A former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon (retd) in this interview with SUCCESS NWOGU says if those that took over from his government had continued with his programme, Nigeria would have been more developed than China, among other issues
Is national conference/dialogue desirable now?
Yes! What is wrong with Nigerians trying to talk about the nation? But I hope it is not being engineered by those who have a set of ideas, who will be doing all the talking and trying to dictate the tempo of the conference? If the national conference or dialogue is done for the good of the country, everyone goes in there to say, ‘yes it is our country and we want our country to be greater and more successful than it is at the moment.’ If there is total love and commitment to the country, let us try to talk and bring in things we
think should be able to help the country to be even better than what it is now and the sort of way we hope it will be in the future. If that is the approach, God will bless. To the young generation, who are calling for that, I will say they are the ones to do the building.
It is advisable that the outcome of the national dialogue be subjected to a referendum or that it should be submitted to the National Assembly for ratification as President Goodluck Jonathan has said.
Some people are calling for the disintegration of Nigeria, how would you react to this, given the fact that you fought actively for the unity of the country?
That is their view. Democracy says people should have their views. Let them have their views and I respect their views. But it may appear that they are misguided. Of course, the disintegration or break-up of Nigeria is not the wish and desire of the majority of Nigerians. Most Nigerians love this country and would want the country to remain united. A lot of things and sacrifices have been made to keep Nigeria united. The civil war was fought to keep Nigerians as one. God has made this country a very beautiful one and has graciously blessed us with incredible and tremendous potentials , both human and material resources. We would be better off as a united, indivisible and happy country than breaking up the country. There is no need for that.
Whatever genuine misgivings or agitations of some people can be addressed peacefully, equitably and justly, there is no need for the country to disintegrate. We should remain one indivisible great country and contribute our own quota to nation-building and make Nigeria realise her lofty dreams and aspirations of greatness and happiness for the residents.
I was reading an article by a columnist in one of the daily national newspapers. The columnist said he was against ‘this morbid desire of the unity of the country.’ So I responded, ‘what a morbid idea from a morbid fellow to say he does not like Nigeria. He is probably one of those who wanted to break away but those who love Nigeria as Nigerians made sure that it did not happen. And he is now hoping that he can now get it through such writing.’ It is unfortunate. However, that is his point of view and he probably has reasons. He may be one of those, who want either a state of his own or a country of his own and not Nigeria.
Probably he does not like Nigeria because he has not got what he wants out of Nigeria but if he is able to get what he wants in Nigeria, he would not call for its disintegration.
Just like I believe that if Ojukwu had the opportunity of being the Head of State instead of me, I can assure you that he would have done everything humanly possible to ensure that Nigeria does not break up so that he could control and enjoy from the great endowment that God has given to Nigeria, both human and natural resources, which if we are able to harness, as we tried to do during the programme of my administration with reference to the National Development Plan (1975-1980), Nigeria will be a great nation and the residents well taken care of.
Does it mean that if the National Development Plan of your administration had been successfully and completely executed, there would have been tremendous development and transformation of the country?
If that programme was successfully carried through, it would have made a total difference in Nigeria. All the problems of infrastructure that we are having today, is it power, petroleum, fuel, road, and economic development; all these were planned and provided for, for we had a plan which I had already told my Minister for Economic Development at the time: ‘Now that we have completed our third National Development Plan and put on ground how to execute them to the letter, I want you to start thinking and planning for the next development plan.’ I wanted him to ensure that the new national plan should be 100 per cent greater that the very big plan that we were launching. It was accepted world over as one of the most ambitious developmental projections or plan. If it had been carried through, it would have been a different story for Nigeria.
Yes, Malaysia, Indonesia, India are advancing now, probably it is only China that has achieved the sort of growth that Nigeria was being expected to have at that time, the growth of between 12 and 15 per cent for the foreseeable future in 1975. The Asian Tigers only achieved between eight and 10 per cent in 1975.
You mean if that plan had been carried out, we would have been greater than the Asian Tigers?
That was what it meant. But unfortunately, there was a coup d’état; a change of guard. There was a coup and unfortunately the government that took over from me did not carry through the plan, which if they were able to carry through, they would have been inaugurating one project after the other; employment would not have been any problem for Nigeria. But they abandoned the whole thing and were only adopting one programme here and there, which really did not help Nigeria to grow the way it would have grown.
We wanted the economy to grow in a correct fashion and I can assure that our plan really was aimed at doing that. And all the problems we had would not have been if they had executed our plan. If they had said, ‘He had done a huge and successful programme, let us show him that we have greater idea and sense than he had’ and probably, they would have done something bigger than what we planned. But remember I had already said we would start another plan which I wanted to be 100 per cent bigger. The only thing is, ‘would we have been able to have a 100 per cent’ but whatever it is, reality of the time would have made us to get it to a level that was acceptable and practicable and achievable at that time.
What was it that you couldn’t fix as the Head of State that you are striving to fix through your programme, Nigeria Prays?
Nigeria Prays came about in the mid-1990s during the time that Nigeria was having very bad media reports worldwide. The 419 syndrome; you had the CBS 60 minutes programmes that said that Nigerians were corrupt and criminals, and that Nigerians were financial crooks. Nigeria had it bad politically. Of course, that was the period of National Democratic Coalition versus Abacha. There was the problem of security at that time. So it was during that time I got an invitation to attend the American prayer breakfast.
During the visit, we met a lot of Nigerians, who were also invited; Nigerians who were in America and were invited to the prayer breakfast. They were delighted seeing us and, of course, they asked questions about the Nigeria they heard about from the foreign press, terrible things that they had heard about Nigeria, giving the impression that Nigeria might not even survive the weekend.
So it made some of us to ask the question: What are these Nigerians talking about? Has something happened in Nigeria within 72 hours that we left Nigeria? The story of Nigeria was as bad as that, it made Nigerians in the United States feel so bad and worried about their country but we gave them the assurance that the nation was intact and that there was no threat to it.
They asked the question: ‘what can we do to help?’ We discussed the idea of Nigeria Prays; that if we can get Nigerians to pray and to pray fervently, God may hear our prayers as he promised to hear the prayers of his people when he told King Solomon in 2nd Chronicle 7:14; that ‘if my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sins, and will heal their land.’
So if you pray fervently, God may hear your prayers, heal you and heal your land. That was the decision that we took. It was a decision taken by all of us who discussed that issue in the United States and they later-on made me to be the chairman of the Nigeria Prays. Although, it is called my vision, I will say it is Nigerian vision. If Nigerians cooperate at anytime, you can be assured that they can achieve the greatness that they want or desire.
How can Nigerians tackle the challenges before the nation?
If we can get Nigerians to pray, and as we pray act correctly, we will get the intervention we need from God.
When I came back to Nigeria and got people to talk about the Nigeria Prays project, it was accepted that it would be good and we started it on October 1 after telling the Head of State (General Sani Abacha) that we were going to have this movement and he endorsed it and blessed and even challenged us to also get the Muslims to join in the prayer.
We agreed then that if we could not have joint prayers like we do in the military, Muslims and Christians should decide to do it the best way that; the Muslims praying on Fridays during Jumat prayer and then Christians praying during any day of the week. Now it seems that we have adopted Sunday as our day of prayer. But the Muslims will tell you, especially the Emirs will tell you, that it is not only on Fridays that they pray for Nigeria, they say they pray five days, seven days a week, so many weeks in the month and so many months in the year.
The Christians have the injunction to pray without ceasing. So, it seems that the two religions are really up and about to pray.
Certainly, ours is a very religious country but for the aberration of the Boko Haram sect members, which is claiming to be Muslims but certainly they are not the sort of Muslims that we know. This is a new group that is even against formal education, which is certainly very sad. This is because with education, you are able to broaden your mind and understand and be able to achieve understanding of one another and resolving your problem not through religious sentiments but through rational discourse with your colleagues.
What are the challenges you faced in your effort to address Nigeria’s problems?
The Nigeria Prays started in earnest and we were able to go round the whole states of the federation up to the time there was a change in government when Abacha died and Abdulsalami took over and then started his own transition. Abacha had had a transition that was to make him the President and he had the support of all the political parties at the time but the good Lord intervened for the sake of Nigeria.
We prayed to God for Nigeria, for its peace, unity, stability and well-being and not for our own personal selfish way but we prayed to Him to give us a solution that He thinks is in the best interest of Nigeria.
Does it mean you believe that Abacha’s death was God’s solution to the problem Nigeria had then?
I can assure you that we never prayed for the death of the Head of State. In fact, we prayed for God to grant him wisdom to do the right thing for the country. What he told me was that prayer was good and that he endorsed it and gave us support for it. Then I knew that he could listen to words of advice that one could give him on any issue. But what the good Lord did was that, at that time, one of the serious political problems we had was Abacha/Abiola, the June 12 crisis. What happened then was that the good Lord took Abacha and paved the way for a return to civil rule and that was to give opportunity for the release of Abiola. Then Abiola, who was also at the other end of the crisis also passed on and therefore left the path free for a reasonable, genuine restoration and return to a civil rule.
That was achieved through some of the prayers that we did but we did not ask the good Lord for anyone’s demise. Ours is to pray for our leaders so that they can do the right thing for the country. Many other things that happened; the admonition and appeal to the people, were able to change the path of uncertainty to some positive end. You can see that when you look at the various issues, this is what we have been able to achieve. Our prayer and effort are aimed at getting all Nigerians to continue to love their country, to continue to love one another, to continue to help one another irrespective of your tribe, religion, faith or belief. The Christian community listens and tries to practise the admonition that we give them, contributing therefore to the peace and unity of the country. At the rally we had, we did fervent prayers. Do you think that with that sort of prayer and the way people believe in their country and love their country and want it to stay united and peaceful, do you think anything can happen in 2015?
Do you have regrets fighting for the unity of Nigeria?
I can assure you that fighting for Nigeria is stilll what I am doing now through the church, fighting for the progress and unity of Nigeria. I was doing it as a general, then a general politician but now I am doing it in the church.
How can Nigerians bring out the best from their leaders?
Of course, you pray for the leaders. I was talking to you about Abacha earlier on. I said for all our leaders, you pray to God to grant them the wisdom, the courage and in fact the spirit to do the right thing for the country and for the people; not to think of themselves but the genuine well-being of the country, listening to any good advice and also making sure that God will give you the sort of wisdom that Solomon asked God for and God granted him to be able to rule his people correctly.