By EMERSON GOBERT, JR:
THE BUHARI STORY
Why we shot drug traffickers
It would not be hyperbole to describe former Head of State, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), as an officer and a gentleman. His political opponents and detractors may call him names, yet, he still passes as one of the most disciplined and principled officers the Nigerian Army has produced. Though he may be fixated on some issues, he proudly insists, with a sense of modesty, that nobody can rubbish his integrity, as, according to him, he has not broken any Nigerian law to warrant being charged to court.
In an interview with Saturday Sun, Buhari displayed intelligence and tact. He spoke about his humble childhood into a polygamous family, how he lost his father at age four, his love for rural life and attraction to the Army.
The former head of state revealed that he was once a cattle rearer and enjoyed it. He spoke about his relationships with the late Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, who joined the military with him the same day after they had spent nine years together in primary and secondary schools, and the late Major General Tunde Idiagbon, who was his Chief of Staff in his military presidency.
An officer with an impressive career, Buhari, who was commissioned second lieutenant in 1963, has commanded three of the four divisions of the Nigerian Army. He was governor of North Eastern State in 1974/5 and was later succeeded by the late Gen. Idiagbon. He later became Minister of Petroleum before becoming Head of State in 1983.
The interview is Gen. Buhari as never before.
Not much has been known about your early life. How was your childhood and parental background?
Well, when I was the Head of State, the Ministry of Information attempted to write a book about me. General Muhammadu Buhari, the Seventh Head of State. It dealt with part of my early life, to some extent, but it appears that you haven’t seen the book. Well, I’m No. 23rd on my father’s side and No. 13th on my mother’s side. My father was a Fulani man. My mother, on her father’s side, was a Kanuri, and was Hausa, on her mother’s side. So, this question of Hausa-Fulani and whatever, I think I have qualified for that. I was born in Daura, a very, very old town; very old Hausa state that is claiming to be the root of the Hausa city state. I went to primary school there. We were under Katsina province, which came out of the old Zaria province in 1934. I went to Kaduna Middle School in 1953, went to Kaduna Secondary School in 1956.
When I finished in 1961/62, I came to Kaduna Military Training College then, but now, Nigerian Defence Academy. After that, I went to UK School of Infantry, Aldershot Cadet School. I was commissioned Second Lieutenant in January 1963. On my return, I was posted to Zaria and from there to Abeokuta and later Lagos and I was in Lagos until the first coup in 1966. From there, I was posted to Kaduna, then of course, the civil war. I have risen from Second Lieutenant to General and I have commanded from a platoon up to a division of the Nigerian Army. I have commanded three of the four divisions of the Army: 81st Division, then in Ikeja, then the 2nd Division in Ibadan; then the 3rd Division in Jos before I became the Head of State.
So, what attracted you to the military?
Well, actually, when we were in secondary school, there used to be cadet units and I joined the cadet unit in secondary school. I became the cadet sergeant. I was impressed with the military life since then because it is orderliness. General Hassan, I think, was in Sandhurst when we lived in Kaduna. His father, the late Emir of Kaduna, Alhaji Usman Nagogo, used to send him to talk to us. So, our interest really was laid by the Emir himself through Gen. Hassan, who used to come in uniform to lecture us about the military, during my secondary school. So, I joined the cadet unit. It was the orderliness of the military that aroused my interest.
How would you describe the kind of child you were? Stubborn?
Well, I think in those days, though I worked in Daura township, I liked rural life and I actually reared cattle. I liked rural life because the education you get about plants, animals, insects is really intellectual in the sense that everyday, you are learning something about nature. I try to compare it with the life of a shopkeeper. He sits in one place looking at his wares and exchanging it with coins and notes and so on, but as a form of cattle rearer, you are exposed to the full power of nature and I found that very exhilarating and I enjoyed it extremely.
The Gen. Buhari that most Nigerians have come to know in the past couple of years is a very disciplined General and leader. What are ingredients that moulded you into that character from the boy who loved rural life?
I think it is the quality of education in my generation – so profound. Teachers were so committed. They treat the children like their own children. They had all the time for the children; so you get fatherly care, love from teachers and the teacher seemed to be available for the subject and would start simply with mother tongue, what you can understand – the folklores and so on and I think that made it possible for children of my generation to pick rapidly before you start transferring it to English and then English Literature. You start with your mother tongue, your locality, your history, as a people, in your locality and you rapidly grow into it. I think the influence of the teachers helped. I recognized that fact very early when I was about four years old. So really, my life was shaped by my teachers and boarding school of nine years.
Who can you recall were your childhood friends?
Most of them are gone. Musa Yar’Adua was my classmate for the nine years, since we were in primary and secondary school. We joined the military the same day and he only left a little earlier than me. So, consistently, I have been close to him from school days to military life and so on.
If you were asked to name your three closest friends today, who would they be?
Well, I’ve told you one who was my closest friend. Along the line, we met with Tunde Idiagbon. We met in the military and somehow, Tunde was following me when I formed a brigade in Makurdi. After, he went and commanded that brigade. When I became a governor of North East, with headquarters in Borno in 1975, later, he became governor of Borno State and of course, he became the Chief of Staff when we worked together for 20 months before we were overthrown. We were very close.
Can you recall any other person?
There are so many other people, like Jega, now the Emir of Gwando. We have Gen. Magoro.
Does the Nigeria of today suit the dream of your Nigeria as a child and if not, what are the deficiencies?
First is health. I will give you an example now. In those days, if there was a breakdown of say cerebro spinal meningitis or small pox, the way local governments; not even emirates completely, would mobilize resources to go into every nook and cranny of the locality either to inoculate people or isolate those who had been infected and treat them. It’s the same thing, even with animals everywhere. They get inoculation, say, against rinderpest and so on. So, as far as medical care is concerned, education, even drinking water, there are wells that are dug and are available in localities and if you compare that relative to the resources now, you would feel very sorry for this country because if you drive now from the North to the South, you stop anywhere outside a town or village and you go to a family where there is a 60-year-old person, he would tell you he would rather be in the First Republic than today, and if you compare the resources that were realized, in spite of the population now, in relative terms, there are much more resources now. The question is, how does the leadership treat the followers? You would be very sorry for this country. I will give you another personal example.
In 1961, Elder Demster Lines gave scholarship for one child per region to go to UK on holidays. One from the North, one from the East, one from the West and one from Lagos – four from Nigeria; two from Ghana and two from Sierra Leone. So in the whole of the North, I was picked. I came from a minority area, which is in Kaduna State – Daura Emirate and I was an orphan. The late Yar’Adua was my classmate. His father was a minister. Senior to me was the son of the Minister of Education, Nozerim Isa Kaita, but I, an orphan from a minority area, was picked to go to the UK and these sons of ministers were not picked. How can you get that done now in Nigeria of today?
So, what criteria do you think Elder Demster used to pick you?
All they did was ask the government to produce four Nigerian children to go to the UK. It was actually the government of Nigeria that said one from the North, one from the East, one from the West, one from Lagos. We have lost these values. Relationship between leadership and followers is the most tragic thing in Nigerian development and social justice.
You headed a coup that overthrew the government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari, which was democratically elected. What was your motive?
I believe in your archives, you have our speech on the day we took over and why we took over. The officers’ corps then decided to make me Head of State. They were sitting in Lagos, where the government was seated and I was sitting in Jos, where I was commanding a division. So, they could do their Lagos business because I cannot overrun Lagos from Jos; so it was my colleagues then in the military that decided to make me the Head of State.
It is true then that you were not a principal actor in that coup. Your colleagues just saw perhaps, your leadership qualities and decided to make you Head of State. Would that statement be true?
It has to be because, as a GOC, my troops were deployed for the coup, but I don’t think anybody, who lacks the support of the officers’ corps, could be a Head of State after the coup. It’s not just possible.
You were once Petroleum Minister and we did not have the petroleum scarcity that has become a major problem in our country today. What magic did you use so that Nigeria did not suffer from what God had blessed us with?
I don’t think there was magic. What we had was better leadership. General Obasanjo then was the Head of State. I was Petroleum Minister. For all intent and purposes, he allowed me to work as a minister. He was not the Minister of Petroleum. I was the Minister of Petroleum and I was not an engineer of any discipline. What I did was to head and encourage the professionals to be real professionals. I will give you an example. Initially, we had only one refinery in Port Harcourt. With the turn-around maintenance, time came when the only one refinery was closed and Nigerians, apart from us in the ministry and the workers there, never noticed that the only refinery in Nigeria was closed.
Why? People allowed pure professionals to work. How? We looked at Nigerian type of crude and analyzed how much product a barrel can give. So, the amount of barrels Nigeria normally consumes, a tender is put and only operative multinationals were allowed to quote because they were the ones that knew more about our petroleum industry than ourselves because they did the research and development and they had offshore refineries; so they gave us so many barrels of some types of Nigerian crude. Then we gave them other products, which they took, refined and brought back to us. If we had any balance, they sold it and credit NNPC or the Nigerian government. But the moment some leaders decided to be ministers of everything the professionals were not given free hand. I think all they needed to do is to attempt to educate themselves to understand what is happening. I think it is wrong to be so greedy and intolerant as to take away the responsibilities of professionals just because you want to get money for your banking or for yourself. This is what has destroyed some of our industries.
What would you give as your recipe towards solving Nigeria’s petroleum crisis? Is deregulation as touted the solution?
I don’t believe in deregulation. I will tell you why. We must accept that we have failed in managing our most globally accepted sector, which is petroleum. We have four refineries, each of them with the capacity of at least 480,000 barrels per day. Our production, militants allowing, should be about 2.3 million barrels per day. We have infrastructure on the ground. We have land pipes across the country, at least, 3500 kilometers of land pipes, pumping stations, about 25 depots. We have infrastructure on the ground, but government after government has failed to make sure the refineries are at their optimum production. Of course, militants allowing, we blow pipelines there, pipelines here. I believe the country is capable of giving this country security. This is purely and squarely the failure of the government and I don’t think we can explain it off.
There is this story that General Sani Abacha set up the Petroleum Trust Fund, which you headed, as a compensation for the North over the guise of OMPADEC for the Niger Delta.
It can’t be true. This is one of the most unfair allegations against the Abacha government. What happened, because I knew, as you said, is this. I was in charge of PTF because Abacha’s administration wanted to increase the cost of petroleum product at the pump. Although they were a military regime, they were mindful that Nigerians were not in the mood; so they came up with the idea that okay, let us tell Nigerians that we are going to increase one naira or N20 per litre but we are going to put 25 per cent of it or 15 per cent of it for social services – drugs, education, health, drinking water and so on and so forth. And to confine it only to the North, as the beneficiary, is most unpatriotic and if I should say, is irresponsible. Go to any part of Nigeria. Go to any government hospital; you will still see PTF equipment and roads from Abuja to Port Harcourt were rehabilitated. In fact, the first N1 billion of PTF was spent in Lagos. We did the Iju water works; we did Victoria Island and Ikoyi water works and we did 43 kilometers of road to Mile 2 to the port. We did the drainage. The first N1 billion of PTF was spent in Lagos. The records are there. So, for anybody to come with the idea that this was done to compensate the North, because of OMPADEC, is unfair and it is untrue.
Can you recall any heroic thing that stands out in your life or career?
I wouldn’t like to… How I wish you can go into the archives to see how we survived in the Awka sector, which is the most terrible place in the front during the civil war, but I wouldn’t like to say what I have done. The commander, who supervised me, said I did what I had done more than an individual in my report. I wouldn’t like to put my own confidential report here.
The military recently took over power in Niger Republic. In your view, what does this development portend for the African continent?
Well, it is a sad commentary on us and developing democracies. It will appear as if some of the democratic leaders unfortunately, unlike Nelson Mandela, have refused to mature. You find a leader, after being Head of State for 10 years, thinks that he is the only one that can rule his own country. I believe in the system – multi-party democracy. I believe that it should be allowed and the most important thing is free and fair election and people must be allowed to vote for those who will lead them; that will represent them. But if there is no free and fair election, the democratic system can come and go.
Do you see that kind of development happening in Nigeria of today?
Well, you know somebody wanted to have a third term and what happened?
Some people insinuate that you don’t have a cordial relationship with General Ibrahim Babangida today. Is that right?
I don’t think they are right. Nigerians keep on saying that I don’t forgive and I don’t forget. It’s not true. With what I go through in life, if I refuse to forgive and forget, I think I would have been dead by now, but there are certain things I can forgive but cannot forget. What was the reason for being overthrown and after three years in detention, have you found anything wrong with me or my administration?
What is your philosophy of life?
Well, I believe in trying to do my best. I believe in praying to God very hard and I think a question of luck crosses in one’s life. There are people who try, no matter how hard, they will never succeed in life. I think I tried. I succeeded in many ways. One of my biggest successes, although it was an age of setback was that I reached the highest office in my country and I was so happy that nobody has ever found anything about my profession and personal integrity. I believe up to today, that there are people who look for my fault. I’m not perfect at all. No human being is perfect but all the offices I held, be it governor, petroleum, Head of State, PTF, not to talk of all the military commands –from platoon to division, nobody can bring anything on record that I have broken Nigerian law to the extent that I should be charged to court or by military authority. I think with all humility, that it is a great achievement.
What do you consider as your happiest moment in life?
I think part of it was the end of Nigerian civil war.
Why would you consider that your happiest moment?
Because we were stuck almost in a quick sense definition and it was then I was reflecting on United States with all its power, it was sent parking from Vietnam. Vietnam was not part of America but the South East or the Eastern region was part of Nigeria and we got stuck and I was thinking if America, with all the ammunition in the world, could not subdue a Third World country, can Nigeria save itself? And when the war was over, I was in Akwa. I was happy. I couldn’t see anything that made me happier in my life.
Considering your modest rendition of the activities of the civil war, why have you not written your memoir like other officers?
Well, because we served under different circumstances. For example, Gen. Obasanjo wrote a book about the Nigerian civil war. He was a very senior officer. He commanded the Army and was a very lucky officer. He took the surrender at the end of it on behalf of the nation. It was an exceptional luck, but there are some of us who started with a company on foot. We ended up commanding as many as a divisional group, 12 Infantry battalions. The Awka sector was the toughest sector of the war. I have a lot that I could write about but when the war ended, I was just a Major and don’t forget that there were Lieutenant Colonels; there were Colonels; there were Brigadiers; there were Major Generals; there were Lieutenant Generals ahead of me who commanded divisions. I think you should ask Gen. Danjuma why he has not written a book like that because they are the real people who directed the war and they knew much more about it. Go and ask Gen. Gowon, who was the Commander-in-Chief, but people like us were very junior but we were the real foot soldiers. We walked across the nation or the whole of the South East.
What’s your concept of leadership?
Well, I’m lucky I received military training. Leadership is sacrifice. It is social justice. A leader, in my view, will never think of short-changing the followers. The worst thing a leader can do, especially in a developing country, is misappropriation of public funds. You go out of my office, you go any direction, East or West, before you hit the main road, you will see children with plastic bowls or aluminium bowls begging for what to eat from morning till night in Nigeria, with what Nigeria has been getting in the last 10 years; a failed leadership that couldn’t organize society based on social justice. We are in a country now where only multi-millionaires can afford to see their children go through university. Look at the result of NECO last year. Ten per cent passed. WAEC, it was 23 per cent. This is a disgrace to Nigeria’s leadership. The best way we can do it is good education and the country can afford it, but the leadership is so busy doing other things rather than giving the correct priority to give the nation the structure for sustained development. Without good education, a nation is going nowhere.
Not much, if any, is known about you nuclear family. Is it deliberate?
Yes! I think it is deliberate. It is not very important. Why should I distract the attention of the nation because of my wife or my relative? Who brought me to the status that I was at that time? Who made me a commander from platoon upto division, 12th Battalion at Awka by the end of the civil war? Who made me a governor of North East, now six states? Who made me Minister of Petroleum? Who made me Head of State for 20 months? Who made me Chairman of PTF for five years and all that the PTF has done? I believe in democracy and social justice and I’ve said it so many times, democracy doesn’t even exist without free and fair election. It’s brigandage.
Why did you not consider it necessary, considering the Nigerian factor, to celebrate the office of the First Lady?
I don’t like that diversion. You have Ministry of Social Welfare or Women Affairs or Health. Any social service, you go and collect from it. You appoint a minister by the constitution. You budgeted for them and then you have a First Lady to do what? Run around all over the place, work out in the budget money for executive aircraft with crew and so on. If you put that money back into education or get better equipment for our tertiary institutions, we would have better teachers; we would have better laboratories and service. Okay, First Lady, go and see orphan homes, but there are ministries doing it. Allow those ministries to do it and allow the international donors to do it properly through the ministry where it can be monitored and audited. I don’t think we can afford this waste. Among the developed countries, which country do they have office of the First Lady and public funds sinking in billions of naira? Go and find out, as rich as they are. This is diversion for funds.
How many children do you have and wives?
I have nine living children. One died. My first wife died. I had five from my first wife – four girls and a boy and I have five from my second wife – four girls and boy.
Seeing what other past Heads of State have done in Minna, can you assess yourself as making positive impact on Daura?
I think I did. They were happy their son somehow became the leader of Nigeria but they did not expect me, for example, to build a refinery in Daura or even a filling station because I did not do it when I was in petroleum. When I was Head of State, they did not expect it. Luckily, nobody will go to Daura and say that while Buhari was there for 20 months, either he built a N10 billion house. No government has ever built a house for me. I haven’t done it for myself and nobody did it for me. The Daura people were very happy nobody has ever accused their son of stealing.
Considering your perceived rigidity in governance, how do you think you can cope in a democratic setting with all the checks and balances?
I don’t believe that democracy is a confusion. I wouldn’t have attempted to go and try to get leadership if I know it is a confusion. I think people deliberately bring confusion into democracy in order to materially benefit. For those who want to develop their country, democracy is the ideal food because of the checks and balances, but those checks and balances must be under severe scrutiny by the country’s elite. If you have a committee on power, you don’t start hearing an investigation and destroy the paper because probably, the committee has been compromised. No. They wanted people of integrity to get to legislature and they want them to play that role according to the constitution of the country. Now, an elite that failed to supervise the legislature as such, is a failed elite and I think Nigerian elite is becoming a failed elite.
There has always been political and religious tension between the North and the South and it leads to suspicion.
What’s your recipe for enduring peace and harmony for a better nation?
I don’t know. I think we have different perception on that. There haven’t been much religious intolerance between Muslims in the North or in the South. There is no division. I can’t agree on that. It is also the law itself. Look at the four crises in the Plateau between 1990 and 1991 and now. Look at the Boko Haram or Maitatsine. It is only in the North. Tell me one serious religious incident between the North and the South. Tell me one. There is hardly any. If you can recall, throughout our stay in office, the Western press was saying something about, just as they were saying about the Sudan, the Muslim North versus the Christian South. Up to date, I’m sure, perhaps, 85 per cent of the Nigeria military is Christian. For nine years, Gowon was the Head of State.
His second-in-command; the two of them were Christians. Idiagbon and I were Muslims from the North. No matter what you call it, when Abiola and Tofa contested people said, it is the best election that ever took place since independence. It was a Muslim – Muslim ticket. Whoever talked to you about Abiola and Kingibe being Muslims during that time? There is a lot of misconception about this Muslim/Christian thing in this country. If people are trying to hide their incompetence, they start introducing religious war, but they never bother to make a research and find out who are the biggest thieves in government. Were they Christians or are they Muslims? It is when they want the power to facilitate stealing, that is when they start talking about religion.
How would you describe your political ideology?
Honestly, if you had read my statement, when I presented myself to ANPP to make me a candidate and subsequently when I got the candidature, you will understand my stand. All I want is democracy, as described as a government of the people by the people, for the people and then social justice and the checks and balances in the constitution is what will facilitate the democratic credential and social justice. This is my philosophy. You educate a people, you allow them to choose who they want to lead them and you make sure you utilize the national resources most responsible for the development of the country. Look at what this country earned in 10 years. Look at the state of NEPA or Power Holding Company of Nigeria. We cannot fail to indict the Nigerian leaders along the line because they know that without power supply, the industries will collapse. When the industries collapse, you lose jobs; you lose goods and services. This is what is happening now. So, if there is any philosophy that will give you economic strength, we have already failed, no matter what people are saying. You have to give people jobs to earn a respectful life and then you have housing, education, healthcare, security, drinking water and this country can afford it. It is the leadership which is consistently being failing.
Have you groomed people to succeed you along this political and ideological line?
There are people I worked with in the military. There are people I worked along the line in the political development as a governor; in petroleum. Please, make research on the political activities of Muhammadu Buhari. It is a pity Tunde is dead, but he is not the only person that worked with me. I worked with people like the Managing Director of NNPC. Again, Sunday Awoniyi died. He was my Permanent Secretary. My Secretary to the Government in Borno State died as well as Abubakar Umar. But try and fish out those who worked with me and ask them. And I told you about our teamwork at NNPC. Respect professionals and encourage them to work. However, work harder to understand them because you are not an engineer of any discipline and you are asked to supervised an engineering ministry. You have to work so hard to understand them and, therefore, give correct political direction.
When you took over government in 1983, you crusaded for a patriotic Nigeria then. Do you still have the same fervour?
You know the reality yourself more than myself, because now you give me feedback because of your profession. You can be a nuclear physicist. If you go to United States, where you find a lot of Nigerians of that calibre, they give you your dollar bill but you’re still a black man and a Nigerian. It is here that even if you are a good vulcanizer, you can show yourself because it is your home. Nobody can move you out of it. This is your country but out there, you may have the money, you have a house, educate your children and so on but I assure you, go and try and know any of those people, their mind is back home, whether it is Aguleri, Awka, Daura or somewhere in Akwa Ibom. So, the most important thing is for Nigerian elite to convince themselves that they better do something about this country. It has all the resources within Nigeria. It is a question of administration. For goodness sake, let Nigerian elite apply it.
Why do you live and maintain such a low profile, unlike other Generals we have in this country?
Do you know how much obligation I have made that I should remain comfortable as I am?
It is generally observed that you live a modest lifestyle whereas even Generals after you and some who never got to such rank live in opulence.
I think the most comforting thing is for one to live within one’s resources. I have never been anywhere I lacked in my life, but I have never lived where I was wanting. I think I have modest requirements in life and I am fulfilled. I don’t want to have what I cannot account for. I don’t want to be embarrassed by anybody. There is no way in the company I commanded, the battalion I commanded, the troops I commanded, the brigade, I commanded, the division I commanded, for you to go and find out that soldiers allowances or whatever were diverted or misappropriated. I wouldn’t do it and anybody else who did it under me would have been court martialled. When I was the governor, nobody will say there was too much he bought, even when I was Head of State. In PTF, I was only taking allowance because I was on pension. I was not taking any salary in PTF. We were there for almost five years; so I have a very clear conscience.
So, how do you react to this story of $2.8 billion when you were Minister of Petroleum?
You see, somebody said $2.8 billion dollars was missing. Now, if you try to make any research, this is my problem with you Nigerian press. There is a shortage of investigative journalism. Somebody said $2.8 billion was missing and nobody tried to go and find out how much a barrel of crude was selling then and how much we were producing and what was our budget for those years? If you do it, you will find it impossible for the government to just steal $2.8 billion.
The governor of Central Bank then, may his soul rest in peace, Dr. Clement Isong, I think when I was in the United States of America War College, he was the only one as governor of Central Bank. He was being very careful because people were mobilized, almost like juntas, but he said then, if I can recall, that even the king of Saudi Arabia cannot go and write a cheque of $2.8 million and you withdraw it. That’s not the way the financial world works. And those days were the days when there was some order. What I mean is each agreement I signed for oil lifting, the cost of the crude will be written in the agreement.
That amount will be brought to the Federal Government of Nigeria account in New York or in Zurich. We had no excess crude account. Nothing. That money from there will go to Nigerian Central Bank after the Ministers’ Council memo. Those were the days of accountability. You can trace it anywhere. You don’t go and open excess crude account and ask crude money to go there. It wouldn’t go. It will only go to federation account because that is where you will trace it to know the agreement signed by Buhari. So I was not bothered. I was in war college. Even when they asked Shagari to bring me back because of Irikefe Judicial Inquiry. Irikefe was a justice of the Supreme Court, one of the most respected ones. When he asked the people, okay, you said $2.8 billion was missing, where is it? They said, “I heard it in molue.” This is irresponsible. You cannot damage people’s file or record by just opening your mouth because you feel you are Tai Solarin or Fela or Dr. Awoyobi, because people respect you socially, you come and destroy somebody’s credibility. Shagari told me, when I completed my tenure, that he told the late Makama
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