Retired Lieutenant General Domkat Bali, was a former Chief of Defence Staff, Minister of Defence and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. He spoke on the circumstances of his retirement, the execution of General Mamman Jiya Vatsa, General Babangida?s come-back bid, President Olusegun Obasanjo?s elongation plot and other national issues. Senior Editor, BABAJIDE KOLADE-OTITOJU, General Editor, ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, Assistant Editor, SYLVESTER ASOYA, and photographer, AKIN FARINTO met him
For a long time, Nigerians have not heard from you. Why have you, until now, chosen to lie low?
I don?t know whether that is very fair. I was not always talking when I was the Minister of Defense. But then you people knew me as frank. But outside the government, I don?t have to go about talking unnecessarily. So I don?t talk much, not by design, but by my nature.
What have you been doing since you left office as Minister of Defense?
It has not been easy to adjust after the military because the military is a routine (wake up in the morning, have your breakfast, go to the office, a scheduled programme everyday). So it became part of me. But from the point of retirement, it became strange to wake up in the morning and not knowing what to do. I had to adjust. It was not easy initially, but now I am happy with it. I am happy because you are now the architect of your own program and life. You decide what to do and what not to do. You are not told to do one thing or the other. So you can say I am at home with myself now.
In Nigeria, it is customary for retired Generals to be on the board of companies. They even chair many. Some even own companies. Where do you belong?
I wish I had a company of my own. Talking about being chairman of companies, I have benefited from that up till now. I don?t know why. But I was chairman of HFP Engineering, a Jewish company, when I left government in 1991.It is located in Victoria Garden City. I am no longer chairman and I have no shares in it at all. I was a member of the Board of Trustees of Nigeria Wire and Cable, Ibadan. My shares there are few. I was also a member of the Board of Trustees of an insurance company. All these kept me going. Apart from those activities as member of the board of some companies, one way or the other, I also dabbled into part-time farming. As a small time farmer, I discovered that Nigerians cheat. They cheat when you are tilling the ground, they cheat when you are harvesting, cheat when you are applying fertilizer and they cheat at every level. It is a terrible Nigerian culture to cheat.
But we hope you have not been frustrated out of farming?
No. I still do it because as I said, I do it as a hobby. There was a time I felt most unhappy. A woman with a child strapped to her back and another one in her arms came to my house and said, ?General, we are desperate, we could not eat anything last night, me and my children. And my husband is no more.? She told me that whatever I could give to her, she would appreciate. So I gave her half a bag of maize. I have never seen a more grateful individual. Since then, I have been doing so as a hobby.
A lot of people believe that the incursion of the military into politics destroyed, to a large extent, discipline and professionalism. Where do you stand on this?
Certainly, the involvement of the military in government is abnormal. It is an illegal thing that became legal only by the acceptance of it by the generality of the people. But it is not a normal thing for the military to rule at all. It certainly has affected discipline and professionalism in the military because the regimentation of the military was affected. The normal role of the military during peace time and doing what is relevant to the military became distorted. The attention of the military was diverted from its norms towards governance. That affected the body greatly.
As Defense Minister, a lot of things happened during your tenure. Some were politically motivated. Do you have any regret about playing that role and the circumstances which led to your quitting government at that time?
The only regret is that the Nigerian situation provided the circumstances that led the military into taking over government. I have not regretted being a party to the government. Even today, I tell people that there will come a time, illegal as military regime may be, we cannot have a vacuum. If we do have a vacuum, the military is the only organized body that has the means to intervene if things go bad.
A lot of people think that given the situation in the world now, the military may never come back to power. Is it that you don?t share that opinion?
I don?t like to use the word ?never.? I made a point earlier on that there must not be a vacuum because nature abhors vacuum. Nature does not accept vacuum. If the people assume that a situation is no longer normal, somebody somewhere can take over. The only organized body with the ability to do that is the military.
Given the circumstances of your exit during the Babangida years, what is your relationship with him currently?
You will be surprised to hear that we are very good friends. I think Babangida and I understand each other. We know each other; he knows what I can tolerate and what I cannot. He understands that I can be frank but that I will not disgrace him. After I left, one of the places he visited was Langtang (and I come from Langtang). IBB had to pay a visit to the chief of Langtang. I had to be around because I am from there. Not only that, I was also going to read the Chief?s speech, to welcome him to the palace. So there was anxiety in the town as people were saying, ?aha, Bali and Babangida, since they parted company, let?s see what will transpire.? I credit Babangida for his very crafty nature. He came to the palace in a bus full of other people and I was in there when he arrived. I went there to receive them. Babangida simply grabbed me. People were surprised and wondered how the two of us could react to each other the way we did. People saw the two of us embracing each other. They were very surprised because they were expecting tension between both of us.
So have you had cause to talk about the matter since then?
He knows what happened then and I know what happened as well. In all fairness to Babangida, the only time he took me by surprise was when he came to my house to tell me that he intended to dissolve the cabinet. He said we should not worry because he would give us other appointments. My only question to him was: ?What appointment will you give me; after all I am a member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council.? I wondered what else he could offer me that was better than what I already had. Anyway he said, ?Don?t worry.? He dissolved the cabinet when I was in Jos for a weekend and then appointed me Minister of Internal Affairs. To be very frank with you, the Ministry of Internal Affairs is a very important ministry, but that was not my problem. My problem was that as a military officer, I was senior both to Babangida and Buhari, but I served under both as Minister of Defense and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. I could accept that they were heads of state. You cannot remove the fact that I was senior to both of them. And when Babangida came, he said: ?Ok, you are no longer Chief of Defense Staff but Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.? If I am not that, then I am also junior to all other military people other than the Head of State, which I would not accept.
I could accept that I was junior to the Head of State but to accept that I was also junior to other junior officers to me that was unacceptable. That was the main reason that I had to leave. Not because I was made the Minister of Internal Affairs. Some people said it was because I was taking over from John Shagaya who was also a junior officer. Those were not the issues at all.
What you are saying suggests that you do not blame Babangida for all that transpired with regards to your removal.
No. I can only say that perhaps he led and made people like us - Gambo, Alfa, Chief of Air Staff - to believe that we were together and that we were the most powerful (only to realize we were not). He dissolved the Council twice. The first was a rehearsal, apparently.
He brought all of us back. The second was the real thing and he did that mainly out of pressure from the junior officers who were at that time looking for appointments. That is the dilemma of the military regime and it reflects on the military itself.
How would you assess his administration, especially handling of the economy?
I personally thought he went too far with the IMF thing. I was more in line with Buhari who did not like the idea of IMF dictating terms to us. I went along with Buhari but Babangida decided to take action. If you remembered, he threw the thing to a national debate to say whether we should accept the terms given by the IMF. The general attitude or thinking suggested that we should not, if I remembered correctly. But he came up to say we should allow him to take a decision and implement things. I cannot remember exactly how he put it. But it was that whether we liked it or not, we should allow him to dictate what to do. To that extent, he went too far. Along the line, he got carried away, but I think he had good intentions.
You said that he must have been misled by junior officers. A lot of people believe that Babangida actually had good intentions and started well, but that along the line, the likes of the late General Sani Abacha hijacked his government and began to dictate to him. Do you share this view?
Why do you want me to repeat myself? I don?t know who hijacked his government. I didn?t mention names. I said some junior officers, along the line, influenced him to effect the changes, hence all the young boys became appointed as ministers and whatever.
When you worked with Babangida as Defense Minister, do you remember one action you took and you think you should have acted differently? For example, there was the coup trial that involved General Vatsa. Would you have acted differently?
I don?t know whether I would. My regret is that up till now, I am not sure whether Vatsa ought to have been killed because whatever evidence they amassed against him was weak. My only regret is that I cannot say, ?don?t do it.? I am not so sure whether we were right to have killed him.
The lot was on you to announce the execution...
That was ok. He was not the only one. There were others involved and the decision of the Council then was that, I being the Chief of Defense Staff (which covers the three services), would be the one to make the announcement. And not only that, we made sure that those who were connected were killed before my announcement. And I said so in my statement that those who were involved had already been executed. And I have asked myself whether I was crazy to have announced something like that.
What kind of soldier was Vatsa?
He was a very good soldier. I can tell you for sure that Vatsa was a very good soldier.
People said he hated Babangida to a fault!
No. I think there must be something between the two of them. I think they went to the same secondary school or something like that. There was something between them since secondary school days. I think that they didn?t seem to trust each other much. It may have been something that started when they were in secondary school that created that long-term hatred.
When Babangida assumed power, he appeared populist but over time he became stronger and more powerful. How did he achieve that when people like you were around?
You should ask Babangida that question! But Babangida is a very jovial person and he is a man that you can get to like easily. He portrays himself as a very likeable person, cheerful and kind.
He wants to come back and rule Nigeria again. What is your opinion about that?
If I meet him and he asks for my person opinion, I would advise him to be a kingmaker not a king. That is my advice to him. I do not support his coming back.
There is a speculation all round, and some people are actually campaigning, that President Obasanjo should elongate his tenure. What do you think will happen if he goes ahead?
That money is changing hands on account of this is one of the saddest parts of Nigerian politics. To start with, my disappointment is the fact that we are being led by people (most of whom) were not elected at all. Democracy, I was told in the secondary school, is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is not a government of cheats who are bent on looting the treasury. That is what we are having now. So I don?t believe we are practicing democracy at all. To that extent, my disappointment is that we are not practicing what democracy should be.
What is your personal disappointment about this clamor for a third term?
As far as I am concerned, the third term issue is very wrong. The right thing, people say, is that we the military gave the constitution. It is not a valid argument. The constitution is a document backed by generations of Nigerians and it states that ?we Nigerians have accepted bla bla bla.? That is the preamble of the national constitution. It may have been drafted under the military and handed over to the civilians. To that extent, they are right. They said it was Babangida who sat down and drafted it. It wasn?t him. It was a group of civilians who drafted it. When you talk about the people of Nigeria, soldiers are not many - the Head of State, governors and a few ministers. All the others, including ministers, are civilians.
Can you do a comparison of the economy now and during your time?