Mahmud Jega

Nine More Interview Stories, by Mahmud Jega

One reader asked me last week whether the interview stories I told were the only ones I did during my three decades in journalism. I don’t think so. As a reporter and editor, the interviews I did must number in the hundreds, some out in the field, others in the office when news sources visited. Let us recount a few more memorable ones this morning.

In January 1992, I had interview sessions with General Hassan Usman Katsina at his Kaduna house throughout Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. The General chose that period when he did not travel. At my suggestion, my boss at Citizen, Malam Mohammed Haruna, had convinced the former Military Governor of the North to have his biography written. He sent me to Malam Liman Ciroma for an evaluation, after which he fixed the interview sessions.

I was with General Hassan from 2.30pm to 4pm every day during that month, but I hardly got ten minutes of interview during those 90 minutes. He had a telephone placed on a small stool, which rang frequently. I soon became his secretary. I will answer the phone and then hand it over to him. Sometimes he chatted on the phone for nearly half an hour while my clock was ticking. Not once during that month did the General mention my name. If he wanted my attention he will say, “Kai dan Nigerian Citizen [“You from Nigerian Citizen.”] That was the old Northern Region Government newspaper, though I was from Citizen.

During the interview, he will suddenly say, “Call so-and-so person.” I soon learnt to pick up the phone and wait for him to dictate the number. One day I found General Hassan signing invitation letters to a Barewa Old Boys Association [BOBA] meeting. He suddenly asked me, “What is the Barewa College number of the Emir of Agaie?” I said, “Sir, wallahi I don’t know.” “Is it 449?” I again said, “Sir, I don’t know his number.” “It is 449! Write it!” In the end we covered only the period of his early life in the whole month. Much later when I thought about it, I should have gone straight to the 1966 crisis, the civil war and after. I was young and inexperienced then.

My January 2008 interview with Adamawa State Governor Admiral Murtala Nyako was something else. Nyako was angered by something I wrote in a column, so his family members arranged for a peace meeting. Three of us sat on the dining table. Addressing the third man, Nyako said, “Girigiri [Second Republic Senator Girigiri Lawan], I called you here because I am going to meet with this journalist. I don’t trust him, so I want you here as a witness.”

Turning to me, Nyako said, “You, you hate the people of Adamawa State.” I said, “Sir, I was born in Adamawa State.” He said, “It is a lie.” I said, “Sir, it is true. My father was the D.O. in Mubi in the Northern Region. I was born there.” Taken aback, Nyako changed tack. He said, “I know why you are a very mischievous journalist. It is because your family’s cattle finished. The most evil person is a Fulani man who has lost his cattle.” I said, “Sir, my grandfather left behind many cows when he died.” To cut the story short, we went back and forth like that from 8pm until midnight. At that hour the governor suddenly stood up and disappeared. Girigiri and I were not sure whether he will return. When he did not come back after 15 minutes, I rose and left.

One of the most unpleasant interviews I was involved in, together with my managing director at New Nigerian Dr. Omar Faruk Ibrahim, was with Sokoto State Governor Attahiru Bafarawa in 2000AD. A week earlier, our Sokoto reporter filed a story about the conviction by an area court of two gay men in Sokoto. The sub-editor ridiculously illustrated the story with Bafarawa’s picture! The governor was in a rage when we saw him. He said it was our Sokoto reporter that planned it in order to embarrass him. We struggled over two hours to convince him that it was a sloppy sub-editor who did it and the reporter in Sokoto had nothing to do with it.

In contrast, our November 1993 interview with Chief M.K.O. Abiola at his Ikeja residence was tense but polite. Abiola had just returned home from self-exile. Citizen’s Lagos bureau asked for an interview, but he instead requested the editors to come from Kaduna. So Malam Mohammed Haruna took me along. M.K.O emerged to meet us, his eyes red with sleep. He said he went to bed at 6am. With him were Dr. Jonathan Zwingina and Prof Femi Agbalajobi. The interview lasted two hours, during which he heaped all blame for the June 12 election annulment on General Babangida.

In May 2000 AD, I interviewed Governor Umaru Yar’adua in Katsina. He left his office and took me to his residence so we would not be disturbed. It was a very hot afternoon; there was no light, and no generator was switched on. Both Yar’adua and I were sweating profusely. I asked him why he had such a Spartan lifestyle. He said, “I have no worries for myself. If I am used to comfort and tomorrow I don’t have it, I can adjust. My worry is for women and children. If they get used to something and tomorrow it is not there…that is why public servants steal in order to guarantee comfort after office.”

The briefest “interview” I ever had was with Sardaunan Sokoto Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji in 2000AD. He asked why I wanted to interview him. I said, probably inappropriately, that it was in order to learn from mistakes they might have made. Triple A flared up. “Wallahi I will not grant the interview! Everybody should go and learn from his own mistakes!”

I participated in President Obasanjo’s televised media chat at least ten times, and also attended at least a dozen private briefings that he did for editors. During one joint interview he did with New Nigerian and Punch editors in August 2003, Tunde Rahman asked why Appeal Court judges visited him when there was a presidential election petition before them. Rahman said people were reading meanings into the visit. Obasanjo exploded, “I told you why they came to see me! If you want to read meaning, read meaning!”

More dangerous was the occasion in 2005 when, at the dinner table, I asked Obasanjo why General A.D. Bello was retired from the Army even though he did not satisfy the retirement criteria. The President dropped his cutlery, glared at me and said, “You are going back to Kaduna?” I said, “Yes, sir.” “When you go there, tell your friend that I am converting the retirement to dismissal. Tell him!” I said, “Yes, sir!” It was later that I discovered what Bello did to earn the retirement; Obasanjo was too impatient to tell me.

On one occasion in 2008, I became the judge in a dispute between two governors. Former Zamfara State governor Ahmed Sani, Yariman Bakura, came to my office at Daily Trust and said, “I come to report to you what your friend [Governor] Mamuda Shinkafi did to me. I was waiting in his office for him to come out of the mosque. When he heard I was waiting, he sneaked into his car and ran away.” It was the beginning of their very bitter quarrel.

I then contacted Governor Shinkafi and said Yarima reported you to me. Shinkafi sent for me when he came to Abuja two days later. He did not deny what Yarima said. Instead he said, “It was Yarima’s fault. During the ANPP local government primaries, I asked him which aspirant he preferred in Bakura LGA. He said he was okay with both. After one aspirant won, he said he preferred the other aspirant. That was why I sneaked away.” I said, “Sir, you are too big to run away. Since Yarima was wrong, you should have faced him and told him that he was wrong.”

Monday Column today, November 30th, 2020.

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