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Military incursion in politics a blessing, declares Shagaya

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By Chioma Gabriel, Deputy Editor
General John Shagaya is a serving senator of the Federal Republic representing Plateau South Senatorial District.  He led the ECOMOG Forces in Liberia in 1993 as Commander  and in Nigeria, he served in the military era in various categories as Minister of Internal Affairs and Commander, 1 Mechanised Division Kaduna before leaving for Liberia to command the sub-regional forces.

In the Senate, he is the Chairman of Northern Senators Forum,NSF and in this interview, he speaks on Nigeria’s 49th independence anniversary and says the military incursion in Nigeria’s political history is a blessing.

It’s been 49 years of independence and Nigeria has had all sorts of issues in her political history including military incursion , lack of infra structural development and many are beginning to say Nigeria is a failing state. To what would you attribute Nigeria’s problems?

It’s been well with us as a nation. God loves this country. We got our independence and republican status on a platter of gold. We didn’t go to war to fight  to get it from the colonial masters like some other colonies in Africa did especially the Southern Africa.

So, that we have in the last 49 years managed our affairs without the intervention of any international world power especially during the period of the civil war that we went through is a plus.  The civil war was an internal problem and was resolved by us internally.

In terms of technology, we have moved far away from being an analogue state and now, we can find ourselves as a developing nation and we are also to some extent a digital nation in the sense that Nigeria is not too backward  IT- wise unlike some members of the developing world especially on the continental front of Africa.

Shagaya: there is nothing like northern agenda
Shagaya: there is nothing like northern agenda

And in the area of projecting our image and asserting ourselves both on regional and sub-regional issues, Nigeria has not been left behind. We have been at the forefront of the fight for  Organisation of African Unity, OAU. We are also noted to have championed the cause of the change of that name from OAU to AU and in these 49 years, various leaderships of Nigeria, whether military or civilian have headed or chaired the AU or OAU.

When you come to the sub-regional sector which is West Africa, we championed the cause of  ECOWAS. A lot of our African immediate neighbours especially the distinguished dignitaries to the ECOWAS founding fathers look unto Nigeria for almost everything.

Our goods that are produced in this country are what you will find in some of these neighbouring countries. Hence, if you close the Nigerian borders for one hour, there would be  hues and cries from  our ECOWAS sub-region and member states especially our immediate neighbours.

As we champion the ECOWAS cause, we also champion the cause of the sub-regional peace keeping. We have demonstrated that economic wise. In terms of industrial development, we have not done badly as we imagined ourselves to be.

Nigerian Armed Forces within the sub-region gave a very good account of itself and projected this nation within the ECOWAS sub-region to the admiration of the outside world because if you look around our other Africa brothers, the Sahara Desert, Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanganyika of those days, now Tanzania, and of course Congo, there were interventions by either United Nation Forces where Nigerian government played some very key roles.

We projected ourselves well as a leader within the sub-region and also a leader within the continent. Because of this demonstration of the ability  to carry the burden of other nations in terms of security or internal security management, Nigeria is always invited by the United Nations to participate in international peace keeping missions outside the continental shores of Africa especially in the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon and then peace keeping missions of various status in Israel and of course, India- Pakistani wars even as early as the 1960s. So, with all these developments, I wouldn’t say that we are doing so badly as is being imagined.

But like any developing nation, we know ourselves better than any outsider ,we would imagine that because of the God-given natural resources that this country is endowed with, we would be better than we are  if  these resources are properly harnessed and properly used.At least, it would take us a step further than we are.

But we are not doing well in terms of political leadership.

Really, what we are saying is that we are aspiring for excellence but we should not condemn ourselves or consign ourselves to garbage as though we have been nowhere.

I think the big question is how and why we have  not attained in political development those standards that we may have carved for ourselves in other areas to the expectation and admiration of all those who will wish us well beginning from ourselves; to the sub-region; to the African continent and the outside world.

I will attribute that to what I have always told the Nigeria media, I have always attributed that to some qualities of leadership failure. Leadership is so engulfed in greed and that is the cause of poverty, tribalism, nepotism and so, the resources meant for development are sometimes stolen by those who are given the position to the top by the Nigerian citizenry.

And  I subscribe completely to the views expressed by the EFCC that there may be need to subject people in positions of leadership to mental examination, to ascertain the fitness of the  person to be given a political leadership role.

I subscribe to that view completely because some people as soon as they get to the position of leadership and see money get transformed  and they get transformed for the worse to the disappointment of those who may have voted them or those who may not have voted them or those who would have wished through prayers that they occupy  those offices.

And so, quality of leadership is something that Nigeria must try to address in the next few years as we march forward after 49 years of independence and of course 46 years of republican status.

The problem of leadership started with the incursion of the military into  the political  affairs of the country.

That is not true. I was  young  when Nigeria attained independence and I participated on parade in 1960 October 1 when Nigeria became an independent nation. I was also a very proud Guard Commander. I commanded one of the Guards in Kaduna in 1963 when we attained a republican status.

But as soon as we  attained the republican status, our political history became so bad that we became champions of eliminating one another.

There was the crisis  in Northern Nigeria which brought about Operations Adam 1, 2 and 3 as the military would call it between 1964 – 1965 December. And then of course, the Attencio Operation due to crisis in the South-West and then Operation Owete, where brothers and sisters were being mobbed or killed or slaughtered or maimed for not following certain views and certain political ideologies.

As young as I was, I saw that as the reason for the intervention of those five majors. Those of them who remained alive after the civil war have carefully documented some of the reasons why they struck. I was too young and too junior and couldn’t have understood the political situation at the time.

But I was old enough to know that there were killings all over this country; North, East, and of course in the South-West regions of Nigeria. We should not forget that easily as if nothing has happened but at last, all those people would be reporting in heaven.

Unfortunately, the military intervention was so partial that it created some misgivings between the Nigerian armed forces officers and men, hence, the retaliation coup and the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war. We  learnt a very bitter lesson through that 30 months of unwanted war.

But thank God that at the end of it all, General Gowon who was the ruler of this great country declared that there was no victor and no vanquished. So, I wouldn’t subscribe to the view that the Nigerian military has been very disastrous in its outings.

I do know that as things are today, military regime anywhere in the world is an aberration but we must not forget that  no country worries in the whole world if there is fairness, if there is sincerity and if there is a focus in the development of a country ,be  it military or civil.

We must not also forget that when we quickly quote America, the UK and all the other civilised countries, when you go back to 14th century where they started their long journey from, they were ruled by mediocres. America is the biggest democracy in the world.

The way things are in the world made it mandatory that for you to become a president in the United States, you must have been exposed as a military officer and I think in the last two hundred and something years, that has been the practice.

For us in Nigeria, we have gone through so much and have achieved so much and 49 years is too early  for us to forget what we have truly gone through.

My belief and dream for Nigeria  is what  prompted my participation in politics after my retirement and that is why I’m  representing my people, having been exposed all around the world and having also been in the forces sent out by Nigeria to maintain peace somewhere. So, someone like me would least want to see Nigeria on fire.

I have seen it before the civil war and after especially the various ethno-religious crises we have gone through. And so, one is doing the best he can and I’m sure there are many more Nigerians who are also playing this role.

Again on the internal security responsibility, the Nigerian society especially the rulership at states and local government levels are very quick at calling the Nigerian Armed Forces at the least intimidation even from youths within the communities that they belong and these are youths that the leaders of those communities can contend with.

This is part of the things the Ministry of Information is trying to preach by asking Nigerians  to rebrand themselves but I will wish to add that we should re-examine those values which we have lost in the last 49 years that are really making us to think we are going backwards rather than moving forward.

That is the only way we can rebrand Nigeria. Those lost values that we inherited in 1960, those values that have made us tick, those values that have made us acceptable to the entire society of the world, those values that we have now dropped that everywhere you go, no matter your status, you are seen as a criminal, a 419ner, as a  powder mover and all that, those are the values that we should re-address to  get ourselves back on course.

I want to take you back to the period before the Civil War. Things were not as bad as they became after that war. Now, we just pay lips service to one Nigeria.We know about the Northern oligarchy and the domination of a particular  group over the others for years  and the fact that some Nigerians are bystanders or on-lookers in the scheme of things even at this present time. How would Nigeria move forward when these issues still prevail?

Again, I will say thank God for the Nigerian military because without the military, the political system in this country could not have been bold enough taking your comments, observations and questions on  the Northern Oligarchy, meaning that in each of the four regions those days, there was agitation for dominance in the political party play.

Every region wanted to lead, every region wanted to dominate the other but it was General Gowon who divided Nigeria into twelve states .Later, it became 19 states, then twenty-one states and now 36 states.

So, I believe the question of  majority lording it over others  may have been partially addressed but I want to say that even if you break this country into every community, the problem would still persist and by the last demographic count, there are 97,000 communities in this country and that was in 1983 and there has not been a review.

Now, if you give each of these 97,000 autonomous communities in Nigeria the independence of ruling themselves, either in the name of local governments or states ,there would still be minorities within these 97,000 communities. So, the key thing  is for us to be able to manage the marriage of convenience that the colonial masters put us in 1816.

That will be our strength. You know, I was asked this same question  in 1990, September, when I was in the Royal College of Defence Studies which resulted into my writing a very long dissertation. We should use the bridges that separate us as communities as our points of strength instead of a variable that would  divide us.

Are you now saying that the military years are a blessing to Nigeria?

Yes. In terms of intervention, the military rule could be seen as an aberration but I’m saying in terms of our historical development and the way we handle issues and the way the political leadership was causing human lives  to be wasted as though they are not creations of the supreme God that created everybody and if those interventions actually have saved those crises, then it is a blessing.

And don’t forget that in the process, quite a lot of the military chaps lost their lives. And we must not also lose sight of the fact that the military are children of Nigerians. We have parents.

We are loyal to our parents, we are loyal to our communities and we are loyal to everything else. Quite a number of us on retirement go back home to take on traditional rulership and many more are in politics. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do but I’m saying it was a necessary contribution.

You talked of peace keeping as a major contribution of the military to Nigeria’s historical growth…

Yes, the Nigerian military has projected this country very well from 1960 till date outside Nigeria.

General Iweze, an ECOMOG leader in his interview with us last week inferred that the former  Liberian President, Sergeant Doe was betrayed by the then ECOMOG Commander Quainoo.

Well, I read that interview. But don’t forget I was also ECOMOG Commander. So, I must have known that history very well. I must have known what happened. I inherited that Command in 1993. Some of the views raised by Iweze could be  true.

He worked with Ghanian Commander Quainoo and General Dogonyaro and must have had first hand information at the time they took over the situation in mid September 1990.

So, he could be right. But I will give a very good account of the era that I took over which was in 1993 and that was the time of disarmament and  the enlargement of the ECOMOG forces through a contribution of  five other West African countries. I can give account of that and the process that gave way to the Liberian elections which led to the  putting in place  of a democratically elected President Taylor .

So, everyone of us has a story to tell about the era and in a crisis or war-given situation, every period is different from the other. So, Iweze’s experience can never be mine and my experience can never be that of  Dogonyaro, and Dogonyaro’s experience can never be that of General Kupolati and Kupolati’s experience can never be that of General Bakut.

But the fact remains that Doe was betrayed by ECOMOG.

It was the time of Ghanaian Commander, the first Commander of ECOMOG .

Was it not an indictment on ECOMOG that Sgt. Doe was caught by the rebels right inside ECOMOG headquarters?

You could be right by assumption looking at the entire situation now in 2009. But I will be very incompetent to speak on this since I was not there to assess the security situation at the time, the operational difficulties at the time, the disposition of the belligerence bodies at the time and the attitude of the entire Liberian citizens at the time. I will be incompetent to make any assessment.

In Nigeria’s politics since 1999, the retired generals seem to be holding sway.There was Obasanjo, Buhari, IBB, David Mark and so many others including you in active politics.How would you assess the performance of military men in politics?

I would say it is a big blessing because the experience and the exposure of any military person cannot be compared to his age-group counterpart who possibly would restrict himself  to one local government, or relate to one state after the age of  50 or 60.

The exposure of a military officer all over the world to exercises, training, seminars, courses and more so, peace keeping missions have helped such  a military officer  to know about the good, the bad and the ugly of political interplay that could create problems for a nation. For me, the discipline and this exposure go a long way.

You must also remember that the military officers in politics you are talking about would have competed very favourably along with other colleagues  for election and for votes .

And so, by condemning these men’s participation in politics, you are condemning the constitutional rights of the voters at our constituencies, states and of course the national level and these are Nigerians that have voted them and it is their right in the constitution to vote candidates they trust to represent them.

And so, these ex-military men are qualified and they met all the requirements to contest elections and are found suitable by those constituencies that have elected them.

And of course, we should concede some level of intelligence to all these communities that have put forward their sons and daughters. Being in the military before dabbling into politics should be a plus and not a minus.

One sometimes wonder if godfathers  in politics as we have them today did not start with military incursion. For instance, some generals in politics including you are still being referred to as IBB boys.

That’s a very good one  but the phrase IBB boys is a creation of the media. It is only the media that can stop it. It is not a creation of the armed forces, it is not a creation of Nigerian politicians. It is a creation of the media and only the media can stop it.

Even if it is, you are quoted to have accepted being an IBB boy in politics and somebody took you up on that on the pages of a newspaper.

A media boy asked me a question and I said, ‘for God’s sake, it is not a crime to be a friend to anybody from Azikiwe, Tafawa Balewa, or anybody. You are either loyal to this country through those rulers or you are not disloyal. There is no sixty per cent loyalty.

There is no half-way measure. So, those who are loyal to Obasanjo in his days of presidency can be called OBJ boys by the media. And that also includes Nigerians who voted him into power.

Within the senate where you have your ‘blood’ brother David Mark  and a fellow IBB loyalist as Senate President, there is a perceived animosity between the two of you  over the leadership of Northern Senators’ Forum. Is it true?

Chioma ,I don’t think you will be competent to speak for the Northern Senators’ Forum. No one in the Forum has complained and where there is no aggrieved person, there can be no trial or judgement.

There is no complainant and no petitioner. There is nothing and nobody is complaining and that is why you find out that the present Senate President for the last two years and three months has been able to manage the affairs of the senate because of the understanding and cooperation he is enjoying.

If there have been rumblings, of course, there would have been banana peels thrown. If you remember, during the Obasanjo era, in his eight years, there were about six Senate Presidents from the Eastern part of Nigeria but now that we are here, within the central geo-political zone and David Mark by accident of history, is an ex-military officer, he  has handled the affairs of the senate so well and if we all are sincere, we can compare the time of elections we held between 1993 to the present time.

Just before I left for Liberia, in 1993, it will interest you to know that I was the General Officer Commanding the 1 Mechanised Division Kaduna and that Division at the time had a responsibility to support National Electoral Commission then to conduct elections in seven states of the Federation.

Through the conduct of those elections, the military had the responsibility to support that election through logistics, like communication, transportation, vigilance, escorting votes and what have you.

The election of 1993 was so transparent that everywhere in the world and especially in Nigeria, it was accredited the best election ever held in Nigeria because it was an election that a Yoruba man won in villages of  the North. That was an election that a running mate to the President-to-be won in the South-West, the South-East and the South-South.

So, you are here, giving a lot of credit to the military, meaning that if we can conduct elections transparently, being Nigerians, there must be some good Nigerians who should be able to conduct transparent elections.

What is necessary for us is for politicians who constitute the problems we have today in our electoral process to conform themselves to the rule of the game. Almost every Nigerian who has spoken as far as electoral law is concerned has said that maximum punishment should be given to those who do not adhere to the rule of the game.

A lot of the misgivings we have today is being done by the so-called politicians who must rule, who must be voted, who must be in power. We, the military must be given credit for conducting the most credible election in this country.

Today, Nigeria is talking about constitution review and we are beginning to hear different things from the Senate.

I’m saying that with David Mark as Senate President, there is that spirit of sincerity and seriousness with which Nigerians look unto the National Assembly and I am sure both the House of Representatives and the Senate are resolved to come out with certain amendments that Nigerians would accept.

But you must not forget that this is not just the role for the National Assembly. Other Nigerians can contribute through their representatives. So, we shouldn’t leave constitution review to the members of the House of Reps or the  Senators.

It is the responsibility of all Nigerians to air their views in those areas that Nigerians would be interested in  to make sure that electoral processes are so perfect to the outside world and especially the continents of Africa the way the Ghanaian elections were concluded and everybody is talking about it as a  free and fair election.

But we’re hearing about no-go areas in Constitutional amendments, like in the creation of more states especially when it is an issue in the South-East geo-political zone which is the only zone that has only five states whereas others have six each.

I don’t know of any ‘no-go’ area because the senate has not been gagged from discussing any ‘no-go’ area. So, it’s a mere rumour.

It’s over two years that President Yar’Ádua took over and it seems nothing is happening anymore in Nigeria. It’s as if we don’t have a government. What do you think about this?

I believe the Nigerian state is running. Don’t forget the adage that  speed kills. It is saying that making haste slowly is not a crime.

In other words, President Yar’Ádua is in order?

I will say so from the very selfish point of view that the National Assembly and the Presidency have not had any serious brushes and he has never quarrelled with motions or bills that we have moved and sent to the executive for attendance.

Most of the arguments  that have been brought about are the initiatives of  House of Representatives. We have never had any brushes with Mr. President. Once one is respecter of the law and everybody is conformed and adheres to the way of leadership, we move on.

There have been issues on the budget.

I don’t know about it except if you are now saying that between the period President Yar’Adua took over in May 2007, there was a delay in passing that budget but don’t forget that he inherited that budget from an administration and so if  it took a little bit of time to review it.

With his new cabinet, new set of advisers, new set of a complete political system, new set of governors, of course, it should. Don’t also forget that the administration of Obasanjo left in May 2007 at the point where the price of oil at the world market was the highest and when Yar’Adua came in, it dropped and if you are a good leader, you must adjust your cloth according to your size.

So, what you are deducing as a delay between May and August/September, 2007, I would say that what caused the delay was something nobody, not even in the National Assembly would want to overlook.

We made sure that at the end of the year, the president presented his budget, yet, it took sometime, between January and February before that 2008. It was due to other variables that affected the operation of 2007. If you look at what happened in 2008 budget, bringing us to 2009, the National Assembly passed that budget before the end of the year.

And if you read the papers, it said that the Minister of Finance is presenting to the National Assembly the 2010 budget next week, meaning that by the end of October, this budget would have been reviewed and passed back possibly to the presidency in December.

The Senate is on its toes because people like you are putting us on our toes to make sure the mistakes of the past do not happen. Don’t forget we are part of the society. What affects us affects the others.

It’s been said at several quartres that President Yar’Adua is pursuing a northern agenda. Federal character no longer exists for him and he is favouring the North in his appointments of minsters, heads of parastatals amongst others.

I think those who comment the way you are relaying are doing so because the Constitution allows freedom of speech.

But I will beg that those people should go to the appointments made in the eight years of Obasanjo rule and make comparisons before they can responsibly comment.

They  should compare all appointments including ministers, heads of parastatals, membership of boards and what have you; put them on the table, bring what President Yar’Adua has done and then make comparisons and say who is more guilty or which administration is more guilty of flaunting federal character. Lets look at it that way.

You know this issue is more prominent in the Finance sector where we have the Finance Minister, CBN Governor from one area and now Islamic banking, and perhaps, that’s why groups like Boko Haram can come up and intimidate helpless Nigerians.

People should not cry wolf where there is no wolf. In this country, we used to have Arab bank, Jewish bank, German bank in relationship with Nigerian bank, we had American banking relationship with Nigerian bank.

We had UK-relationship with Nigerian bank. Have they re-colonised  us? A bank is a financial institution.There are micro-finance houses all over Nigeria.We even have two in my village. A bank is not a colonial instrument.

We do business with whom we have confidence to do business with. You put your heart where your money is. Nigerians should not cry wolf where there is none.

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