I am sure you have been asked so many questions over the last few interviews but I am curious, why did you decide to go into the army, why not any other thing?
If you recall back in 1960’s there was a drive by the then northern Nigerian government to encourage young people from this part of the country to join the Nigerian Army because there were not many northerners at that time. So the northern Nigerian government then made it a policy to go round to recruit younger generation to join the Nigerian Army. And I think it was very successful because they organised it properly; ministers were going round the secondary schools to talk to students about prospects of career in the military. I remembered, I had General Yakubu Gowon and Tako Galadima; civilian minister and a professional soldier from northern Nigeria. We got carried away by what they told to us and a lot of us in my school then volunteered to join the Nigerian Army.
Initially I wanted to be an engineer. I could have succeeded in that because I was very good in the subjects but I got carried away by this new prospect; that was how I joined the army.
Looking back, do you have any regret that you made this career choice or are you happy with it?
Yes I think I was. It first of all made me understand the country very well. It made me believe further about the unity of this country because we went and met other people from different parts of the country, we worked together and we used to have a joke that we have to work together.
I had a teacher who used to tell us that, “look whether you like it or not you have to work together, you are going to lead troops from various parts of the country and when you go into combat the ammunition doesn’t differentiate between the north and the south, it doesn’t differentiate between the Muslim and Christian because it is not written on your forehead or it is not written on the ammunition, it just goes and kill you, so you must work together, you must cooperate because you are all fighting for common cause”.
Sir, you were a combatant during the Civil War between 1967 and 1970, and I think you were wounded in the war front; how did it happen and how did it affect your career in the military?
It happened in 1969. We were moving to Umuahia and we came under fire at a place called Uzokoli and that was how I got shrapnel that got into my chest on the right hand side, it almost affected my lung or it did and that is where the wound started.
It looked like it was not removed or it is something that you have refused have removed from you?
At that time I had to make a decision. The doctors said they can remove it but I could leave it but when I become older I may have problem with it and I decided to allow it to remain comfortable in my lung until I become older.
Is it a problem now that you are 80?
Not really a problem but the process as you get older, you feel it. The fact that you are aware that there is something in you is traumatic enough.
Did that wound during the Civil War influenced you to quickly get married? Because it was in ‘69 when you were on sick leave that you got married.
I got admitted into Lagos University Teaching Hospital about April 69 and I think I was in the hospital bed when General Gowon got married and what quickly came to my mind was: ‘bloody hell I could have been dead and I will miss this opportunity of getting married’. So the moment I was discharged from the hospital, my first priority before going back was to go and get married which I did.
I think that a lot of people have good memory of your wife but at the same time there is a lot of surprise out there that many years after her death, you seem not to have gotten married, unless you did and nobody knows.
No, I didn’t do it, you would have known. The media still snoops around me, they should have known, I haven’t. It is a matter of choice; I decided to honour her by being not a bachelor but being unmarried.
But the impression is that as we grow older we actually need somebody to take care of us and I don’t know how you manage without a close companion like a wife.
So far her children have done very well, they are always around and they are always there for me, whatever I want to do and they have quite conveniently fit into her place.
Are there things about you that a lot of Nigerians don’t know? A lot is known about the outside the structure of your life, your career but it seems to me there is a lot that you have not put out there; I don’t know whether you can share. I feel that even Nigerians here they will be surprised maybe about your hobbies, what you do, what you enjoy doing, about your private pursuit.
Well, I think what I would say is that not many people know that I am a human being and therefore all the human frailties you can attribute some of them to me.
A lot of people saw me from the point of view of my profession or from the job I did but I still remain a human being, I have feelings, I have respect for people and I don’t always like to be in a situation where I find myself quarreling with anybody at all, I try to avoid that.
But where did this idea come from that you always said you want to dominate your environment? It suggests a superhuman capacity.
No, it is a military terms that I am always fond of using. When we were taught as either cadet or as officers, we used to use the phrase “dominating the environment”, you must be able to dominate the environment, and how do you dominate the environment? By looking at it, by being in a commanding height where you can see everybody, where you can be able to take action on people around you so you dominate the environment; you see, you hear and you act on certain circumstances.
You have spoken about friendship and I think it is well known that you have a wide circle of friends. Indeed you have even the capacity to turn enemies into friends. So I wonder why people say look, you tolerate, I have heard it even from aides, people who have criticized you out there but yet when they come to you, you don’t really show it. Is it something really innate or is it part of leadership capacity?
Well, some of it is innate but others you acquire through training. I have had a lot of occasions where some of my colleagues will come and say “why did you tolerate this?” I’d say well give him a chance to say what he wants to say then later you can then find a common ground where both of you can agree. It is not that everything that somebody said you should take it on him, give him an opportunity let him say what he is saying.
I will tell you a story. I had an officer, he is late now, and I think you will know him very well, a young man called Yohanna Madaki. When I was the Chief of Army Staff he wrote me a very terrible letter. He was in Ibadan then, I was his Chief of Army Staff, don’t forget. My staff came and said “No, we must court-marshal this officer”. So I sent for him.
Later I found out that he called his wife, he told her he was in trouble; he was going to Lagos and he may take a long time before he came back.
So he walked into my office, I know him very well so I said “Yohanna, did you write this letter?” He looked at it and said yes he did. So I said okay let’s talk about what you have written. We discussed it with him, whatever he raised I was able to douse it off and he learnt more from what I was telling him because he didn’t know, he wrote out of ignorance.
And he saw it, he was good, he said “I am sorry, sir. I didn’t know this is the true story”. So I asked him; “What are you going to do next?” He said he was sorry. I said “No, that is not enough. To show you I have no problem with you because I know you, take this letter, tear it off”, I showed him the basket and said “you can drop it there and go”. He said “Go to where?” I said “Go back to your Ibadan”. And he went to his wife. She was worried whether he was locked up or something like that. He just went there and she said “How did it go?” He said, “Well, he said I am free, I can go”.
Somebody asked me why did I do that, I said “because he understood, when he did it he didn’t understand but now that he understands he wouldn’t do it again, so why waste the whole time to punish him because he wrote a stinky letter to his chief?”. So it’s the tolerance.
But are there difficult situations where you find tolerance doesn’t work? I asked this question because people thought of your relation with Mamman Vatsa, for example. This was from home and he must have done something and he didn’t escape the consequences.
Let me tell you something, the opposite; we had a situation when the Vatsa coup was about to unfold. He, Vatsa, knew that he was being mentioned as one of the chaps and he wasn’t comfortable, so he decided to come and confront me to say that “Why did you hear this and you didn’t call me to find out from me?”
He asked you?
Yes, and he wanted to put a witness so he invited General Nasko to come with him. Two of them came and he said “I want to see you”, that was what Mamman Vatsa told me, two of us and I said “Fine, let’s go to the office”. We went to the office, we sat down and Vatsa said exactly what I told you.
There were rumour that I was involved in it and I didn’t call him to talk to him about it; so I looked at him and I said” “Dan’uwa, the man you brought was also rumoured that he is one of the people but I didn’t bother to ask him or to ask you because I knew both of you; we grew up together since we were kids and why should I cast a doubt on anyone of you?
Nasko was just knowing; that was the first time he was knowing his name was being flown around. I said “I trusted you. There is no way I could get to hear this to say ah, no, forget it, he is my friend, I don’t think he can do that to me” and that was how I killed that rumour at the initial stage.
It was when the persistence of the intelligence report and happenings and so on began to show themselves, that I decided that it was no longer a joke and I felt a bit bad because I trusted him a lot and to find myself now confronted with this situation, it really shocked me and there is nothing I could do but to allow the process to continue and that was what happened.
Who are your closest friends? I mean you grew up with so many of them, you mentioned some names from Bida Provincial School, if I asked who are now your closest friends in this country, who would you say?
I have a lot of them.
Yes I know but who are the closest?
A lot of them are in the public domain now, like my colleagues we went into the army together, we trained together, we went to school together but most of them, the closest ones, are most of them here in Minna.
There is a young man called General Abubakar (laughs), he is very close. We grew up together even before we went to school, our elementary life together, primary life together, secondary life together, then military life together, and he is one of them.
Who will you say are the people you look up to; not just locally but in historical terms. I have heard about Shaka Zulu for example which surprises me because he was an old time warrior fighting with spears
That is what impressed me about him. There was no technology during his time, it was sheer force and guts, that was what he used and that’s what impressed me about Shaka the Zulu and I still believe he was a very strong man; somebody who could stand up against superior weapons, superior technology and still led his own people. He was a great man.
Then in the modern technology, there is a German general called Rommel (General Erwin Rommel), he was a tank general and in later stages as warfare developed, there was an American general called Patton (George Patton Jr); most of these generals I read about them and the way they operated was what impressed me the most.
You had the chance to get into military politics at a young age. I think you were a Colonel when you were in the Supreme Military Council during General Murtala and from then on, I think people began to know you as a kind of military politician. So I wonder whether this is an accurate thing, did such opportunity open your eyes to politics of Nigeria and how you could also play a role in it?
I mingled a lot during my military days. Like I told you, I had friends and a lot of them also were friends in the universities as lecturers, intellectuals and so on. So I was always found around conferences and meetings and that broadened my horizon on the other field and I think this is the only reason.
But you have lived with so many of the coups from the one that toppled Gowon to the one of Shagari; so I don’t know how true it is, for example in the coup that toppled Shagari, you didn’t assumed the top position, so it is surprising. So how did it happen that the coup took place in Lagos but somebody who was sitting in Jos became the head of state?
When we stage coup, we plan, this is something that not many people seem to know but there is a lot of planning that went into it; logistics, intelligence, what to do with it, how to get the troops, how to make them participate and so on, what to tell them to convince them to do the right thing.
So when we are planning we try to work out who are people who are going to be in charge and we easily agreed on particular persons. When in 1975, there was an agreement by all the participants of the coup that Murtala Mohammed must be the president, so was it when the coup succeeded. And there was also unanimous consensus that Obasanjo should be the person to take over from Murtala after his death.
So there is always an agreement by the coupists that this is the person who should lead us. We knew the environment then very well, we knew what the public was complaining about, we knew what the public wanted to see and in 1984, we found that Buhari was the right person for that job.
Does it have something to do with seniority, that he was the most senior to all of you?
Not really but at that level you will find that there are people who were his classmates or people who were one term his junior or others who were much more junior, it all depends on belief in what we are trying to do, once people believe in it then they come along.
Were civilians involved in such coups?
We cannot succeed if we don’t involve civilians, especially you in the media.
But I am thinking of civilians like MKO Abiola. There’s talk about him being unhappy with the Shagari regime until he made a move to maybe become president or something and there was talk that some of his money perhaps helped to execute the coup.
No, that is not fair. I must say that MKO was a very popular person or popular individual amongst us the military, we all knew him. He was our friend, he knew us very well and the relationship was so good, he was very friendly with a lot of officers, he know them, he talks to them and he was very generous, and very kind. So, it was not difficult to know him.
It is also easy for people to input that he probably knew about it or he probably was involved, otherwise he lived a very healthy relationship with us.
Did you really wanted him to be president later on during the transition when he contested the election; did you see him as somebody who can really help the country to grow?
I think at that time, quite easily you could see him as somebody with all it takes to be a politician and a president. He was known throughout the country and by his antecedence you can easily conclude that he wanted to be in politics.
He was very kind, he was well travelled, he was not tribalistic at that time, he was free with virtually everybody both in the North and in the South, everybody know him and he was also there to assist people who were in need all the time. He was an extraordinary generous person and that attracted people towards him quite easily.
I know you must be getting tired of the question about the annulment; you have explained it…
(Cuts in) I took responsibility.
Yes, but I still feel obliged to ask, the latest explanation I think you gave was to say if he had taken over, there would have been a bloody coup and some people said look, are you trying to protect your government because if it was a coup then and you are still there and maybe it is like you are trying to protect your government more than democracy itself.
No, I wasn’t there let me get that right. The story is properly put, you can put it this way: When we came up with the idea of an interim government, Nigerians said they were tired of anything or the media phrase was “that contraption called interim government”.
What we did, the interim government, we gave it life, we gave it tenure, we had a date for another election but we were told “forget it, no election; Nigerians are weary of election, just pack and go”.
We managed to set it up, we gave it six months so that by February of 199…I can’t remember now, we could have held another election, so that we can hand over to a democratically elected government.
Now one of the fears is that we couldn’t come openly and tell you people that this is what we fear or this is what we are going to do, somebody is going to do A,B,C,D,E,F. The life of that interim government was cut short by coup d’etat, change of government.
And the Abacha’s government was very smart. They knew who were the most vociferous discussants about election, about coup, about June 12 and so on, they started talking to them and sold a dummy to them, they encourage them to get rid of the interim government; “when we get rid of the interim government we will bring you back to come and take over your democracy so that a civilian government would be installed”.
They sold that dummy to the public and to some prominent persons within the society and when Abacha stepped in, there were drumming and sighs; “Good thing! Next thing is going to be a democratically elected government”. I knew, we knew, that it wouldn’t be because the argument was: “Why should I risk my life only to come and hand over power to you?”, that was what happened.
So did the Abacha coup surprise you?
No, it never did. I knew it will come because even though I was outside –outside the service – I knew what was going on.
What was your relationship with Abacha like?
(Cuts in) We were very good friends!
People assumed as if you kept him there so that he’s on standby in case things didn’t work out he would step in.
No, the idea was to give the interim government confidence that there is somebody, a military man, who is well known, who can be accepted, who can provide strength to the interim government up to the time it hands over to a democratically elected government and he was the only most senior one, who had the name and had the experience, to help in protecting that government.
Can you help us lay to rest this persistent sort of impression; did Abacha die a natural death?
As a Muslim yes, I would say that it is a natural death because God said that every one of us will die, so if death comes it shouldn’t surprise me as a Muslim. He may. have some underlining problems, health problem and so on but at the end of the day, he will die because that is the way God willed it.
Recently you made two statements which have been making the round, one of them is about the kind of leader we need in the future, come to the next election, somebody you said probably in his 60’s and I think you added that you can even sort of pick out one or two names of people of whom you think fit into the vision you have; of a younger person who can carry the burden. I don’t know if you really want to add to that, I mean people are curious, there are debates, who do you have in mind?
It is not who do I have in mind but who fits in; any person who fits in within those criteria then he is the right person as long as he is a Nigerian, he is a politician, he is not old like I am, he is very conversant with the country, he communicates, he is a very good communicator, he should be able to communicate to the person because a president should be able to walk in to a group of people and talk to them on issues concerning Nigeria, not all the time but most of the time.
He must have somebody he knows in every part of the country, it is a not a tall order. You could limit to states, you could limit to local governments even to the wards if you can but somebody is such that once you hear the name, it is somebody you will say, “No, I have heard that name before” either in the country or in his profession; if he is a doctor, a journalist or whatever, all areas, we have heard the name before, okay then I will make an effort to know more about him.
Do you see such a person among the current governors, or ministers, who are the ones we normally think are the natural successors; they get promoted into either vice president or president?
Well I believe the process will take care of that. Within the process or those people you mentioned now, there are people who could fit into this category and I believe the process can take care of that.
The second statement which also caught a lot of attention is about corruption, you said compared to what is going on now we were saints.
I still believe so. I gave an example I sacked a governor because of misappropriating N300,000. Now there are people we read in the papers, thank God there are papers to read and social media and so on; people who steal N2billion, N3billion and nobody is saying they are corrupt only us because we are military that is all. I still maintain that we are saints if you compare somebody who is accused of stealing N3 billion compare him against somebody with N300,000 then I think we are saints.
Why do you think this battle against corruption is so difficult? We have not really managed from what you are saying how to really deal with it?
I sold an idea but because it came from me, nobody likes it, nobody will like to hear it: Identify areas of corruption and attack them from the source. I read in one of the newspapers where a judge was complaining that they are not well remunerated by the public and that is a sure source of corruption.
Wherever you have a system where you have a lot of control there will be corruption. So what we try to do, we got government not to be involved in things like production; anything to do with I have to come to you and you will always think you are doing me a favour, so maybe I should reciprocate it, that is the sort of thing.
And that is why we introduced freeing the economy; you don’t need a license to be graded Grade A your groundnut or cocoa or cotton or whatever it is; you don’t need to go to central bank or to go to banks to get foreign exchange.
There are bureau de change, they set it up in market areas, where you can easily go and get it; so the sources of corruption has to be identified and attacked.
Among those who succeeded you, who do you think followed your economic policy of liberalization and government stepping back from the economy; who are you happy with at least as continued what you started?
Yar’Adua and Obasanjo did and the current regime is also doing it even though in a different name but it is all the same concept.
Which of your economic policies are you most proud of and that you would wish that could be continued by governments that have followed?
Freeing the economy; allow Nigerians to use their brain, to use their hands, to use their innovation, I think the liberalization is, I am very proud of it.
You don’t think that has the consequence of maybe encouraging corruption and people taking advantage and becoming rich at the expense of the poor because that is one of the complains. It brought the IMF, it brought reduction in social welfare programmes for the poor people.
Well, I think this sort of debate is still on even today in countries like the United States. They couldn’t pass a budget because of the direction that people who believe that the ceiling should not be imposed.
In our own case we do a lot of borrowing, there is a lot of debate going in the country now about whether we are over borrowing or we are under borrowing and so on and so forth; it all depends.
But that makes the government to sit down properly to do the right thing once you know that there are people in the society who will say no, you are wrong, why don’t you do it this way, there is always an alternative solution to this.
So I think it is an ongoing thing as far as I am concerned, it will continue throughout in the next 50 years, 100 years there will still be talk about corruption, about how to minimize it, you can’t just wipe it out 100%, you can minimize it, to an acceptable level.
How much does the present government seek your advice or contribution?
Not much and they are right for not because the Nigerian society, I know the Nigerian psyche, they will accuse the government for talking to me on anything and they wouldn’t like to be accused, so the best thing keep him at distance.
Why should a former head of states, who has a record of living for a long time and dealing with so many problems, not being able to make an input or being blamed for making an input?
The good thing about Nigerians, I happen to know them reasonably well. They assess you based on a wrong perception, most of the time. If you say Babangida is a thief, the first thing Nigerian will do is to believe it and he doesn’t care whether you are going to explain or something. He believes what somebody else said, he doesn’t have facts, he will not accept even your own explanation, his reason is if you say he is a thief, he says yes, yesterday I saw him in a Mercedes, I saw him in a good car therefore he is a thief. They have a shallow thinking all the time.
How involved are you in the general politics in the country; have you retired like Obasanjo did?
Yes I have; not involved in politics but still interested in what is happening in politics because this is my country I don’t have any other country, I have to take interest in what is going on.
So what is a typical day like for you; I mean from waking up to evening, how does it typically proceed?
Typically I get down, discuss one or two things with few people and accept one or two appointments from good people like you or any other person who expresses desire to come even if it is courtesy visit.
Do you have any hobbies, are there things you do for own pleasure, on your own spare time?
Hobby, I try to read a lot, especially Nigerian newspapers.
Do you farm or do you do any other economic activities?
No! I try to provide some insights to my children, my friends and so on; so I am more or less like a consultant to them and to my friends.
What about business interest? I am sure you have a stake in some.
We started buying shares in 1979 when government was divesting and I kept on doing that up till now. I buy shares wherever I see that it is going to be beneficial to me or to my children.
…Culled From DailyTrust