Sardauna, Abacha, IBB Were Misunderstood By Nigerians – Gidado Idris

Talk about a man who has seen it all as far as it concerns the Nigerian civil service then you would be talking about Alhaji Gidado Idris, a retired civil servant who had the rare privilege of working with the Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello and also as a civil servant under practically all heads of state in Nigeria, from 1953 to 1999. In this interview with Catherine Agbo, Auwal S. Mu’azu and Reuben Buhari, to commemorate his 80th birthday, he takes us back to his early days, life in service and the experience of working with the Premier and heads of state.

Tell us about your early life sir.

I was born on March 15, 1935. I started schooling at Elementary School Zaria and proceeded to Middle School and later, Clerical Training College now Institute of Administration, which later became part of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria and from there I joined the civil service. During my civil service career I attended courses too. I went to college in London in 1957-58 and Leeds University. That’s as far as I can remember about my education.


At the time you schooled, were there any Nigerians that taught you and who were your classmates?

Throughout my elementary school, all my teachers were Nigerians. Most of them were in fact indigenes of Zaria. But in middle school, we had expatriate teachers both in the middle schools, government colleges and so on. One of my classmates in middle school was Alhaji Balarabe Musa. We were in the same dormitory, in fact the same room. We went to the middle school on the same day and graduated on the same day. There were so many expatriate teachers but I only remember our English language teacher, Mr. M.A Coil and his wife. He was an expatriate from England. Alhaji Maitama Sule also taught in the middle school for a short while, he taught us for about a year. When he graduated from Katsina Training College, I think about three of them were posted to Zaria as part of their training and he taught us English language. But most of those who taught me are dead, such as the late Alhaji Ahmadu Patika, Sarkin Fadar Zazzau who was the headmaster and minister during the time of the Premier. He was actually the headmaster of the Elementary School number one, which I attended. He was also a teacher.


When precisely did you join the civil service?

I joined the Northern Nigeria Civil Service on April 1, 1953. I joined the civil service as a third class clerk having graduated from the Clerical Training College in 1952. Towards the end of 1952, we finished the one year course, came to Kaduna and we were interviewed and I was offered a job as a third class clerk and I was first posted to the office of the late Premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello when he was minister of works. I worked with him until 1954 when he actually became the Premier of Northern Region and I continued working with him until about 1957 when I attended an administrative service training course in Zaria and after my graduation, I came back to the office of the Premier as a senior service in those days and in 1955, I was appointed assistant district officer and posted to Benue. I was one of the 13 assistant district officers posted to Benue to collect the tax imposed on Tiv people after their riot. It was a big thing and the regional government at that time imposed a tax on the Tiv people for their role in the riot. We were there for one year and after that assignment, I was posted to Wukari as a district officer. A year later, I was posted to Borno Province at that time, precisely to Gwoza. I was in Gwoza for one and a half years and then I went to Mubi, again as a district officer before returning to Kaduna to the same office of the Premier as an assistant secretary. I was with the Premier until 1966 where I worked as assistant secretary and ended up as private secretary to the late Premier and I was doing that job up to the 15 of January, 1966, when the coup occurred.


There are reports that the Premier of the Western Region, the late Chief Akintola flew in from Ibadan to warn your late boss, the Premier of the Northern Region of the impending coup and that he would be targeted but after he left, your boss drove round town in an open car, visiting people and you were with him in the car. Can you recall what happened precisely, what informed your boss’ action and how you felt at that moment?

The Premier was not our friend but a boss so if he didn’t speak to us, we didn’t start off a conversation with him. There were five of us in the vehicle including the driver on that day; the Premier and his friend, the late Alhaji Ladan Dan Iyan Zazzau who was the chairman of the Northern Nigeria Development Corporation and I were sitting at the back of the car and the driver and another fellow, the late Abubakar Koko who was a federal permanent secretary, the first permanent secretary of the federal ministry of FCT. We were all in the car and after we saw the late Chief Akintola off to the airport, the late Premier decided to drive round the GRA and visit a few houses of government officers, about two or three houses before we proceeded to Kaduna South and went round the textile factories. We came back just in time for the breaking of the fast because it was during the Ramadan fasting. The Premier was a five player – there is a game called fives – and he used to play that game almost every evening from about 5pm till about 6:30pm but on that particular day, he didn’t even want to play and after coming back from the airport, he said we should just go round, for reasons best known to him. He did not discuss with us, he just decided to drive around and come back and we were all quiet in the car. The driver used to do it so he knew his way and that was how we went round and enjoyed the evening in the car and came back for breakfast.


Did he exhibit any fear or was there any difference in his demeanour?

Of course! Earlier in the morning, in fact from Thursday because I think it was Friday 15th but since the day before which was Thursday, we heard rumours of a coup but we were not in a position to discuss with him but he also gave an indication, at least to me and his ADC who is still alive, Aliyu Kangiwa, he was then a sergeant. The Premier, he and I went round on that Friday morning at about 12 but by then the rumour of the coup was already everywhere although nobody was talking about it.


You were aware that there was an impending coup. Were there no efforts on the part of the Premier to forestall it or move to safety?

The rumour was awash and the Premier did know. In fact, he discussed with the Prime Minister. I knew because I answered a telephone call from the Prime Minister on Thursday evening at about 8pm. He rang and asked if the Premier was close by because he wanted to talk to him and I told the Premier and he picked it and they discussed for about half an hour but I was not in a position to know what they were talking about and later that night, from the kind of instructions he gave me, I knew something was wrong. We all heard the rumours and knew just like him but we were not in a position to discuss with him.


As one of his trusted aides, after the coup, you were one of those who had to identify his body. As somebody you worked very closely with, how did it feel?

I was not invited to do that. You see, my cousin, the man who brought me up, was a minister in the government of the late Sir Ahmadu Bello, he was the minister of trade and industry, Alhaji Aliyu Turakin Zazzau and his house was just behind the Premier’s house. I got to know about the coup at about 5am on Saturday and I quickly came to check my cousin, to see if he was safe and I found him in the house. At that time, the area where almost all the ministers lived was more or less deserted; everybody ran away but he did not go anywhere, he was still in his house. I met him and he confirmed what I had heard and I said to him that we should go to the Premier’s house and see things for ourselves. A relation of ours was also the driver of the late Premier and he was living in his house in the boy’s quarters. I called my cousin’s driver and we entered the car and drove to the late Premier’s house and we went and woke up the driver who I said was related to us and we asked him what happened and where the body of the late Premier was because there was nobody except him in the drivers’ quarters. We decided to look around the house and eventually, we sighted the body of the late Premier in the car park. My cousin asked me to get a mat which I did and as we were doing this, another minister, the late Ibrahim Musa Gashash came from his house apparently having heard that Alhaji Aliyu Turakin Zazzau was in the house and we both picked and put the late Premier’s body on the mat and moved him to a shade before arranging to take him to his burial place at Unguwar Sarkin Musulmi.


While working with the Premier, you it was who wrote the letter for the dethronement of the grandfather of the present Emir of Kano, the late Sir Muhammadu Sanusi. How difficult was that for you?

It wasn’t a difficult task; it was in my schedule of duty in the Premier’s office. I was at that time the Secretary to the council of chiefs and also in charge of constitutional matters so it was well within my schedule to draft a letter for the Premier to see, correct and approve for dispatch. It was not my own idea to sack the Emir of Kano; mine was simply to carry out the decision of the executive council.


You mentioned earlier that the task you were posted to carry out in Benue was onerous. How did you handle it?

Everything went on very well and we collected the taxes. It took us one year. It was a collective punishment imposed on the Tiv and they refused to pay so the government decided that they must pay the tax and 13 of us were sent there to go round and collect the tax from each adult Tiv man and we did it of course with the help of the police. We went to the extent of confiscating their animals and other possessions and selling in the open market in order to collect the tax.


Considering that they had initially refused to pay the tax, was there no resistance when you went there?

No. The Tiv people are very good people, they don’t fight strangers, they only fight among themselves, they have never fought any strangers at all. The problem that arose even at that time was among themselves, they were not fighting anybody, they were fighting among themselves and destroyed each other’s property. It was more or less political.


What was the experience like, working for the late Premier?

The Premier was a great man and it was very interesting working with him. He was a very good man and it was like working with any big fellow. You enjoyed working with him because he would allow you to express yourself. Although many people were very fearful of him, he was a very simple man. I didn’t have any problem working with him at all.


So much has been said about the late Premier but as one who worked with him, what were those things about him that people do not know?

People thought you could not talk to the Premier and that he was super human and all of that but the late Premier was an ordinary man who would sit and talk as I’m talking to you. He was a very understanding person and a good listener too; he would listen to you and talk to you. Many people didn’t know him closely and of course if you didn’t know him, you would be afraid even to come near him, let alone try to speak to him but he was an ordinary man if you were working with him, like every other normal human being. The fear people had about him was unfounded. I give you an example, there was an incident with one of his servants, something happened and the Premier wanted to know exactly the truth, so he called the servants and said to them that he understood this and that had happened and one particular person was mentioned and he asked the person why he didn’t tell him exactly what happened when it happened and the person said what the Premier was told was the truth but he was afraid to tell him the truth and the Premier said “afraid to tell me the truth? You fear me more than you fear God?” And he said “I don’t like it, you are not a good man. If you fear me more than God then you are not a good person and I don’t want to have anything to do with you from today.”


There is this assertion that civil servants are the most corrupt in Nigeria, and that if corruption in the service is dealt with, corruption in the country would have been reduced considerably. Do you share this view?

During our time, we only knew corruption as a word; it was not a thing that was being practised. Just before you came, I was watching the proceedings of either the Senate or House of Representatives on TV and they were talking about corruption and one of the members was saying that the corruption that is spoken of is not only limited to politicians, that what about the civil servants without whose cooperation, ministers and other public office holders won’t be corrupt and that why are they not being punished whereas they are the ones actually participating in the corruption. They said it is the civil servants that encourage ministers to become corrupt. I have never encouraged or assisted any minister to become corrupt and I have worked with ministers, both civilian and military, because I know it is not good. But I cannot say the assertion is correct. I haven’t been in the civil service for over 15 years now and I don’t know what has been happening. Since I left the Federal Secretariat Abuja on May 29, 1999, I have never set my foot in any office so I wouldn’t know what has been happening in the ministries but certainly during our time, no.


You worked with many heads of state while in service, how was the experience?

I have worked with every head of state directly or indirectly from Gen Gowon though not directly but since I was secretary to the executive council, I was very close to the late Gen Hassan Usman Katsina who was the first military governor of the north and I used to accompany him to all the meetings in Lagos and so on, when there were only six of them, the governors and Gowon. I knew him even before he became head of state. I worked with Gen Ibrahim Babangida directly when I was the permanent secretary of police affairs. At that time, there was no minister for police affairs, there was a department in the office of the head of state that dealt with police affairs and the head of state was virtually the minister of police affairs in addition to being head of state so I worked with him. The first minister of state ever to be appointed was Alhaji Samaila Gwarzo when it became a ministry and was separated from the office of the head of state. Gen Muhammadu Buhari sacked us at the time I was clerk of the National Assembly so I really didn’t work with him so much. But even though the members of the National Assembly had left, I worked with him briefly, for a few months; before I was posted to National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies then of course I came to work with Gen Sani Abacha and ended up with Gen Abdulsalam Abubakar.


Of the heads of state you worked with, two of them, Gen Babangida and the late Gen Abacha, have been described in various ways by Nigerians. What was the experience working with them and what are those things about them that Nigerians don’t know?

Abacha was a very good and decent man and also very patriotic. You didn’t have to advise him before he would do the right thing. Many people misunderstood him, they think he was a tyrant but he was not anything like that at all. He was a very good man. All military heads of states are dictators, even Buhari; the president-elect acknowledged in London that dictatorship and military go together. A military head of state is a dictator automatically. Gen Abacha wanted to become a democrat too just like Buhari.

Gen Babangida on the other hand was more accessible as head of state and was also friendly with everyone. Abacha however was a little aloof, only those who were working closely with him got to see him often but IBB was friendly with people. Many people complained that Abacha would be invited for a meeting and would attend sometimes or will not come down for a meeting scheduled for 10am till 2pm or the meeting would not take place at all. But whenever he wanted a meeting to take place, he would come out early enough and sit from morning till evening. He was also a very patient man. We used to have a joint meeting of the armed forces ruling council and council of states and all of them will sit from morning and he will give everyone a chance to speak and he would listen. He liked to listen to everyone before a decision was taken and we would sit there from morning and by the time the last man spoke, it would be about 6pm, but he would want everybody to speak.


There were allegations that Gen Abacha usually did contrary to decisions reached with others. Did he take advices as head of state?

Many. I never knew him to change decisions taken by the armed forces ruling council or his own council. Once the minutes of the meeting were out, actions were taken in accordance with the decisions arrived at. He was misunderstood by the public. Abacha was a courageous man but not as generous as Babangida. Sardauna was a very generous and honest man too and also simple. Abacha was very patriotic, he didn’t wait to be told to do what was right, he did it. They were all courageous men. Abacha was not the kind of fellow many Nigerians think him to be.


What were the best moments and toughest challenges of your civil service career?

Every moment was good for me. I don’t want to complain. I know it is not easy for anybody to go through the kind of life I went through without facing challenges but the important thing is always to face the challenges and I faced challenges but I didn’t have any problems at all. The challenges I had were normal work place challenges. From the time I was a clerk to when I was head of civil service and secretary to the government of the federation, there were challenges.


What are the most memorable moments of your life?

I can’t remember my most memorable and sad moments quite honestly. I was happy throughout my working career, I didn’t have any problems with anybody and in those days, the game was played according to the rules and you were not punished until you committed a crime and your guilt was proven. We were among decent people, the rules were there and everybody was following the rules.


You enjoyed a fulfilled and accomplished civil service career. Would you say you are fulfilled at the home front too?

Oh yes! I’m a happily married man. I have eight sons and two daughters and they are all alive. My daughters are all married with children and I have grandchildren. The boys are also all working, my wife is with me and I love her. We have been together for about 40 years now but she isn’t my first wife, my first wife actually died.


Since 1999 when you retired from the civil service, you have maintained a low profile. Is this deliberate?

You don’t retire from politics like Awolowo said, but from a career job, you retire and I have retired and I’m enjoying my retirement. I don’t have to wake up early in the morning, prepare, go to the office, be worried about going late etc. Now, I control my time and do what I want when I want, I’m free. When I retired, I told myself that I had worked enough and that I don’t want to become a businessman because I don’t think I’m cut out for business and I was not taught to become a businessman. During our time, there was a clear division of labour. The politicians were doing their thing; the civil service was also doing its thing. You never mixed the two together, you were either a civil servant or a politician and during our time, we remained civil servants to the core; we never got involved in politics although we worked with them and that was why the politicians had confidence in the civil servants. The three Premiers I know, the late Sardauna, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Nnamdi Azikiwe and others believed in the civil servants and in the civil service so much so that they took the advice of the civil servants more than they took the advice of their ministers because they knew that as far as the career was concerned, the civil servants were trained to do that job, they are professionals so they would rather listen to the professionals than their ministers. If there was any disagreement between a permanent secretary and their minister, the Premier would always choose the advice of the civil servant; after all he is the one trained to give that kind of advice not the minister. We never got involved in politics at all except when some of us became electoral officers. We organised elections but never got involved.


What do you do with your time now?

I don’t do anything; I just rest and play golf in the evenings.


And you are also a supporter of Arsenal Football Club…

I have been an admirer of that football club since I was in England. I lived very close to Highbury Hills, the first play ground before they moved to Emirates. I used to go and watch them play and I have been their supporter until today.


Are you happy with the way Arsenal is faring these days?

Yes. You know they are number two on the list now and they are one of the contenders for the Premier League although I doubt very much if they will win it because Chelsea Football Club is already about seven points ahead but Arsene Wenger for the last 18 years always makes sure that he comes not below number 4 to allow him play in the Europa League.


Would you say that is good enough, considering that the aspiration of everyone is to win?

He is a different manager; although he’s interested in winning, he believes the primary duty of any manager is to train people to play good soccer, to produce stars, not to buy stars for his club but produce and sell so they have an academy where they train the younger people to play football but he believes that what is the point if does not train those who will become stars but just to go and be buying people trained by other managers. So, he is interested in winning but more interested in training and producing good footballers instead of buying them. He buys them only in order to help the club.


Elections have just been conducted and we have a new president in Gen Muhammadu Buhari. Now that Buhari is a democrat, do you see him doing those things he was doing as a military dictator?

We will have to wait and see but certainly he cannot behave the way he behaved as a military head of state. Now there are checks and balances. He will be working with the National Assembly and the judiciary and both can call him to order. He needs the approval of the National Assembly to do a lot of the things he did before without consulting with anybody. Now he has to be prepared to deal with the National Assembly, to seek and obtain their approval for many of the reforms he will want to introduce. He is now a converted democrat, he was head of state 30 years ago and he has learnt to speak like a democrat and we hope he will also act like a democrat that he now is.

Would you say you are a fulfilled man?

Yes I think I am. What more can I ask from God? I worked for 46 years, I gave my life to the country and I enjoyed every minute of my working life and I was happy up to May 29, 1999, when we handed over.


Do you have plans of putting your experiences in a book?

I have not written one and I have no intentions of writing any. I just want to finish and die in peace and leave everything

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