I Have No Pact with Obasanjo
Interview with The Source Magazine, December 23, 2003
About three years ago, a seminar on your administration was held in Jos. At the time it was held, a lot of topics came up. The talk in town then was: where is the general heading? He got all his associates together. What does he want again? Three years after, all the papers presented then have just been published in two volumes. Where is the general really heading?
Well, like everything in Nigeria when we did that seminar there was a lot of insinuations, to the effect that the general was trying to launder his own image. The general was trying to launch himself into the murky political waters of Nigeria and so on. But we knew that was not (true). From even the theme of the various lectures that we had, we believed that we owe it to this generation and the next generation of people to know really what transpired at that period, (1985 to 1993). I was convinced we should do that because you know that at that time we had in the administration some of the best brains that this country has produced, and I thought we should not let this thing to just go away. So, we called these very eminent persons who are in their own right specialists in their own fields. We asked them to put these things together. So that we can make it available for scholarship and research in the country. I think this is the whole purpose of the seminar. And the subsequent publication of the proceedings.
General, two years ago when we came here for an interview, we asked you to assess the state of the nation and the Obasanjo administration as it were. At that time, you said it was too early. Now, 43 months after, how do you assess the country?
Well, I think if you also recall, I had a lecture in Jos not long ago and maybe if you read it you will discover that I addressed that issue. And what you need to do is maybe to go back to it, quote exactly what I said and I still maintain that this is the situation in the country. In other words, ethnic and religious tension have been more pronounced between 1999 and now than it has ever been.
I want to go back to the content of the book. Like you said the book is a compilation of your eight years in office as seen by experts. Looking back, are there things you would have done differently from what you did at the time?
I think, I would rather look at it this way: We were not able to complete everything about our vision for the country. But we laid a foundation that would allow the next generation to build upon. And I am proud to say that those foundations are still very much what the subsequent administrations, the Shonekan administration, the Abacha administration, Abdulsalami Abubakar’s administration and even Obasanjo’s administration are building on…
So, can we get to the specifics? What are the highlights?
We started liberalising the economy for example and the programme is still continuing up till now. What we did in the oil sector is what you are carrying on now. So, there was no decision until 1989 when we signed the shareholders agreement on the LNG. Today, every one of you is happy. LNG is going on. But nobody ever cares to pay compliment to Professor Jubril Aminu, Rilman Lukman and the entire administration.
How do you feel when no one remembers the foundations you laid?
That is why this launching (book launch) is good.
If I go back to the lecture you talked about, I guess it is the one at Kuru.
Throughout your eight years in office, there were one or two skirmishes, what was the trick you used in maintaining national harmony because ethnic tension the way we have it now was not there. Nigerians didn’t look at themselves as OPC, Arewa, MASSOB, Bakassi, Egbesu. What was the trick you used to maintain national harmony?
Well, I think during my time I would admit. I must say, proudly too, that there was a sense of security during my time. This sense of security now seems to be wearing away and therefore people have the tendency to fall back either to their own group of people, you know because they feel insecure. I think this is the main issue…
Professor Jubril Aminu (cuts in)
Ethnicity has been given a respectable toga; people from large tribes, from small tribes now find it not only celebrated but respectable to go back to identify with their ethnic base. For them to do it is to sow the ethnicity mentality…
(Amuta cuts in)
To add to that so that we can put it in context. At that point issues, national issues were the focus. You identified certain no-go areas. For instance no one could start debating whether we want to be Nigerians or Cameroonians, whether we want to be a modern or a traditional society… In place of that, you put in place certain key national challenges, challenges of privatisation, of development, of deregulation, for Nigerians to address their minds to. So, a situation whereby the sovereign, the nation, whoever wields the authority of the nation, if he is not strong enough to meet the demands of the people, the people must believe in something and the easiest things to believe in are issues of ethnicity, religion, tribe and all that…because people are lazy.
So what do you think is the solution?
I think we have to have a new approach. We have to accept that we have come a long way, and let’s not go back to this divisive issues. I cannot for example see the rationale behind anybody who talks about oh, let’s do this based on tribe. It is uncalled for. They may not be perfect but we can make amends, you know and then push on. But the problem with us is, the moment we don’t like a thing, then everything should be pulled down and we start all over. You don’t advance in this way. I believe that these best brains that I had (in my administration) everyone of them was a specialist in his own right, not only recognised in this country but worldwide. They had a vision, a concept, so we should encourage them, trust them to apply this concept as long as it is within the concept I talked about.
Let’s go back to the issue of leadership. It can be argued that yours was a military regime and so it was easy to lay out no go areas like ethnicity, religion etc. But this is democracy where people should be free to discuss…
Yea, but being a military man does not deprive me, of having a vision of what this country should be… Fortunately, some of us were reasonably exposed also through relationship with various people in other fields. It is not like regimentation. We were not regimenting the society, but you just had to accept that there are certain things we should look beyond, certain dangers, certain issues. I cannot, for example, see anybody who will talk about secession, really. And fortunately, there is no talk about secession in this country. You don’t hear the sound, and this is because the country went through a civil war, a lot of people died during the war. So we paid the price for being one united Nigeria.
So, nobody talks about it. I mean now, I am saying nobody should be talking about whether we would remain a federation or not, or somebody should not be talking about whether we would change our republican status to something else. You know those are issues that have been settled. So let’s move forward.
Let me ask you this: At times are you afraid for this country? I think every Nigerian should be for one reason or the other. Personally, are you?
Personally, no! One thing I am not afraid of is the unity of this country. I believe very strongly that it is (settled)… But in the process we will be having a lot of crises certainly and that will tend to weaken the country.
When you said you are not afraid, the problem of ethnicity that you’ve raised keeps going on. Religion you have admitted, keeps weakening the structure. Don’t you have the fear that the structure might just collapse?
No, somehow I have faith in a new generation, people I know for example, who went to school from different parts of the country. You went to university with people from different religions, none of you is talking along this line. Honestly, I believe it is a generational change.
Listening to you now and reading some of the papers you have presented, rightly or wrongly, a whole lot of Nigerians think you are a political genius.
No, no, a political genius?… Oh, I thought you said a political journalist…. (laughter)
Why did you decide to stay in Minna and play the oracle?
Minna is my hometown. I was born here. I was bred here. I have no other home, but Minna…
And you don’t feel like you are wasting away down here in Minna?
No. I don’t feel wasted. I feel I should come back home.
And do what?
And die at home (general laughter). I have been in the military service for 32 years. So, I’ve worked for Nigeria.
Then, God in His own wisdom also provided us another eight years of service at the top. I am grateful to God and I think I have done my best.
Coming back to Minna, does it mean you have retired from the service of Nigeria?
No. no, no. the service of Nigeria is to provide service anyhow. A lot of people come here to seek advice, contact you for one thing or the other…
Because we have all sources of electricity (General laughter). We have Kainji, we have Shroro, you have….
During your time we had two political parties, one was a little to the right and the other to the left. Recently, the number of political parties in Nigeria jumped to 28. What are your reactions?
I’ve always believed in the two party system. You get compartmentalised into two. But then you also have choice, because politics is about choice. And we were conscious of the fact that a time will come when others would begin to show their strength like we have in Britain, where you have labour, conservative, now the liberal democrats are coming in. It took time before these things developed. I was hoping that with the two we should be able to play excellent politics devoid of religion, devoid of tribalism and so on. And it happened that people were afraid and were saying now it will be Christian and Moslem but that didn’t happen. Steve Lawani was a Christian, for example, and he headed one of the parties and whether you like it or not it was because of the two-party system we had a ticket, MKO Abiola and Babangana Kingibe, belonging to the same religion and Nigerians accepted that. So it could have become our way of life, if you are good, you are good, if you are capable, you are capable and then you are there for Nigeria.
Your administration was very particular about fashioning out ideas for the two parties, now we have 28 political parties, are you concerned that none of them is built along ideological lines, especially regarding the future of this country?
I think in a way yes. I met one of the aspirants and he said look, you should support me, (but) I said you have not told me what you will do for me and the country and what your position on a number of issues is. When you do that, I will then look at it and maybe cast my vote on your side. So, I agree that there is not much of something to look forward to.
It is obvious at times that you do not quite agree with some of the policies of the federal government. How come you never criticise the government publicly?
Well, publicly, by the nature of the post I held, I was once a military president of this country and I knew what it is because I have access. I can reach the president anytime I want and I can put my point of view across…
The thinking outside is that probably at times you are afraid of the president and two that there is a pact between the two of you which prevent you from condemning him publicly…?
But I tried to explain. I was on that seat. I know the constraints of that seat. I know the difficulties of that seat. And if I should openly (speak against him), I am going to compound his problem. But if I am able to talk to him, he should be able to pick up and all ( you in the media and others to do the noise. But it is more effective I think…
What we like to know really is whether public morality could be developed in Nigeria, because there have been past presidents who have dragged down sitting leaders by their comments.
In my profession,…. We were trained not to rebuke our non¬commissioned officers and warrant officers publicly in the presence of the soldiers. So, what I am saying is if a sergeant commits an offence, I don’t rebuke him (in the presence of the soldiers), I summon him to my office and I wash him down and then he goes back, that is part of the training I had.
You are not the only military man who has held that office. It is public knowledge that some military people who have held that office before you have been known to come out and criticise the incumbent government of the day ruthlessly. Do you have a different kind of training?
May be they haven’t learnt the lesson properly or they haven’t put the lesson to use.
Do you have any pact with him?
What is the meaning of pact, Comfort?
Well, an understanding with him.
That you will not criticise him publicly…
No, no I did that a couple of times but I shouldn’t make it a pastime.
Agreed that the position you have held before preached civility like you’ve explained
Having held that office of president, the citizenry also look up to you and demand some kind of….
No, at times when you have real, critical national issues that are of interest to everybody, of course we will talk.
Take the economy for instance….
A lot of people grumbling that they were better off before the advent of this administration but you’ve not spoken about this.,..
When Bill Clinton (immediate past president of the United States of America) came, I spoke about the economy. I discussed the economy.
In your quiet moments when you are alone, does it bother you or gladden your heart that, out of about half a dozen past leaders of Nigeria, each time you say something or do not say something it matters to nearly every Nigerian. What is it about you?
Comfort, I am just a human being (general laughter).
Well, does that worry you?
It does not worry you when you read all sorts of things about you, even when it happens on Third Mainland Bridge, if it is a good thing, they will call it Third Mainland Bridge, if it is an accident, they will call it IBB Bridge. Does it not worry you?
Why should it? During Abacha (regime), he commissioned a project which we initiated, we did everything, we funded it to completion. So just to go and commission it, no problem. Late Abacha knew (it was our project), that it was during our time, because he was in government then and he raised the issue with the committee and asked why they did not acknowledge that the project was started during my time.
They didn’t know what to tell him. They thought if they said so, they might offend him. So everybody knows that our administration completed the Third Mainland Bridge, you cannot take it away from us.
What I want to know is, do you get worried when all negative things get attributed to you?
No, you know why?
Because I find that people who thrive on negative things attract more attention. So, allow them to have all the limelight, all the attention they want, so I am helping them.
But there is also the other side to that question. To a section of the media, the tendency is to attribute negative things, but within the public there is a loud clap that perhaps things where better when you were at the helm!
Yeah, the problem is an elite problem. The elite knows the public appreciates. I commissioned a bridge across the river Niger in Sokoto and the day I went there to commission it, with due respect to professor Aminu, I met some Fulani men. This guy suddenly went into tears, so we asked him why. He said only last year he lost a wife, he lost a child, he lost, I think some of his relations, because they were trying to cross the river in a canoe and the canoe just swept them aside. Now, he could use his own feet and walk across and the cattle can also walk across. You know they are the people that really appreciate. I am sure a lot of you don’t even know where Tungar is in Sokoto state.
But does that throw a challenge that Nigerians can be positive just as they can be negative?
Yes, they can be positive.
But this appreciation by the public has also transformed into a kind of clamour for you to come back to the political scene. Why are you insistent in refusing to come back?
To raise whose hope? Sure, it is not your hope. I hope (general laughter). No, no I don’t think I do (more laughter).
(Professor Aminu cuts in) there are some people who work very hard to draw attention to themselves. There are some people to whom attention is automatically drawn. But of course it is not something you can just get. If you’ve got it you have it.
There is something about you when you talk about the administration you headed, you always say “our administration” while others will say “my administration”. Is it something about your training or personal modesty that accounts for this?
Well, I think to be fair, it is a collective effort, so I just happened to be leading, but then I know I was not it alone. A lot of people were involved, and it is our effort, if it fails I take the responsibility, if it succeeds, we all share the glory.
You never asserted for eight years that you were in charge, but everybody knows who was in-charge. How did you do it?
Well, I think professor…
(Professor Sam Oyovbaire cut in) I was going to say that you find out that some people as a matter of principle feel that those who arrogate what a lot of people do to themselves it has to do with complex. But those who say yes, I am here, I acknowledge the assistance of my steward, my driver, my cook, they have no complex. Everybody knows who is in charge.
To round off, I have two questions. If I remember correctly, your administration abrogated the on-shore off-shore dichotomy. Right now we are in the problem of resource control and the dichotomy issue is back?
Is it back? Or, they are fighting over it?
That is what I am saying, they debate over it.
We have a distinguished senator here who will … (laughter).
(The senator, Ali Modu Sheriff from Borno State, cuts in) I will talk about it later. I have to hear from my zone (laughter).
Secondly, I read somewhere recently where former head of state, General Muhammadu buhari, said he had forgiven you but that he would never reconcile with you. What is your reaction?
I am not sure I’ve read that. I haven’t read it quite frankly. I hope he was misquoted.
Your regime was able to keep the tide of agitation down by abolishing the on-shore/off-shore dichonomy. Right now we are back in the same mess. What is the way out?
When I say we had the best brains at that time who were really committed, may be professor Aminu will tell you, I don’t know whether abrogation is the right word, but I think we realised that people from that part of Nigeria definitely would need special attention, special funds and so on and so forth and we adopted a formula by putting in place a commission like OMPADEC. Before we started, we got a committee of the minister of finance, the minister of petroleum, they looked at it with the department of petroleum… We had issues for the commission to address. You cannot wish it away. It is a fact of life that we have to accept.
Let me round off this interview with this. You never get rattled. Have you ever had self-doubts, have you ever been overwhelmed?
No. unruffled? Military background (general laughter).