ZONING IS NONSENSE, MY LIFE WITH ABACHA AND WHY I DIDN'T SUCCEED HIM
Twelve years after former Head of State, the late General Sani Abacha died, his bosom friend and associate, Lieutenant General Jeremiah Useni, has said that what he was alleged to have looted from the treasure is not close to what ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo's aides took from the national treasury.
According to Useni, who was the Minister of Federal Capital territory in the Abacha government, 'I don't think Abacha looted the treasury the way they have painted it.
Abacha had money before he even became head of state. His father was a businessman and he (Abacha) was very careful with money. I worked with him and I know how stingy he was when it comes to spending money. He held on to money properly. Despite all the things they say about Abacha, nobody has ever said that this is the money Abacha took and this was where he took the money.
'They will be talking about the children or some associates of the children. Every time, Abacha family, Abacha family, Abacha family and now we are seeing that what they said of Abacha family cannot be compared to even some aides that worked under Obasanjo. These are aides, not even head of state, not even ministers.'
Useni defended Abacha, who died on June 8, 1998, saying that he was a good leader. 'Abacha was never a dictator. I think people are just trying to rubbish him. If he were a dictator, what will you say of Obasanjo?'
Speaking on the nation's development, Useni said: 'Obasanjo brought misery to many people and spoilt democracy. Obasanjo moved the nation backward at a very high speed. Yar'Adua slowed the speed and now, Goodluck has been able to stop it and trying to move forward now.'
He spoke on these and many other thought-provoking issues.
How was your experience in the Nigerian Army and most importantly, during the regime of the late General Sani Abacha, where you occupied the office of the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory?
Well, it was very exciting and full of life. The comradeship was there and the situation in the army at that time was such that things were done properly. Only an unhealthy officer could have found things tough. When you are up and doing, and did your job properly; you continued to get your promotion. You didn't have to lobby to get promoted. So, I enjoyed my life as a military officer.
Your intimacy with General Abacha was second to none. How would you describe the man who, on several occasions, dissolved his cabinet and left you and two other ministers untouched?
Abacha and I knew each other when we were Lieutenants. It was not when he became head of state and I became minister. No. Our friendship was such that many people wondered how it happened, but I believe it was the work of God because I am not from Kano; neither was Abacha from Plateau. I am not a Muslim and Abacha was not a Christian, but somehow, we happened to be very good friends. In fact, we were three: myself, Abacha and General Garba Duba. We were known as triplets in the Nigerian Army and around, but it was just that General Garba Duba left us earlier due to ill-health. He had to leave, but we continued and today, we are still friends. Now that Abacha is gone, the two of us are still friends.
I cannot go to Kaduna without visiting Garba Duba or he comes to Abuja without visiting me. I would say it was God's doing. If you look at what is happening today, everybody tries to clinch to his kinsman, tribe man or somebody they speak the same language or come from the same place with. It wasn't so in our case. General Garba Duba is from Niger. I am from Plateau and General Abacha from Kano. So, you can see the triangle; yet we moved on.
What where those qualities that endeared you to General Abacha?
Well, he was straightforward. I like straightforward people. We all studied our likes and dislikes; we tried to avoid such. When he spoke, if he was serious about something, you would know. If he was joking, you would know. But by and large, he was a straightforward man and didn't care where you came from. For him, that is your property. I would say he was an economist, even though he didn't go to school of economics. You also know that during his time, we never borrowed money from the World Bank.
In fact, it was during our time that the World Bank folded up all its offices in Nigeria because the loan they gave us that they used in setting up offices and directed how such loans should be used was no longer there. When we refused to take loan, those offices became useless and they had to close them down. It was when Obasanjo came and started taking loan that Nigeria started owing. Throughout the regime of General Abacha, we never took any loan from anywhere and yet, we were paying salaries, meeting our obligations and we stabilised the Naira. We just believed in ourselves. We never believed in loans.
Then how were you able to generate funds at that time to manage the economy properly, as you are now claiming that the economy was better during General Abacha's regime?
We managed the economy well. We have a lot of money now, but are we managing it? Have you ever heard of any military regime, except during the Obasanjo civilian government, where a governor was be accused of stealing three billion Naira? I think during our time, we were not more than three states that could announce a budget of N150 million. That is: FCT, Kano and Lagos. But today, even some local governments get billions. If the money were properly utilized, Nigeria would be far ahead.
What I mean is that General Abacha was a fine, fantastic economist, even though he didn't go to school of economics. The little we generated; the little we got from oil, which was about 10 to 11 dollars per barrel, was properly utilised and that was why we were able to do what we did. So, it is not the amount of money that matters; the important thing is to utilize it well. If you cannot use it, you will just squander it and people would not see anything to show for it. And yet, if you are utilising the money, do it in such a way that people would see the result.
So, how can the Nigerian people hold their leaders accountable?
It is by continuing to point out to the government that what they are doing now bad. When the government is doing well, praise it. When the government is doing badly, we should be bold and courageous enough to say that what they are doing is wrong. And we should also come out during election to stop them. These people who steal money, use the money fight for election. They take advantage of poverty in the land, which they created, to get people do what they want, illegally of course. We just have to be courageous enough to say no to all these malpractices and drive out those who are causing trouble. We should not allow them to be in the corridors of power. That is the best we can do.
You so much believed in General Abacha, who people believed was a dictator. Why?
I think people are just trying to rubbish him. If he were a dictator, what will you say of Obasanjo? You see, some people don't want to be corrected; some people don't want to be told that what they are doing is wrong. Once you do that, they take exception and start saying all sorts of things. Despite the things they say about Abacha, nobody has ever said that this is the money Abacha took and this was where he took the money from? They will be talking about the children. They will be talking about the children or some associates of the children. Every time, Abacha family, Abacha family, Abacha family and now we are seeing that what they said of Abacha family, cannot even be compared to what some aides that worked under Obasanjo did. These are aides, not even head of state, not even ministers.
Are you saying Abacha never looted the treasury?
I don't think he looted the treasury the way they have painted it. Abacha had money before he even became head of state. His father was a businessman and he (Abacha) was very careful with money. I worked with him. I know how stingy he was when it comes to spending money. He held on to money properly. I remember when (General Oladipo) Diya, who was the second-in-command, said that our government was going to conserve money because the head of state was from Kano and the second-in-command is an Ijebu man. He said that people from Kano and Ijebu don't like to spend money. He said that we were going to use money in government to work (laughs). So that was what happened. All those talks were just exaggerations, just to nail the man or to paint the man black. But I believe even those who were at the forefront of such campaigns are now singing different tunes.
Could you tell us what happened when General Abacha died?
It was bad because even if your enemy dies, you will feel bad, how much more somebody very close to you. I was shocked.
We learnt that you were supposed to head the government after Abacha's death and that you actually aspired to replace him. What happened that you could not become head of state?
There was nothing like 'I was one of those…' It was just that being the most senior military officer, it was expected that I should take over. But don't forget about another angle again: there was the protocol side of the issue, which worked for people, like Abdulsalami, though junior to me in rank. Protocol wise, he was my senior in that aspect. So, it was a matter of which one do you choose and since the majority wanted to choose the other way, there was no problem.
So you had to follow the wish of the people?
And you took it humbly?
I took it humbly. I didn't cause any trouble.
How is life without General Abacha?
Life must continue, but definitely, I miss him.
Al-Mustapha and others are anguishing in jail. How would you react to that?
I feel bad. Whatever offence they might have committed shouldn't warrant their continued detention. I don't know what type of court we have in this country and what type of investigation. They were arrested long before Obasanjo became president. Obasanjo came and concretised the arrest. He was in government for eight years. Yar'Adua came in and was in government for three years. If you add these, it is almost 11 to 12 years. What type of investigation are they carrying out? What type of court proceedings? So, it is annoying, even to ordinary mind. Even if they had killed thousands of people, look at the period, it doesn't warrant it at all.
In your thinking, why are they delaying the investigation or refusing to release them?
Well, I don't know. I think somebody is hiding some information somewhere because I know there are some things that are yet to be disclosed.
Some people say they are paying back General Abacha through them?
Since I am not them, I don't know. All I know is that many Nigerians are saying they should be released. If you have nothing against them, then release them.
What would you want President Goodluck Jonathan to do about them?
That is my big appeal to Jonathan because I believe he doesn't belong to those people that wanted Abacha family's dead. Now that apart from his name, which is 'Goodluck,' God has also given him luck, I think he should see to the immediate release of Al-Mustapha and co because their continued stay in prison is absolutely unacceptable. There is no reason for it. Whoever is behind it might be devilish.
Since the inception of this present political dispensation, many Nigerians have been expecting you to present yourself for elective position. That has not been the case, except being in the opposition parties, which most Nigerians believe cannot pose a formidable resistance to the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). What is responsible for this?
I am not after the personal things. I am after the truth. Normally, I don't join a group that I believe is not doing the right thing. I could have joined the PDP. I knew when it started. I knew all the plans to hand over government to the PDP. I knew the plan also to bring out Obasanjo and make him head of state because at that time he was under lock and key. I just looked at the gathering and said no. Don't forget that when the All Peoples Party (APP) started, people went around and said this is 'Abacha's Peoples Party.' I mean naturally, anybody close to Abacha should be there. I am there and I am still there. When it became All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), they still said Abacha Nigeria Peoples Party and all sorts of things. Anything that has to do with Abacha, I am there and anything that has to do with bad people, I don't go there. You can see what we are suffering now under the so-called PDP.
In 2011, where is General Useni heading? Senate or presidency?
I have not made up my mind, just like the previous ones. Since I retired, elections have taken place and people have been asking me questions and I said I had not made up my mind. I leave everything to God, but if I were the ambitious type, I would have gone in there since 2003. I didn't. Instead, I was sponsoring some people. So, I have not made up my mind. I leave everything to God because I am not the ambitious type. I want God to direct me.
What is your assessment of the current political dispensation?
It is good now. The atmosphere is good now, since President Goodluck Jonathan took over. Right from the time he was Acting President, we started seeing the light and the light is becoming brighter. So, I think the atmosphere is good now.
How would you assess the Obasanjo years in government?
I can't assess him. I am not saying there is nothing good in the things he did, but on the average. I don't think I can assess him because he brought misery to many people and spoilt democracy, if we have anything at all. He doesn't deserve to be in governance.
Would you say Yar'Adua did better than Obasanjo?
Yar'Adua had a different style, as I always told people. Though he was slow, he it was for a reason. One, when he came in, you know how the nation was. Obasanjo just put him there. He admitted that the elections were fraud and that was why he set up the electoral reforms. He had a court case. So, anybody with a court case would not know if he would go today or tomorrow. They limit your speed and after that, he became sick. I would say he calmed the atmosphere, compared to Obasanjo. He ought to have done more but ill health did not allow him.
Would you support President Goodluck Jonathan if he decides to contest for the 2011 presidential election?
Why not? He is a Nigerian.
Then how do you see the much talked about zoning by the PDP?
That is PDP. I don't belong to PDP. So, there should be nothing like zoning. There is no zoning in my party. Any Nigerian is capable of getting there, provided Nigerians vote for the person and not rigged. In any case, power comes from God. So, what is all this nonsense about zoning? I don't support zoning at all. If Jonathan decides to contest today, then let him go.
The reforms have not been done yet. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are still discussing. They have been fighting over whether we should have two parties or not. I am not saying it should be two parties, three parties or not but definitely, 57 parties is nonsense. They should be reduced drastically. Even if they are 10 parties, I don't mind, but anything more than 10 at this stage of our movement, I think they would retard us backward.
Professor Maurice Iwu was recently removed as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Would you say Iwu performed well or acted in bad fate?
If one wants to be sincere about Iwu, one would say that he didn't work alone. They say it takes two to tango. The government that appointed him never gave him a breathing space. The only thing I would blame him for was that he never had the guts to throw in the towel. If he had done that, honestly he would have been seen as a hero today, but because he remained there, people thought probably, he was enjoying; that he had personal interest in that office. But definitely, he was living under pressure. Anybody you bring, if those people are still holding on to the way they do things, they can still put pressure on the man to do their bidding.
As we approach the 2011 general elections, what is your party doing to ensure that it takes over power from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party?
We are doing everything possible, reaching out to other opposition parties to see how we can put our heads together to form a mammoth party to fight the PDP. All these discussions are going on and very shortly, you would hear the result because some of the people we are discussing with are senior members of the PDP who are fed up with what is going on there. They are all coming to speak to us. As I said, very shortly, you would hear the result of our various meetings.