Former university don, Dr. Zuwaqhu Bonat, is the National Coordinator of the Conference of Autochthonous Ethnic Nationalities Community Development Associations (CONAECDA) that comprises over 350 ethnic groups in Nigeria. In this interview that was conducted online, he speaks on the terror that has been unleashed on Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities, vision of the organization that he heads and why the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) won’t be undemocratic as President Muhammadu Buhari, among other issues
How have ethnic minorities fared under the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari?
The primary interest of the Conference of Autochthonous Ethnic Nationalities Community Development Associations (CONAECDA) is the Northern Ethnic and Religious Minorities, although we have collaborated with the South South Ethnic Minorities since the 2014 National Conference. The northern ethnic minorities have suffered immeasurably under the Muhammadu Buhari administration. As we stated in the Statement of CONAECDA on the general elections starting in a couple of days, ethnic minorities have fared very badly under the administration of President Buhari. The Boko Haram insurgency and war witnessed a lull in 2016 and the first half of 2017. At the same time, the Fulani herdsmen militias attacks increased in regularity, violence and spread in 2016, 2017 and 2018, to the extent that the Middle Belt peoples suffered more deaths, injuries, displacements and destruction than what was happening with Boko Haram. The Buhari administration turned a blind eye to the massacres, genocides, destructions and dislocations suffered by northern minorities as a result of the herdsmen attacks. Buhari and spokespersons of his administration tried to falsely paint the violence against the northern minorities as “communal clashes”, or “mere criminality”. The lives of our people have been insecure, due to herdsmen attacks, banditry, armed robberies and kidnappings, which the government has done very little about. The Boko Haram insurgency has been on the ascendancy since March 2018, and as at now Southern Borno and Yobe ethnic minorities are under tremendous attacks. Our farmlands have been ravaged by herdsmen with impunity. Our economic assets being agricultural are being destroyed at a time the Buhari administration is promoting agriculture elsewhere in the country. Buhari’s government has done everything to take our lands and hand them over to his kinsmen for grazing reserves, cattle colonies and cattle ranches. Hundreds of villages of the northern minorities in several states have been forcefully occupied by herdsmen and even people from outside Nigeria. Some of our communities have been attacked and the people displaced when solid minerals have been found in commercial quantities in such areas. Most of Buhari’s appointments have gone to Fulani and Hausa Muslims, with nepotism and discrimination on the bases of religion and ethnicity becoming the hallmark of Buhari’s administration. We can without any iota of doubt say that under President Buhari’s administration the ethnic minority nationalities and communities have fared badly.
What is the common agenda for your group as it relates to the 2019 polls, especially the forthcoming presidential election?
CONAECDA has been concerned with two major issues on the 2019 general elections. First, is the security of the people. No election in Nigeria has generated tension and apprehension as the 2019 elections. There are fears of attacks and orchestrated violence before, during and after the elections. We have not forgotten the 2011 experience, when CPC and General Muhammadu Buhari’s supporters unleashed violence in at least 10 northern states when they realised that they were losing the election. We have also not forgotten that in the build-up to the 2015 general elections the then opposition APC was reported to have stated that they would make the country ungovernable and would have a parallel government if they did not win the elections. Given the desperation of the Buhari administration to remain in power, there are fears that the elections could be marred by violence. There are also fears that Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen militias might disrupt the elections. There are also concerns that agent provocateurs could disrupt elections in order to get results cancelled or elections postponed. These security concerns are genuine. Hence, CONAECDA has been calling on security agencies and personnel to live up to their responsibilities; we have urged our communities to be vigilant and report any suspicious persons or groups to the security agents; we have asked our communities to be highly security conscious and to never succumb to provocation or intimidation. The second issue is the process of the elections. Our people have a lot at stake in these elections. Nigeria, especially the northern minority states, have endured enough hardships owing to the failures and deliberate discriminatory actions of the government. We want our people to be able to freely vote for candidates that will address their concerns. These interests include the security of lives and property; restructuring of the structure of the Nigerian state and government to protect the rights of minorities; the need to protect our lands from forceful and violent takeovers and colonisation; our desire to be free from discrimination on the bases of religion and ethnicity in the sphere of employment, distribution of government projects and facilities, participation in governance; the violations of our cultural rights and values; the destruction of our traditional institutions; and the disappearance of our languages through imposition of Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba as national languages and school subjects contrary to the letter and spirit of the National policy on Education on instruction in the mother tongues of learners in early education. The choice of the executive and legislative representatives at federal and state levels are crucial to the realisation of these aspirations of the minority ethnic nationalities. That is why we have asked our people to go out to vote for parties and candidates that support these aspirations.
Are you supporting a candidate? If not, why?
The CONAECDA Conference has not met to endorse a particular candidate; hence the leadership has put out information to its members to enable them to choose wisely. CONAECDA supports candidates that stand for the interests we have discussed above. We are aware that the Buhari government has been claiming that they have “succeeded” in improving security, the economy and anti-corruption in Nigeria. The facts on the ground contradict these claims. The Buhari administration has failed to end the Boko Haram insurgency; under Buhari the herdsmen terrorists have become more violent and crime has mushroomed. The economy has been battered by inflation and high prices of essential commodities due to poor and wrong policies. Unemployment has been growing. The APC, President Muhammadu Buhari and the Buhari administration have been categorical in their rejection of restructuring of the state and government. The APC by its policies and actions has harmed the people and the Nigerian nation. It is therefore logical that we should ask our people not to support or vote for them. On the other hand there are parties and candidates that have stated that they will restructure the government and institutions. The PDP Presidential candidate, for instance, has committed to restructuring Nigeria; Atiku Abubakar convened a conference on security in Kaduna two weeks ago where it was resolved to restructure the security architecture, empower communities to work with security agencies to secure their environments, and revisit the strategy of fighting conventional warfare against insurgents and militias whose guerrilla tactics have beaten the security agencies. We have advised our members to vote only for those who will not take away their lands and give them to other ethnic groups.
As National Coordinator of your body, who do you think your members should vote as president this weekend?
As an individual, I have already made up my mind to vote for Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, for the aforementioned reasons. I do not believe that Atiku could ever be as insensitive and undemocratic as Muhammadu Buhari. The PDP as a party made serious mistakes in the past. But even in their worst moments they have not violated court orders the way the APC governments (federal and state) are doing; they did not targeted and humiliated individuals using the security agencies; they have not deliberately violated the due process the way the APC government has done. The PDP politicians stole our common wealth, but they were those that set up the anti-corruption agencies as the ICPC and EFCC. The PDP government may not have vigorously pursued the corrupt officials, but they did not selectively punish their opponents or protect their party members as the APC is doing. In the presidential election my realistic assessment is that the choice is between the APC and the PDP. As National Coordinator of CONAECDA I speak the mind of the leadership by strongly advising our communities and people not to split their votes. Given the seriousness of our situation, we should not vote for parties and candidates that stand no chance of winning the election. We should vote for those who will transform our votes into political power and use such power to address our concerns and meet our aspirations. We must avoid the mistake of giving power to those who have made our lives unbearable.
What partnership do you have with other groups like Middle Belt Forum, Southern Kaduna Peoples Union (SOKAPU), among others, in defending the interest of ethnic nationalities?
CONAECDA partners with several organizations in pursuing the interests of the minorities. Some of our members are also members of the Middle Belt Forum. We have written joint memoranda and held meetings and conferences with SOKAPU, Middle Belt Forum and others. We are basically agreed on the issues and interests but the strategies or the platforms could differ. We believe that as we work for the minority ethnic nationalities, there will be meeting points when we come together to defend and advance the interests the communities.
What are your plans in ensuring justice and equality to all ethnic nationalities in Nigeria and what efforts are you deploying to ensure the protection of lives and properties of your members?
First, we work for the restructuring of the country to ensure equitable participation in the affairs of the Nigerian state, and advocate for legislation that protects and advances the interests of all Nigerians. Second, CONAECDA also strongly campaigns for the actualisation of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development; the UN Declaration on the Rights of Minorities; and the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Third, we have programmes for raising the security consciousness of the members of our communities, and for cooperating with government in their efforts of securing the lives and properties of citizens.
What is the dream behind the formation of your organization and what have been the achievements of the body?
CONAECDA is driven by the vision of seeing a Nigeria where citizens and communities participate fully in public, national and local affairs without discrimination on the bases of ethnicity, religion, culture, gender or age. CONAECDA works to raise the consciousness of member organizations to preserve and promote their cultures, traditions, languages and identities. Our organisation wants to see that in practical terms their communities have equitable access to and benefits of development from the state and the business community. CONAECDA is a network of over 300 community development associations and socio-cultural organisations covering 15 northern and Middle Belt states. The formation and functioning of the organization is a fundamental achievement. The Annual Conference has been held faithfully since the formation of CONAECDA in 2014. State Forums have been established and are working. Programmes and Projects have been launched and are being executed. These include the Minority Languages Development Programme, the Community Intervention Project in areas affected by violent conflict in the North East and Middle Belt, the Community Development Programme, the Community Security and Social Cohesion programme based on the UNDP model, the Minority Ethnic Nationalities Cultural Olympiad, etc.
What are sources of your funding and how often do you meet as a body to carry out functions of the organization?
CONAECDA funds its activities primarily through contributions from member organizations. Contributions are also received from partner organisations, civil society organisations, donor agencies, humanitarian organizations and individual supporters.
Have you looked into the issue of discriminatory admission practices against students of ethnic nationalities and what is your organization doing about it?
CDAs have drawn attention to discriminatory admissions especially in state schools, colleges and universities. Some institutions have been found to deny or restrict admissions to some courses or programmes to members of some ethnic or religious groups. CONAECDA is working out a comprehensive response to such discrimination. Communities are encouraged to expose such practices. Communities are also encouraged to set up community colleges and universities in their areas.
From your experience as the National Coordinator of CONAECDA, what are the challenges of uniting ethnic nationalities for a common cause?
The challenges we have encountered include the tendency by communities to wait for government to provide services that the communities could easily come together to provide for their people. The elites often have disparate interests and in their competition with each other often keep their communities disunited. Leadership capacity of community organisations is quite crucial in developing and sustaining networks. Agreeing on common interests as the binding and building blocks of unity takes time. The development of education, communications services and democratic institutions are keys to uniting the people. There is an added factor of the realization by the minority nationalities that the surest path to the protection and advancement of their corporate existence lies in a functional federal system.