Senator Abdullahi Adamu has been in politics since he became the secretary, and later chairman of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in Plateau State from 1978 to 1982. He was a minister in the government of General Sani Abacha, then contested to become the first civilian governor of Nasarawa State from 1999 to 2007. He later held the position of secretary, Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) before he was elected to the Senate for three consecutive terms. Lately, he was the national chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), from where he resigned recently. In this interview, he speaks on his activities as a student and politician as well as on national issues.
Let’s start with your life in Keffi.
I was born in Keffi on July 23, 1946. I started normal life as any northern child in this part of the country.
I started with Quranic school. At the age of seven, I enrolled in Audu Zanga Primary School from where I proceeded to Laminga Senior Primary School after common entrance examination. It used to be a Middle School in this part of the country.
I left Laminga in 1959 and went to Government College, Makurdi. I left after only three years to go to Government Technical College, Bukuru, in Jos. In those days, getting a job was not a headache. I was one of the students who were privileged to get employed while in school, just after getting the results of our examination.
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As a young man, how was it going from Keffi to Makurdi?
What happened was that on the eve of resumption, our parents would take us from Keffi to Gudi where we had the nearest railway station. It was easier going by rail than road. Normally, the train would come around 12 or maybe 11 and we were off to Makurdi.
Was it difficult to adjust to life in Makurdi, considering different cultures and environment?
At that time, when you heard of Makurdi, the first thing that would come to mind was a Tiv town, but when we got there we discovered that it wasn’t so much of a Tiv town. Tivs were mostly in villages around Makurdi. The heart of the town was inhabited by tribes from different parts of northern Nigeria.
So, you adjusted very well?
Absolutely; there was no difficulty whatsoever.
So, from secondary school at Bukuru, you went straight for employment?
I had options at the time because I read engineering—electrical installation. I had an option to go to either the Nigeria Tobacco Company (NTC) in Zaria or Kaduna Textiles, which was the first textile company in northern Nigeria. I opted to go to Kaduna.
One didn’t have to go looking for a job. Potential employers would come to the school at the beginning of the last year of study and show interest in having students from that institution. If you indicated interest, at the right time, they would come for interview; and once you were successful, you would go to the place of work you had chosen.
But you also went to Kaduna Polytechnic?
Yes. I was employed in the Kaduna Textiles when I got the offer to do diploma in Kaduna Polytechnic. One thing about our time is that the slots were very scarce in higher educational institutions, particularly at the tertiary level. Immediately I got the offer I just grabbed it and resigned my appointment formally.
Was it at this period of your life that you started a bit of politics and became the president of the students’ union?
Yes. All through my life, as long as I can remember, I was what you may today call a “busybody.”
From primary and senior primary schools we had organisations like debating society, dancing club, photography, young farmers club, that kind of stuff. I found myself taking interest in most of them.
At the risk of sounding immodest, in most of my participation in these clubs, somehow I got involved with its leadership. I didn’t appreciate what that held for me in the future.
The point is that I got used to dealing with people, my peers, summoning meetings, taking decisions, reporting to whichever teacher was in charge of that particular club. It helped in building one’s attitude towards teamwork. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t know what it had for me.
At Kaduna Poly, you were a mature student, even married, was it the kind of politics you had to campaign and contest?
We were the first set; it used to be a technical institute. Somehow, as a tertiary institution, the first wind that was blowing was students’ politics. We wanted to be like Yaba Polytechnic, which preceded ours. They were already struggling for an indigenous diploma, a national diploma instead of the overseas, one from the United Kingdom.
So, this wind caught up with us and we got involved. We had to get leadership for the students’ union and I was induced to contest. I contested for secretary of the union and God made it possible for me to win.
And just towards the close of that year, the guy who was elected president, Ghandi (he was from what is known as Kogi State now, an Igala guy), had a scholarship to go to Russia. There was another election, so I left my position, contested for president and succeeded.
After National Diploma, and later, Higher National Diploma, you spent quite some time in the private sector, unlike people of that generation who would go into the civil service; what happened?
Honestly, I never had a stint with the civil service. I grew to know only the private sector. It gave you challenges. Any job placed on your shoulders you were expected to produce the desired results. They didn’t accept excuses in the private sector and I think it is still the same to some extent even now.
What is more, there was a little more pay than in the public sector. Whatever you needed as a young man desirous of working and having the benefits of his sweat, the private sector was it, so I found it a very nice place to be.
What tempted you to accept the job in Plateau?
That was the executive secretary of the Benue-Plateau Construction Company (BEPCO). This was during the regime of Murtala Mohammed of blessed memory.
After the Murtala coup there were agitations in several parts of the country for creation of more states, and Benue-Plateau, as it was called, was not an exception.
As a student (leader) we used to go to Plateau to see Gomwalk, who was the governor of Benue-Plateau State. I wanted to go and talk on behalf of my people; nobody elected me to do that. I decided to go to Plateau when the Irikife Panel on creation of states was visiting Jos. I wanted to present a memorandum on the creation of states.
You wanted the creation of Plateau?
No; incidentally, mine was different, I wanted Benue-Plateau State to stay as it was.
The reason was that there was so much hue and cry from the people of Plateau at the time. They were talking of domination by Benue people. At the time, Keffi, Nasarawa were part and parcel of Benue Province, created in 1925.
I managed to get some basic statistics from government sources on scholarship, position of permanent secretaries, senior civil servants in Benue-Plateau, not only by name but numerical placement.
And former Plateau Province had the highest in each of the indices and they were the ones complaining. I felt there was no justification in their agitation.
Did you present a memo?
Yes, I presented a memo in that regard; I submitted the statistics.
Are you saying that action endeared you to the government to give you the BEPCO job?
In fact, when I was doing my presentation, I can’t say now how many times I was virtually interrupted to keep quiet. But I had the courage to ask the chairman to protect me. Somehow, I got to the end of my presentation and said that Benue-Plateau should stay as it was.
I got out and wanted to get into my car as I was driving myself but all the four tyres had been deflated, so I couldn’t move. A good Samaritan gave me lift from there and took me to the hotel I lodged. That was Jos Hotel on Zaria Road, and made arrangement for a vulcanizer to fix my car.
Behold, when I got to the hotel, my booking had been cancelled and my room locked. I found my box at the reception. Those who were the power brokers, if you permit that language, in Plateau at the time, didn’t see me as a friend or brother; they saw an adversary in me.
How did you land the Benue-Plateau Construction Company job?
At the time this was happening in the state, the governor was no longer JD Gomwalk but Brig. Gen. Abdullahi Mohammed, he was then a colonel from Kwara. Somehow, they had security reports of all these activities. There was a fair coverage of what happened during the hearing on the creation of states.
Was the 1977 Constituent Assembly the beginning of your active participation in politics?
I was elected.
From the position of a permanent secretary, you suddenly found yourself in that kind of position?
I was in Jos; in fact, preparing to go for a graduate programme in the UK. Some elderly people came from Keffi to Jos, this was in the course of the work of the 49 wise men who were drafting the constitution. They came to my house. One of them was my uncle-in-law, the other was my headmaster in senior primary school, and the third, my teacher at the primary school. Three of them came and purported to be representing elders in Keffi. That was the beauty of politics then.
There was going to be this thing called Constituent Assembly and people elected to go and discuss the draft constitution. They said, “We decided that you should go and represent us.”
Whenever the ordinary Nigerians hear politicians saying, “It is my people that came and called me”, they get a bit suspicious; what do you think about this?
It used to be the order, and I tell you that this in my honour. These guys came and there was no consultation with me. The only thing I came to find out later was the fact that they had been following my activities.
They followed me through my days of student unionism and other activities like the presentation of memo during the Irikife Panel in Jos. I stood up for what I believed in and made my points in the face of threat and what have you.
I came to discover that they had some idea of what I was doing and they needed somebody who could do that kind of thing in Lagos.
Were you going home to Keffi when you were in Jos?
My father and mother were alive, so any little opportunity I had, before going to Jos while I was still in Kaduna, I would come home. Sometimes, I would come during weekends, particularly to see the elderly ones.
You were in the group that became the NPN. You became the secretary in Plateau and later on chairman, but another party won, so, you were in opposition in that state?
When we started in 1979, I was secretary like you rightly said. We lost the election to the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) which precipitated crisis in the party. Members started agitation that the executive committee of the party should be dissolved.
There were some strong forces in Plateau NPN politics. Somebody like Saleh Hassan of blessed memory was the chairman, as well as Isiaku Ibrahim, who is now in Abuja, the late Saleh Jambo of blessed memory and Hassan Mohammed from Keffi.
Were they very senior politicians?
They were very senior politicians and I was not their age group. They believed that I was too stubborn, that they won’t have their way with me. They constituted the court of the late President Shehu Shagari.
Did you contest against Saleh Hassan?
No. What happened was that they brought another candidate and it was virtually a walkover.
You became the chairman, but people said the NPN machine took over the country and led to the 1983 coup; is that correct?
Every party had a machine.
Maybe that success was problematic?
Well, I wouldn’t say that victory in Plateau State was necessarily the trigger. There was so much noise about some Generals saying there was a landslide, so there would also be a ‘gun-slide’.
But the ‘gun-slide’ did happen.
Yes, the gun-slide happened. You see, one thing about Nigeria, like any country in the world, is that politics is about human beings. Political leaders are human beings; they have relatives, friends and schoolmates binding them with some other persons in the military and police.
And sometimes, the anger in the political arena rubs on these institutions, and each time they come, they say we come because of bad governance.
What makes one a good politician?
The takeoff point is that every human being is a political animal. I think some philosophers before us said this; and it is one of the things nobody has challenged.
We all have this instinct to express ourselves, to say you like the way it is happening or you don’t like it.
I am talking about the instinct to get up and say you want to be the leader.
To be honest with you, my upbringing is guided by my faith and in Islam. We have seen it in Hadath; in fact, it is in the Holy Quran, that if you come to say you want to be your governor, we are told to challenge this.
But that is the Islamic tradition, not the Nigerian political tradition.
I can only talk from my background. Nigeria is an amalgam of tribes, ethnic and religious groups. If I am involved and somebody says he wants to be my leader, I will look at him and ask what makes him want to be my leader, what agenda does he have to rule over me, for instance.
There is one community in Nigeria that does this – the Igbo have that culture. If you come from Lagos or America or the United Kingdom and say you want to be so and so, they will ask what you have done to identify yourself with them to earn you the position. Unfortunately, we don’t do this.
My culture happens not to get the necessary propagation.
So, it looks old fashioned?
Absolutely; but my faith tells me that anything God says we will do is never old fashioned; the teachings of the Quran are for all time.
When the Abacha constitutional conference came, you again went there to serve; you also became a minister. You earlier said this was not the kind of thing you wanted – somebody appointing you minister – but you accepted, what happened?
As you grow, you get wiser and get to be on the path of realism. You also get a body of people who care about what you do and what happens to you.
I went to the Constitution Review Committee and we were in the process. I will never forget that I was saying my Magrib prayer in Apo Legislative Quarters when I heard a bang on my door. They saw that I was praying and waited. They said “congratulations for your appointment.”
So, you were not consulted?
No, nor did I look for it.
But you took it; how was your experience?
Well, it was challenging. I had a very rough time.
With your senior minister?
The story is there, but you didn’t quite mention whom it was.
The Late General Abdulkarim Adisa.
You had a running battle with him?
Yes, may his soul rest in perfect peace. I saw the good part of it. I saw one part of it, which I don’t just know what to make of, except to say that sometimes, we behave like the ancient Greeks; once you are in a position, whatever you say, everybody says yes.
Is it the military culture?
Yes, it may be general with Nigerians. That was what I experienced. I see that even till this moment I am talking to you.
Even in civilian administrations?
Absolutely; we like to say yes to the authorities.
When you became governor a few years later, people said you did the same, that you were the alpha and omega of Nasarawa; is that true?
Unfortunately, I will not be a judge in my own court, otherwise in good conscience, I tried to be with the people, I tried to do what the people wanted. I did so through consultation with them, especially people in the state who were older and more experienced in governance than me.
What of your commissioners, people working with you or under you?
It may interest you to know that my commissioners were divided into three categories. I had about a third of the commissioners who were older than me, a third my peers and a third junior to me. I did this to get the benefits of these tiers of the society.
But no matter what you do, what is inherent in democracy is that people accuse you, rightly or wrongly. It is part of democracy and you have to have the stomach for it.
But is the perception wrong that state governors have become like gods – they do what they want, they award all the contracts and state assemblies are too weak to challenge them?
It is not too wrong; one would be dishonest to dismiss it. Again, one bad egg spoils the broth, they say. There can be one or two very bad governors, in terms of their style of administration like lack of consultation and handling budget implementation as if it was a one-man show. Yes, we may have one or two governors who do that and you may have 10 or 20 good ones, but the stories of these bad ones go wider and become the general view.
When I was at the National Assembly, we tried to take some steps to see if we could empower local governments. Their position in the constitution is very clear, but unfortunately, somehow, they are made not to work.
Let’s go back to your tenure in Nasarawa. For eight years, what were the highlights of your administration? What are you proud of?
My preoccupation in life is education. God has plans for me to become what I have become in life and made it possible for me to get educated; otherwise I probably wouldn’t have been here. So, education is my priority.
I introduced more primary schools and increased the facilities. I introduced a bill to the state assembly in which parents that didn’t take their children to school would be penalised. I made education free while I was there.
Then, for children who qualified and wanted to go further, I went up to secondary schools. I established more secondary schools, including those for women specifically; and for science only. I spread them in the senatorial districts as much as possible.
Then, I went to tertiary level and set up a school of nursing and midwifery. I inherited a college of agriculture and a college of education. But I took steps to introduce the essential requirements missing in these institutions. Then I set up the polytechnic in Lafia and the university in Keffi.
When I came in, there were only two or three hospitals in the state, but in every local government, I set up a general hospital.
Why do governors always want to go to the Senate after their tenures? In your own case, you spent another 12 years there?
Honestly, for me, politics is not a profession, it is a calling. Somehow, depending on the depth of your commitment, you will never feel accomplished. During my seventh year as governor, I attempted to run for the presidency of this country, but I did not succeed.
Why? You were the chairman of the Governors’ Forum and Obasanjo had promised to hand over to you?
Because I wanted to contest for the presidency, I had to step down as chairman of the Governors’ Forum. The person who succeeded me also ended up wanting to be president, so he also had to step down.
But two days to the convention, I withdrew. This programme will not allow me to go into it as I would wish.
Was it because Obasanjo favoured Umaru Yar’adua, who was the least ambitious among the governors?
Obasanjo called me on May 31, 2005, but unknown to me, he had called Peter Odili of Rivers State. I will never forget. I was in Lafia.
I got there before Odili and was in his waiting room. Odili arrived about five minutes after me and he called us in and we exchanged pleasantries.
He said, “I know you to be best of friends. You know I am midway in my second term and I have to start thinking of who succeeds me”. We looked at each other and sat properly.
He continued, “I believe you can work together; and you should start planning how you work. And don’t tell anybody.
“You know I am from the South and a Christian, so there is no way I will get my fellow southerner to succeed me. Nor will I encourage a Christian to succeed me. I am sure you understand this. That’s my trust. You can start working together”. We said yes.
Why did he change his mind?
Obasanjo is alive and I know your capacity; you can interview him. We thanked him, and within a short period after that, we were sent on missions.
So, you and Odili started working together?
Yes, we started preparing.
Did he have any other interaction with you later to say that things had changed?
He didn’t. Obasanjo did not talk to anyone of us about it until a Thursday or Wednesday before the convention. I went to Abuja and was coming back to Lafia when my phone rang. It was Obasanjo and he invited me to his office.
So, I went back; and as I was entering, I saw Odili coming out of his consulting room and his face wasn’t what I would like to see. He didn’t look happy. I shook hands with him and asked what happened, but he said, “When you come out, we will talk.”
I went in and Obasanjo told me that if the presidency belonged to him, he would have given it to me and nobody else, but the committee had finished its assessment and I missed it. He said I should leave it for my brother.
I thanked him and said that power came from God. But I told him to do me a favour because I had children and well-wishers I owed a duty of some level of disclosure, having contested and I got this far. I asked what happened. He got up from his seat and there was a voluminous file by the corner. It was a kind of compilation and there were some paginations. He picked it and showed me where it was written that “the governor of Nasarawa State, Abdullahi Adamu, is very loyal governor…”
Was it like a security report?
It was written that, “He is a very loyal governor who launched a school feeding programme.” That was the only thing they had on me. I launched a school feeding programme, which Obasanjo himself commissioned.
What was wrong with the school feeing programme?
I think it was supposed to be a good thing. He went on to say I should leave it for younger ones.
So, the key decision was that he wanted a younger successor?
He said I should leave it for the younger ones, so I left him.
In the Senate, you were also expecting to be the majority leader, but it didn’t happen, why?
I told the president of the Senate that I was too much for him and he didn’t want it, so he fought. When they came to the floor and were reading a letter from the party, I didn’t hear my name as the majority leader. I went to the one they gave it to and congratulated him.
I think people were very surprised that Buhari favoured you as the national chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) because it looked as if others were ahead in the campaign; how did you get it?
I try to pray to my God, that as much as it is humanly possible, to stay on track of the teaching of the Quran and Hadith. In Islam, you don’t go asking for leadership.
Did Buhari call you to discuss it?
No. When these things started, my name was being thrown off here and there, but I refused to react. I did not say anything to anybody. I didn’t tell Buhari about the stories I heard until when I went to visit him after I stepped down.
He told the governors to bring proposals for the chairmanship, but before they did this, the party had made me the chairman of its reconciliation committee after the Adam Oshiomhole administration.
Unknown to me, he was following my efforts from state to state. There was never a linkage between him and me on the issue of my reconciliation effort.
The governors had their agenda and they didn’t see me playing to it. They wanted the presidency to go down South. And if they won’t get the presidency, at least one of them would get the vice president. That was the calculation.
Anyway, they jotted about 10 names, but didn’t send it. They came to the meeting with it. When they presented the list, Buhari asked for my name, saying I was always making contributions in the Senate. He picked a pen from his chest pocket and wrote Senator Abdullahi Adamu on top of their list. That was supposed to be an indication of his interest. That very afternoon, one or two of them came and congratulated me. But the governors continued with all manner of criticism, including that I was too old for the chairmanship.
But the president insisted on having his way, so they handed off.
You mentioned the agenda of the governors for a southern president, were you thinking the presidency should be opened to everybody?
To be honest with you, that was my inclination. I wanted to win the election. I never lost an election and I saw what was going on in the country. But of course, party leadership is a collective responsibility.
But you didn’t have a strong northern candidate that would take the votes away?
From my consultations, and from the advice I was getting, I am a northerner and I would go for a northerner; and no apologies for that. I have never hidden this.
Was the issue of Senator Ahmed Lawan as the party’s candidate an initiative you took out of your conviction as a party chairman?
The party chairman has a role, but with a ruling party, I could not take it on myself to float Ahmed Lawan’s name.
I am curious because everybody put it on you.
Well, of course, I take responsibility as party chairman, but nobody with maturity in politics and governance will say that Abdullahi Adamu, as the chairman of the party, would just get up and say this is my presidential candidate. It doesn’t add up.
But there didn’t seem to be a process; the announcement just came from you and the governors were there in the background protesting.
Of course, there were processes. I don’t want to go back on that. What I detested about this whole setting was that people who wanted to win favours with President Ahmed Bola Tinubu continued saying there was cold war between me and him and making so much capital out of it.
I am an established person from my root, right from birth. I come from a royal family and I am proud of it. I was born at a time when there was a northern Nigeria. I was brought into its values even though I worked mainly in the private sector. I saw myself first and foremost as a northerner in Nigeria and I have no apologies to anybody on this.
But times are changing, if you want to take a count of people with the same feeling, attitude, commitment and loyalty to the North, you would have a problem.
But go down South, especially the South West, and you would see that people are not ashamed of beating their chests and telling you who they are and where they come from and what they stand for. Go to the East, till today, we are losing lives in the East for what they believe in, not here.
So, your fellow politicians from the North backed out?
I believe very strongly that they should have done better than they did; but I have no regret. The reason I have no regret is that only what God wills will happen.
God has made Bola Ahmed Tinubu the president of this country. The moment he won in the convention, I led the National Working Committee to his residence to congratulate him and to give him assurance that we would stand head and shoulders with him to work for the success of the party; and we did.
No matter what anybody will say about my relationship with Tinubu, the fact remains that it was under my leadership that the APC won the election. I like Tinubu for one thing. When I last saw him after my resignation, he referred to himself as “this bouncing baby boy delivered by you.” And he made my day.
But why did you resign rather suddenly?
Politics is an amalgamation of actions and reactions and you have to find your bearing in them. I felt I had played that part of leadership. I was a minister in this country. I was also a governor and secretary of Board of Trustees of a ruling party. I led this party called the APC to victory and delivered a whole new government to succeed Buhari.
President Buhari nominated me before the governors and I went to the convention and was elected. I remain ever grateful to him and the Almighty God for ensuring that I succeeded.
Are we to say that Senator Abdullahi Adamu is done with politics? You have been in it for 45 years, are you retired now?
I wish this question didn’t come up because I had prepared myself to talk to Nigerians. It is high time we went back to where we came from.
I thank God that at my age, I still enjoy some good health. I have what I will eat and wear for the rest of my life. I have a shelter for the rest of my life. I don’t have one property anywhere in the world that I am renting to somebody for revenue.
I have only one other house here; my children are in it and the other one I built in 1982. I tried to put up some businesses here and there.
You don’t have property in Abuja?
I have the Abuja property; that is what I said. I have one property I built in 1986 in Jos. I have been looking for a buyer, but I couldn’t get. I am putting together a university, by the grace of God; that is my dream.
Here in Keffi?
No; in Agwada, which is under Keffi.
You are a well-known farmer; how is it going?
I had thought we would have this interview on the farm. In fact, I mentioned it to the gentleman. I wish I could take you one of these days to go to the farm.
Is it going well?
My farm is growing, somehow. However, I haven’t been lucky with managers. One of the good things happening is that I am not having anybody’s responsibility on my shoulders. I can have time to go to the farm.
Are your children managers there?
Well, two of them, but they are not into this. I don’t force them, but I want to rub a bit of interest in their minds as much as possible.
You have married quite a few times; how is family life for you?
I have six children: two girls and four boys. My first child is an architect, my second one is a mechanical engineer with a master’s degree, my third one, an accountant, a lady. She did Accountancy and Finance. I have another one that read Business Administration. My fifth child read Geography.
These are the younger ones?
Yes, my lastborn is just going to primary three now.
How is your usual day, now that you are out of the hurly-burly of politics; is it boring?
Maybe we haven’t gotten to that stage yet. Up till now, I am in the honeymoon of retirement. I love the time I have for my farm, I love not having to wake at 8am because I don’t want to be late to office; that kind of stuff. I go to bed when I want. There is no compulsion or duty to see somebody.
I wake up for my morning prayers, after that, I go back to bed. On average, I leave the bed around 9o’clock, then prepare myself and come to sit out here; maybe go and see the emir. I am a member of the Emirate Council.
As the Turakin Keffi?
Yes. And if there are some deaths in town, I will go and sympathise and condole people here, Nasarawa or Lafia; that kind of thing. I engage in anything important as long as it is devoid of partisanship. I will be making a statement soon about my intention.