Gowon ordered us to spare battle-weary Biafran soldiers – Ogbemudia


Says military rulers better equipped for leadership than civilians
‘My frustrations with Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan’

Elder statesman and two-time former governor of old Bendel State, Dr Samuel Ogbemudia, celebrated his 83rd birthday penultimate Thursday in Benin-City. The birthday celebration  climaxed with a lecture entitled: Towards Sustainable Democracy in Nigeria: What is a Political Party?, delivered by the governor of Delta State, Dr Ifeanyi Okowa. The elder statesman spoke with Sunday Vanguard ahead of the celebration during which he narrated his experiences during the  civil war.  He shared his perspectives on the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, why former President Goodluck Jonathan failed, his search for Governor Adams Oshiomhole’s successor, relationship with women and other issues. Excerpts:


By Simon Ebegbulem,

Benin-City

What will you say life has taught you at 83?

There are a thousand and one things in terms of lessons that I have gained from life, but the most important one is my gratitude to God who has given me the opportunity to live to 83. The secondary one is that I have had the privilege of studying human beings and my conclusion is that all humans are different and that, in dealing with them, you must first learn what they are, how they are, their backgrounds and what they stand for, after which you will be able to provide a solution. The third is politics. Nigeria is a long way from perfection and I believe that, with time, the people will learn with more children getting education. But I pray that there should be no revolution.

Can we know a little about your upbringing?

My upbringing was not very enterprising but I can only say that my father died when I was 17 and left me with my mother. At that point I was in the primary school and my mother worked hard to make sure that I completed my secondary education and with the help of the army I became what I am today. Today I am very happy that the army helped me to become what I am.

How did you enlist in the army?

I enlisted in the army on the 16th of April 1953.  At that time, I was under 22 and, till  I retired, the  31st of July 1975, I knew nothing than the military.

Military experience

They are many and varied. I had the unique privilege in the army to spend almost five years educating myself, trained both in Nigeria and the United Kingdom; then in America and then fought a civil war. The climax of it was my appointment as administrator of the liberated areas of the Midwest; thereafter on the 13th of October 1967, I was appointed the governor of the Midwest and I retired on the 31th of July 1975 and I came back as a civilian governor in 1983.

I fought in two wars, one in the Congo and one in Nigeria. The one in the Congo was sponsored by the United Nations, the Nigerian government agreed to send some troops for peace keeping in the Democratic Republic of Congo and I was one of the officers sent there. I commanded a company and, in that company, I had to do a lot of assignments and, by the grace of God, they were very successful.

Do you think the civil war was justified looking at the number of lives and properties that were destroyed?

Yes and no. Yes, because the leaders of the country were determined to keep the country together and any part of it that wanted to break out will be forced back and kept. No, because it was a waste of human resources; perhaps some other method of coming to an agreement would have been reached, but I think the limited time available did not offer that opportunity.

How?

What I thought went wrong is that the communication between the leaders was not good enough. Today, they have better communication.

But it seems we have brave and better soldiers when you were in the service than now.  What is the problem with our military today?

I don’t know what you mean by better soldiers. Serving outside Nigeria offered tremendous challenge of keeping your country’s name in the good books of the people out there.  At home, not much value is placed on the activities of a soldier. They see him as a mercenary; even those of us who retired in 1975 are still being referred to as soldiers because nobody believes I am not a soldier and the soldiers will not accept me as one of them; so I am nowhere.

Many civilians believe soldiers love beautiful women a lot. In your own case, what kind of women did you mingle with as a soldier?

When the Satan went to see the two persons in the Garden of Eden, did he go to the man? It shows that the devil himself likes women (laughter). For me and my family, I know that by Benin custom, we are always looking for children who will replace us when we are no longer alive; so we have to look at the opposite sex that will give you that. Secondly, for soldiers, it is one way of forgetting the hullabaloos of the gun in the field, the problems of war, and the tiredness arising from long distance walking. So the opposite sex gives comfort to the soldier but that is not to say that they are rapists, never. Everything is done voluntarily.

Some of our soldiers, who went to Liberia on a peace keeping mission, came back with foreign women even when they were married here already. Don’t you think that is indiscipline?

If what you said is the truth, I can say yes it is indiscipline but, on the other hand, bringing the woman hasn’t caused any damage because you now have an in-law in a foreign country (laughter). And when there is war next time, he will be affected such that he wouldn’t like his in-law to be killed; that is the advantage. To everything, there is a season and the soldiers know that, as long as they don’t disobey orders, as long as they use their spare time well for themselves and  the organization they serve, things will be alright.

You have always spoken well about the Igbo. How did you feel killing them as a Nigerian soldier during the Biafran war?

I think you are trying to dig into an archive that will take you many years but I will tell you the surface. When the war was on, I gave an instruction that nobody should be killed on the grounds that he was not a Midwesterner. Therefore, all the Igbo who felt threatened came into a particular compound to seek refuge and, before you knew it, we had over 3,000 people.

There was no place to sleep but the soldiers guarding them had to spread them to the opposite house; eventually they were evacuated to their homes. So, from my own point of view, the war was fought to bring the Igbo back to Nigeria, not to destroy because,  if that was what they wanted to do, they could have used extraordinary TNT bombs to level the whole place, but the order was that every soldier in the field must adhere to the Geneva Convention and they did. A soldier who killed a Post Master in Ogwashi-Uku was tried here in Benin and was executed at the King’s Square. His excuse was that the man was an Igbo man and we said ‘and so what?’.

Looking at the events that led to the civil war, do you think the issue of discrimination in the system has been resolved?

Well, discrimination in what aspect?  But if you look at what happened during the war, the time preceding the war itself and after, we must pay tributes to Nigerian leaders for maintaining a high standard because Gowon (Head of State) said before we left for the battle field that we must follow the Geneva Convention to the letter.

Secondly, on no account must you shoot at someone who ran to surrender and any soldier who did that was punished; I know that some of them who did it here in Benin got 20 years imprisonment for violating that instruction. So, the Igbo were Nigerians and there were no grounds to hate them but those who were in the battlefield who were over enthusiastic and exited by the gun they were holding, they paid dearly for it.

We are blessed as a nation with a lot of heroes even in the military but it seems Nigeria abandoned these heroes. What do you think?

No doubt in my mind that the officers of my days were high grade officers. They have my respect and, if there is any reason or anybody who wants to honour them, I will join him. We had soldiers . like W.W. Bassey who was West African number one officer and later became Nigeria’s number one, Aguiyi Ironsi number two; Adebayo, Kulu Mohammed, Bama Larry, all those were extraordinary officers, but the coups did what they did to get rid of them; seven of them, but the reason up till today I don’t know because they were not supposed to die. We have lost great men whether soldiers or not. Military officers and men with distinguished character, we have lost them and Nigeria owes them gratitude thank you at any time, whether now or in the future.

You military officers always believe you will do better in governance than civilians. Why do you have such feeling?

Because the military officer is better trained than his civilian counterpart.  What an army officer will do in geography in his first year in the military school is what they do at the degree level in the university.   I asked a geography lecturer some questions on map reading, he didn’t know; he said that was not his field.

That same year three or four others said the same thing but the young army officer does that in his first year, the first three months. So the army officers and soldiers are better trained than civilians. I have always said that a good sergeant in the army stands a better chance than a director because very many directors do not control more than 10 persons whereas a sergeant can control up to 200 and lead them into the battle and return.

Are saying people like IBB, Obasanjo were better equipped as leaders than Jonathan, the immediate past President?

IBB is an extraordinary soldier, he led the Reece squadron and he was always at the forefront of the battle with his ferret, he did it for me and many others. Obasanjo initially was an engineer but he later converted to an infantry officer and he did well because of his training. Jonathan didn’t have one tenth of the training Obasanjo had but he is educated. Education in the army is not all; there are many more things that make a leader than education.

How do you assess our democracy so far?

Democracy says the minority will always have their say and the majority their way but the practice in Nigeria is the reverse. Maybe one day we will change.

You achieved a lot both as military and civilian governor in the old Midwest. Looking at what you achieved and what the current governors are doing, how do you compare them?

People always have different motives when they enter office. I was appointed amid protest and other things. People wanted to take my position or be the governor of the Midwest but Gowon, in his wisdom decided that I should be there.   So my view was that I should leave behind sufficient evidence for historians to appreciate, so that the verdict of history will be in my favour and those opposed to my appointment felt ashamed that I achieved more than they would have done. In four years, I had N700 million for development and today we have a lot of things to show for it.

For example, the Palm House cost N610,000. That amount can’t do the foundation today. The High Court, everything cost N5 million including the lift, 6 floors. So we were trying to leave sufficient evidence behind to justify my tenure and not to disappoint those who had confidence to appoint me as governor.

That was my objective, I don’t know what the objectives of governors of today are because they don’t tell you. If their objective is development, then it is necessary to compare the money they have and what they showed for it. In Edo State we have had development and many people are happy about it.

From 1999, your party, the PDP, ruled the state and the people were not satisfied but since Governor  Oshiomhole came, people have started seeing the difference. Why was it so?

It means mismanagement of victory, the PDP won but we mismanaged it.

But you were among those that formed the PDP and you are a member of the BoT?

Yes, I was not in any executive position to direct affairs. The Board of Trustees is an advisory body, it is not supposed to give instruction or overrule the National Executive Council decision.

So, was there any time you tried to tell your PDP leaders to do things right and they did not take your advice?

You make comments and the secretary records it and the next time you meet again they read out the minutes of the last meeting and that is the last we will see of it. In such situation, what do you do?

Can you tell us your encounters with former President Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan?

I am a PDP man and, by the grace of God, a member of the Board of Trustees. At that level, I saw quite a lot that was going on but, I didn’t have the ability to influence things as they were happening. So I can only blame myself that I remained in the party, I didn’t resign. I was thinking that tomorrow will be a better day but it never came.

Do you have any regret for not resigning?

I don’t have any regret for becoming a PDP member, but my only regret is that I was associated with some people in the party.

What is your advice to members of the party?

In Edo State, they are not in charge; at the federal level, they are not in charge. They are now in opposition. The job of the opposition is to organize and behave as a viable alternative to the government in power; that is what they should be doing and, next time there is election, they should produce a more sophisticated and better programme and the voters will buy into and then they are back in government, otherwise they are gone forever.

What is the Ogbemudia doctrine all about?

Survival.

So how is Edo going to survive after Oshiomhole in 2016?

That will depend on the party in power. If the party in power continues to perform well, then the viability of the opposition will reduce. But if they don’t they will be helping the opposition to come back. My vision today is that a good man, who understands sacrifice, just like incumbent Governor Oshiomhole, should be the ruler or occupant of Osadebe Avenue and I am praying for it every day.

Are you not worried that up till now we are yet to have ministers in place?

No, when President Buhari was elected based on his track record, on his personal ability and the promises he made at the electioneering campaign, those who hurried into their own governance lost the election. It will be wrong if anybody starts following the example; so the man wants to quietly start to organize himself and face the public with a greater determination and execute his programmes and not to rush into things.. Because the same people will say ‘why was he in a rush?’ So, I think everything he is doing is really calculated to lead him to the promise land and we are all with him.

But if he performs as most Nigerians expects, do you think PDP stands a chance in 2019?

His performance will decide the future of PDP; if he performs well, PDP will remain on holiday.

What’s your message for Nigerians as you are celebrating your 83rd birthday?

I first want to show gratitude to the Almighty God for keeping me alive. Second, if government must succeed, all hands must be on deck and should remain so till victory is achieved. So we ask all Nigerians to forget party leaning and face with determination the governance of Nigeria by giving all their support to the Federal Government and the governor of Edo.

The Edo Mass Movement which you lead has been searching for Oshiomhole’s successor. How has it been?

EMM is a product of necessity, and what was it that was necessary? Good governance entails a lot of things we can’t describe in one sentence. So EMM has come to be, it is in the local government, at the ward level and at the senatorial level and we will continue to be there to assist in ushering in good governance and supporting whoever is there to ensure that the people of Edo benefit from good governance.

Our search is ongoing and we are doing well because the people know that I will not put my hand in anything that is not likely to succeed. EMM will succeed and it is already succeeding. We said we will help to support any organization that produces a man that can govern us well and if you can’t find one, we will produce one ourselves and, get a party that will present the man to the populace.

What kind of man are we expecting?

A good man, a man who will deliver the goods like Oshiomhole.