Major General Ishola Williams (rtd) is a one-time head of Nigeria Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), where he retired 25 years ago. In this interview with JOHNSON AYANTUNJI, he talks about the state of the nation, Nigeria’s economic situation, Boko Haram, the military in governance and other sundry issues
How would you describe the state of Nigeria?
The Nigerian state today depends on the side with which you look at it. The economic situation, even the government admits from the recent statement of the Director-General of the Budget Office, Peter Akabueze that the government is in a serious financial crisis.
You can see that from a simple example of workers’ salary. In other countries, by this time of the year, workers would have been paid their salaries by the 15th of December due to the Christmas festivities. But I doubt if any Federal Government worker have been paid. To me too, every single month the government has to look for money to pay the workers. In such a system, like Akabueze said the government is in a serious financial crisis.
The second thing, which is the most serious, I do not know the economic rationale behind it. When APC was coming in, they promised that the pump price of PMS will be about N80 something or even less. They could bring it down to N40 something. What happened? They added N100 to it. In the recent budget speech, they are setting aside so much money for subsidy. So if you have increased the pump price, what are you paying subsidy for? What is the N100 you added since the last three years for?
According to the statement that I read, the President was reported to have said that if you increase the pump price of PMS and remove the subsidy the poor people will suffer. Meet any taxi driver in any part of Nigeria and what do they complain about? Many people used to drive their cars, they have abandoned their cars. They cannot afford to fuel it.
We are entering an election year it is just two months away to the 2019 general elections, what lies ahead?
What I will say is that number one, we spend too much money on elections, billions of naira on elections that you will do for one day. It is too much; therefore, we must find ways of reducing the cost. In doing that let us decentralise elections; let states be responsible for their own governorship and local government elections. Let them rig it, it is not the business of the Federal Government, if the states rig their own elections. That is what federalism is all about.
The second is that of logistics – it also reduces the cost of election security.
What do you mean by that?
Everybody wants to take part in the election because of the allowances they get, the police, military, civil defence, immigration, Customs, you see all of them, for what? Do you know that in the UK and the US from which we copy, it is the Ministry of Home Affairs that conducts the elections – ministry staff. They have an election body in the UK, US, but you do not know.
Is that not to secure the election?
No! It is because we have created one body for elections in Nigeria. We should do the same for the states. It is because you have created one election body for governorship and federal election that makes INEC so prominent. So no matter what INEC does, it is going to be more and more difficult every year, unless you decentralise the elections completely.
Those are the advantages of decentralising the elections?
Yes! It is, apart from that it allows the people to be in control of their destinies.
APC, the government in power enjoyed a huge good will when it came in 2015, now PDP is saying that they have learnt their mistakes, other parties are saying they want to come in and chase away both parties. Also they are saying it is neither APC nor PDP, what is your take on this?
Like all of us know, what is the difference between APC and PDP? What is the difference between PDP and APC? We are all joking (laughs).
Most of the members of APC were PDP members before. In many cases now, those who were being set up by the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission), they run from PDP to APC. Everything about their cases, sort of die down. To me, there is no difference. What we should have is a coalition of all other parties, and find one single candidate among themselves.
Now the interesting thing in this: is that the two people that we can take very serious are the Vice Presidential candidates (Yemi) Osinbajo and Peter Obi – bright articulate, younger people than the presidents that they want to serve. I would have preferred both of them kicking out their bosses and contesting for an election.
Is that possible in Nigeria, looking at our primordial sentiments, ethnicity, religion and what have you?
People tend to assume that Nigerians are particular about religion and others. If Nigerians find a good candidate, they will vote. El Rufai is trying something in Kaduna State. He is a Muslim and he has chosen a Muslim woman to be his candidate. He told everybody to go to hell.
Who is the candidate now to challenge El Rufai?
Even the PDP, does not seem to have anybody, you do not hear about them. He chose his deputy from Southern Kaduna, where majority of them are Christians. We tend to assume that because the elites have sat down somewhere and decide what, it is not true. If two women should come up today, woman president, woman vice president, Nigerians will vote for them if they believe they are good.
Another gap we have not been able to fill is independent candidatures.
I wish we have room for independent candidates to challenge those who are in those parties. Neither APC nor PDP can be proud of what they have done so far.
A while ago, we were discussing about vote buying, prohibitive cost of obtaining nomination forms are some of the setbacks for good, competent people to come in….?
(cuts in) Some of the parties’ apparatchiks as they call them, say you do not allow just anybody to become president. By therefore putting such a huge amount before nominees, they now set a standard. But should the standard be set by money? Should it not be integrity, should not be incorruptibility, should it not be clean past records and so on and so forth.
That is what it should be and make it affordable. It is not necessarily that the person should be poor. It means that that man can take care of himself even if he were not a president. We all know how he has earned this money. That person too is not because he has stolen money from the public till. But the way we have done it in such a way that we want people who are very very rich to become the president.
Like people say, Buhari is incorruptible. Yes! But he did not pay for his nomination form, he did not pay N47million. The point is that unlike the president of the United States of America, Buhari does not feed himself, he does not buy his own clothes, he does not buy his own shoes.
In Aso Villa, everything is taken care of. The American president feeds himself; the American President buys his own clothes. If he uses the presidential plane for campaign, he pays. It does not happen in Nigeria.
In own case, how do we look at it? He has a pension as a former military Head of State, when he leaves office as a civilian president, he will be paid another pension. How do you reconcile the two?
We say we copy the American Constitution, but we spend more money on our presidency than the presidency in the United States.
Our National Assembly, same story. They are earning their own salaries and allowances, but they cannot pay the salaries and allowances of their workers who make the assembly run.
Are we alright as human beings? We are not Ok, especially people who run things at the government level.
If you were to be nominated as a presidential candidate and you cannot afford the nomination fees, what would you do?
If I cannot afford it, I will walk away. Let the whole world know that you cannot buy the presidency. You then tell the people what you think should be normal.
What if people pay for you?
I will refuse. I will refuse to be paid for to become president. If I am paid for, to become president, it looks as if I am being begged and when I become president, everything for me becomes free, what is my sacrifice of becoming president, it does not cost me anything, and everything for me is free. What do the people get in return from me?
On Wednesday, December 19, President Buhari was at the joint session of the National Assembly, to present the 2019 Budget proposal, right there the legislators depending on their parties, cheered while others jeered at him. The place became rowdy. This is the first time; such will happen in this country, what do you make of this?
It just shows that the APC regime has just created some precedents in the history of governance in Nigeria. First of all, when the president took over, it took him six months to appoint the ministers.
Two, even though people have previously been complaining of marginalisation, this one is too glaring.
Three, this is the first time a president will come out openly not once, not twice to announce that these people voted for me, I must take care of their interest because they are going to vote for me again.
This is also the first time the wife of a president will come out openly to tell Nigerians that her husband is not in charge. There is a cabal running the country, do not blame him for what is happening in the country. It is despicable. You have created some precedents.
We have only two formidable candidates – President Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar for the 2019 elections, who among the two in your own thinking Nigeria needs now?
With respect to Buhari, he has at least proved one thing that you can be a president and be incorruptible. That is a good precedent. Nobody has come out to say he is involved in this or that. The same with (Goodluck) Jonathan, nobody has accused him directly. He oversaw a corrupt regime. The same thing is being said by people about the incorruptible leader. He has proven one thing wrong that a fish gets rotten from its head. Nigeria has an incorruptible head, but the fish is still rotten.
How do you explain that?
How do you explain that? Even those who are close to him, it was by much pressure that he removed the former Secretary to Government of the Federation and who did he replace him with? The cousin or the nephew. The current SGF is closely related to Babachir Lawal. Up till today people hear about Babachir, EFCC, you just hear noise and everything dies down after a while.
A few months ago, there were some hues and cries that Osinbajo was alleged to have been involved in some deals. Before she resigned, there were allegations that Adeosun gave contracts to some members of the National Assembly, she said the president knew about it.
The military, your constituency which you still belong to, it is alleged that some retired generals – Ibrahim Babangida, Garba Wushishi, T. Y Danjuma and Aliyu Gusau with Olusegun Obasanjo – just sit somewhere and decide who becomes president. What do you say of this?
The situation is this. When the military gets involved in politics, for those who get involved, have to behave like politicians, do what politicians do in order to survive in politics. Only very few can get involved and come out just like that. The best time to do even when military is in politics, is to remain professional as much as possible or run away from it. The Nigerian situation is like that. The president is a god, and governors are semi gods and then local government chairmen, those ones are not even mini gods, they are servants to the semi gods. He can sack them or remove them any time. If you are not a person with disciplined mind, and with so much pressure from all sides, you get lost. Therefore, what happens is that every small thing, they bring to you, president must approve. Where is the delegation of power in the Nigerian system? Appointment of ordinary board members, the president must approve, Vice President cannot approve anything. The same with the governors. In some states, the governor will tell commissioners, you cannot approve more that N100,000. Why appoint the person a commissioner if you do not trust him with money? How can you do your job without responsibilities, without resources?
Some are of the view that the incursion of the military into politics from 1966 till 1999 did not do us any good. Do you share that view?
To a certain extent yes! What I tell people is that from my role as an observer in uniform because I was never in any political position. It is civilians that have to be blamed.
We do not have that level of discipline and integrity in Nigeria in which if you disagree with your boss, you walk away. With the military in government everybody started looking for appointments including the civil servants.
When anybody is sacked by the military, there are many people waiting to take over your appointment and ready to do whatever, good or bad, there is no way you can steal either as military governor or head of state without the civilians. The civil servants are not soldiers anyway; they can easily expose you. Since they are going to benefit why expose. The Nigerian system is if you share – then no problem.
It is just like the case of the PTF (Petroleum Trust Fund), people have said that Buhari himself has accepted that there were some corrupt activities in the PTF, but he was not corrupt. Where is the level of responsibility? If you now, consider what was happening then with what is happening now it is like exactly the way it is happening at the presidency.
What is so interesting in all of this is that nobody has come out to disprove it. Nobody is ready to admit that he worked in PTF and this is what happened. It is unprecedented because they were ‘chopping’ there. It was chop and let’s chop. That was why many years ago, somebody formed the “You Chop I Chop Party”. Only God knows what has happened to that party. It never got registered.
The Nigerian system of “chop and let’s chop” is nearly becoming a culture.
If you are stubborn like Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, you come out unscathed. The culture now is “chop I chop”, and if you do not want to chop, leave us alone.
The Late General Salihu Ibrahim a one-time Chief of Army Staff, in 1995 did say that the Nigerian Army is an Army of anything goes, does that still apply today?
What has happened is very sad. It is very sad in that when Obasanjo became president as a retired general, he had T. Y Danjuma, a retired general as minister of defence, at one time; he had General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau as the National Security Adviser (NSA).
What the three of them did was to send officers who had political exposure away, but they did not reform the military. So sacking those middle age and young people, who have been exposed politically, did not do us good.
Secondly too, at the level of planning strategies, at the level of learning strategies and direction for the military and things like that, we have failed completely.
It appeared that most of the people who hold those positions from the time of Obasanjo have forgotten what they learnt in training, in the places they went to and at work. Now they continue to write some papers, bring a committee together to do defence policies, all nonsensical.
When this President came in and said there is a need for reform of the security agencies, new security architecture, nothing done. The Police are still like 1944 after the second World War, our police have not changed in terms of structure. They continue to promote people AIG, DIG, DDT, nothing has changed. The same thing with the military, they are just promoting people, to do what, I do not know. Instead of doing the proper haul of the army, they are not doing so.
The other thing is that fundamentally, if you get back to your office do a little research on the Constitution of South Africa, what I call Chapter 11 of the Constitution of South Africa and see what it says about their security agencies and look at our own Constitution.
You will see a completely big difference. You will see why right from the constitutional frame work, to every other thing why we are suffering from insecurity today.
If we do not take immediate action, like somebody said, we are going to be like Mexico and Brazil. These people that you call cults, they are becoming gangs. They are discovering laboratories making all sorts of drugs. That is how they became big problems in those countries that the police can no longer handle them. They kill judges who are trying them; they kill police and kill soldiers in Mexico. They kill investigators handling their cases. They give you money and if you refuse to take it, you are killed. We will get to that stage if we do not take action immediately. Unfortunately, everybody is pretending as if nothing is happening. If you look at the present situations, it is unfortunate that the president is retired soldier, the Minister of Defence is retired soldier, the NSA is a retired soldier, the Minister of Interior is a former soldier. What again? Something is wrong with us in this country. We are not tackling the immediate problem.
What Obasanjo did in 1999, by sacking a lot of military officers, who were politically exposed, they went away with all the experience they had. That is why the military has not been able to defeat the Boko Haram insurgency.
No! No!! You see, we are not prepared to fight Boko Haram. The present situation is still like when Jonathan was there and left. We have not got the structure for dealing with Boko Haram. People keep talking about equipment, it is balder dash.
It is just like you, you possess certain skills, it is now left with whether you are interested in features writing, reporting, investigative journalism. There is a doctrinal frame work with which you need to work, that will now determine the kind of tools you need to work with. So it is in military. How do you want to fight? We must know what we want to fight and the equipment with which to fight.
Boko Haram is winning because they know how to fight and how to think better than our own soldiers. If we continue that way, one day Boko Haram will capture Maiduguri, if we are not careful. To me it appears Boko Haram is interested in Borno State, not any other place. You could see, the focus all these years has been on Borno State.
That is very interesting. Your last command was in the TRADOC. It appears our soldiers lack the necessary training?
I retired from the Army 25 years ago; to me it does not seem as if they are doing any thinking at all. It was one anonymous British man, who said: ‘If the world had no people in its land who can think and fight, then that land is finished’.
The soldiers of these days must be thinker fighters. How do I fight? You get the necessary input to design for you how to fight, including intelligent, solid intelligent.
If Boko Haram could over run a military position, intelligence is missing, up to the commanding officer. How come they did not stand up to fight till the last man? Do they do that? That means you have to talk about the morale of the soldiers. It is because of our integrity.
Other things have happened. In other climes; they would have just stepped down. You just go to the President and salute and say: ‘Sir, I have failed in my duties, let me go. I have tried my best. Let others come and try their best.’
Early this year, Nigeria paid for some Tucano war planes, and we are told they would only be ready for delivery in 2024.
If one wants to be funny about it, it is like you are saying, let us continue playing with Boko Haram, from 2020, we start dealing with you when we get the Tucano planes. The whole thing is that they will deliver one or two in 2020. The last one will be delivered in 2024, are we saying that we will finish the war by 2024.Or we finish them before that time.
The second thing is that: Are they war game drones. There are different types of drones today to be used to counter insurgency. Are they war game drones? This is quite cheaper, if it crashes, no body dies.
Why are we not going for that?
They say they are building some in Kaduna. Are they building drones that can carry weapon system? Or they are getting intelligence and they are not using them properly? These are the questions. I am not in the position to answer.
If you were to be contacted today, and they say ‘General Ishola Williams (rtd) we need your assistance’, what would you do?
I will sack so many people first, sack them and court martial them for corruption, doing that, I will restructure the whole thing, I will change the way we fight. In fact, Boko Haram will come and salute me after we finish with them.
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