Veteran journalist and former Minister of Information and Culture, Prince Tony Momoh, speaks on the state of the nation and his adventurous encounters with three former presidents, in this no holds barred interview with KATE ANI. Excerpts:
You were controversial with men of the press during your time as Minister of Information and Culture in the regime of former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, to the extent that Babangida yielded to press pressure and replaced you with Chief Alex Akinyele. Why did you think the press were tough on you at that time?
I was one of the longest serving ministers of information in the history of Nigeria before 1990, when I left. I was not dismissed. In the eight years of General Babangida’s tenure as military president, there were four ministers of information—Colonel Anthony Ukpo, Chief Alex Akinyele, Professor Sam Oyovbaire and myself. I, Tony Momoh, served for four years. I was one of four ministers the administration wanted to send to states they felt would be trouble spots as they planned their exit. These were Bendel (now Edo and Delta), Sokoto, Bauchi and Borno. I was to be sent to Bendel as deputy governor. My three colleagues were being sent to their states as deputy governors too. A hitch emerged when the Armed Forces Ruling Council revisited the proposal. The position of governor then was left for colonels and below and ministers were for ranks above colonel. How could ministers serve under governors? It was decided that permanent secretaries should take the positions and that was what happened. A few months after my disengagement, I was appointed chairman of the board of Nigeria Airways. Would someone ‘dismissed’ be so honoured?
The question of being controversial was one of the key areas of me trying to protect the media profession and other areas and agencies under my supervision — public relations, advertising, intellectual property and the rest of them. In other words, I did not want anybody to come into journalism to be a journalist without qualification. So, I organised a seminar to work on a communication policy. We invited leaders in the information management community — editors of the print and electronic media, all past ministers of information from T. O. S. Benson through Anthony Enahoro to Anthony Ukpo, all serving commissioners for information in the country, advertising and public relations agencies, and heads of departments of all media training institutions. We met at the Administrative Staff College of Nigeria (ASCON), Topo, Badagry. The outcome of the policy was the recommendation of two regulatory bodies for the media, a press council for the print media and a broadcasting commission for the electronic media. There were also proposals to professionalise advertising and public relations.
Our 1999 Constitution, which is a roadmap, has provisions for moderating different areas in the polity. For instance, chapter four deals with fundamental rights which the courts are to ensure that all agencies of government comply with and chapter two deals with the system’s fundamental duties which Nigerians say the media have a responsibility to monitor. Although the constitution does not guarantee freedom of the press, media managers have always insisted that the obligation to monitor governance and hold the government accountable to the people includes the right so to do. They have always argued for the professionalising of the media. So, anybody who wants to be in the media as a journalist must be trained to do so.
That was how the media council came in and a lot of my colleagues were opposed to it and I can say it today, those people were being funded by the security agencies, because the law provided that if, for instance, you go against the provision of the decree, you can be invited by the Press Council to give evidence. There was also provision for sending to prison those who claimed to be journalists when they were not qualified to practise. Some of my friends in the security told me I was opening the agency to be exposed if they detained any journalist as the council had power to invite anybody to testify before it. So, I make bold to say that those who were opposed to it were funded by the SSS for selfish reasons and if anybody comes out openly to deny this, I will name names. That I was controversial in that respect, this was what led to it. I wanted to protect the media and I protected advertising, public relations and the arts. I feel bad that my area of most interest was the one I could do nothing about. I feel bad, very bad, indeed.
What were your most memorable moments as a journalist?
One occasion was in 1976 when I was editor of the Daily Times and the press secretary to the then head of state came to me and said I should not use the story of the arrest of Dimka who had killed General Murtala Muhammed. I asked him why I should not use the story and he said General Theophilus Danjuma, who was the Chief of Army Staff, had said I shouldn’t use it. I asked why he wanted the story stopped. He said he was not told why. I told him that I would use the story if I did not know the reason I should not use it.
He later came back and said that Danjuma said that the reason the story should not be used was because Dimka had mentioned names of those involved in the assassination of Murtala Muhammed and he wanted to arrest those people before they had the opportunity to escape. I agreed not to use the story but on the condition that no other newspaper in the country must use the story and that if any newspaper did, he would never get my cooperation again. I then pulled out the story and went to Surulere, where I lived.
They called me around 2.00 a.m. saying we could go ahead and publish the story because all the people Dimka mentioned had been arrested. We were the first newspaper to break the story the following day.
That was one of my most memorable experiences and it tells a story, which is cooperation between those who govern and those who monitor governance. There should be a good relationship between the two. Nobody should feel superior to the other.
I must also mention this other memorable experience. It was when the head of state that time, General Olusegun Obasanjo, said Daily Times editors were not patriotic. I called the head of the National Security Organisation (NSO) that time, Brigadier-General Muhammed Abdullahi, and told him that I wanted to see Obasanjo. He arranged the meeting and Alhaji Alade Odunewu, who was the editor-in-chief of the Daily Times, said he would follow me. We went to Obasanjo’s office at Dodan Barracks, Lagos, which was the seat of power then. When we got there, Alhaji Odunewu was saying, ‘Your Excellency…’ and was being nice and Obasanjo said, ‘Alhaji, cut all that out. Tony, you said you wanted to see me and I told you to see my press secretary, but you refused. Now, what do you want? I have five minutes for you.’
I said ‘Sir, you said Daily Times editors were not patriotic…’ and he said ‘Yes, am I not entitled to my opinion?’ And I said to him, ‘Sir, you know that your opinion can send us to the gallows.’ He said, ‘Well, yes.’ I said, ‘Sir, I wanted to tell you that you are paid to be patriotic, I am not paid to be patriotic.’ He said, ‘What did you just say?’ Alhaji’s leg was searching for mine and hitting it warningly under the table. I repeated that I was not paid to be patriotic, unlike him; that we were all working together to ensure that the military left government for civilians to come in.
I stood up and said, ‘It is three minutes sir; you gave us five minutes…’ He shouted, ‘Sit down!’ We ended up talking for about one and a half hours. This brings out something because from there, a relationship blossomed between Obasanjo, the head of state and me, an editor. Editors went to Dodan Barracks regularly for briefing which was done by the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Major-General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua. He would brief us on what government was doing and at lunch time, Obasanjo would come down and join us with other generals for interactive session, which opened up communication lines with the government.
You were once a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Why did you decide to pitch your tent with the opposition to the extent of once being national chairman of the defunct Congress for Progressive Change (CPC)?
I was a foundation member of the PDP in 1998. I conducted the primary in Kano State that brought in Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso and I was director of media to Chief Alex Ekwueme’s campaign on the PDP’s platform in both 1999 and 2003 presidential elections. Because there seemed to be a deliberate marginalisation of those who were opposed to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and more importantly, because there seemed to be no forum for discussing ideas, I moved out of PDP. Later, my community met and discussed the polity and arrived at the conclusion that we should not put all our eggs in one basket. Some of our leaders should remain in the PDP and I should work with General Muhammadu Buhari, who had joined politics and wanted to contest the office of president on the ticket of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP).
That was how I joined Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign organisation. The Buhari Organsation (TBO) was a group of persons who believed that a person like Buhari should be the president of Nigeria because of his integrity and honesty. I later became a media director of the organisation. In 2010, someone called me and said they wanted me to contest the position of national chairman of CPC, Buhari’s party. Initially, I said no; that I was not interested; that I had a bad leg. I had been using a walking stick since I was shut by armed robbers in 1995.
Later, one of my friends called me and said, ‘Look, they said you should come and lead Buhari’s party and you said you had a bad leg. Did they ask you to come and play football?’ I later showed interest, contested and became the national chairman of CPC in January 2011.
In the presidential election of 2011, the young party pulled a highly impressive 12 million votes and we believe that the election was seriously rigged. We didn’t have even a councillor, member of the House of Assembly or National Assembly or governor. We later looked at the situation in the country and decided to do what had never been successfully done in Nigeria’s political history – merge. The merged parties, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), CPC and a faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) were more of regional than national parties, but now, we have a national party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which was registered by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on 31 July, 2013. Now, we have two main parties in Nigeria providing opportunity for the people to make a choice as to who governs them. We have packaged a party that represents the progressives and we expect it to bring together all those who share the same dreams. The PDP will remain the home and platform of the conservatives. The current movements from one party to the other will continue until those that are moving find comfort in the group they are at home with.
Why do you think some politicians who were previously in PDP are now leaving APC to rejoin PDP?
The movement is not in one direction. I just told you that the movement would be in both directions until people find the party in which they will be more at home. I told you earlier that we were sorting ourselves out. There is an opportunity now to choose where to belong. Defection is not over yet, many politicians will still move from one party to another. So, birds of the same feather will flock together in Nigeria’s political scene.
What is your take on people branding APC as the political wing of Boko Haram?
Well, Boko Haram started in 2002\2003, long before our party was registered and long before their leader was killed extrajudicially…
But some people also alleged that they (the APC) are the ones financing them?
Didn’t you hear what the Australian hostage negotiator for the release of the Chibok girls said about sponsors of Boko Haram? Did it not confirm the alarm President Goodluck Jonathan himself raised when he claimed that he ate and dined with Boko Haram people around him? A senator who was linked with the group, arrested and arraigned, what has happened since he said that everything he did was to the knowledge of the top echelon of the administration? Over time, three types of Boko Haram have been identified: religious Boko Haram, who said their leader was killed and that government should arrest those who killed him and bring them to book; political Boko Haram, those who said that the zonal arrangement of the PDP must be respected by the party or they would make the country ungovernable for breach of the arrangement; and criminal Boko Haram, that is, those who commit crimes and claim to be Boko Haram. I am not the author of this categorisation. A PDP top notch, Ango Abdullahi, is.
The one that I personally said we ought to negotiate with is the religious Boko Haram. The Federal Government should go and meet these people, apologise to them, pacify them, compensate them so that there will be peace. The solutions are simple, unfortunately, we have been playing politics with this matter, thinking of 2015 and now, it has gone viral. Now, al-Qaeda has taken over the operations of Boko Haram. Find out from those people the security people arrested, are they all Nigerians?
Do you think the Federal Government is doing enough to combat the security problem facing the country?
The Chibok thing is a very difficult situation. Security in Nigeria should be above politics. All of us, both members of the ruling and opposition parties, and all citizens of Nigeria must cooperate to ensure that there is security in Nigeria. Many mistakes were made when the Chibok girls were kidnapped. There seemed to have been confusion in the first two weeks when some people in high places thought it was a hoax. Now, we are burdened with a problem we find difficult to address. One thing I can tell you is that we cannot eat our cake and have it. The girls are not with us. They are with terrorists. If we refuse to negotiate, the girls will remain there, in harm’s way. If we want to use force, I can assure you that many will die and the president will never know peace because Nigerians will then ask why he had to use force. There are, of course, security challenges in other parts of the country – armed robberies, kidnappings, et al. We must all work together to secure this country.
How is your party gearing up for 2015 elections?
It was some time ago that we finished organising all the organs in our party. There are 14 organs in the APC constitutionally, from ward level to the convention. A few weeks ago, the national executive committee that was elected on June 14 was inaugurated. So, I can assure you now that all the organs are in place, the board of trustees, the caucus, the NEC, all the state, local government and ward executives. Very soon, you will see what we have for Nigerians.
PDP’s strategy is to stop APC. This is short-sighted in the extreme and will lead them nowhere. We have already hit the road running and very soon, Nigerians will discover that name-calling will willy-nilly give way to politics of issues. The parties must address issues, what they want to do for Nigerians and for which they ask for the people’s votes.
The billions and trillions of naira we have earned, where have we put them? Nigerians would want to know because government is all about security and welfare of the people. In a situation where the government cannot ensure the welfare of the citizens, then there is no government. We have never had it this bad since the Civil War. Even then, the denials and deprivations were localised. Now, you don’t see welfare and security as routine. People do not sleep with both eyes closed. Sharing of our national patrimony has become so entrenched that official corruption has become official. That is why we ask for change.
Where there is no welfare and security of the citizens as is now, we want an opportunity to provide welfare and security. Welfare and security are not dividends of democracy as is being trumpeted by those who should know better. They are expectations of governance. You are not doing the people any favour by providing welfare and security. You were given the vote to provide welfare and security. Democracy is a choice of a road to governance and the word ‘freedom’ defines it. There is no democracy where results are written up and announced and those thieves of the people’s freedom celebrate that they are in a democracy.
We want to provide the alternative. We will ensure that free, fair and transparent elections are guaranteed. In this current situation whereby they have the whole system militarised for the purpose of obstructing democracy, for the purpose of securing the interest of the PDP, all that must stop.
Dividend of democracy is freedom, and freedom is not given, it is taken. Nigerians now have the opportunity to take their freedom by ensuring that they register to vote; that their votes are counted and that their votes count. Their will must not continue to be compromised through corruption. We will tell Nigerians the worth of freedom; that they are the boss of all of us politicians, not our slaves.
You once said “we are not going to go to court, let us fight our election at the polling unit.” Don’t you think this kind of utterance could encourage people to be violent during elections?
If that would make their vote count, then let it be. You said I am controversial, I don’t deny my words. I said let us sit down and ensure that the democracy we want is the one practised all over the world. You cannot say that elections are free, fair and transparent when the results are written long before the routine of queuing to vote. Then, you push the figures through collation processes, then, announce them and tell those you have cheated to go to court. Nobody will accept that any longer. If Nigerians want to be enslaved, then, let’s be enslaved, but I know that we cannot be enslaved without our permission. Democracy has its own rules and those rules must be obeyed. People who are qualified to vote must be registered, they must be accredited, they must vote and after voting, the votes must be counted and the votes must count. When INEC declares the winner, whoever loses will congratulate the winner. We won’t allow some people manipulating the vote after Nigerians have queued under the sun or in the rain to cast their votes and after that, their votes don’t count and you want them to keep quiet. What does anybody mean by that?
Now, there is balance of power between PDP and APC. In all the 120,000 polling units in Nigeria, APC is there and we have registered millions of our members all over. So, a situation where somebody would want to take advantage of the weakness of a party in any particular area will not arise at all. We must ensure a level playing field.
It is believed in Nigerian politics that it is difficult to defeat an incumbent. Do you think APC will take over power in 2015?
Well, the question of taking over power, Nigerians will decide if we should. If Nigerians want PDP that has been in power for so many years without securing their lives, providing welfare, if that is what they want, then, the choice is theirs. If they are tired of PDP, like we believe they are, then, there must be change. Change is our slogan, nothing is permanent. Change is what Nigerians need, change is what we advocate and change is what we hope will come in 2015.
Professor Wole Soyinka once called your generation a wasted generation. How would you describe the current generation?
The fact is that a wasted generation is a generation that had opportunities but did not follow up or take advantage of them. The thing is, what are the opportunities we have now and how have we taken advantage of them? The time of Professor Soyinka’s generation was in the 1950s and 60s, before our independence in 1960. We had struggles with our colonial masters and after independence, the civil war came. So, if you look at all that happened during that period, brothers killing brothers, you can see how we wasted opportunities to grow our people and our country. We planted hatred where we should have nurtured love. Wasted opportunities cutting across people can be aptly described as a wasted generation because those young ones we would have brought up to make Nigeria what the world thought it would have become were diverted to fighting a war.
But now, with a vibrant and rampaging youthful population of more than 170 million struggling for every need and a clueless government unable to handle the situation, it would be mild, indeed, to describe this generation as a wasting generation. We must arrest the ‘waste’ through change.
You have worked with two former presidents, General Babangida and General Muhammadu Buhari. How easy did you find it switching from one to the other and between the two, who was the better person to work with and why?
When I was asked to be Minister of Information and Culture in General Babangida’s regime, I told Dr Tunji Olagunju, who was his Special Adviser, that they should not risk asking me to work with them. He told me they would take the risk; that they had read everything I had written since I joined the Daily Times in 1962. I told him that they should tell me what to do but not how to do it. That precisely is what happened. I expressed my views on all issues tabled in council, but defended the outcome whether I agreed with it in council or not. I liked General Babangida as a leader. He has fantastic communication skills, unbelievable knack for names and wide outreach of contacts. Throughout my tenure as minister, I arranged to meet him one-on-one on issues of import. He told me when I met him in Minna in October 1993 that truth became scarce after Jubril Aminu and I had left the council. Up to now, I defend the political and economic policies of the IBB administration. I promoted the SDP and NRC and wrote letters to my countrymen to explain the structural and economic policies of his administration. His unpopularity came after the annulment of the June 12 presidential election which Abiola won. I predicted this fate in a letter I wrote to General Sani Abacha on September 13, 1993, warning about what would happen to the IBB era if the annulment issue was not revisited.
My working with General Muhammadu Buhari was not initiated by him. As I have explained earlier, my community, the Auchi community of Edo State, met and decided not to put all their eggs in one basket, politically. I was, as I have said, a foundation member of the PDP and had to quit for reasons I have given. At the meeting, someone said that General Buhari had joined politics and recalled how a proposal had been sent from the community when he was chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). The people did not know him, they had nobody who did and had not gone to Abuja to plead. He had approved the proposal to work on 23 roads in the community, provide water for Auchi, Uzairue and South Ibie clans and work on the erosion which was eating up Auchi. I was asked to reach out to him and work for him so that if he assumed office as president, he would look in our direction. I did not like Buhari.
In 1984, when his regime promulgated Decree 4 which provided for punishing the publication of truth if such publication embarrassed the government, I had written that the law be ignored and disobeyed by journalists. And much later when he was reported as having said that Muslims should vote only for Muslims in elections, I had taken him to the cleaners in my column, Point of Order, in the Sunday Vanguard. With the biases I harboured, I wanted to know the man I was supposed to work with. I took two journalists with me to Abuja to confront the man. We were shocked when we discovered he had no house in Abuja. We spoke to him for five hours in his bedroom in a two-room service apartment which he had rented for a week. The outcome was a publication, Many Questions and Buhari’s Answers. Published in there are answers to questions people still ask about 53 suitcases, alleged missing N2.8 billion, the toppling of a democratically-elected government, the jailing of journalists under Decree 4, the execution of drug convicts under a back-dated decree, et al.
I have come to like immensely a man I once disliked with passion. He is honest and straight-forward. He is a recluse, always looking upwards to God to be the judge of everyone in whatever they do. He does not believe he can be deceived. He once wondered why he should not believe what he was told. ‘Chairman, why would someone tell me a lie when he should know that he is never alone, that God is watching?’ he once asked me. A gentleman wanted to provide a dozen buses for Buhari’s electioneering but wanted a promise to be given and Buhari refused to give any undertaking, saying he could not promise to give what did not belong to him. Can you beat this? That is the man I now have the privilege to work with, to work for. One thing I can say for him is, if he gets there, Nigeria’s patrimony will be protected to grow Nigeria, to grow Nigerians.
You asked me to compare the two and express my preference. The question does not arise. I served under a president, IBB. I am working for and with someone who wants to be president; two different people. When next you meet Professor Tam David-West, you can put the question to him because he had the privilege of having worked with the two in their capacities as heads of state.
Published in Nigerian Tribune, Saturday, 20th September, 2014.