In this concluding part of the interview President Muhammadu Buhari granted Eric osagie, The SunMD/Editor-in-Chief in company of Paulinus Aidoghie in 2012, he explains why he is not super rich despite being former Head of State.
But don’t you think you went too far?
What do you mean by going too far?
But you went to the extreme that public officers could do no wrong, as if they were saints. You called the decree ‘Protection of Public Officers Against False Accusation,’ and clamped down on the media.
Those who did it, the editors, the reporters, we jailed them. But we never closed a whole institution, as others did. We investigated and prosecuted according to the laws, because shutting a newspaper, it is an institution and we lose thousands of jobs. But we found out who made that false report, who was the editor, who okayed it and then, we jailed them.
No regret, because we did it according to the laws we made. We neither closed a whole institution and caused job losses.
Then, you left power, 20 months after…
No. I was sent packing from power.
Ok, you didn’t leave on your own volition?
That is a good one. For Nigerians, they remember War Against Indiscipline you brought. What was the philosophy behind it?
Well, I think we realised that the main problem of Nigeria, then and now, was indiscipline and corruption. When I say we, I mean the Supreme Military Council. Those two, are Nigeria’s Achilles heels. And I believe the Nigeria elite knew it then and they know it now. So, we started to discipline them. People must realise their level in the society and accept it. If you go and read hard and get a PhD, certainly you will get the best of life than somebody who hasn’t been to school at all or who has been a drop-out. And then, in the public, people must behave responsibly. If you go to bus stops, it is step-by-step or turn-by-turn, and not to force your way. If you go to bank, you find out if people were there before you. Why can’t you go behind them?
Or you come early and be number one.
Exactly! I think that was accepted. And up till now, I think it is the only thing that survived out of our administration, the queue culture. People accepted it with calmness. And in Lagos, they wouldn’t like to associate themselves with the military, so they call it KAI. That is right. Kick Against Indiscipline. But it is still the same thing. It is the same. The only difference is that one was brought by the military and this one is through democratic system.
When you were eased out of power and you had time to reflect for three years, what did you then see that was wrong?
We gave them the opportunity in the three councils I told you. Those rules are supposed to be in the Nigerian archives, except somebody destroyed them, destroyed the evidence. Otherwise, what did we do wrong to warrant being sacked? For example, when we overthrew the Second Republic, we had what we called the SIP, the Special Investigation Panel that comprised the police, the National Security Organisation (NSO) then and the intelligence community of the military. We did nothing by impulse or ad hoc. We went through the system.
And then, you handed down long jail terms, some 100 years. That was something else. Why did you do that?
They would never see the daylight again to commit another crime against humanity.
Would you say your detention period made you a new person?
I think I have always been the same person. When I came out, I was amazed, amazed in the sense that people in my immediate constituency didn’t seem to bother about the major setback I had. They were still coming to me, expecting me to help them in a way. Not in terms of material help, because they knew that I didn’t operate any money house or any petroleum bloc or any filling station…
How can you say a whole oil minister like you didn’t have any oil licence?
No. Not one, and not any for any blood relation or anybody close to me. Really, somehow, people in my community felt that I can still help them. But with that setback, I was wondering how. So, the only way for me, I think, was to join partisan politics so that I can have a platform to speak about the opinion of my constituency, immediate constituency. But the thing that convinced me more than the pressure from immediate locality was the change in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union. I have said this so often that an empire in the 20th century, collapsed and a lot of people ran back home, leaving strategic installations behind, like missile sites, nuclear formation and so on. And now, there are about 18 to 19 or 20 republics. It was then that I believed, personally, in my own assessment, that multi-party democratic system was and is still superior to despotism.
That was your turning point?
That was the turning point. But there is a big caveat: elections must be free and fair! And that is what we need. Elections must be free and fair, otherwise, the whole thing will be something else.
During your tenure, one case kept coming up: the 53 suitcases. You had ordered the border shut and your Aide de Camp (ADC), Major Jokolo, was alleged to have escorted 53 suitcases into the country. What happened? Why were you selective?
There was nothing like 53 suitcases. What happened was that there was my chief of protocol; he is now late. He had three wives, and I think about 12 children. He was in Saudi Arabia as Nigeria Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He was in Libya before, as ambassador and later, he was posted to Saudi Arabia. And then, I appointed him as my chief of protocol and he was coming back. Three wives, about 12 children. And then, by some coincidence, the late Emir of Gwandu, the father of Jokolo, who was my ADC then, was coming back with the same flight. And somehow, some mischievous fellows, everything, including the handbag of maybe, their small daughters, were counted as suitcases. Atiku then was the Commandant of Murtala Muhammed Airport as customs officer. And that day, we were playing squash. Jokolo my ADC and I. At some point, I said to him, ‘Mustapha, is your father not coming back today again?’ He said, ‘yes, sir, he is coming.’ I said, ‘what are you doing here? Why can’t you go and meet your father?’ He said yes, sir. He went to wash and meet his father. I am telling you there was no 53 bags of suitcases. It was a bloody lie. It was a bloody mischief.
So, not that he was detailed?
No, he was not detailed. He was not even about to go. I was the one who made him to go and meet his father. He was a respected emir, in fact, if not the most respected emir in the North then. He was learned, he had fantastic credibility and personal integrity. And this man was just coming on posting with his wives and children and they counted every imaginable thing, they said 53 suitcases.
Was that why Atiku was retired?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think I retired Atiku. I can’t recall because I had nothing against anybody.
But the argument was that the border was ordered shut. So, how did those people then come in?
They came by air. We didn’t stop aircraft coming in. They came by air, from Jedda to Lagos. They didn’t drive through Chad to Maiduguri and… People just say 53 suitcases when all borders had been ordered shut because that is how you can sell your papers.
Then you came into politics and every election you are there. Would you still do politics at 70 years, elective politics, offering yourself for election?
This is what I told the audience that came to listen to my address before we started the campaign for the 2011 elections. But my party and supporters were sending representatives. Up till today, they haven’t stopped. But what I told them was that we are in the process now of reorganising the party and perhaps, come into an alignment with other parties. Whatever the parties decide, whether my party or the new party that align and we are hoping to develop; if they give me the ticket or recommend me, I will consider it. That is the position we are now.
Until you get to that stage you can give a definite answer?
Until we get to that stage, there is no clear answer now. Let’s wait and see.
Is it that you don’t like money? Anytime somebody sees you, they say General Buhari is so austere. What gave you that kind of lifestyle? Nobody is associating you with millions. My reporter here was pointing to one mansion of a former governor who just ruled for eight years. So, how did you develop this frugal lifestyle? Is it that you don’t like good life? How do you unwind? Well, some of us have heard that you used to smoke. Do you still smoke? What are those things you have given up?
I used to smoke, but of course, I abandoned it I think in 1977.
Oh really? Before you became head of state?
Yes, I stopped smoking.
Have you ever taken alcohol?
Even as a young man and all that?
No, no. Even in the military tradition, how they break you in, I said well, the military did not stop anybody practising his religion. My religion said no alcohol and no alcohol. So, that was respected. I was never forced to take alcohol and I have never voluntarily taken it because I want to remain alert all the time. There is a tendency that when you drink, you would want to have a bottle more, or a glass more and do something stupid.
As a young man, very handsome because I saw some of your old pictures, did you have women flocking around you? And women like soldiers, people who have power…
I also thought women ought to have taken more interest in me but I don’t know why they didn’t. I must have something they didn’t like. I assure you of that. I didn’t drink, I smoked, I had girlfriends; it was true.
How many did you have?
I hope you won’t publish this because my wife will read the interview. So, you will be very kind to me if you don’t publish that (general laughter).
You joined the army and there was coup and counter-coup and civil war. You still had time to unwind?
You can create it but we had too much eventful time, professional career. It was too eventful. There were too many things happening almost at the same time. If I could recall, the 30 months civil war that we had, I was just having two weeks after every six months to come back home just to see my old mother and some of my relatives because I refused to get married till after the war.
Was it deliberate?
It was deliberate.
Why? I thought that would have been the reason to get married.
No, no. Some of our colleagues, like late Vatsa, like Babangida, they were more adventurous than myself. They took a weekend and had a quick marriage and went back to the front. I thought I would be putting the poor girl or the poor woman under a lot of stress. So, I said if I survived the war, I would get married, but if I didn’t survive, no woman should cry for me other than my relatives.
Some of your General-colleagues became stupendously rich. Today, they have means. I am not a lawyer taking inventory of your assets or preparing your will, but tell me what property do you have now at 70? I am sure you have a house in Abuja, you have one in Lagos. You have one in Daura and you have one here (Kaduna). So, if I count your property, maybe five. Am I right or wrong?
You are right but am not going to read or declare with you. My assets were on record, I told some of your colleagues when they came. When Murtala/Obasanjo regime came, they made sure that certain grades of public officers must declare their assets when they assumed that office and they must declare when they were leaving. So, when I was sworn in as governor of North East, I declared my assets.
What did you declare?
I declared surprisingly, even the number of my cows then. Even if they were supposed to be producing every year, but I declared them the time I was there. And when I was leaving governorship, I became petroleum minister. When I was leaving to go to War College, I declared my assets. I could recall General Jemibewon then, was the Adjutant-General of the Army. He rang me and said he was sending me asset declaration form, that I must fill it, sign it before I left for the United States. And I did. General Jemibewon is still alive. And when I became head of state eventually, I declared my assets again. So, all of us; when I say that, I mean Obasanjo downwards, those who are alive who were governors, ministers, head of states, they had declared assets. So, if you people are serious and interested about political officers becoming multi-billionaires, you can find out from Murtala downwards. And those of us who were not very good in making money you should pity us.
Is it that you don’t like money?
Everybody likes money but I am not very good at making money. Let me put it that way. I borrowed from the banks to build the house in Daura and the one in Abuja that you mentioned and the one in Kano. The bank then was Barclays, now Union Bank. Kaduna State or North Central then housing scheme and the Federal Mortgage Bank for the house I am in and AIB, which was, I think, terminated by Central Bank. So, when you go through the records, you find out that the houses I built, I borrowed from there.
You are a respected former head of state. What is your relationship with others, Obasanjo, your former boss and at a point, your political opponent, General Babangida, the man who took over from you and then, Shagari…
You are very nice. He took over from me and I took over from Shagari. You are very nice.
I want to be polite.
You are very nice. Ok, carry on.
What is your relationship with them. I see some parts of patching up here and there, but when a man is 70, you say it the way it is. What is your relationship with all these people I have mentioned now, deep down?
I think the worst thing anybody can do to oneself is to have either hatred or grudge on daily basis. One thing will happen and you better forget.
Have you forgiven Babangida now? You once said you felt betrayed over the coup against your government?
I did. Publicly, I did.
I have and some of your papers published it. I said as a Muslim, I have forgiven him.
But during that period it happened, you must have been really angry?
Of course, I was angry because I can’t recall what I had done for him to mobilise the military to overthrow me and detain me for more than three years. Yeah, it is natural for me to be upset.
Were you going to retire him before your overthrow, as has been alleged? This is an opportunity to lay it because we have heard those speculations that you were going to retire him and he moved against you quickly.
Something like that happened but not him. I moved to retire his Director of Military Intelligence.
General Aliyu, not Akilu.
You were going to retire him?
Yes. I took a paper to Army Council. Babangida was there…
As the Chief of Army Staff?
Yes. Idiagbon was there, Bali was there as Minister of Defence, and I was there as the head of state and commander-in-chief. And reasons for him to be removed was in that memo. Go and find out from him or from Babangida. They are both alive.
Not against Babangida per se?
But if you touched Gusau, his intelligence chief, invariably, you were going to inch towards the Chief of Army Staff, Babangida. Eventually, he might have been touched.
I didn’t know but at that point, it was Aliyu Gusau.
You were inching closer?
Yes, we were inching closer. You could say that.
But you have forgiven him for all that happened.
I have forgiven him. I said it and it was printed by some of your colleagues. But I didn’t say it will be forgotten. It cannot be forgotten. If I say I forget about it, I will be lying. But I have forgiven him, just as I expect Shagari to forgive me as the one who succeeded him.
But Shagari said you detained him and then…
I too, was detained (general laughter).
Ok, whatof Obasanjo? What kind of relationship do you have?
Obasanjo; he mobilized Nigerian voters against me.
But you have forgiven him?
No, I haven’t forgiven him (laughter).
Finally now, finally, finally, finally…
I don’t know when your final will come to a real final.
No, this is the end now. If the end comes, how do you want Nigerians to remember you, if you have the chance to write your epitaph?
I want Nigerians to be fair to me. Like this case of 53, 55 suitcases, like the case of N2.8billion. I want Nigerians to be fair and to be fair, all these documents are in the Nigerian archives. As I said, I didn’t do anything important outside the three organs of government: the Supreme Military Council, Council of States and Council of Ministers. On serious issues, Nigerians should do some research. That is why I always make emphasis on investigative journalism. If you want to be fair and impartial, I am sure you can have the capacity, both intellectual and resource to make an in-depth investigation.
Nigerians should be fair to you?
They should be fair to me.
Your daughter just passed on?
She would have been 40 before she died.
Oh, when life was just beginning.
What was the circumstance? Some said she was a sickler; she had sickle cell anemia.
She was a sickler and she had complication when she was delivered by Caesarian.
And that remains a very sad incident for you.
Thank you, General.
You are always welcome.