A former Chief of Army Staff and prominent member of the defunct National Democratic Coalition, Gen. Alani Akinrinade (retd.), in this interview talks about restructuring Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari’s protracted ill-health and agitation for an independent state of Biafra.
Can the country succeed without restructuring?
I do not see us going far at all under the regime (of President Muhammadu Buhari) we have put ourselves. We have put decision-making and responsibilities in the wrong places – that’s why corruption is so widespread. It is refreshing hearing some prominent politicians talking about restructuring. Governor Rauf Aregbesola and Atiku Abubakar are founding members of the All Progressives Congress and restructuring is in the party’s manifesto. The APC ought to have a forum where its members could debate the party’s performance and what they can do better, going forward. Unfortunately, they have not done that yet. They should live up to what they promised us that they are going to do. In a good country, we would run them (APC government) out of town in the next (2019 presidential) election. That’s what should be. But who’s going to do that? Where will you get the money to start a veritable opposition party? They have made the rules of engagement in (contesting) political elections to be too stringent so that the masses cannot set up their own political party. Where will they get the money? The political elite have manufactured roadblocks and put them in the constitution to ensure that it is almost impossible for people to challenge them. Whether they (the ruling party) want to look at the 2014 confab report or they don’t want to do so, the President had said he would throw that document into the archives anyway. The political elite do not want to review the constitution because they want to keep benefitting from the morass that is going on. If we have honestly debated among ourselves in this country, there won’t be 36 states. Nigeria cannot boast of being larger than three states in the United States of America. There are many documents (in which the issue of restructuring has been addressed), it is not just the confab report alone that spelt out how Nigeria can move forward and make great strides.
President Muhammadu Buhari is said to be in the stranglehold of a cabal operating from inside the presidency, taking undue advantage of his poor health. What is your view?
It is very ironic. Why is Nigeria so unlucky? It’s not once; it’s now twice. Suddenly, President Muhammadu Buhari is missing in action. I have been in the same position with Buhari – we had all lived together when we were junior (military) officers. We played hockey together. He was a very taciturn person – he was not a loud individual; not a show-man. But certainly, he was serious about his work. The way people see him within the populace is almost the same way we see him in the Army: a man who is straightforward, always dutiful. He is always willing to do something about anything that is necessary. To be president of Nigeria is not a tea party; it is not a joke. It is a very serious matter. He finally succeeded, not just succeeded by himself but by bringing together a whole amalgamation of all sorts of politicians. All those efforts and the time span (leading to his emergence as president) could have afforded him the opportunity, not only to see where the country is in the stream of time, but to explore a lot of ideas about what he wants to do if he won. I don’t think he could have tried that hard (to become Nigeria’s president) if he thought it would be business as usual.
It is true that all over the world there are movers and shakers of the society. There is always a ring of people who, in one aspect of our life or the other, can make a lot of difference. But if they are patriotic enough, they should not behave the way they are now behaving. The mere fact that the President doesn’t come out to address us, doesn’t show up anywhere; but we only hear stories about medical personnel arriving from all over the world to treat him – true or false – we have to believe that in the absence of an authentic story. Even the wife of the President tweeted and Nigerians felt she could not have been the one who said her husband’s health isn’t as bad as people are saying. There is no country that is run behind a president. Buhari is the man we voted for and so, he is responsible for everything. Therefore, the existence of a cabal is his responsibility. Probably, that is the way he wants to operate. But he must bear responsibility for everything. The man at the top is the president and the buck stops at his table.
Do you think, given his record of integrity, Buhari is handling the issue of corruption well?
Anti-corruption is a serious enterprise. In Nigeria, whoever wants to make a difference in the nation’s anti-corruption crusade must have a very huge plan – a huge plan that he would have tested and discussed with his people and friends at various fora to see the intricacies of the anti-graft enterprise. I will say maybe Buhari is unfortunate; because (to become the president) he had a lot of support from the people he ought to be fighting. I can understand that. But he ought to have established the ground rule right from the beginning; that he was going to fight corruption without sparing anyone. The Buhari I know must have considered all that before he entered into this melee; this tug of war that is going on. President Buhari is being accused of being partial, shielding his own people from prosecution. The Buhari I know will like to live right above corruption. Hence, the first people probably he would want to clean out should be those in his own establishment. Our country is said to be of more than 170 million people. I don’t think Buhari should have any problem of who should work with him and who shouldn’t. I don’t think it’s a good idea for him to surround himself with individuals Nigerians are suspicious of.
I am not saying they are guilty of anything. I don’t think Buhari is the kind of person who will sit by and do nothing or very little about that problem. He seems almost cowed into doing nothing. I understand it’s a democracy; it’s not a dictatorship. But as a president, he has critical decisions to make. That is why I am wondering: does he see the extent of damage that is going on? He has four years and he cannot spend the first two just squabbling about matters that ought to be tackled decisively. We don’t want to see him as a man who cannot take a decision. Right or wrong, he has to stand somewhere. It is very difficult for me to see Buhari at the top of this pile that allows this kind of mess to go on for so long without us having a concrete way out.
Some people feel he’s too ill to continue as the country’s president. Is that your view too?
I am sure he and the people around him know that this is not a sentimental issue. If he is too ill to work, then he should leave (the presidency) and go (resign). It’s better for him to resign before his reputation is destroyed or before whatever he has stood for all his life goes up in flames. Nigeria is not going to disappear if he resigns. I can’t imagine the fact that we have a sick leader and therefore life must stop for more than 170 million people. The issue is too important for somebody to be sentimental about. He has signed on to something he knows is physically demanding. If his health doesn’t give him the strength to do that anymore, he should throw in the towel and tell the people, ‘Sorry, I’m going home. I can’t do this anymore.’ It is not a good idea in the mess the country is, not to have a leader who talks to us almost every week on important issues – to uplift our spirit. That’s what good leaders do all over the world. They uplift the spirit of their people. We’re living in very difficult times. If he cannot have an imprint as a leader, he should just take a walk.
But the Federal Government said some looted funds had been retrieved.
Even the looted funds we have retrieved, where are they? We have heard of stolen money and properties being retrieved. Have we ever seen any type of auctioning of those properties since the time of Obasanjo? Have you ever seen an auctioneer ring a bell to sell a house in Ikoyi? So, what happened to the properties? If they sold them, where is the money? Who accounted for it? These are questions Nigerians should address their minds to. When the budget comes, nobody hears about anything – there is no column in the budget where recovered looted funds are spelt out in the budget. There is a lot of work Buhari and his people have to do which, to my mind, is not done and it has to be done transparently so that people are convinced. Look at the whistle-blower policy: we don’t know who has blown the whistle and how much has been paid. Things have to be done transparently. Long before he was sworn in as president, he must have known of these issues and that is why there is an interregnum between when a president is elected and when he assumes power. Once he assumes office, he should have crystallised those ideas or issues that are core to the nation’s peace and development. He should have hit the ground running. It’s the haziness of the atmosphere that makes me think that a military person of Buhari’s type and age, who has seen Nigeria the way it is, is now having difficulty in crystallising ideas and making people know where the nation is going. There must be possibility of a cleansing. It has happened elsewhere in the world. They didn’t necessarily crucify people, hanging people upside-down, but they retrieved their money.
Buhari and Tinubu in 2010 expressed worry over ex-President Umaru Yar’Adua’s ill-health and urged him to resign or be impeached. Do you think Buhari should apply that advice to himself now?
We are living in very interesting time. That statement is the Buhari that I know – that ‘look, if you can’t do the job, get out.’ That’s what he was saying (to Yar’Adua); a man from his own village in Katsina State. He could have said that about anybody. But when it is now his turn, that is where I am confused. Why will he not take a walk? No one needs to impeach Buhari. The Buhari I know will say, ‘Look, I am just tired of this job. There is no way I can cope with it anymore. I’m leaving. Let somebody else do the job.’ You won’t need to push Buhari. He knows when the drummer has stopped beating the drum and then he quits dancing. Again, that is where, for me, the whole confusion starts. I do not see a country in the situation that Nigeria is today.
Why do you think the country has been in a fix for many years?
You see, the polity that we have, simply because of the way it is organised, has not afforded the masses the opportunity to put any pressure on the government; to make them account for what they told us they are going to do. They clearly, in the APC manifesto, stated that they would restructure and give more powers to the federating units. But the question is: how will they distribute such powers? It was very clear in the constitution that brought us (Nigeria) independence. It is the manipulation of the same political class who wanted hegemony everywhere that began to shift away from that federalism. Back then, the regions had their own police; same with the local governments – even the obas had akoda (security agency). And, then you have a third party who decides – that is, the judiciary. That is the way we knew it and our society worked. The politicians came and in their struggle to take over the country, things started pulling apart and that started from the West. Unless we go back to that system, we’re not heading anywhere.
Look at the presidential system for example. Osun State – my own state, I always use it as an example – cannot maintain more than a chief executive officer of a county in America. The whole budget of my state is not up to what is allocated for health care delivery in a county in New York. I am not talking about New York City but a county in New York. Yet, we are asked to maintain a governor, a House of Assembly and all sorts of amorphous people we see in our parliament – jesters and clowns. Doing what? We are not realistic. Again, look at Lagos. The government is spending money on unnecessary things because the state is almost maintaining the federal police. Yet, it has other agencies like the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority and the Kick Against Indiscipline doing the work of the police. Now, (Governor Akinwunmi) Ambode has to maintain the police, providing armoured vehicles and police vans you see around in Lagos. If he doesn’t buy them, Abuja won’t buy them. Whether Abuja gives the money to the (police) ministry to distribute to its commands across the nation, we don’t know. Again, how can you buy vans to aid policing in Rivers State when the area requires more of speedboats and related equipment? Some people cannot sit in Abuja and decide the fate of people whose challenges and ecological situations they do not know.
Do you think the Federal Government is handling the agitation for an independent state of Biafra and Nnamdi Kanu the right way?
It is usually treasonable to take up arms against one’s country – even to have violent demonstrations. But, one must keep asking oneself: why? Why would a normal person, especially from the educated class, participate in anything that would be either illegal or dangerous? It is not good for us to look at these people (pro-Biafra agitators) as just hoodlums. We know how Isaac Adaka Boro was treated. He didn’t have military knowledge. If he did, Nigeria would have been a different place today. So, eventually he died. The next charge was led by an intellectual (Ken Saro-Wiwa) and it’s not different from what these boys (pro-Biafra agitators) are doing now and asking for – except that he put his own in a very intellectual context and tried to make us reason with him. What did we do? The government hanged him, hoping his ideas would die with him in the noose. That’s where we still are today. Therefore, whether Nnamdi Kanu embarked on his agitation the right or the wrong way, the question is: what prompted such agitation? Why would anybody keep talking about Biafra after the carnage, the wanton destruction of lives and properties and the psychological trauma brought upon Nigerians, not just people from the East? I don’t have the mind to condemn the Indigenous People of Biafra, the (Niger Delta) Avengers, and other groups. Who created the situation for these people to think differently from us?
Hasn’t Nigeria learnt its lesson?
Saro-Wiwa was murdered but that has not ended agitations in the Niger Delta. There are now armed gangs whose posture is that, ‘If you cannot hear us from the soapbox, then you will hear us from the barrel of the gun.’ We have learnt nothing. Something is missing in the democracy we are running. It is worse than dictatorship. There is little or no hope left for the man on the street. That is why I cannot agree with the view that because of a cabal, a leader we voted for cannot put his imprint on governance. Where did we go wrong? We should be courageous to look at these issues. If I had been born an Ijaw man, in the creeks of Niger Delta, I could have died a guerrilla. Do we take joy in parading Nnamdi Kanu in court as often as possible? We don’t even know how Tompolo’s matter is being handled.
There are quite a number of ‘generals’ in the riverine areas. If things get worse, we cannot trust that one day, somebody is not going to take up arms again – from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, we have the Niger Delta Avengers. We are living very dangerous lives. I am not sure we are going to get rid of all these people making agitations the way we are going about dealing with them. If we like, we can hang Kanu; we have done it before (to other agitators). We can go and hang him – we’ll make a martyr out of him. Then, we would have made his cause more visible. People will then examine what he died for, resulting in Nigeria dealing with something more difficult to contain.
What is your view about an allegation against former President Olusegun Obasanjo by some military officers, who were falsely implicated in the 1995 phantom coup, that he failed to get justice for them?
I only have peripheral knowledge of the 1995 coup allegation because while the charade was going on, I was in exile. I couldn’t but burst into tears when I saw how Obasanjo and the rest were being paraded to demean and dismiss their sacrifices to the country. It was pathetic. However, when Obasanjo became the president, like those boys are claiming now, I think he owed them – he could have turned round to right what he knew was wrong. If he wasn’t part of the 1995 injustice, it could have been excusable. But he was at the centre of it. He ought to have done something concrete about it. I think the boys are right to reach that conclusion. Even I that wasn’t part of the so-called coup could not have had my benefits. Tom Ikimi and his co-travellers working for (Gen. Sani) Abacha, cooked up charges that (Prof. Wole) Soyinka and I were responsible for the spate of bombings that were going on in the country back then. Ikimi came to the Commonwealth conference to declare that I was the bomb expert. While in the Army, I was not in engineering; I was in the infantry. I only knew about bombs as much as learning how to detect and defuse them and not to make them. Ikimi declared unequivocally that I was responsible. So, they wrote Part 1 order that I was no longer in the Army and that I was stripped of my ranks.
But when I returned from exile (following the demise of Abacha), Gen. Danjuma was in charge of the defence ministry and Gen. Gusau was in charge of national security. I don’t think they ever consulted Obasanjo when they threw away all those funny documents that the Abacha regime had piled up against me. If not for those two people, my benefits and ranks wouldn’t have been restored. If they had consulted Obasanjo, he could have said no (to the benefits and ranks being restored to me). Between the two, the matter was settled swiftly. It is unthinkable for me to imagine that Obasanjo was part and parcel of that injustice and he accepted state pardon – I wrote to him that he should not accept the pardon. Pardon is for convicted felons. What he could have done was to get lawyers to go back to court, to reopen the matter and find out exactly how the whole thing was manipulated. No, Obasanjo was too eager to become president. He ignored that advice. Every time I see him, I say, ‘You were a convicted criminal. You accepted state pardon for doing no wrong.’ He didn’t do anything; he was implicated in the coup. – Culled from Punch.