Nigeria is a real disappointment — Wilmot
Category: News Written by Ibrahim Chonoko, London
that would say to him, look, you can’t do such and such - but when you had Abacha, when you had Babangida, they did exactly what they felt like doing. There was nobody to restrain them. If you try to oppose them, you are killed.
Nigerians are sometimes described as docile and care-free people who do not bother much about the havoc being perpetrated by their leaders. How do you see that?
Nigerians can be apathetic but there are instances that when Nigerians get really upset they can be extremely aggressive and extremely violent. It depends on if they are pushed too far. I think at the moment they are apathetic because they don’t see any way they can really oppose the system that exists there now.
You mean they don’t have a way to stop the system from sliding they way it is?
They don’t see how they can stop the civilians - Nigeria is a very huge and complex place and what the political leaders have done is divide the people along ethnic lines, along religious lines. They are saying that we must have a president from the North; we must have a president from the South; we must have a president who is Christian; we must have a president who is Muslim. But it doesn’t matter where you come from. If you are not a good president, whether you are Muslim or Christian you are good. If you are a good president it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter if you are Christian or Muslim. The thing is performance: Is this person performing well or performing badly; is this person a thief; is this person an honest person? It doesn’t matter whether they are Muslim or Christian.
Some analysts say the docility of Nigerians gives rise to the rampant corruption in the country and its perpetuation. How do you see it and what should Nigerians do?
Nigerians have been diverted from concentrating on what is generally affecting them. Now they believe that the problem is because this president is a Muslim, this president is a Christian, this president comes from Katsina, and this president comes from Bayelsa. But it really doesn’t matter. If Nigerians could just say we cannot accept this system because we are not getting education for our children, we are not getting jobs, we are not getting housing, we are not getting anything. If Nigerians could come together and say that, it would be all right. Now you have Boko Haram saying that they want to have Sharia imposed on the whole country, you have some Christians who say we want Christianity, we want this or the other. All these things are irrelevant.
As a member of Transparency International, how do you see the issue of corruption in Nigeria?
The problem in Nigeria is not just corruption. There is much more corruption in China in terms of the amount of money stolen (than in Nigeria). But the thing is that China, even with corruption, is able to grow up at ten per cent every year. The economy of China doubles every seven or eight years. The problem with Nigerian corruption is that the whole system is such that it is no longer functioning. Politicians are just there to divide money they get from oil and other resources. Italy is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but the Italian economy is still working.
Is it the impunity in the Nigerian corruption that fuels it?
That’s what I am saying. In Italy, in China, in America - there is tremendous corruption in America - in this country, Great Britain, there is tremendous corruption. But the politicians here, if there is no electricity for a day, they will be overthrown. Even in my country, Jamaica, which is a tiny country, they don’t produce an ounce of oil but if there is a queue at the petrol station for two days running, the government is likely to fall. If there is no electricity, if you had the problem of electrify you have in Nigeria, no government could survive it in Jamaica, in China, in France, in Britain. But I see Nigerians they just sit. They don’t have light for three days they don’t bother about it.
That’s the docility and the impunity...
The amount of money that has been spent on electricity over the years (in Nigeria) you cannot calculate it. But the fact is that the amount of electricity produced in Nigeria today is not much more than what was being produced when I came to Nigeria first in 1970. That is pathetic.
How did you become close to Gen. Murtala Mohammed and got involved in his government?
It was not just Murtala Mohammed. There were people like Gen. Danjuma, MD Yusuf, IBM Haruna, Aminu Kano, these were people I knew and it was not just what I said to them. I wrote in the papers and many of them knew what I had to say because they read what I said in the papers or they saw me on the television talking about South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau. So these people were intelligent enough to read what I said, operate and act on them; whereas others read what I said in the papers and said I was trying to subvert them. So you had one set of leaders, Murtala, Danjuma, MD Yusuf, Aminu Kano, these people listened to what I said and acted on it. Other people also read what I said, they read my books, they read my articles, they saw me on television, they said ‘Ah! This man is not even a Nigerian and he is trying to tell us what to do. They threw me out of the country and thought that they were going to destroy me.
It is alleged that you and some other activists and ‘radicals’ were so close to Gen. Murtala that his doors were always open to you and that the coup plotters who killed him got information about his personal habits and routine from some of you and used that in the attempted coup. What is the truth about the allegation?
This is a very stupid allegation because I knew nothing about Murtala’s habits. There were no radicals around Murtala Mohammed. Murtala read articles, he read books, and he saw me on television. The coup plotters who knew the route that he took ambushed him. He was a military man; he was a man of habits. I had no idea about any of these things and there were no so-called radicals who knew anything about that. This was strictly people whose interests were threatened by Murtala. The Americans wanted South Africa to continue to be dominated by white people. They wanted the whole of South Africa, the whole of Africa to be dominated by South Africa under apartheid. Some of the military people were taking money from the Americans; they were taking money from the British, the French, all these NATO countries. They resented the fact that we exposed what was going on and they wanted to get rid of us, they wanted to get rid of Murtala. They killed Murtala and they deported me but it made no difference to me and I am still here.
You said Gen. Murtala read your writings and was able to fathom the good in you and brought you close to him. Was he intellectually disposed?
Well, if you remember, Murtala gave a speech in Addis Ababa, not long before he was killed, where he explained the issues involved with Africa, the role South Africa was playing in keeping the whole continent under their throes. If it had not been for Murtala and what Nigeria did for southern Africa, Mandela might still be in jail today, and maybe he would have died in jail by now. He wouldn’t have gotten out; he wouldn’t have become president of South Africa. Even though South Africa is having some serious problems, it has really changed significantly since that time.
Looking back, what do you think the situation would have been in Nigeria and Africa if Murtala was not killed at that time, if he had lasted longer?
I think that South Africa would have gotten its independence even earlier than it did and the liberation of the continent would have progressed much more than it has. But nobody knows, may be after ten years, he might have changed. Nobody knows. I think there would have been more progress, but how much more, I don’t know, I can’t say.
You were also connected with the late MKO Abiola...
I was his speech writer. I was his political adviser. I didn’t think that he should run. I told him he was not likely to get rid of Babangida because Babangida had no intention of leaving. I told him that as far as politics was concerned, I could tell him how to win, and I did tell him how to win. The problem is that he died in jail because neither Babangida nor Abacha had intention of handing over to him.
Some political observers said you played a role in Abiola not accepting the nullification of the 1993 elections; that you pushed him to keep on fighting for the actualization of his ‘mandate’.
No, that was not my role. My role was to show him how to win the election and it was quite simple. I just showed him how to do it, I wrote speeches that appealed to the people and showed him how to explain to the people that he was the man to solve the problems. But he was very close to Babangida and I told him Babangida was not his friend, that Babangida had no intention of handing over to him. He was just playing tricks on him, but he didn’t believe that.
If the election was allowed to stand, what kind of president would Abiola have been?
I think he would have done better than any of the ones that had been there since 1979 because he had the support of the people. He had people behind him.
But some observers regarded him as not quite a presidential material.
Well, that was not the verdict of the people. The population of Nigeria voted him and Babagana Kingibe massively. That was unprecedented. Nobody could believe that two Muslims could run and win to the extent that he won in Kano where Bashir Tofa came from. He won all over the country. People were just fed up with what was there at the time and he presented himself as somebody different from them.
Someone described you as a ‘meddlesome meddler’ in the internal affairs of Nigeria.
Yes! I remember somebody like Lawan Gwadabe; I don’t know if he was a colonel, he said that since I was kicked out of Nigeria, they don’t have any problems anymore. Abacha almost killed him. I think he must have learnt some lessons. I hope he is still alive and learned some sense, but I am not bothered by people saying these types of things. You can see me I am looking quite healthy and well-fed. I am not worried about what Babangida or Gwadabe or anybody else says.
As a branded ‘Marxist’ and ‘radical’, do you feel disappointed that some of those you ‘fought’ the establishment together have now joined the ‘other side’, and become multi-millionaires?
I never told anybody that I was a Marxist. I read Marx, I read Engels, I read Mao; but I also read Freud, I also read all kinds of reactionary political theorists. I read a lot of biology, I read a lot of philosophy, but I never said I was a Marxist, I never said I was a Maoist, I never said I was a Freudian, I never said I was a biologist just because I read these things and agreed with some of them.
But some of those who were vehemently against the establishment have now joined the establishment …
Human beings can change. You can be one thing when you are 25 and something else when you are 50. I have remained consistent about my beliefs on what people desire and what governments should do, but I am unusual because many other people change as time goes on.
Have you not changed?
Well, I have lost some hair, (laughs) I can’t run as fast as I used to...
Not your physical appearance. I mean your beliefs, your ideologies, and your commitments.
Well, of course, I read books; I read a book almost every day, two days, or three days. I read new books. I watch British Television. The BBC is absolutely fantastic. You learn so much about science, technology, politics, everything. Of course the more I learn, the more I change. But certain basic things, I am still the same. I think ordinary persons have a right to decent life, a right to be able to take care of their children. Any government that is not doing that does not deserve to stay in power.
Would you consider going back to Nigeria, perhaps for a stint at the university?
No. At my age, I don’t want to ... In my twenties, I was quite willing to go to Nigeria, I was willing to sacrifice, but now, definitely not.
You wouldn’t consider retirement to Nigeria?
Absolutely not! People at my age with the probability that they won’t last another year, you don’t want to go to a country where you will have stress 97 per cent of the time, and you see people doing things they shouldn’t be doing.
When you were deported, some people connected with you were also victimized.
Yea. Some people in the media were victimized. Some of the students, some of the academics were victimized.
You are married to a Nigerian
Someone related to your wife had his services terminated.
Yes, but I don’t think that had anything to do with me. He has being taken back into the military. It had something to do with politics within the army itself. He was not the only person that was retired. And some of those who were involved took legal action and the military were advised that they would lose the case and so they had to take them back. They have been reinstated with full benefits.
You said you were motivated to go to Nigeria because you believed the country had the potential to be a great country. Do you still have that belief?
I could have taught in the United States, I could have taught in Canada, I could have taught in Jamaica. But I went to Nigeria because I thought Nigeria had the potential to become a great country like China has become a great country. Several other countries that were at that level (with Nigeria) have become great countries. But Nigeria has been a real disappointment. At this moment I definitely wouldn’t want to have anything to do with Nigeria as far as development is concerned.
You said somewhere that Nigerians are good ‘outside’ (the country) but bad ‘inside’ (the country); and is it always fair to blame the leadership?
Of course you have to blame the leadership because somebody like Obama, his father is Kenyan. If the family had been brought up in Kenya, I don’t think Obama would have become a leader in Kenya because the qualities that made him a leader in America would probably have gotten victimized in Kenya. So it is not just Nigeria that is a problem. It is in other countries in Africa and elsewhere, in South America, in Asia, all over; they don’t appreciate people who are intelligent, people who have integrity. They want people who are mediocre; they want people who are thieves.
Finally, what’s your advice to leaders and people in Nigeria and Africa in general?
I have been saying this since I came to Nigeria in 1970 that if you are a leader, your first responsibility is to the people. You are supposed to provide the opportunity for the people to have jobs, for their children to have education. You are supposed to build health facilities, make it possible for people to have a pension when they retire so they can survive, provide public transport they can use comfortably, you have to have roads, hospitals. All these things you don’t need to tell leaders that this is what they are supposed to do because that’s what leadership is all about. The Chinese leadership is communist. If they were democratic leaders, they would probably get ninety-something per cent of the votes because the people appreciate that they develop the country at ten per cent a year. The opposition could not do it. The British, the Americans, they also have a good standard of life for their peoples. It doesn’t matter that they are capitalists. But because the political system is such that they can change their leaders, people appreciate that. People have to demand that the leaders do what they are elected to do. So if you are not getting electricity, you are not supposed to sit down and take it; if you are not getting water, you are not supposed to sit down and take it; if you are not getting roads, you are not supposed to just sit back and say maybe these things may be done in heaven. You are here on earth, your responsibility is here. So make sure that your leaders do these things or throw them out.