General Muhammadu Buhari remains as stern as he was when he ruled Nigeria as military head of state between 1984 and 1985 with Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon (now of blessed memory). For them, discipline both in managing the nation’s scarce resources and in the daily life of the citizens was non-negotiable. Today, having served as chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) which was established by General Sanni Abacha’s regime, Buhari is sad because all what he and his colleagues laboured for have been destroyed. He has remained in opposition since 2003 when he first contested the presidential election and lost to Olusegun Obasanjoand again in 2007, when he lost to late President Umaru Yar’Adua.
As leader of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Buhari believes that his party, though would not be allowed to be swallowed by others, would continue in its talk with other opposition parties with similar objectives to defeat the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in next year’s election. He speaks on this and sundry issues with some journalist in Lagos including Deputy Sunday Editor, TUNDE ABATAN, insisting that his life is synonymous with struggle for a better society.
Is the report that you have rejected former Lagos State governor, Bola Tinubu, as your running mate in next year’s election true?
There was no paper in Kaduna before I left for Lagos. But I have got the paper and have not read it. There is no iota of truth about the report. If you could recall, from mega party to mega movement to National Democratic Initiative to National Democratic Movement, all these were efforts we were making to try to form a coalition against the ruling party. I believe the talk is continuing, even as other 22 groups are coming to CPC. Another 41 associations say they are going with another group. The important thing about this is that we are still talking. So by the end of next month, when we are supposed to have conducted the primaries and the INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) has the names of those who are to contest for the national election, all these talks would have completed.
So the report that I rejected the former governor of Lagos State as my running mate is really not true. I think the paper wants to force us to hear the other side of the story.
Why is the issue of merger among the leading opposition parties taking so long to consummate?
When you go into your archives, you will know that the party, CPC, gave a statement that it would not fuse with any party. But we prefer to discuss with groups of parties for any type of alliance that would identify and discuss that kind of alliance and then we negotiate and we form the alliance. We hope to do that by the end of December. I think by that time, INEC must have received all the names of those who are going to participate in all the elections from House of Assembly, National Assembly, governorship and the presidential.
The Northern leaders have often accused you of being a lone ranger on the issue of a consensus candidate for the North. What is your reaction to this?
Because CPC refused to be part of PDP definition of leadership in the country, that is why they accuse us of being a lone ranger. Our constituency is the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So what the PDP is doing about zoning that is creating dichotomy between the North and the South is the PDP’s problem and not CPC’s. We have made that clear so many times. This is what I am trying to tell you. It is PDP affair. Our constituency is the Federal Republic of Nigeria and not a group of northern Nigerians. Let me make this final explanation. I saw some political sense in what the so-called Northern Leaders did in 1998 and 1999.
The 1993 election was free and fair. And the election was a Muslim/Muslim ticket. This is significant because either religion or tribe didn’t come in. And (MKO) Abiola – may his soul rest in peace – won the election with his running mate, Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe from the North East. But that election was annulled. Subsequently, Abiola, you know, was arrested and he died in detention. And the leadership then – I was not in politics then – thought there was a raw deal with the South West. But when the leaders went to pick (Olusegun) Obasanjo, their concern was the South West. They just did it on their own. From there, that is where they institutionalised North/South dichotomy. So it is a PDP problem and they better accept it. If you can get a copy of their constitution, it is there. So don’t keep on harassing CPC for PDP problem.
Do you have faith in President Goodluck Jonathan as regards the conduct of free and fair elections and electoral reform in 2011?
Well, I would tell you some of the things I observed. First, when (Goodluck) Jonathan was sworn in as president, he had been a vice president and acting president. He went to the United States and met President (Barack) Obama. He identified some problems which every Nigerian that is following political events agreed with him: insecurity in the country – physical insecurity; the issue of free and fair election, because the stability of this country depends on free and fair election next year; unemployment; and the infrastructure of the country led by the PDP in the last 12 years is nothing to write home about. He made a promise and when he came back, he said he was going to do them. Fourth, when Jega’s name was submitted to him to become the chairman of the INEC, he never knew Professor Jega. He approved it and forwarded it to the National Assembly for approval. Fifth, when INEC asked for money, he approved it. And sixth, when the election law was sent to him, he sent it to the National Assembly and without minding that he asked for some modification later.
With this trend, to be fair to the president, he tried to convince Nigerians and the people outside that he intends to run a free and fair election, even, if he is participating in the election. This is my own personal opinion and this is my personal observation. I may be wrong.
What has been your source of strength after having been in the race since 2003 and 2007, and despite the limited fund at your disposal, you have remained in opposition?
You mentioned that I contested in 2003 and in 2007 and asked why I have not thrown in the towel. It is my conviction (to believe) in one Nigeria. And I am the generation that went through all the problems this country had from January 1966 to date. Political and military leadership were almost wiped out. There was a coup and counter-coup. It led to a civil war. After the coup and counter-coup, I was in problem. I, myself, was detained for more than three years. But I believe in this country. And I believe I have so much investment in this country in terms of political suffering. By my profession, having gone through all the destabilisation and so on, again, having been a governor, a minister and later head of state, I just can’t sit and do nothing. I then joined politics at least with the belief that I can use my position to impose some restrictions on the reckless politics of Nigeria. And my feeling was strengthened in 1991 by what happened to the Soviet Union. I said it many times that the Soviet Union in the 20th century collapsed without being solidified. Now, they are about 18 republics. This proved to me, conclusively, that by my own assessment, multi-party democracy is the best governance. And the biggest caveat is the free and fair election. And the bottom-line now is CPC. Free and fair election is the answer. Let the elite go and deliver their constituencies, for goodness sake. They are the problem of Nigeria. Let them go and deliver their constituencies. Let us persuade the elite that Nigeria is the issue. Nothing else! Let them register, let them vote and let them ensure their votes count. And whatever happens to them is their problem. Not to vote and complain, we will ever remain poor in a very, very rich country.
Everybody knows that what I fought for, one, is security. Security was physically assured. What we are saying in the CPC is that security must be assured. All this stealing must be stopped. The government of CPC will be very effective at any level. Nobody is going to be stronger than the party.
Is the concept of generational power shift the real issues that should govern leadership in this country?
That is why we want a free and fair election. And that is why I told you that Nigerian elite should try to take the fate of their country seriously. Let them go and deliver their constituencies democratically. Educate them (constituents), allow them to choose whoever they want. And even Nigerian Constitution says, “all Nigerians” of any gender, from 18 years and above. And if the Constitution allows me, then why should anybody harass me about my age? And when the Constitution allows an age bracket between 18 years and above, what then stops young men from contesting? Nobody stops them. But let the election be free and fair. That is my problem.
Are you comfortable with INEC’s preparation for 2011?
I have told you what they want us to know through you, the press. The money they asked for was given, the time extension has been given. They said they have ordered the machines that would come in about six weeks time. Now their problem is about the amendment of the Constitution, which is because of the change in the timing or because of the change in their own programme. So we in the CPC and those who are in other parties that are going to choose candidates want to see a firm INEC programme out. We are very happy in the CPC that the election has been shifted to April next year. So we have about four months. And I think for any serious party, old or new, four months is enough to make its case.
So far, we have been working under documents like the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria out of which the INEC Act came out. We are supposed to act within the laws. And I beg you, the press guys, to tele-guide the INEC to enforce the law. This is because without the enforcement of the document, the issue of transparency, as well as free and fair election may be compromised. Issue of integrity of persons who want to contest election is there. In this country, there are a lot of documentations, and laws and so on, but people ignore them. And you, the press, are trying your best. But I believe there is the need to keep on reminding the people about the law always.
There is nothing in this country that has no law. If you break the law, it is deliberate, by the elite. If you follow the law, it is because of the good nature of Nigerians.
When you are eventually elected as civilian president, can you repeat your achievements as military head of state?
Thank you so much that you understand I operated under a different circumstance then. But even then, if you follow our activities when we were there, we made the laws and executed them. I know we executed a few people, we jailed a few people, including some of your colleagues, but we did that within the law.
We didn’t close a single institution and denied thousands of people job. We didn’t do it. The late Tunde (Idiagbon) and I didn’t do it that way. We made the law, and anybody who dared the law we dared him. That was then. Please, you can go to the records and you will find that there. Both of us fought corruption virtually from the country in our time. Now Nigerians know better. Probably, you will give us another opportunity to come back and make a difference under a different circumstance.
Why still answering General?
I earned generalship. If you could recall, all those who became heads of state jumped from Colonel or Lt. Colonel to General. I was a Major General and I was removed as a Major General. I never promoted myself.
Do you think CPC, as a young party, has enough spread to be able to win elections next year?
CPC is not only in the North. The national secretary is from Lagos State. May be they are not working hard. We are also in the South East and in the South South. We have got representation. What you probably mean is the Buhari campaign organisation which was inaugurated in 2002. And we have offices in every state of this country. Really, we have been in the field. You can only rightly say that we have more supporters in the North than every other place. I agree with you. But I am aware that we are all over the country and that, as I have told you in the course of this interview, the time extension of election will help us between now and next year. We need the time, especially as a new party. We will be able to be on ground to conduct our campaign from January to March.