14 February 2003

Nigeria: Sharp Words On Iraq War From Outgoing Nigerian Ambassador

interview

Washington, DC — Jibril Muhammad Aminu, Nigeria's ambassador to the United States since November, 1999 is returning home after just over three years in the post.

Professor Aminu, 62, a highly regarded member of the diplomatic corps in Washington, began his life as a medical doctor, before becoming the vice-chancellor of Maiduguri university in northern Nigeria, 1980-85. He went on to serve as a minister of education in Nigeria's federal government and as minister of petroleum until 1992. On the eve of the third republic, he became a foundation member of the People's Democratic Party which went on to win the first civilian election in June '98, bringing President Olusegun Obasanjo into office.

Ambassador Aminu was a strong supporter of the anti-terrorism coalition that quickly consoldated in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. A war against terrorism is necessary, he says, pointing out that Africa felt the effects of attacks long before September 11. Giving particular relevance to that view, Osama Bin Laden, in his February 10 statement, named two African countries - Morocco and Nigeria - as "infidel regimes enslaved by the U.S." in need of "liberation" by his supporters.

But, as in many nations in Africa, there is strong Nigerian sentiment against the impending war with Iraq, sentiment that is fully supported by the ambassador. So far, says the outspoken diplomat, he has not received a satisfactory answer as to why war with Iraq is necessary.

Africa's importance to Islam still goes unrecognized, says Jibril, who is from the north-eastern Nigerian state of Adamawa and who is returning home to campaign as a candidate for the Senate in Nigeria's forthcoming April election. He spoke with AllAfrica's Charles Cobb Jr. and Akwe Amosu. Excerpts:

You are leaving Washington at a troubled moment. The international consensus that seemed to exist after 9/11 appears to have collapsed, as the United States moves toward war with Iraq. What are your thoughts about this looming war and the implications for Africa - particularly countries like Nigeria with large numbers of Muslims in their populations?

The whole world sympathized with the United States and its people over 9/11. That is very clear. Within a couple of weeks after the incident, African presidents gathered and condemned terrorism and undertook to work for its containment, to combat international terrorism.

We have many times made the point that what happened in New York was very ghastly, but it wasn't the first one. A manifestation, a dastardly act of terrorism occurred in Africa three years before - in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam. So Africa cannot be taken out of the equation of the world fight against terrorism.

There is also the question of poverty. The more poverty is entrenched in Africa, the more Africa will become a haven, a refuge for terrorism.

And a third issue to look at is the question of conflict in Africa and how terrorists could take advantage of conflicts like the conflict diamonds which would be effective in money-laundering, people can always pocket diamonds and pass them on for sale. So the conflicts in various parts of Africa like Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia - these are all areas where terrorists could find a way of money-laundering.

There are many other issues, but finally let me just mention one other - this is the question of religion. Africa south of the Sahara has a very large number of Muslims. It has many more Muslims than the whole of the Gulf, and nobody talks about that. People do not really include them. When ever people here talk about Islam, they hear Egypt mentioned, or Libya, or Saudi Arabia - nobody mentions that there are at least 60 million Muslims in Nigeria alone. This number equals most of the countries in the Gulf put together.

This is very important for people trying to combat terrorism and who mistakenly relate it to religion. They will find it important to enter into some kind of dialogue or constructive program of engagement with the Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa as a preventive measure.

How do you react to Osama Bin Laden reportedly saying that a campaign of "liberation" against "infidel regimes' should be launched? He named several countries as representing such regimes which he said were enslaved by the U.S. Morocco was on that list. So was Nigeria - your country.

He thinks there is potential in Nigeria. There are vocal individuals in Nigeria. There are students who are free who have been demonstrating one way or the other and some of them admire him. So he will look at Nigeria as a potential area [for recruiting support]. He probably meant [those people] to come under his influence but that is not likely to happen in Nigeria.

By the way, I have my own personal worry as to whether this is really Osama Bin Laden; I am still not completely convinced, although there are a lot of technological gadgets that will help to confirm if this is his voice.

Does the link being proposed between Osama and Iraq make sense to you?

[The events of 9/11] made people sympathize very much with the United States. But we don't understand how this has been translated into war against Iraq. And every time, you have a feeling that people are digging underground, digging below the ocean depths, to find excuses to add on. It all started with "axis of evil", nations that were having weapons of mass destruction; then it started with nations which were terrorizing their neighbors - listen to the word now - "terrorizing".

Mr. Sharon, for example, found it very convenient to label the Palestinian freedom fighters as "terrorists". And he found, unfortunately, great sympathy in the U.S. [with the notion that] his struggle against the Palestinians is equal to the American, or the world's, struggle against terrorism. That doesn't really sell very well with us, but it seems to have found ready acceptance here.

Now they have advanced that you have to "preempt" in order to stop terrorism from aligning itself to a rogue state with weapons, finding evidence of a relationship between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. These things worry people!

And also, whatever the United Nations people say, the inspectors - very respected people who appear to be neutral - whatever they say or the Secretary-General says, are all just brushed aside as not being germane to the issue. The important thing is that either "Saddam must go" or "Saddam must be removed" or Iraq must be invaded. People get worried with all of this terrible hardware which is being sent to the Middle East from here.

If you go to Nigeria, you will find many people admiring the United States, sympathizing with America, being grateful for American concern for poverty in Africa; Agoa; money being put aside for Aids. You will not find sympathy for terrorists or for Osama Bin Laden. No Muslim regards Osama as having done a favor for Muslims because he has put Muslims in a very uncomfortable situation. But you will also not find anybody sympathizing with the American position over Iraq.

I have discussed this when I went before the Senate subcommittee on Africa. People are taking bets - which will be the next country attacked? Is it Syria? Is it Iran? Is it Saudi Arabia?

Although consistency is not a great ingredient in the cuisine of international politics, we are human beings and we expect great people to be consistent. Why the inconsistency in the way Iraq was dealt with and the way North Korea, for example, is dealt with? People are asking these things all over Africa; and as the ambassador of Nigeria, this thing has been worrying me, and I have seized every opportunity to raise the issue with my American colleagues and friends.

And how do they respond when you raise this issue?

I do think they accept differences of opinion, but they leave no doubt that this is not going to change their mind.

So you are resigned to the likelihood of war with Iraq?

Oh yes. If I had to bet, I would bet my last dollar or my last Naira on the fact that there will be a war, unless something happened; unless President Saddam is removed from power by a coup, by assassination, by him leaving like the Shah left Iran... unless any of these happen, I believe there is going to be war.

That makes it look like a personal thing. I know when people become antagonists and foes like [Winston] Churchill and [Adolf] Hitler or like [Lyndon] Johnson and Ho Chi Minh you do develop a personalization of war.People probably think there is a personal quarrel to be settled between President Bush And Saddam. And it seems to have come down to that now. There is this one man and maybe some of his cronies that we see on television - people like Tariq Aziz. Unless these people are removed, I believe there will be war.

Some people say the war has already started because there are some troops that have invaded northern Iraq which are said to be helping the Kurds. So it's a question of "can I eat while we go on talking about the chicken?"

What are the religious implications for a country like Nigeria, which has a significant Muslim population or for Africa as a whole?

There will be a lot of protest against the United States. I have said a number of times there will be protest against the United States from the students. The U.S. will have to reckon with students who are free and who have their own views. Particularly in the north (of Nigeria) they are going to demonstrate.

Nigeria will definitely protest any attempt to attack any country, particularly with the revelations coming out that this country will be taken over and ruled in what looks like a colonial occupation. Nigeria will definitely oppose that. And we do.

But let me tell you what will not happen. I don't think that, because of this, individual Americans are going to be at risk, that if they see an individual American they will go and attack him. To go and say, "This is American property" or "This is an American living here...he or she has come for Peace Corps, let's go and attack them." I don't think this will happen in Nigeria. It has not happened before.

And I don't think this will push Nigeria to sympathize with terrorism or people like Osama Bin Laden. People here know the difference between the brand of Islam in 'Sudan' - by which I mean Black Africa in a broad sense - and what obtains in Saudi Arabia which is strict Wahabi. We are always arguing with them when we go to Haj over what to do, what not to do - things like that. I do not think that whether they are Muslims in the north or the south of Nigeria, that they will in any hurry to line up with Osama Bin Laden.

Probably the anger in case of war with Iraq will not be so much with America but with any Arab country that seems to be siding with them. If there is anybody who will face Africans' physical wrath it will be any Arab state who is seen to be supporting America because they are looked on as traitors. It happened in 1990 when people in Kano [a key city in the Muslim north of Nigeria] were demonstrating against the Saudi embassy. I don't believe there will be any breaches of diplomatic relations. This is my own judgement, which may be wrong, but I don't think so.

There have been stresses and strains within Nigeria between the Sharia states in the North and the central government in Abuja. Does a U.S. war with Iraq exacerbate these kinds of strains?

No. That is a homegrown and a home-blooming and home-consumed problem. I don't think it is going to be exported. But it could happen accidently. In Kano, it would only take one man to make some kind of silly remark and you could have some problems there. If you mean people going about provoking each other, I don't think it will happen. Sharia is a Nigerian problem and is not particularly relevant to this United States effort to start a war in Iraq.

As somebody who is experienced in international diplomacy, I wonder how you feel about the international fall-out from this U.S.-Iraq crisis. The United Nations is under strain, the Europeans are deeply divided, there's great polarisation among governments who used to work together. Does any of that matter for Africa - if the multilateral institutions are weakened by all of this?

We don't know who is serious and who is bluffing. It is a serious problem. I was talking to some Americans last week - they were senior people - and they were saying: "You see, we are trying to push Saddam Hussein. If he know that for certain we are coming then he is going to comply. This is why we don't like what the French and the Germans are doing; because they are encouraging Saddam Hussein to be recalcitrant."

So you see, you don't know, when people are saying these things, whether they are bluffing or whether they are serious. Are all these things being said in America as a way to apply pressure? All this hardware moving east - is this just to apply pressure on Saddam Hussein or is it really serious?

We don't like it! We don't like it at all! We have no doubt that with the destruction of the Soviet Union, for whatever reason, America has a field day; they can do whatever they like.

But, like I was saying, we don't know who is going to be next and we don't know what's going to happen, for example, with age-old problems like the Arab-Israeli problem. We don't know what's going to happen with India and Pakistan. We don't know whether this pre-emptive strategy is going to be copied by other people - whether India will attack Pakistan, or whether some people will destroy their internal opposition by saying they are terrorists. When you throw a stone and it has left your hand, you don't know for certain where it will fall.

Let's turn to Nigeria. After the last election organised by the military government which handed over to President Obasanjo's newly-elected government, this is the first civilian-organised election of the third republic. Looking back to the second republic and the comparable election in 1983 (which, in the end, brought the military back to power, led by General Buhari) how does the current situation in Nigeria compare with that time?

There is no comparison. There has been no period in Nigeria at this time that is comparable to 1983. I was worried, before the [political party] conventions, that the situation was comparable to 1964, during the first republic, when there was so much division. There were very entrenched attitudes and positions. People in the south-west said they would support Obasanjo for the nomination, but if he didn't win, anything could happen. Ibos were saying we must have our own candidate. The northerners were saying we must have our own candidate; it looked very much like 1964 which was sad because it looked like it was taking us back nearly 40 years.

But after the nominations, Obasanjo won in the PDP; he stood as a very great icon. One of the greatest icons we have, Dr. Ekwueme, stood. He did not win - Ibos did not vote for him; obviously if they had, he might have got more. I think he got most of his votes from South-South, they refused to support Obasanjo under any circumstances. So he didn't get the Ibo vote. A northerner stood. He didn't get the votes of Kano [a key northern constituency]. He didn't get the votes of Benue. So that made it more or less a Nigerian, not an ethnic or regional thing.

And then the ANPP [held its convention]. There was a lot of argument. Some people withdrew. Some people refused to withdraw. Eventually they nominated General Buhari. Those who were unhappy in the PDP had an option. They went out - my friend Governor Nwobodo went out and became a candidate of the UNPP. It became just a general Nigerian thing.

I don't think it should be compared with anything now. Now it looks like it is a struggle among the political parties. The politicians can see what we call "the national cake" - and they want to eat it! They are working on it. As far as I can see there is no ethnic or religious anything. It is just politicians madly fighting to win.

Are you alarmed by this? You're on the way back to Nigeria to contest; do you expect to find only the cake crumbs?!

This fighting is what we should hope for from Nigeria. I want to see them fighting to win. Once they join hands and want a particular target they'll forget their tribe. They'll forget their religion. They will just want to win. This is what we want in Nigeria because it removes from the equation, race and tribe and religion.

But in 1983, for the man in the street it seemed disappointing that the politicians were doing just what you describe - very actively seeking their own private interests; the corruption was very serious. There was a sense that the politicians were just in it for themselves. That's why we wondered whether you saw a parallel between that civilian-to-civilian election and this one.

The parallel is just a legalistic, administrative one. I am saying that what is happening is good because we may succeed in conducting a civilian election.

Now this business about the 'man on the street'. I don't want to say too much about it, but the man in the street does not really feature too much in these things, I am very sorry to say. This has to wait until after three or four or five elections. When the man on the street becomes the centre then democracy will be assured. Right now, what seems to happen is that so long as the big political barons and baronesses can agree at the top, that's it. This is what matters.

You find that primaries are not held very much. Only the local government ones are held and even then people try all they can - governors and others - to impose candidates. For example, there's one place where the issue is still not settled because the man who won was not acceptable to the state chairman of the party and he is saying "No! he's not going to win!"

This [pattern of the] elite fighting it out among themselves is what you will find in PDP. You will find it in ANPP. And you will find it in all these other parties. The man on the street has not started to matter all that much. It's going to come.

Maybe the present political parties will reform; but maybe they will be gradually replaced, supplanted by ideologically-oriented parties. Right now the latter parties are really nowhere because these huge parties dominated by the elite barons are the ones [on top].

But okay, they are still managing to hold the country together and if we continue like this, it may not be in our lifetime, but slowly, slowly these parties will either reform or be replaced by other ideologically-oriented parties or by a coalition of these parties. It will come but I think it would be too much for you and me to expect that to feature at this time.

You are going back to engage in politics. You're running for office. Why? To do what?

To be a senator!

It seems an odd leap to go from being Ambassador to campaigning for political office, especially given what you've just said.

I want to go and help this transformation. The word "senator" is derived from the word for old people in the days of Rome so that's where I should be.

Somebody asked me the same thing: "How can you go? You're an ambassador in the most powerful nation in the world. You don't have any problems. Now you're leaving to go back into politics. Are you out of your mind?" I don't look at it like that. I entered politics to serve the people and to serve my party, now the PDP. And whether I'm here as ambassador, whether I am a Senator, whether I am asked to take party office, whatever it is, to me it is the same: serving the party and serving the country.

I do not adopt a new accent and new postures and new lifestyles because of where I am. Since I decided to take part in politics, my stay here was a political appointment and the Senate is political.

I also have another feeling: that the constitution must be helped. We must all help the constitution. In what way can we help the constitution? By making people accept that these power centers,these arms of government, are there as a right. We have had a lot of dogfights for the past four years between the executive and the legislature. To me that is very unfortunate but very understandable. It will be less now.

Some of us think that we might help to reduce this kind of tension because that's the most dangerous for the country. People should understand that in my country the two symbols of democracy are the political parties and the legislatures. The military governments all had presidents; they had ministers; they had governors, the judiciary. They had all of these things. The two things they did not have were the political parties and the legislatures. So, the people in the executive grew to look at the legislature as some kind of unnecessary nuisance. It is not.

Maybe the legislators in many respects - also understandably - have overreached themselves. That is a very dangerous area between the executive and the legislature. We have also had weird things happen, like the executive sending in the police to surround the house of the president of the Senate or people trying to impeach the president. All these type of things were used in what I call this long dogfight and maybe as many people as can should go and try to help.

I believe I am on very good terms with people in the executive. And I've been on very good terms with people in the legislature and I see myself as going to try and find other people to work with, to appeal to people to close their hand so that we can, in fact, entrench the constitution.

Constitutions have suffered in Nigeria because of military regimes. The first thing any soldier who comes into power does is to dissolve the constitution or suspend it and dissolve the political parties - dissolve all the structures and we have to start anew. I don't think we can continue to do this and achieve the kind of progress we want.

Are you with those people who feel that the constitution is actually under threat, partly because of the Sharia issue? Many people are arguing - we heard this at various sessions during the recent African Studies Association meeting - that there needs to be a national conference.

That is nonsense! It's all nonsense! When Nigerians want something they use the most absurd arguments to try to advance it. Over the years because of our history, "national unity", "shaking the very fabric of society", "basis for living together" - all of these phrases have been rather carelessly used. Nobody in America says "let's meet and discuss our basis for living together".

We are being ridiculous. Anybody who talks about "let's sit down and have a national conference; let's sit under a tree with the village elders, smoking pipes and all that... and let's decide how we're going to live together... It's nonsense! This is the kind of thing that politicians do when they cannot have their way.

But do you see any problem there to be addressed?

The Sharia issue? I can tell you, that President Obasanjo has the best approach to it. Sharia has to do with religious sentiment and is not something that you can change. You have to allow the thing to exhaust its own momentum. And the more you try and stand in their way the greater the momentum you give them.

We are not the greatest Muslims in the world. there are many Muslim states and some of them, like Iran, even run Islamic governments; and there is Saudi Arabia, Sudan - countries where people are trying run things in the way of Islam and they don't do all of these things.

There is a verse in the Koran that says that under God, there is endless treasure with limitless blessing but he sends it down in 'Quanta' (measured installments); he doesn't send it down at once. If you regard Sharia as a blessing to Muslim society, then you should be prepared to send it down in quanta and not to try to introduce the whole thing at the same time. In fact, you tend to make fun of it because you cannot really enforce it. If you start some laws that you cannot enforce you are actually ridiculing that law.

So Sharia will kind of 'blow over' in these places if the matter is left to take its course?

No, it's not going to blow over; it will gradually find its position and it will go back to virtually what we had before. The [Nigerian] penal code was based on Sharia. The constitution of Nigeria limits Sharia to personal law - marriage, adoption, inheritance, things like that. And these people said no, we're going to expand it.

I can tell you that the whole Sharia thing was nothing but a reaction to the way the Christians in the country have positioned themselves with Islam, like blocking any mention of Sharia in the constitution, blocking Nigeria from entering the Organization of Islamic States - things like that. How people dress in schools; blocking small things that could have been easily tolerated and accepted.

The Christians have a very powerful national organization known as CAN (Christian Association of Nigeria). You can imagine what would happen if, for example, the Muslims in Nigeria were to form a Muslim Association of Nigeria. This is, as far as I am concerned, the whole basis of this Sharia thing. And after they have made their point that nobody is going to constrain them and they find that they cannot contain anybody else, they will see that we really have to live together and it is silly to keep fighting one another and breaking each other's limbs because of something which we cannot change. I think it's going to settle down. It may take some time.

What I really dislike is the reaction of outside countries that are trying to get moral capital out of it. Twenty-five thousand Africans are dying every day from Aids. Thirty million Africans are infected with Aids. People who do not do anything about this - people who do not even help African students who can't pay their school fees - come and demonstrate to the embassy sending a million signatures to us and all that. In the end, why? They are just trying to push their own problems, taking advantage of the situation in Nigeria to try and achieve some sort of moral high ground.

And finally, you must be concerned, both for reasons of geography as well as politics, at the instability in West Africa. Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia and Charles Taylor's role, and so forth. The simple question is, do you think West Africa is unraveling, in some sense?

No. Instability in any part of the world, any part of Africa certainly, all derives from one thing: a dictator unwilling to go. All we have to do is democratize. African people are peaceful.

And I want to point you to one little issue. The Nigerian in a little village near the border with the Benin Republic, the Beninois from Benin in a village near the border of the Nigerian Republic - if these people have been to school, one will be speaking French, the other English, and the acquired mentalities will be Francophone and Anglophone. But suppose they have not been to school? These people do not even know about these boundaries.

The boundary is just a nuisance because they are very likely to be related. I have relatives in the Cameroon, and the same thing with Niger. The same thing with the town of Banki near the border with Nigeria and Cameroon; in this town there is a street where one side is Nigeria and the other side is Cameroon. You can go and see it.

This is all nonsense. It is a question of the elite and the way the African elite interprets education as giving him the right to rule, and once he gets there he doesn't want to leave. And once he is sitting there, everybody will be doing everything they can to get him out of the way.

I think our own people are nice and God-fearing and stable; and so long as they can get good and honest and dedicated leadership there will be no such trouble. I'm not worried about the instability of West Africa.

I don't know what the people who sit in these high-powered think-tanks and talk about us think, but I know our people are ordinary people, they want peace. Instead of sitting in these think-tanks and theorizing about Africa, if they can just help us to remove these dictators it would be very nice.

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