A sprawling view of Abeokuta lay prostrate from his hilltop mansion, a metaphor for the clout of its owner, a man whose sheer strength of character held an impossible Nigeria in the palm of his hand for eight long years. It is not for nothing that he is called Baba, yet another aphorism for some sort of a hard-to-get-to-know paterfamilias, whose offspring would usually approach with great trepidation, not knowing exactly what to expect.
Long after he had left office, as President of the Federal Republic, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s home is still like a pilgrimage ground, with hordes of visitors, trooping in and out, to hold court for one reason, or the other — Baba’s opinion, influence and wise counsel, still count. The man is, indeed, an enigma. Playful, as a kitten, wise, as an oracle, hard, as a tornado-nail, and wily, as a fox, you have to watch your step — every step of the way — with the general.
When our team of reporter and camera crew stepped into his living room to keep the interview appointment, his face was buried deep in a game of ‘ayo’; he was busy enjoying with a friend, a local, surrounded by visitors, and more visitors, some waiting in an ante-chamber. Without raising his face from the game, and waving his left arm, almost hostilely, his well-known gravel-voice barked out, with all the force of a subaltern marshalling a phalanx of his men into action, as we moved our gear into place: “Where d’you want to set up?”
Yet, the next moment, as he broached questions, he stuck out his hand at some point, to “take five” with the reporter, when he seemed ‘into the session’. He had been asked about the future of the youth of this country, his pet subject. He had also been referred to the rumour from some quarters, that he is a hater of the Igbo.
Well, if, actually, he hates the Igbo, how come his government appointed the most number of Igbo to so-called powerful positions, perhaps more than any other government, since independence? How come his Chief-of-Staff — a young man he has described as “my beloved son, in whom I’m well pleased” — was Igbo?
His face lit up, as he took those questions on the youth, particularly on his closest aide whilst in office, Dr. Andy Uba: “Andy was the first man that saw me in the morning, when I woke up and the last man that saw me at night, before I went to bed…”
Of course, intermittently, flashes of his legendary disdain for the Press came forth through the phrase, “You press people”. No matter. As he took his seat before the camera, on a sculpted perch before his beloved ‘ayo’ board, we were as determined, as General Obasanjo remained his combative, old self. Out-to-see!
—Basil Chiji Okafor
YOUR Excellency, recently, the media quoted you to have warned the government against an imminent youth revolution. You were also quoted to have described some of those young people as ‘Area Boys, Yahoo-Yahoo Boys, and ‘Blackberry Boys.’ How do you project the future of this country vis-à-vis this teeming young population that you so described?
Let me first of all put that statement in the context, which I made it. I was in Senegal at the invitation of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and the issue for discussion was Youth and Employment.
The Chief of Staff of the President of Senegal, who represented the president, gave stunning statistics. One of the statistics he gave was that 65 per cent of our populations in Africa, on the average, are under 25 years of age and well over 60 per cent of them that are old enough to have jobs, have no jobs. Now, my reaction to that is that we are all sitting on a keg of gunpowder.
If you are a young man, or young woman, between say, 18 to 30 years, you think that the entire world is in front of you, that you can achieve anything you want to achieve. And, what do you do? You struggle; you are young. Your parents sent you to primary school; by the time you leave primary school and go to secondary school, you start having the feeling that things are looking bright.
Then, you go to university and you come out and you look and it becomes a vapour — that hope, that expectation just flies away in front of you; no hope for a job. Then, of course, you become an educated, jobless person. I believe there is no greater frustration than that. And when that frustration turns to desperation, there is danger. So, that’s why I said we are all sitting on a keg of gunpowder.
It is not only in Nigeria, it is all Africa. You can even take it as a global thing because Spain has about 50 per cent (youth unemployment rate) and they’re a little bit better.
And as I said in that conference, I don’t know whether to say we’re in good company, or in bad company, if Spain is like that. But Spain is a different issue because it is a member of the European Union. Spain has an organisation that can write a cheque for her and bail her out and do things that would help her situation. We don’t have anybody that can write a cheque for us.
I then went on to say that if this is a global problem and we are the worst hit, our youth are the greatest victims, we must be seen to be doing something about it. And what should we do? I believe we must find a global solution. I prescribed that now that the international community, the UN, is working on a replacement for the MDGs, the Millennium Development Goals — because the MDGs would come to an end in 2015 and they’re wondering what to replace it with — and I said, whatever it is they come up with that would replace the MDGs must come up with one important element of it as youth employment. That must be the global approach.
And I said, there must also be the regional solution. The AU, African Union, has something that we — myself, President Thabo Mbeki and President (Abdelaziz) Bouteflika (of Algeria), when we were in government — initiated and worked on, which is called NEPAD (New Partnership for African Development).
I said the time has come when NEPAD must be reviewed, with the issue of youth employment made a major focus of the organisation. I also said that even ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), a sub-regional organisation, should do the same thing.
And at the national level, all our nations should have, in their economic development, this aspect of youth development, so that when you make your budget, whether it is medium-term budget, or annual budget, the content of your budget should be, when you spend this money, you earmark so much, either for agriculture, or for road, or for whatever, the question must be, what is its employment — particularly youth employment — content? You would build a road, yes, but what is its employment content?
I also went ahead to suggest that our states should do the same thing; the local governments should do the same thing. Even communities should be able to ask: what are we doing to ensure that our youth are gainfully employed? The private sector, too, must be challenged. They should not just come up and say, yeah, we’re doing well. And this so-called growth — oh, we grow by seven per cent GDP — we have growth, yet we have more poor people, more jobless people. How can you talk of growth without job for people, with people getting poorer and poorer? Then, there must be something wrong with that type of indicator for measuring our economic development.
‘Killers Of Youth Corps Members Must Be Dealt With’
THE purpose of the National Youth Service Corps, as a means of engaging our youth, presently, appears completely defeated; and it turns out that young people, after graduating from higher institutions, simply drift around for one precious and critical year of their lives, out of school. Should the NYSC scheme remain, or be scrapped, as many have voiced out?
The NYSC was not designed as a youth employment project. It was designed as a means of inculcating nationalism and patriotism into our youth, to render one year of service and thereby get to know their country. That was what the NYSC was designed for. If you remember, when it was started, people objected to it and went on strike because at that point in time, things were still reasonably alright, from the youth employment point of view. In 1973, people went on strike and they didn’t like it. But today, some people go into the NYSC even two or three times. There is nothing else they can do even though they don’t get full salaries; they just get a token, but it is still better for them than just sitting down and doing nothing.
Yes, it was meant to give them that sense of being Nigerian. That was the idea. Initially, that objective was achieved. I remember, for instance, one of our traditional rulers whose daughter was getting married. He invited me and I sat with him and he complained: “You see, this NYSC thing that you people have created, my daughter is getting married to somebody across the Niger; what if there’s an emergency, how do I run across the Niger?” I said, “Don’t worry; you don’t have to run across the Niger. Nowadays, you don’t have to run at all. There is telephone; there is Internet; there is email and so on.”
To the extent that it was meant to bring about youth understanding of their country, youth love of their country, youth service for their country, nationalism, patriotism; I believe, at least initially, it achieved that. It also brought about this unity; people knowing themselves; inter-marriage and things like that.
Now, a number of things have crept in. They do community service, but that community service has not been organised the way it used to be and the way it was meant to be organised. In the last election, for instance, 13 Youth Corps members were killed. That doesn’t help the Youth Service scheme. We must all decry that; we must all condemn it. Now, those who killed them, what happened? What have we heard about them?
If I have a child that I have seen through school and into Youth Service and I say, Youth Corps is meant for you to serve and he or she agrees with me and the next thing you know, my child’s body is brought home to me in a bag, how am I supposed to feel about the Service as a means of ministering to the youth and to my children?
So, what is your position; do you want the Service scrapped?
I don’t think it should be scrapped; I think it should be reviewed. Where there are lapses, such shortcomings should be corrected. We should revisit the initial aims and objectives. Are those aims and objectives still relevant today? If they’re relevant, what has gone wrong in the operationalisation and what should we be doing?
It is something that is good for the country; I believe it is good for the country.
‘My Generation Laid Foundation Of Today’s Democratic Dispensation’
LOOKING at the situation on ground, it would seem that your generation accomplished quite a lot. But as the days went by, the situation kept getting worse, and the scale of achievement appearing to diminish by the day. What spurred your generation to its comparatively greater successes, as it were?
Now that you bring it to generation, I will speak generally about generation, but I do not believe that there is any generation that does not have heroic qualities in them. There is no generation that you would just write off. Of course, the situation in every generation varies. For instance, I have said that whatever we may say about the generation before our own generation, it is the generation that gave us independence. Whatever you may say about them, they gave us independence and that you cannot deny. Well, they did not fight for it; it was given to them on a platter of gold. But whatever you may say, they gave us independence.
(Cuts in) Just like we cannot deny that General Obasanjo dismantled the power cartel that hitherto controlled Nigerian politics so viciously…?
(Smiles, ignores the interjection and continues) You also cannot deny — and I have said this — that my own generation fought for the unity of this country. Obasanjo just happened to be one of the feasible instruments, but my generation must claim credit for that. My generation can also be credited with laying the foundation of today’s democratic dispensation in Nigeria.
Now, about the opportunities the generation before us and our own generation have had, members of the present-day generation have asked me and I have said they equally have the opportunity to build on the foundation that my own generation and the others, have laid: how do you enhance democracy; how do you strengthen and deepen democracy? That is the responsibility of the present generation and they can do it, and they must do it. How do they really make us have an economy? How do they make Nigeria one of the largest economies by the year 2020? That is their challenge and they must do it. Then, you ask what the ingredients are that make for greater success in one generation? Well, not every member of a particular generation would be outstanding. You have some that would be drivers, while others would be passengers. You may even have some that constitute a setback. But they are all members of the same generation.
Having said that, there are certain qualities in individuals that, if developed, and if the environment and the community help, that individual would become a very important contributor in that generation.
What am I saying? First of all, there must be education. For instance, you are talking to me and we are communicating in the same language because you have education. If we were to go back to our respective mother-tongues, I won’t be able to understand what you’re saying. All I understand in Igbo is, “ogom”. And this is because when we were in Kaduna, whenever I went to my friend, Chukwuma Nzeogwu’s house, Mama (his mother), who never spoke a word of English, would hug me and say, “ogom”. I wouldn’t know what to answer and Chukwuma would just laugh at us and say, “Look at these two people.” (I also understand, “dianyi” and I also understand, “ka chi fonu”)
Now seriously speaking, education is foremost. Then, there are those other qualities such as integrity, honesty, courage, truthfulness, so that when you say something, people can rely on it. If it however turns out that the information you had when you said a particular thing wasn’t adequate, you go back and correct it and say, ‘look, in the light of new information I have, let me correct what I said earlier.’ These qualities must be developed. Then, values! But what values do we stand for now? When I was growing up, when you saw a man in a new car, you prayed for him because the belief was that he had worked hard, and he had earned the car that he had acquired. You prayed for him and wished you would become like him some day.
But when I was in the Yola prison, each time we heard a siren blow past from behind our walls, all the prisoners would start cursing the man in the car, with the siren. So, one day, I called them and said, “look, what is all this?” They replied and said all those people were thieves. How did we degenerate to the point where we now believe that every car owner is a thief?
So, I told them that I bought my first car, brand-new, in 1961. I wasn’t a thief. I bought it with my money. In 1960, I went to the Congo (war, with the UN contingent) and I was getting UN allowance, Nigerian allowance and my salary was kept, intact. And I came back and bought a car. Was I a thief? They said, “Oh no, no, no; your time was different.” I think we should backtrack and find out what we have done wrong. How did we lose those values that we cherished so much, those values of integrity and hard work? Now, when you continue to extol a thief in your community, what do you expect? Whilst I was growing up, the children of those who were known to be of bad character in the village were ostracised, not just the man, but the entire family. But now, a thief, because he has money, would be the first you would want to give your daughter to. What sort of thing is that?
‘Secret Of My Staying Power Is Knowing Nigeria A Little Bit...’
YOU are a very strong personality and you simply held Nigeria in the palm of your hand…
(Cuts in, smiling) I don’t know about that…
How did you do it?
(Still smiling and general laughter) I didn’t hold… You see, that again… that’s not correct; I didn’t hold Nigeria in the palm of my hand…
(Cuts in) No leader has ever held Nigeria like that… a civilian government; what’s the secret?
(Continues smiling) Look, let me tell you; whatever you’re going to do, you must know it; you must understand it. I think without being immodest, I know Nigeria a little bit and that is very important. This country is a complex one and you must know that. I was in Warri the other day and I was saying to them that when I was going to contest election in 1999, people, including a Bishop of the Anglican Church, were saying to me — and listen to this — that a Yoruba man had never held the Ministry of Internal Affairs at the Centre — and these were well-meaning people. Now, I know that there is nothing in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, except the Prisons and Immigration. That is reality and the reality, for me, is that there is really nothing important in that ministry. But the perception is different and I must cater to that perception.
So, when we won the election, I said well, if there were some people who felt that there was a particular ministry that the Yoruba were excluded from, then let a Yoruba man go there. I decided that Chief S.M Afolabi (may his soul rest in peace) should go there. Of course, I knew S.M Afolabi; he was my senior in secondary school. So, I said, “Now you have a Yoruba man in the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” and they said: “Yes, yes, yes!” But what does it really come to?
In the same vein, we had an Igbo lady as Minister of Finance. We had an Igbo man (nice man) as Governor of the Central Bank. Yet, some people said the Igbo were still not pleased. Why? They said since the end of the Civil War, an Igbo man had never been Minister of Defence. I then explained that the Minister of Defence is only an administrative head of the ministry. Those people that really matter are the Service Chiefs, who command their Services. They said nooo. So, I said, “Alright, don’t worry. If that is the perception, we can deal with it.” So, I brought Tom Ironsi, the son of my own oga (JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi) — I went to the Congo in 1960, under the command of General Ironsi. I satisfied the reality, and I also satisfied the perception. It may not mean anything to other people, but you must know how you carry out the checks and balances. Then also, if things happen, who are the people you can reach? Who are the people you can call? Who are the people that can advice you, genuinely? You must have all of that. For a country like this, you must have that. It is this feeling of knowing what rope, what chain, to pull, that makes a difference.
‘Sani Proclaimed Sharia To Make Himself Untouchable’
THERE’S something intriguing about you, 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?
(Pauses) 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. It’s 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 (Sani Ahmad), 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 (Zamfara), was really making life unbearable for him, according to him (Sani). 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 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 (members) 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 worry them and they didn’t worry 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 of 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 (Sani) 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. THERE were stories of you gunning for a third term whilst in office. May we ask if you honestly support the idea of a strong leader, and for a third term, or longer period in office, for the sake of continuity that some people are talking about, in order to stabilise the country? 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 cannot build the fortunes of a country only on one individual, all the time. 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’s look at one recent misfortune that befell this country — the demise of former President Yar’Adua. People say you knew he was dying, and you merely handed over to him because it was your strategy for returning power to the South. Frankly, did you 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. 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 (Yar’Adua).
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 knew he would die — who knows who will die? Do you know when you will 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.
‘1966 Coup Adversely Affected The Fortunes Of Nigeria’
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 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.
Was that January 1966 coup 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 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 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 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. I think that it was after Murtala (Muhammed) 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 understanding of nationalism and patriotism.
Was the rebellion that led to Biafra right?
Look, like I have said, there were actions and there were reactions. And in human interactions, reactions are normally stronger than actions. In the law of physics, action and reaction are equal and opposite but in human interactions, action and reaction are opposite, but they are not normally equal. It is either the reaction — if you have the opportunity — is stronger than the action, or action is stronger than reaction, if you are weak and feeble. There were actions and reactions, but at the end of the day, we have to backtrack. We have said that the coup was a mistake of some naïve, may be, nationalistic officers. So, the other reaction must be taken from that context. As a result of that, there were reactions. Then, there were reactions, to reactions and more reactions to other reactions. I cannot really justify anything. All I would say is that we came out of it. The way we came out of it, we thank God for it. Nigeria could have been divided by that and I remember that in 1999, when I was going round and people were advising me, suggesting to me what to say, or not to say, I went to Kano, to one distinguished Kano man and he said that his position was that he didn’t want to have to carry a visa, to go to Lagos, or to Enugu, or to Port Harcourt. And I also said to him, yes, I am considering contesting because I, too, do not want to have to carry a visa to come to Kano, or to go to Kaduna, or Calabar, or Port Harcourt. I don’t think it is a question of what is right, or who is right; I think that what we should say is that, that period was an unfortunate period for Nigeria. We thank God we put it behind us.
‘The Youth Must Be Part Of Today, Not Just Tomorrow’
YOU were chairman of the Board of Trustees of the PDP before you suddenly resigned; was it that the party was doing certain underhand things that you didn’t like, or what?, I told people that I want to face four things. One, I’m building a presidential library. In fact, I want to pay more attention to it. This opportunity that has opened for Africa, with the situations in 2008, in America and Eurozone crises, has opened a window of opportunity for investment in Africa. I want to go around, getting investments for Africa, generally and for Nigeria, in particular. Then, there are those young men and women in Africa, who believe that they need to be mentored and I make myself available to them. That was one of the things I went to do in Senegal, recently. This group of Africans — they call themselves ‘Africa 2.0’, — I talk to them and mentor them. And then, the international arena is making more demand on my time. So far, you have been the only Nigerian leader to ever talk of a presidential library; what are we to expect of this current, pet project of yours? It should be a repository of all that happened in my life and what impact Nigeria has made on it and vice-versa. It would be a museum and an archive and a place of education, for those who want to be educated; a place of research, for those who want to research and a place of tourism, for those who just want to look and enjoy themselves.
What advice have you for the youth of this country, particularly, the restive ones?
The advice would not be for the restive youth alone. What I want to say to the youth is that I don’t accept this idea of tomorrow for the youth. No. You must be part of today. If you are not part of today, your tomorrow might be spoilt, marred, or totally destroyed for you by those who are in-charge of today. So, the youth must fix themselves into today, so that tomorrow would be available to them. As for those of us who believe that we have the God-given right to do things, as we like, let us remember that we would give account here. But the account-giving is not only here; we would give account yonder. You truly appear to love young people from all over and mentoring them. In this particular regard, we refer to your chief-of-staff, Dr. Andy Uba, who is not even Yoruba, but was your closest aide whilst you were in office. What can you say about your relationship with him? Andy was the first person that saw me in the morning and the last person that saw me at night.
Awolowo Didn’t Kill Igbo With Starvation, Blame The Commanders..
WHAT would you say about the controversy stirred up by Chinua Achebe’s book, in which he pointedly accused Chief Obafemi Awolowo of masterminding the starvation that killed off millions of Igbo during the war?
I don’t comment on that type of thing… I don’t comment on that type of thing. Look, I was a participant. Awolowo was given a task to manage the finances of the country, to fight a war. He was not given control of killing anybody. If you would accuse anybody, it should be those of us who were commanders in the field.
And if you cannot accuse us of that (and you cannot), how could you accuse anybody else? Because, as I was fighting in the field, I was feeding and as young men were coming out of the Igbo enclave, I was sending them for training. And when they finished their training, I gave them guns, to face where they were coming from. That was how I fought the war. When I was going to take Owerri, for instance, I didn’t bombard the town. I could jolly well have bombarded Owerri…
(Cuts in) Can you describe that action, sir?
(Waves it off) I won’t... (Laughter) I have said it several times and publicly, too, that a civil war is one experience that is harrowing — when you are fighting, to unite. If you are fighting to destroy, that’s a different thing altogether. How do I fight people that I want, and see as brothers? The day the war ended in the field, I got David Ogunewe. We were going round. Poor man! He didn’t have shoes and I said, take my shoes, because we were together in 5th Battalion. Even Emeka (Odumegwu-Ojukwu) himself — Emeka used to call me ‘Omoba’. We were all colleagues — Ogbugo Kalu, Mike Ivenso and others, including Patrick Amadi, with whom I joined the army the same day. So, how do I see them as enemy? I believe, on both sides, mistakes were made. We put those mistakes behind us, to move on. Another controversy concerning you directly was that Chief Awolowo won the 1979 presidential election, but you favoured the North and handed over power to Alhaji Shehu Shagari…
Did Awolowo win; did Awolowo win?
That was what the Unity Party of Nigeria, in particular, claimed…UPN said so, but did Awolowo win? If Awolowo didn’t win, why should I hand over to him? If Awolowo didn’t win, on what ground would I hand over to him, because I’m a Yoruba and Awolowo was Yoruba? If I did that, God will not forgive me.
I was there to be an impartial adjudicator. And Chief Michael Ani, who was the (electoral) umpire, didn’t tell me that Awolowo won. If he had told me that, Awolowo would have won (be declared). You see, that is another thing we must kill in this country. I must look at you for what you are worth, not because you are ‘dianyi’, or ‘mgbati-mgbati’, or ‘malam’. No. What is the quality of this man? How do you do justice, show fairness? How do you now build a nation? We have to build a nation, whether we like it or not. Some people still believe they can secede. I think it is fantasy. Well, good luck to them.