INTERVIEW WITH ALHAJI MAITAMA SULE

I was a minister of oil without a house in the First Republic – Maitama Sule

Alhaji Maitama Sule is an elder statesman, an astute politician, intellectual, acclaimed orator and diplomat of repute. In 1954, at the age of 23, he was elected into the Federal House of Representatives. His sojourn as a lawmaker was cut short by the military coup of 1966.  In early 1979, he was a presidential aspirant of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) but lost to Alhaji Shehu Shagari. He was appointed Nigeria’s representative to the United Nations after the inauguration of civilian rule in September 1979. While in the UN, he was the Chairman of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid. In this interview with Bimbo Ogunnaike in Abuja, the 83-year-old Dan Masanmi Kano spoke at length on the on his activities at the House of Representatives, spanning 12 years, which he described as a vibrant assembly coupled with the dynamism of the government of that time. He also spoke on why he conceded to Shagari at the National Convention of the NPN at the Casino Cinema, Yaba, Lagos, the issue of corruption, religious crisis in the North and 2015, among other issues.

You have always preached love to both Christians and Muslims in the North, saying it is the only way to move the region and the nation forward. But in spite of your preaching, killings in the North in the name of religion between the two adherents continue unabated. Are you not worried by this senseless bloodshed?

I do not believe that Christians and Muslims are fighting one another. I don’t want to comment on that because we are working on that and at the appropriate time, I will speak on it. But I want to tell all Nigerians to remember one thing. It is not for nothing that God has brought us together in Nigeria; different tribes, different religions, different cultures, even different climatic conditions. God wants us to live together because of the role we are going to play. If we can live peacefully together in Nigeria, people outside the country will respect us, but if we cannot co-exist peacefully, nobody will respect us as a nation. Nigeria is a giant economically, but we need to work hard in order to realise the greatness in us. We need peace and stability which will enable us to become economic giants. I want to ask every Nigerian that since our civil war, have we enjoyed the peace and stability in this country? It is up to us, we must have peace and respect one another. All religions of God are the same, they are basically the same. All religions of God, Christianity, Judaism and Islam teach us to love one another. All religions of God say that there should be no compulsion or coercion. All religions of God teach us to love our neigbours as we love ourselves. If you go to the United Nations today, you would see in front of the headquarters building a quote from the verse of the Holy Quran. And there is a similar verse in the Holy Bible.  We must love one another. The Christians are taught that no matter how much they worship God, they cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven unless they have love in their hearts. The Muslims are saying if you want to get the forgiveness of God, you must have love in your heart. So, let every Nigerian preach love, let us preach love.You have always preached love to both Christians and Muslims in the North, saying it is the only way to move the region and the nation forward. But in spite of your preaching, killings in the North in the name of religion between the two adherents continue unabated. Are you not worried by this senseless bloodshed?

You were elected into the Federal House of Representatives between 1954 and 1966. How much were you earning as a lawmaker at that time?

We were paid only allowances. We used to take only three per cent of the budget of the legislature. But now, I am told that the present lawmakers are earning more than that. I don’t know the percentage.

Did you have aides working with you at that time?

No, we didn’t. It was parliamentary and not presidential system of government that we practise today. In the Presidential system, even in the United States of America, they have aides. But for goodness sake, let us cut our coat according to our size. The system is good, right, but it is too expensive for a developing country like Nigeria. We cannot afford it, I must admit. We are spending so much of the national income on the legislature. I think we should give a thought to it. There is need for us to have a look at it. The parliamentary system is less cumbersome, easier to run, very much less expensive. Here, ministers were members of the House and were only there to answer questions  and present their budgets or their bills.

How many sessions were held in a year?

In those days, we had only three sessions in a year, the budget session for the whole of Nigeria lasting for about three weeks, the supplementary budget in the middle of the year and any emergency budget if the need arose, otherwise, people will go into their respective businesses and professions. That was what we had, three sessions in a year. After the sessions, members went back to their respective homes. We had no permanent members, we had no aides and we had no homes or permanent houses of our own. There was a legislative house and legislative flats where members stayed, but after the sittings, those flats were let out. That was the system and as a result, we spent only about three per cent on the legislature. That was the system, the parliamentary system. Ministers were members of parliament in those days. Even in the bicameral legislature we had, the senators were not elected; they were nominated by the regions and Houses as well as parties that were in control of the regional houses.

Was the parliamentary system practised then better than the presidential system that we practise today?

The most important thing is that whatever system we follow, if we have the intention, the goodwill and the focus on the service and welfare of the people, the system will succeed. Personally, I don’t agree with any kind of system that is not African. Democracy, they say, is relative. The cultural parameters of the people always determined their type of democracy. I kept saying that democracy in Africa is eurocentric. Personally, you may not agree with me, but I would like to see afrocracy, African type of democracy being practised in Africa. For after all, before the white men came to our shores, we ran a political system and it was quite democratic.   That system allowed for a representation but not opposition. Every person elected was a member of the government. But it was democratic that if the chairman or leader of that council failed to live up to expectations, he would be shown the way out.

But that is not so in the present system of government we are practising?

You see, In the presidential system, you have to live in the capital, have aides and so on. But even then, we have to look at ourselves as a developing country and make sure that whatever we do is commensurate with our resources. We should cut our coat according to our clothes

How much specifically were you paid as a lawmaker at that time?

It was just sitting and mileage allowance.

How much?

I can’t remember, but it was sitting allowance. But I told you that we spent about three per cent of the total budget.

How vibrant was the legislature during your time?

The government was so good that international communities thought that in about 15 to 20 years, Nigeria, Brazil and India would join the industrialised nations of the world. Today, India has made it; it is a nuclear power. In the field of computer technology, India is in the forefront. It produces more doctors than any country in the world and builds ships, planes as well as all sorts of weapons.  India has made it. Brazil has also made it. Brazil has best agricultural programme. Brazil builds ships and planes and all sorts of weapons, but Nigeria is yet to make it like Brazil and India. Brazil and Nigeria established their defence industries in the same year but only last month or so, it announced the manufacture of a tanker.

What is the problem then that after 50 years of independence, Nigeria is yet to belong among industrialised nations you just mentioned?

I don’t know. I think something is wrong with the leadership. That is the problem with Nigeria.

During the First Republic, cross cultural representation in the legislature was possible. But today, you hardly find it happening again as a non-indigene cannot aspire to be a local government chairman. Why is this so now and not in your era?

This is because at that time, the leaders were Nigerians. You see, in those days, for example, the first Mayor of Enugu was a Northerner from Sokoto. Chief Obafemi Awolowo also appointed the father of the present Chief Justice Nigeria, Mrs. Aloma Mukhtar. Her father, Alhaji Mukhtar, was a special member in the Western House of Assembly, representing Northerners. Sardauna of Sokoto appointed Chief Okonkwo, a prominent Igbo businessman in Kano, to represent Easterners in the Northern House of Assembly. That was how they worked. They respected one another in spite of their differences, while they accommodated one another in the greater interest of the country. We have to revisit that. I was in Lagos as a young minister and felt more at home than in Kano. I was the Onikoyi of Ikoyi. In those days, parties without T.O.S. Benson, J.M. Johnson, Sanni Adewale alias The Boy is Good, Prince Okunade Sijuwade, the present Ooni of Ife and my humble self, were incomplete without us. I was always welcome in Lagos. Those were the days. Although we had our political differences, we agreed to accommodate one another and agreed to live in peace with one another. The differences were there but when there were criticisms, they were constructive which is the kind of thing we would like to see again.

Is this realisable in this present-day Nigeria?

I have a feeling that it would come back, we will go back to the past and revive the old glory. Anybody that has faith in God does not lose hope in Him. We must not lose hope. In spite of the ugly things that are around us here, I still remain optimistic that by the grace of God we will overcome our problems and Nigeria will become one and we will be our brothers’ keepers, respect one another and live in peace. Yes, by the grace of God, that shall come to pass.

In 1983, during the second term of the administration of President Shehu Shagari of the now defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN), you were appointed Minister of National Integration, a portfolio designed to assist the President to tackle corruption. But that administration was removed by a military coup, with the coupists citing corruption as a major reason for their intervention. Was that not an indictment on you and the government of President Shagari?

Well, but then, there was an intention to fight it. Shagari established the Ministry of National Guidance to instill discipline in the society, to raise the moral tone of the society and fight corruption. Indeed, before the return to civilian rule, when I was the Chief Public Complaints Commissioner, I wrote a report to the then military government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as my parting gift when I was leaving the government to contest election. The report was indiscipline in the Nigerian society. I believe, perhaps, that was what Shagari must have seen when he decided to set up ministry of National Guidance and appointed me as minister. He had the intention of fighting these vicesand it was a good intention. After he was overthrown, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari brought in War Against Indiscipline (WAI). Even after Buhari, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida brought in MAMSER. After that too, Obasanjo brought in National Orientation. It is the same thing with the National Guidance, cultural revival. You see this ugly thing has been with us and Shagari had the intention of fighting it but unfortunately he did not have the time before he was overthrown.

When you were appointed as an ambassador to the United Nations by the Shagari administration, you said the appointment was a political exile. Many observers at that time saw the posting as an attempt by Shagari to reduce your rising political profile in the NPN. What do you say to this?

When I said political exile, it was in quotes. There was no bad intention. Shagari, at first, wanted me to be a member of his government, remember I contested against him and I conceded to him. I campaigned for him but we had our differences. He had his own idea of running a government and I had mine too. So I refused to serve in his government in the first place but he insisted I must be part of it and he decided to send me to the United Nations with good intentions and I was there. I went to be United Nations at a time when the struggle against apartheid was at its highest. I travelled to different parts of the world, campaigning against apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela. I even wrote a book on the release of Mandela, it is there, so, I enjoyed it. It was a political exile in quotes.

At the National Convention of the NPN held at Casino Cinema, Yaba, Lagos, you contested alongside  Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Alhaji Adamu Ciroma, Dr. Olusola Saraki, Joseph Tarka and Prof. Iya Abubakar, for the presidential ticket of the party and lost to Shagari. Why did you think you lost at that time? 

I conceded to Shagari. I was asked by the elders of the party to concede to him. The two of us came tops. He had higher votes but he didn’t have overall majority. I was next to him and Ciroma was following me. So, the three of us were to go for a second ballot in order to determine who the winner was but then, the elders spoke to me and said I should concede and I did. I once told Shagari to contest the presidential election because I felt that he was the right man to do it at that time. Anyway, whatever may be, I believe power belongs to God. He gives it to whom He likes and takes it away from whom He likes. He exalts whom He likes and deposes whom He likes. All I want is  somebody in position of leadership or authority who will dispense justice and fair play. I don’t care where such person comes from or what religion he professes as long as he would do justice to all  and sundry. Justice is what is needed. Power can remain in the hands of an infidel if he is just and fair, but it will not remain in the hands of a believer if he is unfair and unjust.

Some people are saying the current problem of insecurity in the North is because governments in that part of the country have failed to arrest the issues of unemployment and poverty, among others. How true is this?

I believe the case of insecurity is the result of unemployment and poverty. You see, an idle man is a devil’s workshop. If somebody has nothing doing, he would think evil, plan evil and he would do evil. There is poverty, unemployment and illiteracy in the North. All these evils are there. Of course, there are these evils in other parts of the country, but they are more pronounced in the North than anywhere else. We need to arrest the situation.

In your own opinion, do you think the governments in the North have failed in arresting the situation?

You see, unfortunately, it has been there for quite some time. They are doing their best but their best is not the best. They have to do much more, they have to come together and forget their differences. For example, in the former Northern Region where the Sardauna was the leader as Premier, he cooperated with people like Mallam Aminu Kano of Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) and the party was in alliance with NCNC. Sardauna cooperated with Tarka of the UMBC which was in alliance with the Action Group (AG). Anything that affected the North was because of these people and they put their differences behind them. That was how Sardauna was able to move the North. Indeed, he embraced everybody. He did not discriminate on the grounds of religion or tribe while he regarded everybody as the same. He did justice and was not materialistic. He used to say that you cannot run and at the same time be rubbing or scratching your back. You can’t be a minister and a businessman at the same time. The Sardauna said: “Any of my ministers who wants to go into business should resign. I would help him. I do not want to be remembered as having accumulated wealth. I want to be remembered as having worked for my people.” And that was why when he left, you looked into his account and it was in the red. That was the kind of leaders we had. The Sardauna, worked for the people. He paid attention to those things that were important, agriculture and education. If a country can feed itself, half of its problems is solved. The level of development of a nation is the level of its education. Sardauna spent 90 per cent of his budget on education. And, as you know, Chief Obafemi Awolowo spent about 50 per cent of his budget on education.

Sir, let us talk about the issue of corruption which has been the bane of the country over the years and has now reached to a feverish point. What do you think is the problem?

I think we have to find a way of dealing with the situation realistically. If people, when going into offices are asked to declare their assets, they should also do so at the end of their tenure. And if they are found to have more than their legitimate earnings, they should be asked to explain. In the absence of such explanation, whatever is over and above their legitimate earnings should be confiscated, no going to court. If that is done, it would be a deterrent to others because people will start saying, if I could steal and accumulate so much wealth and only to be confiscated, why wasting my time? The policy of how did you come by it should be adopted. That is the way to deal with corruption. How did you come by it? In the absence of such a satisfactory explanation, anything over and above the legitimate earnings of the person should be confiscated.

Sir, let us talk about the 2015 presidential  election which has been generating controversy lately. The North, which is the region you hail from, has been insisting that power should go back there in 2015 and not the South?

Let the party or the politicians that brought this and so on discuss this issue. I am still a politician but not a partisan politician. But all I ask is this, let leaders realise when they are no longer able to meet the problems of their nation, let them have the prudence of handing over to others before they fulfill the aspirations of their countrymen. Let us not adopt this policy of remaining in office until death do us part.

You once lived in Jos, the Plateau State capital where peace reigned supreme, but today, it has become a killing field. What is your view on this?

It is unfortunate. I do not believe it is religion but people are using religion to fan, perhaps, their political interest. When people have nothing to offer, they resort to religion and tribalism. It is unfortunate, but I believe we shall overcome. People will come to realise that we, Christians and Muslims, are all one and the same and we serve the same God that says we should not kill one another.

Sir, you are 83 years old now and we pray that you will spend many more years on this planet earth. What do you want to be remembered for?

As a Nigerian first and a good Muslim  who respects other religions as well as other Nigerians. I want to be remembered as somebody who has thrived to serve his country. After all, I was the first Minister of Oil after independence and the longest serving minister in that ministry. But I can tell you that when in 1966 the coup took place, I had no money to send to my family at home. I had to borrow. On getting back home, I had no house. I want to be remembered as a simple and humble Nigerian that tried to do his best to serve in the name of God. I owe this nation, Nigeria and I have to pay my debt. I have paid my debt not in cash by imparting the experience I had gained over the years to people.

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