Usman Abubakar Tafawa Balewa is the 60-year-old son of Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, the late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. He retired from the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency in 2018 and is currently a farmer and businessman. In this interview with ARMSTRONG BAKAM, he speaks on Nigeria at 60, issues of insecurity and unity, among others
What do you think about the state of the nation as Nigeria celebrates its 60th independence anniversary?
The government has tried its best but if you’ve studied Nigeria very well, you’ll know that there have been forces pulling the country apart and trying to tear it since Nigeria got its independence. It has just come to this position. I think they are doing their best, but the insecurity situation is getting out of hand and you know when people are dying; they complain that things are really bad. But you’ll have to sit down with the security agents to know the threat that Nigeria is facing. If you look at the terrorism in Borno State, it started as a small thing, but look at what has happened within a few years. These insurgents have come out with sophisticated weapons and they are even ready to take on the Nigerian Army. If you look at the banditry in the North-West, it just mushroomed overnight.
What was Nigeria like while you were growing up?
Nigeria was beautiful. I remember that electricity was stable and things were affordable. You could travel from here (Bauchi) to Lagos at night; you wouldn’t be afraid of anything. Many people even travelled at night. People were going on trains. I know some people who were getting paid via the post office then, but all these are gone now. I left Nigeria in 1982 for the United States of America. I was shocked when I came back because most of the things I knew were working had collapsed. The bad roads did not start with this administration; they started long before it and haven’t been addressed.
What are the striking changes between Nigeria of today and the country during your father’s time?
The question is about leadership. The leaders of the First Republic, first and foremost, had the interest of the country at heart because, before independence was given, they were able to sit down together under the supervision of the British and agree on a constitution for Nigeria. We were just coming together then and that there was trade that was going on between the North and the South; the various tribes of Nigeria. But when we came out of the same umbrella, the masses continued with their trade and the politicians came in looking for votes, so they tried to divide the people but it wasn’t as bad as it is now. People were doing tribal politics, but at least they had their national representatives and they always came together when things were coming to a head. The problems started after the January 1966 coup because people felt it was a tribal thing and politicians went to the locals and tried to influence them, so Nigeria started declining. Tribal politics played itself up again; then the political parties came. It was regional then. There were no states but now there are tribal sentiments.
Even in the Second Republic, people were at least decent. People tried to come together but, after that, the politics became something else: ‘If I don’t get it, let everybody lose it.’ That was how Nigeria got to this state.
What do you think were the dreams of your father and other founding fathers like him?
You know they were trained by the British. There was seriousness; they saw the task of nation-building as the priority. My father didn’t sleep; he had very little sleep because he always had a late night with his circle of advisers, ministers and the others as they tried to get Nigeria working. Those who are old enough to have experienced the First Republic would know that these people were committed to this country. They were really committed.
If your father was to witness the situation in Nigeria now, what do you think would be his reaction?
I think he would go crazy because the stage we are in cannot be explained, seriously. You could not have imagined it. Just listen to what has been going on. Somebody will steal N1bn, for what? What are you going to do with N1bn? That’s how deep the rot has gone. In the ministries, they used to have what I think was called ‘end of year.’ They would just sit down and divide the monies that were left among themselves; everybody would take their share. They would keep the money; they wouldn’t do the work. So, how could the country move again?
Your father was said to have lived a decent life and, after he died, he was said to have just one house and a piece of land. But today’s politicians are known to amass wealth. What are your thoughts on that?
If you look around you, you will find somebody who had nothing when they went into politics; soon, they have accumulated wealth that didn’t come from their salary or allowances. Something is wrong somewhere. I am very worried about that because my children are coming up. What kind of country are they going to live in? There are bad roads everywhere. If you travel, for instance, from here to Kano, just don’t speed. If you do, you will die because of the potholes on the road and nobody is doing anything about it. These roads have been deteriorating for some time and nobody has done anything about it. If you are going to Abuja through Jos, you’ll almost faint if you get to a pothole.
How happy and hopeful was your father when we got independence?
He was elated. When the crisis started because of tribal politics, my father broke down and cried. If you asked him, he would say it was because if they, the founding fathers, could not hold Nigeria together, then what would happen after them? And it has continued. But people don’t learn. If you talk about my father, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ozumba Mbadiwe and other politicians, where are they now? Even those that killed some of them, where are they now? All of them will leave this world. Where is Chukwuemeka Ojukwu now? Gone.
Where did they see Nigeria in the future at that time?
They had hopes because they had developmental plans and were implementing them religiously but, along the way, things just stopped moving. You have to follow up because if you are making progress, at least, the people are supposed to see changes.
How would you describe the insecurity in the country – killings in Southern Kaduna, insurgency in the North-East, kidnappings across the country, banditry in the North Central and North-West, etc?
I told you that these things started little by little and, to my little understanding and in my own opinion, suddenly, politicians came in. If you look at herdsmen and farmers’ crises, it used to be with bows and arrows and machetes. There’s no society where there will be herdsmen and farmers and there won’t be problems. But suddenly, modern arms were introduced and if you give people AK-47 rifles, you know what’s going to happen. They can wipe out a whole village in minutes, before it is controlled. The local chiefs, emirs and others tried to control it but now, all the traditional institutions are not there. A local government area chairman will not live in his area. In Bauchi, for instance, if a crisis breaks out in one remote local government area, you will find out that he won’t be there and his secretary will also not be there. They will be somewhere in Bauchi or even far away from Bauchi. How can you contain a crisis that way? So, it metamorphosed. If one party is aggrieved and it is not addressed, they will seek revenge; that’s how things got worse.
You live in the North. Have you ever had any experience yourself that frightened you?
I would say yes. There was a sports festival in Bauchi when there was a crisis. I was nearly killed because we were going to the stadium and, as young people; I was cruising in my friend’s car. We didn’t know a crisis had started, so we were nearly killed because we went to the wrong camp. I didn’t sleep at home that night because there was no way we could get home. Another time was when I was travelling to Jos and a crisis erupted. I was with my wife, and a commercial motorcyclist (okada man) saved me by showing me the road to take. That okada man was a Christian. He said we should follow him because he saw my wife with a hijab. He asked me if I was a Muslim and I said yes. He said we shouldn’t go farther because it was a Christian axis. He took me through that road and told me to drive very fast to the place we were going and that was what saved us that day. I will never forget that because I was very scared; I could see places in flames and hear gunshots.
What do you think of your father’s legacy in the light of the current state of the country?
They left a beautiful legacy but they didn’t complete the work they started. Everybody in Nigeria during the First Republic or even up to the 1980s would tell you that people were happy. People had employment. Northern Nigeria at that time would even provide transportation to and from school. They would pay you allowances and pocket money. They could even provide for your feeding. Somebody showed me a meal ticket for Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; it was a whole meal with a whole chicken in it for Sundays or so. As students, upon your graduation, your state government would tell you not to go anywhere because they had employment for you. When you came out, they would give you employment, a vehicle and a furnished three-bedroom flat. I know some of those houses that are still here till today in Bauchi. We, the younger ones, were motivated. We wanted to finish school and start working. But now, I would visit Zaria sometimes and see students looking haggard. There was a time students were going to Britain for holidays. They would save from their allowances. Some would starve themselves. They would go there just for their holiday, do some shopping and return to Nigeria. Gone are those days.
Many Nigerians, particularly southerners, believe northerners contribute to the problem of this country because they hardly criticise the government when one of them is the leader. Do you think this is what is happening with the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.)?
No, I can show you some videos where people from the core North have come out publicly to abuse him (President Buhari). Some of them are even from Katsina. There are people that do that but because of the decorum in the North; the old system is such that you don’t come out and criticise. You go through some channels. There is respect for elders but it has gone down; some of them can even hit you on the chest. I dare not see an elder carrying a bag and not collect it from him, let alone criticise him in public. But it happens in the North. There was the Northern Elements Progressive Union that metamorphosed into the People’s Redemption Party. Few radicals from Benue, Plateau or even Southern Kaduna have come out to criticise a policy that they felt was an injustice. Now, the scenario is that some people are exploiting these grievances and providing people with weapons to cause trouble. When some of these politicians have resolved their issues, you would never see them again and they would have caused trouble for people.
In the days of your father, we had federalism with each region managing their affairs and some people have been calling for restructuring to return the structure of the country to that, what is your view?
Restructuring in the sense of what some people are saying cannot be possible now. This is because the regions have been split into states. Even when they were just three, North, East and West, there were agitations and Mid-West was created. After that, there were agitations from places like Benue, Middle Belt and so on and it has continued till today, except we have another conference. For some people, what they mean by restructuring is that all the powers of the Federal Government should be taken away to allow the states to have their own security, which is not possible, because the Federal Government has to be responsible for security. It is very good to allow every state and region to control its own resources; I support that 100 per cent. As for restructuring the economy, I am for that; they will be giving the government at the centre royalties. We are not mature enough for every region to control its own security. Even in those days in the First Republic, there was a federal police. The army was strictly under the federation.
But some argue that the security under the Federal Government has not fared well. Don’t you think the states will do better with their own infrastructure?
The security under the Federal Government has not fared very well because the head of a security agency will just take the entire money and put it in his pocket, simple. I don’t know if it is true that the last time they bought weapons for the army was during the administration of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua. But before, it was neglected. There was a time the Nigerian Air Force was grounded because they said they attempted a coup. So, with these kinds of hiccups and the destruction of esprit de corps in the army, things started to go awry. In the First Republic, the army was in disarray because some people took sides and this has continued.
When your father was in office, he had people from other regions working very closely with him but now, Nigerians, especially those in the South, feel the appointments of heads of security agencies are skewed to favour the North. What do you think about that?
During my father’s time, all the heads of defence establishments were from the East. The Chief of Army Staff, police boss, and others were easterners. Did that stop a coup? It didn’t. Go and check how it was during the administration of the immediate past government. Did it stop the deterioration? It didn’t. Changing the heads of the security agencies is not a remedy for what’s going on. They are not the ones doing the fighting.
What is the remedy?
It is to equip and train the security forces. Before, the Nigerian Army used to run away. You can’t give me an AK-47 with two magazines and say I should face an anti-aircraft gun. It cannot work.