Group Captain Salaudeen Latinwo (rtd) is a former Military Governor of Kwara State during the regime of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. In this interview with SEGUN AJIBOYE, Assistant Editor, Latinwo spoke about his relationship with Gen. Buhari and his deputy then, the late Gen. Tunde Idiagbon; his belief in the ability of Gen. Buhari to turn the fortunes of the country around and other issues. Excerpts
You were a military governor of Kwara State between 1984 and August 1985. What was the experience like?
We had a lot of tasks lined up for ourselves because as at the time we came in, the atmosphere in the country was absolutely unacceptable. The roads were bad, there were no hospitals working, the educational system was nothing to write home about and the economy was in a shambles. We were having backlogs in payment of debt and quite a lot of other issues. Immediately we took over, we sat down to find out what was really the problem. Among what we concluded was that there was so much indiscipline in the society, so we introduced the War Against Indiscipline (WAI). This had to do with the culture of hoisting the flag, singing the national anthem and other things aimed at putting a stop to the culture of indiscipline that was becoming the order of the day.
Beyond that, we had an agriculture programme attached to each state. You could call it a food-for-all programme, the aim was for you to go back to your state and tend your people towards production of food. Then we needed to do a trade by barter system because the oil thing was really not functioning. For instance, if you have machines to give us, we give you oil in return. And gradually, things began to improve and eventually, the economy was picking up. Of course, there were problems of paying salaries in some states, so we made them to make arrangements on what to be done.
There were guidelines from the Federal Government on what to do: reduce the number of local governments, reduce the number of commissioners and within three months, there was stability and things began to improve. We also went to town, mobilising the people. There was the need for them to know the truth about the situation of things and that there was no secret to it. You’ll be surprised that some people came to offer advice on the way to go about it. And thus we were able to stabilise the system.
You mentioned the WAI programme. Back then, all Nigerians, irrespective of class or religion, fell into line and there was orderliness everywhere you went. Do you think we need such programme at this time?
I think we need it now. You see, it was not just WAI, for its interpretation. It was a mobilising factor, it made the people to have a sense of belonging in participating in the programme. That was what it was all about. It was the key issue of bringing Nigerians together as one. We need it, but it has to be modified to suit the democratic dispensation. Today, I think it is imperative to evolve new policies that would bring about discipline and ethics in governance and private practices in line with the War Against Indiscipline of 1984-1985 military regime.
However, the new WAI should be directed at changing the general attitude in the social, economic, political realms and environmental attitude towards ensuring that the people imbibe the attitude of change. Also, the citizens need to be reassured that Gen. Buhari will never run a unilateral government nor will he be vindictive. Rather, he should take the country along the path of recovery, genuine change and progress.
As a military governor, you must have worked closely with Gen. Buhari when he was the Head of State. What kind of leader was he?
He was an energetic man. He was a good leader, a firm leader, a listening officer, very courageous and serious officer. And if go to him for anything, he would listen to you and if you are able to convince him, he would go ahead, but if you are not able to convince him, he would stay on the line. If you do very well, he would appreciate you, but if you don’t do well, he would punish you for it. He was highly committed to the progress of the country. His attitude towards the country can be described as progress, progress and progress of the country. He was an officer you would really want to work with. So we are looking forward to a man with such qualities to move the nation forward once again. My only wish is that his colleagues in the political terrain would understand and appreciate these qualities.
It has generally been agreed that the problem of the country is bad leadership and corruption. How would you advise the incoming president to tackle these problems?
The good sign is that if you look very well, you would see that during this transition period, people have become jittery about committing crimes in official circles. They already have a feeling that if you do something wrong, you would be picked up, and that if you do a good thing, you would be commended. I think the focus should be that of reducing corruption. And in doing that, there should be no sacred cows of any sort. No matter how close to you, if such person is indicted, you let him face the book and let the world see the outcome of whatever investigation that is carried out.
I tell you, once that is done, the ‘domino theory’ would follow, because everybody would fall into line and things would begin to go on as they should. Now, the atmosphere is in the air that you cannot mess up with the government coming in, that you cannot continue to ask for money if the services are not provided. Look at the fuel scarcity, I believe it is because they are scared that he might not pay them, except if he is sure that the services they are asking to be paid for were genuinely provided. But the bad people cannot win, because the man they are up against is a sincere and honest man.
If you recall, during the campaign, the National Leader of the APC, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, said the US turned to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to provide leadership, the French also turned to Gen. Charles de Gaulle when the nation was in crisis. Now, Nigeria has turned to Gen. Buhari for leadership. What do you think should be the expectations of Nigerians?
I think Gen. Buhari has all the attributes to enable him move the nation forward. I know that in a democracy, there are so many interests, but that is where he has to remain firm and in control. It is like an aircraft taking off, the captain cannot leave it in the hands of anybody. He would be in control until it has stabilised in the air. That is the situation that we are now, and Gen. Buhari needs to be firm and in charge of affairs. He also needs tested and committed people to work with him. I know the party is powerful in politics, but for the Gen. Buhari that I know, the country is the number one for him.
We have all agreed that we need change in Nigeria. What do you think is the role of the civil society groups and Nigerians in general in achieving this change?
They all have vital roles to play to achieve this much desired change. They need to understand that there is no need to ask for money when the money is not there. To achieve that, however, the government needs to be sincere and transparent about its activities. I am sure that if the NLC and other groups know the true state of affairs in government, they would be willing to make some sacrifices. For instance, they may agree not to ask for salary increase if they know that the government does not even have the money to pay. The reality is that there is no money, but they need to know. And the people will know that at the end of the tunnel, there would be light.
One of the major problems confronting the country is oil theft. How can we stop this?
These problems are there because certain people at certain times failed to do their job and they are not committed. Now, you have a government that appears to be serious. And when that is done, all these things would be tidied up. This tidying up will reflect in every area of our lives. The truth is that oil theft on the high seas is unprecedented in the history of the country.
I can see that you are very optimistic about the incoming government. What exactly is giving you this hope?
I think it is the kind of leadership that is coming into office. If you want to borrow ideas from somebody, you need to watch what he says and how he goes about what he says. In the history of this country, there was no campaign that has ever been filled with hate than this last one. And despite all the hate messages, one thing that they could not ascribe to him was corruption. With that in mind, one cannot but have the hope that with Gen. Muhhamadu Buhari in charge, the future is bright for Nigeria. However, he has the responsibility to look for people who are like him to work with. He needs to be surrounded with people with genuine love for this country.
Let me take you back a little bit. You were close to the late Gen. Tunde Idiagbon. There were allegations that he never laughed or joked. What kind of man was he?
Gen. Tunde Idiagbon too was a very firm officer. He was a very committed officer. I think he was one of those officers who came together back then, and said we won’t allow these bad things to continue in the country. The truth is that both Idiagbon and Buhari were one solid team. Anytime there was a meeting, Buhari would be taking his own minutes, while Idiagbon too would be taking his own minutes. And soon after the meeting, the minutes of the meeting was ready. Aside from this, there was solid commitment to the success of that administration. People say they don’t laugh, Buhari would not laugh with you unless there was a serious thing to laugh about. They were focused and took their time to act. Nobody knew what was between them, it was the result of their actions that the people saw.
What do you think would have happened if the coup of August 1985 had not happened?
I tell you, we wouldn’t have been in this mess. Virtually all the problems were being taken care of. For instance, let’s say there were seven problems, I think three or four had been taken care of at the time. And in no time, the whole thing would have been solved and the country would have been moved forward. You see, life is not only about money alone. If we were a united country, there are lots of things that can be achieved. We would have reached a point where we would be proud to say I am a Nigerian. But that is not the case now. We don’t have any direction or policy at the moment. You see, this was what we were preaching, believe in yourself and be proud to be a Nigerian. If we were able to achieve a 40% success within one and half years, you can imagine what would have been achieved now. Nigeria would have been a reference point for other countries to follow. And ever since, things have continued to get worse, even more than they were in 1984.
You were just 42 when you were removed from office. Tell me about your experience.
I was not in the country when the coup took place. We were in Saudi Arabia, and Idiagbon who was the leader of the team, said we should come back because we had nothing to fear. We were operating a transparent system, so there was no reason for us to fear. I think the only thing that they accused us of was that the system was high-handed, not that we were corrupt in any form.
But what we did was to investigate anybody who was suspected to have acquired wealth illegally. The person was invited and asked to explain, if his explanations were found to be genuine, he was let off and if not, he was detained. That was what we were doing. So, we all came back. Meanwhile, Buhari had been kept under house arrest. When we came back, we went to the supreme headquarters for debriefing. I was removed as governor and sent back to the office as the Director of Administration, Nigerian Air force. As soon as I got there, I went to work trying to reorganise. But I was there for only about three weeks. I was arrested and taken to the Air Force base. I was there for about three or four days before I realised that other officers had been picked up as well. Food was served and put at the door.
For how long were you detained?
I was detained for about four months. I asked all sorts of questions, but I was never sent to face the court marshal. But after that, having told the world all sorts of lies about us, that we were planning to use the aircraft to monitor facilities; since they didn’t have anything to hold me, they just said I was dismissed. But some serving officers later rose to say that it was wrong for them to dismiss us; so they changed it to retirement.
You were still young at the time…
Exactly, I was young and could not be planning for retirement at that age. Part of the tragedy was that after the country had spent so much to train you, the time when the country was to reap that benefit, somebody would just throw you out. I was part of the first set of Nigerians that started the Air Force. I must confess, after that experience, there was disorientation, so I had to go back home and join the family business. But unfortunately, the children were not spared the trauma too. At school, they were harassed and called names. Each time they came back from school, they would cry and weep. When we saw that, we decided to relocate for the sake of the children.
Some of you were not that lucky. Some like Gen. Vatsa were executed. When you heard that news, how did you feel?
Well, being a military officer, the feeling looked slightly different. You just feel like it could have been you. And of course, you go to war, you sit down together for briefing and some die. But a military officer’s life, especially after having that kind of experience, you just want to move on with life. But as a human being, you just felt that those people were killed for nothing. By the time you begin to review it, you didn’t see anything concrete about the allegation.
Why were you picked up?
It was just because I was close to Tunde Idiagbon. There was no doubt about that, and they were not comfortable with that. But that had to do with their level of thinking, that because this man was close to that man, he would want to take revenge on them. Anytime they saw you, they felt uncomfortable. Even up till now, sometimes I would go to a conference, and once the people get to know who you are, they quickly get up and move away from you.
How easy has it been for you to forgive those you feel were behind your travail?
Initially, what I thought was that in a developing country, there was bound to be such problems. So, I see it as my own sacrifice to my nation. I think the pain, disorientation and the discomfort remain part of you for life.
Have you met any of them?
Yes, one way or the other I have met them and we only shake hands and move on; even Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, but you don’t discuss such issue. And in any case, you still see him as your boss, so you cannot ask him ‘sir why did you arrest me?’. You only go to him and salute. But it is something you cannot forget, because it affected your family, your children and all those around you.
What do you do presently?
Though I am retired now, but like I told you, I was into trading and doing some jobs here and there. But now, I only sleep and read newspapers. At 72, I think I need to slow down on some things.