…Says, country needs no Dictator
By Chinelo Obogo
I.B.M Haruna, a lawyer and war veteran was a former Federal Commissioner for Information, Adjutant General and former GOC of One Division, Kaduna. He was also the Chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), and in this exclusive interview, he speaks strongly on the need to respect the judiciary and warns that if the rule of law is not respected, the country would slide into dictatorship.
You retired as a General at a young age and you went to study law. What informed your decision?
I was not very educated during my course of service; I only had Advanced Level diploma when I retired as a General at the age of 37. After my retirement, I didn’t have other skills to resort to, and I could only go back to the farm and be a tiller because I was not an educated farmer. So, with my Advanced Level, I applied to the university to study agriculture and be an educated farmer. But the university authorities offered me admission in the Faculty of Law and I took it. I became a practicing lawyer in 1981. In those days, because I went in through direct entry, it took me three years to complete my course. Upon graduation, I went to Law School Lagos, and that was one academic year.
Was your private practice lucrative?
I don’t know what you mean by lucrative. I was looking for a job and I got one. I was paid for briefs, and because the naira was powerful enough and the economy was booming, one could have retainerships, and the law profession was not full of so many lawyers. We had the opportunity to get briefs without being a SAN and we were still able to buy cars for our young practitioners. You could get a Honda Accord at that time for maybe, five thousand naira, and our charges were not astronomical.
You served as a federal commissioner under General Yakubu Gowon; so you have been around and seen so many military regimes come and go …..(cuts in)
By the time you get to my age, you must have been around. I was a Federal Commissioner for Information and Culture; and Chairman of FESTAC 77 was my last military assignment.
In terms of performance, from Gowon’s regime and the subsequent regimes that came after him and the civilian administration that we now have, how would you rate their performance?
What performance are you asking of?
In terms of how well the economy was managed?
I don’t know if they were performing as economists, but they were Heads of State. I served under Gowon as a Principal Staff Officer and as a General Officer during the Civil War and I served under Murtala/Obasanjo as a Federal Commissioner for Information and Culture. And I don’t think it is in my place to rate their performance. They were performing as Heads of State of the government of Nigeria, so Nigerians are entitled to judge that. I was a subordinate officer and it is not subordinate officer under a democracy; subordinate officer under a dictatorship government of the military, so, I was still obeying orders.
Our President was a Head of State in 1984. How would you rate his style of administration? Are there similarities or differences in the way he carried out in 1984 and the way he is carrying on now?
You have to understand that he is operating under a different political system and environment. In 1984, he was entitled to dictate, because it was a military government. He was the chairman of the Supreme Military Council and it is not the same as being a democratically elected President who was elected to carry out the mandate of a political party and to choose his associates from the same political party. So, the style of leadership necessarily has to be different and the tolerance of his style has to be looked at, because in a military regime, the populace is plagued with orders emanating from the Military Council and they choose their mandate, they choose their objective, they choose who can work or not work with them. It didn’t have to follow some particular philosophy except what the military thought was best for the country.
Policies and execution were dictated by the military authority and of course, the reaction we had in 1984 was from his constituency, the military. The reactions he will have now in the polity are reactions derived from the principles of fundamental human rights and freedom. Those rights that are entrenched in the constitution and it cannot be derogated from by the executive branch of government.
So there are restrictions in his personal choice in this particular atmosphere than it was before, even though there is leverage for discretion. The law provides certain principles and you have to operate within those principles. For example, if the law provides that each state of the federation has to be represented in the executive council, you really don’t have a choice, unless you don’t want to work according to the constitution. Similarly, though not justifiable, if the law provides that you should ensure that no ministry, government, department or agencies are operated by the same clan, he has to respect the constitution that he has sworn to uphold.Therefore, he has to look or make sure all the ministries or departments or agencies operate within that principle.
Do you disagree with his critics who say that his actions so far have given Nigerians the perception that he is a sectional President who is only pushing for the cause of the North?
I have no duty to agree or disagree. This is a democracy. There is freedom of speech. It is not an offence not to like the President as a person or not to like his policies or not to like the implementation of those policies. It is a right to say I agree; it is a right to say I don’t agree; it is a right to criticise; so it is their right. Those who don’t agree with him are expressing their right because this is a government that is supposed to embody opposition. It is not a government that everybody must toe the line. So they are entitled and he cannot feel hurt because people criticise his policies. That is what makes democracy. So, if people don’t believe that he is fulfilling his obligations in accordance with the constitution, it is their right to criticise and it is their right to take him to court if they so wish and it is a right if they want to exercise it to impeach him. Talk is cheap; if you want to do action then do action. You have the right to go to court but you have no right to undermine the Nigerian state and sabotage it. So you cannot express your disapproval of his policies by demolishing pipelines or kill people in motor parks, because it is his duty to ensure that there is security of lives and property. You can choose your options. You can petition the National Assembly, go to court, or call a rally. You can choose other options that do not have to involve violence. The options are there.
As a lawyer, do you support the raid on the homes of ranking Supreme Court judges by the DSS?
I don’t know what you mean by support; it is not a game of football. This is a game of power. The power is shared between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary in our constitution and they can perform their functions within the law. So if they choose to burgle the homes and offices of justices and they have a justification, the law provides how to go about it. If you believe they did not go about it the way the law provides, you can take your remedial action and go to court and sue for damages. So the issue here is, if the executive has committed an offence outside the constitutional provisions, there is a remedy.
If the judges should ask whether it was right or wrong for their homes to be invaded, it has a remedy. But in principle, nobody is above the law. You can exercise your powers in a manner that does not coincide or is not in rapport with the law and in which case, you are subject to the law as much as the victim is also entitled to process of the law. I think here is an area where the general public needs enlightenment to understand the procedures whether they are in conformity with the law or not. But we all have our emotions and sentiments; and we can criticise people without real legal foundation. There are people who may think that certain acts amount to corruption, but others on the other hand can also say certain acts are cultural practices, so at what point does it become an act of corruption? So you have to have certain indices or certain evidence to support whichever judgement you want to uphold.
President Buhari has on different occasions said that the judiciary is a major clog in the wheel of his anti-corruption war. Do you agree, or do you advocate for a reform?
He is entitled to his opinion. In what manner does he say it is a problem? You have to ask further. Even the ordinary man does not want to see a thief that arrested by the Police go to jail. He would prefer jungle justice. When that happens? He will say the judiciary is the problem, yet the judiciary needs to take proper legal procedures; it has to take evidence before it passes judgement. So, if you are not patient, and tolerant enough, you would prefer that these processes should be done away with. But you are entitled to your opinion.
The President specifically said that lawyers should not be defending ‘corrupt’ persons…
Listen, listen, I still insist that it is his opinion. He can say lawyers should not even defend a murderer and you cannot say lawyers cannot defend corrupt people because you have prejudged that they are corrupt. You cannot lead to that conclusion without people being put through the due process of law. It is exploiting the emotions and sentiments of people, which is why some people when they are caught, instead of taking them to court; they put tyres over their necks and burn them. Is that a justice system? It is not a justice system. You can say you don’t like thieves, nobody likes thieves, even the religious precepts says thou shall not steal. But if people catch a thief and then maim or burn him there, it is not a justice system.
If you have a justice system that does not work with the manner and ways you like, you might say it is your problem. Then go and ensure that they work in the manner that is consistent with the law and you too must do that. You are the chief executive who does not have the power of the judiciary.
A senior lawyer suggested on national TV that the constitution should be suspended for one year so that the President will be able to carry out his anti-corruption war without hindrance….. (cuts in)
That person can be SAN, but he is not God. He has his right to suggest because he prefers a dictatorial rule. But, I have been in this system since I became an army officer in 1961, but the violence and killings have not stopped? After the elections in the West in 1965 and the coups from 1966 till date, did it solve the problem of lack of development? Has it solved our moral instincts of not engaging in corrupt practices?
You see, when people express their view, you have to find out where they are coming from. He may be a SAN, but his experience may be limited. He has probably not experienced a dictatorial system where journalists, judges and other citizens can be picked up and dropped in the sea like it happened in places like Brazil. So, the consequences of being ruled by the whims and caprices of the perception of what is good for the society by a single person or a group of persons always fail in the end.
Look at the system in Egypt with the Brotherhood; after 40 years, the system has collapsed. Look at Ghadafi and his own group – it has collapsed. It just took a very simple incident to lead to the Arab Spring, and it can happen anywhere. What we are saying is that in our haste, impatience and intolerance, we want results at the quickest and earliest time. We forget that the results we want in five and 10 years, in most developed countries that we are copying today, it took them 100 to 200 years. Civilization is not easily acculturised; it is a process.
So we just learn to be patient. A dictator can come and wield the big stick like the civilised people used their gunpowder to club slaves and force them, they became rich but at the end, they still had to free those slaves. So it is going back in civilisation if we start asking for a dictator. When you suspend the constitution, what operates? Only the whims and caprices of a group of an individual.
Some months ago, there were reports that the Presidency was seeking emergency powers from the National
Assembly to be able to do unilaterally carry out some decisions. Do you think that the Presidency needs such powers?
Emergency powers may be sought for but there must be a real justification for it. In a democratic dispensation with political parties, you are voted and empowered to carry out a manifesto. Now, you have to say what has changed for you to emasculate all the powers so that you will do things in the manner of which you choose. So the political parties have competed on the basis of their knowledge or the terrain and the environment. And when you won, you won on the basis of the promises you made to the people. You didn’t ask that you will be asking for emergency powers, but you can get such powers under the law if you can justify it. The fact that the country is in a recession does not give rise to emergency powers.
If the National Assembly thinks it is okay, and the reasons are strong enough, they can give him emergency powers, but emergency powers is not just a straight open cheque. You would be told the reasons, what you can and cannot do, and for how long. And you must report and give progress report. So it is not powers that reside permanently. So with respect to emergency powers to straighten up the economy, it can be justified, but to justify it, you must perhaps engage those who are operating in the economy – that is the private sector, because if they don’t cooperate even under emergency, then it is no solution. It must be with the cooperation of those who are working the economy and the powers are vested with regards to possibilities and what can be tolerable by the general public.
Do you support the call for states to have more control over their natural resources?
What is being said is that our present distribution of powers does not sufficiently motivate each constituent to make their contribution and derive benefits from it. These are the symptoms of a sick arrangement. Nothing stays in life without change, so structural change, policy change, attitudinal change, and even the perception of custom and its validity changes.
A prominent Nigerian once said that Nigeria’s sovereignty can be negotiated and re-negotiated. Do you agree sir?
This is not a straight matter. You cannot say this man said this, do you agree? You want to say I agree or I don’t agree? Which sovereignty is to be negotiated? There is the Federal Republic of Nigeria which is constituted by shared sovereignties, constituting federal states and their powers, local governments and their powers, then the ordinary citizen with his powers. The sovereignty of the person’s right to vote – to select who rules him, who represent him, is a sovereign power. So there is a limitation of sovereign conferment of power on every level of government. So our rights as individuals are negotiable, but those rights or those principles enunciating welfare, security, education, ethics and all that, can be made justiciable, so that in negotiating, you know the philosophy of the state.
How we share powers between the states, the federal government and the local government, can be negotiated in a manner that gives them life and they will work to the benefit of everybody.
In that regard, how do you think the federal government can effectively tackle agitations in the Niger Delta and the South-east?
I will rather say it is the challenge for ensuring that every constituent of the federation has enough of freedom and liberty without restructuring Nigeria as a whole. So, it is an issue of negotiation. When the colonials were here before independence, there was a protest of negotiation.
Unfortunately after independence, we got into this whirlwind of coups and countercoups leading to civil war violence. Unfortunately, it became a violent mode of negotiation. We ended up still being together and growing up constitutions that we’ve tried to operate. There are other nations that are still negotiating their relationships like the United Kingdom. So it is a continuous thing, but what I think the federal government should engender and promote is negotiation. It is like keeping a family, you say come let’s talk, what is the problem? Is it the sharing of money or the sharing of food? When you negotiate and you all agree, for that time, there is peace. Continuous change is continuous negotiation.
You were actively involved in the civil war, and over 30 years after that war, succeeding governments seem not to have properly integrated some zones like the South-east, in terms of ensuring that solid infrastructure are built there, and for that, there is a constant cry of marginalisation. Do you think the government has treated the
South-east well enough after the civil war ended?
You are passing a judgement without giving evidence. Yes, I was active in the civil war, and as a General, I commanded a region. My contemporaries were active in the coups as well as the civil war on both sides. Now, you talked about integration, but I don’t know how you came by the assessment because I know that in the army, we have had a Chief of Staff who was Igbo, and I do not think that recruitment in the armed forces has excluded the Igbo.So let’s not cover up; the Igbo have remained part of Nigeria; they are Nigerians. They enjoy every facility in Nigeria. In fact, in certain sectors, they could be accused of dominating particularly in the marketing, industrial and banking sector. They may be looking at isolated places like the army or the Navy, but they have taken more than being a Chief of Staff as head of the commercial and industrial world when others are not even in that business yet.
So, every one of the sectors of the Nigerian state who has an advantage, never wants to lease a little bit of that advantage to the other. So we are criticising ourselves in the same way. If you say I have been isolated because I have not been at the pinnacle of control of the security sector, but you have been in the pinnacle of control of the industrial, banking, and shipping sector and import sector.
Is that not an informal sector?
Whether formal or informal, is it not Nigerian citizens who are in it? Do we have a different currency? Is it not the same currency that is distributed around? Is it not the same currency that people get to have investment capital? If the share is disproportionate wouldn’t some people get far more than is distributable to them on share basis? So part of the problem is that some people don’t get it and they rob the state for it.
How do you mean they rob the state?
Looting, is it not robbing? Corruption is it not robbing? Is it not looting? English is not my language but the idea each words import may be the same no matter which word you use. So to me, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) have causes to complain, known to them, but if you don’t come to the negotiating table, all we know is that you are closing roads from Onitsha to Asaba, as a result people get killed.
We are not all in the classroom to be studying politics. We are not all in the Police or Army headquarters to know what the conflicts are that are going on. All we know is that, if you go and block the road and you kill people or you fight with the Police, we see it on TV, then journalists like you will go and interview and it is what you report that we get and it is not all that happens that is reported. And it is not all reports that actually reports balanced view. We have reasons to have our values to report in favour of our bias.
So if I am from the South-east, naturally as an Igbo man and you have killed Igbo people, do you expect me to write a favourable report for the person who has killed Igbos or vice versa? I have been in the South-east; I have travelled a great deal in this country and I know that the South-east have good roads. But that will not be true. The good roads they have were those roads that are maintained and built by the states. The federal roads there are awful. But it is not a true report to say that there are no roads in the South-east. There are roads in the South-east, but the federal roads are terrible. They have lacked maintenance where they have been constructed. So in this respect, is the South-east, as bad as it is, not better than a lot of other states in terms of education, road infrastructure, water supply and opportunities in society. Are they worse than South-south or better?
In some states like Taraba, what good federal roads are there? In states like Adamawa, Gombe, Borno, what federal roads are there? My conclusion is this as I said earlier; anybody with an advantage in Nigeria wants to ensure that the advantage is perpetuated. But we have to look for balance, because we want to be equal citizens where things are shared with equity and social justice. It is a problem when you don’t see that others, who are not in the manufacturing industry feel aggrieved because the people who are controlling the financial system are not supporting them as much as they are supporting sectors that are more favourable to them.
The natural attitude or our cultural behaviour towards each other is the solution to some of these problems. When you want benefits on the basis of your ethnic group, you now seek for an office to promote those interest and advantages. Whereas, the ideal thing is what is best for us to do to move this country forward so that it can give satisfactory belonging to the Nigerian states. In America there are differences; some states are richer than some. Some get better roads, some get better airports, but people are proud to say I am from California, or I am from Chicago. At one time, people left the Southern America to go to the North because there were more opportunities, just like people flock to Lagos where there are more opportunities.
The Shiite sect has been in existence for a long time, but recently, there seems to have been so much unrest especially in Kaduna where the leader of the sect was reported to have been shot and has been in detention for many month. Of late, the Kaduna and Plateau state governments banned activities of the sect. Is it not worrisome that this can cause another kind of religious violence?
The Shiites were not banned. The Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), with which name they are operating is what the Kaduna state government declared as illegal, but their movement as an Islamic sect that should practice their belief is not banned. But there are certain things also under the constitution, which the sect cannot deny other people; freedom of movement is for every Nigerian. You can exercise your freedom of movement, but in doing that, don’t block other Nigerians from their freedom because you want to assert yourself as a sovereign body.
So the control of people to operate within the law for safety and security of all others is the responsibility of government. Therefore, if you want to operate as a cult and you widen your territory of operation, and you are successful, you begin to replace the powers of the state in the minds of the ordinary people. The next thing is that you want to overturn the state and become the state governor; that is the progression of all the others who move up in their scale of intrusion into government. So the Shiites, like the Sunnis and others, are sects, but if you now want to challenge the state that gives everybody freedom of religion and force your religion on all others, you are contradicting the values provided for every person within the constitution, and the government cannot allow that.
There has been an increase in the attacks by Fulani herdsmen in many communities. In some instances, like
Agatu, in Benue, an entire village was razed down by the herdsmen. What can the federal government do to urgently curtail these attacks?
My dear, you are asking me as if I am federal government. Am I the federal government? It is the duty of the government to ensure there is peace and security and there are agencies for that. The Fulani culture has been with us for as many years as we have been before the advent of the colonialists. The issue now is that certain things have happened that have changed the culture of peace and peaceful coexistence between the herdsmen and their farmer hosts. Some of the reasons we know can be attributed to the changing ecological environment. The farmers too have, perhaps, increased their farming territory and there has been no formal government control either to the movement or to the interaction between the farmers and herdsmen. That’s where government must come in. If in the past, you didn’t need government control, the situation has become such that because of population explosion, road construction, because of pressure for the provision for herdsmen and farmers, therefore, control and regulations are requirements, which can only be done by the government.
Nobody wants farmers and herdsmen to be clashing and killing each other, burning houses and so on; it should not be allowed in a state. That is a necessity for governments’ initiative, and perhaps the system that existed has collapsed or is overpowered.
In the past, the local administration with the local chiefs and the herdsmen had some communication and rapport. I know that there are certain seasons that the herdsmen come to look for the shrubs from farming harvest. But, if there is no system of control and communication, then perhaps there will be a lot of trespasses, which may lead to violence. The sole purpose why we have a government is to bring about control and regulation and enforcement and as you grow bigger as a nation and more challenges grow, you need more regulations. There is no single solution for all these problems. Perhaps the problem in Benue will be different from the problem maybe in Kaduna, Kano, Zamfara, and so on. The search for meat, hides, skin and milk is increasing, so there is more money now involved than before. These are some of the social and economic changes taking place so much that it is inducing people to go and rustle cattle because there is a buyer somewhere, there is money easily had somewhere.
Because it has become a serious economic activity, it comes with all types of cow rustlers, rogues, thieves. Therefore, government has to articulate a solution for now and for the future.
Let me take you back to your days in the military. Where were you during and after the Kaduna Nzeogwu coup?
I was in Lagos.
Do you think that the then Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa had an instinct of what was going to happen?
I wouldn’t know beyond what has been written because everybody had notions that there was likelihood of a coup and that notion just came up in January, but it didn’t mean that all along there were no fears that the military may spring a takeover of government. So I was in Lagos, I was at a party where I was dancing. I had one of my senior officers with me and I had taken him round and even taken him to his hotel room few hours before he was killed. I was with the Commanding Officer of the Fourth Battalion in Ibadan, Lt. Colonel Ajimah. I had gone with him to a friend’s house, then went with him to his hotel in Ikoyi, left him there, then drove to my house. I was living in Lagos. I was living in Military Hospital quarters in Yaba. I was still a major then.
One of Nigeria’s former Heads of State, Murtala Mohammed, who was your contemporary, was killed in a coup.
When you hear about it, what was the first thing that crossed your mind?
I don’t know how to describe it. I wouldn’t know how to describe it other than having the feeling of sorrow and disappointment. How would you feel when you hear that your contemporary was shot on the road by another army officer?
Did you take part in the counter coup?
No, no, no, wait please, this is very implicating. If I took part, then I should have been shot. If you take part in a coup, unless you succeed with that coup, you would be shot and those who shot Murtala failed, and they got shot. That was Dimka’s coup. But the Joe Garba coup succeeded, so he lived to even be a minister. But Dimka’s coup failed and more than 40 officers were shot including another contemporary of ours who was General Bisala. Bisala was my contemporary, Murtala was my contemporary. Obasanjo served with me, we were collateral GOCs. I was named GOC, he was rear GOC before he went to 3 Marine Command. So how do I feel? How do you want me to feel? How do I feel now that I am still alive, all my colleagues are dead? You think I am happy? I just know that I am lonely. I don’t have contemporary friends that I can visit or can visit me. So that is life. We all came alone, we get together and we will go alone at most times.
During your career as a military officer, what incident reverberates through your mind?
They are very many. During the civil war, there was a day in Onitsha, in my division that soldiers retracted from as far as Nkpor back to Onitsha. So, we lost territory and as a result, I was conducting warfare with my Commander-in-Chief, General Gowon, briefing him on what was happening. We released all the boats to the river and opted if we all have to die there and our soldiers shoot us there, then that would be it.
So how did you handle the mutiny?
Well, we handled it such that everybody went back to fight the war to the end. But it is not a pleasant experience. I was there in the 1966 and 1967 coups. I fought the civil war, and I was there in 1975. Which other incident? The only ones I did not witness was from 1977, I wasn’t there. I did not witness Buhari and Babangida’s coup because I wasn’t in the army. Anything from 1961 to 1977 I was in there, I was in the crop of the leadership, and most of them were my contemporaries or we were very close. Onwuatuegwu, Chris Anuforo; we went to Ghana together. Nzeogwu was like two intakes away from me.
Were you and Nzeogwu very close?
We were very close. I used to go to swimming pool in Kaduna with Nzeogwu. He and Anuforo grew up in Kaduna.
Did you have any instinct that they were planning that coup since you were close to them?
How could I have known? If I had any inkling, shouldn’t I be part of it? That we were close means that we were social friends. We were more than acquaintances. We are trained together. We were in the army together. Obasanjo was very close to Nzeogwu but he didn’t tell him. Ogbemudia too, he didn’t tell him. So what do you want to know? These were my friends, they were my colleagues. We went to the clubs together.
During the Oputa panel, there were talks that it was your division that led the infamous massacre at Asaba where many Igbos were killed?
I didn’t lead any massacre anywhere and no division led any massacre anywhere. They talked so much about massacre in Asaba, I don’t know about it. But many Igbo writers like to say that soldiers massacred. In any case, it was Murtala who was in charge there before I took over from him. Did history tell you that there was a massacre? They want to sentimentalise on war. No war is pleasant. There is no war where people will not die. There are no wars where you don’t have people who are turncoats or saboteurs. They say 500 men were massacred and some of these people who report and write these things have never seen 500 men in one place.
Does it mean that the incident didn’t happen at all?
If it happened I wouldn’t know. It is hearsay evidence. Since I don’t know, I was not there. So I don’t know who massacred or how many were massacred. Even if it happened at all, where and who massacred who?