Mallam Adamu Ciroma, 82, has had a stellar and variegated career in the civil service, journalism, central banking and politics. He was a minister in three very different governments ( those of Shagari, Abacha and Obasanjo’s second coming). He was a serious presidential candidate on, at least, two occasions( 1978 and 1992). Now comfortably retired in Abuja, but still keenly aware of political events around him, Mallam Adamu goes over the events of his life with our reporters. He recounts how the quest for knowledge took him from Potiskum to Ibadan, and how after graduating with a degree in History, he found himself working as an Assistant Secretary in the office of the legendary Sir Ahmadu Bello, the first Premier of then Northern Nigeria. He also recalls how on a visit to Lagos, as managing director of the New Nigerian, General Shehu Yaradua woke him up in the middle of the night to say there had been a coup and that he was the regime’s choice to hold the sensitive office of Governor of the Central Bank. Quietly sipping his morning tea, Mallam Chiroma speaks with candour and near total recall, not only on events of the misty past, but a few from the unformed present. We recommend you also to make a big mug of your favourite beverage, sit back and enjoy this second instalment of REMINISCENCES.
Mallam Adamu Ciroma
At 82 years, what has been the joy? What are the challenges?
At 82, if you were like me, you probably would have retired from whatever active participation you have in life. And it depends on how you feel as an individual. You cannot feel too well because 82 is a long time.
If you are lucky like me, you can even play golf twice a week. So far, thank God, I am able to do that. The rest of the time, I spend it here; a lot of the time is taken by people who come to consult me – people who want to know, people who seek advice, etc. Life can be very hectic in a sedentary kind of way.
Somebody said people who are elderly are happier because they accept life philosophically.
They are not anxious as younger people are. That is true. You are not materialistic, you are not ambitious, there is nothing you want to achieve that you have not achieved already; your life is behind you. In a way, you have no worry. When the younger ones come around to seek advice, you give advice. If you are old and wise, you know they don’t have to accept your advice, but you still give them the advice as best as you know.
So life, in some way, can be quite pleasant, in old age.
How big are your investments to comfortably meet your requirements in life?
When you get to this age in life, you have little requirements in life, so what you have is sufficient for you to live on. I believe there are quite a large number of people whose income is not sufficient for them.
Somehow, life has been so good to me. I worked as a civil servant for so long. I worked in the public sector at high levels for so long. I also passed through the economy by way of the private sector by doing some investments. What I have got is enough for me to live on comfortably and cleanly. And I am happy with life.
Besides golf, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I don’t participate in active politics anymore..
We are talking in terms of leisure. What do you do to keep yourself active?
I don’t have to do anything active.
What about travelling? Do you enjoy travelling?
In the last three weeks or so, I have discovered it is so difficult to travel nowadays. So, I have decided to travel as little as possible. I loved to go on cruise, to the Mediterranean or the US, but even going to Potiskum now, I have to consider the time I’d investing in it. So, I have decided I won’t go by road anymore unless by air. I’d take a flight to Gombe or Bauchi and then do the remaining few kilometres by road. Travelling takes so much out of me; I will just feel tired.
What places around the world had you visited that you found very interesting?
I had done the Mediterranean, at least, twice. I had been to the West Indies, and I had gone across the Panama Canal to the US. I was actually going to travel to Australia and Singapore, but something happened and the travel didn’t happen. But I still hope to do it.
Of all these, which one did you enjoy the most?
I will say my trip to the Panama Canal. I enjoyed going through the Canal to Asia and to America from there.
There seems to be an unusual number of people from Potiskum who are well educated. What explains this?
Well, you are asking the right person. My own grandfather was the Councillor for Education in the Fika emirate. He took the job very seriously and did it fairly well, with the support of the Emir of Fika. He was determined that area would be made up of modern, educated people. People in that area, no matter their tribe, no matter how old, went to school. The Emir himself listened to the need for education and ensured that people in that area were educated. Even illiterate women were taught something about basic education. The feeling in the area was that you must be educated. They took education very seriously and took pains to learn to understand what was happening in the outside world.
Were you an exceptional student coming from that setting?
No, I wasn’t. But I was just lucky that there was this general feeling in that environment. For example, when I was into two or three years in primary school, my mother (who herself didn’t go to school) one day sat me down and said, ‘This elementary school you are attending here is not good enough, you need to advance.’ So I went to Borno Middle School. From there, I went to Barewa College, Zaria, and in the first exams we did there, I came first in my class. After that, the local government sent us to the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology to prepare for university. Then I went to the University of Ibadan in 1957 and graduated in 1961.
Immediately after graduation, I was employed into the civil service as an Administrative Officer and started working in the office of the Sardauna. There, I learnt quite a lot.
So there was nothing abnormal about our education. Before me, there was Liman Ciroma, who was also well educated, and many of my uncles and aunts. In our family, everybody went to school. Unlike in some areas where people had to be forced to go to school, in our area, if you were not sent to school, you would protest.
How was life in Ibadan, as a young student and one of the few northerners then studying in that Western Region city far away from home?
It was very interesting. In our days, in those days, if you decided to go to school, scholarship was automatic. We first went to the Nigerian College where we did our pre-university education, the GCEA (General Certificate of Education, Advanced Level.)
At Ibadan, the university just got our results and they were the people who, shall I say, posted us into the various departments of the university.
I and a few mates were asked to do honours degree in History. Some were asked to do honours degree in Geography, while others were told to do a general degree programme. It was the university authorities who would place you where they thought you would succeed and would be capable to do what they expected you to do.
During the week, we would receive lectures, and at the weekend, we would go out strolling to places of interest. The University of Ibadan then had a zoo that made something like tourism seem interesting. The city itself also had quite a large number of the Hausa community who visited the university zoo occasionally. I remember one occasion when some Hausa people came from Sabo, the Hausa community in Ibadan, to the university zoo. When they saw us, they were so excited they shouted, ‘Haaaaaa! These are our Hausa brothers.’ They were so happy to see us studying at the university. People from all over Nigeria came to the university and the authorities ensured you mixed and communicated well so that by the time you were through with your education, you were a good material for any office.
Then, the University of Ibadan, Makerere University in Uganda, Fourah Bay University in Sierra Leone, Legon University in Ghana and a few other universities like them in Africa were like the University of London. The quality of graduates these universities produced was just like the quality of the graduates produced by the University of London itself. The quality was very high. Then, we would boast that, ‘yes, I did History, but I can confidently run a steel mill, run a bank, run anything.’ And it was truly so. Many people who did Classics at the University of Ibadan went on to run big financial institutions. The quality of education at that time was so high that people who employed at that time knew you could do anything.
Can you remember some of your mates at UNIBADAN?
At 82, how many can I remember? Well, there were Ukpabi Asika, Uche Chukwumerije, Dahiru Modibo, D.H. Audu, Garba Ja’Abdulkadir and quite a number of others.
Did you experience any form of discrimination from the local community?
There was no form of discrimination. Everybody related so well. For people like me, the only annoying thing was that we went there determined to learn Yoruba, but we couldn’t learn Yoruba because the only people who spoke Yoruba in Ibadan were the Ibadan people – the taxi drivers, etc. – and they lived outside the university environment.
The people who should be speaking Yoruba to you within the university environment were speaking to you in only English.
While you were at Ibadan, were you thinking of any particular career after school?
Before we went to Ibadan, a friend called Malumfashi and I had decided, while we were at Barewa, to do Law. At that time, there were only a few lawyers – Galadiman Malumfashi, Justice Muhammed Bello, just a few.
But how do we do Law? At that time, there was only one lawyer in private practice in the North and that was Abdulrazak, from Kwara State but he was practising in Zaria. We used to visit him. One day, we asked him, ‘How do we become lawyers?’ He said we would only need to apply to the appropriate quarters. At that time, the Northern administration ensured that whatever you wanted to study, you would get a scholarship. We applied and we were admitted to do Law at a school in the United Kingdom. We had to do a medical test. My friend Malumfashi passed the medical test. But my doctor said I would have trouble with my eyes. By the time the doctor was through with me, the time to travel had already passed. Then my doctor said to me, ‘You can equally achieve anything here. Go to the Nigerian College and prepare for university.’ So the doctor virtually decided for me. I went to the Nigerian College and in the end, I enjoyed it. From there, I went to the university, all on scholarship.
After all what this country had done for me, I will die working to pay back. I want to see this country develop. I want to see this country work well because Nigeria has done so much for me.
As for the Sardauna, I really began to appreciate his impact in my life after his death. After my graduation in 1961, I was posted to his office as Assistant Secretary IV. I was receiving a lot of letters from African leaders like Hamani Diori of Niger Republic and Hamadou Ahidjo of Cameroun . I had studied a little of French at Ibadan. At a time, I decided to study French further and when I applied to go and study in France, the Sardauna immediately approved and facilitated it.
How did you transit from a civil servant to, being not just a journalist but directly as editor of the NEW NIGERIAN?
The Northern government was looking for who they believed was a good hand to edit the NEW NIGERIAN and they believed I could do it. I had edited a school magazine at the University of Ibadan. When I arrived at the NEW NIGERIAN, I went straight to the newsroom and made there my office. It was from there I began editing the newspaper. I later had a lot of people to make the job easy for me. There was Mamman Daura, Turi Muhammed and there was also this man from Bauchi. So we just took over the running of the NEW NIGERIAN and were running it as we saw the Europeans do it.
Did you choose the next editor yourself after you were made managing director?
Yes. I picked Mamman Daura.
Why did you choose him?
Mamman Daura had finished school in the UK and he was working for Radio Nigeria in Kaduna. We lived in the same area, so we knew each other. When I was looking for a capable editor, naturally, I would look for the best, so I picked him and he agreed. And he was a better editor than me; he was even better in English and in everything than me. He did it in a way which made me happy and satisfied. He brought in Turi Muhammed and some other good hands.
When you headed the NEW NIGERIAN both as its editor and managing director, what was your relationship with the military?
The military were the governors of the country, and they were the governors of the northern region, and the northern states were the owners of the NEW NIGERIAN. They wanted me to do what they wanted. I refused. Hassan Usman Katsina, who was the governor of the Northern region, wanted me to do some things because General Yakubu Gowon wanted them that way, but I refused. One day, he called me and we quarrelled. That was in the presence of Ali Akilu, who told him, ‘Look, if you cannot tolerate the way he does things we can just take him away.’
One day, towards the end of the Civil War, we wrote an editorial criticising the Army, especially the Army chief who was from Cross River.
They were very angry with me and they arrested Mamman Daura who was the editor. One day, I didn’t see Mamman; two days, I didn’t see Mamman, so I went to Lagos to see Hassan Usman Katsina and asked him why they arrested Mamman Daura, the NEW NIGERIAN editor. He couldn’t tell me. I asked Gowon why. He couldn’t tell me. So I packed my things and I was going home, meaning I was going to resign.
Just as I was going to the hotel, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was working at the Supreme headquarters, followed me. He told me Gen. Gowon wanted to see me. I told Obasanjo I didn’t want to see him, and that if he met me, I was going to tell him very unpleasant things. But Obasanjo, a friend of mine, persuaded me, took me back to Dodan Barracks and straight to Gowon. I told Gowon that Obasanjo brought me back by force, that I was going back to Kaduna to resign. I told him they arrested my editor for no just cause. I told him, ‘yes, we are running this newspaper which belongs to the government, but what we put in this paper should be fair and just.’ I told him if we can’t do that, there was no point in us running the newspaper so I was resigning.
Gowon apologized. But the truth is that from that moment, I was not so friendly with the military. Gowon and I should have gotten on better together because he was just two years ahead of me at school (Barewa College, Zaria).
There has been this speculation that your appointment as Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria from being managing director of the NEW NIGERIAN was a mistake? Could you clarify this?
Shortly after I was appointed editor of the NEW NIGERIAN, I was also appointed a director of the CBN. From that point, I got involved in knowing how the CBN operated, how they worked, what they were doing and so on. So I was quite familiar with the operations of the CBN. When the coup that ousted Gowon and brought in Murtala Mohammed took place, I was in Lagos and was staying at a CBN apartment where we normally stayed. On the morning of the coup, I heard the sound of a stone someone had thrown at my window. I opened the window to ask who it was that threw the stone and it was Shehu Yar’Adua. I opened the door and he said to me, ‘There has been a coup and the military leadership has appointed you governor of the Central Bank.’ He said something like there were some forex transactions which were not done right and they needed somebody to put them right. So they decided to put me there.
I told you in the beginning that our quality of education then enabled me to be a historian, to head a steel mill, to edit a newspaper, to manage any organization. In the same line of thought I could head the Central Bank. And I did. I actually did a lot of good work for the bank.
So why would you walk away from such an influential office?
When I was at the CBN as its governor, the military government decided to set up a Constituent Assembly to create a new Constitution for the democratic government that would succeed it. Every part of Nigeria, more so the North, wanted to be sure they were sending their best materials to the Constituent Assembly. In Borno State, I was one of the people they chose to represent the people at the Constituent Assembly. I knew what was my duty. You cannot be governor of the CBN and be something else at the same time. I cannot retain my position as governor of the CBN and still want to be a member of the Constituent Assembly.
What do I do? I decided to resign as the CBN governor because to have been called to represent my people at the Constituent Assembly was a call to duty more important than the position of the CBN governor. That became my journey into politics.
Have you any regrets on your decision?
No, I have no regrets. In fact, it shaped my journey in life, because when we were at the Constituent Assembly, I decided that since the Constituent Assembly was drafting a new Constitution, some people have to run the new Constitution and who would be better placed to run it than those who drafted it. And we decided to start a political party. I, naturally, actively participated in the formation of the new party. Some people were struggling for party positions. But some people told me, ‘You, we want you to run for president.’ They believed I could run the country better. So I decided to try in the presidential primaries of the National Party of Nigeria. There were, I think, five of us: Shehu Shagari, Sola Saraki, Professor Abubakar, Maitama Sule and I. In the end, the convention elected Shagari.
We couldn’t gather quality people like that and they would do wrong. What they did was right; Shagari was the best candidate. Shagari had more votes than any of us. I was one of the first people to go straight from the convention to congratulate him. He was not even at the convention. He was in Lagos where the convention took place but he wasn’t at the convention venue.
After the convention, they said I should become the party secretary. I agreed, but not immediately because that wasn’t what I wanted to do.
But the Borno people said, ‘If you don’t take this job, some people will start thinking it is because you don’t like Shagari, so it is advisable you accept the position.’ So I became the party secretary.
The general elections, Shagari won. President Shagari then called me and said, ‘Elections are over. Write a letter to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, to Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe, to Mallam Aminu Kano and to Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, invite them to be part of our government.’ I wrote the letters to them. Awolowo did not reply. The secretary of the Unity Party of Nigeria was my classmate at the University of Ibadan, we did History together. He came to me to say they got our letter but they wouldn’t participate in the Shagari government unless we agreed to adopt their manifesto, programmes and policies and do what they wanted. I told him it wasn’t possible, that they couldn’t bring all those impossible conditions to someone who won the elections.
Aminu Kano replied that as far as the North was concerned, he was the only one in opposition so if he joined the Shagari government, the political party he led, the Peoples Redemption Party, would melt.
Waziri Ibrahim didn’t even bother to tell his supporters that he had been invited to join the Shagari government. It was after government had been formed many months later that the secretary of their party, the Great Nigeria Peoples Party, told me they were not informed.
Dr Azikiwe and the party he led, the Nigeria Peoples Party, told Paul Unongo to negotiate with us. I, representing our party, the NPN, and Unongo negotiated and we agreed on the positions we would give them and they agreed to participate.
After this, Shagari asked me what office I wanted. I told him that I had been told from home to assist him, so whatever he wanted me to do for him, even if he wanted me to be a cleaner, I was ready to support him.
He persisted. So I told him that in the last few years, I had been involved in CBN affairs and in matters pertaining to the economy, so naturally my interest would be in matters pertaining to the economic sector. He then appointed me Minister of Trade and Industry.
I was Industry minister for two years. He had appointed Ibrahim Gusau as Minister of Agriculture. In the NPN agenda, agriculture was the number one item. But after two years, Shagari reshuffled his cabinet and swapped my position with Gusau’s. I became Minister of Agriculture, while Gusau was moved to Industry.
I would also subsequently be appointed Minister of Agriculture by Gen Sani Abacha, and, much later, Minister of Finance by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. My position as Agriculture minister under Shagari was, to me, when I served Nigeria the most. Yes, Finance is a senior position, but in helping the economy of this country, it is in agriculture I feel I had done so much. Agriculture is the economic base of this country. If you want to help the development of any economy, if you want to improve the income of the ordinary people, you have to help them produce more. You must improve the quantity and value of what they produce.
I knew I had to provide support for agriculture to bring a high yield, so I bought ox-drawn ploughs, cows and whatever to distribute to farmers all over Nigeria. I bought tractors to work on increasing yield, which I distributed all over Nigeria and agricultural production increased. I know I did a lot of things which helped farming and farmers. I still strongly believe that if we want to help this country, we have to support agriculture. If there is something I had done and I remain proud of, it is what I had done in the Ministry of Agriculture.
You spoke so glowingly of agriculture. Did you ever have farms yourself?
I had farms. In fact, when I was a minister in Shagari’s government, I acquired a farm in Potiskum. I wanted to be an exemplary farmer. Not long afterwards, the Buhari regime that followed put us in Kirikiri and they said they were investigating us. They investigated everything and one of the investigators who went to see my wife in Kaduna said, ‘They should just leave this man alone. They said he has a farm. We went to the farm and it was nothing.’ So I had a farm that was nothing.
Again, before I became a minister in Abacha’s government, I started a farm somewhere between Kaduna and Abuja. I was producing maize and other grains. I believe I was doing well then because I cared about the farm. Once I was appointed Minister of Agriculture under Abacha, I had no time to look after the farm. The secret of successful farming is that unless you are there, physically present to supervise activities, you can’t succeed. Your workers will tell you nice, beautiful stories but you won’t see nice, beautiful harvest. That year, I lost and I sold the farm.
You made efforts to be president. How would you describe the experience? Would you say you were disappointed about the results?
The only time I did was when I contested against Shagari in the NPN primaries. I didn’t really make so much effort to be president.
You also tried to become president in the political arrangement of the former military president, Ibrahim Babangida. What happened to that effort?
Oh, that is true. Babangida misled us. He set the goalposts and some of us believed him and we offered to lead the country. But 1,2 and I didn’t do it again. But I didn’t really care about the experience because if you are giving something to somebody, it is left to him to accept or not. I am sure if I had succeeded in becoming president, I would have done a lot better for this country, but then God didn’t want it that way. I don’t have any grudge against anybody. I have lost nothing, and I have a better life. All this talk about corruption and people collecting what should be public funds from anybody, nobody can mention me. I believe everything that had happened was God’s work in my life.
You were in public service for many years. Do you agree that corruption, as maintained by President Buhari, is our greatest problem?
Yes. Corruption is the biggest single problem of governance in Nigeria. President Buhari has correctly identified the fact that corruption is our major problem and it has to be dealt with. As we can all see, any time we mention corruption, the names of big people emerge. People who you would think should not be involved in corruption, their names are there.
Public officers award contracts that are not executed. Even in the military, money meant to fight insurgency, to fight insecurity disappeared. So corruption is a big problem.
I believe in what Buhari is doing. Unfortunately, it is not this country alone that corruption is ravaging. Now, they are talking of corruption in Brazil and other countries, but that can’t be any justification for corruption here. We can’t hide under any canopy for our corrupt ways.
We must stop it. We must ensure that what we are doing in governance we are doing it for the ordinary people.
Abacha, as it turned out, wasn’t a paragon of honesty. What would you say of your decision to serve Abacha?
Abacha had problems of running the country, so he decided to call on prominent politicians to help him and I was one of them. He appointed me the Minister of Agriculture. By then, I had already formed my strong view that agriculture is an area where one can help the people. So I accepted. I wanted to ensure that things were done properly. I knew that fertiliser was one of the most important things to help farmers. I laid out a system of international contract award in a way that nobody would bring in corruption into that system. It was in a way that fertiliser would arrive and would be taken directly to the right quarters. I felt I was on my way to help. But Abacha said no, that there was enough fertilizer in this country and everything was okay. I told him I was the Minister of Agriculture and I should know what was needed. He still said no.
He told me this on a weekend. After that, I stayed on as minister for a few days then I sent in my letter of resignation. He made efforts to get me back but I refused. Whatever corruption that happened during the Abacha regime, I cannot be part of it, and I definitely wasn’t part of it.
If you were in President Buhari’s shoes today as president of Nigeria, what were some things you would do?
I can tell you now that if you wanted me to be president of this country, I would not accept; I am too old. That aside, I will say that if Buhari wants to run a good government, he has to do what the Sardauna did. He has to first identify his problems and call knowledgeable people to advise him.
The knowledgeable people who will advise him, he will have to go to them; they won’t come to him because they will be wary of how he will receive their advice. Now, all of us know there are certain problems, but Buhari has not said these are his problems. The only thing he has mentioned as a problem is corruption, and even on corruption, he is stuck. He needs other forms of knowledge, and unless he brings all these together, he cannot produce a good result.
I had tried to do my own bit; I sent him a message telling him that government is not the prerogative, it is not the exclusive preserve of only one person. No one person can run Nigeria successfully. No matter how good you are, you can’t be 100 per cent good. So Buhari should involve knowledgeable people in his government to do governance successfully. I once told him that no matter how good you are as the leader of Nigeria, if you don’t involve the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, as well as other tribes, you cannot solve our problems.
But wouldn’t the President tell you he has a team already solving his problems?
They said he has a team but I don’t know whether he, indeed, has a team now. I don’t know whether he listens to people. I don’t know whether he has honest advisers who can go to him and say, ‘Mr President, you are travelling too much.’ When Daily Trust wrote an editorial on this matter, my wife said this editorial was written by people who truly love Buhari. That is true. If people don’t tell him the truth, how does he improve? Can any of his aides take the editorial to him and say, ‘Mr. President, you need to read this?’ He needs people who can tell him the truth.
As we asked earlier, if you were in that office, what measures would you take in respect of what you just said?
That has passed my time; I don’t want to be president. I am not interested. But anybody who wants to be president now, it is my duty to give him advice. If you don’t ask me, I can’t tell you anything, because I can’t know what your problem is.
From your rich experience about life, what advice would you give young people?
You are reminding me of something which is very sensitive to me. I pity young people. Here are young, knowledgeable, educated, healthy and strong people who only hang around because they have no job to do.
They are jobless for no fault of theirs. The words we hear are that they should create jobs for themselves. This is not done! It is the duty of government to create the enabling environment to create jobs.
Government should create the environment for young men and women to have something to do. It should create a situation where the youth can apply their education for the benefit of their country, their people and themselves. Now, we have a situation where people work to be paid every month and they are not paid. In such a situation, if such minds have the chance to be corrupt, won’t they take it? Honestly, I pity our young ones.
Frankly, government has failed. I want government to create a situation where jobs will be created easily.
Who and who have you met in your life’s journey you would call your heroes?
I did not physically know Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. I was in Lagos briefly when he was Prime Minister. I was, however, very much aware of his status in the politics of Nigeria and in the politics of the North. I believe this country has not produced one single person who cared about the ordinary people more than Abubakar Tafawa Balewa did. He was always honest. So I will pick him as number one.
Next person I will mention is Shettima Ali Monguno. He was Minister of Petroleum for a long time. The only style of clothes I knew on Ali Monguno as Petroleum minister was the Arab dress. Otherwise, everything about Ali Monguno was what the ordinary man has. And he was not corrupt. He also cared about people. He was once my teacher and was a fantastic man.
I believe Awolowo was a good leader. He knew the problems of his people and he applied solutions that worked. I knew him when we were at the University of Ibadan; we were always going to his house.
Dr. Azikiwe was also a fantastic person. We were young people when he was the leader of the NPP and I was secretary of the NPN. I used to go and meet him to discuss political issues. He was always treating us as his friends.
If you have to live your life all over again, is there anything you would like to change? Personal, career, politics?
This is a question whose answer is of no use. I have lived my life. I know what you said is not possible. Of course, there would be things I wished I didn’t do. But you have to take everything together as part of your overall experience. I am very satisfied with my experience in life. One thing I can say is that as a muslim, I feel happy with myself as I approach the end of my life. I am understanding Islam even more.