What I believe went wrong as at the time was the forcible nomination of a candidate by the governor of Plateau State under whose rule the state lost more lives and property since its creation in 1967. Some of us at that time thought that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) would have allowed all the candidates of the party to emerge and go through the primaries for the people to choose whom they wanted to represent them. I lost hope in the democratic practice where someone else will be selected over the choice of the people, so I quit PDP and decided to just stay quiet.
The convener of the North East Forum for Unity and Development (NEFUD), Alhaji Bello Kirfi, was reported to have called for the secession of the North from Nigeria, although some others elders disagreed with him. What do you make of this call, especially when considered against the background of the reported American Central Intelligence Agency´s (CIA’s) report predicting that there might be no country called Nigeria by 2015?
Let me say that you have raised two issues and that is the so-called prediction by an American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and secondly, the content of the outcome of the North East geo-political zone of the Northern Elders summit in Bauchi. For the latter issue, I want to say that I was not part of that meeting and I have not read the content or communiqué from the meeting and so, I cannot hold brief for the conveners of the conference. But suffice it to say that some youths of the Southern part of Nigeria have irresponsibly raised the issue of the Delta region seceding from the rest of Nigeria. So, if there is any truth in the report of the Northern Elders summit, it might be in response to the reckless comment of the Niger Delta youths. And I believe that it is as a result of that reckless comment that must have given vent to whatever might be coming from the North.
The President has consistently in the last nine months, in every address of his, maintained that nothing will cause Nigeria to break up. And if nothing else, he cannot be the variable at this point in the country’s history to be used to cause the break up of Nigeria. There have been those comments all over the place and anybody is free to want to make his comment heard.
With regards to comments from America, I addressed a conference of the armed forces about two years ago on the issue. It was just about the time President Olusegun Obasanjo was leaving office and the late President Umaru Yar’Adua was involved in his electioneering, when suddenly, there was an outburst of a prediction allegedly by the CIA that Nigeria would break up in 2015. Following the frenzy, I went to America to do an investigation and it has since revealed that there was no such prediction by the CIA. What emanated from the so-called CIA prediction could have been a sponsored research. There was a young man, an American student, who was working on his PhD programme. The research had to do with global peace, global economy, crises, diseases and global everything. In his research paper, a copy of which I obtained from the university and which I have in my library, he touched on America and a host of countries and continents.
What did he say about America? He said America would soon be destroyed by cancer because of the concentration of chemicals in their diets. Most of what the Americans eat synthetic-based food like vegetables, meats and other dairy products. For instance, it is no longer a thing of surprise to find that a two-month-old broiler being consumed. Eggs are no longer naturally laid by chickens but genetically modified. So, that was that young man’s research on America. When it was the turn of Africa, the young man decided to narrow his research down to Nigeria and Kenya, but with emphasis more on Nigeria. What he set out to say is almost coming to pass with regards to the US and China. China today may be pretending to be feeding themselves, but in actual sense, they cannot feed themselves. They are all over the continent of Africa today looking for farmlands to farm and ship back to their people. And that was exactly what the young PhD student was saying in his thesis.
In the case of Nigeria, all he was saying was that the country was a very powerful sub-regional country in west of Africa. He said Nigeria has managed to take up the responsibility of the security of the sub-region in the ECOWAS and the ECOMOG. And next to Nigeria would have been Egypt, but it has been bastardised because of its involvement in the Middle East crises. Next to Nigeria also, as an emerging power is South Africa.
On Nigeria, he tried to publish from the result of the World Health Organisation research on HIV/AIDS epidemic and concluded that if we did not do anything about it to control the scourge and its spread, the country will lose so much of its population. And if Nigeria loses so much of its population, then the Nigerian armed forces would also be depleted and so, by a certain period, if the situation is not properly handled, the country will not be able to perform the sub-regional watch-dog it is known for today. He also dealt with corruption and so many things that had to do with Nigeria.
But some mischievous Nigerians just took one line from the thesis and went to town with it. It is akin to those who never read Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, only to be the first to go to the streets in protest against the book. I have read the book three times and I can tell you that unless you studied English or literature, you cannot understand what the author is talking about. Yet people who never went to school started carrying placards on the streets. Unfortunately, our politicians decided to just pick up one line from the thesis and went to town that the CIA predicted that there will be no country called Nigeria by 2015. It was purely an outcome of a research work by a university student. The CIA never predicted anything of that kind.
What will make Nigeria to be no more is the inability of our leaders to handle some of the security issues and other challenges confronting us as a nation and blaming them on others. That is why when a man has a problem in Kano, he blames it on the President. When there is a problem in Jos, he blames it on religion and when there is a problem in the Delta region, it is blamed on Abuja. There is a growing tendency that when something happens in your state, you look for a scapegoat somewhere to hang it on.
With due respect to the Yoruba, they have the most learned Islamic clerics in West Africa today. Do you find any religious crisis in the region? My answer is no! The reason why there is no religious tension in the South West is because of the high degree of literacy. The Yoruba respect each other’s right to religion. That explains why they inter-marry and still practise their different religions. While the Yoruba can fight and set themselves ablaze if it has to do politics, they will definitely not disagree and go to war on the basis of religion. That says a lot about their level of sophistication. The North is not more Islamic than the Yoruba. Whenever there are Christian festivities like Christmas or Easter, you will find their Moslem brothers and sisters celebrating with them and vice versa. Why is this not obtained in the North? The reason is simple, illiteracy.
The crisis in the Northern Nigeria today is illiteracy. This has fuelled much of the trouble plaguing the region. As we speak, I am yet to find a professor of Islamic Religion from the North. There is none. Knowledge is grossly lacking and illiteracy stalks the region like an incubus.
There is one Bishop Josiah Fairon of the Anglican Communion, Lokoja, an ex-military school boy. He was my junior in the military school. He holds PhDs in different areas of studies including Islamic religion. Yet he is a Christian cleric. He can discuss the Koran with the Sultan of Sokoto on an equal footing and knowledge. The Catholics also have a man who is well learned in Islamic knowledge in the person of Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah, the Bishop of Sokoto. He is a Master’s degree holder in Islamic Religion. This is an addition to the PhD he holds. The truth is that once Nigerians realise that there is value in education and pursue it vigorously, we will understand ourselves better.
The North is today believed to be at cross purposes with one another or a region of a babel of voices, leading to the argument whether there still exists what was once a monolithic North. Was there ever such a bloc and if so, what may have gone wrong?
I am now 70 years old. And I am old enough to be able to understand and to have seen the politics of Nigeria, the politics of the North and other parts of the country. By 1960, I was already a young man standing on a parade ground to be part of the Nigerian armed forces that ushered in Nigerian independence on October 1, 1960. So, one has seen and heard a little bit of what it used to be.
There is one question we need to ask ourselves and that is, why is it that from 1953 till date, the Middle Belt decided to have a voting relationship, a political relationship with the South West? There was the United Middle Belt Congress/Action Group, a relationship which started in 1953, yet there was Northern Nigeria. The situation will be likened to what I described earlier in the Delta region, the Isaac Boro uprising of 1964. The youths of the Middle Belt of the early 40s and 50s believed that they were not being adequately carried along in terms of involvement in the administration. So, they discovered that in the South West, there was value, knowledge and understanding. But in the late 50s and early 60s, when Sarduana discovered the move by that geo-political zone, what he did was to get closer to the Middle Belt and he found out what was likely to be a revolution that would take part of the North to align with either the South West or the South East. When he discovered what the problem was, he drew the leadership of the Middle Belt in people like the late Joseph Tarkar, Paul Unongo, the late Sunday Awoniyi, Abdulraman Okene, among others, closer to him.
Having brought them closer to himself, he decided to send them to universities outside Nigeria to acquire more education and come back to form a very good link between their communities and the administration of Northern Nigeria. That was how he handled the issue and that was why a lot of the Middle Belters respected the late Sarduana. Even though he was a Moslem, he was the leader of the North who respected everybody and treated everyone equally until the coup of 1966 consumed him. His most trusted person was his principal private secretary, the late Sunday Awoniyi, a Christian. Each time the late Sarduana travelled to Israel, he would buy the latest version of the Bible for Awoniyi. He would tell Awoniyi: ‘Your God is a good God. Stay close to Him’. There was nothing people didn’t do for Sarduana to sack Awoniyi because he was not following him to the mosque on Fridays. But the Sarduana said no, because he felt there was one God and there is still one God and there shall be one God. So, when I hear people speak about monolithic North, I come to the conclusion that it is used for cheap acceptability.
Since 1967, when Gowon decided to break northern Nigeria into six states with six more from the South, bringing it to 12 states and subsequent state creation, each state has been ruling itself. So, the so-called monolithic North will not arise again. Only leaders who lack the initiative will want to go on hanging onto something which no longer exists. Even though others may think differently, that is what I think. I was a Minister for Internal Affairs for five years and I was the first Christian to be in that ministry for five years. The point I am making is that for those five years, I was the chairman of the inter-religious committee and I made sure that through dialogue and understanding, the North and the South West observed Sallah on the same day. Until 1985, the North would not accept the sighting of the moon of the South West. So, there were two Sallahs and different Sallah holidays. It took a lot of understanding to manage the situation. We need that kind of understanding today.
When Izalla Moslem sect wanted to create problems in 1982/83/84, no one knew who they were and the only way we could destroy the Maitasine sect was to acknowledge that there was a sect called Izalla. We recognised Izalla and we gave them a certificate and told them that they could practise but they should make sure that JNI and CAN knew who they were. When we did that, Maitasine disappeared. The Izalla was fighting for recognition and as soon as they did that, they sheathed their sword. They have their headquarters in Jos which is a Christian state. So there is value in respecting people and knowing their worth. Again when in 1987, there was this big religious crisis in Northern Nigeria and I was made the chairman of Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), I had the responsibility to handle the issue and I worked with people from other religions.
I remember then that we were desirous to be in the OIC, but the timing was wrong. We said since we were still suspicious of one another, it was better we pulled out and return to the status quo as an observer country. That was the decision at the time. But the question is, who launched Nigeria into an observer status of the OIC? It was General Yakubu Gowon (rtd), who was a Christian head of state and I saw nothing wrong with it because as human beings, we must recognise the existence of each other.
If OIC was handled the way you explained it, why was it alleged to have caused the resignation of the former Chief of General Staff, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe (rtd), from the IBB-led military junta?
What happened then was high level politics which I am incompetent to speak on. That was not the reason. Unfortunately, Gen. Sani Abacha is now late, but if he were still alive, then he could contradict me. What happened was that there was conflict as to who truly should be number two and it had nothing to do with the OIC. Ukiwe, as the Chief of General Staff, was the number two, that is second in command to Babangida, but Sani Abacha would never recognise him as number two. He believed that as the Chief of Defence Staff, he should have been number two. So that was the high level politics that was going on then. Ukiwe lost out because something happened, and it is that something that you should investigate.
Was that what obtained in previous military regimes before your time, lack of respect for hierarchy?
The answer is no, which was why I said that at that time, there was crisis of leadership. You can go as far back to Gowon’s regime. He had just spent a few hundred days then and there was confusion as to whether his regime would survive or not, because of the killings in the North and part of the West, so there was that lack of confidence. When Gen. Gowon was in the saddle, the number two man would have been Brig. Ogundipe. But he gave an order to a corporal to do something and the corporal told him that he could not take orders from him. Immediately he told Gowon that he could not be his number two, since an ordinary corporal could tell him that he could not take orders from him. So Gowon sent him as High Commissioner to London. Again, when the cloud surrounding that administration settled, Gowon then took the next most senior military officer, Admiral Akinwale Wei. So, there was respect for hierarchy. When the late Gen. Murtala Muhammed took over as head of state, he took the most senior military officer as his deputy, that was Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. When Murtala was assassinated and Obasanjo took over, the next most senior was not Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. It was Theophilus Danjuma. But Theophilus said since Murtala was assassinated, it would be better to give the position of number two to someone from the region where Murtala came from to assure them that the administration meant no harm. That was why I said that Abacha and Ukiwe’s situation was peculiar. Ukiwe is alive, so he can speak for himself. The highest sense of discipline was observed throughout the military administration and especially under IBB. If there was none, there would have been no way that IBB would have dismissed a colonel for refusing to account for N300,000 travelling allowance that he collected.
The North appears to be opposed to the inclusion of the six geo-political zonal structure in the constitution. Is there anything the region is afraid of?
Unfortunately for the North, the six geo-political zonal structure is in the military decree. It will be interesting to know the particular individuals that are sharing these extremist views. You can’t say that all the 19 Northern governors will be speaking with one voice. It is not true. Plateau State may not share in that. If the Delta region fought for self-governance to the extent that they carried arms in 1964 and today they have three states, Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers, why should someone wake up and say that they must go back to former Eastern Nigeria? Is it possible? If the Middle Belt, the United Middle Belt Front and the Borno Youth Movement which did not also want to believe that they belonged to the Hausa/Fulani groups, because the Borno Empire believes that they are more Muslims to the core than the Hausa/Fulani who were conquered by Usman Dan Fodio. That problem still exists; hence the Shehu of Borno would not accept 100 per cent the authority of the Sultan over him. Is the person advocating for a return to the old regional structure speaking the minds of everyone? These are conflicting issues. That is why we have to understand the standpoint of whoever is commenting on an issue.
As former ECOWAS Commander, you put your life on the line to bring about peace in the West Africa sub-region- Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and other troubled spots in Africa. How does it make you feel to be described as a commander who ensured peace for others but has no peace in his own homestead?
Well, I have always admitted before the media that I share in the shame of Plateau for three reasons: having served my country and other parts of Africa all my live, ensuring that there was peace in Liberia, Rwanda, Angola, there is no peace in my own home, which is Plateau State. It is quite a shame. The second reason is that the man who administers the state today, Governor Jonah Jang is a retired colleague of mine in the armed forces where you would think the highest discipline and respect for human lives should be sacred and therefore would have been called to order by his GOC or the president, were he still in the armed forces, yet he appears clueless and helpless and cannot be called to order. It is a thing of shame.
The third reason is, as a Christian who is God-fearing and who believes in the faith I uphold, that human live is sacred, and yet I see lives and property being destroyed and I cannot do anything about it, all in the name of democracy. So I also share in the shame.