Senator Jeremiah Useni, a retired Lieutenant General, was Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja during the regime of the late Gen. Sani Abacha-led military junta. The 77-year-old politician who contested the 2019 governorship election in Plateau State speaks to JAMES ABRAHAM on a number of issues
You contested the 2019 governorship poll in Plateau State and pursued your case from tribunal to the Supreme Court, but lost. What is the next step now?
There is nowhere to go again. The Supreme Court is the highest court of the land. So, what do you mean by what next again?
We have heard some people going back to the Supreme Court asking for the review of their cases. Are you also considering that line of action?
That thought never crossed my mind. But you are aware that those who went back never succeeded in getting what they were asking to encourage others to do the same. The Supreme Court threw away that of Bayelsa State review request by the All Progressives Congress and that of the Peoples Democratic Party in Imo State by maintaining its earlier judgements. So, I can’t just join the band wagon because people are going there. What I believe is that only God knows if the judgement of the Supreme Court in my governorship petition is right or not. But the fact remains that it is the highest court of the land.
Have you given up on your governorship ambition or do you still want to govern the state?
It takes four years before another election. So, I’m still looking at the situation whether there were mistakes on my part, on the part of my party, individuals or the judiciary and ensure that one can guide against it. So, my priority is not that I must be governor.
You have been minister and a senator after a successful career in the military, yet you want to be a governor. People are wondering what you really left undone in your previous positions.
In the military, you have restrictions. No matter the good intentions you might have, you have to be very careful as a military man. You can’t even make a political statement. You cannot climb the podium and address the people. But as a politician, the door is open. As long as the statement is not against the government or such that it will be taken as a security threat. And of course, as a politician, you move freely with the people and sympathise with them when necessary and be able to explain to the people why certain things happen or why certain things cannot be done.
I was close to the late (Gen Sani) Abacha and people thought I would be implicated one way or the other and jailed but they never knew that my friendship with the former Head of State had nothing to do with corrupt enrichment of self because I did not care about what he did. I was only doing my job. When I was military Governor of Benue State, I would stop people sweeping my office by 7:00 am. I told them to come by 6am if they actually wanted to sweep my office because I had no time for such dereliction of duty.
As a former military officer, are you not worried about the security situation in the country?
Of course, I am concerned. Some people have told me that they heard that I am close to Mr President, Major General Muhamadu Buhari(retd.) and I said yes. They now wondered why insecurity has continued to plague the country. And I said should my friendship with the President stop insecurity? Am I in the same party with him? My friendship with him has nothing to do with security. He is a different person just as I am. But I won’t go on air and tell people to stop accusing him of not doing enough to address the problem of insecurity. If he does something wrong, you are free to accuse him. My friendship with Mr President also has nothing to do with politics. Some people will come and say, “he is your friend. Why not let him speak to those (judges) people to make you governor”. And I said, we are not running a military government where the Head of State picks and appoints people as governors. Those who will occupy those positions are determined by politics and if the judiciary is to do its job or anybody to convince them to do otherwise, definitely, it is not Mr President.
A lot of people including members of the National Assembly have called for the removal of the service chiefs. Do you consider this as a solution to the problem?
In the military, there is a period you are to serve as a service chief and then, you will be asked to go, whether there is insecurity or not. To me, that is what people should look at. Some people are talking as if there is no insecurity in the country, they will remain there for life. No. You cannot have a service chief staying for four or five years. If you are complaining of that, I can understand that. But Mr President has a reason for doing so because their appointment is at the discretion of Mr President. He can appoint them today and even sack them within one week as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
What is the way forward in addressing Nigeria’s security challenge?
I am not saying that sacking them is not the solution. The point I am making is that, what is the guarantee that the ones you are bringing on board will be better than the ones you are sacking? What I am saying is that, what people are complaining about should be whether the service chiefs should be in office either for three or four years, but they have spent more than that. And that they are not happy about their continued stay in office. You can talk about it from the laws and asked why they are still being kept in office against the laws of the land.
I have discussed with friends what can be done to address the security challenges facing the country. The truth is that the challenge is diverse. First, what are we doing as Nigerians? We see a situation where brothers kill themselves and husbands or wives kill their partners and yet, they are supposed to be in love. Why the fight? When I went round, the teachers’ union told me they had about 2,000 qualified teachers who were jobless because the state government refused to employ them. They also told me that the state had over 2,000 unqualified teachers in the system. When I heard the information, I considered it abnormal and I quickly summoned the relevant persons in the ministry to find out if it was true. And when they confirmed it, I told them to get those unqualified teachers out of the system the next day and replace them with the qualified ones. The instruction was carried out without delay and the next day, the same teachers association came out to demonstrate that I sacked people from work. I was surprised because they were the same people who wrote petitions demanding that I do something about the abnormally which I did. So, what I did was to join them in the protests and they started laughing and went away quietly. But that is how we ended up doing the right thing and ensured that only qualified teachers were allowed in the system.
What do you think Mr President can do to make the fight against corruption more effective?
I am not Mr President and I can’t say I know the problem he is facing, but all I know is that to get to the old wood, you have to first remove the new ones on top of it. What I mean is that so many new corrupt people are committing so many offences and the old ones they took over from are still there. So, how do you get rid of the old ones without getting rid of the new ones first? So, you can’t get the old wood when the new ones are on top, except you are in a position to clear them at the same time otherwise you must have to remove the new ones first. But what we find in the fight against corruption is a situation where, in trying to get the old ones, the new corrupt people are building up. That is the problem. But as a person, I think Mr President is doing his best but he is not working alone. He has somebody who will do the work and then you refuse people advising you and work with bad advisers. So, you take the blame yourself. And if you have people who swore to do the proper thing and they turn round to be giving you wrong information, then what do you do? Even within the Presidency, look at the ongoing fight between the Chief of Staff to the President and the National Security Adviser? I wouldn’t believe that it is Mr President who gave the instruction that his Chief of Staff should be giving instructions to the National Security Adviser. But the National Security Adviser is complaining that the man is trying to give him instructions. I think there is a modicum of insecurity in what is happening there. So, it is left for the President to determine whether what he is saying is correct or not. If he was told to reduce work for Mr President or Mr President said If you want to see me, see so, so, person. It is left for the people to complain if they have any issue with him but for the Chief of Staff to the President to just summon service chiefs, I never heard of it before.
The infighting between the Chief of Staff and the National Security Adviser, among other happenings in the country and the seeming helplessness of Mr President suggest that Buhari is not in charge of the country’s affairs. Do you agree that this is true?
People can interpret this thing anyhow. I think somebody is just taking advantage of his closeness to the President to do certain things that are not right and I give you an example. Someone came here and told me he was told not to come in and see me. When I asked him the reason, he said they said it was an instruction from my son. When my son came, I asked him why he is stopping people from seeing me. I told him and the other children that If you think that this person I am seeing is not good, then you should tell me and it is left for me to take a decision on that but you don’t stop people from seeing me. But if such information doesn’t come to me and they went about telling people, they will think I was the one who actually gave the instruction.
Which section of the country would you like to produce the President in 2023?
The direction of politics is unpredictable sometimes. People will tell you that there is permanent interest in politics, but for some years, Nigerian presidency has been swinging between the North and South. But as time went by, people were not talking about these two political divisions again. Instead, they started talking about allowing each of the six geopolitical zones to be given a slot for the presidency. And the separate agitations by each of them comprising the South-East, South-South and South-West on one hand and North-East, North -West and North-Central, on the other hand, is causing confusion in the polity. Now if they say South-West, some people will say it has had its own turn at the presidency. If they say South-South, some would ask whether former president Goodluck Jonathan is not from that region. Now, if you say South-East, the name of Nnamdi Azikiwe will come up. So, we have to agree on the method or we go by tribe as the case may be. But people will always say what suit them. But left for me, the presidency should be rotated between the North and the South. And if the President is a Muslim, the Vice President should be a Christian and if the President is a Christian, the Vice President should be a Muslim. That is what I believe will help the country and its people.