Abdulsalam Muhammad
Alhaji  Yusuf Maitama Sule,  elder statesman, was Nigeria’s  permanent representative the the United Nations.  He became a minister in the First Republic. In this interview,  Sule speaks  on  the military putsch of 1966 which he says  halted the nation’s march to true nationhood. Excerpts:

Do you subscribe to the insinuation that Nigeria is a toddler at 50

One has to go into the past in order to situate the present and look forward. The purpose of history is not only  the past, but also the need to adjust the present and plan  for the future.

Maitama Sule ..."It is wrong to justify the action of the military boys in 1966"

Therefore, let us revisit the past. Let see how we started and where we are now, and we see how we can move forward. Yes,  Nigeria became independent 50 years ago, it was in 1952 that Chief Enahoro moved the independence  motion in the House of Representatives in Lagos.

That motion brought about  some kind of division between the northern  and the southern  members in the House. The northern members  amended the motion to read “as soon as it is practicable.” The argument was that there was not enough trained people  to  take over from the British if they left.

They wanted to have enough time to train their people to  take over from the British officers when they left. Of  course there was a lot of trouble, and we ended up with the  unfortunate crisis here in Kano. The interesting thing  was  the misunderstanding that brought about the crisis in Kano, the political leaders from all different political parties came together and agreed to plan and struggle for independence  collectively.

They started a constitutional conference here and in England and they ended  up with this decision  to grant self-government to the regions from 1957-1959, and independence  to Nigeria as whole in October 1960.

These founding father of ours  sank  their differences  and played up  national interest over  personal interest.  They put their differences and disagreements  behind their back.

They  fought for Nigeria’s independence  collectively. That is why I always say that  these  leaders went into politics to serve and not to be served; they were people  concerned  with the interests  of their own people, and their interests were only secondary. That is how we started.

At  independence, the prime minister wanted to form a national government. His argument was that a developing country like  Nigeria could not afford the luxury of extreme party politics. All  hands,  he said,  must be on the deck and we must all come together to move the country forward at least for some time. He did not achieve his wish.

He succeeded in forming a coalition government between NCNC and the NPC. The Action Group led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo was in opposition. While  Chief Awolowo refused to join the coalition government  and chose to remain the leader of the opposition, he was a responsible and a constructive leader of the opposition. His criticism was constructive and responsible.

On the other  hand, the government listened  constructively to the suggestions  of the opposition. The main interest then was Nigeria. They did  not see themselves as above public criticism. The leaders  laid a solid foundation  for this great country. We have the resources and we have the men.

The then leaders  tolerated one another  inspite  of their cultural and religious differences.  During the constitutional conference in London, one day, the premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, complained to Chief Obafemi Awolowo that one of his supporters saw him  twice  and he did not greet him.

Chief Awolowo did not say a word. Awolowo went round  looking  for the man, held him by the arm and dragged  him before the Sardauna and told him to kneel down and greet him, and warned him that when next such thing happened,  he would  not hesitate to dismiss him from his party.

Awolowo  declared that he was not  running a party of irresponsible people. I was a young minister at  independence, the leader of the opposition was Chief Awolowo. Every morning,  before any  sitting started, I would leave my seat, cross the carpet, kneel down and greet him in the presence of   members  and spectators in the gallery.

One day, the prime minister called me to his office and said, ‘ I have observed an unholy alliance between you and the chief’ , and I told him he taught me how to respect elders.  Zik had a difference with KO Mbadiwe that led to  his expulsion from the NCNC culminating in  the loss of his ministerial position.

The prime minister created an office for him, arguing that such a man of ideas  should be kept idle. The prime minister  reconciled the feuding personalities. One had expected that the prime minister would  exploit the division to the advantage of his own party.  He  did not do that because the interest of Nigeria was paramount in his mind.

This is how they kick started the project called Nigeria . People were proud to be Nigerians. The leaders were responsible, reliable and kind hearted.

How did we derail?

I think the first military intervention was unfortunate,  it constituted  a break to our march. People argued there was crisis, that law and order was at  peril.  Yes,  there was element of break down of law and order  but  were there no crises of similar dimensions  in the past?

There was crisis in 1957 culminating in the Kano riot, there was crisis triggered by census figures in 1957 but our leaders intervened  and resolved them. In 1964,  there was a controversial election, four  major political parties did not take part in that election, the NCNC, the Action Group, the NEPU and the MBC.

It was only the NPC and the newly formed NNDP of the late Akintola that  contested the election. NPC and NNDP  claimed they had  the majority and formed the government, and the others argued that there was no election and that no government would be formed.

That episode brought the country to the brink, and again some well-meaning Nigerian leaders like Sir Adetokunbo  Ademola  waded into the crisis, and resolved it amicably.

That effort by  Sir Adetokunbo brought  about the broad based government of 1964.

There was an attempt to resolve  the break down of law and order in Western Region as the prime minister was prepared to declare a state of emergency and appoint a sole administrator for the region after extensive consultations  with the stakeholders, but unfortunately he never had  the opportunity to address  the parliament. He was taken away that night and killed.

So, it is wrong to justify the action of the military boys in 1966, it  was totally unacceptable.

At  what point did politics of bitterness set in?

When  the military came in ,the politicians  went into their  shell  and  for a number of years the military were in power. When the military handed over power,  some of the military leaders had this sort of thinking that the new breed should be given a chance while some of them in 1978 supported some people to contest the presidential election.

Much later, the new breed arrangement became unofficial policy, and that was very wrong as they  forgot that it was yesterday that gave  birth  today. They seemed to forget that nature does not want a vacuum, that the whole generation is wrong, its unnatural, and this new breed idea is totally wrong , I never bought it.

The best organization in the world  is a combination of the old and the new. You need the maturity and the wisdom and the experience of the old as well as the dynamism and youthful exuberance , and this is the best organization. Look at President Obama.

On assumption office, the first set of appointees  he made were all old enough to be his father. I keep saying that new breed without old breed will breed greed. So long as somebody is healthy and physically fit and mentally alert,  he should be given a chance. When we started the country the region and at the centre  it was made up  of the old and the young.

In Lagos, the seat of the Federal Government,  Pa Ribadu, Festus Okotie-Eboh , Alhaji Inuwa Wada were fairly old people but the prime minister appointed Shehu Shagari, Usman Sarki, late Waziri Ibrahim, my humble self , they could have been our fathers;  it was a combination of the old and the young.

During the military regime, General Gowon became the head of state at a relatively young age, he was wise enough to invite the people that were old enough to be his father to serve the country. When this idea of  new breed came in,  it brought about a dud cheque in our march forward, it also brought about a lot of disaster in the polity.

In the past,  there was  respect for elders and constituted authority, honesty and a  host of other good virtues. What is happening today in the country is not in our character, insecurity in politics, chaos in politics, there is corruption and what is responsible for all these is bad leadership.

Any hope of seeing politics of ideology in Nigeria ?

Although I have painted the picture black, I am still optimistic.  I have a feeling that one day,  we will overcome.

What was your focal direction when in the  early 80s you aspired  to rule this country?

Only great leaders think of the country,  you must work hard to bring everybody together.  Sardauna was the premier, and Hausa Fulani. His grand father was a reformer, yet he was  able to knit together different ethnic groupings in the north by offering credible leadership, through justice and fairplay. Everyone looked  at himself as a northerner.

He never discriminated against anyone on the basis of  religion or tribe. He encouraged  people to realize their potentials. He was a just ruler.

If we had adopted the philosophy of our founding fathers, perhaps we would  have promoted unity among Nigerians.

What is the way forward?

Let us  put Nigeria first, and Nigeria before us, and let us agree that the interest of the country is above our personal interests, let us  stop politics of personality, let us practise politics of principle, discuss issues not attacking personalities; that way we leap forward, and let us keep praying that we may have good leaders.

What is  your dream for Nigeria in  the next 50 years?

I have a dream that inspite of all these things happening around us , we will overcome. I have a dream that Nigeria  will be united, peaceful and prosperous; I have a dream that Nigerians will regard one another as brothers and sisters; I have a dream peace and stability will remain supreme in this country; and I have a dream  Nigeria  will develop and march forward.

I have a dream that Nigeria sooner or later  will occupy its rightful place in the comity of nation; I have a dream we  will lead other countries in Africa, and lead the black race allover the world.

To achieve all these, we have to also pray for good leaders,  selfless leaders, leaders not rulers, leaders with the fear of  God, leaders that will not lie, leaders that accept in public what they have accepted in secret, leaders not looters, leaders who are honest, who will not steal, leaders who will look at the  common man with the  eyes of patriots, leaders who have fires in their bellies  but humanity in their hearts.

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