Former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari, has spoken up on the high-wired intrigues that, in 1985, terminated his barely two-year-old government, blaming his ouster on an attempt to fire Ibrahim Babangida, the then army chief, and Aliyu Gusau, the army intelligence chief.
Mr. Buhari, a retired General, said he had tabled proposal for the retirement of Mr. Gusau, the Director of Military Intelligence and a close ally of Mr. Babangida’s, and it became clear to Mr. Babangida he could be the next target.
The move alerted Mr. Babangida who soon mobilized the military and forced the Buhari regime out, before detaining Mr. Buhari for three years, the retired general said in a rare interview with the Sun newspaper published weekend.
“I moved to retire his Director of Military Intelligence,” Mr Buhari said. “I took a paper to Army Council. Babangida was there… Idiagbon was there, Bali was there as Minister of Defence, and I was there as the head of state and commander-in-chief. And reasons for him to be removed was in that memo. Go and find out from him or from Babangida. They are both alive.”
He continued, “…But if you touch Gusau, his intelligence chief, invariably, you were going to inch towards the Chief of Army Staff, Babangida. Eventually, he might have been touched. I didn’t know but at that point, it was Aliyu Gusau.
“Yes, we were inching closer. You could say that.Mr. Buhari’s revelation corroborated Mr. Gusau’s narrative of his military career.
In a bio published on his website, Mr. Gusau said he was Director of Military Intelligence (DMI) from November 1979 to December 1983 and played an important role in the coup that ousted President Shehu Shagari and the corrupt National Party of Nigeria, NPN, from power on 31 December 1983, bringing Mr. Buhari to power.
He said following the coup, he was proposed as overall head of Intelligence, with the support of Babangida, who was then Chief of Army Staff, but that his appointment was opposed by Mr. Buhari.
Mr. Buhari later confirmed Mr. Shagari’s appointee, Muhammadu Lawal Rafindadi, as director of the National Security Organization (NSO). He removed Mr. Gusau from the DMI, replacing him with Colonel Halilu Akilu. Mr. Gusau was then sent on training at the Royal College of Defence Studies in Britain.
Mr Gusau felt badly treated and the Buhari regime suspected he was planning an insurrection. In response, Mr. Buhari moved fast by trying to retire him from the army, an action Mr. Babangida resisted.
Mr. Babangida then teamed up with Mr. Gusau and a few other disgruntled officers to topple the Buhari regime.
Mr. Buhari said he felt betrayed by Mr. Babangida, and felt even more upset after his detention made him miss his mother’s funeral in 1988.
The general however said he has forgiven Mr. Babangida, although the events remained unforgettable. He also wished President Shehu Shagari, who he had earlier toppled and detained too, will forgive him.
Mr. Buhari, who served as petroleum minister under the military government of former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, said he still begrudged Mr. Obasanjo for mobilizing voters against him during past elections.
“No, I haven’t forgiven him,” he said of Mr. Obasanjo.
The lengthy interview, commemorating Mr. Buhari’s 70th birthday, provided rare details about the former head of state’s upbringing, military career, politics and life as a flirting youngster who smoked and kept girlfriends.
He said he quit smoking in 1977.
Since leaving office August 1985, Mr. Buhari maintained a low profile before taking a role as head of the Petroleum Trust Fund under Sani Abacha government, and then joining politics in 2003 when he first contested for president on the platform of the All Nigeria Peoples Party.
He said he would continue with party politics as long as “I have breath in me”, but was not certain about running for president in 2015.
That decision will be taken after the outcome of the alliance plan between his party, the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, and other opposition parties, he said.
Mr. Buhari said his turning point for democracy came in 1991 after the former Soviet Union split into more than a dozen countries.
“I have said this so often that an empire in the 20th century, collapsed and a lot of people ran back home, leaving strategic installations behind, like missile sites, nuclear formation and so on,” he said.
“It was then that I believed, personally, in my own assessment, that multi-party democratic system was and is still superior to despotism.”
But the new convictions altered none of his draconian convictions about media restrictions, and basic rights, he said, offering no regret for his government’s suppression of the media- a reference often cashed upon by critics to taunt his presidential ambition.
He said the infamous Decree 4, under which his administration jailed journalists, and refused clemency for drug traffickers, was merely enforcing what the highest military council agreed upon at the time.
While the regime received accolades for its anti-corruption stance and discipline, it came under severe criticism for its high-handedness and violation of rights.
The anti-media law and the administration’s penchant for summary executions typified those excesses. Mr. Buhari said he had no regrets.
“What we did was that you must not embarrass those civil servants. If you have got evidence that somebody was corrupt, the courts were there. Take the evidence to court; the court will not spare whoever it was. But you don’t just go and write articles that were embarrassing,” he said.
“Those who did it, the editors, the reporters, we jailed them. But we never closed a whole institution, as others did.”
Asked if he regretted the decision, he replied: “No regret, because we did it according to the laws we made. We neither closed a whole institution nor caused job losses.”
Mr. Buhari also denied N2.8 billion oil money disappeared while he was minister of petroleum. He said the allegation was politically motivated.
“At that time, Nigeria was exporting about 1.82 million barrels a day. And the cost of barrel a day was about $18. You work out N2.8billion. How could N2.8billion be missing and we still have money to run the country?”
The general gave a telling portrait of the military coup that brought him to power, and that which saw him pushed out of office and thrown into detention.
He denied ever participating in coup plotting, and said he was merely invited as the most senior officer to take over the reins of governance after Mr. Shagari, the second republic president, was sacked.
Those backers later “changed their minds” and booted him out of office, he said.
A key reason for this, he said, was his attempt to retire Mr. Gusau, and potentially, Mr. Babangida. Mr. Gusau, a well-connected intelligence officer, has remained a long standing associate of Mr. Babangida.
As a retired officer, he repeatedly held the office of the National Security Adviser under civilian regimes, the latest under President Goodluck Jonathan.
At each turn too, Mr. Gusau has taken a shot at the presidency, and in 2007, Mr. Babangida stood down from the contest citing his relationship with Mr. Gusau and the late Umaru Yar’adua, who won the election.
Mr. Buhari said he took the papers for Mr. Gusau’s retirement to the army council which had Mr. Babangida as a key member. He said with the move, he was “inching closer” to Mr. Babangida.
On a light note, Mr. Buhari said he smoked and had affairs while a young officer. He said he didn’t touch alcohol because his religion, Islam, forbids him from doing so.
He added for effect that he was surprised that not many women had interest in him despite his position and looks.
“I thought women ought to have taken more interest in me but I don’t know why they didn’t. I must have something they didn’t like. I assure you of that. I didn’t drink, I smoked, I had girlfriends; it was true.”
Then the former head of state jokingly told the interviwers they would be doing him a lot of good by not printing that aspect of the interview, saying “because my wife will read the interview”.