The parley with former president, General Olusegun Obasanjo continues, as he broaches questions on how he dealt with the Sharia dust, kicked up by then Zamfara State governor, Sani Yerima, among other issues…
One thing intrigues one about you, sir and thus, this question. There was the situation in Odi and you cracked down on that community. There was the killing of soldiers in Zaki-Biam and you dealt summarily with the situation. Yet, there was this Sharia declaration in the North, in Zamfara State, precisely, where people suddenly said they were a Sharia State…
(Cuts in)…What’s the difference?
You should equally have cracked down on them because this was clearly a rebellion, a total violation of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Why didn’t you crack down on them?
(Pause)…You see, again, you must be very, very, sensitive. As the commander-in-chief, as the man who had responsibility for security in this country, what were my instruments for maintaining law and order and ensuring security? The police, the military. Now, if my police can be sent anywhere and be treated with impunity and my soldiers can be sent anywhere and be treated with impunity, what right, as commander-in-chief, do I have to go out there and say, hey, you go there? That is very important.
Odi. We sent policemen, they were killed. We sent soldiers, they were killed. And I said to the governor, ‘look, this cannot be allowed to go on. Please, just get me those that killed those policemen and soldiers. I am not going to kill them, but I will make examples of them. Because my own policemen and soldiers must trust me, must have confidence in me’. When I send them out, I must back them up. The governor said, ‘I don’t know who killed them’. And I said, eh-eh. Ok, if you don’t know who killed them, I will do my duty. And so, I did my duty. The same thing with Zaki-Biam. That one was even worse. They killed the soldiers and decapitated them. And I said to the governor, ‘please, what are you doing about this?’ And he said, ‘it is beyond me, please come and help me’. And I said, ok. Since you’ve called me to help you, I will help you. And I did.
You see, Sharia is slightly different.The young man who went into Sharia, I know the circumstances that took him into Sharia. He was a governor and one of my own senior staff who comes from that state was really making life unbearable for him, according to him. And I tried to reconcile them, not once, not twice. So one day, the governor came to me and said,‘This man is collecting invoices and receipts and is snooping about on me, I will make myself untouchable’. I said, eh-eh, make yourself untouchable? I didn’t know what he meant by that. So, what he did to make himself untouchable was to proclaim Sharia. And that was why I said, at that time, that it was political Sharia.
So it was more or less, the particular governor’s personal survival kit?
Yes. And he was clever enough to go to all the clerics and got them. And I just looked at him and I said, look, this young man thinks I’m a fool. He wants to lure me into a killing ground. I won’t fall for that. And as I said, publicly, if it is genuine Sharia well, it will survive, but if it is not genuine, it will fizzle out. And it fizzled out, without my raising a finger…
(Cuts in)…Well, don’t you think that if you had interfered at that point in time, the Boko Haram insurgency that is, today, ravaging practically the entire North, would have been nipped in the bud?
No, the Sharia that came out at that time was a different issue altogether…even the man, I told you his story. He came to my residence once – I had a young cousin living with me at the time – and they hugged themselves and I said, ‘ah! Oga Governor, Sharia!’ He just waved my reaction aside and hissed: ‘Didn’t you say it would fizzle out?’ He wasn’t really into it as I saw and read it and as it finally proved to be.
But even this Boko Haram, that said to me that when I was in government, I was doing my own thing and they were doing their own thing, I asked them what was their own thing and they said, Sharia. I didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother me and that was true.
Look, I’ve had the experience of Sharia before, as military head-of-state. The Constitution was deadlocked.The Constituent Assembly was trying to ratify it, but it was deadlocked on Sharia. In fact, it nearly divided my own team – the Supreme Military Council – until one day, I wrote a speech and called all my members of the SMC and passed the speech to them. I asked if they endorsed it and they said, yes. And I said, oya, and all of us, we went there. And that was what killed it because my own Supreme Military Council was being divided along lines pro-Sharia and anti-Sharia and that was not good for me. So, we nipped it in the bud.
This second time, if I had rolled out tanks at Zamfara, I would have set the country on fire and I told him so. I said to him, ‘Governor, you know what you’re doing’ and he said, ‘but you’re there to handle it and you’ve handled it, so what are you complaining about?’ That was that.
Sir, let us talk about this issue of Third Term. Quite frankly – and one is sure many well-meaning Nigerians would subscribe to this view – what Nigeria needs is continuity, with a strong leader that can sustain this continuity for say, a period of maybe, 20 years, in order to stabilise the country. But what we have had is needless interjections and unsustainable government programmes that have not augured well for the country. There were stories of you gunning for a third term whilst in office. May I ask if you honestly support the idea of a third term in office, for the sake of this continuity that we’re talking about?
Even if you give Nigeria a fourth term, a person, an individual, is an individual. At some point in time, he would surely go away.What Nigeria needs is …
(Cuts in)…Surely, an individual can make a difference…
Yes, an individual can make a difference. But if you have, in eight years, laid the foundation – which I did – and somebody comes to undo what you have left behind, such reversal could only be for a short while.
What happened? For instance, take the area of power, the area of transportation. We laid out all that had to be done so that you just keep going. Somebody came and he just halted it and we lost. Not only did we lose about three or four years, but we also lost money because those things would now have to cost two times what they would have cost. You see, you cannot build the fortunes of a country only on one individual, all the time. Now, a leader comes and a leader matters. If that leader does not perform, it is either the people would do their thing, democratically and vote him out, or God does His own thing in a more dramatic way than democracy. And that’s it. I personally believe that there is always the hand of God in the fortune, or misfortune of a nation, just as it is in the fortune, or misfortune, of an individual, or any human institution.
Let us look at one recent misfortune that befell this country – the demise of former president, Umaru Yar’Adua. People say you knew he was dying, so you merely handed over to him because it was your strategy for returning power to the South. Frankly, did you really know he was dying?
I have said this before. When I was looking for a successor, for me, at that time, I believed that we hadn’t reached a stage where, after the completion of a full term, of a president, if he is from the South, he should be succeeded by another southerner, or if he is from the North, he should be succeeded by another northerner – I hope we get to that stage, some day. I believe, at this stage, we are still in transition.You may say it’s a long transition, but we’re still in transition. We have to create confidence and trust, first. I believed that a northerner should be the one to succeed me. Now, if it’s within my party, another thing that is important is that the primaries would be determined by which way the governors go, so I took the governors and the leadership of the party along and we settled for that young man.
I knew that, that young man had been ill. He had kidney problem and was on dialysis. He told me himself that he had seized to be on dialysis. He told me that even before he was picked for the presidency. Then, I asked for his medical report, which he gave me. I gave the report to a medical specialist who gave his verdict and said that if someone had been on dialysis and suddenly stopped, it would mean that you’ve had a kidney transplant which succeeded. And if you’ve had a kidney transplant that succeeded, you’re as good as having not had any problems at all. So, on the basis of that, what do you say is my crime?
But the point is this and I said that later, if you are given a job to do and you accept to do it and through no fault of yours, something crops up that makes you incapable of doing that job to the satisfaction of those who gave you the job and to your own satisfaction, the most honourable thing to do is to say, sorry. We all have one ailment, or the other. I have mine, too, but I manage it. So if, for instance, you give me anything to eat, that is likely to jeopardise my health, I would reject it. So, what is your problem? For anybody to say I know he would die, who knows who would die? Do you know when you would die?
People may say what they like but that doesn’t really bother me. What I do is to satisfy my God and my conscience.
Now, another case for curiosity, General, during your young officer days, the one close friend you were known to have had, was another strong character, in the person of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. What chemistry bonded the two of you together?
I think we had the same aura. Chukwuma was a Nigerian, through and through and that’s what I said when I wrote the book on him. Some people started commenting and I even said he was naïve in the action he took. But one thing you could not accuse Chukwuma of was that he was not a Nigerian. No. He was a committed nationalist, he was a committed patriot.
Do you think that the January 1966 coup was a mistake?
I believe so…I believe so…but, you see, I knew Chukwuma very well. I have said this before, if I had been in – and Chukwuma knew me, that I was strong enough to try and stop that coup – it probably would have been a different story. I came in the night before the coup and Chukwuma himself had said to me that this was the greatest problem that faced him, whether to tell me about the action or not to tell me. And if he had told me about the coup I probably would have said, nonsense, you can’t do that. Now, if he had succeeded in convincing me and I said, good idea, let’s carry on, it was already too late in the day because there would have been no role for me to play because they had already worked out everything. So they decided that they must keep the whole exercise away from me. Even when it happened, some of us said, look, what is this? It set democracy back.
Do you believe that, that coup adversely affected the fortunes of this country?
Yes, it did. Let me take the military, for instance. We were very closely knit. I didn’t even know whether Chukwuma was Igbo, or not. We were in the Congo together, just like two brothers. But that coup did for us, what was not necessary, at the time. The military was already getting weakened, with its gradual politicisation, but the coup actually introduced a very wide gap. And I think that it was after Murtala [Mohammed] and I came back that we actually started trying to bridge that gap. And even then, that gap wasn’t fully closed until I came back as an elected president and began to give some concessions to our brothers who fought on the other side.
Knowing Chukwuma very well, I knew he was a man of good intentions and all that, but I think the coup was a mistake, a genuine mistake. It wasn’t a mistake borne out of his personal aggrandisement, but one probably borne out of his own understanding of nationalism and patriotism.
To be continued…
Read part 1 of the interview here