Written by Mannir Dan-Ali, Abdulkareem Baba Aminu & Amina Alhassan
Alhaji Gidado Idris, GCON, hit 80 on the 15th of March. Beginning a career in service at a young age, he grew to be a well-respected statesman who has served his country for many decades. Witness to several key moments of Nigeria’s history, he opened up on the final hours of the late Sardauna, late General Sani Abacha and other issues. Herewith, are excerpts:
Weekly Trust: Congratulations on your 80th birthday. How do you feel about reaching a ripe old age?
Gidado Idris: I really didn’t realise that I was already eighty, until I was reminded by a publication. I feel quite alright, happy, strong and in possession of all my faculties.
WT: You’ve been present on many historic milestones in Nigeria. One is the fact that you helped identify the corpse of the late Sardauna after he was killed. Can you recollect the events of that day, leading to the tragedy?
Idris: On the evening before the tragedy, on the 14th of January, 1966, at about 8:00pm, late Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa called and wanted to speak to the late Premier. He was free, so I put him through. Afterwards, the Premier called me and he said he wanted to know the extent of his indebtedness to shops where we used to collect things, like Kingsway, Bhojson’s, et cetera, where we had accounts.
He asked me to do that before 9:00 am the following day, so I took note of that and did so on Friday morning. I recall the extent of indebtedness was less than fifteen thousand pounds as at that time. So I made a list against each shop and about 9:00 am that Friday, I had finished and I came back and gave him the list. He asked me to come upstairs with him where he opened his safe and gave me the exact amount and asked me to go and pay off the debts, which I quickly went to do.
At about noon, he called me and his ADC, Aliyu Kangiwa – who is still alive – and asked us to go round to see his new office, so the three of us went. Generally, he was happy with it. Earlier, he had been told that the Premier of the West, Simon Akintola, was coming to see him but the arrival was still some time away. So he decided not to go to the airport and went to the mosque for Friday prayers, after sending a minister to receive S. L Akintola. All this was during Ramadan.
At about 3:00 pm, we were told that Premier of the West had arrived and was on his way to General Usman Hassan Katsina House in Kawo, which was meant to be the Sardauna’s new official residence and office. When he arrived with his entourage, I remember Remi Fani-Kayode was with him, as well as other ministers.
Akintola said he had come to see the Premier and to find out from him whether he was aware that the army would take over the government the following day. The Sardauna said he heard about it but has left everything in the hands of God.
Akintola then said he had come with a plane, so they could go someplace like neighbouring Niger, where his best friend was then the president. The Premier rejected it and said those who were asking for the government’s removal did not bring it to power in the first place. He said ‘I won’t leave my people in their hour of need to run away and take shelter somewhere else’. He then advised Akintola that since he was certain that it was going happen, to go back to his people and brief them to get prepared to fight. Akintola took the Premier’s advice and returned to Ibadan.
WT: What was the Premier’s mood after that?
Idris: After the Western Premier left, it was too late for the Sardauna to go and play his favourite game, Fives. He then decided to drive around the GRA and Kaduna South before Iftar time. We got into a car, one of the long ones with seats facing each other. It was driven by Alhaji Ali Kwarbai (Ali Sarkin Mota), the Sardauna’s chief driver. He was with his friends and I sat facing them. We were not discussing anything and the driver just drove around and later returned home just in time for the breaking of the fast. You have to understand the work of the Premier then was a 24-hour affair, no Saturdays or Sundays off. If we left our homes in the mornings, we normally returned aftermidnight and that is why most of our children at that time didn’t even know who we were. We were out of our houses by 5:00 am because we couldn’t afford to go to the Premier a minute late.
Later that night, after breaking of the day’s fast, the famous musician, Dan Kwairo, was around till about 10.30 pm, as he had come to entertain the Premier. Of course we were tired and grumbling but there was nothing we could do. He played till about 11:30 pm when suddenly the late Alhaji Ali Akilu, who was the Secretary to the Northern regional government, then-Commissioner of Police M.D Yusuf and Brigadier-General Samuel Ademulegun, all three of them, came and went straight to the office asking to see the Premier. The Premier, sighting them, left us and decided to go and meet them. They met for about half an hour, then they left.
WT: After that, what did the Sardauna do?
Idris: When the Premier came out, Dan Kwairo was still playing but he called it a night and went upstairs to write his Sallah address and go to bed, as we were to go to Sokoto the following morning. We were chatting and noticed it was getting late and the Premier had still not sent for us, so we decided to go home.
When we came out, we were not aware that by then soldiers had already taken position around the compound. I was living at Doka Crescent then and as I left the Sardauna’s house, a siren blared. We used to test it from time to time to see if it was working and I thought that was what was going on. But then I saw the then-deputy Commissioner of Police, an Idoma man whose name escapes me, heading in the direction of the Premier’s house, as did late Haruna Musa, the Principal Secretary’s security detail. But I went on home, as I didn’t think there was any problem.
Abubakar Umar, the Sardauna’s Private Secretary, who was on a visit from Kano and was accommodated in the guest wing of the house, heard a loud noise and saw the chaos from his room with soldiers everywhere. He quickly called the Private Secretary to the Premier, Ali Akilu, who told him what was happening, that it was perhaps a coup. Akilu quickly dressed up and drove to M.D. Yusuf’s house. Five minutes after he left, soldiers stormed his own house and asked after him but his wife told them he went to Zaria for a meeting, so they left. The telephone call by Umar saved him.
WT: When did you find out what was going on?
Idris: Until about 5:00 am, when someone called me to ask if I was aware of what was going on. My uncle, the late Turakin Zazau, was a minister to the Premier and he brought me up, so I decided to go to his house. I quickly drove there and I was surprised he was there, as most of the ministers had all run away. We couldn’t get anyone on phone, so he asked what we should do. I suggested we go and check what was happening in the Premier’s house, so we drove there and on the way we noticed there was virtually nobody in the whole area. And this was about 8:30 am.
We drove into the house and we could see the damage that had been done there. While we were searching for the Premier, we sighted a lifeless body near the parking area, so we walked up and found out it was the Premier’s. While we were still there, late Minister of Land and Survey Alhaji Ibrahim Musa Gashash, whose house was nearby, came and met my uncle and I. On my uncle’s suggestion, Gashash and I picked the body from the ground and put it on a mat…
WT: (Cuts in) Was there no other person in the house?
Idris: No-one. There was another body, that of one of his wives who was killed along with him. You know Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu had all of the Premier’s wives, servants and wards brought out and asked them to sit down on the floor. Nzeogwu himself demanded to know who Ahmadu Bello was and there was a resident of the house who looks a little like the late Premier but wasn’t as tall. He came out and said he was the one, but they knew he wasn’t. The soldiers said if they were not told who Ahmadu Bello was in the group, they would shoot everyone. The Premier, who was among them, got up and said ‘I’m the one you’re looking for’, prompting his three wives to come to his side, distraught. When the soldiers were about to kill the Sardauna, two of the wives stood up, leaving the first wife who said if they must kill him, then they must kill them together. He was shot, along her, as they embraced each other. They left the body where we found it.
WT: After they killed him, how was the area like?
Idris: The whole place was deserted. All the ministers had left. We decided that the best thing was to get his body removed to the house of the Sultan of Sokoto in Ungwan Sarki. When we did, it was prepared for burial and that was where he was buried.
WT: After the death of the Sardauna and the eventual military rule that followed, where did you find yourself?
Idris: We were still in the Premier’s office on that Saturday. Later Nzeogwu called a meeting of all the permanent secretaries in his office. We all went. In the process of the coup, he got injured, and if you saw his picture then, he was bandaged. I remember almost everybody was there, with the exception of Ali Akilu. We were welcomed and everyone was asked to introduce themselves. Nzeogwu then tried to explain to us the reason for the coup, explaining that the late Premier was a villain and wanted to wage a war and many other stories. In a nutshell they tried to tell us that he was not a good man.
Nzeogwu then tried to appoint a new Secretary to the Government from amongst us, with little success. Furious, he then asked who the senior was amongst us. Everyone refused the appointment. M.D. Yusuf then intervened, asking how anyone expected Akilu to be there after a price had been put on his head. Akilu was then ‘pardoned’ as Yusuf asked for twenty minutes to produce him, after which he did. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. When he came in, smoking a cigarette, we all got up and when Nzeogwu, who was seated, noticed that we all got up, he followed suit. Akilu then went up to him and they shook hands, then the meeting reconvened and Nzeogwu directed on what should be done, while we took notes.
For me, it wasn’t the end of the day because after that meeting, we decided to go back to the office of the secretary for a meeting. But suddenly an officer barged into the Premier’s office and asked to see the Permanent Secretary of Finance, Ahmed Talib, with a message from their commander. They wanted some money, about fifty thousand pounds. I don’t know what they wanted it for, but said it would be paid back on Monday. Mind, this was all happening on a Saturday and they couldn’t get money from the bank. He was then instructed to summon the manager of Standard Bank of West Africa (SBWA), which is now First Bank. Talib declined, explaining that it is not done. He suggested they arrange to go to all the major shops like Kingsway, et cetera, and collect the day’s proceeds.
Talib didn’t go with them, saying he as a civilian could not organise that, stating that only they the soldiers could do it. But he also warned them that if they should embark on such an exercise they would only be hurting themselves because the masses will start asking if that is how the new rulers would treat them. They gave it a thought and somebody suggested getting the Emir of Kano to come, as it was only in Kano that one could get such amount of money readily in those days. So they bought the idea and an aircraft was sent to go and pick the Emir of Kano, who was late Ado Bayero. I was among those who went to bring him and he was briefed that they need fifty thousand pounds from any of the wealthy businessmen in Kano, with the promise that the money would be repaid on Monday. They got the money from a very rich man and it was given to the army’s representative. I don’t know what they wanted to do with the money on that day but they had it anyway. I continued to serve in the government.
WT: Speaking of Kano, you were also involved in the deposition of the then Emir Sanusi, grandfather of the present one…
Idris: It was part of my job. I knew what was going on from the time the commission of inquiry was set up. I was aware of the circumstances leading to it, so while was I involved in the whole process, I was not a member of the panel. I was in charge of providing them with all they needed for conducting their inquiry. When at the end of the day, the inquiry was finished and the report was submitted, the recommendation was sent to the executive council including the deposition of the Emir. When it was approved, the implementation was my job.
WT: After the death of General Sani Abacha, as SGF, you conducted the council meeting which saw General Abdulsalami Abubakar emerge as head of state…
Idris: It was the 8th of June, 1998, the day Sani Abacha died. Of course I didn’t know he had died until I got to the house. At about 8:00 am, I got a phone call from the Inspector-General of Police Ibrahim Coomassie and he told me that he wanted me there with them urgently at the Villa. I took breakfast and drove myself there at about 8:30 am. When I got to the gate, I was allowed to pass through but on getting to the main building, I was barred even though they knew I was the SGF. They told me that the meeting wasn’t taking place there. I then argued that I was told by the IG that the meeting was taking place inside the Villa but they insisted it was in the office and directed me there. On reaching the office, I met Lieutenant-General Abdulsalami Abubakar sitting and he asked why I was there and told him I was invited by the IGP. He then told me he was invited too, and that was why he was waiting. Others came, as well.
Then-Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant-General Ishaya Bamaiyi, came in and asked me to go up and see if the head of state had come so that we could have the meeting. I did, but there wasn’t anyone, not even the soldier who intermittently checked on us. I came back and told them something strange is happening.
Eventually, someone came and apologized for keeping us waiting. We were led into the house by Lieutenant-General Abubakar and taken to the sitting room where we usually sit with General Abacha. We did not see him, though they said the meeting was with him, instead we saw the first lady Maryam Abacha, Mohammed Abacha, Alhaji Gwarzo and Buba Marwa. We sat down and then the shock came when Gwarzo said the reason why they had invited us was because the head of state died that morning. He added that Abacha’s body was upstairs and they were waiting for the Chief of Defence Staff to go and identify it. Just like that, out of the blue, we were told he’d died.
WT: But didn’t you suspect there was something wrong going on after being kept waiting for several hours?
Idris: I did, but why I did not suspect anything was because every weekend, either Saturday or Sunday, I usually meet with the head of state. You know his death was announced on Monday. Now, the Thursday before the announcement, I was home when the Chief of Defense Staff, General Abubakar, came and said he wanted to say goodbye to me, that he was leaving for Minna. I asked him what was wrong and he asked if I was not aware that he was going to be retired on Monday. I thought he was joking. He added that the Chief of Army Staff and the Chief of Air Staff would all be retired on Monday, too. He then told me that rather than being disgraced, he had packed up his things and he was leaving immediately so that they could announce his retirement on Monday while he was home in Minna. I then advised him not to behave that way, as a general. I told him that it was a Thursday and we still had some days before Monday and that I was going to see the Head of State on Saturday and find out what the problem was.
I then pleaded with him with the name of God to return to his home and after some time he obliged. So he did not go to Minna. I tried to find out what being discussed in the house, but I really didn’t get anything from anyone. I found it unusual and when I had a meeting with General Abacha, I couldn’t extract any information.
WT: When was General Abacha’s death announced?
Idris: When we came down, we sat as we didn’t know what to do and some of the workers asked what the next step should be. I then said the next step is the announcement of his death. And we couldn’t do that without telling Nigerians who would step into his position because this was sort of new. And I said, I didn’t know how to go about it. I then said as far as I know, we did not have a problem with who will step into his position. Normally, we have a number 1, 2 and 3. In an instance where there is no number one, number two will step in. I said that we have a situation because we did not have a number one as we had just lost him and we did not have a number two as Diya was in jail but we have a number three, which is General Abubakar. He was very reluctant, and said ‘SGF, I do not agree with you’ and asked if I could organize a meeting of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) by 1:00 pm that same day. I said I would try.
I got all the aircraft, all the pilots and in any case the only people who would be coming from outside Abuja were people from Lagos and Enugu. The ones from Kaduna normally preferred to drive. And you know military men have their way of doing things, so by 1:00 pm they were all there.
Before then I had anticipated everything that would happen and had already prepared the oath of office for the new Head of State. I then summoned Chief Justice Mohammed Uwais and explained to him what he needed to do with the oath of office, so he went and dressed up for the task ahead.
By 1:00 pm we were all there, seated and I told Lieutenant-General Abubakar, who was also to preside over the meeting, to go and welcome them, which he did. He then told them the situation at hand and that the next step to take was to produce a new head of state and that it had to be done immediately because the body of the late head of state was still upstairs and had not been buried. So we started the meeting immediately. Lieutenant-General Jeremiah T. Useni was there and he spoke first. By the time we got halfway into the meeting at about 5:00 pm, only half of the members of the council had spoken.
Then something unexpected happened, as Brigadier-General Bashir S. Magashi questioned why the body of the former head of state was being treated with disrespect. He was furious that time was fast going and he hadn’t been buried yet. That got me thinking and I felt that there must be some kind of conspiracy going on. I then went to Lieutenant-General Ishaya Bamaiyi and asked to see him for a few minutes and I asked him if it was possible for us to quickly fly to Kano and bury him then come back and finish the meeting. He then asked if the body was prepared for burial and I said I would check. I did and I was told from inside the house that it was ready.
I then arranged for two aircrafts, one to take his body and a few of us and the others to bring other members of the AFRC. Military men being who they are, were very fast about it and after ten minutes I was told that they were ready to receive us at the airport. So I called Al-Mustapha and told him that we would go to Kano and bury the head of state first and come back for the meeting.
We reached Kano and quickly did the burial and by 1:00 am we were back in Abuja. From the airport we went straight to the council chamber to finish our meeting. We had earlier done more than half of it, so it was easier finishing. The Chief of Army Staff, Bamaiyi, was the last person to speak and he asked why we were wasting time and said by tradition we have got two hierarchies, political and military. He said Useni had already spoken and he said if we go by hierarchy, he was the highest military officer today to take over from Abacha, but he quickly added that he was prepared to abide by whatever decision the council ruled. He recommended that we appoint Abubakar as the new head of state. As he was a Lieutenant-General, Useni also recommended Abubakar’s promotion to a full general with immediate effect. He immediately got up and saluted General Abubakar. All I did was to ask Justice Uwais to administer the oath of office and allegiance to him. I took him to the office, opened it, set the chair for him and he sat down and that was how he assumed his status as head of state.
WT: There was no acrimony or high drama?
Idris: Of course there was opposition at the end. The most senior officers in the army then didn’t want Abdulsalami to succeed Abacha. But with the persuasion of Bamaiyi, everyone came on board. Contrary to what many people feel and think about Bamaiyi, he saved the day.
WT: Do you think General Abacha was killed or he just died naturally, going by all the stories going around?
Idris: The General was found on a chair with an inhaler for asthma on the floor. I never knew he was asthmatic until that day. When I met him two days before he died, he seemed normal even if he was coughing a bit. I knew he was ill, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I wouldn’t say he was targeted.
WT: What was your personal relationship with General Abacha?
Idris: I was lucky Sani Abacha was my friend. We were very close since when he was a Major in Kaduna. We played tennis together at the Kaduna Club, with General Buhari, late Shehu Yar’adua and General T.Y Danjuma. We once shared a joke, which oddly enough became reality: One day, at the Kaduna Club, after tennis, we were talking and I said ‘Sani, the way I see you, you look like somebody who would one day stage a coup and become head of state. I want you to remember me when you eventually become head of state.’ We were just joking, but here we are today.
WT: On a lighter note, what is your favourite food?
Idris: I don’t have any favourite food other than Tuwo and Miyar Kuka, the same thing [former FCT minister] Nasir el-Rufai reportedly doesn’t like (laughter). I had a lot of it growing up but till date it is still my favourite.
Culled from Weekly Trust