As political parties organise ahead of the 2023 general election, former Minster of Transport, Chief Ebenezer Babatope, in this interview, tells ONYEDIKA AGBEDO that Nigerians must not close their eyes to age, maturity and experience while choosing their next leader. The elder statesman, staunch Awoist and chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) also faults the clamour for zoning of the Presidency, saying his party could field the best man for the job from any part of the country, adding however that they must ensure that justice is done in doing so. He also speaks on the kind of leader that should succeed President Muhammadu Buhari in office, among other issues
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recently released the timetable for the 2023 general election, which formally kicked off the process of choosing President Muhammadu Buhari’s successor in office. What kind of leader do you think Nigerians should root for as president in 2023?
Nigerians should, by the grace of God, root for a leader that will be able to unite the country. Nigeria needs a leader who will not divide the country on the basis of appeal to tribalism and tribal bigotry. We should have a leader who would be able to know and understand the yearnings of Nigerians and work towards achieving sanity within the political system. This is the kind of leader Nigerians should be aiming at electing in 2023.
What are your reasons for recommending a leader with these qualities for Nigerians?
The All Progressives Congress (APC) has divided the country and we need a leader who will re-unite the country. It is very important that we elect a leader who will bring the country together again and bring sanity to all the political parties. When we have that, the nation will progress and democracy in Nigeria will succeed.
If you say the APC has divided the country, can you be specific by giving instances of how they did that?
I am not opposed to President Buhari as a person. No! I mean he has the right to live his own life. But you see, at a point in the history of this country, the APC said that if any politician in the country is corrupt and that politician joins the APC, his sins would be forgiven. There was an outcry by Nigerians and we survived that.
What we are having now is a senseless appeal to tribal bigotry. For example, the APC has announced that they have zoned their presidential ticket to the Southwest. I have a personal belief (and I am talking from the angle of an elder statesman, I am 79 now) that they are not honest. It’s not true; it’s not correct. Look at what is going on now at their national convention. The convention will bring out a candidate who is going to do the bidding of tribal jingoists who do not want power to shift. But that is not how to play politics.
We should play the politics of truth, the politics of objectivity and the politics that will place national interest above tribal sentiment. So, what is happening, as far as I am concerned, is deceit by the APC in saying that they have zoned their presidential ticket to the Southwest. I don’t think they have done anything like that. With what will transpire at their convention, you are going to discover that tribal appeal within the APC will be worse compounded than we have ever known.
There has been a clamour for generational shift in the leadership of the country with some Nigerians calling on aspirants above
50 years to drop their ambitions…
(Cuts in) Fifty is too low. I won’t subscribe to that. I don’t think anybody above the age of 72 should aspire to be the president of the country. We should have people at 72 and below contesting. But if you say 50, no! We must have maturity, age and experience in our national politics. If you drop the age to 50, then you are going ridiculously low.
If you put the age at 72 and below, what would be the fate of the teeming youths across the country who are eager to be part of the governance system?
Anybody at 72 and below is quite fit to apply for national leadership. As I told you, I am 79 now. It will be naivety of the worst order for me to say that I want to contest for any position in the country now. The country has given me sufficient time to serve it and I have done so. I have done so as a minister; I have done so as a party activist. I was the National Director of Organisation of the Baba Awolowo-led Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and I did it at a very young age. I thank God that I succeeded because they gave us kudos during the period we were there with Baba Awolowo. We were able to complement each other. Baba was fantastic in applying old age to move the political system forward and we were strong enough too to combine our age with Baba’s wisdom to ensure that we had one of the biggest parties in Africa.
So how do you think Nigerian youths can be brought into the governance system in the next dispensation?
If by the grace of God the PDP returns to power, I tell you, youths are going to dominate the scene because no elder in the PDP above the age of 72 would want to rob shoulders with the young men and women in the party. So, young men and women will dominate the stage. But if you say we should put an age limit, I will say no.
There was a time in the history of our party, the PDP, when a particular gentle man who was a former governor in one of the Southwest states was saying that anybody above the age of 70 or even 65 should be barred from contesting election. As he went about with the campaign, I was one of those who told him that he was embarking on a wild goose chase. I made it clear then that I would not rob shoulders with younger people. I will encourage them. But I also noted that if he was saying that he didn’t want people of my age, it meant that he could kill us if he saw us. So, I told my lieutenants that wherever they saw the gentleman, they should make sure that they take me out of the scene because he could murder. But I believe that if we limit the age to 30-72 years, it will be quite okay.
Are you saying that age doesn’t matter in leadership?
No, no, no. I am saying that those of us who are over 72 should allow younger people to participate. And I insist that no matter what we adopt, we must not close our eyes to age, maturity and experience.
Women too have been clamouring for more opportunities in the polity. But none of the gender bills introduced during the ongoing constitution amendment process scaled legislative scrutiny. They are still protesting the development. What do you think could be done to grant Nigerian women more opportunities in governance?
I support the women. I only hope that the women will not turn around to be their own enemies. But there should be greater participation of women in national politics. I give you an example of what happened in the UPN under Baba Awolowo.
In the UPN, we had a woman, Mrs. Oyibo Ekwulo Odinamadu. She was a very brilliant, strong and militant woman. She served as the national vice president of the party and she performed excellently. She was the deputy governorship candidate of the party in Anambra State in 1979.
So, I want the women to participate more. But I hope and pray that they would not be their own enemies. On what they are doing now, I pray that God Almighty gives them the strength to pull through.
When you talk about women being their own enemies, what exactly do you mean?
The UPN, for instance, went as far as saying that any woman that wanted to contest for a position should not pay a penny. By and large the PDP has come up with that policy too. They are supposed to be our wives but we want to reckon with their presence; we want to reckon with their brains; we want to reckon with their activism. But when you now say they should vote, they will go ahead and vote against fellow women who is contesting. But I hope that will stop now. If it stops, then we should see a number of them participating and we will support them.
You alluded to the intrigues around the zoning arrangement in the ruling party but it also a major issue in your party now. Are you in support of zoning or you believe the presidential ticket should be thrown open?
I want something that will benefit the people of Nigeria. I don’t attach so much importance to this zoning thing.
Let me tell you something, which had not been said before. The military wanted stability within our system and there was an arrangement by the senior officers that there would be succession of people as head of state. So, after Babangida it came to Abacha. From Abacha, they were to have Gen. Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, who was the head of the Intelligence Service to take over. But by that time, there had been a change of mind by the senior military officers and they were trying to bow to other pressures. So, they betrayed the pact with Gusau. But instead of Gusau to be annoyed, he gave his support for the plan towards civilian democratic rule. He is still a member of the PDP till today.
So apparently, it was the loyalty of Gusau to democracy that stopped the proposal of the military to have a rotation of personalities as heads of state. So, Gusau is a loyal Nigerian. He gave up what would have been his own time to be head of state for democratic rule to set in. And he has never made any trouble about it. He has continued to give his loyalty to this country and I am highly impressed.
Now, we have a situation where democrats succeed democrats in government. But Gusau was a material that was wasted by the Nigerian political system and if he had not cooperated by being a nationalist, he could have given us problem.
All I am saying is that when you say zoning, it can at times be used to the disadvantage of the Nigerian nation and the Nigerian nationhood. Now you can be sure that even if you zone the Presidency to Gusau’s area, he cannot participate again and that can be disadvantageous to the type of democratic country we want to build. That is why I will not join the bandwagon of people who are saying zone, zone, zone…
And in reality, if we should come to another aspect of it, the Southeast has not been able to get somebody to be president and they deserve to be given consideration. But nobody has even thought of zoning the position to the area. And all I have been warning my party to do is that when they zone and if they zone, they should make sure that justice is done and that injustice is not perpetrated by giving it to the wrong group.
So, I don’t have a particular attachment to zoning. If you have the best material from any part of the country, let it be. Zoning also brings the idea of slavish mentality of people. I don’t like it; I don’t want it. It is not that I’m opposed to the Southwest producing the Presidency, no! If the president will come from any place that will benefit Nigeria, let’s all go for it.
As far as I am concerned, the PDP is free to pick its candidate from any part of the country, as long as the executives make sure that justice has been obeyed in choosing that candidate.
I give you an example. There is a party called All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in this country. A former governor of the CBN was recently sworn in as the governor of Anambra State on the platform of that party. But there is a member of the party who has come out to say he wants to be president. The fellow is very brilliant; he paid me a visit and I found him intelligent enough to be president. When I was told that he is a member of APGA, I was very sad because APGA is not a party that has mass appeal that cuts across the people of Nigeria. And I knew he was going to have problems and he has had problems and I don’t think he can pursue his ambition further. But honestly speaking, he is a fellow that if I find my way, and I will not be charged with anti-party activity, I will go ahead, campaign for him and vote for him. I will vote for him any day. So, I don’t believe in this zoning thing.
The PDP can choose its candidate from any part of the country but the party must follow the path of justice in doing that. If we don’t follow justice, then the PDP will lose the election. It can even lose to APC that has been in power for almost eight years. But if we choose a candidate that appeals to national interest, that appeals to saving the masses from the current poverty to which they have been exposed, then of course the party will emerge victorious and we will go ahead and talk of the best interest of Nigeria.
Beyond the rhetoric, how ready is your party to wrestle power from the APC in 2023?
We hope that INEC will do the correct thing. I have no confidence in INEC as presently constituted. Their minds have been polluted. But if they conduct a good election, we have a good chance and the PDP will come back to power.
We have learnt our lesson. When we were in government, we did many things wrong. We underestimated the potentialities of many vested interests and individuals. But we have learnt our lesson. So, if INEC is ready to give us a good election, then of course we will have a good election by the grace of God and we shall give Nigerians very good governance.