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.
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.