Who later became a governor?
Yes. He was my course mate here in Kaduna.
And there you were…
Facing each other.
It was really crazy.
It was. It was unfortunate, but it is part of our national development.
And the way we are going, you think it is a possibility again?
I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so.
After Gowon, Murtala came.
By the time you were no longer a small officer…
No. I was just, I think, a colonel? Was it a lieutenant colonel or major? I think I was a lieutenant colonel.
But during the Obasanjo administration, you had become a minister, as it were.
No. I first became a governor when Murtala came, in North-East.
This same North East that is giving problem now.
Yes. I was there and there were six states then: Yobe, Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, Adamawa and Taraba.
And they were all under your control or command?
North East went up to Chad; anyway, they are on the same latitude with Lagos. The bottom before you start going on the Plateau, Mambilla Plateau, if you look here on the map, the same latitude was in Lagos and then, up to Chad. That was the extent of the whole North East.
Now, some of them can’t govern even one state…
They are now six states.
I know, but you governed six states and now, some of them have problems with one state…
What were the challenges you faced governing the North East as a military governor?
Actually, at that time, because of competent civil service… I was a military man but once you get to the rank of a lieutenant-colonel, after major, you are being taught some management courses. It needs a few weeks for somebody who has gone through the military management training, you have junior staff college, senior staff college; by that time, you will have enough experience for most administrative jobs because you must have had enough of the combat ones. I think I didn’t have much problem. And then, the competent civil servants. Civil servants then were very professional.
And not political as we have them now?
No. They were really professionals and they can disagree with you on record, on issues.
They were not afraid to make recommendations to the military governor or administrator?
No, they were never. People like the late Liman Ciroma, Waziri Fika, who was eventually Secretary to the Government of Babangida. And the late Abubakar Umar, who was Secretary to the Government of Bauchi State; and the late Moguno. They were real professionals, committed technocrats.
So, you didn’t really have much challenges?
No, not much challenges.
There was no insecurity then, like we have in the North East today?
No, the police then, with their Criminal Investigation Department (CID), were very, very competent. They interacted closely with the people. So, criminals in the locality were easily identified and put under severe surveillance. And really, there was relative peace in the country.
What were your major achievements in the North East as governor?
I think the way the state was divided into three; if you remember, it became Borno, Bauchi and Gongola. So, the way we divided the assets, including the civil service and so on, I think it was one of our achievements because it was so peaceful then. We had a committee on civil service.
And eventually you became minister of petroleum under Obasanjo?
That was the only ministry you held under Obasanjo?
During your time as petroleum minister, what were you doing differently that they are not doing now that has made the sector totally rotten?
Well, I was lucky again. When I was made a minister, I met an experienced man, a person of great personal integrity, the late Sunday Awoniyi. He was the permanent secretary then before the Supreme Military Council approved the merger of the Nigerian National Oil Corporation (NNOC) and the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and made Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Sunday Awoniyi was then the permanent secretary of the ministry. That was when I was sworn in eventually, I think in 1977, it became NNPC when the ministry and the NNOC were merged. He retired from the civil service. Another competent technocrat, Morinho, he became the Director of Petroleum Resources and he had a very competent team of Nigerian engineers, petroleum engineers and chemical engineers. And as minister of petroleum, I signed the contract for Warri Refinery, for Kaduna Refinery, for more than 20 depots all over the country, for laying of pipelines, more than 3200 kilometers and I couldn’t recall Nigeria borrowing a kobo for those projects. And then, by the time I became head of state, because I went to War College in the United States before the military handed over to the Second Republic and came back in 1980 and then, there was coup at the end of 1983. And that time, you can verify from Professor Tam David-West who was Minister of Petroleum Resources. We were exporting 100,000 barrels per day of refined products.
Exporting from the country?
Yes, refined one.
Refined one, not the raw one they are taking to import to…?
100, 000 barrels?
Yes. Because we had four refineries then.
They have all collapsed…
Well, that is the efficiency of the subsequent governments!
You achieved so much success and all that. But there was an issue that became quite contentious: N2.8billion. They said N2.8billion oil money was missing.
It couldn’t have been missing. The governor of the Central Bank then, the late Clement Isong, said it was ridiculous, that N2.8billion couldn’t be missing because he said even the king of Saudi Arabia, couldn’t issue a cheque of N2.8billion. When you have paid your money for petroleum, they are normally put in the country’s external account and no bank will release that amount of money at a go because it was deposited. And then, at that time, Nigeria was exporting about 1.82 million barrels a day. And the cost of barrel a day was about $18. You work out N2.8billion. How could N2.8billion be missing and we still have money to run the country? So, it was just a political…
How did that issue come about? What happened and how did you feel during that period?
No, no. Shagari did the only honourable thing. He ordered a judicial enquiry and put a serving Justice of the Supreme Court, the late Justice Irikefe, to carry out investigation. And their terms of reference were put there. They said anybody who had an idea of missing N2.8billion, let him come and tell Justice Irikefe. Nobody had any evidence. It was just rubbish. Well, later, Tai Solarin and Professor Awojobi were confronted and Fela, the late Fela, to go and prove their case. They had no evidence, most of them took the newspaper cuttings of their allegations to the tribunal.
As their evidence…Cuttings of newspapers publications where they said N2.8billion was missing. That was their evidence. That was what they took to the Irikefe panel.
And Fela sang about it! Fela was your friend.
He couldn’t have been, because of what Obasanjo regime did to him. Because we were part of Obasanjo regime.
There is one other incident that has also been in the public domain: that Shagari gave you an order and you disobeyed your commander-in-chief. What happened then?
Which order was that?
That he gave you an instruction not to go to war against Chad or something like that?
Well, that was when I became GOC. When I came back from War College, I was in Lagos. Then, 4 Infantry Division was in Lagos, in Ikeja. I was in War College when I was posted there before General Obasanjo’s government handed over to Shagari. So, when I came, after about four months or so, I was posted to Ibadan, to command 2 Infantry Division. And after that, I was posted to Jos to command 3rd Armoured Division. It was when I was there as the GOC that the Chadians attacked some of our troops in some of the islands and killed five of them, took some military hardware and some of our soldiers. Then, I went into Army headquarters and told them then, the Chief of Army Staff then, General Wushishi, why they shouldn’t just allow a country, our neighbour to move into our territory, where we had stationed, to kill our people. So, I moved into Maiduguri, former Tactical Headquarters, and I got them out of the country. Something dramatic happened: I didn’t know I had gone beyond Chad and somehow, Shagari, in the United States, was sent pictures that I was with my troops and had gone beyond Chad, beyond Lake Chad. So, I was given direct order by the president to pull out and I did.
Oh, you did?
I did. I couldn’t have disobeyed the president. So, I handed over the division to Colonel Ogukwe, who was my course mate but was my…
He was in National Population Commission (NPC)?
I think so. Colonel Ogukwe. Yeah, he must have been. I handed over the tactical headquarters to him.
So, you never went against presidential directive?
I couldn’t have. He was the Commander-in-Chief. But maybe it was too slow for them, for me to withdraw, but you don’t disengage so quickly.
But after that, Shagari was overthrown?
Now, they said you were invited to head the government after the coup?
As the most senior officer?
What really happened because it was not a Buhari coup?
Could we say you never plotted a coup throughout your military career?
No. I didn’t plot a coup.
You were not a coup plotter?
You were invited?
Where were you when you were invited?
I was in Jos. They sent a jet to me flown by one of General Gowon’s younger brothers. He was a pilot. He told me that those who conducted the coup had invited me for discussion.
You went to Lagos?
I went to Lagos. I was flown to Lagos. Yes. And they said ok, those who were in charge of the coup had said that I would be the head of state. And I was.
When you made that statement that ‘this generation of Nigerians has no country other than Nigeria,’ for me it was like a JFK statement asking Americans to think of what they could do for America. Twenty months after, your same colleagues who invited you sacked you. What happened?
They changed their minds.
They changed their minds? So, what happened in between that, because part of what they said when they took over power was that you had become “too rigid, too uncompromising and arrogated knowledge of problems and solutions to yourself and your late deputy, Idiagbon. What really happened?
Well, I think you better identify those who did that and interview them so that they can tell you what happened. From my own point of view, I was the chairman of the three councils, which, by change of the constitution, were in charge of the country. They were the Supreme Military Council, the Executive Council and the National Council of State. I was the chairman of all. Maybe when you interview those who were part of the coup, they will tell you my rigidity and whether I worked outside those organs: the Supreme Military Council, the Council of State and the Council of Ministers.
Before I come to that, there was also this issue of Decree 4, alleged drug peddlers who your regime ordered shot. Looking back now, do you think you made mistake in those areas?
You see, maybe my rigidity could be traced to our insistence on the laws we made. But we decided that the laws must be obeyed.
But they said it was retroactive.
Yes, they said so. But I think it should be in the archive; we said that whoever brought in drugs and made Nigeria a transit point committed an offence. These drugs, We We (Indian hemp), is planted here, but the hard drug, cocaine, most Nigerians don’t know what cocaine is. They just made Nigeria a transit point and these people did it just to make money. You can have a certain people who grow Ashisha or We We and so on because it is indigenous. Maybe some people are even alleging that those who want to come for operation, brought the seed and started to grow it in Nigeria. But cocaine, it is alien to our people. So, those who used Nigeria as a transit, they just did it to make money. And this drug is so potent that it destroys people, especially intelligent people. So, the Supreme Military Council did a memo. Of course, I took the memo to the Supreme Military Council and made recommendation and the Supreme Military Council agreed.
There was no dissenting voice?
There was no dissenting in the sense that majority agreed that this thing, this cocaine, this hard drug was earning Nigeria so much bad name in the international community because Nigeria was not producing it, but Nigerians that wanted to make money didn’t mind destroying Nigerians and other youths in other countries just to make money. So, we didn’t need them. We didn’t need them.
But there were pleas by eminent Nigerians not to kill the three men involved in the trafficking?
Pleas, pleas; those that they destroyed did they listen to their pleas for them not to make hard drug available to destroy their children and their communities?
So, it is not something you look back now at 70 and say it was an error?
No, it was not an error. It was deliberate. I didn’t do it as an head of state by fiat. We followed our proper system and took it. If I was sure that the Supreme Military Council then, the majority of them decided that we shouldn’t have done so, we could have reduced it to long sentencing. But people who did that, they wanted money to build fantastic houses, maybe to have houses in Europe and invest. Now, when they found out that if they do it, they will get shot, then they will not live to enjoy at the expense of a lot of people that became mental and became harmful and detrimental to the society and so on, then they will think twice.
Decree 4 was what you used to gag the press?
Decree 4. You people (press), you brought in Nigeria factor into it. When people try to get job or contract and they couldn’t get it, they make a quick research and created a problem for people who refuse to do them the favour. What we did was that you must not embarrass those civil servants. If you have got evidence that somebody was corrupt, the courts were there. Take the evidence to court; the court will not spare whoever it was. But you don’t just go and write articles that were embarrassing.
But don’t you think you went too far?
What do you mean by going too far?
But you went to the extreme that public officers could do no wrong, as if they were saints. You called the decree ‘Protection of Public Officers Against False Accusation,’ and clamped down on the media.
Those who did it, the editors, the reporters, we jailed them. But we never closed a whole institution, as others did. We investigated and prosecuted according to the laws, because shutting a newspaper, it is an institution and we lose thousands of jobs. But we found out who made that false report, who was the editor, who okayed it and then, we jailed them.
No regret, because we did it according to the laws we made. We neither closed a whole institution and caused job losses.
Then, you left power, 20 months after…
No. I was sent packing from power.
Ok, you didn’t leave on your own volition?
That is a good one. For Nigerians, they remember War Against Indiscipline you brought. What was the philosophy behind it?
Well, I think we realised that the main problem of Nigeria, then and now, was indiscipline and corruption. When I say we, I mean the Supreme Military Council. Those two, are Nigeria’s Achilles heels. And I believe the Nigeria elite knew it then and they know it now. So, we started to discipline them. People must realise their level in the society and accept it. If you go and read hard and get a PhD, certainly you will get the best of life than somebody who hasn’t been to school at all or who has been a drop-out. And then, in the public, people must behave responsibly. If you go to bus stops, it is step-by-step or turn-by-turn, and not to force your way. If you go to bank, you find out if people were there before you. Why can’t you go behind them?
Or you come early and be number one.
Exactly! I think that was accepted. And up till now, I think it is the only thing that survived out of our administration, the queue culture. People accepted it with calmness. And in Lagos, they wouldn’t like to associate themselves with the military, so they call it KAI. That is right. Kick Against Indiscipline. But it is still the same thing. It is the same. The only difference is that one was brought by the military and this one is through democratic system.
When you were eased out of power and you had time to reflect for three years, what did you then see that was wrong?
We gave them the opportunity in the three councils I told you. Those rules are supposed to be in the Nigerian archives, except somebody destroyed them, destroyed the evidence. Otherwise, what did we do wrong to warrant being sacked? For example, when we overthrew the Second Republic, we had what we called the SIP, the Special Investigation Panel that comprised the police, the National Security Organisation (NSO) then and the intelligence community of the military. We did nothing by impulse or ad hoc. We went through the system.
And then, you handed down long jail terms, some 100 years. That was something else. Why did you do that?
They would never see the daylight again to commit another crime against humanity.
Would you say your detention period made you a new person?
I think I have always been the same person. When I came out, I was amazed, amazed in the sense that people in my immediate constituency didn’t seem to bother about the major setback I had. They were still coming to me, expecting me to help them in a way. Not in terms of material help, because they knew that I didn’t operate any money house or any petroleum bloc or any filling station…
How can you say a whole oil minister like you didn’t have any oil licence?
No. Not one, and not any for any blood relation or anybody close to me. Really, somehow, people in my community felt that I can still help them. But with that setback, I was wondering how. So, the only way for me, I think, was to join partisan politics so that I can have a platform to speak about the opinion of my constituency, immediate constituency. But the thing that convinced me more than the pressure from immediate locality was the change in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union. I have said this so often that an empire in the 20th century, collapsed and a lot of people ran back home, leaving strategic installations behind, like missile sites, nuclear formation and so on. And now, there are about 18 to 19 or 20 republics. It was then that I believed, personally, in my own assessment, that multi-party democratic system was and is still superior to despotism.
That was your turning point?
That was the turning point. But there is a big caveat: elections must be free and fair! And that is what we need. Elections must be free and fair, otherwise, the whole thing will be something else.
During your tenure, one case kept coming up: the 53 suitcases. You had ordered the border shut and your Aide de Camp (ADC), Major Jokolo, was alleged to have escorted 53 suitcases into the country. What happened? Why were you selective?
There was nothing like 53 suitcases. What happened was that there was my chief of protocol; he is now late. He had three wives, and I think about 12 children. He was in Saudi Arabia as Nigeria Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He was in Libya before, as ambassador and later, he was posted to Saudi Arabia. And then, I appointed him as my chief of protocol and he was coming back. Three wives, about 12 children. And then, by some coincidence, the late Emir of Gwandu, the father of Jokolo, who was my ADC then, was coming back with the same flight. And somehow, some mischievous fellows, everything, including the handbag of maybe, their small daughters, were counted as suitcases. Atiku then was the Commandant of Murtala Muhammed Airport as customs officer. And that day, we were playing squash. Jokolo my ADC and I. At some point, I said to him, ‘Mustapha, is your father not coming back today again?’ He said, ‘yes, sir, he is coming.’ I said, ‘what are you doing here? Why can’t you go and meet your father?’ He said yes, sir. He went to wash and meet his father. I am telling you there was no 53 bags of suitcases. It was a bloody lie. It was a bloody mischief.
So, not that he was detailed?
No, he was not detailed. He was not even about to go. I was the one who made him to go and meet his father. He was a respected emir, in fact, if not the most respected emir in the North then. He was learned, he had fantastic credibility and personal integrity. And this man was just coming on posting with his wives and children and they counted every imaginable thing, they said 53 suitcases.
Was that why Atiku was retired?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think I retired Atiku. I can’t recall because I had nothing against anybody.
But the argument was that the border was ordered shut. So, how did those people then come in?
They came by air. We didn’t stop aircraft coming in. They came by air, from Jedda to Lagos. They didn’t drive through Chad to Maiduguri and… People just say 53 suitcases when all borders had been ordered shut because that is how you can sell your papers.
Then you came into politics and every election you are there. Would you still do politics at 70 years, elective politics, offering yourself for election?
This is what I told the audience that came to listen to my address before we started the campaign for the 2011 elections. But my party and supporters were sending representatives. Up till today, they haven’t stopped. But what I told them was that we are in the process now of reorganising the party and perhaps, come into an alignment with other parties. Whatever the parties decide, whether my party or the new party that align and we are hoping to develop; if they give me the ticket or recommend me, I will consider it. That is the position we are now.
Utillyou get to that stage you can give a definite answer?
Until we get to that stage, there is no clear answer now. Let’s wait and see.
Is it that you don’t like money? Anytime somebody sees you, they say General Buhari is so austere. What gave you that kind of lifestyle? Nobody is associating you with millions. My reporter here was pointing to one mansion of a former governor who just ruled for eight years. So, how did you develop this frugal lifestyle? Is it that you don’t like good life? How do you unwind? Well, some of us have heard that you used to smoke. Do you still smoke? What are those things you have given up?
I used to smoke, but of course, I abandoned it I think in 1977.
Oh really? Before you became head of state?
Yes, I stopped smoking.
Have you ever taken alcohol?
Even as a young man and all that?
No, no. Even in the military tradition, how they break you in, I said well, the military did not stop anybody practising his religion. My religion said no alcohol and no alcohol. So, that was respected. I was never forced to take alcohol and I have never voluntarily taken it because I want to remain alert all the time. There is a tendency that when you drink, you would want to have a bottle more, or a glass more and do something stupid.
As a young man, very handsome because I saw some of your old pictures, did you have women flocking around you? And women like soldiers,
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