By Chidi Obineche
Col Tony Nyiam, (retd) is one of the few surviving ring leaders of April 22, 1990, abortive coup against the Ibrahim Babangida military regime. The coup failed after they excised five northern states from the federation.
In this interview, Nyiam espouses the real objective of the coup as a push for the restructuring of the country, arguing that the recent call by Babangida for restructuring has vindicated the coup. He says the 2014 National Conference report and the 1963 Constitution have the necessary ingredients to pull the country back from the brink.
He speaks further on the referendum, why and how the Orkar coup failed, the Yemi Osinbajo acting presidency, among other topical issues.
What is the problem with Nigeria
Before I answer this question, let me take the chance to commend my former boss, my oga, General Ibrahim Babangida before his mind was possessed by the selfish thinking of those people who are conniving with Nigeria, the internal connivers of the various indigenous peoples of Nigeria. The problem Nigeria has are the internal connivers of the indigenous peoples of Nigeria, that is Nigerians who can trace back their root to the tie of one generation. I commend my oga for his courage, for now joining us to call for the immediate restructuring of Nigeria’s political economy. Let’s put it in context, Babaginda has come to join the movement which we know was forced to take an action in engaging the step which they had processed. It was the step which was beneficial only to a few. Before I commence, let me also commend the courage and foresight of the cosmopolitan former vice president of Nigeria, the Lamido of Adamawa, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, for having shown the way to the fact that it is inevitable for us to address the national question of to be or not to be, of democratic federalism in Nigeria. I commend Atiku Abubakar for helping to take up what I would call a factual interest of restructuring around because, in the mindset of the north-west and northeast, it is as if restructuring is forbidden. I commend the former governor of Kaduna state, Ahmed Makarfi who is national caretaker committee chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP for joining in the demand for restructuring now. I commend the entire APC governors who have realised their mistake of playing the ostrich and agreed to come on board. With the examples of these critical stakeholders of Nigeria’s national building, people are coming on board. The call for the Muhammadu Buhari and Yemi Osinbajo join ticket, to restructure Nigeria is in top priority. Buhari and Osinbajo can no more continue playing the ostrich. In view of this, what is now necessary is for them to put in motion the process of restoring federalism in particular; a system of fiscal federalism in Nigeria. The need for prioritizing system change over and above regime change cannot be over emphasized. So what am I saying? The possible step out of the woods of our recurring challenges; economy, national security. Firstly, this government needs to build on the 2014 National Conference report and the 1963 Federal Republic of Nigeria Constitution as the basis of drawing up a new roadmap. The argued reason for suggesting we should use the 2014 National Conference report is because it is, amongst other important benefits, an aggregation of all other national conferences reports. So it is a titled programme. Secondly, the 1963 Constitution was more than other Nigerian constitutions built on the principles of democracy and federalism. So these two documents should be synthesized by what I would call a Privy Council, which would be made up of statesmen and accepted leaders. Society leaders, leaders that are articulate. These leaders, one per zone should look at these documents and use the document to synthesize, they need three months to initiate the process, they need three months of council work, two months of deliberations and agreements and one month of coming up with a draft of the new Nigerian constitution. This would then be the time to step aside the mindset that referendum is forbidden in Nigeria, again stepping aside that referendum is haram which is in the mindset of people. This is when more than any other time, it is appropriate for us to use the doctrine of necessity for the National Assembly to pass the bill, to subject the outcome of the Privy Council’s draft to clear the air. Now, so that we don’t have the cause of the fault line in the present Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC not being independent, the referendum we are talking of would be conducted as being suggested by the Indigenous People Of Biafra, IPOB by the United Nations, UN. Peaceful referendum is always done. In the referendum, you know each zone should conduct its own referendum, whether they accept the new constitution that would emerge from the 2014 National Conference report and 1963 Constitution, and whether we put up this new constitution or we put up with the old one.
Don’t you think it would balkanize Nigeria?
You say what?
It would balkanise Nigeria, I mean the referendum if you say that it should be done.
The referendum has become a tool for engendering true coexistence of the people. So the word Balkanization doesn’t come in. The existing system is the one that is balkanizing Nigeria and again the argument of the so-called referendum alarm is neither here nor there, because very soon when it is convenient we will use the referendum. The second step of the recall of Senators, which would soon happen to Dino Melaye, is referendum. So those who say that referendum is not in their constitution, I just feel that it is convenient, that’s all. Secondly, those who always talk as if Nigeria’s political leadership is mutually exclusive to system change; they forget that sustainable good leadership cannot do without the leader having a proper framework from which he works on. What am I saying? Restructuring and good leadership are not mutually exclusive. There is no country with good leadership without the leader having an accompanied corresponding structure to assert the leadership. For example, we talk of Singapore; Singapore was changed by the great leader, Lee Kuan Yew by first coming up with a structure. The structure was to change the mindset of Singaporeans and to have a proper framework in which they engendered a system that enabled Singapore leap from third world to first world. So leadership, restructuring and constitutional republic go hand in hand. So my professor in Britain asserted that leadership is not enough, you can even see right now, people like Donald Trump who came with this strong leadership angle were checkmated by the system. So if these kind of people have double talked, who do you want to keep on perpetrating injustice in the system, to talk about, oh we are practicing good leadership. We’ve had this argument of leadership, was Buhari not stressing good leadership? Where are we now? What we should prioritize now is the system change over and above regime change.
So in your perspective, the problem in Nigeria is restructuring and referendum. The individuals are not in the equation at all?
To respond, if you have a fish in a muddy can, the fish cannot be the colour of the muddy can. If you have a coast of the river, the river must follow the coast, so the issue of systems restructure is too important that we should not quit seeing it for what it is.
I want to go back to 1990 when there was some kind of major attempt to take the country back to a restructured Nigeria, looking back now, are you happy that some of the restructurings you wanted to effect that time is coming into the light?
That is why I am so delighted with General Ibrahim Babaginda, for his change of mind, because that was what we were fighting for. He thought he was protecting the system. He has now seen it, and by the way, let me add something. If you remember the first two years of Babangida’s government, he started with restructuring, remember he brought restructuring to the government?
It is a form of restructuring, but it was when the impact of restructuring dawned on him that Babangida then told us that he would need to do a system whereby some people, Mallams will go and buy Igbo license and Igbo would buy from them. Babangida said we need to structure a system where whoever that works for his money earns it. He started a restructure programme. It was that restructure programme that frightened some parasites and led to, if you remember Dr. Junaid Mohammed accusing Babaginda’s regime that the Armed Forces Ruling Council was filled up with the Middle Belt officers and of course he was vile then that the only two members of the council, Nuru Inua Suleiman and Col. Nuhu Aliyu. They were the only two. And that was what caused Babangida to panic and changed the tone of restructuring and that was the mark of that change. That was when Babangida had to go to open the road of Bauchi to Abuja and opened it in Hausa language. He made the same mistake I must say, the present President had made. The President in his Eid-el-Fitri speech, called us to work towards the unity of Nigeria but the same President undermined that calling by being sectional in the language he used to call for that. The problem about it is that most people who mount the leadership of the Nigerian government are the same people that by their actions create grounds for agitation that lead to people questioning the political government of Nigeria.
You were at the National Dialogue Committee that prepared grounds for the national conference. That was at the time you had a shouting match with former Edo State Governor Oshiomhole who is your friend. What could have made you resign?
I resigned because there was at that time the pressure that if I were to say, we would have made that advisory committee not to do its work. So I ended up resigning so that I would not be the excuse for those who didn’t want change to block Jonathan’s plan then. So that was why I resigned so that the committee would carry out its job and from visits to all parts of the country, it was clear that four out of six zones wanted the conference and in fact, four out of the six zones wanted to restructure.
Which are the four zones?
The three southern zones and the Middle Belt i.e. North Central. You would have remembered that some years ago that the Middle Belt was on the front page of newspapers. The Middle Belt came out clearly to back restructuring, to condemn the quit notice against Ndigbo.
Apart from that, a great leader you know, General Useni, in a speech he made, which I represented him in Isoko land backed restructuring and condemned the hate speech. I have also mentioned that the PDP, the major faction of PDP, the APC are up for restructuring, so who is afraid of restructuring?.
So who do you think is stalling it?
I wouldn’t say who. I think what is stalling it is an ignorant mindset which is being encouraged by those who are benefiting from the system of injustice, where the North-west of Nigeria has seven states in the zone, where the local governments in Kano is about four times the number of local governments in Lagos which is more populated, and by the way, this is the Lagos which contributes in terms of earning, more to the economy and that is why to some of us it was very strange when people were questioning the agreement for the Lagos-Ibadan Road in the last budget. This is the budget that Lagos was the one that paid for the country and the Lagos-Ibadan and the Lagos-Ore are strategic routes that are very important to the Nigerian economy. For someone to think that and use that to say that Fashola was trying to build the South-west and favour the zone in the budget is disappointing because for some of us, Lagos is our home and it is the home of many other Nigerians that are not Yorubas. So those who don’t want Nigeria, those who want to reap where they did not sow, will miss the point. For example, the Value Added Tax, VAT comes mostly from the southern part of the country and yet the major share of it is sent to another part of the country,
But Prof Ango Abdullahi has said recently that the North has been sustaining the South through agriculture?
The thing with Prof Ango Abdulahi is that he is one of these irredentists who speak arrogantly as though they own the country. But unfortunately, there are people who came up with assumptions right from the inception of Nigeria and the reason Lord Lugard wrote the Crown and Lord Harcourt (who Port Harcourt was named after), and connived to bring about the amalgamation of the Southern and the Northern regions. Because, the South and Lagos were the main providers, because the northern region was being subsidized by the colonial office in Britain, they then observed and said why not we do this so that on the whole, the colonial office would not send any money. So historically, we have always been subsidizing and when you talk about agriculture, it is not in what Prof Abdullahi says. The fact of the matter is, it the vision that the central belt of Nigeria, whose people are being attacked by armed herdsmen and that is why I commend the new Sultan, who has protested over and over again to the federal government; why are you not going to the roots or find the source of the arms the herdsmen are using. Here is a Fulani man, he has many times called on the federal government to do what is necessary. He has occasionally said that most of the armed herdsmen are not Nigerian. You know, if a true Fulani leader is speaking like this, why do we have to listen to people of criss-cross identity, people who if you go and check they may not even be Hausa Fulani. True examples, because I don’t know how a Fulani Nigerian could come from Kumasi, because I am reminded by my RCM when I was in the military in Nigeria, his name was Kumasi and all I know is that his family came from Kumasi in Ghana. That’s why his name was called Coomasie. When you hear all these criss-cross identities trying to defend the Fulani you question their roots, because I remember Alhaji Alhaji, a former minister telling me that the problem that they have is the people of criss-cross identities who put them in trouble. In the same respect, there were those who argued that Kwankwaso is not Hausa Fulani
So where is he from?
I think you should go and ask people that know them, they would tell you that Dr. Mohammed is not Fulani. You remember Dr. Junaid Mohammed also pointed out that the likes of Gen. Dambazau who are said not to be indigenes, that they should not give ministerial appointment for Kano to a non-indigene. What am I saying? These criss-cross identities are the ones who at times in the name of Hausa- Fulani bring problems to the society because the genuine leaders like Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar is like his father who ensured during the pogroms on the Igbo, there were no killings. Sokoto was the only place that there were no killings in the North and the military school in Zaria, because the present Sultan’s father was such a holy man that he said; blood cannot be shed for any reason and he ensured that the Igbo were protected and taken care of and that’s why if you also know, that was why in our action, we supported that the lineage be maintained in the context of that when the Sultan was being deposed, that was why we supported Maccido. You know they are from the same lineage. If you watch, the present Sultan has been genuinely working for the restoration of good governance in Nigeria and you know till today, he said the problem of Nigeria is a rotten system. If the system is rotten why don’t we replace it with a good system and that is what he is talking about.
I remember Jonathan raised a panel to implement the 2014 conference report. It was never done, it never came to be, does it show sincerity?
I think that what is important now is for us not to put bunch of blames there, but to do what is necessary. What to do now is the involvement of the National Assembly and of course, I also commend the National Assembly to have asked for the 2014 Conference report. But what they need to do is for them to allow referendum in each of the zones. You see, left to me, I have said this over and over that Nigerian politicians for selfish reasons brought up what I call sudden differences in what is called direct quota democracy and indirect quota democracy. The National Assembly is structured only to make laws. They cannot make a constitution itself. When it comes to creating a constitution itself, universal perspective is to allow a Constituent Assembly to do it. This is what we saw in South Africa. This is what we’ve seen in UK and this is what we see everywhere. Why? There is a good reason for this. The good reasons are that parliamentarians and by that I mean politicians are obsessed and concerned with the next election. They deal with immediate need, and of course, how do we win this election. So when it comes to dealing with strategic matters like constitution making or major amendments, in everywhere else in the world, it goes to referendum. Why? Because at that point, the people themselves have to express direct voting right. They don’t go through representatives. So they go through a referendum, which is why a constitution is subjected to a referendum. It is inevitable. It may be legal but it’s not ineluctable and in our own case, that is why I have found it more ironic that elected civilian democratic authorities are operating in a constitution which is legal only in terms of whoever operates it . It is contradictory. So what we are trying to do now gradually is the process of restoring democracy to Nigeria, because the democracy we are practicing now is anchored on the military infused constitution. What Babangida and Atiku are suggesting now, they are normally connected, let the people decide on which position they would take.
I would like to know what, in your opinion, is the national question?
The National Question is a question of to be or not to be a federal republic, and we have claimed that we are a federal republic but in other provisions of the constitution, they undermine that by not having fiscal federalism in the system. Our constitution is only federal in name, but operationally, it is not fiscal federalism. In a federal constitution, the federating units create wealth and pay an agreed-upon bill into the central pool. What we have is a system where federating units legitimately take the wealth of the zone, centralized them, take the biggest portion and share the remnant to the zones. So this is what is important, that is, federalism is the system whereby the federating units are getting zones to wealth creation. The thing is this, it is such a system that would tender high productivity in each of the zones, the competition that would arise between the zones could be the kind we had, when Awolowo built OAU, Zik built the University of Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello built the Ahmadu Bello University. These were great universities. There was competition to win customers over; that is why it is so impressive and of course it is really a win- win for all of us, especially the North-west and North-east. They have some of the best farmers in terms of the yield in farming they make per year. It is higher in the north than anywhere else. Their mode of farming is culturally more scientifically than that of others. So at the moment, the system is definitely an advantage that the people of the west have. If you look at rice production, the North-west is really taking a leap.
Now you called the 1990 abortive coup democratic action while it was a combat with guns. Why did you call it democratic action?
We were involved in that insurgency. That insurgency was an uprising against a government that took over power, suspended the constitution, a government that was planned to perpetuate itself in power. The plan was to come up with a situation whereby the military or their elements would have a system where they became the president while civilian Nigerians, the best that is given to them is a prime minister. We foresaw that happening. That is why we took the action and you would see that not only did we take the action to warn Nigerians; we were proved right by the annulment of the June 12 presidential election.
If you had succeeded would you have returned power to the people?
Completely, our plan was 18-month plan. The first we planned to do is one, with UN backed support, we would conduct a national census that will be useful, not the fake census figures which the British people would alter to give some sections of the country the advantage to hold power. After that, we would have convened a Sovereign National Conference to restore Nigeria back to federalism and then thirdly, we were then aiming at conducting a free and fair election. Right from the word go till today, there has not been free and fair election in Nigeria. Anybody who tells you that is not being sincere. If the politicians are telling you that, then they have never seen free and fair election.
Still on the issue of the 1990 coup, there were cross allegations between you and Abubakar Mohammed on who killed Bello, Babangida’s ADC. Who killed Bello? can you throw some light on that?
It was one Mohammed Abubakar, I have said that over and over and the chap who made that remark was just being used by some people. The issue is very clear.
You were the most senior officer then. So a lot of people thought that if you had succeded, you would have been the president?
Not at all. I was the most senior but the coup idea was not mine. The coup idea was that of Major Saliba Mukoro. I was a Colonel and he was a junior Major. Many people who were up there were much more senior to Saliba Mukoro. But it was his idea, and of course, a group of Niger Delta officers who were aggrieved about the way their environments were being destroyed and they felt that they had to continue where Mukoro stopped. It was then they started and they had oil in their areas. So they started and in the action, majority of them were Ijaw officers. These men approached me and told me what I already knew. I had the conscience not to speak with them even though that was why I joined them in February, two months to the action that they had been planning for months before.
Let me go back to the grievances that propelled the coup..
Let me add; it is the plight of these people. That is why Gen. Abdulsalami who was in the inquiry heard what they said and being the kind of man he is, went back to the structure that we have agitated. That is why it was our own action that brought about the creation of Delta State, Bayelsa, Ebonyi, Ekiti and I hope you remember and unfortunately, my own part of the country Ogoja, which is part of the core Calabar. Ogoja is till today still left as part of the state. All the other provinces in the whole of the country are now in one or two states. So you can see now why I am also saying that my people were shortchanged.
Why do people call it Gideon Orkar coup and not Saliba Mukoro coup?
This is because Gideon Orkar was the one who gave the speech and if you look closely they retained him because he was the noblest among all of us.
Noblest in terms of what?
In terms of integrity and in terms of readiness that all he wanted is for Nigeria to be a better place. He was much more noble in the sense that he also made the ultimate sacrifice.
Mukoro escaped, how did he escape?
Mukoro and I escaped the same day. We escaped together. Mukoro during the action, at times, we blame him, left his post, which was to lead to the capture of the Ikeja Cantonment which was very strategic. He left that post to come to where I was in charge of the command of Dodan Barracks and FRCN (Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria). He came there and one of the reasons he came there, I think he was afraid that Gideon Orkar and I would take over the government. Because, if he had played his role, there would have not been a reinforcement, because the plan was that the officers who were to reinforce them in the second phase which was to be led by Mukoro , would come from there. That is where the reinforcement came from.
So finally let’s go to President Buhari. He has been sick for a while, but the government is running. How do you look at the whole scenario?
Well, it is unfortunate that Muhammadu Buhari who was well when he came on board, but his illness has enabled a cabal to hijack his good intentions and turned them around, whereby the government we have is being led by a lopsided cabinet. The sitting cabinet whereby all the members are from North-west and North-east is the most powerful and lopsided in our history. It is a system where the Chief of Staff to the President, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF including the Minister of Defense are from one side of the divide. You see this is really in the message of the IPOB. IPOB are young men crying out loud towards the injustice, which the Ndigbo are suffering. A clear injustice is why the Igbo are the only one with five states? While North-west has seven. Secondly, why have there been the killings of the Igbo, which the present president of this Ohanaeze Chief John Nnia Nwodo has come out clearly to condemn? Why has nothing been done? The Igbo are crying out, so I see the IPOB as a cry out for justice.
There was coup alert recently, why is it not being dealt with?
At first, the very important question is why did the Chief of Army Staff come up with some disclosures about some people trying to create the fear of maybe some military actions. Since that disclosure, why is the government not investigating those disclosures? I don’t want to encourage the military men not to become soldiers but to become adventurers. Now in this question there is no disclosure as to investigate who are the people, it’s part of a plot to create an air of instability where everything may go, because what one sees is that some people think that the Igbo are the weak link, because they cannot take on Niger Delta because of their resources, which they can break in and can shoot down, and they cannot take on the South-west, they then thought that the Ndigbo are like a conquered people and the weak link for people to deal with. By separating Ndigbo out, they again activate their usual style of divide and rule, so as to create a climate of reasons which they know that Nigerians would rise again. Nigerians would not accept it. It’s not going to happen. For example; when they did away with Abacha, Nigerians would not accept. Anybody who attempts working against Osinbajo should rest assured that Nigeria would not remain one. That very action would be the one that would divide Nigeria. Anybody who wants Nigeria to continue must ensure that nothing happens to Osinbajo and the Nigerian government must do what is necessary, which is to act in accordance with the yearnings of all regions of the zones of the country. A yearning which was spelt out clearly by no other person than former President Babangida.
Can INEC as presently constituted inspire confidence?
It should be independent, and if it is independent it should be independent not only in name but in deed and so they should make the decisions.
What of the raid of the Judges homes by the DSS (Department of State Services?
What I am asking them to do is not to condone the corrupt judges but, there is a process of filing complaints about corruption. There is a process and we should follow that process. The reason for that process is to maintain the integrity of the judiciary and not to put fear on the judges. So, I am very thankful to the forces of reason in this country because that has given those of us that have been losing hope, and me in particular, that maybe it would get to a point that Nigeria would be one and then we can be talking about benefiting from it. If the judiciary has completely collapsed, they would probably collapse the National Assembly as well. Then, of course, there would be chaos, which may lead to violence that would bring about enmity and Nigerians don’t need that, because that would take ages before it can be corrected.
What do you say to the calls for referendum by some groups?
I think that we should be sensible in this country. We should understand that we cannot force somebody to remain married, to remain in a nation, let us understand that. Let us allow people to exercise their freedom of referendum. There is a reason referendum is a natural thing. There is a reason Nigeria signed that agreement, signed an act of the United Nations that recognizes referendum and the process. In this country, for us to be one we have to respect the fundamental human feelings and let the people of this country come together in unity, liberty and freedom. Let us not come together in force, so allow them. If the Igbo are seeking a referendum for independence, please allow it. The federal government with experiments and other persons should also espouse ideas and reasons staying in Nigeria is better, that is how it works. And if the people don’t get 51 per cent, the federal government is now entitled by its own campaign to do those things it said it would do; that makes people say okay if these things would be done, maybe we should remain. (The Sun)