Senator representing Kaduna Central Senatorial District and President of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, Shehu Sani, speaks with LEKE BAIYEWU and JOY MARCUS about his struggle and freedom
As the Senator representing Kaduna Central Senatorial District, what are your primary responsibilities?
My responsibilities are in two parts. The first is to represent, present, defend, project and protect the interest of my people as a federal legislator. and the second is to ensure that what is meant for them is given to them. As a politician with an activist background, I am a freedom fighter. I will always pursue the cause and the interest of the downtrodden in my constituency as well as their socio-economic and political interest. I will always defend the mandate given to me by my people.
How did you manage the transition from an activist to a politician?
To transform from an activist to being a politician and senator is a difficult task because the two positions have different responsibilities and principles. As an activist, I am guided by a set of rules, principles and my conscience. As a politician, you are under pressure to conform to the interest of a group, position of an organisation and a set of rules which is binding on everyone. As an activist, you don’t need any guidance when it comes to making your point clear on socio-political national and local issues that border on your religion, ethnicity or country. But as a politician, you carry a mandate and the sensitivity of the people you represent and the position you take must be in synergy with the kind of people you represent. Also, whatever position you take, you will be guided by how that will be acceptable to the people you represent. This could sometimes be contradictory to your own conscience as an individual; what your people want you to say or do may be in conflict with what you, as an individual, believe is right or wrong.
In what ways have you been able to impact on the people of your constituency?
For the first time, my people are able to describe their senator. The most important thing is that I have been able to create awareness in the minds of our people in every possible way through my political activism and other activities. I have been able to create a consciousness in the minds and hearts of the people to be able to say no and stand up against injustice. Also, to resist any attempt to undermine their environmental rights and democratic principles. I have aligned myself to the downtrodden; those in the lower strata of society. I have aligned myself with organised labour groups, as well as youth and women groups. I also stand with mass-based organisations within my own constituency, as against the conservative and reactionary politics of projecting a right wing agenda that simply protects conservatism. As an activist, I fought for democracy in Nigeria and as a politician, I guide the people against anti-democratic activities by people in the position of power. I have also been able to create an awareness that they themselves can stand and protest against injustice and speak out.
What peculiar challenges do you face as a senator?
I think there are a lot of challenges but what impresses me the most is that I see the behaviour of senators. When issues are not controversial, you find out that everybody wants to be heard or seen speaking but when issues are sensitive, controversial and may lead to confrontation with the executive (arm of government), you will find the number almost dropping by 60 per cent. That is something which I have always observed. Another thing I see as challenging in the National Assembly is that we have a society where people still cannot differentiate between the duties and responsibilities of the executive arm of government and the members of parliament. It is a very big problem because they want you to construct roads for them, build hospitals, schools and do a lot of other things for them. Another testy point is the fact that your close friends want you to write letters of recommendation for them so that they can get jobs in any of the federal ministries. On the other hand, people who write notes are accused by the society of violating due process; so you will be caught in between. Meanwhile, if you don’t write, you will be criticised by your constituents as not being helpful. If you write, you will also be criticised for trying to circumvent due process. In the National Assembly, each time you stand to speak; you are aware that firstly, your constituents are listening carefully. Secondly, your party is listening carefully to know what you are saying. Thirdly, the Executive is listening as well as your family and friends. For every statement you make, you are very conscious that it is going to be put on a scale by the different sets of people I just mentioned.
What are your aspirations?
I have been able to achieve a lot by being a senator. For the first time, I have made maximum impact on my constituency. As a senator, I have intervened in several areas of education. I have constructed and facilitated the construction of hospitals in my constituency. We have gotten jobs for people in the military, paramilitary and civil service. We have also empowered women and men. We have done a lot in terms of giving them scholarships and other things. I would say that the next step will be determined by what we have been able to achieve. One’s ambition is a factor but also more important is whether the people you want to govern or represent are actually at peace with what you have been able to achieve. Other than that, there are forces that will naturally work against you because they see you as a threat due to your popularity and affinity with the masses. Meanwhile, these people are usually the leading men in power. They are always a stumbling block between the people and those that are ready to defend and protect their interest.
What can you recall of your days as a student union activist?
In my early years as a student union activist, I made my peers understand the direction of the struggle and since our early years were spent under military rule, I led the fight against military dictatorship by mobilising people of my age to stand in defence of freedom and democracy. We were young people who were driven by revolutionary passion to free and unite our people against the odds of religious, ethnic, social and cultural inefficiency. Nigeria, being multi-religious and multi ethnic, we observed that it had been difficult for us as a people to put up a common front against military dictatorship. But the struggle then was mostly in the South-West with the likes of Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), Dr. Beko Kuti, Femi Falana (SAN), Wole Soyinka and many others who were leading the struggle. In the South-East, we had a few like Chima Ubani. The struggle dislodged the military from government and I suffered a lot of persecution. Many times, I was arrested and kept at the police station in Kaduna. Then it graduated to taking me to prison and then to court. I can’t remember how many times I was detained at police stations. I have been incarcerated at Kirikiri Prisons (Lagos), Aba prison in Abia State and Port Harcourt prison. My last prison experience was when I was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason in 1995. I spent four years in gaol and came out with the advent of democracy in Nigeria.
Who were some of the people you met in prison?
In my last prison stint, I was with people such as Chris Anyanwu; the Editor of The News magazine, Kunle Ajibade; former President Olusegun Obasanjo, and many others. They were all brought in for treason too. We were all tried by the military tribunal and sentenced. After we were convicted, we were spread across various prisons in the country. I was taken to Port Harcourt prison and from there to Aba prison.
What were some of the things you discussed with your fellow inmates while in prison?
Prison is a different world where you meet different kinds of people; and they are not just people who committed the same crime with you. You will meet with people from different criminal backgrounds – from armed robbery to murder, pick-pocketing and several other issues. I encountered so many and it was a whole different experience. There is a lot of pain, insult and insolence in prisons. Naturally, I had to develop a cordial relationship with the people for things to be easier for me. Each prison you go in, you meet different sets of people that will make a lasting impact on your life. They learn from you and you also learn from them. I also tried to change some of them who were brought there for criminal activities.
What motivated you to join politics despite having such a bitter experience?
It was a difficult thing as many activists, who fought for the restoration of democracy in Nigeria, found it difficult to transit from activism to politics because of the crisis that is attached to it.
My decision to go into politics was propelled by my ideas, views and ideology; to practicalise our ideas of freedom and progress for our people. For all those years that we struggled to free Nigeria from military rules, many of our comrades have tried to reform public office but it has increasingly become difficult to do so. I took it as a personal challenge to transform our popular support and appreciation in the hearts and minds of the masses into votes which we contested in 2003, 2007 and 2015. We (forces that fought for democracy) made the mistake of our life in 1999 by not joining the political forum to capture political power and as such, democracy was hijacked by people who never fought or struggled. As far as I’m concerned, our politics is driven by the principles of the defence of the rights of the people, freedom and justice.
During your school days at the Kaduna Polytechnic, you were the chairman of the student union. What do you recollect from that time?
In the mid-eighties, we set up the African Democratic Guild Congress, which was a socialist movement. The idea behind that organisation was to see how we could spread the socialist consciousness in the minds of our people. Despite the fact that there was a consensus on the need to restore democracy back to Nigeria, we felt that there was a need to have an ideological direction to that struggle. So, that organisation was set up together with other like minds who shared socialist ideas. At that time, we received books and journals from Eastern Europe and other countries. I have lectured young people in universities on the need to struggle and mobilise a popular resistance for a socialist society. And as a student union activist, we carried along some of these ideas as we tried to see how we could divert the focus of student activism on the areas of scholarships and rights of students to how the student union from that level can be actively involved in the revolutionary liberation of the society and mass mobilisation of our people. Activism in those days was different from what we have now. Student union activists of those days were driven by ideology, a set of principles and ideas. Then, you saw young people divided into socialist camps, liberal camps and people who were in support of conservative ideas. You could see the stratification of those along ideological lines but over the years, we have seen these values deteriorate. Now, students leave union activism and turn to something else. It is either being wrecked by religious crisis or ethnic issues and it has reached such a very low level that even people who are in the position of power don’t take threats and protests by the student unions seriously. Many student union activists nowadays defend personalities and policies of governments. That is unfortunate. You see others moving from one office to the other giving public officials’ awards. In those days, whenever the president of the student union government was announced, you would see how much he was respected and adored. But now, they have been so fractionalised and incapacitated.
Who are your role models?
People who we share the same ideological leaning and beliefs. I share the ideas and struggles of people who have stood out in defence of their ideas like Thomas Sankara, Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Chris Hani and Walter Sisulu. These were people that led a life of struggle for freedom. One person that made a profound impact on my life was Frantz Fanon, an Algerian freedom fighter. He was originally from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean but was deployed in Algeria and he played a prominent role in the struggle for the national liberation of Algeria. These were people I considered great.
What is your advice for people who admire your struggles and want to be like you?
They should not be like me; they should be themselves because I want them to lead normal lives of being doctors, lawyers, and engineers. What we have seen in our life and what we still see is not something we pray for our young ones to toe the path. They should live a normal, honest life and contribute to the progress and prosperity of their country.
How do you balance your career and family life?
It is so unfortunate that when you get into politics, you naturally have to bring along your family into it. When you are assaulted, insulted, attacked or whatever it is; they share your pain and when you go into politics, they see less of you because the most part of you will be taken by the public. If your wife is on social media, whatever she sees about you may hurt her more than it hurts you because you are in politics. Whenever you decide to go into politics, you have also decided to drag people who know you into it. Also, there will be so much expectation and demands from you because everybody wants you to do one thing or the other for them. You have to appease the people who elected you, know you and at the same time do your duty as a man in public office. Most importantly, you have to try every possible means to see that you balance both sides.
How did you meet your wives?
I met my first wife when I went to visit a friend. I approached her and we moved on from there. The second one, I met her at an event and we moved along that line. They are both living in peace with each other.
Was it love at first sight for you?
There is nothing like love at first sight but you can only say admiration at first sight because love takes time to develop. You need to know the person that you are going to love and how compatible you are with that person; also, what chemistry exists between you and that person. You may be attracted to that person because of the way she looks but you may not know the manner, habits and other issues concerning that person. It is the invisible qualities of the person that will keep you while the visible ones are the ones that attract you towards that person. You can have a beautiful person with a bad character or an ugly person with a good character; while you can also have one that has both.
What were some of the events that shaped your life as a child?
My father worked with the New Nigerian Newspaper; so, I grew up in a ‘journalistic’ environment. We were exposed to current affairs from as early as when we were five-year-old. It was a time when we woke up in the morning to find newspapers kept outside the door. We learned to read and write from newspapers. Our life was a journey through a journalistic experience as someone who came from that family. We were exposed to books, journals and magazines at an early age. So, it was not much of a problem for us to synergise with current issues right from our childhood till this present day.
What are some of your childhood memories?
I think it is the simplicity of life in the past where we didn’t have social media, phones and people related with each other as human beings. There was trust, love, togetherness, and belief in one another. Nigeria used to be, in the seventies and eighties, a country that was full of promise and people saw one another as brothers and sisters. The communal spirit and the collectiveness between our own existences as a people were things which we actually missed. Unlike now, when life is fast and people have grown to disrupt and fight each other, in those days, Nigerians, whether Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Muslim or Christian, saw one another as one. Our views were also not guided by our sentiments like what is happening today.
What schools did you attend?
I studied Agricultural Engineering at the Kaduna Polytechnic. I was doing a course in Law at the University of London but I had to suspend it because of politics. I hope that by the time I am out of here, I will continue the programme.
How do you relax?
I relax mostly by reading books and stories from other parts of life. Sometimes, in order for me to be a normal human being, I choose a moment to put off my mobile phones and visit people like we did as children and adults in those years. Human beings are becoming more digital. The phone has made so many things easier for us and it has also complicated life. It has removed us away from our humanity. The phone has killed the calendar, camera, compass, wrist watches and personal relationships. Those days, as children, if visitors came to your house, you gave them your family photo album and they would ask you questions about the pictures. These days, when visitors come to your house, from the time they step into your house till they leave, their attention will be on their phones. So, you will see people together but apart. The social media is most likely going to change the anatomy of human beings because people now bend their heads more than they raise it. The fingers that we only used to eat; now we use it more to press and some people now stay indoors more than they go out. Even our children, if you give them an iPad, they will not look at their toys again. We can see how it has been able to destroy their lives in that aspect and people can spend a whole day on phone or iPad rather than going out to do exercise. Sometimes, I decide to break this cycle; I go out to the gym or visit friends without a mobile phone because I want to behave like a normal person. Sometimes, I even go to the post office to post letters just to bring those nostalgic memories back. This is the way I like to relax.
How do you like to dress?
My dad was a man of suits. He wore a lot of suits and he gave the best for himself and for us; I got that from him. Suit is something that we love. My best traditional dress is the Kaftan and ‘minister’ (that is the name of my cap). As for babariga, I don’t have one now but Senator Abu Ibrahim said he will get me a babariga soon. I love to dress smartly. I wear casuals and khaki because of the struggle.