Midnight encounter with Ahmad Sani Yarima
Aside close acquaintances, few people know His Excellency Senator Ahmad Rufa’i Sani, the first democratically elected governor of Zamfara state, as a man with a huge sense of humour. At every opportunity that presents itself, he is quick to bring down the roof, literally speaking, and share in the ensuing hearty laughter. I discovered this trait in him the first time I met with as a governorship aspirant in 1998. We were not destined to meet again for the next 21 years.
Much has happened in those 21 years. Senator Ahmad Sani, Prince (Yarima) of Bakura, has been governor for eight years after which he was elected Senator to represent Zamfara West Senatorial District. Today, he remains, even in the estimation of his opponents, as one of the most influential and consistent politicians in Nigeria. Not even an internal crisis that rocked the APC party in Zamfara state ahead of last year’s general elections has tinkered with the massive grassroots support he enjoys. His decision to run for the presidency in 2023 is his second shot at the top job.
Early this month, I received a call from a contact who informed me Yariman Bakura was in Gusau for 24 hours and would be leaving the next morning. My contact had secured a midnight date if that was okay with me. It was! I made it to Gusau around 10.30.PM . Yariman Bakura’s residence in Gusau was a beehive of activities when I arrived thirty minutes before the scheduled appointment. I spoke to a sentry in a cubicle at the security post who mechanically punched a laptop in front of him and nodded. ‘Yes, His Excellency will see you in thirty minutes’. He motioned to another aide to show me an anteroom.
At close quarters, Yarima’s physique has not altered much since our first meeting. He was as fresh as a day old chic and there was nothing to show he was fatigued at that hour of the morning. For the better part of our 45-minute rendezvous, Ahmad Sani kept answering calls intermittently and on, at least four occasions, called in aides to whisper instructions to them.
In this first part of the interview, Senator Ahmad Sani speaks on security challenges in the country, why he is running for the presidency in 2023 and his relationship with President Muhammadu Buhari and expresses his views on several topical issues.
On Nigeria’s security challenges: I think we should begin to look in the direction of community policing. Thankfully, we don’t need to look far to know that we already have the rudiments of community policing in Nigeria. I am talking of the Vigilante Group of Nigeria. It may surprise many Nigerians to hear that there are retired senior and junior security and intelligence personnel in the Vigilante Group. What is more, you find them in the most remotest part of the Nigeria. Let me tell you what we did in Zamfara state. Even before we took over Zamfara state, we were clear in our mind that we needed to secure the state if we were to make any headway. We then sat down to look at other means of complementing effort of security agencies in the state without antagonizing the central government. The Vigilante Group of Nigeria came in handy. We saw them as the answer to community policing, so we resolved to engage them if we won. So, within one week of assumption of office, we invited leaders of vigilante groups from every part of Zamfara state and started discussing with them. Within available resources, we assisted them with logistics. They were motivated, became better organized and effectively complemented efforts of security agents. That is what we did in Zamfara state and I believe this can begin to look in that direction at the national level.
On relationship with President Buhari: I have always admired and respected President Buhari. He is courageous and a patriot of the highest order. You cannot help but love him if you have the opportunity of getting close to him. Our relationship has always been very cordial and will remain so. I have a good laugh each time some of your colleagues embark on a wild goose chase about a phantom frosty relationship. I think some people are not comfortable with the very warm ties I enjoy with Mr. President. I think those who write what they write or say what they say do so because they fail to realize that I have always maintained that on no account will I have any reason to run in an election in which Mr. President is interested. They conveniently forget that I backed out of the 2007 presidential race the moment Mr. President indicated his interest. They also forget that I backed out of the 2015 contest the day Mr. President decided to run after genuine and patriotic pressure on him to reconsider his decision.
On 2023 presidential election: All things being equal and, by the grace of God, I will seek the mandate of my party to field me as its presidential candidate in 2023. Yes, I am interested in the 2023 presidential race. In any case, I have always been interested in running for the presidency because of what I believe I can bring to the table. The only way to consolidate on the achievements of the APC administration is to initiate a poverty alleviation programme that will take Nigerians out of poverty. That was the forte of my administration when I executed the office of Governor of Zamfara state.
I have always believed our achievements in Zamfara can be replicated at the national level. That informed my aspiration in 2007. Nigerians will recall that I was a strong contender in 2007. I will be treading familiar terrains by presenting myself for the presidency in 2023. I have had the honour of touring all 774 local government areas in the country. Nigerians will recall that the signals in favour of my candidacy were very, very strong in 2007! The signals are even stronger today considering the fact that we have continued to break new grounds across by making new friends and cementing old alliances.
On the presidency moving south: I am sure you know the position of my party, the APC, on zoning. I think the position is in sync with that of many Nigerians. I have no problem with any Nigerian from any part of the country running the affairs of this great country. And I think all Nigerians are agreed on this. What I do not think is right is the idea of electing a president on compassionate ground. The presidency is a serious business and we must always ensure we get the right person for the job. For now, nothing stops anybody from any part of the country to aspire to run and we cannot begin to talk of the likelihood of a rotation when we know it does not exist.
The type of zoning I envisage is one in which there will a visible political role for each of the six geo-political zones at any point in time. Yes, zoning is good but it must not be mistaken for allocating the presidential ticket on compassionate ground. And it is good to the extent that we get it down in black and white in the Constitution. Let me quickly add that I like the idea of stop-gap rotation that will be embedded in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. If zoning was a constitutional matter, there would not have been that much number of presidential candidates from the south in the 2019 presidential race. If you recall, ahead of the 2019 elections, some people tried to create the impression that the presidential slot was zoned to the north. The story is not different today because even as we talk today, you can hear of many names from the north and south being bandied around for the presidency.
On whether Nigeria should revert to the parliamentary system : As I said, there is nothing wrong with the present political arrangement in place. But as I also said, no human invention is perfect. So there may be times when the need to adjust may arise. One of the complaints with this present system is that the presidential system is expensive. For instance, some Nigerians believe we can make do with only one chamber at the National Assembly instead of the two we have.
All human inventions have their advantages and disadvantages. This is true for with the presidential or parliamentary systems. I think what we need is a fusion of the parliamentary and presidential systems. For a young democracy like ours, what we need do is to constantly adjust to the dictates of our peculiarities. We can have an executive presidential system with a vice president and at the same time create room for a prime minister and deputy prime minister. This gives you an idea of something visible and paramount for all the six geo-political zoned in the country that I am talking about. This not a novel idea but I think it is one idea whose time is here. We should begin to look in that direction.
On Shari’ah: The Constitution allows different legal systems to regulate our societies. People conveniently forget that the Constitution recognizes a Shari’ah, up to the Court of Appeal. To that extent Shari’ah is not strange to the Constitution. Even those who chose to blow the issue out of proportion never said we broke any law. When we came, we said any Muslim found in breach of the law would be tried in accordance with the Shari’ah. Throughout my tenure, we never tried any case involving a non-Muslim in a Shari’a Court. We introduced Shari’ah with the best intentions and part of the intentions was never to Islamize non-Muslims. We did it to check perceived excesses among Muslims in the state. Nobody said non-Muslims should be taken before a Shari’a Court.
I think Shari’ah was misunderstood by some who were not adequately informed about it and was given a wrong colouration by those who understood it but wanted to play politics with it. Otherwise, the introduction should never have generated the heat it did. When I served as governor, we respected and enforced the rights of non-Muslims to pray, preach and build places of worship. We did not prohibit prostitution and the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks and other intoxicants for non-Muslims and make it legal for Muslims. It was a state-wide ban that was applauded by Christian leaders in Zamfara state.
On his tenure as governor: We had a clear vision of what we wanted even before we took over. The state had just been created three years before we took over so we realized we had to put in our best if we were ever to make any impact. For very obvious reasons, poverty alleviation was the plank of our administration. Ours is a largely agrarian state, so we moved to implement policies to improve the lot of the people. The luck we had was that we were able to set up a strong and committed cabinet in the state. The team we set up was simply spectacular.
Many things were simply not right when we took over. You cannot achieve much when indiscipline is the order. As I said, Zamfara state was young when we took over and people continued to troop in to seek opportunities. Daily security reports indicated that crime was on the increase and we simply could not fold our arms. We then realized that our poverty alleviation programme will come to nought if we don’t move fast. First, we identified the black spots and we discovered that beer parlours, hotels and brothels topped the list.
On restructuring : Painfully, the word ‘restructuring’ has been bastardized to the point you want to avoid it. But, since you have pinned me down to use the word, yes, I believe we must restructure to the point that restructuring makes Nigeria a stronger, united, peaceful and prosperous country. That is my understanding of restructuring and I want to believe that is the way majority of Nigerians view restructuring.
Having said that, let me also say restructuring is a continuous process. It is not something you do once and you think it has taken care of your needs. Take a look at development across the world. The United States of America that has enjoyed more than 240 years of nationhood and it is this continuous restructuring that helped America to reach where it is today. It is restructuring that made China what it is today.
As Nigerians, we have come a long way from 1960 and this is because we have been restructuring gradually. My suggestion about the fusion of presidential and parliamentary system is restructuring. The whole idea of diversification of the economy, in which the APC administration has done extremely well, is restructuring. The fact that we have six geo-political zones is restructuring. Whether we have a unicameral or bicameral legislature, whether we have part-time lawmaking or whether we have a single tenure of five or six years for political office holders are all intended to strengthen our democracy. Yes, I go for anything that will strengthen our country.
On the Buhari/Osinbajo administration: Nigeria had virtually been abandoned at the ICU (editor’s note: Intensive Care Unit) by the time the APC government came onboard in 2015. We knew we were on a rescue mission and the APC government has done a wonderful job. This administration has given us a working and workable template on which to move Nigeria forward. The way things are going, the next government will not start on a tabula rasa or a clean slate. The achievement of the Buhari/Osinbajo administration in agriculture poses a major challenge to future administrations in this country.
Nigeria would have gone very far if we had focused attention on agriculture the way the Buhari/Osinbajo administration is doing since 1999. Yes, there are challenges of insecurity and unemployment but the government has been proactive on the two fronts. We have subdued insurgency to the point that the Nigerian Police is now to replace soldiers in maintenance of law and order. It’s a gradual process and nobody ever deluded themselves that taking Nigeria from the hellhole it was forced into is going to come without inconveniences.