By NBF News

For elder statesman, Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, the option left for the North in the ongoing jostling for a northerner to emerge as Nigeria's President via the April election is for the three frontline presidential candidates from the region to agree to a consensus arrangement. Although, he conceded that this was a tall dream littered with obstacles, Yakassai believes that if two of the candidates can agree to step down for one of them, that northerner will defeat President Goodluck Jonathan, a South-Southerner and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate in the election.

In this interview at his home in Kano, the Second Republic Political Adviser to former President Shehu Shagari also stressed that the efforts by President Jonathan to reconcile with some northern leaders was an acknowledgement that he was usurping the northern presidency and advised that it was not too late for him to step down for a northerner.

He equally warned the pro-Jonathan northern governors, who joined forces with the incumbent during the PDP presidential primaries in January to convincingly trounce Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, that they would taste the real wrath of the ordinary northerners for what he termed their act of betrayal. Excerpts…

The Northern Political Leaders Forum (NPLF) still insists that the North will produce the President despite the outcome of PDP primaries. Do you think this is possible?

It is still possible, in so far as we (the North) would be able to have one of the three candidates of Northern extraction emerging as candidate in the spirit of the consensus arrangement we have been pursuing. Honestly, we are still struggling to get to that stage. I must admit that this is not very easy. But we have been fighting hard. Our stand is that it is the turn of the North to produce the president of this country. As we speak, we have the support of three of the major political parties in Nigeria - ANPP, ACN and CPC - all of them producing northerners as their presidential candidates and flag bearers. Which means that, by and large, Nigerians are sympathetic to our agitation and have demonstrated their support for us. I believe if we succeed in getting two out of the three northerners vying for the presidency to step down, the northern candidate will emerge as President of the country in April.

In reality, is the proposal to get the other northern candidates to step down for one of them still possible?

Well, I am not God. But we are working hard to achieve that. Whether it will happen or not, I actually cannot say for now.

Shekarau, Ribadu and Buhari will undoubtedly split the northern votes in the April elections. What steps can be taken to tackle this challenge?

To be candid with you, it is not an easy thing to get them to step down for one of them. This is because each of them is sponsored by his party and their members voted for them at their convention. These delegates, as you know, are party members who came from the North and the South. For any one of them to step down for one another, he must convince himself on why he should do so.

Secondly, he must convince his party to support him in doing that. The problem is that the party where northerners and southerners have come together to vote for somebody to be their flag bearer, the northerners who canvassed for that person to emerge as the flag bearer of the party will find it difficult to convince their southern counterparts that they should agree to withdraw their presidential candidate in favour of the candidate of another party. It is not an easy thing, but we are trying. Unless we are able to get these two requirements together - the consent of the candidates and that of his party - our efforts may not achieve the desired result.

Do you see the Adamu Ciroma-led NPLF, which is a purely PDP body, being able to exert influence on the northern presidential candidates that are not of PDP to agree to a consensus?

Well, I think I should make a correction here. Most journalists often mistake the Northern Political Leaders Forum as Adamu Ciroma's committee. That is wrong. The chairman of that NPLF is General Ibrahim Babangida and Adamu Ciroma is chairman of its Contact Sub-Committee. His role is that of making contact, on behalf of that committee, with other people, whether in PDP or not. But the main committee is headed by General Babangida.

On whether they will have the influence on the other candidates or not, I think what they are doing is that of appealing to the candidates. Definitely, nobody, even inside those affected political parties, will have a commanding influence to make the candidates step down for one another. You just need to convince them. There is no other way. You have to convince them and their party to step down for the other.

President Jonathan brought in a number of northerners as well as aides of some of the PDP presidential aspirants into his campaign team. Is this enough to win the support of the NPLF or the North?

Take note that these people were in the first place not nominated by their campaign committee or by the aspirants you have just mentioned. They were picked as individuals. And I doubt if they have that influence to sway the position and altitude of the majority of the supporters of their principals or the aspirants you have mentioned. So far, I have not heard anybody reacting to their appointments. I am watching to see what will happen - whether they will accept or reject it. For now, nobody has said he has accepted or rejected the offer.

In your view, can these measures placate the North?

These are PDP members; don't forget. They will try to influence their colleagues or sway them. But, honestly, I don't think this will make any difference. Don't forget the bulk of the voters in Nigeria are not members of any political party. In any situation, political party members don't amount to more than 10 per cent of the total population. Ninety per cent of the population are non-partisan people. Therefore, I doubt if they can influence the direction of the ordinary people.

At some point recently, Atiku, who is the consensus candidate of the North, said he was open for talks with Jonathan and the PDP. Does this represent the stand of the NPLF and your own elders committee?

Well, dialogue is a different thing. Nobody will say he is against dialogue. Dialogue is a civilized manner of trashing out differences and conflicting issues. So, I don't think it is in contradiction with the stand of the Northern leaders who are fighting for power to return to the North or to produce a President from the North.

Jonathan has been trying to talk to some northern leaders to enlist their support.

How do you see this move?
In my opinion, this amounts to an admission on his part that he is usurping the right of the North. I don't know how successful he would be. But that does not change the reality of the situation that, according to the zoning arrangement of the PDP, a northerner should be fielded by the party to contest this year's election, and that a southerner - Jonathan or anybody else - is doing so against the agreement of the party leaders on zoning and rotation. So, if he is looking out to reconcile with northern leaders, it is an admission that he sees his candidacy in the race as an aberration. Therefore, the way out, in my honest view, is to yield to the demands of northerners. It is not too late. He can still step down for a northerner.

What is your take on the negative reaction to some of pro-Jonathan northern governors who voted for him at the PDP primaries?

The ordinary man in the North is annoyed with most of them because they compromised his rights. If the delegates from the North at the PDP convention voted for Jonathan of their own volition, it would have been a different matter. But for some of the governors to compel the delegates or even to substitute the bona fide delegates with handpicked individuals, those they picked up in Abuja and gave accreditation to vote according to their dictates, is really wrong. And the people are annoyed with them. To that extent, I can assure you that when the time comes for the people to vote, you will see the consequences of the anger the ordinary people have against such governors.

Buhari picked a running mate who converted from Islam to Christianity and who is also a pastor. What is your response to this choice?

I think from the standpoint of Islam, a convert has committed an unforgivable sin and the penalty for that is death by hanging. I think what General Buhari is trying to do is to assuage the perception some Christians have of him that he is an Islamic fundamentalist. He wants to show them that he is not an anti-Christian person. To that extent, as a politician, I think he is looking for votes and he knows that Muslims alone cannot vote him to power. So, I think he is doing that to get some more votes from the Christian community in Nigeria with a view to seeing whether he would win the election. Whether he is going to succeed or not is a matter to be determined when the time comes.

But there is equally the fear that this might affect his chances, as hardliners in the North would not be comfortable with Buhari's running mate being a pastor?

By and large, the northerners will vote for a northern candidate because they believe it is their time and their turn. Honestly, I don't think that will affect Buhari's chances substantially.

Atiku Abubakar recently petitioned INEC over the outcome of PDP presidential primaries. Do you think the petition is still relevant?

Well, the issue is that he did not just send the petition, he sent in that petition a long time ago. But INEC is claiming that it had not seen it. For him to send in a petition to highlight the infractions committed by PDP at the party primaries, I think it was appropriate. I would do the same thing if I were a candidate in an election or a contest.

Some people have expressed worry that the 2011 polls could be bloody. Do you share such fear?

No, I don't think it will be bloody and I don't entertain that kind of fear. I honestly don't entertain that kind of fear about the polls.

What is your advice as Nigeria approaches the April elections?

Let us resolve that whatever happens we should ensure that the elections are conducted freely, fairly, transparently and credibly. You can have a transparent election, like we saw in the PDP convention, but it will not be credible. So, let us have credible election that would make everybody say the rules have been followed. And if that happens, I am sure that whatever is the outcome the country will be at peace. People go against the outcome of elections with violence if they are convinced that it was manipulated and the result does not reflect their own feelings.