Former Chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, PDP, and former Federal Commissioner for Education in General Olusegun Obasanjo’s military regime, Dr. Ahmadu Ali, in this interview with culled from the LEADERSHIP newspaper, explains the root of the famous “Ali Must Go” protests in 1978, how he dumped the khaki for civilian garb and joined politics, among other issues.
Can you tell us about yourself?
My name is Ahmadu Ali from Kogi East senatorial district and I was born in 1936.
You were trained as a medical doctor and later you joined the military; what informed your choices?
I went to a secondary school where military training was the vogue, and my school, Barewa College, Zaria, produced the best crop of officers in Nigerian Army, a large number of them. So, everybody looked at the army as the first and if not the first, second choice of career. Then while we were in the college, our training entailed going to the Nigerian Military Training Centre in Zaria to train with the recruits in all the drills and that one fired us, too. To cap it all, the premier of northern region at that time, Sir Ahmadu Bello, one of the greatest leaders this country has ever produced with wonderful foresight, was busy telling many northerners to join the army after graduation. Despite the fact that he did not have enough manpower to run the Northern region service, he wanted us to join the army and he encouraged everybody, whatever degrees you had, to join the army. The North provided up to 80 to 90 per cent of the foot soldiers but nobody in the officer cadre. So, he wanted us to graduate and join the expatriates in the army. That was quite encouraging. Many people from Barewa College, who after secondary school went to Sandhurst in UK to train as officers. So, with that encouragement, when I finished my medical school and I got my degree, I joined the army.
As a pioneer director-general of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), how would you describe the scheme now, 40 years after it was introduced for national integration?
I think it has fulfilled its mission. The mission of national integration is fulfilled and the mission to supply the much needed manpower in all parts of the country was also fulfilled because when the youth corps came, the youth had no programme for themselves and they asked the then head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, that they wanted to join the war in Biafra because the University of Nsukka students were all in the war front. They were corralled into it but our own undergraduates felt they must also participate and Gowon said “No,I have enough ex-servicemen roaming the streets, they will go,” and after the war, there will a programme for you. That was how the domestic service, called the National Youth Service Corps was born.
The youth corps scheme has actually fulfilled its mission and it is still fulfilling it because you can only say the mission is over when people like you in the press, who keeps writing about a Yoruba man, Hausa-Fulani man, will stop that and just say Nigerians living in a particular place. So, when we reach that stage, we can say yes, we are fully integrated.
How do you feel about the Ali-Must-Go saga?
Students have been demonstrating ever since. There is no Minister of Education that will not have students demonstrating against him because education is the only social service and the only place where nobody says ‘thank you’. Whatever you do as the Minister of Education, some eggheads, professors in the university, will still say you could do better.
In the demonstrations that happened in 1978, the students were told that instead of having their free accommodation in the university and their meal was still N1.50k, and because there was not much money, it was thought that they should make more contributions by adding 50 kobo to the cost of the meal per day, that’s all; that was the cause of the demonstration. And I tried to make them see reason. And being myself a former secretary-general of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS), I always sympathise with them. They held a meeting in Ilorin, I went there, they held a meeting in Maiduguri, I went there and talked to them. When they decided to hold a secret meeting in Calabar to challenge the government, I didn’t know again. But the Ministry of Education was not the one that did the increment; it was done by the Supreme Military Council, which is the body that was above the Federal Executive Council.
The National Universities Commission (NUC) got the money that was why I made sure that the NUC was properly established during my time instead of individual vice-chancellors finding their ways to the head of state to beg for money to fund the universities and if you have no connection, you get no fund. So money was voted for the universities through the NUC and when they found out that the amount given them was falling short (because it is not every amount you demand that you got) they now brought the idea of adding N50k to the meal. They pushed it through the Supreme Military Council without passing through me as the minister and my permanent secretary knew nothing about it. We heard the announcement from the radio but when the chips were down and students were demonstrating, burning cars and so on, the Supreme Military Council wrote a statement and gave it to my permanent secretary that the two of us should go to the television and read it out, because it was our ministry after all and of course it became the Ministry of Education’s headache. I created the National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) for a similar thing for the polytechnics – get the money and give them. The council of every university or polytechnic has got the power to utilize the money without recourse to the Minister of Education.
When things went down, they said we should go and make a statement and, of course, we went and read the statement; it was a military order from the commander-in-chief and that worsened the matter. Only one student died officially at the University of Lagos, who was shot in the leg, and the students were carrying him up and down. They went to LUTH and the hospital drove them away because of the rioting they had created themselves. They came back to the Yaba Orthopedic hospital and the boy bled to death. The students union leaders sent message to A.B.U. Zaria, that so many students had been murdered and A.B.U. went on rampage. Like Lagos, the vice chancellor told the head of state that he couldn’t maintain law and order anymore and they brought in troops. The same thing with A.B.U., the vice chancellor too said he couldn’t maintain law and order anymore and they brought in troops and the casualty in Zaria was seven or eight times more than Lagos. As you know in this country, nobody has got the power to move troops anywhere except the commander-in-chief. So, how can a minister just order troops to anywhere? It is not possible but in all these, the press decided to be ignorant and that is why I keep abusing the press because if you are practising journalism, you must do investigative journalism, you must know your facts. Has a minister got power to move troops? But the press at that time, either pretended or were ignorant. This is how all that episode came, I am just the fall guy; I was the scapegoat. That is what happens in all these jobs, you can’t come out and say it is a collective responsibility or deny that you don’t know about it. It was a statement from the commander-in-chief and I was just a colonel then. So that was all the noise about “Ali Must Go”. After that, many ministers of education have been asked to go. There is nothing unusual about it; it happens now and again.
In 1979, you quit the Nigerian Army to join politics and eventually you were elected as a senator; is there any improvement now compared to the Second Republic?
What I can tell you is that in the politics of 1979/83 under NPN I went to the Senate twice in the Second Republic and my third membership of the Senate was in the Third Republic during SDP/NRC days. When the soldiers came driving us again in the last dispensation, I said I had had enough of this. Every time we go there, the soldiers will not allow us to sit down and I said no more standing for election.
The Senate at the different eras are virtually the same in methods, programmes, orders and everything. The only difference is that these people are going home with giant salaries now while we were receiving N1,000 a month as salary, there were no allowances. We had a constituency allowances because you have a constituency secretary, you have two field officers, a clerk and the hired office. Unlike before, it is much more lucrative Senate now but N1,000 then was a lot of money. But political parties have largely remained the same, having their power bases somewhere.
It is the first time in the history of this country that democracy has lasted this long: 14 years. We have also transited three times from a civilian government to another civilian government. That’s a record because we have broken the jinx.
You are still an active politician, a founding member and one-time national chairman of the ruling party; do you miss anything in the military?
Why would I miss anything in the military? It was just a phase in my life; like you now, you are a journalist, maybe one day you will end up as Minister of Information or end up setting up a consultancy firm. So, it is just a phase. The advantage in military training is quite obvious and that’s why I keep saying that this country should reach a stage when every youth should do two years of military service before finding any job to do because it is very important for the management of human and capital materials. In the military, you do things according to the rules. If you are not a good commander, you have yourself to blame.
Can you recall any very embarrassing moment as a soldier or politician in the course of your public service?
I am not aware of any apart from the students’ demonstrations and that one didn’t actually bother me because it has nothing to do with me, just that the country didn’t know the truth about it because the press was giving the impression that it was the minister until the report of the judicial inquiry was published that people got to know I didn’t know anything about it. But it was embarrassing in the sense that on the morning the students were rioting, I was at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) where I just finished giving a talk at a symposium. When I came out and the pressmen came and said, ‘what would you do now, are you going to resign?’ I said ‘what are you talking about’ and they said the students were on the streets, and if I would resign. And I said the students have always been on the streets; I was once on the streets myself. In any case, I could not resign because I was posted to the Ministry of Education by the commander-in-chief and whenever he wanted, he would post me back to my medical practice, and I walked away. It was later that I got home that I knew that it was something serious and so, when in the evening I decided to take my Honda Civic car out and was driving through Surulere and they were stopping cars and shouting ‘Ali Must Go’. They were even extorting money from motorists, collecting N20 from Mercedes owners and when they saw my rickety car, one of them said ‘let this one go, Mercedes are coming’. The hooligans hijacked the whole thing; the students who started it were not the ones who propagated it.
If given another opportunity, what would you do differently?
I am grateful to God for the path he laid for me, which I followed, which also led me to success because as far as I am concerned I believe I have lived a successful life. I served my country with all due diligence and all my energy, unwavering all the time and looking for the best for my countrymen and people. I think I am most fulfilled. How can I do anything differently now? In 1979 after I left the army, I was nominated and awarded the Commander of the Order of Niger (CON). I remained in the system for so many years until 2006 when they appointed methe Grand Commander of the Order of Niger (GCON). Can you say that’s not successful enough? I thank God.