My life as Nigeria’s poorest ex-General – Ishola Williams

Meet General Ishola Williams(rtd), the man who made news in 1993 when he walked out on the Army and government headed by former Head of State, late General Sani Abacha.

The bearded man who resigned from the Army on the premise that the military takeover that brought Abacha in was immoral, is an interesting personality to behold.

Though of the bourgeoisie class by status as a retired Army General, he is like an ordinary Nigerian, the man next door with no airs.

In his modest Iju Ishaga office, we engaged him on a number of national issues and as usual, he was not found wanting.

Excerpts:

If you reflect on the state of affairs in the country today, how do you feel as a NigerianAre you worried or happy with the way things are going?

We have to look at Nigeria from various levels and point of views. If you are a poor man, small-scale businessman or entrepreneur, you may not even understand what recession means. Everyone talks about the fact that Nigeria is in recession and you may not understand what it means and life goes on as usual to you as long as you sell your goods and make some money to be able to look after your family and yourself. Most Nigerians are concerned about the purchasing power of their customers to be able to buy their goods and services. And you discover one interesting thing about Nigeria; it was Warren Buffet who said that there are some basic industries that when you go into, you can never lose money. Food, man must eat; clothes, you must cover your nakedness and that is why second-hand clothing is selling like crazy. You hardly find people in Nigeria today walking barefooted; at least they wear slippers. You must find a way to take your bath and in doing that, you use soap. You also must find a way to clean your mouth. As a lady for instance, you must find a way to rub your pancake. So, all these basic things are compulsory for people to buy. The people who produce the goods and services that you need, they would continue to thrive no matter how hard life is. So, at that level, they do not understand all these politics and economics that they are talking about. The problem is with our standard of living and that is because we equate our lives to standards outside the country. This is because we watch the television and we see how some people are living and so on. Nigerians are very funny. We do not equate our standard to either Kenya or South Africa; they are always talking about America. They are always talking about Western Europe. That comparison gives us a false image of ourselves.

Therefore, we do not learn from the challenges and sufferings of our fellow African countries and see what good they are doing that we can copy and adapt; what had led them to the problem that they have, and is it the same thing with us and how are they trying to solve some of these problems. We do not do that. We continue to look to America and Western Europe. And there are some levels also that whether there is recession or not, they are not worried because their money is outside the country. And if they are not outside the country, they are in waterproof safes or buried underground in their houses that you do not know about. Like the former Managing Director of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), could you imagine that an individual has that kind of money in this country? It is a different level altogether. That is why I divided it into three levels. So, any good government could then look at the three levels and say who in these groups that are really suffering in the economic situation that we find ourselves. Another thing is that in spite of the recession, people still live their lives. May be, the number of people that go to Dubai or China has reduced but they still go there. And some of them still get involved in bringing in fake goods, medicines, tyres.

Recently, they caught a Chinese man bringing in N5 billion worth of fake tyres. Don’t talk about medicine. Have you heard of Indian garri? How come Indians are making garri and exporting it to Nigeria? Therefore, we need to seriously look at some of these issues. We should review the craze for things from abroad. Look at the new style of clothes that the Aba people are making. People are wearing it abroad and they look so smart in it. We should look for alternatives within our own country. ‘Okporoko’ used to be very popular but what about it now? That is the point. As far as I am concerned, I like this recession. Necessity, they say is the mother of invention. I love the present recession. Let those who are making noise be making noise. I wish recession could continue for the next 20 years. We would be forced to look inwards. We would be forced to produce and use our products. And then, we would be forced to think smart with the little technology and brainpower that we have to convert so many things. That is why I love this recession. That is why I am not complaining at all.

For those who want to travel abroad, if you cannot pay for the trip, you sit down. If I cannot pay my airfare from here to Ghana, I go by road. I am ready to go by road from here to Burkina Faso. I have done that before. One of our experts, former Minister of Finance, Kalu Idika Kalu has told us that we cannot get out of this recession so quickly because what we are doing is not creating a permanent solution but palliative measures like the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) pouring dollars into the market. Are they going to pour all the dollars in our reserve because people want to pay school fees for their children abroad and medical bills? Could you imagine if we can put together all the medical bills together in dollars, we could build one of the best hospitals in the world. And if the money we are spending on the president is used to improve the Aso Villa medical clinic, it would be one of the best in the world. So, why don’t we do that? There are some lessons we need to learn from this recession; we cannot be self-sufficient but to get to the level of self-reliance. That is why the Asian countries are doing better than we are. They produce what they consume. They are self-reliant; they look for new technology outside and they are catching up very first. The other area is education; we are spending a lot of money educating children abroad. Again, the amount of money we are pouring into universities, some of the Vice Chancellors are stealing them. Like this issue of corruption, it is also very important for us to deal with that. But what is happening now is that many people are hiding. We used to be flamboyant. Now, if they see you throwing money around, some people would like to find out where the money is coming from. How do you expect somebody to have 60 C of Os. So, what is happening now is good for us. What I am concerned about is that I would like a situation in which we do not neglect public schools, health institutions and those basic needs and necessities that no matter the level you belong to the societies, you can use that. We can use this opportunity to do that.

In this interaction, we are not going to dwell so much on politics. You are a retired General of the Nigerian Army. What does that status entail?

To me, it is just like a retired Permanent Secretary. As far as I am concerned, the pension is good. And you have chances to go into other endeavours as far as I am healthy and you still have the energy. But to go into business in Nigeria from zero is very difficult not because you have not got the experience or the expertise in a particular field. It is because you cannot walk to a bank and say I am a retired General, can you give me a loan to do business. The bank manager would demand; the people you want to do business with too would demand. By the time you finish, you cannot do a good job to satisfy your conscience and remember that it is public money that you are using. So, if you really want to be honest, you just have to leave business alone. This is because you cannot become a millionaire by being a Sunday school teacher in Nigeria. You must be able to do deals and I have not seen anybody who has become successful in Nigeria without deals. Secondly, most people, about 99 per cent who are rich in Nigeria make money from government. You cannot make money without government’s support either through contracts or political patronages one way or the other. The system should not be run like that. So, in the real sense of it, I have not seen the Nigerian business men as such. Then when you look at our banks, see the time the government withdrew their deposits from the banks, they nearly collapsed. But there are still some elements of government deposits still in various banks. Is that a banking system? So, we are yet to mature in a way that you can run a business up to the standard that we expect.

There is also this thing in Nigeria that whether government-run business or private-run business, there are more crooks in these businesses than the honest ones. For example, the Nigerian Airways, we could not run it although some clowns are saying that we should set up another airline. They must be real comedians; when Arik airline could not manage its private airline. So, where is our business? If you look at all the banks, see the way they were involved in the affairs of former Minister of Petroleum. A bank Managing Director accepted that they carried a truck to the CBN to remove $115 million in cash. And Nigeria is such an interesting country; when the money was shared, one the banks’ Directors took the EFCC to court saying that all the money they took does not belong to him. He said that about $40 million was not part of the money. Can you imagine that! And the ex-MD of the NNPC too took the EFCC to court like Mrs Goodluck Jonathan who said that her own were gifts. Something is wrong with us really. So, if we could operate at that sort of level, then we have a systemic problem and what does it portray? We are not a nation of integrity. People are saying declare amnesty for people to bring out their money. It is not true. In this Nigeria? If you declare amnesty today, some people would give you half and keep half. Some would not even bring any out. Nigeria in itself is a challenge for governance and there are problems at various levels. And the case of Buhari has proven something that even if the President wants to remain straightforward and clean, the people around him would say, you are on your own. See all the grass cutting scandals; the one of the Army Chief having houses in Dubai. That shows you the kind of system that we run in Nigeria. And there is one gentleman in one of the interviews in the newspapers who said that what is keeping Nigerian politicians together is corruption.

The political parties that we have are chop and let us chop parties. This is not a nation of integrity and once you cannot build a nation of integrity, all these things that are happening now would continue to happen. But the key thing that we should always run away from is this: any country you see where people have integrity, they have fear of the almighty. In Nigeria, whether it is a Reverend, Imam, politician, they fear no God. We are religious but not spiritual. Very few Nigerians are spiritual including those who are wearing Cassock and the long gowns of Imams. Money comes first because how can you be a pastor, you have poor people in your church and you are riding a private jet. See the gap. What of if you sell your private jet and make sure that you do not have poor people in your church. And then you live in a mansion with so many cars and bodyguards. If you are a man of God and you are afraid, then there is something wrong with you. It is like any politician too, if you cannot walk among people, then something is wrong.

Coming to your office, I was asked to come up to you without the encumbrances of security men and all that. In a volatile state like Lagos, are you not bothered about your security?

Even if I am entitled to orderlies, I do not need it. They cannot save me from anything. I walk about Lagos streets. What would happen would happen. I do not care at all. Even in my house too, I do not care. I challenge anybody in this country to say that I have done any evil thing to anybody or touch what does not belong to me. That is the situation and that would continue to be. And what is also very interesting in it is that no matter the protection that you have, when it is time, it is time. There is nothing you can do about it. If not, with all the protection of the presidency and things like that, why are they assassinated sometimes. When I see the motorcade of about 20 vehicles, in the countries where we copy our governance system from, you see only two or three cars. Here, you see a motorcade, dispatch riders; waste of money and manpower. Many of our governors, when they are in the campaign train, they are afraid to go into any crowd. But you see the President of the United States going into the crowd and shaking people. In Nigeria, they would be scared. The Security Service people who protect them, they love it because they have control over them. In fact, it was President Clinton who said that when you occupy the position of the President or governor, you are surrounded by two sets of people –sycophants and security. So, what do I need security for? And I am nobody. Some people would look at me and say this one, just leave him.

But is this carefree attitude your nature or you consciously adopted it as a lifestyle?

The point is that there is a lot of pretensions and hypocrisy in life. If you accept that once you can have your basic needs, the rest is luxury. So, what is your problem? You eat, dress and if you want something and you cannot afford it, you leave it.

How spiritual are you sir?

How spiritual I am? That is my private life; it is an individual thing. It is left to me.

What religion do you practise?

I do not practise any religion.

By the Nigerian standard and considering your status as a retired General, it does appear that you are not living a conventional life. How do you feel when you see some of your colleagues in wealth and you are here living the life of the ordinary man?

I wish I have the connection you are talking about. Even when I want to connect, people do not want to connect with me. There were sometimes when they wanted you to do certain things, which you refuse, and therefore, they do not see any connection. But I count myself a very lucky man in that I retired from the Army and I knew I could not do business like I told you before. I could go into this NGO world without looking for anything in return. Through that I can contribute something. I have always believed that Nigerian taxpayers have been very kind to me. While I was in the Army, they sent me to various parts of the world to study. It is the knowledge that I am using today. I am grateful to Nigeria and if there is anything that I can give back, I will not hesitate to do so. What I used to tell myself is that it would be a shame if I steal public money when the public has spent so much in making me what I am today. And by the time I left, I believe that if there is a way I can give something back, I will do so. But many things that I want to do that can do with other people either public or private, they do not want to touch me. I have always believed that people who do not want to connect with me are crooks. I do not ask you for money if I know that your source of money is questionable. In the NGO that I run, I do not beg for donor funding because I believe that donor money cannot solve our problems. I also believe too that there is a lot of money in Nigeria to solve our problems but in private and public hands. You can see what somebody like Gen Danjuma, Dangote, Elumelu and co are doing. If most Nigerians who have earned money the way they did are doing the same, we would not be where we are. If I have the type of money that some people have, I would do like Bill Gates. It was Bill Gates and Warren Buffet who in a meeting in South Africa asked, you Africans, what are you doing with billions of dollars.

But what does wealth mean to you?

Wealth to me is when I am healthy. It is when I have some ideas and I am able to convince people that these ideas are good for the betterment of Nigerians, Africa and African descendants. Wealth to me is if people around me are not suffering. Community wealth to me is more important than personal wealth. Secondly, I do not believe I am wealthy because I can give out something to somebody. There are so many people who are always looking for something from somebody and you can never satisfy them. Like the Chinese would say that it is better to create a situation in which everybody can create wealth for themselves than be wealthy. But all that glitters is not gold; you can wear the best clothes and all that but when you want to sleep at night, you must pull off the clothes and wrist watch and when you die, you would not be like the Ugandan man who they buried with some of his belongings.

Do you agree with those who insist that the military elite are still in charge even though they have left power?

First of all, you have got to realize that members of the military are Nigerians too. Secondly, they are part of the elite. Thirdly, in their various ethnic groups, the people look up to them and therefore they represent an interest. They are not isolated from the society. Their children must go to certain schools and you must build the type of house that people would feel you have arrived. And at the same time, you have to contribute money to your people and if you have to do all that, you have to steal. Because of that, most Nigerians condone corruption. They say and pretend that they do not like corruption but by doing what I described now, you know that they condone corruption to that extent. But it requires self-discipline on the part of officers too no matter what their ranks are to say no, there is a limit, I cannot go beyond this.

Some say that Nigeria is gradually tending toward revolution. Do you agree?

Forget revolution. It would not happen at all. If Nigerians are serious, revolution should start from state level and local governments. That is how revolution can start. People would tell you that, local government chairmen when they get their allocation, they just share the money. So, if you cannot do revolution at the local government levels, is it in Abuja that you can do revolution or in Lagos?

Revolution should start from the National Assembly and the state Houses of Assembly but what do you find; the governors control the state Assemblies and with what, money. Former President Jonathan comes from the South South zone, did he one day talk about restructuring? The point is that our future is in our hands. I repeat, the day the governors, state Houses of Assembly and National Assembly agree, there would be restructuring. – The Sun.

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