Retired Colonel Aminu Isah Kontagora
Daily Trust: You retired as a colonel. Did you actually plan to be in the Army?
Aminu Isah Kontagora: I attended Government College Kaduna. It is located in Kurmin Mashi area of Kaduna, as was the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), with a small stream separating both in those days. There were no structures blocking access, so some of the activities in the NDA, including parades and firing in the range, were vividly seen and heard from our school. A lot of our seniors, who got into NDA, would occasionally during exercises ride horses into our college, their alma mater. I found it fascinating, and it triggered my interest.
Incidentally, I didn’t even discuss it with my parents because I was afraid that I might be stopped. I and a classmate trekked to NDA, collected the forms, returned to the college, and filled them. But when we were filling the forms, we saw that there was a column for parents to sign. We solved our dilemma by signing for each other, and that was it.
DT: What happened when your parents eventually found out?
Kontagora: I had to tell them, my mother first. I knew that if she gave her support, at least, I have got one out of two. I had already gone for the interview after the exams, and I had passed. But I didn’t want my father to read the results on the pages of newspapers, so I told my mother, knowing that she would convey the news. She softened his mind and he said he had no problem with it.
Being a teacher, he felt I should be a teacher. He said while awaiting the call-up, I should report to Local Education Authority office the following morning. I went there and I was given a teaching job. I was posted to my village, while waiting. But on one market day, the headmaster was screaming my name, and I heeded. He handed over a copy of New Nigeria newspaper to me. I opened it and I saw that I had been selected to go for cadet training in the NDA. The newspaper was sent by my father.
DT: You had a taste of teaching. How was your experience?
Kontagora: I spent about two-and-a-half months. It was like I said at my village, which I had never visited as a grown-up. I had no idea how it looked until I went there as a teacher. I met an elderly woman who knew my family and our history, and she took me into her house and gave me a room. From time to time, she would tell me more of our history. She even showed me some trees to identify where my ancestral home was located, before my great grandfather moved out of the village in 1974. He went on to form another settlement, because he had cattle and was also a big-time farmer. There was serious competition for space, so most of them decided to leave our village – called Kakihum – for greener pastures, figuratively and literally.
DT: Speaking of your childhood, how as it like?
Kontagora: At the age of three, I was taken to my grandmother in the village. I was there until I turned six before I was tapped to start school. And because my grandfather had a lot of cattle, every child participates in rearing the herd. It’s either you do it as his child or your children will. It was very interesting. I started rearing cattle at the age of six. Any time there is a holiday, my father just took me to the motor park for onward journey to the village. That continued until we moved from Kontagora to Minna. Also, when I got admission into the college, my schedule was no longer permitting me. My grandfather died in 1972 and the cattle were shared as inheritance. My childhood was very interesting.
DT: Though you taught briefly, how was the education system at that time?
Kontagora: It was very interesting; I attended a missionary school and the standard was high. Even at that time, education could be expensive for many people. It was not every family that could afford to pay for education. But the Local Government Authority was equally efficient. You hardly knew the difference between a public school and a faith-based school. When I went to the village, I discovered that the interest in school was not much. But Thank God, I tried my best. I always feel happy because two of my pupils rose to become commissioners in Niger State. One of them is now the Deputy Provost of Federal College of Education, Kontagora. You see, as a small teacher then, I still feel very proud that I contributed to their success in life.
DT: Who are they?
Kontagora: They include late Muhammadu Wadada and Honourable Mahmoud Danwaki, who is in Federal College of Education, Kontagora. And they keep honouring me as their teacher. I also met my primary school teacher in the army. He is still alive. Up till today, I give him respect as my teacher. That is what I also discover is lacking now – that personal touch between the pupil and teacher.
DT: You attended a missionary school. Didn’t your parents feel it might influence your faith?
Kontagora: Yes, it did alright, because I was there because of my father. He was also drafted into the school. You know in those days, the District Head would just say the white man said that so and so family should produce a child for the school. And that was all. So, my father went there. You know that they would have to make you a Christian whether you understand it or not. That was what happened. My father worked with the missionaries, and he started teaching in 1954. He gave birth to us all while he was still with them, and it was odd to him because he had to participate in many things with his family. So, he reverted to Islam later. We were very young then.
DT: Let’s touch your career in the army a bit. What are your most memorable experiences during those years?
Kontagora: There are many. First of all, Government College Kaduna gave me the opportunity to meet students who came from the whole of northern Nigeria. I had a schoolmate in almost all the states of northern Nigeria and that was my first exposure to larger society. Then the NDA gave me another opportunity to have friends, and to travel, all over Nigeria.
Yes, it regimented my thinking, which also helped because that regimentation enables one to look at life on a more pragmatic and realistic manner without much prejudice. The military profession is a game of life and death. And if you are taking your troops to war, you have to be realistic and objective. That is the major thing you put in your mind. It is not about where the soldier comes from because your goal is to go into that operation with all the men and get them back safely. That method of reasoning is what helps everyone in the armed forces to live comfortably within his community even in retirement.
Yes, the general society may see you differently, just as you see them, because they are not disciplined. They don’t follow orders. The worst thing is when you venture into politics and experience a lot of treachery. If you ask them why, they will tell you that that is politics. While in the military, treachery will only earn you a bullet.
DT: You served as the military administrator in Benue and Kano states. What happened during those pleasant – and unpleasant – periods?
Kontagora: I’ll only share some of my experiences. As I said, in the military, it was a posting to serve in the states. So, I was there to do my best within my capability. And the assessment of my superiors who knew that I could do my best made it possible for me to be posted to those two states. As soon as I left secondary school, I became a class teacher. And before my appointment, I was also an instructor, in the school of artillery. In short, I was made an administrator on completion of my tenure as a directing staff – a lecturer in the Armed Forces Command and Staff College.
At the staff college, students and lecturers, if I can use the word lecturers, are given the opportunity to visit some states and African countries before leaving the environment. So, you are equipped with knowledge of people except if you refuse to apply it. The report these students write on the states and countries they visit is objective. In short, we invite the chief executives of the states they visited to come and listen to the students, talking about their states because they have nothing to lose. They give objective report of those states. So, when I was posted to Benue, the first thing I did was to go to the library and lay my hands on any reports on Benue State.
Don’t forget that I have classmates from Benue State with whom I’m still in contact with. So, there was no much problem. It’s just that the pattern of operation in army administration and in civil administration is different. But luckily, I met some seasoned civil servants, especially in Benue State. So, it was a good experience. Likewise, when I went to Kano, those that I met in the governor’s office were not as old and experienced as the ones in Benue, but they were equally good at guiding one to achieve goals.
DT: You’re currently into politics. What, to you, are the biggest differences between military and civilian styles of governance?
Kontagora: Politics generally gives room for greater participation in governance. It gives room for hearing opinions on a topic. It carries the active, the reluctant and the lazy along. None is technically left out through the political process of arriving at a conclusion. Even if at the end of the day, somebody will be the one to direct, you will discover that everybody is carried along, unlike the military which operates on orders.
That doesn’t mean that there were no debates in our council. I told you from my experience as a lecturer or a directing staff, we give room for feedback. So, before I take any decision, I always try to get participation from members of the executive council. It’s very important. One, I was conscious of the fact that among the whole executive council, there is a likelihood to get a stranger there. This was so because they were all civilians with the exception of the police commissioner and the military representatives. So, I would go and leave them in their environment to take a decision that carries them along so that they defend the decision you have taken in your absence.
DT: Who, would you say, are your mentors?
Kontagora: My parents. My mother was very strict, but very loving. She loved trading in which we participated at a very young age. I hawked kerosene, groundnuts and Akamu (pap) at a tender age. She was so active, and because of that, work is part of life to me. I work a lot now, even in retirement.
Then there’s my father, and my teachers, whom I keep talking about. You know I told you that I met one of my teachers in the Army, in the same corps – Artillery – and we worked in the same unit. My bosses are also my mentors and I was fortunate as a young officer to work with very senior officers, all teachers in their own way and capacity.
My teacher retired as a captain, Captain James Batachi, and he’s from Minna. He taught me in primary seven. I also met him in the School of Artillery and we worked together in a regiment in Ikorodu before his retirement. Then, I worked as an Aide-de-Camp (ADC) to late General Mamman Remawa. From there, I also worked with late General Jipson Jalo as ADC. I worked with General A.B Mamman as a Military Assistant and an ADC. They are very good people. I worked with General Domkat Bali. I was lucky to go through those hands.
DT: What is your most memorable experience in life so far?
Kontagora: The loss of my mother at a very early age. She departed in 1980. I felt I didn’t serve her much, and I didn’t repay her much. Then, the one that keeps coming back to my memory was the loss of my son after graduation. He came back home and died 48 hours after. So, these are events that I feel are difficult to get off my memory.
But there also were very wonderful occasions. The day I was commissioned into the Nigerian Army is one. Then also the day I discovered I was a married man.
DT: Do you have any regrets?
Kontagora: I could have gotten married earlier. The army encourages officers to marry from the age of 25. My father wanted me to marry much earlier. But I pushed it to 28. So, I’m still paying school fees. If I had started earlier, maybe I would have gone into full retirement by now. But as long as you pay school fees, you are not retired as far as I’m concerned because you must source for the funds to get those kids to school.
Then, it was after my retirement that I decided to go to university. I discovered that it was not easy at that age. Maybe during the service, I could have found time to go for my university education. In those days, we graduated with only A Level. Now, they graduate with degrees. I have just finished defending my Master’s thesis. It has not been easy. I believe I could have done that earlier.
DT: Now that you’re retired, how do you spend your leisure time?
Kontagora: Mostly spent on going for naming or wedding ceremonies, and condolence visits. That is virtually how we spend our weekends, except if you travel out either for Hajj or to see the children schooling. I do travel a lot, as that has been my hobby.