Sheikh Ahmad Gumi needs little introduction. In this interview the trained medical doctor and renowned Islamic scholar shares his views – some quite controversial – on several topical issues, including President Buhari’s administration, Boko Haram, ‘Dasukigate’ and the Ese Oruru saga.
You once asked former President Goodluck Jonathan and current President Muhammadu Buhari not to contest the 2015 presidential election, because of the violence that may follow. That has been overtaken by events. What is your impression of Buhari now and what's your assessment of his administration?
Eight months is really too short a time to assess this administration, even though people have made it a culture to assess government from its first 100 days in office. So far, I think everyone has seen progress in some areas and equally, there are problems. Nigeria is not out of the woods yet; we should hope that things will get better in the future.
You are no longer as vocal as you used to be about the state of the nation and some have interpreted that to mean you are keeping quiet because a northerner and a fellow ex-soldier is president. What’s your reaction to that?
No, I don't think there is anyone so far that has criticised the government as I have. But I have to stay quiet, because I want people to feel and see my criticism and understand what I have been trying to make them understand. What I am trying to do is to heal Nigerians and this healing can only come through gradual and sustained effort. To be honest with you, President Buhari is a good man, but the expectations of Nigerians of him are what are going to spoil it. When you bring someone like President Buhari in immediately after such decadence, there is bound to be failure. Any doctor will tell you that you need time for some medicines to work, which is the same with politics. Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, former prime minister of Malaysia, ruled for 20 something years and he developed the nation perfectly yet silently. I think that change of ‘medical management’ of a crisis is what assisted him. You know, if someone comes to you with chronic appendicitis – not acute – if you treat it acutely you will kill the patient. Why is because if you open it the inflamed part will burst, because it is too fragile and the bacteria will spread to the abdomen. So when your intentions are good you need skeletal management for maybe two to three weeks, like someone on antibiotics and drips and analgesics. So you move slowly. After it has been resolved, you go electively and remove it and that is the cure for that case of appendicitis. But if you say the man has been in pain for a long time, let us go ahead and remove it, you will kill him. Tackling corruption in Nigeria should be a gradual process, bit by bit until you minimise it. You cannot eradicate corruption, nowhere in the world, because of the nature of man. He has this tendency to be corrupt. I’m a religious leader; the Holy Book says that when a man sees that he is self-satisfied he transgresses. So you cannot totally eradicate corruption.
When corruption has been growing over a long period of time, when you want to unwind it, it has to be slowly, the same way you treat chronic appendicitis. Drastic change will just mess up the place and it will collapse and won't work. The masses are eager for change, but they don't know that it should be change that is slow, consistent and steady, not the drastic type. Everybody expects that President Buhari should do as he did previously. They expect that and if he doesn't do that, they will start accusing him again. Now he is older and understands he needs to go slowly, but if he doesn't perform now, he will be criticised.
So in the first place, if the politicians are intelligent, they will know that this is not the time for the blame game. Things are bad, but let us get a system. People will be patient, because they don't expect miracles and Nigeria will heal slowly. We need to heal slowly, we need to heal regionally, we need to resolve issues relating to tribal differences. I am talking about the political class not the masses. When I was talking in those days I was talking to the political class, hoping that people would see reason. I have no hatred for President Buhari or former President Goodluck Jonathan. That Jonathan lost and there was no violence, the credit goes to God who worked on the heart of Jonathan to accept defeat and not take drastic steps to rig the elections, because he would have planned it a long time ago. But Jonathan became a very good Christian, goes to church and has respect for the religion and clergy and that had an effect on him. So that was what averted the crisis.
Apart from being professionally connected as former military officers, what is your relationship with President Buhari?
Buhari is from Katsina and I am from Zamfara State, but we know our differences. Since he joined politics this second time there has been no interaction, but before if there's anything, I visit him.
So, why have you stopped visiting Buhari?
I have been an ardent supporter of PMB all along, except for this last attempt. I believe the solution to national problems now requires statesmen in the background. Because of the viciousness of the political atmosphere, if the bunkers are flooded, there remains no refuge for deliverance. I still believe that only a new page in our political life will bring stability, peace and progress to this nation. This new page can be anything, even autonomous regionalism.
I used to relate very well with the President and there is nothing personal about our divergent visions for nation building, it’s only that I have the privilege now to see whether my proposition is correct or wrong in the crucible of his political adventurism.
Besides that, as a cleric it’s not proper to be seen parading myself in the corridors of power when we know that truly, power belongs somewhere else in the Heavens. For that, it has been our tradition to avoid extra personal relations with people in authority. We defer that until they retire from office.
With the prevailing harsh economic situation in the country, how do you think ordinary Nigerians can still identify with the ‘Change’ mantra?
There is a glut in oil and prices have gone down, but still half of the problem is because of government policies on the economy. I heard one economist say that there is no clear economic direction for the government and people will also be surprised to know that during Jonathan’s administration, a lot of money was brought out from the government coffers and distributed widely in the country. This helped to improve the circulation of currency, because I read one economist saying the Obama experience in America is the solution to Nigeria’s problems. The truth is that when Obama came into power, banks were collapsing and unemployment was high. What he did was to bailout the private sector by giving them huge amounts of dollars and the economy bounced back. What Nigeria needs is not to tighten its belt, but to spend more on the private sector – airlines that are collapsing, give them soft loans, big money; banks that are collapsing, give them money. In the North, when they were against polio vaccination, it was because they were told that the vaccine contained a virus. They could not understand that sometimes what you are fighting is the cure. Make currency available. I have heard many economists suggesting that with the change they were expecting Nigeria to be like Singapore or Malaysia, where there are good roads, hospitals and everything is moving in the right direction and this is another thing that can mislead the government. What truly Nigerians need now is ‘first aid’. Let food be cheap and available, let fuel be cheap and available, let education have priority. Take maybe two and a half years to put things in place for the common man, nerves will calm down. Then, maybe, think about development in the last two years, or even the next regime. But if you need money now to build good airports, roads and provide electricity, I am telling you that people are hungry. I don't mind if there is no electricity in my house once the children are fed. If an economist can tell me how to have nice roads, houses and hotels, but I can't pay my child’s school fees, we are misplacing our priorities and that is because of the expectations of a different section of the society. Some people are already rich so they want luxury, but I can tell you that 90 percent of Nigerians are not looking for luxury. What they need is food to eat, medicine to cure them and to be able pay their children’s fees. If he can focus on this, when things are stable, he or someone else can continue with the rest. It is the austerity measures of the government that are causing more than half of the problem.
What is your opinion on the ‘Dasukigate’ saga?
Dasuki was the National Security Adviser to the president, he reported directly to the president, so I think that detaining Dasuki for even one second is wrong and also unproductive and I fear, because God is not unjust. Let me tell you, I relate things to my religion. Sometimes, an offense can be committed, but once the law is not broken, God forgives. In Judaism, fornication is punishable by stoning, when Jesus came, it was still by stoning. But what He did during a scenario of such act was to tell the accusers that any of them without sin should start stoning. Because they were all sinners, they could not. In Islam it is the same sentence, but it says you must bring four witnesses of the act. If three people come forward but one person changes the testimony, the three people would be punished for defamation. It is enough for us that one honest person saw that it happened, but the law says we need four. No judge in Islamic law will punish such person, even if he actually committed the offense. Jesus did not ask or doubt it, but He said that He who has not sinned should cast the first stone. This is a way of covering crimes. The essence is not to punish but to convince people that this is a wrong way. When you place Dasuki, whose father is the Sultan of Sokoto, so respected and put him in that situation when it’s that he was just a houseboy acting on instructions, it could cause problems in Nigeria. Someone could ask why we won’t catch Jonathan and I would say don't catch Jonathan, because it would be injustice to do so. You don't know how he managed to rule Nigeria and you don't the challenges he was facing then. When Jonathan was ruling I criticised him a great deal, but now we can see the problems that Jonathan was facing. Jonathan being a southerner and me a northerner, Jonathan being a Christian and I a Muslim, when I saw somethings happening in Nigeria, I felt it had to do with religious differences. At a point, I was suspecting that he had a hand in the Boko Haram saga and Jonathan was suspecting that we the northerners were behind Boko Haram. But after he left, Boko Haram still continued to wreak havoc, so you see it was not Jonathan that was doing it. What I am trying to emphasise here is that he was ruling a country that is difficult to rule, things are so inflamed, different. But as long as this man [Jonathan] conducted free and fair elections he has made history in Nigeria. So you don't look back on how he ruled. The most important thing is that he landed the plane safely. What we want this current administration to do is maintain the rule of law. If the law doesn't condemn you as a criminal, no one should. You are innocent until a court condemns you. It should also maintain this democratic culture in Nigeria, where people will not be judged on the front pages of newspapers. This has to be maintained. I don't want a situation where after Jonathan has done this great help for the country it will be taken back and disgraced. So since Jonathan will not be disgraced, automatically, all those who served under him should have that amnesty too and this is the only way to cure Nigeria.
But are you not bothered that Nigerians will say you are supporting corruption?
No, I am not supporting corruption. What I am doing is like a doctor who wants to treat a patient that is so sick people just want him treated instantly, but he is saying wait for a month. That is how to manage situations to avoid problems. We institute institutions. I say corruption comes in slowly and that same corruption is creating institutions. If you want to fight corruption then you have to create a counter-institution that will counter it. But if you say you will take drastic measures, it will cause problems. I want Nigeria to heal. There is so much at stake; we cannot afford to have things done wrongly.
From the story out there, apparently some clerics may have also benefited from the squandered $2.1bn arms money. What do you think this portends for the country’s religious and spiritual health?
Yes, I heard he distributed to some religious leaders, traditional leaders. But you see as a president, when you are fighting you are also buying allegiance. Fight and buy allegiance. You cannot blame Jonathan. And he was facing an election. In Nigeria it is not principles that work, what works is that, let's be honest with ourselves. I heard that even newspaper proprietors were given their share too. This man was facing an election. If there is anything that will kill Nigeria it is not corruption, but hypocrisy. Why do we tend to be like, this man was facing an election, money was distributed to buy allegiance and PDP used it and APC used it too? I heard about it, even in Lagos they use it. In the coming elections in 2019, APC will use money to get allegiance, so why are you criticising someone for something that you yourself do, just like the case of that lady accused of fornication? The Holy Qur’an says, "Will you preach righteousness and forgive yourself?” You know people buy allegiance. The truth is everyone likes power, so he felt the only way he could achieve his aim was to buy allegiance. If he did that I will forgive him, because he handed over power when he was defeated and Nigerians showed that they cannot be bought. I forgive him because I want Nigeria to heal. I am not like the people clapping their hands for things that can cause problems. I want Nigeria to heal.
In the aftermath of the Military/Shiite clash in Zaria in December 2015, you were quoted to have said that the Shiite Movement, led by Sheik Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, was being armed by Iran. Can you shed more light on that?
What I said was that I met with former President Yar’adua when he was signing the amnesty with the Niger/Delta people. We were discussing the militancy situation in the country before the emergence of Boko Haram. The leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf was killed, so I felt I needed to sit down with him to proffer solutions to the upsurge in tensions. He told me that he had an intelligence report that Iran was sponsoring the Shiite movement and that there was also the importation of lots of weapons into the North East. He told me that then, just as in the South-South too. He said that he was trying to solve the amnesty issues in the South-South and would go to the North East and North West when he was through. He specifically mentioned that Iran was behind the sponsorship of the Shiites and you see that when his house was under siege, he had direct contact with him, interfering with the internal affairs of Nigeria. It was a serious problem that only God could have solved, just as Jonathan handed over power peacefully. We are lucky it was not planned by anybody, maybe the presidency, a state governor or the militants. If you believe in the power of God this is where you have to reaffirm the supremacy of God.
Would you be amenable to testifying at the Commission of Inquiry setup by the Kaduna State government on the Zaria incident?
I don't have anything to do with the inquiry and I don't think that the inquiry has anything useful to offer.
So, what do you think is the way forward?
Look at Hezbollah, Lebanon is an organisation not a state. Hezbollah is allowed to be armed as well as the national army. Hezbollah can bring war upon a nation with foreign sources. This is a Hezbollah in the making in Nigeria, a state within. They don't recognise anybody. You are talking with someone that does not recognise you, so it is a fight with who and who. How are they different from Boko Haram? Boko Haram does not recognise the corporate entity of Nigeria, so I don't know what they want to investigate. They are into that investigation now, because the politicians are after what happened. They don't know how to explain it, why? It was an act of God, give God the credence, it was an act of God. We don't know how it happened, but next time things must be done efficiently. If you want to register an organisation like the Shiites, register with the CAC with the conditions that you should not block roads and avoid public incitement. You should not abuse people and their religion, like that.
Senator Shehu Sani recently opposed the idea of northern governors getting loans from the Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank, what's your take on this?
If they get loans from Israel I will support it. We overplay religion in this country – Islam is all about one thing, your religion to yourself and my religion to myself. My religion doesn't interfere with mundane affairs of living peacefully so when these people give you money, there is a clause. You see the Prophet of Islam, during his last days he gave his shield as mortgage to a Jew so that he could feed his family. So what about that?
What is your assessment of Governor el-Rufai's administration in Kaduna State?
The assessment of el-Rufai's administration is no different from other states. The only difference, I think, is that el-Rufai was my classmate. I know him very well; he has good intentions to put things in order. He wants to make Kaduna State a small Singapore or Dubai, but you cannot do that in four years. Also, for 80 to 90 percent, that is not a priority. It is just to eat, send their children to school. So like the nation as a whole, we have to go back to the basics, then later we will overcome.
So do you feel that Northern leaders are upholding the legacy of Sardauna?
My father used to say to me that he used an analogue telephone, am I also using an analogue telephone? Times have changed; phones are now digital. What I am saying is that Sardauna played his part during his time very well, but time and modalities have changed, so we should also use these modalities to do our best. But don't expect any leader to be like Sardauna and don't expect that Sardauna at this period would have done things the same way, because times and everything have changed. Then, it was all about regionalism; every region was trying to protect itself, but now the world is not about region or nation, it is openness, trying to get people to invest. Get rich people to invest in your land. Ideas have no boundary, so we should look at the world as an open market. That is why those agitating for regional issues, like the Biafrans and OPC, are in the analogue period. The world has advanced. The world is open; you can't close it. You can't dictate what information goes out now. Before, journalists were suppressed by government, but now the government cannot suppress you. Not that they don't want to, but they cannot; there is YouTube there is Facebook and other social media. The world has changed. So all these regional and parochial organisations should think about the future, how can we export our culture to others and have people appreciate us. You need to capture the mind and psyche of people now and not to suppress them. The world has passed that stage.
The Sultan recently declared the almajiri culture as not being Islamic; do you also share that view and what is Islam’s stand on it?
It is not that the almajiri culture is un-Islamic, it is just that different periods have different solutions. Then, there was no formal system of education, so what people did then was to take their children to a Mallam, who was their teacher, then they would farm and get food. But now things have changed, people have become corrupt. If you leave your child with a Mallam, he may molest him. Things have changed so we have to change. We have to create classrooms, we have to change. When the almajiri system was helping the society it was good. But today, if you insist the almajiri system must continue then we say it is un-Islamic, because the consequences of being an almajiri will bring out an un-Islamic culture. So the almajiri system can be criminalised, because even the Islamic say that you can create a new law, based on the iniquities people have created. Somethings can be allowed, but if people are finding loopholes to cheat then we can enact laws to stop it. So they can lay sanctions and fines that will deter people from sending their children to almajiri schools. Maybe back then it was okay, because the Mallam was versed in the Qur’an, but today, if you send your children to a Mallam or almajiri school you are neglecting your duty. Religious leaders today can engage in anything.
What's your take on education for children – especially for the girl-child?
Education should be for all genders, there should be no discrimination. In fact, the Islamic religion is all about knowledge. That is why the first thing in Islam is read, read and read everything. The Qur’an does not say read only the Qur’an, read everything. That is why the early Muslims were astronauts and great scientists in medicine and physics. They read and acquired knowledge.
Recently, the case of Ese Oruru, who was allegedly abducted, triggered media uproar. What are your views on the issue?
There are two sides to it. One, the increase in immorality due to exposure to pornography; it has increased the sexual desire of men and women. You can underestimate what a small child of 10 years can do. I was just reading that a small girl of 10 years was impregnated by her guardian. She is the youngest mother in Africa at 10 years old with her picture on internet. Then the issue of religion; when people commit immorality they tend to cover it under religion. How can you marry a girl [Ese Oruru] without the consent of her parents? Islam says no lady should marry without the consent of her parents. In fact that is fornication; you cannot marry without the consent of your parents. It is just a case of something happened, she got pregnant and afraid, then you took her away and tried to use religion to cover it up. And another thing, parents that expose this kind of girl to men. That is why I am of the view that we should divide schools, even at the tertiary level, because I have seen many atrocities in schools. When you allow young girls to mix with men, what do you expect? Most especially at this period of moral decadence in our society.
As an Islamic scholar, in what areas do you see people adulterate Islam with tradition?
Not only Islam, look at the Protestants, for example, that are accusing the Catholics of putting their traditions into Christianity. So too with Muslims, that is why we have the puritans too mixing tradition and religion. It is something that is widespread. But the most important thing is that we should fight to understand the basis of religion and not allow that to cause friction and interruption. The truth is you cannot force religion on anybody; there is no way you can force your faith on anyone. Faith comes by conviction, so every religion should understand that if you want convert someone you should explain the religion to the person, not by force.
You once said, "The North is not ready to hear the truth" on how to tackle Boko Haram. What exactly did you mean? What ‘truth’ were you referring to?
I realised at a point that Boko Haram is a segment of the northern population and cooperation was protecting them. Boko Haram as they are now cannot prosper in Ibadan, because the locals will expose them. The same in Enugu. The people agitating for Biafra cannot prosper in the North because, they will be exposed. We have to understand that these people are from among us and that the society was not doing enough to bring these elements out. We have to reflect and see if we want to truly combat Boko Haram. I can tell you that Boko Haram is 100 per cent a Muslim problem. Some Nigerians are agitating that the country should not join the Saudi Arabia coalition to fight terrorism. I see sentiment in what some Christians are saying, that they want to Islamise Nigeria. You don't islamise a nation by joining an organisation. What is very important for Nigerian Christians to understand is that Boko Haram is a religious problem and religious leaders have to come in. There are Nigerian Muslims that studied in Egypt, so what the Islamic scholars say to them is authentic and those who studied in Saudi Arabia, what the scholars told them there is authentic, in Pakistan and so on. So when you have a coalition of Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and all of them using their might and money to say what you are doing now is not Islam, is it or that of America and Israel more effective, when they are symbolically Christian nations? It is easy to convince the local population that this is not Islam. Look at it, with the entire Islamic population fighting them, the local populations will say this is not Islam and they will bring them out. I don't know, do Christians want this insurgency to end or what? In fact, we have a lot to gain. It is said one quarter of the world’s fuel reserve is in Saudi Arabia. This oil glut, for example, is affecting them but not much, because they have a smaller population. Saudi Arabia realised on its own that they are misusing Islam in the name of terrorism, so it is we Muslims that have the responsibility to tackle it more than anybody else does. Saudi Arabia realised this and said they have also realised that it is not only a military solution that is needed; we have to alleviate poverty and also the issue of ignorance.So when a nation with this capacity wants to help you improve the economy of your country, it would be foolishness to say that this is Islamic when I told them to bring Israel, if they are ready to; that we would accept their assistance.So we should put aside religious sentiment in tackling terrorism.
Your late father received an award – the King Faisal International Prize from Saudi Arabia –for translating the Qur’an into the Hausa language. What would you like to be remembered for?
It is very difficult for me to say what I want to be remembered for, but what I want is that people should have a good perception about religion and come back to God with honesty.