Senator George Akume was the Senate Minority Leader in the seventh Senate. Before his election into the upper legislative chamber, he had held sway as governor of his native Benue State for eight years between 1999 and 2007 under the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. Akume who was first elected to the Senate in 2007 on the platform of the PDP, had in the period leading to the 2011 elections defected to the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, the platform through which he became the minority leader of the Senate.
He was one of the major driving forces behind the formation of the All Progressives Congress, APC in the Middle Belt and was a serious contender for the position of Senate President at the advent of the Eight Senate.
Senator Akume, who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Army spoke to Vanguard on issues concerning the achievements of the APC federal administration, its challenges among other things.
By Joseph Erunke
Given the living condition of the populace would you say that the APC has made life easier for the people?
I want to say with all emphasis that APC has not disappointed and has not failed this nation. We must recognise one fact that this government inherited a zero economy, we started from ground zero. Some said it’s even minus. There was nothing. We had a meeting with the president, we know what he told us on what he had to do before they started paying salaries.
There was no money, don’t forget that when President Olusegun Obasanjo was leaving, we had N64 billion in foreign reserves. By the time President Muhammadu Buhari took over, we had less than N30 billion. The economy was comatose – everything including toothpicks were being imported and irredentist movements were all over the place. We had the Boko Haram ravaging the North-East, and in the South South, we had serious security challenges. Don’t also forget the fact that we had serious issues of kidnapping, robbery and the rest. I don’t want to talk about corruption. Nigerians know very well what took place in the past.
There’s no government in the world that you may say it’s angelic but there’s always a difference and there are parameters to measure whether a government is committed to achieving its mandate or not.
If you talk about insecurity, this government has degraded to a large extent the Boko Haram terrorists’ movement in the North-East. In terms of South South, in the Niger Delta, militants and irredentist movements are being curtailed. Talking about the fact that there are some young people who may not even know the consequences of war but who will say we want this, we want that, well, they could be pushed by some other people who didn’t witness what war is.
Honestly, in the last two weeks, when I was in Sambisa, you could see the ravages of war. You don’t need to see it in action. The military is moving forward. You are pushing the enemy in our own special circumstances. I talked about these things because in 1969, I lost three of my close relations-one of my brothers and two of my cousins in a day in Port-Harcourt.
It was a black day in our family. People who have not seen war can say anything. But if you ask them to surrender their kids to fight, they will not do it.
I wasn’t born into wealth and privilege but because of hard work and the fact that God supported me and the society was on my side He made me what I am today. Your kids, no matter their status and circumstances of their birth, if they work hard, supported by society and being blessed by God, the sky would always be their limit.
When we lose them, we have to weep because we have failed. The death of the son of the leper in the village must be mourned because he is a member of the society and nobody knows what he would become tomorrow. It shouldn’t be just the death of the son of a governor, legislator or general, senior police officer, a business tycoon and so on and so forth. So we have every responsibility as a privileged members of the society to defend all, irrespective of status, religion, tribe and party affiliation. Today, you talk about food, yes. But again, there’s this awakening and re-awakening on the part of Nigerians that we can re-enact what we did in the 50s and 60s where we depended largely and very successfully on agriculture, to fund developmental projects in our respective regions and in our country.
We didn’t have oil at that time and agriculture was the mainstay of the economy. We have to go back to the basics, we have to listen to the president himself on the issue of agriculture, we have to listen to Audu Ogbeh, a very talented man, all of them committed to territorial integrity and unity of our country, who are emphasising agriculture. We have to diversify and we have to plug leakages in the economy and that is what they are doing.
So, basically, in terms of your questions on whether APC has met its mandate to Nigerians, let me tell you that it’s not easy to rebuild. But it is very very simple to destroy.
When you destroy, you have to build. It looks like when we started, it was like ‘you were destroying and building because there was nothing. We were starting from ground zero, the destruction was also inevitable part of regeneration.
We are growing our own and if we ensure that there’s no more smuggling of food items into this country, Nigeria is capable of feeding its own citizenry. We sympathise with our citizens because they should have been living a finer life than what they are living. But we must look at it in a sequential manner, it’s not a question of we came here and there was manna everywhere and then we withdrew the manna, no, it wasn’t so. What did we inherit? Absolute madness, absolute nonsense, people being even richer than even the government for doing nothing. Let me say this, when people criticise APC, we say they’re myopic, they easily forget what was on the table before we came in. For emphasis, let me say this: solutions to complex problems that we inherited are not as instant as coffee, they are not.
I believe that with the support of Nigerians, we can do that, we are mindful of our mandate. And I believe we have not disappointed them in any area.
Some say the Benue State governor is helpless about the issue of killing by herdsmen. Are National Assembly members helping him out?
Actually, I want to correct the impression you have created that the governor is helpless. The governor is not hopeless, he’s not helpless.
The governor has taken fundamental steps as the chief security officer of Benue State, to guarantee the security of lives and property.
I would come to that later. But I want to state this and very emphatically too, that there had always been a conflict between farmers and cattle rearers, it’s something that can never be completely eliminated, but it’s something that can be brought under control. I was a small boy in those days, I was born in the 50s and I went to school in the 60s.
The truth here is that the Fulani used to be part of our communities. They would come, I didn’t know from where because we were too small but some of them would come with their wives, kids, personal effects and so on and my dad would also give them a place to graze. At the end of the day, they would move away and then come back again. It was when I was in secondary school that I got to understand that their movements were seasonal-dryness in the North would move them down South in search of green pasture for their cattle and of course, water. Then, during heavy rain, they would go back and they wouldn’t reach the down south because of certain flies in those days, they would also go back when there was heavy rains in the far north.
So, the relationship was to some large extent symbiotic, there was no rancour, there was no conflict and it was wonderful. But gradually, things started changing.
When I was governor, I had no problems, we had no problems in Benue State with the Fulani and even when the there were problems, they were ethno-religious problems, they had nothing to do with the farmer/rearer relationship. This is the dawn of a new beginning and when you have Fulani now carrying arms, in those days, they were carrying sticks, there’s bound to be problems. I had occasion to grant interview sometimes and I said look, a cousin of mine was recently abducted, he was kidnapped and there was a ransom of N20 million and we paid five million before they released him. He said when they took him to the forest, the quantity of arms he saw, he was shocked.
He said the Hausa they were speaking was rather not the Hausa we speak in this country and this is a young man who speaks Hausa very well, having grown up with his father who was a police officer in the far north of this country, he knew what he was talking about. And he wouldn’t be the first person to have said that.
And therefore, there are problems as the Sahara desert continues to move down south, the cattle rearers will also continue to move down south in search of pasture and water. And of course, because of ECOWAS Protocols which guarantees free movement of people across the borders. This has compounded the problems that we have today in this country. And of course, don’t forget the fact that we also have criminals masquerading as Fulani.
When people say that we are not doing much, we can always pass resolutions, we can move motions, we can also call on the Federal Government to take a look at this.
I have spoken to the president on this issue too. And so when people say we are not doing much, we are doing whatever we can. It is not an issue that is restricted to Benue State alone. It is a huge problem that requires a comprehensive national approach. And if you remember, governors of the Northern states met recently and said there should be ranches. I was quite happy when I heard this because come to look at it, if you restrict animals, it makes a lot of meaning, a lot of sense when you restrict animals and feed them properly, they add more value to the economy. When you travel out, whether you go to Italy, Brazil, Israel and the rest, you see how they keep their cows in one place, feed them and they look big and healthy. So there’s quite a lot we can learn from some of these areas where cows are reared and they are competitive. Frankly, we all believe in sanctity of lives and as I said before, the death of one is the death of all of us.
Where there’s injustice, you have to speak out and where there are problems, as Nigerians, we have to speak out but in speaking out, let us not fan embers of hate and disunity because they disastrously divide all of us. We have fine and extraordinary people in this country, within the National Assembly and outside the National Assembly who can also come together to proffer better solutions to what is happening. On our part, we are also not sitting back.
It is alleged that the APC leadership intends to impose candidates on the people in the forth coming local government elections in Benue State. Is it that your party members are not popular to win elections on their own?
Our party is very clear on the issue of democracy within the party. At the level of the party too, there must be democracy. If you look at the fact that many of us who are today in APC, came from other political parties and we were also victims of injustice, arbitrariness on a most unparalleled scale and therefore, in forming this party, through our constitution and the manifesto, we were guided by our experiences.
And that is why we don’t say go and impose. The people’s verdict is supreme. If there’s no consensus, then you go for primary, there’s no big deal, go and test your popularity with the people, the party, the agents of the party and they will determine whether you are acceptable or not, it has nothing to do with George Akume.
We are talking about councillors, we are talking about chairmen. I can tell you that I don’t know most of the candidates who are running for these offices, all that bother me is the fact that we keep to the tenet of the constitution of our party which draws essentially from the constitution of Nigeria, from the Electoral Act, we are not acting arbitrarily.
And when people say ‘we want to do this, we want to do that, we tell them no. “I know what I went through for the first time when a PDP government in Benue State conducted election, when they conducted local government election after I left office, I lost my local government, I lost my ward, we lost all the councillors in my local government and I lost my ”polling unit”. These losses were in quote. These are people who are making a lot of noise today.
Let me tell you that in one of the wards in my local government, which is Tarka, the governor’s chief security officer and one other road operative ran away with the local government election voting materials supported by the local Benue State Independent Electoral Commission official, the local body charged with the responsibility of conducting local government election in the state.
I reported this act to the so called zonal commissioner of the state electoral commission, I reported it to the state’s electoral commission chairman, a very talented professor who got first class in Ahmadu Bello University before he went for his PhD. Two of them in unison said those things were canceled, that they stood cancelled and I accepted it in good faith.
What happened? They conducted the election and we won about 23 councillorship positions, we were leading in over 15, honestly, we defeated them and then they started announcing their results before the collation of results.
Of course, there were no collation sheets, we didn’t even know where to take our own results, we were just moving with ballot boxes and so there were nothing, no collation papers. With this, we said well, ‘since there was nothing let’s go and drop them at the police stations because we went to BSIEC office and they locked the whole place. This particular ward they ran away with election materials, there was a joint report by their agencies in Tarka – the police, civil defence, immigration that nothing happened.
But when they started announcing the results, it was the local government election they started with and they gave it to PDP. The young man, the chap who was imposed on the local government as chairman voted in his own poling unit, the wife was with him gorgeously dressed, she thought they were going for inauguration and at the end of the day when the votes were counted, the ballot papers were counted, the boy got six out of 300 and something votes. The wife fainted right there but that was the man who was later declared the chairman of Tarka Local Government Area. And now, when they are crying all over the place; and they don’t win elections anyway. I know one of them, we are from Benue, they don’t win, sometimes, they would come and announce their election results here in Abuja but honestly, that doesn’t mean we should do that.
We have to test our popularity with the people, that’s our own concern and the governor is fully committed to this. All of us are leaders, we want a free and fair local government election but they have nothing to talk to us about free and fair election because they have failed us disastrously in the past.