Alhaji Sidi Ali, a former member of the House of Representatives, was born in Kano, but he spent his early days in Ghana. In this interview with Daily Trust on Sunday, Ali, who described himself as an experienced propagandist, spoke on his encounter with Kwame Nkrumah, his relationship with the first minister of defence after independence, Muhammadu Ribadu, Abubakar Rimi, Aminu Kano and others. He also spoke on politics in Nigeria.
Your background shows that you were born in Kano but somehow, early in life you found yourself in Ghana. How did this transition take place?
My father, Alhaji Sidi Ali from Sharifai in Ghana, was a major supplier of cattle with British soldiers from the time of the Second World War. At that time, the chief of staff to the then West African Army was based in Accra, Ghana. In fact, most of our soldiers were trained there. I remember people like Hassan Katsina and others before we set our own base. At a certain stage, the late Bello Dandago, together with Sani Kontagora, Malam Isa Kaita and Justice Junaidu from Katsina, were sent to Ghana (Goal Coast at that time) as broadcasters because most of the soldiers spoke Hausa. You know, Hausa is a language you would find almost everywhere in the world, so they needed Hausa-speaking people to talk to soldiers; hence they took these four people to Goal Coast.
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It was while there that Bello Dandago told my father in 1944 that one day Ghanaians would rise and ask all Nigerians to leave. From my interaction with them, they were not happy. In 1959 they said all non-citizens should leave. Of course the target was Nigerians because they were highest in number wherever you found Africans. That was how we came back. Dandago brought me back and enrolled me at Shahuci Middle School. This actually influenced our love for journalism. All my elder brothers were journalists, including Mohammed Ali, who was the controller of Radio Nigeria.
Did you start school in Ghana rather than Kano?
I started school in Shahuci Elementary School in 1945, and in 1949 we went to Kano Middle School. One of my classmates was General Murtala Mohammed. But I later went back to Ghana.
Why did you go back to Ghana?
I went back for higher education, but unfortunately, I later got involved in politics, to the extent that I was able to meet Kwame Nkrumah. A lot of students were arrested, and I was one of them. There was a school called Ghana Secondary School, where children were expelled because of political involvement. It was from there that I went to the United States.
Nkrumah arranged for me to go to school abroad and sent me to London, but I couldn’t fit in because at that time I needed to have an A-level before entering a British university. That was how he arranged for me to go to New York, where I could do six months for a high school equivalent. If you passed you could get admission.
How was your experience in the US in the 1960s?
I was in the US when the situation in Congo was taking place. We had a Pan African Students Organisation (PASO) and I was the chairman of its political committee. We demonstrated, which led America to pencil me down as one of the undesirables, whatever that meant.
When Fidel Castro came to New York in 1962, after the Bay of Peak, despite his position as head of state, he decided to stay in a hotel in Harlem, which was black people’s area. African students formed a committee to be like his security, so the Americans were not very happy with me. That was how, during the civil war, I was identified as one of those people. I was invited to join the federal service by Ahmed Joda, with the support of M.D Yusuf.
Did you finish your education in the US?
I got my BA.
And you didn’t go back to Ghana?
I went back to Ghana. In fact, I went to Ghana after the coup.
By then Nkrumah had been removed?
Yes, he was removed and we became suspicious. When I left New York I wanted to go to Guinea before going back to Ghana, but the Guinean government didn’t allow it. Nkrumah was in Guinea on exile. They refused to give me visa because they were not sure we were actually through Nkrumah or agents of foreign power. Because Nkrumah was issuing statements that became real threat to the military, it wasn’t easy to allow people to go there.
How was your experience in Ghana when you went back from the US?
When I went there, they had a problem because most African countries depended solely on what we were told by America in the name of advice on security and so on. And we still do, but it is not good. See the number of Americans that come here in the name of election observers, and they will never allow our own to go there. See what happened to Trump, where even after the election he got people to attack the National Assembly and deny that he was defeated. He also got angry with his deputy because he said they had lost. African leaders say we are learning democracy from them. They should also invite our people to go there and monitor their elections. We believe in what they say. Our chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was very happy that the American Council visited him. If you book an appointment with him it would take you long to see him, but somebody would come from the American Embassy and their consulate from Lagos and see him. It is unfortunate that we are looking at ourselves in the low level.
Were you expelled from Ghana?
Not only expelled, we were arrested and detained. It was Adegore, who was the high commissioner that fought and insisted that the government of Nigeria would not allow its citizens to be treated that way. We were arrested and detained because we were very active in politics. And you won’t blame developing countries because they don’t have the mechanism or training. You appoint people in certain offices because of their relationship with some people in government instead of their know-how.
You said somewhere that you were invited to come back to Nigeria when the civil war started, and that you were an experienced propagandist, is that correct?
I don’t know.
Did you join the Ministry of Information?
I joined the Ministry of Information as a starter. M.D Yusuf, who was the head of a special branch that was the forerunner of the present Department of State Services (DSS), knew my writings, involvement and energy. In spite of the civil war, Joda wanted me badly, so Yusuf recommended me. But the civil service was reluctant, including my good friend, Katagum.
An office called the Nigerian International Press Centre was created on the leadership of the late Austin Ota and I was the deputy. We were given free-hand information because we were receiving from foreign press and taking to liberated areas, etc. Kano was the first state, through Audu Bako, to open an office in Lagos. So, immediately after the war, Bako asked me to go there and I moved to that place.
So you were doing propaganda for the federal government?
Well, either way you call it, we did the work.
Later on you were in the People’s Redemption Party (PRP) and contested election; did you join politics when you moved to Kano?
I don’t want to say I joined politics because I was a patriot. I believed in the politics of that time. In Kano, I wrote an article against the federal government, but there was a special decree that any journalist who wrote against the government could be arrested and detained.
Was it under Gowon?
Yes. When I wrote that article, I was arrested, detained and sent to prison. It was while I was in prison that the PRP was looking for personnel and I was penciled down as a candidate. Abubakar Rimi and Ahmed Inuwa were sent to me, and they arranged for me to be taken to hospital where they could pass the information that they were going to announce me as their candidate. But I told them that I was in detention and all of us were considered as enemies of the state, and we didn’t have a date of release. They said they were sure my release would be announced. And truly, it was announced and I was released.
Rimi and Ahmed Inuwa came to the Central Prison in Kano and I was released. That was how I was put as a candidate. I am not from Dambatta but Darma in Kano city, but at that time, nobody looked at that. When I was taken there, they said I was Malam Aminu Kano’s choice. People were happily giving their money. This is different from what we have today, when even if you want to contest for a local government seat, you would see many hands stretching.
What kind of man was your leader, Malam Aminu Kano?
Aminu Kano, whose father was deputy to the Alkali of Kano, stood for the truth.
Do you think the politics of today is different because we don’t have people like Aminu Kano with principles?
I don’t think so. Let me tell you, all that Malam Aminu Kano possessed were five sets of dresses, and people gave him freely. On many occasions there was no food in his house. Malam Musa, who we called Musa UAC, was the one who normally went to the market to buy foodstuffs and bring into Malam Aminu’s house, but he would not sit down and gist.
But we heard stories of him staying in big hotels in London.
That was for the federal government.
You were known for criticising politicians, especially through your writings. As you said, you also won election from Dambatta twice into the House of Representatives. What did you do to justify the position you had? Did you do anything different from what Nigerian politicians do?
Even in parliament I was different. I was always conscious that I swore with the Holy Quran. I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee, and even at that time, when people complained, they compromised and collected money.
We championed the course of the National Accountants of Nigeria (ANAN) and did everything because in England and Scotland there were six national organisations of accountants but we had only one—the ICAN.
One day, MKO Abiola and another accountant, Akindele Williams and other supporters of the ICAN told them that the only person they could stop was Sidi Ali. When I was told that Abiola wanted to see me, I didn’t believe that. We were able to pass that in the House of Reps but it was blocked in the Senate. But one accountant, Dafinoni, now late, was able to mobilise it through. Luckily for us, President Babangida signed it into law a day before he “stepped aside”. It was the last bill he signed into law. The ICAN went to court to challenge that he was not president when he signed it, but I argued that he was still the president as he did not resign, he only stepped aside. That was how they lost the case.
I think there’s a difference. I will give you a book I wrote about the statements I made in the House of Reps after I won the second time. I listed the number of people who were not reelected, or their parties didn’t nominate them because of their performance. Recently, I saw the Senate president complaining bitterly about the number of people who would not come back.
You are familiar with many Nigerian leaders; even the pictures on your wall show that. Why do you think we keep saying the problem with Nigeria is leadership, yet we have had so many leaders, including those who were with you in school? Can you give us an idea of why things have not been working despite these leaders?
When you say things didn’t work, it depends on how you translate or judge people’s works. Secondly, you need to also take into consideration the type of society we belong to and the things we inherited, culturally etc.
Like military regimes, elected people sabotaged one another to get to power. I remember that there was a member from Katsina who was elected because of the influence of his father-in-law. But when we went to Lagos he married a Kanuri woman who was more polished and educated than the one he brought. Can you imagine that his father-in-law told him that he would never return to the parliament; and he never returned. They blocked him. That’s just an example. Also, when Major-General Abba Abdulkadir, who was referred to Abba Sirisiri, was the chief accountant of the Nigerian Army, the budget of the army was bigger than those of some state governments, yet they said he would not be a member of the ICAN. Again, a professor of Mathematics from the University of Calabar took an examination and failed because the ICAN was being run like a cabal. Every year, they were passing only five or two people. When we looked at the list of the leadership for 15 years, we discovered that they came from only one state. When we raised that issue, can you imagine that 15 people passed that year. This is the type of society we have.
What would you say about Murtala Mohammed as a leader? He had all the power and made fantastic speeches, but people say that in the implementation of policies, especially in the civil service, a lot was desired.
When Murtala was making appointments, he mixed up two names—he penciled down Aliko Mohammed, who was the leading accountant in the North, as governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) but put Adamu Ciroma, a journalist who was supposed to be the chairman of Daily Times. It was done in a hurry. When Ciroma was announced as the governor of the CBN and his attention was drawn to the mix-up, Murtala said he would not change it, insisting that it was what God had destined.
Secondly, Major-General Akinrinade fought him almost physically at the warfront because he brought some malams. Akinrinade said that in the military they did not depend on malams or bishops but on strategies. We lost a lot of people when we tried to cross the Asaba Bridge.
Murtala was my classmate, and we were always going to my house. He was a charismatic leader like me. No matter how good you are as a leader, you would have people who would not like you.
Immediately Murtala became head of state, the first order he gave was that no governor would be driven with plenty cars on convoy. He said you must be driven in the front of your car. One soldier was very anxious for his people to know that he had arrived, so he secretly sent a car to wait in front of his village so that he would make a show, but Murtala dismissed him. There are certain things you can do as a leader, but influence is something we can’t go against.
Among the past leaders you know, who would you say impressed you the most?
I have great respect for Babangida. There was a day a friend of mine stole my papers and I took him to court. I was in court when somebody came and said Babangida wanted to see me. He paid the man N1.5 million at that time to get my papers back.
A friend wrote a book on Murtala Mohammed, which was sold at N10 per copy. He bought eight copies at N80 but didn’t have the money. And he didn’t give the money until he became the head of state. I was telling some people that at least I would say that the head of state was owing me. Can you imagine that within two hours he got the information because men of the State Security Service (SSS) were working effectively at that time, especially in that branch? The following day, the chief security officer came to my house and brought N100,000. That was very big money.
Are you familiar with the current president?
Yes. Buhari’s boss was Colonel Daudu Suleiman, whose wife is my sister. The last time I saw him, I told him that my respect remained forever.
When Buhari was a military head of state we know what was taking place. He said that at that time he had the opportunity to do anything, unlike now. See what is happening, the reference and so on.
When our friend, Ahmed Gulak, was killed in Imo State, the governor came out and said it was not the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
Are you saying the security system in the country is not being well handled?
I am not saying it is not well handled, but it is not as effective as those days. Information is important. I worked with General Shuwa as an information officer. I was one of those who came to his area when he was the chief of army staff and was General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Enugu. I know how we handled things.
Our refineries are not working, and incidentally, it was Buhari that set up these refineries in Port Harcourt and so on when he was the minister of petroleum during the military era.
I think we are not doing well in so many areas. I wish you could send somebody to cover one of what they are calling an international market in Gezawa. Go to a place like Mandawari and see how people are building houses. Those people should be in prison. If you read my book you would see one of the people fined $500,000. You should not be dishonest because you are the son of a king.
Are you hopeful that we can overcome some of these problems?
Well, I am hopeful but it looks very difficult.
If you had your way, who would you want to succeed President Buhari in 2023? Who do you think would do a better job than the current government?
You see, in democracy, good job is not based on one person; it is based on the system. Democracy is a good thing, but its application matters a lot. This is the problem we have.
Let’s talk about your books, which you made references to. One of them is about your journey to Timbuktu. Did you really go to Timbuktu?
I didn’t go to Timbuktu. I was a student in New York University when the Peace Corps were being sent to African countries, so they needed somebody who could give them an idea of Africa. The then secretary to the Permanent Mission suggested to one Dr Wade, who was the head of the African Afro Institute that I had the knowledge and would be able to tell. So they invited me and I wrote a book, giving them some cultural things that took place, and so on. But that is not the title of the book. At that time I didn’t go to Timbuktu, although I admired their leader, Modibbo Keita, the first president.
What about Power of Powers?
I wrote Power of Powers in 1975, 10 years after the death of Ribadu. Do you have a copy of the book? If you look at the middle of the book you would see that some pages were removed. What happened was that the late Maitama Sule linked me up with the then personal assistant to Ribadu to give information on what I wanted. And I think I had the information on exactly how Ribadu died. He told me that some soldiers came in and looked at his face and said, ‘Sir you need that.’ I think that from that injection he never came back. But the government had not gone through the civil war and didn’t like something like that, so the security men removed that section so that nobody would be blamed.
In all the copies of the book?
No, that particular section. Ribadu was the greatest minister of his time. He was the minister of works. He decided that Lagos was getting more populated so there was the need for an open space, but it was objected to. The chief juju man for the Lagos royal family, called the Araba of Lagos, was told that the minister said they should move to that area. He came there and used his juju, saying it won’t happen. Ribadu drove the bulldozer himself and removed his babban riga and started to work at what today is Surulere.
The permanent secretary, who happened to be from the South West, was so sure that Ribadu, having offended the Araba of Lagos, would not see the next day. So, when he came to the office he never cared whether the minister came or not. But he met him in the office. That’s one of the fascinating things about him.
Ribadu, as minister of defence, got information about the coup makers and told them. He got the information three times, but they denied it; only God knows how he did that.
There are lots of things I don’t want to say so that they won’t bring us back to what we don’t want.
On the current politics in the country, people say that Peter Obi is the most favoured person in Nigeria. He even said he had more than 100 million votes. But this is what people tell him and he believes it.
When I was interviewed by the press about three weeks ago, I said the leaders of the youth wing of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo came to me saying it was their time to produce the president of this country. But I told them that they were their own problem. I told them that in 1999 it was agreed that the president of the Senate, who is the third most important person in the country, would come from the South East, but what happened? In four years we changed the Senate president five times, sabotaged by people from that area.
But the same Peter Obi you mentioned is busy going round campaigning all over the country.
I am talking about when they were asking for nomination. Maybe he is now learning a lesson. The problem is that people do not give you an office as a right; you have to look for it and fight for it. You don’t sit down and say it is our time. You cannot get the office of the president merely on blackmail, threats and so on.
You are 84 years now; how do you keep yourself busy?
I do some writings and that’s all.
You are one of the few northerners who write. How many books have you written so far?
I wrote 19 books, but some are very small; but they paid off. For example, I wrote ‘Corruption in High Society’ in 1992 and I sent a copy to Abacha. Can you imagine that the book never reached him? But somehow, a copy went to the Inspector-General of Police, Coomasie, my relative. I pondered and said corruption was in high places.
Apart from writing, what else do you do on a daily basis?
I do some consultancy in some other areas.
How is your family life?
I have 46 grandchildren. I married two wives; one has eight children and the other has six. My eldest son has five children. I have three female daughters who have about 15 children.
Your brother, Sidi Surajo, is well known, especially by those of us in journalism. He was the president of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ). What do you remember about him?
Umaru Dikko, who was my closest friend and chairman of the Board of Radio and Television in Kaduna, facilitated his employment into journalism. Surajo was a very brilliant man. He didn’t go to a university. He attended a typing school, but he could stand before anybody, no matter his professional qualification. He read a lot.
What do you think you would be remembered for, both in Ghana and Nigeria?
I don’t know what exactly history would like to remember me for. There are many people who would tell you one thing and mean another. And some of us don’t know the religion we practice so as to understand that if we lie, it is punishable by our maker. Sometimes we say certain things in order to get rid of somebody without telling the truth. So, I don’t know what people would like to remember about me.