Ambassador Ahmed Alghazali graduated from the University of Ibadan in 1964 and worked in the northern Nigeria civil service. He later moved to the Borno State Government after state the creation of states,as a permanent secretary in about five ministries before he became the first Head of Service. He also served as an ambassador to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Alghazali was a national commissioner in the Independent National Commission (INEC). His last service was as chairman of the Federal Civil Service Commission from where he retired in 2011. In this interview he spoke on his career, the civil war and other issues.
Your name does not sound Nigerian, how did you come by it?
Alghazali is my grandfather’s name. I believe they had a reason for it, but I didn’t interrogate them.
Tell us about your early days in Borno.
I was born in Marte in 1938. My first primary school was in Gaidam in 1947. I was also in primary school in a Nguru, where my dad was serving. I went to three primary schools before I went to Borno Middle School, then Barewa College. The rest is what you have seen from my curriculum vita
You attended the University of Ibadan like Liman Ciroma, Adamu Ciroma and perhaps many prominent people from Borno; was the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) not an alternative?
No. After Barewa College we went to Nigerian College from 1959 to 1961. At that time it had not become ABU, so we went to Ibadan. Mallam Adamu Ciroma was the only person from Borno.
Was he already graduating by then?
He was about to graduate. And we were very few from the North. I think we were 12 or 14, out of nearly 2,000 students.
Was it a strange or difficult experience for you to find yourself in that setting?
We all looked like strangers. Although it is one country, the environment is not quite the same. But somehow, we managed to acclimatise within the period. It was a great experience.
The most important thing I can remember while we were there is the incident we had with Margaret Milky Moore, an American girl who wrote some bad things about Nigerians. As she was heading to class, she dropped a postcard she wrote to her family in America, stating that we were sleeping and eating in the streets etc. It was such a big issue that even the then President Kennedy had to speak.
Was she a student in Ibadan?
Yes. At that time, we used to have students from Britain, America and other countries. It was a big experience.
But I think the biggest one was the defence pact Britain wanted to enter into with Nigeria and the students went round and said no, explaining that it would be dangerous because Britain was fond of doing all kinds of things. We were afraid that they could bomb Kano, Ibadan and Lagos, so we all went to Lagos to protest.
That was when the parliament was meeting, so senators had to jump out through the window etc.
But later on, we heard that Nigeria had to pay dearly for that action because during the civil war, the British government refused to sell arms to us.
We later understood that the Action Group, headed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, spearheaded the protest.
It appears that at that stage in your life you were a little political. For example, you were the president of the Northern Students Union, as well as the secretary of the then Northern People’s Congress (NPC) committee; what was the experience?
I was the secretary of the Northern Students Association when we were in the Nigerian College, but when we went to Ibadan I was made the president of the association. Around that time, politics was brewing, and as a result of this, we were like old school or typical radical students. We were radical and kind of blaming the government.
We discovered that sometime in the night we would find that Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was popularly called Zik of Africa, or some of Awolowo’s men, would come and meet with their students. So we decided that since we were being paid through the state government, it was not proper to continue to criticise or blame our government. So we formed the NPC club at in the University of Ibadan.
Northern People’s Congress?
It was not the Northern People’s Congress, it was just NPC Club, University of Ibadan. Amadu Ali was our first chairman. People like Jubril Aminu, myself, Yahaya Aliyu, Yaya Abubakar, Datti Ahmed, were members of that club. We played active roles in defending the interest of our people.
Were you in Ibadan when the coup of 1966 took place?
No; I was already working. But I was in Ibadan when the census of 1962 came up and there were rumours that the North had been beaten.
When we came back and saw what was going on, that particular exercise was cancelled and another one was conducted in 1963, but the figures were rejected by our compatriots from the South. But our club came out very strongly and boldly said that we accepted the figures, even before the main NPC in Kaduna.
Galadima Ahmed Pategi and Ibrahim Biu had to speak up. It brewed up for some time and settled; and the figures had to be accepted.
Would you say your schooling experience in Ibadan was negative; did it make you more or less nationalistic?
Well, we made friends across Nigeria; and up till today, I am still in touch with some of them. It was good.
But it opened up another thing that a lot of my compatriots did not know about the North.
We made sure we stoutly defended the interest of our people. That was the starting point of departure with our compatriots from the South.
It seems that after Ibadan you got a plump job as an assistant secretary (political) in the premier’s office. Was that your first civil service job?
How was the experience working in the premier’s office?
It was a very stimulating experience; those were great times. We also had the late Ali Akilu and Liman Ciroma was the deputy permanent secretary. Sunday Awoniyi was one of our bosses.
What about Ahmed Talib?
He was in finance. It was very orderly, and people were very interested in their people. We were very patriotic and learnt a lot of things.
It was when I moved to the Ministry of Local Government that I had a lot of experience. Sultan Dasuki was my permanent secretary and the issue of appointment of the chief of police in one of the local governments of the northern emirates was brought. Being a young man, I started processing it to the best of my ability and dis-recommended the appointment of that person to that position.
When it went up to my permanent secretary, they said they should look for Alghazali. He called me to his office and started saying some things. He later calmed me down and gave me a cup of tea. He showed me a minute and asked if I wrote it and I said yes, very coldly. He said it was very good and he was impressed, but added that unfortunately, I could not do what I noted because the person was the son of an emir and the premier was his very close friend. The premier had promised that he was going to appoint his son. They all went up to London conference etc, so it would be very difficult for me.
So, I came back and started doing another minute because that particular person failed the police college exam, even in Hausa. I had to redo the whole thing and took it to him. He said I could go.
He called me later and explained that some of us were young people and didn’t know many things. He said there was what they called superior information, which I should submit to; and that was why he called me.
So things were not always as perfect as they are presented?
They are not; you have to think deeply and do your own enquiries.
There are a lot of stories about the premier; hence he seems to be a model; having worked in his office, do you think those stories are exaggerated?
He was really a great man and teacher. He was also extremely generous
I understand that everybody was required to be in his house in the evening; did he like being a big father?
No; it was a typical kind of northern thing. He did not insist that people should go to his house.
After your career in the northern service, you went round provinces as a district officer, then you found yourself at home as a permanent secretary in many ministries, and eventually, head of service. Was it more challenging being a top administrator among your people in Borno than other places?
No. Before civil service I went to Muri when Abbas Tafida had just been appointed emir and he was giving a lot of problems to the administration. I was nominated from the premier’s office to go and kind of contain him. It was a very tough job because I started to get gray hairs from that kind of exercise.
Yes; that early. I started getting threat letters of assassination. We used to have big grouse with him.
Were you the district officer for the province?
Yes. I was in charge of Muri division. When we had a problem we ran to the provincial secretary in Yola.
There was an incident where the Emir intercepted our letters because whatever report we had by my office or the provincial secretary’s office to Kaduna, he would have a copy, somehow. And we didn’t know about it. One day he sent somebody to the provincial secretary and asked him to come quickly to Muri, Jalingo, otherwise something would blow up.
The provincial secretary, the late Musa Tanko, drove to Muri, came to Jalingo and asked about the emir. Instead of following the protocol to see me as his admin officer, he went to the emir.
While the emir was seeing him off, he was angry and said he would not accept what happened, explaining that it was either the district officer or him. He said, “He must go with you to Yola, I can’t work with him again.”
The provincial secretary came to Jalingo around 6pm and he kept him for about three hours. He came to me about 9pm when I was listening to a radio programme. When I saw a green Pontiac (there were two in Adamawa – one for the provincial secretary and one for the emir), I thought it was the emir.
I wondered what brought the man to me. It was the provincial secretary. I told him that he didn’t notify me that he was coming and he explained what happened.
He said a letter had been intercepted and I said it was very good, adding that he was a security risk. I said that’s why the man should not be confirmed as emir – he should not be given a staff of office.
He left for Yola in the night with the promise that I would be moved to Adamawa and Shehu Suleiman was to come to Jalingo and Muri.
So, for two days we didn’t see anything. And the opponents of the emir were in the majority. All his elders were in the opposition, and that pained him.
He went back, and around the same time, there was trouble and all the emirs were summoned to Kaduna.
Would that be described as a riot?
Yes. He was summoned to Kaduna. When I got the message I didn’t tell him why he was going. And it was to my advantage.
When he found out, he said he was coming back in full force.
You moved to the North East in 1967 when states were created, was that when you came back to Borno from the United States for your master’s degree? As the first head of service, did you find it difficult?
In the North East, we were working with people like Liman Ciroma. I was posted to Sardauna Province – Mubi. War was on and relationship with our neighbours was not quite good because there were fears that Biafrans could come in through Cameroon. That was my first task.
I was tasked to go and see what was happening. I went to Garoua to meet the governor there. That was my first diplomatic assignment. When I met him, we were told that some Biafrans were seen on the border doing some exercise, maybe they were trying to cross into Nigeria through the Cameroonian side. He was to find out.
He said I should spend the night at Garoua with him. The following morning he said, “If the house of your neighbour catches fire and you don’t help him to quench it, the fire will spread to your own. So we will not allow this thing to happen. Secondly, the eyes see the man it likes and the man it doesn’t like, but your legs can carry you to only where the heart goes. Your coming is an indication that you people love us.”
From there we built up a relationship, up to the point we got to the president and he gave green light to the governor to relate with us freely. I also got the green light here to relate freely with them.
I would come back to Nigeria and give information to the governor, then we would go to Lagos and meet General Yakubu Gowon. From there, I moved to the governor’s office here.
I am glad our relationship is fine now.
The only problem we had here was Head of Service. Our own kind of government was like an aberration and they wanted to crush us. You know the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP) thing.
Who wanted to crush you?
The big power in Lagos.
Because you belonged to the GNPP?
Yes. And that gave us a lot of problems because we were working for 25 hours, not even 24, to survive.
But, Alhamdulillah, we survived. We succeeded, and up till today, the records we had during our time are unsurpassed by succeeding administrations.
As a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education in Borno, when you see the havoc wreaked by the Boko Haram insurgency, how do you feel?
That is a different kettle of fish; it is another subject that will take us another month to talk about. Nobody saw it coming.
Does it have anything to do with the population of kids that are out of school?
But don’t you think the insurgents could easily recruit their fighters from the growing number of the almajirai in the region?
No; it is not about almajirai. When the first thing happened in 2009 and they took over Maiduguri, the army had to come in because they overpowered the police. Many people were reportedly killed.
Those who committed these crimes came from outside Maiduguri; they are not indigenes of this place. That is exactly the point.
However, they were later conscripted, but initially, they were not part of it.
You were an ambassador in Iran and Saudi Arabia; tell us a little about your career as a diplomat?
I went to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.
Why were you appointed, why not a career person?
I don’t know, but I went there. Perhaps those who appointed me felt I could make a difference. And I can proudly say that I did my best.
I think what I saw in Iran taught me a lot of things. It was a wonderful country; they knew what they were doing. And they were all almost young people.
At the time I went, people like Rafsanjani and Musavi, who were leaders of the revolution, were young people.
They tortured people. They had some people’s fingernails pulled out. Many things happened to them but they stood their ground. They were seriously independent; nobody could dictate to Iran.
But even during the war, we were surviving. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was giving us rice, meat and the things we could not get.
They had an excellent governor of the central bank called Nuru Bash. He would fight when he had money and stop when the treasury was going down. That was how they lived.
We learnt many things about foreign powers trying to bring down that particular kind of government because they didn’t like it. They were afraid of it, but of course, they only succeeded partially.
I was not there when top Iranians, at least 98, were blown up at one go. Only Rafsanjani, who was sent somewhere, and the leader of the revolution who went down to South Iran, Khomeini, survived.
They went through so many things but they were undaunted. In any other administration, it probably would have collapsed, but you could not do that to them.
Ultimately, I had to move to Turkey, where the military was in charge.
Was your position concurrent in Turkey?
Yes. Again, there was a problem with the military in Turkey as civilians were saying they should go back to their barracks. But they argued that they were stakeholders in the system, insisting that if civilians did not mismanage things they would not come in.
Saudi Arabia is a fine country. It is a monarchy but that is where you will see development on a yearly basis.
They have been under pressure to democratise but they resisted that. But I wish their present leader the very best of luck.
Considering that many Nigerian ‘big men’ are there and would of course want to see and demand services from the ambassador; would you say it was a difficult posting?
Protocol-wise, it was difficult because they would not understand the process. Their demands for services were never enough.
What did you do?
Sometimes you would try to explain but they would not understand. And sometimes they would complain. They would complain about something like their mothers or wives being stranded at the airport. But one did the best of one’s ability.
You were a national commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) during the presidential election that was eventually annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida; what happened during that election?
Many things went wrong. Right from the word go, at the point of the conventions of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC) in Jos and Port Harcourt, the report was that many things were not right; therefore, there was a suggestion that it should be cancelled and fresh ones organised. Somehow, it went up to the government. There was some disquiet. When they said there was going to be an election, this came up; and when we were collating, we were taken to court. As a body appointed under the law and which operates under the law, we had to follow the law and stopped collating results.
But there was the belief that MKO Abiola won the election; what do you think?
When collation was not complete you could not officially say that A or B won. But obviously, he was ahead of Tofa, but how it came about, I don’t know.
Were you not close to Babangida to know? Don’t you think the military didn’t want to go; hence they had to create a problem?
The military had nothing to do with us. In fact, they did not interfere at any point, to the best of my knowledge. The thing just came. As I said at the beginning, there were things they knew that we didn’t know.
At some point, Babangida was explaining that he took the action to stop a bigger calamity. I think there was something Nigerians don’t know yet about that big calamity he said he averted.
You said you left the Federal Civil Service Commission better than you met it as chairman; are you hinting that you met it in a mess?
Well, after Decree 48 of 1988, the civil service was like a battlefield. Under that degree, all the ministers were given the power to recruit and promote, and so on. So there was virtually no civil service. There were all kinds of complaints.
So, we had to sit down and do a proper placement. That’s why I said we did our best.
But there were so many reforms, such that we even out-reformed ourselves to the point of deformation.
Would you say the civil service is still in a mess?
Having left that place, I won’t be able to say so.
But you left in 2011.
Yes. I still hear stories here and there, but I don’t have a firm knowledge.
What was your assessment at the point you left in 2011?
At the point I left, I think it was better than where we found it. People were promoted when due. And the promotions were well done. People were generally happy.
Did you face any pressure from the government not to tamper with their reforms while trying to do what was right?
There was no pressure. Perhaps the pressure came from some people in the government who were from the private sector background. That was actually what was driving the reform, to the point of deform.
Since you retired in 2011, have you been called to help in running the government?
Is it true that many of you who served at the highest level of civil service and retired are simply forgotten?
Yes. They know you exist but they won’t call you.
What have you been doing since you retired?
I am resting.
You probably need to make a living somehow; is it that you saved enough such that you don’t need to worry?
Not at all; but I have always lived a very modest life, right from the word go, even in the kind of food I eat.
So you have not been doing any work since you retired, including farming?
Do you have hobbies; what do you do with your time?
You can see that in my curriculum vitae.
Reading and travelling?
How much travelling do you do?
As an old man I don’t travel again.
You don’t go to Saudi Arabia?
Well, once or twice I was in Saudi Arabia.
After being an ambassador?
Yes. I think I was in Saudi Arabia last 2014.
So, you no longer have any urge to travel.
What about reading?
I read Arabic and Islamic books etc.
How is family life?
Fine; I am very happy.
Do you have children?
I have 12 of them, and they are all grown up. The youngest one was born in 1998 in Mecca. The first one was born in 1970, followed by Ibrahim, who is a diplomat. He just returned from Cairo. He is in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I have some in the Ministry of Interior, some in the Ministry of Finance etc.
What is a typical daily routine for you?
Praying and meeting people who come to see me.
Are you mostly here in Maiduguri?
I don’t move at all.
Do you do any exercise or special diet to keep fit?
I am being pressured to keep fit by my children and I am trying.
What do you do?
I used to walk around here, but I had to discontinue it from 2009 because you don’t know who is lurking behind you.
What about diet?
Anything we eat.
So you don’t have restrictions?
No; because there is no diabetes.