- Ex-Army General, Alani Akinrinade warns
- Says APC govt taking Nigerians for idiots by including restructuring in its manifesto and reneging on the promise
By Razaq Bamidele and Omoniyi Salaudeen
As debate rages over some basic national questions, an elder statesman, respected Yoruba leader, and former Chief of Defence Staff, General Alani Ipoola Akinrinade (retd), in this interview admonishes the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari to do a restructuring of the country to avoid an imminent break up and also to amend the Constitution to allow any constituent part wishing to leave, to do so peacefully.
Why did you join the army?
Well, like all young people get adventurous, we just decided to try the army. It happened then that some form of advertisement was going on around that time and we tried it. Some of the soldiers who just returned from the Second World War were still around in the villages. And when I left secondary school in 1959, I was motivated by these young Nigerian army officers who just returned. So, I decided to join the military.
Who were you contemporaries in secondary school?
There are many of them. Gen David Jemibewon was one year my junior at Offa Grammar School. Quite a few of them finally ended up in the Navy and Army.
How did you relate with them in the military?
The same kind of assistance you will expect between a senior and a junior. Over and above every other person, they are always your comrade.
What were those pranks you used to play as a school boy?
I was never really a good student. I wasn’t a role model in some of the things we used to do like break bounds, sneak to town from the boarding house to watch a play and so on. Even in the military school, I met some friends who have the same kind of character. We used to enjoy breaking bounds, go to Kaduna township to drink beer and things like that.
How was the military then?
I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t a pure insider. I joined in 1960 shortly before independence. Then, the Nigeria Army was a replicate of Pretoria Army, the British Army, the German Army, the French Army. Though small, it was very efficient and disciplined.
You participated in the civil war. Do you have any regret because the agitation is still on up till now?
We didn’t solve the problem we set out to solve. And I think that is the tragedy of our situation now because we didn’t solve the problem and we don’t seem to want to solve the problem or understand the problem. I was a very young officer then and we just thought to keep Nigeria one was a task that must be done. That was a task set by our Commander-In-Chief. And, of course, what we knew and grew up with was Nigeria. We didn’t quite understand the sociological, economic and political import of how Nigeria was situated at the time. The army itself was a microcosm of Nigeria where everybody met and treated one another like brothers. That was Nigeria we saw and thought it was worth being kept together as our commander-in-chief ordered. But thereafter; for me in particular, it was traumatic because after serving in the Second Division, I had a misfortune of being posted to Bonny where I started my first interaction with people who lived in a completely different environment that I know. It was a completely different world from what I know in Yorubaland. As a young army officer at that time, it was tragic to see how people lived there and the amount of neglect, the amount of lack of care they suffered. Yet, we don’t seem to understand it up till now. Rather, what we are saying is that the people living there are responsible for themselves, but they are not. Our system didn’t allow them to pinpoint people to govern them. People from outside the area dictated to them in the name of parties and things like that. It occurred to me that there was a reason for us to make sure that the East didn’t go there, and if it was going there, it must be with the consent of the people there. Since it wasn’t, the war was justified on that note. But when we followed it up, we didn’t do the right thing.
To be more specific, what were those things you left undone?
As you know, there is a big cry now for restructuring. Successive governments had set up one form of conference or the other to look at ourselves straight in the eye and discuss the problems that had befallen Nigeria and how we could solve them. But we have never acted on any of the reports. We didn’t pay attention to the various aspects of lives of the people who lived in different parts of Nigeria to be able to assist them to develop and become economically viable on their own. And we are not prepared to do it, we only mouth it. We didn’t do anything concrete to really develop the various sectors. The result is what we are getting now. People are discontented and the economy is down. We are a different people. It is a fallacy to say that there is one Nigeria. Yes, we are all black people, we are all Africans. But first and foremost, I am a Yoruba man.
If you ask me, the Nigeria part of it dubious; dubious in the sense that nobody has shown me how we can relate together as brothers. Even the way we were in the 1960s was superficial, though these problems had not arisen. Now, people are more educated. And like Chief Awolowo said: “When the eyes become open and people get more educated and they are aware of their environment, they will start making demands.” He used Sudan as an example, saying that Northern Sudan and Southern Sudan are not the same and that the reason they were staying together was because people were not educated or did not understand their environment. It didn’t take too long before they realized that they were not the same in culture and in religion. Because we Africans are stupid, Sudan didn’t do it the way Czechoslovakia did it in the past. They are still killing one another now. It is as a result of leaving all these problems for too long. If they had solved it, maybe the kind of carnage going on there now would not have happened. In Nigeria, I suspect that even if we are at war, we could not be losing and maiming as many people and destroying as many properties as we are seeing now. In the North-east, there is a real war going on there. In the Southern part, we have the so-called MEND, we tried to pacify them, we didn’t solve the problem. Now, a new group, the Avengers, has emerged. If we solve that one, within a maximum of two years, a new one will emerge again. We are not asking ourselves: why are they doing it? All we do is to damn them, condemn them and call them names. But it is a real problem and it has solution. Everybody is saying the state governments have emasculated the local governments because of joint account and, therefore, nothing is happening. These are not the issues. The issue on ground is that the man in his village must be able to realise that, if they don’t get together and do something native to them, they are not going to survive. But what happens is that there is a big almighty Federal Government in Abuja who knows nowhere at all, deciding everything. If that is the situation with the grassroots and we are not doing anything about it other than to blame the governors and expect Buhari to be a magician and produce things where the basis of production is not there, we are deceiving ourselves. I don’t think most of us realise the kind of danger Nigeria is in right now. There is no easy solution to the problem of unemployment; there is no easy solution to the issue of arrears of salaries of workers that we are all talking about. We know it is callous, but the point is the money is not there.
You have rightly alluded to the fact that every community wants its destiny in its own hand and have a say in the process of choosing its leaders. Will it be right then to lay the blame for the problems Nigeria is confronting today on the doorstep of the military which intervened and introduced a centralized federal structure as against the old regional arrangement?
Yes, it will be right. But the genesis of it is the way the military operates. What the military knows is hierarchical structure.
That is the training of the military man. It is a monolithic institution and people must take orders. You don’t question orders, if it comes from your superior. At a time when we wanted to stop coup, we started by saying people should be able to disobey unlawful orders. But the question was: what is unlawful? So, we were stuck there. That was why it was impossible for us to stop people from coalescing together to topple a government. But even before the military left, these issues had come up and people were beginning to realise that we were facing a wrong direction. The point is: what has stopped us as a people to decide and go for the better option, having seen the two sides of the coin? When we had no resource at all, we ran the three regions but later four, very efficiently.
All regions were competing among themselves. Some of the infrastructures they created, we have never been able to replicate them. Again, most of the roads you see in Nigeria today were built in the earlier part of the military regime. If there was anything added after 1966 when we started giving command everywhere, it was during Gowon’s time and a little more thereafter. Under Gowon, there was a very experienced old corps in government. It was during Murtala’s era that we created the greatest havoc that put paid to development in Nigeria by disorganizing the civil service. We didn’t just disorganize them, we also demoralized them. You can trace part of this corruption that we are fighting today to that era. People didn’t have security again. What they thought was their future didn’t exist anymore. This must be part of the reasons people started stealing, amassing wealth and keeping it for their future. The original civil service, the army, the airforce and everything, which we had, which was a government institution had the means to cater for you from the day you join till the day you die. To build a house was no problem. Even as a third class clerk, you could borrow money to buy a bicycle to ride to work. There were means of paying for all these things without really turning you into a beggar. All that disappeared overnight. Of course, there is no reason anywhere in the world why anybody should be dishonest, but we must also look at our environment. What stops us from looking at these problems now that we’ve all realised where things went wrong? Now, we are in a new tragedy.
When APC put up its manifesto, they said they were going to look very closely at the constitution and that they were going to do a restructuring of the country. In the past two weeks, we have heard, though people are trying to retrace their steps, the Presidency saying there is nothing like restructuring. Then, we heard the Vice President (Yemi Osinbajo) saying ‘no, what we need is good governance and not restructuring’. After that, we heard their National Chairman, John Odigie-Oyegun, saying another thing. Do they think we are idiots? They were the ones who signed the manifesto and led us down the garden park and then the dog is barking and you say no we are the first to run away. That is what they are doing to us. We are not going to allow it. This is another opportunity to do something. I am not sure whether the last conference answered all the questions. But if it didn’t, what I expected from this government is a declaration to say this is the step we are determined to take. And I think people will accept it. But to tell us there is no restructuring, we are not going to take it. Nigeria is going nowhere without restructuring.
You participated in a 30-month civil war without borrowing a dime from anywhere even without oil. How do you feel now watching the ex-service chiefs being put on trial for looting and carting away money meant for arms purchase?
There is no part of population that is outside the sociological environment of the country. So, the military is one of them. They send their children to the same school; they also have to look after their wives and their children. Don’t forget, during the purge, the military also suffered. I know a number of people in the military who were wrongly thrown out. For example, Mobolaji Johnson of Lagos State was thrown out before they found out that he didn’t have a dime of anybody’s money. The same thing Oluwole Rotimi who was in Ibadan and quite a good number of other people. I think both the military and the civil servants that were thrown out had the same kind of feeling. So, I am not too surprised even though I abhor people doing wrong things like stealing. Stealing is not tolerated in any society. But we created that atmosphere.
Again, in the days when we were fighting the war, politicians didn’t spend a dime to get elected. Their party members contributed money. At least I know of the Action Group and the NCNC. You must contribute to have a party card. Then, there was sanity. Awolowo was then the commissioner for finance. How are you going to steal money? Isong was in the Central Bank. Who is going to face him and say he should bring out money from the vault without proper authorization? Gradually, we lost all that. But now, people obtain the party cards to draw money out. That is why you are hearing of billions of naira carried in aeroplane to fund election of a state. That alone can destroy the economy.
It appears Yoruba are the least prepared for any eventuality. What is the plan B for the Yoruba nation in the event of breakup of Nigeria?
I see the danger in its real stark reality. The stark reality is that it is difficult to keep Nigeria one the way it is now. I don’t nurse the idea that one day conflagration will come and everybody will carry gun like Sudan or Yugoslavia. I think the world has gone a little beyond that. Nigerians have been educated enough to know the danger of a big commotion. Before it comes to that, it is very likely we will get a little bit of sanity and then decide how we really want to live together. If we don’t restructure, these agitations will go on. What is going to happen is that we are going to be poorer than we are now. Maybe then our eyes will open to know that there is no central government in Abuja that is going to do any magic to put us together. I hope we will be sensible enough not to allow everybody to just walk away, but it is quite possible now because we have not removed the reasons for these separatist agitations.
Looking at the worst scenario, do you see a peaceful breakup of Nigeria?
People in my position don’t advocate a breakup. But do you know how many wars they fought in Eritrea? They have been at it for over 30 years. When you see an Eritrean and Ethiopian, you can never know the difference. But if you mistakenly say you are from Ethiopia and the other person happens to be an Eritrean, that is when he will blow up your face. That is how close these people are and they fought for almost 30 years. In the end, Eritrea was allowed to go. Whatever remained of Ethopia, when they now got together, they did a constitution that made it possible for any of the federating units to go out of the union without carrying any arm. The procedure was to conduct a referendum and with 51 percent, you are good to go. I think if this government is smart, that is the route they should take. They should create new articles, which will allow any constituent part of the federation to go without carrying gun. When we fought Biafra, we didn’t take the land. They are the same people who are still there today. So, what is this madness and fixation about one person being in control of the entire country? Let’s leave peacefully so that we can eat together when I come to your house. Somebody has to call the bluff of everybody. And tell us if you want to go, tell us where your boundary will be. If Nigeria never discovered oil, are we not going to survive? After all, there are more arid countries that don’t live on oil. If we remove this rent syndrome, everything will be given unto us.