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Yomi Kazeem: Dear Reno Omokri… – The ScoopNG – The ScoopNG

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The burden of souvenirs, and the fear of coming home, By Zainab Usman – Premium Times Nigeria

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The Forgotten Documents Of The Nigerian Civil War By Odia Ofeimun

The Forgotten Documents Of The Nigerian Civil War By Odia Ofeimun

Odia Ofeimun
By Odia Ofeimun

The most comprehensive and almost cover-all organization of the documents of the Nigerian Civil War remains AHM Kirk-Greene’s CRISIS AND CONFLICT IN NIGERIA, A Documentary Sourcebook 1966-1970 Volume 1, and Volume 2, published by Oxford University Press London, New York and Ibadan in 1971. Volume One, according to the blurb, “describes the prelude to the war and the succession of coups from that of 15 January1966 which initially brought a military regime to power in Nigeria”.

The volume takes the story up to July 1967 when the war began. Volume Two covers July 1967 to January 1970, that is, between the beginning of hostilities, and when, as testified by the last entry in the volume, General Yakubu Gowon made a Victory broadcast, The Dawn of National Reconciliation,  on January 15, 1970. No other collection of civil war documents, to my knowledge, exists that compares with these two volumes. And none, as far as I know, has attempted to update or complement the publications so as to include or make public, other documents that are absent from Kirk-Greene’s yeoman’s job. Yet, as my title pointedly insists, there have been some truly ‘forgotten’ documents of the Nigerian Civil War which ought to be added and without which much of the history being narrated will continue to suffer gaps that empower enormous misinterpretations, if not falsehoods.

In my view, the most forgotten documents of the Nigerian civil war, which deserved to be, but were not included in the original compilation by Kirk-Greene –  are two. The first is the much talked-about, but never seen, Ifeajuna Manuscript. It was written by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the leader of the January 15 1966 Coup that opened the floodgates to other untoward events leading to the civil war. The author poured it all down in the “white hot heat” of the first few weeks after the failed adventure that ushered in the era of military regimes in Nigeria’s history. Not, as many would have wished, the story of how the five majors carried out the coup. It is more of an apologia, a statement of why they carried out the coup, and what they meant to achieve by it. It is still unpublished so many decades after it was written. The Manuscript had begun to circulate, very early, in what may now be seen as samizdat editions. They passed from hand to hand in photocopies, in an underground career that seemed fated to last forever until 1985 when retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, after his first coming as Head of State, quoted generously from it in his biography of his friend, Major Chukuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the man who, although not the leader of the coup, became its historical avatar and spokesperson. Indeed, Nzeogwu’s media interviews in the first 48 hours after the coup have remained the benchmark for praising or damning it. Ifeajuna’s testimony fell into the hands of the military authorities quite early and has been in limbo. Few Nigerians know about its existence. So many who know about it have been wondering why the manuscript has not seen the light of day.

The other document, the second most forgotten of the Nigerian Civil War, has had more luck than the Ifeajuna Manuscript. It happens to be the transcript of the famous meeting of May 6th and 7th 1967, held at Enugu, between Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Military Governor of Eastern Region, and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Leader of the Yoruba and an old political opponent of the leaders of the Eastern Region. Awolowo attended the meeting at the head of  a delegation of peace hunters in a bid to avert a shooting war after the pogrom against Easterners which presaged the counter-coup of July 29, 1966. The transcripts of the meeting, never publicly known to have existed, entered public discourse formally when a speech by Chief Obafemi Awolowo delivered on the first day of the meeting was published in a book, Path to Nigerian Greatness, edited by MCK Ajuluchuku, the Director for Research and Publicity of the Unity Party of Nigeria, in 1980. The speech seemed too much of a teaser. So it remained, until it was followed by  Awo on the Nigerian Civil War, edited by Bari Adedeji Salau in 1981, with a Foreword by the same MCK Ajuluchuku. The book went beyond the bit and snippet allowed in the earlier publication by accommodating the full transcripts of the two-day meeting. Not much was made of it by the media until it went out of print. Partly for this reason and because of  the limited number in circulation, the transcripts never entered recurrent discussions of the Nigerian civil war. The good thing is that, if only for the benefit of those who missed it before, the book has been reprinted. It was among twelve other books by Obafemi Awolowo re-launched by the African Press Ltd of Ibadan at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, in March 2007. Important to note is that among other speeches made by Awolowo, before during and after, on the Nigerian Civil War,  the transcripts are intact.

They reveal who said what between Chief Obafemi Awolowo, his Excellency Lt. Col. Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Sir Francis Ibiam, Chiefs Jereton Mariere, C.C. Mojekwu, JIG Onyia, Professors Eni Njoku, Samuel Aluko and Dr. Anezi Okoro, who attended the meeting. Unlike the Ifeajuna Manuscript, still in limbo, the transcripts are in respectable print and may be treated as public property or at least addressed as a feature of the public space.

I regard both documents as the most forgotten documents of the civil war because they have hardly been mentioned in public discourses in ways that recognize the gravity of their actual contents.  Or better to say,  they have been mentioned, only in passing,  in articles written for major Nigerian newspapers and magazines since the 70s, or parried on television, but only in figurative understatements by people who, for being able to do so, have appeared highly privileged. The privilege, grounded in the fact that they  remained unpublished, may have been partially debunked by the publications I have mentioned, but their impact on the discussions have not gone beyond the hyped references to them, and the innuendos and insinuations arising from  secessionist propaganda during the civil war. The core of the propaganda, which reverberated at the Christopher Okigbo International Conference at Harvard University in September, 2007, is that Awolowo promised that if the Igbos were allowed, by acts of commission or omission, to secede, he would take the Western Region out of Nigeria. In a sort of Goebellian stunt, many ex-Biafrans including high flying academics, intellectuals and publicists who should know better, write about it as if they do not know that the shooting war ended in 1970. What Awolowo is supposed to have discussed with Ojukwu before the shooting war has been turned into an issue for post-war propaganda even more unrestrained than in the days of the shooting war. The propaganda of the war has been dutifully regurgitated by a Minister of the Federal Republic, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, twice on loan to the Federal Government of Nigerian from the World Bank, in the book, Achebe: Teacher of Light(Africa World Press, Inc,2003) co-authored with Tijan M. Sallah. They write: “The Igbos had made the secessionist move with the promise from Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the Southwest that the Yoruba would follow suit. The plan was if the southeast and southwest broke away from the Nigerian federal union, the federal government would not be able to fight a war on two fronts. Awolowo, however, failed to honour his pledge, and the secession proved a nightmare for the Igbos. Awolowo in fact became the Minister of finance of the federal government during the civil war.” (p.90).

Forty years after the civil war, you would expect that some formal, academic decorum would be brought into play to sift mere folklore and propaganda from genuine history. But not so for those who do not care about the consequences of the falsehoods that they trade. They continue to pump myths that treat their own people as cannon fodder in their elite search for visibility, meal  tickets and upward mobility in the Nigerian spoils system. Rather than lower the frenzy of war-time ‘huge lies’ that were crafted for the purpose of shoring up combat morale, they increase the tempo. I mean: postwar reconstruction should normally forge the necessity for returnees from the war to accede to normal life rather than lose their everyday good sense in contemplation of events that never happened or pursuing enemies who were never there. Better, it ought to be expected, for those who must apportion blame and exact responsibility, to work at a dogged sifting of fact from fiction, relieving the innocent of life-threatening charges, in the manner of the Jews who, after the Second World War sought to establish who were responsible for the pogroms before they pressed implacable charges. Unfortunately, 40 years does not seem to have been enough in the Nigerian case. Those who organized the pogrom are lionized as patriots by champions of the Biafran cause. Those who sought lasting answers away from blind rampage are demonized as villains. The rest of us are all left  mired in the ghastly incomprehension that led to the war. Those for whom the civil war was not a lived, but a narrated experience, are made to re-experience it as  nightmare, showing how much of an effort of mind needs to be made to strip the past of sheer mush. As it happens, every such effort continues to be waylaid by the sheerness of war propaganda that has been turned into post-war authoritative history. It is often offered by participants in the war who, like Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu himself, will not give up civil war reflexes that ruined millions.

In an interview in Boston on July 9th 2001, Ojukwu told a questioner: “We’ve said this over and over again, so many times, and people don’t understand: they don’t want to actually. If you remember, I released Awolowo from jail. Even that, some people are beginning to contest as well. Awo was in jail in Calabar. Gowon knows and the whole of the federal establishment knows that at no point was Gowon in charge of the East. The East took orders from me. Now, how could Gowon have released Awolowo who was in Calabar?

Because the fact that I released him, it created quite a lot of rapport between Awo and myself, and I know that before he went back to Ikenne, I set up a hotline between Ikenne and my bedroom in Enugu.  He tried, like an elder statesman to find a solution. Awolowo is a funny one. Don’t forget that the political purpose of the coup, the Ifeajuna coup that began all this, was to hand power over to Awo. We young men respect him a great deal. He was a hero. I thought he was a hero and certainly I received him when I was governor. We talked and he was very vehement when he saw our complaints and he said that if the Igbos were forced out by Nigeria that he would take the Yorubas out also. I don’t know what anybody makes of that statement but it is simple. Whether he did or didn’t , it is too late. There is nothing you can do about it. So, he said this and I must have made some appropriate responses too. But it didn’t quite work out the way that we both thought. Awolowo, evidently, had a constant review of the Yoruba situation and took different path.

That’s it. I don’t blame him for it. I have never done”. This was quoted in Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo’s article, reporting the Okigbo International Conference, on page 102 of The GUARDIAN, Monday, October 1, 2007. Quite an interesting one for anyone who wishes to appreciate the folkloric dimensions that mis-led many who listened to Radio Biafra or have followed the post-war attempts to win the war in retrospect instead of preparing the survivors, on both sides of the war, to confront the reality that mauled them and could maul them again unless they shape up.

Against Ojukwu’s self-expiatory remarks, it is of interest to read Hilary Njoku, the head of the Biafran army at the start of the war. In his war memoirs,  A tragedy without heroes, he declares that the meeting between Obafemi Awolowo and Ojukwu had nothing to do with the decision to announce secession.  Njoku writes that: “…most progressive Nigerians, even before him, saw ‘Biafra’ as a movement, an egalitarian philosophy to put Nigeria in order, a Nigeria where no tribe is considered superior to the others forever…….It was the same Biafran spirit which led Chief Awolowo to declare publicly that if the Eastern Region was pushed out of Nigeria, then the Western Region would follow suit. When Ojukwu moved too fast recklessly in his ostrich strategy, the same Chief Awolowo led a delegation of Western and some Midwestern leaders to Enugu on 6th May, 1967 and pleaded with Ojukwu not to secede, reminding him that the Western Region was not militarily ready to follow suit in view of the weaknesses of the Western Command of the Nigerian Army and the dominant position of the Northern troops in the West. Ojukwu turned a deaf ear to this advice maybe because of his wrong concept”.(p.141)

Anyone wishing to, or refusing to, take Ojukwu’s word for it may do worse than read what I am calling the forgotten documents. I am of the view that there are immovable grounds for refusing to take Ojukwu’s word on faith.  Or, may be, faith would be excusable if one has not read the transcripts of the Enugu meeting in addition to the mileage of information provided by many post-civil war narrations since Alexander A. Madiebo’s opener, The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. What seems to be unknown to hagiographers of the civil war is that the meeting about which they have told so much was actually documented.

The transcripts of the meeting are no longer secrets. They have been in the open for more three decades,  providing a basis for recasting the seduction of the propaganda which pictured the meeting as a secret one with participants being the only ones who could vouch for what was or was not said. Arguably, dependence on sheer memory, living in a folklorist’s paradise, may well have enabled all and sundry to feel free to mis-describe what transpired, to build an industry of deliberate falsification, leaving common everyday information to be whispered about as to their earth-shaking impact, as if a loud comment on them would bring the sky down. Indeed, it can be imagined how the old propaganda lines about what happened at the Enugu meeting helped to shore up morale on the secessionist side during the civil war while, on the Federal side, absolute silence or ‘rogue’ mis-use and abuse of their supposed truth-value, powered official indifference, somersaults and snide reviews, in speech and action. Since  there are many on both sides of the civil war who have had rationales for not letting the whole truth survive, it may be seen as quite convenient to have found a man like Awolowo, too much of a thorn in the flesh of many, as a necessary scapegoat. It explains why no proper history of the Nigerian Civil War is to be found which looks with dispassion at the issues and without contrived gaps. Few, without the benefit of the light that the two forgotten documents bring to bear on the issues, have been able to interrogate the purveyors of the falsehoods – the big men who did not know the truth but have had to say something authoritative about it; or those who know it but have had reasons, personal and public, for not vouchsafing it.  Besides, there exists a gaggle of revisionists and post-war hackers who do not want the truth to be known because it hurts their pride as inheritors of the falsehoods. They prefer, through a brazen parroting of unfounded folklore, to swindle generations that, as a result, have become unavailable for  the building of genuine nation-sense that can accommodate all Nigerians.  So over-powering has been their impact that logically impossible and groundless historical scenarios, deserving of contempt by all rational people, are trussed up and served as staple. I believe that given such poor historical accounting, the benign, intelligent, form of amnesia that, after a civil war, helps people to deal with the reality, has been repressed by voluble folklore.

Therefore, let me make a clean breast of it: my one great rationale for wanting to see the documents ‘outed’  is to help shore up nation-sense among Nigerians by rupturing the culture of falsehoods and silences that have exercised undue hegemony over the issues. I take it as part of a necessary revolt against all the shenanigans of national coyness and the culture of unspoken taboos that have beclouded and ruined national discourse. What primes this revolt is, first and foremost, the thought of what could have happened if the forgotten documents had seen the light of day at the right time. How easy, for instance, would it have been to stamp the January 15, 1966 Coup as being merely an Igbo Coup if it was known that the original five majors who planned and executed it were minded to release Awolowo from Calabar Prison and to make him their leader – as the Ifeajuna Manuscript vouchsafed in the first few weeks of the coup before the testimonies that came after? What factors –  ethnic frigidity, ideological insipidity or plain sloppy dithering could it have been that frustrated the coup-maker’s idealistic  exercise since they were not even pushing for direct seizure of power?  I concede that knowing this may not have completely erased the ethnic and regionalist motivations and overlays grafted by later events.  But it could have slowed down the wild harmattan fire of dissension that soon engulfed the initial salutary reception of the coup. Were the truth known early enough, it could have obviated many of the sad and untoward insinuations, and the grisly events to which they led,  before during and since the civil war. At the worst, it could have changed, if not the course of Nigeria’s history, at least, the manner of assessing that history and therefore the tendency for much  civic behaviour to derive from mere myths and fictional engagements.

To say this, I admit, is to make a very big claim! It suggests that the  problems  of nation-building in Nigeria would have been either solved, ameliorated or their nature changed rather dramatically if  these documents had come alive when they were most needed. This claim curry’s sensation. It casts me, who can make it, in rather un-fanciful light in the sense of putting an onerous  responsibility on me to explain how come the manuscripts were not made public when they should have had the implied impact. And what role I have played in their seeing or not seeing the light of day! This was actually what was demanded by a writer in The Sun newspapers in  2007 who argued that only I had claimed in public to know about the existence of the Ifeajuna manuscript and only President Olusegun Obasanjo by quoting generously from it in his book , Nzeogwu, had proved that he, among the well-placed,  knew about and could rely on the document. The writer had threatened that if President Obasanjo would not release the documents, I owed a responsibility to do so.

I wish to be upfront with it: that  what has been known about the documents in Nigeria’s public space largely surfaced as a result of decisions I had taken at one time or the other. As Bari Salau points out in his own preface to Awo on the Nigerian civil war, I was active in turning the Enugu transcripts into public property.  I should add that I was later responsible for the outings that the Ifeajuna Manuscript had, whether in Obasanjo’s book or in newspaper wrangles in the past two decades.  Almost ritually, I  drew attention to the forgotten documents in my newspaper columns as Chairman of the Editorial Board of the now defunct Tempo magazine and in interviews granted to other print media and television houses. During the struggle over the annulment of the June 12 1993 elections, I placed enormous weight on the evidence of the manuscripts in attempting to correct some of what I regarded as the fictions of Nigeria’s history. All the while, I found myself in a quandary however because I based my arguments on documents that were not public property.

They were like mystery documents that I seemed to be pulling out of my fez cap to mesmerize those who were not as privileged as I was. All the effort I had made did not appear sufficient or proficient enough to relieve me of the obligation to complete the circle of their full conversion into public property. It has been quite bothersome to see that the issues they contain remain ever heated and on the boil. They are issues that have stood in the way of due and necessary cooperation between Nigerians from different parts of the country. I happen to know that in some quarters, merely to mention knowledge of the existence of the documents is viewed as raking and scratching the wounds of the civil war.

It is a preference, it seems, for the murky half-truths and out-rightly contrived lies, much of them horrid residues of war propaganda, that have mauled our public space and ruined civic projects so irremediably since the war. Yet so insistent are the issues, so  inexorable in everyday political discussions, so decisive in the sentiments expressed  across regional and ethnic lines, that to continue to let them fester in limbo is to be guilty of something close to intellectual treason.

To meet the challenge of the propaganda, it has become necessary, in my view, to provide a natural history of the documents, first, as a performance in genealogies, to audit the processes through which the documents passed in order to arrive at where they are. I consider this important so that those who may wish to dispute their veracity can do so with fuller knowledge of  their odyssey. I am minded to distinguish between offending the sensitivities of those who shore up the myth of we never make mistakes, and others who simply wish for bygones to be bygones. As against  bygoners, I think a  country is unfortunate and ill-served when it carries a pernicious history on her back that has been garnished by rumour peddlers and fiction-mongers who may or may not derive any benefits from traducing the truth but have been too committed to a line that makes looking the truth in the face unappealing. To keep silent, or to shelve a corrective, in the face of such traducers, is almost churlish. It is certainly not enough to break the silence by outing the forgotten documents.  The way to begin to discharge the responsibility is to narrate how I came to know about and have followed the career of the two documents.

To begin with, it was in Ruth First’s book, Barrel of a Gun, that I first encountered hints about the existence of the Ifeajuna Manuscript. Ruth First was one of the most daring of the instant historians who took on the writing of post-independence Africa as the continent began to be mauled by those whom Ali Mazrui would describe as the militariat and who operated on an ethic that Wole Soyinka has described as the divine right of the gun. She, who was so determined to uncover the  roots of  the violence that was overtaking African politics, was fated to die later through a parcel bomb sent by dirty jobbers of her native Apartheid South Africa. Her narrative took on the insidious goings on behind the scenes in several coups across Africa at a time when the issues, participants and sites were still hazy. It was like looking ahead to a future that a free South Africa needed to avoid. In  a way, it prepared me to pay attention to the footnote to line 16 of JP Clark’s  poem, ‘Return Home’ in his collection, Casualties, published in 1970. In the footnote, JP wrote:  “A number of papers. Major Ifeajuna left with me on the night of our arrival at Ikeja the manuscript of his account of the coup, which after due editing was rejected by the publishers as early as May 1966 because it was a nut without the kernel”.

This footnote made him post-facto accessory to the coup as he could have been charged by one later-day military dictator down the road.  But how  did the manuscripts get to be handed over to JP? Which publishers rejected the manuscript? This was left to the grind of the rumour mill for decades. Nothing more authoritative on what happened came from JP Clark until twenty years later when in his Nigerian National Order of Merit Award lecture of December 5, 2001, serialized in the Guardian between 10th and 14th December 2001, he filled in a few more gaps. He said: “My main encounter with the military , however, was played off stage many years before that. In Casualties, my account in poetry of the Nigerian Civil War, so much misunderstood by my Ibo readers and their friends in quotes, I said at the time that I came so close to the events of 15 January 1966 that I was taken in for interrogation. Shinkafi was the officer, all professional, but very polite. Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna had given me his account of the coup to edit and arrange publication. The authorities thought I had it then in my custody”. JP does not quite say how the authorities knew. Or show that they knew where he kept it.

My first inkling of what happened, regarding the Ifeajuna Manuscript, came to me as a result of a quirk in my biography that made me write a poem, The Poet Lied, which pitched me into the maw of an unwitting controversy on the wrong side of JP Clark. The Poet Lied, was part-response to the Nigerian crisis and civil war  dealing with a segment of the political class,  all those, including writers, politicians, religious leaders and soldiers –  who were in a position to change the images and symbols by which we interpreted our lives  but who flunked their roles during the civil war. JP Clark was riled by the poetic imputations, convinced that, as the poet agrees but not the poem, he was the one, or among the ones, satirized. He importuned my publishers, also his own publishers, Longman  UK, to withdraw the collection from the market. Or face dire consequences! It was in the course of negotiating with the publishers, between the UK office and the Nigerian branch, how not to withdraw the manuscript from the market that I ran into stories of how one manuscript proffered  by JP Clark had brought so much trouble to them two decades earlier. From bits and snippets in informal conversations, here and there, I got to know more about the Ifeajuna Manuscript which JP Clark sent to them to publish. As I gathered, the Longman office in Nigeria had sent the manuscript to Longman UK where it was seen as being too hot to handle. The multi-national, doing good business in Nigeria, did not want to antagonize a military dictatorship that had just come to power. The UK office therefore sent the manuscript to the Nigerian High commission office in London to find out if the manuscript would pass something of a civility test. The new High Commissioner to Britain happened to be Brigadier Ogundipe who had only just survived the counter coup of July 29, 1966 and had escaped to London. He was easily the most senior officer in the Nigerian Army and should rightly have become Head of State if it depended on seniority. Having just avoided untoward consequences for being so prominent, was he in a position to accede to the request? Brigadier Ogundipe simply caused the manuscript to be sent home to the authorities in Lagos. Zealously, the authorities marched on the Longman office in Ikeja and arrested the executives who had sent the manuscripts to the UK for publication. JP Clark, who brought the manuscript, could not be reached. Or so the Longman executives reported. But the military authorities knew what to do. As JP Clark would have it in his lecture: “An interesting development from my visit to the then Special Branch of the Nigeria Police Force at Force Headquarters was that my late friend, Aminu Abdulahi, fresh from assignments in London and Nairobi, moved in from his cousin, M.D. Yusufu, to live with me for a year and keep an eye on me. I have never discussed the matter with our inimitable master spy-catcher of those days. Some years later, he gave me the good advice that the state does not mind what a writer scribbles about it as long as he does not go on to put his words into action.

As for the manuscript: “I have often wondered over the years what became of this manuscript that I kept at one time in a baby’s cot. When the publisher Longman chickened out of the project, I handed it over to a brother-in-law of  Ifeajuna’s to take home to his wife, Rose. I found portions of it later reproduced in General Olusegun Obasanjo’s biography of Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu”

JP rounds out his narrative thus: “My purpose of letting you into all this is to help fill in a few details left out in the history of military intervention in Nigeria. Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna is made the villain, while Major Chukuma Nzeogwu  is the hero. The portraits are not that black and white and far apart. They both killed their superior officers and a number of key political leaders in the country in a common cause. So where lies the difference? Where the distinction? I have always found it difficult to understand why one is made out a villain and the other a hero”.

“After the events of the momentous day broke upon us all, and Major Ifeajuna was reported to have fled to Ghana, Major General Aguiyi Ironsi wanted to have him back as he had Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, Chris Okigbo was given the letter to take to President Kwame Nkrumah. But he needed company, someone who shared influential literary friends with him in Accra, but more importantly, someone who could add his voice to persuade Ifeajuna to come home and assume responsibility for his action. We knew the dangers of our assignment. ‘JP, I cant bear a pin prick’, Chris had laughed. Yet, when war came, he was  to take up arms and die for a new cause. Chris had in fact driven Emman, disguised as a girl, from Ibadan to the then Dahomey border, after he found his way back from Enugu a defeated man”.

JP Clark does not say that he was in that party but readers of Soyinka’s  memoirs YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN,  would find on page 286-287 of the Nigerian edition, the following: “JP, I always suspected, did have a first-hand knowledge, albeit vague, of the very first coup de’tat of 1966. With Christopher Okigbo, he had accompanied one of the principals  Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna  across the border, the latter in female disguise. JP turned back at the border while Christopher  crossed over to the Republic of Benin (then Dahomey) taking charge of Ifeajuna who was by then virtually an emotional wreck, haunted  Christopher related  by images of bloodstreams cascading from his dying victims, his superior officers, none of whom was a stranger to him”. Soyinka adds: “JP brought back with him the manuscript of Ifeajuna’s account of the coup, hurriedly put together during this period of hiding by that young major and former athlete  he was one of the four who set a joint 6’6 record in high jump at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, 1956. Knowledge of the existence of the manuscript set off a wild hunt by Gowon’s Military Intelligence, desperate for an authentic, first-hand account of those who had plotted the ’66 coup, who had done the killings, what civilians, especially politicians, had prior knowledge or had collaborated in the putsch. For a while JP Clark was deemed a security risk. So were his publishers, Longmans, whose editors at one time or the other held the explosive manuscript in their possession, debating the wisdom of releasing its contents into the market”.

JP’s account in his National Merit Award lecture unpacks the mystery further. He writes: “We took two trips to Accra by air, the first was a full meeting with Ifeajuna, the second to give his host government time to arrange for evacuation, while he wrote up the defence he would have given at his court-martial in Lagos. We just made it back before Ghana, too, fell to the military. I still wonder what effect the example of Nigeria had upon them. Nkrumah for all his revolutionary fervour , did not know what to do with Major Ifeajuna. He, therefore sent him to his army for debriefing, and they advised the president against giving him the airplane he asked for to return to Lagos to finish his operation.

JP continues: “The man could not understand what had happened in Nigeria, Ifeajuna, told us. So he packed off his unexpected guest to Winneba to be with his compatriots, SG. Ikoku and Dr. Bankole Akpata. With both these ideologues, our stay with Ifeajuna became one running seminar. What became clear was that it was not the Nigerian Army that seized power on January 15, 1966. It was a faction of it, racing against another to secure power for the political alliance of their choice. This group was for UPGA. It beat the other one to the gun, the faction in full support of the governing NNA alliance. That Ifeajuna said, explained the pattern of targets and killings”.

JP Clark said he had asked Ifeajuna at Accra: “Did the General know about your plan?”

“Well, not really, I was just a Brigade Major, and you don’t always get that close to a General. But I remember on some of those briefings on the situation in the West , when I said it couldn’t go on forever like that, he growled that we junior officers should not go and start anything foolish”.

“And the President away on his Caribbean cruise”

But you know the politicians were all wooing the army” he said, “Our plan was to bring Chief Awolowo out of jail in Calabar to head our government and break up the country into more states to make for a true federation”.

I have taken the pains to be over-generous with these quotes because they provide an interesting preface to Chinua Achebe’s take on it.  As narrated by Ezenwa Ohaeto, Achebe’s biographer, the Ifeajuna manuscript was one of those which came to Citadel Press, the wartime outfit that Christopher Okigbo suggested that they set up. Achebe had said: “…well, you set it up, you know about it, and I’ll join. He said, You’ll be chairman and I’ll be Managing Director, so the Citadel Press was formed. The name came from the idea of the fortress  you flee from a foreign land, in danger, and return home to your citadel”.

Christopher Okigbo avidly solicited manuscripts for the publishing house. As Ohaeto writes: “Okigbo also brought another manuscript to Citadel Press which was from Emmanuel Ifeajuna, one of the plotters of the 15 January 1966 coup. The manuscript was Ifeajuna’s story of the coup and he gave it to Okigbo who enthusiastically passed it on to Achebe after reading it. It was a work that Achebe considered important so he also read it immediately. But he discovered that there were flaws in the story. He criticized it for two reasons: It seemed to me to be self-serving. Emmanuel was attempting a story in which he was a centre and everybody else was marginal. So  he was the star of the thing. I did not know what they did or did not but reading his account in the manuscript, I thought that the author was painting himself as a hero”.

“The other reason was quite serious, as Achebe explains: ‘…. within the story itself there were contradictions’. Achebe told Okigbo that it was not a reliable and honest account of what happened. As an example, he cited Ifeajuna’s description of the coup plotters at their first meeting in a man’s chalet in a catering guest house. The plotters are coming into the chalet late in the night and Ifeajuna describes the room as being in darkness since they are keen not to arouse suspicion. They all assemble and Ifeajuna claims that he stood up and addressed them while watching their faces and noting their reactions. Since it is supposed to be dark, Achebe regarded that description as dubious. Okigbo laughed and remarked that Ifeajuna was probably being lyrical. Some days after that conversation, Okigbo came to Achebe and told him that Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu had asked him: ‘I hear you and Achebe are going to publish Emma’s lies?’. That comment by Nzeogwu, a principal actor in the January coup, confirmed that the manuscript was unreliable.’

Times were to turn disastrous for many of those actors before the end of 1967. In later years, Achebe reflected that he might have made a different decision if he had known what lay ahead for Ifeajuna, Okigbo and Nzeogwu. He added, however, that even if the manuscript had been accepted by Citadel Press, it would not have been published, because the publishing house was destroyed at the same time as these three men when the war moved closer”.

There are reasons to believe that the Citadel encounter was not the first in which Chinua Achebe was rejecting the document. The relationship between Christopher Okigbo and Chinua Achebe was at all times during this period so close that it is not conceivable that Okigbo could have failed to brief him about the dynamite that JP brought from Ifeajuna. Besides, as Editorial Adviser to Heinemann, Achebe was sufficiently close to the publishing mill and the burgeoning literati not to have heard about the manuscript. Arguably, it is unlikely that Chinua Achebe was seeing the manuscript for the first time in Biafra. He was too much in the same circles with Okigbo in his many schemes and with JP Clark at the University of Lagos, not to  have been aware of the document that Okigbo and JP Clark brought with Ifeajuna from Accra. However, whenever it was that Chinua Achebe saw the manuscript, the issue is whether his editorial judgment had anything to do with the document not seeing the light of day.

What is known of it from his biographer’s narration does not make Achebe culpable. Achebe’s position on the manuscript could still be faulted  however on the grounds that even an unreliable story told by a major actor in an event of such earth-shaking proportions in the history of a young nation-state, deserved to be known. How many stories of the civil war today are without the self-serving disposition of their narrators? Talking about unreliability, Chinua Achebe may have been reading the manuscript from what he knew of Ifeajuna’s famed capacity for not standing, in his college days, by what he had done, as even JP, his finest defender has narrated. Or, perhaps, there were things those great writers did not tell themselves even in their closeness. For instance JP. Clark is reported by Ohaeto to have exclaimed after reading the advance copy of Achebe’s A man of the people : ‘Chinua, I know you are a prophet. Everything in this book has happened except a military coup’.  There is no way of knowing, until their memoirs, whether either of them was aware of the rumour, soon  entrenched by later events, that  Nnamdi Azikiwe had been sounded out by Igbo officers, Ojukwu specifically, on carrying out a coup during the 1964 election crisis.  Azikiwe  had refused. That rumour is in the same class as the other one: that, tipped off by Ifeajuna before the January 15, 1966 coup, Zik went on a health cruise in the Carribbean under the auspices of Haiti’s Papa Doc, an old schoolmate. All the same, if  Chinua Achebe did not know about the rumour, he certainly was well placed enough to have known that Nnamdi Azikiwe had refused to call on Balewa to form a Government in 1964 because the election was rigged. Azikiwe had written a long speech, published in an early edition of his newspaper, theWest African Pilot, explaining why he would not call on the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, to form a government. And then another emergency edition was published later in the day in which he wrote another speech calling on the Prime Minister to form a government. The Great Zik had virtually been put under house arrest by the British Commander of the Nigerian Army, Welby Everard. Discovering that the army would not obey their commander in chief, Zik capitulated. His capitulation was facilitated by the whispering campaign that it was only two medical opinions that were  required to prove him unfit to take a decision. As Dudley footnoted in his Introduction to Nigerian Politics, “The President gave way when he realized there was a move to declare him medically incapable of continuing in office”. (p.312)As I have argued in newspaper articles, this was the very first coup in Nigeria’s post-independence history. It was the Rubicon crossed after which every Nigerian political party had to build and flex a military muzzle in anticipation of a long expected blow up.

This is the point in the narrative where questions are usually raised about the Awolowo factor: whether he was privy to what the coup makers planned to do with him. Easily dismissed but not scorched is that the soldiers had good reasons for wanting Awolowo above all other living politicians in the country at that time. There was a FREE AWO movement into which even political opponents had plugged for relevance. Since Awolowo began to suffer the series of house arrests and detentions, before the eventual jail term was confirmed by the Supreme Court,  his voice, which consistently defended the poor and the underprivileged had been missing in national affairs. Younger radicals remembered Awolowo’s opposition to the Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact, his consistent defence of the rule of law, his unflagging pursuit of social welfare policies against the economics of waste which characterized the capitalist road that Nigeria was taking, and the general slowness in responding to the struggle in the rest of Africa to eliminate colonialism and set Africa free. The Hansards of the Federal House of representatives in Lagos reveal the valiant efforts that Awolowo had made to change the street-beggar economy that Nigeria ran, his opposition to undiluted private enterprise, and his general resistance to the various attempts, to sell a newspaper gag law, a preventive detention act, and the general de-federalization of the country. Anyone knowing these would not be surprised that the younger radicals in the country were on Awolowo’s side. Awolowo himself had brought in many young radical elements like SG Ikoku, Bola Ige, Samuel Aluko, Oluwasanmi, Bankole Akpata and others to his side who were generally viewed as socialists involved in creating a better future for the country.  This is what Ojukwu means when he says that Awolowo was a hero. The circle of young radicals were enthused by the presence of Segun Awolowo, just returned from law studies in Britain, who was fresh air in the circles in which Awolowo was seen as a brand to be emulated. Segun’s death in a motor accident during his trials won his father the sympathy of this younger generation.  The most well known poets in Nigeria, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo and JP Clark wrote poems at that time that have served as witnesses to travails of the man and his times. The poets belonged to  a small circle of radical intellectuals in the country who knew one another in the University College Ibadan (UCI) and shared a common, energized, notion of a country that would move the world. In spite of the ethnic fractionalization that was a permanent feature of life in Nigeria’s public space, the young Turks of the period were parleying across occupational and ethnic lines. It is not clear how much they shared in a political sense. The question may be asked: how many of them were notionally privy to the idea of a coup – the one supposedly being planned by Awolowo or, later, the one that was supposed to be in the offing after Ojukwu sounded out Nnamdi Azikiwe about one during the election crisis in 1964?

What may be argued with some certainty is that many of them could see that there was a plot to expose and destroy the Action Group, the ruling party in the Western Region. The plot had begun with the declaration of a state of emergency in the Region, the setting up of the Coker Commision of Enquiry to prove corruption in the management of AG’s company, the NIPC, so that the Federal government could seize the assets of the company; and then the institution of a treasonable felony trial to settle the question of the party’s survival once and for all. Later, the plot covered the establishment of the Banjo Commission to prove the failure of free education, Awolowo’s most sensational contribution to development in the country and the star performance that made his party so impregnable in the West. In spite of, or because of, the underhand methods that were being used to drown out Awolowo, anyone who cared to look could tell that he was more sinned against than sinning. In  particular, regarding the 1962 treasonable felony trial, involving him and 27 others, any objective observer could have seen that what Awolowo had done apart from organizing a political party was being a thorn in the flesh of the independence government. In the face of the evident plans to destroy his party so that the coalition partners could chop up its remains, he had vowed that he and his party would make the West ungovernable rather than let the region be taken outside the electoral process. His party began to train people to make sure that no undemocratic victories would befall the region.

The party sent apparatchiks  to Ghana to train. So the accusation during the treasonable felony trial, that they were sending guerillas for training in Ghana was correct in so far as it was not stretched to imply that it was pursuant to carrying out a coup against the government of the Federation. What is generally ignored by the narrators of this segment of Nigeria’s story, in spite of the admission of its truth by critical participants, is that every Nigerian political party at that time was training toughs for armed struggle.

It may be a secret to those who never bothered to look at what was happening outside the newspapers. This is backhandedly confirmed by Tanko Yakasai in his recent autobiography where he retails an added dimension that  NEPU pro-insurgents were in league with a Camerounian political party in sending activists for training in Eastern Europe. This should of course be understood against the background of the struggle in the North between NPC’s thugs –  ‘Jam’iyyar Mahaukata’, ‘Sons of madmen’-  who wore wooden or ‘akushi’ hats, described in Allan Feinstein’s African Revolutionary as having “semi-official sanction to fight against southern dominance”. They “subsequently extended their terrorism to a group of NEPU adherents’ so that ‘NEPU retaliated with a “Positive Action Wing” (PAW) who wore ‘calabash helmets’ and were determined to resist the NPC’s routine assaults that saw candidates of the opposition jailed or killed, their houses and farms destroyed and, in the case of opposition parties from the south, whole city wide or region-wide riots organized to distance them from power. NEPU went beyond a PAW response to the Mahaukata. The party, as Tanko Yankasai authoritatively reveals, already had experience in the training of guerillas for the Camerounian Sawaba Party(p.209).

In relation to the South, the NPC idea was actually quite fundamentalist because it was primed by the conception of a National Army as a catchment of thugs for realizing partisan ends. The truth of this can now be checked against the testimonies of  several NPC stalwarts. They had sent several of their young men into the Nigerian Army to prepare for the day when the military would be needed to settle political scores. Evidently, the parties in coalition at the Federal level were neither true to one another nor to themselves. They saw the destruction  of the Action Group differently.  They who were busy organizing insurgents against other parties and using even the state apparatus to realize partisan goals needed to hide their activities by accusing the opposition of treason.

According to Dudley, the NCNC wished that the Action Group be destroyed so that they, the only member of the coalition that had a foothold in the West, would inherit the West and then confront the North with a Southern solidarity. After Awolowo was jailed in 1962, NCNC strategists actually tried to swallow up the West by forming a coalition with the Akintola faction of the AG which had become the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). They did not reckon with the ingenuity of that doughty fighter, the Are Ona Kankanfo himself. He saw the score quickly. He preferred an alliance with the senior partner in the coalition, the NPC. It was only after failing with the NNDP that the NCNC came back to the AG, this time, in search of a foothold rather than a routing. The Action Group leader, in prison, advised his followers to coast along until it became obvious that the NCNC was more interested in power at the centre and would not like to lose the perks from the coalition in the Federal House. By the time the Western Regional election of 1965 was rigged, the Action Group had formalized an organizational prong that enabled the members, at large, to fulfill the old promise by their leader: rather than for the West to be taken over by undemocratic means, the region would be made ungovernable. This was proficiently achieved with the Wetie riots – dousing opponents with petrol to aid match flare  –  that gave the sobriquet of the WildWild West to the region.

Of course, at the point of the region-wide riots, it was clear that the two coalition partners, working together for  the  destruction of the AG would have to re-strategize. Although sharing power at the Federal level, they nevertheless worked against each other everywhere else. The NPC had planned to use its men in the national army  for a coup that would clear the nation of the insurgents in the West and in the Middle Belt, especially in Tivland, where there was an active guerilla war against the government. Meanwhile, by 1964, the UMBC had  joined with NEPU to carry out a Northern liberation of sorts before facing the Federal behemoth. They all however joined the United Progressive Grand Alliance, UPGA, whose game, with the NCNC as  the core-party, was to go for broke. There seemed to be a consensus across the country, and in every political party, that the crisis could only be resolved through violence. All the political parties were primed for it.

In  a country, so wired for armed struggle, there was bound to be very little room for the truth to have dominion. What had to be done through the law courts, as the Action Group would discover, was  very much a charade. Awolowo was convicted on the ground that he was so over-weaningly ambitious that although he was not specifically found guilty, his fingerprints could be read on all the events that were to culminate in a coup. The judges, to prove the vaulting nature of the ambitions, took judicial notice of the dreams that Awolowo had recorded in a notebook which he called Flashes of Inspiration. It must be one of the unique court cases in history in which a man was jailed for what he said he saw in a dream rather than what he actually did. Nigeria had simply become a country seeded by and overcome by paranoia, an atmosphere of psychological block, making it difficult to look at opponents with any objectivity. The tendency was to accept every charge as true, the more heinous the better, if directed at someone about whom something good is not supposed to be said. So the charge of treasonable felony was swallowed hook and line without the minimum application of gumption. As it turned out, and as Obasanjo has told the story, Chukwuma Nzeogwu was the intelligence officer who was attached to the efforts to unravel the veracity of the charges in the Coker Commission and Treasonable Felony trial. He was obviously privy to the discovery made by the Coker Commission that Awolowo kept a good account: that he had more money before he became a Premier of western Region than he had in his account after eight years of living in his own house, not in the state house, and spending his own money on entertainment. Even when Kwame Nkrumah visited Nigeria on a state visit,  the Ghanaian President stayed in Awolowo’s house at Oke Ado in Ibadan. Not in any state house. Thus, there is every reason to assume that Nzeogwu had enough information about the man’s distance from the common run of politicians in the country for Awolowo to be raised above the slough of general discussions and brickbats.

What cannot be established is whether the coup makers ever made an attempt to contact Awolowo in jail.  From Ifeajuna’s account, the coup makers were quite dubious about Awolowo’s support. They had therefore decided that if they released him and he failed to be their leader, they would lock him up in the state house and issue decrees in his name. Quite glaring in the so-called master plan is that the coup makers were horridly naïve and permutative. So much so that about the senior officers Ifeajuna writes: “some of our senior officers who were likely to fight on the side of the regime were to be arrested while action took place. We also had to watch the concentration of senior officials . Only those who resisted arrest or fired at troops were to be fired at. When action was completed and a new regime was set up, they were to be released and given appointments, but not necessarily related to what posts they held before the event. We were to present our General with a ‘fait accompli’. We were to apologize to him for our actions and request him to join us and take over the plans. If he was not prepared to join us, we would request that he should leave us alone to complete it. And in that case we were to appeal to the officer next in line to come to our help”(70). This sounds like the view of an officer and gentleman who expected the behaviour of others to be determined by his view of human nature rather than by the exigencies on the ground. Ifeajuna as much as lends credence to the charge that Nnamdi Azikiwe was  tipped off  to go on a health cruise so that he would not be around during the action. He writes: “We were to  act before the ex-President returned from his trip to Europe and his carousing cruise to the Caribbean. This,  for two reasons. Firstly, we were certain that he would put up a fight against us. Not that this mattered: but as the head of state he could easily call in foreign troops. In his absence only the Prime Minister could do so. And so the number of persons to invite foreign troops was reduced from two to one. Second reason was that , if he returned, we had to deal with him. But the task of clearing his residence at the state house would require more troops than we could conveniently muster.”

So did he nudge the President to exit while they plotted?  He wrote:

“We considered that two VIPs would be of importance to us in controlling the nation. If our General agreed to come with us, then he could rest in charge of the army or he could be head of state. He was acceptable to most officers and men. We would have to appeal to him. We knew that without him it would be difficult to hold the country.

“We also believed that Chief Obafemi Awolowo had become recognized as the rallying point of our nation. If we attempted any set-up without him, we could quite easily end up opposed by the relatively progressive political parties. For him therefore we had the post of executive president or Prime Minister depending on the reaction of our General. But we were also afraid that he could refuse to accept power handed over to him by us. There was the possibility of this highly principled man refusing to come out of jail to assume the highest post in the land. I took care of this. We were to go to him and explain the facts and appeal to him. We planned to bring him into Lagos by air before noon on 15 January. If he refused to leave jail, he was to be ordered to do so. As a prisoner he had no choice. We were to transfer him to the State House and if he still refused, we were to hold him here and inform him that this was his new gaol house! Meanwhile we planned to get the elders of the state to help us get him to agree. If in the end he refused, he was to be held and decrees were to be issued in his name”.

Surely, part of the naivity of the coup makers, or the mis-interpretation of their wishes by their failed coup-leader,  is that they hoped to set up a cabinet of civil servants and abolish the Federal system of government. “We had made a selection of fifteen civil servants from all over the country, all of them available on call in the federal civil service. We planned to abolish the federal system of government and get back to the military system. The country was to be broken up into fifteen provinces. In each province there was to be a military governor and a head of administatration. The regions were to start winding up themselves by handing over at once minor functions to the new provinces. On the other hand, major functions of the regions were at once to be taken over by the government in Lagos”. That is, in effect, they would get out of prison a man who went to jail for seeking to entrench Federalism and ask him to run a military system, more or less a unitary system. Although the immediate creation of provinces would have mollified Awolowo and many of those who later joined in the revenge coup, there was evident naivety, if not suicidal predisposition in coup makers’  waffling on the question of Federalism or unitarism.

At any rate, according to information vouchsafed after the coup,  they had to act to upstage the plans of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) which was to have sent soldiers to the Western Region on January 17, 1966 to deal with the insurgents in the Western Region. When Western Premier Akintola left the NPC leader, Sir Ahmadu Bello on the 14th of January and jetted homewards to Ibadan, he was certain that the deal was fool-proof  until the Five Majors of January 15, 1966 struck. Lets grant the benefit of the doubt: that Awolowo would have been released immediately on January 15, 1966 but for those who hijacked the coup from the five majors. Or was it simply taken over from, or handed over by, the five majors?  As the narrative goes, the officer detailed to fly Awolowo to Lagos from Calabar already had his brief. But it never happened. Ojukwu, in effective control of Kano had already scuttled any plan that could take off from what could have become a Kano front. After he was made military Governor of the East, he had urgent matters to attend to which could not have put Awolowo on the agenda. So there is no point disputing his claim that be signed a warrant for the release of the prisoner. It was clearly not agreed that the warrant should be executed.  Imaginably, a government that moved quickly to enact a Unitary Decree could not have been in a hurry to release a sworn Federalist from jail. The question is: if Ojukwu signed the warrant, how did the effectuation of the warrant wait for so long until it coincided with the order given by Lt.Col Yakubu Gowon at the head of the revenge coup, for Awolowo to be released? This is an important question because  Awolowo was not released until seven months after the first coup of the year. The historic task fell upon the revenge coup makers who had toppled General Aguiyi Ironsi after  a rigorously organized  pogrom against the Igbo, with a number of other Southerners added to the kill. It was certainly to gain a wider base than their Northern  security ambitions allowed that  the release of Awolowo from Calabar Prison was announced. It leaves a sneaking feeling that Ojukwu’s powers over the Eastern Region, to which all Igbo in the Nigerian diaspora had to return in search of a safe haven,  had not yet become so all-pervasive as to be able to countermand a swiftly executed decision by Federal authorities intent on releasing Awolowo from jail.  Nor would it have been politic for Ojukwu, even if he had the power, to attempt to prevent Awolowo from being released after a Federal order to that effect. It would have amounted to holding Awolowo hostage. Could it be said then that in order not to fall into the role of hostage taker, Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, as Military Governor of the Eastern Region carried out an order initiated by a Federal Military Government that he had so flagrantly repudiated?  Whatever is the case, it was the release that enabled Awolowo to participate in the discussions to resolve the crisis through sundry Leaders of Thought Meetings up till Awolowo’s peace-hunt to Enugu before the first shot in the Civil war was fired.

It may well be added that it was Awolowo’s participation in Gowon’s administration that enabled him to get a copy of the Ifeajuna manuscript. A copy was sent to him by a well-wisher who thought he should know about the plans that the January 15 1966 coup makers had had in store for him. It was in similar fashion that he got a copy of the transcripts of the Enugu meeting after the tapes were said to have been captured at the fall of Enugu and the take over of the Eastern Nigerian Broadcasting service by Federal Forces. Awolowo had the two documents in safe keeping when I became his Private (Political) Secretary in June 1978.  They were among the many papers, not part of the main body of his library, which he had to bring out for my education to help my work as his  “involved and committed researcher”, as he requested for in his newspaper advert for the job.  I read the documents as part of many such efforts to induct me into the job. I was authorized to make copies for a number of party officials and stalwarts as a means of education in preparation for the battles that the newly formed Unity Party of Nigeria was expected to face in the Second Republic. So let me put it  this way: that I read the full text of the Ifeajuna manuscript within three months of my new job. The other document, the transcript of his meeting with Ojukwu, was a typescript that had to be cyclostyled in order for many more copies to be made in preparation for the controversies that we expected to confront in the course of the 1979 election. Although there were quite a few brickbats during that election, not much came that required the appeal to the documents. But Awolowo always wanted to have the documents made public. He hadn’t thought of releasing them before the election because he did not want to draw attention to the false charges at the treasonable felony trials. We did not think the period of election was the best period to do so especially one which he thought to be critical for a man of seventy who may never have another chance. The dubious value of letting the world know that coup-makers had latched upon him as the saviour they were looking for could have had a double-edged impact with a capacity for damage that may not have been easy to control. After the election, however, there was no more need for such caution. That was when Ebenezer Babatope who had always rooted for it as a job for his friend Arthur Nwankwo of Fourth Dimension, publisher of his own Coups and the Barracks Revolt, was authorized to send a copy to the Fourth Dimension for publication. Unfortunately, as Babatope reported it later, Arthur Nwankwo said  Ifeajuna’s family was not in favour of the publication. Thereafter, little was done to bring the document to public attention. And, that was how the matter died. Except that I, who had been instrumental to having Awolowo bring out the document could not forget what I had read. Whenever I was confronted by a Nigerian argument which required using the materials from the manuscript to clear the ground, I used it. Especially in my rather longish articles for TheNews magazine during the June 12 Struggle, from 1993 to 1999, I took special notice of the arguments in the manuscripts in my responses to those who deployed old fictions to seek to undermine the geo-ethnic  reality at work in the annulment of the election.

Actually, after I stopped being Chief Awolowo’s private Secretary, Kole Omotoso who frequently shared what he has called my ‘lived-in library’  at Seriki Aro in Ikeja  while he was writing his book Just Before Dawn, brought the manuscript of Obasanjo’s Nzeogwu to my attention. It was a rather flimsy affair  which he said he had been given by Professor Jide Osuntokun of the University of Lagos for a pre-publication assessment. I read through it at one sitting and told him it was a disgrace for Obasanjo, a former Head of State, to be offering such a flimsy fare about the best celebrated soldier in the history of coup-making in Nigeria. As the closest friend to Nzeogwu, virtually sharing the same bed with him on the night before the January 15 coup, he was expected to know enough about him to fill a full-length book. If he had nothing to write, I said, he should go after the letters that they once exchanged, the articles written in whatever magazine at school or wherever, and whatever snippets they could get from all the history books about the man. I proposed that he should at least avail himself of the reasons given by Emmanuel Ifeajuna in the manuscript that has been going from hand to hand without finding a publisher. At the mention of Ifeajuna’s manuscript, Kole Omotoso insisted that I had to talk to Jide Osuntokun myself. So I followed him to the Staff quarters in the University of Lagos where I told the Professor without too much preamble what I had told Kole. I also told him that I had a copy of the manuscript in safe-keeping, but that I would not give it to him. If Obasanjo was serious about the manuscript, I said, he knew where to find one; that is, if he didn’t already have a copy. In the end, although I cannot now tell where he found the copy that he quoted from, and fairly generously in the published text, I am only too glad that he caused all those letters to be published which are today some of the source materials for anyone interested in assessing Nzeogwu’s personality and character. Of course, the book,  Nzeogwu, landed Obasanjo in a controversy that led to his being openly criticized in public by his former deputy, retired Major General Shehu Musa Yar’adua.  The lands he had acquired  in some parts of the North were threatened with seizure as a punitive measure for his writing about the soldier whom many Northerners considered a villain.

In a sense, I would say that I have Obasanjo to thank for  the confidence I have had in talking about the Ifeajuna manuscript. Obasanjo’s use of the manuscript proved it that the copy that I had kept away was not fake. Whether its content was reliable or not, the point is that the soldier who wrote it had put enough of himself, true or false, into it for Nigerians to know what he wished that we know about the coup that he led. What he wished may have been false but it was unthinkable  for a country not to want to know what a man who had done so much to transform its history had to say. It has nothing to do with the sensitivities of his family. In any case, forty years after, all the millions murked up by the January 15 coup that paved the way for all the succeeding military interventions in Nigeriá’s history, deserve to know what he had to say for himself and his colleagues. Of interest is that in spite of the famed unreliability of Ifeajuna, none of the narratives written about the Nigerian crisis by the principal protagonists  Alexander Madiebo,  Ademoyega, Ben Ghulie, and Hilary Njoku have differed in any substantial sense apart from turns of phrases, from the core of what Ifeajuna wrote in the white hot heat of the moment that followed the coup. The contentious issue over their choice of Awolowo has been repeated by the participants in the core group that set out to change the government before they were overtaken by Ironsi, and the echelon that surrounded Ojukwu in Kano who would not allow Nzeogwu to make use of troops in that city to march on Lagos as he had planned to do after he discovered that the coup was botched in the South. It is a matter for historical counterfactuals what the history of Nigeria would have been like if Nzeogwu had not capitulated but had mustered enough will and force to organize a Northern Army that would march upon Lagos from Kaduna. His collapse into the maw of the ethnic mush that had overtaken the coup was the Nigerian equivalent of the seppuku which he was obliged to commit if he were a Samurai in the Japanese army. What happened to the coup makers thereafter including the fact that those who benefited from the coup were unwilling to put them on trial is part of the story that must also have made it difficult to publish Ifeajuna’s manuscript.

For that matter, what Nzeogwu called “Emman’s lies” did not have to be true to see the light of day. There was a good enough reason to know that although Ifeajuna was Igbo-speaking and many said he was close enough to Azikiwe to tip him off about the impending coup, he took a scathing swipe at the former President of Nigeria in a manner that was itself some  “history” worthy of the record. Nzeogwu’s opinion of Ifeajuna’s incompetence in carrying out the coup is undubitably right on the mark. But it does not invalidate what Ifeajuna had to say. In fact, from hindsight, it can be claimed that what Nzeogwu said on coup day about their intentions was largely corroborated by Ifeajuna’s manuscript.  That it should have taken so long for it to make its debut between covers is to say the least a national tragedy. The tragedy, it must be said, was egged by the fact that those who hijacked the coup from the five majors did not want the story out because they obviously did not want to identify with the views expressed in it. For the more ethnically inclined ones, the very idea that true sons of the Igbo carried out a coup and wanted to hand it over to Awolowo, a man they regarded as an enemy of their ethnic group, was simply the height of the absurd. To  the makers of the July 29 Revenge coup, it would have scuttled their much haggled presumption that it was an Igbo coup. Either way, the manuscript had not a chance.

The other forgotten document of the civil had a better chance but its absence from circulation for a long time,  was no less a tragedy. It was supposedly captured among other tapes of the Biafran Broadcasting Corporation when Enugu fell to Federal troops. The tapes were transcribed with glee, according to Awolowo, by those who thought it would finally nail him for the agreement he reached with Ojukwu to have the Western Region  secede with the East as Radio Biafra never stopped insisting. As it turned out no such thing, is to be found in the tapes. Rather Awolowo was making a passionate plea for the continuance of Nigeria as a single political entity. He repeated some of his bitterest criticisms of the North and Northern leaders but he believed that it was possible to manage the differences between Nigerians if ethnic groups and regions enjoyed more autonomy. This was simply a parrot cry of his which, as those familiar with his campaigns and his books, especially  Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution and The People’s Republi, would know, required a common welfare policy in education, health, and employment,  to unite all the ethnic groups. He was too old he said to abandon all the dreams he had had for his country. Nor would he like to come to the East with a passport. His solution, which obviously did not get down well with Ojukwu was for  Ojukwu to agree for the Eastern Region to come to a national conference and to support the creation of states as a basis for a Federal system free of the hegemony that the North had over the rest of the country; and all the regions in the country had over the minorities. If Ojukwu agreed, he believed, he had enough influence with the minorities of the Middle Belt and in the South to urge a shared positioning with the East and the West for a common stand in opposition to hegemonists in the North who would not want states created. It turned out  that Ojukwu did not want states to be created. That was the sticking point.

It must have seemed to the Easterners who had been so overdosed by myths about Awolowo’s hatred of the East  that he was merely trying out the old animosities in the garb of a pacifier  trying to win, by other means, the battles he had always pursued in Nigerian politics. The bottomline is that Ojukwu and Awolowo did not reach an agreement. Their positions in spite of the  parliamentary language in which they were couched were fundamentally at variance. Not to forget: it used to be taken as apocryphal by all, except core Awoists, that Ojukwu actually  came to see him in the guest house on the last night after the day’s plenary. He wanted  a one on one with Awolowo. Understandably, Awolowo refused a one on one. Soyinka has now retailed in his autobiography, YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN,(131-132) what Awolowo told him:

“The 1967 eve of secession delegation of national public figures authorized by Yakubu Gowon, to dialogue with Eastern leadership had been led by Obafemi Awolowo, and the formal, well-publicised meeting between the two sides lasted nearly all day. The Easterners listed their grievances and demands, spoke with all apparent seriousness, and saw their guests off to their chalets. Late that same night however, Awolowo was disturbed by a knock on the door.

It was the Eastern leader, Ojukwu, himself. He admitted that he had waited till late into the night so as to be able to speak to Awolowo in strictest privacy. Sure, said Awolowo, but he also insisted that at least one or two persons join him. That was agreed, and Awolowo called up the adjoining chalet, woke up the Police commissioner for the Western Region, Olufunwa, and a close political aide.

Accompanying Ojukwu was a small team that included a Professor of History from the University of Ibadan who had fled, like other Easterners, to their beleaguered state. Years afterwards, during the struggle against the Abacha dictatorship, the same don introduced himself to me at  a meeting in the United States in 1996,  and revealed his participation at the nocturnal meeting of thirty years earlier. His account was a consistent and detailed confirmation of what Awolowo confided in me that afternoon.

Odumegwu Ojukwu’s mission was unambiguous, Awolowo said to me. “The young man had come to inform me that the East had decided on secession, and that there was no going back. All that was left was the announcement of a date. He said, “Sir, I have not come to argue, but to inform you. It has been decided”.

“It was clear that any discussion was futile”, Awolowo continued , “Äfter all, we had done nothing but talk all day. Ojukwu confessed that he had agreed to meet the delegation at all only out of respect for my person. Biafra had already taken a decision”.

“I was not surprised”, the Chief admitted. “I did one thing, though, I made one request of him  in fact, I insisted on it. I said to Ojukwu  at least, let us in the West  – I, specifically – have a minimum of two weeks notice before you announce the decision. And he promised. Yes, he promised me that much”.

I hesitated, but could not resist asking: “Why two weeks? You told him you needed two weeks – to do what?

Awolowo gave one of his enigmatic smiles, “You know Olufunwa, the Police Commissioner?”.

I nodded Yes.

“Well, apart from me, he is the only one who knows the answer to that question. And he’s not likely to tell you either”.

I did not press him.

Hardly had Awolowo’s delegation settled back into Federal territory than Ojukwu declared an Independent State of Biafra. The date was May 30, 1967. A short while after, Chief Awolowo accepted to serve as Commissioner of Finance under Yakubu Gowon.

The Federal Government had however made a pre-emptive move. On May 27, Gowon abolished all four regions and split the nation into twelve new states. This achieved the goal of dangling before the entities that were newly carved out from the East, the attraction of their own autonomous governance, with all the resources of the oil soaked Niger delta. Between the two strokes, loyalties in the former Eastern Region were split. War appeared inevitable”

Soyinka’s narration does not include the parting shot that Ojukwu gave the next morning as he followed Awolowo to the tarmac to say goodbye. Shaking the Chief with both hands, Ojukwu said in Yoruba “Baba, atilo”  ‘Old one, we’ve gone’. (as Awolowo reported it to his followers).  As he took off from Enugu Airport with his fellow peace hunters, Awolowo knew that Biafra was on the cards. He did not expect Ojukwu to make as immediate an announcement as he did. But it should not have been any surprise. A prospective war leader who reveals a decision of such strategic significance to a prime decision-maker on the enemy side should not be expected to wait a moment longer than necessary to pre-empt a counterforce. It would have been better if Ojukwu had not told Awolowo anything about the plans to announce Biafra. But once he did, he was obliged to break whatever promise he had made. What kind of General would reveal such information to another, a potential antagonist, who had his own calculus of the power equation in the country that he was intent on splitting apart and not be worried  about the consequences of a leakage. The short of the matter is that once Ojukwu  discussed Biafra with Awolowo, it was, or should have been, clear that any promise he made about giving Awolowo a breathing to organize

his own fraction would not be respected.

As such, there is nothing in the forgotten documents to suggest that Ojukwu and Awolowo had reached any decisions about what to do if Ojukwu had waited. What Awolowo could have done can be left to the imagination. Only a very naïve Ojukwu could have accepted an agreement made with Awolowo as viable in the circumstances of  the Western Region at that time. Certainly, Ojukwu was not that naïve. He was calculating enough to have known that whatever influence Awolowo had over his Yoruba people was not enough. Ojukwu was Nigerian enough to know that that influence would not have much cut in a situation where a virtual occupation army, as Awolowo actually called it, commanded by a brazenly Northern catchment in the army, was sitting pretty in the Western Region. It was an army only just moving from a secessionist disposition to the format of national unity. What is now well known is that the Yoruba echelon in the Nigerian Army was roundly pro-unity. Among soldiers, on both sides, it was naïve to have expected that the Yoruba officers in the Army or even its civilian leadership would consider going into a coalition with an Igbo-led secessionist move without their having made a genuine contribution to the framing of the project. Were there to be a handshake across the Niger, it would have had to depend not on any one-sided plans but a community of grievances shared. The intelligence that Awolowo himself gathered impressionistically during the Enugu meeting gave him enough reason to believe, as he told his followers thereafter, that the Eastern Region was not prepared for the war it was about to embark upon. Even if he was the most feckless leader in the world, and Awolowo was not known to embark on a project he had not given much thought to, there was hardly a chance that he would agree to go into a war on Ojukwu’s side on the basis of a two week mobilization of his people. Incidentally, Awolowo’s hunch was shared on harder evidence by Biafran military leaders led by Hilary Njoku who knew that Biafrans had been stampeded into but not readied for war. In order to appreciate Hilary Njoku’s position, many people would need to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, the love story in a time of war, if only for the atmospherics. It shows how the General gave wooden sticks to his people, as civil defenders, in a shooting war claiming that no force in Black Africa could subdue Biafra. Sheer emotional grandstanding was what the war effort rested upon. But for the shenanigans on the Federal side, the deliberate pussy-footing and sometimes larking in the war front, as a way of setting the stage to settle some scores with the authorities in Lagos, it would have been a much-shorter war.

As readers of Onukaba Adinoyi Ojo’s biography of  Obasanjo must know,  Murtala Muhammed never gave up his grouse:  “We told you not to end the war the way you did so as to sort things out, you wentgaddam gaddam (Hausa expression for heedless rush) and finished it. Now you have a lion in your hands, a  lion that does not roar, bite or claw, absolutely inefficient and ineffective”, Muhammed charged impulsively.”

As for the People’s General in Biafra, he was carried shoulder high on a wave that he could have resisted and steered in a different direction but preferred to manipulate. At any rate, what Awolowo had offered Ojukwu as a solution to the crisis was absolutely outside the rooting for secession. It was more coherent and more consistent with his already fairly well known position  on Federalism and a strategy of welfarism as a solution to the Nigerian crisis. At the meeting, as the published document shows, Awolowo believed that:…….“What we want in Nigeria is a house to be built which will be big enough to accommodate all of us, without friction, without trouble. Let us have a plan made, let us get an expert contractor to build the house. When the house is completed to our satisfaction let them call it what name they like, what is important is that the house should be big enough to accommodate all of us comfortably, without friction and without trouble. I think we should forget about federation or confederation. Let us see what the contents are going to be. Once the contents are stated then we will allow political scientists to give it a name they like. The name does not matter to us so long so we are satisfied that this is the sort of thing we need to make us live together as Nigerians.

“I was a little bit disturbed by the point you made before. I hope you have not taken a final decision on it, that is, that the East will not associate with the North in future. Easterners have fought more  than any other group in this country over the years to make Nigeria what it is , or what it was, before the crisis began. I think it will be a pity if they just forget something for which they have laboured for years . Many of the Easterners who fought for “One Nigeria” are no longer with us. It will not be a good tribute to their memory by destroying that “ one Nigeria”., Certainly, it is not going to be the same as it used to be. I have taken a stand on that, and I am prepared to drop tribal labels at the moment, but I know in my own mind what sort of thing I have in view for the federation. But I think it will be a great pity and tragedy and disservice to the memories of all those who have gone to disband Nigeria. An here we are not here to criticize anybody, I think it is generally agreed that some units have done more for the unity of Nigeria than others. The East certainly have not yielded first place to anyone in that regard. I would like you to consider that aspect very seriously”.

This position taken on Saturday 6th May 1967 was quite in sync with the position he had taken at a meeting of the Leaders of Thought meeting at the Western Hall, Agodi, Ibadan, on Monday 1st of May, 1967. In that speech, his aim was to undermine the position of those Nigerian Leaders of Thought who, as he later explained, were “seriously suggesting that the so-called  four component units of the country should go their own separate ways as so many sovereign states”. Specifically, he meant to repudiate the proposition that the Federation would be viable even without the East as was being canvassed by some people who had, in his words, “settled it finally in their minds the sort of Constitution they consider suitable for the whole country, or such part of it as may be left after the East shall have opted out of the Federation”.

At the Agodi meeting, he placed four imperatives before  the Western Nigerian Leaders of Thought in particular and the Nation in general. Of the Four Imperatives he said:

“Two of them are categorical imperatives and two are conditional.

ONE: Only a peaceful solution must be found to arrest the present worsening stalemate and restore normalcy.

TWO: The Eastern Region must be encouraged to remain part of the Federation.

THREE: If the Eastern Region is allowed  by acts of omission or commission to secede from or opt out of Nigeria, then the Western Region and Lagos must also stay out of the Federation.

FOUR: The people of Western Nigeria and Lagos should participate in the AD Hoc Committee or any similar Body only on the basis of absolute equality with the other Regions of the Federation”

It would require a major somersault in logic to make this look like a vote for the secession of any part of Nigeria. Actually as early as August 1966, on his being repreived from his  ten year imprisonment, Awolowo had made a speech in which he said: “The breaking up of Nigeria into a number of sovereign states would not only do permanent damage to the reputation of contemporary Nigerian leaders but would also usher in terrible disasters which would bedevil us and many generations to come.”  To contort such a speech in favour of secession belongs to a vaulting refusal to see no reason that is not pro-secession. To insist however that Awolowo encouraged the Igbo to secede actually insults the intelligence of the average Igbo.  The implication is that after the pogrom of 1966, it required an Obafemi Awolowo, whether as a goad or quarry to hearten the attempt at secession. It is close to saying that they thought of an alternative that was different but had to bow to Awolowo’s, an old enemy’s, prodding. This may be the picture that many Biafrans liked to have of themselves. Those who think the Igbos deserve a better picture of themselves may be called names. But it does not change the score.

What is interesting in this regard is that well known acts perpetrated by other leaders during the war are actually now being credited to Awolowo by postwar propagandists and are being made to stick beyond lines of collective responsibility while actual performances that he made are smudged out of acknowledgement. For a man who could be said to have done more than any other single individual to have garnered the out-of-the-war-front intelligence to keep Nigeria as one country, it is actually a surprise to see how little Federal cover has been given to Awolowo  by Federal agencies and establishments. Generals who were worried that Awolowo might convert his proficiency in the management of the country’s finances and general affairs into political power certainly preffered that the war story be told against him. For ex-Biafrans who believe that Awolowo disabled their war efforts through his many ploys, including the change of the currency, the refusal to devalue the Naira, and the ordering of a stop to food corridors, Awolowo deserves to be sent to the International court even post-humously. The concentration on Awolowo as it turns out is such a fixation that many are prepared to believe that even if Awolowo was still in prison when the pogrom took place, he should be arraigned for it.  It is very much unlike the position taken by the Jews who not only went after exposing the perpetrators of the holocaust after the Second World War but took extremely inter-subjective care to ensure that no innocents were punished for crimes that others committed. The reverse, clearly, is the case with the  Nigerian crisis and civil war. It is quite interesting in this regard, and perhaps, a  mark of Achebe’s forgiving nature that in his The Trouble with Nigeria, he grants the status of arch-nationalist to Mallam Aminu Kano, of  whose faction of the People’s Redemption Party, PRP, he became a member, even after knowing  of the Mallam’s mobilization of  the resistance to feared Igbo domination after the January 15 Coup. Or he did not know it?  Allan Feinstein, Mallam’s biographer, had given enough leads to explain the radical leader’s  mobilization of the North before the pogrom. On page 225 of The African Revolutionary ,the autobiography of Mallam Aminu Kano, he writes that his subject “had to decide what was  right for his country and his North ……..Aminu Kano’s  smouldering fear of Southern domination had finally culminated in what he considered a genuine and serious threat to the development of his first love, Northern Nigeria”. As it happened, Aminu Kano was arrested in connection with the pogrom in the North but was promptly released for want of evidence. Decades later, as the issues are being memorialized by key actors  of that era, the post-coup mobilization has been coming under new lights. As happened, it was  Alhaji Ahmed Joda, a top aide to Major Hassan Usman Katsina, Governor of Northern Region, who was sent by “top civil servants” in Kaduna to meet with Alhaji Maitama Sule in Kano to “initiate leadership in getting the people of the North to understand the aims of government” after the January 1966 coup. On pages 211 -212 of  the biography, Maitama Sule..Danmasanin Kanoby Ayuba T. Abubakar, it is told of how it was  Maitama Sule,  an NPC stalwart before the coup, who“suggested that Mallam Aminu Kano  was the most suitable, because he was widely respected, never held a government leadership appointment and had the people behind him. Again, he was a leading figure in UPGA……So Maitama arranged for Mallam Aminu to meet Alhaji Joda the following day. Thereafter, Mallam  Aminu Kano became the leading consultant  for the government and top civil servants and their link with the rest of the North”. In The Story of a Humble Life: An Autobiography,Tanko Yakasai, an Aminu Kano  deputy in the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) authenticates the story: “At the beginning,  most NEPU members were happy with the military take over. It was only after some few days that they started to think twice about the situation……the way some Igbo traders at Sabongari market in Kano started to treat Northerners”.  A meeting was then held in Aminu Kano’s house in Sudawa by old NEPU stalwarts. Aminu Kano  “drew the attention of the meeting to the apathy pervading the political scene in the North and urged those present to  rise up to the occasion; otherwise it would be difficult to rejuvenate political interest in the people. The meeting then decided that a tour of the Northern Region should be undertaken to make contact with opinion leaders with a view to alerting them of the danger posed by that situation. The tour was to be undertaken under the guise of paying condolence visits to the families and traditional rulers of those killed during the military take-over. ……….We started from Sokoto, followed by Bauchi and Maiduguri. Within a few weeks, we covered the whole region”.  (page 221). Although accused of having joined the NPC, “we continued with our mobilization campaign”, writes Tanko Yakasai. Of course, there were different contact groups mobilizing, sometimes with cross-cutting memberships. They  were all to make what seemed a consensual response to Major General Aguiyi Ironsi’s  Unification Decree which according to Tanko Yakasai  “created a lot of fear in the minds of the civil servants and traditional rulers….”.  A protest rally organized in Kano against the Unification Decree to turned the seething anger into a region-wide prairie fire that grew into the pogrom against the Igbo and those associated with them.  As it happened, the pogrom preceded and accompanied the Revenge Coup of July 29 1966.

The matter of interest is that Awolowo was still in prison at Calabar when it all began to happen. But it was after the exodus of the Igbo back to the East and of many southerners from the North; and then, the failure of the various leaders of Thought meetings, including the Aburi meeting in Ghana, to resolve the consequent loss of faith in  the idea of a united country, that secession was declared. And war began. In the narration of the crisis and the tragedies of the war, different partisans have chosen what to emphasize between the grisly images of the pogrom and the guitar-ribbed and kwashiorkor ridden children in Biafra and the direct casualties in the war front. Who to blame from the perspective of those  who suffered the dire consequences? To ask is to put history in a quandary because in the situation of organized anarchies that preceded the war, it is the botched January 15 Coup that takes the rap.  All murders are bad but it was the unrounded nature of the violence, the lopsided regional accounting, that Nigerians, North and South, will always remember. It turned jubilation into self-questioning angst. The truth is that the years of distrust already on the ground, allowed for an interpretation which was incorrect. It did not start as an Igbo coup but it was turned into one by successive acts of commission and omission. It called for cultural empathy which was unwisely knocked aside not just by the arrogance of power which all military rule insinuates,  but the inability of the new rulers at the centre to see Nigeria as a family of different nationalities needing an effort of mind and a lot of civility to turn into a nation of shared conversations. Leaders may have their prejudices but the necessity for shared living calls for learning how to let people govern themselves irrespective of how unprepared they may be. Education for leadership needs to begin from having laws that are not tilted against any part of the polity. Unfortunately, once violence became the definition of the terms of association, it was not going to be easy to retract. As violence begets violence, those who may be temporarily on top seek a  draconian hold in order not to be sucked into its quicksand and boil. Those who began by detesting a unitary system ended up creating a unitary hegemony. Creating trust and a basis for stability becomes a goal that ends by  having  a lopsided  cut. The point is that nothing can replace the effort which needs to be made in every society, even one that is uni-cultural rather than multi-ethnic and multi-religious, to let decision –making come from within a community rather than as an imposition. The failure of all the coups in Nigeria’s history and all of them have been failures is that they created the opposite of what they claimed they wanted.  By being generally of a lopsided cut, all of them have been preparations for a genocide of sorts.  Thus even before the pogrom created the basis for a war, to use the word genocide in a society where power is regionally or ethnically positioned, required an accounting with semblances if not actualities of genocide. Specific to the period of civil war, those who use the term genocide tend however to use the term in the sense of a propaganda pitch to rev a cause or score points in the competition for power. Not distinguishing the pogrom in the North from the actual deaths and derangement of life found in the war situations yields too much ground to propaganda. One reason for this is that once war was declared, both sides were on a mutual genocidal binge. Put  the word to some test and it turns out to have been so much a propaganda ploy to attract support for Biafra. In actual fact,  as Biafra shrank from all of Eastern Region to the closed-in Igbo heartland, the weight of  Federal might could not erase the sheerness of a pounding of one identifiable set of Nigerians. A war in a multi-ethnic society poses this execrable frame. Only those who love war may try to deodorize it by pretending that it does not yield forms of genocide. On both sides of the Nigerian civil war, the genocidal instincts were quite alert. And knowing that genocides are such bad things, propagandists  reach for international support by playing it up even where the claims are tenuous. This is why talking about the starving children of  Biafra as an incidence of genocide turns out not to be such a straightforward matter. Biafra lost much potential international support when it was discovered, and discussed across the board, that the General of the People’s Army was engaged in unethical profiling of starving children in order to attract international sympathy. In his letter of resignation from his $400,000 contract and his post as Public Relations Representative of Biafra in the United States, Robert S. Goldstein, who had helped to build up much international concern for Biafra wrote to the Biafran Commander in chief as follows:  “It is inconceivable to me that you would stop the feeding of thousands of your countrymen (under auspices of world organizations such as the international Red cross, world council of churches and many more)via a land corridor which is the only practical way to bring in food to help at this time………..I cannot serve you any longer. Nor can I be party to suppressing the fact that your starving thousands have the food, medicine and milk available to them….it can and is ready to be delivered through international organizations to you. Only your constant refusal has stopped its delivery.”  This piece of archival material may well have been a propaganda coup for the Federal side but it is part of the story.  Around the much-trumpeted genocide, was a  Biafran proto-state that was prepared to send some well-placed children out of harm’s way to  havens in Ivory Coast and elsewhere in the world but was using other  people’s children in Biafra as guinea pigs for propaganda purposes.  The truth, bitter, as it must sound, is that once war was declared, both  sides were on a genocidal binge.

The reverse side of the Biafran charge of genocide against the Federal side is that the charge can be firmly and rigorously laid that Biafra sent people into combat who had no weapons to fight in a real war. And there was a vast civilian population whose food needs were not considered either in the initial promotion of war frenzy or in the course of the war, to be an issue.  Those who like to trip on the propaganda of war, and are probably hoping that they would be given food reliefs if they manage to plunge Nigeria into another war with their unthinking fictions,  need to be told that it will not be called a war if one side must feed the other side. That such considerations were always there, and were seriously entertained, is why many writers call the Nigerian Civil war a phoney war. Or a brother’s war. The gleeful latching upon Awolowo’s statement that starvation is a weapon of war as  a means of raking up old inter-ethnic animosities or winning a prosecutor’s slot in a Nuremberg-type trial, wont change this reality. Even the Federal side which allowed and then stopped food shipment to Biafra knew that it was merely trying to fulfill all righteousness. Who has yet found a way to stop soldiers in any theatre of war from hijacking the food meant for the civilian population?  Who does not know that soldiers move on their stomachs and are more likely to hijack food meant for civilians than not?  The question is always there: whether or how to to allow a welfare package to the other side without committing suicide. Even if war is thereby prolonged. This is talking about a war between brothers.  Sad it is that the truly brotherly elements that characterized the waging of the war on both sides of the Nigerian civil war have not been allowed to surface by the spoilsports of the propaganda Ministries.

Talking war as war, when Biafrans made the famous incursion into the Midwest State, they were not thinking of the convenience of Midwesterners. Their strategic exigencies had little  thought for  the sensibilities of a region that had shown much sympathy for the Biafran cause up to the point of not allowing the region to be a staging post for launching an attack on Biafra. The region was treated as mere faggot for the fire. It turned out that the military Governor of the state, David Ejoor had been out-numbered and out-gunned by Igbo-speaking elements in his cabinet who actually out-voted him on a six by three basis when the pressure came for Biafrans to be allowed to come in. Strictu sensu, therefore, Biafra did not invade. Biafra was invited into the Midwest State. Hence, as many writers on the war have reported, no shot was fired. The food and other resources, including hard currency, for whose sake the incursion was made, may have been a good enough bargain for the incoming army. But it exposed a lot of untoward factors including ethnic arrogance, which told the minority ethnic nationalities in the war-torn South what could continue to happen to them if they remained part of Biafra. To think of it, it is the easy indifference to the rights of the minority ethnic nationalities who itched to take their own lives in their own hands that horridly vitiated the whole idea of the Biafran enterprise. And it was this that gave the Federal side such moral authority, egged on, since the Revenge coup, by the release of Adaka Boro and his partisans who had been sentenced to death, awaiting execution, for  pushing secession for a Niger Delta Republic. It was this that kept the creation of new states on the hot burner even without the threat of  a Biafran secession to grant its inexorability. The bottom line is that the evidence of people seeking freedom for themselves  without considering that others also needed it was what routed Biafra, even as much as Federal guns and the idea of starvation as a weapon of war.

Lets face it: it rankles. I mean, the long-standing and brazen refusal to recognize that there were others in the Eastern Region  who deserved to be treated like the proper nationalities that they were rather than as pariahs in their own country. What cannot be denied is that it was Awolowo’s fate to have earned the dislike of so many outside the Western Region whose region he slated for splitting from early in his career. He made the creation of states, along ethnic lines,  his lifelong  pursuit, while fighting for Nigeria to be turned from a mere geographical expression to a cultural expression, a nation, through the establishment of a common access for all and sundry to free education, free health, full employment and pensions and the freedom of the press and judiciary.  No question about it: Awolowo was a very ambitious man who believed in becoming the leader of a great country that could lift Africans up. He felt it would be  a belittling of his project if he stood by to allow an energetic nationality like the Igbo to excise themselves through the fecklessness of leaders who would send their people to the death in their millions rather than prepare them  for the future with the calculating gumption of true generals.  The sad thing for him was to hear people talk about how much the masses in Biafra wanted war, as if Generals are not supposed to be citizens, specially trained to see beyond anger and bitterness and therefore able to obviate feckless projecteering in the name of war. Do you send your children to commit suicide because you are angry with your enemy?  Where went that proverb which says that you do not ask who killed your father until you are firmly holding a matchete from the right side? So what was Biafra’s handle on the basis of which the world was told that no power in black Africa could subdue her. And then, at the end of the war, to suggest that it was those who hated Igbo people who were working so hard to bring them back to Nigeria by force? Or  who were threatening to leave Nigeria if the Igbo were ever to be allowed to go; and going the whole hog to plead with Igbo leaders not to go to war! It may be good for war propaganda to tone the hatreds that shored up conflict . It simply does not make good post-war logic. Irrespective  of the polemics and  rhetorical afflatus that bedevil public arguments with notions of how Nigeria has no future,  it is clear that a Nigeria together, as it is, even with all the poor quality of the  quarrels that we all have with one another, is a better country than the fractionized  mayhem, each acting like a mini anarchic Nigeria, which we would otherwise  have to deal with. Awolowo believed it, showed it during the civil war, and too many Nigerians have shown that they agree,  that this is still the closest that Africa has to a country able to stand up to the rest of the world and thrive for the good of all Africans. The many differences that some people deplore, and which Awolowo spent his life seeking to re-engineer in creative directions,  are actually part of what will save this country. The point is to prepare all concerned  to work for that future rather than merely grumble, seek scapegoats for our own failings, douse it with cynical rhetoric, while waiting for it like manna from heaven.

The sad part and the shame of the moment is that, unable to look the history of our differences in the face, we allow ourselves to be flattered or incensed by odd serenades of ethnic and regional fictions. Even  those who know that it is bad for  their ethnic groups to seek to live like islands unto themsleves are gleefully developing  discrepant moralities for their  supposed people: a benign one for self and a pernicious or predatory morality for others.  It is usually based on bad logic and poor thinking as much of this narrative has shown. When people think badly they want to hide it by putting the rest of us in situation where, if we disagree, we can be accused of  being haters of  their ethnic group or nationality. So I am told that a proverb belongs to an ethnic group so that if I disagree with the bad thinking that goes with it I may be charged with pushing for ethnocide or genocide.  It is a form of blackmail that yields backwardness for a people. I think we  should feel free to  show our dislike  when people are mauled by their own as when they are  mauled by other people. By the same token if bad logic is claimed for  or by an ethnic group, it amounts to self-immolation on anyone’s part to sit quiet and say it is their business. It is not just their business  because their bad logic will not let  neighbours live well or rest in peace. We are all therefore bound to be our brothers’ keeper. We would need always to contest the veracity of what is claimed against other perceptions of reality.  Until  cultural empathy is achieved or approximated.  I mean: not even the disabilities and pains of one life authorizes that life to deny other lives their due.

These are precepts that I think we should all bear in mind, as we confront situations such as when those returning home to Nigeria after Biafra found a country not too different from the one they left. Unhappily, the Biafra they knew maltreated Biafrans as much if not more than Nigeria kept maltreating Nigerians. Much of it came more from improper organizational setups, plain incompetence, rather than sheer wickedness or hatred as we are all being made to believe when we come to it. Rather than describe the problems with a clarity that allows for seeking genuine solutions, we get all manner of exorbitance, which push away answers and solutions.  Thus, as a way of laying a basis for more harmony between the ex-Biafrans and their Nigerian siblings, we hardly were told about  the many who returned to find that their properties were intact and that people actually protected their rights in those properties.  We hear so much about the absolute deprivation of Biafrans through the granting of N20 ex-gratia payment (slightly more than the equivalent of a third class clerks monthly pay) to every survivor after the war. It is forgotten that it was meant as a short-term welfare policy to enable many get back to their homes from wherever they were at when the war ended. It was not meant to be payment for being rebels or as an exchange for Biafran money. That was why it was called ex-gratia. It was supposed to be a provisional payment while sorting those who could still find the papers to prove how much they had in their accounts. Accountably, the system collapsed. Only a few could have managed to keep their papers who had not already emptied their accounts while they were leaving a country they did not intend to come back to. It called for an exercise of leadership on all sides; for a genuine lobbying or muzzling of whoever was in authority to act beyond the rule of law and to find a way of resolving the clearly confused circumstance of so many people having Biafran money in a country where it was impossible to regard it as legal tender. But just as in the planning for the war, there was so much left undone even in the manner and mode of surrender.  After the war, I used to wonder why the leaders dissolved into atoms. I am saying this partly because I am yet to meet someone who has vouchsafed a formula that could have resolved the matter of the ex-gratia payments without rancor. The same goes for the issue of abandoned property which no longer had a public advocacy once Sam Mbakwe who had briefed Awolowo to take the matter to court was importuned to withdraw it on the awkward reasoning that if Awolowo won the case in court he would make political capital out of it. It became a case of better not fight the abandoned property issue for the masses, if some old enemy would share in the glory. Hence the matter festered till it became a case of everyone for himself. The General of the People’s Army  had to wait till as late as the last week of General Ibrahim Babangida in office in 1993 to wrest his own abandoned property. We don’t know about those who never had that luck. We don’t know about the soldiers who could not get their pensions after the General got his. But that is the way the post-civil war atomization of demands got covered up by a rev of self-interest that many like to present as the interest of the whole nationality.  The truth is that those to whom things happened, and who hardly had a chance of happening to anything, but suffered all the same, never had champions. It left mere grumblers in the public space who are still wondering why others wont fight battles they themselves have abandoned.

But there was clearly one silver lining in the whole business which ought to be acknowledged even in the face of the harsh circumstances that existed.  It is in the fact declared by SG Ikoku, the Commissioner for Economic Development in East Central State in the Daily Times of May 22, 1971  that “the Federal Government had made available 21.505 million pounds grant and 10.620 million as advances and loans. It was part of the accumulated amounts saved for the East Central State during the war by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Commissioner for Finance and Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council, on the basis of population distribution of revenue. No one, these days, is  ever allowed to know this little matter even if the point is to show how well those who wanted the Biafrans dead followed the financial regulations that guided the Federation and so kept what was due to the East in reserve for them till they returned to the fold. This is not even to ask about  how the money was actually spent, which I am sure must be blamed on those who had saved the money. Besides, there really ought now to be a cross-check of Awolowo’s claim that he saved African Continental Bank from collapse in order to help shore up the economy of the East. Right?  Such things ought not to be left in the way that those who took monies from Biafra to buy food and ammunition but failed to deliver have been forgotten with their loot of war.

This is why, across the social media, it is painful to encounter the many angry discussants of the civil war years who see it only in terms of what needed to have been done for the East. My grouse is that it is not being discussed in terms of what the leaders of the East owed the people but failed to deliver. Most of the intellectuals and leaders of opinion  go about seeking to entrench fictions that merely disable the capacity of the ex-Biafrans to build with other Nigerians. The good thing is that the average Igbo man is way ahead of the griping ones who do not know that the war ended long ago. They are everywhere long gone beyond sweating talk about how  to be Nigerian. Others, instead of helping the people to think through the necessity to get empowerment through education, industry and genuine employment, they are busy reproducing fictions that landed the country in a mess of incivility.  And they are adding no value to existing answers beyond the fluff of ethnic nationalism  masquerading as highmindedness. Surely, blaming a neighbor for the mess you helped to create by not caring or standing up for an identifiable principle in pursuit of goals, is no way to go.  Similarly, the habit of  shouting my people my people has actually become a way of not caring for or about the people. This can be proved by simply asking why all the governments in the zone contrived helplessness for forty years while the roads in the East deteriorated to war-time conditions. In a region where trade is an eze with feathers on a red cap, you would have expected that all the governments in the zone would come together to tackle the monster as a matter of emergency. A people so energetic and gutsy, pumping so much enterprise across the country  should not be so self- neglecting as to be waiting for others to raise or de-maginalize them. Unless as a strategy for getting more and more in the national spoils system. I mean, it is plain bad manners to blame other Nigerians, who have not found answers to their problems, and with whom cooperation is a fitter strategy than the politics of the old gripe. At rate, which part of Nigeria is in a good state where  industries have  not collapsed and public  schools in a sorry state!  As I see it, a distracted individualism which some people prefer to describe as republicanism, is being priced above a genuine sitting down to plan with and for the people. Instead of inventing enemies, and seeing competition in zero-sum terms, there is a need to mobilize affect and resources to rise above the disabilities that we all share as Nigerians.

•Ofeimun, poet, journalist was private secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo

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The Economics of Our Social Lives – By Efe Wanogho

The Economics of Our Social Lives – By Efe Wanogho

Culled from

Every once in a while, it becomes most apposite for every individual or community of individuals, to take stock of the extenuating factors in their lives, and determine to what extent such factors contribute or detract from the attainment of set goals. Thus, at the level of the individual, not a few men who have enriched civilization with their indelible footprints on the sands of our universal and collective psyche, have advocated moments of introspection and retrospection, wherein the individual evaluates his lifestyle and decides whether or not to reinforce certain conducts of his, or to part ways with them. It is in the spirit of this reevaluation that this piece aims to beam the spotlight on our social lives and draw possible lessons that may inspire social change, and with it, catalyze economic growth.

A plethora of statistical estimates in the public domain posit that the demographics of the Nigerian population tilt overwhelmingly towards a predominance of a youthful population. Some reports state that as much as seventy percent (70%) of the inhabitants of the Nigerian geopolitical space are young people. These same reports paint a sordid picture when it pertains to the number of Nigerians that are gainfully employed. The unemployment rate in Nigeria was last reported to be 23.9 percent, according to 2011 estimates. Whereas that figure is astronomically high compared to other economies, many Nigerians believe that the figure is a modest and conservative estimation as in real terms; the rate of unemployment is way beyond 39 percent. Now, for a country with an estimated population of about 167 million people, and most of them young, it is an anathema, nay misnomer, that unemployment would be very high.

As always, as indefensible as it is, there’s a myriad of explanations for this situation. For this piece, I want to look no further than our debilitating consumerist tendency and our manifest obsession with all things foreign. That we are an import-dependent economy is trite knowledge. But we are not import-dependent simply because we cannot produce, but mostly because we have been conditioned to denigrate that which is homegrown. We bestow superiority on whatever comes from outside our shores to our own detriment. The average Nigerian youth is an encyclopedic authority on the most expensive designers of clothing from the Western world. Names like Gucci, Prada, T.M. Lewin, Versace, Louis Vuiton, Piere Cardin, Atmosphere, Calvin Klein, True Religion, etc., are household names in Nigeria as the army of our unemployed youth, together with those who are in some employment, be they white-collar or blue-collar, would rather spend a fortune to procure such products from countries which our leaders visit endlessly, in search of Foreign Direct Investments. How can we reasonably bemoan our employment situation when it is self-inflicted? Do we really expect factories to spring up in every nook and cranny of Nigeria when we are subsumed in the patronage of offshore factories which is tantamount to subsidizing the foreign economies at the expense of our stagnated, if not degenerative economy? So, without much ado, we must rein in our obsession for foreign products, particularly for those for which we have locally produced alternatives. What sense is there to believe we are “cool”, only when we are robed in attires that are shipped from overseas? What has happened to our distinct pride in our cultural heritage? Even if we must look foreign in our appearances, is there anything stopping us from utilizing the untapped potentials that Nigeria avails us? We shall return to this foreign based consumerist disposition, another time.

We have a society that celebrates needless ostentation in the midst of excruciating poverty. Someone is bereaved following the death of a family member, and while you would naturally expect some period of solemn sobriety, and a funeral that is reflective of same; what you find is the frittering away of humongous resources in a bid to make a statement to onlookers and people who mostly do not really care, that this or that burial ceremony, was the talk of the town. As if it is not enough to have lost a family member to death, many a man is made to literally empty his bank account. Thus, when you see someone in a sorrowful mood following the death of a relative, the likelihood is that the person is not only mourning the demise of the departed, but mainly mourning an imminent depletion of his resources. Where is the economics in that? What about wedding ceremonies? Aha! Another socially necessary evil, some would say. One wonders how many societies contract the number of wedding ceremonies that a single couple is made to go through in Nigeria. There is the traditional, white, and registry or court wedding. The issue here is, how many weddings are contracted by the very Westerners who we so much seek to fashion our lives after? What about the shameless practice of families practically selling off their daughters in the name of lists for the would-be groom? You have the father’s list, the mother’s list, and these days I hear the youths also have their own list in some communities. What we have done is to over emphasize the ceremony for the benefit of fulfilling that social requirement, and undermined the actual success of the marriage itself. Where is the economics in all of these?

What about the herd-like following that the English Premiership football commands in these parts? Have we considered the man-hours, energy, and finances that we deploy to satiate and further our craze for foreign products? Of course, some of us young people would be quick to respond that the Nigerian League is a mess, and as such, it is natural that our appetites be satiated elsewhere. The question is: do you disown your mother because she is physically challenged, or disabled? Do you abandon your village because the condition of living of its inhabitants is tough? If we don’t fix that which we have, who would fix it for us? If Premiership football has become a global brand, is it not because the stakeholders in England did what they needed to do? Would we be watching the Premiership, if Britons had abandoned their football league, and sought succour in the sport in some foreign land? Is it not then shameful, if not utterly reprehensible, that Nigerian political leaders would clad themselves in jerseys of foreign football clubs, and board private jets out of the country to go watch football in some foreign lands? Is it impossible, if they truly love the sport, and are patriotic, to work towards raising the standard of the game in their domains?

Recently, I got some broadcast on blackberry about an impending increase in tariffs by DSTV, the South African Cable TV operator. Users were required to boycott DSTV services. The posers raised by some discerning minds were for the proponents of the boycott to show the credible alternatives. More so, when the rates in Nigeria were said to be exploitative compared to that in South Africa from where DSTV made its entrance to Nigeria; the question was: why were Nigerians not providing something to better the services of DSTV?

Being the information age, it is understandable that there is an unprecedented craze for all sorts of Information Technology and telecommunication gadgets. Our youth should not be left behind. What we are able to do with the instant access to information at a moment’s notice, is another matter. What is somewhat worrisome is when you find young men and women whose fathers are certainly not the Dangotes, Adenugas, and Bill Gates of this world; and who have no known credible source of income, clutching 2 blackberry phones, an iPhone, an iPad, and a laptop computer, at the same time. As some would say in the streets: how can someone be living a fried rice life on a “mama-put” income? The question is simple, what is the economics in that? If we take a cursory look around our homes and offices, how many of the gadgets and household furniture contained therein, were made in Nigeria?

Okay, enough of the foregoing.

What constitutes “groove” for some young Nigerians these days, is a life that is centered on alcohol, smoking, sex, and “clubbing”, amongst others. Without demonizing any of the above, let’s evaluate, not just the monetary economics, but also the medical and spiritual economics of these lifestyle practices. More often than not, we are wont to hear and see the phrase: “Thank God it’s Friday”, TGIF. Once this phrase invades our consciousness, what comes to mind for some, is a weekend of clubbing; a euphemism of sorts for unlimited exposure to tobacco smoke, excessive alcohol, and you know what. Whereas alcohol and tobacco have been certified to be injurious to health, what amazes one is that in the name of grooving, we are willing to spend fortunes to procure the Hennesseys, Vodkas, Martels, etc. at exorbitant rates. In one fell swoop, we undermine our financial, medical, and spiritual economics. Why? Because some of us just want to belong. We want to show that we got class!

Now that we are at it, we must not forget the imperialist cum colonialist branding of locally produced spirit/gin as illicit gin, during the colonial era. What we had was undermined and rubbished by foreigners who wanted to promote the export of their own products. That was understandable. What is not, however, is when we continue to look down on all things Nigerian, several years after the Colonialists left. In this regard, one must laud the Nigerian Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, for promoting Nigerian fashion through her dressing. What one cannot say is whether the fabric of her clothing is actually made in Nigeria. The Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, is also deserving of praise for his simplicity and “Africanness”, in this regard.

It is an axiom that, “if everyone sweeps his portion of land, the whole earth would be clean”. So also is it a given, that if every Nigerian thinks Nigeria in his social constructs, and aims to further the socioeconomic growth and progress of the country, the long awaited, but yet elusive, positive change, would be within reach. We must know that it is incumbent upon us, and not any foreigner, to define what is cool and what is not. We have to look inward and build upon what we have so that Nigeria can as well be a global destination for business and tourist concerns. If we claim that Colonialism ended with the attainment of political independence in 1960, we should show that it has actually ended, through a rejection of Neocolonialism in all its colorations.

The writer is @efewanogho on twitter.

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I Want My ‘Old’ Abati Back–By Segun Dada

I Want My ‘Old’ Abati Back–By Segun Dada


” A man who claims he is honest may just be a thief who doesn’t have an opportunity yet”, my Father used to say. Dad was (and still is) a mentor from whom I drew invaluable nuggets of wisdom.

The Reuben Abati I grew up to know was the Chairman, Editorial Board of The Guardian Newspapers. He was a very brilliant scholar cum journalist who contributed immensely to nation-building through his unique style of discussing topical issues in his columns. Here was a man whose approach of using dialogue, narratives, essay and satire to deal with serious national issues had made his columns captivating to many readers. Most of his articles were laced with humour and drew him wide readership.

This was a man who made me crack up my piggybank (aka Kolo) every other week to purchase copies of The Guardian, Daily Sketch, Democrat, Nigerian Tribune and Daily Times just so that I could get a chance to read him. In instances where my savings weren’t enough, I had to depend on the cuttings of his articles my father would bring back from his office. I frequently used the words I coined from his columns in conversations with my peers and the elderly ones alike, and they were always in awe of my wisdom and oratorical skills. Dr Reuben Abati has lost a fan in Olusegun Dada.

Everyday, I miss that Reuben Abati and every day I mourn his sudden demise. The old Abati is dead, it appears; and sadly so. The new Dr Abati we see today is a drowning man: a man driven by greed, avarice and filthy lucre. When I watch him these days on the TV or read his heavily soulless articles, I see a man clinging desperately to anything that could see him stay on his new job as the President’s spokesman. He looks as dead as ‘dodo’.

Would we ever see the Old Abati again? I doubt that very much. There goes another talented writer. There goes my mentor. There goes my Father’s best Columnist. There goes truth and the peoples’ champion. “Conscience is no longer nurtured by truth”, to paraphrase the indelible words of Uthman Dan Fodio from the masthead of The Guardian—the flagship of the free press Abati once shone brightly for.

But if anyone could bring back my old Abati, I may well mutter my thanks, albeit grudgingly. I don’t want this impostor who calls himself ‘Abati’ no more. This could be his clone: a very pedestrian and asinine one at that.

The Writer is on Twitter @DOlusegun 


Culled from

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Princeton University Interview – Nasir El-Rufai (2009)

An initiative of the National Academy of Public Administration,

and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

and the Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, Princeton University

Oral History Program  Series:         Governance Traps

Interview No: D1

Interviewee:                Nasir el-Rufai

Interviewer:                Graeme Blair and Daniel Scher

Date of Interview:      16 June 2009

Location:                    Washington, DC,    U.S.A.

Innovations for Successful Societies, Bobst Center for Peace and
Justice Princeton University, 83 Prospect Avenue, Princeton,
New Jersey, 08540, USA

BLAIR:           Just to confirm for the tape that you are consenting to
the interview, it is a volunteer interview and you have
read our consent documents.

EL-RUFAI: You make it sound like you are asking me to marry you
and it is a big decision, I consent. [laughter]

BLAIR:           Thank you very much for agreeing to share your views with
us and with other reform leaders that we will disseminate this to. Until very recently you were involved in Nigeria’s reform program at several levels, first in the Bureau of Public Enterprises and then as Minister for Abuja and in several informal capacities as part of President (Olusegun) Obasanjo’s economic reform team. We’d like to speak to you about these experiences first as a member of the larger reform team and then more particular questions about your experience as Minister for Abuja.

Before we get into those details if you could speak
briefly a little bit about your own career, your first
jobs in government, how you got started and then the
events that led to your participation in Obasanjo’s economic reform team and getting to be the Minister for Abuja.

EL-RUFAI:    It is quite strange how one plans one’s life and then it comes out another way. I studied quantity surveying in college. Quantity surveying is a profession unknown in the US but quite common in the Commonwealth countries, Britain and so on. Basically what quantity surveyors do is they work with architects and engineers and forecast the cost of construction projects and monitor the costs during construction and keep accounts of the books. So quantity surveyors are like construction economists and accountants. So that’s what I studied. I had no plans whatsoever to be in public service. I started my business a couple of years after graduating, a consulting business, and we targeted real estate developers and financial institutions that do lots of buildings. I became quite comfortable very early in my life and I was quite happy.

The country was running fairly okay. Nigeria has never been run very well, we had a succession of bad leaders, but things were okay. I mean one could earn a living and levels of security were decent. But things began to go really wrong in the ’90s such that by 1996, I figured out the tenuous limits of the assumption that if you make enough money you can insulate yourself from failures of government. Because in Nigeria, the government became more of a problem to its citizens than a facilitator of achievement of one’s potentials, most people would say okay, if I make enough money I’ll be able to have my own water supply. You know you drill a borehole and put a water treatment plant so you get clean water in your home. If you make enough money you can buy gasoline-powered generating set so if the pubic supply goes off you switch on your own private supply. Basically that’s what we all thought in those days.

As the country began to deteriorate slowly in the ’70s, in the ’80s and then more rapidly in the ’90s, everybody’s mind frame was okay, I will try to achieve financial independence and then I can pretty much insulate myself from government’s failures. But things got on and that worked for a while. But about the middle of the ’90s it became clear to me at least that there needed to exist  a minimum level of functioning government for every private endeavor to be possible. I mean, no matter how wealthy you are, if you do not have a minimally functioning government, you will not be able to insulate yourself from its failures. For instance you could buy your electric generators, but you need gasoline to run it. If the government doesn’t function, you can’t build your own refinery, you can’t get your own gasoline, somebody has to produce it and a minimum system of governance should facilitate the transportation and transfer of the product  to enable you to buy it.

By 1996, under General (Sani) Abacha, even that broke down. So we had generators but no gasoline. We had water treatment plant, but we don’t have the chloride to treat the water. Things really got bad. That’s when it occurred to me, dawned on me that we should all try to make our government work better. Though I had no plans then to ever work for the government, but I made a silent promise that if I get the opportunity to work in the public sector I will accept it and I’ll give it my best shot. Because in 1989 and 1991, I had the opportunities to work with the administration of the then President of Nigeria (General Ibrahim Babangida) and I declined. I didn’t think I was made for public service.

In 1998 General Abacha died of a heart attack, allegedly, induced by bouts of lovemaking with some Indian prostitutes. There are many versions of the story; no one knows for sure which is the truth. But he died. The person who succeeded him was the most senior military officer, a gentleman called Abdulsalami Abubakar that I knew and had other links to. He put a call to me and got other people to call me to come and work with him on transition policy and program. The way he put it was this, this man just died. I never thought I would ever be the President of Nigeria, but I am the President and I have no immediate plans about what to do. All I know is I want to organize elections and leave office because I think the military has overstayed its welcome. I need you and a few trusted people help me think through how to do that quickly.

I said, “General, what do you want? In what way can we help? I’ve never worked for the government.” He said, “Well, first I want to leave, I want to organize elections and leave and secondly, I want to reengage Nigeria with the rest of the world. We are not talking to the World Bank, we are not talking to the Fund, we are not talking to anyone. Nigeria had become more or less a pariah nation and I want to engage and so I need people like you that think globally to put together an engagement plan, a re-engagement plan if you like, a reform plan and I want to hold elections and just leave within the shortest possible time.” So I said okay. He said, “How long do you think it would take a group of guys like you to put together such a plan?”

I said, “Well, I believe we can do it in two weeks. We all know Nigeria’s problems, it’s not very difficult to propose solutions. Any Nigerian you talk to will tell you the problems of the country. Eighty percent of the time they all agree. The challenge has been to just solve the problems instead of complaining about them.” So I said, “I think it can be done in two weeks.” So I left my home town of Kaduna which is about 200 km from Abuja and moved to Abuja to work with the military President, General Abdulsalami Abubakar for two weeks. I ended up being there for eleven months but we organized elections and handed over to an elected president and legislature. During the period we reengaged with the International Monetary Fund, we signed a staff monitored program and I and one other person now deceased actually negotiated the Letter of Intent. Abdussalam restored and repaired our multilateral relations.

During that period I also worked on drafting the privatization law along with that person, his name is Amah Iwuagwu. Unfortunately he died of lung cancer, he was a chain smoker. We lost him in 2005. We drafted the privatization law and it was signed by the head of state. The military is very efficient in making laws, limited debate and only one person – the Head of State – needs to sign the draft decree to become law, you don’t need any long debates, and the lobbying and corruption that our kind of democracy has brought. So we drafted it the way we believe it should be, and not a comma or full stop was added to it, it was signed into law. We worked with other agencies, organized elections and left.

During the hand-over process I met President Obasanjo. Bbecause when we had to brief him on the engagement with multilateral institutions, the head of state asked me to lead the delegation. I took the World Bank and the IMF team to brief the President-elect as he then was. We briefed him and went over things to do with economic reform in general. We disagreed on some policy directions, we argued on many issues. For instance he said,” I’m not going to privatize (state-owned enterprises)”  and we had that argument about privatization. He didn’t think privatization was necessary, he thought he could fix everything. I said, “You have to privatize General, when you take over you’ll know.” He said, “Huh, you’re telling me what-? I was head of state before. I know how this country runs.”

I said, “Yes, you did, twenty years ago, a lot has happened in twenty years. When you take over you’ll find that you have to privatize.” So we had arguments like that. We disagreed in one or two areas, but it was a good briefing and we left. My shock was later in the evening someone came to me and said General Obasanjo wanted to see me. So I said okay but, “Why does he want to see me?” He said, “Well, you know, maybe because you argued with him.” Because nobody argued with Obasanjo then.

So I went to his hotel suite and he said to me, “You are a very stubborn but very clever young man. I want you to work with me when I take over.”  I said okay. He said, “So when I take over I will send for you.” I said, “Fine, thank you, and I’m honored.” He said, “You haven’t asked me in which capacity.” I said, “I don’t care, when you make the offer I will decide whether I will accept it.” So he said other nice compliments and I left. Frankly, I didn’t think he would remember because all I wanted to do at that point in time was to go back to my consulting business and move on.

We handed over at the end of May 1999. Early in July he sent a friend of mine now his principal secretary, Steve Oronsaye to look for me. He did not even remember my name. He just described me and said get me that stubborn, young, Fulani boy. Fulani is my ethnic group, I’m supposed to be Fulani though I don’t speak the language. Anyway, Steve called me and asked me to come and meet with the new president.

I drove from Kaduna, I saw him and he told me, “You are right, I found that I have to privatize.” I said, “What did you find out?” He said, “Well, the amount of money we need to spend on these state-owned enterprises just doesn’t make sense. Some of them maybe we can let go. I’m not sure we should privatize everything, but I’m convinced we have to let go some. So I want you to look at that decree that you drafted and break the privatization program for me into three phases. Let’s start with the easiest ones that I know we can do, okay? Leave the difficult ones like electricity, telecoms, and the refineries, because those will be contentious, let us go to the easy ones. We have banks, we have insurance companies, we have cement plants, we have companies that sell gasoline. These are things that I think the government can step out of immediately.”

So I said, Okay, if that’s what you want.” He said, “Well, what do you advise?” I said, “What I advise is start with the difficult ones because those are the ones that can fundamentally change the economy. I mean Nigeria can never move upwards without electricity and the best way to get electricity going is to attract a lot of private investment into the sector. To do so you have to demonopolize the sector, you have to open it up, you have to do this. So if I were you I would start with those ones. I told him, I said, “General, you have a lot of credibility. Here you are in the period that is called a honeymoon period. Nigerians will accept anything from you because you are considered a war hero, someone who was a decent military head of state, the first military head of state to actually hand over power to elected government. I think you have a lot of idiosyncrasy credit. You can use it and take on the most difficult things. If I were you I would do it the other way around.”

He said, “Okay, but how can I privatize without dismantling the monopolies, I need time to do that.” I said, “Okay, you are right. We can’t wake up and sell our electricity company tomorrow. We need to change the law, liberalize the sector, establish a regulatory agency and all that –  that could take a bit of time. But if you agree in principle that you are going to do this in time, then it makes sense.” He said, “Okay, okay, I agree in principle but write me, phase it for me, phase one, two and three.”

I worked on that overnight, came back the next day and showed him the phasing plan. He was happy, he said, “Okay, help me draft a letter to the Vice President conveying these directives”. The Vice President under the privatization law is to be the Chairman of the Privatization Council. So Obasanjo needed the letter to him to say the Council should be constituted and it will implement the privatization in phases, so and so. I drafted the letter, handed it to him and left for Kaduna. Before I left he offered me a job – the first job offer. He offered me a job to wind up a kind of quasi-governmental organization called Petroleum Special Trust Fund (PTF). I declined. He asked me why. I said I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t believe he was doing the right thing winding up the PTF and I left.

He called me a couple of weeks later and offered me another job. He wanted me to be Special Assistant to the President on Budget Matters. I declined. He asked me why. I said, well, you know the Minister of Finance wants to control the budget. The Economic Advisor wants to have an input in the budget, I don’t want to be caught in between tow titans. But he said, “you are going to be in my office and anything that comes you look at it because you are very meticulous and thorough.” I said, “Mr. President, that’s not the sort of work I want to do.” He said, “Okay, what do you want to do?”

I said, “I want to run an agency, I want to get my hands dirty. I’m sick and tired of assisting or advising people. As a consultant I assist and advise people all the time for a fee. I’ve been doing this all my life. I want to do something myself.” So on that note I left. But I could see he was getting exasperated with me. He thinks I’m too picky and all that because people were running all over trying to get jobs and here I am already declining two consecutive offers. I was hoping in my mind we would be lucky the third time because I think if we don’t  get it right the third time we would not have another chance. This happened, when I was in the US actually, in October 1999. I was in Chicago negotiating an equipment purchase deal with Motorola when I got a call from the Vice President’s office. I was informed that the vice president  wanted to talk to me.

I thought that was very strange because I didn’t really know the Vice President. The President I have been meeting and have developed some kind of relationship. It was clear that it wasn’t that he just liked me, it wasn’t just that. It wasn’t that I was clever or whatever, I think he just really liked me and I could get away with talking to him in a way that no one in Nigeria could at the time. He just really liked me. I guess I was just a fresh, different, divergence from what was normally around him.

So I called the Special Advisor to the Vice President on Political Matters, a close friend of mine, Dr. Usman Bugaje. I said, please, your boss wants to see me. I’m in the US but I want to know “why does he want to see me. I have met him only once or twice, very brief meetings, why does he want to see me”. He said, “Okay, I’ll get back to you.” He went, snooped around and called me back and said, “Well, the Vice President is the Chairman of the Privatization Council.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, he wants you to be the CEO of BPE and Secretary of the Council. He wants you to run the agency. He is replacing the current head.” I said, “Oh, okay.” “That’s what he wants to offer to you if you’ll accept.” I said, “Okay, I will return to Nigeria, I will come and meet him as soon as I can.”

Of course I thought about it. Well this is my dream job. Less than two years from that date, my friend and I drafted a law and now I am being offered the opportunity to implement the law. So I came to Nigeria and a few days later I accepted. I met with the President and the Vice President and it was announced and I went to the Bureau of Public Enterprises as Director General. I remained there for maybe four years. I left in July, 2003. I reported in November 1999, I left in July 2003 to be a cabinet secretary.

As Director General of the BPE, I had to implement the phasing that  we agreed with President Obasanjo. So we proceeded with privatizing the easy ones. During my time we privatized all the government shareholding in the banks, insurance companies, and the cement plants. The petroleum products marketing companies were sold. I think we sold one or two of the vehicle assembly plants. While doing that we also began to undertake policy reform of all the key economic sectors. We took the monopoly sectors like electricity and did regulatory sector review, drafted new legislation that will establish an independent regulator and then proceeded to dismantle the monopolies, breakdown the companies and so on. We did that successfully for telecoms, we made some progress with electricity and transportation. For electricity supply we undertook the policy review, we drafted the law. We broke down NEPA – the electricity monopoly into 18 companies ready for privatization, then I left. Since then very little progress has been made on electricity privatization.

SCHER:          Can I just jump in and ask you a question. You mentioned that you have easy ones and hard ones and I can see what a massive one electricity is and perhaps smaller government interest in cement is an easy one. But there is a range between those two. I was wondering what you took into account when you were identifying what were the easy ones and what were the hard ones. Were some more politically contentious? Were, like, I’d just be interested to know more about your thinking behind that process.

EL-RUFAI:    Well, the easiest ones were those that had already been partially privatized and already been listed on the Stock Exchange, so selling the outstanding interest of the government is easy. There is a valuation, the market valuation. These companies were already operating purely in the private sector realm, so it is easy, to sell them, like the cement plants. In most of the cement plants we owned just 30-40%, the rest is foreign owned and the shares listed on the stock exchange.

With respect to the banks, there are nearly a hundred banks in Nigeria at the time, and the government had 20-40% interest in about six of them. Meaning that the banks partially owned by the Federal Government were just bit players. So they were also easy, already listed on the stock exchange, and easy pricing and  valuation one set of considerations. Operating in purely competitive markets was another consideration. The third consideration, of course, is political difficulty. Even then sometimes one’s assessment of this difficulty can be wrong. I’ll give an example because we thought that selling cement plants was not politically difficult. The cement plants had either Blue Circle or Lafarge as technical partners and the federal government shareholding was minimal, 20%, 40% tops. Benue Cement was one of such companies. This company is already well managed by the foreign partners. The foreign partners were fully in technical and management control, everything was working well. We went ahead to sell the government’s shareholding. We had political difficulties because the Nigerian company that bought the bulk of the shares of the government (Dangote Cement) is owned by an individual that came from another part of the country other than where the cement plant was locate. So the local politicians there organized a village-level protest insisting that the privatization be reversed because we sold in an open bidding process to the highest bidder who they believe to be ‘the wrong person’ due to his ethnic origin.

This was a dispute that lasted three years because I was under pressure to reverse the sale, and I refused. I mean, even President Obasanjo called me said just cancel it. I said I won’t. He said why? I said because once we allow this kind of objection to succeed, it is a slippery slope. Every company we try to sell, we will be at the mercy of the local politician that can just blackmail us. I said we have to show resolve; we have to show that we will not succumb to this kind of nonsense. It took three or four years. In fact it was resolved after I left. But I made sure that it was very difficult to reverse because I immediately paid the proceeds of sale into the federal treasury, kept quiet until I was sure it was spent by the government. I then went to President Obasanjo and said even if you order the sale reversed, it’s too late. He asked why? I said, you’ve spent the money. Why did you do that? I said, well, to make it more difficult to reverse – you now have to go to the legislature and get an appropriations bill to actually pay back Dangote Cement and you don’t want to do that, Mr. President.

So sometimes you look at all these factors. These are some of the issues we took into account to determine degree of difficulty but even then sometimes we got it wrong because you just can never say. Those were interesting times. So that’s what we did. As I said, we sold the easy ones and along with that, proceeded to do what we call sector reform. At some point we realized that we had to do other things that were not privatization per se, but were needed to facilitate privatization. I’ll give three instances.

As we took on the larger companies, we found huge pension liabilities that were unfunded. Because these are government companies, nobody really set aside any money to pay for future retirement benefits. It’s like your Social Security; there isn’t enough money to cover the future liabilities. So we had to figure out what to do because in many of the companies the amount of pension liabilities affected the value of the companies. Because whoever is buying will have to project the unfunded future pension liabilities and deduct it from the enterprise valuation. So we would be selling companies for like next to nothing and it was causing a political problem for us because people thought we were giving these things away for next to nothing, which is always the risk you take as you privatize.

So we had to set up a steering committee to study the problem of unfunded pension liabilities in public enterprises. The report was so interesting that when I made the presentation to the Council, I was taken first to the President and subsequently to the cabinet to present it because the problem of pension liabilities that we found in state-owned enterprises, was even less serious than the hole in the civil service pensions. The federal government of Nigeria never set aside anything for future retirement benefits. Our version of limited ‘Social Security’ was never funded, it was assumed that the government would always have money to pay. So every year in the budget they put an amount for payments for pensions and so on. Nothing is being set aside. The US is better; you are setting aside something, it’s just not enough. In Nigeria it was zero.

So I was given the task of putting together a group to design a funded pension system for the country based on what we did for public enterprises. So we now sponsored another study including visits to Chile and many countries to come up with the legal, regulatory and administrative framework for that. We had to resolve the issue of pensions because privatization became increasingly challenging without addressing that problem. Then that initiative led to the enactment of the Pension Reforms Act of 2004. We also noticed that we didn’t have an anti-trust regime in Nigeria. There was nothing, no competition and anti-trust regime. So we had to undertake another study on that and we drafted legislation for competition and anti-trust reform because some of the companies we’re privatizing are huge, and even if they are in competitive markets, they are so big that they had a lot of market power. So we had to think of ways to mitigate that. So we did some work on that as well.

Of course, the most interesting one, which you will get more details from when you talk to Nuhu Ribadu, was corruption. Anywhere we went and we had lots of road shows around the world trying to attract investors, one thing that always came up was the scam letters that used to emanate from Nigeria. It was a big problem and big national embarrassment.

So when Nuhu Ribadu walked into my office in January 2003 with a letter that he had been appointed the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, I didn’t even know what the Commission was. I said, “okay, so what the hell is this, what is this EFCC?”  He said, “the Commission was established to combat money laundering.” I said, and “what is money laundering, explain it to me.” Okay, he explained and the added that one of the first things he wanted to do was to take down the scam letters syndicates in the country. He said, “I know the people behind these scams, I know where they are. The police know where they are, but they are rich, they’re influential, and they have become untouchable. I will take them down.” That’s how our conversation started.

I said, “you know, if you can take them down my life would be much easier, as attracting investors to our program will become easier.” And that’s how our partnership with Nuhu started. I did not know him before that day he walked into my office in January 2003. I said “okay, I have heard you, and what you want to do. Why are you here, why do you want to see me?” He said, “well, I just got this letter. I have no office, I have no staff, I have no budget. I have a commission on paper; I have nothing. This is January, I’m not in the 2003 budget so I’m not going to get a penny from the government, can you help me?”

So I gave him three of my staff, three of my aides began to work with him. We gave him two suites of offices in our building and the EFCC started operating from the BPE. I went to the Privatization Council and made a case that under Section 9 of the Privatization Act, the Council could support the EFCC with a grant of a million dollars from the proceeds of privatization because if it is successful in taking down the scam letters operations in Nigeria, it will “facilitate” privatization, it will help privatization. The omnibus provisions in section 9 of the Act allow us to do things like that. So using the Section 9 justification I got the Council to approve a million dollars for him and within three weeks he had shut down scam letters operations in Nigeria. It was very impressive, everyone was impressed. That was when everyone within the government and outside notice, people got to know who he was, before that he was just an anonymous police officer.

Of course with the grant we gave him after some time he moved out of BPE, rented offices and by the following year he had his budget and lived happily ever after. So these were some of the things we did and by the time I left BPE we had privatized I think was between twenty and thirty companies. We had contributed more than 500 million dollars to the Treasury, more than 500 million dollars. The only large ticket privatization we got partly done then was the privatization of Nitel, the national telephone company which unfortunately was inconclusive, but we got 132 million dollars deposit for the shares and those that bought could not complete the sale, but the 132 million dollars was nonrefundable, so we walked away with 132 million dollars for selling nothing. Really that was cool -I liked that, strictly abiding by the contractual terms and no more.

But you know it was quite an interesting time. But you know the biggest challenges then, much more than the technical aspects of the sale, – because privatization is quite mechanical really. You do the reviews, you do the due diligence, you value the company, you put it up for bidding, the highest bidder wins, it’s just very easy – but the trade unions, the management of the companies, the politicians that benefit from these public enterprises, those are always the stakeholders that fight all the time and I guess I made all my enemies from those groups of people and I still have them in huge numbers.

BLAIR:           Could you talk a little bit about the coalition that you built, the people that you could count on for your support when you were dealing with the trade unions and the management?

EL-RUFAI:    Actually, when I was in the BPE I was more or less alone, there was no team then, but I had two very powerful supporters. As I said the President just liked me, he didn’t like privatization very much okay, but he liked me. Somehow he thought that I was a well-intentioned but probably na•ve young man but he liked me. So politically he supported me most of the time. We had a few arguments for instance over Nigeria Airways, the national aviation carrier. He didn’t think we should go ahead with its accelerated privatization and I thought we should, because he liked the minister in charge of aviation more than he liked me, so there was a lot of bad blood.

The Vice President (Atiku Abubakar) was the Chairman of the Privatization Council and was solidly behind privatization. So I had two very big men. I also engaged intensely with the media. Most Nigerians didn’t really care about these companies because they don’t function well- – not providing services and perceived to be arrogant and corrupt. I mean there are very low levels of public sympathy towards the government-owned companies.  Nobody loved our national electricity company or our telecoms company; everybody hated them because they just made everyone’s life hell. So it was very easy for us to engage intensively with media to bring out how badly these companies were doing and we kept giving that message. We also took our media leaders abroad, showed them how really well managed privatized companies were. So we got largely the media with us. The unions we had to defeat.

Luckily in Nigeria the unions were weak because of prolonged years of military rule, so they are not as organized as say the unions in South Africa. In one or two cases, the electricity union for instance which was relatively better  organized, we had to confront and restrain – when we announced our plans to privatize the electricity company and sent the draft law to the national assembly, they threatened to go on strike so we went to court and got an restraining injunction. The threat of imprisonment for anyone who goes on strike, because the law in Nigeria allows unions only to go on strike in the event of a “trade dispute” and the change of ownership of a government-owned company did not amount to a trade dispute. So we went to court and a judge in chambers, ex parte, granted all our prayers and we just slapped the leaders of the unions with threats that if any of their members go on strike tomorrow, you’re going to prison for contempt.

So with the unions we had to just play hard ball, but we also put out a lot of information in the public domain to show how badly the companies were doing, how they were not serving the public interest but serving the private interest of a few, – the contractors, the politicians and so on. It was a major battle and I was jumping from one controversy to another, constantly-I was a moving target of the politicians. It was mostly politicians and contractors, those vested interests that benefitted from procurements, were the problem rather than the ordinary man on the street, so it was easy. As long as we put out the information on a consistent basis public support for us and the privatization program was sustained.

BLAIR:           Can we move to talking a little bit about the beginning of the economic reform team, how you got on that, how that got formed and-?

EL-RUFAI:    So what happened then, as I said when I was in BPE I was more or less alone. During the first term of the Obasanjo administration, there was no organized reform team as such. There were pockets of people doing their stuff but no team, no real coordination – and the Minister of Finance (Adamu Ciroma), to be fair to him during the Obasanjo first term, was quite supportive, but he wasn’t prepared to fight my battles. He was an old man and he had an accident and went and spent over a year in Germany and someone was acting, so it was not really easy. So I was more or less alone between 1999 and 2003. Then Nuhu Ribadu got appointed in 2003 and as I said, we began a partnership, the basis of which I have already described. Then in March 2003, I still remember,  I was feeling quite frustrated and I said, look, it’s time for me to go back to the private sector, my previous life. And I have things to do – a law degree to complete and so on. I applied to Yale, for Yale World Fellows program because I was planning to leave the BPE in September 2003. Then something happened.

Obasanjo called us, three of us, and said we should go to London and meet with Baroness Lynda Chalker. Baroness Chalker was Secretary for Overseas Development under Margaret Thatcher. She was a cabinet secretary under Margaret Thatcher and she had become a very good friend of Obasanjo. She chaired an investor advisory council for President Obasanjo. So he called us, three of us, Oby Ezekwesili is one, she is in the World Bank (as Vice President – Africa) and maybe you should talk to her. Oby did a lot of interesting stuff, a pioneer in many areas of reform in Nigeria. In fact, the only person I would say was with me then between 1999 and 2003, was Oby because she was in Nigeria but she was not holding a strong position to be able to help out a whole lot, but she was there. We constantly compared notes and we worked on a few committees, so on. She is now Vice President Africa for the World Bank.

The other person was Suraj B. Yakubu, the head of the Investment Promotions Commission. So we went to London. He just said go and see Baroness Chalker in London. We said okay. We went to London. This was in April 2003. Baroness Chalker now said to us the reason why President Obasanjo sent us to London was because he was confident of  winning the elections and the election results were announced the day after we got to London and he was declared the winner. Many people complained that the elections were not perfect, but hey, Bush Junior’s 2000 elections were not perfect either. So she said-and he really thinks that his second and final time should be a legacy term. His legacy was that he wanted to get Nigeria’s $30 billion foreign debt sorted out. These were the words she used. So he had asked her to do some kind of plan for his second term. But she suggested that he should send some Nigerian reformers that are grounded to look at the plan and see whether it made sense, because this plan was written by some British consultant or whatever.

So this plan was presented to us and we read it overnight and we came back to begin discussions. It was a good plan. We didn’t have much by way of amendments. But then, once we agreed on the plan and the amendments Baroness Chalker said  we need good people to implement this plan. She thought-she wanted to know what we thought, but she thought that she would recommend that Obasanjo appoints me Minister of Finance or Economic Advisor and Oby will be the Economic Advisor or Minister of Finance. I disagreed, I said, “No, I don’t think that is a good idea. I don’t think Obasanjo will ever appoint me Minister of Finance.” She said, “Why?”

I said, “Because I have been having problems working with him. I don’t think you should have problems working with your Finance Minister, it should be a very smooth relationship and I just don’t think we’ll ever have that relationship with him. I mean we have a relationship with Obasanjo but every once in a while it gets quite tense.” So I told her “I don’t think he will do it. In any case, if you say that what Obasanjo wants to achieve is to get his debt written off, his best bet is to appoint someone else his Finance Minister.”

She said, “Who do you have in mind?” I named Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She had never heard of her. I said, “She is a Vice President in the World Bank and she has spent over twenty years in the bank. She built her career there. She has degrees from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Harvard and she is good, she is really good.” Oby concurred. Suraj thought Ngozi was the perfect Finance Minister.

Baroness Chalker was very excited. World Bank Vice President from Nigeria, a woman, oh that was cool. So she said, “Yes, then that’s it then, so but what about you guys, what are you going to do?” I said, “Look, Baroness, I am gone, I am going, I think I have had enough, I’ve done what I can do, I’m not interested.” She said, “Well, that’s for President Obasanjo to decide, but you know I’m going to strongly recommend Ngozi for Finance Minister and then we’ll see how it goes.” So we left.

I left for Washington the afternoon of April 23rd to report myself to Ngozi – to tell her I have suggested that she should be Finance Minister without her permission and in case she gets a call she should know I take full responsibility. I flew into Washington and took a cab straight to her office. I got to Ngozi’s office and she was meeting with a couple of her staff and I was seated outside, waiting. Then she came out and said, “Look the President of the Bank wants to see me, and he says it is urgent. I will be back an then we catch up” I said, “Okay.” I didn’t have any chance to talk to her. Apparently Obasanjo had called the World Bank’s President at that point and told him that he wanted to offer Ngozi the job and needed him to know and also to persuade her to accept.

So Ngozi went up and came down and was looking quite confused. I said, “What is the problem?” She said, “Is that why you’re here?” She started quarreling with me. “Is that why you’re here? Obasanjo just called my boss saying that he wants me to be Finance Minister, I can’t do this, I can’t leave this job. I can’t be Finance Minister in Nigeria. The pay is poor, how do I pay for my three children through Harvard?” Because she had two kids studying at Harvard then and the third was on the way. So I said, “Oh my God.” She said, “Yes, you look guilty” and all that.

Anyway so we sat down and I told her what happened and I apologized for suggesting her without prior consent. I said, “That’s why I came to more or less report myself but unfortunately Obasanjo beat me to it and called before I did.” I said to her, “You must accept.” She said, “But you know the pay is awful.” I said, “Ask for your salary here to be continued, something must be worked out. You can’t pull your children out of college just because you want to serve your country, something must be worked out.” So basically that’s what happened. Ngozi now said, “Okay, if I am going to do this, you must be part of it.” I said, “I’m not going to be part of anything, I’ve already told Baroness Chalker that I’m out.” She said, “I don’t care, if you’re not doing it, I’m not doing it. You got me into this trouble, you get me into this sea, we have to swim or sink together.”  Ngozi flew to Nigeria, met with Obasanjo and agreed the terms of the appointment. A Diaspora fund was set up with the assistance of the UNDP with contributions from donors to ensure that Ngozi (and one other Minister) continues to get a decent salary for two years. It was still about half of her World Bank salary, but at least it covered tuition to Harvard for three children.

She also insisted to Obasanjo that I must be part of the team. And one of the good things that Ngozi did was also to convince all of us that for these things to work there had to be a solid team. I could see that immediately because I worked alone and it was tough operating without a team. We more or less sat and handpicked that team. (Charles) Chukwuma Soludo was brought in by Ngozi, was a student of Ngozi’s dad and she knew him and so we recommended that he should be the Economic Advisor. He was Economic Advisor for two years before moving to the Central Bank as Governor.

Oby continued her work on due process, procurement reform and governance. Working with Oby,  we established the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. She was also directly in charge of all the procurement reforms. Oby did a lot. Oby did probably far more than any one of us. Far more than Ngozi, because Ngozi did very little apart from providing the direction, the leadership, the external face. Because she was World Bank staff and had been there for a while, and she knew all the finance ministers in other countries over the years, she was therefore quite effective in getting the foreign debts sorted out. But apart from that Ngozi did very little. The real work I think Oby did much more. Oby did more than all of us in my view followed by Nuhu Ribadu, who fought corrupt politicians. Then maybe followed by Charles, Chukwuma Soludo.

I think I did the least groundbreaking work because I had the FCT (Federal Capital Territory) to run which was not only the largest bureaucracy in the Federal Government but served as the laboratory of our economic reforms. So we experimented in Abuja, and I was in charge of that. We used the FCT Abuja to be where we’ll test all policies. For instance, the reason why I ended up handling public service reforms was because when we decided on how to go about the reforms, I went to FCT and implemented everything, you know reduced my staff, monetized benefits, aggressive re-training and all that -you know when I went to FCT I was told I had 26,000 staff. By the time I did staff audits, headcounts, physical, biometric audits –  it turned out that 3,000 of them didn’t exist. By the time we looked at qualifications and matched needs with what we wanted, we drastically reduced the headcount -by the time I left the FCT the headcount was down to 18,000.

Because of the successful experiment in doing the public service reforms, the President took public service reform from the control of the head of civil service and handed it over to me, rather late, in 2005. I did what I could with it. So it was, Ngozi said we should be a team and she went further. She said, “Look, the five of us must be the core of the team. So we meet, no matter how busy we are – we must  meet every week.” In the early days we spoke every day. We’re all very busy, some of us were cabinet secretaries, others were heading executive agencies but we made sure we spoke every day. We also had absolute trust in one another. So if you come and tell me Oby is doing something wrong, I will just take the phone, call Oby and put it her on speakerphone and say, “This guy is her and on speakerphone and just told me that you are doing this, is it true?” By doing that we discouraged rumors, false accusations and all that. We absolutely trusted each other, we met regularly, we backstopped one another, we shared information and when you attack one of us, we all go into battle. We also confronted Obasanjo as a group whenever we feel things are going out of line.

Anytime we felt something was not going right the four of us would just walk to the office or residence and say, “Mr. President we want to talk to you alone.” We would then lock the door and speak frankly – sometimes it could be quite nasty, abuses, insults, “you useless boys or girls, I’ll sack all of you, I’ll fire you.” And we respond, yes you can Mr. President but you’re doing the wrong thing, we don’t agree. Often he does what is right. Once we are insistent,( all five of us initially -Charles dropped out,)  Charles Soludo who went on to the Central Bank dropped out largely because there was competition for visibility and glory between Ngozi and Charles. Ngozi was the Finance Minister, she was the head of the economic team and she was the external face of economic reforms. Charles felt that he also needed some spotlight. We didn’t care. We thought that as long as the work got done, we didn’t care who took credit. Charles thought that who got credit was important.

In addition I guess, it was easier for us – Oby and I – because I had a high profile territory to run, I was always in the news. I was running the capital city, so anytime a President visits Nigeria, I welcome him, I get the photo ops more than anyone, okay? So I can’t complain, but this was Charles’ problem. He said look, we do all this work, I’m the economic advisor, but nobody remembers I did anything. It is Ngozi, Ngozi, Ngozi, so this was a problem. So he stopped coming to our meetings and dropped out and later moved to Central Bank and so on. But the four of us remained to the very end. I consider that very important –  that trust, the ability to bond and backstop one another was key to a lot of our success.

SCHER:          Shall we pause for a minute?

BLAIR:           We’re very interested in sort of two parts of the, sort of how politics of reform and we’re interested in the context of this reform team how you built the coalition of people including Obasanjo and the other politicians whose support were necessary to get through the reforms, how you went about building that coalition, what the challenges to building it were, and how you sort of maintained it and kept people on board.

EL-RUFAI:    What?

BLAIR:           Either in terms of the civil service reform or the-?

EL-RUFAI:    I’ll speak first generally and then come to civil service reform. I think the first key thing was the team we had, the fact that all four of us had had prior working relationships even though for short periods but quite intense. I told you I met Ribadu in January 2003 and by July I was in cabinet and we had formed the team and he was a member. But Ribadu, when you meet him you’ll understand why he is so easy to get attracted to, he is so passionate about what he believes, what he does. He’s passionate about law and order, about corruption being the root of all evil. In fact Nuhu thinks that if we can eliminate corruption, Nigeria would be fine. I disagree and keep telling that  there are countries that have developed with high levels of corruption; corruption is not the root of all evils, there are others more serious in my view. Bad management is the root of all evil. But perhaps that’s because that’s my line, right?

So Nuhu was there. And you see because I recommended and endorsed Nuhu to the group, because Ngozi liked and trusted me, trusted my judgment, and I had worked with Ngozi before, he was accepted. The first time I worked with Ngozi was between1999 and 2000,when  she came and spent six months in Nigeria helping Obasanjo set up a debt management office. We worked very closely together. So she has a lot of respect for, and trust in me. The moment I say, Nuhu is okay, that was it. It was taken for granted. So I think the foundation was getting this core of people that trusted each other and were willing to sacrifice for each other, I think that’s the foundation.

The second was identifying the single legacy that  Obasanjo wanted around which we could reform broadly. He must just want one thing. He was not interested in economic reforms as such. What he wanted was to get our debts written off. I guess we were clever enough to now craft a program around that. I think that for any reform to work, because I said so in my speech at CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) that most political leaders would rather not reform. It is a reality. Status quo is better, it’s safer, you don’t rock the boat. But clearly after going through an election in which those that probably supported you and funded your election, are likely to be those that will lose from any serious economic reforms, this is reality everywhere. But, if you can get a political leader to have one overarching goal that he wants to achieve, one thing that he wants to do that would be his legacy, then you have a potential reform opportunity. If you can sell such a dummy of an overarching goal to a political leader, then you can pretty much craft a reform program around that and say that, you know, for us to get this, for us to achieve your legacy, we need to do A, B, C, D. Then we get to F. That’s your legacy. I think basically that’s what we sold to Obasanjo.

Having figured out that he wants debt relief we said, “Okay Mr. President, you know, you don’t get debt relief unless we fight corruption because no parliament, no legislature will vote money, taxpayers’ money in the country if at the bottom is this. You cannot get debt relief unless we have a slim, efficient public service. You cannot.” So we basically crafted an IMF type program with the end goal being to get debt relief. I think any time, in any environment, this is the only way you can get reforms done – that is if the political leadership can see at the end of the tunnel some glory. Without it I think you’ll fall down. In the case of Obasanjo we got him with the debt relief. We got it in the end, we got it.

Thirdly, I think we were lucky too, we had an international champion. So it wasn’t just a domestic stakeholder issue which I’ll come back to that, but we had Tony Blair who liked Obasanjo, who was his friend, and Britain happens to be our biggest creditor. When we went Lancaster House and met with Tony Blair in July 2003, and said look, we are going to do this reform program, this, but what we want is British support, to write-off our Paris Club debts. Tony Blair said, “If you can do half of this, half of what you’re promising, I promise you Britain will lead Paris Club members to get you out of your debt quagmire.” So sometimes when Obasanjo falters a little Ngozi will call Gordon Brown who was Chancellor of Exchequer then and get Tony Blair to give him a call. So we had to sustain this focus.

It is always helpful to have someone, some external framer, that enjoys the confidence of the political authorizer, has no interest in what is happening internally, and enjoys the confidence of the ultimate political leadership. You know once in a while make calls to resolve difficult hurdles. That helped.

Within Nigeria I think the political leadership all realized that the debt burden was our biggest problem and everyone was willing to sacrifice a little bit to get it. So whenever we go to make presentations to the ruling party leadership, to the Senate, to the House of Representatives, we always start by saying, “Look, this is how much we borrowed, this is how much we pay to these buggers. This is how much we have to budget every year and our children and grandchildren will continue to be in debt. We have to get out of this. This must be our second independence. We got our political independence in 1960. Get this debt write off. This would then be our second independence, we must do it, we just must do it.” Okay. Nobody disagrees with that. But you see, we tell them “those that we borrowed money from are saying, for them to write it off we have to do A, B, C, D, E. We hate these guys but you have to help us, we have to get this done. What we must not forget is the debt, we have to get rid of it. Okay?”.  So that is how we got all the stakeholders aligned to our economic reform program.

But more importantly, and I think, is luck. Oil prices began to rise. Because I think that with all this that we’ve done, if we did not have the cash to pay 12 billion dollars and get 18 billion written off, there would have been no deal. But we got lucky, oil prices started rising, and we had put in a fiscal rule to save excess oil revenues which was smart. That wasn’t luck, we did it. We established an oil price based fiscal rule. We budget every year, say at thirty-five dollars a barrel and any revenues above that we put in a separate account that is not part of the budget and is untouched. That is how we accumulated a huge amount of money which would now put us in a position to pay Paris Club. We told them, when we were negotiating we said, “Look, we can’t do more than this and you know guys, this is your last chance. If you don’t take this money, it’s here, it’s on the table. If you don’t take it, Nigeria will default. What are you going to do? Bomb us? One day another administration will come and say this doesn’t make sense, how can we borrow 10 billion dollars and so far we’ve paid 40 billion and we’re still owing 30 billion. Some crazy guy will say, I’m not paying, take a walk. What are you going to do?”

So they can see real money on the table and they had to balance that against future risky expectations, because you know – in the future anything is possible, so I guess they took it. It was quite interesting when I reflect on it. I think, in virtually every reform you must have these elements, how you-whether the elements exist or not, you must look or create them. Because unless you can focus the political leadership on something that they badly need, I don’t think you would be able to survive implementing tough reforms. Can you pause?

BLAIR:           We’re back with Mr. El-Rufai, so maybe we could move, move on to talk a little bit about Public Service Reform. Be talking-starting out with some sort of operational details, how you got-you said gotten started by doing the reforms in Abuja and maybe you could talk a little bit about sort of what the goals of the reform were and then you started to talk about removing ghost workers and looking at the workers who didn’t have the appropriate competencies. How did you chose who to fire and who to keep, in some settings that’s a, those are a difficult and politically contentious problems?

EL-RUFAI:    Yes, but that’s why I’m here, on exile, because I didn’t bother about those politically contentious problems – anyway as I said we realized that Public Service Reform was a key component of our reform agenda and we spent sometime looking at Public Service Reform, and how to go about it. Several questions needed answers to craft an implementation strategy. We asked whether we should do it in phases (gradualist) or just do it at one go (shock therapy). Should we just look at the core Civil Service or should we also include the state-owned enterprises?, what about the military and the police, they are all part of the public service, so how do you sequence that?. And we studied countries that have done this and we found that there are no clear lessons. No one has ever done public service reform well. You either have a very good public service because you had it right from the beginning like Singapore or not, if it already works like New Zealand you can do certain things to make it much better but when you have a broken civil service you are really screwed up. It is hard to fix it. And that was what we had in Nigeria.

BLAIR:           What was the, what was the overall goal of the program, was it to reduce the size of the payroll or make it more effective?

EL-RUFAI:    We had three goals, the first was to make it more effective because our civil service    really just sucked, it was terrible. And in the 60’s we used to have a very effective civil service, you know, maybe in the 70’s but something went wrong during the military era. The second was to pay the civil service-the public service well. Public service pay in Nigeria is like one quarter of private sector pay and many people say that is the major cause of corruption entry, not corruption maintenance. Okay most people are forced by the poor pay to begin to engage in corrupt activities but then they get so rich that they should stop if it was just the money but they remain in corruption. But clearly it may be true, it is probably true that the low levels of pay contribute to corruption entry.

Now but to pay people very well and be able to attract the best and brightest into the public service, the numbers must also make sense. And when we took over the economy in 2003, 65 percent of Nigeria’s budget went towards running the government, okay, payroll and the cost of tea, coffee, paper in the office accounted for 65 percent of the annual budget. Our goal was to invert that and make it 35/65 in favor of capital investments and away from consumption spending, and we achieved it more or less by the time we left because oil revenues increased and we also decreased running costs of government. We took certain measures to decrease the cost of government and one of them was reforming the public service, reducing the numbers, getting out many that ought not have been in the public service in the first place, because they are not qualified, they had not sat entrance exams, they were just smuggled in during the era of military rule.

So we got the numbers down, I was in charge of that, we fired some 35,000 plus public servants out of a total of 165,000, so we got rid of nearly a quarter of the civil service. That’s part of the reason why I’m not a very popular guy with some people. Okay, but many of these people were unqualified or were engaged in criminal activities but the process of discipline them was just taking ten years. For instance, I had a school headmaster in Abuja who had raped two of his students and got three pregnant, but the process of subjecting him to the discipline of dismissing him for what he had done, just took like five years. I just came and did it in two weeks by using shortest cut to get him – when I read the public service rules, I got criminal charges filed against him for statutory rape, I got one of the parents to agree to testify. Once the criminal charges were filed, he was arrested by the police, he was tried and convicted in a Magistrate Court. The moment he was convicted, it enabled the FCT Administration to dismiss him without any process, but all this is after five years -you know the guys set up committees, disciplinary committee to interview him, get evidence, get people, I mean a fifteen year old who had been raped you want her to come before a committee and admit that she was raped. What kind of nonsense is that, so anyway – so many of these were really bad cases and you know we just got rid of them, we found ways to get rid of them.

We also increased the pay of public servants and we had a Blue Ribbon Commission study this and do a road map how public service pay will be increased by ten percent every year, such that about five, six years public service pay will be at least 75 percent of private sectors pay.

BLAIR:           And that was across the board?

EL-RUFAI:    Across the board. Okay and we did the first increase of fifteen percent. I was there and our successors were supposed to be doing five to ten percent annually depending on revenue levels but I don’t think they have done that. So it’s frozen again and the problem remains. Third, we looked at the pay structure and did something about it. In this country (the USA) for instance you get a paycheck, you get an amount of money every month, from that you pay your rent or your mortgage, you pay your bills and so on. In Nigeria, indeed, in most of Africa, you get a basic salary, which is very low and then you get housing allowance, transport allowance, this allowance, that allowance and you put all that together and that’s your total pay.

Now many of the services that you get are provided by the government for instance if you’re a senior public officer, you get free housing, you get government-provided housing. So you may be on the pay of $10,000 but the government will rent for you a $100,000 home because you are entitled to free housing at whatever cost – no limits. It doesn’t matter how the government provides it, you must get free housing if you are of a certain grade. In some cases the government provides the housing because it has built houses. In Abuja, the federal government had about 30,000 houses that we built that public servants just occupy and use free of charge. Okay, the only thing they lose is their housing allowance, which is a token amount compared to the market rental value of the houses they occupy.

So we took a decision to rationalize the pay and monetize all the non-cash benefits such that everyone gets one paycheck that covers everything. Second we sold all the federal government houses, apart from a few occupied by certain grades of public servants. For instance, the President’s house, of course, the Vice President, and maybe the Speaker of the House, Chief Justice and Senate President. Apart from those all the houses occupied by political office holders or public servants were sold. To the public servants if they are in occupation and have been paying rent, or auctioned in a public auction, publicly- advertised auction, which every Nigerian can bid and the highest  bidder wins and we opened the bids on TV so you know the winner, no games at all. We did that and by the time I left we had sold some 24,000 out of the thirty-odd thousand houses. So we pretty much sold most of them and that changed the way people regarded the houses – as I said, now that you know all the houses had been sold –  it’s your house-the cost of maintaining the house, which are paid from the ministry’s budgets now disappeared because you know we don’t need to maintain houses anymore.

It got so bad in many cases just to change the bulb, people would wait for the government to pay for that, and they would rather live in darkness in their own homes then to buy a bulb. So we got rid of all that and that brought the overhead costs in many ministries down, all provisions in the budget for maintenance of residential facilities went off the books, you know. We also sold all the cars, the government had, I don’t know a quarter of a million cars because apart from senior officials-(above a certain grade officers are entitled to a car and a driver, okay and the gas that goes into the car.) –  And this was quite wasteful, so you know we decided that we would sell all the cars, we will discount the purchase prices by 50 percent and offer them for sale, –  they will be valued and we sell at the 50 percent discount just to get rid of them. Because many people had their personal cars so they didn’t want to own a second car but if it was government owned and maintained sure, you know. And these government cars were very interesting because they consume about three times as much gasoline as other cars, which meant the drivers were also stealing the gas.

So we sold all the cars at 50 percent discount and we gave everyone three years to pay for the cars so that no one had an excuse to buy, you know. And to enable people buy their houses we had to create from the scratch a mortgage system. Up until then, Nigeria had no mortgage system, so I led the work on that. We had to write two new laws on securitization and foreclosure and we got the equivalent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, – Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria – to float a 100 billion naira bond, which was guaranteed by the federal government, which enabled any public servant or any private individual that bought one of our houses to go to a bank, the bank will lend him and the federal mortgage bank would refinance the bank so the banks were taking no risk.

So that was the only way to enable people buy the houses -we had to create this because the people could not pay for the houses upfront, until then – the only way to buy a house in Nigeria is to pay 100 percent cash – and we knew that was impossible with this situation. So we did that, but the net effect of that was that by the time we left in 2007, the federal government budget had become inverted as we wanted in favor of more capital investment. We had, we had only 30 percent of the budget spent on personnel and overhead costs and about 70 percent was on investments, on capital projects, which was a major achievement. It was helped not just by what we did but by the fact that oil revenues had gone up and expenses had not gone up as fast, okay but still it was some work.

How did we choose who to go and who not to go, we set up a committee of civil servants to draw up guidelines who should go and they came up with eight criteria. If you would like I can send you, I can email to you the final report of the public service reform team.

BLAIR:           That would be great.

EL-RUFAI:    Yes, because I did a presentation to the Cabinet just before we left, which summarized everything we did but we had criteria which were strictly applied across all the ministries, departments and agencies and all the names came to us and we calculated what their benefits, their terminal benefits were. We gave them generous payoffs to go and we also put them through four weeks of pre-retirement training just to prepare them psychologically for life after retirement. We got entrepreneurs to come talk to them about opportunities, what to do with their money. They shouldn’t go marry a new wife or buy a new car and all that, so we tried to do all that, I hope that it worked because I left the country shortly after – that’s why I don’t know.

But you know I’ll send you that presentation, so you see what we did and if you have any follow-up questions feel free to ask. But this is basically what we did -you know we also went ahead and installed a computerized personnel management system for the civil service, it was financed by the World Bank. It’s called the IPPIS (Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System), I can’t remember all the details now but you’ll see it in the presentation. But we got that in place and we had started implementing it in 5 ministries or so, we had not covered all of the ministries we started with five pilot ministries and it was supposed to cover all the agencies -I don’t know, I hope they have done it, but it was when implemented it will have all the records, all the personnel records with biometric data of all public servants so it will be impossible to create ghost workers and so on. And all the payments for salaries, whatever would be totally electronic so you know, you cannot divert checks or play any games, which we found a lot of when we were doing the diagnostics.

I hope they have completed the IPPIS implementation with e-payment system, you know, you see because of our success in doing that the President asked me to chair another committee, cabinet committee on identity management. So we used that platform, and experience to establish an identity system for Nigeria. Okay we have a commission, National Identity Management Commission, they are supposed to issue to every Nigerian above the age of eighteen, a biometric ID card that will contain not just personal details, but even financial information, health records, etc. on one card and I think they are working on implementing it now.

There were concerns about civil liberty and all that at that time, but I did think about it, I’m more concerned about it now. But at that time there was some debate, but you know we just said no we need to be able to identify every Nigerian. Because many people that commit offenses and claim to be Nigerians are not Nigerians. Because they can come into Nigeria from any African country and easily get a passport, there are no controls to prevent any black person to get a passport and we know that, so we thought it was a matter of national importance to be able to definitely identify a Nigerian.

BLAIR:           Sorry go ahead.

SCHER:          Can I just pull it back a little bit, sorry to jump in there Graeme, but I don’t mean to sort of hound you on this issue, but in terms of identifying 35,000 people that you did remove from the service, you mentioned some were corrupt and some were poorly trained, poorly qualified. How did you go about actually selecting those people or identifying those people from the ranks of a much, much larger organization?

EL-RUFAI:    Well, we issued the criteria to all the permanent secretaries and it was the job of the permanent secretaries to ensure that the criteria were strictly applied, okay. So they would send us names with the files and randomly we select one or two files to check that, to make sure that you know it’s being done. Secondly, we also took an extra step, we published the names and gave people the opportunity to petition if they felt that they were wrongly classified. Let’s say okay one of the criteria was if you failed promotion exams three times, okay you have to sit exams to be promoted. If you sit for exams three times and you failed you should go, okay. So if your name was listed as having failed promotion exams three times and you failed only two you can petition. I say no, I failed only two I still have a third chance and give us documents to prove otherwise because we know there is room for victimization. People can put the girl that they sexually harassed and she you know, so we knew, so we opened it up. So the Permanent Secretaries do this, they send it to me, I chair the Public Service Reform team and my team now published everything and says okay, these are the names sent and these are the reasons.

Okay one of the criteria I remember is medically unfit, okay if you are always sick, you know, there are people who have not gone to work for two years, they have medical problems, yet their salary runs okay it’s time for you to retire, be on a reduced salary, a pension, but if you feel that you are fine, fine you know, prove it to us, you know.

So we gave everyone an opportunity to petition me as the team leader if the persons feels that he had been listed for retirement unfairly or unjustly outside the set criteria, you know-and interestingly there were some that voluntary said I’m not on the list for severance but I want to go. The terminal benefits were so good, some chose to do something with their lives, and left service. Most of the very good ones chose that option, you know, many. So many of them we had to now start appealing to go. Many just chose to voluntarily retire, they wrote letters of voluntary retirement.

SCHER:          Did you have the option to not accept their retirements; I mean could you say no you have to stay?

EL-RUFAI:    Yes we had the option.

SCHER:          Yes.

EL-RUFAI:    Yes because they are public servants and we had the option not to accept their application to retire prematurely, and in a couple of cases we said no, you’re going nowhere, you got to stay, you know, but in a really nice way.

BLAIR:           Yes.

EL-RUFAI:    Many that put in papers for retirement were those whose promotions had been delayed unfairly, so many of those that did that, you know signaled to us that we needed to look and say okay, why? And many of them we got rectifications done and all that, and they opted to stay.

BLAIR:           So some of these things were very unpopular as I’m sure you would agree, kicking people out of their homes and-

EL-RUFAI:    Yes.

BLAIR:           Firing ghost workers-someone was, someone was taking that ghost workers check. What did you do about sort of creating a public constituency for these reforms? You talked a little bit about this earlier with the privatization, but what were kinds of appeals that you made?

EL-RUFAI:    No you know, you know generally speaking in Nigeria public servants are not well regarded, most Nigerians think their public servants are crooks, corrupt and lazy, okay. So there isn’t a lot of public sympathy towards them, and many Nigerians correctly feel that these guys are living in these huge houses at our expense.

So when we tried to do in this case was put out a lot of information, this is why we are doing what we are doing, these are the reasons, this is the amount of money that is going towards maintaining government-owned houses, this is the amount of money that we spent on gasoline for these government vehicles, -you know once you brought out the information-part of the reason why I think governments in Africa get away with a lot is because there is no information transparency. Okay, once you come out and say this is what is going on, the public servants run for cover by rather than fight.

Of course the civil service establishment don’t like me, they think I’m the devil incarnate, you know I did all this and they think it must be because I hate civil servants. I say, okay let’s say go on TV and debate it and no one will show up because I have better reasons to show that we needed to do what we were doing than for them to say you know, you know the government of Nigeria must take care of me to the detriment of everyone and everything else. I mean there are only three million public servants in Nigeria, all the people who work for federal, state and local governments and the state-owned enterprises, are just three million, we were over 150 million then. And these 3 million people consume a large percentage of the resources of the country delivering poor or no services at all, and it’s just unfair.

So what we did was largely to bring out information to show that there was no malice, no victimization, everyone had an opportunity to petition and disagree. We were complying with rules that had been pre-approved and that was it. Yes, I ejected people from their houses because they refused to pay the deposit or subsequent payments on time and it was tough, but somebody’s got to do it. Of course now I reflect and wonder whether I should have been the person, but, you know hey, I’ve done it you know and quite frankly I have no regrets.

You know, I think that it needed to be done, the further things are being reversed now pisses me off but you know it’s life but ultimately you know for Nigeria to make progress we have to do those things, we have to do them again and again and more and more otherwise the country will never sort itself out. We believed too much what we were doing, we really believed it all, it wasn’t just you know, let’s reform because it was a fad. Because we sat and we debated, as I said we wrote our reform program, we wrote our economic program, we didn’t talk to any World Bank or IMF, we sat down and wrote it because we all know what was wrong, we needed to fix this, we needed to fix that. What do we need to do, we did it, we believed in our program and we implemented it.

BLAIR:           One of the things I’ve read about how you were successful in getting the technical parts of the reform done is that you were able to surround yourself with very competent technocrats. How did-one of the issues heard around the world is how you, how you deploy staff and create a staff that is effective so we could talk for a couple of minutes about sort of how you, how you designed and the organizational structure and how you bring in these staff and find the first people that have the capacities that you know that you need for privatization or civil service reform?

EL-RUFAI:    Well you know that, you know that is a tough one and I think that’s one area we, I don’t know whether I have done very well is times of sustainability, but you see the reality is when you have a job to do-is it too hot for you?

BLAIR:           The coffee just right.

EL-RUFAI:    Oh okay. You know when you have a job to do I think you just have a duty to yourself to do whatever it takes to get that job done. When I got to the Bureau of Public Enterprises I knew I needed people with investment banking, accounting and legal backgrounds to get the job done. We didn’t have enough in the BPE so first thing we did was to look at those that just don’t fit and we asked them to leave and then advertised in national newspapers and describing what we were looking for. We got 3,000 applications for 100 places, you know and we pruned that down to I think about 2,000 that were qualified, they took a GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) type of aptitude test and we picked the highest scorers and hired them.

You know, the hired staff were put through internal orientation and then sent all on training, as described earlier – you know attachments with investment banks and so on and so forth. So I got a few good ones locally, then I got lucky. Because USAID (United States Agency for International Development) came to me with 10 million dollars and said look this is a grant to support privatization. First it wasn’t untied, as initially they said, “Okay you can use this grant but we’ll get you consultants from the US,” I said, “No, thank you, you’ll damage my program.” They said, “Why”, I said, “Well look, if I have a foreigner sitting here advising me, and I’m privatizing state assets,” They’ll say, “Oh yes he’s doing it for the IMF or worse, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency),” My credibility is gone. So they said, “Well you know we can’t help you”, they left, two weeks after they came back and said, “Okay the funds are now untied, no conditions. What can we do?”

I said we have Nigerians all over the world working with investment banks, law firms and so on, some of them may also be US citizens, so you can take back some of your grant money, because I know the game. But it has to be Nigerians otherwise the program will lose credibility. So they agreed, so you know I got people from Morgan Stanley, from Clifford Chance and Goldman Sachs and such places – they were paid top dollar, they came and worked with me in BPE. But they came in as consultants, so the challenge was how to integrate them with the rest of the regular staff. What I did was to also offer to the staff the same chance, I said look if anyone of you wants to move out of regular public service job and be a consultant and be paid much more money in dollars submit your resume and compete. But we don’t select who is qualified, USAID has a consultant here in Virginia who looks at the qualifications and picks those found suitable.

And two of our regular staff actually got picked as consultants and they went on to other jobs after BPE. So with that, everybody realized okay you know this not an exclusive club, I had the opportunity, I just chose not to do that. So that helped integrate the team somewhat, and I also got them train our staff a lot and I came to Harvard Business School Executive Education and got three slots set aside in their general management programs where I sent BPE staff. I get a letter every year of thanks from Harvard Business School because I think at a point I was their biggest market, single market because every-you know the PMD (Program for Management Development) program for global leadership, AMP (Advanced Management Program), there is always someone from BPE in any class, sometimes two or three and because we had the USAID money and later World Bank funding. The DFID (UK Department for International Development) also came and gave us 10 million pounds you know could spend it on that and other efforts to advance the privatization program.

So we got the staff trained and the confidence levels of the regular public servants were also raised. So that worked very well, such that today the BPE is one of the most competent public service organizations in Nigeria and many ministers that are looking for technical assistants or special assistants still go to BPE and pick them. Because the staff are really good – we spent a lot time and money, mostly donor money training them, into quite competent and confident persons. And because the entry hurdles were quite high the staff were really clever people so they learnt quickly – they used to catch on quickly on new concepts and so on.

But in the FCT  that was difficult, it was difficult to do that, first because I didn’t have donor money, administering the FCT is not as sexy as privatization and second the FCT being a regular federal organization had rigid staff entry criteria and so its hiring practice was more like in the civil service. So I didn’t have as much flexibility as I had in BPE to inject new blood, but still I had to come with my team as personal staff and aides. So I had to approach UNDP and got them to fund some of my personal staff, – I got them to fund about ten of my technical support staff. Their annual pay were higher than mine. But again with FCT we budgeted a lot of money training to upgrade the skills of the public servants and the way they think, it was mostly the way they think. They just think different, you know and that helped. We were able to mainstream them because by the time I was getting ready to leave FCT, and I told them I was not going to be in the next administration, I had to look for jobs for them. So many of the personal staff we came with converted into regular public servants and are there now in the FCT.

So I think to get the job done you need to get high level skills, but one must look at how to mainstream those skills into the rest of the public service as well as upgrade the skills of those that are there reasonably otherwise that would be a lot of resentment and us versus them kind of thinking. I think that in the BPE I did it reasonably well, I don’t think I did it very well in FCT because I did not have as much flexibility on the money, and the employment system.

BLAIR:           What were the some of the more difficult challenges without the money at the FCT?

EL-RUFAI:    Well you see the BPE had 180 staff, the FCT had 18,000 so in terms of scale you know, I mean if you have 180 staff and you have ten million dollars you can pretty much send all the 180 on the program abroad once a year, okay. 18,000 if I say I’ll do that, the entire budget for infrastructure for Abuja would go towards staff training. So it was not just the money but it was also the scale of the problem. So I don’t know I think we were able to train maybe 1,000 out of 18,000 in four years but you can’t do much more than that otherwise – even if I get ten million dollars, for 18,000 staff that’s nothing, ten million dollars for 180 that’s a lot so there was the issue of scale.

BLAIR:           And by training, you mean again by sending to the United States or doing workshops or-?

EL-RUFAI:    You know some doing workshops, some attaching them to organizations even within Nigeria but mostly I like-I sent some of my staff, they spent three months in Cape Town just to learn how a nice, well-organized city runs. We had to pay them for being there plus their cost of being there, while their salaries were running in Nigeria. You know, these are some of the things I wanted to do a lot more of but we couldn’t due to financial constraints.

SCHER:          Sorry were they attached to specific government agencies within Cape Town?

EL-RUFAI:    Yes, I cannot recall exactly where but assume they were attached to the mayor’s office or something. It was part of what was negotiated during the bi-nationals between Nigeria and South Africa.

SCHER:          Okay, I see.

EL-RUFAI:    You know so, it was the scale. Maybe if I had remained as FCT minister for say ten years, I’d have figured out a better way, but you know in four years what more can one do?

SCHER:          Can I just ask this topic of training, you mentioned quite a few things, sending people overseas, attaching them to ministries and agencies within Nigeria or somewhere else in Africa, okay and so on. Workshops, those sorts of more I guess conventional types of training procedures. In your experience what seemed to be the most effective form of training in terms of importing the most skills and perhaps the shortest amount of time and for the cheapest amount of money spent. I’m not sure if this question is too specific, but if you had to sort of rank these different training procedures, what is your, I guess your favorite training process for your staff?

EL-RUFAI:    Well I can tell you the favorite of the staff, it is to go some institution in the UK or the US, it gives them a chance to travel, get nice per diems and no exams at the end. The staff liked that, but in my view the most effective were the work experience attachments because the staffs had to learn real skills. And when I was in BPE I used to incorporate such requirements in all our consulting contracts with the investment banks – to take two of our staff for six months, okay we pay for it, I know but the fact that they had to take our staff, who will then work on the project and the team for three months, six months in the UK, or the US. This was very helpful. Some of the best people we had were the ones that went through those programs because when you take someone from Nigeria who is used to driving to work at 9:30, closing at 4:00 and going home and you throw him into a work environment in the UK where he has to wake up at 5:00 take the tube, be on time, you know the discipline is important. So you get people to acquire not only the technical skills but also changes in attitude and the person comes back proud that he has been on attachment with Morgan Stanley or such like – so he had to show that he had been to Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs, through superior performance and improved work attitude – you know I found that to be far more effective then going to HBS (Harvard Business School).

I like HBS, I mean I’ve done programs there but nothing in my view is as good as these on-the-job training attachments, particularly for organizations that have to deliver on something. Privatization is a transaction-oriented program in which we have to deliver on sales of government assets. In the FCT we had to deliver on keeping the city sane, clean, functioning. The most useful kind of training is job attachment, you know – so skills acquisition, attitude condition and so on and so forth can learned, this is it I think.

BLAIR:           Could we move to talk a little bit about your, a little bit more specifically about your time in Abuja, working in Abuja. I don’t know what you would call your, the most successful parts of the reform you did there, some of things that come to mind are the land titling reform or kind of cleaning up the ministry and civil service and cleaning up the city and sort of greening it. What-can you talk a little bit about what you thought were the greatest successes and what you thought the keys were to those.

EL-RUFAI:    You know it’s interesting I’m been asked this question and I have to think about it because I have to write about it in some detail in my forthcoming book. What is the most important thing I would say I’ve done in Abuja? I think by far the most fundamental thing that we did was the digital land titling – computerising the land register. I think it is the most fundamental paradigm shift we effected and it is what generates the largest source of anger towards me up until today. And this I think, is because you know politicians and senior people in governments particularly in Africa don’t like information transparency. And we not digitized the register, but were rushing to actually put all the land records on the web before I left office, but we couldn’t quite finish, we still had issues to sort out – I’m still thinking of putting all the land records on the Internet – I have the complete records up to a point – around mid 2007 on my laptop – and perhaps post it all on the web because people don’t want others to know how much land they have grabbed, you know. I think that is the most fundamental thing that we did, because it formed the basis for many other things in urban management. For instance, if you go to any city in Nigeria and get on any street and you are looking for house number ten. You’d probably won’t find it easily, maybe the first house on your left would be number six, then next one would be number fifteen and so on. This is because in general in our country, we maintain plot numbers instead of properly numbering houses. You know the planners just lay out plots and number them but that should not be maintained as the addressing system.

No city managers in Nigeria have numbered the buildings in a sequential manner such that you have odd numbers on the left and even numbers on the right or something like that. So delivering letters is a near impossible task, and letters in Nigeria are not delivered to an address but only to post office box. So if you want to write me a letter you can’t write 4202 Plummers Promise Drive, you have to include a P.O. Box number because the postman will not be able to find any home or office address quite easily. There is no logical system of identifying any address. We did an accurate addressing system in Abuja because once we computerized the land register and have the GIS (Geographic Information System) it was just a small additional to the GeoMedia software to just number the buildings-and then our staff went round physically and affixed the appropriate number to each of the properties.

So throughout Nigeria, it is only in Abuja that you have that quality of addressing system. And you know these little things of introducing order in a situation of chaos is what is missing in most of Africa. If something as basic as that is not done, you can’t deliver letters, and courier companies can’t operate. You know it was a massive change achieved by just doing one small thing, it’s so simple to do if you have everything on the Geographic Information System. We were able to do it while no other city in Nigeria has done it and we did it in something like two months. It didn’t cost us much money, you know, so yes I think the establishment of Abuja Geographic Information System (AGIS) is probably the most fundamental thing we did.We get credit for many other things but I think that is the most important thing.

The second, I think is creating a structure and system for Abuja to be run as a city. When I was appointed Minister of Abuja I inherited a Ministry of Federal Capital and after operating for almost a year, I realized that worst way to try to run the city was through a rigid organization like a federal ministry. Managing a city needed a totally different structure. For instance,  I didn’t need a permanent secretary and many of the paraphernalia of a Ministry – I therefore made the case for, and got the President to gazette the dissolution of the ministry and the deployment of the permanent secretary and other redundant offices. It was unprecedented because government organizations once created just don’t die even when not needed, but I killed one – a powerful one. I killed the Ministry of Federal Capital Territory; it has remained dead even now they have not been able to revive it. They have sent a permanent secretary to the Federal Capital Territory Administration but it’s still not a ministry.

How I came to the conclusion to dissolve the Ministry of FCT was quite simple. We have streetlights all over the city, okay, streetlights are public goods, you can’t charge people for using streetlights, you can tax them and then use the money to keep the streetlights working. When a lamp or two in a row of streetlights go off, you need to replace then as soon as possible. Now in the ministry, to get the approval to buy one lamp you need to go through four levels and then it goes to someone who will say yes, go buy the lamp. By the time the decision and procurement processes are done with, there are more than one lamp are not working, and the cycle goes on and on. I concluded that  one can’t just run a city like that. If a lamp is dead, it needs to be replaced immediately. So you need a faster animal to respond to these kinds of challenges. Picking garbage and issues of municipal services need timely provision and response. You know,  I concluded that a city is a living organism and cannot be run the way you run the Ministry of Information, that has no very clear targets to deliver.

I looked at every way to privatize the maintenance of streetlights, I couldn’t find a strategy that makes sense. I said okay we’ll just hand over the management of the lights for fees to private companies just to make sure that whenever one of the lights goes off it gets fixed within 24 hours. So we did a bid process and all that and we even had maintenance equipment that would take you up to the level of the lamps. We leased those equipment to the companies that won the competitive bids.

And the structure of our civil service is that civil servants are “pooled” – that is posted around every ministry every few years. You don’t join the civil service and spend your whole career in one ministry or organization. You spend four years here in the Ministry of Information, next, in three years you’re in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in another three years you’re in the Ministry of Finance. And to run a city you need people that know the city and specialize in its administration, and remain there working for the city. I just couldn’t afford to have people being posted very few years, so I went to the President after about eight months. I said, “Mr. President this is not working,” he said, “Why,” so I explained to him and he agreed that what I said made a lot of sense. I said, “We have to abolish the ministry,” he said, “Don’t tell anyone, go and look at the law or the subsidiary legislation to amend –  something I can do quietly because if the civil servants know they will fight you.” I said, “Fine,” so I went quietly, used a private lawyer to draft the dissolution order, and the President signed it and gazette it. And when I assembled the management of the ministry and announced it, it was a big shock. But since then Abuja has run better and we would not have been able to do what I wanted us to do if we did not abolish the ministry when we did. That was interesting; you know and I recall Obasanjo said, “But how come nobody thought of this,” I said, “I don’t know.” I just knew that you know you can’t run this city, this way and I had to figure out what to do to get it done.

BLAIR:           For the reforms were-the reforms land titling in particular where you couldn’t do this kind of in the middle of the night where things, people were going to know that you were going out there and setting up the GIS system and taking people out where they weren’t allowed to be. How did you build up the support for this and then maintain it as you-

EL-RUFAI:    You know to implement the GIS project, we had to present and sell a dummy to everyone. It was evident nobody was happy with the system existing at the time – the paper-based system, the file-based system nobody was happy with. The only people that were happy were those that were in a position to hide files and make money out of it – basically by getting the same plot of land allocated to two, three different people and now collect bribes from everyone of them to resolve the dispute in one’s favor. So it is a small group that was benefiting and everyone else resented them and were unhappy.

So what we did was to get a German consultant and contracted the project design, hardware and software implementation to the firm. We signed an agreement with the firm but agreed with that the firm was going to work with a dozen of my staff and I picked six of the staff of the lands department that had a good reputation for honesty and so on, and picked another six that were suspected to be part of the problem to constitute the ‘counterpart team’. And we knew they were part of the problem, but we thought  that if we excluded them from the process, more of the paper-based land files would disappear – making the clean-up and digitization difficult and incomplete and so on. We needed everybody on the table and because the work entailed trips to Germany and all that they were all quite happy and they all came out with every information they had. And we managed to capture maybe 98 percent of all the geo-spatial data. As soon as we were done, I fired the six officers that were suspected to be part of the land racketeering problem.

BLAIR:           Sorry the six were?

EL-RUFAI:    I had a dozen staff working as part of the counterpart for the consultant, six were really good, six we picked the worst six, those that were hiding the files, we knew, everybody knew them. To some extent, you know, everybody knew these were the corrupt guys – and if you look at the houses they live in, the cars they drive you know that they were doing something funny  – living well above their means – because they couldn’t afford those things on the government salary they draw. I was heavily criticized for including them in the counterpart team, – “these are the criminals,” many complained. I said listen “I’m not here to get rid of anybody, we are here to get all the information in the GIS and we need these guys, let’s take these things a step at a time”. Nobody, I told no one what my plans were, and as soon as we’re done I retired them from the services of the FCT administration. And because we had a computerized system, once we changed the passwords and the secure access configurations, there was nothing they could do to have access and perpetrate their rent-seeking behavior. We got rid of them and the other ‘good six’ you know, we promoted and so on.

And everyone was happy, everyone, virtually everyone in FCT because the land racketeering was a small club and we had got all the key insiders out. And by the time all the other land-related departments had online access to the same records, everything changed – that was another problem we solved. You know you have the land department which did the land allocations and kept the records, but you know there are other departments related like Development Control that give approvals for builders, like Urban Regional Planning that actually do the city planning, these guys felt kept out of the whole land business but by the time we had GIS on the network, the Development Control people had access to the same data that the lands people had, the Urban and Planning people all had access. So because we democratized the information it became more difficult for abuses to take place and hiding information was no longer an option or even possible. If you want some information, you go to lands, and people don’t give you, you can go to Development Control. I have this plot I need to know this, this and that, and any land owner can get the same information from multiple sources. We removed information assymetry.

And when we threatened that as soon as we finished the project, we are posting the land records on the web and for a payment of a token fee using paper or credit card you can check any land record you want, the panic was palpable. You just pay an amount per land record. And we had set up that system, you know everybody there realized that it doesn’t make any sense to hide any information, you know. Once you remove the information asymmetry, you know the cost of these things  – the information, the plot of land  – just came down drastically. It was, but I guess since other states have not been able to do it there must be some resistance but I didn’t, I didn’t see a lot of it in Abuja when I came but I guess also, you know what people told me after I left was that people were scared of me, people thought I was coo-coo, totally mad!. I was a madman and there was no point confronting me. You know when a freight train is coming at you on high speed, there is no point standing in the way. They saw me as a crazy guy you know, so maybe that helped me, I don’t know I haven’t thought about it much really, but maybe that helped.

SCHER:          We have taken a lot of your time, I just-

EL-RUFAI:    I’m fine, I’m fine you take your time.

BLAIR:           Okay, I think I will just ask just one more question about Abuja and then we can get to a couple, just a couple of concluding questions. As you-we talked a little bit about  setting up your staffing system in-oh sorry-actually I am going to just move on to this, sorry.

So some of your, some of the reforms we’ve talked about have, there’s been some level of continuity into the Yar’Adua administration and some of them, some of them haven’t had as much success as you’ve said, what do you think it counts for some of the weakening support for the economic reforms or the privatization and are there sort of strategies that you, that you could have used to-?

EL-RUFAI:    Well.

BLAIR:           It’s a big question?

EL-RUFAI:    It’s a big question and it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about to tell you the truth and I alluded to it at my speech at CSIS. You know I think that we went to a lot of trouble to ensure continuity, we thought that if we had a successor from our party, who is educated, and enlightened – and who appreciated that the reform path we pursued was maybe the only alternative Nigeria faced at the time, then policy continuity will be assured. But we were thinking as technocrats and naive do-gooders. You know do-gooders generally think if they do good then everything will be fine, but the world is quite not like that. One thing I’ve learned now, and one of the biggest mistakes we made was that we refused to engage ourselves deeply with politics. We thought it was tainting because you know we saw ourselves as professionals in temporary jobs, we would have a life after this assignment and we didn’t want to mix with all these criminally-minded politicians. And you know we will just do the right things, we just needed to go and minimally interact with them to convince them that this is why we need to do what we have to do, this is where we want the country to go. But other than that we didn’t sit at the principal political tables. I think that’s our biggest mistake and my new line is “political reform is more important than economic reform”.

And I think the reason why most reforms in Africa have failed was due to the tendency of the multi-laterals and the bi-laterals to focus on economic reform when the key to thinking through and sustaining the governance reforms is better quality political leadership. And not enough effort, –  or thought is given to political reforms. And I think that’s what happened in Nigeria, we just took it for granted that because what we were doing was right it would be sustained. However, the stakeholders that were losing from these reforms are far more vocal than those that benefited or would benefit from the reforms. Because the thing about reforms is that they have a time lag, you start doing the right things that hurt people, and that are difficult and the results don’t really come until a few years down the road – sometimes you need to wait a decade to see the positive outcomes, sometimes say in education sector, even a generation, while the pain is immediate, and the response of the current vested interests vociferous and now!.

Now the guys that are losing out today for a better tomorrow are pissed and because of the structure of our society are often very powerful persons, typically well- connected persons and can easily capture the political elite and push their agenda. I think that was our mistake, if we were sitting at the major political tables, if we had chosen to also be involved deeply in the political process, if we had been more involved in party-level politics, maybe one of the reformers would have been president today. This would have ensured the continuity of what we were doing much more than saying politics was for politicians and then watch while an uncommitted outsider like current President Umaru Yar’Adua, who just stood by while the reforms were taking place, without really understanding them or buying into them, takes over. Because someone who doesn’t understand or who has not fully bought into something can easily be convinced not to continue with it.

To be fair to Yar’Adua, he has not been reversing reforms as much as just stopping their continuation, okay but the damage is the same or worse!. He has reversed a few privatization transactions, which quite frankly I agreed with because I think that one or two like the petroleum refineries and the steel plant,  were rushed. I think privatization gets a bad name when it is rushed and not very transparent. Russia is the best example of this. It is better to take your time and do it transparently then to rush it for some short term benefit. Because public property is a sacred thing one must be careful how one disposes of it. So I did not even have problems with some of the privatization reversals, but the biggest damage Yar’Adua’s government is doing right now, is putting on hold all policies – like pressing pause on the tape recorder so there is no movement, policies not being reversed, but not moving forward either. That is a clear proof of a lack of understanding. Because if you don’t like something it makes to just reverse it and go in the opposite direction but at least that is some movement. But when you pause and do nothing, as Yar’Adua has done, it’s worse than reversing and this is what has been happening in Nigeria today.

So I think that we made a major mistake there. My advice to every reformer is this – “In addition to implementing your economic reforms ensure you sit at the political table. Don’t think that politics is too dirty for you to participate in or think that these politicians are just no good and you stay away. Sit there with them, observe them, understand how they think, convince them, persuade them. You must do the politics otherwise your economic reforms will be short lived.”

BLAIR:           So when you say political reform you mean getting the political coalition for the reforms margined?

EL-RUFAI:    More than that getting the political coalition, you can patch that kind of coalition together at the time that you are doing the economic reforms. Sit at the political table when other things other than economic reforms are being discussed. Be there when the future of the party is being discussed, when the leadership is being selected be there always because if you sit there with them then you’ll hear their grumbles about what they don’t like about the reforms and maybe, maybe you can throw some light as to the logic behind your work. And maybe if you’re sitting at the table you may end up taking the leadership or influencing its direction significantly. But if you keep away, they will plot to undue everything you’ve done, you’ll just be shocked at how fast and easy all will be undone. We are all in a state of shock now, Nuhu is in exile, I am in near exile, when I go back to Nigeria I am likely to be arrested and detained, I know that, but I know that can’t arrest me and then detain me longer than Nelson Mandela, so I will go back, okay but if we had just put in a little bit of effort in politics maybe one of our soul mates would have been president today.

And you see part of the reason why I am being targeted by the current Nigerian government is because the President (Yar’Adua) and his inner circle believe that I could challenge him for the presidency in the future. Because in 2007 there were rumors that I could be the one that Obasanjo might asked to run and Yar’Adua knows that, so he sees me from day one as a threat and that is why they have to create all kinds of tales about me to smear and discredit and so on and so forth, ahead of the 2011 contest. Because Yar’Adua is an astute  politician, and he looks around and thinks –  “who are my threats, political threats? But as technocrats, we didn’t think like that. We just thought that if we did the right thing and did good the results would be clear. I mean look I get messages from people saying that Abuja is going back to what it was – disorderly, dirty, disorganized. It’s no longer clean, it is no longer this and that, no but who cares, who really cares? They (Yar’Adua’s circle) don’t care about doing good, you know. And because everybody looks out for his best, personal best interest, you know nobody will stand up for anything in the public interest. So I think that was our biggest mistake and I think that reformists all over the world should spend as much time on politics as on economics and I’m not talking about the politics of reform or getting coalitions, no, sit at the political table, be active in the party. Whatever the politicians are doing find time to do it, then you will survive long-term otherwise you’ll end up like us – smeared, persecuted, in exile in prison, or even dead.

BLAIR:           Were there other challenges or traps that can or did subvert reform while you were there, that the description, which could help other reformers?

EL-RUFAI:    I don’t know I think and this is after thinking about it for two years, I think that when things are going well you never know who your real enemies are. And sometimes, sometimes even your boss could be your enemy but you won’t know. I say this because you know as I said we realized President Obasanjo had this legacy perspective and we crafted a program around that, but you see as soon as we got the debt relief we became targets, okay? So this is a case of politics again, you know. We crafted a program and it was successfully done. The leader of the economic team, Ngozi got such a high profile that “Time” magazine picked her as one of the world’s 100 most influential people and a few months later she lost her job because the President began to think, ah, Obasanjo wasn’t among the 100 most influential people, his finance minister was.

Okay perhaps for Ngozi, that was a mistake, yes maybe. They say don’t outshine your boss right, but we did so well that some of us did outshine the boss and I don’t know what to tell reformers because when this is happening you will not even know or notice. I don’t think Ngozi lobbied or paid anyone for “Time” Magazine to pick her as one of the one of the 100 most influential people in the world, I don’t think so. But if you’re in that position, make sure you’re not on that list. Because some of the problems that we had was that we became too successful at what we were doing. I think, that’s everybody’s problem I guess.

BLAIR:           Where there other strategies-you’ve talked a little bit about taking advantage of this reform moment where Obasanjo said you know I’d like to end the foreign debt, are there any strategies you used, you talked about giving a plan of steps to get there are there other strategies you used to convince him of the particular reforms. The civil service reform, the various parts of that-the strategy is to convince him to get him on board of those?

EL-RUFAI:    Well you know as I said we crafted everything around getting to that goal, so anytime we go with one reform idea we tie it to that goal, but what I have always done and you see I learned this at the Kennedy School  – that I was doing it in the wrong way. So I am surprised that we succeeded pretty well, – what I’ve always done is when I have a situation I collect as much information as I can find-I get the facts and then I get the counter-factual, okay. When I present my facts and my argument and what will the other side argue, I think about those and what I would respond to and then I go out, okay and sit and say, you know Mr. President or whoever it is these are the facts. This in my view is the solution, these are the issues that should be raised by those against the solution and the facts and these are my responses and this is what I want to do and I need you to give me the go ahead. That usually works and with Obasanjo it worked most of the time, because he is quite a logical person – so again it depends who your boss is, who you have to sell this too. But it worked with Obasanjo most of the time, because when you present him with facts and logic that is infallible, he accepts, even if he doesn’t like it. So if it was another president that approach may not work.

But at the Kennedy School, I got introduced to something called framing. I learned that there’s a new field called Cognitive Science and it was very interesting because when I was in government I always thought that if you have your facts and your logic and thought of your counter-factual and you sit with a person and say okay these are my facts, pa, pa, pa and he has no response to your arguments or he brings up his arguments and you explain them away, then he must agree with you otherwise he’s evil. That’s what I used to think, Cognitive Science has taught me now that the person that disagrees is not necessarily evil, but perhaps for some genuine, deeply embedded reasons!. And I don’t know whether it’s real science or one of these coo-coo sciences, anyway, but I bought books on it you know Don’t Think of an Elephant, The Political Mind, George Lakoff, you know there are books on this stuff.

I have now learnt that people can agree that your facts are right but refuse to accept your conclusions, but I didn’t understand that then. I thought that anyone that cannot defeat my argument and my facts but refuses to accept my position must be evil or he’s corrupt or he has a personal interest preventing his concurrence. But it turns out according to cognitive science, that people find it easier to accept something new when they can associate it with something they all ready know and accept. I didn’t used to do that, you know, maybe I did it by default in some cases, but that was not my usual approach. And maybe if I knew what I know now I would have approached some of the things I did differently. The nuance of language, what words you pick to describe something, you know, all matter in persuading audiences to accept your point of view. I then understood why in South Africa they referred to privatization as restructuring. Privatization raised all kinds of fears amongst the trade unions and the ANC (African National Congress) so you know they chose, you know that is framing but they called restructuring of public enterprises – it meant the same thing except that they didn’t intend to do any serious privatization, I don’t think they have done any, have they?

SCHER:          Bits and pieces.

EL-RUFAI:    Yes, you know, but I think every reformer must learn how to frame, how to present a very difficult or otherwise unacceptable subject, in a way that it will sound as benign, as non-threatening, as possible. Related to something people can connect to – because don’t say privatization find another word, – say if the state-owned enterprise is not efficient, use efficiency arguments just don’t, just don’t talk about change of ownership. If people don’t like private ownership talk about efficiency, say we want to make this efficient, we want to make it work better – provide better quality services. And once people accept that , it is easier for you to come back to them and say listen there are three ways of making it efficient, we can fire 2/3 of the staff, they will say, no, no we don’t want that, we can sell it to a foreign company. No, no, no we don’t want that or we can sell it to locals, maybe that’s easier and we’ll list the shares on the stock exchange, you know so every citizen can also have an equal opportunity to buy bits of the company.

You know this kind of approach, is framing, but Nasir El-Rufai in1999 would go out boldly and say – look these companies don’t work, they are this, they are that, the best solution is to sell them to a private company because the private company has an incentive to make them work because the investor has raised its money to pay for the company. You know I think framing is one of the most important things I learned at the Kennedy School. Sit down, look at where you want to go, look at the audience and what you think they can connect to and present your story, your reform argument in line with where they are coming from and link it to what they can connect with. It is easier to convince them, then to talk technical jargon. I didn’t used to think like that. How I was even being able to do what I did, now surprises me.

BLAIR:           Maybe for one last question, I don’t know if you have any final questions Dan?

SCHER:          I actually have one more if you don’t mind, just to something you mentioned earlier. You spoken a fair amount about this so I don’t mean to make you talk more about it but this idea of getting involved with party politics, to some degree at least from the small amount of reading I have been able to do about your activities and Nuhu Ribadu’s activities a lot of what you were able to accomplish was because you were in many ways fairly independent especially in Nuhu’s case he got tagged as being Obasanjo’s personal Doberman, even though there was no real evidence to that effect.

EL-RUFAI:    Yes.

SCHER:          And by involving yourself more in party politics as you suggest, wouldn’t you perhaps have in some ways compromised the independence you had to push through some of these more difficult reforms? I mean how do you walk that very fine line between being someone who’s independent and able to get things done and being somebody who’s associated with a political party and a particular point of view?

EL-RUFAI:    Okay you see in the case of Nuhu his job as a career public servant required that he should not be involved directly with party politics; well he was basically a policeman okay? But in my own case both as head of the privatization agency or cabinet minister,  it was naive of me not to be involved in party politics. And I think that exercising independence is a personal decision you take. Being in the party does not mean you become an political automaton -I mean the party cannot tell you to do what is wrong, but when they suggest it, you are there to explain why it is not possible, okay, if you are not there they will grumble and complain and will wait for the time to undermine you. This is my point.

SCHER:          Okay, okay, I see, I see.

EL-RUFAI:    Yes you must be there, they must see you as one of them and then you keep using the opportunity to explain why what you are doing is important for everyone in the long term. You must be seen as one of the boys but in the case of Nuhu it really in fact part of Nuhu’s albatross was the fact that he got too closely involved with Obasanjo’s intolerant politics, and in his position I would not have done, got as involved with Obasanjo as he did but Obasanjo really got to like him and tried to draw him close. I understand that, but the nature of his job was such that it was important to keep a distance from the politicians, which he did not do very well in my view. But in my own case, our Constitution impliedly requires every minister to be a member of a political party. So the ruling party knows I’m a member, I hold a party card and before I was cleared by the Senate I had to show that I had been a party member so there was nothing new there but in Nuhu’s old position it’s slightly different.

You have to be independent, you have to do what is right and being there will not change it okay, but it gives you the opportunity, as I said, to explain why you are doing what you are doing even though it appears not so nice to them, you know.

SCHER:          Okay Graeme.

BLAIR:           Okay so maybe for just one last question, our program helps leaders share their experiences and innovations in building institutions in kind of difficult places, was there any kind of strategic advice or technical information or assistance as you were, as you were starting the process of reform in your civil capacities that you would have liked to have had then, we are always on the lookout for these kinds of things?

EL-RUFAI:    I have mentioned one. I should have gone to Kennedy School before my public service career began. Really seriously, if I had gone to Kennedy School in ’98 before I got into government I would have been far more effective and probably slight less despised by our successor administration, you know. I think training in public administration, public policy is key to getting a person to think in a particular way. I came into government with a business degree and business thinking and so on. And maybe that helped me push through certain things, you know, I said someone commented when you have a freight train coming down, the guy is smart you don’t just let him be and wait him out, you know and yes they waited me out. I’m out now, they are changing many things, but I wished I had done this ten years ago, truly. Maybe I would have done many things differently, so the value in the Kennedy School experience is much more than what I read, but what I learnt from people of similar backgrounds. You know today because of the internet there is a lot of information and experience out there that you can just read, you can just absorb, so you don’t even need to go to Kennedy School I guess, but certainly some exposure in public policy and experiences of others, helps, helps a lot. What else, I can’t think anything of more right away, I’m an old man, nearing 50 you know.

BLAIR:           Well thank you very much Mr. El-Rufai it’s been a pleasure speaking to you and this has just been an extraordinary experience for us.

EL-RUFAI:    Thank you.

Innovations for Successful Societies                                                Series: Governance Traps

Oral History Program                                                                         Interview number:  D-1



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