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‘Reasons we asked Buhari, Atiku, others to sign peace deal’

PDP Presidential Candidate, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (middle), signs the Peace Pact for the 2019 presidential election, while the Chairman of the National Peace Committee and former Head of State, retired Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (left) and the Chairman of the PDP, Prince Uche Secondus look on at the Kukah Centre in Abuja Photo: AMO
PDP Presidential Candidate, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (middle), signs the Peace Pact for the 2019 presidential election, while the Chairman of the National Peace Committee and former Head of State, retired Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (left) and the Chairman of the PDP, Prince Uche Secondus look on at the Kukah Centre in Abuja Photo: AMO

Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah is the secretary, N ational Peace Committee. In this interview, the Bishop of Catholic Diocese of Sokoto spoke on the peace accord recently signed by presidential candidates for the 2019 elections, among other things.

What do you want to achieve by the peace accord?

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It is good to give you a context. First of all, these kinds of initiatives have been formal and informal, especially in Africa and developing economies, where the trust of the state is severely weakened and the trust on institutions and their capacity is under question. So you require a bit of supporting efforts, so to say.

For the peace committee, the best metaphor I use is that of marriage, where two people come together, exchange vows and make promises to each other. But despite making the promises, you require others to continue to encourage them. In this case, it could be family members or friends. That is really the idea behind the peace committee. It was not original to us, Kofi Anan and other people involved in democracies in developing countries – Miama ,Peru, Tunisia, Kenya, Ghana other countries – had these kinds of experiences.

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What happened was that on January 14, 2014, the Office of Interparty Affairs, headed by Ben Obi, called a meeting of different parties, in collaboration with the Interparty Advisory Council (IPAC), on how to encourage one another. At that meeting, they signed this accord, which draws a bit from what had happened in other places.

In paragraph three they indicated that a national peace committee should be set up. But the question of who would set it up and how it would be set up was never really discussed. The chairman of the conference was Chief Emeka Anyaoku, I was to have attended but I couldn’t make it. He called me later in the evening and said, “This is what we have just done, we need somebody who can help us  mobilise eminent Nigerians to fulfill this objective. Emeka put it to me gently, saying, “I don’t know any other Nigerian who can mobilise people. You know a lot of people, and if you call them they would come,’’

I was quite humbled by that. That was how I set to work and assembled the team. I personally called each member of the committee and they were willing to be at the table, including the Sultan, Cardinal, General Abdulsalam. We tried to pay attention to the spread of membership. Then we got them to sign the accord.

The most important one, which was the second accord, was actually the one signed by the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, and the then President Goodluck Jonathan. This final one is just to say that we have signed onto the fact that we will accept the result of the elections if they are free, fair and credible. So what we did was just a repeat; the text of the peace agreement is still the same

It has no legal backing, in the same way that if the Sultan turned up for your wedding, you would be happy, but his presence would only  give you a bit of moral confidence. So this is not a legal document, but it is a source of encouragement. There are already existing laws in Nigeria. And we are not replacing the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which is a body set up to organise elections. There are also security agencies, so this body doesn’t replace anybody; it has just served to create a platform for the actors to send out the signal that they are all one and committed to peace in the cause of their campaigns, before, during and after elections.

Initially, there were resentments in some quarters towards the accord, what actually happened?

No. It’s absolutely not the case. There was nobody who didn’t want to sign. I have apologised for what happened. What really happened was that we went to the INEC and got the names of all the 91 political parties and their offices. As you know, it took a long time before the INEC processed, parties had replacement issues, etc. It was actually almost on the eve that we were able to get the names of the new members who had been replaced, so we sent out letters to every office. We have on our table, evidence of the receipt of the letters. I think it was just the usual Nigerian thing.

I think the second problem was because, maybe Atiku’s campaign office is not in the headquarters of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The president had an advantage because we also made sure the date fitted him, so his people already knew. It was a bit embarrassing. However, that notwithstanding, we are not interested in the politics of it, our interest is to create a platform on which everybody feels wanted and can  take advantage of  the situation. As you have seen, people have been turning out, and I hope that they would do so until the last person signs. Everybody has been quite enthusiastic.

But why didn’t some of them turn out that day?

It may not have been easy for the letters to reach them. That’s why I said it was not out of malice at all. But naturally and not unexpectedly, the opposition took advantage of this and said they didn’t want to come. There’s no politician in Nigeria, except the guys who have taken up guns, who is averse to peace. Even a thief who wants to steal would require that the environment is quiet for him to be able to successfully do it. So it is definitely not the case. I have told the secretariat to reach out and tell every chairman or presidential candidate of the parties to make sure that this happens.

Looking back now, maybe we would have done a bit more in the area of media publicity. But we felt that since it was a closed thing, mainly for the parties, and since all the parties had been served, it was a bit redundant to take advert. Also, we are not going to allow people who are not part of the exercise to attend. But again, with hindsight, maybe going to the media would have been very useful. This is where I would also appeal. The problem is that every member of the committee who comes there does so on their own freewill. The only thing we do is pay for everyone’s ticket. But we do not have the kind of resources we require to do the things we do. It is only now that we managed to get some funding from the EU, otherwise from 2015 till date, it  is the Kukah Centre that has done almost all the things, from the point of view of the secretariat, except the UNDP, which was also very helpful. They were always paying for hotel and transportation of members.

I am also hopeful that the media can be helpful, Again, in fairness, I think the media has also been very helpful, but as you know, you cannot just walk up to the NTA and say, “Please make this announcement for me’’ just like that. This is why I think a better campaign media strategy can also help to make sure that when this kind of thing happens, we are also able to reach everybody.

Do you think the candidates would respect the rules of the game by just signing that pact?

That is what I am saying; there is nothing that is final. I say to people that wedding is not marriage; it is a ceremony. Marriage starts after the  wedding, The priest or imam cannot be the one to guarantee whether it succeeds or fails. We do not know, even in the marriage situation, whether the man getting married to you is truly serious. For us in the Catholic Church, for example, if you are going to get married, we send out notices to everywhere you have stayed, both the man and the woman, so that announcements are made publicly in the church so that people know because it is possible that somebody got married somewhere and left his wife in Niger and he is coming here to tell you that he has never been married before. In the final analysis, as Shakespeare said, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.’’ We don’t know what is in the hearts of people. The only thing is that when two people make this commitment, in our own case, there are institutions that can penalise. That is the security agencies.

It is not just enough to campaign against hate speech, it is necessary to define it and know if somebody is in breach. In Tunisia, for example, there is a second body of respectable people who are in charge of enforcement. In Peru, they signed a peace accord, and it was discovered later on that some members of the opposition said a presidential candidate plagiarised his PhD thesis. Instead of going to court, they went to the Council of Elders and submitted the records. They checked and discovered that he really did it.

The peace committee cannot replace already existing bodies that are responsible for dealing with criminal activities. I served on the Justice Uwais Committee and this was one of the key issues we had to deal with, namely, What do you do? The law doesn’t allow children to vote, but in some cases children lined up to vote,

The INEC says it doesn’t have the power to arrest, the police say their responsibility is to make sure the lines are moving and nobody is fighting; that is why there is this massive campaign that there ought to be a tribunal that is dealing with these things. You cannot blame the INEC or saddle it with the responsibility of refereeing the game. Really, that is what it is. It requires everybody sitting up and doing their jobs. It’s a large political question. That is what really causes violence. There are people who feel they were cheated out of power. There are communities who felt that they were not treated fairly because they didn’t vote for a particular person; hence they are determined to make sure that he or she doesn’t win  as president, governor etc.

There are members of the National Assembly who cannot go back to their constituencies because since they went to these villages stealing votes or begging for votes, the people have not seen them again. Naturally, the villagers are angry. Now, how do you manoeuvre that if you want to go back to the Senate or House of Representatives? People will resist you. For me, if politicians want free and fair elections, it is not about law, it is about how they conduct themselves. They can’t do everything for us, but the least you can do is for somebody to feel  cheated, that you took my  mandate and turned it as a weapon of oppression. This is why ordinary people in Nigeria are not the ones to be blamed. The politicians must take full responsibility, fairly and squarely. How they conduct themselves and act is very important. Nobody decides to get violent for the sake of violence. Imagine that after winning we didn’t see you till the next election and you are here to tell us that whether we like it or not we must vote for you. These are some of the ingredients of violence.

What you would see here you would probably not see in America. This is because overtime, the system in America has allowed people to ventilate  by other means. If what happened with Donald Trump and America happened here, there would have been war all over the place. But those systems of democracy have stayed for a long period of time and people are convinced that they can actually effect a change.  But here, there is a feeling of total helplessness, and sometimes, the politicians are laughing in your faces and telling you that “whether you like it or not they would win. How can you be going for an election and say that it is already concluded? What are people supposed to do?  For me, these are the issues and a peace committee will not resolve them. When it comes to compliance, it is the politicians who must make sure they conduct themselves in a manner that is respectful.

You talked about ingredients for violence, what do you mean?

There are already ingredients for violence, let’s not deceive ourselves. This is where I think the Federal Government, by body language, needs to be a bit more engaging. For example, where we were in 2015 is not where we are today. The Shiite group existed in 2015, but what happened in Zaria hadn’t happened. The government has still not decided to engage them in a constructive manner. They are already showing you, by their conduct, that even though they are peaceful people, they are prepared to lay down their lives. When you have that kind of environment you have to find a way of engaging people. The Boko Haram matter is not yet closed. We didn’t have herdsmen and farmers’ clashes as we have now. Things may have gone a bit quiet, but some governors, even the president himself could have done more to be at the scenes of where people were mourning. People are dying and being buried. If you think you can walk through these corpses and take votes, there is a sense of moral revulsion that people feel. To me, these are some of the issues. And you cannot resolve them by conversation. You are not going to resolve it by going to the NTA and telling people to avoid hate speech. It is even better that you articulate. It is better that I tell you to your face that because of the hijab you are wearing, I don’t like you, maybe you can decide what you want to do with me. But if I pretend to accept you and when you turn your back I said “make sure this woman doesn’t enter here again’’, have I done the right thing? What you call hate speech starts from the heart. My belief is that governments in Nigeria have not done much to bring our people together. That is why people have retreated. Their loyalty is with their traditional and religious leaders. That loyalty that ought to go to Nigeria has gone elsewhere.

Elections are supposed to be a family celebration; they are supposed to bring out a lot of joy and excitement.

There have been much concerns over hate speech, how do you think it can be effectively tackled in Nigeria?

We don’t know much about one another, and because we don’t know much about one another we define one another through stereotypes .This is what psychologists call alienation. We are alienated from one another. Again, I say the government has not done much. If two strangers meet, how does the chemistry blend? A marriage often fails because the people did not understand each. In this country, very little, if anything, has been done, or is being done by government to make sure we understand one another.

I feel sad because it is clear to me that the people who govern us do not seem to know and care about how to manage diversity and people. There is such a massive disconnection between ordinary people and those who govern them.

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