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Rotimi: Armed Forces Must Maintain Their Integrity, Neutrality



Unitarism will never work in this kind of heterogeneous society

Brigadier-General Christopher Oluwole Rotimi, first Military Governor of Western State from 1971 -75 and former Nigerian Ambassador to the U.S. turned 80 last Friday and had quiet celebration at his Agodi, Ibadan home. He spoke with Anote Ajeluorou on national political issues, including revisiting the coups of 1966 and their implications, the shifted polls and why the military should remain neutral.

It’s your birthday, but it’s so quiet here. Why is there no activity to mark it?

My style has always been distinctly different from other people. To quite some extent, I’m an introvert. I’m not gregarious; that doesn’t mean I don’t have friends. As a matter of fact, I’ve been receiving telephone calls since morning; the first came at 6am from someone in Senegal. So I asked him, ‘didn’t you sleep?’ So, he said before he did anything, he felt he must congratulate me first.

  In any case, what I decided I will do for my 80th is to have a small get-together with members of my family and a few friends. And we are doing the celebration in Lagos at a first class restaurant, with about 50, 60 guests on the invitation list. I prefer it that way; I have not invited governors, top politicians because in my own way I’m not entirely happy with the way they are running the country. That is the way I feel. I talk to them but certain expectations of one have not been met and I feel disappointed.

  I’ve had occasion in the past to speak to some of them but I discover that it’s like a dialogue of the deaf. You speak to these people and somehow, people you know are reasonable have had power gone into their heads, and they are behaving left, right and centre. Today, we have a situation whereby civilian governors are worse than soldiers, from the point of view of impunity. They do whatever they like and the laws are discarded at whims. 

Can you mention particular instances of impunity?

  Take the PDP, for instance, of which I have an insider knowledge, as a former member. In fact, they even appointed me as BoT member. I just discarded them; I told them I was not interested.

So, you’re not like Obasanjo, who the other day, publicly tore his PDP membership card?

  No; I’ve shunned them. Look, in a constitutional democracy, there are divisions of power and the constitution states it very clearly that you have the executive, the judiciary and the legislature. Now, these are very vital institutions of state. What has happened in Nigeria is that the executive is constantly overstepping its bound into legislative matters. The judiciary is consistently being undermined. I’m not referring to any particular regime, but this is what has been consistently happening in Nigeria since 1999. Now, today the military, without their knowing, is being invited or being allowed to take part in executive authority.

In what sense is that?

  You know what Sambo Dasuki, said in London was beyond his remit. A National Security Adviser is an adviser to the president. If he has any advice to give he must give it to his president, who appointed him. The NSA has no executive authority outside advising the president; he has nothing to do with INEC. He took that step either wittingly or unwittingly, I don’t know. Now, he came back to Nigeria and with election timetable and everything already set and there were political maneuverings and he wrote a letter to the head of INEC, saying that the military will not be able to support the elections because of security reasons. Now, I’m talking as a former soldier. When you have a national assignment imposed on you by the constitution, and you’re not able to fulfill that role you get out. Somebody else will do it more appropriately. For goodness sake, what he did was interference in political affairs. You get me? He has no remit to interfere. The armed forces must maintain their integrity and make sure that they are neutral because the armed forces are not for one political party or the other.

  Now, they have maneuvered the military to appear to be taking sides in a political contest. It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous for the country. You see, whoever rides the tiger, one day the tiger is going to chop him, too. That is danger for the military, too; they may think it all wise now. No; it doesn’t work that way. If you ride a tiger, the day you dismount from that tiger it will chop you off. Leave the military out of party politics completely!

  It’s true that the military leaders were appointed by the Commander-in-Chief, but the military, by the constitution, have their own remit. If a president gives what amounts to an illegal instruction to a military man, his response will be, ‘yes, sir; but look at what the law says. Look at what the constitution says’. If they say they want to sack him, so be it?  So what? For everybody in life, there will be life after whatever you currently are.

Going a little back, you joined the army with your two eyes open, having bagged a university degree like Odumegwu Ojukwu, Ifeajuna and others. After the 1966 coup ventured into the political into the political arena and then you played a major role thereafter by being governor of Western State. Can you honestly say your generation laid a solid foundation for the country?

  Let me start this way. The coup of January 1966 was unfortunate; it was also needless. It was a gamble that a few, five, six majors took because they wanted to change Nigeria. Yes, they wanted to change Nigeria, but you don’t have the constitutional role to change Nigeria. You’re acting outside the constitution obviously when you now seize power. But to answer your question, in January 1966 there were two coups; it was a coup within a coup. Ifeajuna headed the team to handle the South. Nzeogwu handled the team to deal with the North, and he carried out his coup very cleanly, as planned, to get rid of all the most important political leaders in the North and the top ranking military.

  That coup was not conclusive at the beginning. One of the things that still intrigues me till today is, how did Major General Aguyi Ironsi escape the fate that befell the other officers? It intrigues me; I can’t get the answer because the coup boys, having taken a decision to rid the top military and politicians, how did Ironsi escape being dealt with. He was the General Officer Commander of the Nigerian Army. How? What happened? But when Ironsi survived the coup of the majors, he described what was clearly a coup, an attempt to overthrow a legitimate government of Nigeria, as mutiny. And if it was mutiny, as he told the remnants of the politicians that were still in Lagos, all he needed to do was to put down the mutiny and for government to continue.

  Having told them it was a mutiny he took over government. As a matter of fact, from what we knew, Nwafor Orizu, then Senate President at the time suggested to him that since we can’t account for the premiers of the West, North, the Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, why can’t you invite the most senior minister to take over the government? Ironsi, I was told, said he couldn’t guarantee the safety of Inuwa Wada, who was the most senior in the cabinet at that time. Ironsi and his advisers said no. And that was how he took over government.

  Another thing that intrigues me about the coup is, how come that Michael Opara in the East was spared, Osadebe in the Mid-West was spared; but they dealt with Akintola here. Ifeajuna did not do a perfect job. And that lend credence to the fact that it was an Igbo coup, which the military boys bought line, hook and sinker. ‘If this is an Igbo coup, ok, we will wait, and at our own time we will strikes because the army had become divided. At the time, I was Deputy Quarter Master-General in Lagos. When I was posted to Enugu, I got wind of a revenge coup in the offing.

  Ironsi, in June, started visits to the regional capitals. Ironsi promulgated a decree unifying the federal civil service; that day when I listened to that broadcast, I said to myself, ‘this is the end of this man’. Yes, unitarism will never work in the kind of heterogeneous society we have in Nigeria. An Isoko man will never be a Yoruba man; we have our own culture; you have your own. A Tiv person will never be Hausa.

Why didn’t the subsequent military government reverse Ironsi’s unitarism when they took over power?

  That decree was dealing with the civil service. It meant that you could post an Igbo man, as a divisional officer to, say, Sokoto. You could post somebody from Delta to Kano; civil service top hierarchy was full of Igbo people and Hausa/Fulani saw it as domination of Nigeria. They saw it as planning domination of Nigeria through the civil service. Signs had been given that this was an Igbo coup; I don’t believe myself that Nzeogwu wanted an Igbo coup; but Ifeajuna, I couldn’t trust him. I told you we trained together; we travelled to Zaria and London together; we were in the same battalion. I knew him very well. I couldn’t trust him; Ifeajuna had always had ideas about power in his head.

  As a matter of fact and before that January coup happened, I saw certain movement of officers in Lagos, which put me on notice. Certain officers, who were not my friends, started visiting me when I was at Yaba Barrack. There was a particular Yoruba officer, who was junior to me; he was the emissary of the coup makers to bring me in. So, Adegboyega, who was one of them, came twice to visit me when I was not home. The third time he came he met me, and I said, ‘what do you want in my place? You’ve never visited me before’. He then intimated me there was going to be a meeting of the boys at Takwa Bay. And I said, ‘get out of my place; I won’t be part of any insurrection’.

  But in addition, in October 1965, government got wind from intelligence service that there was going to be a rebellion in the army. I understood the Prime Minister called Ironsi and told him. But Ironsi denied it, that he was in charge of the army. Subsequently, Ironsi called a meeting of all officers in the Lagos area and was lecturing us on loyalty to the government. Of course, we didn’t ask any questions. He was the GOC; he said what he wanted to say and he left. He also brought with him Brigadier Mai Malari, Brigade Commander in Apapa and Ade William, Brigade Commander from Kaduna. I went to Ade William and asked him, ‘sir, I don’t understand the import of the GOC’s lecture to us today’. He said he, too, didn’t understand it because he didn’t discuss what he was going to tell us before he spoke. I said, ‘ok, sir, if you too didn’t understand. Who am I.’ I was only a major, anyway.

  That was how things played round and round until the July thing now happened when Ironsi got here in Ibadan. Danjuma was on Ironsi’s entourage. Danjuma had served in the battalion in Ibadan here; he was very familiar with the terrain. He was in A-Branch, Adjutant Officers Branch. He was still in Ironsi’s entourage. Here he was in Ironsi’s entourage, could he really claim that he didn’t know all that happened that night? And they seized Ironsi; Fajuyi insisted he would go with them because Ironsi was his guest and that wherever they were taking him he would go. And they drove them off and killed them at Iwo Road; they shot them there. All these things show involvement. So, that was Danjuma; he played his own role there.

  So, it was; Igbo coup in January; Hausa/Fulani coup in July. But even beyond that and after Ironsi was killed, there were other senior officers to Gowon. Robert Adebayo was far senior to Gowon; Ogundipe was senior to Adebayo. Ogundipe was Chief of Staff to Ironsi. Adebayo was on a course in England, but he came home briefly and it coincided with the counter-coup. Adebayo was my predecessor; I took over from him here in Ibadan as governor. Even Ejoor in Benin City was senior to Gowon. Ojukwu and Gowon were about the same date of entry into the army; he resisted Gowon being Head of State. He said whatever has happened and since Ironsi was nowhere to be found, the next most senior must take over. But the coup makers weren’t going to accept Ogundipe; he gave orders in the early hours of the counter-coup and soldiers wouldn’t listen to him. That was how Ogundipe said ‘the matter is out of control; I must get out of this place’. That was why Gowon, whom I have tremendous resprespect for, claimed recently that when the July 1966 coup happened the boys wanted him to take over. The question is, who are the boys? Did it include the rest of us, leaving the Igbo officers aside who had gone to East because of the pogrom? How about we the Yoruba officers, did he consult us? Of course, he didn’t. The ‘boys’ meant officers from the North. That’s half truth; I couldn’t buy that. Why don’t you come up and say the boys from the North insisted you take over and you did.

  But in spite of that, the Yoruba still gave Gowon a lot of support. I’m one of those who always say that without the Yoruba support there was no way Gowon would have succeeded in this country. And I maintain that stand; the country would have split completely. That was what Awolowo went to tell Ojukwu not to let his people go because the West would follow. But we gave all the support and we sustained this country. The Northern soldiers could not have fought the civil war and be successful the way they did without the support of the West, both politically and militarily.

A new book, Corruption in Africa: Resolution through New Diagnosis and argues that Nigeria is now a G-2 Security Council member country, an alliance between the Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba, to rule the country in Roman empire-like style, and Jonathan is a regent who must be made to give back power to its owners. What do you make of that?

  It’s a complicated situation. Let’s start from Obasanjo; the ascendancy of Jonathan was with the full support of Obasanjo. Obasanjo’s argument is that the time he supported him he felt convinced that it would be a good thing for Nigerian unity to have somebody from the minority to head Nigeria. I don’t think we can argue against that; it would have brought unity more to know that every Nigerian can lead and you don’t have to be Hausa/Fulani to ascend to the highest office in the land. That was a good argument.

  But at the same time, I have told my friend Obasanjo at the beginning of that exercise that it would likely be an exercise in futility. I didn’t buy into it. Character matters in leadership. I try to look at the profile of this man; I didn’t think he had what it takes to carry the heavy weight that will be reposed in him. I now brought him to the interim government of 1993 when Babangida had exhausted all his tricks to remain in power and appointed Earnest Shonekan, who came to power in August 1993. I told Obasanjo that Shonekan was a mistake; that he could not carry the weight of this office; that he didn’t have the character of a leader to hold office. I told him Shonekan couldn’t do it; that he hadn’t political exposure; that we need a strong man to do it. Obasanjo advised Shonekan to quickly take far-reaching steps with the army, but he didn’t. What happened?

  It’s beyond being very fair. Let me tell you something. The military is a very powerful institution in this country because they have been allowed to grow their wings. There are some very rich soldiers today, former and serving. Some of them are worse than the politicians; we need somebody who is strong, who knows military mentality as well.

Must the person necessarily be a military man as well?

  Oh, no; he mustn’t be a military man. He could be a civilian as well. But that is the man you need to govern Nigeria. He has to be strong; he has to be dedicated and he has to give his life to this nation. If you think you’re going to rule Nigeria without being firm, you’re putting yourself at risk. Most of our systems are still very fragile; you need a strong person whether a civilian or military it doesn’t matter. But he has to give his life; that is where Murtala Muhammed comes in.

But Murtala came in by the act of undermining the constitution, an act of corruption?

  No, no; I’m not saying he was the best. Let me tell you, Murtala, rightly, wrongly, he got there. He was a strong man; people knew him for that. He acted rather rashly, mind you. But if he was convinced about something he was ready to bulldoze his way through.

Even without following due process?

  Yes, he didn’t mind. The way he fought the civil war was different from the way Adekunle did in Rivers areas. The way Muhammed Shuwa handled the North was different. Murtala was completely unorthodox.

But he actually ought to be prosecuted for war crimes for his war records in Asaba in his bloodletting orgies?

  Yes; but he’s not alive today. But what I’m saying is that he was very unorthodox. He didn’t listen to anybody, whether from Lagos or from anywhere. But the point I’m trying to make is that Murtala had made up his mind the way he thought Nigeria should go and he pursued it with singular determination. But I knew there were forces that would neutralize him, particularly in the same military. By the time he took over in the July coup of 1975, there were pockets of resistance because Gowon still had supporters in the military, and who were prepared to do Murtala in? They were from the Middle Belt, where Gowon came from and not Hausa/Fulani where Murtala came from. I used to say that ‘this man you’re going to hit your head against a wall the way you’re going’. In Nigeria you may know what is wrong, but how you proceed about it is as important as your knowledge of what is wrong. Murtala was ready to bulldoze his way through everything.

But some would argue that Jonathan is going the opposite way of Murtala…

  No; it’s also the wrong method. Look, Gowon reigned for nine years. How did he succeed? Gowon started building coalition around himself and his government. When the civil servants advised him to bring Awolowo from prison and make him Minister of Finance and Deputy Head of the Supreme Military Council, it was a very sound advice. By that he aggregated Yoruba support to himself. When he went to the North he did the same – Dikko, Aminu Kano; in the East, he picked some people. He picked Briggs, a Rivers man. That was how he succeeded in building a political coalition for his executive council. Amongst the military he started building coalition of Yoruba officers to support him. Hence people like Olutoye, myself, Obasanjo, Adekunle, Akinrinade. 

So, when would Nigeria be free from the shadow of the military, from Obasanjo in eight years and now Buhari jostling for power, with Obasanjo rooting for him, so much so that Nigeria now seems doomed to a military fate?

  Nigeria, for me, is in a transition. We haven’t come to any definite end to know where we’re going. But we must continue to work the system. That is why I’m saying that let’s get a leader who understands Nigeria as it is; Nigeria as it ought to be and work out a strategy. The man there can consult people, but unless you’ve got somebody who is able to sit down and seriously examine Nigeria in all its ramifications, you will be wasting our time.

If you were saddled with that responsibility, what will be your strategy?

  In a way, I feel sorry for Jonathan. He’s not reaching out to critical areas of the Nigerian public where he can tap ideas. There are people in Nigeria who are not partisan; I don’t want to start mentioning names, but they are there. You must reach out to them. Leave your aides aside; they will never tell you the truth. They will never tell you the truth because they are profiting from what is going on. As an individual, you must reach out.

  When I became governor I turned to people who had nothing to do with government like Chief Awolowo. I said I recognised him as a leader. He linked me with Abraham Adesanya, but he declined. He later recommended Olaniwu Ajayi; I went into the university, people who were not involved in party politics. I did not leave the obas out; I approached Sir Aderemi Adeyemi, Ooni of Ife, and asked to bring his son in England, who was my classmate at Kings College. A leader must know his society and tap into areas where he can get sound advice. Tell me, what grassroots support does a soldier have? It’s zero. We live all our lives in the barracks; they didn’t used to mix up with civilians like they do now. We lived our lives in officers’ mess. So, that is one of the areas; reach to critical areas of the populace; leave your advisers alone. That is how to build coalition to support your government.

Some described the election postponement as coup against democracy. Do you also believe so?

  Don’t you think so? Yes! That’s why I’m saying the military should not lend itself to be used. The constitution is very clear; the National Security Adviser is an adviser to the president. An NSA has no business with the INEC. Constitutionally, INEC is an independent body. When Jonathan went to the Council of State, it was sound advice. He got some advice from there. Then the NSA turned round to give INEC letter. This is manipulation. The service heads must know that they have a sacred duty to Nigeria, even within the constitution. A Commander-in-Chief is a C-in-C, no doubt about that. The C-in-C is wearing many hats – the political hat, security hat, economic hat; he has been imbued with enormous powers and responsibilities that he’s carrying. He must understand them and know how to use them to the benefit of the nation.

  How can a C-in-C tell me that he doesn’t know what is going on. No.

I asked earlier, do you think the foundation your generation of leaders laid was the right one for Nigeria?

  Let me tell you, the adventure of 1966 was ill-considered. Here was the military that had no training beyond ruling in the barracks. The way and manner you rule your barracks is different from the way you rule your towns and cities. When you look at military law, when a soldier offends, the Sergeant-Major marches him before the Company Commander or Battalion Commander: ‘left right, left right; stop! Salute’. ‘You’re accused of bla bla bla; guilty or not?’ ‘Guilty’ or if he says, ‘not guilty’; he gets ‘rubbish; seven days in confinement!’ He is then marched out. That is military; they have no time for the excuses you’re giving. The man is pronounced guilty before he is even heard. Once you’re charged you’re guilty. You won’t say your Sergeant-Major is telling lies; you can’t challenge authority.

  The issue is, we’re in this transition and things will go on for quite some time. The military have tried their best the way they know how to do things. But even the things the military did, was it not civilians who advised them or misadvised them?

When you say we’re in a transition, would you then say that Nigerians have been impatient with their leaders in development strides made so far?

  They are not impatient; in fact, they have been very tolerant. We have a great country in our hands. It’s a pity we’re mishandling it. In other countries there will be popular uprising as a result of what our leaders have done. But Nigerians are so tolerant, and because of that our leaders use division to weaken the people; hence politics of tribe, politics of religion. There’s downright lack of conscience; lack of conscience in our leaders. If a Nigerian leader, who was a nobody gets there, who yesterday had no shoes, today his is wearing Italian shoes; he forgets what he had been before. What I‘m saying is that leaders must understand the nature of responsibility that God has put on them. Leaders are shepherds of the people and a lot is expected of them. That is why when you’re a leader you give yourself, your life is no longer yours. You must think less of yourself than all the sheep that you’re leading. Look at the accumulation of wealth; at 80 I can say I know some sacred truth about life. If God calls me tomorrow, what am I going to take back to him?

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