He also spoke about his relationship with General Babangida, who he said he had forgiven, although he would not forget what he did to him and his plan for the 2015 elections, among others.
As Buhari marks his 75th birthday, we hereby republish the interview, as the issues discussed are still relevant.
What kind of childhood did you have?
Well, from my father’s side, we are Fulanis. You know the Fulanis are really divided into two. There are nomads, the ones that if you drive from Maiduguri and many parts of the North you will find. They are even in parts of Delta now. And there are those who settled. They are cousins and the same people actually. From my mother’s side and on her father’s side, we are Kanuris from Kukawa.
Kukawa is in Borno State. We are Kanuris. On her mother’s side, we are Hausas. So, you can see I am Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri combined (he laughs). I am the 23rd child of my father. Twenty-third and the 13th on my mother side. There are only two of us remaining now; my sister and I. I went to school, primary school, in Daura and Kaduna, also a primary school, in Kachia. I also attended Kaduna Provincial Secondary School, now Government College. I didn’t work for a day. I joined the military in 1962.
You mean as a boy soldier?
No, after school certificate. There was an officer cadet school from here in Kaduna, called Nigeria Military Training College then. In April 1962, I went to the United Kingdom (UK), Mons Officers Cadet School.
You mean the famous Mons Officers…?
Yes. And when I was commissioned, I came back and I was posted to 2nd Infantry Battalion in Abeokuta. That was my first posting. The battalion was in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I went there. When I came back from there, I was first in Lagos, as Transport Officer. That was where I was till the January coup. I was posted back to my battalion and we were posted to Kaduna here. And then, there was a counter coup, civil war, coup and counter-coup. We participated. I too was overthrown and detained for more than three years. And having had that major political setback when I was made a head of state and then, ended up in detention, I went out and eventually, I decided to join party politics, participated three times and lost as presidential candidate and I am still in and fighting.
You have never given up?
Even though I said at some stage that I wouldn’t present myself for candidature again, I said I remain in party politics as long as I have breath in me.
Your Excellency, why did you join the Army?
The interest was built while I was in secondary school. The emirs of Katsina, from Dukko, were known to be interested in the military. They always have members of the military or police in their family right from World War 11. One of the emirs of Kaduna-Dikko died in Burma. And of course, everybody in the country knows General Hassan, the son of the Emir of Katsina. He was grandson of Emir Dukko. So, when General Hassan was in Sandhurst, we were in secondary school in Kaduna. His father, the Emir of Katsina, Usman Nagogo, used to ask him to go and talk to the senior students who were in form four to six, to get them interested in the military. And we were told that he deliberately wanted a military cadet unit in Kaduna Secondary School. Then, it was limited to Federal Government Colleges or Government Colleges and we had a military cadet unit, which I joined.
That was the transition?
That was where the interest started.
Did your parents object to it?
No. Well, I didn’t know my father really.
Oh! How old were you when he died?
I think I was about three, four years? I couldn’t remember his face. The only thing I could recall about my father was the horse because it threw me down. We were on the horse with one of my half brothers going to water it and then, it tripped and I fell. It stepped on me. So, that is the only impression I have of him. That is the only thing I could recall.
What of your mother?
Oh! my mother died in 1988 when I was in detention.
Ok, I remember then the controversy of allowing you to go and see her buried. Did they eventually allow you?
Then it was quite an issue …
Yeah, it became an issue; so I was immediately released after she was buried.
You didn’t see her buried?
It was after you were released you then went to her grave and all that?
What kind of childhood did you then have?
Well, you know communities then were living communal life. Clearly, I could recall I reared cattle. We had cattle; we had sheep and then, there was good neighbourhood. Not many children had the opportunity to go to school, but I went to school. I left home at the age of 10 or 11 and went to school, like I said. And I was in the boarding school for nine years. In primary school and secondary school, I was in the boarding house and from there, I went straight into the Army.
So, you have always been on your own?
In those days, there were not many schools and the teachers then were professionals. They were working teachers and were committed. And teachers then treated the children as if they were their own students. You were made to work and if you don’t, they never spared the cane really. So, I was lucky to be in the boarding school for my impressionable years, nine years. I was very lucky.
Did you play any pranks as a young person?
What where the things you did?
(Laughs) I wouldn’t like to mention them.
Tell us some of them…
We used to raid the emir’s orchard for mangoes mainly. Of course, unfortunately we were caught and punished.
When people talk of Buhari today, they are looking at a disciplined man. Was it the boarding house that put you through that or the military? Was the boarding house part of where you got your Spartan, disciplined life?
Both did. As I told you, the teachers then treated their students as if they were their own children. So, we got the best of attention from teachers. And as I told you, they never spared the cane. You were meant to do your homework; you were meant to do the sports and clean up the environment, the compound and the area of the school and so on. And from that type of life, I moved into the military, the military of that time.
Would you say going into the military was the best thing that ever happened to you?
I think so, because from primary to secondary school and in the military, it will continue, both the academic and the physical one. I think it was so tough, but then, once it was inbuilt, it has to be sustained because you don’t contemplate failure.
You just succeed? Does it mean failure was not an option?
No. It was not.
Was it also the Fulani training of perseverance? Because when you have reared cattle, for those who have been doing it, they said it toughens you…
The sun is there, the rain and you are there with your cattle…
The period was remarkable, in the sense that those who are brought up in the city have limited space. If you are in a confined school, you learn from the school and what you see immediately. But the nomad life exposes you to nature. You will never learn enough of plants, of trees, of insects and of animals. Everyday you are learning something.
You have seen them and everyday you are learning. You will never know all of them. So, it is so vast that it takes a lot of whatever you can think of. And then, the difference again in the environment. In the Savannah, in the Sahel, after harvest, you can always see as high as your eyes can go. And then, at night when there is moon, it is fantastic. So, I enjoyed those days and they made a lasting impression in me.
What are the remarkable things you can think of during your military trainings?
Initially, from here in Kaduna, at the end of your training, the height of the field exercise was then conducted in two places. Here in southern Kaduna and somewhere in Kachia area. There was a thick belt in that forest. You go for field firing and so on. And then you go to Jos for map reading and endurance.
That was why mathematics at that level, the secondary school level, geometry and algebra, were absolutely necessary. It had always been, because to be a competent officer, you may be deployed to be in charge of artillery; physics, where you help find your position. Wherever you are from, you work it on the ground in degrees and so on. You have to do some mathematics.
We were in Jos. Again, I was made a leader of a small unit. We were given a map, a compass and you dare not cheat. If you are found out, you are taken 10 miles back. So, you have to go across the country. You find your way from the map; you go to certain points and on those points, mostly hills, you climb them and you will get a box. The weather there is cold. You put your own coat and you cover it over the hills and at the end of the exercise, part of your scorecards, are those marks you won or you lost. We arrived with one compass, which led us to a certain bushy hill.
Yes, in Jos. And it was night, dark and it was raining lightly and definitely, our compass led us to that hill, which means there was a point there. And there were five of us: myself, one Sierra Leonean or Ghanaian, one from Sokoto, and one other. I think the other person is Katsina Alu, the former Chief Justice.
You mean he was in the military?
He was. He did the training but he was never commissioned. He went to university and did Law. I went up to the hill. I picked the box. I copied the code, and I said if I were forced to join the Army, I would have left the following day because that place, a viper or a snake or something or hyena or lion could have finished me. But I said if I run away the following day, people would say well we knew you couldn’t make it, we knew you would be lazy. But because
I voluntarily joined the Army, I said I have to be there. That is one point. The second one was when I was in training in the UK. I came there and we were drilled so much and at night again, we were on an exercise. We were putting our formation. In anyway position was created, and they fired at us. We went down automatically that day and by the time the commander asked us to move, I fell asleep. It must be few seconds, not up to a minute. That was how exhausted I was.
Was it really the cold or what?
It was cold. It was 1962. It was cold and it was rainy again just like in Plateau. Just between the time we went down and to move and climb the mountain, I fell asleep. So, those two moments, I would never forget them.
Who were your classmates in the military and in the officers’ training in the UK?
Well, the late Gen. Yar’Adua. I was together with him throughout the nine years primary, secondary school and in the military.
So, you have always been colleagues…?
We were together from childhood.
Ok, that is interesting. Who else?
Well, not the ones that are here. In the military, most of them did not reach the position I reached; myself, and Yar’Adua. They couldn’t make it.
Why did you choose the infantry and not the other arms? What was the attraction?
Maybe it was the training of the cadet unit in secondary school. I found the infantry much more challenging and when we were doing the training, the Federal Government decided that we were going to have the Air Force. So, I was invited. A team came from the Ministry of Defence to interview cadets that wanted to be fighter pilots in the Air Force. I was the first to be called in our group. I appeared before them and they told me that those who could pass the interview would be recommended to go to the Air Force training either in the UK, some went to Ethiopia or United States or Germany.
So, they asked me whether I wanted to be a fighter pilot and I said no. They asked why, and I said I wasn’t interested. We were given three choices. Number one, maybe you went to infantry; number two, you went to reconnaissance then before they became armour and later, maybe artillery. So, all my three choices, I could recall vividly, I put infantry, infantry. So, they said why? I said because I liked infantry. And they asked if I wouldn’t like to be a fighter pilot. I said no, I didn’t want to join them. They said why. I said I hadn’t done physics.
Normally, I did some mathematics but to be a fighter pilot, you must do some physics. They said no, that it was no problem, that I could have an additional one academic year. So, since I had some mathematics background, it was just one year purely to do physics and I would reach the grade required to be a pilot. I said no, I didn’t want it. They again asked why. I told them I chose infantry. The reason is: when I am fighting and I was shot at, if I was not hit, I can go down, turn back and take off by foot. They laughed and sent me out. So, I remained infantry officer.
Where were you during the coups and counter-coups? And what rank were you in the military then?
I was in Lagos, in the barracks, as transport officer. I was only a second lieutenant.
That was during the January 15, 1966 coup?
Yes, January 15, 1966.
The coup met you in Lagos?
Yes. I think that was my saddest day in the military because I happened to know some of the senior officers that were killed. In the transport company, after the 2nd Battalion and we came back, I was posted to Lagos to be a transport officer and in my platoon, we had staff cars and Landrovers. So, I knew the Army officers, from Ironsi, Maimalari, because I detailed vehicles for them every working day. So, I knew senior officers.
So, you were in contact with them?
I was in contact with them somehow because I was in charge of transportation.
Where were you that night of January 15 coup?
I was in Lagos.
Can you recall the circumstance, how you got to know?
The way I got to know was, my routine then was as early as about six in the morning, I used to drive to the garage to make sure that all vehicles for officers, from the General Officer Commanding (GOC), who was then General Ironsi, were roadworthy and the drivers would drive off. And then, I would go back to the Officers Mess in Yaba, where I would wash, have my breakfast and come back to the office. And around the railway crossing in Yaba, coming out from the barracks, we saw a wounded soldier.
I stopped because I was in a Landrover. I picked him and asked what happened. He said he was in the late Maimalari’s house and they were having a party the previous night and the place was attacked. So, I took the soldier to the military hospital in Yaba and I asked after the commander. Maimalari, I think, was commander of 2 Brigade in Apapa. He was the 2 Brigade Commander. They said he was shot and killed.
Then, you didn’t know it was a coup?
Well, that became a coup. That was the time I really learnt it was a coup.
And then there was a counter-coup of July?
Where were you at this time also?
I was in Lagos again. I was still in Lagos then at Apapa at 2 Brigade Transport Company.
And then, there was ethnic colouration and all that. And at a point, they asked some of you to go back to the North. Am I correct?
Yes, because I was posted back then to the battalion. That was in Abeokuta. It was first to Ikeja Cantonment, but after the counter-coup, we were taken to Lagos by train, the whole battalion.
Did you play any role in the counter-coup?
No! Not that I will tell you.
You know at 70, you are reminiscing. You are saying it the way it is, you don’t give a damn anymore…
Well, there was a coup. That is all I can tell you. I was a unit commander and certainly, there was a breakdown of law and order. So, I was posted to a combatant unit, although 2 Brigade Transport Company was a combatant unit. You know there were administrative and combatant units and the service unit, like health, education. Even transport, there are administrative ones, but there are combatant ones also.
The question I asked was, did you play any specific role?
No. I was too junior to play any specific role. I was just a lieutenant then. In 1966, January, I was a Second Lieutenant, but I was promoted, I think, around April, May, or June to Lieutenant.
And what were your impressions of that period?
You see, senior military officers had been killed and politicians, like Sardauna, Akintola, Okotie Eboh. They were killed. And then in the military, Maimalari, Yakubu Pam, Legima, Shodeinde, and Ademolegun; so really, it had a tribal tinge.
The first one?
Yes. And then, there was a counter.
One mistake gave birth to another one?
And then long years of military came?
From 1967-75, it was Gowon. At that point in time, where were you?
When Gowon came into power, I wonder whether I would recall where I was. It was July 1967 that Gowon came in. That was when I was in Lagos. I was again in Lagos, then in the transport company.
Then he took over?
Yeah, Gowon took over or Gowon was installed.
Well, more like you…
And then in 1967?
So, you have to give me that part because there are some books I have read, that featured your name. So, what were your experiences during the civil war?
Well, I told you that we were parked into the rail to Kaduna from Ikeja, 2nd Infantry Battalion and when states were created by General Gowon, police action was ordered; we were moved to the border in the East. We were not in Nsukka, but in Ogoja. We started from Ogoja.
And you took active part?
Yeah. Well, I was a junior officer.
Who was your GOC then?
My GOC was the late General Shuwa.
How did you feel during that period of the civil war? Did you think that when the first coup started, that civil war would just come?
No. I never felt so and I never hoped for it. Literally, you are trained to fight a war but you are not trained to fight a war within your own country. We would rather have enemies from outside your country to defend your country, but not to fight among yourselves.
Some of those officers you were fighting were your comrades…
You knew some of them.
Some of them were even my course mates. We were facing each other, like when we were in Awka sector. The person facing me was called Bob Akonobi. We were mates here.
Who later became a governor?
Yes. He was my course mate here in Kaduna.
And there you were…
Facing each other.
It was really crazy.
It was. It was unfortunate, but it is part of our national development.
And the way we are going, you think it is a possibility again?
I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so.
After Gowon, Murtala came.
By the time you were no longer a small officer…
No. I was just, I think, a colonel? Was it a lieutenant colonel or major? I think I was a lieutenant colonel.
But during the Obasanjo administration, you had become a minister, as it were.
No. I first became a governor when Murtala came, in North-East.
This same North East that is giving problem now.
Yes. I was there and there were six states then: Yobe, Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, Adamawa and Taraba.
And they were all under your control or command?
North East went up to Chad; anyway, they are on the same latitude with Lagos. The bottom before you start going on the Plateau, Mambilla Plateau, if you look here on the map, the same latitude was in Lagos and then, up to Chad. That was the extent of the whole North East.
Now, some of them can’t govern even one state…
They are now six states.
I know, but you governed six states and now, some of them have problems with one state…
What were the challenges you faced governing the North East as a military governor?
Actually, at that time, because of competent civil service… I was a military man but once you get to the rank of a lieutenant-colonel, after major, you are being taught some management courses. It needs a few weeks for somebody who has gone through the military management training, you have junior staff college, senior staff college; by that time, you will have enough experience for most administrative jobs because you must have had enough of the combat ones. I think I didn’t have much problem. And then, the competent civil servants. Civil servants then were very professional.
And not political as we have them now?
No. They were really professionals and they can disagree with you on record, on issues.
They were not afraid to make recommendations to the military governor or administrator?
No, they were never. People like the late Liman Ciroma, Waziri Fika, who was eventually Secretary to the Government of Babangida. And the late Abubakar Umar, who was Secretary to the Government of Bauchi State; and the late Moguno. They were real professionals, committed technocrats.
So, you didn’t really have much challenges?
No, not much challenges.
There was no insecurity then, like we have in the North East today?
No, the police then, with their Criminal Investigation Department (CID), were very, very competent. They interacted closely with the people. So, criminals in the locality were easily identified and put under severe surveillance. And really, there was relative peace in the country.
What were your major achievements in the North East as governor?
I think the way the state was divided into three; if you remember, it became Borno, Bauchi and Gongola. So, the way we divided the assets, including the civil service and so on, I think it was one of our achievements because it was so peaceful then. We had a committee on civil service.
And eventually you became minister of petroleum under Obasanjo?
That was the only ministry you held under Obasanjo?
During your time as petroleum minister, what were you doing differently that they are not doing now that has made the sector totally rotten?
Well, I was lucky again. When I was made a minister, I met an experienced man, a person of great personal integrity, the late Sunday Awoniyi. He was the permanent secretary then before the Supreme Military Council approved the merger of the Nigerian National Oil Corporation (NNOC) and the Ministry of Petroleum Resources and made Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Sunday Awoniyi was then the permanent secretary of the ministry.
That was when I was sworn in eventually, I think in 1977, it became NNPC when the ministry and the NNOC were merged. He retired from the civil service. Another competent technocrat, Morinho, he became the Director of Petroleum Resources and he had a very competent team of Nigerian engineers, petroleum engineers and chemical engineers. And as minister of petroleum, I signed the contract for Warri Refinery, for Kaduna Refinery, for more than 20 depots all over the country, for laying of pipelines, more than 3200 kilometers and I couldn’t recall Nigeria borrowing a kobo for those projects.
And then, by the time I became head of state, because I went to War College in the United States before the military handed over to the Second Republic and came back in 1980 and then, there was coup at the end of 1983. And that time, you can verify from Professor Tam David-West who was Minister of Petroleum Resources. We were exporting 100,000 barrels per day of refined products.
Exporting from the country?
Yes, refined one.
Refined one, not the raw one they are taking to import to…?
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