Since he regained his freedom on March 4, 1999 after a prolonged incarceration over the 1995 phantom coup, Colonel Gabriel Ajayi (retd) has been involved in public discourse at different fora on what he terms as the current fractured federal system in the country. In this interview with KUNLE ODEREMI, the former Quarter Master General, Lagos Garrison Command second-in-command to the General Officer Commanding, GOC, Lagos Garrison Command, speaks on the way forward for the country. Excerpts:
THERE are serious issues in almost every facet of the country for decades now hence the sustained calls to revisit the extant federal structure. How did your experience in the military inform your thought on the current agitation?
Let me say this from the beginning that I was a different fish in the water from the day I joined the military. Before then, I had two years and six months experience as a journalist, having worked with Nigerian Tribune for two years and three months. Thereafter, I moved to the Daily Sketch, where I worked for three months, before I went to the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA). As a practising journalist, I had the privilege of conducting interviews with Papa Obafemi Awolowo; General Adeyinka Adebayo as the governor of the Western Region at that time, as well as other great personalities before I became cadet in the Army. I had learnt so much about life then, and there was something they thought us then in economics that, for any country to develop and survive, it must produce. From the Industrial Revolution that took place in Britain, which affected Western Europe and the United States others took a clue and started production. As a journalist, I discovered that Nigeria has a huge supermarket. However, there were traces or semblance of production going on at the various regions at that time. It was this production culture that they allowed to die.
While I was serving, I also knew what I wanted. As a Second Lieutenant, I was the one who asked General Yakubu Gowon a question in 1974, when he came to Ibadan, on why his government’s policy was geared towards import substitution and not production, and Nigeria not awash with petrochemical-based industries? I told him we are taught in NDA that for any nation to survive, they must produce, but we weren’t producing. The senior officers tried to shout me down, but he was the one that saved me, as General Gowon congratulated me for asking the question; he told me I was the one who saved the neck of the other officers. If I had not spoken, he would have referred to all of us as cowards; that this was not the kind of Army he left behind when he became the head of state. When we were eating, he came around and shook hands with me and tried to explain to me that the policies of government are handled by technocrats and civil servants, who have access to research papers and ideas, and that those who come to power only implement what the technocrats who must have gone round and done the study recommend. However, I told him except we start producing we cannot progress and promised that they would look into it. I have held this view, and the people in the Army knew me and called me and others, such as General Ishola Williams, as the non-conformists, the leftist, and so on.
So, I am not happy the way Nigeria is going, and we need to do that which God has asked us to do. For instance, Niger State alone can feed the whole of West Africa. I recall when my friend, Colonel Lawan Gwadabe (retd) was the governor of the state in 1987, I advised him to visit Israel to meet with agricultural experts in that country. I said he should invite them and not allow anyone to use religious issue to dissuade him. Because I had served in Southern Lebanon while in the Army as such, I was conversant with Israel. I know how in Israel, you see giant aircraft loading eggs from Tel Aviv to the US; they don’t have any other business aside from agricultural produce. So, I advised that the administration of Colonel Gwadabe could go into agriculture revolution. He later went into sorghum production, which he sold to other states. I don’t know who initiated the idea of River Basin during his first coming to power of General Olusegun Obasanjo as a military head of state. It was a very good initiative that we ought to have tapped into and sustained. But, people destroyed the River Basin Authority, squandered everything and made it moribund. So, my conclusion is that without restructuring, Nigeria cannot go anywhere. Nigeria cannot remain a huge supermarket and I have been saying as far back as 1986 when they were talking about Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). I was one of the military officers that opposed the introduction of the SAP, when General Ibrahim Babangida came to Kaduna to raise the issue.
With all manner of meanings being attached to the idea of restructuring, are you still optimistic that the country could revert to federalism that existed in the First Republic?
I don’t believe all of them; a few of them are not getting it right concerning the issue of devolution of powers. The Lagos State government, for example, can start its own restructuring by reversing some of its system of operation. The state is surrounded by water. If I were the governor of Lagos, I would ensure 75 per cent of the construction and production must be targeted at boosting the huge industry of sea food begging to be tapped into. If other components of the country see something good in what you are doing, they will follow suit. So, those still confused about restructuring is because they are yet to see those in power demonstrating the capacity and understanding of the huge benefits for the country and its component parts. The people who are against restructuring are only doing that because of the existing policing system. If you decentralise the policing system, it will affect the business of some people who will realize that they would be able to abuse and short-change the system. They are afraid that a change in status quo might affect them and their produce. For instance, Lagos cannot fund a university, the only one they have was established by Pa Lateef Jakande, and the state can longer even finance it well. Alhaji Aliko Dangote is constructing a multi-billion naira oil refinery in Lagos now. Why can’t the state government buy 40 per cent share of the refinery so that 40 per cent of the workforce and the dividend will accrue to Lagos? Why should Lagos and other states in the South-West wait for cows to be reared and transported from Kano or pepper from Kafanchan, when there is a large expanse of arable land in the South-West? Why must a typical Lagosian wait for tomatoes from Bagauda to be able to make stew? Why can’t Rivers and Sokoto states have a joint venture whereby thousands of cows can be taken to Rivers for rearing?
The Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) is advising the promoters of restructuring and other forms of grievances to channel their agitations to the National Assembly, which is trying to carry out sweeping amendments of the constitution, some of which are generating ripples. Don’t you see this effort as a work in progress designed to restore normalcy to the land?
I grew up in the North. Let me tell you now that if we do not restructure the country now, Nigeria will restructure all of us and we will be worse for it. Those of you in the media tend to give so much credence to humongous organisations that exist only on the pages of newspapers. For example, does Professor Ango Abdulahi of the so-called Northern Elders Forum know how people in Birnin Yaro Malamagori feel and how they survive? Does Dr Junaid Muhammed know how people at Malamatoori feed, how they survive the vagaries of the time? Has he been to Malamatori in the last 15 or 20 years to now be talking on behalf of the people of that area? For God’s sake, why do they get such presence in the media? The same goes for those behind similar organisations claiming to be speaking for the people in other parts of the country. When last did Chief Edwin Clark visit rural communities in Bayelsa State? These people don’t know how the people, the oppressed and depressed, are faring. I went to a meeting recently with others to discuss the precarious state of the country, only to discover that I was the only one who looked poorly. All the other participants included people of high calibre like former ministers, ex-chairmen of federal boards and parastatals, who have not seen poverty or do not know the degree of suffering of the vast majority of Nigerians at the grassroots. There was no one among them that could not have handled at least N1 billion public fund while in office. These rich men, who have been consistently recycled, have never been to the open market like the millions of other Nigerians before; neither do their wives know the way to the market, as the state caters for all their needs. For how long shall we continue to recycle a few at the expense of the majority and the future of this country? Is that how to rebuild a country? How long shall we operate on a mechanism and structure based on trial and error and which perpetually places us on the tether? No country can develop through a process of trial and error. The politician representing the Atakumosa East and West Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives has never visited the area to know what the people are facing or suffering. We talk with politicians in major cities, but we hardly go to the ordinary man in Akanran or Omi-Adio in Oyo State to find out how he lives and about his challenges. I was so disappointed with the government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. For instance, when he got to power in 1999, we thought he was going to rebuild the country. We were expecting him to embark on a number of fundamental initiatives meant to change the system, redirecting the psyche of the economic and political elite. In particular, he should have should have been reactivated and repackaged the Centre for Democratic Studies (CDS) in such a way that anyone who wants to contest for an elective office must pass through the institute. There is the need to train our people, as all what those in elective offices are doing is trial and error. Nobody has a foresight on what Nigeria should be in the next five or 10 years. All they do is to put N500 inside a loaf of bread during elections and circulate it among impoverished voters. These leaders don’t even go to the farm. My brother, Akinwunmi Ambode, became governor of Lagos State, has he gone to the farm to know how farmers are faring? We are not realistic in Nigeria; we are fraudulent and deceptive. We are not bold enough to say the truth to ourselves; we find reasons for anything. If we don’t restructure Nigeria, the country will restructure itself soonest.
So, you are skeptical about the ongoing efforts of the National Assembly at giving the country a widely acceptable Constitution?
I don’t believe in that at all! They are not doing anything towards reposition the country. They ought to throw away the 1999 Constitution and allow a new one that will represent the general wishes and aspirations of the people. What we have today is the Yadudu Constitution. He ]Yadudu] was in charge of the six-man team put together by a former Head of State, General Abdusalami Abubakar, when he wanted to run away from government so as to give the country a semblance of peace and civil rule. That was why he did not release the so-called 1999 Constitution until the moment he was set to hand over power to civilians. This was because the so-called 1999 Constitution was faulty and not credible; nobody discussed the document; people didn’t know the content. So, how do you call that a constitution? Look at the American Constitution, it took the American people years to put it together, who were given the opportunity to make the constitution of their own. And anywhere the constitution of a state in the US tends to be in conflict with that of the Union Constitution that of the Union supersedes. Someone just gave them a paper here in Nigeria and decreed that it was a constitution, and so, it is filled with errors, lies and deceits with so many misinterpretation. We don’t have a constitution.
One issue that has failed to vanish from the political space is the claim by Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, the Chief Security Officer (CSO) to late General Sani Abacha that Yoruba leaders were compromised by the Establishment over the true story concerning the death of Chief MKO Abiola, in detention by the Abacha regime?
Let me start by saying that I am really very sorry for the country and myself because in a saner society, such people should have gone to hide their faces in shame because of their main contribution that has inflicted pains, suffering anguish and near despondency the Nigerians are going true today. It is most painful because such people will talk and their views are being celebrated in certain quarters, especially in the media. If I was one of those leaders that he is alleging to have been compromised, I would have come out to confess and beg for forgiveness from all Nigerians. How can he make such a wild allegations against Yoruba leaders? Did Ibrahim Babangida consult the Ooni of Ife before he rolled out his programme on the transition to civil rule? Did he consult the Ooni before he annulled June 12? Did he consult the Olubadan, before he stepped aside? Did he consult Pa Ayo Adebanjo; did he consult the late Pa Adekunle Ajasin; did he consult any of them? How did they now come in now? They were never consulted. Why is anyone trying to drag their names in the mud now? At what stage did the Yoruba leaders come in to now be responsible for the death of Abiola? Were they part of the Abacha killer squad, which was being managed by the office of the Chief Security Officer to Abacha? How many Yoruba leaders were part of the killer squad? How many Yoruba leaders were attending meetings with Abacha? For God’s sake don’t let us listen to those bunkum. I was in prison during Lieutenant Collonel Oladipo Diya’s travail. He is very well placed to answer that question. Who is that Yoruba leader that would have gone to Abacha and say he must put Abiola in jail? Was Abacha ever a friend of the Yoruba people? Has Mustapha ever been a friend of the Yoruba people?
When did the friendship strart? When did the IBB friendship start with the Yoruba people? When the Abdulsalami Abubakar friendship’s start with the Yoruba people? The only thing Gowon did was that he went to the airport to carry Papa Awolowo after the political icon regained his freedom and that was their first meeting and he (Gowon) said ‘Papa, we need your wealth of experience. So, nobody should blackmail the Yoruba leaders. When IBB wanted to overthrow Buhari in 1985, did they consult Yoruba leaders? And even when Buhari wanted to remove Alhaji Shehu Shagari as president in 1983, did he consult the Yoruba leaders? Such allegation is totally unfair to the Yoruba leaders. Anybody in the military knows Al-Mustapha very well as he was the one handling the spiritual template of Abacha presidency, the ‘marabouts,’ and so on. I do not blame for his outburst because in Nigeria, people tend to forget the past so easily. We have suddenly that somebody slaughtered Kudirat Abiola along the streets of Lagos. We have forgotten that somebody killed Alhaja Suliat in Ibadan. We have forgotten that somebody killed Bisoye Tejuosho in Lagos. We have forgotten that somebody killed Toyin Onagoruwa In Lagos. Was it the Yoruba leaders were responsible for the feeding of Abiola in prison? How many Yoruba were permitted to visit him there? How many Yoruba were given access to visit him while in solitary confinement? How many Yoruba did they consult before they arrested him in the first instance? I saw myself as an orphan while as a serving officer in the Nigerian army because we were not allowed to speak Yoruba; anybody caught speaking the language would be thrown out of Army. We could not speak the language in the open. We applied self-censorship. There was a leader then that came to Lagos and after the men on ground had introduced the men and officers of the place, he queried if it was a Yoruba Division. So, he sacked all of them; nobody cried out. Till today, none of the officers affected has said anything; they said they have left their fate to the hands of God. When I see people listening to the opinion of Al-Mustapha, I feel so sad. Let him account for who attempted the life of Chief Alex Ibru in Edo state; who killed Admirals Elegbede and Omotehinwa; who attempted the life of Pa Ades anya? Who killed Pa Alfred Rewane? Who made the selection based on the attack? I was garrulously imprisoned. There is God! I know that God’s judgment will soon descend.
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