The name, Shehu Sani, rings a bell in the global human rights community because of his antecedents as a defender of the less privileged in the society. But, in 2015, the activist decided to throw himself into the political turf and he won election to represent Kaduna Central on the platform of the All Progressives Congress, APC. But trust him not to be one who will look away if he feels threatened for any reason. Barely three months into the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, he has fallen out with his governor, Mallam Nasir El- Rufai (Kaduna State), whom he accuses of running anti-people policies for trying to remove beggars and hawkers from the streets and sanitise the state.
In this interview with The Vanguard, Sani, who has been involved in negotiations between government and Boko Haram to end bombings in the North- East, raises hope that the 219 Chibok girls abducted by the sect more than 500 days ago may be alive after all, and suggests how the violence could be brought to a peaceful end.
Some have hailed while others criticised Buhari over his first 100 days in office. What is your own assessment?
There is a lot to celebrate within the first 100 days of President Muhammadu Buhari since we are coming from 16 years of waste, corruption, poverty, under-development, lost hope, dashed dreams and misplaced priorities. By all standards, the new government of Muhammadu Buhari has been able to rekindle the hopes of Nigerians and restore their confidence in their country and in governance. Certainly, Nigerians are, once again, proud of their country.
Can you specify the areas in which the President has achieved something within the period under review?
Buhari has restored our pride of place in the international community, for them to believe in us once again; he has shown uncommon zeal in his ability and determination to fight corruption; and he has demonstrated by actions and utterances that he is serious in confronting and ending insurgency in the North-East. He has sent a clear message to all public office holders that Nigeria is in a new era and we can see that he has boosted the morale of the military and has provided an appreciable amount of money and weapons for them to fight insurgents. Apart from that, he has made changes in the command and control of the military with people who are more determined and has set a good example in leadership by publicly declaring his assets.
Some of his critics are angry that he declared only one million and even borrowed money to buy nomination form of the APC for the presidential contest last year, only for him to declare N30 million cash this year?
There will always be questions by people. I believe that even for the courage by the President to declare his assets is something noble and should be applauded by all well-meaning Nigerians. He has set a moral standard for all Nigerian public office holders to follow.
How are we going to resolve the simmering crisis in the Senate, given that some mistakes were made right from the outset making it difficult for the leadership to receive a warm handshake from the President and the APC leadership?
The matter can still be resolved despite the mistake made at the beginning. The truth remains that after we had won the election, there was no serious effort to bring all the members of the National Assembly together to chart a course for an agenda for the party. But by the time it was done, it was already too late because many had already started aligning themselves and seeking their political interest as legislators. It is a very big problem for the party, in the sense that we have a conflict between the standing rules of the NASS and the need for party members to conform to party supremacy. The problem is generic with the party itself. If we are to go back to history, we will see that the APC is a convergence of strange bedfellows, who came into the party with different tendencies, expectations and ideologies. What brought them together initially was the common need to dislodge the Jonathan administration and to send the PDP out of power. And having achieved that, the hidden conflict in the fold started manifesting and that became evident in the way the leadership emerged.
So, what is the way out and do you think that it was right for any APC senator to have ignored the meeting called early on inauguration day by Buhari, the leader of the APC, to participate in the NASS leadership election, if they had any respect for him?
Well, this is what I have been saying; you will see that the leaders came from different backgrounds and those who came from the ‘new PDP’ felt that they should be able to control some levers of power. That is why the Saraki and Dogara factor came into play. It is something like an enemy within.
But how do we get out of it so that the party and the nation can forge ahead peacefully?
The only way out of it is to understand that every revolution comes with some crisis after it has succeeded. These are the crises that pose a challenge to the party and the stability of the state and government. How the APC is going to navigate out of it will determine its success.
Do you support the current jumbo pay for lawmakers as someone who a progressive?
I was part of the committee set up by the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, to review lawmakers’ pay and we have recommended that the money paid to senators should be reduced. But our recommendation has been stood down until the House of Representatives adopts same. The matter must be sorted out because it is very important to Nigerians. I really support a reduction to make more money available to other sectors.
It is on record that all attempts to broker peace between the FG and Boko Haram and end the cycle of violence in the North-East have failed woefully. What went wrong?
A number of things went wrong with past efforts to broker peace between Boko Haram and the Federal Government. First, some of the demands made by Boko Haram were such that government was not ready and to concede. The group has always insisted that it was willing to agree to peace provided their members were released by government. But government is not ready to that. That has been the sticking point where all past negotiations have always crashed. So, if government says it is ready for negotiation, it should also be ready to concede certain things in the interest of peace.
But government position seems to be that no person has shown up to claim that he is a leader or representative of Boko Haram and cannot therefore negotiate with a phantom group or individuals to prevent the ugly experiences of the past?
There is no doubt that there have been times the Federal Government actually engaged in discussions with phantom groups and individuals but there are also times where the negotiations were very credible. In 2011, I was able to facilitate a dialogue between the group and the Federal Government when I brought in former President Obasanjo to talk to the families of the insurgents and another one, which was with the President of the Supreme Council of Sharia, Dr. Ahmed Datti, where he represented the Boko Haram group, which came out openly to announce him as their representative. We also had the one that was organised by a journalist, Ahmad Salkida, which was very credible. I think Salkida is one credible Nigerian that we need to invite to be able to address the Boko Haram crisis.
Is that the one who lives in Dubai?
Yes, we need to bring him in to be able to succeed in ending the problem of insurgency in Nigeria.
Why should Nigeria invite him?
Certainly, the man has risked his life in the past to seek solution to the problem of Boko Haram and he is a patriotic Nigerian to the core.
But no member of the group has come forward to say he is ready for dialogue with the FG?
Yes, for obvious reasons. Government has merely indicated intent to engage in dialogue but nothing has been done to concretize it. Having made the announcement of intent, government should set up a technical committee, give it a waiver to go through the process of genuine dialogue. The Federal Government should set up a committee and give it the needed waiver to reach out to the insurgents. Don’t forget that, right now, there is an anti-terrorism law that makes it criminal for anybody to communicate or to be seen or identified with the insurgents. But if a committee is set up and is insulated from the anti-terrorism law, then it can begin to make contacts with the group to bring about peace.
Given your roles in the past, why don’t you take up the gauntlet and suggest this directly to government? Are you afraid?
There is nothing like fear but we need legal backing that if we are given permission by the authorities to reach out, then, action will start. But if you are not given permission by government, there is nothing anyone can do because in order to succeed, you need the two sides to agree. You need government to give you the go-ahead to negotiate. You cannot go alone.
So, if government gives you the permission, you can do it?
I cannot do it alone; it has to be a team work with others like clerics, elders and people who have something to offer in the process.
How do we get back the lost good life in the North-East?
The first thing to do is to see how to secure the release of the Chibok schoolgirls. Let us categorize this discussion into two. The first one is how do we negotiate and get the girls out?
Are you sure they are still alive?
I have the belief they are alive because if they are not, certainly, the group, in their own criminality and violence, would have announced that they had killed them. Don’t forget they have been very honest in the past in telling the world who they have killed or not.
If the girls are not alive, certainly, we would have known, but they are actually alive and I believe it is an issue which government needs to thrash out before we go into the final phase of ending insurgency in the North-East.
All the reports from the Amnesty International have been highly critical of the Nigerian military handling of human rights in the fight against insurgency, outlining how they kill and maim suspected terrorists and innocent civilians caught along the way. What do you make of such reports as a member of the human rights community?
We should take it that way because the reports are credible and we cannot fight insurgency without carrying the people along. Nigerian Army, under former President Goodluck Jonathan, had been very brutal and crude. First of all, they passed naked, collective punishment on people, engaged in unnecessary prolonged detention; they virtually abandoned the moral aspect of the fight and the need for them to execute the war against terror within the ambit of democratic norms. So, you cannot continue to perpetrate human rights violations and abuses in the name of fighting terror. Yes, we know very well that terrorists are violent people and have no respect for fundamental rights but I think there is need for restraint in order to protect the rights of innocent persons.
Nigeria has a very bad record as far as corruption is concerned. What should be done to change the narrative as someone who has been fighting against the government to instill good governance in Nigeria?
The first thing is to close all the loopholes where corruption thrives in the land. When you have a government that functions and with a mindset to punish the corrupt instead of celebrating them, then corruption will ebb. We should indeed name and shame, arrest and prosecute those who are corrupt no matter their status as opposed to what we saw in recent past where government actually defended corruption and celebrated thieves.
Do you think the Criminal Justice System also impedes the fight against corruption in Nigeria?
There are a lot of loopholes in the fight against corruption. You know that many high profile cases in court are lost once the media loses interest in them. The justice system is one in which cases are unduly prolonged and that gives corrupt people the vent to get out of it. The prison system in Nigeria also encourages the corrupt to live big life instead of facing correctional punishment. So, my advice is that the criminal justice system in Nigeria should be reviewed to cope with the current realities to curtail the effect of corruption.
There are reports that you have fallen apart with your governor over some issues. Is it not too early in the day for a quarrel to break out between two of you?
It is my wish that we work together for the betterment of Kaduna State and for our party and Nigeria. But it is the governor that is working against me. I was not his favorite candidate for the Senate but I defeated his candidate in the primary election. But when I won the Senate and he won the governorship election, I came to discover two things. We have ideological differences. He is from the political right and I am from the political left. He is a core conservative capitalist, who believes in capitalism and I believe in the progressive, welfarist, leftist and idealistic system. So, that is where we differ. Again, after we had won the election and it came sharing positions, he sidelined me and gave power to the man I defeated in the election, who was his preferred choice. By so doing, he has clearly appointed someone who he is grooming to fight me. Meanwhile, if you are doing this politically and amassing troops and an army close to where I am standing, I don’t want to wait for you to fire the first shot. That is the situation of things.
So, what do you really want from him that he has not given?
The governor has taken some steps which are wrong. He banned beggars from the streets but they are back, he banned hawkers but they are back on the streets, he started demolishing houses but was forced to discontinue because the people rose against him and many other anti-people policies. So, if all these things were good, they could have been sustained. Beggars are people you cannot ban in Kaduna because they are a social problem created by the capitalist system in which people like El-Rufai have been living their lives and propagating. More unfortunately, El Rufai gave the beggars no alternatives of where to relocate to or start a new life in his bid to take them off the streets. He has an agenda, which I don’t support. He wants to do away with beggars and the destitute and plant flowers and build amusement parks in Kaduna and that is not the way to solve problems. The governor wants to give a false image of good life and sanity in Kaduna to make it appear that everybody is rich and living comfortably because there are no beggars and hawkers on the streets when, in reality, they have only been pushed out to go and suffer somewhere else.
My position is that they must remain on the street until their issues are addressed. As far as I am concerned, the beggars need to be chasing after us, the rich people, knocking our car windshields and constantly reminding us that things are not well in our land.
Would you say in all honesty that you don’t like amusement parks and serene environments or are you just playing to the gallery for political reasons?
Look, amusement parks and serenity at what cost to the people? When federal allocations are sent to Kaduna, it is not meant for the elite who want to be in amusement parks and gardens but to the people of Kaduna. Now, where is the place for the beggars and hawkers? Do you want to have amusement parks and live a life of comfort and luxury but hiding lepers, beggars, the cripple and the blind who are part and parcel of the society? It is like living in a fool’s paradise and deceiving oneself and I don’t like that.
Would it not be more beneficial to the beggars if they are confined to a home where some provisions could be made by government for them on daily basis instead of running in traffic and risking their lives all in a bid to survive?
If the governor had provided anything for the beggars and the destitute, I would not have opposed him and the destitute would not have been back on the streets. Even close to El Rufai’s house, there are beggars there in full force. There are more beggars now on the streets of Kaduna than before. I believe that beggars from other states might have joined their counterparts in Kaduna in solidarity.
But in all of this, have you made any effort to explain your own position to the governor?
I don’t have the governor’s telephone number and I don’t think there is anybody in Kaduna, who has the governor’s number apart from people from his kitchen cabinet. But if you ask for my number from even beggars, cripples and hawkers, they all have my number. So, you can see the way I live my life as a man of the people.
Don’t you feel that the governor could accuse you of inciting the people against his government to advance your political future, as there are rumours you want to contest the governorship of Kaduna in 2019?
Well, this is not incitement but a call to order. If I tell him to provide for the poor and the destitute before sending them away from the streets, I am not inciting anyone against him. I need Kaduna to be progressive and peaceful and to be a model for all states. We need to be more realistic and not deceive ourselves.
But is there any iota of truth in the claim that you are antagonizing the governor all in a selfish bid to prepare the ground for you to unseat him in 2019 or do you want to remain in the Senate then?
What is of interest to me now is to see how to deliver service to my people. As you know, 2019 is still a long time from now.
What would you say is your legislative agenda for Nigeria and your people?
I have an agenda in the Senate to pursue bills and motions that will uplift my people, make Nigeria more united and progressive, and to deliver the programs and agenda of the APC to make Nigeria a more united and stable nation. Back home, I have a constituency project called the Talakawas Grassroots Revolutionary Development Program. It is a people-oriented development project to uplift the living standards of the people of my constituency, give them hope, restore their confidence in their legislator and make impact on their lives.
What does it entail?
It is a program that will intervene in education, health, women and youth empowerment, sports, skills acquisition and support for faith-based groups.