WE ARE READY TO ACCOUNT FOR OUR STEWARDSHIP
Interview with Galaxy Television
What is your position on the clamour for power shift to the South?
Under my administration, the whole idea of power shift to the South started when we annulled the June 1993 presidential election and wanted to hold another presidential election. We convinced the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC) to produce two candidates one from the South and one from the North. Convince the North to vote freely above anything else. So it is nothing new. The way they bandy power around doesn’t connote anything to me. If you bring anybody and put him there as President, he is not going to work alone. He will work with the legislators, he will work with the ministers and other people and his power comes from how he is able to interact with these people. He can’t push his will through. So if you say the North has been producing heads of state and that it is time for the South to produce a head of state, fine. That makes sense. I believed in it and very seriously that the next head of state should come from the South.
Still on power shift. Did you for once have the fear that this country may break-up one day?
Maybe after my children’s children are dead. The fear is not there. Do you know why? For two reasons. First, we fought a war of national unity and people died from both sides. Every ethnic group or region or whatever was affected by the civil war in one way or the other. You may have lost your brother, colleague or friend from any part of the country. So we would have allowed people to die in vain. But I tell you that Nigerians have already gotten that deep down into their hearts and heads. Second, if you see the disposition of people in the country, it’s amazing the mobility to North, to South and from the South to up North. People don’t see themselves as anything other than Nigerians and nobody has said that they want to secede. I saw a big headline once: “The West will not Secede” — Bola lge. Everybody in this country believes that the South West wants to break away. I don’t believe it. The South West could press for or demand something just like any other part of the country, but I don’t think they want to secede. We have come a long way so secession should not be an issue.
Is there a simple explanation for the repeated emergence of northern military officers as heads of State?
You will agree with me that we had General Aguiyi Ironsi. He is from the South East. We had General Olusegun Obasanjo, he is from South West. It only happened that the people that came after these people are from the north. It was senior military officers that came after them. For instance General Buhari is my senior. When we heard that it was Buhari, everybody had confidence in the takeover. In all there must be confidence. So he became the head of State. After him, confidence was reposed in another senior officer. That’s me. After me, confidence was reposed in another senior officer. So it is a collective decision of the Armed Forces system.
How do you rate the present military administration especially in the areas of fuel problem and the minimum wage issue?
I think they inherited the fuel problem. It is not easy really because the refineries were not operational before General Abubakar came. So, he inherited this problem and he is doing the best he can to get rid of it. The issue of minimum wage was on the cards and was being discussed very seriously by Abacha’s government and when he died, the issue resurfaced. I may not have the facts but there could be some mishandling somewhere not by the head of State but by officials. I had the same problem when we adjusted wages. Initially, we just allowed increase but certainly we found out that there were others in the public service who had unified salary structures. Doctors were not taken into consideration and we had to go back to the drawing board. So it’s normal issue, which happens.
Let’s talk about Buhari/ldiagbon Regime. What informed your taking over?
Before we ever got involved in any coup, it’s always a situation that presented itself. During that period, I was the Chief of Army Staff. But at a certain point, the citizenry were getting frustrated. The jailing of the so-called politicians, the fighting of corruption and so on and so forth. So we got to a stage where we couldn’t trust anybody. The society was tense. Everybody was not at ease. People were arbitrarily jailed some for 133 years, 90 years, and so on! So I think the atmosphere at that time really was getting out of hand and was not conducive for governance. But then this sort of thing starts with few officers conspiring to say we cannot continue this way. To be honest with you, that was what happened. I know that there have been insinuations and commentaries and people saying we did it because of ABCD. But I know that there are certain basic principles involved. He may have a different story and different version of what happened because he was involved. So he will try to create his own story. But this was what happened. Ours was more credible because the people backed it. And also people welcomed this change. The society was the beneficiary of that coup at that time.
Let’s talk about the dialectics of Machiavelli. A lot of people believe that over time during your administration you adhered strictly to the tactics of Machiavelli
And which is?
Divide and Rule for instance. Like chess playing, moving not showing your hands, sometimes double speak and sometimes read my lips till you get there. The famous was “We know those who will not succeed us but we don’t know who will succeed us”. Sir, do you really see yourself as a tactician?
People tend to forget that every military officer is trained to lead human beings. You’re trained as a leader. You fit into any war. Our military courses exposed us to a lot about military leaders. In those days, Second Lieutenants an even, cadets tried to imagine themselves as so so and so after a great leader during the First World War and after the Second World War. Even those campaigns carried out in ancient Rome like Hannibal for example and Alexander the Great. We studied these campaigns and we tried to cast ourselves in their mould. But the society kept on changing and once you are trained as a leader, I think you should be able to play it like chess. You can easily predict the Nigerian society, the people and you can visualise what they want to do next. All I have tried to do is to live ahead of the societies all the time.
Did you succeed to a large extent?
I think I first saw myself as a military officer and I also saw myself as a politician. As a soldier, sometimes we used iron hands. As a politician, I know that a political statement must always have double meaning otherwise it is not a political statement. So most of the things we said, we tried to create exit room in case anything goes wrong.
Does it disturb you hearing that Nigerians doubt whatever you say?
No. You see if you observed most of the things we either said or did, we said them out of absolute conviction. We tried not to do things on an experimental basis. Before we did or before we said anything, we had factored in the consequences and tried to proffer solutions to some of the after effects of either the actions we were to take or the policy we were going to introduce. When we tried Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), I told everybody in this country that it was not going to be easy. When we were trying to introduce the concept of self-reliance, we told people that if they are not ready to work hard, the whole idea will collapse. So people knew it.
We were honest enough to reverse ourselves where we went wrong in very few occasions. We tried to explain these things in very elementary ways. Before we moved from 50 kobo to 70 kobo in the price of gasoline, we carried out a lot of campaigns to explain why petrol has to be sold at 70 kobo. So there are a lot of things we did. But then the society may not necessarily accept what you are trying to do. I don’t believe that any man should sit on the fence. You must be partisan. In other words, I believe in SAP so I must be counted among those who believe in SAP If I stay in the centre, I wouldn’t be helping myself because I am neither here nor there. But if I belong with them, they have to defend me and I will defend them. So there were two schools of thought at play.
Would you say that Nigerians are retarded or ignorant because they are always told by the elite that what they see is not actually the reality?
The elite are the greatest problem in this country.
(cuts in) … But they are also in the military.
(cuts in)….. All of us, Police, military, journalists, lawyers, etc. All of us are involved.
But is it not worrisome sir?
Quite frankly, I think that we were not able during this period to shake off some of the things we did in the past. What I mean is simple. The Labour Unionists, the lawyers, the politicians, the journalists etc, joined hands in fighting colonial masters, which was good. They fought them to a standstill until we became independent. Then after independence, these same people didn’t seem to understand that now this is our government. This is our country. The mentality of fighting the colonial government was very much in us, such that we fight any government. Any government that come we try to bring it to its knees. We ought to have undergone certain transformation. Maybe because we got independence on a platter of gold. We really didn’t shoot ourselves, fight and kill for years before independence.
When we look at the present day setting, if you travel from Minna to Baga and up there at the border, you will find virtually every tribe in Nigeria; Yorubas, lgbcs, lbibios, Tivs, name it, you will find them there. What are they doing? Trading, fishing, etc. As far as they are concerned, there is no difference between themselves who are native and the man who came from Rivers State for fishing, or the man from
Ogbomosho who is a trader. They live in peace with each other. This goes down everywhere. If you go to the South, the same thing happens; northerners live there. But the problem starts with people like me and you. When it comes to government for example, I will go and champion that those of us from Niger State are under-represented and I will go and make noise about it. I will tell the world that I am doing it on behalf of my people. Meanwhile, my people are living at peace with other people but you and I are quarrelling. Take a state government for example. A political party is coming into office, we promise that we will give you Speaker of House, we promise you Secretary to the State Government and so on. The fighting for the reflection of Federal character is always at the centre of this fight. I believe that these things are at various stages. Like I said, if Niger state doesn’t have a brigadier in the Army but all it has is a Major or Lt. Colonel, it will be unrealistic to say okay because Niger doesn’t have a brigadier, let’s promote the Lt. Colonel to Brigadier. I believe that Niger should wait till their representative qualifies.
It happened in the past when General Gowon and General Yar’adua were promoted.
At the time General Yar’adua was promoted, he was already Lt Colonel. It was not unusual. A lot of our officers were promoted to Brigadier from the rank of Lt. Colonel. So it is not anything new. From that rank onwards, promotion could be purely by political discretion.
Taking a look at your eight years in office, what point in time would you take as your lowest and highest points in power?
Well, if I go by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports, they believe that from 1986-1990 was really a good period both economically and in other things. Their verdict is that we did very well. Then of course people who had begun to be tired of us said that from 1991, we had started changing things after the Orkar coup etc. But I think that whatever we tried to pursue then, we pursued with conviction. To be modest, my administration was ahead of its time.
Could you shed more light on this?
In 1986, we introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). By 1989, the whole world was trying to adopt some of the things we had started doing in this country. Soviet Union was breaking up, introducing Perestroika and Glasnost everything. Open Market, Market Economy, and Diversification of the Base of Productive Enterprises, Self-Reliance etc. We were going along. I think the people were not really attuned to things we were doing then and I can prove this to you. In 1994 if you recollect, Abacha’s administration reversed virtually all we did in terms of policy. One of the famous phrases then and I am sure you know who said it “No responsible government will leave its economy in the hands of market forces”. The policies were reversed in 1994 and we were all alive and in 1995, you went back to those policies within one year. That is why I said that my administration was ahead of its time.
Talking about the treasury, what was it like when you assumed office and when you left?
When I took over, I promised this country two things. One, I said I will not leave anything below what I have found. If I cannot improve on it, I will certainly maintain whatever standard it was at that time. Thank God that up till the time we handed over, I did not go lower than what we found. That is one promise that I made. The second promise is that I will give account of every single kobo from 1985 to August 1993 before I left office. If you like, I can give you documentation from August 1985 when I assumed office to August 1993 when I handed over, every kobo that went into the coffers of government at that time up till August 1993 was, recorded, audited and accounted for. It is there and that is why I was never afraid to say that we are prepared at any time to give account of our stewardship.
Could you once and for all just clear the air over the issue of the billions of United States dollars alleged to have been misappropriated by your administration? What happened?
You can’t wrap it up because when some Nigerians want to hit IBB, they talk about it. It has become a sing-song of sorts. It is a simple and common sense thing. I have seen a lot of articles even by one of my ministers who was in that industry on the issue. Anybody who went to school, anybody who has been in government would not have any difficulty in explaining this thing. There was the Gulf War in 1991. That war finished by March. And because of the war, there was expectation that oil prices were going to go high. Indeed, oil prices went high. But that war terminated in less than 3 months.
Also, there was a budget in 1991 but I cannot remember now the oil price we used as a benchmark for calculating the budget at that time. But all I can recollect is that we weren’t expecting more than $10 billion at that period. It happened that in that period, we had $12.2 billion. Extra money came into the coffers of the Federal Government during the three months that the war lasted. Records show that the extra, was $2.2 billion. The budget for that year was $10 billion. So the total accrued to the country was $12.2 billion. The mandate given to the Okigbo panel was to investigate the period between 1990 to 1993. Of course, he went up to June 1994. By June 1994, you know that there was no Babangida in office. So he submitted that report. They looked into the books. Expenditures were made. Records showing those expenditures were made available. It was cross checked and another body was set up to physically examine the projects carried out and tally them with what obtained from the records.
The bone of contention was that the money we spent could have been put aside for regenerative investment whatever that means. My argument was that the decision to spend money is that of the government but you may disagree with my priority if all I want to do is Abuja and Kano. You may not like it. You may also consider it necessary and at the end of the day, the decision is purely mine. You may have your observations but I will still want to go and do it for as long as I will be held accountable. That was what happened. It is inconceivable that an individual could steal that amount of money especially at that time. I kept on challenging everybody that we will be prepared to give account of our stewardship. I want you to know that my administration was investigated. I knew that if we had done something terribly bad knowing how aggressive the Nigerian media, the Nigerian journalist is everywhere in Nigeria and whole world
would have been littered with this rumour that he has taken away this or that. If you have read anything, it is always based on fiction, insinuation, imagination, innuendos etc. Take for instance; I have a 50-bedroom house. That’s crazy. There are no 50 bedrooms in my house. I have lived in this house for 13 years even before I became president.
They will tell you the sprawling estate of Babangida. They will tell you I own a street in Paris or a mansion in the South of France. If these things were true, knowing the aggressive nature of Nigerians, by now they would have filled the whole place with the rumour. Of course in 1989, there were even some photographs and I tell you its not so. People don’t seem to understand that some of us are not as bad as people would want to believe. But then I do understand. To show you are brave, just write about the man in Minna. Make big headline on IBB. I saw a magazine that talked about the “Fortunes of IBB” and read it. What they wrote in 1993 was actually what that journalist picked up and wrote in 1999. The only difference was that in 1993, it was written by one of the tabloid magazines. In 1999, he did a good research, brought it out, maybe changed one sentence or the other and planted it in his own magazine. The only new thing there was that I acquired shares which is not true. I think this is my fate. I have to live with it.
I want us to talk about General Obasanjo in those SAP days when we had phrases like your regime was a fraud, giving SAP a human face, drunken bull in a china shop and it just kept coming. Do you see these comments as justified especially now with the benefit of hindsight?
I think that I had an opportunity of saying that all military regimes were frauds because we subverted the wishes of the people. In one of the interviews I granted, and I still maintain that Ironsi’s regime, Gowon’s regime, Murtala’s regime, Obasanjo’s regime, Buhari’s regime, Babangida’s regime, Abacha’s were are all military regimes. They were aberrations and not normal regimes. So I don’t mind if he said my regime was a fraud because he also headed a military regime.
How do you react to the name Maradona?
I don’t feel offended. In any case, I played football in my school days. What was your jersey number?
Number 6 (laughter)
Sir, how do you react to the assertion that the major conduit pipe, of waste during your administration were the Nigerian Army, Ajaokuta, Abuja and the Aluminium Smelter Company (ALSCON)?
I didn’t start Ajaokuta. It was started in the 70’s. When the civilian government came on board, they made some effort. By the time I got in, at least N4 billion was sunk into Ajaokuta and my reason then was that it would be criminal if we just abandon Ajaokuta since N4 billion was already sunk into it. We felt that we might as well look at it, re-appraise it and try to see how best we could make use of what was available and that was why we kept on putting money, in the hope that we will get the best out of it. The Aluminium Smelter was conceived during Shagari’s administration.
There was difficulty in siting at that time. When I came, it re-surfaced in the 1990s. If you look at that part of the country, there was both political and economic consideration in siting the Aluminium Smelter facility at Ikot Abasi. It was a place that never had a federal presence. We wanted to make them feel that they belong to this country. There was this famous phrase: federal presence. There was no federal presence there and we were determined to put it there. I’m glad from what I read from the newspapers and what I have seen so far, it is really coming out fine. But a lot must have gone into it. No doubt about it.
Everything you want to develop costs money. Abuja, the same applies to it. The decision to relocate the federal capital there and the first effort to start off the project there was started by Shehu Shagari’s administration. And we carried it on with more vigour. In retrospect, if you look at the economics of the whole thing, I’m glad we took the decisions at the time we took them. The exchange rate before I left office and when I was in office when some of these projects were going on was about one German Mark to ten Naira at that time. Now it is 1 to 52. So at the time we did it, we were quite lucky because our currency was strong. With ten times the amount of money we spent, you cannot start anything now. So I think the Aluminium Smelter, economically, is sound. Politically, it is right. Ajaokuta, to abandon it would be economically wasteful because about $4 billion had been sunk so it would be wise to make the best use of what was there. We put in the infrastructure in Abuja, which, if we didn’t do it then, it would have been difficult for us to do now.
What about the Army?
Well I don’t know what the problem was with the Army, but if you have followed from about 1988, the budget of the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces has not been like it used to be. We kept on reducing it. What some people don’t seem to appreciate is the fact that military equipment is very expensive. The tank for example and anti-aircraft systems you need them. By the time we bought most of these things, we virtually stabilized the military expenditure of this country.