Lt. Col. Gabriel Anthony Nyiam came to national reknown after the abortive April 22, 1990 coup orchestrated by a group of middle belt and southern officers of the Nigeria Army against the then authorities headed by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida.
Col. Nyiam was the highest serving officer involved in that uprising which seriously violated Babangida’s headquarters in the Dodan Barracks and led to the death of the military president’s ADC, Lt. Col. Usman Bello.
A son of a soldier from Cross River State, the young Nyiam followed his father’s profession early in life when he enrolled into the Nigerian Military School, Zaria, and from there into the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna as part of the 9th Regular Combatant Course that began in January 1971.
Following the completion of his studies at the NDA he was enlisted into the Army Corps of Engineers and from there proceeded on study leave obtaining a first degree in Quantity Surveying from Earthwork University in Scotland and subsequently, a masters degree in International Relations from the University of Aberdeen, also in Scotland. While studying, he was seconded to the British Army, where in his words he claims to have learnt that “soldiering is an honourable profession in the defence of the weak”.
Upon returning to Nigeria he was deployed to the army headquarters where he worked directly under General Babangida who was at that time Army Chief.
His last posting was as a directing staff at the Command and Staff College, Jaji. Following the failed April, 22 1990 failed putsch, Nyiam relocated abroad and joined forces with the camp of pro-democracy enthusiasts that fought the Sani Abacha regime from abroad.
Nyiam has written a book “True Federal Democracy or Awaiting Implosion: an aide-memoire” which he envisages should be used as a working document for making a new Nigeria constitution.
Ahead of the formal presentation of the book, Col. Nyiam had an interaction with Vanguard Editors during which he spoke on issues relating to Nigeria’s federalism, his relationship with Gen. Babangida, reasons for the coup and the commercial reasons behind the amalgamation of the north and southern protectorates of Nigeria 100 years ago. Excerpts:
WHAT are you campaigning for?
I thought that the first thing we should have done was to have come up with a process whereby we meaningfully start building the basis of democracy.
You would see what has happened in Egypt of recent; the first thing people do is to go for a conference towards a constitution. It is on the basis of that agreement that every sensible state proceeds from.
In our own case, people who are supposedly democrats took over a constitution which starts with a big lie and makes a claim on behalf of the people and we have been working on a constitution which was imposed by military decree.
The problem that we did not solve with the Aburi Accord still hunts us and I see as an observer that democracy which we are supposedly pursuing and that we are just paying lip service to democracy. Our elections I can say with all humility are 70% fraudulent. Our census is fraudulent. And we know this and we are supposed to be intelligent people and we accept this.
Our federalism is in itself fraudulent and it is not surprising why there is pipeline vandalism, it is not surprising why there is bunkering. In other words, Nigeria is in lack of people who can discern the principles that determine a process and keep by those principles.
Look at the US and the issue of the use of drones, you can see the discussion and the level it is going as to how to make the government more accountable with some suggesting that the judiciary may have to come in before they can authorise an American to kill.
In our own case, we pay lip service to things that are very fundamental because they are not bread and butter matters. What are important to us? Elections! They will come and go and we are still in square one and we yet we have no constitution that Nigerians consented to.
You hear parliamentarians saying that because there is a government in place that there cannot be another conference. Rubbish. Right now in the UK which is a very old democracy, there have been national conferences.
There is a scheduled referendum and it all came out from a conference which was something like a sovereign national conference. A bill was passed that whatever is arrived at that conference would be subjected to a plebiscite, but here, you hear people arguing because people forget that there is a difference between what is called direct democracy and indirect democracy.
Most of what we are familiar with is what I call the indirect that is, we delegate sovereignty to our National Assembly. They are delegates. When it comes to what is beyond making laws, people take back their sovereignty.
What I am trying to point out is that once you breach the principles of a process, the consequences would be that anything else would be dysfunctional.
This argument you have put down in your book is it a one-off one man brain wave?
I have said nothing new. In fact, those who are familiar with Awo’s writings would know that what we fought for in April, 1990, all we have been saying are footnotes of what Awo had written. That we do not have politicians of the quality of Awo, politicians, who think from first principle like Mandela. All we have are people who are jumping to action without thinking through what they do. Correspondingly, we do not have the institutions that ensure that thoughts always precede action. Don’t you think that if the military had not intervened that many of the things we are grappling with now would not have arisen?
Agreed. I agree.
So, what do you think we should do as a nation?
First of all, it is to discuss. Why are we running away from sitting down to discuss our problems? The first thing is that no one has the answers and the first thing to do is to have a conference. If you look at the growth of India and Pakistan. Pakistan is made up of Aryans much more than the Indian part. Pakistan had much more potential to develop more than India, but because of military rule they have not and also because of the failure to practise federalism and these are two things that have also been our problem.
Failure to practice federalism
But India which pursues federalism properly and sticks to democracy, you can see the progress. In the first republic we did not have the commissioner of police in Enugu being a Yoruba man or an Hausa man. The senior cadre of the police in the east or in the west were indigenous people. What I am trying to say is that once you breach principles you would just be dancing around. OPC as it is organised now is much more in tune with the principles of policing than Nigerian Police Force.
I still believe that if we carry on democracy we will get there. But my point is that we cannot say we are a federal state and there is no fiscal federalism. People wonder why Boko Haram? I tell people that Boko Haram is an indication of the lack of self determination and self determination is seen as treasonable in Nigeria. But federalism allows for people to self-determine who governs them.
How do you think we can move this country forward if we cannot develop pillars of trust, given that should there be a national conference it could be easily hijacked?
I think you are right and this has been an issue since Aburi. At Aburi, a decision was reached and people came back and advised government which then went back on what was reached. But we have examples to learn from. In South Africa they started by having a truth and reconciliation commission, but here what do we do? No, you cannot discuss that, you are overheating the polity! That terminology I don’t know where it came from.
We pretend to ourselves, we lie to ourselves and we believe the lies. You have a constitution in a democracy which says that someone’s resources beneath the soil is not his; ab initio, you have attempted to steal those peoples resource.
That is why I have nothing against illegal bunkerers because from the beginning, the Federal Government itself is the biggest thief. I have to put it straight because you go to Pakistan, you go to India, nobody would go and tell a man that what is underneath yours is not yours.
The Federal Government is the first thief and they put that in the constitution and then we accepted that! My point is that the way we are going we will not last. We will keep on having problem, we are not going to break, but we will keep on having problems.
Some say it is better to break?
I believe that our Lord Jesus Christ came to teach us the oneness of God and God is one. It is not for nothing that every religion says that God is one. From that angle, unity is paramount. I say this for somebody who may at times have been said to have been asking for the excision of a section of the country.
If you read that statement, we gave conditions that if these leaders from these areas continue doing like this that they are suspended from the union. I believe that mistakes were made and of course we have learnt our lessons and that Nigeria needs to be together. If you break and say remove the south-south, then the middle belt of the South-south would soon say that they want their own autonomy and where do you stop?
So, I don’t think that is the way out. The way out is that we need to be more creative, we need to use the head God has blessed us with.
Considering the fault lines you mention in our federalism, do you think we were better off in 1990?
We were better off in 1963. I went to school in Yaba and in my community where I grew up in Lagos the politicians were Ibos and there was no discrimination. When we were going to military school, Gen. Maimalari took us, the Lagosians; myself, Marwa, they treated us as if we were Lagosians. We were more united though we had regions that had their own constitutions, their own anthems, everything.
So, the 1960/63 constitution is a model that would work anytime. If you ask me, 1990? I would say things are worse off right from the government before this. Remember we took action before the June 12 crisis even though we foresaw that it would go that way and that was why we took the action, but if Obasanjo’s last government was a military one, I would have taken an action, but if it is elected, I wont. But there is need for clarification. If elections continue becoming fraudulent, then it is bad as a coup.
To what extent has the fact that someone from your region is now president mollified the angst of your people in the south-south?
That’s not my point. My point is that being a president is too transitory. It doesn’t even matter to me. I think having a structure is more important. I remember a man who played a key part in my life, that is Obasanjo, I remember when I worked for him asking me what I wanted. I told him, sir if you restructure this country and he then said to me, you are pontificating. I said no and in no time after he left office some of the things he did were being thrown aside because there are too many tactical manourveres in Nigeria.
In politics, there is no strategy. There is a lack of strategic thinking in our institutions. We cannot run away from trying to build institutions and to think strategically – strategically in that we think about the posterity of our children.
In advanced countries you see them thinking about their children but in our case, it is just about ourselves. Are we animals? There is no rocket science about it as Awolowo did it. Why is Yoruba land ahead of everyone else?
Till tomorrow! Awo was a man who understood politics and went to the first principles and tried to establish that. Even when he was minister of finance during the war, Awo working under the basis of first principles helped Nigeria to be able to win the war more than anybody gave him credit for because the measures he took which are misinterpreted in certain quarters – I am not saying that he is blameless- but the measures he took undermined the efforts of the opposite side. When he knew the opposite side was trying to buy arms he strategically approached the issue by undermining the currency. Awo was not a military man, but he was a strategist.
One of the few strategists today is the man in robes, Bishop Kukkah, a man who thinks everything from the depths. But our politicians very few think in that direction.
What is more important to me now is that there should be a conference by whatever name it is called. Let our people sit down together and we all pour our grievances.
Why should the National Assembly with representatives from all sections of the country be a platform for that?
Democracy has two dimensions indirect democracy and direct democracy. Indirect is what we are doing now and you delegate sovereignty to some people to act on your behalf to make only laws. When it comes to making the constitution, the people take back their power and do it directly by plebiscite. So, I do not know where we learnt this argument that because there is a National Assembly that there cannot a national conference.
It is not true. The military deliberately came up with a skewed system, they made some regions to have the block votes that they can determine how laws are passed in this country. It was a deliberate thing, it wasn’t by accident that there are so many local governments in some areas and some areas are deprived. So, we have to go back to basis and until we begin to tell ourselves the truth we will not move.
Were you more Nigerian in 1963 than you are today?
I was. I was. My dad was an ex-soldier and the minister of defence then, Ribadu treated everybody without discrimination. Of course you know Tafawa Balewa that some of his best ministers were not from the north. So, Nigeria gave me much as a young man. I went to school where I was paid salary and from that salary and as a student I was paying my younger sister’s school fees. So, I was a Nigerian through and through.
Don’t you think Nigerians would be more interested in you telling them why you took the action against Ibrahim Babangida instead of a treatise on federalism?
The issue of writing about oneself is so much of an ego trip. We have not solved our problems. This country has done so much for me and for many of my colleagues who are VCs and so on. We all had scholarships.
As a young officer I was earning even more than the British prime minister with my estacodes. I was getting a £1,000 monthly in the early seventies and my salary from Udoja awards was another £600 and the British prime minister at that time was earning £14,000. When he is taxed, his salary came down to £11,000 and that enabled me to help my relations that I could help and I was able to buy houses and that’s what I have been living on. So, the country has given me…and I am not alone. Hardly any one of my generation that didn’t enjoy the benefits of this country and what are we doing? We pay back by corruption! Where would you take the money to? It is not that I am not tempted to be corrupt, but I see the futility.
I remember a man I respect very much, Beko Ransome-Kuti, they were begging him to come and take a plot of land and he refused.
Who was begging him?
Tinubu! The man lived so selflessly. If you knew Beko, his sitting room was so poor looking, but that was a man for me! When I came back from exile and he came to welcome me and the car he drove, an old Volvo! And if you know Beko, he was more courageous than many generals in our army. In fact, the things Beko did? I have seen enough of life to know that if you are in the rat race you will remain a rat and I don’t want to be a rat.
What is your take on Prof. Chinua Achebe’s book on the civil war?
I was a young man from the east and they didn’t make exception. If you were a young man from the east they just thought that all of you were Iyanmiri! I was actually by the Jebba bridge but my dad asked me to go back to the north and I was one of the people on the bridge that they stopped and I saw them picking people and shooting them. I was a form one student going to form two. So, I saw some of the things that happened. I also lived close to the barracks and I saw how Ibo officers, and even a relation was killed in Abeokuta.
I experienced these as a young man so I can see where Chinua Achebe is coming from. It is this issue of trust. A people so traumatised like Chinua Achebe.
Remember Chinua Achebe left the country and for most of the time has lived outside the country, so he is like what they say that an “Indian who has left India is more conservative than an Indian who is still in India.”
Chinua Achebe still has not forgiven Nigeria. I, also there are certain things that push me and even our action, I would say that some of it were driven by that my childhood experience.
On what Chinua Achebe has said, he has a right to write history as he sees it. Other people have a right to correct the picture. But one thing I must say is that at one point, I think there was a discussion between Ojukwu and Awo and somehow, one person did not follow the agreement that was reached.
Concerning April 1990, you talked of learning your lessons are you saying you regretted the action?
I do not regret an action against a military government. People see it as a coup, but I don’t see it as a coup. We did not take action against an elected government.
Some of the officers who took part in the action and soldiers who joined, were actually Hausas and they came and said oga, thank you for this, but during the action when they heard the speech – (to excise the core North from the country) they became confused and I think that is where the regret is for making that statement I must say, youthful overzealousness or whatsoever.
I have also seen that over time that the common Fulani man following his cows and there are many in my state, Cross River, he is just a human being like any other human being. If you go to Osun, you will see some beautiful Yoruba looking people, but I heard that they are Fulanis.
Accusing a people
So, my regret is this: it is not the people, it is not Yoruba or Ibo that is the problem, because in our action it tended to give that impression, the regret is that you cannot accuse a people.
God has blessed us and I do pray that the leaders help us towards having a country. This would be the greatest country there would ever be. A country where you have people with round faces, you have people with slim faces, bantu looking, Fulani looking and I think that this could be one of the greatest countries looking if the leaders give it a chance.
What’s your present relationship with Ibrahim Babangida you were recently seen with him at a book launch?
We were all honouring a common friend, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi. Of course that is not the first time we have met as it is being portrayed. One of the papers went as far as saying that Great (Ogboru) was apologising. There was no apology, it was just respecting in the true Nigeria culture, an elder-statesman. We have no apologies to give and like I said, Gen. Babangida and myself have made mistakes and we have moved forward.
Having successfully conducted the civil war and the idea that no part of the country should again be able to question the centre, do you think that the case of devolution of powers to the states would work?
Lets be clear, if you see the killing of Easterners, Ojukwu had no choice. It wasn’t that anyone in the east was too powerful, in fact, the east became the weaker side. It goes back to Lugard. You know Lord Lugard was the governor of the northern protectorate, he was sent to come and be both governor of the north and the south. When Lugard came and said these people are so rich, he saw how the south was rich and he then used his connection in Whitehall (British Civil Service) to convince them to amalgamate these two people so that the crown office would not be subsidising the northern office.
It was by chance! In the same way when the civil war happened it was expedient to as well undermine the other regions by centralising power. It was only for war.
But in so doing, they now realised that “ah, we can now have a share of this wealth.” What that has now done is that it has made some who were among the best farmers in this country to become lazy. As a young man in Zaria, I saw that the Hausa farmer was a better farmer than any other farmer in the country. The irrigation techniques we read about Egypt, I saw it in practise around my school in Zaria.
Instead of baking we are now sharing the cake. Sharing makes people lazy, we need to go back, let the people from each region do their best and contribute to the centre. The Hausa man would be better off because he is a very hardworking man if he is not deceived by this issue of governors going to the centre to take money which I see as stolen money.
In the sharing of the cake you said “they” saw. So how can you convince them to hands off the cake?
If they don’t allow, you see what Boko Haram is doing? People forget that Boko Haram now is a class war. The people who are affected more than anybody are the emirs from the north more than even us. So, it is no longer they now, but it is a time of reckoning now and it is in that spirit that some of us believe that Babangida, Buhari, the southern leaders should get together because we really need to talk. We cannot run away from talk.
What the National Assembly is doing is just a joke and I knew it was coming to that and I am not surprised that the issue of hidden agenda has now come out. The people there, how many of them were properly elected? How many of them are really representatives of the people.