Interview

INTERVIEW: “A country is not something you take from; it is something you give to” – Jamiu Abiola discusses Democracy

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In June 2021, I met Jamiu Abiola, the multi-linguist, author and the Shettima of Borno and we spoke extensively about what Democracy meant for his family. He told me his goal was for Nigerians to look at each other and not think about their zonal differences; “I’m from the south, you’re from the north but we’re all from the same country,” he said. “We are brother and sister.”

His mother, Mrs. Kudirat Abiola – who fought alongside MKO, led peace protests and made significant contributions to democracy – believed in a free and fair society. She grew up in Sabon Gari in Kaduna state, where people from different regions lived, and still live, as brothers and sisters.

Inspired by his mother’s story and beliefs, the Shettima founded a conflict-resolution initiative called the Kudirat Abiola Sabon Gari Peace Foundation (KASGPF), which hopes to create peace and bridge the gap between Nigerians. In explaining it, he told me it was a psychological movement; “We’re trying to build social psychology. We want people to start thinking in a different way – independently and selflessly.”

In this interview, he speaks about his parents, what democracy means for his family and his new initiative, the Kudirat Abiola Sabon Gari Peace Foundation (KASGPF)n which is set to launch at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria on Saturday 19th June, 2021.

How does it feel coming from a family that paid the price for democracy in Nigeria? And what does that mean to you?

It means a lot to me because it’s very emotional and it’s a real-life story, you know. It’s not like a movie or something. It’s kind of scary, you know, because you don’t want democracy not to work out. Because if doesn’t work out, it is as if they paid the price for nothing. So, the happiness we can feel is based on things working out; so, we’re a little bit nervous when we feel things are not working out. But we hope that the country finds its way because if it doesn’t work out, it means that the price they paid was for nothing.

You said that you hope the country finds its way. Do you think that it’s on the way?

Well, miracles do happen, but I don’t think it’s on the way. And the reason for that is a lot of variables. You know, everything in life starts with a concept and the people don’t really seem to have the right concept, which is: a country is not something you take from, it is something you give to. If you want to keep taking, then there will be nothing left. Because the country is not a rich country, contrary to people’s expectations and their beliefs. Nigeria is a poor country in view of the fact that the people here have little, because we have a big population and there aren’t enough resources.

Being around during that time (1996) and being alive today, what are some of the similarities and differences you can see, in terms of what democracy means then and what it means now? Is Nigeria progressing, is it regressing? Where are we at democratically?

At that time, when they died, there was a military government; there was no democracy. So, whatever we have now is much better than what we had then. At that time, you say something against the government, you get killed; but over here, people criticise the government and they stay alive. So, it’s a big jump. But democracy is like a teamwork. But it is not, as I said, a system through which you get rich, or you make money. It’s something that you’re meant to use to develop your country, put your own level of contribution. So, people have to start thinking the right way if they want things to work out, which is where the problems lie; because it’s not just the president and the vice president, we have the house of assembly, we have governors, we have so many people that can actually rock the boat. The more we have people that are thinking the right way, the more chances there are that we’ll get to the promised land.

You said during the military rule, people say something, and they get killed; but currently, we have Buhari shutting down social media and banning Nigerian access to Twitter. What does that mean for the state of democracy today?

Well, you know that the government said it’s a temporary ban, so we have to be very careful about the usage of words. When you say “ban”, it’s as if they have banned it for life. And I would be surprise if they ban it in the next couple of hours; so, it’s just going to be like a warning. At the end of the day, I don’t think they would have been so upset if the tweets of Kanu had been deleted as well, prior to them deleting his own because he made his own tweets after Kanu made his tweets. So, there’s a justification for him to believe that something is wrong with the way they went about it. but I’ll leave it at that.

But what does that mean for democracy – that denial of access to free speech – no matter how short-lived it is?

You know that Nigeria is facing security challenges that are unprecedented. And sometimes, even in the United States, when these things happen, they have a state of emergency; they have some certain measures that they take. Of course, we have not declared that in Nigeria yet but this time around, the government might act in a way that will try to protect the country. So, I think we should be very careful when we criticise. It’s just a temporary ban and I believe it’s going to be lifted soon. And I think I this point, information is so important; and if twitter shows any kind of favouritism to any side, it’s going to not go well for the country as a whole.

So, there’s always this conversation about whether or not Nigeria is better without the North. I know your initiative is trying to avoid secession and piece Nigeria back together. But what is your opinion about Oduduwa and people like Nnamdi Kanu?

I think there are people that feel some kind of void and they are trying to fill it up. I mean – I don’t want to use the word, but the only word that comes to my mind is “opportunism.” Because it’s like Hitler. When Hitler took over Germany, he did a lot of damage, but you will not say that a lot of Germans were happy about what he was doing but most people, unfortunately are quiet; and the ones that are trying to be aggressive are the ones that are loud. So, people like him are taking advantage of the fact that people are timid, and they don’t say much. But if you really do a referendum, you’ll find that most people in Nigeria will want to stay in Nigeria. Nigeria is so intertwined; like the Igbos, for example, they own a large portion of the land in Abuja. If Nigeria divides, what happens to their land? I mean, so many factors. So it’s not so easy. So I think it’s just a loud minority and it doesn’t represent what people believe. All these people looking for the courage to divide, I believe, are just a loud minority. Most Nigerians, to me, want the country to stay together.

And this is where your initiative comes in.

Yes. It comes in like that. Because we want things to actually be different. We want to play a role in letting people know that before we were even independent, we were working together, living together. The Sabon Gari is something that is so crucial, and we have it in every state in Nigeria. There’s Sabon Gari in Lagos, Sabon Gari in Abeokuta, Sabon Gari in Oyo – to show that Nigerians actually love each other; they wanna be together. It’s time for us to use something like this to counter-attack and it’s much longer and much older than what we’re seeing right now. So, we should now know the truth and not just assumed that Nigerians are tired, or Nigerians don’t want – no, that’s not how it is. We actually want and we have to be reminded.

Nigerians actually want to be together, and we have to use what we have to remind them. Sabon gari has been there in the 30s and 40s. so you can’t just something is happening today, and this is what Nigerians want. We’re going to go back and look in history; we’re going to do a very very strong, analytical analysis; and we’ll come to one conclusion, which is: the forces that bring us together are much powerful than the forces that try to tear us apart.

Can you talk more about your Sabon Gari initiative?

Yes. We are practical. We don’t believe in elephant projects. We want to do something that has a practical beginning and ending. So, we have a typical committee made up of intellectuals from the academic world that are into conflict resolution – that’s what they practiced, that’s their field. So, we go about picking up crises that happen; we choose three or four and say “between now and, say, six months we want to resolve these crises; we want to call differing, or the worried, parties together, create a dialogue between parties, then we’ll write to the government, and we’ll give them an alternative option so that the government can put a seal on an agreement. If we can solve as many of these problems as possible, then people will start thinking that the government can work. Because it has to work. If it’s not going to work, let’s even try first before deciding if it’s working or not working.

So, you’re a link between the people and the government?

Yes, exactly.

Is it individual state governments or the federal government?

All forms of government. We are willing to work with anyone to just make sure we get it right. We’re going to work with traditional rulers, we’re going to work with religious rulers – we’re going to do anything it takes to make sure that a problem that can be solved will be solved. And not leave it to keep growing – and then, of course, speculation, rumours, misinformation – we’ll try and avoid.

So, you value History and I agree that it is important to know where we’re coming from to avoid making the same mistakes. But how do you sit people down explain to them, “this is where we’re coming from” to avoid repeating the same mistakes?

When we teach people history, we talk about leaders that did a lot to bring the country together. People like Aminu Kano, people like Herbert Macaulay. We bring them up and we now, in the class, when we teach them, ask: “if they were alive, what would they have done?” We now start letting them think. We want to help people learn how to think. We want to help them become independent-minded, form their own opinions and not just what they read from social media, or what they hear from their grandparents. We want people to have an objective, analytical and logical view of things. Our own is to help people become more reasonable, so that they avoid creating problems based on passion and sentiments. That’s when you see people doing stuff like killing; when you arrest them, they’ll tell you that, “we don’t even know why we did that” because they were taken over by a wave of anger and most of it is based on nothing. So, we want to remove that speculative element and leave you with facts; this is who we are, this is what we’ve done and let’s give it a try and see what can come out of it. That’s part of history and tying it to the present.

So that touches on leadership and creating a whole new generation of African leaders. Because, at the end of the day, the people you are going to teach are the ones that are going to be leaders tomorrow. You’ve already mentioned history. In which other ways do you think your organization is going to contribute to leadership in Nigeria?

In terms of language. I speak Hausa and I speak Yoruba; we also teach people how to speak each other’s languages so that people start assimilating. We want people to look at each other – “I’m from the south, you’re from the North, but we’re all from the same country. That way, they don’t think about zoning; they don’t think about all of that. In America, you don’t say that the person who was president came from New York, now we’re going to have a president from Florida. Because, in America, they are more tribes than we have in Nigeria. But everybody comes together to look for the best person to handle the position. So, we have a lot of work to do. The Kudirat Abiola Sabon Gari Peace Foundation is psychological. We’re trying to build social psychology. We want people to start thinking in a different way – independently and selflessly. It’s a very very very broad objective.

How many partners do you have now?

The Emir of Zazzau, the Shehu of Borno. We’ve written to the institute for peace resolution, here in the Fedeal Government. We’re going to partner with a lot of people, even governments, the ministries of internal affairs, ministries of women development.  We’re gonna do as much as we can do to make sure that we just don’t set up an elephant project. One thing we also do – whenever we go to a place, in Zaria now when we launch the program, we already have a panellist going around, picking candidates for the award we’re going to give for an exemplary citizen that is not an indigene in that place; we’ll give them a generator, give them tickets to take their family to Ghana. So that we can let people know that if we do well in another state, you’re going to be rewarded because next place we’re going to might be Kano; then we might pick somebody that is a Yoruba man that has been living in Sabon Gari here and we’ll also reward him as well. So that we can show people that this country is working, not just focusing on the negative aspects; a lot of good can come out.

So, going back to democracy. This is 25 years after your mother’s death. How can we make sure that her death was not in vain?

Well, it’s possible. And that’s why when I spoke to you initially, I said we’re apprehensive, and we’re worried and we’re hoping it’s not like that. But then again, as Muslims, even if it ends up being like that, we know that she’s going to heaven; so, from that angle, she’s already long. Allah says in the Qur’an “Give us good in this world and good in the Hereafter”. So, we want her to see the good in what she did in this world as well, not just to think she has gone to heaven, and we’re not happen.

Can you talk a little about her contribution to democracy?

Her contribution to democracy was like: She stood out and she let people know that democracy is worth fighting for. That’s the ultimate price. Because if you contribute like that, then we’re given people a way to say that “somebody has done it before.” And one thing about people is that if they don’t have somebody to look up to as a president, they don’t really want to do something real. Nobody wants to try something new but if they can see that someone has done it, they’ll say “we can also try and do it as well.” So, she gave people a way to say that that “ahn someone has done it o. We can also try and do it as well.” I think that’s her contribution.

So, what is the role of women in democracy?

Well, women and men, in the world of today, are more or less equal. So whatever men can do in politics, in democracy, so can a woman. It’s not always so easy so a lot of governments have gone a step further to allocate certain slots for women. I think it’s good to do that because by doing that, we break the barrier, we make it easier for more women to participate. A lot of things have to be done, because women are vulnerable to so much. So, a lot of laws have to be created to be women from abuse – that will make it easier for them.

So how do we make it easier for women? How do we pave the path for women? Because, at the moment, it’s very hard for women to be in politics? How would your foundation facilitate that?

My own foundation, unfortunately, is focusing on peace and conflict resolution. So, we just go to places where they have problems, and we try to solve them. Like this Shiite, Sunni problem – these are the kinds of things we can get involved in, have meetings, try and look for a common ground and look for a way out. People like my sister [Hafsat Abiola-Costello] now, KIND (the Kudirat Initiative for Nigerian Democracy) are focused more on women empowerment. Your father, I think, is even a trustee. They are the ones that are like “women”, “women”, “women”. But me, we look more general. My sister’s organization is more focused on women empowerment in terms of democracy and all of that especially women in rural areas, bringing them out, trying to stop believing that women are supposed to be in the kitchen and all of that kind of stuff. But we are more into conflict resolution.

But how can we, as individuals, facilitate a woman’s journey to democracy?

It’s very important. Vote for governments to impose quotas, like they do in other countries – that’s the only way. By doing that, they’ll force people to embrace the reality. Because upto now, a lot of people are not willing to give women a chance. Even in America, Kamala Harris is the first female vice president and even women themselves were against her. So, a long journey to that. But imposing quotas will be the first step, I think.

Anything you want to say, add on?

What I want to say in that, in Nigeria, people should stop being so materialistic. Because at the end of the day, we come, and we go. People should think more about people like my mum and why they did what they did. You have to stand for something; if not, you’ll live a life that is meaningless. So, it’s important for people to really really put that in their mind; and to really focus on that.  Think it’s a step forward. Because in life, everything is what you think. As they say in Spanish: “what you think is what you do”. If you think the wrong way, you do the wrong things; if you think the right way, you do the right things. So, the first thing we have to do in Nigeria is to get people to start having the right ideas and from there, you might be able to get society to work the way you want it to work.

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