The National President of the Middle Belt Forum (MBF), Dr Bitrus Pogu, has given reasons the group is supporting the presidential candidate of the Labour Party (LP).
In an interview with VINCENT KALU, the MBF leader noted that the historical monolithic North no longer exists.
So far, are you impressed with the way the campaigns are going?
Campaigns should be based on issues, but you see violence happening in some places, which shouldn’t be. Instead of addressing issues, you can see that the presidential candidates are attacking one another; so it is not how mature campaigns should be, and we are hoping it will get better.
Are you not worried about the violence?
Everyone should be worried. We saw how the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar campaign trail was attacked in Maiduguri. It’s unfortunate that such a thing could ever happen. If the trend continues, we may not have a smooth election, which may spell doom for our democracy, and I wouldn’t want that to happen. We pray that all parties that are involved in such things should call their members to order so that we have a rancour-free issue based campaigns that will give Nigerians the choice to elect who they feel will deliver for them good governance, having elected him in 2023.
The presidential candidates signed a peace pact to maintain peace, but in some states, the governors are not allowing the opposition parties to use their facilities and so on. What is your take on this?
It is an unfortunate development. It just means that we are gradually becoming a lawless society, if we are not one already. My prayer is that those involved in such acts should become more civil in their behaviour so that we have development in our political process.
MBF and some southern groups have adopted Peter Obi as their presidential candidate. What informed that decision?
Equity, fairness and justice: it is just those three words. Every Nigerian knows that the six political zones deserve equal treatment. The South East deserves fairness, justice. Similarly, we have had presidents from North West and South West and continue to interchange since 1999. Now, after eight years of President Buhari, it should justly go to the south, and, in the south, the South West has had former President Olusegun Obasanjo for eight years, and now Prof Yemi Osinbajo as the vice president for eight years in 2023. The South-South has had former President Goodluck Jonathan for nearly six years as president, while the South East has not produced any. So, for justice, equity and fairness, it is only proper for it to go to the South East, and, with consultation with South East leaders, Peter Obi emerged as the preferred candidate, and, therefore, he left the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and went to another platform. We are supporting him based on equity fairness and justice. That is the criterion.
Does equity, fairness and justice override competence in this instance?
Peter Obi was selected based on competence. In every geo-political zone, there are so many competent people, and among the lot of competent people who are in consideration from the South East, he stood out as the one we feel that, at this point in time, can help us in bringing the new Nigeria we are all aspiring to have. Competence, youthfulness, being energetic and not sickly, he has them all. He is the type of president that Nigeria needs now that can do the job without fainting, without going to the hospital every time, and he has the brains; he is an entrepreneur, a good trader and a good manager we believe can manage the affairs of this country, and he has a track record, which cannot be faulted. So what other competence do you want?
Some would argue that the North East has also not produced the presidency since 1999
The movement we have had since 1999 was between the north and the south. The North East could not capture the president after Obasanjo, it went to the North West, with the late Umaru Yar’Adua, and then it went to Jonathan of South-South, and it went back to the north, and as the North East didn’t grab it, was it the fault of the South that the North West grabbed it? Would you consider Buhari to only be North West, because, maternally, he is North East and paternally, North West? You can only blame the people in the north for not micro zoning it to the North East. Now, since it is going to the south after a northern president, if fairness is being applied appropriately, and our partners in the South said , ‘yes’, for fairness, equity, justice, it should go to the South East. It is nobody’s fault, let the people of the north now decide why when it came back to the North, it wasn’t given to the North East.
When do we put a halt to ethnicity, religion as considerations to winning elections?
It was when Nigeria became a nation, but, today we have nation states, and not a nation. We have tribal nations; we don’t have a nationhood created out of the Nigerian space with geographical states, which we accept as our country. We still have these forces pulling everybody, and before we could get there, we have to be able to address issues of tribal cleavages, religious cleavages. For example, when we were maturing and there was tranquillity in the land, a South West candidate, the late M. K. O. Abiola, chose Alhaji Kingibe as his running mate, no Christian even from the North raised an eyebrow to question the Muslim-Muslim ticket, but, today, we have a different situation. Boko Haram, they say they are Islamic group fighting; whether true or false, it is up to them to decide. We have ISWAP, an Islamic group fighting to carry out a jihad, which nobody understands. Then we have herdsmen militia, all having Islamic roots, and the Christians from the North, particularly the Middle Belt are threatened. So, that issue of same faith ticket cannot be tenable now, because even in this government, we have seen a lot of nepotism; people from the same religion, the same part of the country have been planted in strategic positions as if the others are not part of the country. From this, we have not developed into a nation; we are still states of nation within the space called Nigeria. By the time we are able to be a nation where Nigeria comes before religion, where Nigeria comes before tribe, and then we can do away with these things. In fact, when you talk to somebody at that time they will tell you, forget about this primordial sentiment, but, today, the realities are staring us in the face, and we have to face it squarely.
In the past, Chief Awolowo and Dr Azikiwe picked South-Eastern and Northern Christians as running mates, and no one raised any issues. When did it become an issue?
It was when religion and ethnicity started to stare us in the face. We didn’t have any Boko Haram before killing people for no reason; we didn’t have ISWAP before killing people for no reason; we didn’t have Fulani herdsmen militia before, but now, we have them, and everybody is complaining. Even in the North, people are complaining that nepotism has carried the day instead of inclusiveness and consideration for our diversity. These issues started to stare everybody in the face. You look, somebody is being killed by somebody who ‘pretends’ to be fighting a religious battle. Why should I support a system where both of them belong to the same religion, because I felt threatened that way, and that was why some APC leaders came out clearly to say, ‘We are APC, we believe in this political party, but we cannot accept Muslim-Muslim ticket’. It is because these things are realities today; it is happening because of what is going on today. In the past, when such things didn’t exist, nobody cared; nobody mentioned anything about it.
When Abiola and Kingibe ran together, nobody even asked why a Muslim from the South West picked a Muslim form the North East. It is the reality of today that informs the behaviour of today. So let’s address these things and let us not pretend and say they don’t exist. They do exist. The ordinary Christian from the North feels threatened by these attackers; in fact, the entire nation is threatened, and the Christians from the North are saying no to a Muslim candidate. The Muslim deputy is even coming from the Boko Haram enclave, so why should we support them? These are problems that are there because of the reality of today, and this reality has to be addressed so that we can move forward towards constituting a true nationhood in our conducts and in everything that we do. An American says, he is an American, and not a Christian American or a Muslim American; and a Nigerian is supposed to say he is a Nigerian and not a Muslim or a Christian from Nigeria. We have to address these things and then get out of the mess we are in.
One had expected that the Middle Belt Forum from the North would go for a candidate from the North, in the spirit of the monolithic North.
There is nothing called monolithic North. During Obasanjo’s period when some Middle Belters were appointed ministers and were given some key ministries, our brothers from the far north started saying that those appointees were not northerners. What defines a northerner? The Middle Belt struggle has been one of the oldest socio-cultural groups that existed. The struggle then was for a bit of the cake so that the bigger Northern Region would not forget the nationalities that were found in the southern north, and that led to what we have today. In the beginning, the powers that be in the North tried to carry these people along, but divisions started, and people started to say, ‘You are not true northerners’. So, who is the true northerner? So, they began to see themselves as a separate entity —the Non-Hausa Fulani and the Non-Kanuri minorities who were neither under the caliphate nor under the sultanate of Borno. When the British came, and these groups were coming together more strongly, and now they can say, ‘We have our identity’, the British kept us together for their administrative convenience and through the Indirect Rule that we have been subjugated to suppression and oppression, and it continued even after independence, and that is why the struggle continues. That monolithic North doesn’t exist today. Even the Hausa people, most of them are crying out to say that the Fulani came and deceived their forefathers, why actually they were fighting a political battle, took over our rulership.
Even some of their leaders, who were Muslims, were killed on Eid day, and their authorities taken over by the Fulani. They were Muslims before the Fulani jihad came. So, the Hausa are starting to probe into that historical episode to say, ‘These people are usurpers, and so we cannot accept it anymore.’ So, the cleavages are coming, you cannot hide history, because it will expose the truth, which people are hiding. Some of our leaders tried to stop the teaching of history. History is very important. Without history, I cannot tell my Kanuri brother that, before the colonial masters went to meet their leaders in Mongonu, they came to Chibok in 1902, and so we were also negotiated or forced into the protectorate just as you were. History tells me that my people were independent before we were all brought together. The monolithic North is now into cleavage, because history has exposed things that were hidden which are now in the open. But for Middle Belt, our struggle has been for a very long time, and we are only trying to ensure that our people are properly placed where they are supposed to be, and not to continue to play second fiddle to anybody; we are not second class citizens in our own country. By the time everybody has the right to be a Nigerian, just as everyone has just one vote, then Nigeria will be very good for everybody.