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Alhaji Yerima Shettima, presidential candidate of newly formed Young Democratic Party (YDP) exudes confidence young aspirants like him are better equipped to lead Nigeria into its glorious dawn than the present crop of leaders.

 In his view, the time has come for the younger generation to mount the saddle, having watched for a long time as the present and past leaders squander glorious opportunities that would have  brought the country out of the woods.

 In this interview with Olisemeka Obeche, Yerima, a firebrand democracy activist and leader of the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum (AYCF) makes a critical assessment of the impending 2015 general elections and other socio-political issues affecting the nation. Excerpts:

 At last the much anticipated 2015 general election is about to hold. As one of the key players in the presidential race, what are your hopes and fears concerning the outcome of the poll on the country’s future?

Well, I am hoping that this election will usher in a new dawn of better democracy and sustainable development for our country. But with what we are seeing at the moment, coupled with the kind of utterances coming out of the mouths of these top politicians and their associates; and also the level of preparedness of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), I have fears that the outcome of the election would not be what we all anticipated. If INEC succeeds in conducting free, fair and transparent elections, it would douse the political tension in the country a bit.

But when there is rigging, we would likely run into crisis, judging from the level of desperation being exhibited by the key political players at the moment. You can see from the statements and movements of those who are in power as well as those seeking to displace them, that they are more keen to hold  on to power and control the political machinery and economic wealth of the country than bringing real development. And with that kind of attitude you can see that anything can happen unless there is free and fair poll. So, I pray INEC succeeds in conducting free, fair and credible elections on March 28 and April 11 to save this country from witnessing this doomsday. This country must not be allowed to go that path, because we don’t want another civil war or any more bloody political violence.

Unfortunately, ethnic and religious differences in the country have been unusually highlighted during the cause of the campaigns ahead of the election. What does that portend for the country?

It portends a danger for the country. A situation where the lines of arguments and campaign speeches are now based on ethnicity and religious differences is a problem because it brings further division instead of unity. Ordinarily, our political leaders should see and treat Nigeria as a united nation and tailor their statements to reinforce that belief. All of us should consider ourselves as brothers irrespective of our ethnic and religious backgrounds and treat the country as one constituency, bigger than any individual or group of individual’s political ambition. It is only on that basis that we can build the Nigerian nation of our dreams.

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But the reverse becomes the case when politicians and their cohorts becomes so desperate to hold on to power and use it for selfish goals that they are willing to go extra miles to achieve that agenda irrespective of its implications on the national unity and progress. One thing we should know is that they are not doing what they are doing because of their patriotism but because of their selfish interests and that means that they don’t worth any Nigerian entrusting his or her voting rights to them.

Do you think the shifting of the election by six weeks was a good decision that would lead to free and fair elections?

It is actually a welcomed development as far as we are concerned. And I am happy that the INEC chairman admitted before the National Assembly that the shift in polls’ date was ‘a blessing in disguise’ for the country. The fact remains that INEC was not fully prepared to conduct the February 14 presidential election, despite declaring itself ready prior to that time. Besides helping INEC to tackle its logistics deficiencies, the shift has actually helped to douse political tension in the country which was almost at boiling point in early February.

INEC had a lot of challenges which many Nigerians didn’t know of and so were not ready for the elections. INEC was tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that every Nigerian of voting age participates in the election without depriving anybody of his or her fundamental human rights. But as we speak, so many Nigerian eligible voters do not have their permanent voters’ card (PVC); and that was not because they did not make efforts to enroll and collect their cards but because for one reason or the other, INEC failed to issue it to them.

So, if the election had been conducted in February, you would have discovered that many Nigerians who are eligible would not have participated. Even as I speak with you as a presidential candidate, I don’t have my PVC and going by INEC rules, I am not even qualified to cast my vote on March 28. And I am not the only one caught up in this web. I have heard that some top political office holders, including governors are yet to get their PVCs too. That is the sad reality of the situation that INEC has put many Nigerian voters into.

Who do we blame for this logistics quagmire?

INEC takes full responsibility for this PVC distribution and other logistics flop. Nigerians should know that everything INEC asked for in terms of funds and other logistics have been provided to it by government and other stakeholders. And so, INEC has no reason not to deliver on its own side of the bargain.

But do you see the demand from some stakeholders for the removal of INEC Chairman, Attahiru Jega ahead of the elections as the solution. In other words, is Jega the problem or INEC as an institution?

I think those who are calling for Jega’s sack, if they can do away with sentiments, are not wrong. I said this because if after giving the Jega-led INEC all the funds he had requested for to conduct free and fair election, we are still seeing these logistics lapses, it shows that he is not competent to command that sensitive position. For crying out loud, one would have expected Jega to be working ahead of time and not only putting in place solid logistics for 2015 elections but making a bold statement that the institution is ready for 2019 elections as well.  But INEC has failed to deliver on its own terms and time table.

And one of the funniest things is that Jega had told the international community that INEC was ready to conduct the 2015 election; but after a close look, we have found out that INEC was not fully prepared for the polls. If INEC was prepared as Jega claimed, why are we seeing loopholes here and there? We could see that even the mock testing of the Card Reader Machines did not produce the anticipated results.

So, if Jega who was asked to use the card reader machine to conduct the Ekiti and Osun gubernatorial elections as a test-run prior to the 2015 general election and he was quoted as saying that ‘it is risk to use card reader machine for the elections’ then, why will card reader use not be considered riskier for this election where more than two states are involved?

Why are people seeing these lapses as a Jega failure rather than that of INEC as an institution with Jega at its helm? The reason is simple: if Nigeria fails today, Goodluck Jonathan as the president takes the blame for it. And he takes due credit if the country succeeds. The same thing goes for Jega and INEC. Jega has no excuse to fail to conduct free and fair elections in 2015, having been in the saddle for over five years now. Besides putting in place policies and logistics structures, everything he asked for was given to INEC with dispatch. And for that, the INEC he presides over has no excuse whatsoever not to midwife free, fair and credible elections this year.

Your newly formed political party – YDP has been in court with INEC over  your registration as a political and the refusal of the commission to issue your certificate of registration and now a high court has directed INEC to comply. What actually transpired and what is the latest status of the matter?

What happened was that a group of young leaders who are obviously disenchanted by the way things are going on in this country and the manner the so-called top political leaders and parties are going about the political process, decided to exercise their inalienable rights as enshrined in the constitution through the formation of a political party- the Young Democratic Party (YDP). Some of us are not comfortable with the saying that ‘the youths are leaders of tomorrow’, as tomorrow never ends.

We want a political party that can enable the youths of this country have the opportunity to vie for all political offices across the country. That becomes a necessity because if you look at the kind of political scheming going on in Nigeria, you find out that those who ran the show in the past without any tangible results are still in the game and not ready to quit. So, our best option is to challenge them at the polls, knowing fully well that majority of the voters are youths and we have good programmes to make them share in our belief that the future of this country lies in the hands of its younger generation and not the same set of recycled politicians. Some of us believe we can do better than them, having been leaders of several well-doing organizations and institutions already.

And so, we applied to INEC for registration of the party, without being sponsored or supported by any individual, group or organization. After exchange of necessary correspondents with INEC and meeting all the stringent requirements for party registration as stipulated in the electoral law including securing our headquarter office at Abuja, we waited for the commission to issue us certificate but to our greatest dismay, none came. By then, I had already purchased a nomination form to contest for the office of the presidency after due consultation with relevant stakeholders across the country. I took that bold step in anticipation that our party was already due for certification as one of the qualified political parties in the country.

Few days after the news of my entrance into the presidential race was all over the media, we suddenly realized that INEC was not yet ready to issue our party certificate of registration. And by September 15, 2014, INEC wrote to us to explain why it refused to issue us certificate of registration. Being law abiding citizens, who believe strongly in the rule of law and justice, we took the matter to court. Our legal team and that of INEC were still slugging it out in court when the contract for printing the ballot papers was about to awarded in November. And in fairness to Jega, he had a premonition that the judgment could go against INEC and in our favour and so tried to delay the ballot paper printing in a bid to accommodate our party’s eventual registration. From what we gathered, he wrote a letter of intent to the company, waiting for the judgment so as to include our party on the ballot paper.

Unfortunately, the progress of the case was affected by industrial crisis in the judicial sector. But when the judiciary eventually resumed and the case proceeded to judgment, we won on March 4. However, by the time judgment was delivered, INEC had already printed the ballot papers. That automatically put the commission in a dilemma having been ordered by a Federal High Court in Abuja by virtue of the judgment delivered by Justice Ahmed Mohammed, to register and recognize Young Democratic Party (YDP). INEC must find a way to insert the names and logo of our party in the ballot paper. I can’t imagine that my fundamental human rights to contest for the presidency, which I am qualified and purchased nomination form for, could be denied me because INEC failed to do its work properly. Allowing the election to proceed without inclusion of our party in the ballot paper is not acceptable to me and our party. It looks to me as if INEC was trying to sabotage my presidential aspiration; because this issue of non-issuance of registration certificate came up after I picked up the nomination form under heavy media glare. On the other hand, I was asking myself, does it mean certain people who are in power are not comfortable with our presence in the race?

I strongly believe that if my participation had not been stunted by this non-registration saga and I went on to campaign fully across the nation, a lot of votes from the younger generation would have gone my way; and that would have posed problem for the ruling PDP and their incumbent president.

Now that the court has ruled that your party should be registered and allowed to participate in the elections, are you not worried about its implication in the logistics plans put in place already by INEC ahead of the March 28 Presidential poll?

Well, it is not up to us. What I know is that a court of law has passed an order to INEC to issue us a registration certificate and include our party in the election. So, we expect INEC to comply with that order as an institution that has respect for the rule of law. For us, how INEC would do the magic of including YDP on the ballot paper for the March 28 and April 11 elections, I don’t know. But what we want is for them to comply with the court order.

If INEC refuse to obey court order and goes ahead to conduct the elections without the inclusion of our party in the ballot papers, then we will still go back to court to seek justice. It is as simple as that. The bottom line is that YDP must be included to participate in 2015 elections. Whatever formula INEC chooses to adopt to make that happen is left to them. We also wish to enjoy same rights and privileges being accorded to other political parties and their aspirants in the race, especially the time table to carry out their campaigns. We demand for a level playing ground so that at the end, whoever emerges the winner would do so on free, fair and credible manner. With the way our own case has been handled so far, we have been denied that equal and fair opportunity to contest.

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As a youth leader from the northern part of Nigeria, what actually does this election portend for the people in the insurgency affected parts of the North East?

Certainly, most people in parts of Nigeria are yearning for a change. They want a government that would cater for their development needs; provide enough security for their lives and property; a government that would tackle corruption decisively. These are the key actions everybody in the north, just as other parts of the country are looking forward from the next government. And it is obvious that those in power at the moment are not capable of fulfilling that. And that is why I consider myself an option to lead this change.

I also think that people should understand that these people going through hellish experience in the north east are Nigerians and don’t deserve what they are passing through. And I think that the people need remedy and they see this election as an opportunity for them to make electoral choices of representatives in the state and federal governments.

Some people think young leaders like you should have started out your political career by contesting for lesser positions before gunning for the presidency. Why are you starting from the top, why not start from the base, at least to gain requisite experience at the grassroots?

I don’t know what such people think or feel by suggesting that one must start out from lesser political offices. Those who are there now, are they more experienced than people like me? Already, I am more grounded with issues of grassroots development than those who are at the helm of affairs in the presidency at the moment. I know the hardship and pains being experienced by the masses of this country than those running the show now. Come to think of it, those who are in position of the presidency do they have two heads? Do they have more experience than some of us who have been at the forefront of the struggle for sustainable democracy in this country since the dark days of the military? Where were these set of leaders then when we fought for the democracy that all of us are enjoying today? We put our lives, our comfort and families on the line just to ensure that there was a change from military to democracy. Tell me which one of the presidential candidates that can match my over 20 years in the struggle for democracy, equality and justice in this country. None of them has been in the trenches as I have been; and so do not have the kind of understanding of the Nigerian challenges that I have.

I don’t see any reason for contesting for governorship position when I have known and been known across the whole country in the course of my struggle. I don’t just see myself as leader of Arewa youths but that of the entire country. I challenge any of the presidential candidates to engage me in a debate on how to move this country forward; and I can bet you that I will beat them all, including the incumbent president. That they had opportunities to climb unto power doesn’t mean that they are better than some of us who are operating outside the government. And if I have the opportunity to serve at the top right now, I will perform better than them.

About six years ago, you warned in an interview with me that the Niger Delta insurgency could be a child’s play with what would happen in the north if the challenges facing the youths of the region are not urgently tackled. Looking back, what actions could federal government have taken to prevent the rise and escalation of the Boko Haram insurgency that it failed to do?

In fact, it was about eight years ago that I started saying that ‘with what we were seeing in Niger Delta and the way government is handling the matter, it is obvious that if youths in the north took up arms, the insurgency in the north would be more disastrous than that in Niger Delta’. I said that because I know the way northern Nigeria operates is far different from that of south. With over 65 percent of the Muslim population and culture that is almost identical, I knew that insurgency in that part of the country would be difficult to contain because of the tendency of most people to follow religious calls or order without thinking twice about it or asking relevant questions. That was why we started appealing to the Olusegun Obasanjo-led government and subsequently Yar’Adua government to expedite action to avert the crisis. But they ignored our calls.

Even when they came up with the amnesty programme for the militants, we told them that that was not the right thing to do; and that ‘you don’t buy peace with money’. Fine, it is good that government has decided to forgive the militants, but must it also give them so much money? Automatically, the money would be used to acquire more arms and get more sophistry in their dastardly acts. We told them that the amnesty package was sending a wrong signal as people from other regions would assume that the only language government understands and respect was that of insurgency. In spite of our warnings, they ignored us and went ahead with their programme. The result is what we are seeing today.

So, why is insurgency in the North difficult to contain?

Well, the reason is not far-fetched. With the background of Islamic religion, high level of illiteracy, poverty and unemployment in the north, it is easier for someone to wake up one day and incite some people to go and fight, kill and destroy in the name of Allah without any cogent reason; and such instruction would be implemented to the letters. It’s equally easier for those with evil intentions to recruit youths to protest or carry out any other sinister objectives in the north than in the south.

Recruiting people in similar manner would be very difficult in the southern part of the country because people are wiser and preoccupied with hustling for their daily bread. Anybody going out to recruit youths in the southern Nigeria for any of such things must provide suitable explanation and mouth-watering incentives for him to get some people. That is why it is even very difficult to effectively mobilize people for public demonstrations in the south. Ask any of them and they would give you many excuses on why they are not ready to go on the streets and protest. But in the north, you can raise thousands of protesters through a snap of your finger and uttering religious-motivated statements.

But do you consider the ongoing military crackdown on Boko Haram, with collaborative efforts of troops from neighbouring countries would help to end insurgency in the north?

It will go a long way in dealing with this crisis; but is definitely not going to be as easy as people thought. And that is because it did not just spring up few years ago. They had been operational for very long time; but not in the destructive manner they go about their businesses today. They became more volatile about six years ago because certain things went wrong.

What went wrong?

For long they were being stage-managed while they were building their tentacles and capacity. They had a lot of followers and contacts but were operating peacefully until Yar’Adua government came and arrangement changed. And following the mysterious murder of its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, the insurgency escalated. I am sure, the government of Obasanjo knew that the group existed but they were relaxed about them then. And that is because most of them were recruited by some politicians in the north and trained them as their political thugs. And after being used and dumped, they became monsters.

So, what do you consider as the permanent solution to the insurgency?

Definitely, it is not going to be easy. And that is because fighting Boko Haram is not a conventional war where you can defeat your opponent at a particular spot and you say the war is over. It is a war that requires a lot of intelligence gathering and covert operations that are conducted with tact and precision. Some of the enemies are living within ordinary civilians while many more are being secretly recruited. So, dealing with them requires doing a lot more work underground than the actual military confrontation.

It is also not going to be easy for Nigeria to deal with Boko Haram because of the international dimension to it. From all indications, the group has strong international link and support; and unless global war against terrorism is collectively dealt with, it will continue to fester.

Beyond the use of force, are there other measures that could be used to deal with this terrorism?

That requires government to have the political will to tackle the issue of poverty alleviation, education and creation of enabling environment for businesses to thrive. Without creating employment opportunities that can engage most of the youths in parts of the north, it would be very difficult to stop this mayhem. They need to be trained in various skills and provided with necessary funding support to make an honest living. That is the kind of solution we are looking at in parts of the north. If you don’t engage them, they become easy tools in the hands of religious fundamentalists.

Yes we know that government alone cannot provide all the jobs for its citizens, but let it take proactive measures to ensure that a greater percentage of the youths of this country, especially in the north have the opportunity of getting employed or empowered. It can take the lead and provide the needed support to the private sector to complement. Provide free education so that those who are of school age can gain knowledge and become useful members of the society instead of ending up in the streets and becoming a menace. However, whether we like it or not, the fact remains that the North is boiling.

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