Thursday, November 21, 2019 2:00 am
General Alani Ipoola Akinrinade is 80 years old. Yet, he does not look it. The civil war hero, pro-democracy activist who escaped death by the whiskers when Sani Abacha rode rough shod over Nigeria was honoured on Thursday 3 October, 2019 at the University of Ibadan International Conference Centre with a birthday party. It was an opportunity for dignitaries that day to comment on the goings-on in the polity. TheNEWS also decided to keep the dialogue going by engaging Akinrinade in a marathon interview. With him in his country home in Yakoyo, Ife North Local Government Area of Osun State on Thursday 31 October were KUNLE AJIBADE, Executive Editor, TheNEWS/PMNEWS; ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, Editor and AYODELE EFUNLA, photo journalist. Akinrinade seized the opportunity to reveal a lot about his formative years in Yakoyo, Offa (where he attended secondary school) and other towns, how he joined the Army, his trainings home and abroad, the individuals who helped him in life, the civil war, how he escaped deaths then and during the June 12 struggles, politics now and the way forward. Read more in the Preface
Congratulations on your 80th birthday. The turnout in Ibadan was very impressive although you were not involved in the planning. Could you talk a bit about what aging means to you as you reflect on your life so far?
First of all, I want to apologise to all my friends who felt slighted that they were not invited to Ibadan. I want them to know that I didn’t do that deliberately. I was not involved in the planning at all. I thank them most sincerely for all their best wishes. I also thank the organisers of that event. I was deeply touched by the honour. Ageing, perhaps, allows you, sometimes, to look back on your life and review some of the things that happened to you, and others, in your presence. When I look back, I see some things that I did wrong and some things that I now give myself pass marks for. Such is life, you know. It gives me joy when I remember a lot of people I met by chance who have influenced me without them knowing it. When I was young, I thought some of the mentors were very harsh. Looking back on my life now, it was very good that they insisted on very high standards. I am so grateful to them.
How were you raised by your parents?
I was raised by the village and people from elsewhere. I grew up with my paternal grandmother to whom I was so close. I used to sleep on her bed, till when she died. Even when she was dead I did not know. I slept beside her on the bed till morning, and no one bothered to ask me to wake up and leave the room because they knew that the whole house would come down if they did so. I was about four years at that time. People were very kind to me. My parents and their siblings, on the paternal and maternal sides, were very kind to me. Between Yakoyo and Moro there was a big tree, which everybody venerated. If your father or mother was from Moro, and it was time to invoke your appellation, they would call you Omo Ewuru as if that tree was the one that gave you protection. The ground around that tree was a shrine. Usually, at that shrine, people made rituals, and the ritualists left coins. It could be frightening to pass by. But it was my grandmother who told me never to be afraid of those ritualists; that they were human beings like me—not spirits. She told me that if I met them before they got to the shrine, I should follow them a short distance before I turned back. That way, she emboldened me and I felt immune. I was six years old then. Each time they left, I would go back to the shrine and pick the coins. My parents thought I was going to be very impossible. They caught me several times going to a Quranic school very close to the marketplace. Seeing people writing from right to left got me curious and I just wanted to understand what they were writing. So, I used to go to that school to see what they were doing. But I didn’t like the attitude of the teacher then because he used to beat us too much for nothing. If somebody made a mistake while reciting, instead of beating the person who made the mistake, he would beat all of us and I couldn’t understand why. Even as a child, I thought that it was not fair. That was why I stopped going to that school.
I did Infant One and Infant Two. I then moved to Standard One. The only primary school was the one in my village. And everybody came to that school from the seven surrounding villages. When I finished Standard One, I was given double promotion. At the end of Standard Three, I was given another double promotion, so I went straight to Standard Five. My mother did not take any nonsense: very tough woman, but many of my teachers were not as strict and harsh. I was inspired at that time by my uncle, Josiah Akinrinade, my father’s immediate younger brother (Soji Akinrinade’s father). He was the only one in our house who went to school that time and he became a clerk for the produce buyer’s association in our area. It used to be called Western Nigeria Produce Marketing Board. During holidays, while I was in secondary school, we would go to him, because if we stayed at home with my father, we would go to the farm all through, but if we stayed with my uncle, we would go to the farm only for some days and also stayed with him in the store to work for him. However, he was very strict, but easier and kinder than his elder brother. He brought us up, encouraged us and made sure that we worked really hard. The only thing I didn’t like about him was that, at five o’clock in the morning, he would wake us up to sing and pray at home, then he would take us to the church. He converted from CMS church to Christ Apostolic Church (CAC) and it was his duty to ensure that all his family members—immediate and extended— toed the line. But, after some time, I think he gave up on me because, as soon as we got there, I would go straight to the back of the church and sleep under the bench and, on many occasions, they forgot me there. When they got home, they would discover that I was missing, so they would come back to retrieve me from where I was sleeping I think after some time, he decided to let me be. I didn’t really think we needed to pray that much. I still believe that we pray too much instead of working so hard in this country.
Who inspired you in your secondary school?
The only high school that was close to us was Oduduwa College, Ile-Ife. For me, it had somewhat become very common, so ordinary because everybody was going there. I decided I wasn’t going to go to Oduduwa College. But my parents insisted that I must go and write the school’s entrance examination which I did. I passed the written exams, but I made sure I failed the interview. So, I taught for one year at one of the primary schools that Chief Obafemi Awolowo had begun to build then. I was recruited by a clergyman, who was in charge of the biggest church we had then in Ipetumodu. After that, I now repeated the entrance examinations, not to Oduduwa College, but to Offa Grammar School. I did very well in the exams and they offered me admission. When I got to Offa Grammar School, I noticed that, Mr Josiah Osanyin, from Ijebu-Jesa, was already recruited as the principal of the school. His brother was also a very senior Reverend Father. If you said in your form that you were a Christian, Mr Osanyin would make sure that you attended church on Sundays. He too would always drop off his family at St. Mark’s Church where we attended service, and then he would go to the Railway Club to play tennis. At the end of the church service— he knew exactly when the church service finished— he would come back to pick up his family. He was always time conscious. This man didn’t go to church, but he was most considerate and kind, but very strict. He was one of the most respected persons in Offa, after the Oba. Until he died, we used to go on a yearly pilgrimage to Ijebu-Jesa to visit with him. For him, as Yoruba would say, iwa le sin. It is important for people not to compromise their principles. When you met Mr Osanyin, you knew immediately that you were in the presence of a man of principles. When I finished secondary school, I worked in Ibadan, as a clerk in the Ministry of Agriculture for just one year. I found out that the civil service was a replica of the school I was coming from, where you must get there on time, where you must have something to do to keep you busy, and where you could not leave before closing time. That was what the Chief Obafemi Awolowo Secretariat in Ibadan was like when I worked there.
You then enlisted in the Army. Who were your mentors there, the officers who really inspired you?
In the Army, my first role model was Zakariya Maimalari. He was a likeable man. He happened to be the second in command in Kaduna then. His boss was a white man and the next man to him was also a white man, but Maimalari stood his ground all the time. When you looked at his face, you could almost read where he was going. He had nothing to hide from anybody. He was respectful, but he would stand his ground anytime. They killed him in the first coup in 1966. When I left Kaduna, I went to Sandhurst, the first person I met was Mobolaji Johnson, the second was Shittu Alao. We were in the same college. The two of them insisted that Sandhurst was not a joking matter and that their lives would depend on how they performed there. They made sure that there were no surprises for me because there were a lot of bullies there, but the bullying was not because they hated you or because they wanted to punish you, it was to prepare you for what you were going to meet along the way. Both Mobolaji Johnson and Shittu Alao made sure that I did my best in everything. In Sandhurst, there was what’s called changing parade. You would serve a lot of punishment, if you didn’t have prior knowledge of what it really meant. You could be given three minutes to go two flights of steps to your room and change from your fatigue uniform to your number one dress. They would give you three minutes to go up and come down. Today, my wife will tell people: Give him five minutes, he will take a shower, dress up and he is ready to go. That is part of what Sandhurst taught me. We have missed this as a people. We have no respect for time. We say African time. What is African time? I just don’t get it. It is a very irresponsible way to live because there is no way we can make progress without keeping to time. As a people it seems that we have reached a stupid consensus that there is nothing like time. Even in government offices, I have witnessed many occasions that people called meetings and those who called the meetings were not there on time. This is how, gradually, we are losing touch with modernisation. We don’t measure the time we spend to do things. Any society that fails to recognise this is not going anywhere. While at Sandhurst, all my seniors like Mobolaji Johnson taught me to look after my juniors when I became a senior; they said that I should make it my business to take care of every Nigerian that was admitted to Sandhurst.
In my last term, I met Yakubu Gowon. By the time he came there to the Staff College, Gowon was already a Major. When he came to look for us to talk to Nigerian Cadets who were in Sandhurst, he introduced himself. I was the most senior, he then asked me to bring four Cadets to his house every Sunday after church. He would give us lunch and drinks and we would talk and talk and talk and have more drinks. By that time, he had no wife. Gowon showed me that even though you’re so senior to people, you just have to be with them and make them feel at ease with you. You have to ensure that they are free with you to the point that they can tell you to your face if you did something that they didn’t like. I learned that from Gowon who was already a Major in the Army but who treated us the Cadets, officers who were not commissioned yet, with respect. He would talk to us. He was cooking for us. As a country, we are beginning to lose all that. People are employing those who will tell them what they want to hear. As l wrote in a tribute to him, he was too kind to be a soldier. He was the son of a revered clergyman. He is a great soldier. When I got commissioned, I left Sandhurst. By that time Yakubu Gowon was already the Adjutant-General. I wanted to go to Civil Engineering unit, but he posted me to Infantry. I was not quite happy about it, but knowing full well that he wouldn’t do anything that was going to harm my military career, I didn’t even discuss it with him. Not only that, he posted me to Ibadan, to his own mentor and friend, who was senior but very, very close to him, Kuru Mohammed, and pleaded with him that he was sending me down to be brought up. I spent about one and half years with him and I’m proud to have served under Kuru Mohammed. From there, Gowon posted me directly to his own office. So, I began to work at the highest echelon of the Army as a staff Captain. Some people objected to bringing in a Captain to the Army Headquarters in Lagos, but he stood his ground and said that was what he wanted to do with me. I think because of the noise, he decided to post Danjuma to the Headquarters too. Danjuma and l were classmates. That helped Danjuma and me because we had more access, better view of what was happening in the Army. I was in charge of personnel services. When your reports came, we read them, from junior to senior officers. We had a panoramic view of what the Army was all about. A lot of officers went astray and they got punished, they got court-martialled, because the Army didn’t take any nonsense. It was not as big as it is now. The whole Army was about 8,000 officers and men. Danjuma and I had that head start. I was not surprised that Danjuma ended up as Chief of Army Staff. I think that is part of the booties we got, not just by working hard, but also because the bosses we worked with were very good people, who recognised our worth. I think everyone at the top, or everyone moving to the top, or in a position of authority, must continue to bring people up, assess them and warn them, generally show them the right way, pass on the knowledge, and things like that. It’s a big boost for anyone to have that opportunity, that privilege of getting mentored, of being looked after and being supervised by people who are great professionals, but also who are very kind. I enjoyed working with Gowon for many years as I grew with him.
Would you say General Yakubu Gowon was partial to you?
I won’t say he was partial to me because the word partiality has a negative connotation. I would say he was fair to me. And I can give you two instances to back that up. During the Nigerian Civil War, I quarrelled with my own very good friend, Murtala Mohammed. He was my senior and my GOC. I was a Brigade Commander. We didn’t agree and I just walked out on him and went back to Lagos. I know that if someone else had been the Commander in Chief, that would have ruined my career. That person would have said, You walked out on your GOC, and you have come to my office to do what? Where did you learn that from? But maybe because he knew I was right, maybe because he knew my character, my temperament, that when I feel very strongly about something, I’m going to fight for it. Maybe because of that, he just said, Alright, let’s leave it at that. I have a problem in Bonny, I’ll send you there. Just leave them. The problem was never resolved. We just left it at that. Second instance: When Benjamin Adekunle got to the point where he was going down the drain, we decided it was enough. Alabi-Isama and I went to meet the same Gowon. I thought he would say, You again? You quarrelled with Mohammed, my GOC and now you quarrelled with Adekunle again. But he didn’t say that. He just listened to what we got to say. It was a privilege that he knew me personally. He then asked, Who can succeed Adekunle? And I said Olusegun Obasanjo. Alabi-Isama kept saying he didn’t know this Obasanjo fellow, but I didn’t know him either. But on the seniority list, when I was in the Army Headquarters in those days, I already knew where everybody stood and he was an Engineer Officer. Once you are a Signal Officer, an Engineer Officer or an Infantry Officer, you can do an Infantry work and that was my own understanding. Apart from that, the 3rd Marine Commando would never function well under anyone who was not a Yoruba officer. That is a little parochial to say, but that is the truth. If you posted another officer there who was not a Yoruba of senior cadre, the Marine Commando would simply not work. The place was made up of 80 per cent Yoruba soldiers, most of their officers too were from there and Midwest. That affinity was there. There are some things you can’t just help or just wish away. It was too dangerous to experiment at that time. The best thing to do was to send a very senior Yoruba officer to the 3rd Marine Commando. Other Yoruba officers like Rotimi, Oluleye and Olutoye were already doing work that was very important for the Army and for the war. It was only Obasanjo who was sitting pretty in Ibadan as Garrison Commander. You could post another officer to Ibadan, which was not a war front, to be Garrison Commander. Obasanjo was available. Gowon said we should go and talk to him. So, we went to his house, somewhere in Bodija, in Ibadan. We talked with him for several hours and he said NO, yes, capital NO, he wasn’t going. The argument went on for a while and he finally agreed to go and Gowon posted him to Port Harcourt. When he got to the 3rd Marine Commando, he committed exactly the same error that Adekunle committed. Because it was convenient for him, he started listening to people who were afraid to go to the war front. They were telling him that some Brigade Commanders were getting too powerful, referring to me and Alabi-Isama. As he sidelined us for some time, he suffered so many casualties.
You met Ken Saro-Wiwa during the war and you became friends. Saro-Wiwa’s book, On a Darkling Plain is quite explicit about this friendship. What are your own impressions of Ken Saro-Wiwa?
I have fond memories of Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was posted to Bonny Island as an Administrator. When he came out from the sea plane that brought him, I went to meet him from the jetty, I saw the man, so diminutive. I asked him, Who did you offend? Why did they send you here? Do they want to kill you? As if taking bullets depends on body size! He said, No, that he was teaching at the University of Ibadan. But give Saro-Wiwa five minutes and he would disarm you. Whenever he laughed, the whole village would hear. I told him that his pipe was even bigger than him. He said he never noticed it! He was such a good-natured person. He was just laughing at himself. I took him to my house, we sat down and had lunch together and I went to show him his office and where we had prepared for him to stay. I told him if he was not comfortable there, he could come to my place, but that it was dangerous, because that was the pathway of the helicopter whenever they were doing their bombing. Saro-Wiwa, was a first class administrator, very brilliant. Our friendship continued after the war. When he finished writing the Ogoni Bill of Rights, he came to see me in my house in the evening and l said, Are you going to allow me to read this document so that tomorrow we can discuss it and he said, Why not? He came back the following evening for us to discuss. When we discussed it, I then knew that he made provision for people who would be subscribers. I told him I would sign it, and I did. I advised him that he should also get Danjuma to sign. Danjuma was his very good friend too. I knew that the problem of the Niger Delta needed urgent attention. All of us would have to get up and do something. That was what the Ogoni Bill of Rights demanded of us. I told him that he should give me 50 copies, that I would go and deliver a copy personally to Ibrahim Babangida and that I was not going to deliver it to him when he had no time; that I would deliver it when we could talk about it. He said, You’re in government, I want you to look at it very critically. This is the seed and it is germinating real trouble for all of us in the future. This is the solution to the problem. I had no idea who his advisers and coordinators were, but when I saw the document, I doffed my hat for him and his small group who put all the things together. It is was a civilised way to solve a very difficult problem. But Ken Saro-Wiwa was not dealing with a civilized regime. What did Sani Abacha achieve by killing him and his comrades?
What close shaves did you have with death during the Biafra-Nigeria war?
In the war front, you don’t say you have a close shave, unless you are shot. I sat down with people when we were going to capture Aba, talking about what next to do, because Biafran land mines were very pervasive, going off at every 100 meters. We were just sitting down when a young soldier who was on the same parapet that we were sitting got shot and he went down. The bullet went to his helmet, but it was the concussion that knocked him down. The bullet did not really hit his head. After that, I was sitting on a sofa with one lady, there was music and I just told the woman, Let’s go and dance, but she wouldn’t answer me. At first, I thought, These civilians are so petrified. Unknown to me, a bullet came into the sitting room, hit her in the head and she died. Ayo Ariyo had a rocking chair. He was sitting in the chair. He was our classmate, but he was already a Sergeant in the Army by the time they recruited us. He sat in the chair and we were all sitting together. He just got up and wanted to go to the bathroom. As soon as he got up, he couldn’t have taken two steps away when a bullet hit where his head was on the chair. When he came back, we jokingly said, That bullet was meant for you, bloody idiot! We all laughed about it. That’s the nature of the work. The only time I ever got hit was on my finger. People could get killed so easily. Felix Onifade. He was my senior, but over the time the war started, he lost seniority because we had exams and I overtook him. When they now posted him to work under me, he came, we spent the night in my house. We later joined a Navy ship to Bonny. We went out in the morning to show him his new command and then we sat in one trench and I was pointing out something to him. But a bullet hit him there and he died. That was his first day. When we got the medics to take off his shirts, we found a small tortoise that was still alive under his chest. That diminished my belief in the potency of charms.
In January 1984, you were shot by some assassins at Opebi. Why did they want to kill you?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. The hoodlums were trying to order me out of my car, but I refused. I said, What the hell is that? So they jumped into my car, took away my brief case and shot me. I don’t think they were assassins—they were hoodlums.
Was the Nigeria-Biafra war necessary? Could it have been avoided?
History shows us that wars were avoidable, but were never avoided. Maybe it is human nature that we hardly learn from past tragedies. I think that’s part of the reason we really went to that war which was not necessary. Some people just made up their minds that the only way to solve the problem we had then was to go to war. It was very difficult to hold the break because Odumegwu Ojukwu as the military governor became so powerful: He saw himself as the boss of everyone in the whole of the East at that time. I think that power intoxicated him. When ugly things happen, and, truly, very horrible things do happen, you need the presence of the mind, some measure of wisdom, to sit back and contemplate a course of action that will not, ultimately, make you and your people look foolish. Ojukwu did not have the quality time to contemplate. Why would you go to a war you knew you could not win? Why would you seek revenge just so that the whole world would say you’re not a weakling? Millions of people on both sides died during that war. We could do better. It is regrettable.
Have we been able to manage the aftermath of that war very well?
We have tried in many ways to manage the aftermath. I am not sure whether the objectives have been achieved very well. You know that immediately after the war, General Yakubu Gowon declared that there was no Victor, no Vanquished. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was there to help Gowon manage the crisis. All the savings of Igbos that could be proved were given back to them. It was true that the Gowon Administration refused to accept the Biafran currency. Of course, that didn’t make any sense at all. You created a currency that had no backing, why should I change it for you? The African Continental Bank owned substantially by Igbos was resuscitated with the Federal Government funds. The Yoruba who collected rents on Properties left behind gave the rents to Igbo owners. Nobody is talking about that. Igbos were able to recover gradually because of that kind of generosity and their own tenacity. Igbos were not able to recover their properties from the minority groups in the East. They claimed that the properties were abandoned, but how could properties be said to be abandoned when the owners have documents to them? The matter was never resolved. They set up the David Mark Commission, but the minority people did not want the Igbo back. First, they said it was their lands. Second, they claimed that they were contributors to the money used to develop the lands. Very crooked arguments. Most of the Igbo junior officers in the Army and Police were reinstated. The only punishment they suffered was that they lost seniority for the time they were absent. I remember a civilian converted to officer, Azuatalam, whom I captured in Oguta area. He was a young boy of about 19 and he had written his School Certificate Examinations. I talked to him. He was smart. I brought him back to Port Harcourt. With Benjamin Adekunle’s support, we sent him to the Nigerian Defense Academy (NDA). If I didn’t do that, he would have been killed in Port Harcourt because he was Igbo. The war was not over that time. When I passed the information on to General Yakubu Gowon who is endlessly vilified by our Igbo compatriots, you know what he did? He sent the brilliant young man to Sandhurst with the special permission of the British Government. The Federal side did the best it could under the circumstances to reintegrate those who came from the East, especially the Igbos. Even as individuals, we extended hands of fellowship to our Igbo compatriots. I brought many Igbo friends to Lagos. Some of them lived with me for a long time before they found their feet. I brought J.S.P.C. Nwokolo to Port Harcourt and he eventually built a house there. He became a very big centre of influence in Enugu, even though he was from Anambra state. He held sway in Igbo land until he died about two years ago. I took him from prison where Ojukwu had dumped him. He was a loud-mouth who would not take nonsense from anybody. Ojukwu said they should put him in jail because whenever he saw anything wrong, he would say it as it was. He was a Biafran punished by Ojukwu. There were so many Biafrans and other people from the East that we helped.
How true is it that the Army has been destroyed just like other major institutions in Nigeria?
All the time, when I was in the armed forces, I felt like I was in a family setting. Ethnicity, religion, etc., etc., steadily crept on us. The most atrocious thing that I noticed suddenly was an Army officer talking about religion, about going to pray, about don’t drink beer, don’t drink alcohol. It was a shocker to most of us. The best seat in the Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo in Lagos belonged to Murtala Mohammed. He was one of the best friends that Bobby Benson ever had. Even on Saturday, if he was not around, say he traveled out of Lagos, we would go to the Murtala Muhammed special table, drink as much as we wanted. The bill for five of us that night went to Murtala Mohammed’s account. I don’t know whether the Army can get better drinkers than Murtala Mohammed, and that is across the board. The moment people started saying as muslims they were not supposed to drink, that diminished the camaraderie in the Army. Now, I want to drink, and I’m not too sure whether you’ll like it. That cannot strengthen espirit de corps. Before, it wasn’t like that, people bought drinks for everybody. I didn’t know if anybody drank whiskey more than Hasan Katsina. He was my Chief of Staff, I was his Staff Officer. Between Ironsi and Hasan Katsina, I don’t know the person who could drink the whiskey better. That’s how we related. That’s what we knew. We didn’t know that anybody would listen to a Pentecostal Officer. But I can tell you by the time I was leaving the Army, I was in the 1st Division, this thing had started rearing its ugly head: my officers were joining the Pentecostals, going to the hills to go and pray. It was an anathema in the Army. Religion didn’t play a part. Ethnicity didn’t play a part. But by the time I was GOC, I had to retire a friend of mine for being absent at a crucial time. He was commanding a unit of his own, he was reporting to Army Headquarters, but I was in charge of his area, and things happened and he disappeared, I couldn’t find him and then he showed up two days later and told me he went to the hills for prayers. Pray for what? I just dismissed him. He was my friend, but that was the Army that we knew. As Chief of Army Staff under President Shehu Shagari, I discovered that some people suddenly realized that that they could use influence outside the Army to get whatever they wanted. We were not used to that. That was anathema to the Army. I tried to tell my Commander-in-Chief that this was a dangerous road: don’t allow anyone to do it. I said, See what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to post a northerner to my Headquarters, I already have one. My deputy is a northerner, but I don’t see him as a northerner. Not only that, he was my senior, but we know how we manage things, don’t rock the boat at all. This Officer refused to go to Kaduna because you have assured him that he will stay in Lagos. I had to insist that the officer should go to Kaduna. I told the officer that if he didn’t go to Kaduna, I would retire him. That kind of abnormality is now the norm.
There are fears that Nigeria may still go to war as if war is tea party. What is your take on that?
Well, I’ve heard that from General Olusegun Obasanjo. You know he is an ‘Oracle’! But, if my own modest experience is anything to go by, in history, there hasn’t been any country that fought civil war two times and survived it. I know that a lot of people in this country, especially the northerners, don’t want this country to break. But if our leaders are smart, they should never assume that this country cannot break. They should not assume that you can keep any country together any more by force of arms. So, what is to be done? Persuasion, fairness, a good organisation which everybody can relate to, a just system that can bring our people out of misery. That is what we should debate and agree on. If anybody had used any atom of Awolowo’s creed, there probably will not be this argument today. Now that we have atomized, bastardized the great man’s theories, this is the result we are now reaping. Another civil war is far-fetched because the generation that fought that war, the generation that engineered it, that commanded it, the civilians who were part of it, most of them are still alive. I don’t think they will feel very comfortable, feel accomplished by starting another civil war. For what? If our Igbo brothers and sisters still want to go, let them go, let them go and form their own federation. They will continue to be our neighbours. If the minorities don’t want to go with them, they should be left alone. We are wasting time, we are not going to fight any war. But to say because we are not going to war, we cannot break, that is a fallacy, complete fallacy.
Because of your persistent call for devolution of power, restructuring, etc., etc., and the fact that you are also the convener of the Yoruba Assembly, some people have described you as a Nigerian patriot and a Yoruba nationalist. Are these loyalties in conflict? What do they mean to you?
They are not contradictory at all. I was born in this village to one Yoruba man and one Yoruba woman who also had ancestry around this area. There is a Yoruba land where we speak the same language, where our culture is the same, where we have the same tradition, where we walk freely. If I enter Owo today, or Ijebu-Ode, or Ilesa, or Ondo, or Ibadan, or Ejigbo, or Abeokuta, or Ado-Ekiti, or Iwo, or Omu-Aran, or Oyo, or Isara, no one can ask me to identify myself. In fact, I will just decide where I want to go and eat my lunch. I know it’s not likely that I will be able to do that freely if I crossed over to the other side of the Niger.
I met my grandfather alive, my father died in his 90s, but he never told me that there was a time when the white people gathered them together in the village square and asked them whether they wanted to subscribe to a nomenclature called Nigeria. Nobody said so. There was no plebiscite, there was nobody who debated that with our Obas, and kings. To that extent, the Nigerian aspect of it is dubious. But, if we have a leadership which can put together a reason that all of us should be together, we should be very proud to be called Nigerians. We have become known for the worst things all over the world. That nomenclature doesn’t make me proud
I’m not too sure if I go beyond Jebba or Ilorin, that same freedom will be accorded me. Secondly, the world is divided, the globe is divided into continents and Africa is said to be the home of the black man, even though we have diaspora groups. So, because of that, in that grouping, I accept that I’m an African. Thirdly, I’m a Nigerian. I think that is a little contestable. It is contestable in the sense that Nigeria is not a natural creation. It was created by some people who wanted to use it for their own benefits, almost to the exclusion of the benefit of the people who live in that geographical area. Chief Obafemi Awolowo describes it as a geographical expression and I agree entirely with him. I met my grandfather alive, my father died in his 90s, but he never told me that there was a time when the white people gathered them together in the village square and asked them whether they wanted to subscribe to a nomenclature called Nigeria. Nobody said so. There was no plebiscite, there was nobody who debated that with our Obas. To that extent, the Nigerian aspect of it is dubious. But, if we have a leadership which can put together a reason that all of us should be together, we should be very proud to be called Nigerians. We have become known for the worst things all over the world. That nomenclature doesn’t make me proud. I am a Yoruba man first, second, I’m an African, third, I am a Nigerian. We have to get together to decide if we want to belong to it. But right now, I don’t have a Yoruba passport, it’s a Nigerian passport that I have. That is what is binding us together now. The ethics, the cultures, the traditions are not glued together for our progress. All we are trying to do is to have advantage over one another. A Yoruba wants to have an advantage over an Igbo man, An Igbo man wants to have an advantage over an Ijaw man, Fulani/Hausa man says he must continue to have concessions that he has been having for more than 60 years. Quota system. What is quota system? You have what they call geographical distribution. What is that?
Why don’t you sit down with President Muhammadu Buhari and talk to him about this?
We have been talking to him but no concrete action yet. I’ve said that the Muhammadu Buhari Administration won’t do much better than it is doing because it’s an in-breeder; it’s not open to all the people who can help it. The government will not go anywhere. It will continue to miss out on the innovative contributions of people with new and great ideas. We need great ideas right now. That is the reason I keep saying that President Buhari must encourage a lot of people who are ready to come up with big ideas.
Although the Abacha junta burned down your house in Ikeja and terrorised your people, detained and tortured your workers, yet you did not stop participating in the June 12 struggle. What kept you going as a champion of democracy?
I think people seem to discount the kind of training that all armed forces in the world give. That is why, if you go to America today, you will find a lot of people who have gone through armed forces and who have eventually returned to the academia, to politics, etc., etc. The armed forces are not just about killing people. Selecting people to kill also needs some politics. I am just saying that the training is extensive enough for you to understand at least what is happening around you. And I think that the training of a soldier also affords you the opportunity to know that at certain point in life, circumstances will arise that will make you take a decision about your own well- being and that of your people. I was convinced that I needed to be part of that struggle. The only regret I have is that it was my decision, but the repercussion was not limited to me. I regret that my workers, my relations, my associates suffered because of me. Before NADECO, I was very active in a group called ADGN, Association for Democracy and Good Governance, chaired by Olusegun Obasanjo. The Secretary was no other than Professor Adebayo Adedeji, who just came back from the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) You would want to sit with people like him. I think I was carried away a little bit by the presence of people like he. They were more experienced than we were, and older. They could not lead us astray; if things were getting a bit unsavoury, they would call everybody to order. That ADGN was a very powerful organ. We had everybody there, including Muhammadu Buhari. How do we arrest this drift, this rot that is going on? Is there anything we can do to persuade these people to do things a little differently? That was what ADGN was trying to do. Now that we are returning to civilian government, can we return to it in some order in which everybody will feel like something will happen or is it going to be I-chop-you-chop politics? That’s what brought us together. Then some betrayals took place, the Obasanjos began to have an agenda of their own which was not the general one we were putting on the table. They were trying to organise something else behind our back. That is what destroyed the ADGN. But we couldn’t give up the fight, and, finally, some people got removed or left the organization and formed NADECO.
Tell us about Radio Freedom, which later became Radio Kudirat, and other clandestine activities you were involved in as a June Twelver?
It’s not anything new that when you’re fighting the kind of war that Abacha started with us, you have to have some ways of reaching the people, of explaining to them what is happening. Otherwise, your enemies will take over the whole space and they will think that nothing else is possible and the struggle will just collapse. Radio Freedom was meant to serve the purpose of reaching our people who were really under siege. It’s just what they call guerrilla radio. Actually, what we wanted were six stations that we could move around, so easy to carry.
Another civil war is far-fetched because the generation that fought that war, the generation that engineered it, that commanded it, the civilians who were part of it, most of them are still alive. I don’t think they will feel very comfortable, feel accomplished by starting another civil war. For what? If our Igbo brothers and sisters still want to go, let them go, let them go and form their own federation
You would not need a vehicle to move a station around. Maybe two gentlemen, if they were serious, they could move it, they could broadcast for one hour and before they were detected, they could pack their things and walk away to another place. That was the whole idea, and Kayode Fayemi was very helpful in finding one Rastafarian who test ran it in London. When I looked at the Rastafarian man, I said, This guy is not serious. But he and others had the skills to put the radio together. He was doing it for us and we just took him to my house in London where he erected one radio in the bar and he taught us how to use it and how to dismantle it, and then, we broadcast from it there. We sent people like Professor Bolaji Akinyemi to go down the road in London in a vehicle and see how far they could hear this radio. We did that. Professor Wole Soyinka had his connections in Benin Republic, people who were sympathetic, who were helping us to bring some of the radio gadgets from London to Cotonou. It was like a hide-and-seek game. Somebody would come to the border at Seme and we would ask somebody to come from Lagos and stay in Badagry. I don’t know how they passed through the road blocks, but they did, and they brought the gadgets into Nigeria. Then they trained other people and deployed them. The project was successful.
How was life in exile?
For people like me, it wasn’t that bad, the only bad part was that my business was in Nigeria, the person that could run it was detained. In any case, once my business was destroyed, there was nothing to look forward to. I settled down in exile to almost normal life. Again, I was very lucky. When I was in England, Akinyemi, Odigie-Oyegun, Tinubu, Dan Suleiman, Ralph, Fayemi, etc., were also there. Akinyemi was living in a flat that also served as office and there were only two bedrooms there. One of those rooms was our secretariat. So, he would come from his room, cook his meal and then would come to the sitting room with us when we had meetings. For Bola Tinubu the inconvenience was not too much. But for people like Wale Oshun, Moses Akingba, life was a bit tough. Most of the time, Akingba stayed with me but later on, I left London. In America, it was a little more open. I got driven out of London by Nigeria intelligence community. It was getting very uncomfortable for me, my wife and children, so I decided we had to leave. My wife went first. She stayed with the Abayomis because Mrs Abayomi was her classmate. By the time I got to America, the Abayomis had rented an apartment for us, not far from their home. So, I didn’t have much trouble. Bola Tinubu had given me the phone number of Professor Segun Gbadegesin who was very helpful. Of course, Tinubu later joined us in America. The good thing about America is that it’s not as close a society as England. In no time, I met some young friends, people I had never met before. Washington was their melting pot. We held meetings almost every 10 days to discuss what was happening at home. I met quite a number of young people there and some of them suggested to me that I join them in real estate. Before long, I registered in a college made for people like me who have no time during the day. The lectures ran from 6 to 9 pm. After the school exams and the professional exams, I started getting letters, people writing me to come and work for them. That is America for you. Eventually, I had to get a work permit as an exile, renewable every two years. It wasn’t that different from active life for me. I was able to work, made some money and spent a lot of it on our struggle.
Why did you and others refuse to participate in the Abdulsalami Abubakar transition programme?
Those of us abroad eventually organized a meeting at which people from home could brief us what exactly was happening. Pa Abraham Adesanya led them. We were happy that the country was returning to democracy, but we were wondering if Abdusalami would live up to his promise.If you just walk into the river without knowing exactly the current under it, you’ll drown for nothing, even if you’re a good swimmer. So, we wanted to be sure. In America, apart from Bola Tinubu, Wahab Dosunmu and a few others, what we didn’t know was that there was fatigue in Nigeria, people were tired of what the soldiers were doing, killing people and destroying things. They were tired, and so, their mindset was different from the rest of us who were not in the middle of the struggle. That made the difference. We didn’t want to go without a constitution, the people’s constitution. We thought we could undercut our own people by going behind their back and getting this thing done. We tried to meet with General Abubakar when he came for a meeting of the United Nations in New York, just to tell him the dangers of handing over without a constitution. We wanted to make significant inputs. Professor Bolaji Akinyemi got an appointment with him to meet us in New York. People like Papa Anthony Enahoro, Professors Segun Gbadegesin, Wole Soyinka, Bolaji Akinyemi and Sola Adeyeye were to be with us at the meeting. But Abubakar and his people aborted the meeting the last minute. When TheNEWS came to interview me in America, I was angry and I told the magazine that General Abdusalami Abubakar was a ventriloquist. I repeated it to him (Abdusalami Abubakar) about two months ago when I went to his institute. He and his wife just laughed. I told him that I am sure you read that interview. I said, I abused you because you did not behave like the Abubakar that I knew, you disappointed me, that was why I called you a dummy. The Abubakar I knew would sit down and listen to the elderly ones among us, and try to stand for a good cause. But I think he had been taken over by some people by that time. People who were anxious to become ministers had taken him over. The disagreement among the people in exile and in diaspora was based on what we knew and what we thought would happen, but the fatigue that had happened at home was immeasurable and we could not really fathom it. We thought that if Abubakar was there, the atmosphere would ease a lot and if he wanted his regime to succeed, he must allow freedom. We wanted him to remain there for like 18 months to two years, we didn’t mind, as long as the focus was to get a good constitution. I think we were very unlucky because we didn’t get the issue of the constitution to a logical conclusion. The country took the short cut and that was what allowed the military hierarchy to dictate what would happen next and that was how they got Obasanjo into it. We went astray. Obasanjo, who did not fit into our ideas, simply jumped in and appropriated the gains of the struggle. We didn’t even have people in NADECO who supported him. Obasanjo suffered during the Abacha era, he suffered greatly. But when you suffer and things happen to you, I believe it’s a lesson for you to sit back and say it’s not going to happen to somebody else and you will want to assuage the feelings of people who might similarly be offended like you have been. Obasanjo left prison, bruised, but he forgot that he was not the only one who went to jail; he wasn’t the only one who got bruised. He got very offended when the first time I met him in America I asked, Where are the boys in jail with you? He didn’t like that. He was too focused on becoming president of Nigeria because he thought that would give him the power of revenge. I thought that when he became President, he should have treated all those who were in jail with him far, far better than he did. I once told him, it is only a convicted felon that gets a pardon. If I were you, I will call my lawyer, we will go to court, I will tell the court we didn’t plan a coup, we’ve taken the burden of imprisonment and the punishment, but why should we take the stigma of a felon? He did not see it that way. He was only interested in his own welfare. Till today, many of the people jailed with him didn’t get any benefits. Remember that Obasanjo turned round during the struggle for June 12 to denigrate M.K.O. Abiola and the people involved in it. Why people should forget that, I have no idea. I cannot trust anybody who did that.
-Read a related story, an encounter with General Akinrinade in his country home here