Akinrinade, one of the Nigerians who fled the country at the height of the struggle to reclaim the June 12, 1993 presidential mandate of MKO Abiola, to form what became known as the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO. As said that the real problem with Nigeria is its structure.
In this interview, Akinrinade did not let go his desire for restructuring.
Part of his book tells us that Akinrinade, as Chief of Army Staff, at age 41 in 1981, “had hoped that then President Shehu Shagari would use the office of Chief of Army Staff to foster better relations with the armed forces. But Akinrinade did not have opportunity to effect his vision. Just six months later, he was redeployed as Chief of Defence Staff, from which position he resigned six months later in October 1981 – from the army and government. He was aged only 42. His reasons? I didn’t have the powers to do exactly what I wanted to do. Perhaps, I was not patient enough, or didn’t seem to see any serious indication from the powers that be that they would allow me to do exactly what I wanted to do.” The book is to be launched on Wednesday in Lagos. But it is just a prelude to his memoirs that are still in the works.
His views on President Muhammadu Buhari, the untold stories of the civil war of which he is a hero, why corruption thrives in Nigeria and the urgent need for restructuring, as captured in this interview, brief as they are, tells you that the book, My Dialogue With Nigeria, and his coming memoirs, are a must read.
On Buhari, who he asked to quit if his health cannot cope with the rigours of the office of President, the General spoke against the backdrop of the absence of Buhari at three consecutive Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings as well as last Friday Jumat service in Aso Rock.
Some issues could not be discussed in the interview because of their nature. For instance, the killings in Ife, because of the judicial panel doing its work. Some happenings during the civil war, names cannot be mentioned. But all these would feature in his coming memoirs in details.
THIS IS NOT THE MUHAMMADU BUHARI I KNOW
Let me push you. Looking at President Muhammadu Buhari and the promises he made when he was sworn-in, and looking at what is on ground now, what are your observations – either for good or ill?
I have not seen the indications of the Buhari that I thought I know. Even though it is a democratic system and there are systems of law and democratic behaviour, there are certain basic things you expect to see, the imprimatur of any leader, no matter the constraints, is to check people from going overboard and there are signs you want to see that there is an imprint of whoever is leading. I haven’t seen that
But people said he wanted to be overbearing when he started?
That’s not the issue. Even matters that are straight forward, there had been dilly-dallying. Very simple and straight forward things.
Who is the Buhari that you know?
I thought he would simplify matters by sitting down and looking at matters straight, eyeball to eyeball, and not a question of small politics here and there.
I do not see him wanting to perpetuate himself in power – because that is what usually brings about problems as people do not always want to leave. But if you went there just to do a job, then, certainly, your constraints are fewer and limited.
If you make it clear that you did not come to the presidency to sell ice cream, because selling ice cream means you want to be friends with everybody and wanting to please everybody, then don’t come near governance.
I thought I would see something that is typical Buhari. Not high-handed but about people bringing laws that would be debated and that would be clear in the objective it is meant to achieve in the pursuit of good governance and the necessity for it.
Give an instance?
Look at all the time that has been wasted, I mean I couldn’t see Buhari wasting time on mundane things like ‘who is head of this, who is head of that’? For instance, he started poorly because the leadership of his own party had nothing to do with what really happened with the organisation of the Senate and the House of Representatives leadership. From that point, I think they lost the game.
That is a function of leadership. What did they agree in their own party from the outset as to who leads what and who gets what? Who stays where? Who does what? You mean all these were left to chance for people to manoeuvre? What were they doing all along after winning the election? They lost the game right from the beginning.
The manifesto of the party talks about restructuring but today….
(Cuts in) It appears to me that even he, Buhari, himself, did not read the party manifesto that brought him to power. You said you are going to fight corruption; it is there. You said you are going to restructure, it is there. They said it on many occasions in unequivocal terms. Now listen to what he is saying. If you don’t want to use any of the documentation that has been done before on the issue of restructuring, I do not begrudge you on that; if you told us the way you want to go about it, whether you want to set up something different or you have a different idea which you would put to us and let us debate, fine. But you just said, tersely, that you didn’t read the document on restructuring and you didn’t ask anyone to study it and that it is going to rot away in the archives. Well, if that is Buhari’s understanding of his political party manifesto, then, certainly, we are in trouble. That’s why I said the Buhari I know will add fidelity to whatever he agreed with the people. But for Buhari to now be disowning his own political party’s manifesto? To be tardy enough, not to know how to arrange his own political party and put it in order, beats my imagination.
It is a war that is ahead of him – though not a war of shooting, but it’s a war about re-partitioning this political system, to get the economy out of the doldrums, to fight for security of lives everywhere and not just Boko Haram. These are not mean tasks and they cannot be for the fickle-minded.
You have to be very clear in your mind what it is you want to do; but, instead, you are busy arguing about who is going to head EFCC and such mundane matters created by your attitude to the job.
Look at the lopsidedness of the people surrounding him, that can constrict his own vision simply because you are surrounded by people you know, what about the well-meaning people who have admiration for you and who mean well but you do not want to bring them in? That’s why I keep saying this is not the Buhari I know.
Could it be a function of age?
Age? I think I’m older than he is.
And you know he’s had these health issues lately.
Yes, that is true. But I don’t want to believe that the health issue you mentioned can be that constraining. Because if it is so, I think Buhari is a brave and honest man enough to call it quits and leave the job and say ‘I don’t want to continue because I don’t want to destroy my name’. The Buhari I know will always be ready to die for Nigeria if it is a matter of life and death for Nigeria. I don’t have difficulty with that as per the Buhari I know. But if he knows that he cannot function, properly he should have said so. This is not the way the Buhari I know operates.
Have you spoken to Buhari since he became President?
I think I saw him briefly for about five minutes.
Going by your observations and the way the polity is now, if you were to see him today, what would you tell him?
I’ll just tell him that I thought he was smarter than what I am seeing. I’ll tell him that I thought ‘you were smarter than this’.
Positively, what would you tell him to do?
I really don’t know. You cannot just throw advice from the sidelines. But I know that the amount of resources that Nigeria is called on to lay out on security alone must be scandalous. We are poorly organised. And that is not the fault of Buhari but it will be his fault if he did not do anything about it. If he shies away from facing and resolving the issue of how we are organised, it would be a massive failure. Some people are feeding fat on Nigeria’s lack of organisation and this cuts across all ethnic groups.
An example: Have you heard anyone in South-West APC talking about restructuring again? No. They should have challenged the President when he disowned the manifesto and reminded him that that was why he got his votes from here but look at what is happening. They are not talking because they are feeding fat on it. Not one of them that I know, heard or read has spoken up. Those feeding fat on the way we are now will not want restructuring.
Until we have the haves and have-nots, thrash it out, that is when we are going to wake up and know that we are really in great trouble.
But that will be chaos?
Yes. That is what happens to unreasonable people. We are unreasonable, so we must face the consequences of stupidity. I would tell him to go and think very seriously on how ‘you can restructure the country and do it quickly’.
You cannot, for instance, stay in Abuja and ask people who want ranches in their backyard to show interest. How do you monitor the process?
In the preface to your book, Dr. Usman Bugaje says he is still puzzled about how you have been able to stay away from politics, especially with all your ideas and progressive positions?
I will tell you something. Many years ago, Baba Ajasin and Baba Adesanya, with all their humility and simplicity, each time we discussed politics, they used to tell Dr. Akingba and I that we were very naive, that we didn’t know what politics is. So, if I’m very naive about politics, and I’m told by the gurus that I am naive, it is better for me to stay away. And that is the honest truth. Things that I don’t particularly understand so much frightens me.
Any time, I’m ready to contribute to debates and planning.
Looking through this your book that is due for launch on Wednesday, May 3, 2017, one theme runs through, and that is your strong belief in and unflinching support for restructuring. Where do you get the oomph to keep pushing for this view every time?
Well, when you look at our history and how long we have lived together as a people, and our ability to compete with the rest of the world and where we ought to be, and then you look at how far we have gone, you’ll realise that something must be basically wrong. And, I think that is what we have to locate and then find proper answer to it. I, for one, like a big nation, a big country; but it has to be big for something positive and not just being big for nothing. It has to have some integrity otherwise it would just be big for nothing. At least there are small countries like Tonga, Luxembourg, Brunei, Singapore, Fiji and co, that are even smaller than some nationalities in Nigeria, that are doing very well. We have all it takes to be a leader in the world but we haven’t done so.
What have we always been complaining about? That Nigeria is an imperialist creation, for the benefit of the imperialists – which is true to some extent. But I believe that if we have gotten our independence and you realise that you have been given a raw deal, 50years after, then you still haven’t found an answer to it, I think there is something wrong with us when we still refer to slave trade, imperialism, colonialism and all that, as the problem and cause of our dismal showing.
Those are no longer good excuses.
You’ve said something must be wrong. So what is wrong?
Yes! Something is really wrong with us. Some of my friends have always said it is leadership. Yes. Leadership. But if you give a very bad structure to a good leader – no matter how good – his chances of surviving and of really doing very good is very limited.
Good point but what stops a good, sensible and sincere leadership from looking at that ‘very bad structure’ and making moves to correct it or restructure it?
You’re right. So, what stops us, or even that good leadership, from looking at the structure and correcting it? You have a point. It is true the colonial people did some terrible things – like the census, the way the country was partitioned in a lopsided manner in favour of the North – we understand all that.
But, before independence, when the West, for instance, decided that it wanted self-government, that if the rest of the country didn’t want or was not ready, the West said it was ready, and it got what it wanted. Eventually, the East also keyed into it and got its own, and if you look back to between 1956 and 1965/1966, there was a phenomenal development in the West – whether it was commensurate with the resources we had is another matter but it was phenomenal. And if we had kept that speed, we may not have been as buoyant as Singapore – because of our very large population – but what is certain is that we would not be in the type of mess we are in today. Even the East, and the North, made good strides because there was healthy competition, because the system at that time worked well. But we’ve now been fixated on this business of 1966, that Ironsi decreed unitarism and, therefore, we must stick to it.
However, the federalism we were practising at that time, even with its push and pull, was still better. He (Ironsi) merely used the unitary system because that is how the military operates; there is only one boss who must be obeyed, he may not be right but you have to obey and that is why you have disasters in the world everywhere because the boss is taking the decision, rightly or wrongly.
But you cannot apply that, based on the heterogeneous nature of Nigeria. We are neither settlers nor are we immigrants. Each one of us was not brought in by the colonialists; they met every group here and they had been existing in those places long ago, organised, had their forms of democracy or governance structure then. As feudal as the Yoruba were, for instance – not to talk of the Igbo who didn’t have any feudal system – there were checks and balances. Yes, the Oba was the sovereign, but there were checks and balances even on those powers of his. If he went beyond his bounds he got thrown out. Democracy was not alien to the nationalities and, therefore, we should have been allowed to build on it.
Now, to the main question: I think to want to foist the grundnorm of the Hausa on the Yoruba or vice versa, or the Igbo wanting to foist theirs on others, that is where I think we got it wrong. Each should have been allowed to continue at whatever pace it wanted. The people who were in this school of thought meant very well when the unitary thing was brought in – they were looking at a military construct and not a political arrangement, so, we ought to have gone back to that old way that worked, which is true federalism.
What stops us from going back to where we lost the game? What stops us? That is the necessity for us to restructure, re-organise ourselves for the battle that is ahead of us. We are beginning to say it’s not possible, that it’s too late. There is nothing that is late. If you are not doing well, why not turn back to that which made you do well?
Okay sir. Where then should we start from?
I give credit to Alex Ekwueme. He saw this ahead and the small group he formed brought this idea of six geo-political zones. But if you look at Chief Awolowo’s idea, he wanted us to take the linguistic groups which we call tribes now, they also have land mass which is contiguous and easy to recognise. Though there would be small small problems here and there, where there are small criss-crosses, we should take our time to allow people to decide. We would not end up with what we have now, neither would we have equality. It is like that all over the world – there are very small states in America while there are big ones, so long as they agree to it. When some states were declaring bankruptcy in America, Washington didn’t bail them out because everyone was on his own. Even California, which has the sixth largest economy in the world, declared bankruptcy about two times; it had to find a way out for itself.
Our own federalism is taking too much of a grandfather’s attitude to the rest of the country. The environment should be created whereby each one of the states should be able to solve its problem. So, why don’t we look at those things that bind people – language, culture, landmass – and then reach an agreement?
We are not going to get a Nigeria that would keep marching like soldiers, it is not possible. The Igbo might have their own idea of how they want to govern themselves while the Yoruba or Hausa too have their own idea of it. We can work together and find a balance.
That’s difficult because the fear is that internal wrangling would follow…
It is not as difficult as people paint it to be. If the Yoruba decide to form one state, yes, you’re going to have agitations from Kwara, Kogi and the Itsekiri too will agitate, that is true, but these are issues that, when reasonable and knowledgeable people sit together, they should be able to reach agreements and forge ahead. But I think we are not ready to do the very hard work.
Look, if the Itsekiri and the Urhobo in the old Midwest Region – with the Igbo who were there and whom we called western Igbo – could live together and if that arrangement had not been disturbed, we could have made good progress. Awolowo believed the minorities should be allowed to decide their fate. Those who introduced the Midwest Region had their own motive, which was to emasculate Awolowo, cut him to size. But the agreement was that the Calabar/Ogoja Region as well as the Middle-Belt Region would also be created, but the Federal Government stopped and did not do that. That was where we started to shortchange ourselves and cooperation began to dwindle and the feeling of being cheated arose. If we had created those two other regions, there may have been a little more creations from them, and not from the Federal Government, but each of them would have been able to decide on what to do. The Kanem Borno area may have gone its way as different from the Uthman Danfodiyo North-West. We can start the heavy lifting now and do the hard work because, if we do not, we will keep going through this violence, people getting killed almost everyday, it’s either herdsmen are killing or Boko Haram is killing or you’re going after someone whose refinery you want to dismantle in the riverine area, or some people are blowing up pipelines. It’s a war that is going-on on daily basis. Is that how we want to be living everyday of our lives? I do not think so. But if we don’t go back and do the right thing, it will continue. We should be more reasonable than what we are doing to ourselves.
You talked about reasonable people sitting to discuss. Some of you, democracy activists, who formed NADECO suffered a lot. Your house was burnt to the ground, some were killed, some lost all they had to sustain the struggle and most of you, particularly the elderly among you, have not recovered all that were lost. The 1998/1999 transition provided an opportunity for NADECO, going by the reason for the struggle and, therefore, provided a space to engender such a type of discussion because the myth of NADECO was still there. Now, things have gone from bad to worse between 1998/1999 and 2017
You’re right. But there are quite a number of things.
Some things happened at that time that were not palatable to tell the public.
By the time then Head of State, General Abacha, died, NADECO had been reduced to almost like a tribal outfit because there were just a few northerners among us – in fact, only Dan Suleiman was with us. Ndubuisi Kanu was still with us to the end, we also had Arthur Nwankwo.
The two that were with us abroad (names withheld) had gone to the Canadians and taken money on our behalf. The Centre for Democracy in America used to give us $40,000 annually to print our NADECO Alert and have some money to push our information out there. The money was just for information provision.
They were not interested in political division. So, the money that was collected from the Canadians on our behalf ought to have been used for that same purpose but it did not happen in that light in all material particular. The money was collected and, before we knew about it, one of our people said he was using the money to sustain himself in Canada. But we told him he sent himself to Canada and we didn’t send him there in the first instance – laughs (and in any case we didn’t recruit him; he was the one who said he wanted to join). These were the kinds of things that were already happening.
Therefore, the core of NADECO had basically turned to Yoruba both at home and abroad.
So, that made a broad presentation difficult
Exactly, the field had become very narrow. NADECO could merely hold sway in the West and, coupled with the funny arrangement which says, to form a political party, you must have an office in Birnin Kebbi or Maiduguri, all that nonsense and the composition of NADECO at that time, some of us felt there was no way we could form a political party. That was just one aspect, the spread.
What was the other reason?
Ha! There was fatigue. Not just mental or physical fatigue. People were already on their knees – very broke. As in, no money at all. People had sold everything they had. And I’m not joking. Everything.
The final meeting that took place in London was a decider.
Some of us were of the view, just as you rightly asked, that we should use the opportunity of the transition to push our way through for restructuring using NADECO and Afenifere. We wanted to have an office where we needed paid staff. The struggle was not easy at all. We only had volunteers like Ayo Opadokun, for instance, even John Oyegun, was just a volunteer helping us to keep records – keeping this and keeping that. My friend, Bolaji Akinyemi, was always doing his own typing and running around and all that, just as many people also deployed resources. So, we decided that the first thing we would do once we got home was to ensure that we opened an office with staff.
We also knew that, at that time, it was difficult for Afenifere leaders to even raise money to rent a room because the then Federal Government impoverished them and almost ruined everything for people. People’s businesses and means of livelihood were destroyed and they didn’t allow them to participate in anything other than just shouting here and there and banging the doors in anger. We decided we would raise money abroad and bring home to set up an office.
I was commissioned to go and raise the money. I wrote about five names that I was going to contact and raise money from – at least N2million each. I was still in America at that time.
The first person I went to, first of all, complained and abused me thoroughly. He said he heard I’d been in America for quite a long while, and I didn’t think it was proper for me to pay him a visit.
To that, I responded by saying I was just being careful because knowing that we were being monitored all over the place, if I’d made contact with him, either through phone or physical contact, these people will start harassing him too.
‘That was why I didn’t visit you sir’, I told him.
And I didn’t have any problem as such with the authorities but one needed to be very careful. He asked how much we needed. I told him I wanted N10million but I had five names from which I was hoping to take N2million each.
He said: ‘No, you’ve done enough; I’ve been watching what you people have been doing. If you need more, just come back and meet me, don’t go and meet anybody, just come’.
At that point, when he released the money, we became bold to tell the people at home that we were coming back and that ‘this is our plan, so please sign on to it’.
Where was Baba Enahoro in all of these?
Good. Baba Enahoro said he wasn’t going to come back to Nigeria. I wasn’t also prepared to return. Dr. Akingba also said he wasn’t ready to return, that he was not sure of this ‘ Abdulwahala ’ (General Abdulsalami).
That was the name NADECO gave him – Abdulwahala. As I was saying, so we decided to have a meeting in London. People came from the US and from home.
The man I went to solicit money from wanted to give us a cheque but I said no.
The reason was simple. We had never tried anything like this, the NADECO thing, before. And the reasoning, which he agreed to, too, was that supposing we got back to Nigeria with the cheque and we couldn’t get it cleared, what happens? So, we got cash.
Our plan was to table our own idea at that meeting and, when asked how we planned to go ahead with it, we would just tell them not to worry, that we had the cash backing. He also agreed to join us and attend the meeting.
Can you give details of what happened at the meeting?
Ha! My refugee passport was expiring two days before the meeting in London and I could not renew it, so I ended up not being able to travel to London for the meeting. But the man attended. I gave Dr. Akingba and Bolaji the task of looking for him. He gave us the money. But you know what? That was the money that was used to start the Alliance for Democracy, AD. That was the money we wanted to use to open the office and continue further agitation; that was what they used to form AD. Though it was just N10million, but it was good money at that time. Maybe later people gave N100,000 or N50,000.
There was no money anywhere because people were already spent.
So, what happened next?
We also broke into two – even what was left of NADECO as small as we were. Some of us with Baba Enahoro; Baba Adesanya sat in the middle there, trying to make peace; then there was the other group, led by Cicero (Bola Ige).
We in America, maybe we were not too sharp to understand what was going on at home. We thought that this was the time to force the issue of restructuring, that in the process of trying to make a Constitution, we should insist on the insertion of clauses that would favour real federalism pursuant to restructuring – that even if Abdulwahala liked, he could stay in power for two years; this time, we were ready to canvass the support of people for him to stay even if it took two years so that we could actually get our own people’s Constitution that was truly federal. That was our group.
The other group – and Olu Falae was one of them – said this is a war and you could not abandon one part of the battle field to the enemy. I agreed on that point.
They said should the core NADECO, which is Afenifere, refuse to participate and these people go ahead with the election and you boycott, some few people would still be there and they may not be the good ones. They now brought this spectre of when Abacha deceived them about forming his government, which he still formed anyway. But those who went in to participate in that government, even Lateef Jakande, refused to resign. Then there was also the Abacha Constitutional Conference, the basis for the 1999 Constitution, that we are using now. Some of us boycotted too but the conference held. We in America said ‘if you want to go, go and join’.
But we asked them one thing: How do you people want to go and participate in a process which does not have any Constitution to work with? If you go and campaign and promise the people heaven and earth and you are sworn-in and the Constitution then says you cannot deliver heaven and earth – as it turned out – what would you do? We asked them.
That was why some of us never came back until about 2001.
In Part 2, read the General’s revelations about what nobody ever told you about the civil war.
It will shock you to the marrows.
He also bares his mind on the renewed agitation for Biafra and corruption in Nigeria.