As the former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, marks his 75th birthday, The Interview revisits one of Babangida’s most explosive interviews, which he granted last November. It’s a must read….
During President Muhammadu Buhari’s inauguration on May 29 he whispered something to you as you greeted him. What did he say?
You used the word ‘whispered’. Because he whispered, he didn’t want it
public. So, I shouldn’t break the tradition. It remains a whisper.
What do you think of his government so far?
I think, so far, so good. Both Nigerians and the international community have a lot of hope for the country because of him and i think all of us who know him very well can attest to that.
Why are you hopeful?
The man himself is a very determined person. He is strong willed and I think you need these qualities to get things changed.
Every government since 1999 has faced some kind of regional crisis. For Jonathan, it was Boko Haram. It is beginning to look like Buhari would have to contend with the agitation for a sovereign state of
Biafra. How do you think it should be handled?
I think so far, the government has handled it well.
He (Buhari) believes in the unity of the country. But there are people from the southeast of the
country, who if I may use that phrase, do not necessarily share that opinion. As a result of that, we had a 30-month civil war. And I think
nobody wants to go through what we went through between 1967 and 1970.
But do you think there could be a better approach to handling the Biafra crisis?
You see, agitations like this normally start in a very subtle way. There are always accusations,
counter-accusations, threats, counter-threats and so on. As long as you have not been able to address those things, you will continue to
build up anxiety within the society. And I think so far, the government is saying, no; we do not need this distraction now. What we need is the development of the country. From the experiences we had, this should not be an issue.
Do you agree that there is still a hangover from the civil war; that the complaint of the Igbos about marginalisation is justified?
Well, I watched a programme on television and they raised some points that i thought need to be addressed. For example, erosion is a big problem in most parts of the southeast and parts of the south south. It makes you think that there are
people in parts of Nigeria whose lives are threatened by erosion. Those are things that government has to pay attention to in the
interest of peace.
What about politically, would you agree they are marginalised?
Politically? No. I wouldn’t agree. I think if we one day wake up to find that we have an Igbo president, that will mean we have sealed the whole process of reintegration into the Nigerian society. I think it
would happen. I am confident it will.
Would you vote an Igbo president in 2019?
I surely will…fortunately I know their political leaders and professionals. I know them. There are a lot of them around who can be president. If I find one, I will surely vote for one. Do not forget
the way the political parties try to readjust their candidates and field them for elections.
During the Buhari certificate saga, you defended the army. You claimed it had some of the best training regimes in the country. Why then
is Boko Haram such a hard nut to crack?
Boko Haram is not fighting a conventional war. It is an insurgency. In other words, the whole purpose of an insurgent whether Boko Haram or any other thing is to instill fear in the minds of the
populace; to make them feel that the government cannot protect them. What they do is to keep on creating problems for the government – go into
military formations and blow up ammunition depots. That is a very serious thing. Or they go to a Mosque or any other gathering and inflict heavy casualties on defenseless citizens. Now, that puts government in a very serious situation. And psychologically, what they are trying to achieve is to make the people believe that the government will not be able to protect them. That is the whole purpose
of insurgency, to undermine confidence in an
administration, whichever administration.
What do you think of the December deadline the president gave for defeating Boko Haram?
I think it is achievable. I was quite impressed. The president has a lot of experience. We are in the same profession and I believe it is achievable.
Beyond the unconventional nature of the problem, it appears that poor equipment and training have also compounded the problem of our soldiers.
I think for us professionals; these things are not new. When we went into the war in 1967, we faced similar problems about weaponry, about
ammunition, about support weapons, about air defense support, about artillery support. It is when you get caught up in such a situation,
that is when you start trying to do the right thing and providing these things. So, I think quite frankly, it is normal. Don’t forget, in our case before the civil war, not all countries were ready to
support us because they did not share the same goals. If we wanted weapons from France, the French government simply said they had the
right not to sell those weapons to us because they don’t believe in what we are trying to prosecute.
That is slightly different from what we are hearing. We are told that the military top brass in this case is deliberately diverting resources needed at the war front.
It would be unfair if I say they ‘deliberately’ chose or they deliberately siphoned money. Don’t forget the leaders or the high command; people in the hierarchy are also human beings. I don’t think
you will feel comfortable; you will sleep when you feel you are sending young men and women to their graves.
What about the indictment of the military by Amnesty International for human rights abuses? Isn’t it all part of the inefficiency or is
it poor intelligence?
When this controversy erupted, I think the military quite rightly said they would investigate this. I can bet you that if they carried out investigation and they found anyone culpable, they know the correct step to take.
The Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Besouda, has been to Nigeria twice to complain about the possible crimes taking
place. So far, nothing has been done. If again, this government does nothing, do you think she should launch a formal investigation?
There is no way she could launch a formal investigation without support from the government. Sure, when she came here, she must have
spoken to or she must have seen government officials. And they will co-operate with her, to show her or to agree on the direction, general rule to follow. These things are international norms, international conventions and no government wants its image to be soiled by human rights abuses.
How much influence do you think the US government should have in the fight against Boko Haram? Should they be training, equipping and even advising the Nigerian Army?
Well, I think in a situation like this, we need advice from them because they have a lot of experience built over the years. So you might as well tap from their wealth of experience. They have the
weapons system with which to fight unconventional warfare. So it is training, equipping and any other support, where our capacity is very limited.
In the last few years, news reports have been written about the military being overstretched. Do you think our army is small relative to our population?
Well, in the case of the military, you cannot compare it to say, the police, where you can talk about the country being under-policed. What you need in the military is a well-trained army, well motivated and an army that believes in the
cause for which they are there. That is the cause for which they are fighting. So it has to be motivated, it has to be well trained. That is all you need. So, if it is small, as long as it can achieve those
things, you are home and dry.
You keep mentioning unconventional warfare and at the same time, you believe the military are well trained. If they are not trained for unconventional warfare, do you think their training is decades behind the standard elsewhere in the world?
No, I think in Nigeria, we are lucky in the country. We had a lot experience in this unconventional warfare. We had it in-house (that is
inside Nigeria) and then outside Nigeria during our participation in United Nations operations and peacekeeping.
What do think about the indictment of Omar Al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court? Is it right for African countries that are signatories to the ICC not to turn him in?
You are thinking about what happened in South Africa? I think, quite frankly I support the South African government. Conventionally, you
are my guest. You come into my country after I have assured you of your safety, only for me to turn you in? I wouldn’t do that.
This is not exactly the same situation; but you recall that former president Olusegun Obasanjo turned Charles Taylor in? How do you justify that?
Was he turned in really? Surely, they didn’t hold Charles Taylor and say, ‘please take him.’ He tried to escape. That is the argument you guys
told us in the media. And in the process, unfortunately he got caught. He had enough protection don’t forget. I think it happened at the
Back to South Africa, would you support them leaving the ICC, do you think they should?
Well, I think maybe the ICC should sanction them. But I don’t blame them at all.
A lot of African countries have threatened to break ties with the ICC especially because of the Kenyatta case. Yet most of these kinds of crimes are committed in Africa. Would you support any of these countries leaving ICC?
I don’t think it is because they cannot handle scrutiny from the ICC.I think it is a moral issue. I would quite frankly support any government that breaks away from the pack. There are many other
ways that you can get hold of Al Bashir, not necessarily through an African leader, on African soil. I don’t believe it, honestly.
When African leaders commit such grave and gross violations of their own peoples’ rights, in their own countries, surely they should answer for them?
The people should rise up to that challenge. I think if he (Al Bashir) sees that the people are against him, he will have no option but to go.
The view in some circles is that the calamitous fall in the value of the naira started in1986, when your regime liberalised the economy. Do you accept that?
Of course, my regime tried to do some work on the economy. And this is what we started doing in 1986 when we launched the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP. It virtually touched on everything. First of all, we discovered that we had no option but to improve the economy; to make the economy go along the way the world was going. Don’t forget, in 1986 the world was changing. Democracy and the economy were the two things being addressed by almost everyone in the world. So, we
came in at the right time. If you want to remain competitive, you have sure up your currency with those you are trading. So, I think we were
Do you think the Buhari government should yield to pressure to further devalue the naira?
It depends on what you mean by ‘further devalue the naira.’ I think we succeeded in instilling fear and a sense of pride in the minds of the ordinary person about the whole concept of devaluation. I went crazy when I was told that $1 equals N4.50. I wasn’t comfortable. I wasn’t an economist but as time went by, through learning, we found that we
did the right thing. By the time I left office in 1993, it was $1 toN20. So I couldn’t have been held responsible for making it what it is now. All you need is management of the exchange rate regime. You can see it and you can know what to do. We put in a lot of measures to shore up the naira against other foreign currencies. As long as your
production level in the country is low, we will continue to have this problem about our exchange rate.
How should Nigeria handle foreign
investors, who believe the present value of the naira is artificial?
I think you got the point. Those who want to come in want to make sure they are not putting their money to waste. They have to make some
money out of whatever they are going to invest. Whatever products they trade in should be on a competitive basis.
You recently came out to reaffirm your decision to quit partisan politics. In some circles, that was interpreted to mean that you were being careful not to offend Buhari. Is that the way it is?
That is the way the media interprets it. My own interpretation is that I am more or less telling people of my age group that we should allow you younger generation to run the show.
Are you saying that Buhari is too old to be president?
No, no. I am not saying that. But maybe people of his age group should support him, share their experiences with him and allow you guys to
run the show. I wouldn’t like to see, in the next election in 2019, I wouldn’t like to see a 70-year-old or 75-year-old (in my case a 75-year-old man) running around the country seeking for votes.
So you don’t think Buhari should re-contest in 2019?
I didn’t say that.
Taking you back to 2011 when you still had the intention of running. At that time, you said that the younger generation couldn’t run Nigeria. What has changed between then and now?
Was it because the young couldn’t rule Nigeria? You had the chance to do that (elect younger people). And it was the same you young people that pulled
them down. So, that means you are not ready yet for that big, important job.
How would you describe your relationship with Buhari?
Good. I was in Umuahia I think in 2006 or 2007. Orji Uzor Kalu was the governor of the state at that time. And both Buhari and I happened to know him well. And he was of the impression that we weren’t getting on well. But we are military men, we know ourselves very well. So, Orji Uzor Kalu organized a press meeting. We were all there. Buhari was there and I was there. One of the things we said was that you guys in the media want us to be exchanging words any time we set eyes on each other. Here he is, here I am. We have common convictions and we belong to the same profession. We got involved in keeping this country one and we remain friends. But you (the press) will accuse me of saying that Buhari and I are friends. “Why should you be friends?”“Why shouldn’t you be fighting?” This is the answer I want to give to you. They all laughed. But that is the most honest and the most serious response. We are not enemies; we are friends.
Buhari said in a newspaper interview three years ago, that you removed him because he brought a Memo to the Army Council to remove Aliyu Gusau, who was then the Director of Military Intelligence. He said you were present at the meeting and feared that if he removed Gusau, you would be next. That was why you struck. Is that right?
There are so many arguments put across. But normally, don’t forget we ran a military regime and in any military environment, these things occur. When I got into the office in September 1985, I sat with all the conspirators of the coup. I said look, we all conspired and changed the government. I want you to know that we are in now. Do not think that you are free from a possible ouster. Some people will be planning to get you and me out. This (conversation) was just to make them remain alert all the time. Somebody just looked at me as if I was crazy. I said no. I meant everything. We conspired to oust a government. Others will one day conspire to get us out. So let’s remain strong and don’t give chance for anybody to come against us. And behold, by December, we had a problem – the Mamman Vatsa coup. By April 1990 we had the Orkar coup. So, it was like a prediction. In fact, that is what it was. It is like telling APC now that look; you must work hard. Otherwise, next time in 2019, PDP is going kick you out.
Was there something in the Memo as Buhari said that you feared would be a problem for you and it was the immediate reason why you struck?
Do not forget that I was one of Buhari’s closest ‘aides’. I was the Chief of Army Staff. So I had an important position, an important role to play within that administration. I don’t think it had to do with a
Your government’s coup speech described him (Buhari) as “too rigid and uncompromising.” What did you mean by that? Is he still that way today?
Give it the ordinary translation and you are home and dry. No, he is not the same today. He is now a politician. He is now a democrat. None of us ever pretended that we were holding a democratic government. We held a military administration. We were not accountable to the National Assembly or the Senate. This is what I want and what I wants hould be done.
You are very kind to him because Governor Fayose insists that President Buhari is still a dictator.
Fayose is a politician. I want to believe he is playing politics. He is a good boy, but I think he is a politician.
One story that has refused to go away is how General Mamman Vatsa was killed. You told a newspaper that it was your “most traumatic day.” But it is still widely believed that he was innocent of the coup plot and that when General Domkat Bali announced that Vatsa had been executed “one hour ago,” he was indeed still alive and was only executed afterwards. Is that true?
No. I knew. Do not forget there was a trial. And that trial for the first time was made public. It was open and I should be able to tell you the time from when it was completed to the time they moved to the
time they went into Kirikiri and brought them out for execution.
Was it possible that they didn’t tell you he had not been killed at the time the broadcast was made? You were the president, you couldn’t have monitored it.
No. I knew what was going on. I was fully in the picture of what was going on at that time. I could not have stopped it. That is what the law provided at that time. That law was enacted in 1976. We only corrected it to show you guys that we are democrats because we allowed an appeal. That is the correction that I made. And there was an appeal.
Why then is there a lingering feeling of Vatsa’s innocence?
This is self-interest. Do not forget that he has supporters. No matter what he does, they will always believe he is above reproach. That is just the reason. The whole transcript, the whole trial was made public and there were confrontations between the accused and the defense. Just before the trial, Vatsa expressed the desire to see me. And he wanted to see me with another friend who was our classmate, Gen. Gado Nasco. Nasco is a trusted ally. So we met in my office – Vatsa, Nasco and me. He (Vatsa) said that he came to Abuja and his wife told him or there were rumours that he Mamman Vatsa was involved in a coup. I didn’t tell him but I didn’t interrupt him. You know what I said? I said, “Dan Uwa, (which was what I used to call him) the only person who was not involved in this coup that you are talking about is me because I can’t stage a coup on myself. But even our common friend (Nasco) that you brought to be a witness to what you are going to say, his name has been mentioned. His name is before me in the submissions by the intelligence.” I asked
him (Nasco),“Did I ever call you to complain to you about it?” He said, “No.” Nasco was shocked that as he was talking to me, I knew that he too was involved. I said okay, what do you want me to do when everybody is a suspect except myself? And that was how we resolved that discussion and controversy. This was before the trial. I said to him I know they were saying you shouldn’t be in your house. Against all the findings of the agencies and so on, I overruled them and said he should stay in his house with his family. The only time I changed my mind was when he (Vatsa) tried to escape. They came to me and said, “We told you. You are too trusting.” This is it. They were all my friends. I had the feeling, it is not just right. It was very traumatic, I must tell you.
How would you describe your relationship with Vatsa?
We became classmates in 1951. We were all in Form 3. I was a “civilised” student because I came from Minna. He came from Abuja, the former Abuja, which is now Suleja. Because they didn’t have the opportunity for Form 5 and Form 6, they had to come and join us to finish up 5 and6. So he came and joined us in form 3. We were very close and our families were also very close.
The Orkar coup in July 1990 must have been another traumatic time for you. Did you see it coming?
My honest answer is no because I knew them. I knew the boy very closely. I used to be a teacher in the defense academy. I taught of a lot of them as cadets and then I got him to join where my corps was working. In fact, a couple of days before his trial, he was in my office. I sat with him, he told me his problem; he said they didn’t have a bridge to crossover to the other side (in Makurdi). As I said, I ran a military regime. Within the next 48 hours, the engineers were on site and construction of the bridge was going on. That is just to show you how close I was to him. So again, another shock when I found his incoherent English and language on the radio.
Tell us what happened that night. There have been stories that you were hiding in a bunker in Dodan Barracks and so on…and that Abacha
They obviously didn’t have a lot of experience. It was during the fasting period. We were still in Dodan Barracks then. My wife got up from sleep and said she had noticed very unusual movement of troops from one end to the other. So she woke me up and said I should look through the window. I found troops moving from one end to the other. Then the next thing I heard was shooting going on. We tried to put a small party together. It was about 1.30am. Then the guards, the bodyguards said let’s check out of this place. I was a bit stubborn. I told them I was not leaving. It didn’t even occur to me that we had a bunker in Dodan Barracks. We had but it didn’t occur to me to use it. And so, they came. I said the only thing I will concede to; I will evacuate my family. My wife had her last born, who was just a few months old, with her. So they evacuated them to a safe house. It was the house of one of the officers who was working with me. So, I remained with a few bodyguards. We decided to get out and move around. We went to a safe house around Surulere. I had a bodyguard, Omuah. We just moved in there. From there we established communication. I later established communication with Abacha, Raji Rasaki and the others. They had
mobilised their troops and so on. It was afterwards, in the morning, that I got out from that house in Surulere and we moved to the Flagstaff House, where Abacha was staying. By then, all the commanders in the field were in Abacha’s house. So, we started the mopping up operations. I wasn’t in a bunker in Dodan Barracks.
Abacha was the most senior military officer when you were forced to step aside in 1993 and it was obvious that the Interim Government you put in place would fail. Did you set Chief Ernest Shonekan up to fail or was it that you wanted to reward Abacha for saving your life in the Orkar coup?
I think you must get it right. Abacha didn’t save my life in the Orkar coup. We worked together to crush Orkar’s coup. Do not forget, I used to be his Chief of Army Staff, he used to be my GOC, when I was Chief of Army Staff. And then when I became the president, he was the next senior person. I made him Chief of Defense Staff. And subsequently when we put in place what, may her soul rest peace, Justice Ikpeme called “a contraption,” the Interim Government, Abacha became the minister of defense.
What informed the contraption?
I like that. I will tell you what happened when the election was annulled. We had three options. Option one was to go ahead and declare Marshal Law. We didn’t buy that option because common sense suggested that the international community would accept nothing short of a general election. And of course, you Nigerians, you told me that you were election weary. You were tired of election; you wouldn’t like to do elections. So, we ingeniously came up with a suggestion and said let’s put up that “contraption.” The whole purpose of putting up Shonekan’s regime was to be able to conduct an election, a general election for the country. So we put it up there with the Abachas of this world as people who are holding forte to make sure it works out. Then we had very bright senior lawyers in the country, we put them together, and about 18 or 19 and they drafted a constitution for that “contraption.” That constitution was to last six months. It was all articulated. Okay, Ernest Shonekan, we said, this is a “contraption” for you, but after six months, you ought to be able to conduct a fresh election for this country and hand over to a democratically elected government. Nobody saw that. Nobody saw this ingenious way we did it. So, the government changed the constitution, which should last six months to allow Nigerians and the politicians to campaign, to make choices, togo into the various political parties. I think six months was reasonable enough for an election to be done. The media felt anything was better than this contraption. So you put us on the spot. Lawyers, civil rights, media, nobody gave us a chance. Nobody wanted to listen to anything. There was judicial rascality. Courts of equal jurisdiction passing verdicts when other courts with the same jurisdiction were saying something else. So there was utter anarchy in the whole system. And of course, like I have always said, a military coup succeeds whenever there is frustration in a society. Now the people I left behind were veterans. They had been in the game for long and since 1966. They read from the parts of the nation. They read the feeling, oh so and so said this. May he soul rest in peace; Gani said this. Civil rights activists said this. Lawyers said this. So, you created a very fertile environment.
It was your government that created it by refusing to honour June 12.
I agree that there was an annulment of an election but you (the press) fuelled it. The military would have been scared to intervene after all this but you set the fire. You said the “contraption” is no better than a jungle. Those behind, those who are not involved but are military, they know what is going on. A fresh election would have been held. We gave you time, we gave you a period and political parties were in place. But nobody gave a damn. We gave the government time; nobody wanted to wait for six months to get an election. SDP would have won that election. And so
you helped in a tremendous way in bringing Abacha to run the administration of this country for another five years instead of the six months we had planned. You extended his term for up to five years.
But it started because you did not hand over to Abiola. That was how it started.
To use the phrase you guys are using today, the election we had was inconclusive. The advice of a general election came from a citizen of this country. He said look, if who want to get out of this quagmire, have a rerun. Otherwise we wanted a collegiate system where we will get representatives from all the local governments. They sit down and vote.
Was June 12 inconclusive? The information in the public domain is that all the results were in. It was just for Humphrey Nwosu to announce the results?
Why did he not do it? Did you read his book?
Because you stopped him; he was put out of circulation.
Before the results were annulment, did you meet with any of the judges?
My answer is no. Why did you ask? You want to know whether we influenced the judges? There were seven judicial pronouncements on this election. There was a court in Ilorin, a court in Ibadan, a court in Abuja. We had about seven.
Justice Saleh’s verdict that finally killed June 12 was never appealed, not by the government, not by the electoral commission or even the political parties. Why do you think that is?
Who are the right people to appeal, the political parties, right? It is only now that I here you people debating that INEC should be mentioned
as party in all election petitions. As for the government, the ruling favoured the government.
Were you surprised when Abacha removed Chief Ernest Shonekan and seized power?
No. I expected it. You (the press) gave him the wherewithal to change that government.
Did he tell you? Did you know beforehand?
No. I knew from experience. I knew it would happen. The way I saw things happening at that time, I also knew he would have a free and easy ride. He ought to have been in a position to ask, if I do this, will the public support me? The answer was not ‘no’ at that time. At that time, you made it look like, yes we will support you. Yes, we are there with you. Yes, we know it is a military regime but it is better than this “contraption.” So, you supported him. And behold, what happened? The moment he struck, all the leading politicians in this country we rerunning around him looking for jobs, looking for positions. My reading of the situation was correct and I expected this to happen and it did.
Abacha was reported to have stolen over $3billion, stashed away in foreign banks. Did you know him as a man with a huge taste for personal wealth?
My answer is no. I don’t believe it.
But some of the looted funds have been returned and more are expected.
You said so but $3bn has not come back yet.
But how could something like that happen, that scale of theft?
To be honest, it has shocked my imagination. I couldn’t believe it. It is crazy. It is madness. It is like… who was the judge that said he would faint he sees that amount?
Yes. But again, Nigerians had a hand in making that possible. Those who worked with him must have advised him. You get stuck, thinking ‘I don’t
know how to get N1bn out of the vault’. But somebody will say, “No sir, it is easy. Let’s do it this way.” And there it is. Again, from what I read, if you say somebody took money and N1.5bn was found under his bed. The first question is how did he get N100m? But we are talking of millions of naira under the bed. With the rules and regulation, which were in place, you could not get more than N20m out of the treasury. But somebody is getting a billion out of the treasury.
You sound genuinely shocked and surprised. But some people out there believe your government liberalised corruption and is probably just as corrupt. So how can you say Abacha was corrupt?
Well, I didn’t say he was corrupt. I also want to disagree with you and say that the biggest theft that happened in this country was after I left office. This is when you find that the level of stealing had shifted from millions to billions to trillions. It is under your civilian governments that these things are happening, not during my government anyway. I sent a military governor out with N300,000. But today, you can’t send away anybody with N1bn. It is crazy!
Looking back, your decision to cancel the result of the June 12 election instead of handing power over to MKO Abiola who obviously won, nearly cost the country its life. What was it about Abiola that you were afraid of?
On the July 23, 1993, I addressed you and gave reasons why we did not hand over. Those reasons will never see the light of day because you
have already made up your mind. What you have said is right and what I said or what I will be saying is wrong. First, I will refer you back to what I said. But secondly, my fear then of July 23rd came out and we are paying dearly for it because you didn’t believe me.
What was the fear?
The fear then was that at that time, it was going to be a short-lived democratic process. From what was available to us, we knew that that the
government would not last. It would be toppled. And this is what we were trying to avoid at that time.
But Abubakar Umar Dangiwa said that that was not true; that you simply didn’t want to hand over.
Do not forget we were talking at different levels. That was his level. I had more sources of information than any one of them, more than all of them put together.
But your government could have defended or protected the mandate. You were in the position to do so because you also said in that same July 23rd speech that you were not only in government, you were in power. You could have put that power at the disposal of the mandate
If I did that, I would be accused of dictatorial tendencies. It is like asking me to prosecute someone on the assumption that he is likely going to stage a coup. I will only arrest him when I find evidence either in the act or in the process. It is as simple as that.
How do you remember June 12?
It was a day in Nigeria’s history when we had an election under a military regime that was adjudged free and fair.
How did you receive the news of Abiola’s death?
It shocked me to be very honest. Normally, as a Muslim, death doesn’t shock me. But his shocked me.
Was it shock mixed with regret?
No. I saw it as one of the events predetermined by God almighty, that he would have to go through all that process in life. And it is written. Nobody can change it and it had to happen.
Do you believe that he died of natural causes?
You should know.
I should know? I didn’t serve the tea.
Was the problem in the tea then?
So, they said.
Do you believe it?
No. If you listen to some of the international observers who came and saw him at that time, then there is something missing in the story you guys in the media are running.
Before she was named the NSA, Susan Rice was questioned about this. She seemed agitated. She refused to answer. Doesn’t this create more suspicion?
She wasn’t serving the tea. If I were her, I would say I didn’t serve the tea.
Recently the death of Dele Giwa came up again, with Kayode Soyinka saying that AIG Chris Omeben, in his recent comment, was only trying to protect you and other military intelligence chiefs who knew more than they were letting on. Who killed Dele Giwa?
Who sent the bomb?
Would you ever think somebody could sit and ask a soldier or anybody, go and kill that man?
It depends on who? If what you hear about other African leaders is anything to go by, you are right to believe that it could happen because of what happened in the case of the Mobutus of this world. But there is also one human being who believes in God, who believes you cannot take away life, who believes that God forbids you to do that,
who believes that God created you equally. Somebody of that nature cannot, in all fairness order the execution or killing of another
What was your relationship with Dele Giwa?
We were friends. Very soon, somebody is going to accuse me of saying he is my friend. I knew him very closely. I have correspondence between
him and me. But that is not enough for you to believe that we were friends. What is enough is that I took a bomb and killed him.
There was a general feeling that he knew a lot of military guys and knew more than he was supposed to know.
…That he knew we were dealing in drugs and Gloria Okon. Somebody should have come out with it by now. He must have left some manuscripts.
Did you suppress the investigation?
There was a report on that investigation if you may be interested to know.
But with witnesses that were hidden apparently.
No. Most of what you guys talked about was fictitious. Even one of the persons you guys said was involved does not seem to exist. Gloria Okon; she does not seem to be in existence. And then you came out with, what is the name of the other girl who was supposed to be my wife’s friend? She was in prison or something; you came out with that one. There is virtually no truth in it all. People are not very good in putting stories together to make it look credible. They only make it look fantastic. If you are dealing with an idiot, of course you can do anything. But you deal with a man who thinks, a man who tries to rationalise.
You appear to have had a very complicated relationship with the press; you were liked as intensely as you were disliked. You closed
down PUNCH and it is even widely believed that you disliked the newspaper so badly that you sponsored a candidate against its chairman during a newspaper proprietors’ association election.
Honestly, it is not true. I wouldn’t know that at my level at that time. Until today, I was told that he instructed the guys at PUNCH not to write anything favourable about me, up till today as I talk to
And you believe that?
Yes. I know him. He is a good man. He is a very nice person.
It’s not true that he gave any such instructions. If he did, I would have known because I was in a position to know.
OK. Let’s leave it.
Which newspaper/magazine gave you the most sleepless nights when you were in office?
News watch. That is where you had Ray Ekpu, Yakubu Mohammed and Dan Agbese. They are still good people. They are still my friends. They are very inquisitive; they have inquisitive minds. I felt then that they did a lot research. So, you don’t dismiss them easily. Whatever they come out with, there must be some truth to it. They were professional.
Another sad chapter on your watch was the air crash of the C-130 Hercules in plane in 1992, which killed 150 military officers. Was the crash ever properly investigated and reported? What
It was investigated. It was reported. But you guys had a mindset. Certain people had a mindset; nobody was interested in the report. But it was investigated. What happened in sum total was that the aircraft should not have been flying. There are mandatory stages, number of hours and maintenance. All those things that are mandatory were not there.
What happened to the people who authorized it to fly?
They ought to have been punished. I know that blame was apportioned. I wouldn’t know about the punishment. We investigated; we even apportioned blame but no penalties.
That is the Nigerian factor.
Which two Nigerian military leaders – dead or alive – are your icons?
Brigadier General Samuel Ademulegun and Brigadier Zakari Maimalari.
You had a back-and-forth with former President Olusegun Obasanjo on occasions in the past. It is even believed that his government, using the EFCC, went after your son Mohammed in 2006, to get you. Were you shaken?
No. Obasanjo asked me a question similar to what you asked; how the boy was taking it. I said I tried to teach them to bear pain. Whatever happened to him, somebody went through what he was going
through or somebody went through something worse than what he was going through. So he had to take it up as a challenge in life. And that was the way the boy saw it.
Of all the former heads of state/presidents, Obasanjo was the most vocal against the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan. You were, in fact, believed to have been a Jonathan man! Is that correct?
A Jonathan man means what? Jonathan was the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The Nigerian population elected Jonathan president. I was a military-dictator-president. I respected Jonathan
because the Nigerian people democratically elected him because this is what they wanted. Naturally, I am one of those Nigerians who support what Nigerians want. Jonathan did not want to see Nigeria go on its knees and therefore, he did what he could to make that this country remains one. A Nigerian who believes in this country should therefore support a man who is trying to keep the country one.
Who did you vote for on Election Day 2015?
That is why it is called secret ballot.
When Obasanjo and Jonathan were exchanging letters about Jonathan’s second term, people were of the opinion that former leaders like you and TY Danjuma should have spoken up that he didn’t have a record to run on. But you were silent.
I have always looked at that from a perspective that I had a vantage position as a former leader. I could always take a telephone and call Jonathan. Even if he was told I rang, l couldn’t get to him; he would
get back to me. He would always allow me to see him anytime I expressed the desire to see him. So, somebody who has that privilege, I think it is only fair that what I have to tell him should be between him and me and not for public consumption.
Obasanjo also had that privilege as well and he complained that Jonathan was not listening or responding to his private letters.
Well, I wouldn’t know that because I didn’t write.
Was it correct that Obasanjo kept one page of the famous letter that he wrote to Jonathan from you until after it was made public?
Honestly, I wouldn’t know that. To be honest, I knew he wrote that letter. I knew he was going to pass it to the public. And that is purely on a need to know basis.
Did you also know before the letter was published that he would refer to the discussion he had with you over Jonathan’s performance?
No, I wouldn’t know.
Former President Jonathan believed that the North did not want him to have a second term, in fact, that there was a northern conspiracy against him. Is that right?
Again, this is the fertile imagination of the Nigerian media. I wouldn’t like to share the idea that it was a conspiracy. I think what we are losing is the fact that the ordinary Nigerian today are more enlightened politically than what he used to be, say in 1979.This entire social media, it has tremendous impact on whoever wants to run for office. You get to know so many things about people. Today, you find a market woman talking about the exchange rate and so on. You begin to wonder how did they get to know all this? We have become much more sophisticated and it will be more, maybe in some couple of years to come.
How would you describe Jonathan’s tenure?
He is a very pleasant person. I believe he means well for the country.
There is a common perception that he is a good person but he was incompetent…
If you use inexperience, I will buy that.
Both Jonathan and Buhari came to you and we heard that you promised each of them your support. Is possible to support two people vying for the same post in an election?
I knew that one day, somebody would ask me this. When Buhari came here, I read what I had to tell him. I wrote it and read it. When Jonathan
came, I also perceived what I was going to say and I said it. Naturally, I was in the same situation in the same situation in 1992.Most of the political gladiators who wanted to be president – about
five of them – I met with them individually and we discussed. Normally, in such a situation what you do is to discuss things that are of common
interest to Nigeria and the Nigerian people. You can make your experience available to him or her depending on what he or she wants. So it is not a big problem if two of them come even if it is at the same time.
At such meetings, do promise each of them your vote?
I think I was intelligent enough to know that my vote is only one.
The office of the First Lady is not what it used to be under your wife, Maryam. It’s been toned down now. Do you think that is a good thing?
It depends on the individual who is the president. I came in as the eighth president of the country and everyone before me had a style or decided on the role that he wants his wife to play. I think the
fact that it is not the same is not a surprise at all.
How have you managed to resist the pressure to marry again after Maryam’s death?
If you didn’t ask, I would have asked you, ‘why didn’t you ask me this question?’ I am still looking. Maybe I will go back to Delta. Yes, there is societal pressure, I agree with you. But people are reasonable. They will understand. Somebody of my age, position; I don’t have to be in a hurry.
What about the women, they have not been showing interest? How have you been able to turn them down nicely?
Yes, I like the term; ‘turn them down nicely’.
Atiku defeated you as the consensus candidate in 2011. Do you think it was a fair contest?
There was no contest. That is the meaning of consensus. There was a group of wise men whose judgement I don’t question whatsoever. We
agreed among ourselves because there were about four or five of us. We agreed that whoever comes out as a result of the criteria set by thosepeople; then I will be able go by that position. That is what happened. I still respect those wise men.
At that time, there were issues about the fact Gen. Aliyu Gusau was contesting against you. Did you feel betrayed?
No. I cannot be an obstacle to a friend’s desire. If he wins, all well and good, it is to my advantage. If I win, all well and good, it is to his advantage.
What would you consider your greatest legacy as military president?
Nigerian did not disintegrate under my watch. That is one. I started apolitical…well, I wouldn’t call it a revolution because you wouldn’t like
it. But I ran two things at the same time as a government –economy and politics. These are two things that were going on during my time and I
was lucky to manage them. So, those, I consider my two legacies, theeconomy and political engineering. You have what I have always believed in eventually coming up to fruition, a two-party system. And this is what coming up right now. This is what we have, APC and PDP ,the rest are just there. And the second is we have a liberalised economy now. This is what we have in this country and it will be so for the next thousands of years. All you do is correct, adjust, adapt and so on.
About the liberalised economy, it has created a lot of super-rich people. How do think the government can manage the growing income gap between the rich and the poor?
I think what liberalisation has taught us and will continue to teach us is what I was honest to say in 1986 when we introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme. Those of us fellow citizens who are
prepared to work will surely survive this. And those who are not ready to work will be under. And those who are working hard today are making
it. Those who are trying, yes they are trying but those who are not doing it are not finding it easy at all.
When you were in office, you once travelled to France to be treated for radiculopathy. Do you feel sad that if any Nigerian leader had that same condition today, they would still travel abroad for treatment?
Again, this is where the Nigerian factor comes in. I will tell you a story. I have a neighbour here who went to Germany for a heart operation. After the treatment, then they asked the patient what is the distance between Nigeria and Ghana and the patient said, one hour by flight. They told her, next time you are in such a situation, go to Ghana. Why, because there were some Ghanaian doctors who went to Germany, and with help from the Germans, set up a heart clinic back in Ghana. Later, this woman went to Ghana. She came back to say that first of all, it was cheaper. Secondly, she had almost the same medical care she had in Germany. So I want to reemphasize the fact we should be able to do it in this country. It is just that there is always the problem of post-surgery, post-operation, post-care. These are some of the problems I think we need to address. But it is sad.
How do you spend your years in retirement?
I have very lively grandchildren. I always enjoy having them around, chatting with them. It reminds me of the days when I was growing up. Then, of course, chatting with good people like you in the media and reading a lot of what you dish out to others from your fertile minds.
You were called many names by the media, Maradona, Evil Genius, the gap-toothed General, Prince of the Niger and so on. How would you like to remember?
That there was a military officer who served this country, who rose through the ranks to the highest position and commanded the Nigeria Army.
He eventually became the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He introduced a lot of reforms in economics and in politics. So many things you can write.