I almost went mad in prison over a coup I didn’t plan – Colonel Ajayi (rtd)

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Col. Gabriel Ajayi (rtd) was Colonel Administration and Quartermaster General, Lagos Garrison Command and author of End of the Road: The Travails of an Infantry Officer.  By his appointment at the Garrison Command, he was second-in-command to the then General Officer Commanding, GOC, Major  Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi, whose hands the Ijesha-born infantry officer alleged were apparent in his travails over the alleged 1995 coup.  Ajayi was accused of planning to overthrow General Sani Abacha,  arrested, tried and sentenced to death along side former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the late Major Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua  and Colonel Gwadabe, among others. In this interview, Ajayi says the only thing government could do to make him happy with the system was for his ‘compulsory retirement’ to be reversed and his normal rank at discharge (major-general) be effected.  According to him, he felt like going to war seeing that perpetrators of injustice against him and others were not only unrepentant but that  they could  also  boldly yearn, at Oputa Panel, for an opportunity to do same again.  Ajayi was retired from the army on March 4, 1999. Excerpts:

By Bashir Adefaka

Going by your background as an infantry officer of the Nigerian Army, seeing the nation you served for all the useful part of your life in crisis  as it is, how do you feel?

I am not happy at the situation of things.  But I believe that all of us are guilty of the national malaise.  From the household to the community, the town, the state and the national level, all of us are behaving as if we are just passing through this place; as if it is not really our home. Some people call themselves the minority, deliberately downgrading themselves. We devalue ourselves and those governing us see us as devalued people and so we are governed as we are.  People get the leadership they deserve.  After all, the people governing us emerged from our midst.  They did not come from the sky.

The problem that put Nigeria in shambles that you have rightly observed is created by all of us.  We are very careless people because we did not suffer to become independent in the first instance.  We are very, very careless and we are not defending what is our own!  The fact that God put together this concentration of black people because Nigeria is the largest concentration of black people in the whole world,  means God has a purpose for the black race.  All over the world, the black people look up to Nigeria, but what do we have?  We are disunited, we are disrespected and we are disoriented!

What is responsible for this problem?
The basic problem is our perception of justice.  There is no justice in Nigeria.  I, myself, am a victim of injustice!  And so, we say, “Oh, forget about the past.”  But injury to a soul does not vanish easily.  How can you move forward when you have not been able to come to terms with the past so that we can unchain the present and free the future?! We must come to terms with our past to unchain the present and free the future.  If we do not do that we are going to remain like this.  All we will be doing will be taking one step forward and many steps backward.

We had 50 years of independence anniversary.  That was golden jubilee.  Do you know the meaning of that?  Year of relief. Year of recompensation.  Was there any amnesty granted to any prisoner in Nigeria to mark the anniversary?  They did it in Ghana and that was the turning point  for that country.  It was not the killing that was done all over Ghana.  What changed the life of Ghana for better was the visit to prisons by government to do justice.  So many people were there for no just cause and the president said, “Okay, if you have been in prison for the past three years, you are free from today.  If you come back, that is your own problem but you are free.”  Amnesty to all!  We couldn’t do that in Nigeria.  People that had been wronged, Nigerian government failed to seize the opportunity of the golden jubilee,  to do justice and reconcile with them.  All you hear people talk about is, “Put him in jail.”  And they say so with impunity.

The policy government makes is attacking a section of the people and favouring a section.  Government policies must be made to  favour  all the beneficiaries. Because of one man, God can favour a nation.  Look at South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, because of him alone, see what happened to that country.  Favour all through!  Find me a man in Nigeria God can say, ‘because of him, I am favouring this country’.  I am not saying we need Nelson Mandela in Nigeria.  No.  We need a  Nigerian but, really, we have to think about  justice and reduce our greed.

Don’t you see Chief  Olusegun Obasanjo’s letter to President Goodluck Jonathan as a step in the direction of solution?

As a Yoruba man, there are two things you respect: age and position.  Baba Olusegun Obasanjo has the two things.
Baba Obasanjo had the privilege to be president for almost 12 years in the life of the Nigeria.  So, I believe that, by now, he should be a father figure, so to speak.  Except that in Nigeria we refuse to allow anybody to be a father figure and people don’t allow themselves to be because we are not prepared to make the sacrifice required of father figure. Nelson Mandela did not acquire a father figure but was made.  Power was thrusted into his hands by divine means but he did not fail the divine when it was time for him to retire from power.

I am not going to comment on the General Obasanjo letter because what he had written, apart from one or two things, had been said by everybody.  To me, what he wrote was news cap.

If what he wrote is not  new, why was government not paying attention to the issues until the time the letter was published?

I think you are correct because I was talking to a general that Baba should not have written that letter.  And the general said if it was a colonel that had written it, it wouldn’t have had that kind of weight and we would have just joked over it.

What I am trying to say is that it is not always good to do what Baba did. He will be misunderstood because the situation in Nigeria is beyond what he wrote.

If Baba has established the kind of Nelson Mandela’s father figure, people will be urinating in trousers when he writes or speaks.  Nobody would have been courageous enough to raise a voice.  But I agree with the general who told me that Obasanjo was still the most qualified to write such a letter as nobody would have attached importance to it if it came from somebody else.  I have no comment about whether or not what he wrote about is right or wrong.

Col. Ajayi (Retd)

Col. Ajayi (rtd)

What message should  we take from the whole scenario?
We need to be sober.  What Baba wrote should make us sober, not to be riotous.  It is not about whether President Jonathan should reply, which he already did.  Goodluck Jonathan is just one man.  Baba Obasanjo is just one man.

So, the country gets the leadership it deserves.  If another person sits in that place, it is still going to be the same result!  It is like performing an experiment in the laboratory.  It is what you put in that you get.  In computer they say, GIGO: Garbage In Garbage Out.  Whatever you sow you shall reap!  It is not the question of Jonathan as President now.  It is the system!  All of us have inputs in it.

How do you mean?
One day, Federal Road Safety Corps, FRSC, woke up and said you must renew your license.  They put money! Another day, police said biometry, they put money.  This one comes up, money! In one country, how many taxes are you going to make the people pay?  How do you want the people to respect such a leadership?  Riot of quests! Riot of requirements!  You have been on this land for so long and so you have to revalidate something.  Land ownership is either inheritance or ………. So, there is a spiritual attachment between us and land.  And somebody wakes up one morning, because he needs money, he now takes over the place.  These are the issues really.

As far as some people  are concerned, there should have been a military coup by now…….?
I think it will be foolishness for some people to think about military rolling out the tanks.  Who owns the tanks anyway?  The tanks belong to Nigeria and those handling the tanks are fellow Nigerians.  And the military has been there for long and so they have no business in this one.  Soldiers go to where they are asked to go and do what they are told to do.  People should remove their minds from the idea of military take-over.  The military didn’t pay us; I am one of the victims.  We have not even been able to address the issues raised by military coups; people were killed.  They were unjustly handled.

We should have a way of administering ourselves rather than resorting to firearms.  If we have an administration which is not doing well, that is why tenure is not permanent.  Another election will come and people will have a peaceful opportunity to change the administration. So, it is about free and fair election.  But people should be able to give themselves free and fair election.  No INEC official or policeman is contesting to be president, governor or chairman.  It is politicians who are contesting elections to hold offices and, so, it is the politicians who should make the elections to be free and fair.

This is our country.  I feel so unhappy.  I suffered so much in prison confinement for four years under the harshest condition made possible by military rule.  I almost went mad and I came out and somebody is saying, “Oh, forget the past and let’s move forward.” Where are we moving forward to, when I cannot even see clearly?  How can I move forward?

Would it be correct to say you are this bitter about military intervention because of what they did to you; convicting you along with Generals Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Col. Gwadabe, others for plotting a coup to overthrow Abacha?

The truth of the matter is that it was not true that I planned a coup.  And I was never part of any because nobody even told me there was one.  When Obasanjo was military Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, where was I  such that he would now descend so low to say he wanted to team up with me to stage a coup?  By virtue of Obasanjo’s popularity in the international community, if he wanted a change of government, he needed not stressing it because whatever he says is respected globally.  I can only tell you how I began to sense that I was in danger and leave the rest for you and other Nigerians to go and see in my book, “End of the Road: The Travails of an Infantry Officer.”  On  February 25, 1995, I saw the Intelligence Officer of 26 Infantry Battalion coming to change the guards in my house in Ikoyi for no reason.  I queried the officer but he claimed that the Commander  (Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi) asked him to do so.  I was surprised because I did not know when it became the responsibility of the Commander to start detailing guards to officers’ quarters. I did not have a premonition of an impending doom  ahead of me.

The following day, Sunday, February 26, I went to worship at St. Paul’s  Military Church, Dodan Barracks with my family.  It was usual for me to do so.  I attended the same service together with Major General Ishaya Bamaiyi who, in the evening of that day, ordered my illegal and unlawful arrest for an offence I knew nothing about.  We had participated in the holy communion service, both of us knelt down together at the altar of Jesus Christ to eat the Lord’s Supper and, unknown to me, my name was in his pocket among those already condemned for alleged coup plotting.  That was all I saw.  Go and get the book, “End of the Road: The Travails of an Infantry Officer”, you will find what you want to know in it.  An updated edition comes soon.

For God’s sake, I did not commit any crime.  But it has not been possible for government to run back to that punishment and annul the conviction.  Why give me compulsory retirement?  It is still a punishment because it was an offence I did not commit that I was tried and imprisoned for. I didn’t plot any coup.  Nobody told me they were plotting one.  So it was just a fabrication.  Why is it difficult in Nigeria for justice to be properly done?

You sound embittered as a result of this but what do you want?
I want government to restore the status quo.  Remove the stain.  This is what I need.  There was a  time I needed to do a clearance and they were asking why I was compulsorily retired, not voluntarily retired.  Then I had to start defending myself.

The questions I am asking is why is it difficult to retract this compulsory retirement. We had issues.  Capt. Driphus was accused falsely of treason.  He was sent to the Devil’s Island of Guyana.  He spent some years in Guyana and when they discovered that he was not guilty as accused, they brought him back to the service and restored him to the rank he was before his imprisonment.  He served and was promoted up to a brigadier such that he fought in the Second World War.

It makes the service to be robust when somebody is punished falsely for an offence he knows nothing about and upon discovery of his innocence you take him back to his normal rank.  But somebody says, “Oh, no, it is not good like that.  It will affect the system.”  And I say that the system cannot survive if it continues to harbor injustice.  The same thing with General Obasanjo, even though they brought him out of prison where we all were and made him president, he  remains a victim of the same injustice that I suffered and still suffer till today.

Others and I would be happy when the justice is done and they say, “Oh, we have accused you wrongly and had jailed you illegally and so you are pardoned.  Nobody will call you a prisoner again.”  To be a prisoner is not even a bad name anyway especially at the level we were, because all of us are prisoners in Nigeria where nobody is free and anybody that says he is free is only deceiving himself; but the point remains that, I cannot be happy if the situation remains like this without a total reversal of the whole thing.  I am talking of my own. Another person may say, “Oh, I don’t want.”  Many died in those circumstances, nobody asked for them.

When I was Quartermaster General at the Lagos Garrison Command, people would be fighting in my office for the pay accruable to their relations who died in Liberia.  And I would say, “But you are not even asking where this man was buried and you want to take his entitlement.” I am talking of 1994 now.  Some people would come to fight the wife of the dead soldier.  Can you imagine that?  Where the dead soldier was buried, they didn’t know and did not bother to  ask.

Oputa panel

But I, as a person, want  justice to be done for our hearts to be free.  Let judgment run down like water and righteousness like a rapid stream.  A nation cannot survive on injustice.  We need justice in Nigeria and if we can face the issue of justice, oh God,  heaven will be happy with  government.  If Mr. President gives everybody jollof rice and chicken all over, people will still not be happy unless there is justice.  That is the only thing that is hampering the progress of this country.

I am not happy; every day, my mind runs a marathon race, from frustration to anger.  Why should I have been so unjustly treated in my own country that I put all my life to serve well?  I find it difficult to reconcile.  For the period I was in prison, what I prayed for throughout was that, if there would be any good thing that would come to me, God should let it be justice.  I am not happy and what can make me happy is justice.  Give me my rank, the rank I am due for, at discharge, and say, “Yes, we know what happened to you.  We are sorry.  Take your rank.  God be with you.”

All these people who perpetrated injustice against us were at Oputa Panel and they said if they had another chance they would do it again.  It makes you to want to go to war!  How can somebody do such evil and still come boldly and say that nasty thing?  So, if he has another chance again, he would sentence another Ken Saro-Wiwa and co to death by hanging.  You know the case of Saro-Wiwa, I don’t know why the family dropped the matter.  The law under which they were tried stated that they had 30 days within which they could appeal.  They were hanged before the 30 days elapsed.  In this same country!  I don’t say whether they were guilty or not, but the point is, they had 30 days to appeal but they were hanged within the 30 days.  And those people came out to confirm the hanging and said, “Yes, if  we have another chance, we would do it again”.

Look at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Look at that boy that blew off the eyes of the South African soldier.  He came to the commission and said, “Oh, I am sorry.  It didn’t have to be you.  It was the system you represented that I was fighting.  Not you.”

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