Looking back, what are the memories? Things you look back to and say, “I it wished it was done that?
I think one thing if I look back I keep on saying I wished my parents were alive to see such a level of my development. I lost them when I was in the formative years. By the time I was 14 I lost my two parents. Every day it comes to me that I wished one of them or both of them were alive when I became a military officer.
I used to hear them talking. They were always wishing me well. They were confident that I will one day grow up to be somebody within the community. And as God would have it they didn’t get to see me grow up within the community.
At what point did you join the Nigeria Army?
My joining the army, 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 Nigeria 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.
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”.
One can’t talk about the history of Nigeria without talking about the role you have played all the way back from 1966 when the first coup happened and then of course you had to intervene at some level. In 1976 you botched the coup against the late Murtala Mohammed and all of the iconic moments within that period. Talk to us about that fight that you had to fight to keep Nigeria one and the fight that today Nigeria is still struggling with the issue of unity.
At that time don’t forget that the problem started in 1966, Nigeria was six years old as an independent country. We were trying to be a nation. We haven’t fully become a nation. We were just a group of people in a geographical environment called Nigeria. But I didn’t believe we built a nation, and that was the major problem. That was why there was instability within the country which culminated into a civil war. All developing countries had to go through that process. I was quite aware of this especially in Africa, Latin America among others. So, we were not an exception.
So, you think the civil war was not inevitable
If you watched, before the civil war we had a lot of problems. We had instability in the government system. We had Tiv riot; we had operation wait here, we had stability operations within the country. This culminated into the civil war. So, it didn’t come to us as a surprise.
Let me back up just a little and then we talk about why Nigeria is still struggling with jelling together as one nation where nobody is thinking ‘I’m Hausa’, ‘I’m Fulani’, ‘I’m Igbo, I’m Yoruba’. Let’s talk about your role in the military and then of course the role of the military in governance over the years until 1999. A lot of people argue that the incursion into governance set Nigeria back decades if not centuries. What’s your thought on that? Do you think the military coming in to power was a great setback to Nigeria?
Well, I saw the military intervention as part of developing process in a developing country like Nigeria. I can take you back to the whole continent of Africa down to 1952. The military started intervening in governance in Africa. 1952 was Egypt, from Egypt it started going through to other countries and it was a ball then to stage a coup in a lot of these countries. And we couldn’t be an exception. We had officers who were trained, officers who were highly educated and following the events that were happening at that time in other countries. So it’s not unusual to develop people who had this sort of thinking and mentality. And I think we came in at a time these things were happening throughout the world.
Nigeria is still struggling to be a nation. What do you think is wrong at the base that the Fulani man doesn’t seem to have a sense of belonging, the Igbo man doesn’t; the Yoruba man doesn’t. Everybody is thinking about their own part of the country. What do think is fundamentally responsible for that?
On the contrary, I think, again, if you look back and take a place like Baga up in the North East, the Igbo man the Yoruba man travels to Baga for trading. He lived very comfortable, he lived very well with the people of Baga, do their normal trading and so on. Even politically, in Enugu, in the 50s you had the Hausa man who was a Mayor. If you go to Lagos the same thing; you have Yorubas, Ibos who are holding political appointments at the local levels and lived very well with the people. I think we, becoming elites, we did not succeed in imbibing that culture for the country. So, we rather lived with the culture that the European handed over to us; distinct northern Nigeria, Eastern Nigeria Western Nigeria until such a time we had Midwestern Nigeria in 1963. But we did not mold ourselves as a nation. I feel very strongly that that was what happened. The political elites that were being developed ran back to their cocoon and said that I have to be an Ibo man to do this or that. And till today unfortunately the political class is not really going into this very serious area and says “how do we do the nation?
How do we can build that nation?
I think we have to rewrite the narrative. You are now arguing amongst yourselves on how to build political parties for example. We knew it was doable because we did it. We had political parties that were being led by people who were from other parts of the country and they blended very well. They talked to people, they have this common vision about how to handle this country and what they want this country to be. I give you an example, I believe in free market economy. Anybody who wants to come and not talk about free market economy I wouldn’t talk with him because we don’t have core values in the country. These are core values beyond which nobody is going to allow you do anything. The politicians, the elites and we all have to blend in this.
Your Excellency, would you say that the tyranny of the elites is what has contributed to the security situation that Nigeria finds itself in right now. There’s banditry kidnapping, terrorism in the North East and secession in the South East even in the South West. What do you think is the fundamental problem? And what is the way out of this vicious cycle of insecurity?
I think the problem is leadership. There is disconnect between the leadership and the followership. If there is no disconnect, when people relate with each other at various leadership levels and talk about the community, about the state about the federation then we would not have problem whatsoever. We don’t have core values in the country depends all the time. You defend that core values. You are a Nigerian this is what you believe in; anything short of that you are not going to be part of it and it’s not going to be acceptable. I will give you an example, when we were in the military; we talked about settled issues about Nigeria. The unity of Nigeria as far as we were concerned was a settled issue; Presidential was a settled issue, free market economy was a settled issue; the federation also is a settled issue. Nobody will come and say Nigeria is no longer a federation.
When you say settled issue, are you saying in another way that it’s non-negotiable?
But some argue that it should be negotiable. That we should sit down at the table, if decide to be one we stay one. If we say we want to go our separate ways why not?
We decided to be one how many years ago? Over 63 years ago. And we had been in that position for the last 63 years and more. Why should we keep on repeating ‘let’s sit down and talk’? You can have not less than 100 conferences in this country that Nigerians themselves sat down and talked about on how to remain one; how to work with federating units in the country; how to operate locally among others. I think there are issues we shouldn’t be talking about them now. We should be talking how to strengthen what we have agreed. If you agree we want to be united Nigeria since 63 years ago, we should now be talking on how to strengthen that unity. If we are going to have federating units we should now be talking about how we want to see our federation. We want to talk about local governments whether they should have free fund, whether they should govern themselves. We should be talking about how this could be achieved.
Do you think something similar to the polypro which you set up to give Nigerians the opportunity to explore some of the issues you are talking about? Do you think Nigerians need something similar? Like talk-shop and conferences.
I haven’t used the word talk-shop, that’s what it is. You went to shop you talked; you came back home abandoned it. And then somebody said, no, we need that conference. Again, it has been done. Political bureau has laid down everything. But I think the tyranny of the elites is what the main problem is.
So, what is the way forward?
The way out, when I told you leadership, the leaders should understand Nigeria and Nigerians. Anybody who wants a position of leadership must be a person who would be able to use your intellect for the benefit of Nigerians. If there are things you believe, whether in Niger State or wherever, and I want to lead the state, fine. This is an agricultural state. My thought would be how to take advantage of that God given situation to better the wellbeing of the people.
Do you think it is the lack of understanding of Nigerians within the leadership or just outright lack of love and care for Nigeria and Nigerians? Isn’t that what is possibly missing?
From my experience, Nigerians are very resilient people, very fertile minded people. So, if you want to lead them you have to take a lot of things into consideration. They are very good and very resilient and very industrious. So, how do I put all these together to achieve a common objective?
Is that where restructuring for example comes in? Because a lot of people say, in fact, some have blamed you as part of the problem in terms of the structure of the nation. You created eleven states during your time as military President. And some say it further eliminated leadership from the followership (the leaders from the people). And you’ve been quoted as saying, ‘the time to restructure Nigeria is now. If we say restructuring is the way to go, what manner of restructuring are we talking about?
It’s amazingly interesting. If you check from my findings restructuring means different thing to different people within this country. We don’t have common interpretation. That’s the first basic problem that we’re going to have. What does it mean? We haven’t defined it. The way I see it is how we started.
Give the people at the lowest level to the highest level opportunity to participate on how they are governed. I will tell you a story. We had Reverend Adasu, may he rest in peace. I had an argument with him. He was the governor in Benue State then. One of the local governments was NRC and he was SDP. And he decided that he’s going to stop his funding for that local government. This information got to me and I called him. He was a very good friend of mine then. So, I said, ‘Reverend come, let’s talk.’ We sat down and I said, ‘why did you stop the local government money’? He said, ‘no, because he is not in the same party with me’. I said, ‘look! This man went round the local government; he campaigned and told people to vote for him that he will provide this or that for them. And people accepted and pledged on that. It is on that basis they voted for him. Why can’t you give him his money! You hold him responsible when he fails. You promised them A,B,C and D. what have you achieved? And because you are on top you should be able to see through because they are your people and you are their Governor, no matter that in that place you have different political beliefs’. He looked at me and said ‘I should be a politician.’ I said, ‘no Reverend. I would rather be a Reverend.’ But this is the argument. I argue with a lot of my friends. I believe for example, in Resource Control. But mention it to a lot of people in this country, somebody will cut your head.
Why don’t they want Resource Control? What do you think is responsible for that?
I think it is this belief that this is our own God given thing in our own environment. I want my people to benefit from it. This is our own area. It is this possessing thing.
Let me explore that issue of the local government that you just talked about. The current President Muhammadu Buhari did sign Executive Order 10. The Governors frowned against it. I recall that during your time you actually increased the allocation from 10% to 20%. What are your thoughts on that? Don’t you think Governors at that level should have taken lots of responsibilities on the way the local government situation is now.
This is where your restructuring comes in. At the state level, I want to see a situation where the Governor is there. The Constitution defines his areas of responsibility, it defines his powers, so at the local government level too. At the local government level anything that has to do with governance the state government doesn’t have to be there. But if it comes to something bigger like during some disasters or whatever, the state can come in to help the local government in that sort of thing. The laws are there. I saw somebody who was talking about the concurrent list and exclusive list. That is something along that line. I am not a lawyer and I have no idea whatsoever. But I think in the real sense you should give people, within their capability, more control over their affairs and resources.
Would you connect the structure of the polity to the dismal state that the Nigerian economy actually finds itself? I recall under your eight years administration, when you just came in you introduced SAP. One of the objectives of SAP was to look for ways of diversifying the Nigerian economy and away from over dependency on oil, bring about inclusiveness and more people. You liberalized the economy. Nigeria is still grappling with the economy, struggling to keep the Dollar stable which was one of the things you wanted to do. SAP stabilized forex, we are still where we were when you were in government. What do you think is responsible for that and how can Nigeria fix the economy beyond what some would describe as panic mode?
That’s the right word I think, Panic Mode. I think it’s the consistency in the policy. We ought to be able to say, yes, this is the right thing to do and keep it going. Not to be dissuade by other people’s opinion. If you believe in the right thing pursue it. But keep on explaining it to the people also. We insisted on this because of this. Maybe one day they will get fed up and say go ahead and do it and become more informed.
What do you make of the fact that Nigerians imports huge percentage of petroleum products; four refineries continue are moribund. What do you make of that? Can we really extricate ourselves from oil if we don’t fix the fundamentals?
Nigerians are very industrious; they are very resourceful people; there is nothing they cannot be able to do and they would do it well. So I am confident they can get out of this inconsistency in policies and the rest of them.
What do you make of this administration’s handling of the economy so far?
For the fact that it hasn’t collapsed, I think they are trying to keep it moving.
What are the indices you would say they are putting in place to actually move the economy forward?
I think they need to mobilize the people towards achieving this common objective. You should convince and prove to them that they can do it; the resources are there; you are there to provide leadership and to support them.
Are you concerned that the Naira side by side the Dollar
It says a lot. But I think we can address it. Production. Once people can produce a lot of things that they can easily sell, either by export or within the country I think it will stabilize.
How can that production come about? You have unemployment rate of about 33%. You have a huge youth population that is almost 70% of the Nigerian population. And yet Nigeria is the poverty capital of the world.
There is too much control in the way the economy is being run. We should open it further. If we do that and tap the God given talent of the Nigerian people I think we will go far.\
Let me take you back a bit to the issue of security. I’m not sure you have helped us to understand how we can pull out of the jaws of terrorism, banditry and all of that. What would be your recommendation? Would it be to retrain the military or the military is overwhelmed?
Not overwhelmed but overstressed. The military has the wherewithal to fight this banditry and bring the system back. But I think the problem is that they are doing too much. They are overstressed and subsequently because of the space they have to occupy they have fairly obsolete equipment. But one of the most important thing which we shouldn’t lose sight of is the military must believe in what they are fighting for. They must be provided with the wherewithal to meet up with that objective for the country. They must be well trained and well led.
Do you think leadership is what is missing at that level?
I think they should do more from my experience. They should do more.
\In 1999 you were in the forefront of getting the former President Olusegun Obasanjo to take over the affairs of this country. Why was that necessary at that time? And would you say that you are impressed so far with the Democratic trajectory that Nigeria finds itself right now?
If there is one Nigerian who passionately believes in Nigeria, it is Olusegun Obasanjo. I will give that to him. He believes very strongly in this country. It’s easy for us to conclude that the person who will take over must have those core beliefs. Believes in oneness of Nigeria and believes in its stability for the future development of the country. So, that is one reason why we sold him to Nigerians. Then he has the experience, he has seen it all, took part in the war of keeping the country one and led the country from political engineering and development.
But some would say that it was an attempt to assuage certain sections of the country because of the events of the immediate past at the time and the way of the class of 63 which you belong to continue to have a grip on Nigeria.
No, we always believe the person who should run the country have the following antecedence. If he doesn’t believe in Nigeria we wouldn’t look for him at all. Because we wanted Nigeria and this is what we kept on saying. Even if it is a democratically elected or militarily imposed he must have that core belief. Believe in the country and experiences over the years in leadership, in public service and the rest of them.
And how many administrations since then, are you impressed with our democracy so far? Is it delivering? I would also like what role you are playing with the PDP. The PDP held on to power for 16 years and you are the founding father of the PDP and many are saying with this administration Nigeria seems to be moving towards a one party state. Talk to us about that.
I know that Nigerians would not allow that to happen. They will make so much noise that whoever will attempt to do that will not do it. This is the good thing about this country. They would talk; they would demonstrate; they would engage you in all sorts of things so as not to do the wrong thing.
Are you still in partisan politics? Are you still involved in PDP as an opposition party?
No! I’m an old elder statesman now.
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.
Who is your ideal candidate in 2023 election?
I have started visualising a good Nigerian leader. That is, a person, who travels across the country and has a friend virtually everywhere he travels to and he knows at least one person that he can communicate with. That is a person, who is very versed in economics and is also a good politician, who should be able to talk to Nigerians and so on. I have seen one, or two or three of such persons already in his sixties.
It is not who do I have in mind but who fits in; any person who fits in within these 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 because a president should be able to walk into 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 not a tall order. You could limit it to states, you could limit it to local governments even to the wards if you can but somebody such that once you hear the name, it is somebody you will say, yes, 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. If you get a good leadership that links with the people and tries to talk with the people; not talking on top of the people, then we would be okay.