In this interview, a former military governor of Kaduna State, Col. Abubakar Umar, comments on burning national issues and tells the untold story of the June 12 election annulment, in this interview with GODWIN OFULUE
What do you think is the cause of the Boko Haram insurgency?
In discussing Boko Haram, I will talk of the general insecurity in the country. Everything is happening in other countries and Nigeria is facing its security challenges; Boko Haram insurgency, kidnapping, robbery, oil theft, Niger Delta militancy, phenomenal piracy on our seas and youth restiveness. And a new development, which we are not paying attention to is the Fulani herdsmen/farmers clashes that are engulfing the northern part of Nigeria. Cattle stealing has led to many deaths in that part of the country. These are the major security issues affecting the country; they are responsible for the seeming inability to deal decisively with the challenges. It is difficult to know how to solve a problem if one doesn’t know the cause.
In the case of Boko Haram, for example, it is very difficult to understand the inspiration of their dastardly acts. What could have made a person approach some people to engage in the killing of innocent school kids? Why are innocent people being slaughtered? Where is the religious justification for throwing bombs at churches and mosques; killing and maiming worshippers? Such acts are senselessness and irrational. There are some supporters of President Goodluck Jonathan who believe that the Boko Haram insurgency is the creation of some northern politicians, claiming that they threatened to make the country ungovernable for the President; that it’s the punishment for his failure to abide by the Peoples Democratic Party’s zoning agreement, which denied the North the presidency. There was war during his (Jonathan) completion of late President Musa Yar’Adua’s tenure and you’ll agree that this war still persists, with the heavy impact of the insurgency of the socio-economic life, particularly in the north-eastern part of Nigeria where there has been a state of emergency in the past six months.
There are some northern politicians who benefit from the insurgency that has taken the live of a respected elder like Gen. Shuwa; almost led to the assassination of Shehu of Borno and the Emir of Kano. Also, there are some northern politicians who claim that Boko Haram is non-existent; that if anything, the Jonathan administration can be using security agents to tackle them so that he can continue to rule beyond 2015. With all these senseless killings, it is difficult to achieve a unity of purpose in the fight against the insurgency.
When you take the issue of the Niger Delta militancy, the struggle started with the agitation for clean environment and equitable distribution of petroleum resources. But it was hijacked by criminal elements, whose major motive was personal enrichment; oil bunkering, pipeline bursting, which led to further degradation of the environment. The Niger Delta youths also moved into piracy and oil theft. One can generalise by saying that our security challenges are as a result of corruption at the centre. For example, most of the Boko Haram members are youths that could have been valuable to the country; they have nothing to aspire to and nothing to lose. As James Baldwin rightly observed, the most dangerous person is he who has nothing to lose. When we say there is so much deprivation, anger, insecurity, and we find them very strange, the Boko Haram members are used to it. It is a way of life to them, which they want to fight. When we look at the Niger Delta militants, they were chaps that were unemployed and they watched helplessly how their oil resources were being cornered by irresponsible, greedy, reckless and immodest elites. When they (militants) saw the kind of structures in Abuja, they envied the elites who had such structures and resorted to self help through militancy, oil theft and so on. Of course, in our kind of democracy, about 70 per cent of our oil revenue is devoted to recurrent expenditure; it is devoted to indolent public servants, 85 per cent of which is for salaries and allowances of members of the National Assembly. You remember that (the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria) Lamido Sanusi had to confront the lawmakers.
What is the solution to all these?
The solution is good governance. Our politicians should be more responsible and bring down the level of corruption. No country can survive with the prevailing rot in Nigeria. It is a major cause for concern. Unfortunately, all our efforts at confronting the security challenges are breeding more insecurity in the sense that if we deploy security forces, especially at the roadblocks, they demand and accept bribes and let you go. When you look at the number of security operatives doing this, you see that it is going to be very difficult to address the security challenges.
For the northern part of the country, some people believe that building more Almajiri schools will stamp out insurgency. Do you agree?
Of course, no. It is not just enough to go to school; when you go to school, you also need to find employment. They say idle mind is the devil’s workshop – it is good to send them to school, they will be enlightened and understand the message of government. But if they cannot be gainfully employed, then what you would have succeeded in educating them in is the tricks being deployed by public servants to enrich themselves. I don’t believe that establishing Almajiri schools is the solution to our problems per se. It is a misconception of the situation in the country. Poverty is in all sections and parts of this country. While you find the Almajiris in the North, you’ll find kidnappers in the South. There are areas where there is prevalence of prostitution and other anti-social behaviours. Let us first look at poverty holistically; it is only in the North. Northern leaders keep crying (poverty) because they want more resources to accrue to the North. When you look at the Fulani herdsmen/farmers clash, I expect the northern governors to sit and look at ways of creating game reserves for the Fulani. As long as you allow them to continue to walk about indiscriminately, there will be conflicts.
Northern states governors should do what has been done before; they should provide more graving lands for herdsmen. Also, I was listening to a commissioner in Plateau State who was expressing his helplessness in providing security for the Fulani because, according to him, it was very difficult for security forces to access the places the herdsmen were. That is a very weird thinking. Security personnel should be able to penetrate all the nooks and crannies of the country. When you look at kidnappings, robberies and oil thefts, they’re all about this culture of get-rich-quick-by-all-mean, which was created by the political leaders.
Recently, the United States of America designated Boko Haram and Ansaru as terrorist groups and Federal Government welcomed it. Would it solve the problem?
I don’t know what America planned to do with that declaration. If it means supporting the Federal Government in the fight against the insurgency, of course, I will welcome the development. I know that the US has the resources and means to engage in war against insurgency. If that is the idea, then, it is a welcome development.
Many people believe that a national conference is the solution to our problems, including insecurity. What is your take on this?
With all the noise for and against the convocation of a national conference or whatever name it is called, there is a need to hold one, to satisfy the yearning of its proponents and to disabuse the minds of those that believe that the conference would lead to disintegration. I have never been a proponent of the national conference for the fact that past conferences have done nothing to ensure good governance. I have yet to see a better mode of representation than the elected members of the National Assembly. All the federating units are represented at the Assembly. If these representatives cannot do what the conference would do – to sit and discuss pressing issues like resource control, power sharing, that will amount to a constitution amendment. The constitution has a provision for how it is to be amended. This is to be done by the National Assembly that has the representatives of all the federating units.
The problem in Nigeria is that our leaders have refused to apply the good provisions of the constitution and they will turn around to blame it all on the constitution. They want to create a new constitution but unless they have the right attitude to implement the new constitution, the constitution will still fail.
I think there is the need for the general public to ensure we elect the right leadership to ensure oversight functions. We should hold our leaders to account. People stand against white elephant projects like the international airport being constructed in Kebbi State.
What’s your attitude to the agitation for power shift to the North?
When you talk of power shift, I don’t believe in it because there has been no evidence that it benefits the people. If you take the North, for instance, there is no sign that power has ever been in the region. When people talk of poverty, the people in the North are the most wretched; when people talk of education, the North is the most disadvantaged, yet the region held power for years. So, if this power does any good to a region, the North won’t suffer any deprivation today. I think what power shift does is that it is dangerously dividing Nigeria along ethnic lines. The politicians are pursing power shift as long as it satisfies their personal interest, it has nothing to do with the well-being of the people.
What then should be the right approach?
What I think is that power should reside with good people and good people abound in all parts of this country. I want to appeal to our politicians to desist from pursuing their narrow personal interest by agitating for power shift, thereby heating up the polity. They need to remember that many lives were lost to preserve the unity of this great country.
How would you score the Federal Government in terms of tackling insecurity in the land?
President Goodluck Jonathan should be treated as a war-time President. He needs the support and cooperation of all well-meaning Nigerians. This is no time for destructive political campaigns. Stakeholders should take cognisance of the fact that conflicts have dire consequences on the country. Then the President should show maturity and magnanimity in dealing with people and issues. Whatever the situation, it will be nice to see the President, in his next trip abroad, go with governors like Rotimi Amaechi and other persons in the opposition.
Talking about scoring, I’ll score the Jonathan government high up in its effort at tackling security challenges. Tackling security challenges can drown a whole government. He has done so well. If not for the security forces, the whole of Nigeria today would have been overrun by the Boko Haram insurgency. So, it is no mean achievement that this is not happening.
And on the war against corruption…
I think the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission must act decisively. When they arrested Sule Lamido’s children on account of money laundering, this kind of thing should go round the children of other governors. The agency should not create the impression Sule Lamido is being targeted because he is a member of the opposition.
Some Nigerians see Gen. Muhammadu Buhari as the messiah that will liberate Nigeria from all her woes. How do you perceive him?
No doubt, Gen. Buhari has a pedigree. There is no doubt also that he has the requisite for leadership. For example, he vigorously fought against corruption. This is one reason why he has remained a favourite to many Nigerians. But it will be unfair to a country of over 150 million people to think that only one person has a monopoly of such trait.
I will stress that being a successful president will take more than the ability to prosecute and send offenders to jail; it requires both character and intellectual capacity. What Nigeria requires is zero tolerance for corruption as well as the intellectual capacity to understand very complex issues and be able to make the right decisions and follow up with implementation. To lead a complex, heterogeneous country like Nigeria, we need a consensus builder.
Your reactions so far stand you out as a highly detribalised Nigerian. What informs your broad-mindedness?
First, I thank God for the kind of family I come from. It taught me to see humanity rather than dissect human being into tribes or religions. I was brought to see common humanity that we share. What I wish for an Hausa man I wish for a Yoruba and an Igbo man.
Of course, there is also the military training. I doubt if any military officer, a regular combatant officer, will want to discriminate on the basis of religion or tribe. A true soldier does not discriminate.
Now to military matters. Politicians easily blame Nigeria’s woes on military rules in the country.Would you agree with them?
You should ask Nigerians if they are better off under politicians or under the military in the level of corruption, insecurity and other aspects of governance. It is Nigerians that should answer that question. Nigerians should judge, not politicians.
As a former governor of Kaduna State (August 1985 – June 1988), can you boast of any legacy you left behind?
When you talk of legacy, what readily comes to mind is structures, infrastructure but enduring legacy is far more than that. What Nelson Mandela is being celebrated for today are not the roads or airports he built in South Africa, he is remembered for liberating South Africa from apartheid. During my administration, I was able to win the minds of the Southern Kaduna indigenes and I made sure we removed discrimination in whatever form. That was exactly my achievement. Peace prevailed.
You were opposed to the annulment of the June 12 election; what informed your position?
When I was appointed a military governor in 1985 by the Ibrahim Babangida administration, he told me that if I found anything wrong, I should not hesitate to let him know. So, when he announced the transition-to-civil rule programme, I counselled that he should ensure that the date he fixed was sacrosanct, the date should not be changed under any circumstance. Soon after the announcement in January 1986, things started unfolding. To cut the long story short, by 1992, the primaries were about to be annulled, I wrote a letter to IBB that the election was losing credibility, that there was the need to hurry up and handover.
By December 1992, at the Chief of Army Staff Conference, I raised the issue under other matters that since we were being embarrassed, there was the need to conclude the transition programme. Gen. Sani Abacha asked me to see him in his house. I went to Abacha’s house in company of the current National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki. What General Abacha told me then was that they were all eager to see that power was handed over to civilian administration but it looked like IBB was dilly-dallying, that he didn’t want to go. But what I discovered later was that that was not correct. Anyway, we moved to the June 12 election. When the primaries of the two parties(National Republican Convention and Social Democratic Party) that was created by IBB held, and Moshood Abiola and Bashir Tofa emerged candidates, I kept putting pressure on IBB to conclude the transition and hand over but Abacha kept telling me that IBB was not committed to the election and that we should keep putting pressure on him. I kept going to IBB and he kept assuring me he was on course.
About two weeks to the election, IBB called to say that some military boys were putting pressure on him not to hand over because the Structural Adjustment Programme had not achieved results and Nigeria was in a precarious situation.
In the meantime, Abacha was saying if IBB did not hand over after the June 12 election, we should move against him, topple him and hand over to whoever wins the election.
The election was held, we realised Abiola was going to win, I dashed to Abuja, met with the chairman of the electoral commission. He told me he had received 22 states and it looked like Abiola was coasting home to victory. I pleaded with him to ensure that he announced the results. Abacha invited me. He told me that IBB would not allow the results to be announced. He said we should go ahead, topple him and hand over to the winner. He sent me on a wild goose chase; he said I should get the army boys ready for any eventuality. Of course, I went round the country, we got our boys ready. What was agreed was that the person that would announce the overthrow of Babangida would announce the result of the elections and hand over to the winner. We got all the boys in all the regional headquarters ready. Abacha said he was going to call the GOCs to let them know that the military had decided to let the winner of the June 12 to take over.
On the eve of the coup, we went for a coordinating conference, all the boys were alerted. The conference had current NSA, Col Dasuki, Col Gwadabe among other officers to coordinate the last minute of the take-over. Gen. Abacha was to join us later but he failed to appear. An officer asked me which appointment I would like to take in the new government. I replied, ‘Which government? I was told that Abacha had decided to take over power for six months before handing over to Abiola. I told them that was a very dangerous development and that I would not partake in such a plan. We reached a deadlock and I decided to go and confront Gen. Abacha. Around nine in the night, I went to Abacha’s house and I met him alone. I asked him why he changed the plan. I told him that the only reason I joined in the plot was to hand over to Abiola immediately. I told him that I knew that any coup against Babangida was like a suicide mission but I decided to join even at the cost of my life because I wanted Nigerians to know I was not part of the annulment that would plunge the country into crisis. I told him we should continue with our earlier plan. He said the problem was that Abiola could not control the country with all the problems. I told him that whatever happened I would not partake in a coup that would bring him to power.
While I was talking with him, Gen. Ahmed Abdulahi appeared. I told him that I was out of the plan. I left and radioed all those we put on the standby and told them that the coup plan had been terminated, that we were not going to continue. I told senior officers that Abacha was only trying to hoodwink us.
When that plot failed, Abacha and some other officers convinced IBB to step aside but that he should leave some trusted officers, to work with an interim government to stabilise the polity. That way, the coast was left free for Abacha to have his way.