BY ALLWELL OKPI
Second Republic Minister of Steel and spokesman for the Northern Elders’ Forum, Dr. Paul Unongo, speaks on North’s opposition to President Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election bid and other political developments in this interview withALLWELL OKPI
Going by recent media reports, the people of the Middle Belt seem to be opposed to the North’s position on 2015 and they are apparently supporting President Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election. Isn’t this a significant political development?
Middle Belt people are not opposed to the position of the North. I’m from the Middle Belt and I claim to be the current political father of the Middle Belt in terms of contribution and the history of the movement known as the Middle Belt Movement, and its antecedence. I will not support Jonathan blindly. I supported him blindly before, I won’t support him now. People just talk politics but they don’t know what is involved. If I don’t support Jonathan, he won’t be able to win in the Middle Belt. When he came to Benue, I spoke on behalf of the people of Benue. We have a very important link in something called Middle Belt. We have the Tiv, who constitute the single largest group in the Middle Belt. They are more in number in Benue State; they are more in number in Taraba State; they are more in number in Nasarawa State. I do know factually and for many reasons, Jonathan believes that the Tiv do not exist. People are deceiving him through Governor Gabriel Suswan that the Tiv are happy. How can Jonathan come into governance, the first time, and gave us an excuse why he did not have a Tiv man in his cabinet? And I told him, bluntly, ‘Don’t do it. You are being misled by people who say we share population 50-50 with the Idoma in Benue State.’ For every six, seven or 10 people that are Tiv, it is just one Idoma man. And he gave them (the Idoma) disproportionate advantages. I warned him that we (the Tiv) are the ones who have the population but Jonathan took a decision to hang up to a young governor, who felt threatened and thinks that Jonathan will keep making him governor in perpetuity. He is dealing with Suswan, who has irritated people in the state and the Tiv people are not with him. I’m in the Peoples Democratic Party. I was the one who spoke when Jonathan came here. I was the one who assured him that we were going to vote for him emotionally. To define ‘emotionally,’ I told him ‘you are a minority.’ We of the Middle Belt; we of Benue; we of the central region of Nigeria will react emotionally to the idea of the minority. But, I warned him to bring a Tiv man into his government. It is wrong to go to a place and disrespect people that have been marginalised. Politics is about perception and emotion. He promised me he would make that correction, that we should still be patient with him and help him to win. We helped him. We gave him full support without regard to partisan politics. After the election, what did Jonathan do? Jonathan, for whatever reasons known to him, didn’t consult any of us and went ahead to appoint an Idoma person as a full cabinet minister — the Minister of Interior, (Abba Moro). Afterwards, (Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs) Doyin Okupe called me and said they told them the man was a Tiv man. He is not a Tiv man; he is an Idoma man. He is a boy to (the Senate President) David Mark. So, we knew that David Mark must have influenced Jonathan. I tried to protest but President Jonathan put a distance between himself and me. Jonathan later made a Tiv junior minister. That is an abomination. Jonathan knows that the Senate President is an Idoma from Benue and there are two Idoma people as cabinet ministers. What kind of politics is that? The Tiv people now know Jonathan. Since we form the majority in three states of the Middle Belt, we are not going to vote for him. They will tell him a lot of lies to make money from him but we won’t vote for him.
But some weeks ago, some prominent leaders of the Middle Belt, including John Wash Pam, endorsed Jonathan for second term. Are you saying that doesn’t matter?
Who are the people that are talking about being Middle Belt? I don’t want to mention names but ask the man (Ameh Ebute) who went to the State House with John Wash Pam to say the Middle Belt wants Jonathan to remain President in perpetuity. Ask him in whose party was he before he became (Third Republic) Senate President? Ask him who made him, an Idoma, Senate President? Who was the Senate President then? It was Iyorchia Ayu. I and my friend, Shehu Yar’ Adua, for political reasons, removed my own tribesman Iyorchia Ayu. I told this man (Ameh Ebute) in advance, ‘I’m going to make you Senate President.’ We made him Senate President. Unless he denies now, he knows that I’m his political leader and I took him to the Senate. He went to endorse Jonathan without consulting me. It was my people who defended the Niger Delta. Young men don’t know this but we, the Tiv, made capital contributions to consolidating and bringing about democracy in the country. When a government that is supposed to be the government of the minority comes, there should be a difference. In the minority, some tribes are bigger than others. I think we are the biggest minority tribe. The whole of Ijaw is 1.5 million, while we are more than six million people. How can Jonathan, who is from Ijaw, ignore my people?
Are you opposed to Jonathan’s second term basically because he ignored Tiv people?
Not just that. I’ve been speaking on the Nigerian political level. Intellectually, I should vote for somebody, based on his performance. What performance has Jonathan put up that is going to convince me as a person from the place that the British named Northern Nigeria, which the Middle Belt is a part of? That is me. Go and see the Babangidas, the people that influence things in their states like Niger. Do you think Niger people don’t know Jerry Gana? Is it Jerry Gana that informs and influences public opinion in Niger State? Definitely not. It is people like Governor Babangida Aliyu, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, both of them former military rulers. They all had sympathy for Mr. President, just like I did. When you go to Taraba State, who is more prominent than Gen. Theophilus Danjuma? He supported Jonathan 100 per cent. Call him and find out if he is happy with the performance of the President. I think he will tell you that he is not satisfied with the performance of the person we sat down and planned to put in power. Now Jonathan has become powerful and he has been taken over by the Edwin Clarks. The Ijaw people now feel they are so strong because oil flows from their land. People like (ex-militant leader) Asari Dokubo now threaten Nigerians saying, ‘if you don’t vote Jonathan for second term, we will come and beat you up.’ Nigeria has never been run like that. We’ve never had it the way we have it in this country today. We made friends across the nation. You don’t pack the country’s money and give to criminals, so that they can sing your praises. And anybody who tries to voice his opinion about Jonathan will be insulted. The other day, some of them, mainly Ijaw people, were abusing me, saying Paul Unongo is not a Tiv man. What is their business with the North? I cannot be intimidated. Those people who are educated know that I come from the North; the Middle Belt is in the North. They were insinuating that we were the people who chopped their oil money. I didn’t benefit one naira from oil money. I never had a contract in this country. I was a minister for only six months. I produced steel and they said I took plenty of oil money, and I didn’t produce steel. These are lazy people. They speak to annoy people and they think they are helping Jonathan. They are not. They are making people turn away from Jonathan. They are a bunch of jokers. It’s going to be very difficult for them to get people from the Middle Belt as they are hoping. How can the Middle Belt and other minority tribes be led by Edwin Clark to Jonathan? What a joke? You see, that is the kind of insult we have always received. How would I fight so hard for my freedom to speak on behalf of my people and another man will say ‘I’m leading you to go and see Jonathan?’ Suddenly he has become the leader of the Middle Belt and the South-South. It cannot be. It cannot happen. These are political jokes that have terrible implications for Jonathan. Those people saying Middle Belt will vote for Jonathan are only hoping to rig the election. The possibility of rigging election in 2015 is very slim. Some of us will make sure that in our areas rigging election will be as difficult as it was in Edo State during the last governorship election. I think Edo has taught us a lesson that we should be vigilant and insist on a transparent election. I don’t think it is going to be an easy walkover for Jonathan in the Middle Belt.
But the argument for a northerner becoming President in 2015 has been largely based on the idea that it is the turn of the North and not necessarily Jonathan’s performance.
When it comes to the literal allocation of government, the North has a case. Honestly. Those who say this case cannot be presented are jokers. The people pushing North’s case are not dumb. I taught in the university, Prof. Ango Abdullahi was the Vice-Chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He is not a mad man; he is a professor of agriculture, an agronomist. I’m a psychologist. I was Head of Psychology Department, University of Lagos. We couldn’t be talking without having facts. Do you think we can’t convince our people when we can see the statistics? The North of today is not the North of yesterday. There are thousands and thousands of graduates in the North and they are unemployed because some of them are messed up by the dearth of employment and the economy of Nigeria. And we know where the blame is. If you try to do something on a personal level, the cost of electricity will kill you. If you want to go back to agriculture, your chicken will die because there is no power supply. It is going to be very difficult to convince northerners that Jonathan is the best candidate.
Historically, there has been this clamour by the people of the Middle Belt to differentiate themselves from the Hausa-Fulani dominated North. How come you speak as though the two sides will be in league against Jonathan?
You know these people are so uneducated that they cannot even read history. Weren’t there different tribes in the North fighting the Hausa or at least the Fulani during the British colonial era? We formed the United Middle Belt Congress and we went into alliance with the Action Group. When the Northern Peoples Congress controlled government of Northern Nigeria, they dealt with a Borno person, Ibrahim, who was a leader of opposition in the House. They burnt down his house in Maiduguri and stopped him from going physically to stand election. We, who are almost 100 per cent Christians, went to Borno, which is inhabitably almost 100 per cent Muslims, picked this Borno man and brought him to Gboko and voted for him en masse. He did not canvass for votes but we gave him the biggest number of votes cast for any person at that time in Northern Nigeria. He was returned to the Northern House of Assembly as the leader of opposition. Now, Borno is a place where there is Boko Haram, with so much devastation. This place called Northern Nigeria became roughly two-thirds of the landmass of Nigeria and has over half of the population of Nigeria. If there is critical need for the people of Northern Nigeria to cooperate with one another, we will always cooperate. For example, I grew up with Ango Abdullahi. He is a Muslim, I’m a Christian and he is not a stranger to me. The people from the Niger Delta are strangers to me. But those funny people have come to tell the Middle Belt that the Muslims have been cheating them. Which Muslims have been cheating them? I was the secretary to Joseph Tarfa, who was the leader of United Middle Belt Congress–the party that was winning elections and agitating for the breakup of the huge Northern Nigeria to form a Middle-Belt region. But we didn’t succeed. It is stupidity to think that there is one dichotomised group called Fulani and another dichotomised group called Middle Belt and they don’t like each other. We don’t hate each other. Hatred doesn’t exist. It exists only in the mind of foolish people.
Don’t you think Jonathan is succeeding in dividing the North ahead of 2015; you said Middle Belt won’t support him while some people from the zone are saying otherwise?
I don’t speculate. But if I were Jonathan, I would do whatever it takes to divide the people opposing me. I will apply the British style of divide-and-rule, because if I succeed in dividing them I will rule. But the current leadership of the North is made up of people who are so mature that they know the tactics Jonathan and his people can apply. We will not allow them to divide us. But the most important thing before me is Nigeria. I worked so hard for the Independence and stability of Nigeria. I feel that people in government are messing us up to the extent that people are beginning to go back to their primordial cares. I’ve never had any doubt in my mind that Nigeria is a beautiful experiment. I’m praying to God that we will get a better person; a more interactive person that will know that the story of Nigeria is not just about oil and chopping money. I can still go to war to make sure that Nigeria does not break up. If there is opportunity for dialogue, we will go for it, but don’t impose Jonathan on us we are not going to accept that.
In recent times Northern youths have been vocal blaming their woes on elders like you. Don’t you think they will take a different stand in 2015?
I support the frustration of the northern youths. How do you explain to them when they see how Jonathan is using the power of governance to empower his people, giving them huge contracts in dollars? How do you convince them when criminals are pardoned and rehabilitated, including someone convicted in a British court? How do you talk to them when they ask you: ‘Why didn’t our people do like Jonathan when they were in power? Why did they not empower northerners? Why did they not develop the North? Why did they not do something to stop the Sahara Desert? They ask endless questions. They get angry at history. They get angry at their elders. Some of us had explained to them that those who ruled meant well, but they were not aggressive enough in developing the North. But now they are not seeing fair play. They are seeing impunity in governance and they are wishing that the northerners who were in government had been like that. The northerners that ruled this country did not do the kind of thing that Jonathan did in Rivers State, where five have become greater than 27 and everybody was beaten up. Governance now means that if the President’s wife doesn’t like a governor she can install another one or go and block the road and stop a man who is the chief executive of a state. That was unheard of when northerners were in power. We will not do the kind of arbitrariness that we find in Jonathan’s government. What I tell the northern youths is that they should bring their youthfulness and let us solve this problem. They cannot blame it on us. All the northerners that ruled Nigeria were youths. For example, Yakubu Gowon was 29 when he became the Head of State with absolute power. You can’t go and ask him now that he is in his 80s that why didn’t he do what Jonathan is doing when he was in government? We are now telling our youths to join hands with us and let get the power back. We are not going to be in government, but the youths will be. We are telling them not to make the mistake the past people made.
Following recent political trend, it seems the North will collaborate with the South-West to challenge Jonathan in 2015. Does this mean that the North’s presidential aspiration may be actualised on the platform of the newly formed All Progressives Congress?
Let’s go back to history. In global Nigerian politics, if you include the minorities of the South, with the sympathies of Chief Awolowo in the South-West, which is Yorubaland, then your proposition is correct and it is likely to be repeated. It appears to me that because of what Jonathan and his advisers have carelessly done, your observation is correct. If Bola Tinubu slows down and applies his mind, and if he convinces my friend and brother, the former dictator, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, not to think about becoming a presidential candidate, that kind of combination is possible. I don’t mind belonging to such alliance. And a lot of people in PDP will not mind belonging to that. And perhaps for the first time, Nigerians will have a major political party that people out of their free will and out of their frustration will embrace.