The late Chief Duro Onabule, a former editor of the National Concord, was the Chief Press Secretary to Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (rtd.). In this interview, which was his last and part of his biography project before he passed on Tuesday, August 16, 2022, he gave insights into a number of controversial issues that transpired under IBB’s watch and had remained unresolved or unexplained, such as SAP and Dele Giwa’s death, among others. He spoke with OLAWUNMI OJO and ONYEDIKA AGBEDO.
What was your position when then Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida annulled the June 12, 1993 election given your penchant for speaking truth to power?
I regret to say what I am going to say now, but I am going to say it. I never felt any sense of being marginalised or kept in the dark while working with IBB. But on that particular issue, I was kept in the dark. As a matter of fact, an incident happened. The late Alade Odunewu and Dr. Doyin Abiola were both directors of the Press Council. They came on a particular day; they had come about a month earlier for some financial grant to the Press Council, so IBB gave them another appointment. So, on this particular day that they came, I had to go and intimate IBB that they had arrived. When I got there, the late Gen. Sani Abacha was with IBB. When I told him that they were around, he asked to be reminded about what they came for. I told him that they had come about a month ago to request for financial grant to the press council and you asked them to come on that very day. He asked me what we needed to do and I told him that the issue of financial grant to the Press Council should better be left for the incoming government, because we had held an election and somebody was winning and was certain to win.
Abacha was sitting in his front. It must have taken him a thousand years to size me up. He sized me up in a manner that I started asking myself what was wrong with him. I guess IBB must have told him after I left that I wasn’t aware of what was going to happen. And actually I didn’t know. It was quite unusual. That’s why I said I felt bad about that particular situation. So, that one went like that.
Then, we were in the office on the day Gen. Yar’Adua’s mother was to be buried when my friend and former Executive Director of News at NTA, Yahaya Abubakar, called me and said: “Double Chief, I have this report from one of my reporters saying the election has been cancelled. I think he was curious. One, it was not signed; two, I did not issue it. Ordinarily, if the reporter got such a report that didn’t emanate from me, he should have come to me to confirm it but that didn’t happen. He just forwarded to his boss in the office, who was good enough and called. When he called me, he said: “We have this report about the annulment of this election; I just called you to confirm.”
I said, “which report?” He mentioned it and I said he should hold on while I confirm it from IBB. By the time I got to his office, I discovered that he had left for Katsina to attend the burial of Gen. Yar’Adua’s mother. At that time, there was no mobile telephone. So, I came back to the office and phoned him. After speaking with IBB, I just called him and said, “I am sorry, Mr. President has gone to Katsina but I don’t want to disturb you, proceed and announce it.” This was because he was DG Voice of Nigeria and I didn’t want to be accused of disturbing governance. My friend then proceeded.
In any case, I asked him, “Where did your boy say that he got the report from?” The man told his boss that it was Nduka Irabor who gave him the release. Noticeably, it was unsigned. Now, you ask yourself, “why was I bypassed and the news item was given to Nduka, who was the press secretary to the Chief of General Staff, Augustine Aikhomu?”
Now, there are two ways to it. First, ordinarily it could be because I came from MKO’s newspaper. On the other hand, because I know IBB and he wouldn’t want to embarrass me. If the thing was given to me, the story today may have been that MKO’s newspaper former editor even announced it. So, he saved me from that problem. But I felt that I should have been called and told that we are doing this and that. I am a blunt person and as usual, I would have given my opinion and it would have gone like this: “Do you know your friend MKO? In his dictionary, there is no word like no…” That could have given him cause to think about the possible consequences of his action. So, in a way, I was satisfied that they gave to Nduka Irabor.
From the way Abacha reacted when you told IBB of the need to leave the release of grant to the Press Council for the incoming government, does it suggest to you that IBB and Abacha were in the know of the impending annulment and what they would do, even with the interim government?
That is a question that should not arise. Why would Abacha turn round and size me up. It’s possible they were discussing what they would do.
So, Abacha’s action later would have been unknown to IBB?
I wouldn’t know about that. What happened is what I just told you. Whether they had discussed it or not was not my problem. But I’m sure IBB would have told Abacha that I didn’t know what was going on because Abacha was visibly angry.
On another hand, the role of the press in the cancellations was worrisome. And I am going to be very specific about The Guardian. When they held the primaries in 1991 and Yar’Adua won, being a southern press, one could understand why all of them wanted Olu Falae to win. And because Falae did not win…Oh, when we hold elections, if a southerner wins, except in the case of Obasanjo, it’s fair, if a southerner does not win, it is wrong.
Were you privy to the composition of the Interim National Government?
No, no, no!
You were bypassed again?
Naturally! When I said bypassed, it was in the sense that I would have opposed it if I knew. On what ground would Ernest Shonekan have been made head of ING? Did he contest election? You deprived those who contested election of their possible victory or loss and then you ask the man who did not contest election to come and head the government. May be their mentality was that MKO was from Ogun State, so they should pick somebody from Ogun State to head the ING.
What you have said so far paints the picture of a man who was very close to IBB. What was it like working with him?
IBB is an enigma. And in fact, the only way you could display your loyalty is by being bold with him. As far as I am concerned, IBB did not ask you not to tell him the truth. So, by all means, tell him the truth.
Again, there was this incident that I don’t know any of Nigeria’s Heads of State one could have done that with. We had this policy of changing the cabinet regularly – three, six and nine months. I went to him one day and said, “Sir, this is a proper case for instability. You continue changing and changing. Let’s look at the Nigerian system. If you appoint somebody as a minister today, it will take him about six to nine months to settle in that office. Now, just about the time he is settling down, you drop him and bring in another person or you take him to another ministry.” He said, “Double Chief, the thing is that these people are controversial.” I told him, “Sir, even you, you are controversial.” He relaxed and smiled. He said, “Duro you are correct. I am controversial. All of us are controversial.”
Unknown to me, I had helped him solve an issue. IBB is a man who buys suggestions; it’s just for you to tell him the truth. And nobody sent me, but every time there was cabinet reshuffle, I had to make the announcement; I had to defend it. I just felt we couldn’t continue like that.
And you never thought you could have been relieved of your job as a result of your boldness?
My God! Which job was that? The job of telling him the truth? Otherwise, he would have continued with that policy of changing his cabinet regularly. In any case, I was free with him and had to tell him the truth.
Can I tell you this? Even though MKO is dead now, one of his wives is around, Dr. Doyin Abiola. On different occasions, they visited IBB. And one day, MKO just came to my office and said, “Duro Baba, I am just coming from the president and he told me that, of all his staff, you are the only one who would boldly tell him the truth.” That is to let you know that IBB appreciated that boldness contrary to what you are thinking. Secondly, later Doyin visited him and he told her the same thing.
What does it entail to be the spokesperson of the president of this country? What does it take to work at that level?
One, you must be yourself. And you must have one thing in mind – working at that level, unknown to you, you are making history either for good or for bad. I was just myself. Before going to government, I was noted for my courage and bluntness. I don’t blame those who came after me; everybody unto his/her own style. There are 1000 ways you can say that something is bad and that something is good. If it is good, you can tell him in a way that he won’t feel you are just a sycophant. You can appreciate government policies. On the other hand, if there is trouble ahead, just say it.
The popular belief is that the quantum of corruption being witnessed in the country today started under IBB. How true is this?
Those holding such opinion must be mischievous elements. I don’t know what happened under him, which had not been happening more than 10 times before or after him.
What do you have to say about the Structural Adjsutment Programme (SAP), which sought of destabilised the economy and opened the door for corrupt tendencies?
I am happy you mentioned SAP. Before Murtala Muhammed and Olusegun Obasanjo in 1975/1976, people were at least dedicated to their work in this country. Then came the messiahs; the first thing they did was to disrupt laid down structures. People who had been in government quarters for 20, 30 to 35 years were all purged. They had no where to go. Once the senior ones were purged, those who survived and those who were coming in henceforth embarked on securing themselves against the future. Was it IBB who caused that? Was that not true?
Well, the economy nosedived under SAP?
There was no policy in Nigeria, which was not practiced all over the world. SAP was deregulation of the economy because many people didn’t understand the meaning of SAP. One writer wrote some six or seven years ago that SAP killed Nigeria Airways. But I countered that it was not true. SAP exposed Nigeria Airways because it was dependent on monthly subventions from the government without making revenue. They were giving free flight to their friends and girl friends to London, New York and so on.
IBB decided to allow more airlines in the country to stop the Nigeria Airways from monopolising the aviation industry. How many airlines do we have in the country today? At that time, you couldn’t go to Kano, Maiduguri, Akure or Ibadan by plane. But these days, you could get up and decide to go to Kaduna tomorrow. Was it so before SAP? SAP meant the deregulation of the Nigerian economy. The best thing that happened to this country under IBB was SAP.
It was credited to IBB that there is nobody that cannot be bought. Those who make that assertion refer to how people like Tai Solarin and Soyinka were able to serve under IBB?
Unfortunately, Tai Solarin is dead. You can go and ask Soyinka if the man ever said so to him.
Now, I don’t know how much of Tai Solarin you knew. These are highly respected people in the society. If, therefore, the man was going to set up People’s Bank, which represented the poor at that time, he looked for somebody with reputation like Tai Salorin and made him Chairman of the bank. Does that mean that he bought Solarin? Or did he buy Soyinka by making him the chairman of the FRSC? At that time, whether you like it or not, those people had immense reputation unlike these days when you have thugs as chairmen of local councils all over the place.
A former AIG once said that he was surprised when he got to the National assembly to see people he had interrogated for criminal offences among the members. Is that what you want if you cannot use people with reputation in society. As for what you said the man said, I don’t know if he said it to you. He didn’t say that to me.
SAP riot led to the closure of the universities for about five months…
Who was ever in government and the universities were not closed?
The belief is that governments don’t take university education serious in terms of policy formulation and response to their demands?
You people are so prejudicial…students and the media. Was IBB the head of government in 1978 when Fela’s mother was killed? The very idea of government is, one, to ensure security in society and in the process, you have to take unpleasant decisions. I don’t know where you were in 1978 the day Fela’s mum was thrown from the first floor? IBB’s government came up with a major economic policy of changing the economic situation of the country, for the first time since 1960, which all other governments didn’t have the guts to go for.
Please, give it to him. I am not saying he didn’t contribute to it but this was a policy he initiated through the advice of virtually the best brains in Nigeria. Kalu Idika Kalu, go and check his record at World Bank. Ojetunde Aboyade, Olu Falae, Omo Loyade, Ikenna Nzimiro. These were the best brains we had. I am not saying IBB did not know about SAP. Have these people I mentioned ever blamed IBB? It’s a question of understanding the fact that mainly, SAP was deregulation of the economy.
At that time, we had marketing boards all over the place. But they were cheating farmers. IBB scrapped marketing boards as part of SAP. Farmers were selling their commodities directly to buyers. In Ondo State, farmers who became richer as a result of the policy were buying new cars; some married more wives. If you write that now to justify SAP, what you will hear is, ‘oh, he has been bribed by IBB.’ No! Should I tell lies? You will only be showing a better understanding of SAP.
The IBB regime was very harsh on coup plotters and a lot of blood was shed. Why was it so?
(Laughs). Go and join the army, let your son plot against you and then set him free. IBB did not make the regulations. If you want to know, the man who made the regulation was Obasanjo in 1976 after the Bisala coup, then Minister of Defence. It was called Treason and Other Offences Decree. Why have you concentrated on IBB? When they killed Balewa in January 1966, six months later, didn’t we have counter coup? Gowon did it as well. Murtala Muhammed and Obasanjo did their own in 1975. If they failed, what would have happened? So, don’t portray it as if it was only IBB that was so merciless and harsh. It’s military regulation. If you rise against the authorities in a military regime, you are shot.
We recorded many attempted coups under IBB. As an insider in that government, do you have any idea of what gave rise to them?
In the case of this one, as IBB always say and I too observed, if there are grievances in society, it’s easy for you to stage a coup. You just exploit people’s grievances. There were instances of grievances then. Although looking back, some of the faults were misplaced. The casualties could have been limited. For example, Col. Shodeinde and Brig. Ademulegun, I think they could have been arrested. But they were killed in Kaduna. That one created grievances. Then, the pattern of the killings created misconceptions. The counter coup plotters were so young and so inexperienced. They had no time for total analysis of the idea.
Till date, nobody has asked why Gen. Fajuyi was killed in the counter coup. If you read books, he was alleged to have been involved in the January 1966 coup. But all those are past events. We have made mistakes.
Given the circumstances that surrounded the death of Dele Giwa and the failure till date to resolve the murder, what account can you give about that unfortunate incident?
Again, I don’t want to accuse people of being fixated. None of you has ever asked Obasanjo about the death of Bola Ige. But the thing is, there is something called ‘The System’. You have no control over it. America had no control over it too. Americans elect their president periodically as stipulated by their constitution. If you emerge victorious, before you take over or shortly after you take over, they will give you insights into American interests. Whatever that involves, you just have to comply with it. They have no control over these things. Tell me that Obasanjo killed Bola Ige and I will say no! It’s ‘The System’. It’s the System and it happens all over the world.
So, it was ‘The System’ that killed Dele Giwa?
What I’m saying is that, it is not the government that killed him. Would you also ask me if ‘The System’ killed Bola Ige? What I am saying is that Obasanjo did not kill him. These things happen. But people hold misconceptions based on ignorance.
What could have got ‘The System’ interested in snuffing life out of a journalist?
I don’t know who are ‘The System’. I just know that every government all over the world has ‘The System’.
So, as close as you were to the government you didn’t know who constituted ‘The System’?
My friend, I see. You should wait until you join government; then go and look for ‘The System.’
Are you alluding that ‘The System’ could be the present cabal that some people are referring to in this present government?
Which cabal? The cabal in the South. In fact, every region has its cabal. Was it the cabal that removed former governor of Lagos State, Akinwumi Ambode?
Dele Giwa’s death caused global outrage but has not been resolved…
(Cuts in) So, Bola Ige’s death didn’t cause outrage?
Both deaths actually drew umbrage nationally and internationally but have not been resolved till date. Why?
So, Hence, ‘The System’. They are unseen; they are unknown and the man there in the office will not know about it. It sounds incredible but that is the position. Go and find out all over the world. Look at Bola Ige. He was attending official functions all over the place and security followed him to Ibadan, his hometown. And those security men went to eat. Before they came back, the deed was done. Will you hold Obasanjo responsible for that? No!