The presidential candidate of the Peoples Trust in the 2019 elections, GBENGA OLAWEPO-HASHIM, in this interview with OLALEKAN ADETAYO, speaks on the issues of rotational presidency, state police and agitation for secession, among others
You were the presidential candidate of the People’s Trust in the 2019 elections.
How would you describe the conduct of that poll?
There were a lot of logistics issues and the election had to be postponed. I am not sure if the Independent National Electoral Commission really satisfactorily address those issues. That election also witnessed the lowest voter turnout in recent time in terms of percentage of voter turnout.
You can imagine that the victor had about 50 million votes or so. That’s less than 10 per cent of the country’s population. We can do better next time. It was not just about who won and who lost but the fact that we need to have an electoral process that is transparent and will ensure that people do not have to challenge election results at the tribunal because of transparency.
At least, that was the benchmark that we had in 2015 elections that the vanquished person even congratulated the winner. So, we must make sure that we improve. The President promised then to look into those issues. Now that there is nothing at stake for him, this is a good time to resolve those issues so that the next election can have some credibility.
Some people are of the view that candidates like you who didn’t emerge on the platform of either the PDP or APC usually end up splitting votes that could have significantly affected the outcome of the election. Do you agree?
It is not all elections that are about only votes. Elections are also about issues. The winner of the election in question, President Buhari, had contested more than three times before and he had contested on very weak opposition platforms until he became a candidate of the CPC in which he won one state: Nasarawa, where most of the state House of Assembly seats were even being controlled by the PDP. He was persistent and was noted for something; his refrain about fighting corruption. So, building the ideological platform and creating issues that a candidate needs to be identified with is also part of the democratic process. It is not just all about winning or splitting votes. There are people who believe that election is simply about winning or losing. Everybody wins when the democratic process is improved to popular participation. You know that right now in Nigeria, there is a tendency for people to be impatient. They think everything will just happen immediately, so when they see people trying to build, they will wonder what they are doing.
There are conversations around zoning in the 2023 elections with some arguing for Igbo presidency. Are you in support of this?
The rotational presidency is arrant nonsense and I am not going to mince word about that. One of the drawbacks of trying to reduce presidential contest to turn-by-turn is that it robs the democratic process of accountability. Any time, may be the National Assembly, or the institution of state wants to hold anyone that comes up on zoning accountable, there is always this cry that you are doing so because you don’t want us to enjoy our tenure. ‘He is our man, don’t touch him.’ That becomes a kind of protection against accountability.
No Nigerian is disqualified either historically, or in practical terms, regardless of his ethnic group, from aspiring to be President of Nigeria. I don’t think that if you construct your political platform well as a politician, that there is anything inhibiting you from running as a President and winning from any place in Nigeria. History supports this. Bashorun MKO Abiola ran in 1993 even on a Muslim-Muslim ticket, most Nigerians voted for him across ethnic groups; Kano supported him even against the NRC candidate that hails from Kano, Bashir Tofa. So, the people of Kano have demonstrated that they can pick a President, regardless of where the President hails from.
Chief Olusegun Obasanjo also won his election with votes from all over the country during the 1999 elections. So, if you construct a pan-Nigerian platform, you can always win. I don’t know what they mean by rotational presidency, because it is not in any constitution. And I have not seen it in actual practice operating in Nigerian politics.
So, you do not have a problem with seeing a Northerner taking over from President Buhari in 2023?
Look, I believe that the Presidency should be won by merit. Now, there are times when you have to be sensitive to what is going on. At a point in time when you have a crisis and political leaders get together and say, ‘okay, for the purpose of the crisis we are facing, let us try to work out these arrangements.’ But then, you cannot impose that on anybody. And that was what happened in 1998, when some Northern leaders with whom we formed the PDP were trying to say ‘okay, let us try and get a candidate from a specific zone.’ It was not formalised.
The proposition came from the North. Either of those leaders of the party with whom we formed the party then could have become the President. Alhaji Adamu Ciroma, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, Prof Jubril Aminu, Prof Jerry Gana, Dr Iyochia Ayu, all these people from the North are with big profiles. They could have been President at that time. Because some people were trying to reduce the annulment of the June 12 election to be something targeted against a particular ethnic group, they said ‘let’s go to that zone and pick somebody.’
They were not really routing for Obasanjo then. I was in all those meetings. I was one of the youngest among those old men in those days. The prevalent sentiment was to go for Olu Falae. But Olu Falae and the Afenifere team took a premature position of withdrawing from the PDP. Because they didn’t want to have a contest, they just wanted the party to say it has been zoned to them and they left the PDP prematurely. In fact, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur and Prof Jerry Gana were sent to go and talk to Chief Olu Falae that he should not leave the PDP. But, he said, ‘no, I will go with my Afenifere people’ and he went with them. And they had a smaller platform, because the PDP was a big party, so there was no way Afenifere would have won with AD. But I am not saying what they did was wrong. They still controlled the South West in that election and they still remained relevant as a voice. They have the rights as a political organisation to determine their strategy and tactics of engagement and what was important for them at any particular point. This is by no means judging what they did. I am only trying to enumerate what happened
So, what I am saying is that people can take such a decision, but you don’t come blackmailing other ethnic groups and say ‘it is our turn, you people have had your fair share.’ You need to cultivate understanding and even then, when people were saying that, I was not for that. I was for Alhaji Abubakar Rimi who contested until our group, the Social Progressives Platform, then, met and it was decided that we should support Obasanjo.
In that contest, there were many people from the North and everywhere that contested against Obasanjo, even though there was a preponderance of opinion. So, it was that opinion that swayed in his favour, it was not as if the party said nobody from any other zone could contest.
The division of the Presidency on an ethnic basis always causes its own division. The last time I checked, the only country that tried that at the executive level is no more; that was Yugoslavia. It has broken into pieces. This is because once you start that thing, there is no end to it. Because in Nigeria, we don’t just have Igbos, Yorubas, Hausas and Fulanis. Nigeria is made up of 350 ethnic groups. About 250 of them are in Northern Nigeria. So when you start this rotational presidency, the assumption is usually ‘Oh, once a Yoruba man has gotten it, the Fulani, Hausa and Ibo have gotten it, everybody is fine.’ That is not it.
Under that your arithmetic, when will an Okun man in Kogi become President? When will a Nupe man become President? When will a Jukun become President?
What is your assessment of the two major parties, the APC and the PDP, since 2019?
I think the two major parties have their problems. But the truth of it is that the sentiment in the country is that you don’t complicate the choices for the electorate; that we should try and reduce the choices that we are going to make. So, I think things are looking like you just have to make a choice between these two behemoths. You understand if you are talking about the 2023 elections.
Now, here is my assessment. The APC, has had challenges, grappling with insecurity, and the economy. But it still remains, in my opinion, a strong political party, and it is doing a lot to welcome new members. And I think that they are opening their arms, from ward level to the national level, giving new political entrants the opportunity to feel at home. That will make them get a lot of powerful politicians. Ideological issues aside, politicians always like relevance. Nobody wants to enter into a party where he cannot even have any of his followers to become members of the ward executive or members of the local government executive because he or she knows that if he doesn’t have his followers at those levels, he is shut out from whatever future political contest.
So, the APC has done that. But the PDP has not done that. The current PDP is totally different from the PDP that we founded in 1998. One or two people control the affairs of the PDP right now. Given that scenario, I don’t think any serious politician will want to go and join them. You don’t want to be controlled by people who you think are not competent enough. So, if the APC, which is the ruling party, is opening its doors, then the PDP that is in opposition is shutting its doors, they are even driving members away, fighting their governors in every state. They don’t look serious, to be honest with you, and the most important albatross of the PDP is that it has not been able to shed the toga of the corrupt party that it has been labelled with in the recent past.
You can say the APC may not be fighting corruption very well, and achieving results, you may criticise them. But you will see that the President is talking about it; he doesn’t want corruption. But at least, he is talking about it. In the PDP, nobody is talking against corruption. Again, most of the people they give assignments to, either people who are undergoing trial for corruption here and there. So, they make their matter worse. They are not bothered about their credibility and integrity. That is a very serious problem. This creates some dilemma.
I have talked about the shortcoming of the APC and the shortcoming of the PDP. I have also said the electorate would like us to make a choice. So, the electorate wants to force us to make a choice between these two parties at the end of the day, and every single politician will have to weigh these things.
There is the school of thought that believes that smaller parties like PT which you ran on its platform in 2019 would stand a better chance by merging with the PDP or the APC.
What is your response to this?
It makes sense because if you look at what you have in the United States, the Democratic Party is made up of three sharp ideological points: you have the progressive platform, you have the liberals, and then you have the centrist platform, those who are a bit to the centre. The centrists are the Clintons and others. The liberals are the Obamas and others. You know quite a number of the progressives. So, the PT and all other people can be part of the progressive platform in any of these two major political parties. I think that makes sense.