In a couple of days it will be 23 years since the former head of state, General Sani Abacha, died. As we approach that day, what memories come to your mind?
It was a government that was sworn in virtually with empty coffers: it had nothing in foreign reserves; a government that was struggling to even pay salaries – that was what he inherited. There was nothing when he came. Chief Ernest Shonekan came, he inherited $200 million as Nigeria’s foreign reserves and for the three months he presided over Nigeria, I don’t think there was anything that came in because it was all along crisis time. So the highlight here is a government that came and inherited nothing but at the end of the day succeeded in inventing numerous policies that clearly helped in taking Nigeria to another level.
How did Abacha spend his last moments?
General Abacha stepped on toes for the decisions he took. Those who believed they had the authority and money polluted our media with wrong information. There was machinery that sustained the propaganda against his person. Some of us, irrespective of situations, we don’t lie against the dead; it is the last thing we can do, so what we say is what we know. They believe that I am keeping some certain information deliberately for tomorrow. Abacha died seated on the chair like this (demonstrates, sitting comfortably on a settee), his cap by the side next to him, and then he died with his head looking up foaming in the mouth the same way Abiola died; that was the same way Abacha died.
This statement is too heavy in the eyes of some powerful Nigerians, so they are still waiting for what may come out of me. I am still watching them and I am watching time. So if it is because they have resources they will now send a story far ahead to say this is the way it was and sow it into the mind of people away from the realities, to me that is a disservice; I don’t do that. I will say it the way it was and the way it is. So he died sitting. I was the one that called the doctor. I was the one that moved his body and prepared the body. I was the one that got this country secured. God gave me the initiative I used on that day and I thank God for the three-day transition (that) not a single bullet was fired. How God gave us the wisdom to have done what we did in managing information and activities and movement of VIPs is something we have to thank God for. Looking at that transition in retrospect, it was something very dangerous because at that time there was truly a leadership vacuum. Abacha the head of state and General Diya, the chief of general staff (CGS), were not on the throne, so how we did what we did (for hierarchy within the military) is something that people will not know the value yet.
How were you able to convey that information to the family?
I saw him last around 2:30am working with some ambassadors. As of 2:30am he was still signing a document for the minister of sport, Emeka Omerua. He was seated with him then, working out some costs because there was a World Cup going on in France. So he was busy up to some minutes to 4am. And that morning, when I came, there was an agreement for me to go to Lagos that morning – because there was something I saw America doing and I realised we were left behind professionally, so I introduced it to the head of state who later sent me to meet the Joint Intelligence Bureau headed by the then chief of defence intelligence on modalities of bringing together field military and civil intelligence officers in every quarter to have an intelligence review or overview for projection for the next quarters ahead. So that became necessary because each agency or service was doing it alone, so the idea of having it jointly came to me and it was approved. That same morning he died I was supposed to go to Lagos.
An aircraft was waiting for me to leave Abuja for Lagos at 6am. Dodan Barrack was to hold the first conference and that was the journey I couldn’t make. I was told around 5:16am. When I came and found the situation, two things I did one were to got the chief physician and then the ADC and then I realised that we were in for a big thing. Then my brain began to work in many ways. One, our safety and the safety of the country itself; two, modalities of how the president would be resuscitated by a medical doctor, so I got two physicians. They all came and did all they could. We joined them in the entire effort along with the ADC, and then at one point the chief physician looked at me and said we truly had a hopeless case, and at that time I knew there was a problem. I sent for the NSA and then the younger brother to Abacha. I sent for Muhammed Abacha also. They all came. Four issues were before me to my understanding: one was managing the family; two, managing the information; three, rallying around those that were the kingmakers of the system, and four, the safety of the country itself. Anything that was open to me was there for me to use, so I covertly worked with the presidential flight commander and then we continued to call Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) members to assemble in different zones and aircraft were sent concurrently to bring them.
So I was in touch with them, also making sense with what was going on in the presidency, managing the family. While this was going on, I talked to the family and worked it out for the family along with my own family to be moved out of the presidency to Kano and I sent some officers to stay with them. And then we began to look at how to manage this, of course, the then Chief of Army Staff and the then CDS, Abdulsalami Abubakar, were the last I talked to. So after they came in, we sat down and I got some few military administrators of the neighbouring states to also rush in and stay with me because the security the states are in their hands, so they could easily pass instruction, and then I got the security chiefs also moved separately in helping us to manage whatever was going on. So each and every one of them was disposed to any assignment that was coming up in terms of information management and the rest. Remember, while I was doing all these I was also exposed to dangers. I became an obstacle to some interests, so how I was able to survive also was another thing entirely. So gradually, there were a lot of things that took place that I would not like to talk about now. So the burial of the late head of state was called for; they went to Kano and returned and there was no way I could leave here. They went and returned in the night and the games continued and at the end of the day Abdulsalami Abubakar, with all the roles we played, emerged and the remaining pledged loyalty and then the transition continued.
On the role he played for Abdusalami becoming head of state
There were numerous interest groups and the truth here is that Abdulsalami Abubakar was not in the inner caucus, meaning the team that brought in the government; also the team of the king makers, the team on whose shoulders the government was resting upon – the most senior being the head of state then and in this team, I was the smallest.
When General Abacha died, many members of the inner caucus were all there. Ordinarily, either the most senior or any of them from the inner caucus was supposed to have taken over but some of us, despite being young, sat down to evaluate things differently. That’s how we arrived at Abdulsalami. Despite being junior to them, we were being updated on happenings in the country; world leaders were talking to me on what was going on, hence our decision to delay the process. In between, there was a burial to attend to. Expectedly, the burial ought to have been delayed in a bid to handle security threats, but then the process had to go on for certain tactical reasons. We took sensitive measures to counter the plots against the system in a bid to stop those who wanted to forcefully take over. That’s, however, another story entirely.
We had options so we had to express choice and we settled for someone among the kingmakers, while our second choice was open for those in the hierarchy and choice number three was to look at the most senior in the military to adopt the certain tradition and choice number four was to take from brigadier-generals and finish the transition. So we sat down and put it all to test and while that was going on I came up with 16 conditions for whosoever was to become president of Nigeria to accept as the yardstick of crowning him the head of state. At the end of the day, we did and we came up with 16 points. I kept them, and then we leant more towards hierarchy for numerous reasons. So in this exercise, the most senior person was General Jeremiah Useni who was next to General Abacha; then hierarchically Abdulsalami was the most.
So within them, there was shock, tension, uncertainty, some misgivings, questions without answers about what happened. There was the need for preliminary investigation of the death itself. There was the need to know whether the burial should take place or some medical tests were to happen. So we announced that the medical test should have a specimen from the body and that happened. Then we did so many things personally and privately using the physician to go to some certain countries to come up with results. These are also matters for tomorrow. So we did all these details under the tension; this was the time that if you pick a match and put it in the air it can spark fire. So at the end of the day, if it’s a mistake for the emergence of Abdulsalami, like many of those within the kingmakers used to accuse me of being the cause of the suffering we have had. If it’s a mistake I made, I am a human being, I can make mistakes, but I did my very best for the country.
You mentioned that Abacha died the same way Abiola did. What would you say killed Abiola?
When General Abacha died, the way he died foaming and gasping for air, and with a swollen heart was exactly how Abiola died too. And you know what took me to prison? Let me for the first time tell you this: the question that took me to prison, with all the attempts to kill me, was where was the tape?
On Abacha’s transition, did he really plan to transmute into a civilian president as was widely believed?
Let me tell you some facts here. First of all, the transition he was running – at least I am one of those who can speak very well on this – gave me an opportunity to have initiated, created and pushed for and on behalf of the youths of this country a political party – the GDM. The Grassroots Democratic Movement (GDM) was for the youths and so it became the fifth political party. GDM on their own also was looking for candidates. The convention of that party took place in Maiduguri in 1997 and then General Abacha, according to the youths, was the one they wanted.
But then, General Abacha, if there is any person, whosoever he is, that says he confided in him of interest of transmuting himself into a candidate for that election, that person is a liar! General Diya at one time, when parties were being considered for registration, the chairman was General Diya, and in all the meetings we had, I was involved because of national security. So the meetings that took place along with a certain team cutting cross ministers, security chiefs were headed by him (Diya) and I was there, and that is why when I realised the criteria, I also sat down and thought very hard and brought some youth leaders from the south and north and assembled them together and asked them to now meet the requirement and I did all I could to, I got them through, and I was able to justify and defend it – as a means of maintaining peace and order in the country. When you engage your youths politically, don’t worry whether they learn or they succeed or they do not. Once you know how to keep the youths of your country busy, you have done a great job for your country.
And thank God, today some of the major actors in APC, in PDP, in APGA, and some other parties were once my candidates that I brought and taught them politics. So, to me, that is one aspect; the issue of General Abacha transmuting himself was another thing entirely. Each party had its own leadership. There were five of them. Then at that material time, you saw the two-million-man March. The march was not aimed at campaigning for General Abacha; it was I that initiated it. Why did I do that? It was for the youth of this country to realise who they were. There were two policies on the ground, in the Ministry of Youth and Sport and the Ministry of Employment. In the aspect of politics, youths were to sensitise themselves and to know that there was the need for them to participate and vie for political offices, so that Nigeria can have a departure from the mistakes of the past. If that was the mistake I made, I did make it. The government of Abdulsalami Abubakar deliberately, after knowing what I did – because they were part of Abacha’s government and they knew what I was doing, because I brought an idea from Togo. The then president of Togo was classified in 1984 as the president with the fastest intelligence flow in the world, and what we required in Nigeria was also having modalities for speedy intelligence flow for the management of the country, and the youth are the most important segment in any country. That is why any country that abandons the youth does not know what it is doing. So I galvanised and invested in the youth.
Looking at the alleged Abacha loot and the stories around it, can you give us a clear idea of what happened?
As of 1994 when the first coup was foiled, Libya was exactly 11 years old with sanctions on them, and so managing sanctions depending on the type was something for Nigeria to learn. Coincidently, I was one of those sent to Libya to study why after 11 years of sanctions of all kinds, yet Europeans countries – Italy, Spain – prefer coming to Tripoli to do shopping and go back across because they were buying things cheaper. How Gaddafi did it was something to learn from. That was a preemptive measure for a country that had just been taken over by a new government without money and with threats of sanctions from G7 countries. It was a herculean task because the country should first of all work in a way that it should survive it; so we went, bought some things and returned. In fact, our second trip to Libya on modalities of containing sanctions was equally at the very material time that the Prime Minister of China was on a tour.
So while I was there, because the threat was serious – to block many things coming to Nigeria and also to blackmail the government – Gaddafi in his wisdom spoke to the Chinese president and the premier was told to come to Nigeria for a two-or three-day visit and General Abacha should begin to engage China. Before we could return, he had arrived. He stayed in Nigeria for two and half days. That was when railway contracts were initiated, that was when the issue with NNPC in terms of China buying our oil directly was also signed, that was when the Ministry of Agriculture sought for some certain support and China signed with them. That was when there was some ratifications on international trade in favour of Nigeria from Chinese and some of their allies. Soon after this, the United Kingdom became disturbed, America became disturbed and they began to look towards adjusting their sanctions.
The leaders of these two countries attempted to talk to General Abacha. For this, obvious threat came and it culminated in when the then foreign minister went for the Commonwealth meeting, Nigeria was insulted deliberately and the then foreign minister threatened – with the contribution and the leadership Nigeria had been given to Commonwealth and with the benefits coming to the Commonwealth headquarters or the masters themselves, yet they could look at Nigeria in that way – it was not out of place for Nigeria to withdraw. That became a very serious issue; so the United Kingdom began to now talk to numerous personalities in Nigeria, talk to numerous members of the Commonwealth in Africa, talking to General Abacha; the tension was so high, so there was the need to consult elders in Nigeria, north and south. So stakeholders were identified from all spheres of Nigeria and assembled in Abuja. The conference hall actually became small, so there was a second arrangement for everybody to move everybody to Camp W.U. Bassey. The foreign minister was asked to brief them, he did and there was a general briefing about all the modalities of enforcing sanctions.
There were threats to Nigeria’s survival, threat to President Abacha’s survival. And the government, for pegging Naira at N82 and pegging it at N22 officially, there was a fight from the World Bank, G7, IMF. With all sense of humility, I don’t think there is anyone among the past leaders that could absorb that, knowing well that at any moment anything could have happened, but he did it on behalf of Nigeria and Naira remained stable at the expense of his life; there was a threat, visibly open (to Abacha’s life). Some other countries that became friends as a result of the way we managed the transition now began to help us with details and we got to know what they were doing and what they were planning – all against the survival of the government. So at Camp W.U. Bassey, numerous decisions were reached by stakeholders to collect accounts against the next line of action, and then modalities were worked out how Nigeria could be importing things through them directly. So for those things coming into Nigeria then, that could push away the effect of any form of hardship that the sanctions inflicted before. The essence of the sanctions – or all they were doing – was to inflict punishment on Nigerians and when they feel pain they will now support any force to uproot him out of office, nothing else. There were the psychological, diplomatic, monetary, security aspects of it, among others. At times, you could see on CNN, BBC things that never happened. You see all the exaggerations as if there was fire springing out of Nigeria, if you can remember.
So for us to manage that, this idea was given by these elders and it happened. This was in 1997, no sooner did money begin to go outside to the best of my knowledge and then Abacha died. So here, there are numerous types of dirty politics. If you are to open an account outside Nigeria, what are the requirements? Name, company name (even if it is a codename), thumbprint, passport size photograph, signature, address of place of movement of funds from and to, amount deposited initially, by who, to who, through which company, so it is endless, particularly, in international banks. I am asking these questions. Bring banks where all Abacha’s picture appeared, all that Abacha thumb printed, all that Abacha signed and deposited, how much was it? Bring the documents and show it to Nigerians. The question I ask is, where are they? Question number two I kept asking: General Abacha was Chief of Army Staff since 1985, his foreign account should be submitted to people to know the year he opened the accounts, it will show how much was it; give it to Nigerians to see. When money was deposited, was it before he became the head of state or was it when he was the head of state?
The question is, why is it that the government found it difficult to mention any of the above? Another question is, after Abacha’s death, some of these accounts where counter sanctions funds were kept emerged, where are the documents? The monies that are there, were they returned to Nigeria’s coffers? The moment you ask that, there are some certain groups that are ready to shoot you. I wasn’t involved in anything monetary; I wasn’t consulted; I wasn’t involved. I had a business of keeping Nigeria afloat and in peace. If you must know, right at the beginning it was not money that took me to the army.
I actually ran away to sneak into the army. Nobody knew how I joined the army in my family. So to me, these are the questions I am asking and I was asking them from prison. Those were the questions I used to ask the government of Abdulsalami then, and later Obasanjo. When Yar’adua came, I was asking questions, why not call me, why not subject me to tell you the little I know; they never did, they didn’t want to because there are some certain aspects of it… Soon after Abacha died, money was a problem. Whatever money that was not deposited was shared by numerous persons who were in government. You will get to hear that later. Abacha inherited an empty purse. He inherited it from Shonekan and there was nothing in foreign reserve, so Abacha began to build Nigeria from ground zero to N9.3 billion in foreign reserve by the time he died.
About your trial, some believe you escaped the death sentence on technical grounds?
There was nothing technical about it. There was every single thing called blackmail, propaganda, endorsement agreement and arrangement for persecution and then, at the surface, they named it prosecution. I am writing a book, I am before the Supreme Court right now, and all we could do for them is to come to the Supreme Court to have the matter tabled and deal with it. They refused, but at any time we made an effort to go to the Supreme Court, on the next day you will see the reverse story covering all front pages. My worry is the fact that the media still did not know what happened in court. You listen to what happens on television – because there are people who are licensed to be talking on television and radios while this is going on. When we were arrested I was in solitary detention for five months with torture that you cannot imagine.
I don’t know your level of endurance but I don’t think you can take it. We are not the noise-making type; we watch and wait. You know, the pain after spending fifteen years of going through the worst forms of persecution, with your family deprived of many things, my wife, my children going through punishment, my younger brother detained nine times and beaten, his house burnt. My father and mother were subjected to what you can never believe, and I lost both of them. I am their first born, and then you are stepping out of prison and yet you make a pronouncement of forgiveness to all those who maltreated you and I demonstrated that a year after when I met Abdulsalami in Kano. He is my senior, he became head of state and God used me in making him head of state, but it was the same me that brought out my hand and said ‘peace be on you’, he couldn’t shake my hand. You know what it means to say I forgive you after coming out of a fire? It takes a lot to even get your psyche readjusted?
You attempted to run for president with the Green Party
I attempted to but I declined for numerous reasons which were political, and will be aired at the end of this year when activities kick start.
Are you going to run again?
It is left for God Almighty and the wishes of the people. There are numerous cases of people who never planned for it and emerged the president of Nigeria. If the prerequisite I ask for is there, I will.
What do you think we are not doing well as a country now?
Many things, and to me it is extremely disturbing. First, for the roles we have been playing since I regained my freedom, of crisscrossing Nigeria to all the zones, meeting elders, youth associations, women associations, opinion molders, delivering lectures at seminars and conferences. I discovered first that the elders in the south are not interacting with elders in the north and vice versa. If you see them interact then, they are interacting based on personal interest but they are not interacting on a national unity basis and that has created the gap I have seen; the same thing with the youth, men and women. Two, is from the government to the society. I have identified some decay in some institutions that are there by name but are not functioning. Institutions with the sole responsibility of unifying this country are just there by name but as for real services to this country, there is nothing being done for the people. Three, there are deceits. Reports coming will be garnished properly, sent to the government that it is perfectly attended to while, in fact, there was nothing done. Number four, indeed anywhere you turn to – public or private – corruption is what we breathe, shamefully.
It is obvious, old and young are doing the same. In the tiers and arms of government, you can see that vividly, so what we do every day in a nutshell is that we are promoting the causes of insurgency in the land. There is negligence from the point of view of paramilitary. Arms proliferation in Nigeria is second to none and I stand to be challenged. This is a heavy market for arms ammunition – arms from far Asia, arms also coming from within Africa. Nigeria is regarded as the anchoring market from where these things are distributed. Contrary to some statements that talked about arms from Libya, arms from Libya were few that came to the hands of few bandits that came to Nigeria from Chad and Mali, but since then, soon after Gaddafi’s death, the rate of arms coming in through waters permeating to Nigeria, from here to Mali and from here to Mozambique, and one other country in Africa; there are four of them where arms come through and they are not checked. So the arms in wrong hands, the number of armouries in the north and south carefully kept hidden by those who want to volcanise the country, who are enjoying the market for the fact that every four years we have election candidates buying arms in a high volume and sharing to thugs. And when elections come, there is always increased activity in the movement of drugs, so those who have arms and ammunition are also crowned with drugs. That is why some candidates are coming back by force.
It’s either the failure of the supply of intelligence, the supply of personality data profiling, or the reports are there but the will power to act is not there for us to have been saturated with what we have, that I don’t know. Boko Haram which some people will say is either eleven or ten years, you hear all kinds of stories. In looking at insurgency, you look at the basics, from conception to its actualization, and the preliminary activities that brought it to wherever it is as at the time you are looking at it. The mistake we are making is comparing an act of insurgency to another insurgency elsewhere; there was never, there is none and there can never be identical insurgency, so that of Nigeria, we are making a mistake in looking at it this way. And why it lasted long, that is another question, but then the North West is another form of it, which has to do with the resources of the country, but then even in the North East it is the resources of the country that is making it last longer and that is what many managing the affairs do not know. This country is highly blessed, so unless the funding from the electronics supported by light are carefully read, you will not be able to know what is found in between the coordinates in Nigeria from north to the south. You can basically hit your chest anywhere and say to any person that Nigeria is one of the very richest on earth today. I am talking from facts – whether it is available to us in government or not, some of our findings have taken us very far out of care and concern for Nigeria.