In this interview, Col. Tony Nyiam, who was part of the failed attempt to oust the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s military government in 1990, tells WAHEED BAKARE and ALLWELL OKPI, how the Orkar coup originated and its relevance to Nigerian politics
You said what has come to be known as the Orkar coup was not a coup but an action. What is the difference between the two?
I said it was a pro-democracy action to stop a situation where there would have been perpetual diarchy in Nigeria, where politicians in uniform would have put a system in place for them to rule forever. I’m talking about a system similar to what the Arab uprising dismantled in Egypt.
But a more senior military officer, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, referred to it as a coup.
It is because in our setting we misuse words. And because we are used to misusing words, we believe even words that are not really the truth. A military coup would be a coup against an elected government. Our action was not against an elected government. In fact, it’s the responsibility of a military officer to rise up against anybody who takes over power from an elected government, which the government we took action against did. The government we took action against, which was part of the Muhammadu Buhari to Ibrahim Babangida regime, had usurped power from the elected government of Shehu Shagari. If there is a coup that overthrows an elected government, it is the duty of a military officer to do a counter-coup to restore democracy.
Would you have done the same thing if Buhari had remained in power to that time?
If we had seen the same indications during Buhari’s time, the plan by the military to perpetuate itself, we would have done that. But Buhari wasn’t of that kind of mould.
Are you saying your stay in power would have been brief, only long enough to prepare for elections?
Yes. We would have stayed just 18 months to do basically three things, which Nigeria still needs to do. They are: a national census, a proper headcount. I’m happy that as I’ve been saying for years, Festus Odimegwu, the new chairman of the National Population Commission, clearly said there has been no credible census in Nigeria since 1816. The fact is that Nigerians have been so ignorant and have refused to deal with the crucial matter. The census, right from the British time, has always been used to perpetuate the internal colonisers over the rest of Nigeria. The three things we would have done; first a proper national census, so we can know how many we are and how we are spread. If we truly know what the Nigerian population is, over 40 per cent of the constituencies in the North-West and North-East, would not exist. We can only know that if we do a proper census and that is why today, Festus Odimegwu’s life is being threatened because he wants to give us a true count for the first time.
The second thing would have been a conference, which would allow Nigerians to negotiate how they want to coexist. Today, we have a situation where there are abuses of the federal character system. For example, a candidate from say Delta State has to score 170 to pass, while another from another part of the country is required to score eight. Such abuses cannot really be acceptable by a people who have a nation. We are yet to have a nation. The imperative of a conference cannot be ruled out; people need to negotiate. The third thing was to conduct a free and fair election, which has eluded Nigeria for long. In all the regimes, a semblance of free and fair election we see only in a few states in Nigeria basically Lagos and the other states in the South-West. I’m not saying they have achieved it, but we see relatively free and fair elections in these regions. It is not surprising why these regions are the most developing, South-West is the most peaceful, relatively compared to other regions and of course it is the region, where there is relative collective governance of the people. I must give credit to this government, led by President Goodluck Jonathan. The Ondo and Edo states governorship elections, which were relatively free and fair, are credit to Jonathan’s government. These are the things we would have done in those 18 months and those three things whether we like it or not, have to be done. First, we must have a proper census and that is why all Nigerians must support Festus Odimegwu to give us a proper census. Two, we must sit down and negotiate our corporate existence. We must stop deceiving ourselves with these fraudulent elections we’ve been having.
There is the argument that we don’t need to have another conference since we have representatives at the National Assembly.
It is the most ignorant assumption. Why do I say it is ignorant? With all the political scientists we have in our midst, people forget that what we are practising is what we call indirect democracy. What do I mean? The proprietary right over people’s sovereignty is delegated to people we elect to make laws for us. When it comes to making constitutional reforms or constitution making, you go to what is called direct democracy. Direct democracy means direct voting by the people in the form of a referendum and that is why the universal practice is that a constitution making process that does not go through a constituent assembly, whose decisions are approved by a referendum, is null and void. We see the examples. Look at South Sudan; it’s creation resulted from a referendum. How is it that Nigerians do not understand that for a constitution to be legitimate, it has to be driven by the people, and the people are usually represented by a constituent assembly? And this constituent assembly is usually made up of non-partisan politicians, because partisan politicians are only concerned with the next election. They are not concerned about posterity or long-term issues in the country. So, constitution which outlives people and a generation should be driven by civil society, collection of every nationality in the country and clerics. I would cite an example. My second home is in Scotland and in Scotland those who drove for the national conference were the clerics of the Church of Scotland, they were at the forefront. We also saw it in Ireland. Britain has the oldest parliament in the world, why are they allowing a constituent assembly to go ahead, while there are parliaments? It is only in Nigeria that such argument is raised because of the ignorance of the difference between direct and indirect democracy. That’s why I have tried to do an aide-memoir to aid constitution- making. There are certain basic principles of constitution-making, which if we do not follow, would be like building a house on quicksand.
Do you think we would have been able to tackle these problems if the June 12 election had not been annulled by Babangida?
The thing is, Chief MKO Abiola, who I had the opportunity to work with when he escaped from Nigeria to UK, was a man that we lost because his plan was to correct the national issues and start democracy in Nigeria. But because some western interests in Nigeria did not want this, they colluded to do away with him.
You once said soldiers could be recruited for a coup without their knowledge. How is that possible?
Yes, there are many instances. You might want to verify this from Gen. Buhari, he was not the initiator of that coup that brought him in as Head of State, it was Gen. Ibrahim Bako and Babangida that initiated it. But because they wanted a credible figure as a face, he was brought in. He did not know the genesis of that coup. He was not quite aware of the original idea behind the coup and that was why when he decided to make a change, he was forced to step aside. So, if this could happen to a whole Gen. Buhari, who was supposedly the leader of a coup, it shows how many soldiers can be brought in that way.
Does that mean overthrowing Shagari’s government was IBB’s idea?
It was the idea of late Gen. Bako and IBB. Buhari was only brought in because they needed a face with integrity.
Can you give other instances?
Gen. Yakubu Gowon was not part of the coup that brought him in. He was a decent man. Nigerians like to play what the Yoruba people call bojuboju; they bring a figure with integrity to cover up their real intention; the real intention of politicians in uniform who have found cheap party. Many elements of them are in our partisan politics today.
That means such heads of states were under the control of the coup plotters that installed them.
Obviously. And these people are still the reason why we are not allowed to have a proper census, they are still the ones ensuring that we don’t have a conference as well as a free and fair election because if you give the people their rights to choose who to governs them, you have freed them and these oligarchs don’t want that.
Could it be a defence in the military to say I wasn’t part of a coup, I was just brought in?
It couldn’t be a defence because at the point you know that it is a coup, you should do everything possible to resist it.
Even at the risk of taking your life?
That was what we did. At the point when we realised that they were going to perpetuate the military government in Nigeria, we took the risk.
Can we say this plan was an Hausa-Fulani agenda, since most of these military leaders are northerners?
We cannot reduce this thing to an issue of a peaceful Hausa-Fulani man or a peaceful Yoruba man or a peaceful Igbo man. I think we are above that. What we see is an interest of oligarchs, who think power and money controls and there are all sorts of people in that fold. For a long time, you may say one ethnic group has a preponderant membership of that group.
It was reported that the late Gideon Orkar wanted to excise northern Nigeria from the country. Was it part of the agenda?
The unsung hero, Gideon Orkar, was far from anybody who wanted to divide the country. He was calling all regions of the country to some conditionality that they have to meet, if they want us to coexist. It was because that was an era when certain people were saying that they were superior, and that power was their prerogative and that they had the monopoly of power.
Would that have been due to the ethnic coloration of previous coups?
Sure. It is sad that democrats are missing the issue that we were fighting against, which we still need to fight against. It is a situation where they take over power and give advantage to their people to the extent that today if we count the local governments we have in Kano and Jigawa which are states not up to Lagos in population, the local governments are up to three to five times the number of local government areas in Lagos. Lagos is a place, apart from the Niger Delta which gives us foreign exchange earner. Lagos contributes over 70 per cent of our non-oil revenue generation and the same Lagos gets less than what Kano, which produces less than two per cent, gets. This is why I must say Lagos State made a mistake, instead of relocating the problem where it lies; it is not about deporting Igbo beggars to Onitsha end of the Niger Bridge. Lagos should take the right steps legally or otherwise to assert the rights of the state which is being the owner of the Value Added Tax and the sales tax generated in Lagos. The things we fought against are still structurally within our polity. Today, you cannot pass a bill at the National Assembly, if two zones — North-East and North-West — do not agree. So, two zones can stop four zones — South-East, South-West, South-South and North-Central — from moving forward. The irony of this is that these zones are in the semi-desert areas that are usually less populated going by all empirical evidence. We have problems with our census figure; that is why they have all those constituencies and that is why they planned coups to perpetuate that.
Do you think the action failed because the northerners were not involved and because of the conditions given to them to be part of Nigeria?
First of all, our action and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu’s action were the only actions that were not palace coup. The likes of Bako and IBB’s coup which brought in Buhari wer. The fact is that the government of Shagari was a government that the military was highly involved in because of the ethnic kinsmanship. There was a fight over contracts that broke the coup. It was an in-house thing. So, the coup was driven by people’s selfish interests and that is why I don’t call it a military coup, I call it a politicians-in-uniform coup. Nzeogwu’s action and our action were done by outsiders, who felt this cash-and-carry ruling and stealing would not be allowed to continue.
If the action had been successful, who would have been the head of state?
It would have been Maj. Saliba Mukoro. He was the initiator. They heard about me and they wanted some senior people to be part of the action. When they approached me, I didn’t accept immediately because I wasn’t the type that will go for a coup or any action. But when I heard the strength of the argument, and in line with my insight as to what was happening in government because I was a close aide to Babangida and Sani Abacha. It would have been immoral of me to report the young officers. I was torn in-between reporting these young, overzealous and selfless boys, who wanted certain issues solved and maitaining loyalty to the military government. People forget that it was because of the action that Delta State was created. And the system in Delta State today has fraudulently prevented one of the people who initiated it, Great Ogboru, to govern. People forget that Bayelsa State was created because of the action. And that’s why I still find it sad that till today, even with the President coming from Bayelsa, no Bayelsan government has honoured those boys who sacrificed their lives for the Niger Delta. I have said it over and over that these chaps deserve to be honoured. I think the Niger Deltans, President Jonathan and the Ijaw should take cue from the Yoruba and honour those boys. The majority of the boys in our action were Niger Deltans for obvious reasons.
Were you the only colonel in the action?
We were two lieutenant colonels. I was brought in by another lieutenant colonel. But that lieutenant colonel sold out and that was why there was a leakage and we had to rush. The person who recruited me had sold out.
Is he a Niger Deltan?
Yes. His name was Lt. Col. Patrick Oketa.
When you were pardoned, what was your feeling?
First of all, we were grateful to Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar and Admiral Mike Akhigbe, who were the initiators of the pardon. These were two gentlemen who were never part of any coup. Power was just dumped on Abdulsalami and true to his character; he wasted no time in returning power to civillians. The system of returning power to civilians should have been better but because he didn’t want to stay a day longer, he left and this is a reflection of his character.
Do you still relate with your colleagues?
Sure, what we didn’t realise is that most of our colleagues who were travelling were very helpful to us, because they knew what we fought for. If our actions were not taken, you would never have had the chance of having an Igbo man as Chief of Army Staff. No Yoruba man would have had that chance either. Why do I say so? Some of us had insight as to a succession plan in the army for the next 50 years. You would never have had the likes of Gen. Martin Agwai being the Chief of Army Staff and Defence Staff, because he belongs to the northern Christian minority. The army, after General T.Y. Danjuma’s time became an army that was to be led by only an ethnic group. People forget that there is a linkage between our action and the chance that MKO Abiola was given for the election.
Now that we have Delta and Bayelsa states and we have the Ministry of Niger Delta and an Ijaw man is the head. Do you think these are enough to right the wrongs of the past?
Those issues are again the usual Nigerian way of dealing with things; rather than go for a holistic tactic. A fundamental thing essentially is to restore power. Once power is restored to the people it is left to them. All these things are just temporal measures. The fundamental issue is to return Nigeria to true federalism. This talk of diversifying our economy cannot happen if we do not have fiscal federalism. People forget that when we had proper federalism, the main foreign exchange for Nigeria was agriculture. So, we have to go back to that.