As he clocked 70 last weekend, a former Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Director of Protocol, Sir Peter Aliu, has revealed that his public service career saw him serving 12 ministers and two Heads of State.
Aliu, in this interview with KEMI YESUFU and AIDOGHIE PAULINUS in Abuja, gave a blow-by-blow account of his life, in office and out of office, most importantly, his encounters with two most prominent Nigerian leaders, Generals Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) and the late General Sani Abacha.
Against the popular perception about the two former Heads of State, Aliu said both former leaders are very good men.
According to the Fugar, Edo State-born protocol chief: “I thank God that I met these two leaders. You know Abuja is the seat of the government, the Federal Capital Territory. The Federal Government is here. So, my ministers used to take me to the Heads of State and I worked with them because of most of the things, they asked the Minister of FCT to do then. The Minister of FCT is like the governor of a state. So, with that, that was how I came about the minister taking me along and that was how I came to meet the then president, General Babangida, who is a father to me up till now. He is my father, he is my mentor and he is my great helper. This is a man I know is a great human being. He calls you by your first name. And General Abacha too, is also a very good man. I met him, I worked very closely with him and he was very kind too.”
Asked how he could relate his position on the two former leaders to the general opinion people have about them, Aliu had this to say: “Maybe it is because I am close to them because when you are close to people, you see who they really are. Yes, as military men, you would not usually expect them to behave like you and I who are civilians. They are very tough. But some of us who go near them, find that they really have very kind heart. General Babangida is one of the kindest Nigerians. I can tell you that. These are men who know you, who want you to be somebody, who appreciate you; such people build up people. This is what we are saying. Life is not for you alone. It is for you to say who you have built up, who have you developed and who have you helped in life. It is those people that will pray for you, that will sing your praises.”
Aliu spoke on this, including his working relationship with ministers of FCT, the implementation of the Abuja Master plan and mentoring the immediate past Aviation Minister, Osita Chidoka, among others.
How does it feel turning 70? You are a Christian, so you’ve reached the biblical age. Do you feel different? Did you look forward to it as a young man? What were your plans about hitting this milestone age?
I thank God Almighty for keeping me till this age of 70. I am happy because I feel strong. I think age is in the mind. Seventy is not an old age as such, but I am happy reaching this age. Really, I thank God.
How was growing up like?
Growing up was very good. I was lucky to have parents that were very Christian. They were Catholics and they were very kind, very generous. So, they really put me in the line of what life is all about because life is not about yourself. Yes, you have to live your life, but what really matters in life is what impact you make as a person or what impact you make in another person’s life. My parents made a lot of impact in peoples’ lives and I tried to follow their footsteps.
Were you a city boy or were you raised in the village?
I was born on August 1, 1945, in Lagos, 109, Apapa Road, to be precise. And that was the heart of Lagos in those days. I would say I am a city boy because I don’t know much about village life.
Is that why you speak Yoruba language?
Oh! I speak Yoruba better than my own native language.
What were the pranks you played as a young boy?
Football was my main attraction when I was young. I was a very good footballer and I was always going to play football. My parents were always very worried about me going out to play football. I tried to go into boxing. I went one day for training in boxing and I came home, my eyes were swollen. I never let my dad or my mum see it. But eventually, when they discovered, my father said he must go to meet the boxing coach, that he should never allow me try boxing again. So, I stopped boxing. But as for football, I was still playing it.
Why did you try boxing?
It was youthful exuberance at that time. We were youths growing up and trying our hands on things we thought were worthwhile.
What did you actually set out to achieve while growing up?
As I said, I grew up in a family that takes care of people and when I was young, my friends used to call meBaba Eto because I liked to arrange things and all what not. I think as time went on, I discovered that was my calling and I became a Protocol Officer and I was in service where I rose up to retire as the Director of Protocol. And Protocol is also Baba Eto. It is to arrange and make sure that things go right, how they are supposed to be, nationally and internationally.
Did you ever imagine that you would reach the enviable height you attained in your career?
I was a workaholic. I was dedicated to my work because I liked the job. And I am also very fortunate that apart from liking the job, God was with me. My bosses were all good bosses. They were my brothers and my fathers. So, I was doing very well in the job. It is a very, very delicate job to be a Protocol Officer because your achievements in 364 days can be erased by one day mistake.
You were called Baba Eto and you turned this talent to a successful career, what tips can you give to young people about harnessing their talents?
It is true that if one follows one’s talent, one would hardly fail. One would succeed because talent is what comes naturally, what you are happy about, what you are happy doing and I would say that our youths should try and know what they are good at. They would work on anything that they are good at, except it is something that is evil. That is why we don’t pray that children or anybody should be good at something that is evil, but anything that is good, follow it up and the sky is the limit. I think I was lucky to discover my talent very early and I was also very lucky that when I was in service, I met a great a man, the late Chief Ajose Adeogun, the first commissioner in FCT and Mr. I.J Ebong. They made me their Protocol Officer. They discovered me and from there, I started growing on the job.
What is the most difficult thing about working with the kind of men you have worked with?
I think the most important thing about working with very highly placed people is for one to be honest. You have to be honest and you have to be hardworking. You have to be honest because what you say today, you never can know, they may check it out and find that it is it is not correct. So, you have to be honest and you have to be hardworking. These are the values that can see you through.
Out of the 12 ministers you worked under, who would you say was the best?
Remember I mentioned to you that all my bosses were my boss, they were my fathers and they were my friends. And I was lucky that all of them just took me as their own child and as their own brother. So, it is very difficult to say this one is better than the other. But you know no two human beings can be the same. You might be better in giving, you might be better in advising, you might be better in correcting. So, everybody has his own goodness.
Which of them did you enjoy working with most? Was it General Useni (retd) or or the late General Gado Nasko?
I would say that I enjoyed working with the military chaps. They were very firm and you think you just fear them. But if you know what you are doing and you are sincere with them, you enjoyed them. But I also found that some civilians that came were also good, for instance, Alhaji Mohammed Abba Gana; these are people that are very godly and they can hardly hurt a fly. So, working with such people, you thank God that you worked with them. All my bosses have been kind to me.
What was the most challenging aspect of your civil service career?
My most challenging aspect was when I worked with one of the Ministers who is late now, Major General Mamman Kotangora. Kotangora was a special breed. Sometimes, he gets to the office by 6.00 o’clock in the morning and time is his watchword. He gives you an appointment and if you are 15 minutes late, you are on your own. I had a very serious experience under him. You know that protocol officers work late and he works late sometimes, and early in the morning, you leave. One day, I had my bath in the car. I had my tooth brush in the car. I ate my breakfast in the car because we had assignment with Major General Kotangora. He was very, very hard working and keeps to time. May his soul rest in peace!
You can write the history of FCT. Is the FCT living up to the dreams of those who created it? Are you happy with the way it looks now?
I think development is going on. The only thing is that, the planners of the FCT didn’t envisage that there was going to be a population explosion because of what the FCT was for designed for. For example, the FCT was designed for about 1.2 million residents. But I am sure there are over three million people in the FCT now and some of the causes for the rapid increase in population are man made. Because of some of the insecurity problems in some places, a lot of people came to Abuja, which is one of the safest place in Nigeria now. So, the infrastructure are overstretched in the FCT. Therefore, there will be problems. That is why you have many problems of not having water, not having that and not having this in the FCT. But the FCT is developing at a good pace and if they are given funds to develop very well, it will be one of the capitals that Africa will be very proud of.
How about the master plan? Is it being properly followed?
Looking at the master plan, it is true that we have a master plan. But some circumstances can make some leaders change what the former leaders planned if it is in good intention because it is only God that is perfect. There is nowhere in the world that you can have a masterplan that is rigidly followed because some circumstances make you to change or adjust. But it is better to follow more of the master plan because those who did it have a reason.
At 70, it is usually believed that you have seen it all. Let’s single out General Vatsa whom you worked with and was involved in a coup and executed. Personally, how did you feel at that time that your boss was taken away and executed?
As I said, I thank God. Vatsa was also a very good man. But human beings make mistakes. This is the mistake he made. He was accused and arrested for planning coup. There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. But of course, we all lost him. He was one of the greatest literature writers in Nigeria. He was promoting literature. May his soul rest in peace too.
Your relationship with Babangida and Abacha How did you meet them? Was it during the course of your work or in private matters?
Once again, I thank God that I met these two leaders. You know Abuja is the seat of the government, the Federal Capital Territory. The Federal Government is here. So, my ministers used to take me to the heads of state and I worked with them because most of the things, they asked the Minister of FCT to do them. The Minister of FCT is like the governor of a state. So, with that, that was how I came about the minister taking me along and that was how I came to meet the then president, General Babangida, who is a father to me up till now. He is my father, he is my mentor and he is my great helper. This is a man I know is a great human being. He calls you by your first name. And General Abacha too, is also a very good man. I met him, I worked very closely with him and he is very kind too.
You said Abacha is kind. That is the very opposite impression about him by majority of Nigerians. You also talked about Babangida whom people call Maradona, evil genius. This is a paradox because you have painted these men in a very angelic right. How come?
Maybe it is because I am close to them because when you are close to people, you see who they really are. Yes, as military men, you would not usually expect them to behave like you and I who are civilians. They are very tough. But some of us who go near them, find that they really have very kind heart. General Babangida is one of the kindest Nigerians. I can tell you. Those who know you, who want you to be somebody, who appreciates you; such people build up people. This is what we are saying. Life is not for you alone. It is for you to say who have you built up, who have you developed and who have you helped in life. It is those people that will pray for you, that will sing your praises.