9 March 2019

Nigeria: 'I Didn't Have Any Money When I Ran for Governor'

His Royal Highness, Alhaji Awwal Ibrahim, the Emir of Suleja, was the governor of Niger State between October 1979 to December 1983 during the Second Republic. In this interview with Daily Trust Saturday, he speaks on how campaigns were organized in days past, how the game of politics was played, and how the nation's political process could be improved upon, amongst others. Excerpts:

Daily Trust: You were the first civilian governor of Niger State. How were campaigns organized during your days, and how expensive were they?

Before going to those details, let me start with recalling two very significant aspects of life in those days. One, we were just at the tail-end of military rule, which had lasted over 12 years or so. And during that time, most of the people who were in business then were enjoying the support or patronage of the military government. Secondly, I myself was just a civil servant serving the military government of Niger State, so I think these two issues should be appreciated in answering your questions.

So, I was invited into politics, that was in 1978, by the people. As it happened, members of a particular political party which is the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), invited me then to be their candidate for gubernatorial elections, and I was supported by people who enjoyed the patronage of the military regime, if you like. Political movement at that time was driven by the people, in the sense that people were eager to break away from the military regime. At that time, a new system of government was introduced, which was entirely alien to us, the American presidential system of government.

You know, we were brought up under the parliamentary system of government. So these circumstances ought to be looked at very carefully, to see how politics was conducted at the time. I didn't have any money, let alone the need to spend. I was just a civil servant. Back then, there was party discipline and we were fortunate to have the politicians of the First Republic among us, they were like fathers to us, from whom we learnt a lot of politics of yesteryears.

So, there is a lot of party discipline, and there was yardstick support of the masses even by the way of contribution of whatever little money they have. The masses, morally and financially, supported us. So politics in those days was really a movement supported by the masses both socially, as well as financially. We never had to dip our hands into the coffers of government, and in fact there is no way that we could have done that.

DT: How did politicians, generally, play the game then?

For instance, we never had this idea of thuggery in our time, or this huge number of unemployed. Like I earlier said, we were partly supported by the masses, with the youth included. It's a pity to see the unemployment so degenerated, to the extent that the youths become easy prey, exploited as political thugs. We never had this kind of situation, and there was discipline across board, and political parties also entrenched this through policies and programmes then, in spite of competition. In Niger State, we had our fair share of political rivalry, but it was never that kind of do-or-die affair of nowadays.

I remember the kind of relationships we had with some members of rival political parties. We were friends, and interacted very well. We all went out to seek support of the people through manifestos that aimed to sell the party's ideas to the people and convince them. What the parties stand for, and how they would work to initiate policies that would have direct impact on the wellbeing of the people, were the main thrust of our focus during electioneering campaigns. But all we hear these days, are pollution of space with noise and violence by thugs who are mostly under the influence of drugs.

DT: Moving forward, what would you advise on improving Nigeria's democratic process in such a way that politicians would not be desperate?

First and foremost, in my opinion, politicians themselves have to learn to be disciplined. Government, on the other hand, must find a way of trimming down the number of political parties, instead of what we are witnessing today. Hitherto, I knew government supported political parties financially, but I don't know whether that kind of thing still exists. I was amazed to find out recently that we have over 60 political parties contesting elections in the country. This is not a good omen to the development of our democratic experience, in my opinion, as it would make it difficult for people to make the right choice in accordance to their conviction, and so on. Also, political parties need to encourage the people, of commitment toward development and welfare, rather than leaving them at the mercy of those who have nothing to offer apart from influencing the minds of people, especially the youth, with money.

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