Former Minister of Industries and elder statesman, Air Vice Marshall Muhammadu Yahaya (rtd) who recently clocked 70 tells MIDAT JOSEPH that only northern leaders can solve the Boko Haram insurgency and that waiting for the federal government is an excercise in futility. Candidly sharing the story of his life Yahaya also speaks on several topical national issues.
Congratulations on turning 70. Can you share your background with LEADERSHIP SUNDAY?
My name is Muhammadu Yahaya. I grew up in a polygamous family. My mother's name is Maimuna. From the Mother's side, I was the fourth child. The first three died. In our family we had these three marks on the face. I am from Adoka local government of Benue State.
Because they thought I was going to die, they didn't give me the tribal mark. How my mother explained to me was that they said her breast was contaminated either by juju or whatever. So I was privilege to be given to my grandmother who brought me up. It was my grandmother's breast that I sucked and grew up. It was later that I got to know who my actual mother was and that was the beginning of my life.
At that time we used to go to Qur'anic school. During the first attempt to put me in school, the teacher flogged me one day and my grandmother who liked me so much, took a knife and pursued the teacher. So the only way they could trick her was that my late uncle, was working as a clerk in Kaduna. So I had to follow him to Kaduna in 1952; I was already ten years. I started my Primary school in Kaduna but after a spell of two years, we went back to Oturkpo.
There I attended Methodist school and spent two years there before the Native Authority established as special school where you have to take entrance from one primary class to another. When I was in Primary two, I took the entrance and passed and went straight to class four.
I took entrance and came to Kaduna and we were the pioneers of the Technical Institute, now Kaduna Polytechnic. On the 22 October 1962, it was a Friday, we came to the mosque. At that time every Muslim will gather at the Kano Central Mosque including the Late Premier of the North, Sir Ahmadu Bello.
I had three pence with me and I bought the Daily Times newspapers for two pence. When I opened it, I saw advertisement for Defence Officers Cadets. I applied and luckily I was shortlisted. We took entrance examination to the American University. We were many and I was lucky to be one of the ten successful Nigerians.
Every American University had officer cadet corps training which they called ROTC. I finished my degree in 1967, Bachelors of Science in Electrical Electronics. After that I went for the proper training at Mississippi. I trained in electronics, mostly specializing in Radar Control.
My background in military training is strictly American. I spent my four years of cadetship with American Air force. When I came back to Nigeria in 1968, I wanted to teach Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Additional Maths at the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), but for some reasons, the commandant said no. So I went to Kano. My training and experience were not the same concept with what was obtainable in Nigeria.
What I learned as an officer in America was not the same thing that was being thought at home. When we enlisted, there was no NDA. Actually when we enlisted, there was nothing like Nigerian Airforce. The Act establishing the Nigerian Air force was in1964.
So we were enlisted as Defence corps. But they made sure that out of the ten of us, three was to come to the Air force, three to the Army and four to the Navy.
In the American system, you believe more on the brain rather than rank. But, I found myself in a situation where the rank, rather than the brain was dominant basis for authority and I had a lot of trouble adjusting to that. I found myself not doing anything much, so I went to the Ministry of Works and asked them if they can build a 6 classrooms for me at where the present Bayero University is located.
So they built it. So I started teaching Airforce Officers Basic Maths and Electronics.
Before, we were doing it in Bukagu Barracks. That was the foundation of the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT). When I was in the United States (US) I started my Post Graduate in Circuit Theory, but because of the war, I had to return home. I had less than six weeks to finish my masters.
Funny enough, when I came back home, the opportunity to start my Post Graduate was based on my rank, so when I had the opportunity, I declined, I said such opportunity be given to other people who are educated.
When I was posted to the Headquarters in 1970 was to liaise with the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) to open Electronic Department and we sent many officers there. If you are going to Zaria, on the left hand there is an Air Force house on the left hand side. When they were building that place, I made sure that I built 13 classrooms with physics, chemistry and laboratories well equipped.
That was how we started what is called AFIT now. When I was posted to the Headquarters, the school I established in Kano was closed down because people did not believe in what to do with it.
I was passionate about imparting the knowledge I had acquired to the younger ones. They know the theory, but they don't know the practical aspect of it.
I have tried my best to impact AFIT. I am proud to say that it is through my own efforts that school stood until I left. I was able to draw the syllabus, I went to the Egyptian Air Force. I had a background of the British and Pakistani. It was on that basis that I formed the syllabus to start the school.
The first set of NDA used the lab because they didn't have laboratory for engineering. By the time I left the service for ministerial appointment, my intention was to affiliate the institute with Ife and the Ahmadu BelloUniversity (ABU), Zaria.
I am happy that all the boys I recruited now have PhD in Engineering. So, I have contributed my own quota.
Looking at your own family, you are a Muslim and your wife is a Christian; how have you been able to cope with this over the years?
Well, I started my primary school in a Christian system and in those days, we were forced to read the Bible. There is no part of the Bible that I don't know. Up till today, I read the book of Psalm. Part of the Qur'an said there is no compulsion in religion. There is no need forcing somebody to embrace the religion which he doesn't believe in.
I have a member of my family who was the first to marry a Christian; from there I know there has to be compromise. I am not a religious fanatic, but I believe solely in Islam, no compromise about it.
But I cannot force somebody to be a Muslim if that person wants it. My wife is a very staunch Catholic. The way God has worked it out for us for the 47 years we have live together, we have never had any issue on religion because we respect each other's religions. During fasting, she gets up early to cook for me, so we have no conflict.
As for my children, some are Christians, some are Muslims. I have three boys and four girls. All the boys are Muslims and the girl are Christians because they happened to attend Catholic Schools. When they girls were marrying, I went to the church and handed them over to the altar. That does not change my faith.
What message do you have for Nigerians, especially for people in the north where there are frequent ethnic and religious clashes between Muslims and Christians?
Some of the religious crises, to me are more political. A lot of people are misguided. But if we all follow the teachings of the Bible and the Qur'an, we should not have conflict. The two religions preach peace and harmony. But we have a situation where some people exploit religion for their selfish ends. We have a lot of youths who are unemployed and are always used to cause such confusions.
So, to me I don't have problems with religion. In case you don't know, the wife of the former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak is a Christian, her name is Suzan. The wife of the King of Jordan is Bristish; same with Syria. I take my wife to church, every day I wake up I will pray to God and say let me not be an instrument of torture to any human being.
When I was in government, a lot of people thought whether I became a Muslim because of political appointment. I told them this was the name my father gave me when I was seven days old. My father was a good Islamic scholar. He never went to any Mallam because he taught us that if you read the Qur'an and communicate with God; it is the same thing with whoever you employ to do it on your behalf. We thank God these days; the Qur'an has been printed in many languages.
All I tried to impart to my children is to be honest, trustworthy, never hate anybody, never envy any body and never hurt anybody.
How did you meet your wife?
It was on a Christmas Day - 25th December, 1958. We were just bunch of boys in the town. I was riding a bicycle and I saw her. When I saw her, I said so this is the intelligent, brilliant Mary George! Her senior sister whom I knew very well was my brother's girl-friend.
In those days we used to have the National Idoma Students Union and every summer we meet to discuss issues affecting Idoma land.
I used to argue that I will not marry a wife who uses shampoo and the rest of them and we will just laugh. Actually she wanted to be a nun because she is a very religious person and that has kept her faith because for the past seven years, she has been very sick, but the faith she has kept her alive.
Why were you called Hitler during your days in the military?
I used to give a lecture in the Junior Command and Staff on the topic leadership as I see it. You lead by example. When you say, don't steal, you yourself should not steal. In the Air Force, I don't punish, but when I ask them to do something, they will do it because they know I can do it when they don't do it. It was not as if I was punishing anybody, but I tell them that they have to serve the country well because the government has invested so much to train them.
Because of my moustache, probably that was why they called me Hitler.
But the point is that I was fair and firm in all my dealings. All the disgruntled officers were posted to me. I was very happy that I was able to rehabilitate them to become good officers.... When you are in charge of people, you must be concerned about their welfare. I was humane, but if you don't do what is supposed to be done, I will give you what the books says!
Anywhere you are, you have to take care of the welfare of people who are working for you because without them you cannot move. Every individual in the system is useful.
How were you appointed a minister?
I went to Hajj and by the time I came back, there was a coup. I have gone through all the coups from Gowon, Buhari, Shagari. During the coup that brought Babangida to power, I was in Mecca with the late Vatsa.
Idiagbon was also in Mecca. I decided to sponsor myself to Hajj instead of being sponsored by government. I paid on my own. When the coup took place, they said they were looking for me. The High commissioner called and told me to tell me there. I reported to the High Commission. I was appointed member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council.
In December 1983, I was posted to Kaduna as the General Officer Commanding Training Command after spending all my life in the headquarters. Being a pioneer engineer, I was there to formulate all the engineering policies and training programmes for the Air Force. Since training was part of me we had to put certain things together.
As a member of the Armed Forces ruling Council, I was given the post of the chairman of the Mass Transit Programme in this country and we toured everywhere to formulate the programme. Unfortunately, government never reads whatever you write. I forced ANAMCO, Leyland and Volkswagen to start producing locally in Nigeria.
When I was appointed minister in March 1989, I was combining the two positions and I went and told Gen. Babangida that I cannot do that.
That was how I became the minister of industry. Then I later became the Minister of Commerce and Industry.
Babangida was my mate in NIPSS. We were the first course at NIPSS in Jos and we were in the same syndicate, so I have known him. When we went to NIPPSS, I was the only officer who was a full colonel. The rest of them were brigadiers. I was junior to them, so I minded my business.
Looking at those times and now, a lot of things have changed, especially in the way things were done in those days and now. This issue of corruption has become so endemic. What are your comments on this?
Normally I don't comment on national issues. But a country that worships material wealth must think twice. In Nigeria people talk of their town and states first. That does not encourage nation building.
We emphasis paper qualification so much and this is killing the country. Nigerians are crazy about titles. The earlier we look at what people can contribute for us the better.
Time has come that the government cannot do everything; we must make our contributions, we should go back to the basics. What has gone wrong? We cannot worship and survive in this country.
What's your response to the Boko Haram insurgency?
I read these things in the papers. What are the northern leaders doing? Boko Haram did not start in one day. It started from something and we ignored it. The nucleus of Boko Haram is supposed to be from Borno. What role did the governors there play?
We have a situation where people are developing thugs. When there is a change of baton and the same carrot is not there, there would be a reaction.
Northern leaders should sit down and find out what is going on before it destroys the north.
Before if you talk of centre of commerce; if you mention Lagos, you will talk about Port Harcourt and Kano. Kano is gone. I am sorry to say that. Kaduna is very overtaking Kano. So we have to sit down, they didn't come from somewhere. They are children of people. If you have a son and he doesn't come home in the night, won't you ask him where he is staying? They are being harboured by other people; why are they being harboured?
So we in the north, if we are waiting for the federal government to solve this problem, it is not going to be solved. Northerners must solve the problem themselves.
What has gone wrong with the legacies of the late premier of Northern? Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello Sarduna
There is some kinds of dissatisfaction somewhere, try to find out what has gone wrong. If this thing goes on, it is going to destroy the north. It has already done a lot of damage. You don't see people from the South coming here freely anymore. You don't see anywhere men trying to get a job in the north any more.
They will not attempt any major contract in the north. We should blame ourselves. We have created situation that has gone out of control and we should go back to the basics. There are grievances here and there, we should try and find out why the grievances.
This is my own personal view, I am not a politician. All I do is to pray every day for peace to reign this country. We cannot do without each other. The north is tied up with the South and the South is tied up with the north in everything.
Who are your contemporaries in the military?
My own course mates are all dead; I am the only one surviving. In the Air force, we are only three. They are dead. My mates cut across Army and Navy. In the Army, we know our mates. NDA is not my mate. I have only 10 mates in the whole armed forces.
They include late Rear Admiral Ibrahim Katagum, Admiral Sam Atkum, then Sati Gomut who contested before to be governor of Plateau State was my classmate. Bukar Magaji, Ike Onunaku who joined the Biafran Air Force and didn't make it. In the army there was Ayodele all of us were trained as engineers.
Our syndicate wrote a report on the Niger Delta in 1979. At NIPSS, you are divided into syndicate groups and assigned to undertake a tour of the different parts of the country. We went to the Niger Delta and saw the situation of things there and we said (in the report) that something has to be done. In the whole world, human beings want a decent environment. Most of the solutions to the problems of Nigeria are all in Kuru. Government should try to access some of this information.