In this interview with WEEKEND LEADERSHP, former Plateau State Military Governor, Air Commodore Dan Suleiman, shares his experience and involvement in events leading to the formation of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and the agitation for the return of democracy. EMAMEH GABRIEL presents the excerpts
You were a soldier and later a pro-democracy activist, what informed your passion for activism?
It was as a result of sequence of events. When I was in the military, I was in government and I saw things in government that I didn’t like. In government, I was often referred to as opposition leader. Even in (General Yakubu) Gowon’s, (General Murtala) Muhammed’s and (General Olusegun) Obasanjo’s regime that I served; I was seen as a critic. This is because I have the urge for speaking the truth, justice and fair play. I always speak my mind when I see injustice. Thus, people like us were seen as opposition leaders.
On retirement, we became victims of the injustice I was talking about. I was at work one day when I heard on radio that I had been retired. That was during the (Alhaji Shehu) Shagari era. We were the ones who ushered in Shagari and we worked tenaciously to ensure that democracy was fostered. I was a member of the Supreme Military Council, I was a member of the Executive Council and was also a member of the National Council of States. I was involved in every decision making policy then and I was always vocal.
I don’t know why I wanted this democracy. The problem Gowon had was that he shifted the date to return democracy. I was in his government at that time, so his programme was truncated because he shifted the date. Then Murtala Muhammed came to power and I was in his government as a member of the Supreme Military Council. We drew up a programme for the return of democracy. I was then posted to Jos. Initially resisted it but I was told that the situation in the country required somebody that the people would have confidence in to take care of the situation in Plateau State because the coup d’état that overthrew Muritala Muhammed had most coupists from Plateau. There was a lot of tension in the state between the southern part who are predominantly Muslims and the northern part who are predominantly Christians. Obasanjo was the Head of State then. In Plateau we pursued the programme for the return to democracy.
How were you retired?
After return to civil rule, I moved to Kaduna where I established the first training command of the Nigerian Air Force. We were four of us who started the Air Force, myself, Air Commodore Falope and two others. When Shagari came to power, officers came to me and said, they were going to appoint new service chiefs and asked me to lobby. But I said no I can’t lobby because a post like that should not be lobbied for. It is a professional thing. What happened? It appeared that they were looking for a Muslim or Hausa-Fulani men to be the service chiefs. I wasn’t fit into that. But the immediate eligible ones were myself and Falope. Because they wanted a Hausa/Fulani and Muslim, they went down and picked a younger officer to be Chief of Air Staff. This allegation may sound wayward but I will tell you why it is not. When this young officer was being sworn in, they handed him a Quran to swear by but he said they should give him a Bible. His name was Abdul Dominic Belo. But because he was often referred to as A.D Belo, they thought he was a Muslim. They were so taken aback and they had to hand him a Bible to take his oath of office.
So automatically those of us who were senior to him had to retire. That was when religion and politics began to be introduced into the military. This was what I was speaking against when I was still in service. So, you can see the trend that led me to politics.
When did you come into partisan politics?
Until 1983 when Shagari was going to run for second term, I wasn’t involved in politics after retirement. But people came from home to ask that I should come and run for Senate. At first they wanted me to come and run for governor but I said no I was already a governor before. I did some consultations and later agreed to run for Senate.
Eventually I went home and started campaigning. It turned out that my own constituency was the same with Bamanga Tukur’s who was contesting the governorship. I became very popular and incidentally my popularity was not too pleasing to some leaders, including Bamanga Tukur himself. There they said I should be stopped, though we went to the primaries and it went in favour of another candidate picked by Bamanga Tukur. During the primaries, the final result was announced, I did my calculation and when I realised that the game was over, I stood up from my seat and went and congratulated the winner with handshake and conceded defeat even before the votes were counted. When people say today that (former President Goodluck) Jonathan was the first to concede defeat, I conceded mine in 1983. At a point I was approached by a close friend of ours who was very close to Shagari and said that Shehu Shagari said that he learnt that the election was not conducted properly, that I should petition. But I told him to tell Shagari that I was there ot the field of election and as far as I know, I did not see anybody with a gun pointed at his head going into the polling booth.
I am saying all these not because I was somebody who helped brought in democracy but I saw injustice in democracy from day one.
What did you do?
Now I asked, how do I fight this injustice. The first forum I found counterparts and colleagues was the Middle Belt Forum. At that time (Gen) TY Danjuma was the leader of the forum. So I joined the forum from Adamawa State and later I became one of the voices in the Middle Belt. It was there and then we decided that power must shift from the North. We mapped out a plan and we said the South-West should extend a handshake with the South-East first because there was a friction between the regions because of the Civil War. Then Gen. (Adeyinka) Adebayo led the South-West and another leader from East led the South-East and they shook hands across the Niger to try and see how they could actualise the power shift to the South. It was then they decided that they could not do it without the Middle Belt. So TY Danjuma was invited to join them. A meeting was held at General Adebayo’s house in Lagos. So that was how the South-South was also brought in with Chiefs (Anthony) Enahoro and (Alfred) Rewani to join the group. We started with what was called CUU – Committee for Unity and Understanding. It was a movement with Adebayo as the head. It was in Adebayo’s house that CUU drafted a document that ushered in NADECO. We decided that the South-West would be the first beneficiary of the power and after several meetings, we asked them to produce a candidate. That was how Olu Falaye emerged the candidate. That was when political parties like SDP and NRC emerged and we joined the SDP. But IBB disqualified all the aspirants including Gen Shehu Yar’Adua.
The two parties were asked to bring new candidates. That was how we reached out to MKO Abiola. And he ran and actually won the election on June 12, 1993. In the course of our struggles, IBB did his Maradona thing and eventually shot himself on the foot and scored an own goal and he stepped aside. That was how ( Chief Ernest) Shonekan came in and eventually Abacha.
When Abacha came in, I told TY Danjuma that we now have a dictator and TY confirmed that later when he started locking people up left and right. Even I was not spared. We were rounded up and locked up in police station and were transferred to the Force CID and there after myself, Jonah Jang and Segun Oshoba were charged to court for NADECO activities. We were 53 that signed the NADECO document but only three of us were arrested. NADECO became a popular movement and even the judiciary was sympathetic to us and eventually we were granted bail.
That did not please Abacha and he eventually started unleashing terror on us. I was also the first victim. In the middle of the night my house was set on fire with me and family inside. The reason was that most of the meetings we had were held in my house at Victoria Island. So, when Enahoro was arrested, then I became the leader of the group so we continued the struggle.
But why was Abacha doing all these to you?
He thought we were opposition. Let me tell you something about power. There is parable that says it is not the king that is actually wicked but those around him. Abacha had very wicked people around him. People like Al Mustapha and so on. That is how dictatorship works. Crash the opposition and NADECO was the opposition. To be fair to Abacha, when he took over the government, the first person he called was me. The day I went to see him, I met MKO Abiola coming out from his house and he said to me, “Dan, we are now in power. I want you to give me your opinion.” And I said to him, “you will become a hero if you work out the programme that will return the country to democracy within six months. He said, “If that is ok.” But he had a problem. His boys in the army wanted to be appointed military administrators but he didn’t want to disappoint the public. And I said to him, “Sani if you are serious about six months programme, appoint military administrators to actualise that programme.” I was thinking of how we did it in 1979. He said but how was he going to tell the public, I told him, “Don’t worry, I will do it for you.”
I went back home and called a press conference to inform the public of the plans of appointing military administrators. Coincidentally, the next day, Gani Faweyemi issued a statement advising Abacha to appoint military administrators and that encouraged him to do so.
Somehow there was some level of confidence between me and him because of the relationship with my wife who grew up in the same place in Kano with Sani Abacha. They were family friends.
When the capital was moved to Abuja, he called me one day and said, “Can you come and let’s see how we can resolve this fight with NADECO?” I said sure. After the meeting with him, he asked if I could convince members of NADECO for a meeting him and I assured him. When we were ready, he said I should tell Al Mustapha and that was the last time Al Mustapha took my call.
Looking back, you can say NADECO won and the Fourth Republic was inaugurated. What is your assessment of the Fourth Republic?
I will say that we started well. Obasanjo came in with a lot of goodwill both locally and internationally. He had a lot of support. So, he was very popular with world leaders and within Nigeria people were already yearning for democracy. When things started to derail was the saga of late President Umoru Yar’Adua and the transition between him and Goodluck Jonathan when some ugly political scenario began to play out. In the end Jonathan came on board. But I don’t think he was ready or prepared for governance at that level, though he should be one person who should be more than prepared for leadership. Someone who started as a deputy governor and elevated to a governor, and then vice president, by the time you become a president you should have been more than equipped to run the nation but unfortunately he faulted.
I am a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and a member of the Board of Trustee. So, if I am indicting Jonathan I am indicting the PDP and I am indicting myself in the process. But I am telling you the truth of what happened.
What really happened?
Let me tell you what happened. The impunity in the PDP was what killed it and it was what put some of us in the sideline. They tried to create a situation whereby if you are a known critic, you are not invited to BoT meetings. I went to Moscow as an Ambassador and I came back and found new faces in the Board of Trustees. I found out that sometimes meetings would be held and I was not invited. I discovered that it was not only me but all those who were critical. Jonathan doesn’t like criticism. He doesn’t like people who criticise him in his face and doesn’t listen to genuine advice. Even people like Obasanjo who put him there found it difficult to correct him. That was why Obasanjo was writing letters. Even Edwin Clark who called him his son, found it difficult to correct him. All the same, he had some pocket of wrong people who were giving him wrong pieces of advice. We knew some people who were planted to bring down the regime of Jonathan. Now he knows them. I don’t know if he was not morally prepared for governance. He was not and that was why the opportunities of the PDP were filtered away.
That is Jonathan. What about the current administration?
It is a shame. It is a shame because too many people had confidence in (President Muhammadu) Buhari. I voted for Jonathan in spite of his misdeeds but the majority of Nigerians voted for Buhari because they thought there was going to be a genuine change and some of us who didn’t vote him thought the same. Today Nigeria is on a precipice where everybody is complaining, where everybody feels unsafe. In fact the worse thing is this insecurity challenge which was one of his first agenda. There was insecurity in the country but the nation today feels insecure more than before.
What could have been responsible for this?
The problem with this government is what I will call perception. There is a perception that this government is not favouring the minorities or those who feel deprived.
Some had thought that NADECO was a progressive and ideological movement with some of the prominent names you mentioned earlier. It is clear today that most of your members still around today like John Oyegun, Tinubu and others joined the opposition then. At what point did you break out and why?
I tell you what. This started abroad. You know I was the leader of NADACO Abroad. That is for those of us who went into exile. After the death of Abacha and Abdusalami came into power, he came to London and asked us to come to Nigeria to make the country work. We told him to inform our members in Nigeria. They met with Abdulsalam and they agreed that they would cooperate in the democracy. Nigeria is a very funny country. While we were in the UK, we learnt that parties were being formed. There was the PDP and all my contemporaries in the Middle Belt were in the PDP, whereas South-West was largely AD. When they were forming the AD, they didn’t notify us in the UK. They didn’t notify us who were not Westerners. In fact I had to call (Chief Abraham) Adesanya to ask him that I learnt that they were forming a political party. He said I should not worry; that Bola Ige was coming to Europe that he would meet us. Eventually Bola Ige arrived in London but to my surprise, I learnt that Bola Ige invited only the South-West NADECO abroad without me the leader. The only time he called was when he was at the airport and was travelling to the US and he told me he was around and met some of my people and he would call me. And when he came back he didn’t call. That was funny. Then we planning to return to Nigeria. Other members of NADECO, particularly the Easterners felt marginalised. So Obiora who was then our man in the United States and Ralph Uwechue who were members of NADECO now decided to form a party, the UPP because they didn’t want to come to the country empty handed. That was how I was made the chairman of the party.
We came back to Nigeria with the UPP, (United Peoples Party). Solomon Lar was the chairman of PDP then and we were called for a meeting to join the PDP. Initially I disagreed but after the local government elections, and we realised that the PDP came out first, we had to collapse into the PDP. We were not the only party that collapsed into the PDP. There were about four or five political parties that merged with the PDP that year.
Looking back at your struggles, do you regret all the things you did in the past?
No! why? Because I am an optimist and because I believe we have all it takes to make Nigeria a great nation. Few people cannot truncate our move towards greatness. Few people whose desire is to dismantle Nigeria cannot stifle the desires and the will of Nigerians to make Nigeria a great nation. I am not saying I am one of them. I agree with those who said the older generation should step aside for the younger generation to take over. Look all round the world today, it is the younger generation that are in control of things. They are the people using technology. We don’t want analogue leaders.
A few people who want to dismantle Nigeria you said. You were vocal then but you seem very quiet now, keeping a very low profile, are you not bothered about all the happenings in the country?
It is not that I am not vocal now but I am not vocal as an individual. I am vocal as a group. The Middle Belt as a forum was quiet but now we are reviving. There is prefacer for power shift and that is going on now. The same scenario is happening where the South-West is shaking hands with the South-East, they brought the South-South with the Middle Belt on board to try and rescue the country. I am part of the arrangement, so I am not silent. I may be silent on the pages of newspaper or television but I am not silent in the activities to bring sanity into gov
While serving as the military governor in Plateau State you made a controversial proposal that guaranteed equal rights to any citizen that has spent up to 20 years in the state. Some have said it is mostly responsible for some of the crises in that state today. Looking at similar crises in other parts of the country, what would say of this?
I will say if I have the opportunity again, I will do it.
My reason that time was that we were giving foreigners citizenship of Nigeria if they stayed 10 to 15 years and you would deny a Nigerian citizenship in the same country where his father and grandfather lived. I couldn’t understand that. When I was the governor, they said the children of the people from the south and west did not deserve scholarships and I said no that was not right. They said other citizens from other parts must go back to their states of origin to get theirs but their parents had lived in Plateau and paid taxes. That was part of the injustice I couldn’t tolerate. But that is not to say it was popular with the indigenes. If you are a leader and you are afraid of some people, you will not lead. If you are convinced with a policy that it serves the best interest of the people. Interestingly during the conference in the 70s, my proposal was considered. Even Obsanjo was suggesting why it should not be done nationally.
What you see today is a different thing. What you see are foreign invaders using Hausa/Fulani factor or Boko Haram or herdsmen. They want to take over Middle Belt land. That is the current situation.
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