A former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, who was sacked from office over allegations that he misappropriated funds, Babachir Lawal, tells HINDI LIVINUS that the party risks losing the next presidential election if some things are not done

Some members of the All Progressives Congress, including Mamman Daura, a nephew of the President, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), have said competence and not zoning should be the key determinant for the President’s successor in 2023. What do you think about it?

You said some senior members of our party, but I am not aware that Mamman Daura is a card-carrying member of our party. Ideally, Daura is supposed to be considered as an elder in the North on account of his age and achievements in public service. On that basis, we accord him a level of respect to the extent that his comments will carry weight.

But since he has never contested any position, either in the party or in government, we will not take his comments on zoning very seriously. My own inclination is to take it as a personal opinion. The issue of zoning is a very critical component of the Nigerian entity. Zoning is not entrenched in the APC constitution nor is it in our (Nigerian) constitution but a political party is in the business of politics to win elections.

And for any political party to be successful, it has to take into consideration the diverse demography and political structure of its constituents. Don’t forget that our politics is built on some fundamental understanding, though not legal. First, there is the issue of religious balance. We want a country in which every Nigeria feels secure to live their life in a peaceful and prosperous manner in an environment created by the government. Any political party that ignores this is obviously digging its grave. Nigerians like to count the numbers of Muslims and Christians in the Federal Executive Council to see if there is balance.

And one of the things Nigerians have criticised about the security architecture is the fact that they see the top echelons of the security service as being predominantly dominated by Muslims. To that extent, Christians find faults in whatever they do. I suspect that most of the calls that the leadership of the security agencies should be rejigged is because Christians don’t feel comfortable with the dominance of one religion, especially as cases of insurgency, banditry, kidnapping, and so on, have soared and Nigerians have factored in the religious orientation of the perpetrators.

Two, politically, Nigerians want zoning in the polity. In states where the people are homogenous on the basis of religion and tribe, they tend to rotate power across the zones or blocs within the state. At the national level, it translates into North and South; that is the understanding and every Nigerian has come to accept it. That, however, does not mean that Nigerians do not believe that merits should count. But people who have merits are available in all parts of the country and are not localised to any geopolitical zone.

There are fears that the Peoples Democratic Party may field a northerner in 2023 and that it may give them an advantage if your party picks a southerner…

No! The PDP introduced the principle of zoning. Even the All Nigerian Peoples Party, the Congress for Progressive Change, and the Action Congress of Nigeria, which existed then but now defunct, never discussed zoning. The concept was largely successful because the party had elder statesmen like Adamu Ciroma, Alex Ekwueme, and Solomon Lar who could come up with a workable political structure acceptable to the generality of their party members when things got hot. Now, the APC has found itself in the same situation and has to toe that path, or else it will not win the next presidential election. To win the next election, the APC must apply the principle of zoning, though not clearly stated in the APC constitution. We believe by 2023, after the North has produced the President for eight years, the South should have a go at it.

Do you think that will be practical if the former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, is again put forward by the PDP as its candidate? Don’t you think he will win by securing the majority of the votes from the North?

I am not thinking like that. Atiku Abubakar is from Adamawa State and is a northerner like me, but I will like to contest the basis of your statistics. The conclusion that the North produces the largest bloc vote is not true. The North-West geopolitical zone in the North tends to go in one direction all the time. The North-East tends to go in another direction. They have never voted along the same lines and we are not even talking about the Middle Belt.

If the South-West, South-East and South-South agree to vote for one party as they do in the North-West, the chances are that our so-called (northern) numerical strength may be challenged, and we may come off worst.

With Adams Oshiomhole and the APC’s National Working Committee’s removal and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s alleged presidential ambitions, do you think there could be divisions in the APC?

First of all, I want to declare that I am a Tinubu man. There’s no denying that there’s a Tinubu factor in the APC. Just like I was a Buharist and every time Buhari’s name was mentioned, I stood by it. But the crisis that started in the APC has nothing to do with 2023. It just had to do with the mismanagement of the party by those entrusted with that responsibility – namely the NWC.

We had a chairman that had deficiencies in management skills in a political system where everybody needed to be carried along. As much as possible, he was like Alexander the Great. In almost every state, because of his approach to politics and conflict resolution, there was crisis, even in states where the APC had no governors. So it got to a stage where everybody was fed up with having Oshiomhole as the chairman. However, there were some people who wanted Oshiomhole out more than the rest and members of the APC knew they had ulterior motives that were not altruistic, but majorly selfish.

Does the selfishness have anything to do with 2023?

Yes, like some governors who wanted to go back to the old days when they would sit down and decide what would happen and who got what in the party. Many within the party felt that as a former governor and labour leader, he would be able to stand up to the governors. We also felt that coming to that position with some affluence; he would not sell our party for pecuniary considerations.

But Oshiomhole, to some certain extent, did not give the governors one inch because he was autocratic or a dictator. And the governors who wanted to go back to running the party created a crisis. It got to a point when even those of us who ordinarily supported Oshiomhole later became disappointed because he so messed us up. But because those who wanted to throw him out were worse than him, we stood by him. They deployed all kinds of arsenal and Machiavellian tactics that no one after something good would be inclined to do. Some of us advocated for a ‘soft landing’ for him. Like every other human being, Oshiomhole had his weaknesses. He, however, started to change towards the end of his reign but it came too late. Those who wanted him out were more desperate. From my own observation, there is very little the national chairman of a party can do to impose a presidential candidate on their party.

Do you see Buhari supporting zoning ahead of 2023?

Buhari believes firmly and strictly in what is legal. Once you point out to the President that this is what the law says, he goes with it and other considerations won’t matter. I don’t know what he will do but it is only necessary that any leader, whose tenure is running out, ought to show interest in who their successor will be. Not for personal reasons but for the continuity of their policies and programmes. To that extent, even if Buhari is not inclined towards it. I will urge him to.

Do you think the President would support that power should move to the South?

When we were in the CPC, we got many votes but didn’t win. But there were other challenges; there was an unhealthy perception that Buhari was a religious bigot. He was also seen as someone who would be hard on corrupt persons and many groups didn’t feel they would be safe if he became the President, especially the Christian community. So we sat down as a strategic group and thought of what we could do.

Which bloc could give us the votes that could make Buhari to become the President? There was no other bloc other than the South-West bloc, which had the defunct ACN in control of states in the South-West as a regional party. This was done as far back as 2010, so we planned to have a merger before the 2011 general elections. But time ran out on us. The merger didn’t work. After the loss, we were encouraged to start the merger process again. I remember a letter from the chairman of the CPC Board of Trustees directing our committee to work with the ACN, only towards having a merger. It was when we read his letter for discussion that we decided that we should not restrict it to the ACN. We moved to include the ANPP.

One of our specific goals was to make Buhari the President. Tinubu was a colossus of South-West politics. If he had said there would be no merger, there wouldn’t have been any merger. By the time we went to the APC national convention, the North-West was not with Buhari. The North-West people were either for Atiku or Rabiu Kwankwaso; most of them, at least. The late Inuwa Abdulkadir and I continued to pile pressure on Tinubu, giving him the statistics. There was no point supporting a candidate that would not win the election. We told Tinubu that this man had 12 million votes, and that there could be two million votes for Atiku and four or five million votes for Kwankwaso at best, and that it would not translate to any electoral victory.

It became very clear that Buhari was going to win that primary election once Tinubu declared publicly his support for him and accepted that the South-West would vote for Buhari.

Between Wednesday and Thursday (before the convention), it was clear Tinubu and Bisi Akande were going to support Buhari and the North-West had no choice but to support Buhari, otherwise they were going to lose out. So if Tinubu had not conceded at that point, I think probably Kwakwanso would have won the presidential nomination of the APC. For that reason alone, you can see Tinubu’s contributions to the emergence of Buhari as President and his role in building the party.

Everybody knows Buhari had no money and he doesn’t play money politics. So he won his presidential primary election without spending money. Also, Buharists didn’t have money; they only had ideas, zeal and fanaticism. And politics requires money. Tinubu, who had his tentacles spread across the corporate world, was the only man who knew where and how to raise the funds needed. He was the one that reached out to all the ‘big men’ who were at the time scared of the then President Goodluck Jonathan. These were all rich men that depended on government’s patronage. But somehow, Tinubu was able to persuade some of them to support Buhari. We had so many experiences, Timipre Sylva (now Minister of State  for Petroleum Resources) and I thought we could do it but found out we couldn’t until Tinubu came in and we won the election.

How did you manage to turn around the negative perceptions the public had of Buhari?

At the time, Nigerians saw Buhari as just a wood. He had no emotions. People weren’t seeing him as a loving husband and father, and doubted if he could be humane. It was Tinubu who brought in consultants from the US – the firm behind the successful execution of President Barrack Obama’s campaign. It helped to repackage Buhari to Nigerians. They came and started from the scratch; they did some research work for us. They told us where Buhari was weak and the messages needed to change the long held perception, using billboards and other campaign methods.

That was when you started seeing Buhari wearing a suit, and in Igbo, Yoruba and Kanuri attire. It was then people started to see Buhari as a family man with his beautiful daughters.

The strategy was to transform his image and show a humane, loving and trustworthy person. It helped us. At some point during our strategy sessions, the consultants asked us: why don’t you allow Buhari’s wife to come out so that she can be contrasted with Dame Patience Jonathan? When you do that, you would have won the election already, they said. She provided a contrast to the former First Lady.

Rallies don’t win elections. It is the underground work that wins elections. Almost the same thing repeated itself in 2019. Tinubu doesn’t like to take credit for what he does; he lives for politics, gets his money from politics and spends it on politics. He has no other interest except politics. The monies he spent out of his pocket that are unaccounted for outside of the party’s campaign finances, are quite enormous. I know this because he’s my friend and because I am also involved in the Buhari government. So when there is a crisis, I am the one whose duty is to run to the South-West.

Therefore, except we want to bring the wrath of God on our heads, which we don’t want, the party must create an environment that is free and fair for anybody who wants to contest, including Tinubu, to do so. Allow the delegates, who must have emerged through a similarly free and fair process, decide who they want to vote for. It will be our duty as ‘Tinubu’s boys’ that time to say, ‘Let us vote for Bola’.

By the way, what did we get from several years that the Presidency has resided in the North? Along that line, we have also had vice presidents who were northerners. We have had presidents who were northerners but for some reason, the system is not improving. Presidency from the North is like an albatross around our neck. We northerners can do with power going elsewhere so that at least, we can now complain. But you cannot be holding on to power while things are not working fine. Let us also be able to complain, especially those of us who play active roles in the country.

There have been problems between the Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), and the suspended Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu, people that should be working together to promote the President’s anti-corruption war. How bad do you think this is for the country?

Like the Bible says, the heart of man is desperately wicked: who can phantom it? The conducts of certain people, whether in government or not, is incomprehensible to a normal person with a decent character. Both of them are like my younger brothers. I have known Malami since I was in the CPC and only got to know Magu when I was in government. And I like his sense of duty and commitment to his job. That’s all I know about him. I don’t know however if there had been attempts to address these issues in another way before the options were exhausted and the issues resulted in the escalation of those differences.

What I consider painful in all this is that this government has fought corruption and committed all its energies and resources to fighting corruption irrespective of the parties the people they go after belong to. Some are politically motivated; some are not right. I would not be self-serving if I say take my own case, for instance. This issue has given the international community the impression that we are not serious about our anti-corruption campaign. When I was removed as SGF, the general outcry was that because of my closeness to Buhari, they wanted to weaken my flanks so that they could come after me.

But now in the case of Magu, the narrative is that corruption is fighting back. These are the impressions and the consequences of such conducts. Initially I had the feeling that the system would come after Magu, especially the press and the social media. If you are very discerning, you will know they are with him. The preponderance of opinions is in support of Magu’s position. The views being laid out are as if it is a witch-hunt. There are better ways to end Magu’s reign because no matter what anybody tells you, Magu tried. I used to joke that if you are a thief and you are caught by Magu, nobody can release you unless you cut off his hands.


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