I’M NOT THE EVIL GENIUS
Interview with TELL Magazine, July 24, 1995.
Although you said you didn’t want to discuss your life in retirement, we felt doing so might just put us in a relaxed mood, by telling us a few things you do, like how you spend your day. So, how has it been since you left Aso Rock?
Well, I think it has been very well. Life after retirement is quite real. I think the immediate thing is that once you get back into the pool, you try to adapt to the circumstances around you and I think I have already done that successfully within the last one year, and I’m now really localized, an indigene of Minna.
Yes, you’re localized but like we mentioned in our earlier discussion, as a person who led his country for eight years, there is no way you can be so localized as not to remain relevant to issues of national significance. To what extent have you been affected by way of people coming to you, to seek your opinion or trying to make you do something?
Well, when I say localized I mean localized within my immediate environment. But as you rightly said, I do have constant interactions with people who, from various walks of life, come here to exchange ideas with me which I find very rewarding because it(enables) me to sit down and reflect on a number of things we did in the last eight years, to see whether we could have done them differently.
What does it mean really to adjust yourself to the local situation? What do you do precisely on a day-to-day basis?
Well, let me say first that I prepared my mind right from the word go that I was going to come back here after military service. So I somehow maintained close contact with my little constituency even when I was in office so that once I finish, getting back here will not make me feel as a stranger. Of course, as for the normal routine, you sit down with members of the immediate family and other relations Also friends do come to have a chat with me and this takes about one-quarter of the time available to me.
Can we be more specific? Are you into writing memoirs which you promised some time ago or setting up a foundation which, you equally promised to do after quitting office
Yes, am doing both but maybe with different speeds. The memoirs, I am already working on it. Right now, I’m designing a programme for the foundation. But this I can tell you, all the theoretical work has been completed. It is actualizing it that remains.
You have a very peaceful time out of office, which, of course, you deserve! But your last days in office were very turbulent. Could you tell us exactly what happened because there are a lot of misconceptions. For example, some people say IBB ran away to Minna, others say that you just stepped aside to wait for later developments. What actually happened?
Well, within the last days of August, up till the 26th, there had been lot of activities in both the country as well as in Aso Rock. These were all geared towards solving the political problem which was at hand at that time. The activities included meetings with politicians on how to resolve the crisis, preparations towards retirement, and preparations towards what might come after I might have left office… and the president of the country so that others can carry on from there.
But at this time, you had said you were stepping aside. What did it really mean in the context of those seven days because the impression was that maybe you were talking the politicians into making you stay further. We don’t really have a very real picture of what happened during this period.
What I think basically is that you must look at this thing from the context of my own profession. You are in a column and allow the column to proceed without you and that’s what I said. ‘I’m going to leave the stage as commander-in-chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
So, it was more or less a military term?
So, what was this problem then about the National Assembly voting on the possibility of your staying in office after you had addressed the joint session?
I think we need to get the historical perspective right. They did meet before I addressed the Assembly and they sent word to me that they wanted me to continue in office. The House of Representatives indeed passed a resolution urging me to continue along that line but we pushed it aside because I was determined to go at that time
But the impression was that you surreptitiously urged them to urge you to continue to stay…Well, you see, everything that went wrong that time it was Babangida that did it! But all I’m telling you is that there is documentary evidence and records of meetings that took place. I have them. So, there is hardly anything new that people would say about what went on at the time. In an interview with TELL last year, General Diya said this about you and I quote: “Frankly speaking, if Babangida’s son had contested the 1993 June presidential election, Babangida would have annulled it because Babangida did not want to go. Simple,” You’ll see that even within your own constituency and in the top hierarchy of the military, from what General Diya said, the thinking seems to have been that, as far as they were concerned, they were not sure of what you intended to do. The way they saw it was that you didn’t want to leave office.
First of all, I’d say that I do respect General Diya very well but traditionally, I don’t join issues with my junior officers. Right from my lieutenant days. I don’t join issues with lieutenants, and so on. This is my tradition. So, my intention is not to join issues with General Diya because he is my junior officer. But I will only add that we have the record all these meetings and what everybody said and what even Diya had said.
This idea of you wanting to stay was reinforced by people we cannot consider as your junior officers, that is, outside the military. Arthur Nzeribe himself said that the plan was for you to stay and you probably chickened out because you felt there was going to be a coup…
His plan was for me to stay but my plan was for me not to stay.
The question people then asked was: If your plan was not to stay in office, why was Nzeribe with other groups allowed to be running all over the place trying to persuade you to stay? Why did you not at that time publicly disown Nzeribe and ABN, for instance?
I think there was a situation we had to look at this thing. We held various meetings, including one with one of my seniors, if you want to put it that way, and the same question you raised crept up and as far as I’m concerned, that was not the issue. I allowed everybody to say what they wanted to say. There were those who felt I shouldn’t leave; there were those who felt I was the greatest evil that ever happened to this country. There are those who said… just name it. They were only talking about one person. So, that person would be foolish to join issues with these people, so the best thing is to allow that person to do what he said he wanted to do. The alternative would be to do what others thought they should do.
So, if you had the intention of leaving office despite the persuasions of people like Arthur Nzeribe, why did you allow the election of June 12th to be annulled if you indeed had that genuine intention?
Okay. Why don’t you look at it from this point of view? When we started before the June 12 election, there were the famous 23 presidential aspirants who went through the primaries and everybody thought that those primaries were the worst thing ever to happen to this country, and there were pressures that a lot of things that went wrong had to be put right. Going by what people said, we went ahead and annulled those primaries and I think it was hailed as one of the greatest decisions we had taken. Okay. Then we went through another process. Needless to say that this is where Option A4 came up. Now, between that period and the time we adopted the Option A4, the mood of the country had suddenly changed. As far the government was concerned, despite the claims that the military did not want to go or Babangida did not want to go, we became captive of what the people were saying and we wanted to prove that we were really sincere in determining to go through the new process. Now, when the nominations began to come in, there were a number of things we overlooked because we did not want to be accused of anything again.
So we became very sensitive against cancelling or annulling another primaries lest people would accuse us like they did in the first instance that the aspirants were the best candidates Nigeria could produce at the time, and that we had got rid of the finest and brightest brains in the country. So, we over-looked so many failings. Certain things that we did not allow in the first process were allowed in the next stage for the new set of political aspirants. If not, the very moment they appeared we would have put them in the cooler because we had enough evidence to prove that they were not the proper persons to hold political offices in the land. But quite frankly, we were wary of what the people were going to say. Thus we overlooked things like not paying proper tax, not declaring their assets… just name anything. But we just allowed the process to continue despite all the odds. Now, we were under pressure again by the 23 we disqualified who accused the new candidates (of) having done worse things than they. They accused me, saying it is Babangida who wanted two of his friends to succeed him. You know, Bashorun (M.K.O. Abiola) and (Bashir) Tofa were my friends; so if SDP wins, it is Babangida’s friend who is Bashorun: If NRC wins, it is still Babangida’s friend and that this is all part of the scheme of that “evil genius” to perpetuate himself in power through his friends. Those were the views from the camp of those disqualified but, quite frankly, it did not bother us. Thus, these two people came up having won the primaries of their respective parties. Then we went into the elections proper. The process went ahead and, of course, the rest is history. There was the case of court injunctions and at that time, we held a meeting where we decided that the election should go on and hand over to whoever won. That’s how we came to holding the elections of June 12.
So, what went wrong?
Well, I think that one, again, is history. When the elections were going on, we allowed it to go on. Then, of course, you know what happened. All the court cases and litigations. To us it seemed the whole process had been subverted both by the politicians and the military, and the society at large. These are the three factors responsible for the subversion of the electoral process.
General, can you be more specific? You said the society, the military and the political class subverted the process despite the fact that you yourself had all along tolerated and encouraged it to go on until June 12. So, in what ways was this process subverted by each of these three groups?
This may take us a very long time to discuss. But what I’m doing now is this: I’m writing and trying to justify that these three classes subverted the whole process. I have gone reasonably deep in this. Needless to say it but since we are now talking, maybe I can tell you a little bit about the military aspect. Here is the military institution, they were worried about who their next commander-in-chief was going to be and it turned out that one out of Bashorun (Abiola) and Bashir Tofa one was going to be. This was purely a psychological thing and there started an agitation on whether A or B was going to be the new Commander-in-Chief. And they had their reasons why they wouldn’t want A or B or C or D. Eventually when the election was held, there were further agitations. And, between me and you, there was the possibility of a coup d’état just to make sure that none of these ‘characters’ became the Commander-in-Chief.
A coup d’état against whom? You or the in-coming president?
Either. I could have been kicked out through a coup on or even before that time. But thank God it didn’t happen. My idea was to hold on, work it out because if my government was toppled, then the idea of forging a new political process would no longer be there. The first thing would be to suspend the constitution and stop everything we had embarked on. But we were able to hold on, went through it and worked something out. If that had failed, the next thing would have been to wait for the in-coming government which would not be given enough time to last. That is the aspect of the military. Then, the political class. It is -amazing to see those who profess to be the ordained leaders, the political actors, again parading themselves around. I know what they stood for. I know what they told me when the elections were going on, I know those who even advised me not to allow the (June 12) election to take place. I know those who advised me to subvert the (party) conventions. I know those who told me, “who is this, we don’t like him…”
No problem. I don’t have any grudge against them. Today they are the people who are leading you, leading us, and leading the country. No problem. When they eventually finish leading us, maybe we shall have time to sit down to talk.
But how did these things subvert the election at the final stage?
I’m talking of the subversion of the process up to the time we got to the election. There were politicians who told me that I should not allow the elections to go on. I did. There were politicians who even advised me to just go to the radio and announce that they had been cancelled. But by the time the elections went through, then all the hullabaloo about what was going on, announcement of result, court cases and so on, all these became the cumulative pressure. And If I may use that phrase, that broke the camel’s back, as far as that election was concerned.
But don’t you think you owe this nation that obligation of letting us know what is happening now? You’ve seen the same actors playing the same role by advising government on what to do and what not to. And in your recent BBC interview, you were quoted as having said you had no regrets over what happened in June, 1993.
Yes, over the election. I took a decision and have no regrets about that.
Like I was saying, don’t you think you owe this nation an obligation by coming out to tell the Nigerian people who among these actors advised you and urged you to take the decisions you took?
At this time of nation-building and what you journalists refer to as trying to ‘calm the nerves,” I think it will not be appropriate for me to do that.
So, how did the people (society) subvert the election?
Because they had been wrongly educated.
Government, journalists and influential people in the society. They did not reason; they did not question anything that was given to them. They just agreed totally. So they have a role to play. Those who hold the conscience of the nation were able to tell some basic truths to guide the society. Maybe it’s like staging a coup. If I were to stage a coup, I’d take into consideration the mood of the nation at that time. If there is frustration within that society then I have a very conducive atmosphere to stage a coup. But if there is no frustration, I’d be an ass to stage a coup because I know it would not succeed. So, this class, the military and the politicians play a similar role by creating such fears and feelings in the society. Somehow the society becomes a victim. That’s why I don’t spare the society.
So, you are accusing them of abdicating their responsibility of holding the government accountable for the actions and decisions taken?
But are you not shooting from the hip? What would you have expected the people to do? To revolt or to do what? Because in this case they were acquiescent…
It is a very simple thing I’m trying to explain. I am not saying that the society, or the members of the society, should have revolted. Far from it. But if this class of people knew that the society does not want anything but democracy, they would think twice. I was on record as saying that I wanted a situation where the society can tell us the politicians and the military, “no we want democracy”. In the process, we are bound to make mistakes, screw up a lot of things but allow us to do it. Definitely, you have to give in to the people. Generally people are alert politically and they would insist on their rights. That doesn’t mean revolt.
Now, it looks to us that in terms of what led to the annulment, there are two classes that were not critical factors as at that time, that is the politicians and the society. So it will boil down to your constituency, the military.
Everybody has a portion of the blame.
So, how did the annulment come about? Because up till now you had contained these three forces until the election. You said you ignored quite a lot of…
(Cuts in) Look, it could have gone out of hand.
From which place?
There were elections on June 1 2, right? When those elections were going on, those processes of subversion were also going on at the same time.
But we can’t see it. So, what did you see?
What I have available to me is not available to you.
Yes, this is the issue at stake: that we cannot understand why government did this. Can’t you throw more light on this, at least for the first time?
But I’m trying now to explain to you the rationale in very simple terms, what brought about the annulment of June 12 election and I try to tell you that there were a lot of forces at play and it reached a stage when we had to take that decision in one way or the other. And that decision is what we announced on June 23, 1993, when I announced the annulment of the election. So it is the cumulative effect of what had been happening from June 12 to June 23 the role you played, which I played and which the politicians played.
Let’s put it this way. The man who won the election is a close personal friend of yours. Did you at any stage, between June 12 and June 23 when the decision was taken to annul the election, call him to explain things to him?
We talked three times in July. Once, he sought for a meeting and we met. Again in July, I met him at the Abuja Airport along with some prominent Nigerians.
Who were those people?
No, it would be unfair to mention names now. But I could tell you verbatim what everybody said. I could tell you what I told Bashorun and what Bashorun told me. But it would be unfair to do so now.
Actually we are not asking you to tell us verbatim what exactly transpired between the two of you. But what kind of message were you trying to put across to him? Were you trying to appeal to him that he should not bother about the annulment?
I think you are being a journalist here. The truth is, we talked and I don’t want to pre-empt him. He is probably writing his memoirs. And when I talked to him, there were very few of my military colleagues who knew what I discussed with him: once in my house, another time at about 11 p.m. at the Abuja Airport.
That looks like Medicine after death. Did you ever reach him before the annulment decision was made?
I said we talked.
No, you said you talked to him after… (cuts in)
Yes, I met him after the election was annulled. I also met him before. I even spoke with him before the elections. We were in constant communication
Let’s look at it this way. You said cumulative developments led to the annulment. In history, we know the remote and immediate causes…
(cuts in) so, what is the remote cause in this case?
No, you may say that the explanations…
(cuts in) No, get me right. I apportion responsibility of what happened to groups (mind you, I didn’t say apportion blame) to members of the society.
Okay. As the central figure, what would you say was the immediate cause of the annulment?
Well, I will tell you what not the immediate cause is. The annulment was not for Babangida to stay in office. This much I can tell you.
Fine. Now, you are out office. People are not worried about that. But they are worried about the annulment and the consequences. So, what would you consider to be the immediate cause of the annulment?
I’ve analysed this for you. I would want you to think about what I have said.
General, you have also said that you don’t have regrets for what you have done.
No. I have no regrets for the decisions I took.
Okay. Looking back now, having made the decision to annual the election, though you said it was not meant to keep you in office, you’d observed that the country has been in political turmoil. Everything you worked for in eight years has been wiped off since you left office just by the stroke of the pen and you still say you have no regrets?
I don’t know how much of Winston Churchill you have read. He said and I quote: “We will do the right thing after all the alternatives have been exhausted.” This is what I now feel.
I think you’ve side-stepped the question.
No. I haven’t.
So, now in terms of what you said, it appears you will do the right thing only after you have exhausted all.
No, no, no. You should read it from the context of a nation. In the process of nation-building, you go through many things. For example, the country is just 34 years old and if today you come into power and you say you want to adopt communist principle, nobody is going to grudge you against that. So, you go through it. If it doesn’t work, if somebody else gets to the office he tries to modify it. So in 100 years’ time, you might have practiced everything else possible to develop a nation, and when those options are thoroughly practiced and exhausted, you will be able to settle down and then do the right thing.
Now, you have seen what had happened. With hindsight, would you have annulled the election seeing what we are going through now?
What I’m telling you is this: I was a leader of men……..
You still are.
No, right? Since 1964 when I had a start in the military, I had to play a leadership role and I was trained not to abdicate or assign my responsibility. I take responsibility for everything that happened because I was the leader at that time and I am not going to betray anybody, any of my colleagues over whatever decision I took after we had all discussed it. If it fails, it is my responsibility. If it succeeds, its mine too. So, I’m not abdicating that responsibility. Neither am I saying anything either with hindsight or foresight. The fact remains that I look that decision. And I’m not regretting anything whatsoever.
General, when one is wrong and with hindsight one says, ‘’I was wrong,’’ that does not amount to abdicating responsibility….
What I want you to understand is this: in a situation where you are talking of national development, two things happen: there is the government action. Right or wrong, it goes ahead with it or ten years later; somebody comes around and says this government has been an idiot, why did it take this decision? You can review it. If you, with hindsight, discover that those decisions were wrong, you could always say well, I would have done it this way or the other way. But I want you to know this: there has not been anything so far from 1993 to now that will make me think that the decision I had taken is wrong.
So, you believe what you did is right?
I believe so up till now. We are talking of only two years.
If the decision at that time was right, would you consider your transition programme a success in view of the fact that you set out to install an executive president by august 27, 1993 but at the end of it what you were able to put in place was an interim National Government? How did this come about?
Okay. Now that you have brought this in, let me say that when we annulled the June 12 elections on June 23, 1993, we wanted the whole house to install a democratically elected president as we promised this nation. We had two options: option one was what we call a direct election: option two was to end up with delegates’ election or whatever you call it (indirect election). We made a lot of consultation. Today one of your favourite clients said that if we wanted his support and the support of the international community, we had no other option than to go for direct election. The reason he gave was good because in a direct election, the whole country votes to elect a president. Whoever is elected it means he is a true representation of a cross section of the country. We had settled it for an indirect election and when we consulted him, in less than four hours, I changed that decision just to tell you that we were responding to people whom God has given the exclusive right to know things, and we came out with the process of trying this new approach. That’s why I told you what I will put in my memoirs, what will make you lose respect for people who think they are the best that God has created.
In other words, can we put it this way? We learnt General Obasanjo sold this idea of an interim National Government to you and participated in the process of fashioning how the thing should look like. We just want to confirm this.
Why don’t you ask him?
We have asked him and he more or less denied it.
Then, let’s leave it at that. All I know is that I met with him and we talked.
What was the argument that persuaded you to discard the two earlier options and go for the interim thing?
Simple. Because the politicians said they couldn’t go back to their constituencies to ask them to come out and vote again. That was the argument of the politicians and it’s on record.
But there is the statement credited to you that the main reason why the annulment came about was the position of the military, because they did not want Abiola to be either Commander-in-Chief and the Diya we quoted to you a while ago said that in your meeting with top military officers, he and other people asked you who in the military really was against Abiola becoming president?
I don’t discuss people but I know who did what and who said what. Let’s leave it at that. I don’t like to join issues with people whom in God’s own infinite wisdom and mercy, I am higher than. I’m the boss and I take full responsibility for whatever decision that I took.
Is it not a little bit unnatural that you deal with and lead people, yet you cannot talk about them?
You must know my background. If you do, you won’t have difficulty in accepting what I said. My professional background, for example, tells me I cannot indict my subordinates. My background for whatever I am in terms of upbringing, my religion and so on, the greatest crime I can commit is to talk about them. I’m not going to do it.
But was the choice of Ernest Shonekan part of the recommendation made by General Obasanjo in respect of the ING or was it your personal decision? Or was it the decision of you and your service chiefs and your advisers that Shonekan should be the head of the ING?
It was the decision of National Defence and Security Council.
What did you look at to make you conclude that Shonekan was the best choice?
Simple. He headed the Transitional Council that time and he had some working knowledge and experience of the system.
Were you comfortable with the choice of Shonekan, somebody who had not political constituency except his experience in business as Chairman of UAC? Did you think he was capable of doing it?
First, when we talk of constituency, at that level, he has only one constituency. That constituency is the nation. Second, by virtue of his position as Chairman of the Transitional Council, he had the experience. Third, if you find yourself in that kind of situation, you have to look for someone who cannot be accused of political partnership. Somebody who is neutral.
So, why did you leave Abacha behind, when you were removing other service Chiefs?
Again we have reasons for doing that. And that decision is correct up till today.
Now, can you tell the nation the reason?
No. Not now. Abacha is the head of state. I do respect his office.
But you had said earlier in 1993 that you would retire along with the other service Chiefs, and so was Abacha left behind because of the appreciation that Shonekan was not strong enough to be fully in charge of the ING?
I said I’d go with my service chiefs. Period. And I did. But Abacha was a political appointment.
But your post was political, too!
I haven’t denied. I was a bloody politician (general laughter). And my term as political leader of the country or dictator, as you would describe it, was finished and I wanted to go. The same boys you talked to, I can play back the videos of their contributions when we had this meeting, but actually I don’t want to join issues with anybody. Let them have a field day.
You are a man who claims to dominate his environment, who also cites his religion to justify his position. You have also been on record as saying that yours would be the last military government. Now that we have another military government, are you regretful?
No, what has happened is still very consistent with my philosophy of ours being the last military government. It has not changed at all. When we were there, the question was if..if..if… we could install a democratically elected government level and hand over the reins of government to a democratically elected president, I did assure this nation that military intervention was going to be something left to history. Did we do that?
That presence of another military government shortly after your own regime is a backlash of the annulment of the June 12 election.
My statement is very clear and I can quote it verbatim.
General, there is not much to celebrate in that statement because you led us to believe that after this long transition, you would give us a democratically elected government which did not happen and you ended up having a military administration even after the ING. You know how much you invested in this finally and in terms of your integrity. Now, everything has collapsed and you said you have no regrets over it?
You are not being fair, judging by the line of argument we have been following. Now, what you are saying is that everything has collapsed and I have no regrets about it. That’s not being fair.
What we are saying here is this: that now that you did not have the situation where there is no military government and there is not elected civilian government, are you not remorseful about that, considering what you had given out in terms of hopes and expectations for the Nigerian people?
I happen to know the role certain forces played at the time. I happen, also to know a lot of things which you didn’t know and which the general public was not aware of. I was also sensible enough to know that, in a situation, any country has to go through some of the problems. Therefore, I don’t look at the consequences of my action on a short-term basis. The consequences of my action would not manifest until after you and I would have been dead. People would still talk about the consequences of this action in a hundred years’ time.
Now, two quick questions. From your vintage position of knowing everything, did Abiola win that election? The second one, people say Abacha’s government is a continuation of your regime and what has really changed is the headship and the name. What’s your reaction to this?
What you are telling me is typical of Nigerians. They haven’t said anything new that they have had not said of other governments before. It is just typical of Nigerians.
You have not answered the first question. Did Abiola win the election or not?
Quite frankly, I was not in a position and neither could anybody have been in a position to know at that time because they had not finished the election process.
Then, why did your constituency insist, as you had earlier said, that if Abiola was put there as your successor there would be trouble?
I have told you of the forces at play then, and the way the election and the results were handled even fuelled suspicion.
General, you can imagine the time we have spent discussing the June 12 issue alone…
(cuts in) I was expecting it.
The same thing is happening throughout the country. Since June 23, 1993 when the annulment was announced, this country has been literally on fire. Do you think there is a way out of the present political turmoil without resolving the June 12 issue?
Yeah, I think there is. It is for Nigerians to accept in good faith that what is currently happening is something that every developing country has to go through. And they should see that this country is far more important than any individual and, therefore, should get determined to move the country forward. The country is bigger than June 12. The country is bigger than anybody who believes in June 12. The country is bigger than those who insist that June 12 is the answer. We must remember that between 1967 and 1970, we fought a civil war to keep the country one, over one million people lost their lives over this war in the attempt to keep Nigeria together. So if you make a comparison, people paid the supreme sacrifice because they wanted to keep this country together. Therefore, it is only common sense that, as Nigerians, they were prepared to die because “they need this country together”.
We hope that what you are saying is not that Nigerians should expect subversion of the electoral process in order that the country can move forward?
No, no, no. I’d be the happiest person today if Nigerians can learn from this experience and not allow themselves to be led by the nose by those who think they have the absolute right to rule this country…….. All I’m telling you is that we are a very dishonest people. A man has a conviction but he cannot come out to tell you what his conviction is simply because he is afraid of what people are going to say. Of what use is a human being if he does not have a conviction? This is the attitude we must get rid of.
You have been talking in general terms about the attitude of our people. Now that you say there is a way out, what, in specific terms, should people think of? What’s the way out now? What do you suggest? What is the way forward, Junel2 or no June 12?
I agree. This country must move forward, June 12 or no June 12. Therefore, everybody should put away whatever is his political interest and concentrate on the national interest.
So, what do we do now? It appears we are talking in general terms and we need to be more specific. You said to move forward, we must forget June 12; is that what you really mean?
I believe so.
Then, what next do we do if we discard June 12?
Those who are to move forward Nigeria are we Nigerians. So, forget it and let’s start all over again.
From where? Is it where you left off or where you started it? From wherever Nigerians want to begin again. People don’t even have confidence again in the system. We went through one process for eight years which landed us nowhere and you are now suggesting that we start all over again. I mean, being human beings.
Haba! We are talking of the life of a country. For the next 1,000 years, the country will still be there. And within the next 100 years, you and l may not be there.
But you are not even afraid that the system could break up?
No. There is one thing: It seems we have all agreed on and I think this is the finest aspect of the crisis. I have not heard anybody who said Nigeria should break and go to blazes. Therefore, we can take a cue from there that everybody is agreed that we want to live as one country. Thus we have a common platform from which we can take a look at the whole problem.
Think we should move forward a bit. I know you don’t like joining issues with your juniors (cuts in). And my seniors, too) but all the same, I had thought you would still react to what General Obasanjo said about your regime, in an interview with TELL in 1993, which he described as a fraud.
You want me to react to that? I think that’s his problem, not mine. But I don’t want to join issues with him either.
Does it mean that during your numerous meetings after the interview, especially during the putting together of ING, you never asked him about it? Does it mean that it doesn’t worry you no matter what anybody says?
No. There is nothing he said at that time that had not been said before. He did not say any new thing different from what other media organizations had carried about me. So what’s my problem?
So, does it mean that when you were in power, you could only join issues with the press because in some media houses, you responded to what they said by dealing ruthlessly with them, like in the case of TELL? What happened to TELL? TELL? (Feigning ignorance). Seriously, what happened?
Over half a million copies of TELL were seized and some of the gentlemen speaking with you now were arrested…
You see, when I sat up there, I didn’t know most of these things that happened.
That’s not true, sir. For a man who dominated his environment for so long
True. At times, the information only reached me later.
General! Okay, shall we go to other areas? General Abacha in his recent budget…
(Cuts in) No, no, no.
Sorry, we are not asking you to comment about General Abacha. We just want to use the budget to illustrate a point. In the 1995 budget, General Abacha announced the abolition of the dedicated Account, which your regime established. You will remember, too, that the Okigbo panel was set up last year and in his report, he specifically mentioned that $12.4 billion passed through the account while you were in charge. He made a searing remark about your regime for having spent $12.2 billion out of that amount on projects that could not be regarded as being beneficial to the economy of the country. What’s your reaction to that?
What he said was that it was not a regenerative investment. It is people like you who will get fascinated by such high-fallutin words, for that’s what they are. You go back to history, about 18 years back, when we went into a lot of ventures with some countries. Up till today, Nigeria is not gaining anything out of all those investments in the 1970s. I’m talking of regenerative investments. Once you run a government, you just don’t put money in the bank. Pius (Okigbo), I’m happy, did not say somebody stole that money. In determining priorities, again government determines what its priority is. It may not be the same with what he believes should be the priority. It may not also be the same with what other people in the society consider to be priority. I think if you recall, we had a lot of problems about Abuja, Ajaokuta, about whatever you want to say. People believed that we shared some kind of booty. I didn’t start Ajaokuta, for example, but by the time I took over, $4 billion had been sunk in. I thought it would be unfair, having invested so much in it, to allow the whole thing to waste away. So, I invested money to keep the outfit going and the records are there about how much was spent. Of course, there are some people in Nigeria who don’t share my concept of Abuja. They believe Abuja is right but they didn’t like the way things were being done. As for me, it comes down to the same point of what you consider to be your priority. So, if people think that in six years from about September 1988 to June 1994), all you need to do is just to create the money and sit down and be looking at it, that’s an entirely new concept all together. But government is about development and development is about spending money Period.
But, beyond that, 1 don’t think they are saying that you should make money, keep it somewhere and be looking at it. What other people; apart from the Okigbo panel, are saying is that the concept and way of handling the dedicated account was detrimental to government because the law says all money earned by the country should go into the federation account. I think you should understand the law better since you’ve operated the system before.
What I have done is not unusual in this country. Somebody did it before me but I won’t mention names. We did undertake the construction of various ports and other projects (including bridges). That money could have gone into the federation account. Yes, but whatever foreign exchange we earned, we monetised it, and those we monetised were what the state governments and local governments were getting…. And I think if all we could spend between 1988 and 1994 was $12.4 billion, then that is very good.
There is something that comes out of the extra budgetary spending of the government. For instance, there is the well-known view that much of the fine developments in Minna was done by your administration and paid for by FCDA. It is even said that this your mansion built by Julius Berger was paid for by the FCDA through dedicated oil. How do you react to this?
Thirteen years ago, I was not in office. I have lived here for 13 years. I started developing the whole environment about 1989 and I’m proud to say that I own everything in this publicly declared property. I’m proud to say that I’m the first person who went before a notary public to make his declaration. Thus, I think that should not really be an issue. I will go down as the first person who went before a Notary public to declare his assets. Others merely filled forms and submitted them to the relevant government agency. I don’t have any worries or sleepless nights over that.
Now that you’ve mentioned it, can we know what actually you declared before the Notary Public?
Everything! I would appreciate if you could bring your lawyers and accountants to sit with me and go through the whole thing. These are the people who understand what I’m talking about.
What are you worth exactly? Are you a billionaire?
This is being unfair to me. In your various interviews with other people, you never put this question to them. But if you insist, I’ll answer you but off the record. Well, I did not go into the office of president in penury. It’s as simple as that.
So, how did you make your money?
Surely, I didn’t steal. Neither did I do armed robbery
General, earlier on, you did explain to us that one of the reasons that led to the decision to annul the election was the possibility of a coup d’etat and of course you had such a turbulent period while in power. One was shortly after you came to power and the other was in 1990 during the Orkar coup. During the coup attempt, they made some allegations against your regime to which, up till today, there has been no official response. One of the allegations was that you were responsible for the assassination of the late Dele Giwa and that has been hanging for quite some time. We just thought this is an opportunity to hear your own reaction.
When you stage a coup, you have to tell the people what they want to hear so that you can get accepted. I think it is only fair to say that when they said what they wanted to say, they said it as a result of not knowing what to say. Instead, they wanted to take advantage of current rumours. They talked about the late Dele Giwa, the caliphate and Northern domination and the next thing was to excise five states out of Nigeria. So, I think any responsible government should not respond to stupid things. That’s the way we took the matter then.
But considering the fact that these people had to pay the supreme sacrifice for these things, don’t you think that it should have required some explanation on the part of your government?
Why? If you stage a coup d’etat, you run the risk of the consequences of failure. Let me tell you a story. One of my juniors, late (Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo), was traveling with me. On board the plane, he saw a young officer reading a book on “How to Stage a Coup”. So, he went to the young officer, tapped him on the back, got the book and opened up a page for him and said: “By all means read this book but when you get to this chapter cram it.” The chapter he opened was on the consequences of failure. Those boys did not pay the supreme sacrifice in the interest of the nation: rather they paid for their lives and personal interests.
But if they had succeeded…
Then that is what a coup is all about. A coup never succeeds; if it does, nobody calls it a coup.
But in the case of Dele Giwa, why an explanation might have been necessary is this: It seems your government kind of obstructed an open investigation or open treatment of the matter.
Gani Fawehinmi obtained a Supreme Court ruling to try the people he had alleged to be culprits but a state government headed by a military governor brought out a new law which made it impossible for Gani to proceed. And since then, Gani had always been either circumstantially or directly in trouble with your government.
If you had studied the whole case, maybe you’d have seen the thing in a better perspective…
Before we get over this Dele Giwa affair, the thing is this: Are you not personally disappointed that our judicial system could not unravel the mystery surrounding the death of Giwa throughout the years you stayed in office, moreso since the tragedy occurred during your regime?
There are many cases like this. Dele Giwa’s is not the only one. There are a lot of other cases. So, if you talk of disappointed, yes… em! The disappointment is there because we’ve not been able to unravel, to quote you, the mystery of his death. So, his should not be treated as an isolated case. It is part of the sum total of such cases, I think it is pity though that we couldn’t do it.
What makes his own case exceptional is the novel way through which he was killed, that is through a parcel bomb. People are not used to that kind of murder and it was a thing that jolted the whole nation.
Hmmm.. We are a very sophisticated nation in three things like in advanced countries in crime, in politics and in press (Laughter).
Well, it does not sound a laughing matter but what can we do?
But it is, indeed, serious
Now, while you were in office, you created states twice in 1987 and 1991 and of course you added then that, that exercise does not mean that people would no longer ask for more states in future. Right now, there are more talks about demands for more states. In hindsight, do you really believe that creation of states is the only way of making people feel political belonging?
I think so because people wanted to create an environment they can call their own and historically, this thing started before the advent of our administration and I think it would continue. I mean the agitation for more states.
Don’t you think more people would feel left out any time states are created? Again most of the revenue accruing to government is going for overheads, paying salaries and maintaining the bureaucracy. There is no real development going on.
Well, I think these are the consequences of states creation. A state has to be viable and you have to weigh the political and economic consequences. Having done that, you may discover that some of these states may not be viable after all.
In what wise, will you support the idea of creating more states now in view of the economic situation?
Quite frankly, I wouldn’t know for now but may be some extreme cases which are direct consequences of what happened in the past. I think government can look into these.
There are different ways by which you were often described. Some call you Maradona and some call…
(Cuts in) The one I like best is the one that described me as the Evil Genius.
Because it is a contradiction. You can’t be a genius and an evil at the same time (general laughter).
It appears one can never pin you down (More laughter).
During your regime, the office of the First Lady became famous or notorious for exercising considerable extra official influence…
But the General knows all these things. No, no, no.
Like the Better Life Programme. Considering our history and what is going on now, do you think that, that is okay?
Why don’t you put it this way? Everybody has a role to play within the establishment, whether the president, vice-president, first lady or whatever. If there is a role for them to play, why not?
But some of these roles are an unnecessary duplication because if, for instance, government is planning for the rural people yet women are part of the rural people…
Let’s put it this way. If, I as the president, have interest in the welfare of orphans, for example, because they are also citizens of the country, that does not mean that we cannot pay special attention to them, though on a smaller case though the First Lady… I think this is how we should look at it.
Well, right or wrong, your wife tried to reach out to the women and put their welfare on the front burner. This tallies with what we had said earlier on. Right or wrong, all you did while you were in power somebody else came and wiped off., The same thing has happened. The wife of the incumbent head of government has said there, is no Better Life Programme. What we have now is Family Support Programme. What this amounts to is that there, is no continuity in government or public policies…
Anybody who is a student of history will accept whatever is happening. I feel fulfilled as far as I’m concerned even if you say everything I did was stupid. But the good thing is that everything I did comes out there and is recorded. It provides you with a basis, for the society, for comparison. I think it’s just as simple as that. If my economic policies are useless, for example, somebody else comes up and puts his own. So, there is a basis for comparison.
Just let’s ask this: your government or you in particular have been seen as having imposed (Sultan) Dasuki on the Sokoto throne, that somebody else was elected by the king makers. Will you want to comment on this for the first time?
The issue does not even arise. The federal government which I headed had no constitutional role in the affairs of traditional institutions. So, where do I come in? It’s as simple as that!
That is too smooth, general.
No. you just have to accept something. The federal government has nothing to do with traditional institutions. The whole process is there on record for you to see. At any rate, I think Dasuki has the right to aspire to that throne like any other person who comes from the royal family.
In retrospect, what some IBB watchers have observed is that the Sokoto throne crisis was a rehearsal for the later annulment of the 1993 presidential election.
Those things don’t bother me because if a woman miscarried while I was in office, just ordinary miscarriage, it is this “evil man, Babangida,” that caused it. So they will say anything.
That’s interesting. So how does a man have all these negative pictures all through and through and yet say it doesn’t worry him? How did you get yourself into this position?
I have a very strong conviction and this is what has helped me. It is a price one has to pay. If you find yourself in that position, you will see what is going to be said about you too?
Before we go, can we just ask you this question? When you were watching Mandela, may be on CNN, last year on his inauguration, what went through your mind? Most especially since Nigeria was supposed to be a leading and shining example to the rest of the world and yet we flunked our own chance of making a point to the world?
The result of the collective struggle of the South Africans was a great achievement. I know some people would have related what happened there to what was happening in Nigeria… I don’t entertain any fear that we still remain the leader in Africa despite recent political developments.
But meanwhile, Nigeria remains a bad example to the rest of Africa in relation to the ongoing wind of political change blowing across the world
Fortunately, the rest of Africans have known Nigerians for their unique ways of solving their problems. I know it is not the best commentary to think that it is only in Nigeria that coup d’états still take place, where 419 thrives and where we don’t have patience. Maybe all it takes is a change of attitude.
What’s your relationship with General Abacha?
Good. We have known each other for about 32 years now
So, since he is in government and you are out, how is it?
Somebody has to get out and somebody has to come in. So what’s the problem? (General laughter).
The problem is how one came out and the other got in (more laughter). Maybe the General does not want to talk about that now.
No, no, no. I’m out, he is in. So, what’s the problem?
We are not saying there is a problem. We are only interested in the relationship between the two of you.
The relationship between me and Abacha is good. The relationship between me and Abiola is also good. So with Tofa.
Does Aso Rock consult you or seek advice from you on any matter in view of your 32 memorable years of association with Abacha?
We talk. We are good friends and I leave that to you to interpret what good friends are.
Were you comfortable with people like Gani Fawehinmi while you were in power?
I want to say something. If there is one man I respect, it is Gani. It sounds strange.
Because he is consistent.
But why would you want to jail him all the time, somebody you consider to be consistent and whom you respect?
What I’m telling you is this: you can be a consistent fighter on what you believe in but when you consistently fight for what you believe that does not mean that I should accept what you believe but I appreciate you that you have a strong conviction and fight for it consistently. This is the context in which I see Gani. I was a consistent ‘evil’ and he was, let me quote you, a dogged fighter and I respect him for this. What he fights for may run contrary to my own belief but he is one man I really respect. In fact, there are three of them I respect like that. They are Gani, late (Professor) Awojobi and (Dr) Yusuf Bala Usman. None of them says anything without doing his homework first, even if it’s for nuisance value. These are the three good critics that this country has produced.
So, General why did you jail this man?
I was the president of the country. I was not a judicial officer. Neither was I a law officer. A law officer arrests, a judge jails and I’m none of these. So, where do I come in?
But in an earlier chat with one of us, you claimed that Gani has always been jailed by past governments, why not you too?
No, no, no. He has always been jailed on what he believes and that jailing did not deter him from doing what he believes in. And that’s why I respect him. Anyway, every government before mine jailed him. So, why shouldn’t I be entitled to jail him too! (General laughter).
You respect the Nigerian press so much but why did you shut some of the media houses, seize whole print-runs and arrest journalists?
Let me tell you one thing: In government parlance, what security means is any measure, offensive or defensive, taken to protect the state from acts of whatever or even to annoy the head of government. You can take any measure to stop the country from being subjected to acts of sabotage or terrorism. You can take any measure to make sure that the head of government or state or the president does not get annoyed. It’s all part of security.
Under you, was this not over abused?
Finally, who is Babangida?
He is an ordinary citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria who was once the president of this country and who is now a retired man living in Minna.
Now, suppose you are in a position to write your epitaph, what would you like it to be?
Here lies the grave of Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, a citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, who strived very hard to work in the service of his great country. May his soul rest in perfect peace.
Amen? (General laughter).
But I wouldn’t like to have that epitaph until 50 years from now I still want to live to struggle.