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Sam Momah, a retired Major General, served as Minister of Science and Technology during the military regime which terminated in 1999. With a Ph.D in strategic studies, he was categorized among the emerging generation of intellectuals in the Nigerian military. Since leaving the military, Momah has spent most of his time writing books on the state of the Nigerian nation. After reading through his latest publication meant to mark Nigeria’s Centenary Celebration, DEPUTY EDITOR, SAM AKPE, sat down with him for a discussion on some of the controversial issues raised in the book. Excerpts:
What is it retired generals do?
That is a million dollar question. We have various vocations. Some retire into agriculture; some retire into politics; some retire and stay at home; some go into buying and selling; some go into the service industry. But the unfortunate thing is that the society does not seem to value the potentials of retired officers. Most times, we are retired before we are of age and so there are a lot of potentials in us. If you get to an academy and see the kind of training we give to our young ones, even the university does not give that kind of training. It is not only intellectual training, we train them for leadership because to lead men in war is the highest level of leadership because these are precious souls and you must use them properly. This is why the training in the academy is so special. In the war front, there are decisions you take in seconds that are so vital: when to move, when to withdraw, be at par with the enemy, when to pursue, and when to retire. If you misjudge, you can get hundreds of souls perished like that. Therefore, I think Nigerians should try and make better use of our colleagues because the impression people have is that soldiers do not have brains, they are just out to shoot guns. No, shooting is a very minute part of the training. The most essential is handling of human beings and the army is the most organized disciplined force that you can ever have. It is not that they do it by force, but the training makes you comply. So I believe that Nigeria as a country should make better use of its retired officers.
Is it right to assume that in Nigeria soldiers are made to retire pretty too early?
We are not meant to; it’s just the coup d’état that came in 1966 that caused that problem. But for the coup, we would have all worked normally and then there would not be multiple promotions. Because of the war, the army expanded from just about six battalions to almost three divisions. A division is three brigades. It expanded by about five times what it should be, instantly. So we needed officers to man the various places; that means there were multiple promotions. With that, you get to the peak in early age. For example, if you become a general, what else do you want to be? You can’t stay and mark time year in year out. You have to leave after four years of being a general or thereabout, and then somebody will take over. So, the coup made a mess of the career planning that normally would have been. And then the civil war came, followed by subsequent coups, and someone would get pushed up while someone will move down and all that. So the career planning was not stabilized and that is why you find some as full generals at the age of 36 retiring; and that is a big shame. If they retire at 65 or 70, they would do so with grey hairs, those are generals with experience, not just ranks.
You were seen as one of the intellectuals in the military. How did you reach the level of having a Ph.d while still serving in the army?
Well, it’s a matter of choice. I happened to go on training abroad and saw what some generals could do, the way they talked; intellectually, they were sound and I said I should try and be like them. I was challenged.
In July you were 70 years, how does it feel?
I feel fulfilled, I feel happy that I survived till the age of 70. I had a career that was topsy-turvy. I went through the civil war, instability in the army, and participated in the administration of the country. Retired, I now realized it is not easy to survive as a retiree because your dependants still depend on you, you are retired but the demand is still there. We live in a system where there is no social welfare system. You notice that the pension and gratuity is nothing to write home about and so you have to continue to work to maintain that status.
You said something about the first coup d’état in Nigeria as having some kind of negative impact on the army. What about the country? If there was no coup d’état in 1966, where do you think Nigeria would have been now?
I would not like to dwell so much on the past as it is very speculative. Like I did say succinctly in my book, if not for the coup, we would be like Singapore by now, maybe, in our level of development. We would have maybe learnt from our mistakes. It is speculative. I was born in Nigeria, I grew up in Nigeria and I know that things have not improved. As a boy I know how life was and I know how it is today. So, you keep asking yourself if everyday things are getting worse and worse, it means that it was better before the coup.
In the preface to your latest book, Nigeria Beyond Divorce, you observe that the state of the Nigerian nation is disturbing and leaves much to be desired, what does that mean?
What I mean is that everybody knows that the indices of development are not as promising as they should be. There are about six indices that normally people would talk to you about. We have this Transparency International Corruption Index. You know when it comes to that Nigeria is number 138 among 178 countries. We are only 30 countries ahead while a country like Ghana is 78 or 80. We have other factors, exchange rate of our naira. You can look at the rate inflation. Then you look at unemployment. These are indices that normally you use to judge whether a country is moving forward or backward. Then you look at life expectancy which is now 47 years; about one of the least in Africa when other countries have 90 and 88. Another thing is Human Development Index which is the means of judging the rate of development of a country. In West Africa, Nigeria is second to the last in human development index. These are indices that should concern us as a people. When you come here, you see so many choice cars, but that is not development. Development is what you do to add value, not what you can import and use. Up till now Nigerians do not know that to curb unemployment we have to patronize made in Nigeria products. You curb unemployment by what you can produce. We must have a common hatred for whatever is imported because that is making you to be unemployed.
In the prologue to the book, you raised alarm on Nigeria’s problems, from insecurity, and corruption to the economy. When did Nigeria start experiencing these problems? Why didn’t the military that ruled Nigeria for decades tackle them? Or are the problems just surfacing?
Kidnapping has just started surfacing, just two, three years ago. But the thing is that corruption has been endemic in the system because even Nzeogwu talked about 10 per cent and that was why he struck, to deal with people who collected 10 per cent. But today, we know that people are collecting 90 per cent. That shows the degree of the rot. Every generation instead of improving on the system leaves a lot of rot in the system. That is why I said for Nigeria to improve, we must give more to Nigeria than we take, we must be able to leave some legacy. It did not start today. From the beginning we had problems, the problems snowballed into a civil war and of course civil war has a way of making worse any situation.
You made allusions in the book to the fact that, perhaps, if the unitary government introduced by Ironsi at that time had survived, it would have been better than the so-called federation that we have now. Can you explain that?
What I say is that Nigerians should start implementing what they believe in. Today we say we have a federal government when actually in practice it is unitary government. Because if it is federal government, the states will not be coming to the centre to collect anything, the states will be self reliant and then pay homage to the centre. That is what is done in US and everywhere. But here it is the opposite, the centre now gives to everybody and this is what happens in unitary government. In unitary government, the centre controls everything and then shares out in some formula to everybody. So, we have a federal system in theory but in practice it is unitary system. Why do we deceive ourselves? For us to get out of our problem, we must purge ourselves of this double standards. You say one thing, and you mean another thing.
You have also questioned the right of the National Assembly to either amend or review the constitution on the premise that sovereignty belongs to the people as stated in section 14(2) of the Constitution. But the Constitution in Section 9(1) says the National Assembly has the right to alter the Constitution which implies reviewing, amending or whatever. What is the difference between Section 9(1) and Section 14(2)?
Actually, the constitution is quite specific on this issue; it gives the National Assembly the right to amend the constitution, but does not give them the right to overhaul.
It boils down to semantics!
They can amend a section of the constitution, but they are now looking at the overall overhaul, of the constitution. Let’s say, for instance, you are looking at autonomy of local government and handle it, let be read and debated, that is ok, amend it and so on. But when you virtually want to pieces the constitution and overhaul it in bulk, that is what I think belongs to the people, the people have to be involved. I think the way they are doing it now, they are stopping at nothing. I think if we are going to overhaul it, then we need to allow the people to have a say and not what they are doing now. Hearing from the people means you have to wait for everybody to have a say. It will be like a plebiscite, every issue there, everyone will now cast a vote. It is something that involves the people, it is massive.
Can it ever be done?
I agree it is tedious and virtually impracticable, but that is what it should be. Let the people be actually involved so that we will be sure that every voice, every cadre, every status is represented.
The argument has been that members of the National Assembly are true representatives of the people –
They are true representatives of the people for governance of the country; they were not elected for overhauling the constitution. When you are the player and the referee, do you think it will work? Do you think it will be fair?
But, somehow, the same constitution that got them elected as representatives of the people in terms of governance also gives them the power to alter it and then set procedures to follow –
Not to amend; when they say to amend, it means you pick it, maybe, one paragraph at a time
Again, that’s a matter of semantics. As a matter of fact, the operative word in Section 9(1) is alter the constitution. The procedure for this alteration is that State Houses of Assembly are involved. In other words, it must go down to the grassroots. So what level of involvement of the people are we then talking about?
What I am saying is that, from my own understanding, these are the people who are elected purely for governance; nobody ever knew that the question of overhauling the constitution would ever come to be and now that it has to be there, there has to be a special way to handle it.
On page 56 of the book, after analyzing Nigeria’s overhead expenditure in governance, you declare definitely that the government’s paraphernalia must be washed clean and then restructured downwards if Nigeria is to survive. Now that sounds very heavy, what exactly did you mean by washing clean and then restructured downward?
There are a lot of parasites in the system. They feed on the system and do not add anything to it; that is to say over-bloated bureaucracy. You go to the ministry and see people roaming around virtually doing nothing. At the end of the day ask them what they have produced, nothing. So, these are all parasites. Government should be able to find a way to redirect our manpower. If somebody is not required in the ministry he can be taken to where he can earn some craft, or some farmland to do some agricultural job. We must do something to use our manpower gainfully. Now the government is privatizing, meanwhile the government is also employing; you see the whole gamut of policy not being streamlined. If we believe that the private sector is the engine of growth, government should now start seeing how it can reinforce the private sector. Provide the enabling environment, provide infrastructure and allow the private sector to go in and do its own job. Not a situation where 60 to 70 per cent or more of our income goes into paying salaries. So at the end, all these things we are talking about: power, roads, rails, communications and so on, we do not have money to develop them.
This brings me to your position on the mobile telephone industry in Nigeria. Why are you condemning the whole system?
Do you know how much we are losing; do you know that everybody, including my old aunty, uncle, is buying recharge cards every day? And I am told that Nigeria is losing about N100 billion everyday on mobile phone. You find that about 60 per cent of our income on the average goes into phone card. Motorcycle people, farmers, everybody believes mobile phone is the greatest luxury they have. Of what economic use are these phones to them? In Europe and America, these phones are used by medical doctors for emergencies. What you see there is land phone. That is what they use because it is cheap. Nobody uses mobile phones too much because they know how to spend their money. You pay somebody N18, 000 a month here as salary and he spends N2000 to N3000 a month on recharge cards. If you have a factory, a farm, and you are communicating and coordinating, then of course it would be useful. But there is no emergency, so what are you now communicating? In fact, mobile phone has caused more problems: even marital problems because you will be in Sokoto and you say you are under the table here. If not for mobile phones kidnapping will not be easy because they will not take the landline to the bush. That was why when the thing came, for two three years, I did not use it until I went overseas and I was forced to. I said I would not use it because we were not ripe for this. The government at that time should have made sure they got the landline working. When you have gotten it working, you now bring in this to back up the landline, it makes economic sense. What we claim to be a success is actually a disservice. This is why I am saying that our priorities are not well aligned.
Some people argue that the industry has also provided employment.
What employment? How many people can they employ? How many have they employed? Employment is when you add value to issues not when you are selling.
What made Nigeria to draw back at the time Malaysia or Singapore were moving forward? You used these two countries for analysis in your book.
Well, I think the greatest singular factor was that at the end of the civil war, there was need to give Nigeria a constitution (the 1979 Constitution) and then, somehow, the question of federal character came in as one of the things that was inserted. It was debated and I was told that by just one vote, the constitutional conference was allowed to insert the federal character clause into our constitution. I think that was where the problem started because Nigerians now took that federal character thing to mean that you can always be considered even if you don’t perform. People now realize that they can always be there whether they perform or not. That stopped merit from being the yardstick. Nigerians were known to be very hard-working, but since then, mediocrity stepped in and you find that we no longer believe that we should compete. What I am saying is that it is time for us to re-think because competition is no longer between the Tiv man and Hausa man or between Ijaw man and Kanuri man. Competition is now between Nigeria and South Africa, between Ghana and Nigeria. It has gone international. We are no longer competing among ourselves; we are competing with outsiders. So in that kind of situation, the federal character thing should be downplayed. Federal government should be able to fund educationally handicapped regions or sections of the country by a special fund. It should encourage everybody to go to school so that when it comes to seeking a job it should be purely on merit because we must get ourselves organized internally to be able to face the external competition that is awaiting us.
Since independence, power supply has always been controlled by government. Recently, government decided to privatise and, in your book, specifically on page 72, you said this is the wrong time to privatise and you went ahead to describe the effort as a mighty gamble. What is your alternative?
Well, it is a gamble. I can see where government is coming from. I am looking at the election coming in 2015. The government that is doing this may not be the one that will be at that time. This is why if you are there to see what has been done, one will appreciate but we are going into an election and we don’t know what will come out of that election. There are a lot of insecurity problems. It would be easy if government is still running the power system, to use the army to provide security; everything will work out fine. But with the private sector, are you now going to lend the army to them or the police or the security apparatus to guide their installations? I don’t know how it is going to work because when you start doing that and since it is a private sector; it may lead to an abuse of our security system and all of that. We would have preferred a more peaceful environment when we are doing all these to be sure that there would be nothing that would put the security of our power system in jeopardy. The environment must be conducive because I am looking at the security situation, how it is going to tie up and I hope those private sector people will not get overwhelmed with insecurity problems and the government will now support the private sector with the police and or the army. This is why I say it is a gamble, but I hope it does not come to that. And I believe that power is something we should not joke with because it is the backbone of any economy. If anything happens to power then it is a problem. We hope that the present insecurity problem will be dealt with before they finally hand over these power plants to the private sector; I hope the problem will be solved. If it is solved, we can take the bull by the horns.
The United States Government said some years back that Nigeria will disintegrate in 2015 if certain things are not done. It is as though no unity of purpose has been achieved here yet!
It has been achieved. What we need t do is to build on it and look forward to the future with confidence. Don’t ever get intimidated by what the CIA is saying; they cannot tell us how our country should be. We have no choice than to remain one because I believe that disintegration cannot be, should not be, and can never be because the the alternative is unimaginable. You have 170million; where are you going to send your refugees to in Africa. If you have refugee of 10 million the whole of Africa is finished not to talk of 170 million Nigerians because there would be no boundary. All the local boundary problems will resurrect. It will happen once the central figure disappears, there will be a lot of fighting and we will find out that Nigeria will become one big conundrum of confusion. It would be like what happened in Sudan. Their problems started in 1955 up till now it has not been solved. Nigeria can be a worse case. That is why I say Nigeria is beyond divorce. We have already been put together and we have to try and remain as one. United States had a civil war but they quickly mobilized and today they are super power. We have fought our civil war, why can’t we resurrect and live our lives together as one. If certain things are put in place and everybody can learn to play according to the rules, then of course you’ll find that corruption will not be there. This federal character is indigenizing cheating culture. When I saw in the papers where they give some state two per cent as cut off mark, some had four per cents; you are telling those people not to bother to read. What are we trying to do? We are destroying them; they will never rise beyond their nose. Nigerians don’t want to discuss some issues; they say they are too sensitive, but I say I have already clocked 70 and there is nothing to be afraid of; so I have to say the truth. That is all I owe this country.
How has it been since you retired from the military. You spent 36 years. What have you missed as a soldier?
As a soldier the only thing I miss, I miss very much is the military sense of discipline because honestly you now have to work in an environment where you have to you tell somebody something and he says yes sir and he just walks away and will not do whatever he has said yes sir to. You call him and ask what he has said yes sir to and he does not even know. But in the military, once somebody says yes sir, you just have to accomplish what you are told. I think the military inculcates sense of discipline in you, you have that honesty of purpose, you have a direction and you are a gentleman.
What is the title of the next book?
I won’t tell you, but it surely will come.