of God, we are together. So I believe that in spite of the ugly things that are happening today, we will, by the grace of God, overcome. We shall be united, will be our brothers’ keepers and have good governance. And by the grace of God, Nigeria will become strong, economically, politically including having the political clout to take our proper place in the comity of nations and lead the blacks in the world and other African countries. This is my belief and God willing, it will come to be.

But in order to have that, we must have good leaders, leaders who are concerned, with the fear of God. Leaders not rulers, leaders not looters, leaders who are honest, have the fear of God and believe that they will stand before God one day to account. Leaders who will accept in public what they have accepted in secret. Leaders with a vision not blurred vision, leaders who look at the lots of the common man with the eyes of a compatriot not the eyes of the privilege few. Leaders with fire in their belly but humanity in the heart; fire in their belly so that they may take unpleasant but necessary decisions, humanity in their heart so that in taking such decisions they will temper justice with mercy. Leaders not rulers, leaders, who know when they are no longer equal to the exigencies of their nation, will have the prudence of handing over to others. Not leaders who will want to perpetuate their stay in office until death do them part like church marriage.

On democracy
Yes, democracy is the best kind of government but democracy is relative. The cultural parameters of the people should determine their style of democracy. Yes, we are practicing democracy in Nigeria and indeed in Africa but the democracy we are practicing is Eurocentric not Afrocentric. We need to take into consideration our own culture and determine our style of democracy. The most important thing in democracy is consultation and doing justice to people. We can do it, Nyerere did it. He introduced what he called Ijama, African kind of democracy and he brought all the people together as the political system was able to do away and eradicate tribal differences, religious, and unite the country and they moved forward and enjoyed relative peace more than any country in Africa then. That was the African kind of democracy. He called it Ijama, I call it Afrocracy.

However it may be difficult because we have been so used to this way and kind of democracy and may take time to convince people to agree to revisit the past and bring out our own type of democracy. Nevertheless, whatever kind of government it is, if we have good leadership, it will work and succeed. So we should look for good leaders.

Role of the youths
For so long as the youths will continue to succumb to the greedy politicians, there would be no change. The youth must realize that they are the future. You are the future leaders and the future is yours. You can make it or mar it. If you decide to mar it by accepting few things, collecting money from politicians, so that they will achieve their selfish aims, you will be marring your future and you will inherit an inglorious future. If you make up your mind to make the future and refuse to succumb to the machinations of these greedy politicians, you will pave way for a great Nigeria and you will inherit a glorious future. The youths are the vehicles and answer, the solutions to the problems, the vehicles of change and the vanguard of revolution.

Though, they need elders to guide them because the best organisation is a combination of the old and the young. You need the maturity, experience and wisdom of the old as well as the dynamic and radicalism of the youths. So the youths even though they are the future, they need the advice and guidance of the old, but responsible and reliable old people. Not undesirable, waste product of humanity.

So we can do it and bring about the change but the youths must make up their mind and they must get away with this idea of new breed, new breeds, which got into the head of some of our young people and made them think they can do it alone. You cannot, even the leading countries in the world have some powerful old people behind the scene to guide them, advice them, even scold them at times. That is the secret of their success. Our youths must learn that they need elders. In the past, before the white man came to our shores, we used to have Council of Elders, old people who are not interested in holding any position, but are interested in the country and the future of the country and they advice the authorities. We longer have that because we now have a new policy of new breed, the old breed must be done away with because they have exhausted their usefulness. But new breed without the old breed will breed greed.

But when I called for a revolution, let me make it quite clear, that I am not calling for a bloody revolution, but a cultural revolution. I am calling for Mahatma Gandhi kind of revolution, non-violent resistors. And we can make it. A good leader will inspire his people as people take cues from their leaders. When Muritala came into power, within six months he started giving this country a sense of direction. Did he kill anybody? When Buhari was in power, in eighteen months, he instilled discipline into the society, he raised the moral tone of the society, he fought corruption and he was giving the country a sense of direction, did he kill anybody? So you do not have to kill, once you have a good leader, who will lead by example, people will follow and the society will change.

On federalism and power rotation
As far as I am concerned, we have accepted to adopt a federal system of government, we have agreed to practice democracy; we should therefore allow democracy to work. Let anybody from anywhere, whatever religion or tribe he belongs to contest the election. I do not care who leads the country, so long as he would do justice and fair play, justice and fair play. These are the things I am looking for. This question of this time is my turn, that time is your turn, will encourage a lot of things, corruption and bastardised democracy because once I am there and I know that I will be there for the next few years and after that somebody will take over, I will make sure that I entrenched my own people. In trying to entrench my own people, I will also make sure that if it is possible I stay on so that the people I put in power will not be removed after I might have gone. It is human nature. Leave the thing open, Nigeria wants the best and only the best is good for Nigeria. Let him come from the West, East, Niger-delta or the North, anywhere, if it is good, and the people accepted him, if he will do justice and fair play.

Behind every crisis in the world, not only in Nigeria, is injustice and the solution to this is justice. I do not care about where the person ruling comes from; I care about his sense of justice and fair play. A good leader is someone with the fear of God, who will not cheat people or kill people because he believes he would stand before God one day to account for what he is doing. A leader that will accept in public what he accepted in secret. You talk of one Nigeria, but when you get to your room you tell your brother, do not trust him, he is not from our tribe or religion. Is that how we can build true Nigeria? We want leaders who will not steal or lie.

Tackling corruption
It is quite easy. So long as you take the man who stole to court and he gets away, we cannot fight corruption. How many people have gone to the court after having been found to have accumulated ill gotten wealth, how many have got away. What we should do if we really want to deal with corruption is to introduce the policy of how did you come about it. When you get into office, you declare your assets and at the end of your tenure you declare your assets. We know your salaries and allowances. We would then see the difference, so explain, how you came about this. In the absence of explanation, you will forfeit it to the government. You came into government with two houses, now you have got ten or twelve houses, how did you come about it. In the absence of explanation, you forfeit them. This will discourage other people from stealing because what is the use wasting time stealing money and only to be confiscated at the snap of the fingers. The only way to deal with corruption in Nigeria is to introduce the culture of how did you come about it.

It is also easy to deal with corruption if you have good leaders but if the leaders themselves are thieves they will give room for their colleagues to find a way out to steal.

Cries of marginalisation
If we have good leaders, he will take the country as his own constituency, though we would always have these complaints. In the past, for instance, we used to have an economic council headed by the Prime Minister; all the Premiers of the region were members with their economic ministers. The economic adviser then was Dr. Pius Okigbo, an Igbo man. The Prime Minister, a northerner, appointed him. I remembered that there was a time when there was an argument in the council, all the Premiers of the region were on one side; the argument became so heated. And Ribadu was furious when the Prime Minister asked Dr Okigbo to give his professional advice. In giving his advice, he supported the Premiers. Ribadu did not take it kindly; he wondered why Okigbo should do that since he was the Federal Government Economic Adviser instead of supporting the stand of the Federal government. But the Prime Minister said Dr Okigbo was not economic adviser to the Federal Government but Economic Adviser to the Government of the Federation, therefore he accepted his view.

Then, when they met and discussed, they come up with all embracing, comprehensive economic programmes for Nigeria, the regional Premiers then go back to their regions to implement their sections. There was therefore, a comprehensive, all embracing one economic programme for the entire nation, agreed by all the leaders. And there is no question of maginalisation then. And justice and fair play were the perquisites of development.

Looking at our country, we are blessed with resources, natural and human, yet we have not accelerated in terms of development?
During the civil war, we were sent out to campaign for our cause. I went to the United States and I remembered Shehu Shagari went to the Scandinavian countries. When we returned, we compared notes before submitting our reports to General Gowon, the Head of State then. And Shagari told me that he met a friend, a common friend of ours. And the man told him that ‘we know why you are out; you have come to seek for support and favour for your cause. But let me tell you, we do not care about you, all we cared about are your resources, if we could get robots to exploit your resources for us to develop our economic, we would not mind a lot of you being eliminated. But you Nigerians are a peculiar case, you have the population, resources and we know your resources more than you do know about them. All you need in Nigeria is about a fairly long period of say ten to twenty years; you will be able to make it.

You will become a very strong economy, will join the economic powers but you need this period of interrupted peace. But we would not allow you because if you have this period of peace and stability, you will use your brains and Nigerians have got brains, you will work hard and you are hard working people, you will exploit your resources and you have them in abundance and you will develop your economy. And developing your economy needs a market, you have no problem looking for a market, Nigeria’s population alone will serve the market, in addition the entire West Africa region will be your market. And if that happens, you will be a torn in our flesh, we would lose our source of raw materials because you will be using them in your factories, we would lose our market because you will be the market and also get other markets in West Africa. So even after your civil war, we would create one problem after another so that you may not enjoy peace and stability that will enable you to develop and become such a strong country.’

So it is up to us.

In this article:
Yusuff Maitama Sule


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