In an interview with The Punch Newspaper, Sheikh Ahmed Gumi, a fiery cleric, spoke on national issues and the leadership style of President Muhammadu Buhari
You criticised former President Goodluck Jonathan when he was in power and now you are doing the same thing to President Muhammadu Buhari, what is the problem?
The problem is complex. It is difficult to simplify, if you want. There is problem everywhere. We only criticise when we feel the problem is going to overshadow the progress. During the last regime as you said, there was a lot of bloodshed. Yet, there was a lot of progress that I can acknowledge. Universities were built. Even in the north, the almajiri schools were built and also, the railways were built. Things were moving on. In fact, even at a time, the Nigerian economy was even growing faster than that of South Africa. But there was still bloodshed and there was a kind of ‘I don’t care’ attitude. But because of the problem that we have in Nigeria, we need a person that can truly unify the country, pacify and put the country together. So, when I see a leader polarising or dividing the polity, no matter how he claims to be good, he is not good for the situation. You see, it is not every time you have a leader that is good for a situation. Every situation has its own remedy. We need in Nigeria a person who can listen and bring everybody together and also have a way of negotiating in the murky water of politics.
It is ironic that a northern cleric like you is criticising Buhari. Why?
Our criticism of Buhari is not about being a northerner or a Muslim. It has to do with what is in the best interest of Nigerians. A leader is like a blind man. People on the ground or on the field could see what he cannot see. Preachers of religions who are apolitical are the ones that are the eyes, telling the leadership what to do or where things are going wrong. We are like the press too, we are supposed to be neutral in our presentation of facts. Once things are not going on as they should be, it is our duty to come out to explain to the people and the government what is wrong and also proffer solutions.
Specifically, what were your expectations when Jonathan left and President Buhari came to power?
Even before Buhari came, I was one of the few people that advised him that the Nigerian situation at the end of Jonathan’s regime was not the best for him. He was going to make things worse, not better. If you are bringing in a patient who has broken all his limbs to the hospital, the doctor will be concerned about whether his blood is circulating and not about his broken bones. The doctor will not be looking at the protruding bones but those standing by will be looking and wondering why the doctor is not concerned about the bones. The doctor is concerned about how to save the life of the patient. That is how Nigeria is. When you are concerned and obsessed with what can be fixed later, you are rather killing Nigeria. That is what I see in the government.
President Buhari came with the promise to fight corruption, tackle insecurity and improve on the economy and provide employment. Can you score the performance of his government so far?
Somebody I know very well was kidnapped while coming from the railway station towards Mando. They are looking for N1.5 million to secure his freedom. Insecurity has become worse, though Boko Haram has been tamed. There is no security in the country. I was told that a girl was stabbed in Kaduna recently by thugs who were trying to snatch her phone. They killed an undergraduate just because of a phone. What has Nigeria turned into? During Jonathan’s time, these things were not happening.
You said you have the options of either castigating Buhari or apologising to Jonathan for the way you castigated him for the killings that took place while he was in government. Are you saying that Buhari has performed worse than Jonathan?
Definitely, the situation now is worse. The economy is worse. Feeding is a problem; medical care is a problem. There are problems everywhere. Nigeria is down. Nobody is secure. The honest people in government have pulled out. Look at what a governor said recently; that he was resigning his position as the chief security officer because he is helpless. Another governor said we have to face the fact that there is a problem in Nigeria. We can’t deny that. Buhari is just a common man. He is just an ordinary one man in Nigeria. We cannot be hypocrites, hiding facts because of a man. Why are people shivering because of him because he has a team of illiterate, fanatical followers? We can deal with them. They should not hold us to ransom. He is a victim of this ignorant, unemployed and senseless followership. When politicians see that, they become frightened. We won’t succumb to that. Let’s do what is right. Put the right Nigerians to lead us, if not, we will destroy ourselves. We cannot be victims to these rascals. When you try to correct the president, they come out in their millions trying to abuse you. They don’t even counteract your points with knowledge. If you think abusing us will deter us, you are mistaken. There is problem with and in the government. We have absolute failure in government. People are dying, things are not good. We cannot continue this way.
Some people are saying that instead of criticising President Buhari, you should reach out to him and advise him or has that already been done?
I cannot get to the other room with him because I am not his wife but even somebody who has access to the other room cannot get ideas into his head. How do you blame somebody who does not have access to the other room? You cannot change Buhari. He is already cast in a mentality. He believes that most Nigerians, if not all, are rascals, thieves and 419. He believes only his own circle are the good people. You cannot get across anything. He has castigated Nigerians in many fora and everybody to him on knows that. He is somebody who always blames others; he does not take responsibility for anything. We are not castigating him. We are talking about this publicly for two reasons: first, his followers have to accept something is wrong. Secondly, for our own conscience, when something is getting terribly bad, people will say look at that clergy, he did not say anything. We always remember that when there is serious problem, nobody will come and say Sheikh Gumi did not speak. We spoke from the beginning.
You said that President Buhari is a human being like everyone of us and full of mistakes. What mistakes do you think he has made in his government that you wish he had not made?
After the election, when Jonathan called him, he addressed him as sir. That was the greatest respect you can give somebody. He should call Jonathan to bring his men to come together to salvage the country, even though mistakes were committed, money was siphoned but let’s come together to salvage the country. We have a Hadith in Islam. God is very lenient and he deals with leniency, what He does not do is violence. When you approach issues with leniency, whether diplomatically or politically, you get result. But when you approach things with severity, you don’t get that result. He could have called this man (Jonathan) and told him, yea there were mistakes, let’s sit down and see how we can correct those mistakes and bring unity to the country. He turned into the theme of I am a saint, the other one is a devil. We all know, none of them is an angel and none of them is a devil. There was a big mistake in the name of fighting corruption. I do not condone corruption but there is a way to fight it. You get better result through leniency and not through severity. Fighting corruption has become a slogan for those who support the government. Nothing else. There are improvements in some areas. Before, corruption was within the high class but now, corruption has eaten into the fabric of the nation. Every other person now is becoming corrupt because of hardship. Everybody wants to get something because he cannot make both ends meet.
You said there are many people in the North who can perform better than President Buhari. Can you identify some of them?
There are many. Let me give you the qualities of those who can do better. Any presidential aspirant that does not have a cabal will do better because he will listen to a cross section of Nigerians. I don’t know of any presidential aspirant now that has a cabal. Any presidential aspirant who is not only readily accessible but goes out of his way to meet people will do better. A socialising president will be here and there. You are supposed to be in Benue, you are supposed to be in Zamfara. You should be local. Any president who is like that will perform better. Any president who does not exude an aura that he is a saint will do better because if he accepts he is a human being and accepts others as human beings, he knows that he is liable to make mistakes and apologises when he makes mistakes. But when you have this aura that I am clean, I am a saint, you think whatever you say or do is right, you will get to a state whereby you will become more dictatorial than democratic and consultative. We will produce a Hitler, a terror. The other candidates are not like that because they don’t claim piety. This is very important. In Islam, it is said the sin you commit that makes you repent is better than the good deed you make that makes you believe you are above sin because you will not repent. Any leader who is not like that will be better because he will listen and he will do good things.
You have said that President Buhari is a human being like everyone but some people treat him like a god. Why do you think that is so?
If you think the fault of a man should not be mentioned, because he is your hero, then you take him as a small god. Only God does not make mistakes. The idea that he should not be corrected; that he does not make mistakes is a deification which is wrong. It is imperative on us to speak out loud with anger about this kind of follower-ship. It is not healthy for our well-being. We cannot be subject to a cabal. What is the truth about what they call Buharism? It does not put food on my table, it does not educate my child, it does not provide security; so what are they talking about? What are his economic policies? How can we cage ourselves?
The northern region, even though supplied many leaders, has been backward. One of the reasons is the nature of the northern man. He has a psyche that is molded by the emirate system before the coming of the white man which is the absolute control. In some places, you cannot even put on a very clean cloth because they will say you are competing with the king. The society has not changed. They feel that they are the new kings. An ordinary northern leader thinks of northerners as subjects. He does not want to improve their economic and social well being. For instance, it is high time we stopped this genuflection before the emirs. They don’t have any power over us. We are human beings. They maintain the feeling that ‘I am superior, the others are subjects.’ They do not want to assist the region. This is the Northern psyche. Even though they have been ruling for a long time, the north has been backward. The masses have been looking for a messiah that will free them from this bondage.
When Buhari came through a coup in 1983, he arrested some big men and the Talakawas thought they had found somebody who could emancipate them from the bondage. The PDP did some things that were good but there was so much plundering and hardship; so the Talakawas were looking for an opportunity when somebody will come up and emasculate the big men and bring money to them. We know that that won’t happen. Not even as a military dictator, you cannot do that. There will be failure and there will be more hardship. Now that the Talakawas understand he cannot do it, that followership has abated. There may be 10 or 20 people who are benefitting from the regime, so they will continue to see the good in it. During the PDP era, there were maybe 60 per cent who benefitted but now, it’s between 20 and 30 per cent. You don’t expect the fanatical followership again. It is abating. It is coming to an end.
Have you been intimidated by the government of President Buhari or anyone in his government since you started to criticise him for the killings going on?
No, nobody has intimidated me. During Jonathan era, he sent me Sallah message. He is a gentleman really. Nobody has intimidated me. Even this government has not intimidated me. It is just the ignorant followers. They try to abuse me but I don’t care. Some of my friends have come to appeal to me but there is an Arab saying that the barking dog does not affect the plan. What I am doing is for the good of the president. When I told Jonathan not to contest, it was for his own good. I am doing this for the good of Buhari.
You described Jonathan as more democratic and that he allowed people to criticise him. What difference have you noticed in that area between him and Buhari or what proof do you have that Buhari is not as democratic as Jonathan?
I had a friend who was very close to Jonathan and offered to take me to him. I had never met Jonathan. I told him that I was not interested. He asked me if there was a message I had for Jonathan and I told him that if there was an election and he lost, he should hand over power. This was a year before the election. If you send a message to Buhari and it is not praises, you are either a looter or one thing. When I was criticising the PDP, nobody said I was collecting money from APC. I find the government of Jonathan to be more democratic, more tolerant of criticism. He was also sensitive to criticism because at a time when the bombing by Boko Haram was so much, I said how could the government and the National Security Adviser be from the same Bayelsa? Not too long after, the NSA was removed, maybe for another reason but in place of him, he brought another NSA which the Boko Haram people would believe would not connive. That was positive.
You can hardly convince victims of Fulani herdsmen that the president has nothing to do with it. How to deal with this security issue is that if you are a Fulani man, bring somebody that the victims will trust; that is not conniving. That is part of government.
You criticised President Buhari and some of the governors for attending weddings while people were being killed. Why do you think it was wrong?
When you have time for merry making, celebrations at a time that people are being killed, what does that say about your humanity? How many people can the money used to buy jet fuel that was used feed? Nobody in government should be seen near any celebration when these killings are going on. What are you celebrating? I am opposed to it. When they are giving out their children in marriage, the rich men spend millions. What happiness do you derive from that when people are being killed?
You said Jonathan built the railway and nine universities in the North and that he did well, except for the Boko Haram killings that you criticised him for. In terms of development in the North, how would you rate Buhari’s performance in comparison with Jonathan’s?
You don’t give power to an angry man. Give somebody whose head is calm and can sit down and prioritise his development. Buhari came in angry and was trying to catch thieves and people were clapping for him. The time is gone. Fighting corruption is good but it should not become your slogan. It should not be your only political selling point.
When the Boko Haram killings were going on during Jonathan’s government, Nigerians were criticising him a lot, including northerners. But with the ongoing killings during Buhari’s time, it seems northerners have been quiet except for few voices like you. What do you think is responsible for that?
The deification of Buhari has made many people to be afraid of criticising him because the next thing, you will be alleged to either be involved in murder or EFCC will be looking for you. That is why Jonathan’s record is better. The senate president was alleged to be sponsoring bank robbery and you know the reason. People are afraid. It is just giving dog a bad name in order to hang it. It is not democratic. We thank God we are privileged because we have not done anything with government. These are the reasons why people are suffering in silence. I know somebody who said I love Buhari but he was being sarcastic. He needs our help. He should be rescued. People are clinging to him to be relevant but they are not performing. It is not an easy ride.
You also said that people who don’t go to the mosques use Buhari’s name to climb in their political career. What do you mean by that?
If I see you in the mosque, as a brother, I must help you out. If there is anybody who is religious, pays his dues to God and is part of a congregation; that congregation has a duty to help him. You cannot allow somebody that does not have anything to do with the religion to enjoy that or disgrace somebody who is a worshipper. We saw it happening in Egypt. There was a popular election in Egypt and Mohammed Morsi won the election. He is now in prison. This is an internal struggle between Muslims. The republicans who are anti- abortion are trying to be religious. Obama went to Kenya and was trying to tell them to support gay marriage. It is an abomination. There are Muslims in Nigeria that respect religion and those that do not respect religion. I cannot allow those that hide under religion to incite religious crisis.
Look at Jonathan, he is a good Christian. He was not greedy; he did not want spilling of blood. Is he not better than one who wants to kill because of power? We value people who value religion.
Trump has many issues with women and all but he is trying to prevent homosexuality and abortion but he wants to bring sanity. Any Muslim who comes to the mosque and is trying to do good and is supporting religion, that is good. Boko Haram is religious. Even the herdsmen is religion but they are ignorant because religion pacifies and curtails violence. If you say you are religious and you don’t fast and pray, you have no mercy in your heart. We don’t want a godless life.
If truly government wants to fight corruption and they come to me for example, some of these people that you say are corrupt, let me speak with them and ask them what they can do to assist the government. Government can use religious leaders as a way of getting this issue resolved and not by judging them on the pages of newspapers. If the government breaks law, what is the difference between them and the people they are prosecuting? They are all criminals. Everybody is corrupt. It is just a matter of magnitude.
You said that Jonathan should have resigned because of his failures. Should Buhari also resign because of his failure?
Yes. Of course yes. He has the constitutional right to contest but Nigeria has changed. We need to bring people together. Nigeria has reached a stage to restructure. Restructuring is mandatory. We need leaders that people can trust. The masses are very skeptical about him. If people have representatives, let’s restructure Nigeria and you will see how we can live as a nation. We need a new crop of leadership.