We're better off now than at Independence- Tanko Yakassai

THE SUN Newspaper- Zainab Suleiman Okino

Alhaji Tanko Yakassai is 84 years. He is one of the few founding members of the socialist inclined, Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), which participated actively in the independence struggle.

He said that although Nigeria is better off now than at independence, their generation had hoped that independence would provide solution to the nation’s problem. He lamented that countries, like Malaysia and Singapore, which enjoyed the same status with Nigeria in the 60s and went beyond that illusion (independence as a solution to all problems), are now years ahead.
Yakassai also identified military intervention and civil war as too major setbacks in the nation’s progress after independence.

You saw Nigeria at its birth in 1960. What do you think of the country 50 years after?
Well, to be honest, we have recorded a considerable achievement because if you compare Nigeria with other African countries, you will definitely acknowledge that we have made some progress. The only thing that we can say, without any equivocation, is that the extent of our progress is not as much as it should be. This was brought about by inconsistency in policy and leadership.

What do you think of President Goodluck Jonathan’s candidacy?
He is taking advantage of Umar Yar’Adua’s death to grab power. The constitution provided that if the president dies, the vice president will continue or take over as president of the country. Immediately the tenure of that administration is over, then there will be fresh nomination. There will be fresh candidates. Jonathan, as product of zoning, shouldn’t have even dreamt of running for presidency

As a young man some 50 years ago, what was the feeling like that day when Nigeria got independence?
We thought independence would bring in joy and happiness, development, good quality of life and so on and so forth. Certainly, we are better than how we were at the time of independence because even from the point of view of tertiary education in the country; at the time of independence, we only had University College, Ibadan. Today, we have over 90 universities, apart from other tertiary institutions, polytechnics and so on and the number of graduates they are churning out every year is enormous. So we are certainly better off than we were and particularly if you remember that the British came to take over Nigeria at the beginning of last century.

What was the feeling like in 1960?
We were happy. We, who fought for independence, thought that independence would bring in virtually a solution to every problem in this country, but it is not so. It is not only here in Nigeria but in other parts of the colonial world. However, others realized, soon, that independence would not transform you into a better person without making your own efforts. One of our problems was the military intervention. It was a big setback for this country, which prevented the country from developing qualitative leadership. Secondly, the civil war set us back, because the consequences of the civil war are armed robbery, kidnapping and so on and so forth.

You attended the formal flagging off of General Ibrahim Babangida’s presidential campaign. Now you said that the military caused the country a setback and Babangida was a military officer. How do reconcile your position and support for a former soldier?
What do you want me to do? To go to hell? There was a coup in Nigeria. I don’t blame IBB. Those who started the coup share in the blame. If they had not started it, IBB would not have been a military president in this country. So those who caused the trouble should bear full responsibility for causing the trouble, not somebody who woke up and found himself in the midst of the trouble, caused by somebody else.

You attended the IBB declaration. Did you attend Atiku’s own and would you attend Buhari’s declaration too?
I don’t know whether you were at Atiku’s. I spoke there. I said eight years ago, I declared that I would no longer belong to any political party. In that declaration, I said I would maintain cordial relationships with all Nigerians, regardless of their political inclination and this is what I intend doing. Atiku invited me to his declaration. I attended, and my picture was displayed on television. Babangida invited me, all in writing. I have their letters. If any other person is going to declare, if he invites me, I will go there.

What if Jonathan invites you, will you go?
I will go, why not?

I thought you were defending the northern interest only?
I am not against Jonathan, as a person. I am saying that in the 2011 presidential election, only a northerner should be adopted as the official candidate of the PDP. I say Jonathan has the right to contest election, but not on the platform of the PDP. So if he goes to PRP, for instance, or Labour Party, if he invites me, I will go there.

If he invites you under the PDP banner, will you go?
No because it will contradict my belief that he should not be the PDP’s candidate, not because I hate him but because his running in the PDP would be against the decision of the party and the agreement reached within the party and northern leaders, whereby northern leaders lent their support to a southerner, in the person of Obasanjo, who ruled the country for eight years on the understanding that after that, northerners will run the country for eight years. We are only able to rule the country for less than four years. What Jonathan is now running, is part of the northern tenure.

You are one of the founding fathers of Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU)
Yes; that is right

There are just a few of you still alive and now we are talking of PDP and you seem to be participating actively in political ideas, as dictated by the PDP. Don’t you think there is contradiction in what you believed in then and what you are doing now?
No. Let me tell you the truth. All subsequent political parties, including PRP, was not the same as NEPU. There was the fact that the governors elected on the platform of the PRP revolted against the party; that wouldn’t have happened if NEPU ideology was carried up to the PRP days

If PRP were like NEPU….
If PRP were like NEPU; it would not elect a governor (the late Abubakar Rimi) and the governor would revolt against the policy of the party because NEPU members were disciplined. They made a lot of sacrifices; they knew what they were doing. Those who usually did (because PRP was a child of circumstance) probably did not intend to belong to a different party from NPN, but it was a misunderstanding that brought about his decision to withdraw; so he did not withdraw from the NPN on the basis of ideology or principle; it was a quarrel, it was a misunderstanding. I don’t want to elaborate on that right now, but it is not the same thing; that is number one. Number two, I have never belonged to the PDP. Initially, I was a member of APP. I was there till 2002 when, on my own, I resigned, not to join any other party till the end of my life, because I just want to retain my freedom to be able to express my personal opinion without party encumbrances, but I am a Nigerian. PDP is the party in power in Nigeria. The business of the party in power affects every citizen because it is running the affairs of the country, whether you like them or not.

So I have the responsibility and you (too) have the responsibility to ensure that the PDP as a party, which is elected to govern the country, respects its manifesto; the promise they made to the people of this country. One of the promises was that it will rotate power between the North and the South. You will be surprised to know that even though I have never belonged to the PDP, I voted for that party twice on account of this rotation matter. I voted for Obasanjo once and then when it came to Yar’Adua, I voted for him, all in the belief that rotation was working. As a member of the constituent assembly and as a member of the defunct National Party of Nigeria, which introduced the principle of zoning and rotation in Nigerian politics in the first place, I sincerely believe that rotation and zoning will go a long way to address the problem of political instability in the country. So because of that, I voted for Obasanjo in 2003 and I voted for Yar’Adua in 2007, out of my conviction that this rotation and zonal arrangement is good for Nigeria.

What are those ideals and principles of NEPU that are still left in you?
It is commitment to this country and a desire to see justice is done. We feel agitated whenever an injustice is inflicted. By our training, by our nature, by our upbringing we hate injustice, it is automatic that whenever there is, we will abhor it; we will fight it and also the burning desire to see the transformation of this country. Each time I go out, like I told you, when I went to Egypt, I travelled deliberately to left, right and centre of the country. I travelled from Cairo to Sinai by road; it was a journey of about nine hours by bus, just to look at the situation of the country and I couldn’t find a single unemployed person moving about the streets. I stopped at motor parks; no touts whatsoever. I travelled also from Cairo to Alexandria and I came back by road, I couldn’t find any jobless person. I travelled from Cairo for 13 hours by speed train; I travelled in the night. I came back during the day. I deliberately made sure that at every station the train stopped, I would go down and look round, whether I would see touts. I couldn’t find any; so I was impressed. So this is the type of life I want to see in this country.

The country is located along the River Nile, so, everywhere in Egypt today, most of the people are farmers; most of the big buildings and hotels that you see belong to farmers because although they don’t get rain, the water that is flowing through the River Nile provides opportunity for them to irrigate year in, year out. So as you are travelling across the country, you will see lorries carrying produce from one part of the country to another; you will see farms at different stages with the plants sometimes half way, sometimes at the level of harvest. You see a country where really the people are not in difficulty; they solve their problems; they have something to do. There is no idle person. You go to a hotel, the cost of room accommodation, the cost of basic treatment, the cost of food that you eat in Egypt is so cheap; you wonder whether you are in Africa. This is the type of society of my dream as a NEPU member.

What of your commitment to the Talakawa cause?
This is what I am saying. I want the Talakawa to be employed, to be engaged in productive activities, creating wealth, taking care of their needs and not to depend on anybody but themselves. As a commissioner, we did wonders, because in our period immediately you enter Kano from Zaria, you see the whole area was green. In those days, most of the houses were roofed with zinc, houses owned by farmers. There is irrigation. They grow crops three times a year. So this is the type of situation I want to see in Nigeria. Unfortunately, unless I am extremely lucky, I don’t think I will live to see it in my life.

We will still pray for you to live long enough
I pray for myself. I don’t want to go; so I am praying. In fact, my initial prayer is to ask God for another 30 years since I am already 84 years.


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