Professor Sadiq Suleiman Wali was Chief Physician to five former Heads of State, namely, General Muhammadu Buhari, General Ibrahim Babangida, Chief Ernest Shonekan, the late General Sani Abacha and General Abdulsalami Abubakar. In this rare and startling interview, he opens up on many issues, including how General Abacha and Chief MKO Abiola died, and lots more. Excerpts:
You came from a very well known family in Kano, a family that is respected for its scholarship. Can we know more your childhood and also formative years?
Thank you very much. I am the last born of my parents. My father was Alhaji Suleiman, the first Walin Kano, and he was an Islamic teacher. My mother, Hajiya Saudatu Umar, was also a renowned Islamic teacher. She started the school for girls in the present Air Force Base in Kano. By then, children of emirs were being taken to the school, so they thought they should bring her into that school so that they would have the good cultural upbringing. Interestingly, I was born the very day my father died, on June 22, 1941.
That was a very depressing day, so nobody celebrated my birth (laughter). Most people were crying because of my father’s death. So, I was brought up partly by my mother and partly by my elder brother, Imam Suleiman Wali. He was a mufti or Alkali (a Shari’ah Court judge). He has been posted to different places so I actually grew up in the rural areas. I was in all the villages. We went to Bichi, Jahun, Sumaila, Ringim and Kiru; all sort of places. So my background was also rural. After that I went to school. I went to Middle School (now Rumfa College) in Kano, from there I went to Barewa College in Zaria.
In those days most children were sent to Arabic schools before they started western education, was it a similar case with you…?
Actually, I did my early Islamic studies at home; my mother was teaching me and my elder brother, too. So I learnt the Qur’an from them before I started my primary education. In fact, that was the standard practice then. My mother was a Qur’anic teacher in the Emir’s palace in Kano. Among her pupils was the present Emir of Kano, Alhaji Ado Bayero. She taught him and many members of the royal family. I went to Barewa College, Zaria from 1954 to 1959. The Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was trying to establish science education in the North.
They decided to have two schools in the North: Barewa College to do Arts and Government College, Keffi to do Arts and Science. We had to leave Barewa in 1960 to Keffi to study science. We were the first set of students to have HSE in science education, by then it was called the Cambridge Higher School certificate. That was what qualified us to enter into the university. We were in Keffi for two years and, I remember, we were there when Nigeria got her Independence. Two of us were picked and given scholarships to go to Lebanon to study Medicine, but when we went there we didn’t like it; it was an American university.
We had already finished our ‘A’ levels and really wanted to start Medicine, but there we were required to read for a degree first. So we pleaded with them that we wanted to return to Nigeria. Before we came back, we had been given admissions into both Ibadan and Lagos. I had my university education at the University of Lagos. We were the second set.
You were many in your family, beside your elder brother, who are the other siblings?
Our father died and left 15 of us. Now, I think we are only five. The eldest was called Ujudud; he died in 1955. The next was Imam. He was the man who brought me up. We have Na’ibi Sulaiman. He was the Deputy Grand Khadi of Kano State. Now he’s the Chief Imam of the Umar ibn Khattab Mosque in Kano. After him there is the pharmacist, Alhaji Dahiru, who started Tsamiya chemist. He’s very good in community pharmacy.
Then there’s Alfa Wali, who was a civil servant. He was permanent secretary in many ministries and also a one-time Minister of Agriculture. Then, there’s also Hafiz Wali, who is an educationist and very much interested in technical education. He set up the National Teachers Institute (NTI) in Kaduna. After Hafiz Wali, there is Ahmed, who is a veterinarian.
He died several years ago. Then there was another one who was in the Nigerian Army, Brigadier Wali. He fought in the Nigeria civil war and lost his limp. He, too, died recently and then myself. We have four women in the family. The eldest, Zahrah, was mother of Sabo Nanono’s wife. Then, there was another Zahrah, who had many children and a lot of them are doctors now. Her daughter was the first female professor of Kano origin. She’s now in the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi. Then, there is another one here in the National Hospital. She is a paediatrician.
People remember you more as a former Chief Physician to five ex-Heads of State. What is your story? How did you come about this appointment?
It’s a very interesting one. I never expected that to happen. I did my post-graduate studies in the United Kingdom and qualified as a physician. I came back to Kano State and served for about three years. I preferred academic work and I went to Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria. I was there when President Shehu Shagari asked me to come and be his physician, but I was just not keen. I was just a young person and just starting my academic work.
So, I declined but interestingly Kano State, at the same time, offered me, or rather, forced me to come and be their Commissioner for Health. So, that was how I eventually came to be the Commissioner for Health in Kano State, instead of being the physician to President Shagari.
…And that must be during the late Abubakar Rimi’s tenure
Yes, I was the Commissioner for Health during Governor Abubakar Rimi’s administration. President Shagari, then, picked Dr. Dalhatu Sarki Tafida. Dr. Tafida and I were classmates. That was what happened. Now, how I was appointed as physician to the Head of State is difficult to explain. I think the position must have been following me. It was General Muhammadu Buhari who, after he took over power in 1984, requested that I should be his physician.
At that time, I knew him very well, personally, because we were in Lagos during the January 1966 coup. Murtala, Gowon, Buhari…They were all around and that was how we got to know each other. So, when he said I should come and be his doctor I felt I should do it. But not just that, I was also in the army. You know, during the civil war doctors had to be dragged into the army. We were virtually forced to, although, we were alright.
So I was in the army and happened to be posted to Awka, the Brigade where Gen. Buhari was. And I was interested in his character, his integrity and his honesty. So when he became Head of State and requested for my services I accepted the appointment. That’s how it eventually started.
But a year and a half after this there was a coup. I was not in the country at that time. I was actually in the United States together with his (Buhari’s) family – his wife and all his children. Eventually, we had to come back, and when we returned I went to then president, General Ibrahim Babangida and said, ‘I took two years leave of absence from the university. Although it was not yet two years, I could go back.’ But he said, no I shouldn’t go back. That was what happened. I really wanted to go back to the university, but he refused. So I stayed there. And he stayed there for a very long time. After him came Chief Ernest Shonekan. I worked with him for only few months. After Shonekan came General Sani Abacha, and that was the most challenging one. I would tell each of them that I would like to go, but they pleaded that I should stay. That’s how I stayed all through…
You said the Gen. Abacha period was most challenging. What made it so?
The period of General Abacha and his eventual death was very challenging because I had never and, since then, I have not experienced such a trauma in my life. You are the physician to the person and then he just died in your hands, virtually. That was what happened, but it was a very interesting one. He had some health challenges earlier, but it was sorted out. He recovered fully and was very active.
The day before he died, he went to see the then Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, off at the international airport in Abuja. Then after that we came back home and we said good night, he went up and we all parted, until early in the morning on June 8, around 6am, when the Chief Security Officer, Major Hamza Al Mustapha, rang me and said, “Come, there’s an emergency.” It baffled me, what could it be. I was getting ready and trying to get a driver to take me there, and then suddenly some people came.
He sent some people from the security team to pick me. It was then I knew that it was something abnormal. Then, when I was entering the Villa there was a gate that people don’t enter, only the Head of State used it. They opened it; they didn’t tell me what was wrong. So we went in, and we found him very seriously ill…
…So he wasn’t dead then?
He was almost dead, virtually, he was foaming…We just did all the resuscitation we could, but there was nothing else we could do.
Who were around with you then?
Major Al-Mustapha was around, some security men, some of the stewards and there was one Dr Maina, a surgeon. He was around. These were the people around him; when we did the resuscitation and there was no hope. I had to go and tell them…
What was the cause of his death?
Clinically, it was a cardiac arrest. Definitely…Nobody among us could believe it. So, as a doctor I had to call the closest person. So, I called his son and his brother. He had his brother, retired Major Abdulkadir Abacha, in the Villa, and his son, Mohammed Abacha. We called them and I broke the news to them. It was very, very sad.
All the while when you were attempting to resuscitate him, they were not aware of what was happening?
No, it was a normal day, they were sleeping. We knocked at their doors to wake them up. So when they eventually came, I told them what had happened. Naturally, they all started crying. I had to console them and, then, I said, “What do you want us to do next?” They said the best thing to do was to call the National Security Adviser, Ismaila Gwarzo, because this is a security issue. So, the NSA was called and while we were dealing with the body, he was talking to the children and Major Al-Mustapha on what to do next…
Was a post-mortem done?
I said there should be a post-mortem and I remember I told Ibrahim Coomassie (the then Inspector General of Police) that there should be a post-mortem. I think one of the sons agreed with me, but then he went up and he saw the mother. They thought about it and came back and said they didn’t want a post-mortem…But I took some samples of his blood for analysis and it still hinted to us that it was most likely a heart attack.
But was it conclusive?
No, it wasn’t. The conclusive one would have been done. Well, clinically, it looked like that (cardiac arrest) and the laboratory supported it. But the conclusive analysis could have been to do a post-mortem, as we did in the case of Chief MKO Abiola, to see exactly what happened.
Was the foaming related to eating of apple, because there was this speculation that some Indian ladies gave him some poisoned apples to each, and that was how he died?
(Shaking his head). No. No. No. No. It was just one of those conspiracy theories propounded by some persons. As a medical doctor, I can tell you he died of cardiac arrest or what we call heart attack.
As I said, when I saw him in that critical condition, I called other medical personnel to come and help to see how we could resuscitate him. There was no case of poison through apple.
Let’s go back a bit to General Buhari. You were close to the family when he was Head of State. Was there any health issues with him or the family?
He has a daughter, who was a sickler, Zulaiha, who died recently. That was the main health problem. But he was a very healthy person. His wife was also healthy. But Zulaiha was the person who was taking us in and out.
We went to Germany with her and we went to the United States; also to the Military Hospital there. I was with her and the wife when the coup took place. That was why I said it was very traumatic.
You also served as chief physician during the eight years of President Ibrahim Babangida administration. Sometime in 1987, he went to Paris, France for an operation. Can you explain to us what really happened?
Well, he had been having some back pain for quite some time and, I think, some of the observant newspapers actually noticed it when, during one of the Nigeria Army Celebration Day in January, he couldn’t stand for the whole parade. It showed that he had some problems. We did a CT-scan on him and found that there were some problems, so he needed to be operated upon. It might be related to his civil war involvement, because he had war injuries still on him. You know, General Babangida is an interesting character.
He said we should try and do it in Nigeria. We said, ‘okay, we will try and see.’ We went to all the different places. We considered Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), we considered the University of Calabar Hospital (UCH), we considered University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital. We even considered this hospital in Gwagwalada.
At that time it had not been completed. We looked at all the options. I was not satisfied, because we have Nigerians that are competent to handle the case. In fact, when I was managing him, I had two very senior doctors from LUTH – one was a neurologist and the other was an orthopaedic doctor. So, together we were managing him.
But some people even said we should set up a theatre in the Dodan Barracks and bring in white people to come and do the operation there, and things like that. But when I looked at all of it, I said it’s better to go and do it at a safe and standard place, although Nigerians would not like it.
They would ask why did we took our Head of State out of the country for treatment. And he was sensitive to all those issues. We, too, as doctors were also sensitive and proud that things should be done in Nigeria. But by that time, I honestly felt that, it was better we went abroad…
Did you choose the hospital in France?
I didn’t choose it as such. But he did it probably together with his friends, because I am not an orthopaedic person and he preferred doing it in France rather than any other country. My contact is more in the United Kingdom.
But, the once he chose in Paris was a good hospital. Let me tell you how we managed the problem at that time. As you know, he has to leave for at least a month. We told Nigerians that he was going to be away. We had discussions with his Political Adviser and the security people and the doctors – the three of us – the two from LUTH and myself.
We thought that we should let Nigerians know that he was going to France to have radiculopathy. It was a case of burns pressing on a nerve and it was giving a lot of pain. That was the problem. So it was reasonably well managed, that aspect of it. The operation was done and it was very successful and I was happy it ended very well.
You were still serving in the State House when the death of Chief MKO Abiola occurred. Can you give us an insight?
I knew Chief MKO Abiola very well. He was even visiting me in my house in Lagos at Glover Avenue in Ikoyi. When he was planning to be the presidential candidate, whenever he went to see President Babangida he came around and I used to joke with him. I would say, jokingly, “Let me check your blood pressure.
You don’t sleep o.” We related very well. So, I knew part of his problems. He was hypertensive. I told him he had to calm down and try and sleep more. So, that’s the background. I was not in the country until the night before he died, because I took my leave and travelled out with my family for three weeks. But, somehow, I said I would come back earlier. So, I came back on a Monday night and Tuesday morning I am in the office and around 12noon I had a call from the Chief Security Officer (CSO), Major Abdulrashid Aliyu.
He called me and said I should come to Aguda House for some urgent matter. I said to myself “what sort of urgent matter could it be?” So, I said, ‘let me go home and pick some of my medical things,’ because I was in the office in State House, not in the State House Clinic. On my way, I met him and he said, “No, no, doctor, come back let’s go straight to Aguda House.” So we went back straight to Aguda House and I remember I saw Chief Abiola. He was wearing a white dress, his best dress, a lace. I think they said he was likely to be released the following day. That was the idea.
So when I went in, there were some two Americans there, Susan Rice and Thomas Pickering, and then there were some security men and some of the stewards all around and I just saw him… he was foaming…
Almost a similar to how Abacha died?
It looked very similar, honestly. They said he just took tea… (chuckles). After tea, he went to the toilet and he didn’t come out in time. So, he eventually came out or they brought him out. But I found him there foaming, so we started resuscitating him. He wasn’t dead definitely at that time. Then, I alerted my team in the State House to get ready; that we have an emergency. So we rushed him into a car, not even an ambulance from Aguda House to State House Clinic. Again, Susan Rice and Pickering followed us there. We did again all we could to restart his heart. It didn’t work.
All the doctors were around, we had anaesthetics, we had other doctors, surgeons, we injected things into his heart to try and revive him; it just didn’t work. Then after some time when I noticed the problem, some of the staff there saw the seriousness of the matter. It was an open place and people saw it was Chief Abiola. If it leaked out it could lead to serious chaos in the country.
So, immediately I suggested that this thing should be broadcast immediately before we started getting rumours around. That measure was very important at the time. By then, one of Abiola’s wives and his daughter, who had come to see him earlier, were at the airport. They came to Abuja and saw him, either a day before, and they were on their way back to Lagos. They stayed with Ambassador Babagana Kingibe.
They were at the airport, so we had to call Kingibe and told him that the family had to come back. They came back, and didn’t know what happened. We sent a message to the Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar and they were holding the AFRC meeting at that time informing him what happened…
Was the broadcast made immediately?
Yes, it was announced in the six o’clock news. I didn’t hear him, but I knew it was done. Because I knew in the clinic there were so many people, they would say, because it was a fact he was dead, there was nothing you can hide.
The news would go out and then it would be very chaotic. Then, the next thing is to break it to the family, which also I found very difficult.
Just as I broke the death of General Abacha to his son and his brother, I had to also inform Abiola’s family. General Abdulsalami, together with AFRC members, came and I briefed them.
How did the Head of State receive the news?
Well, you know soldiers. They looked shocked but they were calm, but I think Head of State was already told before then. The security operatives had already told him. I wasn’t the one who told them, but I met them and briefed them when they came out from their meeting.
By then Abiola’s wife and daughter had been taken to General Abdulsalami’s house from the airport. Then, they were not told what happened. They were just sitting in the house. When I saw them, they said I should break the news to them.
How did you break the news to them?
That’s the most difficult thing. I had to tell them exactly what has happened…
Where you close to them before?
No, not the family. It’s Abiola that I was close to. I know Kola, his son. I know his doctor, Dr Falomo. He’s my friend. Even when he was ill, we used to interact with him.
But the family, the wife, you know, he had many wives. The wife and the daughter, I don’t know them physically. I said, “Well, this is what has happened. It’s very difficult. He had fallen ill and just passed away; we did all we could to resuscitate him but couldn’t succeed.”
Of course, they were crying, shouting and one of them said, “Oh, they killed him! They killed him!” It was very, very painful and traumatic.
Was there any such difficult moment or a medical case that baffled you as Chief Physician?
As a doctor, you always have those kinds of cases, but, I remember General Domkat Bali, who was Minister of Defence. He fell very ill and was actually unconscious.
Luckily, we picked it very early and by then, you know, Julius Berger was there for us. They are very efficient. They were just told that General Bali should be evacuated and he was immediately taken from Lagos to Germany, and they operated on him without delay.
It was a case of stroke, but it’s not the normal stroke. It’s not from hypertension. It’s called aneurism.
Was it life threatening?
Yes, very life threatening. It was an emergency and there was a rapid response and we told them and they were ready. They made the diagnosis and immediately went to the theatre. I was happy with the way they handled. I couldn’t believe it when he returned, looking very healthy. And he’s still alive now.
Another death in detention occurred when Major General Shehu Yar’adua died. Were you linked to him during his incarceration?
As a matter of principle I didn’t have anything to do with most of those in detention. They had military doctors or nurses who attend to them. But I knew him very well. In fact, he was our in-law. My brothers’ daughter is married to his son, Murtala.
When he was doing his presidential campaign after the primaries, I went to see him for a minor examination after receiving a call from Ambassador Kingibe. It was nothing serious. His death was also another traumatic experience although I wasn’t involved. You know, he was in detention for quite some time and they were moving him from one place to another, from Port Harcourt to Enugu to Abakaliki.
It was from there, one of the military doctors phoned me to say he was seriously ill and that they were going to see him. Later, they phoned to say that he has died. I was here in Abuja when it happened. So, they brought him by a helicopter, whether through here or straight to Katsina. What they said was they should just go and bury him. The IGP Ibrahim Coomassie followed him.
You said you were close to Generals Murtala, Gowon, Buhari during those heady days in 1966. What was your personal experience at that time?
We really went through a very tough time in Lagos in those days. As medical students we were very few from the North, who were there. There was Dr Tukur Abdullahi of Jinya Hospital in Kaduna; Dr Dalhatu Sarki Tafida, now Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UK and, of course, there were others from the North, including the late Dr Afolabi.
There was my friend, Dr Amadu from the Igala area. There were about seven or eight of us. There was also Dr Kitchener from the Kitchener family. And we were very few in Unilag and, you know, as students we had a very tough time getting accepted in that environment. And, also there was this rioting in 1964 after the Western Region election.
It was very disturbing. Almost every day, there were violence and killings. People climbing palm trees. It was a political crisis between supporters of Chief Awolowo and Chief Akintola, although at some stage, it took some ethnic dimension. At that time, we were young people and when the first coup happened we were there and we said those corrupt politicians, it’s good they had gone. It was later that we began to realise the pattern of the killings, because we knew most of the soldiers. Yakubu Gowon, I knew him since from Barewa College.
So also Col. Yakubu Pam, Col. Kur Mohammed and Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, who were killed. We knew them. Brigadier Maimalari was actually in Barewa College; he was teaching our cadets. We lost a lot of our friends/soldiers.
When there was the counter-coup, the few students from the North at that time were afraid, because we feared that we could come under attack. So we begged Murtala to help, and he sent some soldiers into the hostels, not to fight anybody, but just to protect us, in case anything happened. But in the long run, we had to run away. That was during General Ironsi’s period. We were also in Lagos when the northern army officers hit back – that’s what I can call it. The county was about to break, virtually, and most of us moved to Ilorin.
We run away to Ilorin because we really didn’t know what would happen and we stayed at a place, I think, it was Kwara Hotel. We just said we had crossed the ‘border’ and had come to the North. Eventually, we were asked to come back to Lagos and we went to the Ikeja barracks. We met Murtala and Gowon, and they said, “There is no problem, we are going sort things out.” Then, we went back to our medical school.
Murtala, as you know, came from Kano. In fact, their family house is directly behind ours and then we schooled in Barewa College together.
How did you relate with him at Barewa College?
He was my senior. But he was like my brother, as in my elder brother Ahmed was his classmate. He was in the cadet and was fierce-looking at that time. He was very focused and tough…