Interview with Newswatch Magazine June 14, 2004

Can we say you are a politician now?

I can only say that every human being is a politician.

You admitted recently that you are a card-carrying member of the Peoples Democratic Party PDP.

Yes, I did. I am a member of a political party and it is perhaps the only platform anybody has that he or she can use to bring about the realisation of certain ideals in the society.

With your membership card, what ideals do you hope to pursue?

Quite frankly, there are issues, which we used to consider as settled. Settled issues, if you like. There are also issues that have remained unsettled. When I talk of settled issues, I am talking of a united Nigeria. I don’t think there is a dispute as to whether Nigeria should remain a united country. There is also no dispute as to whether Nigeria should remain a democratic country. There is no dispute about the republican status of the country. But there are other issues we need to pursue so as to make this country stronger. There is the issue of revenue allocation formula, the relationship between the state and the federal government, the issue of resource control, the question of ethnic nationalities, the relationship between the state and the local government and every other issue that brings about friction in the society. These issues have to be tackled. Unless we are able, like we did with the others, and try to find a lasting solution to them, there will be problem.

Do you think that all these issues should be encapsulated into the national question and tackled considering the fact that you have become converted to the idea of a national conference?

I am a latter day convert to the issue of national conference because after leaving office (about 11 years ago) I have noticed that some of these problems keep re-occurring. I now believe that there is no way we can resolve such issues affecting our collective destiny until we talk about them. For example a young journalist from Kogi State who lives here in Minna recently asked me what I meant by the concept of a true Nigerian federation and I told him that basically, my understanding of the concept is that in the next ten years nothing should prevent him from contesting the governorship of Niger State. That is to say, his state of origin should not prevent him from seeking political office in this state. This is the kind of thing I would like us as a country to address very frankly. Issues of settlers, and indigeneship should not cause crises at all in our country.

Is that part of your recipe for the unity of Nigeria?

I think there are a whole lot of things that bring about disaffection. And I think a national conference will help resolve them to pave the way for unity.

It may be true that Nigerians want Nigeria to remain as one entity. But what the nation saw recently in Plateau and Kano States puts a question mark on this desire of Nigerians. In fact, we seem to be less united today than we were in 1966.

This is because we did not address those vital issues affecting our mutual relationships. And if a national conference now being advocated can address issues such as you raised, it will go a long way in achieving greater unity of the country. Because I believe that even the people who are aggrieved are still open to dialogue with their opponents in order to find an accommodation with the others. So, I think we really need to take this vital steps of sitting down to talk about those critical areas of disagreement. Let me take you back a little. In 1959, a man from Sokoto was the mayor in Enugu. It didn’t matter then. Later we had a Kanuri man who represented a constituency in Benue State. That is the kind of vision I have for Nigeria. And it is not a vision that will be peculiar to Nigeria. We have such a situation in the U.S. today where two brothers are state governors, one in Texas and the other in Florida. So, we should not be talking about our place of origin but about Nigeria.

What is your reaction to the declaration of state of emergency in Plateau State?

I believe the President acted within the law and I support his action.

Some people think that Kano should have been included too; that by limiting it to Plateau State alone, President Obasanjo had acted in favour of Moslems.

I don’t share that position because what happened in Plateau had unintended consequences and those consequences are what we saw in Kano. May be they saw people moving dead bodies and they got infuriated. So, it is the after effect of that sort of action that led to a build-up of the tension that resulted in the Kano crisis.

What is the best way to tackle this sort of problem once and for all?

I think the right thing is for a complete change of attitude on the part of our people. In the case of Plateau State, the people had not just come to settle there. We are talking about people who have been there for about 125 years. And there was no major conflict between them and the people there until quite recently. So, something must have gone wrong somewhere which has to be examined. There should be an end to this kind of unfortunate development. Because most of the people being referred to as settlers have been there for very long. If you ask some of them their roots, they wouldn’t be able to say. Because they can’t trace their people anymore.

Now that you are talking about the convocation of a national conference, have you given any serious thought to the formula for such a conference?

Yes, it should be done under the ambits of the government. Those convening a national conference need to collaborate with the government because the government is a democratically elected government. The government is also in a position to set the parameters. I don’t have any problem with us having a national conference provided there are “no-go-areas.” For example, such a conference should not talk about breaking up the country. That should be part of the “no-go-areas.” This conference should not talk about certain settled issues. Now, if we agree on that, then the conference could go on. And then, after the exercise we should be able to come out with a document, which will serve as a blueprint on how we are going to live together. And fortunately, we have a law making body now. The aspect of the blueprint requiring legislation will then be placed before the National Assembly for legislation.

If that is going to be the condition, then we may end up not having the national conference because those agitating for it think there should not be “no-go-areas” and it should not be supervised by the government.

No, No, Nobody will supervise them. Those calling for it can set the agenda. They are eminent Nigerians. They should be able to say yes, this is a democratic environment. Which is why the conference is being allowed. But the government should be allowed to say you cannot go there and talk about breaking the country or about changing the type of government that Nigeria and Nigerians have settled for.

In August 1990, Alao Aka-Bashorun led a move for a National Conference. But your administration stopped him. Why did you do that?

At that time, if you remember, in the entire continent of Africa, whichever country had a national conference, had one problem or the other. It either ended up breaking up the country or there was crisis. Many of them, up till now, have not been able to resolve the crisis that arose from the conferences. So, if we allowed it, we should not have been good students of history.

The postponement has not been helpful either.

What I consider crucial really, is the country’s development. You see there has been inherent fear in us. You will recall that when Alao Aka¬Bashorun was talking about a national conference, the country was divided on the modalities for holding the conference. But that was not to say the idea was totally unacceptable. But we had not done enough to educate the people on what really, the conference was all about.

Don’t you think that the resolution of these issues creating conflicts lies in the archives, that is, reports of many enquiries and probe panels that have not been published or implemented because the government lacked the political will to do so?

During the Abacha time, the committee on the review of the constitution came here and quite frankly I told them that they needed nobody to tell them what to do. That there were 17 eminent Nigerians who, for one year, went round the entire length and breadth of this country and came up with a great document. That document addressed virtually every issue, about governance, about devolution of powers, about the place of women in society, about the type of government that the country needed. We agreed with some of the decisions, others we did not accept. For example, we did not agree with their decision that Nigeria should be called a Socialist Democratic Republic. We removed “socialist” and replaced it with “Federal” and we had Federal Republic of Nigeria. They also talked about party system. We accepted that because the essence of politics is to give the people the opportunity to choose. Even if you do not belong to a political party, you still have the right to vote. So in fairness to government, there is the fear of the unlikely consequences of throwing the door open for a national conference. You can call it fear of the unknown, if you like.

Retired generals seem to have found comfortable accommodation in politics. They no longer retire to the farms.

Some still do.

Do you think their involvement in politics has been beneficial to the country?

My answer is yes. First, I don’t see what stops them from going into politics. If they were not Nigerians, then you can say they have a problem. But they are Nigerians. The fact that they were once in the military does not take away from them their rights and privileges. It does not also mean that other Nigerians are entitled to more rights and privileges than they do. So those of us who were in this profession which most people don’t like, in fact, which most people dread, politics is a welcome opportunity to reintegrate into the society. So, I don’t see anything wrong with retired military officers going into politics.

Yes, but don’t they feel like fish out of water. Politics makes it mandatory for political leaders to consult all interest groups as part of the process of decision-making while a general will simply wave his swagger stick and take his decision.

Politics is not the exclusive preserve of civilians. Retired generals, by the nature of their training are capable of adapting to situations. So they should not feel like fish out of water if they are in politics.

Apart from PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) which other party do you belong to?

My friends belong to the other parties. But they still remain my friends. And I don’t grudge any of them who has sympathy for the other parties.

We are aware that you have accepted full responsibility for the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections, which MKO Abiola won. But you have not told Nigerians why you had to annul that election?

We conducted an election which you (the press) adjudged as the best election ever conducted in this country. Then, of course, the other aspect of it is that we annulled it which we have accepted responsibility for. But we had a situation whereby we had to take a decision. But we had to weigh the consequences of the decision that we had to take. And we opted for the decision that we eventually took on the election.

What was the real issue that informed that decision to annual the election?

The issue at stake at that time had to do more with national security and public order.

This thing happened many years ago. Some of the issues ought to have been declassified now and explained to the public.

They were classified information and to the best of my knowledge, the facts have not yet been declassified. As time goes on, the facts will be known. But it is good to allow tempers to cool down enough before this should happen.

Before the final annulment there were two other annulments. That of the 23 presidential aspirants and later the two aspirants who had emerged as flag bearers of the SDP and the NRC. The final annulment was it because the electoral body then did not do its work of screening the candidates well and allowed the wrong candidates to contest?

I am glad you mentioned the 23 aspirants. They emerged from an exercise that was meant to produce the flag bearers. Anybody who lived in this country at that time knew that the system threw up some very serious challenges. We knew that there had been a clamour for a change of leadership of the country. We knew that there were passionate feelings against the fact that one part of the country had continued to dominate the political authority.

We also knew that those two political parties were going to throw up two northern candidates. We also knew the problems that attended the voting that produced the candidates. Already, the country had been charged. Quite frankly eminent Nigerians were not happy and we would be silly not to listen to the feelings of people. That system would have produced Shinkafi for NRC and Yar’Adua for SDP Shinkafi would have beaten Adamu Ciroma if the process was concluded. There were newspaper editorials criticising the procedure that produced those candidates and when we banned them the editorials also praised us for taking that bold decision. Now, we tried another way out. Again, there were subterranean influences. Abiola was Babangida’s friend so was Bashir Tofa. Abiola had a Moslem ticket while Tofa had a Moslem/Christian ticket. We took this to the Armed Forces Ruling Council. But if we tried to stop them before the elections, people would think that we did not want to quit the stage. And quite honestly we allowed the whole process to run its course. They repeated the same thing that the 23 aspirants did. But we had to clampdown on them at the time we did. Because we felt that the leadership of the country should rotate. This was the beginning of power shit. The idea actually came from us. We knew there was an obvious problem and we annulled the election. All that is now history.

But anyone following political developments in Nigeria would have come to one conclusion. How did we come about this idea of power shift? The plan we had was that, if the two parties had remained, we would have gotten one to nominate an lbo presidential candidate and the other, a Yoruba candidate. And we were almost convincing the entire northern states to vote either way.

Was the Muslim/Muslim ticket the real threat? Because even Christians were campaigning for Abiola/Kingibe from the pulpit?

If you observe, the problem of this country is not always from the ordinary people. They are never the problem. Today, you can go to Baga near our border with Cameroun you will find Kanuri, you will find Yoruba, Efik every tribe you name it. They live together in peace. They don’t just think about their differences. The problem is rather from the elite class, the people who think they know better how the country should be run. It is the elite who will tell you how ministers should be appointed to reflect geographical considerations. If you succeed in geographical balancing, the next question is religion. If you succeed in balancing in terms of religious factor, then the next question is how you relate to those around you. The people who start a crisis, even a war, in most countries are only a few manipulators. These few people would carry on as if the whole world is coming to an end. And we are very good in this country in creating such situations of tension.

In other words, the fundamental flaw with the June 12, 1993 election was that the likely winner was carrying a Muslim/Muslim ticket?

No, I gave that as an example. But certainly, it was capable of creating other complex problems that we did not envisage. Some people complained against the Moslem ticket.

Who are the people?

When I say people, 1 mean me and you are the people’s representatives. We were the people complaining, the elite.

Is it the military elite?

Not only them. I mean even the civil populace. But they had leaders, the arrowheads if you like. The civil populace don’t complain directly. Their leaders do so on their behalf. They may be about one million out of one hundred or more million Nigerians.

Can you narrow this down a bit? May be the people who complained again the Muslim/Muslim ticket were the Christian populace.

No, No, No. It was not only from Christians. But I want you to know one thing. Ask every leader in this country the president, a government or even a local government chairman and they will tell you that every action they take is given one interpretation or the other. So I was sensitive to this because I knew some people will capitalise on it to inflame the situation.

Was that why you shopped for Obasanjo for the presidency?

At that time, the situation the country found itself required somebody like him. Let me say this (and it is coming from the bottom of my heart) nobody could have done it except him.

What is so special about him? What were the considerations then?

First, no matter who you are, you cannot talk to Obasanjo about breaking up this country or any part of it. We know there were people who urged him in the past to lead a secession but he refused. He is very passionate about one Nigeria and its unity. Secondly, he is capable of taking a decision when it matters most. Thirdly we needed somebody who had the experience of governance. And fourthly, he is one man who cannot be intimidated by either the press or other interest groups.

But is that a good qualification?

Oh yes. If you get intimidated, you abandon your course. But he is not one to do that.

Yes, when you proposed him, many people agreed. But the same people have come to you to complain that the man you brought has disappointed them.

I told them that we made the right decision.

And they left here convinced?

Well, I told them it was my own conviction. I’m convinced that it was the right decision we took some of them agreed with me.

Why have you been silent on Obasanjo’s leadership? We haven’t heard you criticise his government?

I consider myself one of the most privileged citizens in this country. I was military president. Having been in that position, I am in a position to know what it is to be in that office. But that is not to say that I have not made inputs. When there is need to call his attention to some issues, we seek an appointment to see him and then we talk to him. You see, in the military, you don’t rebuke even your own junior officer in the presence of his subordinates. You call him to your office and wash him down, then he goes back. How much more an officer who is your senior. We have been talking to the president but we don’t have to go public about it.

Is it a military tradition?

We have it in the military but more importantly, people in our kind of position should not go public to say certain things about the country’s leader.

Can I take you back a little?

No, you can’t because I know where you are going.

I just want to remind you that once upon a time, he was in that office. Once upon a time, you were in that office and he made the criticism of your policies a kind of religion i.e. SAP without human face, and there must be an alternative to the tradition that you cannot castigate your junior publicly? Or had he no access to you then?

He had access to me. And we kept talking to each other on the issues he was raising. I used to drive myself alone to his farm. But I know he was reacting to pressure being applied on him by some pressure groups then.

Is there any resemblance between the economic policies of your administration and what we have today under President Obasanjo?

It is tending towards self-reliance, which is what we pursued. Most of the things they are doing today are a form of structural adjustment which is what we did then. What we need for the situation to improve is consistency. Nobody has a perfect solution to a problem. But you can come out with a suggestion, which you can review from time to time, take what is workable and drop that which is not.

If you have the opportunity of providing leadership for this country again, what kind of changes would you like to see regarding the way things are being done?

To be very honest with you, I believe that what we have done so far (and when I say we, I mean the federal government) is enough platform for this country to be strong. Everything that needs to be done has been done and everything objective which its programmes are meant to achieve will be achieved We should stick to that objective. The effect of it may not be easy for the people, but later on they will get to understand why they did things the way you they are done.

Looking back at SAP specifically now, are there aspects of it you would have done differently if you have the opportunity to do it all over again?

Okay, look at the platform under which we did those things: self-reliance – you can’t change that. We were talking about giving the farmer the opportunity to benefit from his efforts by reaching the market with his produce, we were also talking about monetary or fiscal policies; we were talking about the exchange rate, that is allowing it to float those were the platforms. They are still relevant today. We can only keep on modulating or fine-tuning them. If there are effects that were unintended then we can look at them and try to make them as less painful as possible to the people.

What is your reaction to a recent statement credited to President Obasanjo that the oil/windfall money was mismanaged by your administration?

Well, I read so many versions of that report. First, the president wasn’t the one who said so. It was somebody else. And I read what was reported. And my feeling is that he didn’t say anything to warrant a reaction.

Your administration has been accused rightly or wrongly to have institutionalised corruption.

I have not been able, to be honest with you, to understand what “institutionalise” mean. Nobody has given me the definition of the statement. But if I get the definition, then I will try to relate it to my administration. But what I can tell you is that I can account for everything we did while in office. Such statements have not bothered me because we did all that we did with a great sense of patriotism. We can account for our actions or inactions while in office. And I also want to throw a challenge to all Nigerians. This is something that I have never done before. I want any Nigerian resident in or outside Nigeria to come and look me in the face and tell me that he bribed me or he bribed any of my ministers. I still throw that challenge. And, honestly, I am not bluffing. I mean what I say, maybe in the next ten years somebody that we were in office for eight years, we left office about 11 years ago and are you honestly tell me that with people’s contact in and outside country, they are unable to come out to say that Babangida’s minister did this or Babangida himself did that? For other past leaders, it didn’t even take time some three months, six months, or one year. Honestly, I hate to talk about this but at your level, I think I can say so. People who do not like my face are free to say anything about me or my administration but institutionalisation of corruption I take exception to that. You can ask anybody who was a governor in my time, or who was a minister in my time. I am not saying we were downright perfect. There may be one or two cases of wrong doing but we were not as corrupt as we are being portrayed to be.

If your administration was that clean, why did you refuse to go before Justice Oputa panel to explain some of the things you did, including your human rights record which was adjudged to be questionable.

Well, I don’t know what you mean about questionable human rights records but again, my human rights records, if you compare it with other military governments, was the best. It was under me that the media flourished, for example. It was my administration that told the media to write whatever they wanted to write.

But you also closed down some media houses?

Forget about closing Newswatch and Concord. That is not the main issue. The main issue is here was the man who said, go and write what you want. This was the man who abrogated the law that stifled the press. This was the man who allowed private newspapers, private television stations, radio stations to flourish in this country. Haba! I should be given credit for doing that much.

Let’s know your position now. When are you formally declaring your intention to vie for the presidency in 2007?

Declaration is a process. We haven’t reached there yet.

How close are you to it now?

We are watching and appraising the situation. When we have done enough of that, we shall come to a conclusion on whether the mood is right. That will determine what we shall do and when to do it.

When you have done enough of that, and you come to the conclusion that the mood is right, will you run for the presidency?

When the mood is right, I will be a very, very active participant in pushing certain ideals that I consider good for this country. And I have always said that I can do that not necessarily by being the president but participating, by influencing, by being in the forefront of pushing ideas that are dear to the nation. That is my interpretation of politics.  I really do not want to jump into politics. Because if I did that, the ultimate conclusion will be that I want to be president of the country by all means.

I’m sure you remember that people used to call you Maradona. Are you such a great dribbler?

But I haven’t dribbled you. Let me explain why I answer some of these questions the way I do. I do not want to be seen as imposing myself. If you remember, in 1999, we talked of a system throwing up leaders. So, I believe in the system throwing up its own leaders. We can even have every state producing an aspirant. This can later be narrowed down with each geo-political zone producing an aspirant and later the final choice will be made. I want to wait for that process. That is why I said I will rather wait to see the system throw up leaders. May be this will help the political parties to do the right thing. They don’t have to plan how to rig elections, or allocate numbers. To be able to change the system, you must belong to the system.

Your disagreement with General Buhari has it been settled?

As far as I know, there is no disagreement the way I know and understand the meaning of disagreement. We still greet each other, we still shake hands, we still talk about issues affecting this country.

Do you visit each other?

We don’t visit each other but we respect each other.

What kind of friends are you then when you don’t exchange visits?

How many people can one visit? Let me say this. The disagreement is because we staged a coup against him. That is not unusual. We stage coups against one another. He staged a coup against Shagari. But he doesn’t want to accept that fact of life. But we removed Shagari, a democratically elected government. What we did was even illegal. My case against him is military versus military.

That is to say that your coup against him was legitimate.

It was part of the process.

You have been out of office for 11 years now; I am sure the excitement of retirement is no longer there and you must be coping with boredom.

No. I keep myself busy. But remember when I was in service, I was more or less separated from my roots in Minna. And I decided to come back to my roots. That is why I decided not to settle down in Kaduna or Lagos or Abuja. I decided to settle down in Minna. So, initially, I tried to re-integrate into the community I left many years ago. I have more time now than I had when I was in service. So, naturally one may feel bored but I make up for that by doing what a man of my age should do. That is attending weddings of people close to me, pay condolence visits and I do travel. I enjoy traveling.

You seem to shy away from international assignments like getting involved in mediatory efforts as some former leaders do.

Probably to keep themselves busy and out of boredom. I am never bored. And this is a fact. There is never a dull moment for me.