Buhari gave 2nd Republic politicians 150, 200 years jail terms to save them from ‘Rawlings’ treatment’ – Prince Tony Momoh
While they held sway at Nigeria;s tower of power, between December 31, 1983 (when they toppled the civilian administration of President Shehu Shagari, to August 27, 1985, when General Ibrahim Babangida smilingly pushed them out of power in a palace coup) they were like Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder and lightening. Their stare could melt many hearts of steel and send lily livered persons scampering for cover. They never smiled, at least in public. With their awe-inspiring epaulettes and stern looks, it was as if General Muhammadu Buhari, the then Military Head of State, and Babatunde Idiagbon, his deputy, never saw anything good coming out of Nigeria at that time. They were perpetually sad and mad at Nigeria, a country so blessed, yet so raped by politicians.
They were unsparing in their war against indiscipline. Their goons whipped sense into the bloody civilians to teach them how to queue for essential commodities and observe the etiquette of calmly waiting for their turns. They never left anyone in doubt that they were neither in for a tea party nor popularity contest. They were hell-bent on ridding the polity and the public service of endemic corruption, that, like a virulent cancer, had eaten almost every fibre of its being. In the process, they ruffled many nests and demystified so many prodigal politicians, and over-pampered Nigerians who were, hitherto, considered untouchable, herding many political office holders into the slammer.
Even journalists, custodians of the fourth estate of the realm, were not spared. Two Guardian journalists, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were tried under a press gag law, Decree 4, and jailed. Many Nigerians, especially, media practitioners, cried blue murder at the journalists’ travails. One of the topmost journalists that cried themselves hoarse against the duo’s trial and sentence was Tony Momoh, an Auchi Prince, the first graduate to edit Daily Times in its glorious days, an unrepentant advocate of best practices in journalism and media works, now an expert in media law.
Interestingly, Momoh, who celebrated his 70th birthday with pomp and who was information Minister under General Babangida, has now become a staunch advocate of a Buhari presidency. Having worked closely with the Daura, Katsina State-born former Head of State, during the latter’s campaign for president, Momoh has seen an interesting side of this man many Nigerians feel is too straight for the crooked politics and polity of Nigeria.
Momoh, who was still savouring his inauguration into the Septuagenarian Club during the week, spoke to The Spectator in his office. During the two-hour encounter, the quintessential journalist answered virtually all the questions under the sun. First, the cultural engineer sees no contradiction in Buhari, a former, widely feared dictator-turned politician. In fact, he insists that the Daura, Katsina State-born politician, dropped the autocratic garb of the military man a long time back and became a rare-breed democrat who involves people in his decision-making process, respecting the rights and liberties of individuals. In Momoh’s rating, Buhari qualifies as one of the best and most committed democrats to have lived on this shore.
Prince Momoh went down memory lane and reflected on the controversial long jail sentences that the Buhari regime dished to political office holders of the Second Republic. Beneficiaries of the lengthy jail sentences included former Governors Bola Ige (Old Oyo State), Chief Olabisi Onabanjo (Ogun State), Alhaji Barkin Zuwo (Old Kano State) and Professor Ambrose Alli (Old Bendel State) (all of them are now late). Prince Momoh defended his boss vigorously, explaining that General Buhari agreed to approve the outrageous sentences only after he had consulted widely and intensely with his colleagues in the Supreme Military Council. Momoh is not done in his defence yet. He states that the jail terms issue was Buhari’s delicate way of securing the lives of the politicians who would have got the “Rawlings’ treatment” if the younger and radical elements in the army had had the chance to “waste” them.
“Take for instance, the trials,” the former Information Minister continues, “we asked him questions, and he said he has not at any time been arbitrary. He only applied the rules in consultation with the Supreme Military Council. And it was Ibrahim Tahir, who was chairman of NITEL, that time, who spoke at Ladi Kwali Hall, Abuja Sheraton, at a public outing, that made a statement that gave me a hint of what happened as at that time. Buhari was not even there. Tahir said he owed his life to Buhari. He said that when that coup came, the younger officers said all those who had held political offices must be killed. You know the Rawlings’ method? He added that Buhari refused and said if that happened, he would resign his commission.Instead, he said, ‘Let them set up a tribunal that would identify those to be punished and they will be punished heavily.’ He said, ‘Okay, let’s see.” That’s when many politicians got 150 years, 200 years and so on and so forth, in order to pacify those who said they should kill them.
Buhari, according to Momoh, was also not privy to the embarrassment that put a blot on the image of his administration when soldiers invaded the residence of the late sage, Chief Olufemi Awolowo, and thoroughly searched the place, looking for incriminating documents. That sad episode was particularly seen as the handiwork of fifth columnists in that administration who did many things to discredit the Buhari/Idiagbon Regime.
Unfortunately, before the administration could get to grips with the antics of these fifth columnists, it was overthrown on August 27, 1985, by soldiers led by then Major General Ibrahim Babangida.
While he held office, Buhari worked closely with his deputy, General Tunde Idiagbon, in a way that kept many people wondering at the absence of rancour. Momoh, with the insight of an insider to the mind of the principal actor, explains that it was due to the democratic disposition of Buhari. “When he (Buhari) gives you work to do, you will do it and report to him,” he explains. “And it was the work he gave Idiagbon that Idiagbon did… He was not the only Head of State who had a deputy. He did not quarrel with his deputy. He worked with his deputy.
For instance (Commodore Ebitu) Ukiwe was there (under General Babangida) and for whatever reason, he was replaced. I don’t know if he (Buhari) would have fallen out with Idiagbon if they had stayed longer. But everybody always said Buhari and Idiagbon any time they refer to that administration. Just like they said Obasanjo and Murtala Mohammed.”
Apart from his stint as Head of States, Buhari was also chairman, Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF, under the General Sani Abacha regime. After leaving the PTF, he became the presidential candidate of the All Nigeria People’s Party, ANPP, in the 2003 and 2007 elections. It was on the political front that the paths of Buhari and Momoh crossed. It was also at that stage that the Auchi prince saw the democratic side of Buhari.
According to Momoh, “I am not a liar and I am not an exaggerator, but he (Buhari) is one of the most democratic people I have ever met. How do you know democracy? All of us would sit down and then he (Buhari) assigned duties to people. I was chairman of the Media Campaign Organisation of the ANPP Presidential Campaign Council, a person like Malu was in charge of security, a person like Shinkafi was in charge of finance. A person like Sule Hamma was Director General of the organization. Then the chairman was a person like Etiebet. That was in 2003.
“When we sit down to discuss and they give you your roles, anybody from the media who wanted to see him, he will tell him, ‘No, go and meet Momoh, and they must come through me. The most embarrassing thing is that if anybody wants to give him money, he will say, No, there is a committee that collects money. Go and give them the money and they will give you a receipt. Then we will all come back and everybody will report on his assignment. That is my idea of democracy. The man (Buhari) looks at the rules and applies them. If the rule affects his wife, his child or anybody, he will apply it equally. That is the man for you and that is the type of person I struggle to be like, someone who will look at a problem in the face and talk to it, tell it you are right, you are wrong.”
On why he took the decision to work for Buhari in the first place, Momoh went down memory lane. “You will not believe it.When he was in Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), Buhari endorsed 23 roads for Auchi.my town. He did the same for water for Auchi, South Ibie and Uzairue clans. And he did not know any Auchi man when he was in PTF. I was a foundation member of the PDP and while in the party, I worked for former Vice President Alex Ekwueme, between 1999 and 2003, as a media campaign director. But there were certain things I did not like such as undermining people and sidelining Ekwueme’s people.
“Then there was the very fact that nobody (in the party) liked ideas. I just disengaged and said I was not interested in any party anymore. Then my community said I should work with Buhari because of what he did for the community at the PTF even when he did not know anyone from there. There was a proposal and he just endorsed it. He was actually going to fund the projects when they scrapped PTF.
“My people then reasoned that if such a person can do that kind of thing without knowing them, then he is someone I should work with. But before I agreed to do so, I wrote a comprehensive letter to him on the perception of people and so on and so forth. And I said I would want to discuss with him.
“So, I took two journalists, whom I knew didn’t like Buhari. We went to Abuja and the first humbling experience we had was that we met him in a two bedroom apartment, not his personal house. We sat on his bed to interview him. He does not even have a house in Abuja.
“We did a book on the outcome of that interview, ‘Many Questions and Buhari’s Answers’. There were 49 questions in all – about the 53 suitcases, about harassing Awolowo, about voting for Hausa, Muslims and all sorts of questions. All those questions were answered comprehensively. “And I said to myself, this is a guy I can work for”, he says.
After working as the chairman, Media Committee of the Buhari Campaign Organisation, Momoh is more than ready to vouch for Buhari’s credentials as a politician with the ability to fix Nigeria’s many problems. While many recall the stern visage of Buhari as he herded Second Republic politicians into prison to serve long jail terms for offences ranging from economic mismanagement, widespread corruption to election fraud and a general lack of concern for the problems of Nigerians, Momoh remains convinced that, at this time of the nation’s development, only Buhari can “fix Nigeria”.
“Believe me, I am not playing politics,” he says seriously. ” I am a professional in politics. That man (Buhari) is good. I had a slogan then (as media coordinator to candidate Buhari), ‘To fix Nigeria, Pick Buhari’. That is the guy, in the circumstances in which we are, that can fix this country. And his programme was reduced to only three words — Security, Stability and Prosperity. Security is to secure Nigeria. Everybody must be safe in Nigeria. Stability is to stabilize Nigeria through development of infrastructures and creation of jobs. And then, prosperity will emerge.”
Interview by Shola Oshunkeye and Segun Fatuase in THE SPECTATOR, August 21-27, 2009, Page 40
(Full interview followed in subsequent editions of the Spectator)