By Chioma Gabriel, Deputy Editor
General Owoye Andrew Azazi was born in Peretorugbene in present Bayelsa State. He had his early education in the old Bendel State of Nigeria where he attended Government College Bomadi and graduated in the class of 1968 after which he joined the Nigerian Defence Academy Regular Combatant Cadet- Course 12 0n 3 July, 1972.
Azazi was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant on 14 December, 1974. At the end of the combined training, he won the bronze medal for being first in Art subjects. He has served as a Brigade Intelligence Officer, Divisional Intelligence Officer and Colonel Coordination, Headquarters Directorate of Military Intelligence.
He was appointed the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 1 Division, Nigerian Army in January 2005 and subsequently appointed Chief of Army Staff (COAS) , a post he held till 2008.
Azazi has had one of the fastest growing military careers in present day democracy in Nigeria. Between May 2006 and June 2007, the General wore the ranks of Major General, Lieutenant General and General.
In this interviewÂ conducted at his residence, he talks about his military career, Nigeriaâ€™s politics, the army and the security issues in Nigeria.
Congratulations on a successful military career. How has it been with you?
Thank you for congratulating me. I appreciate your interviewing me. As for my career, I wouldnâ€™t say that I am the best or better than others who didnâ€™t get to the level I did. I was probably lucky and I give thanks to God for everything.
In the course of your military career, what would you consider your biggest challenges?
The career that lasted for thirty-five years definitely would have a lot of challenges that one cannot really say, yes, this challenged me most because I have very critical times in my career as a whole. It is very challenging to be in the Armed Forces.
Commanding the armed forces is even more challenging because at that point, you want to blend commanding men in uniform and also appealing to the needs of the larger society. Things happened at different times but issues like when the plane crashed and the generals died were traumatic times and till date, I feel something missing whenever I think of incidents like that.
And, I never liked the idea that soldiers died en-masse for their commitments to foreign missions. These kinds of things happen. My life, my career, I should say was smooth-sailing but there is nobody who rose from the rank of 2nd Lieutenant to a General who would say he did not encounter challenges but I overcame my challenges by the grace of God .
You were already a senior officer at the time Nigeria got involved in Iraq war and later ECOMOG peace-keeping operations, what did those experiences portend for the military especiallyÂ when viewed from the angle that Samuel Doe was captured at ECOMOG headquatres?
Anybody who thinks ECOMOG forces failed in Liberia is not being realistic. The ECOMOG forces went to stabilise Liberia and not to save Samuel Doe specifically but to make sure that some level of sanity came back to Liberia. IfÂ the ECOMOG forces did not go there at all, the level of anarchy that would have befallen Liberia would have been unimaginable. So, anybody who sits down to say ECOMOG forces did not succeed in Liberia is not being fair to the Nigerian Armed Forces. And remember that ECOMOG was onÂ peace re-enforcement.
It was what nobody had done earlier that Nigeria started and we were recognised for that. So, we should give ourselves some credibility in instances where we have done very well.
Nigeria did not participate in the Gulf War. Nigeria went as an observer under the United Nations but did not participate in that war.
Whenever ethno religious crisis arises, all kinds of weaponsÂ are brndished and one keeps wondering howÂ sophisticated weapons used in the Boko Haram crisis and the Niger Delta region came into the country. Some of them areÂ military weapons?
You know,Â since the end of the cold war, things have changed globally. Suddenly, tensions began to generate in some places. The focus was on the East and West. There are conflicts between nations and amongst internal forces. And at the end of the cold wars, all kinds of weapons were so readily available to people who would acquire them. Somehow, people have access to these weapons, not only in Nigeria but in other places. And that is why we have a United Nations Programme that is responsible for addressing issues like the proliferation of arms and ammunition. It is not only in Nigeria.
Besides, if you look around, you would find that Nigeria has a very extensive border. There is no way these borders could be monitored inch-to-inch. So, anybody who wants to do anything smuggle arms through the borders.
And of course, there was the issue of the Nigerian civil war. So many things contributed to the influx of arms and increase in crime in the society.
Perhaps, the military shouldnâ€™t have intervened in the problem in the Niger Delta.
Well, I believe every nation has the right to use the military for good. Constitutionally, the military has a role to play in internal security, in assisting the police.
These are basic police missions but when the situation demands extra assistance, when it is beyond the police, the military would assist and their intervention was basically to stabilise the situation, protect lives and property and protect Federal Governmentâ€™s assets.
If you want to say the military should not have intervened in the Niger Delta crisis, I would tell you the military have intervened in various parts of the country for different reasons. During the riot in Kaduna, the police couldnâ€™t cope and the military had to assist. There was riot in Jos, the police couldnâ€™t cope and the military assisted. Even in Lagos, it has happened.
So, when you have the military, itâ€™s a security force andÂ the country should be able toÂ use it for objective purposes.
When you look back to what happened in Zaki Biam and Odi where an entire community was wiped out, couldnâ€™tÂ it have been avoided?
In any environment especially in the Nigerian situation, things happened that demanded the assistance of the military to intervene in a situation that could have been avoided. Such incidents gave the military a bad name. You have worked in Vanguard for some years.
I want to believe that things have improved for you over the years because of communication and experience. There are things that have become second nature to you.
The level of intervention in Zaki Biam, Odi, Niger Delta was not like that several years ago. The issues were also not there several years ago. But better training, better experience and of course the objective of government matter in addressing how the military performedÂ in a certain area.
You would also understand that things happened where soldiers were killed in cold blood. And that attracted reactions and maybe, certain level of over-reactions but things happened that brought about these situations.
Is there tribalism in the army?
To answer that question, Iâ€™m an Ijaw man from the interiors of Bayelsa and I got to the top. If I say there is tribalism in the army, people would ask, how did you get to the top? The question should have been, is there tribalism in Nigeria? Is there tribalism in government?
These factors play a role at different levels. Would you be deprived because you belong to a certain tribe? Sometimes, it happens, sometimes it doesnâ€™t. If it doesnâ€™t, there shouldnâ€™t have been the word tribalism. But does it happen massively in the military?
I donâ€™t think so. I used to tell people who say there is tribalism in the military that because you were not promoted was not because you belonged to a certain tribe. I donâ€™t think so. Well, many times it happened when somebody got promoted because he belonged to a certain tribe. Itâ€™s possible but itâ€™s not something that happens everyday.
People talk of imbalances in the system, itâ€™s not just in the military. Itâ€™s everywhere. So, letâ€™s say itâ€™s not something that is very pronounced in the military or something that is pronounced in the whole of Nigeria.
You are from the Niger-Delta and one can say you are a â€˜militantâ€™.
If you say so but you have to tell me who a militant is.
Itâ€™s just like you being from a troubled zone and you were Chief of Army Staff and then Defence Staff. I donâ€™t know how you feel about the things happening in that zone?
I would think like somebody not just from the Niger Delta but who is a Nigerian. I have said it elsewhere, even to Vanguard that the situation ab initio was for equitable participation. It started with the Kaiama declaration and we were saying then that we produce oil but we are not getting the benefits of oil coming from the region the way we expected to.
The wealth from any part of Nigeria is the wealth of the whole nation. However, you must give some level of development to where these wealth are generated from. Our argument was that, we were not getting enough of what comes from our own environment. Beyond that, if you go back to the crisis in Warri, the genesis of all these things we are seeing now was the issue of a local government.
Who was going to be the local government chairman? The Ijaws in that place felt deprived and problem started. Of course, overtime, these issues of, we want to participate in the affairs of the nation, we want to benefit from the oil that is produced from our place and of course, the resource control arguments came about. Those were the issues. Those were the bases of starting the discussion. So, if there was nothing wrong, the President of the country would not have held discussions with the people.
In Obasanjoâ€™s time, the President held discussions at the villa to address the issues. President Yarâ€™Ãdua also held discussions to address the issues. Things are being addressed by the Federal Government and itâ€™s just a matter of time for everything to normalise.
Amnesty has been granted and arms handed over to government by militants but one foresees a situation where a delay in Federal Governmentâ€™s development plan would bring a relapse?
Iâ€™m not in government and I cannot say exactly when the development plans would commence or what government should do. But as an observer who reads newspapers and listens to news, I know that government is planning to do something but I donâ€™t know the details of the plan but everybody is hoping that things will happen so that we donâ€™t go back to status quo.
You attained the height of your military career in a civilian regime. What do you think of Nigeriaâ€™s democracy? Why are we not doing well?
I wouldnâ€™t say Nigeria is not doing well in democracy. We all say that military rule is an aberration. The world is going democratic and democracy means freedom of choice. In democracy, there seems to be more problems because everybody wants to penetrate and they are not doing it quietly. People are speaking openly. People are fighting for it. So, leadership in democracy is really more difficult than leadership under military regime.
The problem is not just addressing those fundamentals of democracy but you alsoÂ to find a situation where democracy devolves government at different levels. There are state governments which should be responsible for their states.
There are local governments and then government at the centre. That is the federal government and everybody has an allocation. So, if we are able to address leadership at those different levels, probably, the situation could be better addressed.
It is believed the military incursion in democracyÂ is responsible for the problems we are having now? The incursion of people like IBB boys, OBJ boys brought military mentality into democracy. Do you accept that?
No. If you know the history of the United States of America, you will know that serving in the military is an advantage before holdingÂ a political office. Democracy is about participation. Somebody should not be deprived because he was a soldier.
I donâ€™t think the issues of the government of Nigeria is about IBB boys and OBJ boys being in politics.
I read on the net where my retirement was attributed toÂ Ogomudia boys, Agwai boys. I actually laughed out very loud because I served under Ogomudia. I served under General Agwai.
In fact,Â my relationship with General Agwai is particularly very close. So, how could anybody say I am Ogomudia boy or Agwai boy ? So, the issue is not about IBB boys or OBJ boys. In any society, people have their differences. I will go back to Vanguard where you work.
There are people who like your style and would like to follow your footsteps. You could have other editors whose steps are admired. You canâ€™tÂ say there are Chioma boys or editors boys. Once there are people who are influential in the society, there are bound to be admirers, followers and people who are close to you because they like what you are doing.
So, whatever is happening in democracy is similar. Or is Yarâ€™Ãdua somebodyâ€™s boy? The issue here is that people must emerge in leadership positions and people must support them. We should stop identifying people as OBJ, IBB or Agwai boys. We must liberate ourselves because if we keep pegging ourselves on people, youâ€™d find that people would still run to those people for support if they want political positions.
So, thatâ€™s really what Iâ€™m talking about. We have problem because we pay allegiance to all kinds of people in our bid to win elections.
Thatâ€™s the wayÂ the worldÂ is. Godfatherism, patronage and allegiance are part of the system. The world operates that way and its not about being military. Iâ€™m talking about people liking other peoples styles, copying them, people helping others and thatâ€™s the way the world is. Itâ€™s not just about Nigeria or the military. It happens everywhere.
You served under Obasanjoâ€™s regime.
A lot of people think Obasanjo was a bad leader. Was he truly a bad leader if you look back?
Whether Obasanjo was a bad or good leader is history because maybe, a few regimes down the line, people would begin to assess what he did or what he did not do. In any environment, there are people who are found acceptable and people who are not.
Thatâ€™s the way a society should be. Some people I can tell you believe Obasanjo was a good leader. But if you ask me, I would say, leave it to history. Let history tell whether Obasanjo was a good or bad leader and how. Itâ€™s the same thing I said about democracy. Is it good or bad? If we think it is not good, letâ€™s find a way to make it so. Everybody should participate in selecting their leaders.
Once we get to a stage where we say, okay, we donâ€™t want to elect this person, things will change and we willÂ stopÂ spendingÂ a lot of money in choosing our leaders. But could Nigerians at any point be mobilised to say look, we should determine the kind of leaders we want? There is no time we could choose leaders without biases.
So, when are you joining politics?
Have I told you I want to join politics? I am still resting.
I donâ€™t know what you would do if one day leaders of different communities in Bayelsa besiege this houseÂ and ask you to represent them.
In what capacity would that be?
In any capacity they deem fit.People in leadership position in Bayelsa are my younger brothers. In any capacity I can, I will help them to make Bayelsa make progress. But I have not said I will join politics. Letâ€™s wait for this time you talked about. So far, I have not seen the leaders of the communities here.
If you were not a soldier, what would you have been?
A Professor. A university Professor. If you remember in my retirement speech, I said that if I was not a soldier, I would have loved to be a professor. But by being in the military, I was able to achieve the two. I have risen to the top of the military career and I have been given the opportunity to give lectures even in universities. I think I can say I have followed the pattern of my life ambitions.
Whatâ€™s life in retirement like?
You are seeing it. I can wake up at 8 a.m if I want to. I can wake up at 9 am or even 10 am if I want to.
So, whatâ€™sÂ next?
Iâ€™m still relaxing. I served for 35 yeas in the military and you think one year rest is enough? No. I still need the rest.
What would you describe as the best of Nigeriaâ€™s Army?
Nigeria Armed Forces have been very focused. They gave good quality training to Nigerian youths who were supposed to lead the military as independent and focused human beings. You talked about the image of Nigeriaâ€™s military outside the country earlier.
We are highly regarded outside the country. I think those are institutional recognitions. The UN knows how the Nigeria military have functioned in peace keeping operations. We have done very well in peace-keeping outside the country.
Probably, the expectations of the Nigeria society are different from that of the UN. The fact that the UN respects the Nigerian Army does not automatically confer on Nigerians the status that when they arrive at the airport in London, everybody would say, yes, Nigeria is good in peace-keeping and therefore as citizens. We must recogniseÂ that aspect.
How many people know about peace-keeping? Nigerian army has this recognition as a veritable peace-keeper and that is all.
In Akure, some soldiers were sentenced for protesting over their allowances. The protesters were punished but those who took their money were not.
I donâ€™t think inÂ the Akure incident, somebody took anybodyâ€™s money. In Akure, I have explained this several times even when I was still in service. There was a mistake over payments. The cashier overpaid some people and realized that later.
He requested for time to correct the mistake but the soldiers who protested couldnâ€™t be patient enough. That was what happened.
So, there is no room for amnesty for them?
Iâ€™m not the Chief of Army Staff anymore. Iâ€™m not the Chief of Defence Staff. There is a legal procedure that the military followed in whatever has happened to these people and truly, Iâ€™ve not even followed up the case.
What advice will you give Nigerians concerning security? For instance, kidnapping has extended from the Niger Delta to other places.
You know in certain parts of Nigeria, kidnapping has been going on for a long time. It only became popularised when it involved Niger Delta militants and I would always say criminal elements. I think we should have a more efficient police force.
Nigeria should give itself the benefit of a police force that can respond to all these challenges. Thatâ€™s the basic thing.
The police should be equipped to monitor the society properly. They should be given better training, better facilities and a level of personnel so that the society should be better secured. Equipping the police means identifying her requirements for security and working towards it.
Whatâ€™s your relationship with former President Obasanjo?
(Laughs). Obasanjo is my boss and that relationship remains. Why did you ask?
Iâ€™m just trying to find out whose â€˜boyâ€™ you are.
Iâ€™m not anybodyâ€™s boy. Obasanjo appointed me Chief of Army Staff. That doesnâ€™t automatically confer on me an Obasanjo boy. I worked under President YarÃdua as Chief of Defence Staff.
So, whose boy am I going to become? I served under Obasanjo for twelve months and under Yarâ€™Ãdua for fourteen months. So, whose boy am I? (Laughs again). You see, at any point in time, I was loyal to the President.
What about your kids, is any of them following your path?
My kids are on their own. As a matter of fact, it is too late for them to be in the military. They are all grown.