For 32 years, Godwin Osagie Abbe served in the Nigerian Army, attaining the peak of his military career as a Major-General, and a member of the then Provisional Ruling Council, PRC, in the military regime of Abdusalam Abubakar, now a retired Lieutenant-General. In his tour of duty as a soldier, Abbe fought in the Nigerian civil war, and served in various capacities in the officer cadre as military governor of Akwa Ibom and Rivers States, General Officer Commanding (GOC) 2 Division, Commander, Training and Doctrine Command, (TRADOC), and Commander, National War College. On retirement from the army in 1999, Abbe joined the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, where he held political appointments as the minister of interior (2007) during the presidency of late Umaru Yar’Adua, and later, minister of defence (2009). In this interview with some journalists in Benin, including Adekunbi Ero, executive editor, Abbe who clocks 70 years January 10, 2019, said the declaration of an end to the civil war by the then head of state, General Yakubu Gowon “was one of the most exciting moments for some of us. That was the first relief I ever had in my life…”
Abbe, who said he didn’t think that the war was necessary, stated that “I thought it was nasty and I was too young to understand the totality of the implications”. He believed that the military deserves commendation for deciding to return the country to democracy, describing it as “a mark of qualitative leadership to say, look, we have tried, we have failed”. He blamed the Nigerian State for cases of embezzlement of funds meant to procure arms by top military officers, asserting that there is something wrong with the system. According to him, “How on earth? In our time, we didn’t have that access. Where are you going to get the money from if the system is functioning? You blame the Nigerian state”. He upbraided the Amnesty International for its allegation of human rights abuses against the Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram terrorists. “What kind of comments are they making?… You say you are Amnesty International, you are coming here to say we are destroying fundamental human rights of people who are destroying, killing innocent Nigerians in the North-eastern part of this country. I won’t listen to human right. Which human right? It’s not a thing for politicians to discuss”.
On January 10, you will be 70 years old. How does it feel to achieve this milestone?
For me, it’s exciting; it’s mixed feelings. You are excited that you have survived 70 years; but when you flip into introspection, you suddenly realise that God has been exceedingly merciful to you without you knowing it. You start looking at what must have passed; the type of water that would have passed under the bridge, and the kind of protection you have enjoyed without you knowing it. Then of course you also become scared; you wonder “ehn, am I the one hitting 70?” So, it’s mixed feelings. But it’s more of gratitude to God, I can tell you because I know that it is not by might. It is not my right that I am reaching this age at all. It’s not; it’s the grace of God. Left with others, I probably would have long been dead. So, I thank God.
At 70, what has life taught you?
I have learnt to be grateful to God, to be patient; I’ve learnt to be satisfied with whatever I have, and I have now learnt to shun materialism. It’s very clear now that we didn’t bring anything in, we are not taking anything away. So, it’s clear that life itself is a journey; you come, after a while, one would go. Plenty of lessons; multi-dimensional lessons that one cannot interpret in one go. But above all, life has taught me to be grateful to God, and to any man who has been kind to me in my life; that includes my family.
What about those who have not been kind to you; those who have stepped on your toes along the way?
Forgive them, ignore them. It wasn’t deliberate for some; it was inadvertent. And for some, it was deliberate, but they too would be regretting now because their effort did not yield any result; I still walked through. If they come back asking for favour, if you can afford, you do it to show that you have forgiven; oh yes, it wasn’t deliberate. And if it was, it was to make your life meaningful. That is why they also tried to stop you. It’s normal; it’s to strengthen you.
Why did you choose the military as a career?
Honestly, I cannot explain. In childhood, it was excitement. I went in at age 18 plus. You would be amazed to know that as a soldier then, you didn’t have to pay for bus in Benin; you didn’t have to pay for ticket to enter Ogbe Stadium, (as it then was. Now Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium) to watch football. There were of course, the excitement that we saw in military films; it must have played a role. My father was a policeman, so, it’s a combination of all that. But while in the secondary school, I never thought of being a soldier, no; no.
How did your parents receive your decision to join the army?
My father didn’t like it, but my mother was very happy; and my grandmother was excited. My father hated me joining the military, but my grandmother was happy because my grandmother, according to Benin mythology, thought that I was her father re-incarnate and that I died fighting in the city state system. And so, I was taking a job that I had done before.
What was it like the very first day you had to fire a gun at the enemy?
First of all, it is very difficult; if you find anybody who went to battle, who fought during the Nigerian civil war, only on rare occasions do you really see your enemy and shoot him face-to-face. Very rare… And sometimes, you see the person you are shooting but you may not know who he is; you have never met him before. He’s a soldier, you are a soldier, but he’s wearing a different uniform, you are wearing one. So, you exchange fires – they call it fire-fight. So, unless on close quarter, you really don’t see anybody. If anybody tells you he saw somebody, he’s a liar; he didn’t go. He’s just cooking up a story.
Was there a time you had a close shave with death?[expander_maker id=”1″ more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]
Yes, yes, yes; oh, plenty. Several occasions. In June 1969, I was involved in an ambush in Kwale, (in present Delta State) and we were coming from a village called Ossisa to a town called Utagba-Ogbe. It was not the new road now but the old road. We drove, we were coming, and they ambushed us; we were nine in that vehicle. I think I survived only with my orderly who later died too; every other person was killed because they ambushed us, and they were better. They anticipated our movement because the chief of staff then, General Hassan was visiting Kwale and we were coming from deployment to receive him. Yeah, I could have been gone but what happened was that something went wrong with the person that was to shoot me and so, he said get up, get up. The moment I got up, I took to my heels and got lost inside the bush. So, when his weapon worked, and he started firing, I was in a different direction; I did not move. He too got scared and went back. Later in the evening, I came back with my colleagues – late Shagaya, and others – cleared and recovered the dead bodies. We met them eating; they were celebrating, and we revenged. That’s the closest I can remember. But we were all young boys; I was aged 20. There was fear, but not the kind of fear we have now; I had nothing to lose so there was no… fear had gone at that time. We were deadly. But today, it’s not so; I have children, grand-children. I have you all. So, now, there is moderation; I think a lot of things have happened. I won’t like to do those things I did some 50 years ago, no. and I will not like war now.
citizens to decide who they want to rule them
next. If they want President Buhari to continue, of course, they should vote for him. He would
continue. And if they want another person, they are very free to vote
for him and President Buhari should be glad to step down. Nothing is
for ever. But I would not like, at this point, to take sides, no.
What do you have to say to these IPOB boys asking for war and demanding a state of Biafra?
Em, all the agitations you find centre on dissatisfaction and injustice. The IPOB boys who are agitating, as far as I am concerned, they feel, based on their observations and experience, that there is injustice in the management of the resources of this country. They think that the country should be restructured; they think that there are a number of people who are monopolising the power and the resources of this country, and that if there is equity and justice, why would they want to get out of the system that is fair? So, the solution is for them to be told that they can agitate, but they should not declare war against the state because it’s a very risky thing to do. They themselves may never survive to see Biafra.
How come you were never involved in the various military coups in the course of being in the army?
What would you describe as the high-point of your military career?
As the career progressed, I’ve had several exciting moments; in 32 years, several exciting moments. But I looked forward to a brighter new day. If one would be frank, the first pleasure was surviving the Nigerian civil war; that was the first joy because everybody saw his death looming, for those of us who participated in the civil war at the lower level. So, when General Gowon declared that the war had ended, and that there was no victor, no vanquished, and we should embrace each other, it was one of the most exciting moments for some of us. That was the first relief I ever had in my life. I didn’t think that the war was necessary; I thought it was nasty and I was too young to understand the totality of the implications.
is for them to be told that they can agitate, but they should not declare war against the state because it’s a very risky thing to do. They themselves may never survive to see Biafra.
There is the notion that military incursion into politics impacted negatively on the nation’s development, democratically and in other areas. How do you respond to this?
That expression is usually made from the position of ignorance; that’s my view. If you look at the history of other nations that have developed – I’m talking of the Americas, I’m talking of Great Britain, I’m talking of Germany, I’m talking of Japan, China, India – most of these countries, they had military interregnums, if you recall. The profession of the military is an all-embracing one. So, it is out of place for anyone to say that military incursion in Nigerian politics has been to the disadvantage of the development of the country. I say that expression is out of ignorance because first, the military is a part of the totality of society, and at that time in our socio-political evolution, the military thought they could make a change because those who had responsibility to bring about continuous unfettered change, did not show signs that they had capacity, or they were willing to. And so, the military thought they could do it better. And when the military came in, what happened? Society applauded them. Was there any military government that ruled without you having civilians as active members, either in advisory capacity, or indeed in executive capacity as ministers, or as commissioners? So, what is the individual talking about?
The truth of the matter is that this is where we are as a nation. It was also the military that in 1999 decided that look, enough is enough. In fact, the military deserves commendation; it’s a mark of qualitative leadership to say, look, we have tried, we have failed. We’ve accepted democratisation; from 1999, let us hand over to a democratically-elected government. And so, the government, at that time of General Abubakar, of which I was a member of the Provisional Ruling Council, as soon as General Abacha died, he said no, we should hand over. But what it meant was that the society felt “it was they, the military, and us”; but there was really nothing like that. The military did not rule in isolation, so, if anybody is saying it, they are actually condemning every other person that had contributed. But our predicament predates that. We’ve had obstacles as a nation to our development which is what is still on now, hanging. Certain nations of the world have seen us as a source of raw materials for their industries and they’ve seen us as a market for their finished goods, period. Every other thing that is said is immaterial; and they’ve done everything to maintain that status quo. If they find a leader who is out-spoken, who is focused, who knows what he’s doing, they make life miserable for him by squeezing him externally; they have the power, they have the information, they have the technology to do it. And they also would get into us and cause confusion by setting one against the other. They know our weaknesses – religion, tribal, ethnic – they capitalise on all that. And unfortunately, we also encourage them.
Why on earth would you allow foreigners to come and start pontificating now and telling us what to do about democratising? In the process, they are sowing seeds of discord; they are exerting influences they should not. They are making our transition less original. But that is where we are.
is premised on resistance to existing authority and it is very
difficult for anybody to prescribe a particular date when this kind of war will end; very, very difficult.
But did we not give the people you say are interfering in our democracy the reason to do so when we don’t do right what we are supposed to do? We are still snatching ballot boxes, campaigning with calumny; corruption is pervasive, and all that.
Yes, okay; but what should concern us as a nation is to address some of these weaknesses that we have identified. The Emir of Kano was discussing social malaise; he was discussing a polygamous system that has served us no good. It’s not restricted to the North; it’s also practised in the South. How would you imagine a 60-year-old man who has made some money; he decides to marry a 25-year-old girl. And after 10 years of marriage, the 60-year-old man is 70, the 25-year-old is 35 and they already have five children. Because of recklessness, this 70-year-old man dies leaving nothing for the five children. It is the amalgamation of these numbers of five children, six, seven that you find that are the ones in the streets. They are the ones you find snatching ballot boxes out of desperation; they are the ones who accept to be thugs because they’ve not gone to the best of schools. They are the ones who take to drugs because there is nobody to guide them. They are the ones who become armed robbers because of desperation. So, the Emir of Kano was not saying anything wrong as affecting society. So, now, we should start having governments that will address some of this indiscipline in the society. You have an individual whose take-home pay is probably N100,000 a month and he has three wives and 13 children. Tell me how he will not be corrupt.
The country is going through serious security challenges with the Boko Haram becoming more and more deadly. What solution would you proffer to rout it?
My solution; well, I will give you the same answer as on the issue of IPOB. Why is Boko Haram thriving? Boko Haram is thriving because of injustice and poverty. Terrorism generally is premised on resistance to existing authority and it is very difficult for anybody to prescribe a particular date when this kind of war will end; very, very difficult. It’s like a medical doctor that is trained coming to tell you that a patient that has been diagnosed with cancer, that the patient will be cured on so, so, so date; you will know that that doctor is incompetent. Insurgency and terrorism in any society are usually a protracted, long, enduring struggle and the way to address it is ideally the way we have approached it. First, to incapacitate them and destroy their will to be able to fight. That is on the military side of it. After weakening them, and destroying their capacity to fight, we should now introduce into that area, those things that are lacking – social amenities – water, education and all that which can be brought in by good governance. But without peace, there can be no development; and you can also turn it around. Without development, no peace. Now that we have lost peace there, the thing to do is to restore peace. How do you restore peace? We must shut our eyes and really fund the armed forces.
Amnesty International, you are coming here to say we are destroying fundamental
human rights of people who are destroying, killing innocent Nigerians in the North-eastern part of this country. I won’t listen to human
right. Which human right? It’s not a thing for politicians to discuss. We must attain military victory substantially, clear the coast, then move development there.
The commander-in-chief requested for some money the other day; people were treating it with kid gloves. They were reading all sorts of meanings to it, no. We must fund the armed forces properly. How do you send people to fight an enemy and you hear allegations of people not being properly armed? No, that is not good. The armed forces, the police, and all para-military organisations, we have to shut our eyes and really arm them so as to be able to incapacitate anyone who would want to stop the government from delivering. And when I’m talking of incapacitation, I’m talking of real incapacitation of bringing death and destruction to those who would stop us from progressing which is what I thought our president stood for and is still standing for. But of course, there are several dimensions to equipping the armed forces. That is why the outburst of the army the other day should make meaning to you too. The Amnesty International; are they here to help us or they are here to destabilise us?
What kind of comments are they making? Somebody slapped my son, he has bitten him; my child is bleeding and you are saying I should not hit him with club, break his head, remove the teeth that he used in biting my child? Is that what you are saying? I will remove all the dentures. That’s what Nigeria should do. You, you say you are Amnesty International, you are coming here to say we are destroying fundamental human rights of people who are destroying, killing innocent Nigerians in the North-eastern part of this country. I won’t listen to human right. Which human right? It’s not a thing for politicians to discuss. We must attain military victory substantially, clear the coast, then move development there. Build schools, give them water, give them light; empower the local government. There will be law and order; nobody will now come and ask them whether they are Nigerians or not. There is nothing religious about it.
I am not saying that we should not blame those who are corrupt, but we should
now look at what has happened. We should now establish systems of expenditure
that would make it difficult for an individual to have access
[to funds meant for development]. It’s a systemic problem. So, all those that would have been accused of corruption, it means that there
was a window through which they all, individually, had access to the funds.
You talked about funding. In the recent past we have been hearing how the much that had been released to the military had been embezzled by the leaders. The late Badeh was in court before he was killed, Amosu, and the rest of them. All these were top military officers who were supposed to spend these monies to equip their boys but allegedly appropriated the funds to themselves. Can we blame the Nigerian state for not funding the armed forces appropriately?
We blame the Nigerian State. It means there is something wrong with the system. How on earth…? In our time, we didn’t have that access. Where are you going to get the money from, if the system is functioning? You blame the Nigerian state. It’s a shame that you turn around and say that somebody has embezzled so many millions, so many billions. What we should be addressing is the system. It’s like in a home, you suddenly woke up and say that a house girl has stolen ear-ring; madam’s gold, and you want the police to arrest her. They are bloody stupid people! Or you say a child has stolen N5,000 in your house. Where did you keep the money? How have you been keeping the money? What is the system of managing the money? What is wrong is the system. Otherwise no individual should have access to that amount of money.
For societies that are today, so to say, not corrupt, what is happening is that there are established patterns of spending public funds. I am not saying that they are incorruptible; but I am saying that in your house, if you take a cane to whip a child, that a child has stolen N1,000; as far as I am concerned, you should be caned. You kept the money where the child could have access. So, I am not saying that we should not blame those who are corrupt, but we should now look at what has happened. We should now establish systems of expenditure that would make it difficult for an individual to have access. It’s a systemic problem. So, all those that would have been accused of corruption, it means that there was a window through which they all, individually, had access to the funds. This man stole so much from pension, that one stole so much from arms, the other one stole so much from importation of this; it is because there is something wrong with our system and there is nothing wrong with something being wrong. What is wrong is our inability to now block those loopholes so that for the future, such things would not happen. That’s all.
those that have been in charge [of military commands] in recent times
? How have we selected the crop of leaders that have taken over? What had been our succession plan as a nation? … In every segment of society
, before you determine that this person will be the next commander
in so, so place, he must have certain qualities that are unassailable
. You must be able to know that bullet does not discriminate between religion or tribe.
Our soldiers are becoming so vulnerable with the way they are being killed in large numbers in the North-east by Boko Haram elements. Is it a factor of lack of appropriate strategy, lack of professionalism and intelligence that enemies go into their camps and wipe them out? It is becoming embarrassing.
Well, that one too has to do with… Are you saying that the Boko Haram elements themselves, are they not trained? Are they using wood? In war, you lose, you win. In football, smaller countries, don’t they beat our teams? In war, you lose, you win; but the truth of the matter is, that too has to do with our socio-political evolution. Who are those that have been in charge in recent times? How have we selected the crop of leaders that have taken over? What had been our succession plan as a nation? Am I asking relevant questions? In every segment of society, before you determine that this person will be the next commander in so, so place, he must have certain qualities that are unassailable. You must be able to know that bullet does not discriminate between religion or tribe. So, when you are identifying leaders and upgrading people into positions, our succession plan too should be reviewed such that the best should occupy the most strategic positions.
Recently, the new commander of the joint military task force in the Northeast accused some soldiers of cowardice, hence the massacre in the camp. So, given the scenario you have painted, is it morally right for the military high command to sanction soldiers who allegedly ran away in the heat of battle probably because of lack of the wherewithal to fight?
It is treason for you to flee in the face of the enemy. The probability is that those ones are cowards and they probably were not ready to face the enemy. And that is why I am talking of even the quality of training and the quality of leadership at the lower level. All these things come to play. But whatever it is, a crime at that level is a crime. It’s like you saying that a policeman on duty is sleeping with his rifle by his side, and you say an armed robber has come to snatch it away; that he should not be arrested and disciplined. Or that a journalist will write a report that is untrue, and you say he should not be sanctioned. It’s the same thing. There are rules governing each profession. In the face of the enemy, it’s cowardice; cowardice is death sentence. Much more, you don’t tolerate it. Sleeping on duty, how many years imprisonment? Twenty years or something; yes, it’s a serious matter. If all of us are sleeping and two are posted here to watch and make sure that we sleep, and then the two decides to sleep; a lot of people don’t understand. The lives of every other person are in the hands of those two persons. If they decide to go to slumber, it means all of us would be killed. So, if you find them sleeping, normally, you try them and sentence them to maximum punishment.
say some people would rig, is this the first time they are rigging elections
? Is it only in Nigeria that they rig? So, why should I be afraid
? I am not scared at all. I have hope; in fact, I am excited to see
the February election come and go. I want to see how Nigerians will exercise their rights, and I want to see where the pendulum swings.
We are approaching the 2019 elections which are very critical. It’s either we get it right or we get it wrong. Are you worried at the current state of affairs in the country?
Are you certain that we are on the right path?
I am not Nostradamus. But I am not worried at all.
But what do you expect?
I expect that we would get over it. I have hope; we may have challenges, but we will get over it. What we are doing now is not new. Is this the first election that we are conducting? So, what is the big deal there? It is just the politicians that are beating drums of war. They are afraid of their investments, they are afraid of their future; they are worried that some of them might drop from where they were if they lose, so they concoct all sorts of stories. But for those of us who are watching, there is nothing to be afraid of. Yorubas call it orunyabo – the sky is coming down, all of us are underneath. So, what we expect to happen is that INEC will do the needful, and we are expecting that the police will encourage all Nigerians who want to vote to go and perform their civic duties unmolested, and that they should be protected. And we are expecting that the ballot boxes should not be snatched; that is what the policemen are paid for. And we are saying that no citizen should be beaten up and the police will turn his face. Why are you going to beat me if I am going to vote and the police will not help me; who is going to help me?
So, we are saying that if everybody tries to do his or her own bit as far as the election is concerned, by the grace of God, there will be a result. If you say some people would rig, is this the first time they are rigging elections? Is it only in Nigeria that they rig? So, why should I be afraid? I am not scared at all. I have hope; in fact, I am excited to see the February election come and go. I want to see how Nigerians will exercise their rights, and I want to see where the pendulum swings. Whether democratisation is really taking place, or we need to do more work to be able to sustain this drive that we have undertaken as a nation. But fear, no, not at all.
It’s like some of your colleagues – ex-Generals seem to have joined the fray with some taking sides with one candidate or another. What is your take on a situation like this?
It’s democratisation; they are exercising their fundamental human rights. But in my own case, I think that it will be uncharitable now to take sides. I would rather like to see…I’m going to exercise my own right to vote and that is personal to me. And I would rather wish at my level that I allow all citizens to decide who they want to rule them next. If they want President Buhari to continue, of course, they should vote for him. He would continue. And if they want another person, they are very free to vote for him and President Buhari should be glad to step down. Nothing is for ever. But I would not like, at this point, to take sides, no. But at the local level, yes, one can take sides. But at the national level, no; you just keep it to yourself and do the needful because you may not be helping the situation. You may be inflaming an already combustive, or an already charged situation. It’s like the outburst that you hear from some people; that’s not necessary. I didn’t agree; somebody is very Ill, you say he should resign. Where is the mind to resign when he’s ill and dying; very sick. That’s uncharitable. Now, the man recovered.
What advise do you have for Nigerians at 70, and still counting?
Nigerians should learn to be grateful to God. We pay lip service; I don’t think we are truly grateful to God. Nigerians should change their attitude to materialism, and Nigerians should review their social system of bringing up children. We must respect our women. You choose a wife, you respect her; you support her to the end. You are not perfect, she’s not perfect. Why do you take them and kick them out therefore they are not able to look after the children? These are some of the problems that we have as far as I am concerned. It’s not that we are not working hard, but our hard work is not coordinated. And we must learn from now on to be our brother’s keeper. We are too wicked. How can you kill Badeh just like that? Nigerians are wicked. And then we should learn to give those who have opportunities to occupy leadership positions a chance; they are not miracle workers.
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