General Domkat Bali (rtd), one-time most senior military officer and prominent player in Ibrahim Babangida's military presidency but now the Ponzhi Tarok, says he never became head of state because he rejected the position. Excerpts:
After serving in the military for three decades, how well will you say you have adjusted to your new life?
I am yet to adjust to it. I have always been a very free person in the sense of going where I want to go to and doing what I want to do and no restriction whatsoever. In this traditional setting, there are too many restrictions, too many don'ts and dos and the don'ts are more than the dos.
What is the major difference between serving in the army and now being restricted to your palace and the community?
The major difference is the restriction. In the army, nobody restricted me. I would go to the office in my uniform and do my normal work. When I return home I change from my uniform and live my life like anyone else. I am no longer that free.
Why did you accept the call to traditional leadership, especially because it meant restricting you from life the way you loved it?
I would have been castigated by my people if I had declined the call. In Langtang, chieftaincy issues run within families. In our case there are five royal families. It goes from one to another. It got to my family in my time and when they sent for me, I told them that I was an ambitious soldier, I still wanted to be a general. I told them to leave me out of chieftaincy issues... I thought I had gone away from it, not knowing that they would come again. They said our tenure was still there. Again, it fell on me to come and become the Ponzhi Tarok. Having dragged my feet in the past, I didn't want to do anything like that again, so I accepted the offer.
Could you speak specifically of the restrictions you said make your stool different from your military office?
In the army, especially when you reach the rank of a general, nobody restricts you anymore. So, the restriction in the army is not as much as the restriction of a Ponzhi who is the head of a whole tribe. Everybody frowns at you if you are found on the street not behaving the way a Ponzhi is expected to behave; whereas I am a very carefree man. I like to be myself. So there are many don'ts and dos in the process of being the Ponzhi.
What is the secret in people of Langtang being so many and so prominent in the military?
It's the Tarok mindset. The Tarok people want to do something manly. They believe the army is for those who are brave and strong and are ready to go to war and so on. So, it is very appealing to the mentality of a Tarok man.
What about this view that so many Tarok people got into the army and did so well because Tarok people who attained big offices early made sure they helped their kith and kin into the army?
Right from the word go, before the Second World War, the Tarok joined the army. My uncle died in Burma. My father was born a twin. My father was Bali and his twin brother was Tali. Tali went to Second World War. We lost him to the war and my father survived as a single twin brother. Maybe because of that my father became very close to Jeremiah Useni's father. My father's close relationship with Useni's father, I believe, cushioned for my father the effect of the loss of his twin brother. They remained very close friends up till death. They died about the same time, and it was Jeremiah Useni who buried both of them.
Is any of your family in the army now? Is any of your kids in the army?
I have only one son, and he doesn't appear to be keen on a military career. He is in Canada and has not shown any interest and I will not do anything to force him to join the army. My prayer is that he will come back and work in Nigeria, not to remain in Canada. He was trained in Canada and he has tendency to want to stay there. He is in the country (Nigeria) right now and was here (Langtang) a few days ago and I think he went to Abuja. Certainly, he has shown no interest in becoming a military man.
He took to a different profession?
He did electronics engineering. That's what he studied in the university. There in Canada I think he does contracts, jobs to do with electronics. They invite him, they discuss ideas, negotiate price and he does the work. He seems to like it that way.
Looking back at your military career, you rose to the highest position, you were the most senior officer in the Nigerian Army, yet you were not the highest ranking because there was military president and chief of general staff (vice president). How did that work out?
I was far senior to Babangida. Both Babangida and Vatsa, I was senior to them. I am an old man. Who did Vatsa topple?
He was accused of an attempt to topple IBB.
At that time, of the officers, I was the most senior. So, if there was going to be military head of government, it ought to have been me, but I said I was not keen. I was not interested in using the gun to become president. It was not attractive to me.
Does that say that you are a democrat at heart?
Oh yes. Even during the civil war, I was still a democrat.
Yet, you served under the military presidency?
That is what the military is all about.
How do you reconcile the contradiction of being a democrat in the military?
I wasn't meant to be a soldier from the word go. I never wanted the army as a career. It was Ahmadu Bello who made sure I got into the army. I tell people that the North died with Ahmadu Bello and I mean every word of it. Ahmadu Bello was truly a good Nigerian. He was not biased. Ahmadu Bello came to Kuru (near Jos), I think, in 1958. I was then in Form Five. Ahmadu Bello went round the North preaching to us to join the military. He felt there were no sufficient northerners in the services. He was not looking for Fulani men to empower. He was genuinely interested in seeing that the North was not at a disadvantage among the other regions of the country. He came and got me, for instance, to join the army. He did so not because he despised me. As far as he was concerned, northerners who were qualified should join the services. When he finished talking to us, he said who among us were interested? .... He took our names to Kaduna for us to sit for the army examination.
So, he was instrumental to you joining the army?
Absolutely! If he had not preached the idea of joining the military to us I would not have been interested.
You were not keen on being a soldier: how did you go ahead to make a success of it?
I prefer success to failure. I would have hated to go to the NDA and make a failure of it. In the NDA I had to do everything to pass and come out well, if nothing else but for the personal pride of being successful.
If we may take you back to the IBB era, in 1990 you were moved from minister of defence to minister of interior and you resigned. What actually happened?
I think if it was that, I disagreed very strongly because of the switch in position, Babangida would have listened to me. Maybe I resigned because I felt I had overstayed my welcome, if you like. Since my juniors had come and gone, why should I be tagging around?
What is your relationship still like with Babangida? Do you contact each other?
I don't; I am a very reserved person. I keep to myself very much. Otherwise, Babangida is generally a nice person.
Does he call you? Let's say on Christmas Day; does he call to say 'Your Highness, Happy Christmas, Happy Easter'?
He has done that once or twice, not very often.
Did you foresee from the situation at that time that IBB would handover and Abacha would become head of state?
I could have become head of state but I let it pass. I wasn't keen anyway, but I could have been the head of state.
You mean if you had remained in the army or if you had been the defence secretary as Abacha was, IBB might have handed over to you or you would have taken over?
The military have their way of doing things. If they staged a coup, the leadership would emerge within the military naturally.
It means if you had remained, it would have been automatically you? Do you regret leaving the army then; because you would have been head of state?
No, I don't regret leaving when I did. If I had wanted to be head of state I would have become one. Merely saying that I was interested would have been it.
You did not wish to shoot into power?
That time, Admiral Aikhomu, now late; what was your relationship with him?
Aikhomu was in the Navy. Coups were usually a soldier's affair. Aikhomu was the closest to me in terms of seniority, but we were in different services.
You played significant roles in the reform of the Nigerian Army. How do you view the army at that time compared to what it is today?
Nothing seems to be the same in Nigeria any more. Corruption has done much damage to the nation. People manipulate things one way or the other in all sectors, including the military. In my time, if you tried such rubbish, they would kick you out.
With the benefit of hindsight, what do you think of the 1976 episode when General Iliya Bisalla and many Middle Belt officers were executed for the abortive coup, especially because that episode affected top military officers from Plateau State?
If Bisalla wanted to be head of state, he should have taken decisive steps. It was virtually like he was scared of becoming head of state. He wavered too much. Take my case; I didn't want to be there; finish. But he kept quiet. Dimka had virtually made him head of state, only for him to dash it away.
In efforts towards lasting peace in Plateau State, how often do you traditional rulers meet with the governor to discuss peace and unity?
Jonah Jang became a know-it-all sort of chap; and I am an arrogant man, if you like, in the sense that I don't go to people begging for favours. Anyhow, Gyang Buba (Gbong Gwom Jos) handles chieftaincy issues. He is our chairman (Plateau State Council of Chiefs). When I became the Ponzhi Tarok, he came to me and said, 'I have been the chairman of the traditional council but now that you are here, you were by far my senior in school'. He felt he should step down for me; but I discouraged him. I said, 'No I am in Langtang and I will be in Langtang most of the time. You are in Jos and the seat of the state government is in Jos. It is good as you are there and you can liaise with the governor on behalf of us'.
But why have the crises in Jos persisted?
What is the problem in Jos? It is always Jos, this plateau crisis. Almost always in Jos; Berom land, by the same Berom people. So ask the Berom people what is wrong with them.
Langtang South at a time was packed full with Fulani. People were asking me, why are you allowing the Fulani to stay there. I tell them Fulani are the most peaceful people to stay with. If you don't touch their cows, they will leave you in peace. So let them be. And they lived here peacefully until they parted peacefully. But if they had dared kill a Fulani cow, it would have led to another thing.
What is the solution?
Again I would ask you to ask the Berom.
How often do you meet with the governor to discuss issues of security peace etc?
The governor hardly met me in Kuru. He was in Kuru the year I was leaving and yet he became a know- it-all kind of person. I am a very arrogant man if you like, I don't go begging for favours from people.
He doesn't call you to discuss these issues?
That his own business. Gyang Buba is our chairman.
Some say the government has not done enough to resolve issues in the Jos crises. What is your opinion?
The truth is that in Berom land, the women are more brave. Take note of this, anytime there is crisis in Berom land, you'll find out that it is the women that would come out. The men would just disappear into their farms but the women would take pestles and what have you and come out. The Taroks are not like that. In fact if there's crisis, we keep our women and children in the house and tell them not to come out as we will do the fighting. So it's this background that leads to this.
What about the issue of indegenship and settlers?
The Jarawa in Jos North should be the ones making the claims but unfortunately they are so docile that the Berom are now claiming that the whole of Jos North is their own, yet they cannot even keep the Hausa away. But I would have preferred Jarawa instead of Berom to champion that cause. The Jarawa would have had much more reasons to demand that Jos North is part of their land.
At the national level, there have been crises too, Boko Haram in particular. What do you make of it?
Boko Haram! Western education is not good. That is what they preach, isn't it? They have western education; why will they now say it is not good? It makes no meaning to me.
I think they are just causing disaffection among people. Christians and Muslims have lived together for ages and there is no other way. Christians and Muslims must live together in peace. Nobody should bring issues that will make us fight ourselves.
Do you think northern leaders have done enough to see that-these problems happening up north. Insecurity, Boko Haram, youth unemployment and other things-are curtailed?
It depends on what you call northern leaders. Take Kano, for instance. I was wondering what is Boko Haram? It might be outside people behind recent happenings, it might be the same Kano people. What have Emir of Kano and other leaders done about it? I have said that we have no alternative but to live together. We must live in peace as we have done over the years.
Currently, the National Assembly is in the process of amending the constitution and some traditional rulers and opinion moulders have suggested a role for traditional rulers in the constitution. Do you support the suggestion?
We chiefs are detached from politics. I prefer it that way. I prefer the neutral role that we, chiefs, play. Let the politicians play their own role.
What is your score for democracy since 1999 when it started? Has it paid some dividends?
It must have paid dividends, otherwise we would have lost it. The military has kept out of it, which means that we have accepted it. I pray that it should go on and coups should no longer have any part to play.