There were some of us that were identified, for whatever reason, as key to the administration of Gen Muhammadu Buhari. I was like a brother from the same family to Gen Tunde Idiagbon, Buhari’s deputy, so, they targeted me as a possible loyalist to Buhari and Idiagbon, and before we knew it, they roped many of us into a coup, which was absolutely phantom.
The late Group Captain Salaudeen Adebola Latinwo in this interview with the duo of Temitayo Odunlami and Abdullateef Aliyu of the Daily Trust on Sunday, sometime in April 2019 shares his childhood experience and thoughts on sundry issues. He recalls the demands of duty and discipline from General Muhammadu Buhari who appointed him Kwara State military governor from 1984 to 85. He also speaks on the Ibrahim Babangida-led coup that truncated the Buhari/Idiagbon government and the treatment meted out to those who worked with Buhari at the time.
What can you recall about your growing up in Kwara State?
I am from a prominent family, the Latinwo family of Offa. My father, Aliu Onaolapo Latinwo, had quite a number of wives and many children.
My mother was the third or fourth wife. I went to St. Marks School in Offa; it was like a missionary school. We would sing hymns in the morning and when we were through, they would ring the bell.
I attended the Offa Grammar School, a community school but with a little bit of support from the state government. That school is a very prominent secondary school in the northern part of the country then and now. Key people like generals Akinrinade and Jemibewon attended that school. You would be developed by the intensity of the syllabus, and when you look around, you would see the quality of the products of the school.
No sooner did I leave the school that I went to Kaduna because geographically, Offa/Ilorin is part of the northern zone. Some of our other colleagues and brothers went to Ibadan in the south.
What are your earliest memories of the Offa community then, especially during your primary school days?
Despite the fact that I was from a privileged family, there was discipline in the home. Even when I got into the secondary school, despite the fact that Offa Grammar School was in my town and my father was an influential fellow, I was staying in the boarding house under strict discipline. I wasn’t allowed free rein to be relating with people outside. There even just wasn’t the time to do so. I remember that most of my friends I met in the boarding house came from Abeokuta, Ilesha and Lagos.
My boarding house experience showed a meeting place of very determined, courageous and hardworking but stubborn boys. You wouldn’t find them lying down lazily; they were always reading lots of books.
As for the Offa people themselves, they are very friendly but brook no nonsense. When people start playing politics with an Offa man’s mentality, like you impose someone on him because that person is from one place or the other, the Offa man would just leave and go to establish his own concern. A lot of them who were doctors had to leave hospitals because they brought outsiders on political considerations to head departments where they worked.
Offa people are very enterprising. I don’t want to say they are proud, but they are contented. And with due respect, they are very honest and straightforward.
At what point did you join the Nigerian Air Force?
In 1961, I had joined the Northern Nigeria civil service where I worked for two years. I was in the Ministry of Education, and because of the quality of education then, I had to do a small course as Assistant Executive Officer. It was a way the Northern administration was trying to fill vacancies that were available. By that time, the white people were moving out after granting us Independence and there were a lot of vacancies that the administration needed to fill. So the administration created courses, a six-month course, a nine-month course, etc., for its civil servants who could be upgraded to become Permanent Secretaries. I didn’t get to that level, I was just an AEO (Assistant Executive Officer).
In 1963, I learnt about recruitment for young people to become the first set of officers for the Nigerian Air Force. When the NAF was coming up, the government of the North was interested in ensuring that the region had quality representation. So what the Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, did was to look through all our papers – those in school, those who had left and those in higher school. My understanding of it initially was that we were going for aeronautical engineering; nobody knew precisely what it was. But then, it was all the same thing, it was all about flying.
They gathered those they deemed fit as worthy of representing the North well and said, “Look, you guys will be representing us.” Despite that, we still had to go through the Aptitude Test, the Medical Test, the physical rigour and all of that before we were finally picked.
Ahmadu Bello gave us lots of confidence, saying, “Look, you are my children. I want you to do this thing and you can’t say no. I know what is best for you, so go ahead and do it.”
There was actually no objection from us because there was that privilege of you being selected over a large number of people after going through all those tests. We were altogether about 85 from across the country, with about 45 from the North and the rest from the South.
We were sent straight to Germany where we started the general military training and, after that, the professional training. It was either you go to flying or you go to technical. With my grades I was in flying, I flew one or two aircraft, specialized in aviation flying and then came back home. We got commissioned in 1964. Not too long after being commissioned, the Civil War started and we ran into the inescapable situation of getting very high responsibilities as young officers. There was nothing we could do about it; we couldn’t say no.
The command structure in the Air Force became slightly difficult because the white people, the Germans, who were asked to establish the NAF wanted to go away because of the war. So the Nigerian government had to bring in a few officers from the Army, about three or four of them who were already senior officers, to head the Air Force. That was how the Air Force grew from one command and we participated well in the war.
Well, a lot of other things happened, like the political interventions in the country, from one government to the other. But in 1983 when the military came back again, I was asked to go to Ilorin as a Military Governor to reorganise the administration of Kwara State and ensure that things work well. They told me, “If you don’t do it well, you will have to sit there and get it done.”
So we started running around to get things done until 1985 when, towards the tail end, these people led by General Ibrahim Babangida and some fifth columnists, out of personal interest, upturned the entire circle of the administration and took over the government.
There were some of us that were identified, for whatever reason, as key to the administration of Gen Muhammadu Buhari. I was like a brother from the same family to Gen Tunde Idiagbon, Buhari’s deputy.
So they targeted me as a possible loyalist to Buhari and Idiagbon, and before we knew it, they roped many of us into a coup, which was absolutely phantom. People were picked anyhow. A lot of people lost their lives, and for many, their family members became very ill and they were seriously traumatised.
So what happened after the coup allegation?
From that time on, it was like we were on our own. The general feeling in the military, and even among civilians was, “Oh, don’t get near those people, they could be very dangerous”.
We just didn’t know what to do because to be accepted back into the larger society became very complex and difficult. So we opted to relocate abroad. The British government was very helpful; of course, they understood the history of the country. They helped us in settling our children into schools. The children began doing very well.
We had to come back home again after a few years and I started doing buying and selling. My brother and I took over the business from my father. If you go to Offa, you can’t miss the road to our family house because everybody knows us there. My father was selling cement and building materials and we had to join him to enable us earn some money because then, they, the Babangida regime, were not even paying us, the affected military men roped into their phantom coup, our gratuities.
The message they were clearly relaying to us was that we were enemies of the country and they didn’t want us around.
Were you formally retired?
Within the framework of retirement in the military, there is what we call ‘service no longer required’. In a more civilized environment, it’s like you are dismissed. In fact, after the court-marshal and they couldn’t put anything on some of us, a general called us and said,
“You are dismissed. Do you have any question?” Some of us were just looking at him without saying anything. That was the final official notice.
But after some time, some officers felt uncomfortable with what was being done to us because nobody knew what would happen the next day in the military. So it became like they were the ones then speaking on our behalf saying, “This thing is not right. If you don’t have anything against these people, why dismiss them? You should discharge and compensate them.”
After about three or four years of arguments, the military authorities decided to revert our dismissal, out of sheer pressure from the serving officers. Then they began paying us our gratuities.
It was very little money, but gradually they began increasing it. Gen Sani Abacha realized that giving people little money was not the best.
When was the dismissal converted to a discharge?
This was about five or six years after. I am not sure precisely what year. I should add it took the intervention of prominent people like some Emirs to tell them, “Why did you have to dismiss the officers?
You didn’t find anything wrong with them. We have had some precedent in the past, so why is this one different?”
From then on, I was just doing bits here and there; nothing really stable. You know, you get to a stage where you have to retire yourself. After running around looking for assistance here and there, you get to a stage where you can’t run around again. You sit down in the house, read books or go and play tennis, if you can. I am about 78 years now.
What are your memories serving as a Military Governor in the General Muhammadu Buhari regime?
Issuing policy instructions for what the military government then stood for and implementing them. We were directing people what they should do, like, “This is what we were doing wrong and this is how to cleanse the system now.”
When we came, the economy was very bad and, of course, the International Monetary Fund was monitoring it and kind of dictating we had to accept some conditionalities. But we were very firm in saying, “We are not about IMF, we are about reorganizing our society based on our beliefs and what we understand as best for our society.” We introduced the War Against Indiscipline, the queue culture, environmental sanitation, hoisting the flag and all kinds of things.
Before you knew it, the society began changing for good.
I believe it was the success of the programmes, the commitment, the discipline and the honesty of purpose that we had at that particular time that served as a leverage for Buhari to emerge as civilian president now. The people bought those qualities. He became the candidate of the All Progressives Congress and the whole country accepted him as their President.
How challenging was the military governor job?
It was challenging, I must say. I had been given not just a job to do, but a kind of marching orders from a Head of State who was highly disciplined and wanted positive results. It was, “Look, go there, turn the place right, fix it and report back to me.” So there was a code of conduct and there was an operational directive given to me. Kwara State was, and is basically a civil service-driven economy. Your brother or sister gets a salary at the end of the month and passes it to the mother who passes it to her sister. So when salaries are not paid, everything is like on standstill.
We didn’t have money but we got the job done. While working hard to ensure salaries were paid, I was also physically running around to ensure the state was cleaned up every last Saturday of the month, and that people were in their offices working to serve the people and not just reading newspapers or gossiping. But then we were happy, we were satisfied and we thank God that people appreciated what we did.
But the administration was short-lived, aborted by the Babangida coup. Do you have any regrets about how things played out?
If we had been given the chance to really establish a firm foundation of a disciplined system we desired for the country on ground, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Unfortunately, some people came in and broke it all up, giving falsehood against the government they were taking over from. They said everything the Buhari/Idiagbon government was doing was wrong and started upturning it.
Thankfully, some years later, many Nigerians began to realize that those people were just playing games with them and were only interested in assuming leadership command for self-interest rather than doing something positive for the people.
Yes, redirecting Nigeria then was tough for us. Politicians who stole money were picked up to explain how, for instance, they built 25 houses within a short period of four, five years that was the civil rule then. Of course, a lot of them were happy when the fifth columnists overthrew Buhari. But they couldn’t continue with our revolutionary strides; they never intended to, so the country was brought back to the dark and everybody became unhappy.
Would you say you were deployed to Kwara as governor because you hailed from the state?
No, people were being picked on merit. Only about three or four officers were sent to their hometowns, for whatever reason I wouldn’t know. But then, it could be I was asked to go to Kwara because I was familiar with the environment and they believed I would get things done within a short period.
What would you say triggered the change of baton in Kwara politics with the defeat of the Saraki dynasty?
I Will just say nothing in life is permanent. If you oppress the people for some time, it can only be for some time, it cannot be forever. As the people are more educated, they would start to ask questions. And if you don’t give them satisfactory answers, whenever they have the opportunity to bring about change, they would do it.
The people say a lot of things are not going right. Apart from that, the leaders in the state seem not to be telling the people, “The money we are getting, this is the way we are spending it.” Then, there is the issue of the leaders getting mixed up with the local government account. The Offa robbery incident, where many people were killed, didn’t also help.
Well, losing an election is like playing football. When you lose in the game of football, the first thing you do is retreat and ask yourself, “What did I do wrong? Why did I lose?” Those leaders who lost should be asking themselves those questions now.
Would you say the ‘o to ge’ (enough is enough) development in Kwara was long overdue?
Well, I don’t know whether it is really ‘o to ge’ because there are other states in the country that we have something similar. What I know is that there was an election in the state and the people felt uncomfortable with continuity and they voted against the government.
Now, it is left for the losers to see why the people voted against them and make efforts to put things right. I am happy the outgoing governor has congratulated the governor-elect. We should be able to work together, find out where there are problems and get these things done rather than detach ourselves from the system. I want to see a more united and peaceful Kwara. Importantly, there must be honesty of purpose and the leaders should not deceive anybody.
Would you say anything has changed about Buhari between 1985 and now as many Nigerians are critical of his manner of governance?
No, but the situation is different now. You have problems of the economy, security, etc. Addressing these problems through a civilian arrangement, through democracy, will be different from tackling them through a military set-up. Under the military, when you realise things are not going right, you can quickly promulgate a decree, which becomes law immediately, and people will have to obey it. If you don’t obey it, you get punished.
But in a democracy, you have to go through a whole lot of process in the parliament to make an effort to correct ills. Even, the court, in some instances, will be involved. There are so many intrigues the President has to live with. You even want to satisfy many contending forces, so you have to be extremely careful. All these involve waiting on the wings for a long time and, consequently, things don’t get done quickly. There is clearly a lot of difference between the civilian approach and the military approach.
If you are doing the right thing, it doesn’t really matter the way you decide to put it across, many people, with time, will support you.
We did it in 1984/1985 and it worked. Nobody believed it was going to work. Eventually, we turned the society around within a very short period. So Buhari can do it.
I want to call for the reintroduction of the War Against Indiscipline to address the breakdown in values, culture and tradition.
Transforming Nigeria is more than just elections. It is about changing our cultural values and mindset. We must focus on the real issues facing our nation. We must focus on the needs of the young ones, especially those who are disadvantaged.
Now that he has won election for a second term despite the perceived inadequacies, what should be his focus in winning back the confidence of the people?
The first is uniting the people. There shouldn’t be any marginalization in his appointments. People should be appointed on merit. The good thing about the presidential system is that away from the party belief and all of that, you can go ahead and select the best hands. Buhari should put Nigeria on a sound footing.
He can look for the best Nigerian hands wherever they are, whether in America or Britain. There are a lot of them, very brilliant and articulate.
In growing the economy itself, he must look for the right people to manage it because the economy is becoming very complex. Once he can get that right, we are on the right track. America is no longer really buying our crude oil but it’s good we are diversifying; we are planting rice, cassava, yam, tomato, etc. on a large scale. But how do we export our goods because trade competition on the international market is very keen? If we have the right people doing the job, we will penetrate the system. That is how I see it.
I will also mention that delay in decision-making is not helping the economy. We are now in a digital age. It is better to act on time so there would be space to effect corrections before it is late.
People have also talked about age not being on his side. Do you see this as a challenge to him?
No, what is important is what you stand for, once you are healthy. We have what we call hierarchy in the military; there are junior officers, senior officers and then the generals. The generals are at the top giving instructions. They go home playing golf, but they are so organised, or they organise things so well that the job still gets done. Governance is not a one man’s job; it’s team work, though, with the man at the top directing well.
There are countries where you have leaders who are as old as 84, 85 years and they are doing the job well. And there, they have planted a system that is beneficial to everybody.
You spoke of Gen. Buhari’s War Against Indiscipline. A key component of that war is fighting corruption. How far would you say President Buhari has succeeded in his war against corruption?
Corruption is evil and it is all over the place all over the world.
There is hardly any society where you don’t have it. It is not a bad idea to have war against corruption as your cardinal programme. But then, in a country, in a system where corruption has become so endemic, where it is a way of life, it won’t be out of place that some people will feel you are spending a lot of good money to be chasing the bad ones.
It’s not impossible that for every N3 million of public funds that someone had stolen, you would be spending another N3 million or even N5 million to chase him, take him to court, recover the money from him and, of course, send him to prison. It is a lot of money, and a lot of time and energy involved.
I am not saying the programme should change but we should find a way to make the process run faster. You can do it within the framework of your governance, set up a Special Court to try corruption cases so that we wouldn’t be spending all our time and energy chasing this and that.
For instance, a former Petroleum Minister, Allison Madueke, is believed to have stolen a lot of money. Where is she today? We haven’t been able to bring her back, and to do that, we have to start going to London looking for her, involving the Interpol, involving the British government and spending a lot of money. We’d be using a lot of money to chase money that is not certain we are likely going to get. The integrity of the state could also be at stake.
When we spend such a huge amount of money doing that, we should consider such essential requirements of life such money can provide for the people: roads, water, electricity, hospitals, schools and the rest. So government must be wise in how it spends money fighting corruption.
Yet, it must seek out those that had stolen the people’s money and are still stealing, take them to court, punish them and recover the money without throwing away too much money in the process.
How was Buhari able to do that when he served as military Head of State?
He cut down extensively on spending. The civil service was bloated but we brought it down. We reduced the number of Commissioners and Permanent Secretaries in the system. We put together a lot of things within a short period and were able to get positive results. Even within this democracy, he can build on that experience.
Despite everything, Nigeria still has a lot of brilliant, fast-thinking and patriotic young people he can call to do a fantastic job of national growth and development for him, and they wouldn’t be demanding too much money. But he must be open and accommodating with them.
What should be the epithet for Buhari after his tenure?
This man went round during his campaign and all he was saying was that he wanted to eradicate corruption, that people were stealing a lot of money and he wanted to stop it. His emphasis is on corruption. I think integrity is what he understands best as his strength. And, of course, he is paying more attention to the issue of security now. If you want to grade him, it will be within those areas.
But there are so many things he has to do in terms of infrastructure, the economy and welfare of the people.
(This interview was published in the Daily Trust on Sunday, April 28, 2019)