by Akan Ido
His assessment of the Goodluck Jonathan administration is, however, not complimentary as he described the present government as being riddled with “too much corruption”.
In this interview with the Saturday Sun, the elder statesman also spoke up about former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida, describing the former as “a leader who failed his country.”
Please read excerpts from the interview below:
What are some of the things happening in the country that make you sad?
I feel sad when I see some awards flying around for some people who clearly do not deserve them. Take the case of Yobe State, where the former governor was recently said to have been given the Mo award for what he did in rural development. I was talking with one man and he said: ‘Look, Yobe is the most wretched of the states in Nigeria; it is the poorest, the least developed.
There is lack of security there.” I said look, this man is one of the worst governors that has ruled any part of this country. But he was given an award in South Africa before; he was given the Mo award. What now happens is that some people who have no honour will meet and create one thing or the other and send it to somebody; ask him to finance the offer. The offer itself is worthless. The man who is receiving it is not worth it; that is what Nigeria is all about. You would never hear or see me accepting this honour or award because a lot of them are worthless. In your own case, you make me change my mind because I am not claiming to be any leader in this country, am not claiming anything; on your own you decided to give me the honour.
In this country, till date, we have not produced Nelson Mandela. Obasanjo, my very good friend, is not worth it. Nobody has reached that position, in terms of keeping to justice, fairness and honesty. Mandela is always concerned about the fate of the masses. We don’t have that leader who is always concerned about the fate of the masses, the ordinary Nigerian, the farmers.
If all of us have agreed that we would work for the good of the poor farmer, if he lives by an inch, it means that all of us would be richer by millions. But are we doing it? What we have is a National Assembly that eats one quarter of the resources of this country. We have a government that is greedy. So many billions of naira go into payment of oil subsidy. The children of big people are involved in these billions. Some people steal billions. And nothing is done to them.
The President says he is fighting insecurity; he said he was going to end it six months ago. Where are we today? He said he was going to stop subsidy. Where are we? Even before people knew how bad subsidy was, he gave impression that he was out to address it. But now he is talking about it again. The individuals in NNPC, look at what they have done with the national resources; nobody has said anything. I pity this country. But I am not hopeless. I believe things will come right some day.
For the time being, we have, individually, got to behave well. It should not be prayers alone. I don’t know of any set of people in this world that are more religious than Nigerians. But they are religious by mouth, not by practice. What they do is different from what they say.
If we want to improve this country, individuals have got to act; they have to begin to do the right thing, even if we see them as being foolish, they should stick to it; they should not say we have to join the majority. Here the majority is not doing well.
Secondly, the ordinary citizens of this country, the farmers, the masses are very good people. If they get good leaders, they will do the right thing. For the time being, they are copying their leaders. They are capable of turning round and doing something wonderful. When that time comes, the world is going to be surprised what Nigerians can do.
Are Nigerians not too docile?
You and I living now have got to stick to the right things, no matter what the other people are doing; then things will change.
Will that make Nigeria to change?
Yes, things will change. It takes time to establish a leader. Sometimes, when someone is in the process of becoming a leader he falters; he goes in the dark to take money. I always tell young people in this country that the difficult thing about leadership is that it is difficult to judge. All the people who criticise corruption, if you put them aside and give them envelops filled with dollars, who among them will have the courage to say no? So, who is not corrupt? Farouk Lawan passed through the temptation and faltered. But, as I said, generally, ordinary Nigerians would like to do what is right if the leaders are doing the right things, they will copy them.
Are you saying that they cannot force their leaders to do the right thing?
They cannot force their leaders to do the right thing.
Can you give us your background? Where did you develop the principles which have guarded?
You know I was telling you earlier about Nigerians and their religious predilection and moral standing. People of my generation, a lot of us, went to school and we were taught how to behave morally, decently and fairly. We didn’t know it but our leaders were there for us; they were treating us well. They protected and promoted our interest. None of my parents actually asked me to go to school and do well, except once.
When I was going to school I was just living my normal life, from the Primary School in Fika to another in Maiduguri, to Barewa College, Zaria, to Nigerian College in Zaria and to University of Ibadan. I believe that UI did a lot in forming my character. By the time I came to Ibadan, I was about 20 years or thereabout. We had fantastic professors. They were honest, hardworking, straightforward, open and we learnt the meaning of intellectual from them. An intellectual is somebody who is honest, who is following logic, obeying the logic even if it does not conform with what he held before.
Then we came to work for government. The month I left the university was the month I got a job in government.
What did you read?
History. Working for government, doing the right thing without knowing anybody was the standard then. It was the policy of the northern government at that time. We were taught three things that must be done. These three things still need to be done today. First, we were taught that the economy was based on agriculture and government’s policy was directed towards helping the ordinary farmer to produce more and earn more to improve his condition. We distributed ploughs, tractors, seedlings and all that were needed to aid agriculture. The second focus was education.
The North was behind, as far as western education was concerned. The government used resources to educate everyone free; they even paid you some allowances for going to school. We were the product of that. We grew up knowing very well that our duty is to help others move from darkness to light. You are from the South; if I talk to you about education, it may not sound wonderful; you will take it for granted. Already you have accepted education; you like it; you even pay for it yourself. But in the North it was not so. I left UI being paid some allowances.
The third issue was about health. If your people are not healthy, they cannot farm; they cannot send their children to school; they cannot do anything. Government considered it its duty to treat people with malaria, all the diseases in the rural area. They set up dispensaries in the rural areas, procuring medicine for the people.
These three things, the northern government pursued then. The total budget of northern government in 1965 was 37 million pounds. The money was available for everything. So, we learnt that you have to use the resources of the people for their benefit; that you don’t have to think twice about that. These were the circumstances we were brought up. Every leader supported you; we never heard about corruption; you just have got to do the right thing.
Was it that there were no corrupt people then?
In every society, there must be people who would not want to do the right thing. But what I am saying is that government did not encourage corruption; it discouraged it. For instance, if you were just a small clerk and you had a bicycle nobody would raise an eyebrow, but if you are seen with a car somebody would ask you how you got it. The system ensured that you behaved well, in line with your status. They promoted any worker who was hardworking.
Are you the eldest child of your parents?
No, no; I came from a very big family. My grandfather was the councillor for education. All of us in our own area went to school long before universal education became acceptable.
How many children did your father have?
He had so many.
Precisely, how many?
Am sure the number is more than 30.
Are there some of your siblings that you do not know?
There are so many of us.
How many wives did your father marry?
Always not more than four
Four at a particular time?
Why did you leave government to go and work in a newspaper house?
In the university I did History, but in our student activity we formed certain groups. We were producing a magazine. When I was in the Barewa College, we were also producing a magazine. When I came to Ibadan, we were producing a magazine. When I left the university and joined the civil service, I was the administrative officer. The New Nigerian Newspaper was set up and government was looking for somebody who had some experience in newspaper production. In those days they did their home work, their research. They identified me and asked me whether I would like to come and work there.
So you were drafted there?
Yeah, I was drafted there.
Were you the editor or the managing director of the newspaper when you were first drafted?
I was drafted as the editor and later I became the managing director.
The military was in power then?
Yes. Gen. Gowon was the Head of State. There were six governors in the North. On many occasions, I quarrelled with them because they wanted us to do certain things, but we did what we believed was right. I had harsh misunderstanding with Gen. Gowon.
Did he summon you?
Yes, he did, but I told him that we were doing what we believed was right; that we were using the information we had. I told him, ‘Sir, you people have some certain information, we have also our own information; they may be the same information but we interpret them differently. We cannot wait for you to tell us your own interpretation; when you tell us we will publish it, but in the interim we will use what is available to us.’
Did you not see yourself taking a big risk, talking to a military head of state that way?
We were in the same Barewa College; he was only two years my senior.
Did you know him in school?
Of course, yes.
But he was then Commander- in- Chief?
It didn’t matter to me; we were in the same Barewa College. I was not afraid of losing my job. After quarrelling with Gowon and Gen Hassan, we kept on quarrelling with the governors over the contents of the newspaper. They didn’t like some of the things we were reporting. When the bickering became too much, I had to resign. I gave them my letter.
Where were you resigning to?
I was determined to work on my own. I was going into private business. When I was the editor and managing director, I was also a director in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). So, when I resigned, one of the textile companies in Kaduna asked me if I would like to work with them as executive director. I agreed. So, I was working for the biggest textile mill in Nigeria. After a while, there was a coup that overthrew Gen Gowon; the coup leaders invited me to put right the CBN.
There were some rumours about shady deals in foreign exchange transactions and things like that. I was called to put things right there. So, in 1975, I became CBN governor. I was there till 1977 when there was an election to the Constituent Assembly. A new constitution was to be made for a return to civilian rule. At that time, every part of the country especially the North was sending their best to the Constituent Assembly. Where I came from, nobody asked me; they just elected me.
Even with your position as CBN governor?
I was governor of CBN and they wanted one of their best in the Constituent Assembly. They elected me without informing me. I had to resign as CBN governor. The CBN law does not allow for a part time in such position; so I had to resign.
You were not a trained banker nor an economist before becoming the CBN governor. How did you cope?
If you work for any institution, you have to find out how best you can contribute. I was appointed CBN governor to put some things right. They knew that I could do it and I did it.
You were working with economists, bankers and so on?
Yes. One thing I experienced in life is that most of the time, I was working and learning. Take the case of the newspaper. I was invited and I accepted to go there. I didn’t know really, on a big scale, about newspaper. I was learning on the job.
From your experience, is it really necessary to be a banker or an economist before holding a position like the CBN governor?
This is what I am trying to explain to you. When you are educated, you can do anything. And the tradition of University of Ibadan, they produced graduates in Classics, who became financial wizards and things like that. Once you are educated, your mind will convince you that you can do anything. Heading the CBN was nothing particularly special; there was nothing impossible about it.
You can learn on the job. What is important is the integrity you bring to bear. If you are an accountant, there are laws governing accountancy; if you abandon these laws, will you still call yourself an accountant? If you are a historian and you are told to come and run CBN and you use the research people, economists, accountants and professionals in all the departments very well, you will achieve results. You would not bother that you are not an economist or accountant. You can learn on the job.
When I came to CBN, I told them: “look, I am a historian, you are the professionals, am here to learn, there are things am going to do to put things right but most of the normal job I am going to learn from you.’ I eventually learnt from them.
CBN governors are known for conservatism. Would you say it is in order for the current CBN governor Sanusi to be making some controversial comments he’s often criticised for?
A Central Bank governor worldwide is not a controversial person. The person is part of the establishment. When he or she says anything people respect it because they believe that you must have given a lot of thought to what you said before saying it out. There are certain things governor of the Central Bank doesn’t need to do.
He doesn’t need to be controversial. Sanusi has a bit of controversy about him, but the most important thing about him is that he is an honest and dedicated man. He has no fear of saying a lot of things. For instance, he does not fear saying things that will annoy people in the National Assembly. He does that because he believes that, yes I am the governor today if you do not want me I go, I am just contributing, I don’t care if you refuse to accept.
Sanusi is an honest, straightforward person who says what he believes. Sometimes people in the National Assembly would want you to kow-tow with them because they make laws and things like that. But if you tell them the truth, you put them right; the laws they will make will be better.
Going to the Constituent Assembly was your baptism into politics. How correct is that?
That is very, very correct.
What is your reaction when people say that you never won an election or stood for an election, that you are a feather weight politician, just grandstanding or making noise. I am sure you have heard that?
Edwin Clarke was the last person to tell me all this. I am not a normal Nigerian politician, you know. Winning election has never been my preoccupation. I have always had something to do, something that is contributory to the development of this country. The only time I sought for an election was in 1978 when I was promoted to be one of the people seeking presidential nomination in NPN. I believed I could do it.
I believed I could contribute; so I decided to do it. At the convention I came third. From there, I started helping the winner, that is Alhaji Shehu Shagari and he won the election. I became a minister in his administration. The Constituent Assembly was really the place I politically got involved.
Former Head of State, Gen. Buhari, said when he took over on December 31, 1983, that that government you served, the Shagari government, was particularly corrupt and directionless and that was the reason it was sacked. Would agree to that assessment?
That was what they were saying; that was the reason they gave for overthrowing the government of Shagari. I was a participant in that government. Shagari is one of the most honest politicians I know in this country. Even Buhari will tell you that some of us worked honestly and effectively. When Shagari was overthrown and Buhari became the Head of State, how long did it take him to remain there? He was there for just 20 months. Shagari was President for four years. So, Shagari was there for a longer period than Buhari, even though the latter was not elected. The people who put Buhari there were the people who removed him. Is that a comment of praise?
He said that they betrayed him…
Well, he can say that, but the truth is that they put him there and they removed him. They cannot do that without a reason. Then, Babangida became the President. Just as Buhari was saying that Shagari was the most corrupt President, my own assessment is that the government that followed that of Shagari has been the most corrupt. Buhari stayed for just 20 months.
Are you talking about the Babangida government?
Yeah. It was the government that ruined the economy of this country because it introduced SAP. It devalued the currency of this country without any reason, without any justification. Civil service was ruined under President Babangida. Since then the civil service has not recovered. It is for history now to examine the kind of things, which we see and say about our friends and about our enemies. Buhari probably complains more about Babangida than he complains about Shagari now.
Why did you serve in the Abacha government that was not particularly popular?
Abacha took over from Shonekan who was a stop-gap. When he took over, he found out that there was a lot of instability in the system. What he did was to invite known politicians since the Shagari days. He brought Jakande, I was there, Rimi was there, Bola Ige and other known politicians. He invited us to participate in the government. I know that he did it to restore stability in the country. We accepted to participate in order to restore stability. I was appointed Minister of Agriculture. I looked at what the problems were and how I could address them. One of the problems I identified was fertilizer distribution. Fertilizer plant in Eleme, I was the one who completed the negotiation for setting it up.
I knew long ago, when I was Minister of Agriculture under Shagari, that fertilizer is so important to agriculture in this country. I proposed certain policies to bring in fertilizer and agriculture equipment as well the distribution of fertilizer. I was appointed in November. I was making plans about the fertilizer to be used the following year by farmers. I took my proposal to Abacha; he looked at it and said no, that he didn’t think this was the right thing to do. He said that we did not need to get fertilizer supplies again, that there was fertilizer in the country.
I had proposed worldwide advertisement for people who would want to supply the fertilizer, that is international supply. He said that he did not believe in that. I said that I was the Minister of Agriculture, I tell you that it was important. When I put my mind to something I focus on it. I told him that there was no fertilizer in the country he still said no. This happened on a Wednesday. I gave the whole thing a thought. On Saturday, I wrote a letter resigning my position. On Sunday, I gave it to Aminu Saleh.
When Saleh gave him the letter he called me and said, ‘ah! Has this come to this?’ I said yes, I have told you my view, how to do it and all my plans but you said that there were a lot of fertilizers in this country. I told him, you are the head of government, my duty is to help you run the government, you do not need my advice, so I’m off. He said no, no, but I said yes. He said but I will give you another position.
I said but that does not affect my resignation. If you give me another appointment that I like I will take it, but this particular one I am off, I have no reason to stay. Then he contacted some of his senior people, especially Jerry Useni who was minister in charge of Abuja. He told him, ‘look, these politicians, if you are not careful with them, they will throw you into trouble, don’t accept the resignation, wait and sack all of them.’ So, in the end my resignation was not accepted. After sometime he sacked all the politicians in the government.
What kind of person was Abacha?
We got on very well with Abacha; we didn’t have any quarrel or anything. You remember that we didn’t ask to be appointed. Our duty as politicians was to do the right thing. Personally, between him and I, our relationship was always good. But I was not there to be rubbished by a military leader. We got on well and I resigned; he didn’t like it, but there was nothing he could do about it.
Was the sack of politicians in the government the thing that led to the formation of G-19 in the North and later G-34?
We agreed to serve the government in order to serve the ordinary person, the masses of this country. Abacha and his men started playing tricks. He wanted a transition to civilian rule but he wanted to organise it in such a way that there would be different political parties but all the parties must nominate him as their presidential candidate. It became obvious that he was trying to succeed himself. We the politicians in the North, the senior ones, came together and told ourselves that it would not be a good thing for the president to succeed himself. So, we wrote him a letter telling him our views.
Then, we formed the G-18 to work together against Abacha’s self-succession plan. We agreed that only we the northerners were going to do it because if we invited anybody from the South to participate, Abacha and his colleagues were going to say that it was the southern people who were working against him. We didn’t want to allow that room; we decided to restrict this opposition to him among us northern politicians. When it became absolutely clear that we needed the input of other Nigerians, we decided to go a step further to generate a national opposition against him (Abacha). That was why we went to see Alex Ekwueme, Bola Ige and other politicians. We now enlarged the G-18 to G-34.
Did you work for Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar?
Abdulsalami, when he came in, called some of us individually. I gave him my honest view. I advised him to go because Gen. Gowon started this business of reneging, he didn’t succeed. Buhari didn’t even think he was going to leave; Babangida reneged, so also Abacha, but he died. I told him you should complete the process and go. So, he spent nine months and left.
Did you work for Obasanjo’s emergence? What was the logic behind bringing him out from prison to give him the PDP ticket? At what point did you and other northern elite agree that power should return to the South?
Obasanjo’s return effectively to the presidency was the handiwork of Babangida and Aliyu Gusau. They are the people who got in touch with other northern politicians to support their proposal to make Obasanjo the presidential candidate. We northern politicians, in our original proposal, agreed that the military did wrong in cancelling June 12, 1993 presidential election. We believed that since independence to that time, most of the official leaders of this country had been from the North. Abdulsalami was organising a return to civilian rule; we reasoned that it will not be right for Abdulsalami to allow somebody from the North to become the President. We decided that the President after Abdulsalami should come from the South. We were very clear in our own mind on this.
When we said that the President should come from the South, we were aware that there are Yoruba, there are Southern minorities and there are the Igbo. We did not care from any of the three groups that the President came from as long as the person was from the South. After we had taken that position, Babangida and Aliyu Gusau contacted us to plead for Obasanjo. We agreed to support Obasanjo because the candidate of the last presidential election that was cancelled by the military was from the Yoruba west. It was not particularly because he came from Ogun State but just that he was a Yoruba man from the West. It is just an accident that Obasanjo also happens to come from the same state with Abiola. That was how it happened.
From what later happened, do you regret supporting the decision?
No, I have no regret for that. I knew we were doing the right thing, in terms of promoting national interest and cohesion.
What is your assessment of the Obasanjo government?
I was a member of that government. In the end, Obasanjo, as a person failed this country. In 2002, about September or so, I personally decided to leave the government. I told him that I was going to do his budget for 2003. Normally budget is submitted in September or thereabout. I was going to submit the budget for 2003 and I had resolved that after it had gone through the National Assembly I was going to retire.
The reason I wanted to go was that I had noticed a lot of deviation from the way things being done; they were going differently from the way we in NPN wanted things to happen. I would say that corruption had started to rear its head. In our days when you talk with people about issues, you reach an agreement; it sticks. Now things are different. Thirdly, people were no longer reliable, they wanted to be bought.
If someone was in a position to give a position he demanded money before giving it out. For these three reasons I said to them that my stay in the system had come to an end. They were not the kind of things I would like to get involved in. Government is just talking about Contecna and other people who inspect goods at the ports. It started during my time. We had to do some investigations and I made recommendation about the people who should do that job. In the end, Obasanjo asked Contecna to do the job. I could not understand the reason.
He didn’t explain to you?
No, he didn’t, but I discovered subsequently that Contecna is a company which the son of Kofi Annan was deeply involved in. They were the ones that went round to lobby Obasanjo to give the contract. I don’t like that kind of thing.
Did he persuade you not to go?
He asked me to please stay and do his election in 2003, that if I conducted the election for him he would let me go. We reached an agreement on that. I became the Coordinator of his campaign, with Anenih as my deputy. We agreed that after the election I would go.
Was there also an agreement that you should nominate your wife to the cabinet?
No, no, there was nothing like that. She came on her merit.
What role did you play in Yar’Adua’s emergence and government?
You know Obasanjo tried to extend his rule; that is the third term issue. I was against it. I openly opposed it and insisted that the agreement is that somebody from the South does eight years, somebody from the North will do eight years. So, there was no basis for him to want to extend his rule. When he realised that he could not overcome the pressures, he, on his own, decided to nominate Yar’Adua.
You can understand why he chose Yar’Adua. He has always got on well with Yar’Adua’s brother, Shehu. So, when he nominated him, none of us was surprised. I supported Yar’Adua when he nominated him because Shehu Yar’Adua was my friend and Yar’Adua’s father was my political supporter. And this young man was a socialist. I supported his nomination. Obasanjo knew that Yar’Adua was not well.
But he said that he didn’t know. Are you suggesting that he was lying?
He knew; he knew.
Why are you certain that he knew?
He was governor, he was not performing fulltime because he was going to hospitals regularly. It is not true that Obasanjo did not know. He was hoping that because Yar’Adua was not well, he will be able to rule by proxy. It was third term by another means. He didn’t know that things don’t work that way. I like Yar’Adua because he was an honest and straightforward young man.
When Yar’Adua died, Obasanjo told me that Yar’Adua was dead, this man (Jonathan) is the Vice President, what happens? There was a lot of controversy. Gen. Gowon called a meeting of elders mostly from the North to come up with what to do about replacing Yar’Adua. The only non-northerners at that meeting were Alex Ekwueme, Edwin Clarke and Shonekan. We agreed that the constitution must take precedence, that the constitution allows for the Vice President to take over, that Jonathan must be allowed to take over. He was acting then. We told the Senate President that this was our position and the National Assembly acted on it. It was when Yar’Adua died that the PDP started its confusion and scatter scatter.
Why did you insist on power returning to the North?
We insisted on that because PDP had met and agreed that there was going to be power rotation, that there will be zoning. It was under Obasanjo that the meeting held and Jonathan himself was there. We said look, now that Yar’Adua has died the constitutional formality has taken place, the vice-president has been sworn in, in the next election the North will produce the next candidate of the party. We said that the North still has four years remaining in its eight years mandate.
We said that if you do not give it to the North, it means that the South would have had 12 years and the North would have four. We told them that if you want to do anything different, we would have to discuss it. If the southerner was going to be President, it meant that South would have 12 years and North four years and that that would create a problem in the zoning arrangement; so it must be discussed; we must agree on how to deal with the problem.
The PDP leaders started saying other things; they said that the constitution of the country did not stop Jonathan from contesting, that he could contest. I told them, ‘ look. If you cut the term of the North from eight to four, this may adversely affect the PDP power sharing arrangement.’ They went forth and back; they were all confused. I can tell you that Obasanjo and Jonathan went round and bought the people who were going to attend the convention in their states. When the delegates came for the convention in Abuja, again they bought them. The governors ensured that they appoint people to mark the ballots.
Are you saying that the PDP primary of 2011 was rigged?
Completely rigged. They know it; we know it. They rigged it and Jonathan won. That is why I lost interest in the party. I know that if you can buy somebody today, there is no reason you cannot buy him tomorrow. Obasanjo came to my house and said this was where we are, the PDP has just nominated Jonathan and if we handled things well he would win the election. I said that PDP had now spoken loudly, it had decided in an opaque manner who was going to be the candidate and we knew that they bought delegates in their states, bought them also in Abuja. I said to him, a Nigerian president was going to emerge; the delegates who gave him the ticket were bribed in dollars, not in naira. What kind of President will he be? He just got up and walked out.
He did not respond to you?
No, because he had nothing to say. Since that time, he has not told me anything.