Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed is a retired federal permanent secretary, and currently, the Director of Publicity and Advocacy of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF). In this interview, he spoke on what the Forum considers as criteria for supporting the next president of Nigeria and why they are yet to endorse any aspirant.
There are rumors that the Northern Elders Forum has adopted a northern aspirant ahead of the 2023 election. How true is this?
The Northern Elders Forum has not adopted any aspirant, and all the aspirants who engage us know this. We are in touch with all the aspirants, including some from the South, and our position has remained consistent. We have successfully made the case that all political parties have the right to field candidates that meet their criteria, and the choice of who becomes president should be left to all Nigerian voters.
The NEF recently visited former President Olusegun Obasanjo, what exactly informed the meeting, and what are some of the issues discussed?
Our convener, Professor Ango Abdullahi, has had a long and valuable relationship with President Obasanjo. Our Forum also has a policy of engaging key stakeholders in the country, such as Obasanjo on many issues that affect the country. The visit you refer to was to afford them to share insights and opinions on the state of the country and its future. They had substantial agreements on the need to improve the electoral and leadership selection processes, particularly in view of the current state of the country. The visit also afforded them an opportunity to deepen personal relationships, a factor that is vital to the health of the country today.
Does the Forum have its own criteria for supporting any candidate?
Under our circumstances, it is vital that all those who aspire to lead this country after President Muhammadu Buhari understand the challenges they would have to meet decisively, as well as the basic requirements for effective leadership that should prepare them to lead a Nigeria that needs strong, visionary leadership to turn it around. We have a clear picture of the key issues that future leaders will need to address, and we plan to interrogate the qualities of all aspirants and candidates to establish whether they are prepared to lead better than others.
What are some of these issues?
First, we need leaders with a very good understanding of politics and leadership in Nigeria; it must not be business as usual. Our security situation needs major and urgent improvements, the economy is not working for most Nigerians, and it must be re-engineered in a manner that addresses its basic flaws and weaknesses. It needs fresh and bold strategies to tap into all our assets and place them at the disposal of a population that will benefit from a vibrant economy, which will substantially reduce all our exposure to insecurity and forces that create the impressions that our unity can be trifled with by opportunists. For us in the North, insecurity and poverty must be addressed holistically and we would want our younger generation to live in a country that does not treat the northerner as a liability and a nuisance. We want leaders who will appreciate the fact that revisiting the foundations, systems, structures and governance processes need genuine re-evaluation and informed changes. Above all, we want leaders who will be accountable and respect the inherent diversity of the people of this country.
Are there issues regarding the current state of the contest that the Forum is worried about?
Well, the delay in assenting to the amendments to the Electoral Act is a major source of concern. It is holding up the progress of the electoral process and its being delayed against the desire of Nigerians to see substantial improvements to the electoral process and political recruitment systems.
The rhetoric around zoning and rotation is heating up the polity, and this could represent serious threats to an election that needs to be free of threats to security and survival of the democratic process. There is also the concern that candidates and citizens may not be as free to canvass for support freely in all parts of the country as the law provides. We want to see an environment that is not threatening or intimidating. And all candidates must be free to cover every inch of this country to seek support.
What are the priorities of your Forum at this stage?
Obviously, the security of the citizen and the state comes first. We are worried over the targeting and killing of northerners in Abia State last week and the outrage it is generating in the North. We have been active in calming nerves and asking that those responsible must be fished out and punished. It is important that we hear voices of leaders and elders from the South-East condemn these killings and offer assurances that northerners are safe in the East.
We make case for peaceful co-existence with Igbo people who live lawful and productive lives in the North. Obviously, events like these do not help the creation of an environment where Nigerians can make rational decisions and undertake activities that will yield the best leadership the country deserves. We also watch the escalating levels of exposure of northern communities to armed criminals, and this informs our steadfast insistence that we will only support a candidate who shows a potential to understand the nature of the security threats which make our region so vulnerable, and who possesses the will to tackle them.