April 22 2009 marks the 19th anniversary of the bloody and violent coup against the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. On April 22, 1990, radical junior officers attempted a coup which nearly toppled Babangida’s regime. The coup failed after the dissidents excised five northern states from the Nigerian federation. One of the few surviving ringleaders of the coup was Lt-Col Anthony Nyiam. This interview with Nyiam gets his perspective on the coup, nearly 20 years on….
Nigeria: April 22 Coup Was Pro-Democratic Action – Nyiam
21 April 2009
On April 22, 1990, a group of young army officers carried out what turned out to be an abortive coup. Many of these officers and other ranks including the man that broadcasted the ostracising of five core Hausa-Fulani states from Nigeria have been executed after being court-marshaled. There were some survivals including the coup leader, Col. Tony Nyiam, formerly of the Nigerian Army Engineers Corps, who escaped prosecution in the wake of the putsch’s futility.
In this interview with Assistant Politics Editor, MAXWELL ODITTA, Nyiam discusses the objectives of the coup, describing it as a pro-democratic action. He is full of praise for some dramatis personae of the coup including Emperor Dakolo, Gideon Orkar and Salibe Mukoro. He also bares his mind on his long ideological mind-meeting with Great Ogboru and late Ken Saro-Wiwa. The colonel also reveals the roles of Margaret Thatcher, Odumegwu Ojukwu and late Moshood Abiola, in the aftermath of the coup.
You are reputed as the leader of the April 22, 1990 coup probably by virtue of your rank at the time vis-a-vis the other officers. It is 19 years since the coup. Many of those that took part in it have since been executed. What informed your participation in it and how did you manage to escape prosecution eventually?
First of all, I thank you for coming at this time and to have an interview which may be the anniversary of what happened on 22 April, 1990. I wasn’t the leader. I was like you said by implication the most senior officer amongst the officers. Two months to the action, a group of young, patriotic officers who were troubled by the drift in which the country was going into, a drift in which we would have ended up having the military in power forever, and also young men who were worried about the plight of the people from the Niger Delta where the oil was from.
These young boys were brilliant officers who were incidentally very close to the then military leader. They came and approached me, and the moment I got indication of what they were doing, as a military man, the tradition was for me to either report them or join them. I thought these young men were too honourable to be reported. In fact, their yearnings and their prayers was what I shared.
Unfortunately, they were full of overzealousness with lack of proper planning. I mean the young officers and not the likes of Major Gideon Orkar. So, I took the risk and joined them, instead of reporting them. That’s how I got myself into what I call a pro-democratic action. I use the word deliberately because without that action, we won’t have had democracy that we are now enjoying.
Are you now saying in essence that you did not participate in the operations of the abortive coup?
No. You asked me the question how I joined, but in the actual execution of the pro-democracy action, I participated. I did not participate in the coup.
How did you manage your way out of these shores?
I think like I have said it repeatedly, it wasn’t my doing. It was God’s doing.
What was life like in exile?
It was seemingly, that is apparently, difficult. But in reality, exile was good and thanks to God, because it gave me a chance to begin a new way of looking at life, education, to the extent that the opportunity allowed me to begin to understand myself and understand my relationship with the other man, my neighbour, and my relationship with the creator of me and my neighbour. I think it was the best. I think it was the best period in my life. And to that extent, I think it was an opportunity which I had to grasp.
You came back in the year 2000. What was your return like? How were you received, and what situation did you meet on ground?
It was an interesting event. I thank people like Anthony Enahoro, who was a mentor, Prof. Wole Soyinka and Harry Akande. In fact, Akande was the one who provided all of us with the means to come back with Enahoro and of course, our big brother, Gen. Alani Akinrinade.
We came back and the return was great, in that the late Beko Ransome-Kuti, who was a hero, a man we worked with, when we were in exile, when we were fighting, when the military was arresting many people and detaining them, Beko was always getting information to us, to the public, so that we can inform the international community as to the plight of many politicians today who were detained. Beko worked so hard. This by the way is why I have so much respect for Kayode Fayemi.
Fayemi was a young doctorate from the Kings College, whose house was the operations rooms for informing the world and mobilising the world against the military dictatorial rule in Nigeria. Fayemi and his wife sacrificed everything, every money they had to build and to link, and exploiting their contacts created a platform for we Nigerians in exile to be able to be heard. And this is why, like I will say later, Fayemi deserves to be paid back. Fayemi is like Obama, a community organiser. More so, even his wife. His wife has one of the biggest poverty alleviation civil society groups in the world. Empowering women allover, she is known all over Africa. So is Fayemi too.
Fayemi has been in the area of capacity building to improve governance in Africa. All this the young man started when he was fighting against the military. He fought for democracy. By the way, people don’t know, he was the mastermind of Radio Kudirat.
You participated so much in pro-democracy activities in Europe. How did you join this activism? Because the incidence of annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election took place at least three years after you left the country. So, how did you link up with the agitators?
First of all, people did not realise that Abiola had always been a democrat at heart and a patriot. He was as patriotic as he was philanthropic. During our action, when all other newspapers would not give us a chance to be heard. It was the National Concord’s Chief MKO Abiola who compelled his son, one of the Abiolas, saying are you not a journalist? If you are a journalist, you give people a freehand. Give every side a chance to be heard. And he compelled him, even when his son was afraid of what would happen. Abiola even as close as he was to Babangida, he impressed on his son to give a chance for us to be heard.
Before then, we had known MKO. Myself and Ken Saro-Wiwa had always told leaders of the South West that our problem was a national question problem. They did not believe it. I remember many times with Alao Aka-Bashorun, the former NBA President, they always thought it was an issue of national question. They always thought it was the issue of leadership. We said no, it was the issue of national question. It was an issue of restoring federalism, which General Yakubu Gowon as a way of fighting the war, ensured a temporary suspension of federalism to restore unity government to execute the civil war. But later, some people with vested interest saw it as continuing in actuality governance of unitary government and openly claimed that we are having federalism. Giving that lie that we have federalism when we have not, was what we told the South West leaders then was the problem. They did not believe it until the whole thing showed up with the annulment of June 12.
So, when MKO came over, after he escaped over to the U.K, when he was to be killed, we met, and he recruited me to start working for him. We started working. It was even then he recommended the great people we should watch and very reliable hands that we need for the struggle. Long before then, he told me so much about Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, that he was a young man full of ideas, a real democrat, a real organiser and a real leader to watch and that he will want us to meet to work. So, MKO introduced Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. Before MKO even escaped, it was Soyinka who had told me too about this young man, Tinubu. That’s how we started. At the same time, I met Fayemi when I was being interviewed by the BBC World Service. He also was doing a programme. That’s how we met and then that’s how we started.
In other words, we have foreseen what’s going to happen, like the June 12. We had foreseen it and we have started working, myself, Great Ogboru and Ken Saro-Wiwa, long before June 12. It was later people now realised that it was an issue of national question and that’s that.
When you were in exile, was there any physical effort by the then Federal Military Government to hunt you?
Oh, yes. The British government gave me good protection and in fact I must say the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had to warn Babangida that in no attempt must he try to do anything like they did to Umaru Dikko against me. And so, for the first one year or so, I enjoyed complete British secret services protection.
How did it feel when you were told that the young officers who took part in the abortive coup, those who were arrested in action have actually been executed?
It’s always sad to have any loss. It was very sad. But the thing about the team is that they were courageous young men. They died following the footsteps of the apostles. They died courageously. And I give credit to Dakolo and all the rest. They were great guys. They were true soldiers. They were true military officers. All I can say is that God used these chaps and used us to try and arrest a situation where we would have had life presidency of military descendants.
Are you still in touch with Major Mukoro?
Prof. Salibe Mukoro. We are still in touch.
He is now a Professor?
He is a Professor of Criminology of a university in the U.S.
So, he is not based in the country?
Oh, he’s being in the U.S. He is a renowned criminologist in the U.S.
What’s your recollection of Major Gideon Orkar?
Oh, thanks for that good question. Major Gideon Orkar ever remains a hero. He is my hero and he remains a hero to many people. He was a young man who was concerned about restoring dignity to every Nigerian in general and to the military in particular. With what we all stood, if what we went for went well, Nigeria would have been as democratic as Ghana is. And that is why we think that with the way Ghana has a free and fair election, it will be a big mistake if President Yar’Adua allows those charlatans to mislead go for anything short of free and fair elections in Ekiti.
What’s your relationship with former President Ibrahim Babangida on one hand, Chief Great Ogboru on the other?
Chief Great Ogboru remains, to me, a great man, a patriot and a man who loves the human beings. And on those bases, we ever remain life friends and he is a great friend. Babangida is a person I admire for his generosity. And also, I admire him for the gifts God gave him. He is a brilliant man who was a workaholic endowed with a very active mind. But unfortunately, he was a man who did not realise the potential for collective good.
You said Babangida is a workaholic and all that. At least today, do you relate with him? Is there any melting point between you and him?
No, we do not relate. We were not really one to one. But I am always appreciative when he is working, when he is trying to work towards restoring his name and working towards correcting the ills he was misled to do against Nigerians.
At the launch of two books written by you somewhere in December 2002 at the MUSON Centre, Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu was the chairman of occasion. This is not somebody you are known to have associated with in any form. What informed his choice?
No, Dim Ojukwu, you must know, is a leader. When I mentioned Ken Saro Wiwa, Great Ogboru and I am thinking well ahead that the problem of Nigeria was problem of national question, Ojukwu had been one of our mentors. We knew Ojukwu long before and we had always met and he was one of our mentors. So, I hold him in high regard as a young officer to have spearheaded a meeting and the agenda and objective of that meeting, the Aburi Accord was the national question. In spite of what we say, until we addressed what was agreed in the Aburi Accord, we will be going round in circles.
Are you saying that Ojukwu was more or less a mentor to even Ken Saro-Wiwa?
It is unfortunate that Saro-Wiwa is not alive. He would have answered that question. But Ojukwu was a mentor to me as regards understanding the intricacy of Nigeria. Incidentally, I must say Ojukwu – you would not understand – educated me to know that even the Fulanis were not the problem. It is actually those who have criss-cross identity who claim to be Fulanis but at times do bad things in the name of Fulanis. Ojukwu understands all parts of Nigeria. Remember Ojukwu grew up in Lagos. His mother lived in the North, and here was a young man who speaks Yoruba very well.
So, he understood every part. He then educated me, because some of us after April 22 had some misconceptions. Ojukwu sat us down to correct all those misconceptions, whichever were that the problem in Nigeria was not that it was the problem of the Hausa-Fulani, but it was the problem of those who have hijacked Hausa-Fulani power, those Fulani banza. I used the word Fulani banza, those who pretend to be Fulani, they are the ones who are giving the Fulani the bad name. And Ojukwu is proved right. If you look at the lives of the true patriotic Fulanis, like Ahmadu Bello, like Yar’Adua, like Shehu Shagari, like Gen. Buhari and of course the present Sultan of Sokoto and his father, you could see that the trend in all these people is nobility, integrity.
But when you now have the other Fulanis, who are, you may say, pretentious Fulanis, they are the ones who are the problem. Another good Fulani and a man of integrity is the present Secretary to the Government, Yayale Ahmed. Ask anybody who goes to the Babangida Polo Club in Abuja. He is the true gentleman. This is what Fulanis are. But those who came to project themselves to be Fulanis, who some of us thought were Fulanis and who as well gave Fulanis bad names were what Ojukwu as part of mentoring corrected.
So, Ojukwu, people do not know, is really at heart a man who loved all Nigerians. The same regards he has for the true Yorubas, he has for the Hausa-Fulani. Where some of us were wrong, Ojukwu corrected us. He also taught us about the issue of true federalism saying that until we restore true federalism to the country, we will go no where.
You were in exile when you heard about the judicial murder of Saro-Wiwa. How did the news come to you?
It was a shock, because Saro-Wiwa was a man full of energy. He was a man who wanted to liberate people like me coming from a minority. And he was far ahead in the liberation movement and he was internationally linked to minorities all over the world, who were oppressed.
In fact, people don’t know that the works of people like Ken Saro-Wiwa led to what happened in Eastern Moore, because he was friendly with those people. He educated them. And also, in Eritrea, Saro-Wiwa also improved their capacity to fight for their freedom. He was well known. That’s why he was well liked. But I must also say that myself and Great warned Ken Saro-Wiwa. Initially he believed too much in his friend and we warned him to be careful.
So, we were shocked when we thought more than what we expected that his friend can go to the extent of killing him.
By his friend, you mean late Sani Abacha?
How do you view Abacha as a general and as a military Head of State?
General Abacha, I know, was a real soldier. Amongst the people who paraded themselves as generals before my time, there were people I have always respected. Of course, Gen. T.Y Danjuma, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, Col Benjamin Adekunle, and amongst the young toughs who were active in the counter-coup against Kaduna Nzeogwu’s coup, Gen Murtala Muhammed. But of the young ones, the only man who was a man of courage among them was Gen Sani Abacha. That was why in anything they did, if he wasn’t there, the rest didn’t have enough confidence. Most of the rest drew their courage from Abacha.
You also must realise that we from the South-South, we give credit to Abacha, in that he was the one who re-established the need for respect for the zones. Remember he as well brought in the whole idea of respect for the six zones. To that extent, Abacha gave us something.
You’ve spoken so much about Fayemi. Ekiti poll is at the door. If he wins, he becomes the governor of Ekiti State. Anything else otherwise would make his effort futile. And you said that he should be rewarded for his pro-democracy activities of the past. What are your expectations of Ekiti governorship bye-election?
First of all, I am not asking that one should just reward Kayode for his past. Kayode is an asset. He is a young man who is an organiser, who can build community. In many respect, in Ekiti, he is like Obama. He will turn Ekiti round. What I know of the young man and from his connection with India and everywhere else. I think Kayode would turn Ekiti valleys – you know Ekiti is a beautiful place full of valleys – into the silicon valley of Nigeria. Ekiti will become like that the Bangalore of Nigeria. Kayode has that potential to turn Ekiti around.
And not only that, he has the connection internationally to pull in those who will help to do that. Also, if you look at Kayode’s friends like Prof. Gbadegesin, like Soyinka who is one of his mentors, like Tinubu who is his political mentor. You would see that he would be another Fashola pillar. In other words, I foresee an extension of the urban regeneration and the empowering of people that is happening in Lagos, in Ekiti. So, it will be really great for Ekiti not to miss the boat.
Of course, Olusegun Mimiko is another great future that has come up in our polity. Mimiko and Adam Oshiomhole of Edo, I think Kayode will be adding to these fresh hands coming into our politics.
Let’s look at the Niger Delta, the youth restiveness and the crisis in that part of the country is still very much at the highest ebb. What do you think should be the solution to the problems of the Niger Delta?
Like I have said in many fora, Yar’Adua’s new overture of honesty is the beginning of the solution. All that needs to be put in place is a proper truth and reconciliation, as was the case in the conflict between the Irish and the British Army. So, we need an independent umpire who will come and dwell and be the real reconciliation office. I would have thought that the likes of Kofi Annan would be a good candidate. If not the likes of Ambassador Olusola in Nigeria here, people like that could be invited. These are peacemakers and men with track records. We need a neutral umpire to come in and to reconcile, so as to bring in trust that is necessary for true amnesty. That should be followed by a proper arms decommissioning exercise, which again like the examples in the U.K should be chaired by a neutral general.
With this process in place, it should be followed by government not playing lips service to empowering the people of Niger Delta. The short example of the governor of Delta, Emmanuel Uduaghan – the youth empowerment scheme he started is an example and that has helped to reduce crisis in Delta State. I think if it does mean well, the government can do the same in the Niger Delta. The government is fortunate to have a Secretary to Government, Alhaji Yayale Ahmed who had an initiative of an approach which was less military approach of empowering the youths and getting them away from committing crimes in the Niger Delta. So, I think these are my suggestions that the government should be sincere and reach out on the basis of the ills that the people of the Niger Delta have suffered. They must do that.
One symbol that they must show in the light of this amnesty is that the likes of Henry Okah, who is highly respected by the youths of the Niger Delta even more than politicians from that region, should be released. He, Asari Dokubo and Ateke Tom and the other patriots can be used as a way of restoring peace and tranquility in the region.