By Beifoh Osewele and Eric Dumo
There are so many things one could accuse Col. Tony Nyiam (retd). But being loud would certainly not be one of them. Though brilliant, he is a man of few words. Until his involvement in the botched April 1990 against the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida, a man he said was his greatest benefactor in the Army, not many people outside the military, his circle of friends and family knew him.
Even today, apart from occasional fraternity with rights activist and media appearances now and then, Nyiam, still guides his privacy jealously. Not one to court publicity unduly, therefore, it was a bit surprising when he stepped into the newsroom last week. Before you could say anything, he reached into his bag and pulled out a copy of a book, True Federal Democracy or Awaiting Implosion? An aide-memoire for makers of the Nigerian Constitution. In the soon-to-be-launched publication, Nyiam identifies the avalanche of problems plaguing the nation as well as offer solutions.
In this interview, the retired military speaks on various issues including the state of the nation, the attempted coup, or action as he calls it, the craziest thing he did as a soldier among others. EXCERPT:
What have you been doing with your life since 1990?
I have done a number of things. Sometime, people forget that my background is quantity surveying; my first degree was in Quantity Surveying and building before I obtained a master’s degree in International Relations. I also have an interest in old properties. My second favourite city apart from Lagos is Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. It is a beautiful city with old Georgian buildings, which I love. So, I use to buy, do them up and sell or rent them out. That has been the major thing I have been doing since.
That presupposes that you have lived in the UK for some part of your life?
Oh, Yes! After I was commissioned, I spent about seven years in a stretch for my degree, articleship and also my master’s in the UK.
You took study leave from the Army?
The Army sponsored me. Of course, this is gratitude to General Olusegun Obasanjo. Immediately I was commissioned, I got admission to go to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and a chance to go to the UK with a colleague, Major-General Alfa to study. During my there, I was attached to the British Army where I did my young officer’s exams and all that.
Then you came back to Nigeria when?
I came back in 1980. It was actually around 1981 because I went back to defend my dissertation. I came back as a Major and then served in the same corps with General Obasanjo, engineers. We served in Ibadan and later, Jos.
What type of commander was General Obasanjo when you were under him?
He was a good commander. He was a good man who was ready to help. Himself with General T.Y Danjuma and General Ibrahim Babangida, strongly encouraged education in the army. General Obasanjo ensured that we all had the best education. In fact, I remember a colleague of ours who went to the UK and was distracted by the pleasures of London. It pained him a lot. When we were going, Obasanjo warned us against getting distracted. In fact, he wanted us to go with our fiancés so that we don’t get distracted. That was how he built the corp.
You once said that if anything at all, you benefited most from IBB…
Materially, how did you benefit from him?
First of all, when I worked with him and most times when I went on assignment abroad, he gave me extra money to be able to do the work well and the money was quite good money at the time that most times I save them. At one point, after about six to eight months, it amounted to about 40,000 pounds.
You didn’t think at that time that he was trying to buy your conscience?
How do I put it? You see, in the military we have what is called welfare. When you send an officer on an errand, you try to equip the officers to do the job well. That was what he did. I didn’t see it as being bribed.
There was no string attached?
You saw it as genuine love from General Babangida to you?
That is it.
A lot of people would readily remember that you moved against IBB in that famous coup. So, why did you move to bite the fingers that fed you?
I didn’t move against IBB. You see, God is the one who feeds us. We are all instruments of God. I can never move against the hand that God use to bless me. But when the instruments start playing demi-god, then the instrument has to be reminded as to who is God. In that circumstance, it doesn’t really matter who that persons is. It is true that God is far from us, but His virtues are all around us. What are the virtues? Truth, justice, fairness, equality. Once those are tampered with, then it behooves on a man to bring back that other man to keep these principles. This was what happened.
What role did you actually play in the coup that brought Babangida to power?
No role. I was an officer commanding a unit in Jos and under Buhari. I was commanding maintenance regiment.
There was no way they could have reached you?
There is a way a coup could be done and officers used without even knowing that they are in a coup, especially where the commanders are in charge.
They wouldn’t know that they are in a coup?
They can be used without necessarily knowing that they are in a coup.
How can that be possible?
Why not! If a commander comes and says mobilise, there is an emergency, I am going to move you to sort out something, you must obey.
We are told that the military has so changed that you obey only lawful order now, how true?
What are lawful orders? It is always in retrospect, and it is also who is in charge. All I can say, for example, General Buhari was not the initiator of that coup that brought him to power.
The late General Ibrahim Bako was the real initiator. This is the dignity Buhari commands…they felt he was the only man of integrity that could help them stabilize the situation. I am saying that Buhari is not the coup-plotting type. Prior to that coup, there was a Battalion Commanders’ conference in Jaji, which we were called, and the main architects of that coup came there to give talks. We didn’t know what they were up to, but we could see that they were telling us how bad things were and so on. General Bako, by extension is a friend of Babangida, so you can imagine. But I can say this, that just like Obasanjo is not the coup type, so is Buhari. Buhari, by his nature, is not a coup plotter. He is a man of integrity.
How many years did you work with Buhari for you to come to this conclusion?
I worked with him first when he was GOC in Ibadan. I was also posted to Jos and he was GOC while I was commander of his maintenance regiment. Before this time, when I was crossing over as a young boy from the military school in Biafra, I was captured in Ogoja, and taken to the late Michael Ani, who was the administrator of the Southeast. I was then taken back to the captain who was commanding the sector. Here was this tall, slim and very handsome Fulani officer. I met him and he arranged for me to rejoin my colleagues in the military school, Zaria. That was my first point of contact with General Buhari. The sense with which he worked, what we did in Ibadan and then when we were in Jos, are what endeared me to his principles.
In specific terms, what are these principles?
One, he is a man who is very transparent when it comes to handling finance. He is a very good Muslim, but he loves Christians. This is why people deliberately put that label on him that he is anti-Christian. When it wasn’t fashionable for Hausa officers to appoint their key staff, ADCs, to be non-Muslims, Buhari did.
Who was that?
He retired as Colonel Tom Okem. How did I know? He is from my area. Buhari did when it wasn’t fashionable. The key officer Buhari relied so much on was an ex-Biafran officer, Colonel Chris Ugokwe. He worked with him. Anybody who says Buhari is a religious extremist or tribalist is just not truthful. Integrity he has. Also, he is a man of God and a true Muslim, not the false Moslems who would use Islam for their own selfish ends.
Looking at the cover of your latest book, it is like you are saying that all is not well with this country?
We are on a cliff as it were. Nigeria is not healthy.
Are we sick unto death?
No, no, it’s remediable. Like I said, this book is driven by twin impulses, discontent and hopefulness. Nigeria is a country waiting to be redeemed and once that is done, it is going to be a great country. If you have lived abroad and see Nigerians, in anything they are given to do, they do it well. All you need is to create the enabling environment. The problems we are experiencing now were started by politicians in uniform. Of course, they handed them over to the politicians who have not given us a chance to have a breathe of fresh air as a result of their bad ruling.
So, can the set of politicians we have at the moment salvage the country?
The politicians are products of our society, so it is not an issue of saying this politician or that politician. The problem is our problem. It could be this man talking; am I truthful in what I say? Am I ready to make sacrifices? It is impossible to the extent that Nigerians themselves are not ready to ask for accountability. So, the question is, are we Nigerians ready to correct our elite as it has been done in Egypt? Egypt had one of the most entrenched elite groups over the years. In fact, some of the things the Egyptians did were what some people here wanted to do but overnight, the system was overturned by a few young boys who took up the task. So, our young boys, instead of being experts in kidnapping, should fight and get back their government. And it is not impossible.
How do they get back their government?
By insisting that there is free and fair election. By insisting that we do not use an illegal constitution that was imposed by military decree, that as human beings, we are governed by a constitution, which is owned by the people. And this is something that is easy to get if they are prepared to assert their rights.
Are you by any means canvassing an Arab Spring, for instance?
A violent revolution like we say in parts of North Africa?
No. I am for restoring the people’s rights to the people, and the right is the ability to determine who governs you. So, free and fair election is imperative. At the moment, the elections in Nigeria on the whole is about 70 per cent fraudulent and we pretend to ourselves that we are holding free and fair elections when we are not. Our census has consistently been fraudulent and we pretend as if we are having everything right. I am sure if we have a free and fair census, we might not be up to 120 million.
Are you saying we sexed up our figures?
Do you have any empirical proof to substantiate what you are saying?
I would think that when you check the last election, a state of the country, is supposedly had a number of population, but when you see those who really voted, you see that it is almost about a quarter of what was presumed to be the population. The last census was a sham, but I don’t want to say more than that or disclose other things. The issue is this, if you ask a United Nations body to take over census of Nigerians, you will be shocked at our number.
Is this your first book (referring to a book in front of Nyiam)?
I did a book some years ago called ‘Nigeria’s national question’.
What are these national questions that you people talk about?
Returning Nigeria back to a true federal constitution, for example, the 1960-1963 constitution.
Did you have to do that by going to do a coup? Why didn’t you just pull out of the army then and go into a political party and…?
Let me correct something here, I never planned a coup against an elected government. It was a coup against a military government.
An illegality to correct illegality?
It is not illegal. If today there is a military coup, it is every officer’s duty to topple that coup and restore back democracy. So, it was not a coup.
No apologies or regrets?
I have no regrets for standing up against any pseudo-military government. The only regrets which I have, and I have expressed them before, is that our actions were seen as if we were against certain ethnic groups. My point is that our problem is not a problem of ethnicity. I am from Boki in Cross-River State but it is not a problem of Boki against this, Igbo against this and that. Our problem is a problem of dealing with internal colonisers.
So, if you find yourself in the situation you found yourself in 1990, would you do it all over again?
Yes! If I find myself in a situation where there is a military government that has usurped the power that belongs to the Nigerian people, it is a duty for me to restore back democracy. So, it would ever remain a duty. It might sound interesting for anybody to think you can do a coup and do magic. You cannot succeed. Let the people determine who rule them. That is why you have the difference between India and Pakistan. India is a country that has carried on with all its mistakes in democracy and you can see how chaotic Pakistan where they have had autocratic governments and don’t practice federalism. In India, they practice the two. They are not perfect but at least they are moving forward.
So, it is better to make mistakes. The system has a self-correcting mechanism. I believe in democracy, but I hate fraudulent elections. They are as bad as military coups.
Do you think Nigeria would have been better than it is today if that 1990 coup had succeeded?
If the 1990 action…
You don’t call it coup?
No, I call it an action because a coup to me is toppling an elected government. The 1990 action, what were the things we wanted to achieve? First, proper census, which we have never had because from my point of view, all the census we have had are all fraudulent. The British taught us false census because they wanted to place one side above the other and we have carried on that practice.
Secondly, we wanted to restructure the country back to regions, to correct the mistakes that were not corrected during Aburi. That would have helped us out but we threw the Aburi Accord away. So, we wanted to restructure and have free and fair elections. If those three things were there, then things would have been better. Restore the true principles of true federalism and then Nigeria would be better again.
In a nutshell, what message are you trying to pass across in this your latest book?
What I am trying to communicate is that elections come and go, 2015 would come and go. The fundamental is that we need to have a constitution that is owned by Nigerian people, and that constitution, would be what would guide us. Constitution is so vital in the life of any country. In the absence of a constitution, there is no basis of people being together. So, it is not any surprising why we are beating about the bush. So, constitution is so vital and important.
As we speak, there is no constitution that the people of Nigeria determined. I am saying that we have elections; we go and vote then come back to square one, until we resolve this problem of allowing the people to form their own constitution.
If these things are not done as soon as possible, what are your fears?
It is not so much the country splitting apart, but there would be little splinter groups that would become so powerful that I fear that most middle class might be challenged by certain bodies, and that can lead to anarchy. Already, we see the signs. The kidnappings all over the place is one of the signs. The Boko Haram is another sign. So, we cannot just fold our arms and watch helplessly. Insecurity is becoming so bad and I fear that if we don’t get together and have this conference where we will discuss and try to restore ourselves to the principles, there would be trouble.
At the moment we have leaders who do not know that every process, everything, every event is guided by some principles. As you see in the book, I can stand as a human being. An animal cannot stand the way I would. Why? Because of the structure of my body. The structure of my body determines my standing on two legs while an animal has to stand on four legs. While I am not derogating animals, some of them can actually fly. I can’t fly. Again this is determined by their structure. So, these structures go to the issue of principles that determine why a bird can fly and I cannot fly. Principles are very vital. Once those principles are breached, there would be problem. If you have federalism and fiscal federalism is not there, you don’t have federalism.All I am saying is that we have to go back to the basics and be truthful otherwise we would be going round in a circle.
You have turned full circle from being a military man to an activist. Was it a very easy transition for you?
The Salvation Army says they are soldiers of Christ. I have always been a lover of defending the oppressed. And a true soldier’s loyalty is to the constitution. What is constitution? Constitution must come from the people. So, a true soldier really is loyal to the collective good of his people. That is what have been driving me, in that this country, Nigeria has done so well for me, gave me so much as a young officer, gave me everything. I never struggled as a young man. I went to secondary school, went to university abroad for seven years at government’s expense. I went at an age when my colleagues from Singapore, Malaysia in the university used to look up to Nigerians. Suddenly, I see them taking so many steps forward and we are going backward. And I know that Nigerians who were there were the most brilliant.
As a young man and student in the north, when I saw people from my region, the East, being killed, I was pained. So, it is all these that made me like this. I am hopeful that once the right people come into power things would change.
Does that mean that someday we are likely to see Colonel Nyiam running for an elective office?
Let me answer this by giving an indication of the people I admire and that would give you my dreams. I admire Beko Kuti. I prefer to keep to conscience and to learn to keep to conscience. I would rather be a Beko or Wole Soyinka than to be a president.