AVM YAHAYA WITH HIS WIFE (SITTING second from right) Children and grand children
His name may not ring a bell with many Nigerians, except, perhaps, those in the military. But Mohammodu Yahaya, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is one of the pioneer officers of the Nigerian Air Force. A Muslim and husband of one wife, who is a Christian, Yahaya turned 70 recently. On the sidelines of a modest occasion at his Kaduna residence to mark the event, he tells John Shiklam about his life in retirement after a fulfilled military career, the folly of sectarian hate, and the state of the nation.
At 70, his calling leaves no hope, but Air Vice Marshal Mohammodu Yahaya (rtd) still radiates fondness for family life and commitment to fatherland. A pioneer officer of the Nigerian Air Force, he had a successful military career spanning nearly three decades and held senior and command positions. Born in June, 1942 in Ipole- Adoka in Otukpo Local Government Area of Benue State, Yahaya enlisted in the military in August 1963 as cadet officer. He was the pioneer chairman of the National Mass Transit Agency as well as Minister of Industries and later Minister of Commerce and Tourism during the regime of former military president Ibrahim Babangida.
An engineer by profession, Yahaya was a pioneer (First Senior Executive Course) fellow of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, in Plateau State. He retired from the Nigerian Air Force 22 years ago and has kept a low profile at his Kaduna base. But Yahaya is never tired of sharing his rich hindsight and foresight for the good of country and mankind.
Yahaya was born into a polygamous family, but he elected a marital life devoid of polygamy. “From my mother’s side, I was the fourth child. The first three died. In our family we had these three marks on the face. Because they thought I was going to die, they didn’t give me the tribal mark,” he says. “My mother explained to me that her breast was contaminated either by juju or whatever. So I was privilege to be given to my grandmother who brought me up.”
Yahaya started his primary education in Kaduna, continued at a Methodist school in Otukpo, before gaining admission into the Technical Institute, Kaduna (now Kaduna Polytechnic) as a pioneer student. He relishes fond memories of how, as a child, he used to gather with fellow Muslims, including the late Premier of the then Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, at the Kano Central Mosque.
Enlistment into the Military
Yahaya talks about his enrolment into the military.
“I had three pence with me and I bought the Daily Times newspaper for two pence. When I opened it, I saw an advertisement for the Defence Officers Cadets. I applied and luckily I was shortlisted. We took the entrance examination to the American University. We were many and I was lucky to be one of the 10 successful Nigerians. Every American University had officer cadet corps training which they called ROTC. I finished my degree in 1967; I obtained Bachelors of Science in Electrical Electronics. After that I went for the proper training at Mississippi. I trained in electronics, mostly specialising in Radar Control.”
Yahaya says his military background is “strictly American.”
According to him, “I spent my four years of cadetship with the American Air Force. When I came back to Nigeria in 1968, I wanted to teach Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Additional Maths at the Nigerian Defence Academy, but for some reasons, the commandant said no. So I went to Kano. My training and experience were not the same concept with what was obtainable in Nigeria. What I learned as an officer in America was not the same thing that was being taught at home.
“When we enlisted, there was no NDA. Actually when we enlisted, there was nothing like Nigerian Air Force. The Act establishing the Nigerian Air Force was in 1964. So we were enlisted as Defence Corps. But they made sure that out of the 10 of us, three were to come to the Air Force, three to the Army and four to the Navy.”
In Search of Fulfilment
Yahaya had a knack for teaching that he found quite hard to express within the Nigerian system. But he managed to do that somehow.
He says, “I found myself not doing anything much. So I went to the Ministry of Works and asked them if they could build six classrooms for me – where the present Bayero University is located.
“So they built it and I started teaching Air Force officers basic Maths and Electronics. Before, we were doing it in Bukagu barracks. That was the foundation of the Air Force Institute of Technology.
“When I was in the United States I started my Post Graduate in Circuit Theory, but because of the war, I had to return home. I had less than six weeks to finish my masters. Funny enough, when I came back home, the opportunity to start my Post Graduate was based on my rank, so when I had the opportunity, I declined, I said, let such opportunity be given to other people who were educated.
“When I was posted to the headquarters in 1970, I liaised with the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) to open the Electronic s Department and we sent many officers there. If you are going to Zaria, on the left hand there is an Air Force house on the left hand side. When they were building that place, I made sure that I built 13 classrooms with physics and chemistry laboratories well equipped. That was how we started what is called AFIT.
“When I was posted to the headquarters, the school I established in Kano was closed down because people did not believe in what to do with it. I was passionate about imparting knowledge I had acquired to the younger ones. They knew the theory, but they didn’t know the practical aspect of it.
“I have tried my best to impact on AFIT. I am proud to say that it was through my own effort that school stood until I left. I was able to draw the syllabus, I went to the Egyptian Air Force, and I had a background of the British and Pakistani Air Forces. It was on that basis that I formed the syllabus to start the school.
“The first set of NDA students used the lab because they didn’t have a laboratory for engineering. I wanted to affiliate the institute with Ife and the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, then I was appointed minister. I am happy that all the boys I recruited now have PhDs in Engineering. So I have contributed my own quota.”
Yahaya is a Muslim, married to a Christian, and had his primary education in a Christian school. He has moderate views of religion and does not believe anyone should be compelled on issues of faith. “Up till today, I read the book of Psalms. Part of the Qur’an said there is no compulsion in religion. There is no need forcing somebody to embrace the religion which he doesn’t believe in.” he declares. “I have a member of my family who was the first to marry a Christian; from there I knew there has to be compromise. I am not a religious fanatic, but I believe solely in Islam, no compromise about it, but I cannot force somebody to be a Muslim if that person does not want it.
“My wife is a very staunch Catholic. God has worked it out for us for the 47 years we have lived together. We have never had any issue on religion because we respect each other’s religions. During fasting, she gets up early to cook for me, so we have no conflict.
“As for my children, some are Christians, some are Muslims. I have three boys and four girls. All the boys are Muslims and the girls are Christians because they happened to attend Catholic schools. When the girls were marrying, I went to the church and handed them over at the altar. That does not change my faith as a Muslim.”
Politicisation of Religion
Yahaya thinks many of the religious conflicts in Nigeria are political. The two major religions in the country, Christianity and Islam, to him, preach peace and harmony and so if people follow the teachings of the Bible and the Qur’an, there would be no religious conflicts. He says problems only arise when misguided and jobless youth are used by some people who exploit religion for selfish ends. “All I tried to impart in my children is to be honest, trustworthy, never to hate anybody, never to envy anybody and never to hurt anybody.”
Yahaya witnessed all the military coups from General Yakubu Gowon to Babangida as a serving officer. During the coup that brought Babangida to power, he was in Mecca with the late Mamman Vatsa, who was executed for alleged participation in the putsch. Idiagbon was also in Mecca. Yahaya was appointed member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council after the Babangida coup.
In December 1983, he was appointed General Officer Commanding Training Command, Kaduna.
“Being a pioneer engineer, I was there to formulate all the engineering policies and training programmes for the Air Force. Since training was part of me, we had to put certain things together.
“As a member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council, I was given the post of the chairman of the Mass Transit Programme in the country and we toured everywhere to formulate the programme. Unfortunately, government never reads whatever you write. I forced ANAMCO, Leyland and Volkswagen to start producing locally in Nigeria.”
State of the Nation
Yahaya bemoans the worship of material wealth by many Nigerians and the focus on sectional interests.
“In Nigeria people talk of their town and states first. That does not encourage nation-building. We emphasis so much on paper qualification and this is killing the country. Nigerians are crazy about titles. The earlier we looked at what people can contribute for us the better.”
He also talks about the northern security challenges.
“Boko Haram did not start in one day. It started from something and we ignored it. The nucleus of Boko Haram is supposed to be from Borno. What role did the governors there play? We have a situation where people are developing thugs to protect them. Northern leaders should sit down and find out what is going on. It has destroyed the North.
“Before, Kano was the centre of commerce. But today, Kano is gone. I am sorry to say that Kaduna is going to overtake Kano. They are children of people. If you have a son and he doesn’t come home in the night, won’t you ask him where he was staying? They are being harboured by other people, why are they being harboured?
“So we in the North, if we are waiting for the federal government to solve this problem, it is not going to be solved. Northerners must solve the problem themselves.”
Yahaya talks about how governments in the past had ignored warnings to act on the Niger Delta situation before it deteriorated into an armed struggle.
“Our syndicate wrote a report on the Niger Delta in 1979. At NIPSS, you are divided into syndicate groups and assigned to undertake a tour of the different parts of the country. We went to the Niger Delta and saw the situation of things there and we said (in the report) that something has to be done,” he says. “In the whole world, human beings want a decent environment. You cannot compel a place to only water, it is not fair. Most of the solutions to the problems of Nigeria are all in Kuru. Government should try to access some of these information. We told the Shagari government to do something about the environment in the Niger Delta. A situation where you subject youths to drinking and idleness is not going to augur well.”
Yahaya, certainly, has seen it all. Now retired, he thanks God for all the opportunities. Since his retirement in 1990, he has been trying to make his life and that of his family as enjoyable as he can. With good ideas and savvy tactics, he has pursued his retirement goals. Currently, Yahaya runs a transport firm, Ultimate Transport, and a hotel, Crystal Garden Hotel, all based Kaduna.