By Wola Adeyemo, Fola Adekeye and Bob MajiriOghene, on the occasion OF General Adebayo’s 80th birthday celebrations, in Lagos Nigeria.
How would you assess the military of your days with the military we have now?
There’s a great difference. One, the army of my time was very small, not as large as the army we have today. The army of today began ‘enlarging’ as from the time we got independence in 1960. That very year, there was problem in the Congo and we had to send troops from Nigeria to the Congo. Major General Ironsi was the first Nigerian to command Nigerian troops in the Congo, and we used to change positions every six months. Very much later however, I became a staff officer in the United Nations in the Congo. So to answer your question directly, the country took more responsibility than our own time. And they felt that the army should be expanded. The first expansion was a new battalion in the cantonment here in Ikeja to make six battalions. And since then, when other countries realised what we did in the Congo, they started asking for Nigeria troops.
So this expansion came as a result of peace keeping missions?
Yes, yes. Then, the army now actually enlarged during the civil war in Nigeria. We had to send a battalion to the war front, headed by Benjamin Adekunle, Black Scorpion. He did very well, but towards the end, when the war was about to end, we felt that he was getting tired and we sent Olusegun Obasanjo to take over from him. Unfortunately for Obasanjo, the war ended about six weeks after he took over. So he was the one that took the surrendering certificate from Philip Effiong who was number two to Odumegwu Ojukwu, when he ran away more or less. Because of that civil war, we felt that the army should expand more, and because of the large expansion of Nigeria, we felt that we should surround our country with our own troops, to define what they should stand for – that is, to defend the territorial integrity of the country.
By the time General Obasanjo came to office as president in 1999, he attempted to professionalize the army. Do you think he succeeded?
The army was professionalized before the end of the civil war. It was only the enlargement of the army he did. And he was left, as I said, to end the war. You see, he was a military engineer, not a civil engineer. He was an engineer within the army.
Did that make some kind of an emergency engineer?
No. He was a trained military engineer. For instance, if we were going to a place and the bridges were spoilt or there were no bridges at all, Obasanjo was trained to handle that sort of thing. So because of the duty he performed during the civil war, he became a first class Nigerian army officer. I was in the West then. When he came back, he went back to his engineering unit which is an offshoot of his immediate job as a soldier. So he became well known. So for him to say that professionalism took place was recent, with all due respect, that was very wrong.
No sir, we wanted to know whether he achieved his objective to re-professionalize the army after he came back to power in 1999.
Well, let’s start from when he finished the war. We realized that we needed more troops to enlarge the army. So we were working on that, when in 1999 he won the election and became the president. Naturally everyone expected that he would use his experience when he was in the military and compare what he had in 1999. He took the advice of the professional heads in the military, to enlarge the army, which he did: because he was the president, and because of the demand from foreign countries asking for professional military help from Nigeria.
So would you now say that the Nigerian armed forces are combat ready?
Of course they are, mostly because they have been helping other countries. And they are trained physically and properly to maintain the prescribed duties of the armed forces. So they are combat ready, any time.
What are your thoughts on the altercations between Obasanjo and Danjuma?
What happened between them was unfortunate and what I would term a good example of disloyalty on the part of General Danjuma. Obasanjo was the president and Danjuma was minister of defense and they both knew each other when they were in the army, they were more or less of the same grade when they were in the army, and if he wasn’t good, I see no reason why Obasanjo would invite him to become a minister of defense. There must have been some misunderstanding when he was minister of defense under Obasanjo, during his first term. And they both swallowed the disagreement without letting the public know. And suddenly, Danjuma said that he was not going to do a second time with Obasanjo as defense minister. We thought that he was tired and he wanted somebody to take his place. We didn’t know that there was some underneath disagreement between him and Obasanjo. But the whole thing blew out when Danjuma had his 70th birthday about three months ago. As a senior retired military officer, I was distressed and disappointed that they both broke the discipline of the hierarchy of the army. And Obasanjo as usual, doesn’t usually say much after a disagreement with his friends or people that work with him. Even if he was the guilty party, he wouldn’t make any statement. And even if he was the innocent one, again he would make any statements. But the statements credited to Danjuma have embarrassed the whole nation. Having known that they were friends who worked with each other while they were in the army, and had confidence in each other before Obasanjo made him his chief of defense.
As a fellow retired General, why didn’t you make some efforts to ask what happened between them?
I have not concerned myself with the military since I retired. Socially yes, but professionally, no. So it would be a stupid idea for me as a very senior retired officer in the Nigerian army, to start calling them to discuss the military aspect of the country. No, it’s not a good thing
But Danjuma kept insisting that Obasanjo was not listening to him while in power and if he had shown up at his birthday, he could have thrown him out.
That could have been foolish, stupid if he did that. Some officers still visit me in such a manner that even if I disagree with them, I still bring them around. Therefore, it would be unfair of me to interfere with these kinds of situations in the military because I was senior to all of them. They all respected me and they still do.
I guess that confers on you to broker peace between them.
Well, I think it would be unkind to do that too. Obasanjo was the president of the country. Danjuma was his minister of defense. It would be unwise of somebody like me to interfere on what happened between them. But if they had come to me, possibly I would have taken the opportunity to call them to order.
You mean that if they decide to indulge in a long-drawn altercation, you would not interfere?
It is most likely that I would not interfere. It would be unmilitary. That is why we keep having these problems today. People, even among civilians, interfere in things that hardly concern them. Why should you interfere in things that do not concern you? It is a government problem and they should resolve the problem, but I insist that if either one had brought the problem to me, I probably may have been able to get the other one, to discussion with him.
When Obasanjo was president, would you say in your capacity as leader of the Yoruba Council of Elders that he hardly listened to advice?
Obasanjo was the president of the country. I am still the president of the Yoruba Council of Elders. We went to him on one or two occasions to discuss generally on the state of the nation as it affects the Yoruba. He listened to us, he agreed with us but when he gets to his kitchen cabinet, things are likely to change. My advice has been that we see anything going wrong in the country; we go to him and try to give him solutions we think can solve those problems. It is often up to him to take or do otherwise.
Nevertheless, would you say that he is generally receptive to counsel?
I would not say yes or no. This is because I knew Obasanjo very well from when he was one pip in the army. He was a good, determined and intelligent officer, who won the civil war, took over after Murtala Mohammed was assassinated. He conformed with Murtala’s idea of handing over to a democratically elected civilian government in 1979, which he did, to Shehu Shagari. So from all angles, everybody was happy that he handed over, even us in the military then. I had left the military then, but I thought they were still interested in staying long in government. There was no need for the army to have been in government. You know, I was the first chief of staff in army headquarters in Nigeria until I went to England on 15th November 1965, to do a course after having handed over to somebody else. I was there when I heard that a coup had taken place on January 15, 1966. I was thankful that I was not at home, because nobody was really thinking about a coup at all. I would say jokingly, that we did not know what a coup was during our time. There was spirit of togetherness among us all in the army.
What came to your mind as soon as the coup took place? Did you consider coming back at once?
There was no need to return to Nigeria because someone else had taken over my appointment. People would have my return a different angle and misinterpreted it that I knew about the coup. So it was a good thing that I was not at home even though I was always in touch with events at home on the telephone. Unfortunately, the chap that took over from me as chief of staff was killed in the January coup. Possibly, if I were to be home then, I could have been killed too. However in July 1966 when we were about to go on world tour at the Imperial Defence College, which is an annual event, the army coup had already taken place in Nigeria. Ironsi had already taken over since January. I felt that as a Nigerian senior officer on that course, I should come home just to acquaint myself with the foreign policy of my country before going on that course. Therefore, I called Ogundipe, who was the chief of general staff. I called Ironsi to let him know that I was coming home before I proceeded on that course. All the other senior officers before me had been on that course. And they agreed with me that I should come home. On the night of 28th of July, I got here on the morning of 29th and accommodated in a particular guesthouse. From there, I started visiting all my friends that I left behind six months ago and I ended up with my uncle, Chief Adeyemi, who was an architect living on Ribadu road. Our discussions took us far into the night and he prevailed on me to spend the night, even though I had hardly had a change of clothing. In the morning, a coup had taken place and I was made to understand that the soldiers had even visited that guest house, probably with a mind to kill me. It came as a shock that a lot of the senior military officers had been killed. What I did then was to consult with very senior people in the society like Adetokunbo Ademola, Chief Majekodunmi. From those consultations, it became clear to me that I had become the most senior military officer to come from the West of Nigeria, but I thought that it was wrong of me to take the reins of power even though there were several appeals from a lot of people. In the meanwhile, General Gowon was hiding somewhere at the Ikeja cantonment, and this was why it dawned on us all that as the most senior military officer from the North, he was likely to be head of state. With all due respects, that coup was not an Ibo coup despite the fact that most of the officers and men who took part in it were Ibo. Because of that, there were wild speculations thereby, that there was going to be a Hausa counter-coup. Unfortunately, when it did take place, it had wider implications because even those who were not Ibo were also killed. But I think that that coup took place because six months after, Ironsi didn’t take disciplinary action on those who started it all. My opinion now is that Ironsi really didn’t know what to do especially as he hadn’t commanded either British or Nigerian troop before he became head of state. I think he was being slow to take action because he was being careful, such that when the second coup took place, people thought it was planned and executed by northerners. So even when there was pressure on me to take power, I refused even though I knew that the north was sponsoring Gowon, who was my junior in the army. So as a full colonel, I decided to step down and go to the West, on the 4th of August 1966. When I got to the West as governor, the first thing I did was find the bodies of both Ironsi and Fajuyi and give then proper burials. Thereafter, work in the West started. I was there as governor for four years and eight months.
What was one significant thing that happened in your time as governor?
Because I was formerly a chief of army staff at defense headquarters, I knew exactly what was going on in the West, starting from 1962 Majekodunmi as emergency administrator. The first thing I did was go round to know the terrain and know the people. On the day I was going to see the Ooni, Aderemi Adesoji I was a bit late. All the important chiefs at the Ife Junction were dressed in their finest but were sweating profusely. From that moment on, I abolished the practice of traditional rulers coming outside of their palaces to Ife junction to meet the governor. From that moment also, governors, presidents and administrators now go to the palaces of traditional rulers instead of the other way round.
Because of allegations of mismanagement of resources under the military, would you have preferred that the military never participated in government?
There shouldn’t have been military participation in government in the first place. But since there was military government, I don’t agree that there was mismanagement in my own time. But if you are talking about now, maybe there was some of it. On the whole, I don’t think there was something like that. Talking about mismanagement, it would be unfair to talk about mismanagement. Even in the government before us there were cases of mismanagement, they were inefficient. And the reason why you cannot blame us was that we were military people who had no training in these things. So we should not say there$was mismancgement. We should rather be talking about ‘dull moments’ or that we were not partaking in the profession that we were trained for.
But if you say that there was no mismanagement, how do you account for General Abdulsalaam’s assertion that past military governors were corrupt apart from two of them?
He meant me and somebody else, and I thank God for that. Well, what the problem was, is that General Gowon stayed in power too long, for 12 years. If a coup against him took place, it must have taken place as a result of either of two things. One, if his officers wanted to go on their own, wanted to run things on their own. Two, if there was mismanagement. But I think the whole thing boils down to Gowon’s pace. He was becoming slow, especially when the civilians were already itching to participate in running government.
But do you agree that Generals Rotimi and Mobolaji-Johnson were also clean?
As far as I am concerned they were. But if there were any instances of corruption or mismanagement in those days, it was very minimal. I was never involved and I don’t think either my predecessors or successors were involved.
If you say they were not involved in any mismanagement, what happened to all those funds that General Gowon said he had no idea how to spend?
I would say that is a bit unfair a statement to make. I thought that I had just answered the question a while ago. There wasn’t much money then and the problem of the country was much more that the money that could go around then. And the military was able to as much as they could with the money that came in. Some were slow, no doubt, probably because it was not a profession they were trained for. You must also realize that the military did not rule alone. When I was governor of the West, I had 12 commissioners and knowing the politics of the West then, most of them were Awolowo supporters who was in prison. I guess that support has its basis from the great work he had done as premier of the West and somebody who showed leadership. So the monies coming in then were used judiciously, judging from the many problems that were on ground. There were problems of water, road construction, hospitals, and electricity. Take for instance in Ekiti where I come from – there was only one hospital in the whole Western region when I was there but when I was leaving there were eight. I called them cottage hospitals which were now turned into general hospitals. So the whole thing depends on the individuals in power. I come from Ekiti, I know their problems and which ones to accord priority and I did my best according to the priorities. That why people are happy with what I did in the West, not just in Ekiti alone.
You said that your successors continued with your policies. What do you make of the reversal of the Obasanjo’s policies by his successor?
In many instances of government in any country, most leaders do what they do according to the dictates of their conscience. Even though there are many things to handle that are difficult, leaders are wont to do things according to their conscience and according to how you view things. When Yar’Adua took over, he must have seen some defectives in the performance of Obasanjo and he had to reverse them. Don’t forget also that Yar’Adua has advisers who may advise on what the former president had done rightly or wrongly, to assist him start his own programmes. So the question of reversing or not reversing is a question of time; how you see things and it is a question of your ability to change those decisions.
Don’t you think that the reversal of a predecessor’s policies is an indictment on the business of government in Nigeria?
Not really. Nigeria has changed tremendously from what it used to be. There are many problems of ethnicity. People want things to be done in their own areas as they think are done in their own areas. And if the president then didn’t do what they felt should have been done, they would complain, naturally. It depends on what that president put on the ground. It depends on his priorities as a president which may not be priority to the people. So if the incumbent president reverses some of the things Obasanjo did, he may have done that because he may have found some loopholes in the way they were handled. We must not make the mistake to use our problems in the west as benchmark for the problems of the whole country. We must realize that there are many countries in Nigeria. So you can’t satisfy everyone in the country all at once. Nevertheless, if the president gets his priorities right, if he doesn’t take decisions in a hurry, if he has good advisers telling him what to do, there are chances that policies will not get reversed. When Yar’Adua leaves tomorrow you may find the next man thinking twice about his programmes if he thinks otherwise. But the main problem that Obasanjo had was in the way he was handling things. People thought that he was doing things militarily, not listening to anybody. Well maybe that’s his nature.
Your 25 chieftaincy titles bear testimony to the love people have for you after you left power. But that does not seem to be Obasanjo’s lot after he left power. What do you think is responsible for this?
As I said the problems in Nigeria as at when he took over have more than doubled now. He seemed to have added to Nigeria’s problems by not getting his priorities right. He did a lot of good things. One of the things he did very well was the EFCC and the ICPC. Nobody can dispute that, and I know that that record will be there for a lifetime. But on the social side, some areas got more than others did. The Yoruba said he didn’t do much for them while he was doing a lot for other areas. Naturally, they would complain. Even the road from Otta to Abeokuta has not been finished. The road from Lagos to Ibadan is considered the worst in the world. Lagos as the economic headquarters of Nigeria should have the best of roads, electricity, and there should be water at all times. Obviously, all of these have not been done. Maybe he was annoyed at them for not voting for him in his first term. But they tried to reconcile with him by going into an agreement with him that they would vote for him on the condition that he was not to touch ‘touch’ their governors. As we all witnessed, he didn’t abide by the terms of that agreement, unfortunately. We in the Yoruba Council of Elders, YCE, took that decision because we felt that if we did not vote for him for a second term, the next time the Yoruba would get close to power would be the next 48 years because of the zoning formula in the country.
Some people have said that the voiding of the elections of governors in the present time is an indictment that the 2007 elections were flawed.
Some people in this country are not being honest. Indeed, some of the elections were not properly conducted, and if we don’t amend the laws, and keep its priorities and the security of this country, we would continue to have problems. What we now is to get a proper INEC, possibly including al the Representatives of the states in the Federation. Secondly, the parties should vet their candidates before putting them forward as candidates. Third, Nigerians should be more united and supportive of their leaders as we had when our first leaders took over. Our leaders fought together to attain independence. All, the INEC laws must be put right for normalcy, unity and trust back to the country. We must reconstitute our constitution, re write from scratch. We must not patch it. Let us realize that there are three types of ruling: the military, parliamentary and the presidential. Because of the need to have some kind of opposition in the apparatus of governance, we went for the presidential but I can assure you that it is very expensive. Seventy percent of the nation’s earnings go into the payment of salaries and allowances; even the remaining thirty percent that should go into developmental projects still find their way into private pockets. So we have to have a rethink. Would it not be better if we go back to the parliamentary system of government where we can all be involved in the development of our states? We cant go back to the regions now because no one will agree. Then, the local governments after the states: responsibilities must be given to the traditional rulers who own the areas. Traditional leaders own the local government areas – they know about the bad roads, lack of water and hospitals and as such can easily approach government and articulate their problems. I think that some of these local things should be left with traditional rulers. There’s nothing wrong with traditional rulers having some kind of rapport with their counterparts from other areas.
Would that not in some ways drag them into politics?
Not likely. That is not politics and that’s why I’m proposing a re-writing of the constitution. If you think about politics all the time, the country will not make much progress. You don’t force yourself on the people, they put him there. Now, the state, they play politics. This is because you work the federal government who owns the money, they are between the federal government and the local government. They supervise the local government, they work with the federal too because they get money for development from the federal government. Just like in those days, when they had this parliamentary system in this country, there was no permanent parliament in region, but now, people in the parliament go for about four or five holidays in a year. So can’t we go back to the old system? And there was more efficiency that we have then now, what we have now is that people just go to the parliament to talk, and if there is a project to handle for the people, they go on holidays.
What efforts are you making to introduce some of these ideas into the business of governance?
There was one conference we went to in 1995 that Obasanjo called us to. He said it was a constitutional conference. That could have been a good place to resolve a lot of the problems in this country. The problems in this country could have been discussed there, sent to parliament and resolved amicably. Everybody must come together, like what PRONACO did in bringing everybody together.
But PRONACO had met and submitted their finding to the National Assembly. After that do we still need the National Assembly?
Of course, yes. PRONACO did not represent the interest of all Nigerians.
They said they represented ethnic nationalities
They can call it anything. That in fact does not mean that they alone can send memoranda to the National Assembly. If we ‘sectionise’ reasons for the progress of the country, we will find that we will still be making the same mistakes. If you find a group of people sending government a memo and they receive attention, you must find ways to send yours too.
Do you think the war against corruption in Nigeria is winnable?
I’ve always told people that this generation is the only generation that can solve the problems of this generation. The next generation, that is, our children’s will not have the time to do that. So this generation should work hard and work tirelessly without thinking of themselves, and for the interest of the country, at least to solve most of them. If we wait for the next generation to attend to some of these problems, I think we’ll be making a mistake.
When you view the management of the economy of this nation, do you think we are on course to join the big nations in the global economy?
People keep saying Vision 2020. I think we should start Vision 2020 now. I wonder how we can join those big economies when there are no roads, no water, and no electricity. Certain things must be put right before we get to that Vision 2020. Nigeria must learn to stick to certain countries like the United States and Britain in our overall way of doing international business. I remember when we were close to the British, we had durability of goods. But now that we are going the way of China, you would discover that we may get things fast enough but they may not last as when we did business with the British.
In the need to have foreign alliances, most Western nations have always put themselves first at the expense of Nigeria.
All nations of the world do that, even the relatively young ones. Yar’Adua has been in China having a lot of conferences and signing a lot of papers. What we should do is that we should form alliances and try to do businesses with all of them. But in the end, we should be able to evaluate the ones that are good, and send the ones we don’t think are good for us away.
There were many stories about the owambe parties you used to throw when you were the governor of the Western region. You seem to have loved to enjoy yourself.
First of all I want to say that everything depends on what you want in life. I think I have lived a good life. Look at my grey hairs, I’ve had them for years like my father before me had grey hairs. People tell me I’m 80. I don’t even know that I’m 80, that is, I don’t feel 80. I have had a good home; I live well and I think it would be very difficult for anyone to say they lived better than I have lived. Every Sunday, I bring friends here to eat pounded yam here with me, and that’s because I cannot eat alone on Sundays.
Now let me tell you about the Owambes. When I went to the West as governor, it was very ‘dark’ and in turmoil Awolowo was in jail, Akintola had been killed, most of the leaders had been killed or in hiding. There was darkness in the West. I didn’t know the people well, together with the kind of politics that they played. I had to open up the politics of the West, and bring the people closer to me one way or the other so that I could study them. When I brought them to me, whether I knew them or not, they were able to confide in me and tell me the problems that they faced from different angles. Then I did some comparison. If I found them to be cogent, I swung into action immediately. That was the number one secret of the owambe. Secondly, the plan was to use the galas to bring them nearer the government and give them a sense of belonging. I visited them sometimes and if it was impossible to discuss with them there, I sent vehicles to bring them to government house and had lunch with them. Before long, word had gone around that I was doing a good job. That was why some people began to call me owambe, and I loved it. Some of them who used the term derogatively, were sometimes more owambe than myself at the owambe parties. Owambe was just a method to bring people to me and I think I succeeded politically, administratively and socially in that era.