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GEN (Dr.) Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s military Head of State for nine years, from 29 July 1966 to 29 July 1975, was born on 19 October 1934 in Pankshin, Plateau state.
*I`ve no regrets for fighting civil war
*Dialogue, answer to national problems
*Military schools taught us integrity
GEN (Dr.) Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s military Head of State for nine years, from 29 July 1966 to 29 July 1975, was born on 19 October 1934 in Pankshin, Plateau state. He was educated at St. Bartholomew School, Wusasa, Zaria from 1939 to 1949, Government College, Zaria (1950-53). He had his military training at Officer Cadet Training School, Teshie Ghana (1954), Eaton Hall, Chester, England (1955), Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, (1955-56), Young Officers’ College, Hythe Warminster (1957), Staff College, Camberley, England (1962), Joint Services College, Latimer, England, (1965).
When he was overthrown in 1975, he enrolled in Graduate School at the University of Warwick from where he obtained a Ph D. He held many appointments in the Nigerian Army. He was Gen Ironsi’s Chief of Army Staff in 1966 when Ironsi was killed in a counter coup of young Northern officers on 29 July 1966 and he became Head of Federal Military Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces throughout the civil war years of 1967-70. He was toppled while attending the OAU Summit in Kampala, Uganda on 29 July 1975.
Following the Col Buka Suka Dimka-led aborted coup of 13 February 1976 in which Gen Murtala Ramat Mohummed was killed, the Federal Military Government declared him wanted and stripped him of his military rank. In 1981, President Shehu Shagari offered him state pardon, which he rejected. His military rank was restored in 1987.
Gen Gowon was very instrumental to the formation of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS. He was chairman of OAU 1973-74. He was awarded honorary doctorate degrees by Universities of Benin, Ibadan, Lagos, Ife as well as the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA and University of Cambridge, England. He has been honoured by several African countries.
Gen Gowon leads an NGO, Nigeria Prays, and is on the board of several blue chip companies in Nigeria. He is married to Victoria Hansatu and they have three children.
He was interviewed by PINI JASON. Excerpts:
Perhaps, I should begin with what I have personally observed during this interview. Your graciousness, notwithstanding the important position you have held in this country, is something many Nigerians talk about whenever you are mentioned. What do you subscribe this to?
I suppose you can put it down to my family’s Christian values that call on all of us to be gracious to one another. I think, in general, it has to do with the society one lives in or the group one associates with.
Does the quality of your military training provide an explanation?
Well…in the military, we are not trained merely to be brutal or inhuman. We are trained to be gracious. There is the saying: we are officers and gentlemen! And if one is an officer and a gentleman, then one has to be gracious. Really, in the end, my love for my country and my people requires me to be gracious to the country and to the people, no matter their status.
You say “officers and gentlemen.” But permit me to say that, these days, we might have “officers,” but not that many “gentlemen.” Very recently, a Naval Officer put a gun in the mouth of a commercial motorcycle rider, and shot him dead on the street in Lagos, for merely brushing against his car.
(Horrified) Are you sure it was an officer who did that, and not some other rank?
Well, he was in the full uniform of a Naval Lieutenant.
A Naval Lieutenant! Well, certainly that is not the type of officer we should have in the military! That behaviour is utter cruelty. I do not know if such a chap should be in uniform as an officer, because that is surely murder! If that is really the case, he should face the law!
You earlier mentioned your family; what was it like growing up in your family?
It was fun growing up. My family loved and respected each other. We did quarrel, quite all right, but were immediately brought to order. As far as I can remember, we grew up as a close-knit family, brought up strictly and very religiously by my parents to love each other and those around us. In our house, there were children from diverse ethnic groups and religions in Wusasa where I grew up. In my community, there were Muslims, and we loved and respected one another, and one would say, cultivated the spirit of sportsmanship.
I will get back to the subject of Wusasa, because there is an interesting aspect to it. But I want to ask you this — when you lost your father several years ago, you seemed deeply touched by his death. What was it about him that you remember most?
Well I suppose that on occasions like that one begins to recall all sort of things. I recall that as a little boy, I was especially close to my father. I would go to the farm with him on holidays or at weekends, tilling the small field where he grew crops to feed his family. Usually, he would talk to me about God, about living a good and honest life; to love and respect fellow human beings as the scripture teaches us. He would teach me how to clear the weeds and how to differentiate from weeds and the proper crop. He would teach me about trees, their medicinal properties and how to prepare them for medicine. Of course at the time, I thought I would always remember these things, and so never wrote them down. And as years went by, I forgot them. Now I regret it, and I will tell any young child: whenever you are with your old man, listen to what he tells you, and if you can write them down, do so. It may not be as clear, but at least it will bring the major information back to your memory.
Apart from that, when I was told that he was ill, I was not given the impression that his condition was that serious. So I said that I would probably come at the weekend, because I was very busy at the time; I was Head of State. Sadly, towards the weekend that I was planning to see him, my younger brother, Daniel, rang me to say that he had passed away. And I felt very, very bad. If nothing else, my father would have given me that last blessing; the last prayer of an old man; I can assure you, the good Lord does hear. But I missed that.
Still I am sure that wherever he is, he has been praying for me, especially when I was the Head of State. He never expected it. But he took it graciously that God had blessed his seed to reach that position, not through greed, but the act of God. The same thing goes for my mother. When one’s father admonishes with words, it is sometimes more painful than the bulala or koboko (a whip made of cow skin) that a mother uses to lash a naughty child. But, for me, the combination of the two resulted in a very wonderful upbringing, and certainly no regrets. Since it is said: spare the rod, and spoil the child, I can assure you that I was not spared the rod, and my parents did not spare any words to put me right.
Something just crossed my mind. People know you and talk about you. But unlike other Heads of State, past and present, Nigerians do not hear or know much about your children who are not rampaging all over the place as others do.
(Hearty chuckle). Well, I thank God! It might be because they didn’t grow up in Nigeria to probably imbibe the …
(Cuts in) Rat race culture?
Probably! Who knows? But I’ll admit that my wife and I tried to bring up our children the way our parents did; to be good children, obedient, not haughty, and to be considerate. So that is the way my children have been trained. And as far as my wife and I are concerned, that they are children of a former Head of State does not give my children any right to do whatever they want, no. In fact they have to be more concerned about behaving themselves, and not doing anything that would give their parents a bad image. In other words, if that Head of State allows his children to behave badly, how then can he look after the country? Is that how he would hope to run the country? Honestly, my children were brought up as normal children, to behave themselves and not shame or discredit the family.
Are they in Nigeria?
(Almost apologetically) No, unfortunately. As you know, the family left Nigeria after my overthrow, when Ibrahim was just under five years old, and his immediate younger sister was under three years old; and then one was born in the United Kingdom. Since then, they have only come home about two or three times. I think this is probably my fault. I wish I had brought them home more often; it would have been much better for them. However, they had all their education in the UK, apart from early elementary school, here in Nigeria. Most of their schooling has been in the UK, and they are either working there or finishing up university. But as far as we are concerned, my wife and I expect them to behave as decent young Nigerians, decent human beings wherever they may be.
That is surprising and I must pursue this further, because our values today constitute some of our greatest problems, especially at the highest level of governance. Nowadays, one finds that the situation in the government is very much Father, Mother and Sons Incorporated. Children of certain people in high positions — which I must admit was not the case in the First Republic, and up to your time — now print letter heads and cards, and rush all over the place cornering choice contracts by peddling influence. And their parents don’t seem to see that this concerns ethics in public office. Your children could just announce your name and it would open doors for them! But they don’t do this.
Well, it is true that this could be the case. But my hope is that when the time comes, and my children want to set up their own business, they can do so decently and not merely by flaunting the name. They have been told not to abuse the family name, or to use it for wrongful gain. So they do not go round using the name in order to get favours or have anything done for them.
Now back to Wusasa. You were born in Lur, Pankshin, but Nigerians know you in connection with Wusasa. How did your family come to make Wusasa home?
I was actually born in a small town, not in Lur. Lur is my father’s home and Kingdom as I am from a Royal family. But I was born in a small town called Garam in the old Pankshin Division. I think it is now in Kanke local government. My father was a Christian and itinerant Evangelist and was stationed there when I was born. One of my sisters was born there as well. I think it was a CMS mission who had just then handed over to the Sudan United Mission. But my father didn’t quite like the change, because the CMS had been very progressive. Theirs was not just evangelization; they also set up schools and hospitals. They did not just teach one to read the Hausa Bible; they went over and beyond education.
So when one CMS Bishop – Smith — visited the area, my father complained to him that he was not happy, that he was very concerned about the education of his children. By this, he was asking if he could go to a CMS mission in Wusasa, Zaria where his children could become educated. The Bishop then told him to come and help with evangelizing the people, and have, as well, the opportunity of giving his children education. So that was how the entire family moved to Wusasa. I was between two and three years then. In Wusasa, my father built a home and was involved in preaching the gospel to the local people all over the place, walking on foot Gusau, to Makarfi, Dutse and back to Jos. We all went to school in Wusasa.
What was life like in St Bartholomew’s Wusasa?
At St Bartholomew’s, there was the church as the fulcrum, but there was also a very good hospital and a very good school. The school had a good kindergarten, a primary school, or what we called junior school, and then the middle school. One could take the Cambridge and the Teacher Training examinations while studying other subjects for the Senior Cambridge. In Wusasa at the time, one could even take the London Matriculation for entry to universities in the UK. That was St Barth’s Wusasa at the time.
Apart from St Barth’s, there was the church which, whether you liked it or not, you dared not miss any service. Our house was less than thirty yards from the church, and our mother saw to it that whether you liked it or not, you attended service. Of course, one became involved in a lot of the church activities; ringing the church bell for people to come to church or funeral service, or whatever it was. We were in the church choir as well as the school choir. But the school, of course, was where you spent a lot of your time. It was a school where all the ethnic groups could be found; Igbo boys and girls, Yoruba boys and girls, Hausa boys and girls, Kanuri boys and girls, Tivi, you name it! Most of Nigerians were there. And so we grew to know and love one another as Nigerians.
Wusasa was a training ground in many ways; morally, religiously, ethically. The first question you asked me about being gracious; yes it was the home, the church and also the school that inculcated all these values in us. So, our training in Wusasa was exceptionally happy and productive. Wusasa gave one the opportunity to know Nigerians, and all the young people that we grew up together.
Are there people you met at St Barth’s that you are still in contact with today?
People like Jacob Nwokolo, I don’t know if it is the same Jacob in politics! The Onuaguluchis, and my friend, one John from Okigwe; we used to crack a lot of jokes together. There were a lot of families I knew from Wusasa.
You trained in Teshie, Ghana; Eaton Hall, Chester; Sandhurst, Camberley; etc. Which of these military establishments left the greatest impression on you?
Each of them left a good impression on me. One after the other, they built one up to the good professional officer one became. But I would say, in particular, the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. But otherwise, yes, Teshie was very important. That was the initial breaking ground. I met people like (Alexander) Madiebo, Anwuna, Arthur Unuegbe, Okwechime there. From there we went to Eaton Hall in Chester for training, and to sit for War Office Selection Board and then the Regular Commission Board, before going to Sandhurst. If, after eighteen months or two years, you are able to finish that training successfully, you get your pip and you know that you are now an officer and a gentleman!
After Sandhurst, one went to other young officers’ courses at Warminster at the time, and other attachments with other British military institutions or units. Later on you were sent for professional staff training at Staff College, Camberley. The Staff College is where one is trained to become more professional as a staff officer and it also trains you for higher command, later. There are others like the Joint Services Staff College that I and Emeka Ojukwu attended in Latimar; it is not too far away from Sandhurst in Camberley. Staff College Camberley trains you for professional special duty to arm, and it gives you that grounding in staff duties.
For example, an officer should be able to analyse any problem correctly; what we call military appreciation. That is, an officer comes up with a number of courses, and decides which best resolves the problem. One is taught to be able to attend to any problem, and to deal with it. And I can assure you that it was the sort of thing that became very useful to me when I became Head of State. I was not trained to be Head of State! But because of that type of training, when I had a problem, I had to analyse the problem, seek advice on how to deal with it etc, and then come out with a way to deal with it. So that sort of training was very useful.
And if it were possible, you studied at the Royal College of Defence Studies, which used to be called Imperial Defense College, IDC. That, of course, is the highest training. Civilians instructors are brought in, because of the high level strategy, diplomatic and governmental issues involved. The understanding of these things is in preparation for the very highest command — GOC and above. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the IDC; I was to have gone there in 1966 or 67, but events intervened. However, I visited the IDC as a Head of State to give a lecture, so I am an honorary member of the place. So you can say that I went through its portals too (Laughter), as a lecturer; I remember, in 1973!
What inspired you, the son of an evangelist, to choose the military as a career?
Ah! You know, Montgomery was the son of a priest! (General laughter). I think sons of evangelists make good Christian soldiers! To be very honest, though, the military was not my first choice. Throughout my life I had wanted to teach. I thought of studying medicine. I thought of engineering as well, then teaching. But teaching was one of those things I wanted to do so that I could impart knowledge as repayment for the kindness that the mission bestowed on me by giving me a good and free education. I thought I could impart that to others as well.
However, in my last year at school, there had been a lot encouragement to the young people to go into the army. And, of course, we had some seniors as officers, like Brigadier Maimalari Kur Muhammed, and so on, from our school, Barewa College. There was encouragement, also, from some of our teachers, especially the Europeans, who were ex-soldiers, and served during the war, after which they went back to the universities and were teaching in our school. And because I was a sportsman and a prefect, everybody thought I should go into the army.
The principal and other teachers wanted me to go into the army, and I said no; I just wanted to teach. I was hoping then to probably go to the College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria, and then on to the university, probably Ahmadu Bello University, ABU, at the time, probably Ibadan. I don’t know what I would have graduated in, probably Geography, History or Economics or something like that, but at least, a subject I could teach. But then a lot of my friends like Sunday Awoniyi and others were going for military interviews…
Sunday Awoniyi attended a military interview?
Yes! In those days, from the school! About ten or so of them; I was not one of those. So they had gone ahead, and I started thinking seriously about what to do as a career — engineering, medicine, military or teaching. I decided to cut out pieces of paper and write each of the professions and jumble them up. And three times, the one that came up was not teaching, not engineering, not medicine, but the military. When I did it the fourth time, I think, teaching came up. So I said, well, probably that is what God wants me to do. So I went to the principal, and I told him what I had decided, and he was so excited! He wrote a note and gave me, saying: we don’t have any transport to take you to the depot for the interview, but all your colleagues have gone ahead. But you are a good sportsman; you’ll catch up with them. And of course, that’s what I did. To cut the long story short, about twelve of us went to that interview. In the final analysis, I was the only one that made it through the initial interview to the military training. You can say that it was more providential than anything else.
As a young military officer, what were your hopes and aspirations at the time for an equally young nation like Nigeria?
Nigeria became independent in 1960, but we started our training from 1954 as cadets. We were in the Queen’s commission at that time, not the Nigerian commission. In 1956, we became an independent army. As a young officer, what was on our minds was simply to be good officers, loyal to the government of the day, loyal to our superiors, to our men, and above all, to our nation and its leadership. That is what it was. And as far as we were concerned, those days, the aspiration was to be very good officer; to make one’s way through the military officer ranks, from second lieutenant to captain and above. But nothing beyond that!
At the time, all one was thinking was to be good enough, one day, to command one’s own unit; probably nothing beyond that…because anything higher, such as the office of GOC – was political. Apart from professional issues, decisions were made at the political level. Our ambition was limited to professional expertise, not advancing two, three, four levels ahead. One looked forward to becoming the Adjutant of a unit or a company commander, and then the Commanding Officer of one’s unit, and probably a Lieutenant Colonel commanding one’s battalion etc. After that, it would be on to becoming a Brigade Commander, and may be one day the GOC. And since there was only one position of GOC, there was a hell of a competition, and political good luck more than anything else! We also wanted to prove that now that Nigeria was independent, we could be as good officers, if not better, than the British officers serving the Nigerian Army and the nation at the time.
Amongst the military, the politicians and the civil servants, who would you say, is more responsible for the problems we’ve had in this country over the years?
I want to just rule out the civil servants, because people seem to want to place blame on them. If they no longer give their honest advice after they have been emasculated and dismissed left, right and centre for doing their best, you should not blame them. They are in the office working their guts out in order to advise the leadership, and then they were dismissed. Civil Servants were hardworking, loyal at the time. But what then happened to them? And civil servants no longer wanted to advise freely and honestly. They would advise in such a way as to get their own cut and what not. So whom should you blame? Those that created the situation, and turned them into such bad eggs!
The military! Don’t blame the military. Certainly it was wrong of the military, in the first place, to become directly involved in governance the way we did in the first coup. But it is not all the military. At least I can account for the military in my time; one tried to give the correct military leadership of an officer and a gentleman and a patriot, and to do the right thing. And in the position that I found myself, I tried to provide the best leadership for the good of the country and the well being of the people. But we are all human beings, and there are people who have a totally different view of how leadership is, and the way to do it. And there are some people whom you may not agree with, and who have really caused quite a lot of sadness. Certainly, they have created a bad image for the military leadership and the military. And, that, we have to accept. But let us also give due credit where it is deserved. There are those in the military that have done reasonably well.
The political group! The problem is that I don’t know if we have learnt the politics of integrity, the politics of service rather than merely the desire to enrich ourselves. So our politics and a lot of our politicians are suffering from that. And if some of the blame is placed on the military then a lot goes to our politicians. But of course, our politicians will tell you that they have not been allowed to operate properly; that the military boys came and intervened in the political process. It is true that since the military had gone ahead and interfered in governance, they have the right to say that there was not enough time to ensure that the political system works the way it should. Yes, we should have remained loyal to the profession, loyal to the government of the day, to one’s men, to our senior officers. We should have ensured that we remained purely professional and not become involved in governance, except if we wanted to do so to leave the uniform and go into politics like it is done in most civilized countries, and let our good work propel us to power. So I think the military and the politicians have to accept blame for a lot of what has gone wrong. But certainly, I would not blame the civil servants.
A disease that has continually plagued this country is corruption, even in some past military regimes. Nigerians remember that you left office as a Head of State without a mansion of your own. What can you say was the deterrent against corruption and indiscipline, especially in the military during your own time?
I think it was the upbringing that we had. You know that if you associate positively with words like honesty, integrity, telling the truth, you are less likely to cheat, or do any of those things. You are unlikely to become corrupt if you have total integrity. We were brought up and taught to work hard, and to only live within our means. One earned one’s salary and lived on that salary. And as soldiers, we were told under no circumstance to get in the red. If one was in the red, one could be court-martialed, and that would be the end of one’s career.
We were also taught responsibility. If you are put in charge of people’s money you can never tamper with it. You have got to account for everything. So this was the way we were brought up and this was the life we knew. Certainly, we believed that those ethical standards were the correct ones to live by, and had no regrets about it. Except that sometimes when you are looking for money to make ends meet, you begin to wonder; if I had done things the way things are being done today, probably it might have been a different story! But thank God that one did not fall into that temptation!
When I was Head of State, I never allowed myself to come too close to seeing cash. The only time that I came close, at the very beginning of my time as Head of State, was something to do with security, and money was needed to be made available, and it was to be given by me. I must say I was so uneasy with that amount of money lying around. And how much was it? It was between eighty and ninety thousand pounds at that time! But I was so afraid, should anything happen to it, or it would somehow become lost; how was I going to account for it?
However, thank God! When that deal was done, I said I don’t want to have anything more to do with money, and if it comes, I will trust it with either my secretary, the Secretary to the Government, or any other person delegated to be in charge of that issue. Throughout my time as Head of State, nobody came to say or to offer me anything. Possibly, some aides might have; but I believe I also know the aides I had at that time. They were very careful not to do anything that would soil my name and the image of the office that I was holding at the time. And so all those who were close to me, whether my PS (Personal Secretary) or people like Hamza Ahmadu, Ekaette, or whether it was the Secretary to the Government, starting from Ejueyitchie, Abdul Atta, Lawson, Ayida, or M.D Yusufu — as far as I am concerned, I know they were very careful.
But, as I said things changed when for doing nothing, you were being terminated “with immediate effect,” and you lost the only hope of means of living or your pension. What signal would that send to the others following you? They would certainly try to make hay while the sun shines! And that was what happened. And probably, some of the leaders that came after us said, well, if this is going on, I might as well start building for the future. I might be unceremoniously sent off, myself, then how will I survive? That might have caused people’s values to change. But that is unfortunate, really tragic.
As a young officer, I built my own little house on my father’s land in Wusasa. But after the religious crisis that burnt the old house down, I rebuilt it. Then as Head of State, I applied for an allowance to build a house. I think I received double my salary at the time (Two Thousand and Five Hundred pounds); so I received Five Thousand pounds, and built a two-and-half bedroom bungalow — the type Civil Servants were building in those days. So, those were the only two little things that I possessed as a former Head of State. Of course, I was in a position to have a lot of houses built for me. It would all be for the asking. But I did not consider that correct, and therefore, did not engage in that. Neither did I accept unnecessary favours. Yes, people brought me wristwatches, shoes and things like that. Yes, one did accept things like that from friends. I was also lucky that my wife never compromised herself or my position by demanding favours —which she could have done, and made herself rich; today, I would probably have been living off her proceeds (laughter).
I was at the launching of the biography of Abdul Atta, who, you just mentioned, was one of your top advisers then. I was amazed at the quality of the character of the man. Can you tell us about some of the people you worked with in terms of their qualities?
I have always said this when people say that I was being controlled by those Permanent Secretaries in those days: I can assure you it was not that. When I came into office, the politicians were not there. Usually they would have been the major players. We only had civil servants; very experienced civil servants. I knew a few of them quite well, at the time, and others from a distance. I knew people like Abdul Atta, Musa Daggash, Damcida (we were in school together); I knew people like Philip Asiodu, because I thought him quite cheeky (laughs). I used to ask — who is that cantankerous young man? I didn’t realize we were about the same age at that time. But I was impressed with him. A few of them I knew, others I didn’t. But when I came into office, one had to work with whoever was around.
When there was uncertainty after the coup– the military was in place – but who were the people making sure that the affairs of government proceeded normally? These civil servants that I mentioned would either give the military leadership the guidance it asked for, or suggested what needed to be done. If I thought it was all right, then I got it done. As I said, I did not come to rule as such. I came to save a very difficult situation from getting out of hand. Therefore I was prepared to learn how things were done properly.
At the time, there was the Secretary to the Government, S.O Wey. But after three coups, Tafawa Balewa, Ironsi and then me, he could no longer take it anymore. So we had to let him go. So I looked at the people available; the people that I knew very well were Abdul Atta and Musa Daggash, because they were Permanent secretaries in the Ministry of Defence! And Abdul Atta was responsible to me as Lt. Col., and Adjutant General. When Abdul Atta left, Musa Daggash was brought to become the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. So I was thinking of selecting one of them. But Musa Daggash said to me: no, there are other people senior to him, who are very good and effective.
The late H. Ejueyitchie was mentioned, and I appointed him as the Secretary to the Government! Now, the present Oba of Benin wrote in his book that I appointed Mr. Ejueyitchie Secretary to the Government, because he spoke fluent Hausa. I wrote in the foreword that this autobiography was the first time I knew that Mr. Ejueyitchie spoke fluent Hausa! (Laughter).
But H. Ejueyitchie and others were very experienced civil servants who had received tutelage under the British colonial masters and administrators. They became a source of pride for the nation for giving the most excellent advice. Of course, we all loved our country. We were loyal. We were patriots! We wanted the government to succeed! We had no political ideology that would pull us left, right and centre. Our political ideology was — the good and success of the government!! We had very brilliant people. Do you want to talk about Udoji? What about Abdul Atta? Lawson? Ejueyitchie? Daggash? Or Ebong and others?
These were very fine and loyal civil servants. I demanded that they be honest and frank with me, and to disagree with me on any issue in order to find the best answer to a particular problem. If any of them did anything surreptitiously to undermine the government, well that is left to them. But I did not see that in any of those that served me. There was this level of trust and confidence, and my style was — trust begets trust, confidence begets confidence.
One thing that stands out in our discussion of your permanent secretaries is that you were able to employ them based purely on the merit of their services, on what they could actually accomplish; what they represented, not where they came from. Today, people are selected to sensitive offices based on ethnicity and religion, and each state is required to produce ministers, even when we don’t need so many. Where will this way of thinking lead us?
I think there is a desire to see that every part of the country is represented. Earlier on, you talked about the Igbo feeling marginalized business-wise because of the indigenization policy. Now I think it is that sort of feeling that they are trying to avoid; government being accused of marginalizing various parts of the country. So if you can get representation from and for every part, good. Those days, I had such representation. We had a commissioner from each of the states of the Federation. Well, some had more, but it did not matter really. You choose people, as you said, based on their ability, irrespective of their tribe or religion. Every Nigerian has the capability of working hard if given the opportunity. It is only a bit of selfishness and greed — some people say “avarice,” but I say avarice sounds like “have a rice” (General laughter) that probably makes people deviate from doing the right thing. If people would try to serve honestly, without fear or favour, and to eschew corruption for their own and the good of the people of the country, things might improve a little.
Your generation was the product of very good schools and quality education. Today our educational system has collapsed. How do we get back on track?
I was reading one of the papers where someone was saying that the standard of education in Nigerian universities is as good as anywhere in the world! So I said, yes, anywhere in the world! I hope it is not some of the backyard universities in America or India! But otherwise, things have gone really bad with our education and something has to be done, especially in Igbo areas where it seems the boys don’t like going to school, and only the girls seem to be going for education. I think it is something serious we have to look into. I am not saying that it is a bad thing for the girls to go to school. I am delighted; it is very good for them. Women are showing hard work and industry and are probably more dependable than most of the men. So it is a good thing as far as the girls are concerned; but I am really concerned about the young Igbo boys not willing to go to school.
One of the institutions you left behind, and thank God it has not been scrapped, is the National Youth Service Corps. It is an institution that, at least, tries to make Nigerians understand one another. On the other hand, however, we have so much ethnic acrimony and tension. Would you say the National Youth Service Corps is really delivering on its mandate to unify this country?
Well, it is not its duty and responsibility to do that, but it does it by its own example, and I believe it is doing very well, indeed. I am always very delighted, and members of the Youth Service Corps are delighted too, whenever they see me. You see them rushing to me as if am the great grand father of Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps! But they are demonstrating a unified goal through their example, and this really helps. At least, this helps to reduce those unfortunate areas of acrimony that create niggling worries to anyone who loves the nation, and would like to see more harmony, people not worried about ethnicity or religion. But remember, Nigeria is made up of over a hundred million people. Why should you be worried unless, of course, those problems lead to the kind of serious crisis that, for example, led us into the civil war? But I hope that this won’t happen, and that sooner or later, those concerned will evolve a more acceptable way of relating to one another and not creating more problems.
(Cuts in) Your Excellency, it is not enough, because in the Niger Delta alone, some militias have more arms today than the whole of Biafra ever had! And they are waging all sorts of wars.
(Alarmed). Where did they get the arms from? It means that a force from outside, desirous of fomenting trouble, is responsible for this, and we have got to find out where it is coming from! In that case, then we need to deal with the issue very, very firmly! I think that is the only way it can be done. We can try to dialogue or through political persuasion. But what is happening is not right! It may not even result in what they desire! No nation should allow such a thing to happen! Many nations that have gone that way, you yourself know how it ended with those people.
You are a very religious man. Do you think the religious organisations in this country have done enough to help with Nigeria’s problems?
Well, I know that in our little organisation, Nigeria Prays that is what we are trying to do. At least, those we got through to seem to believe in what we are doing, and are playing their part in helping to keep the oneness and peace of the nation. At least, by being peaceful, law abiding, patriotic citizens, we are playing our own part. Differences in religion can create problems, especially the imported ones. Some of the extreme differences that we are having in Nigeria today, if Christian oriented, are probably imported ideas from some of these American churches — fundamentalism from some of the American churches — because I have some experience of that.
If it is Muslim, on the other hand, one gets extreme Muslim groups from the Middle or Far East. Some of these dogmatists or Fundamentalists get to a stage where they begin to cause disharmony to the rest. But I hope that in Nigeria, we will try to tolerate each other, and through honest and sincere dialogue weather the storm.
You mention the influence of external religious forces; when Gen. Babangida dragged Nigeria into the Organization of Islamic Conference, OIC, this caused a great deal of controversy. However, a regular excuse was that General Gowon, a Christian, had put Nigeria in an observer status in the OIC. What was the merit of OIC?
My government was a government of all Nigerians, of all ethnic groups, of all faiths. And the OIC was an Islamic organization that looked after the well being of all Muslims worldwide, but wanted Nigeria to join as a Muslim country. I said, no, Nigeria is not a Muslim country. Nigeria is a secular country as far as religion is concerned; it does not take any one religion as its dominant religion. However, for the interest of our Muslims, I saw nothing wrong in Nigerians, NOT the government, acting as observers, and that was why we sent either the Sultan or a Muslim religious leader. If we sent any member of government, he went only as an observer in order to learn how the body could help Nigerian Muslims develop even more strongly in their faith as well as become faithful and loyal to their country. Yes, we sent observers, but the Nigerian government was never a member! Nigeria is not an Islamic country and therefore cannot become a full member!!
Do you feel sufficiently rewarded by the Nigerian nation, given that you served this country at a very critical moment?
I have no regrets whatsoever. I thank God for the opportunity of a leadership role in this country, and I thank those who helped me in my government. But above all, I thank the people for their support and love. You may say what of the Igbo, and I will say, no, I am not fighting the Igbo as a people. I was only fighting the authority that used some of the Igbo sons and daughters to fight against their nation. Once that was done, it was a question of embrace of true love. And the love and affection that one had from the Igbo people, yesterday and today, and as I tell people, some of the best sleep that I had was in the Igbo area, after the war when I was visiting that part of the country. And that says something and today, one can go there and one is at peace with the people. If therefore they had not given that support, it would have been a different story. They said, okay, let us trust him and see. If he says he wants us in One Nigeria, let us see whether he would be sincere. And that was when they accepted to come back to the fold. Yes, although I said I had no regrets in fighting the civil war, it was to bring the Igbo back to the fold, I say this with a sense of endearment, because Nigeria would have been the loser without the Igbo making their contributions to the greatness of this country in whatever sphere it is.
By the way, have you taken any chieftaincy title in Igboland?
Yes. I think they have given me something. Are you a chief?
Yes. I am a chief.
Okay! (He exchanges the traditional greeting of Igbo chiefs: three back hands and one fore hand) Now you know! (laughter)
Now if you met Ojukwu, what will you call him? General….
(Cuts in) I will call him a rebel! (Laughter). No, no, no. Don’t you worry! Honestly he is an old colleague, an old brother. That’s all. I call him Emeka and he calls me Jack, because that is what I was known by in my training days at Eaton Hall. Honestly, he may say harsh things about me, and I may say harsh things about him, but we are friends. And it is only in Nigeria this can happen. In other countries, would he be allowed to run for President? I remember I used to make a joke. I said, well, if Ojukwu was going to run for President, I would run as well, and let the people freely and truly choose whom it is they want. But then it would have seemed like a repeat of the civil war, so I said we needed to avoid giving such impression.
How do you spend your time as an elder statesman?
Well, I have been busier than ever. I told you I was going to Abeokuta for Nigeria Prays, and then for the Guinea Worm Eradication programme in Ogun and Oyo States. When I come back, I shall be off to Abuja for the Commonwealth Games bid meeting. The following Monday, I have the Carter Centre Partners review meeting. I come back home, and then I’m off to London for the Global Fund International meeting. I can assure you that I am very, very busy with one thing or the other. Last week, I was in Nanka village. (Prof Dora) Akunyili was being honoured by her people. A post office was being named after her. I was there. There are a lot of things I am involved with; apart from the Council of States meetings, there are also board meetings of the companies I am involved with.
My last question, and it is the million-dollar question. When are you going to publish your memoir? The nation is waiting!
Very good! They have been asking me that question. Honestly I have not been able to get that written. I’m sure you know Chief (Joop) Berkhout of Spectrum Books?
He has been pestering me to do this for sometime now. A great many people are pestering my life about writing a memoir, and when I see them, I run away. I think I will begin to run away from you too! (laughter) But I hope, one day, you will be able to help me poof-read it, and make it better.
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