Colonel Abdulmumini Aminu , a former military governor of Borno State became the pioneer commander of the National Guard, a national security outfit set up by Babangida to handle internal and external security issues. In this interview first published by Daily Trust, he explained why IBB is accused of introducing indiscipline in the military, his vision for Sambisa Forest and what could be done to tackle insurgency in the country.
As the pioneer commander of the defunct National Guard you must have been to the Sambisa Forest. We learnt that the training ground of that outfit was there. What is the nature of military facilities in the forest?
Yes! I was the pioneer commander of the National Guard and Sambisa was one of the places we identified as a suitable training ground. I think the mobile police were using the facility at that time, but we eventually took over because they abandoned the place. The National Guard was established with the best of intentions. It was for the national security of this country, but it was misconstrued by politicians and other people in the military to be intended to perpetuate Babangida as the president of Nigeria. But sincerely speaking, if the National Guard was allowed to stay as designed and planned to operate, we wouldn’t have been experiencing all these kidnappings, armed robbery and even Boko Haram. It would have been tackled before it became what it is today. We had the wherewithal, the facility and the equipment to tackle all kinds of situations. As a commander, I visited about nine countries in the world where there were established National Guard, and they were doing well. But ours was disbanded.
Before the establishment of the National Guard, Abacha was the minister of defence and chief of defense staff. He saw the establishment of the outfit as what would usurp his power and authority because it was supposed to have officers and men from the air force, navy, army, police and the State Security Service (SSS). It was supposed to be a very mighty venture. In any case, I wouldn’t blame Abacha because anyone in his shoes would feel the same way. They did all they could to stop its establishment, but they did not succeed. That was why one of his first assignments Abacha undertook as head of state was to retire us and disband the National Guard.
I am not saying they should establish National Guard again because there is the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC). It should play the role of the National Guard. They should be well equipped and exposed to different kinds of trainings. The National Guard was to participate in the territorial defence of Nigeria in case of outside aggression and other challenges. They are supposed to be the first outfit to engage the enemy. Where they cannot handle the enemy from outside, then they need to call the military to take over from there. At that stage, the enemy must have been weakened. The military is overstretched the way they are being used. The military is called in any small thing, and that shouldn’t be. That is why the NSCDC needs to be strengthened. When the economy improves, this government should try and strengthen the NSCDC.
From what you are saying, it would have been a capital intensive project.
Any security outfit has capital intensive components. The question is: Do you want security or you want to keep your money? Let me tell you that security is the first and foremost requirement for any government. If the people are well secured, everything will fall into place. When we don’t have security, even the economy will fall. If money is spent on security, it will pay itself even if it will take time. Sometimes we don’t see the physical benefit of it, but the social aspect. We have to shield the military from the civilians. We can also engage the police and the civil defence, but the only way to achieve this is to train them properly and motivate them well.
So you don’t support the current involvement of the military in many operations that have made them mix up with the civil populace?
It’s not a matter of support; this is the only option they have now. They don’t have any alternative. If they had developed the police and the civil defence properly, there would not be any need to have the military everywhere. In most cases, they can’t be replaced because we don’t even have the manpower to do that. People are kept in that place for one or two years, and you will discover that their output will be degraded and their morale will be low. Even their commitment and discipline will be degraded as well. So there are a lot of negative things as a result of that.
What about the suggestions that the civilian JTF be absorbed into the army?
The civilian JTF is a good omen for the country. They did very well. I like the way they operate, but you see, people can’t just be absorbed just like that. Even people that are recruited into the military go through a lot of screening, not in terms of whether they can do the job but in terms of their background and so on. This is because if care is not taken, wrong people can be recruited into the system. I am not against recruiting them, but proper screening should be conducted. The military should give them whatever help they can afford.
What kind of facilities do you have in Sambisa Forest? Does it have an underground bunker that cannot be detected through air surveillance?
No, which bunker? I told you the police were training there. Is it the police that would establish a bunker? The police were using it as a range for small trainings. You could see small buildings around the place, but it is not big.
As the military governor of Borno State, my intention was to establish Sambisa Forest as a tourist site like the Yankari Game Reserve, but when I left, the entire idea was abandoned. Maybe if we had that and the National Guard was there, the insurgents wouldn’t have found the place convenient to establish their base. It was because the place was abandoned and no activity was going on there that it was easy for them to take it over. The forest itself is massive. You need to go and see.
Don’t you think the Boko Haram insurgents took over the place because there were training facilities there?
Initially, I didn’t know they had the capacity to do that kind of thing. But I know that whoever is carrying out military operations will find Sambisa an excellent place, especially when we are talking about insurgency.
It is very difficult to fight terrorism because these are people who can come in different ways and blend with the populace. And you can’t kill everybody. That is why sometimes they have advantage over the soldiers. Soldiers don’t just fight with everybody; they have to identify the enemy. Under such circumstance, it is really difficult to pinpoint who is a terrorist. That is why sometimes they surprise the military.
Did the National Guard leave any weapon in the Sambisa Forest?
How can we leave weapons there? Any weapon you have, whether big or small, has to be manned. As a soldier you need to always go with your weapon. That is why it is called your wife. So the question of keeping weapons there does not arise.
But you said they were used for training.
Even if they were for training, there would be people to man them.
The Boko Haram insurgents have been operating for several years; why didn’t you alert the country that there was such a military training facility in Borno? Did you take it for granted that those in government knew?
Of course they know. You see, in Borno State, there has been the 21 Armoured Brigade, which has a battalion each in Moguno, Bama and Maiduguri. So it is part of their duty to identify good training areas, and that place is one of them. They don’t need to tell anybody to go there and train. The facility is there to be developed and utilised, so I assumed I didn’t need to tell anybody.
In his autobiography, Ishaya Bamaiyi attributed the advent of indiscipline in the Nigerian armed forces to the Babangida era. He said a situation where majors (and you were one of them) were sent to arrest a sitting head of state whose rank was a major-general brought indiscipline. How would you react to that?
First of all, I have not read the book, so I cannot authenticate what you are saying precisely. But if he said that, I would disagree with him because we purely carried out military assignments. You don’t expect a general to go to a general on that kind of operation. Cast your mind back to those days – it was Danjuma who went to Ironsi. If you look at the history of that kind of coup, you would see that rank is not an issue when you are talking about indiscipline. I am surprised that General Bamaiyi would say that. Bamaiyi is one of the few senior colleagues I respect a lot, and I know him well.
You see, a major is the beginning of being a senior officer in the military; which means you can be given any responsibility. It is usually not in my character to castigate military officers, more so my superiors, but for General Bamaiyi to say that General Babangida introduced indiscipline in the military by appointing majors as military governors is totally false and misleading. If he traced the history of military appointments into political offices he wouldn’t have faulted Babangida for appointing two majors as military governors. It started during the Gowon era when majors were introduced to govern states. We had Major Mobolaji Johnson in Lagos State, Major Samuel Ogbemudia in the Midwest, Lt. Commander Diette-Spiff, a major equivalent in Rivers etc.
When General Muhammadu Buhari took over in 1983, he appointed junior officers as military governors, such as Lt Col. Dayo Popoola and David Mark. Appointment of military governors was done according to states. Sometimes you found out that some states did not have senior equivalent ranks to be appointed. Under such circumstance, the authority would have no choice but to pick a junior officer to represent his state.
Recall that General Shehu Musa Yar’adua was promoted from the rank of lieutenant-colonel to Brigadier-General, just for him to be appointed chief of staff, Supreme Headquarters to represent the North and Islam since the then head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, was a Yoruba and a Christian.
That has been the trend in military administration, even when there’s an availability of senior officers. I expect a superior argument from the general, not what he portrayed.
Where was Bamaiyi when TY Danjuma was promoted and made chief of army staff above his course mates like Martins Adamu who was made GOC 2 Division while Obeya was made brigade commander? How come that one did not breed indiscipline in his eyes?
As a major, there’s no responsibility you cannot handle. And I challenge anybody to contradict me. When we were governors we never disrespected anybody. The positions did not get into our heads; rather, we were competing among ourselves in terms of programmes and policies. We were trying to excel in our assignments. I was the military assistant to General Babangida when he was Chief of Army Staff and I never got carried away by that position even though he allowed me to do a lot of things. The system does not allow that kind of thing, you give seniors their respect.
It was said that senior military officers had to pass through some of you who were governors to see Babangida. How true is that?
That’s not true. For example, I was in Borno at that time; so how could officers in Lagos come to me before seeing the president.
When you talk about military assignments in political dispensations, there are many things you find difficult to explain because the authority might not explain the reason why they did what they did.
Those of you identified as IBB Boys had terrible experiences during the General Sani Abacha era. What was your experience?
I think they were scared that we could become threats to them; hence a lot of us were targeted during the regime. Our movements were restricted and we were prevented from getting involved in so many things. They did not arrest me, but I was ready for it. I didn’t care.
I don’t understand why we were termed the IBB Boys, but I know that for any administration, whether military or civilian, the leader always looks for people that are loyal to him. It is not a question of favouring anybody; it’s a question of those you are comfortable with. That was why Abacha was not comfortable with us and had to retire us. He had his own loyalists. So why was Babangida wrong in identifying those loyal to him? I know the people who instigated that we should be removed. It will be made known in my book. They know that we know all these things, but we thank God because everything is His wish. We are still alive and kicking fine.
When we called to ask for this interview, you said you had an English Premiership match to watch. Britain has been able to develop their sports to the extent that it has attracted world interest. As former NFA chairman, what do you think is the problem with sports in Nigeria?
I don’t want to call it a problem. There are certain things we were supposed to do that we didn’t do. However, the situation is not the same with Europe. The economies are not the same.
Today, sport is beyond leisure; it is a business venture. Unless we tune ourselves towards that direction, I don’t think we will achieve what we want to achieve. Sports, if properly organised, controlled and developed, could fend for itself and earn a lot of money for Nigeria for other sectors to develop.
I don’t want to blame sports leaders or any government, but as I said, the Nigerian economy is not strong enough to handle sports. If you look at the clubs in Europe and how they are being managed, the property, marketing, television rights and so on, you see what keeps them going. They make a lot of profit from that. But in Nigeria today, which company can sponsor a single club? The situation is so bad that it is the government that is running sports when it should have been the other way round. Take a look at the clubs in Nigeria today and tell me which one is not funded by government? Maybe two or three. And it is very expensive, it is not easy. The sector is also filled with corruption. And unless we remove that, nobody would want to invest his money there because investors are looking for profit. To commercialise sports in Nigeria, government has a responsibility to put the place in order. People are clamouring for government to hands off, but it is not possible at this stage. Eventually, that would be the last thing to do, but at the moment, government has to play a key role in sports development. For sports to develop in Nigeria, government needs to provide an enabling environment by way of providing all the necessary facilities. There are a lot of experts in this country who know about sports development and how to market it. With all these talents and the advantage we have in terms of population, we can go places. For me, all hopes are not lost. It is a gradual process, but we need people who are committed and patriotic.
When you were the military governor of Borno State, you were able to revive the El-Kanemi Warriors within a short time, to the extent that it climbed to Division One. What was the magic?
I established the club. There was nothing like El-Kanemi at that time. It was as a result of my knack for sports and football in particular that I established the club. The first-eleven Nigerian footballers, including three reserves, came from there. That was because I looked for the best in the country, and I was paying them well, buying them cars and houses. They were not missing anything. As a result of that, everybody was looking forward to joining the club. Most of the players were not from the North. At that time, most of the fine players were from the South. So it was like a mini Nigeria. That was what made the club unique and very strong; plus, of course, the excellent leadership we had. Once you have people interested in a venture and they have the passion, you cannot fail.
When you were the chairman of the then Nigeria Football Association (NFA) you took a controversial decision of paying bonuses to the Nigerian contingent to France ’98, even after Nigeria lost the match. Why did you take such a decision?
When we went for the World Cup in France, you could see the zeal, motivation and patriotism in the players; but unfortunately, luck was against us. Six or seven key players were injured. What people don’t know is that nobody wants to lose in any competition. The players wanted to win. That is why I hate a situation where people would start castigating players once they lose. That is not the way to manage people and situations. In our own case, I ordered that they be paid even though they lost. To me, that was a way of motivating them and others who will join later. They should know that the country cares for them and is prepared to go along with them, whether they lose or win. In terms of accountability, we were given $4.2million and we returned $2million plus. Everybody hailed us, saying it was the first time in Nigeria’s history that a contingent would go for a competition and return money. When you are prudent with what is entrusted in your care, you will go places.
As a military governor, how would you have handled the Boko Haram insurgency?
Well, as a military governor, even though you are the chief security officer of the state, you don’t have the operational control. It is only the Federal Government and the military that would determine your mode of operation. You can only advise and make suggestions, but you cannot be in charge of the operation because you have limitations. In any case, I want to commend President Muhammadu Buhari for what he has achieved in clearing the Boko Haram insurgents. I won’t say he has defeated them because we know that they are not completely defeated yet. But what the government has achieved in such a short time is commendable. I particularly also want to commend the military, the governors of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, as well as the governor of Gombe State. Sometimes the insurgents make moves, but because they are at alert, they either clear or stop them. More importantly, I like the courage and commitment of the governor of Borno State. You always see him at the scene once it happens, and sometimes he even sleeps there. He sleeps at internally displaced persons’ camps. He is always eager to do something for the people. They have displayed a different style of leadership as far as fighting Boko Haram is concerned and they deserve a lot of commendation. If not for their efforts and that of the Federal Government, Boko Haram would have done more harm.
What is your assessment of the current administration?
Buhari is doing well in fighting corruption. I will give him at least 80 per cent in that. This is because you cannot totally wipe it out, but the willpower, intention and commitment are very glaring. They have done very well in terms of security since he came. Efforts have also been made in other areas. I think he is lucky because of the team he has. I like his team. When you have people like Audu Ogbe, Rotimi Amaechi, Senator Hadi Sirika, Suleman Adamu, Kemi Adeosun, Babatunde Fashola, Adamu Adamu etc, you have a good team. You cannot fault their abilities and competence. The president and his ministers are well tested Nigerians. I want to also praise the governors, particularly those in the North because, with the limited resources they receive, you will still see a lot of physical development in their states.
Was it right for the Federal Government to have entered into negotiations with terrorists over the release of Chibok schoolgirls?
You see, for me, the power of negotiation is always good for any country or organisation. We found ourselves in a peculiar situation, therefore, there must be a peculiar way of handling it. It is not always the normal practice, as people would say. For every situation, there is always a different answer and approach.
I am not in government, so I cannot precisely say this is what informed the government to do it. It has everything at its disposal to take decisions on issues of this nature. You see, negotiation has negative and positive effects. It is left for the person taking the decision. I believe that is what the government has done. Even if they have released some of the insurgents, maybe they have seen that they cannot be threats to the country. What is important is that they have achieved results. If they hadn’t achieved results, then the people would have had reasons to condemn or complain about the process.
But we shouldn’t assume that it is over with Boko Haram. Of course there is success, but we should not take things for granted. There must be a strategic plan because I am sure they will come up with a different approach. So the government and the military have to prepare for this.
When one is fighting insurgency, there is no accurate or book answer to it. It is based on your experience; you don’t read about how to handle them. I think we allowed Boko Haram to grow into this bigger thing they are today. If we had gone all out to tackle them initially, it wouldn’t have been a menace now. We need to plan so that their activity can be curtailed. We should make it difficult for them to try us again.
I have no doubt about our military and the government. If they continue this way, I believe Boko Haram will be a thing of the past.
Again, we need the support of all Nigerians. The problem we have in this country is that people are not patriotic enough. People think it is the government’s duty and problem; but it is everybody’s responsibility. You don’t need to fight; there are a lot of ways you can contribute your quota to the success of fighting insurgency – by supporting the government, giving adequate information to the security operatives etc. For me, the security operatives have done very well, but they still need support.
You contested for the governorship of Katina State in 2003…
I didn’t contest, I withdrew.
Is that to say you have abandoned politics?
No, I’m in politics, but I only play the role of an elder or kingmaker in my area. I am not directly involved. Whether you like it or not, they say a human being is a political animal; so whatsoever you do, be it in your home, there is politics in you. You cannot completely abandon politics.