•My civil war experiences
From Eric Osagie
Five years ago, when he was 70, President Muhammadu Buhari spoke with The Sun Publishing Limited Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, Eric Osagie, in company of a correspondent, wherein he talked about his growing up days, experiences in the Army, his emergence as head of state when he never participated in any coup, the 1966 coup and the counter-coup, the General Ibrahim Babangida coup that swept him out of office, the execution of cocaine traffickers, Decree 4 and the controversial ‘53 suitcases’ that allegedly came into the country during his government.
He also spoke about his relationship with General Babangida, who he said he had forgiven, although he would not forget what he did to him and his plan for the 2015 elections, among others.
As Buhari marks his 75th birthday, we hereby republish the interview, as the issues discussed are still relevant.
What kind of childhood did you have?
Well, from my father’s side, we are Fulanis. You know the Fulanis are really divided into two. There are nomads, the ones that if you drive from Maiduguri and many parts of the North you will find. They are even in parts of Delta now. And there are those who settled. They are cousins and the same people actually. From my mother’s side and on her father’s side, we are Kanuris from Kukawa.
Kukawa is in Borno State. We are Kanuris. On her mother’s side, we are Hausas. So, you can see I am Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri combined (he laughs). I am the 23rd child of my father. Twenty-third and the 13th on my mother side. There are only two of us remaining now; my sister and I. I went to school, primary school, in Daura and Kaduna, also a primary school, in Kachia. I also attended Kaduna Provincial Secondary School, now Government College. I didn’t work for a day. I joined the military in 1962.
You mean as a boy soldier?
No, after school certificate. There was an officer cadet school from here in Kaduna, called Nigeria Military Training College then. In April 1962, I went to the United Kingdom (UK), Mons Officers Cadet School.
You mean the famous Mons Officers…?
Yes. And when I was commissioned, I came back and I was posted to 2nd Infantry Battalion in Abeokuta. That was my first posting. The battalion was in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I went there. When I came back from there, I was first in Lagos, as Transport Officer. That was where I was till the January coup. I was posted back to my battalion and we were posted to Kaduna here. And then, there was a counter coup, civil war, coup and counter-coup. We participated. I too was overthrown and detained for more than three years. And having had that major political setback when I was made a head of state and then, ended up in detention, I went out and eventually, I decided to join party politics, participated three times and lost as presidential candidate and I am still in and fighting.
You have never given up?
Even though I said at some stage that I wouldn’t present myself for candidature again, I said I remain in party politics as long as I have breath in me.
Your Excellency, why did you join the Army?
The interest was built while I was in secondary school. The emirs of Katsina, from Dukko, were known to be interested in the military. They always have members of the military or police in their family right from World War 11. One of the emirs of Kaduna-Dikko died in Burma. And of course, everybody in the country knows General Hassan, the son of the Emir of Katsina. He was grandson of Emir Dukko. So, when General Hassan was in Sandhurst, we were in secondary school in Kaduna. His father, the Emir of Katsina, Usman Nagogo, used to ask him to go and talk to the senior students who were in form four to six, to get them interested in the military. And we were told that he deliberately wanted a military cadet unit in Kaduna Secondary School. Then, it was limited to Federal Government Colleges or Government Colleges and we had a military cadet unit, which I joined.
That was the transition?
That was where the interest started.
Did your parents object to it?
No. Well, I didn’t know my father really.
Oh! How old were you when he died?
I think I was about three, four years? I couldn’t remember his face. The only thing I could recall about my father was the horse because it threw me down. We were on the horse with one of my half brothers going to water it and then, it tripped and I fell. It stepped on me. So, that is the only impression I have of him. That is the only thing I could recall.
What of your mother?
Oh! my mother died in 1988 when I was in detention.
Ok, I remember then the controversy of allowing you to go and see her buried. Did they eventually allow you?
Then it was quite an issue …
Yeah, it became an issue; so I was immediately released after she was buried.
You didn’t see her buried?
It was after you were released you then went to her grave and all that?
What kind of childhood did you then have?
Well, you know communities then were living communal life. Clearly, I could recall I reared cattle. We had cattle; we had sheep and then, there was good neighbourhood. Not many children had the opportunity to go to school, but I went to school. I left home at the age of 10 or 11 and went to school, like I said. And I was in the boarding school for nine years. In primary school and secondary school, I was in the boarding house and from there, I went straight into the Army.
So, you have always been on your own?
In those days, there were not many schools and the teachers then were professionals. They were working teachers and were committed. And teachers then treated the children as if they were their own students. You were made to work and if you don’t, they never spared the cane really. So, I was lucky to be in the boarding school for my impressionable years, nine years. I was very lucky.
Did you play any pranks as a young person?
What where the things you did?
(Laughs) I wouldn’t like to mention them.
Tell us some of them…
We used to raid the emir’s orchard for mangoes mainly. Of course, unfortunately we were caught and punished.
When people talk of Buhari today, they are looking at a disciplined man. Was it the boarding house that put you through that or the military? Was the boarding house part of where you got your Spartan, disciplined life?
Both did. As I told you, the teachers then treated their students as if they were their own children. So, we got the best of attention from teachers. And as I told you, they never spared the cane. You were meant to do your homework; you were meant to do the sports and clean up the environment, the compound and the area of the school and so on. And from that type of life, I moved into the military, the military of that time.
Would you say going into the military was the best thing that ever happened to you?
I think so, because from primary to secondary school and in the military, it will continue, both the academic and the physical one. I think it was so tough, but then, once it was inbuilt, it has to be sustained because you don’t contemplate failure.
You just succeed? Does it mean failure was not an option?
No. It was not.
Was it also the Fulani training of perseverance? Because when you have reared cattle, for those who have been doing it, they said it toughens you…
The sun is there, the rain and you are there with your cattle…
The period was remarkable, in the sense that those who are brought up in the city have limited space. If you are in a confined school, you learn from the school and what you see immediately. But the nomad life exposes you to nature. You will never learn enough of plants, of trees, of insects and of animals. Everyday you are learning something.
You have seen them and everyday you are learning. You will never know all of them. So, it is so vast that it takes a lot of whatever you can think of. And then, the difference again in the environment. In the Savannah, in the Sahel, after harvest, you can always see as high as your eyes can go. And then, at night when there is moon, it is fantastic. So, I enjoyed those days and they made a lasting impression in me.
What are the remarkable things you can think of during your military trainings?
Initially, from here in Kaduna, at the end of your training, the height of the field exercise was then conducted in two places. Here in southern Kaduna and somewhere in Kachia area. There was a thick belt in that forest. You go for field firing and so on. And then you go to Jos for map reading and endurance.
That was why mathematics at that level, the secondary school level, geometry and algebra, were absolutely necessary. It had always been, because to be a competent officer, you may be deployed to be in charge of artillery; physics, where you help find your position. Wherever you are from, you work it on the ground in degrees and so on. You have to do some mathematics.
We were in Jos. Again, I was made a leader of a small unit. We were given a map, a compass and you dare not cheat. If you are found out, you are taken 10 miles back. So, you have to go across the country. You find your way from the map; you go to certain points and on those points, mostly hills, you climb them and you will get a box. The weather there is cold. You put your own coat and you cover it over the hills and at the end of the exercise, part of your scorecards, are those marks you won or you lost. We arrived with one compass, which led us to a certain bushy hill.
Yes, in Jos. And it was night, dark and it was raining lightly and definitely, our compass led us to that hill, which means there was a point there. And there were five of us: myself, one Sierra Leonean or Ghanaian, one from Sokoto, and one other. I think the other person is Katsina Alu, the former Chief Justice.
You mean he was in the military?
He was. He did the training but he was never commissioned. He went to university and did Law. I went up to the hill. I picked the box. I copied the code, and I said if I were forced to join the Army, I would have left the following day because that place, a viper or a snake or something or hyena or lion could have finished me. But I said if I run away the following day, people would say well we knew you couldn’t make it, we knew you would be lazy. But because I voluntarily joined the Army, I said I have to be there. That is one point. The second one was when I was in training in the UK. I came there and we were drilled so much and at night again, we were on an exercise. We were putting our formation. In anyway position was created, and they fired at us. We went down automatically that day and by the time the commander asked us to move, I fell asleep. It must be few seconds, not up to a minute. That was how exhausted I was.
Was it really the cold or what?
It was cold. It was 1962. It was cold and it was rainy again just like in Plateau. Just between the time we went down and to move and climb the mountain, I fell asleep. So, those two moments, I would never forget them.
Who were your classmates in the military and in the officers’ training in the UK?
Well, the late Gen. Yar’Adua. I was together with him throughout the nine years primary, secondary school and in the military.
So, you have always been colleagues…?
We were together from childhood.
Ok, that is interesting. Who else?
Well, not the ones that are here. In the military, most of them did not reach the position I reached; myself, and Yar’Adua. They couldn’t make it.
Why did you choose the infantry and not the other arms? What was the attraction?
Maybe it was the training of the cadet unit in secondary school. I found the infantry much more challenging and when we were doing the training, the Federal Government decided that we were going to have the Air Force. So, I was invited. A team came from the Ministry of Defence to interview cadets that wanted to be fighter pilots in the Air Force. I was the first to be called in our group. I appeared before them and they told me that those who could pass the interview would be recommended to go to the Air Force training either in the UK, some went to Ethiopia or United States or Germany. So, they asked me whether I wanted to be a fighter pilot and I said no. They asked why, and I said I wasn’t interested. We were given three choices. Number one, maybe you went to infantry; number two, you went to reconnaissance then before they became armour and later, maybe artillery. So, all my three choices, I could recall vividly, I put infantry, infantry. So, they said why? I said because I liked infantry. And they asked if I wouldn’t like to be a fighter pilot. I said no, I didn’t want to join them. They said why. I said I hadn’t done physics. Normally, I did some mathematics but to be a fighter pilot, you must do some physics. They said no, that it was no problem, that I could have an additional one academic year. So, since I had some mathematics background, it was just one year purely to do physics and I would reach the grade required to be a pilot. I said no, I didn’t want it. They again asked why. I told them I chose infantry. The reason is: when I am fighting and I was shot at, if I was not hit, I can go down, turn back and take off by foot. They laughed and sent me out. So, I remained infantry officer.
Where were you during the coups and counter-coups? And what rank were you in the military then?
I was in Lagos, in the barracks, as transport officer. I was only a second lieutenant.
That was during the January 15, 1966 coup?
Yes, January 15, 1966.
The coup met you in Lagos?
Yes. I think that was my saddest day in the military because I happened to know some of the senior officers that were killed. In the transport company, after the 2nd Battalion and we came back, I was posted to Lagos to be a transport officer and in my platoon, we had staff cars and Landrovers. So, I knew the Army officers, from Ironsi, Maimalari, because I detailed vehicles for them every working day. So, I knew senior officers.
So, you were in contact with them?
I was in contact with them somehow because I was in charge of transportation.
Where were you that night of January 15 coup?
I was in Lagos.
Can you recall the circumstance, how you got to know?
The way I got to know was, my routine then was as early as about six in the morning, I used to drive to the garage to make sure that all vehicles for officers, from the General Officer Commanding (GOC), who was then General Ironsi, were roadworthy and the drivers would drive off. And then, I would go back to the Officers Mess in Yaba, where I would wash, have my breakfast and come back to the office. And around the railway crossing in Yaba, coming out from the barracks, we saw a wounded soldier. I stopped because I was in a Landrover. I picked him and asked what happened. He said he was in the late Maimalari’s house and they were having a party the previous night and the place was attacked. So, I took the soldier to the military hospital in Yaba and I asked after the commander. Maimalari, I think, was commander of 2 Brigade in Apapa. He was the 2 Brigade Commander. They said he was shot and killed.
Then, you didn’t know it was a coup?
Well, that became a coup. That was the time I really learnt it was a coup.
And then there was a counter-coup of July?
Where were you at this time also?
I was in Lagos again. I was still in Lagos then at Apapa at 2 Brigade Transport Company.
And then, there was ethnic colouration and all that. And at a point, they asked some of you to go back to the North. Am I correct?
Yes, because I was posted back then to the battalion. That was in Abeokuta. It was first to Ikeja Cantonment, but after the counter-coup, we were taken to Lagos by train, the whole battalion.
Did you play any role in the counter-coup?
No! Not that I will tell you.
You know at 70, you are reminiscing. You are saying it the way it is, you don’t give a damn anymore…
Well, there was a coup. That is all I can tell you. I was a unit commander and certainly, there was a breakdown of law and order. So, I was posted to a combatant unit, although 2 Brigade Transport Company was a combatant unit. You know there were administrative and combatant units and the service unit, like health, education. Even transport, there are administrative ones, but there are combatant ones also.
The question I asked was, did you play any specific role?
No. I was too junior to play any specific role. I was just a lieutenant then. In 1966, January, I was a Second Lieutenant, but I was promoted, I think, around April, May, or June to Lieutenant.
And what were your impressions of that period?
You see, senior military officers had been killed and politicians, like Sardauna, Akintola, Okotie Eboh. They were killed. And then in the military, Maimalari, Yakubu Pam, Legima, Shodeinde, and Ademolegun; so really, it had a tribal tinge.
The first one?
Yes. And then, there was a counter.
One mistake gave birth to another one?
And then long years of military came?
From 1967-75, it was Gowon. At that point in time, where were you?
When Gowon came into power, I wonder whether I would recall where I was. It was July 1967 that Gowon came in. That was when I was in Lagos. I was again in Lagos, then in the transport company.
Then he took over?
Yeah, Gowon took over or Gowon was installed.
Well, more like you…
And then in 1967?
So, you have to give me that part because there are some books I have read, that featured your name. So, what were your experiences during the civil war?
Well, I told you that we were parked into the rail to Kaduna from Ikeja, 2nd Infantry Battalion and when states were created by General Gowon, police action was ordered; we were moved to the border in the East. We were not in Nsukka, but in Ogoja. We started from Ogoja.
And you took active part?
Yeah. Well, I was a junior officer.
Who was your GOC then?
My GOC was the late General Shuwa.
How did you feel during that period of the civil war? Did you think that when the first coup started, that civil war would just come?
No. I never felt so and I never hoped for it. Literally, you are trained to fight a war but you are not trained to fight a war within your own country. We would rather have enemies from outside your country to defend your country, but not to fight among yourselves.
Some of those officers you were fighting were your comrades…
You knew some of them.
Some of them were even my course mates. We were facing each other, like when we were in Awka sector. The person facing me was called Bob Akonobi. We were mates here.
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.
Until you 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, people who have power…
I also thought women ought to have taken more interest in me but I don’t know why they didn’t. I must have something they didn’t like. I assure you of that. I didn’t drink, I smoked, I had girlfriends; it was true.
How many did you have?
I hope you won’t publish this because my wife will read the interview. So, you will be very kind to me if you don’t publish that (general laughter).
You joined the army and there was coup and counter-coup and civil war. You still had time to unwind?
You can create it but we had too much eventful time, professional career. It was too eventful. There were too many things happening almost at the same time. If I could recall, the 30 months civil war that we had, I was just having two weeks after every six months to come back home just to see my old mother and some of my relatives because I refused to get married till after the war.
Was it deliberate?
It was deliberate.
Why? I thought that would have been the reason to get married.
No, no. Some of our colleagues, like late Vatsa, like Babangida, they were more adventurous than myself. They took a weekend and had a quick marriage and went back to the front. I thought I would be putting the poor girl or the poor woman under a lot of stress. So, I said if I survived the war, I would get married, but if I didn’t survive, no woman should cry for me other than my relatives.
Some of your General-colleagues became stupendously rich. Today, they have means. I am not a lawyer taking inventory of your assets or preparing your will, but tell me what property do you have now at 70? I am sure you have a house in Abuja, you have one in Lagos. You have one in Daura and you have one here (Kaduna). So, if I count your property, maybe five. Am I right or wrong?
You are right but am not going to read or declare with you. My assets were on record, I told some of your colleagues when they came. When Murtala/Obasanjo regime came, they made sure that certain grades of public officers must declare their assets when they assumed that office and they must declare when they were leaving. So, when I was sworn in as governor of North East, I declared my assets.
What did you declare?
I declared surprisingly, even the number of my cows then. Even if they were supposed to be producing every year, but I declared them the time I was there. And when I was leaving governorship, I became petroleum minister. When I was leaving to go to War College, I declared my assets. I could recall General Jemibewon then, was the Adjutant-General of the Army. He rang me and said he was sending me asset declaration form, that I must fill it, sign it before I left for the United States. And I did. General Jemibewon is still alive. And when I became head of state eventually, I declared my assets again. So, all of us; when I say that, I mean Obasanjo downwards, those who are alive who were governors, ministers, head of states, they had declared assets. So, if you people are serious and interested about political officers becoming multi-billionaires, you can find out from Murtala downwards. And those of us who were not very good in making money you should pity us.
Is it that you don’t like money?
Everybody likes money but I am not very good at making money. Let me put it that way. I borrowed from the banks to build the house in Daura and the one in Abuja that you mentioned and the one in Kano. The bank then was Barclays, now Union Bank. Kaduna State or North Central then housing scheme and the Federal Mortgage Bank for the house I am in and AIB, which was, I think, terminated by Central Bank. So, when you go through the records, you find out that the houses I built, I borrowed from there.
You are a respected former head of state. What is your relationship with others, Obasanjo, your former boss and at a point, your political opponent, General Babangida, the man who took over from you and then, Shagari…
You are very nice. He took over from me and I took over from Shagari. You are very nice.
I want to be polite.
You are very nice. Ok, carry on.
What is your relationship with them. I see some parts of patching up here and there, but when a man is 70, you say it the way it is. What is your relationship with all these people I have mentioned now, deep down?
I think the worst thing anybody can do to oneself is to have either hatred or grudge on daily basis. One thing will happen and you better forget.
Have you forgiven Babangida now? You once said you felt betrayed over the coup against your government?
I did. Publicly, I did.
I have and some of your papers published it. I said as a Muslim, I have forgiven him.
But during that period it happened, you must have been really angry?
Of course, I was angry because I can’t recall what I had done for him to mobilise the military to overthrow me and detain me for more than three years. Yeah, it is natural for me to be upset.
Were you going to retire him before your overthrow, as has been alleged? This is an opportunity to lay it because we have heard those speculations that you were going to retire him and he moved against you quickly.
Something like that happened but not him. I moved to retire his Director of Military Intelligence.
General Aliyu, not Akilu.
You were going to retire him?
Yes. I took a paper to Army Council. Babangida was there…
As the Chief of Army Staff.
Yes. Idiagbon was there, Bali was there as Minister of Defence, and I was there as the head of state and commander-in-chief. And reasons for him to be removed was in that memo. Go and find out from him or from Babangida. They are both alive.
Not against Babangida per se?
But if you touched Gusau, his intelligence chief, invariably, you were going to inch towards the Chief of Army Staff, Babangida. Eventually, he might have been touched.
I didn’t know but at that point, it was Aliyu Gusau.
You were inching closer?
Yes, we were inching closer. You could say that.
But you have forgiven him for all that happened.
I have forgiven him. I said it and it was printed by some of your colleagues. But I didn’t say it will be forgotten. It cannot be forgotten. If I say I forget about it, I will be lying. But I have forgiven him, just as I expect Shagari to forgive me as the one who succeeded him.
But Shagari said you detained him and then…
I too, was detained (general laughter).
Ok, whatof Obasanjo? What kind of relationship do you have?
Obasanjo; he mobilized Nigerian voters against me.
But you have forgiven him?
No, I haven’t forgiven him (laughter).
Finally now, finally, finally, finally…
I don’t know when your final will come to a real final.
No, this is the end now. If the end comes, how do you want Nigerians to remember you, if you have the chance to write your epitaph?
I want Nigerians to be fair to me. Like this case of 53, 55 suitcases, like the case of N2.8billion. I want Nigerians to be fair and to be fair, all these documents are in the Nigerian archives. As I said, I didn’t do anything important outside the three organs of government: the Supreme Military Council, Council of States and Council of Ministers. On serious issues, Nigerians should do some research. That is why I always make emphasis on investigative journalism. If you want to be fair and impartial, I am sure you can have the capacity, both intellectual and resource to make an in-depth investigation.
Nigerians should be fair to you?
They should be fair to me.
Your daughter just passed on?
She would have been 40 before she died.
Oh, when life was just beginning.
What was the circumstance? Some said she was a sickler; she had sickle cell anemia.
She was a sickler and she had complication when she was delivered by Caesarian.
And that remains a very sad incident for you.Yes.
Thank you, General.
You are always welcome.