It is exactly 36 years today when General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew General Muhammadu Buhari in a palace coup. That was 27 August 1985. When he came, Babangida, IBB for style, came in smiling, trying to create an avuncular persona in contrast to the stern visage of his predecessor. Nigerians soon realized that the smiling general would inflict pain on them. What were the undercurrents that led to the putsch?
In 1993, Buhari, now President of Nigeria, spoke on major issues about his regime when he and General Tunde Idiagbon were in charge: his overthrow by Ibrahim Babangida, his disregard for IMF and World Bank and the conditionalities they imposed, the search of Obafemi Awolowo’s residence by security officials, Umaru Dikko’s kidnap and others.
Below is the interview, as published in the 5 July 1993 edition of TheNEWS:
WHY I WAS TOPPLED
Eight years ago, General Muhammadu Buhari and his deputy, General Tunde Idiagbon lost out in a palace coup that brought General Babangida to power.
Buhari, now living a private and quiet life in Kaduna and Daura, speaks exclusively to TheNEWS team comprising Dapo Olorunyomi, Seye Kehinde, Timothy Bonnet, Bagauda Kaltho and Monday Emoni who took the photos
The full interview.
After about eight years of relative quiet, it seems there has been a new rev up in your visibility profile. You were at the Otta Forum recently and also at General Joe Garba’s book launch in Lagos. Are these pointers to the shape of things to come?
I decided to go to Otta because I identified myself with the efforts General Obasanjo has been trying to make since his first letter to the President at the supposed meeting of the Council of State. I think after eight years, it is obvious now to all Nigerians that there is cause for concern in the affairs of the country. Hence my decision at this juncture to come out and identify myself with sole objectives as specified in General Obasanjo’s letter.
How do you see General Obasanjo’s role over time? Do you see any wisdom in his occasional intervention in our national life?
But he explained this. if you have been following up closely what he said in his letter to the President at the last Council of State meeting and his subsequent interview both in national and international media, what he said was that he made several efforts to see Mr. President and put his case across but it was virtually blocked. His only option was to come out and talk to the press, so that the public will know what he said.
Is it true that there were threats to stop people from attending the Otta meeting? In your own case was there any attempt to stop you and in what form?
As far as I know, nobody tried to stop me. I was not harassed by anybody. I decided to go and I went.
Did you ever feel that government could stop such a meeting?
No, because General Obasanjo, as he said, informed the government. He told the government that he was holding such a meeting well before he got us involved. Of course I was told that there were efforts by security agents to stop the meeting at the Gateway Hotel, Otta, to frustrate the meeting. I think that was the reason the venue was changed to General Obasanjo’s farm
How would you describe the spirit of the Otta meeting?
It was a pity I missed the important part of the meeting because of the mix up. I went to
Gateway Hotel, Abeokuta, instead of Otta. So by the time I drove back to Gateway Hotel, Otta and then Obasanjo’s farm, the address had been read by Obasanjo who convened the meeting and participants had read their own papers and comments had been made. So I went half way through the meeting. But the important thing I noticed was the air of commitment. It would appear that those who attended were prepared to discuss the serious of the security and economy of the country and advise government.
Before the meeting were there contacts between you and General Obasanjo on the situation of things in the country.
No there wasn’t. but only recently he formally wrote and informed me that because of the situation in the country he was convening a meeting.
Tied to this is the relationship between you and Obasanjo. Because there was this important lecture he gave to the Agriculture Society in Ibadan in 1985 where he sharply criticized your government for what he called some form of tilted federalism. It is so ironic that you are both back trying to save federalism at Otta. How do you see all these?
He sent me an advanced copy of the address. Indeed he criticized my administration but I could recall vividly that he visited me several times. In my own case there was never an attempt by me to stop him from coming to see me. I expected him really to be coming to discuss with me. Before he wrote the address I sat with him to discuss the issue and I explained to him what he perceived as my administration being rather partisan in a way. There I asked him which were the incidents? And I was given the example of NEPA, where senior officers were retired. I said well, when we came in we found out there were so many people. There were too many people in one office, virtually with the same schedule. The consequences were that there was no productivity. So we asked all ministers to streamline ministries and cut down unnecessary staff. Whatever we did in that regime was argued in the Executive Council. So it was pointed out that really there was no question of one section of the country being punished at that time. There was no incident to prove this but as you know General Obasanjo like everybody else had to be susceptible to the pressures of his locality. I tried to explain but the General still went ahead to read the address. Of course by co-incidence, I was removed the same month.
Could it be that, each time General Obasanjo has had to speak against the short coming of this regime, he had spoken the minds of all retired generals like you?
I wouldn’t say that. But what he had been saying since are so fundamental. Everybody knows them. It is now a question of who said them. Very many people have said many of what he said before he said it. But the fact that he is a former head of state gave it some weight. People appreciated it. He has told the government publicly each time they’ve gone too far.
From your own vantage position, will you say General Obasanjo has been generally misunderstood? Do you think his real profile has truly emerged to Nigerians.
I don’t think he has been misunderstood. Like I said in one of the newspaper reports before now: how can you quarrel with what General Obasanjo said? Who will say there is no corruption in this country? Who will say there is no indiscipline in this country? Who will say there is no incompetence in this country? Who will say there is no insecurity in this country? I mean both physical and material. These are the issues General Obasanjo has addressed and no Nigerian can deny this.
The perception is that a lot of you in attendance were retired military officers and here you are talking of democracy. Do we now perceive this to mean that the retired military officers are passing a vote of no coincidence on the role of military in government?
You have the right to think the way you do, but the important thing is: things are going wrong and we as former senior military officers are extremely disturbed that it is a military administration that is perpetrating this mess. It is a pity because those of us who received military training before independence received the best training the military anywhere in the world could receive and especially the officer corp. This is because the emphasis of our training was on leadership. Leadership with accountability. Here we are, all senior officers, we have been governors, we have been ministers and heads of state and so on. We saw what we overthrew civilians for, and what we accused the civilians of, being perpetrated by a military administration. This military institution we know best has been desecrated, infiltrated and perverted. The military everywhere in the world is a very patriotic organization and they are known for efficiency and you can’t be efficient, if you are corrupt, you can’t be efficient if you are undisciplined. This is what is killing us most.
The focus of the Otta meeting was for better democracy in the country. Do you think the scope was adequate enough in terms of representation?
That question should go to the convener of the meeting. I was invited and I went because I agree with the fundamental facts brought out of the meeting. On this question of democracy, with the collapse of the Soveit Union, a whole empire, and a socialist system, to some of us it is conclusive that democracy is the best system. Let people be firstly properly educated, about their rights and let them choose their leaders. As an avenue for change without shedding blood, democracy is the best. Democracy does not make sense if elections are rigged, if the manner in which the elections are organized continues to be corrupt then the type of democracy is not acceptable.
Would you recommend the widening of the scope of participants to include the human rights organization who were not well represented there?
You mean at the Otta meeting?
Well you are going back to what I said initially. It is General Obasanjo who convened the meeting. Direct your question to him;.
If you were to make suggestion or recommendation what would you say?
I think they have put in a lot of efforts, they’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I mean these human rights organizations have tried. They have been arrested and detained and assaulted in so many ways. One of the papers recently wrote an editorial on that. I have no objection to whoever General Obasanjo chooses to invite or decide to co-opt. This is his initiative and I think he is capable of handling it.
For the Otta Forum to command the respect of Nigerians and to have the necessary credibility to push across issues that bother on survival of the country, what do you think should be taken into consideration?
The objective is for good governance. I have always believed that the bottom line is accountability. We are not a poor country, that is why a lot of people who are owing have refused to give us any relief because they know us perhaps more than we know ourselves-that we are not a poor country. They know we have mismanaged our system.
Some people have described the last General meeting in Otta as an attempt on the part of the people like you, General Obasanjo and other retired generals to save the military class from imminent disgrace. Is this a fair reading?
I don’t care about what people may say about the meeting, but definitely I noticed at the meeting that there was a concern, very, very strong concern by General Obasanjo and General Danjuma and the rest of us that our justification if there was any for taking over power was to stop the corruption and the indiscipline in government. This has to do with the nature of our training. But here we are today people telling us to our own face that we the military are the worst thing that ever happened to Nigeria, that the same military is so corrupt. And naturally since it was the same military we knew our concern is justifiable. We came to the military, after leaving secondary school, we had training and here we are, our colleagues are messing up the country and nobody can deny it. It is natural that we get concerned and tell them about it. They know it. We cannot save them, they are the only ones that can save themselves. We are no longer in the military class that will save itself, if it doesn’t then it will go down in history as a corrupt, disorganized and inefficient institution in Nigeria as it is today.
One other highly misunderstood issue which is a way links both you and General Obasanjo has been this N2.8 billion issue. Somehow nobody really understands what happened. How did the money get missing?
What do you mean by people don’t really understand it? Are you saying people don’t understand what happened? I am saying this because when that allegation came up, I was the Commissioner for Petroleum Resources and if you look at the terms of reference of the panel that investigated it, headed by Justice Ayo Irikefe, it was virtually from the date I was sworn in to the date I left. If you try and make research as I expect you to do when you are asking me such a question, you should find out how much we were selling our petrol during that period and how much N2.8 billion is and how much percentage of our external reserve and internal reserve petroleum constituted. And when you check how could N2.8 billion get missing without Nigeria collapsing? It is only one person who made such an observation. It was the former Governor of the Central Bank, Isong. I read it when I was in the United States. He made that observation in the New Nigerian newspaper. Nigerians seem to believe what they want to believe. That is why it is so easy to misdirect energy and deceive the people of this country. Having made that allegation and having mobilized people to believe that administration stole N2.8 billion, a justice of the Supreme Court was made head of the inquiry and people were asked to come and say what they knew about it. That panel went round and checked the account of Nigeria and they found that nobody stole N2.8 billion and you are still saying people don’t understand. What else could the country do? Here I am, I never ran away, Obasanjo never ran away from Nigeria, he was the head of State, I was the minister. Our accounts were checked, we made declaration of our assets. We have no fronts. We didn’t build any home outside the amount we earned as our salaries and allowances and people are still saying they don’t understand. You’ll find out that it was not possible to take N2.8 billion from Nigeria at that time. It was all a lot of rubbish, people said they heard it from motor park, from market.
But we had people like the late Professor Awojobi who were ready to stake out their lives that this money was missing. Are you saying they were liars?
Yes they were. Did they bring the facts? Did they have anything to show? You see I signed most of the contracts when I was the Commissioner for Petroleum. Whatever little was made was documented. There were documents, the money was audited. It was for the Federal Republic of Nigeria account, no part of it went anywhere until it first went into that account, and then Central Bank would advise and then if you want to send out part of that money there has to be a memo from the Federal Executive Council and it found that there was no money missing. That was the system we had and anybody could examine it. In any case, the white paper came out, people examined it. If the allegations were true, there should be facts, facts are facts.
Some people still feel that indeed there was a N2.8 billion issue and that the spur for it was even something patriotic, in connection with the nationalization of the British Petroleum because of its policy in South Africa. Why is the government and participants like you and General Obasanjo unwilling even to earn this kind of credit. It was quite true?
Well, what I knew in the system then, and which I made as statements when I was in detention, of course I knew government was trying to buy time, There was a way money is being accounted for. If you earned money from cocoa or oil or any thing, it goes into the Federal Government account. It came back to Nigeria through the Central Bank, printed into naira and then what you have behind is your reserve. I didn’t see anyway the head of state would authorize money to be taken from the Federal Republic of Nigeria account straight into somebody’s account. There was no constitutional allowance for that. I am still to see anybody who can prove General Obasanjo gave such an order for such an amount. In fact there is no banking system that can allow you take N2.8 billion just like that no matter the amount you have,. This is because the money is not just there. You deposit your money for a certain amount of time and you have to wait until it matures but you cannot move N2.8 billion just like that I don’t know if any other government can do that but certainly not the one I served under.
But there was a prominent columnist at that time who insinuated that he was indeed sure that the amount was paid into the account of one Chief A.O. of Ogun State.
(Laughter) You Nigerians, especially the journalists, you have to help this country. In fact, there are some things that you shouldn’t publish. What I am telling you is this: Which is the richest country in the world now? Don’t tell me United States because the U.S. is in debts in trillions of dollars. The richest country in the world cannot go to the bank and say I want N2.8 billion now and write a cheque for it. You have to give the banking system time to mobilise that kind of money. I am not a banker, but you have to give the banking system time to mobilize the money. It is all over the world invested. That is the truth about it. This is the thing the former Governor of the Central Bank, Clement Isong was trying to explain in the article I read. But you the Nigerian Press will mobilize for whatever reason to make Nigerian believe that N2.8 billion was stolen by the Obasanjo administration.
Was there any issue of the money being moved for fear of British reprisals on British Petroleum nationalization?
As far as I know, no. NO money was moved, becauses I was not here. I was in the United States War College. But what I believed under that government was that there was accountability. That was why I identified with what they did. It was not a slip of the tongue because I worked under this administration and I knew there was accountability. Up till the time I left this country anybody caught stealing public money was punished.
How did you feel when such rumour was being spread then?
I felt extremely bad especially when the money purportedly came from the ministry I was in charge. I knew the place very well, I knew the NNPC. There was no fire outbreak up till the time I left. So nobody burnt the documents. If they were burnt, it was after we left the place and after the inquiry before they burnt the dam place. The whole documents were placed in the ministry of Justice, Central Bank, Ministry of Finance. The documents are still there.
Was that why you were not quite happy with the press, when you came to power?
Yes, I told late Dele Giwa that I would tamper with the press freedom and I fulfilled my promise, didn’t I? (Laughter) Am – I was disappointed with the press. I was disappointed because like I said before some things are not supposed to be published. For example if some illiterate brought to you something very sensational and unbelievable, you must have the integrity to resist it if it is against national interest. There are some journalists who are known to public rubbish. But those who consider themselves serious they have to guard their integrity. If you write rubbish and I have the facts, I will tell you so.
During your last interview with the late Dele Giwa and on the FRCN , Kaduna, Hausa service, you gave indication early in the administration that you would tamper with the press. Why the need to muzzle the press?
Yes, I told late Dele Giwa that if we are going to do any meaningful work, the situation of things in Nigeria in 1984 demanded that the press be dealt with.
But you don’t think you needed to carry the press along considering the enormity of the problems you faced?
We did attempt to carry the press along. If you could recall, the Chief of Staff was giving the press monthly briefings and interviews and keeping the public informed on how much money the country had and how much was recovered from people who misappropriated public property and what was being done. All these things are factual. I listened to the press. Every day I made it a point of duty to listen to news at least twice in the morning and at 9pm. Everyday Nigerians were being told how the country was being run, what we didn’t like was lack of objectivity on the part of some journalists.
How often did you get upset with reports you read in the papers?
Often. After that, of course, people still complained, the reports changed and journalists changed the way of conveying this. the cartoons became more eloquent than before.
Was it necessary to promulgate Decree 4 when there were other laws to check the excesses of the press?
Well, we found it necessary that is why we put the decree in place.
Was it not too high handed on the part of your regime to muzzle the press the way you did?
Well, you’ve said it was too high handed so when do you expect me to say? But really I don’t think because what you shouldn’t do was clearly specified.
Don’t you think such a Decree which saw truth as no defence was faulty?
If journalists fall foul of the decree, then the tribunal will sort it out. If you could recall, there were some people who were tried for some offences and sentenced to twenty-one years and the Supreme Military Council reduced it to five years of less after a review. You check the task given to Justice Bello then: to review sentences passed on people.
When People were saying there was no appeal and so on, they were thinking of normal judicial processes. Certainly, normal; judicial processes were suspended because how could you deal with those people. How? If you could recall our first announcement was that people should be reporting to the police station nearest to them. Instead they were reporting outside the country. So we would have ended up with nobody to ask with the misuse of public property. That is why subsequently people had to be arrested and then later taken to the tribunal for prosecution. Others were not prosecuted, they were released.
So, how do you assess the Nigerian media given your experiences inside and outside government?
Well, you are at the receiving end. There are some of you who are fighting very hard, others have collapsed. But the important thing is that like any institution there are still some honourable people in it and they are suffering in the interest of all Nigerians and everybody knows about it. But if we take the question of generalizing I’ll say most of the press has been killed.
Your regime has been described in various ways. What was the salient philosophy behind your administration which was not so visible to Nigerians? How would you describe your 20 months in government.
As I told you we are a developing country. There is no way a developing country can harness its resources, both material and human without discipline and good leadership. It’s basic. If people can do what they like, when they like, how they like, you are going to end up without anything. So the philosophy behind our government was that through discipline we were going to harness the resources of this country both human and material for the development of the country and our way of mobilizing the people was through War Against Indiscipline (WAI) and you know there were so many stages of WAI. But what do you find today? People are not patriotic, they are not accountable. We are nearing the chaotic condition now. If you accept that there are people who are above the law, whichever sets come, whether military or civilian they are allowed to steal as much as they can, what will then remain? What is happening in the country today is sad. This country is finished.,
But don’t you think you and Idiagbon ruled with too much force, too much high-handedness?
Yes, We had to. People were made to feel so because we alienated ourselves by Decree 4. We also alienated the political class for questioning their integrity, for arresting them and asking them to account for the trusts put in them. We alienated those people who think they were above the law, by questioning their integrity. And by the time we were removed, we were justified.
But didn’t you see the possibilities of miscarriage of justice in trying to bring this Second Republic politicians to book?
There is no system no matter how perfect where you don’t have miscarriage of Justice. But the important thing is for the people to be convinced that that leadership is honestly trying and I thought by the time we left, not even to talk of now, Nigeria knew we had tried. The mistakes we made were honest mistakes. Unlike what you find today, we did not make mistakes in encouraging stealing, or protecting those that had stolen because they are our friends or because we share in the loot with them. Most of the mistakes we made were made because we were in a hurry because so much damage had been done in the country. Things were that bad. But after eight years now Nigerians know better. I challenge you to conduct public poll, know how people feel. Nigerians are tired of what is going on now.
How do you explain the way some of your soldiers broke into some politicians’ houses like that of the late Unity Party of Nigeria leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo in search of evidence to try them?
You see leadership means you have to trust people. You have to give them jobs to handle and power to achieve goals. But our administration was unlucky. There was a fifth columnist amongst us, and the success of that fifth columnist is what we are in now. There were certain people in the society who were embarrassed, that shouldn’t have been embarrassed, because there was no reason for such embarrassment. One of them was Chief Awolowo, I didn’t know anything about the raid on his house. I didn’t have to know about it, but I ought to know about it. I ought to be told that the house of a person like Chief Awolowo was going to be searched. That should have been discussed at the Supreme Military Council (SMC). Alhaji Shehu Musa’s house was searched I was told Gumi’s house was searched by some policemen. I got to know about these incidents after they had happened but I chose to keep quiet, I knew someone was playing games. These incidents happened because the security had the right to such a level, to quickly check on security issues. But then it was later I realized it was one of the master plan of the fifth-columnist in my government to discredit me through embarrassing some leaders in certain localities without really having apparent reason to do so. It is too late for Chief Awolowo and Alhaji Gumi to know the truth now. They’ll never know but Shehu Musa is still alive, his house was searched. Certainly I didn’t send anybody to search his house. He was a civil servant, a former secretary to Shagari. He was not found guilty by any Tribunal or anything so I don’t know why his house was searched or why those people organized a search or what they were looking for.
When you heard of all these searches, what did you do? Did you set up a panel of inquiry?
No. I didn’t need to. As a head of state, you deal with your security chiefs on a day to day basis. That is what I am trying to tell you. There are so many ways of dealing with people. Sometimes you even allow people to make mistakes to prove to them that you are either more experienced or that your argument is more superior to their own. That is if you are put in a position of public leadership. No matter who you are, you make mistakes but the important thing is that you must not be afraid to discuss your mistakes with your colleagues.
Have you been able to identify who the fifth columnist is or was?
Of course, I know it was the military intelligence who searched all those houses. It was the military intelligence that ordered Shehu Musa’s house searched. It was not the police, it was not the NSO. Those behind it are visible today.
Don’t you think it was a tactical error on the part of your administration to have fought many battles in many fronts taking on organized groups like doctors, university teachers, students, lawyers?
It was not necessary, it was not confrontational. The elite forces were doing a lot of havoc when we decided to expose them as being corrupt and incompetent. So they went through all sorts of ways to cause diversion. I’ll given you an example about the Nigeria Medical Association. Somebody in the Ministry of Health made the mistake of refusing to give some of staff their rights as their terms of condition of service stipulated. The matter was brought to the Federal Executive Council and the Council said those people were right. They should be given free medical attention and then the person who made that wrong should be punished. Whether he was punished or not I didn’t know, because it had become a civil service affair. But immediately after, the NMA said it gave us 72 hours to equip hospitals, to bring drugs and a lot more conditionalities. For goodness sake, how can an educated elite like that give a government 72 hours? How much time does it take you to equip a hospital, not even a whole country? And they knew the condition in which the economy of the country was in then. Nobody knew how much this country was owing. A lot of people had an idea of who stole the money and who were party to it. So we were not fighting on all fronts but those who we were fighting were people of substance like former governors, ministers, former commissioners, deputy governors. They felt they were above the law. Contracts were swollen from N1 million to N3 million, some of the jobs were not done, they were paid for. And now the contractors who collected the money and their relatives were not creating diversions. We were only fighting corrupt institutions.
In any case after 20 months they succeeded, some of them were fined, they were given their money, property. What is why we are where we are now. Everybody who gets to position in this country feels he is entitled to steal, because nobody can question him.
But we were talking of groups such as the NMA, students, is it that they were opposing you so much that you decided to crack down on them?
We had to do that to survive as a government and we had to punish people who looted the treasury . Have they all not been set free now by this government? Where are they now?
But was the situation so bad that you had to use unconventional methods?
The situation was that bad. Okay tell me, how can you bring these men to trial using the normal Nigerian litigation method? Go and check on one land problem in Lagos, It takes a generation, 30 years to resolve. Are we going to wait for 30 years with this kind of administration? Is this how to run a government? It is now eight years and we are all in trouble. Maybe you don’t know we are all in trouble;
Your economic doctrine, revolved around opposition to the International Montary Fund loan and there was the counter trade. What were their palpable gains since the present regime abandoned these policies?
When we came in, this country had no credit line with any country because we would not settle our trade arrears. Trade arrears had become five billion dollars. Nobody was giving us any further loan, no spare parts, no new machinery, no material for industry, factories were lying fallow. And the countries would not give us that line of credit until we take IMF loan and their conditionalities and no matter how limited you think that administration was we knew there was no developing country that can develop that way and Nigeria was no exception. We knew Nigeria could not survive under the IMF loan, so we refused it. Moreso we knew we were not a poor country. The Federal Executive Council then said, look, even rich countries are doing counter trade, why not us. This is what we did. There was a committee I set up to examine what we require, then they looked at the commodity prices and we were settling our debts. We were servicing it regularly and our balance of payment improved within the 20 months.
You had this economic blue print which was not very clear until you left. What were the high points?
A: it was clear. It depends on what you are not clear about. You can’t say the policy was totally unclear. We found ourselves in a quandary. We had factories, but no spare parts, no raw materials, which means we cannot get the good and services we need as a nation. So where do we fall on? But we have oil, we have cocoa, we had things we can exchange to get those unemployed employed. Does this not make economic sense? Instead of taking somebody’s money and he comes and sits in your Central Bank and makes nonsense of your independence as a nation by telling you to buy from his own country, maybe his goods are not as good as those in the world market where you normally but them. We had a clear perception of what to do and we were on our way doing it, that is why we were impatient with local problem, because really we saw where we were going. There was no way we could go about it without discipline. We had to cut waste. You don’t take public fund and give it to people to do nothing. People have to earn a living. And it is much more respectful to give them a way of earning a living rather than donating money to them.
Why did your regime commit so high a percentage to servicing debt as highlighted by those who removed you from office?
How much are you spending now? Answer me. Is it lower? (Laughter) I often laugh when people say we are rigid, I tell them it is not true. There is no way you can run any government as complex like Nigeria’s without being flexible and also compromising here and there but there are standards we refuse to go below. We said we shall not allow anybody to misuse public funds, no way.
When you came in, your government wanted to cross check trade arrears said to be about 5 billion dollars. What were your findings? Were you able to identify the percentage debt Nigeria was supposed to repay?
We had not finished before we were removed. What we did was to put one of the reputable banks to do authentication. If you said you were a company out there and you brought a product to Nigeria, we made sure you proved to us what you brought, which trading company it went through before we agreed to pay you. You just don’t get papers stamped by Customs and Excise or Central Bank and say you are owing.
You pursued the LNG project vigorously before you left, How much was realized in respect of this project.
One of the most unfortunate things that has happened to Nigeria was the lack of take off of the LNG project. It was one of the most unfortunate things to happen to this country. You could recall that towards the end of Obasanjo’s regime, I had initiated the agreement. It needed only to be formalized then it was scuttled. Because by December 1983, we would have even started sending LNG out and the benefits and linkages were so diverse that it would have solved most of our petrochemical foreign exchange problems. Because I was involved in the project as commissioner of petroleum, when I came back into government I wanted to find out how far we had gone. I found out it was stagnant, and the serious participants withdrew because they could not accept the terms the Second Republic government gave them.
So we had to start all over again. When we looked we had no money. We had to dedicate a certain of portion of our income to be kept in the account for LNG. That was the amount General Obasanjo was talking about. You better go and find out from this administration where that money is?
Members of the organized private sector criticized you then for refusing to hand over public utilities under the privatization policy. Why did you oppose privatization?
Have they done it now, if they have, what is the outcome? The whole thing is fraudulent. I’ll give you an example. Take Nigerian Airport Authority.
We opted for commercialization because it made a lot of sense. You give it to competent managers to manage and you put some capital into it. See what is happening today. You take away the banks, you take away the oil industries, you give them to people to make money. But other services like the Railway, the public transport, the air transport, education all suffer.
From your answers, you sound like someone misunderstood. Is that a fair reading of how Nigerians responded to your regime?
You caused it. Nigerians had to depend on you (the press) to understand this. you misrepresented me to Nigerians on behalf of the few within.
All sorts of stories making the rounds suggest that you were not part of the group that removed Shagari. Is this true?
Just now, one of your colleagues asked me: Was the Otta Forum an effort to save the military from disgrace? I think it was the same thing under Shagari, but not particularly for the military but it was for the whole national institution. The call for good government and people saying the military must not come back; there should be no coup, are all nonsense. You remember the Constituent Assembly and the CDC examined the issue of No More Coup but found it was all nonsense. Whichever leadership that refuses to give an account of its stewardship properly to the nation will go one way or the other. In terms of Second Republic we reached a stage where they had no credibility in the country, and no credibility outside the country. Now we have reached the same stage again. This present government has no credibility inside or outside the country.
So whatever government it is, be it military or civilian, if it doesn’t perform something has to give. Whether I participated in the overthrow of Shagari or not is not my business, let them put it in the way they like, I wouldn’t like to talk about this issue now but the important thing is that we saw that this country was about to collapse and we were n a position to stop it and thank goodness we had 20 months and people have seem the efforts we had made. What about those who have spent eight years? What positive contribution have they made?
But people still feel the coup was NPN inspired. You remember that Chief Akinloye said there were only two parties in the country: NPN and the Army. Why did you dance to the NPN tune?
Well they were saying that. They said that. I was concerned about that. You know I traveled from Jos to Lagos to complain about this statement by Akinloye and somebody reminded me that President Shagari himself made it. So I went back to Jos in annoyance. You see the arrogance of the political class. I think then and now, that because people elected them, no matter how they were elected, so nobody has the right to either criticize them or to question their integrity. I think that statement should not come from a leader. If a president of the United States (that country we are copying), can be carpeted for Iran-contra affair, money taken through many ways, just because of their belief in anti-communist activities in another country, what stops us from dealing with a Nigerian leader who steals public funds? This is our problem and this has to stop. What you find in Nigeria is you have a leader who more than half of the people are tired of but he says no person can question him about taking public funds and throwing it about the place as it is happening now. Nigerians must refuse to accept a hostage leadership.
What do you mean by hostage leadership?
It is when you have a leader that is a hostage to other interests than the Nigerian interests. Can’t you see what is happening today?
The people’s belief is that you had personal problem with President Shehu Shagari over the Chadian incursion in 1983 when as GOC at Jos you commanded the troops that sent them back against the decision of Shagari. What happened?
This is the problem. Issues in Nigeria are always conspired. What is the role of the Nigerian Army? Is one of the vital roles not to guard the borders? For example, Hissene Habre was in lagos on a Friday before the attack having dinner with Shagari. And Professor Ishaya Audu, external affairs minister, was in East Africa, but the same time lobbying African countries to accept Habre in the OAU. But by the following Sunday, two days after, Habre’s forces attacked our troops within Nigeria and killed five of our soldiers, looted our military hardwares and so on and arrested about 20 soldiers. How can you really, if you have a system of command as we had, allow this kind of nonsense to happen? We didn’t like it and we told the authority we didn’t like it. We had started operation and we were told to withdraw and we did. But I think we were failing in our fundamental duties under the constitution. We allow people to come into Nigeria, harass our own people, kill them and just allow your people to be killed. We felt very bad. The military felt very bad, we taught Habre’s forces some hard lessons.
But there was this story that you defied orders from Lagos?
How can I refuse to take orders from Lagos? When I was told to withdraw I left the place.
But the story was that you moved in even before discussing with Shagari.
(Laughter) if you have been a soldier, if you have been an officer for 15, 16, 17 years commanding troops you will use your initiative from time to time.
What initiative did you use at that time?
I gave Habre a bloody nose. I gave the fool a bloody nose. I taught him a lesson, a very hard one.
During your administration, there was the bungling of the kidnapping of Umaru Dikko. A lot of people felt you were behind it and that you ordered his abduction.
What do you mean by that? You mean me Buhari as a person or my administration?
Okay. But do you recall the statement we gave then? I still stand by it.
What does that mean?
I stood by it.
Is it true that you used Danjuma as a military consultant?
Look it is one of the unfortunate things that is happening in this country. I saw a paid advertisement in one of the magazines by a junior officer, Major Mustapha Jokolo who must have been paid or given something to discredit some officers. To that extent whatever he says cannot be credible. As far as credibility is concerned there are two officers that I know that I can vouch for anywhere because I reserve under them. One of them is General Danjuma, the other is General Obasanjo. I think Nigeria is lucky to have people like that. How can you have a country that is this sick?
How can you allow a Major speak openly against a General that commanded the army or commanded the country? Because what came out of the write up by this officer, that was paid was far beyond what that officer will ever know, although he was my ADC. Definitely somebody moved into the military’s security archives and turned it over to a junior officer to abuse a senior officer. But I know Nigerians know the value of those officers, Obasanjo and Danjuma.
Why was there a need to abduct Umaru Dikko?
We were trying to stop corruption to investigate people who had misused Nigerian resources and let them pay this money back because they were taken illegally. There are Nigerians who felt concerned and if you could recall unlike the interview granted by Umaru Dikko, nobody wanted Umaru Dikko dead. We all wanted Umaru Dikko here, we wanted him alive because he accused that administration of corruption or some of the officers. Let him come and say it. If they wanted to kill him as he said, they could have killed him there. But if you kill a person you bury the evidence. The thing to do is to allow him to live and you allow him to talk.
Your government had an elaborate economic policy, how come you never had a transition programme like the one the regime that overthrew you used to legitimize itself in office?
But are they serious about it? Are they honest about it? We know what is goinig on. We have a political programme but because I didn’t mention it does not mean it does not exist or that it is not a credit to the administration. By June 1984, I took a paper to the Supreme Military Council on this and this paper caused a lot of heat. So I had to withdraw the memo and I had to submit another one. But nobody ever mentioned in this administration that there was an attempt to bring in civilians more in a larger number in both the state and federal assembly. But it was rejected. But because it would give our administration a lot of credit nobody said it.
Still on the Umaru Dikko abduction, if your government supported the move, why was it bungled the way it was bungled?
You better go and ask those who bought advertisement and accused some Generals of being corrupt. Because they seem to have all the information. I told you I can vouch for the integrity of only two Generals because I served under them. I don’t know of some others who served with me but are now visible today. Those who say they directed their integrity honestly in all they did while I was head of state let them show it to the public. It is not good enough for me to accuse some specific Generals without giving the evidence. They are in power today.
So why did the operation fail?
How do I know?
Can the failure be attributed to the activities of the fifth columnist in your regime.
Probably. Get your stories down and let them have a judicial enquiry after this administration has gone so that ordinary people like us can be asked what we know about it. We know who did all these things.
Let us talk about General Idiagbon.
He was your number two man and a lot of people say him as your alter ego.
Well, there are things you should put down as a mark of people’s greatness or weakness. General Idiagbon was leading a Hajj team including senior officers like the late Mamman Vatsa and General Duba and so on and this coup took place during Hajj and General Tunde Idiagbon was given the option to stay till this regime decided to hand over but he said no. He said he would come back and join me so that I will not be killed. He said since we were being accused together he would come and face trial with me. Tell me. He would have been the first person to disassociate himself from me as some serving Generals now did. Can you imagine. We all served together in the Supreme Military Council for 20 months, took decision together, we came out with all the laws, and they turned round when it suited them to say Tunde and I arrogated to ourselves the knowledge of governance. After eight years, Nigerians know better. Some of us came out of the regime feeling patriotic, courageous, with our personal and professional integrity intact. Let us see how many of those in government today can say that about themselves.
Why did you pick Idiagbon as your deputy?
It was not very easy, but by some fabulous co-incidence, he happened to have gone through all the commands, I went through, I was a military secretary, he was a military secretary too. He commanded the brigade I established in Makurdi. He became administrator of Borno State where I became a governor and so we know each other very well. He is a performer. He is an achiever.
But he took his under-aged child to Hajj at a time they said kids should not be taken.
Well I suppose if this is the only thing you have against him, then go to him. Only Tunde Idiagbon can give you a good answer to that
Let’s talk of the attitude of your government to hard drugs. Why has there been so much controversy about the way you dealt with drug couriers and dealers at that time?
Then we thought we could stem the tide of Nigerians getting involved in it by the way we went about it but see what is happening today. See what drug trafficking has brought Nigeria. Look at what happened to Clement Akpamgbo. Look at what happened to Wole Soyinika. Those are the consequences of being soft on crimes that destroy society. It is a pity that this government allows those who deal in drugs to destroy the society for money. Look at what is happening to Nigerians. Now, there are Nigerians when asked their nationality they say no they are Senegalese and Ghananians. They are no longer proud to be called Nigerians. There are people I know who have stopped going out except when absolutely necessary because they are stripped to their pants. A dog is brought to sniff you.
There was this claim that you had gazetted the retirement of the late AIG SalihuDaura and a serving general now because of their involvement in drugs. You were also said to have detained one of the Dantatas, but these issues are shrouded in mystery.
There is nothing shrouded about it. The problem is there were several cases investigated by the former Supreme Military Council at that time of some people involved in drugs. I suppose one of the people mentioned was being investigated. There was never a gazette retiring the AIG or the General who is now the President, because for a certain class of officers to be retired the issue has to come before the Army Council, and National Security Council. Those cases were never there. Meanwhile, because of the activities of the fifth columnist, rumours were deliberately peddled that senior officers were to be retired. If subsequent investigation proved that they dealt in cocaine they would have been treated by the law them.
Are you saying certain members of your regime were or were not involved in drugs?
Well, the investigation was on but the AIG mentioned was put under house arrest. I was eventually removed from government so I don’t know what happened after that, but if any of the drug suspects mentioned anybody in government he would have gone. There was no doubt about it.
Rumours have it that Gloria Okon who was said to have died during your regime didn’t die after all. Is it true that she is still alive?
Yes, I could recall the story. This letter came that day during a meeting and there was this argument over whether the Inspector General should attend or not. I said he should be at the meeting. The girl was said to have been killed in Kano. When I was in detection, I read a press report that she was never killed, that they just got another dead body so I wouldn’t know.
What was the nature of the report that came to the SMC? Was it that the AIG and the General was into drugs?
It never came to the SMC. If it didn’t reach me there was no way the SMC could not. I could know the initial reports which were not confirmed. It wouldn’t be right to just mention initial investigation . But a lot of disinformation was passed around.
It was rumoured that the family members of one or two SMC members were involved in drug pushing.
After I left government I wouldn’t know. All I know is that nobody in my administration got involved in drug or broke any serious law that we know that was left alone to go scot free. It is just not possible. If anybody exists that you know during our regime that dealt in drugs let him brign the facts.
But the story was that you were just about to take an action when you were removed
(Laughter) Well, well gentlemen.
In fact some others say the reason for your removal is that you were about to take some fundamental action on some serving officers.
Why not, if there is the need. Why not, if the investigation came to me. But it had not come to me. Well there may have been some investigation which didn’t come to me. It hasn’t come to me, maybe it was at the gazetting stage. If it had come to me certainly I would have taken action.
Is it true that the closure of Black Gold in Kaduna by your government was as a result of this drug issue?
From what I knew it has got nothing to do with it. But I know there was an investigation by security agencies that a civilian outfit is growing out of a military environment and it has to be moved. That was why the facilities required for by Black Gold was not approved by our government. No matter what a person feels, his relationship with members of government cannot impose his organization into government institution just because he feel he is well known or something. This is government, it is all about pubic interest, and country’s interest not individual.
It is now eight years since you left government why were you removed?
(Laughter) I have certain principles below which I don’t operate. Some people see me as too tough to deal with. Those who are close enough to me know I am a very soft person. All I need is to understand you, but having understood you and I make up my mind, if it is a matter of principle, I don’t compromise. Look there was no point removing civilians, going over the air saying they were thieves, they give contracts or containers to their wives, contracts of a million were turned into N3 million or 35 million and then you come and do the same thing just because you are carrying a gun. That is armed robbery. If you do that you are an armed robber. You have stolen public property, because you are carrying a gun. Like with my colleagues, I thought they had shared all this philosophy with me including the fifty columnist and until they removed me, I was not entirely convinced that they had not. I was removed because certain members of my cabinet felt because they were in public office they were entitled to things other than what is specified in their terms and conditions of service. They know me that I don’t compromise my personal or professional integrity. I tell them that at meetings, If they think I have done other things let them bring the facts now, I am free can talk and they can talk. I think we are both in a position to do it.
Were you aware you were going to be removed?
(A deep sigh) Yes, there were security reports that some of my colleagues were not happy with the way I was running the government.
What did you do?
We discussed the issue and I asked them if they were in my position what would they do? Would they have a separate law for themselves and their friends and family and a separate law for the rest of Nigerians? They said of course I was right, we should go by the Nigerian law, and so I carried on. Of course they didn’t mean it. Subsequent events which led to the coup showed they didn’t mean it.
Why didn’t you act when you knew they were going to remove you? Why did you have to relax in your sitting room waiting for them ? Were you tired and fed up?
No I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t fed up either. But I didn’t want to kill anybody for intentions. God knows what is in your heart. Even God does not kill for intentions. But you don’t go and kill people for intentions.
Why did you allow movement of tanks and troops? Why didn’t you act?
Go and ask your minister of defence and h is service chiefs about it.
Did you give instructions to them to stop it and they refused?
Go and ask your minister of defence about it, I say. He is a honest man, he would tell you the truth. Go and ask him.
What should we ask him? Why you didn’t act or what?
Go and ask him about the coup. (laughter) I am going to give you five more minutes.
You were doing a lot then, agreed, but why didn’t you stop those who were trying to set the train b
How did you feel that the boys who were very close to you like Umar, Abdulmumini were the ones that were actually used to remove you. How did you feel?
That is the word, they were used. I think these are issues I will talk about later on, not now. There is still time to talk about all these.
But did you feel betrayed?
Of course. If you trust people and they betrayed you and the only reason they gave is that you claim to know more about government then you feel bad. But if they had said okay, I have stolen money or that I have posted someone above them and I did not allow them to do their jobs, as specified, then, I’ll say I have called for it. But up till now they haven’t said what I did other than I and Tunde arrogated to ourselves the knowledge of governance. They haven’t said what else we have done.
Was that not true?
Well, I don’t know, go and conduct a public opinion poll.
What went through your mind on the coup day. Were you scared?
Well, that it had happened, it had happened, they said they would do better, after eight years go and find out what they have done. Let them show you what they’ve done.
What is your impression of General Lekwot and how did you see his trial?
The matter now is already before the Supreme Court, what do you want me to say, The verdict of the tribunal is supposed to go to NDSC by decree but now it has gone to several courts. What can I say? I know Lekwot but I am inclined not to make any comment about him because I am amazed at the rate people change these days. But let me say he had a brilliant military career by any standard. What he did with himself after he was retired, I wouldn’t know.
What is your impression of President Babangida? What is your appreciation of his regime more so since it was this same regime that removed you?
You see that is the point. I refused to talk for so long because it is the administration that removed me. But there is nothing I’ll say that people haven’t said about this regime now to their hearing. Look, they have messed up this country. How much is the dollar to the naira now? Or to the pound sterling? How many people now can buy spare parts for their machinery? How many can plan now. Nobody can plan. Now can you plan when your currency has been devalued overnight by 85 per cent? Where do you go and get the money when the interest is getting to 45 per cent from 30 per cent? That means there will be no growth in this country as long as such policies go on. Every Nigerian knows what the last eight years has meant. Only eight years brought us to the mess we are in now. The situation of things in the last eight years has been terrible. Every Nigerian knows this.
How do you see Vatsa’s death?
Yes, I was close to Vatsa as a senior officer, just as I was close to others. I don’t know the extent of his involvement in the coup. I think my closeness to many of my colleagues would tell you that I allow them to work, because that is the way I was treated too. I was humbly there. I served and they allowed me to work. Because unless you are allowed to work your potentialities will never be known. That explains why most of our institutions have been ruined today.
Why did you join the Military?
Because when I was in secondary school, I was in the school cadet and we used to be visited by a reconnaissance unit. General Hassan I think who was a captain, was in charge. We used to go out with them and I was impressed with the discipline in the military. You’ll find out that most of the objectives set out by the military then were always achieved. There was a proper system then of selection of cadets. The facilities were good, the instructors were good. Very importantly, people were allowed to work. Unlike what is presently going on now, there was merit. The system of examination from lieutenant up to major before you become Lt. Col. were based on merit. So if you don’t perform after three exams you go. You see that is why I like the military, because of its orderliness and discipline.
During the last currency exchange under your regime, you were criticized for favouring some emirs like the Emir of Gwandu and his 53 suit cases. What happened?
That case of the 53 suitcases was very unfortunate. I did not take it very seriously then until after a security council meeting, I asked the Minister of Finance, Dr. Onaolapo Soleye under whom Customs and Excise was working then to go and investigate it. What I know was that there was no favour extended to anybody on the currency issue. There were allegations that people were printing fake naira and bringing it into the country. And we said we had to stop it. The person who was to be my chief of protocol had been outside the country for more than six years and he went through Saudi Arabia and was returning, and then of course the Emir of Gwandu, my junior brother and a few people went out on the lesser Hajj and they came back on the same plane. I could recall I whispered to my ADC that evening when we were playing Golf. I said Mustapha, your father is coming back today, would you not go and meet him, he said, no sir. I said you have to go and meet your father, he is your father and he went. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding between the Customs officers and the soldiers there. These people never refused their bags to be checked. But there was a professional conflict between some customs officers there at Ikeja and The Guardian came up with the report. And he was portrayed in one of the cartoons as a monkey that is stubborn with currency coming out from his mouth and so on. It was the most indecent and unprofessional thing to do. There was nothing about it. I am now strong, healthy and alive, anybody who think I have favoured either my brother or any Emir or any officer to break Nigeria’s rule in order to make money or that I have taken money to give any officer so as not to do coup against me as it happens now or that I have given my container to any girlfriend should come out and say it. I haven’t done any such thing before in my life. Tuned Idiagbon also hasn’t done anything like that before. If there is anybody who thinks we’ve done it let him come out and talk.
Are you saying you are clean?
Only God is clean. But if my lack of cleanliness is to the extent of jailing people for stealing public money then I plead guilty. I have put that challenge to all of those who served with me.
By the time this interview is published, hopefully, Nigerians would have elected a new president. How do you see the on-going transition program?
Did you listen to my interview in 1990?
Was that not on the BBC?
Do you mind repeating it to the Nigerian audience now?
In 1990 I said what is going on called transition programme was pseudo-democracy, it wouldn’t work, or has it worked? It is not meant to work. The transition programme is not meant to work I mean it.