General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau turned 80 last week on May 18, and for those who know him, or have worked closely with him and have been impacted by his humanism and generosity of spirit, he is a man to be celebrated, a strong pillar of the Nigerian estate, a living memory bank and an asset to his country. I first met him sometime in 1998. General Olusegun Obasanjo as he was then addressed, had just been released from prison by the Abdusalami Abubakar administration following the trumped-up charge of coup-plotting against Obasanjo and others. General Obasanjo himself has told his own story. But his release, some would say escape from Abacha’s trap was a special moment for many. At the time, I was a regular participant at the Farm House Dialogues, founded by General Obasanjo, under the auspices of the Africa Leadership Forum, headed by our very able boss, Ayodele Aderinwale, OFR, now Chairman of JustRite. I wrote many of the Farm House Dialogue reports and communiques.
To cut a long story short, after his release, General Obasanjo went straight home. His house in Ita-Eko, Abeokuta was filled with so many people who thronged the place to see him and congratulate him. The moment I entered the house, the first man that I saw was General Gusau. I didn’t know who he was but as is customary the right thing to do is to greet an elderly person. I was however taken aback when he called out my name as if he had known me from somewhere. I wasn’t a regular face on television at the time, so I used to enjoy the serenity that anonymity offers. Not anymore. But I wondered why the elderly man would call out my name with such certainty. Out of curiosity, I later asked people around: who is that man?
“You don’t know General Gusau? Three persons asked in quick succession. They made it look as if not knowing General Gusau was the equivalent of failing an important examination.
“You don’t know General Gusau and you call yourself a journalist?” one person quipped. I threw a sour look in his direction. Why should that be a test of my professional ability as a journalist?
“General Gusau is one of the most powerful men in this country. Nobody can run this country successfully without him. You are surprised he knows you? It is his duty to know you. He knows everything that goes on in this country. He has his boys and eyes everywhere.”
Even at that time, I already had an idea that Nigerians are capable of writing stories, blending facts with myths. But the main story of the moment was the widespread excitement over Obasanjo’s return. Those were truly crazy days in Nigeria. The military under Abacha had imposed a regime of terror on the country, such that even babies were not spared. The catalyst for Nigeria’s descent to the lower depths was the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election won by the late Bashorun MKO Abiola. Leaving office, General Ibrahim Babangida left behind an Interim National Government (ING) headed by another Egba man, Chief Ernest Shonekan. IBB had said he was “stepping aside”. Eventually, General Sani Abacha, who had been left behind as minister of defence, hijacked the government, drove away the interim arrangement, and imposed himself on Nigeria in a most brutal manner that did neither the people nor the country any good. Obasanjo was one of Abacha’s victims, although destiny soon played out. Obasanjo would later emerge as Nigeria’s civilian president in 1999, in an arrangement that was meant to correct the tragedy of the Abacha years and the pain that the military inflicted on the country.
The military does not always want to accept all the blames that the civilian population heaps on them. They do not agree that they mismanaged Nigeria, while at the helm of affairs for the better part of the last 63 years. In many accounts, Nigerian military chiefs project themselves as men who saved Nigeria and provided such quality leadership that the civilians seem incapable of. This is probably the reason why since the return to civilian rule in 1999, the military has continued to cast its shadow over the politics of Nigeria. It is further not surprising that Nigerian public affairs commentators talk about those they call “the owners of Nigeria”. On that day in Abeokuta, all I heard about General Gusau was his reputation as “one of the owners of Nigeria”, a kingmaker, a power behind the throne. In fact, one fellow boasted that nobody could lead Nigeria without General Gusau’s hand in it. I took another look at the man. He looked quiet. His demeanour was calm. I guess you can never judge people by merely looking at them. But to be serious it is certainly not a compliment to refer to any group as “owners of Nigeria” — that is totalitarianism: We are not in Hitler’s Germany. We are not in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Born Aliyu Mohammed, on May 18, 1943, the Gusau that is attached to his name is his place of birth in present-day Zamfara State of Nigeria. He graduated from the Nigerian Defence Academy in 1967 and fought in the civil war as a second lieutenant. He has since then remained a prominent figure, occupying one leadership position after another as Brigade Commander, director of Personnel at Army Headquarters and director of Military Intelligence, Head of the National Security Organization (NSO) or as National Security Adviser. General is credited with having set up Nigeria’s intelligence infrastructure. In 1989, he broke up the NSO into three different organizations; the State Security Services (SSS), the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), and the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). It is a measure of the man’s capacity and influence that he is even in retirement regarded as Nigeria’s Number one Intelligence Officer and a major force in the determination of Nigerian affairs. He is one Nigerian who has been here and there, and has been on duty at every critical moment in Nigeria’s post-independence trajectory: He fought in the civil war. He served in Abeokuta as Commander of the 9 Infantry Brigade. He was General Officer Commanding (GOC) at the 2 Mechanised Division in Ibadan, Commandant of the Nigeria Defence Academy, and Chief of Army Staff. He was said to have been involved in the coup that brought General Muhammdu Buhari in 1983, and also in the coup that removed him in 1985. Nor was he popular with General Sani Abacha who removed him as Chief of Army Staff. But whatever travail he may have suffered in the course of his career, has not stopped him. He was Obasanjo’s National Security Adviser when he returned to power in 1999. He was later President Goodluck Jonathan’s National Security Adviser and Minister of Defence.
Twice, in 2006 and 2010, he had sought to be president of Nigeria but the story behind his back was that it would have been a lot too much to hand over Nigeria to the country’s top spy. It was said that nobody would be safe. Nonetheless, General Mohammed as he prefers to be known, has remained even at 80, a major power behind the throne. His influence goes beyond the military where he made a career. Over the years, he has built bridges across the country and constituencies. It is not for nothing that he is regarded as a powerful man.
I was privileged to observe him at close quarters when he served as President Jonathan’s Minister of Defence. He was always quiet, almost self-effacing, yet everyone deferred to him. General Gusau is a major lesson in how to wield power and influence without brandishing it. I would later discover that many top journalists are his friends. Journalists deal with information. They look for sources, in pursuit of the stories behind the stories. The country’s topmost intelligence operative was bound to be a friend of the media. When I ran as a deputy governorship candidate in Ogun state in 2019, General Mohammed told me our team would not win, if we didn’t make certain choices in Ogun PDP. He was proven right. Ahead of the 2023 general elections, he had done an analysis of the political terrain and predicted what would happen. Again, he has been proven right. Many of us in this country just sleep and wake up, hustle, and try to look for ways to pay our ever-increasing bills, but there are others whose day work is entirely devoted to looking into the deeper end of things.
What I admire about him is his love of knowledge, his generosity, and his attention to detail. I once visited The Gusau Institute – a research centre that he has set up in Kaduna. This centre is probably the richest personal library in Nigeria today. It is a fully digitalised library, with a collection of books, documents, and resource materials on military history and general subjects. I was taken around the library, and I was amazed at what I saw, including a Reuben Abati file containing letters to the editor that I wrote in the Nigerian Chronicle, as an undergraduate at the University of Calabar, opinion articles I wrote as an NYSC teaching assistant at the University of Benin, published in the Nigerian Observer, and my writings over the years that I can’t even trace. I saw publications and writings by just about anybody, including copies of examination papers ever written at the Nigeria Defence Academy. Researchers are allowed access to the centre.
Within the premises, there is yet another building, where General Mohammed has done an excellent job of documenting his own career, with pictures, documents, and correspondence. I doubt if there is any other General today in Nigeria who has paid as much attention to detail. The only thing missing is that I have not yet seen a written memoir by the General. He has a story to tell, and this is perhaps the right time to tell that story. I have heard people say that he knows too much, and that a man like him should not tell stories. I disagree. While spy chiefs and military leaders trade in secrecy, the truth is that some remarkable books have been written by intelligence chiefs and military leaders. Sun Tzu was a Chinese military General. His book, The Art of War, is regarded as a major text on military strategy and warfare. What makes an intelligence officer? How do intelligence officers operate? What roles do intelligence officers play in the making of foreign policy, international affairs, and national security? How secretive and accountable should they be? These are aspects of the making of Nigeria that require interrogation and I cannot think of any better person to tell such stories than General Mohammed.
I must not end this tribute however without noting General Mohammed’s example necessarily throws up afresh questions about the role of the military in Nigeria’s political space. It may have been fashionable in the 70s and 80s to hail Nigerian soldiers as strong men. It was the age of “the strong man” as a messiah in African politics. But with the wave of democratisation that gripped the heartbeat of politics in the 90s, military involvement in governance and politics began to attract heavy criticism. By 1993, most people were clamouring for the exit of the military. “Never again,” we all chorused. There seemed to have been a consensus that the period the military ruled Nigeria could best be described as “the years eaten by the locust”, the title of two well-received collections of writings by Fr. George Ehusani. To those who have any faint recollection of that season, it may sound ironic that a top soldier is the subject of a tribute. But have the civilians fared any better in terms of personal example? Every man will be judged on his own account.
It is also interesting what has become of the intelligence establishment. The DMI at some point became a place of torture and nightmare. One of the soldiers who headed the place, as things turned worse, reportedly used to boast that he would waste people. Similarly, the Department of State Security (DSS) has had mixed fortunes over the years. How many officers can still come across as officers and gentlemen? The best tribute that the younger generation can pay to General Gusau is to toe the path of professionalism, honour, and loyalty.
Happy birthday sir.