General Abdulsalami Abubakar is a distinguished elder statesman who was military head of state between 1998 and 1999, when he handed over to a civilian government. In this interview with Trust TV he went over the story of his life and some of the momentous episodes of his long military career. Excerpts:
It appears as if you started your military career in the air force and then you moved to the army. I wonder, why this switch?
Like you rightly said, I started in then army to the air force and back to the army. Why I said that, I attended the interview for the army that was in December 1962, when we finished from secondary school. At that time there was general mobilization to indigenize the officer corps in the Nigeria Military, at that time it was only the Navy and the Army that were in existence. So in 1962 we attended the selection board for the army.
Now at that time there were limited numbers of slots for training of cadets in the then Nigerian Military Training College, which metamorphosed NDA. So, after the selection board, we were divided into two; one group started the military training, that is the group that consist of President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, General Abacha, General Nasko, Magoro, Sani Sami, General Omu and so on.
So we were in the waiting list; waiting for them to finish their training before we now report. It was during this waiting period that the air force was established. So some of us who were in the waiting list were told, “why don’t you go and start training in the air force?” So we the became nucleus of the air force.
The Germans came in and we conducted military training for the air force after which, I think three or six months thereafter we were sent to Germany. We were in Germany when the Civil War broke up and there was dearth of officers in the Nigerian Army, so some of us were drafted back to the army. We were to the NDA, which was by then on, for what was called emergency training after which we were commissioned and were sent to the war front, so this is the story.
So did you always want to be in the army from secondary school, and what was the motivation?
Like I told you, at the time we were finishing our secondary education in 1962, there was this general mobilization to indigenize the officer corps in the Nigerian military. There was this team set up by the Ministry of Defence to go round, to entice school leavers to join the military.
Now let me trace back a little bit back to my school days, right from my senior primary school up to secondary school, I personally was interested in outdoor life, so I was a member of the Nigerian Boys Scout.
Now back to the issue of the government’s effort to sell ideas to school leavers to join the military, they set up a team to go round and address the school leavers. Our school was one of those targeted and the team included the then Captain Gowon, General Gowon who became the head of state. T
hey came round to us, very smartly well dressed and so on and they tried to tell us about professions in the army, the opportunities and so on. So that nailed the box, so to speak. And at the end of our secondary certificate examination, we applied and went for the selection board.
It appears you are one of those officers who weren’t political; you were not a governor or minister like some of your colleagues, indeed until you became the chief of defence staff before you became well known. Did you deliberately avoid such appointments for professional reasons?
Well let me say, that is the will of God. I never opted to serve but for the hindsight of our leaders at that time, there were quite a number of us who were completely left to be in the military so that at least, maybe they have seen our values to maintain the military ethics and so on; so quite a number of us me inclusive were, should I say mercifully were left out of the politics, at that time we were completely left in the military.
And of course, like me, we all grew up in the profession and were not well known because we were strictly involved in our military duties. Like you said when you grew up in rank whether you are in politics or not, you become known to the public and certainly as a chief of defence staff that actually now exposed me to the public.
Is it true that you were about to be retired as chief of defence staff in 1998, that a day before you retired, Abacha died and instead of retiring, you were promoted to head of state?
That again is the will of Almighty God. Indeed yes right from the beginning of Abacha’s administration there were quite a number of some caucus members of that military, who were very uncomfortable with some of us and we were penciled down for retirement but luckily enough, every time I escaped being retired up to the time God in His wisdom did what He did and I became the head of state.
Was it about your relationship with General Babangida; was the reason they saw you maybe as somebody who should be done away with?
Well, really I was not in the mind of this caucus members but you might be right to say well, sometimes relationships affects whatever position in life somebody is, that is per assumption and so on.
But were you not a friend to Abacha? I expect that you came a long way.
Well of course, let me say this; all our generations we knew ourselves whether we were in the same school or not, as long as you were a sportsman. You know during that time there was interschool sporting activities where we were zoned in northern Nigeria to play against various schools up to the time you come to the final. Now I happened to be a sportsman and General Abacha was also a sportsman.
Which sports was this?
Football, hockey, cricket, athletics and so on; you know there was an annual event where the schools compete against each other. And of course it was during one of those games that we knew ourselves.
We were the contemporaries, like I was in form one in Bida Secondary School, Abacha was in form one in Kano, this was how we met.
And like I told you there was this issue of trying to entice school leavers to join the military. The same way a team came to our school, another team went to Kano and other schools and again we finished in December 1962, he and I belonged to that set. All of us were interested to join the military we all attended the selection board.
In actual fact, during that selection board like I told you, we were in the waiting list and on that list, I was directly next to General Abacha.
You know Late General Abacha was a short individual, so when we came to the beam, we helped to lift him up to get to the beam.
So I think our relationship with General Abacha went back to our school days and it continued when we found ourselves in the military and by coincidence, during the Civil War, we found ourselves fighting in the same brigade. I think he was commanding 95 battalion then, I was commanding 84 battalion under 9 Brigade commanded by Late General Shehu Yaradua. So we were operating in the same theatre during the war. Actually this bonded our relationship more and more.
But still that didn’t make you escape potential retirement at that point in 1998.
Well that is the wish of the other members of the kitchen cabinet, let me put it that way, but that was not his idea. I must say, quite honestly, to me, Abacha was a very loyal man to his friends and people who he knew. He never betrayed any trust, so he stuck to his gun, right to when he passed away.
Like I said, right from the day when he became head of state, there were people who were very uncomfortable with some of us and wanted to weed us out but as luck will have it, he stock to his gun, he refused to retire me and some others who went along with him.
I know there was a lot of pressure for example for him to retire people like Late General Haladu, Late General Duba and General Useini, me inclusive, and some other people but fortunately some of us escaped that scheme.
There is the general impression that General Useini was a very good friend of his, indeed they seem to share some closeness.
Of course, but because he was friend to General Abacha, the other members of the kitchen cabinet had their own idea.
Sir, can you relive for us the day Abacha died and the drama and how you became the head of state?
A lot happened the day General Abacha passed away. He died I think the day he was to travel to Togo for, I think, the ECOWAs or AU summit.
Now I got a call from the Villa that General Abacha wanted to see me. So, immediately what came to my mind, I said; I hope he had not changed his mind about going to this Togo and was going to send me because at that time when he passed away, already I was the de facto number two man because at that time General Diya and others were having problem on this alleged coup.
So I suspected that the General had changed his mind and he was going to send me because in a lot of times, I am called upon to go and represent the head of state.
So I took my time, when I went to the bathroom and I told my wife, “look I think I might be going to this AU Summit, so help me prepare my bag” but before I finished then there was another call.
Was this in the morning?
Yes, in the morning. Then there was another call; “look the president is waiting for you,” I said “okay I am coming”.
So I casually put on my tracksuit since there was no time to dress in uniform and so on, since there was agitation that I was wanted immediately.
So I came with my tracksuit, I think I was even wearing slippers. When I entered they said, “General is in the office”; so naturally when I come to the office, no matter who was with General Abacha I normally just go in and meet him and maybe he would say “Okay, wait, let me finish with this gentleman or he will ask the fellow to give us chance”.
To my surprise when I came, as I was climbing the steps, somebody said “No, he said you have to wait in the waiting room”.
To my surprise, I was in the waiting room for over 30, 40 minutes, then I kept wondering what was happening. Any time I wanted to go up, they said no, the General said I should wait.
So after about 40 minutes waiting, then Late Coomassie, (Ibrahim Coomassie), who was the inspector general of police came to where I was sitting and he said “Please come”. Instead of going up to the office, we followed out, he said “No, we are going to the house”.
It was in that process he told me, “Look, unfortunately General Abacha has passed on in the night”. So that was how we went to the villa where General Abacha was living and as we entered, they showed me on the right where his corpse was, so I entered and prayed for his soul and so on.
Then we entered the parlour where I found some gentlemen including I think…Coomassie of course was there then the chief justice of the federation, I think Ambassador Babagana Kingibe and one or two security operatives, I can’t remember everybody.
Was it clear this was just natural death because as you know there was a lot of speculation.
Well at that time I was told he passed away and so on and at that time all these speculations did not arise until later on. All we were concerned was that okay, that the head of state has passed on, how do we now break the news to the country and so on and so forth.
We were guided by the then chief justice of the federation saying that “Look, so much as there is the need to inform Nigerians about the passing away of the head of state, you cannot leave a vacuum, there must be a substantive head of state before you can go ahead with other things”. So I think that set up the chain of events.
So immediately, as the chief of defence staff then, I quickly summoned for the council of state meeting.
Still in your tracksuits or you had change by then?
I was still in my tracksuit because there was no time, because it was really a shocking and devastating period we found ourselves. So it was later when we set up the meeting, that I had to go home and really get properly dressed.
So was there a consensus or tussle about who will become the head of state at that time?
So now when I came back well dressed, by that time members of the military ruling council had started arriving, when we all assembled then we went to the meeting. Of all course we had to break the news although it had become a common knowledge between the members that his Excellency General Abacha had passed on.
We had to tell the council of his demise and the advice given by the chief justice of the federation, that before we did anything there must be somebody to take over, so that he is in charge.
It took time before the members of the council of state arrived. Of course in the chamber, there was a lot of interactions. Finally it was decided that okay we had General Useini who was then the most senior officer, so to speak, but he was in the administration, he was then minister of FCT and I was the chief of defence staff, so the issue was one of us should emerge as the head of state.
There was a stalemate in the discussion, somebody raised an issue, “Look, we should tell the world General Abacha has passed on, before it was too late, let’s please go and bury the gentleman before we come back and sort out ourselves”.
Meanwhile as all this was going on, it was decided by the family he was going to be buried in Kano and while we were still talking, arrangements were being made for his burial in Kano. So I think this took us to night time, when we all then decided, okay, let’s leave this and then go and bury him and come back and this was what happened.
So we went to Kano and buried him and came back and resumed the issue of who will take over. Of course as the chief of defence staff, I was presiding on the meeting; so finally after votes and so on, the council members decided that I take over as the head of state.
There was a vote?
Yes, there was!
You were also there when another dramatic death happened, that of MKO Abiola. There are still people who say funny things happened. Can you really lay the cards on the table, tell us what you know.
Well, I smile because there were lots of allegations here and there that we killed Abiola. As always when I am talking about late Abiola, I still thank God for directing me on things to do when he gave me the leadership of this country.
On the day Moshood (Abiola) passed away, may he rest in peace, two to three things make me always say I thank my God for the guidance He gave me. One was I received a delegation from America headed by Pickering (Ambassador Tom Pickering) who was then, I think, the secretary of state or so. In his team I remember very well, was Susan Rice. I remember her very well because of the role she played later.
So after the normal courtesy and discussion we had, when they were leaving my office, Pickering said “Your Excellency we made a request to see Moshood Abiola but we were denied”, so I said “Why were you denied? who denied you?” There and then I made a decision, I said “Look, you will see Moshood definitely, I overruled whoever said you cannot see him”. So I now called my chief security officer, I said “Please make arrangement for this team to see Abiola,” that is one point.
Now during the incarceration of Moshood Abiola, except his personal doctor, to my knowledge, no member of his family saw him. So when I became head of state, based on consultation and interaction together with Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, I gave the family a date that they could come and see him.
So a day before he died, his family came to Abuja to see him. For one reason or the other, the whole family could not see him at the same time, so it was agreed that when this group of his family will see him today, tomorrow the next team will see him. So they saw him like yesterday, now this team from US came to see me and I said they could see him. Normally it was in the evenings the family go and see him. So because I had authorized the American team to see him, so the other part of the family were waiting to see him.
So, it was at this meeting when the American team was meeting Abiola he fell sick and suddenly the security officers called the medical team to come and attend to him, and when they saw the situation they said it was severe and they needed to take him to the medical centre. So it was the medical team plus the American team that took him to the medical centre, unfortunately at the medical centre he gave up.
Then my security chief called and said “I have bad news for you”, I asked what it was, he said “Abiola is dead”. I was shocked. He told me he was there with the American team, at that time I was staying in the barracks, I had not moved to the villa, so I said okay, let him take the American team to my house, I will meet them at the house; so I closed from the office, and went there.
The issue now was how do I break the news to Abiola’s family and how do we tell the world Abiola had passed on. I must be thankful to God and again to Ambassador Kingibe because we called on him and asked him to bring the family of Abiola. So when they came I broke the news, that unfortunately this is what has happened.
As you would expect, the family broke down and they started crying, I can’t remember which of the ladies, I held her, she was crying, sobbing, it was then Susan Rice, that is why I always remember her, said “Mr President that is not your job, let me do it”, so she now held this lady until she settled down and she calmed down a little bit. Then we had to summon my second in command and other people and then strategized on how to break the news.
That is why I always say I thank my God for guiding me, if I hadn’t said the American team should go and meet Abiola certainly I don’t know how I would explain to the world that Abiola had died, and the American team will they believe me that we had not killed Abiola at that time when they were requesting to see him?
You decided quickly after you took over to first hand over power, to have a transition which surprised so many people because we know even now, recent times, coup makers in Africa are still trying to find a way to stay on. What really informed your decision to quickly leave?
Well, again I give credit to Allah who in the first place gave me that responsibility and also helped in guiding me in talking to my colleagues to reach this decision.
When I took over, Nigeria was on a precipice. There was a lot of agitation by the civilians asking the military to leave the scene and hand over, so if you recollect, at that time there were lots of demonstrations, a lot of disturbances, a lot of destructions of government properties and so on.
Now what was happening in the political field has found its way into the military. We in the military were supposed to defend the constitution and defend the Nigeria’s integrity.
Now, by the time I took over, the military had become a victim of itself. One, the seniority in the military was crumbling, you find a junior officer lording a senior officer because he was in the political administration of the country.
Two, you will find out at that time, instead of us talking about the unity of Nigeria, we started talking about our region, we started to take sides with our civilian counterparts.
Within the military?
Within the military and that was a very dangerous situation I found in the military.
Another thing, some of us who fought the Nigerian civil war in order to keep the country one started feeling; how could we allow what we fought to keep together to crumble in our eyes.
So these are some of the factors that really struck us in the leadership; now let us ensure this country doesn’t breakup, let us try to restore the dignity to the military and restore the status quo where seniority and nationalism abide.
So we sat down and decided that the best way was as soon as possible, within the shortest time, we should give civilians what they wanted; let them take over the governance of the country, let the military go back to the barracks to resume our military duties.
So these were some of the issues that made us took the decision that we did. Of course it wasn’t easy, there were lots of proponents, okay let us take so much period of time, it is not easy to prepare for election, this and that but in the long run some of us, with the support of some of the people who were on my side, we put our foot down and said no, let’s do it the shortest possible time.
In actual fact, we wanted to do it in less than six months but we had been cautioned, it is not easy to prepare elections, it will take time to register political parties and after the election it will take at least 60 days to ensure that all these judgments, the hearing and so on are finalized.
So together with all these calculations of forming political parties, preparing for the election, preparing for any electoral challenges in the court, we finally decided that okay, let’s take nine months and do this thing.
Yet, we ended up with Obasanjo, the whole process ended up producing another general as president and people keep saying that you generals actually found a way to organise this transition. He was in prison and somehow he was brought out, dressed up as a civilian candidate, and became president.
There is this believe that this is all arranged by the leading generals of the period.
Thank you for asking that question. I always smile and laugh when I am accused or my government is accused of imposing Obasanjo.
Now of course we released Obasanjo and other prisoners and pardoned them. So when Obasanjo was released he came to see me, saying he was going to take the government to court. “Why are you going to do that?” He said his business was crumbled by the military, his human rights have been violated, that he did not commit any coup and so on and so forth. I said “Sir, please let bygone be bygone, thank God you are alive today, forget about these things. Some of the issues you mentioned, within my power I will look into that, so we left it at that”.
The next time he came to see me was to tell me that he had been approached by this group of people, they want to make him the candidate to stand for election.
I said “Sir, if I were you, please disregard this people, Sir, go home and rest and sort your health out and so on and so forth”. He said “Okay, General thank you for your advice, I will get back to you”. He never got back to me. The next I hear was that he was one of the presidential candidates.
I tried to tell people that I had nothing to do in bringing Obasanjo to contest the election. Whatever must have happened was within the political parties and so on.
But you had to rehabilitate him after prison…
Like I had all other prisoners! What do you mean by I had to rehabilitate him?
Well I am thinking of his businesses, whether he was helped with something to revive them which was one of his complaints.
Of course not only him, all people that were imprisoned in one way or the other, we tried to rehabilitate them; to help them in one way or the other. In one way or the other we did what we could to assist them, so you cannot equate that to bringing him to contest for an election.
Close allies of yours, General Babangida and General Gusau seems to have been involved in this PDP arrangement and that is why it is assumed you would be in the know and probably help here and there with the situation.
Of course I know the situation of the political parties; of course we had to intervene in one way or the other to give peace a chance. We put some conditions for the registration of political parties, in order to make peace reign we had to tinker with some of the conditions because categorically the AD did not qualify, it was only I think PDP or APP that qualified to be registered as political parties.
But if we had not done that we would still not be out of the woods. There was this agitation from the South West that they have been shortchanged and so on and so forth, so we said look, what we are trying to do is bring peace, no laws are sacrosanct, let’s see how we can tinker. So we tinkered and allowed the AD to be registered and thereby we were able to placate another area where there will be unrest and accusations; so we did.
Now if in the process of making political parties, people are jockeying here and there, please take my administration out of this tinkering. We didn’t know anything, we did not say look make A, B, C, D the presidential candidate, it is an issue between the political parties.
If as you have said Babangida, Aliyu Gusau have played a role, that must be a role they were playing with the political parties because they became members of political parties.
What have you been doing since your retirement; I know you do a bit of farming, how is it going? Farming is easier said than done.
Exactly! Farming is easier said than done but Alhamdulillah we thank God, so far so good. When I retired, I went full stream into farming, we do agrarian farming, we have some citrus fruits and we have some animals, I am involved in animal husbandry and we produced the best yogurt in the country, Maizube Yogurt, if you haven’t tried it, try it, it is the best yogurt.
Is it still going, the business?
Yes, the children have now taken over and you know age is catching with us so we relaxing.
Again besides farming, I go involved in some peacemaking efforts. I find myself being engaged by the UN, by the African Union, by the ECOWAS to try and mediate in some of these conflict areas and Alhamdulillah somebody has been contributing his quota and bringing peace to the world.
You are also involved with the National Peace Committee of which you are the chair and during the transition in 2015 you played a role in ensuring that there is a smooth transfer of power between Mr Jonathan and Mr Buhari. So I wonder, was it challenging because there are some stories around that, I mean how did Jonathan concede, was it pressure from foreign countries or is it pressure from your committee and others?
I think whoever is telling stories of the pressure from foreign countries and the peace committee on Jonathan to concede, is not being fair to him. I think President Jonathan deserves all commendation for what he has done to save this country from further political logjam.
On his own he conceded the situation and despite the pressure from his own party not to concede, he conceded defeat and called President Buhari to say “Your Excellency congratulations, I think you have won squarely I congratulate you; you are going to be the next president of this country”.
So I think Jonathan’s role is being underestimated and credit is not given to him as it should be. I confirm here, it was neither pressure from the peace committee, nor from the international community, it was out of his volition, it was out of his love for peace and progress of this country, that he conceded.
Of course during the logjam, we talked to him and talked to Buhari on how to resolve the issues. You could remember the drama that happened when the results were being declared, certainly that put a lot of stress on the peace committee and quite a lot of home work had to be done in order to quench that problem that would have arisen from the declaration of results.
I must thank the security forces and Nigerians really for the success of what happened in the 2015 election. Nigerians are good people, they are good and honest people, they love this country and each of us played a role to make sure that there was peace and tranquility in 2015.
Do you have any concerns about the next round of elections which is coming in a little over a year?
Well, I expect more maturity, more understanding than just seeking power from the politicians. A lot has not met our expectations from the bulk of our politicians and our leaders. Yes, there are some challenges in leadership, but you know politics is a dirty game and I think we are playing dirty politics in this country. My prayer is that our politicians and the electorates are aware that their actions or inactions will mar this country.
We have a lot of problems, people do anything in order to be elected and unfortunately the electorates also they sell their liberty, they become enticed by mere token of worldly gifts. I hope we will now wake up and do the right thing which we know is right to elect people we trust that can really look after us and deliver governance as it should be.
It sounds that you are disappointed with the current lot who are in power.
Well, of course I have some misgivings with some of the things but by and large you know when you are in leadership they say the onlooker sees best of the game.
We are outside, me and you, maybe the leaders see things different way but quite honestly, regardless, we could have done better that what we are doing. It is all collective leadership and I think all leaders should try to see what role they can play in providing this leadership and governance.
And also we the citizens, as much as possible, we should try to engage the people we elected to deliver, we should not become praise singers and become subservient to people because they are in authority. We should be bold enough to tell our leaders, “Look, what you are doing here, you have done the right thing, here we think you should improve on it”, and so on and so forth.
But unfortunately all of us just sit down and start complaining through social media, through reckless statements and so on. I pray our leaders also listen and see things the way they are in order to have them in governing us.
Many of the senior Generals, your colleagues even those behind you have made the transition to civilian politics; contested for office and all that; I don’t know if it has ever occurred to you to also do that maybe to be head of state again through the electoral process?
Very soon I will be 80years old, what will I look for except now to wait for my time to go and meet my Maker.
But even before then.
Well you are now talking about inside, very soon I will be 80, so to look for what again? Almighty Allah has already been kind to me, it is now payback time, in advising the government and our politicians on the way they should run the affairs of this country.
Now I am looking and playing with my grandchildren and trying to you know encouraging them and see how they can grow up to be good citizens in the country.
Yes, everybody has his own desire, people wants to play politics and I am happy that the security people are also getting involved after retirement in playing politics and some of them have really done very well in politics and they are still doing very well because you see, when you are in the military, right from the day one, you are taught about leadership, management of human beings, management of resources and that is what administration is all about.
So I am happy some of us who retired are involved in politics, they have gone into politics and like I said they have made a mark.
You have never been tempted?
No, no! I’ve never been. Politics have never been my, you see there are some qualities and some characteristics that makes a politician; naturally I am a very reserved fellow, I don’t want any disturbance and all this trouble but others, you know they have got the flair to play politics and so I am happy and I hope even the younger generation who are retiring will also go in.
You can see policemen, military, army officers, air force, navy and so on, are all involved in politics and the more the merrier.