His quick, light steps belied his age. The smile on his face, his clear tone and his eagerness to provide details painted a vivid picture of a man at home with himself and the society at large. His wit and quips revealed an often unexposed funny side that were difficult to place with the no-nonsense, carefully cultivated image ascribed to the former military Head of State and All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential aspirant, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari.
However, the irony in Buhari’s character could be deemed a reflection of his transition from a military officer who overthrew a democratically elected government in December 1983, to one who after retirement became an avowed democrat that has sought to rule Nigeria via the ballot, albeit in three unsuccessful attempts.
But for many who have followed Buhari, they would be the first to remind anyone who cares to listen that his democratic conversion occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union and dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Essentially, it took the collapse of communism and totalitarianism in Eastern Europe for Buhari to take the journey on the road to Damascus like the biblical Apostle Paul.
For some, drawing the similarities between Buhari, a practising Muslim, and Paul who is considered one of the most important figures of the Christian Apostolic Age, may be taboo. But after the THISDAY Board of Editors met with the retired army general last Friday at his home in Abuja, the board came away with the view that Buhari is anything but a religious bigot, as his opponents would have us believe.
Yet, despite Buhari’s best efforts to distance himself from religious extremism, he cannot runaway from the fact that in his three attempts to return as Nigeria’s head of state through the ballot, he has not been able to build political structures that transverse the fault line between the north and the south. Indeed, whilst his following among the masses (better known as the Talakawa) in the north is cult-like, the same cannot be said of his followership in the south.
For the first time in his political career, the general would also have to compete for the ticket of a political party to contest the 2015 presidential election. In the past, Buhari was handed presidential tickets without lifting a finger. To secure a win over four other contestants on the platform of the APC, especially his closest rival former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, Buhari has been forced raise the ante by lobbying for delegates’ votes.
Should he win the APC presidential primary and go on to win the 2015 presidential election, Buhari informed the THISDAY Board of Editors that one his primary goals will be the defeat of Boko Haram in the North-east and combating corruption in Nigeria. Indeed, on matters of security, Buhari’s military background and grasp of warfare shone through during his interview with THISDAY.
So did his disdain for corruption, even though he acknowledged that times have changed since his stint as head of state between 1984 and 1985. On the economy, however, Buhari has so much to learn and found it difficult to present a coherent blue print on the economy. The conversation with the THISDAY Board of Editors, nevertheless, was not just limited to matters of security, corruption and the economy. Uncharacteristically, Buhari opened up on a host of other issues.
In thefirst installment of its Presidential Series, THISDAY presents the man and presidential aspirant, Muhammadu Buhari.
Buhari: Nigeria Will Be Secure Under My Leadership
The key issues facing Nigeria obviously are security, corruption and governance. I believe your last beat as a serving general before you became head of state was GOC Jos Military Command. As the then GOC Jos, the current North-east was under your command. Given what is happening today, given the onslaught of Boko Haram, how would you have prosecuted the war differently?
Differently? Certainly something has to be done first to secure that part of the country, which is virtually under Boko Haram. I have the background information of what happened in the North-east then as the GOC in Jos back in 1982-83. You would recall the Chadian troops made an incursion into Nigerian territory. The United States then asked (former President Shehu) Shagari to help Chadian President (Hissene) Habre because Habre was suspected of being used to destabilise Libya. Oil had not been discovered in Chad then and the country was a bit poor. So the president agreed to provide petroleum products to Chad. All the tankers were lined up and were providing fuel to Chad. And Habre decided at that it time to attack Nigeria and killed our soldiers, took some of our military hardware and I was extremely concerned. I flew into Lagos, saw the Chief of Army Staff, General (Inuwa) Wushishi then, and I moved into Maiduguri. That was the last time, until recently, in whatever form the Chadian troops dared Nigeria. I have also been a governor in that area, the North-east.
The question is how did Boko Haram start, because we have to know how it started before we can effectively get rid of it. Just like how did the Niger Delta militants start in the South-south. Politicians use unemployed youths as vanguards, they called them ‘Ecomog’ in the North-east then. One of their leaders called Yusuf, a young charismatic man, tried to give it a religious tinge but unfortunately the chaps were badly handled by the security forces – a combination of the police and the military. There was a small demonstration by members of the sect on motorcycles over the death of one of them accompanying a corpse and seven of them were shot dead. Of course they were not wearing protective helmets. Now this is an ordinary offence in this country and it was easy to handle. Just arrest the people, take them to a police station and charge them to court the following day and fines could be imposed. But instead, they chose to shoot them. From there, Boko Haram really started and they have never looked back. And once the police couldn’t handle the situation, according to the Nigerian internal security operations, they handed the matter over to the military. The army commander then did extremely well. The GOC of Third Armoured Division in charge of the command went and looked for Yusuf, got him and handed Yusuf to the police. The police killed Yusuf, his in-law and levelled their houses and since then Boko Haram got out of hand.
What would I do differently? It is to make the military much more effective in their operations. If we get the opportunity, we will make the Nigerian military capable again because if we could go through ECOMOG forces to stabilise troubled zones and go to Darfur and to other places of the world and perform, why can’t we perform at home when our national sovereignty is being threatened? That is what we will do differently, to make Nigerian military capable again.
The Nigerian military became incapable following a failed coup against your successor, General Babangida. And following the failed coup, the command and control of the army decided, as it were, to disarm the army so that they were not able to take on the political leadership of the military at the time. We heard some of our helicopters were even given out to Congo and other countries, so that the army would not have the weapons. Since then, the army has not been equipped. So is it a question of lack of equipment, a question of will or that of rot over the years?
I think it is a question of the rot over the years, because the most important thing is the intelligence. Having known how the Boko Haram developed, what I would have personally done differently would be to get the Presidents of Cameroun, Chad and Niger together to say, ‘look our borders are porous and that we are not able to effectively protect them and monitor movements of people in and out of our territory, but please make sure that you do not provide training facilities or allow people to be coming into the county.’ The practical possibility of guarding our border from Lake Chad area to Sokoto is nil. If you look at that area, you cannot stop the donkeys, the oxen, the camels and human beings from crossing that border. It is impossible, unless you will line up all the Nigerian population, which is not possible. But firstly you have to reach an agreement with your neighbors. As we talk now, Cameroun seems to be fighting Boko Haram more effectively than Nigeria, from what I read in newspapers. You cannot change the Nigerian military overnight but still, but I think there are trained officers who can train the men and you can get the weapons legally. There are government rules and regulations and as an elected government, the people or countries that normally provide you with weapons will not refuse to provide the weapons because it is an internal operation. We are not attacking anybody, rather we are being attacked. So countries that have been providing us with military hardware will have sympathy for us and provide us with weapons. We do not have to change money in the black market or take it from the vault of the central bank in a hired aircraft and say you are going to buy weapons. This is unusual, very, very unusual as government has legal ways of how to source arms and ammunition. Look at how we fought a serious civil war for 30 months without borrowing a kobo. General Gowon was the head of state then, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the Minister of Finance and deputy chairman of the Federal Executive Council. We fought the civil war without borrowing a kobo. Now you want to chase insurgents after spending what they have spent, they are rushing to the National Assembly for permission to borrow $1 billion, there is a problem of leadership and I think everybody knows it.
But how will you make the US to supply us arms given the accusations against the military and how will you get Cameroun to cooperate more given the crisis over Bakassi and the border demarcation, bearing in mind their refusal to cooperate up till now?
On the question of the US selling arms to us, the US can influence our traditional arms suppliers but the US is probably not a major supplier of arms to Nigeria as far as I can recall – right from independence till now. But they can influence those that can supply arms to us. As you know, the black market of sourcing military hardware has never been stopped even with international pressure. I think for the weapons we need to fight Boko Haram, a group of people taking arms against the country. I do not think we need weapons of the magnitude people are talking about. Of course, the military was disarmed in order to stabilise democracy. But how can I stabilise the army and get the cooperation of the US to help us and at least to give us the moral support and allow our traditional arms suppliers – France, United Kingdom and Russia – to give facilities for maintaining those weapons like tanks and armoured cars? I believe the US will not stand in the way of a democratic country getting supply of weapons and ammunition to defend itself against internal or even external aggression. As I have said earlier, Cameroun is even fighting Boko Haram more effectively than us. If you would recall that there were some kidnappers that took away the wife of a (vice prime) minister but the Camerounian law enforcement agency got her released.
Given your experience in the military, what can you point to as the problem with the military in challenging Boko Haram?
I think what I can do is appeal to the patriotic sense of the military. The military’s constitutional role is to protect this country from external aggression and I mentioned earlier on, even in internal operations, the police are allowed to come in at the initial stage but once things are bad, then the military has to come in, just as it is happening now in the North-east. I believe the military would like to preserve a strong Nigeria because if they allow Nigeria to be balkanised, they will be the first to lose their security because I do not see any part of a balkanised Nigeria that will like to get a general or colonel to be in charge, and you don’t talk about pension or even gratuity. So there will be total insecurity if they allow anything to happen to Nigeria. I think the situation needs a leadership that will give the military the backing in terms of sourcing the weapons and ammunition to fight. And Nigeria, no matter how oil prices have fallen, will source enough funds to fight the insurgents.
Do you see corruption in the military as a major problem?
It is a major problem. As I have just mentioned there are ways to source weapons, ammunition and other military hardware; there are rules and regulations; tenders boards at various levels where they examine applications by suppliers; getting the best for the country and then recommending to the government to go and secure it. The issue of putting dollars in an aircraft or handbags or asking one senior officer to go and look for weapons does not arise under the Nigerian laws. This is corruption and I do not blame the military because it is a situation of a fish with rotten head.
Don’t you think that the nature of the warfare, which is asymmetric, in the fight against insurgents also has a lot do with the limited successes the military has recorded? We have a situationwhere you have to seek out terrorists who live in the midst of the people. It is not like fighting with a conventional army?
I agree with you partly, but look at how some of the committed commanders that dealt with the late Yusuf’s case. I talked about intelligence; we have structures of assistance throughout the country. We have ward leaders, district heads and emirs – these people are good sources of intelligence. There is this structure on ground and it still exists. Some parts of Nigeria have been able to ward off Boko Haram. It is not because of government’s effort but people started their own JTF. If Maiduguri people did not organise their own Civilian JTF, the city would have been overrun.
At the initial stage of the insurgency, you were quoted as saying that any attack against Boko Haram was an attack on the North and that while federal government negotiated with the Niger Delta militants it was attacking Boko Haram. So you were now tagged as one of those behind Boko Haram. How would you react to this and what do you think is the place of negotiations in arresting the insurgency?
Yes, I spoke on the radio and gave a press statement. I hope you would take the positive ones as well and not only the negative aspect. I mentioned that they were trying to give it a religious tinge and I came out to say that no religion advocates hacking the innocent and our people can easily understand. Christianity and Islam do not authorise anyone to take the life of any other person. Justice, which needs restraint, is what is supposed to be applied by the strong to the weak. The incident where I made that statement was, if you could recall what happened in Barma and Baga. I think Boko Haram killed a soldier or two and the whole town or part of it was razed, some satellite pictures of it were published. This is not how to do it. What to do was what was done to Yusuf before he was killed. If you recall, the army did not have raze the part of Maiduguri but they went and caught Yusuf and handed him over to the police. This is what the army then was supposed to do and even now. It is not to go on a rampage killing everybody and that was why I made reference to what the late President Yar’Adua did when he invited the militant leaders, sent them presidential jets and they came here in Abuja and they negotiated with him, empowered them and put them back into the society. But that type of army, which was sent to Barma and Baga, they created part of the problems we are in now and now the problems have proved stubborn to be solved. Instead of trying to get the leadership as Yusuf was found, they just went and razed parts of the towns and alienated themselves – the military and law enforcement agencies – from the people rather than getting their sympathy. This is what could be done differently, use intelligence, find out the leaders that are responsible and deal with them.
But that statement led to the feeling in many quarters that you were sympathetic to Boko Haram and that led to the political brickbats between your party the APC and the PDP, and PDP alleging that APC is sympathetic to Boko Haram. Do you regret the statement now or the context in which it was made?
The problem is the failure on your part, the media, to carry out investigative journalism if I may use the word, because when I made the statement it should have been in the context of my position that no religion advocates the hacking of the innocent and that the strong should be sympathetic or show some restraints when dealing with the weak. If it were in that context, then the question of I being sympathetic to Boko Haram would never have arisen.
When I was bombed, what was the reaction of Boko Haram? Did Boko Haram ever put out a statement? It was the government that quickly said that they were not responsible and that was the last we heard about it. Even if it was an unknown Nigerian, I think a proper investigation would have been carried out to find out what happened. How did they get the sophisticated weapon to bomb your headquarters in Abuja and the United Nations building? How did they get to such a sophisticated level of detonating an explosive device just adjacent to my vehicle and see how it pierced the body of the bullet proof vehicle as if it was a piece of paper. I think that we have to really have a capacity for investigating this type of things. So my party and myself have shown enough patriotism that we are not behind any insurgency in or outside Nigeria. The harm it is doing to our economy has not yet been calculated by anybody but I was reliably informed that everyday about 100 articulated vehicles, not even tankers, used to go to Maiduguri and traders from Cameroun, Chad and Niger do business there. At least two million Nigerians, from wheelbarrow pushers to big time shop owners, make their living in the city. But look at it, these are all being destroyed.
Tell us what happened on that day you were bombed.
I don’t know why you want to listen to a disaster story again. Well, you know Rilwanu Lukman died somewhere in Europe and if you could recall he was my Minister of Power and Steel. So I was told that his body was to be brought the following day. I was told on Tuesday that on Thursday he would be brought home for burial, through Kano Airport where it will then be flown by another aircraft to Zaria. So I decided to drive to Daura, my hometown to be able to come to Kano the following day to receive the body. Luckily, was in a bulletproof vehicle. I was only using it from Kaduna to Abuja and may be Abuja to my hometown because armed robbers are getting more desperate now and they operate 24 hours a day now. A vehicle was trying to overtake us, but my backup vehicle stopped him in Kaduna. But when we came to that market before the overhead bridge, there was confusion in the market located on the right side of the road leading to Zaria. So that driver got an access and quickly drove close to my vehicle. Then the bomber exploded the device and when I came out I saw blood on my trousers and I looked to the right and I saw body parts of people selling second hand clothes, sugar cane on the roadside. I don’t remember the law enforcement agencies ever telling Nigerians how many people were killed there. I shook my head. Some of my operatives quickly came to me. I saw some of them were bleeding. They pushed me to the other side of the road in case there was another bomb. They stopped another vehicle coming, replaced the driver and drove me home. That was what happened. They tried to take the picture of the vehicle and we saw the army when they came. I noticed one person dressed like a woman with a handset contacting some people while beside the armoured car. So I told them, go to the military, show them the picture and tell the soldiers that you too want to interview the man in ladies dress. I do not know why he left his jeans trousers on but he had his wrapper around his body. That was the last I heard about it. Nobody ever bothered to brief me on the outcome of any investigation on the incident.
From all you have said, we are persuaded to believe that the solution to the problems afflicting the country is just about having a good leader. What credentials are you presenting to Nigerians as an alternative to what we have currently?
Yes, I tried to mention one. While I was the GOC in 1982 and Nigeria was giving Chad economic help and instead of the president of the country coming to thank our president for giving him economic support, he just sent his soldiers to kill our soldiers. I had a command then and it was within my area of responsibility. I went and sorted it out. Secondly, you must have known about Maitasine sect. I was the Head of State in 1984. Maitasine, you recall developed from Kano and he was killed during the Second Republic but his followers resurfaced in Burunkutu, again in Borno and Jimeta, Yola. My second in command then, Tunde Idiagbon, was not in the country. I flew into Yola, Gambo Jimeta, I think he was the AIG and Wash Pam were there and that was the last we heard about Maitasine. Really, I do not think the Nigerian military including the law enforcement agencies have absolutely lost their capacity to deal with internal security problems. The leadership seems not to be aggressive and cannot properly lead. And the fundamental problem of Nigeria now is security. Nobody is feeling secure in the country and I think this is the fundamental responsibility of government. So the leadership must make sure that they secure Nigeria and efficiently manage it.
Are you also thinking of doing something to beef up your charisma? Nigeria is a complex entity and needs somebody who is flexible. People say you are stiff.
If I can achieve results with my stiffness, let the stiffness stay. Because when you go and ask ordinary people, when we, myself and Idiagbon, came on board, ordinary people in Kano came out when it was hot, they put the keys of their cars on top of the cars, slept in front of their houses and woke up the following morning. People say time changes, yes, but when people find out that you do not tolerate big thieves not to talk of the small ones, then they will sit up.
Do you subscribe to the view that oil is an issue with regards to this security challenge? What is your position on the role of Chad in the botched ceasefire agreement?
I think Chad knows that Nigeria can certainly secure its borders. I still cannot understand why it took the leadership of this country so long to get those three presidents to sit down and agree. I think even within the framework of ECOWAS such agreements were feasible to make sure that weapons do not cross our borders and that people were not given training facilities. How could Boko Haram abduct 200 schoolgirls of ages of 14 to 18 from their school and we were giving the impression that these girls were in Nigeria? For seven months, the Nigerian government could not get the intelligence of where these girls were in particular and where they were moved. They kept saying they know where the girls are, then what the hell is stopping them from getting the girls out? Imagine you have got a daughter there, how do you go to bed and how do you wake up for seven months? Your 14-year-old daughter is in the hands of insurgents and your government is making noise and spending money on unnecessary things. I think the whole country ought to have been mobilised to get those girls back alive or their bodies so that their parents can get closure.
Should the Nigerian government negotiate with Boko Haram?
Well, since they are stronger than the government, I think the government should negotiate with Boko Haram. But we did not even negotiate with President Habre of Chad when he tried to come into our country. We tried to solve our problem ourselves. Nigeria is capable, this is my point. I firmly believe that because when we were there with Prof. Gambari as Minister of Foreign Affairs, we had an Afrocentric foreign policy, that is, first Nigeria in our heart and then our immediate neighbours. If you do not cultivate a good relationship with your neighbours, it will cost you so much in terms of security and the economy. So you have to cultivate a friendship with your neighbours and then it goes on to ECOWAS, Africa and the rest of the world. I think this is a viable policy option. But if your neigbours think you are a nuisance to them, then the economic activities and the cross-border trade suffer. Since colonial rule, when they sat down with rulers and maps and they cut us off; they cut us off in Benin, in Niger, in Chad and Cameroun. We are virtually surrounded by people who are culturally related to Nigerians. So it is quite easy to get our neighbours to sympathise with us and help us check insecurity so that we can stabilise out country and move forward.
The North is backwards in terms of development and the Boko Haram scourge has further compounded it. If elected the president, how do you hope to bridge the gap and reconstruct the economy of the North-east?
First of all it is important to debunk the notion being peddled by Boko Haram that Western education is ungodly. They go into schools and slaughter children both Christian and Muslim children. They go to mosques and explode devices, they also go to the churches and motor parks. So really, it is very easy to disabuse the minds of Nigerians on the wrong notion that Boko Haram is a religious enterprise. They are just simply terrorists. Having reduced them to that, then you can earn the support of the immediate communities for you to flush the insurgents out of the society. I believe that this will not take a long time. Then you discuss with your neighbours to make sure that weapons are not crossing the borders and that there are training facilities for terrorists. As we can see, the Camerounians are very serious about fighting Boko Haram. They are fighting the sect more than we are fighting the insurgency and they are doing it more successfully because they are able to secure their own part of the country from being occupied by Boko Haram. So you have to first get rid of Boko Haram before you can talk about rebuilding the North-east because you cannot do it while the fighting is still going on.
Then we have to go back to General Gowon’s three Rs. We have to assess how much damage to infrastructure has been done and then see how we can re-equip them and help people to get employment and access to goods and services. I think that soldiers and police barracks and their armories must be strengthened to ensure that they are properly secured. Thirdly, I think that the air force has to be made more effective by acquiring more new aircraft and establishing a base in Kano so that the distance to cover is shorter and returning to base is made easier.
Is oil an issue in this insurgency, especially with regard to the role of Chad?
Yes oil has now become an issue because Chad no longer needs us as it used to need us in terms of supporting them because oil has been discovered and developed in commercial quantities and they generate more money now. They can really bypass Nigeria and get what they want. So oil is an issue. It makes a country economically viable, especially because foreign countries investing in Chadian oil will certainly have sympathy for them and they can try to help them to be stable.
Why did Boko Haram prefer you leading their negotiation with federal government at the initials stage?
You know there were problems with the Boko Haram leadership, there were some people that claimed to be leaders of Boko Haram and the sect disowned them. So we have to identify the real leaders of Boko Haram before you can negotiate with them. I do not think the government has identified the leadership. So it is shooting into the dark and this is why I am insisting on intelligence, which means gathering information and making sure that it is correct and you deal with it. Without intelligence you waste too much resources and lives.
In terms of economic policy, the central question right now is oil and the fall in (foreign) reserves and the exchange rate? What direction of economic policy will you take Nigeria if you are elected president?
You see, it is a pity that we have a mono-cultural economy and we all depend on oil. We have agriculture, mining, things that can complement oil in terms of income and employment. I think insecurity cannot be separated from this. The amount of oil lost to the activities of oil bunkers sometimes has put Nigeria in a very serious condition. On the question of reserves, having been in charge of Ministry of Petroleum for over three years, I know that people who invest their capital and knowledge, they know Nigeria has prolific fields but they have moved offshore mainly due to insecurity. Unluckily for Nigeria, the offshore oil fields, most of them are prolific but are expensive to develop. The best way we can persuade investors to come in and invest is to secure the country. Security is still key to economic development. People will just load the barges and tankers on the high sea and come to collect the crude from the terminals and go and empty them because part of the oil proceeds belong to them (60:40%). But when they are losing, they cannot bring in more resources and technology to establish more reserves in the country. So security is the key, this country has to be secured.
If you are elected president when the country is in great economic deficit, how will you turn things around and secure the economy?
I think that for the navy, air force and the army it is their fundamental constitutional responsibility to secure the country with whatever we have. I believe this country is still strong to make sure that we secure these areas as quickly as we can and re-establish confidence in ourselves, in the world and in our business partners. The capacity to do it rapidly, I am afraid, one has to know the total intelligence, one has to know where we are exactly before you can make a determined move to correct the situation. Really, it is a question of putting whatever we have available in terms of fighting capability to first secure that area, to earn the confidence of investors for them to quickly come back, because they can even organise soft loans for us to stabilise our budget deficits so that we move forward.
So can we deal with security without tackling corruption? When you came to power last time, you were known for your fight against corruption. Today, it’s a different kind of fight. In your party, the APC, there are many people accused of corruption, so how do you first put your house in order and then deal with the hydra-headed issue of corruption?
I think the priority has to be the other way round, we have to put the country in order first. In attempting to put the country in order, it is going to be a terrible situation for whoever wins and I pity whoever succeeds President Jonathan, even if it were to be myself. But this is what we can do; the practical way to tackle corruption is to draw a line, because institutions have been compromised. We cannot go on the way we did in the military in 1983 to fight corruption. This time around, you cannot do it that way because most of the institutions have been compromised. The person you will depend on as the auditor to go and check the CBN, maybe he has got some substantial part of the deal. These are the facts on the ground. So what you do is to persuade them and tell them to help to amend it. You have drawn a line, part of these are in courts and you cannot interfere with the judiciary, no matter how bad you believe the judiciary is. Constitutionally or otherwise, you have to leave the judiciary, you cannot bring better judges and put them on the job over night. It takes generations. So you have to appeal to their conscience and prove to them that you are serious and that cases in the courts that you are interested in them but let the judiciary continue. Cases that have been struck out, the government will move forward but any case that comes up will be handed over to the judiciary. But to say that you are going to investigate, I am afraid that government will not last a quarter because the institutions have been compromised.
So there is no capacity to investigate corruption and what you are proposing is to draw a line going forward?
Yes, to be honest, the capacity is not there because as I said, institutions have been compromised but if you say I am not going to participate in corruption, I am not going to tolerate it from day one, I hope the people will believe it and those that have cases in court have to give way so that people that have not been caught because God help those caught helping themselves then. We can deal with them. But as I said, you cannot go head on as we did under the military.
Essentially to understand you sir, so all these governors who are alleged to be corrupt, all these senators and others, you are drawing the line. Is that amnesty for corruption? Don’t you think that you are also being a victim of your past, that something you did successfully, that because you were criticised, you are now afraid to do it again?
No, I am not afraid. If I was afraid the day they attempted to bomb me, I would not have felt like continuing. But I felt I have done nothing wrong other than telling the truth where I find it serious enough to tell the truth. The important thing is that I mentioned it, you don’t have the capacity to catch the big thieves right now, you don’t have the capacity. You have to do it gradually because, as I said before, all the institutions have been compromised. Do you know that I said it about 18 months ago, I think it was at a book launch where I said in my own area in Nigeria, people hardly go to the police. If they are cheated or something, once they are alive, they say ‘God dey’ and they continue with life because they cannot afford justice, they cannot get it. Virtually the whole country has reached that stage.
How do you reconcile your party’s position to ensure zero tolerance for corruption with the approach you have decided to adopt on corruption?
No, I said that as far as corruption is concerned I will not tolerate it from the day I take charge of governance. But those cases that are in courts, they will continue but as we move forward, cases that come up will be handed over to the judiciary.
The effects of shale oil and the direction of our oil right now, how do you intend to save our mono-cultural economy, given the new world order for oil?
Again, the issue is the security and then the unemployment of restive youths. Those who go to school cannot get jobs and others cannot go to school. I believe agriculture and solid minerals are the sectors we can move quickly into in dealing with the unemployment of the youths. But then moving forward has to take a lot of thinking and planning and cooperation of the international community to come and invest. We must get our infrastructure back. For instance, power supply. A lot of industries were closed because they cannot afford the diesel, they cannot survive the roadblocks from the ports to their places. You can imagine how many roadblocks are mounted by the military, police, customs and immigration. Everybody is asking for money, whether you are guilty or not guilty. So to secure this country is no joke. It has to be done. That is the bottom line.
Now let’s talk about religion. There is a perception that you are either a fanatic or a fundamentalist. Are you a religious fundamentalist?
Well, what I know is that I am a practising Muslim. I think that those who accuse me of being a fundamentalist ought to have seen which career I came out from. From the day I left school I did not work for a day and I joined the military and consistently the Nigerian military has been 80 per cent Christians. So you find out that your orderly, your cook and sergeant major are Christians and you are a Muslim. And fighting through the civil war, if you could recall the international media was saying the Muslim North versus the Christian South. You remember how it upset General Gowon to the extent that after the civil war when they rushed to help us, he said, ‘I do not need your blood money.’ They refused to understand that Gowon was and is still a Christian and all his commanders were Christians and less than 10 per cent of the military were Muslims. So this perception that I a religious fanatic is what can I call sophisticated disinformation. I cannot disown my religion because of the accusations. People I worked with for more than 20 years and I rose from second lieutenant to general. All the commands and staff that I worked with along the line, most of my associates were Christians, for example when I moved into Maiduguri to sort out the Chad invasion, my number two then was Ugokwe. He is a Chritian from the South-east. He happened to be my coursemate but because of civil war he lost his seniority and he became my number two. When the Americans provided President Shagari with satellite pictures that I had gone beyond Nigerian border, I received a presidential order to pull out and fall back into Nigeria. I handed over the division to him and went back to Jos.
Do you go to Mecca? When last were you in Mecca?
I did not know you were following me so closely. The last time I was in Mecca was 12 years ago. Somebody asked me this question why was I do not go to Mecca like some others and I told him that I come from a big family in terms of numbers. And with the collapse of education, I have to make bigger contributions to the education of members of my family. Again with the collapse of the health facilities, these are immediate requirements for majority of Nigerian families. So I have less money to go to Mecca because I have to contribute to the education of blood relations.
So should the state fund anybody to Jerusalem or Mecca?
My opinion is no. As far as Islam is concerned, going to Mecca is your personal business.
Religion is also a toxic issue in Nigeria, I understand that there is somebody that you like, who you may make your vice-president but happens to be a Muslim. Will you have a Muslim-Muslim ticket?
Yes these developments are very irritating. I talked about General Gowon and his commanders and his nine years in office. I talked to you about past pairings: (Bashorun Moshood) Abiola and (Ambassador Babagana) Kingibe and I told you myself and (Major-General) Tunde Idiagbon – military – and Abiola and Kingibe – civilian. So this surge of religion consciousness, as far I am concerned, is a recent development and it has been taken to a bigger dimension. Let me tell you in 2007, I went to Lagos to meet with religious leaders and one of the biggest Christian religious groups. After an hour of meeting with them, the leader said to me, general, I replied ‘Your Eminence’, and he said, ‘We are not going to accept a Muslim-Muslim ticket.’ I said thank you very much. I respected him because he meant it. But if you ask me, I think Nigerians ought to be less concerned about the issue. I joined partisan politics in April 2002 and by 2003, there were governors, there were senators, but I got the ticket. I picked late Chuba Okadigbo, every Nigerian knew Okadigbo, he was a Roman Catholic and an Igbo and he was brought up politically by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, we were rigged out and we were in court for 30 months, up to the Supreme Court. In 2007, I picked Chief Umeh-Ezeoke, he was an Igbo and Roman Catholic. Again we were rigged out. In 2011, I picked Tunde Bakare, a pastor. So how more Christian do you want me to go in picking as running mate? I never picked a Muslim as a running mate.
But this time around?
I am not going to tell you. I would do that after the primary. If I win the primary then I will reveal who is my running mate.
But would you consider a Muslim-Muslim ticket?
I said I would not tell you.
There is a school of thought that said your incursion into Chad was in disobedience to the civilian authorities. That you did not wait to get the permission of President Shagari.
The type of training I received up to my commissioning and up to my rank then, major-general, was that you have to be loyal to those that are below you and those above you. How can a country, which America literarily forced us to give petroleum products to, instead of its president flying in to come see our president and thanking him, went and killed our soldiers and you think I will wait for orders. Well, I asked for their understanding, whether they gave me or not I do not know until they asked me to pull out, otherwise I would have lost respect from my soldiers.
I think that most people think that you are not a fundamentalist. But I have seen your children at the airports, they are like my children, they love good things. I do not think that you raised yourself in that fundamentalist way. However the fear is about those around you, that the nature of your support base is driven by clerics. The fear is that if you become president will these clerics not take over the Villa?
I am just a Muslim and those who studied Islam or know more about its tenets know that it is all about justice. But in Nigeria, we are not practicing Sharia, the constitution has set out legal provisions and states that have voted for Sharia have got their courts to some extent. But then in the end, it is the Supreme Court that will decide. So I cannot work out of the constitution of the country. If those clerics are supporting me as you alleged, then perhaps they are supporting me because they feel there will be justice. If you steal, you will have to return it and maybe get some punishment but if you do not steal you will live in peace.
There is this perception that Boko Haram has religious undertones. If elected president, what will be your position be on Sharia?
It is about the constitution. It is the constitution that we agreed to follow as an emerging nation. The 1999 Constitution gives every Nigerian the right of practicing any religion of his or her choice and not to even practice any religion. I had deliberately refused to make comments on what happened in Nassarawa State where some 70 policemen were killed by a militant group and one misguided SSS person came and said that they had pardoned them. I issued a statement that she had no right to do that. The fundamental responsibility of government is to protect the lives and properties of citizens. And Nigerians, by the constitution, can practice any religion they wish to or refuse to practise any.
Now what do you like about President Jonathan?
If you look at other four people running with you under the APC, assuming that you choose not to run again, who would you chose to fly the party’s flag at the election?
I think if I am not running, I should leave it to the party to decide. I understand Rochas Okorocha got two forms, one for president and one for governor, I do not know which one he wants. In any case, I think by receiving those two forms he has disqualified himself from the race. So out of the remaining, Atiku Abubakar, Kwankwaso and Nda-Isaiah, I think I will choose Kwankwaso. Atiku was the vice-president to President Obasanjo for eight years and you know how they ended up. You know that one more than myself. While in school, I was a class monitor, a prefect, a head boy. From there, a governor, a minister, chairman of PTF and a head of state and so people can refer to something. Kwankwaso has also served as governor for the second time and was Minister of Defence, may be you can refer to something. But Sam is a very difficult one.
What is your economic blue print?
It will be a set of regulations, strategies, policies and a vision on how to stabilise the economy, secure the country and move forward. I think that’s what it is.
The APC presidential primary is coming up this week and you have never gone through a competitive primary. What do you think your chances are in the contest?
Well, that is why I have been going round the country meeting the delegates to seek their understanding and support. There are these reports that some people are spending so much money. But I think Nigerians have suffered enough and I think it is not a question of getting just N50,000 and then you are on your own for the next four years. I think it is a question of thinking seriously among the five of us who will really make an attempt at securing our country and managing it efficiently. I respect the system, so the best way we sell ourselves is to tell the electorate what we can do and leave them to decide based on our previous performance or lack of it and then vote for us. If they make a mistake, then we will suffer, our children will suffer. If they make the right choice and regroup around the right person, then we may salvage our country once more.
You presented yourself to Nigerians in the last three elections but lost although you claimed you were rigged out. What measures have you put in place to ensure that this does not happen again?
What I am suggesting is that Nigerians should stand for a free, fair and credible election, otherwise look at the problem some parties are having anointing candidates before the primaries. The system does not stop parties from having consensus candidates to produce the candidates but the ideal is to go through the primaries and choose who they want to represent them. The bottom line is to have a credible election.