Muhammadu Buhari, former head of state, said he was aware Ibrahim Babangida was planning to overthrow him in 1985 but did not move against him because he detests bloodshed.
Buhari became head of state on December 31, 1983 after the military overthrew the elected government of Shehu Shagari.
But on August 27, 1985, Buhari himself was overthrown by Babangida, his chief of army staff and key actor in the 1983 coup.
Buhari, a retired major general and presidential aspirant on the platform of All Progressives Congress (APC), told TheCable: “It is true that I learnt he was planning a coup against me. And I sat and discussed it with him in my office.
“He brought the news that he went to Kano and people complained that I pulled a pistol during a council meeting. I said Ibro ─ I called him Ibro because I was just senior to him by a few months ─ I said whoever wants to sit on this chair let him come and sit here. And he decided to do it.”
Reminded that the punishment for coup making was death and he could have put Babangida on trial, Buhari replied: “Yes. Remember how many people he killed subsequently for trying to overthrow him? But when I came in, there was no bloodshed. I think a couple of policemen were killed and [Brigadier Ibrahim] Bako also died in an ambush.
“But deliberately, nobody was killed. I was in the front, the real front in the Nigerian civil war. I had seen enough of death and I know what God means by human life. Any human being, God values their life. And anybody who hopes to meet God, he should be careful about killing.
“When there is law and due process of law took place, the question is clear. Like the cocaine convicts that were executed, the decision was taken in supreme military council.”
TheCable: People say that you were not really involved in the coup that overthrew Shehu Shagari but you only happened to have been made head of state. But we also heard that Alhaji Umaru Dikko, then minister of transport, felt you were a threat and asked that you be watched. How true are these reports?
Buhari: General David Jemibewon is still alive. He was the adjutant-general of the army at that time. When I came back from the War College in the United States, I was posted to Ikeja and I was made the GOC of the fourth division. I think I lasted for about four to six months there because some people in Shagari’s government said I was too dangerous to be kept around. So I was sent to Ibadan to command second division. I lasted about six months there. Again, I was posted to Jos to command the third armoured division. Then Jemibewon said to me, Buhari, the way they are moving you, your next posting will be to Daura (Buhari’s home town in Katsina state). I had a good laugh. I will never forget. It was during the chief of army staff conference.
TheCable: How much did you know about the 1983 coup?
Buhari: I am working on my memoirs… (But) I have something to say now about the way we treat our military officers who really served this country. Along the line we have gone through so much, those of us in my generation. We served under people like Generals Shuwa, Adekunle, Murtala, Danjuma. I think these people have sacrificed so much. I think Nigeria should really honour them. When I went to greet the family of (Benjamin) Adekunle after his death, and I saw that he was living in a glorified boys quarters, I was very sorry for this country. I felt sorry for this country. What type of people are we? For him to finish up like that, I was very sorry for this country. Unless people believe in God, I think they will forsake this country.
TheCable: Alhaji Umaru Dikko is dead now. There was an attempt to smuggle him into the country from the UK to Nigeria. Your government was suspected as the brain behind it but you denied it then. Can the information be declassified now?
Buhari: No. (General laughter). I’m surprised that I am making you laugh. It is classified and it remains so.
TheCable: Were you really aware that Babangida was planning a coup against you in 1985?
Buhari: Yes, it is true that I learnt he was planning a coup against me. And I sat and discussed it with him in my office. He was the chief of army staff and I was the head of state. He brought the news that he went to Kano and people complained that I pulled a pistol during a council meeting. I had never heard that before, except a newspaper cartoon I saw many, many years ago about Mengistu Haile Mariam (former Ethiopian head of state). They were just making up stories. I said Ibro ─ I called him Ibro because I was just senior to him by a few months ─ I said whoever wants to sit on this chair let him come and sit here. And he decided to do it.
TheCable: But the punishment for coup making is death…
Buhari: Yes. Remember how many people he killed subsequently for trying to overthrow him? But when I came in, there was no bloodshed. I think a couple of policemen were killed and (Brigadier Ibrahim) Bako also died. That was when they went to pick Shagari from somewhere, I think in Abuja. But deliberately, nobody as killed. I was in the front, the real front in the Nigerian civil war. I have seen enough of death and I know what God means by human life. Any human person, God values their life. And anybody who hopes to meet God, he should be careful about killing. When there is law and due process of law took place, the question is clear. Like the cocaine convicts that were executed (in 1984), the decision was taken by the supreme military council (SMC).
TheCable: But when he eventually overthrew you, didn’t you regret that you should have taken action when you heard that he was planning against you?
Buhari: Taking action pre-empting and jailing or killing people does not solve the problem. But let people honestly now, as you said, those who are bothered about Nigeria, let them ask now: what did I attempt to do for the time Babangida and his group allowed me to stay and what did they do in his eight years in office? I told you about the naira and the dollar, and the IMF programme. What did they do? They wanted to impress the world? The naira was devalued by about 122 percent. We have never recovered. Go and ask any economist. When you devalue a currency, it can never recover. Some of the politicians that were jailed for corruption, they were released and their loot was returned to them by Babangida. So it’s a big joke. That means I was there then before my time.
TheCable: Having been a military ruler who overthrew a democratic government, how did you now come around to subscribe to democracy?
Buhari: At the risk of sounding like a broken gramophone record, I will tell the story again. After I came out of detention and went home in December 1988… then in 1989, 1990, 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and that had a terrific impact on me. People were coming to me for advice. Thank God, they did not come to me to ask for money because they knew I had no money. I declared my assets as many times as I occupied political office because that was the law. And when I left I declared my assets. All those of us, our generation, from Obasanjo downward, if the country is serious about questioning them on how they acquired what have, it is easy because by law you have to declare your assets before office and after you leave office. But because it is so convenient to ignore the law and accumulate wealth, that is what the big men and big women are doing.
Now, when the Soviet Union collapsed I realised that there was something right about multi-party democracy. I believe it was superior. But then how can we get it done in Nigeria? That was what eventually took me to partisan politics. And why did I leave the ANPP and form CPC? Why was I active in the merging of the opposition to become APC? It is all about strengthening our democracy and stabilising the system. I don’t like any person to see me as an impulsive person. I deliberately take decisions for my actions. That it is why when ANPP gave me the presidential ticket in 2003 and 2007, I went into the field, did my best but unfortunately we didn’t achieve success. But then while we were in court the party’s leadership took two marginal ministerial positions in the government of the late Umaru Yar’Adua. The party chairman said his son was taking up an appointment as special adviser while we were still in court.
Since 2005, we discovered that none of the opposition parties could face the PDP. The PDP has become so amorphous and it didn’t care about the opposition. If you see what happened to our members during elections… the killings, the burning. We realised we had to come together to face the PDP. This is the best way I think we can stabilise the system. When we stabilise the system impunity will not be acceptable. That is why we formed the APC. We need multi-party democracy to stabilise the system.
TheCable: What does a typical day in your life look like these days?
Buhari: Firstly, as you know, normally the practising Muslims have to wake up about five in the morning and pray. And I am an avid listener of the Voice of America and the BBC, Hausa service. This is because over the years I have discovered that they have been very, very helpful in educating the mostly illiterate Hausa-speaking populace. From Agadez or even from Tripoli down almost to South Africa, and from Senegal to Central Africa Republic, there is large body of Hausa-speaking communities, not necessarily Nigerian or Hausa, but those who speak the language because of trading over the centuries.
I found out VOA and BBC commentaries on politics and economics very good. They help to educate people. And they allow people to discuss, express different opinions and they interpret it, and I find that very helpful. And it is very current for Nigerian politics for that audience. I listen to that, and then I try to rest again. And then by 10am I have my breakfast, and go to the office or stay in the house if I choose to work without any interference. Otherwise, I go to the office and try to attend to official duties if I have appointments. About 4pm and 5pm I come back home, and mostly up to 10 in the night I will be with people discussing things.
These days, it is very difficult. This time scheduling is too tight. Sometimes I wish I had more than 24 hours to keep up with the demands of meeting people. Again, Nigerian politics, especially this time around, is the main issue. It is keeping extremely busy. I go to bed nothing earlier than half past 11pm. I wish I could observe siestas. Sometimes I do. If I can escape from the office by 3:30 pm.