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General Oluleye’s legacy

By Owei Lakemfa
JAMES JAYEOLA Oluleye, a retired Major-General and former member of the General Murtala Muhammed/Olusegun Obasanjo junta passed away Thursday July 2, 2009.  He was 80 years old.

His role in our history was his revelation of the internal runnings of military regimes; essentially that military rule is like buccaneers seizing a ship and helping themselves to the spoils of their conquest.

Although he never planned or participated in any of the litany of coups and attempted coups, he was a beneficiary of coups as he served as Minister, first in Establishment and Service Matters, and later in Finance.

However, in his book Military Leadership in Nigeria:1966-1978 he argued that: “A military coup d’etat is the greatest act of cowardice as their victims are slaughtered in cold blood without a chance to challenge the assassins”.

His characterisation of the generals who ruled us from 1966 were insightful and hilarious. For example, of Brigadier Hassan Usman Katsina he wrote:
“Throughout the war, the Chief of Staff (Army) never spared his ponies time to rest until he had a near fatal fall at the Lagos Polo ground which gave them some rest.  On recovery, he resumed playing”.

Oluleye’s most reflective and insightful characterisation was that of Murtala Ramat Muhammed, the late general who ruled for six months from July 29, 1975.  He wrote about Muhammed

“He was kind-hearted even as a bully… He had fixed ideas of things.  To him every human organisation was a military machine that can be worked to death without question.

He was religious to the extent of relying on divination to fix his D-days for operations.

This forced him to abandon the basic rules of war.  He had very little respect for constituted authority while he would not tolerate disrespect from subordinates… Owing to lack of adequate preparations and dependence on divination, his amphibious operations to capture Onitsha from Asaba were surprisingly thwarted”.

There was a coup on July 29, 1975, and Muhammed emerged Head of State with Olusegun Obasanjo, a sly, self-opinionated and vindictive General as his Deputy. When the duo posted Oluleye to the Nigeria Defence Academy as the Commandant, he declined.

Then they ordered him to tender his letter of resignation, the courageous soldier refused on the basis that he had not failed the nation.

He was later appointed the Federal Commissioner (Minister) for Establishment and Service Matters.  This was two weeks after the coup and the main preoccupation of the regime seemed to be the mass sack of public officers at Federal and state levels.

The mass purge which neither spared the Permanent Secretary nor the cleaner, the honest staff nor the dishonest, the productive worker nor the “deadwood”, was carried out “with immediate effect”.  This craving for cheap popularity destroyed the public service as even public servants on official training were classified as being absent from duty and sacked!

The generals saw the civil service as a military objective to be destroyed and civil servants as enemies to be humiliated, conquered and subject to the vagaries of military misrule.

After the first wave of the mass purge, Obasanjo sent out a memo on October 14, 1975 ordering the compilation of more names of Public Servants to be retired.  Oluleye as Minister of Establishment picked up courage to confront his bosses and in the process put his career on line and his life in danger.

In an October 17, 1975 response he pointedly told the regime “As at date, I have none of them (Staff) to recommend for retirement”.

He went on to tell Muhammed and Obasanjo “Some damned honest and devoted people had fallen… The future of many dependants will be ruined where an honest public servant is sent on retirement on spurious excuses.

Such a man will never recover from the shock until possibly his retirement benefits are exhausted … I think the exercise done so far has ruined the Public Service.  A further exercise is tantamount to calling for a complete disaster”.

General Muhammed fumed that Oluleye was not loyal to the new government. Within four days, he was hauled before a ‘court’ chaired by Muhammed.The charge was corruption;  When it fell through, Oluleye was pronounced a mental case.

This verdict ironically was to save Obasanjo when the committee investigating cases of military officers with divided loyalty, conflict of interest and unexplained sources of wealth, recommended Obasanjo’s compulsory retirement.

Muhammed realised that for ethnic sensibilities, he would have to replace Obasanjo with another Yoruba officer and that the most eligible was Oluleye.

The then Secretary to the Government, Allison Akene Ayida quoted Muhammed as saying that “If I had to work with James as Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters, I will go on record as the first Head of State to have personally shot his number two and that will be a disgrace to Nigeria  and Africa” So Obasanjo was saved.

Oluleye also laid bare the motive for Bisalla’s alleged participation in the attempted coup that led to the assassination of Muhammed.

Five months after the coup, Bisalla’s course mates promoted themselves; while Muhammed became a full general, Obasanjo became Lieutenant General.

To worsen matters, Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma who was Bisalla’s Staff officer when the latter was Commanding the 1st Infantry Division, was promoted Lieutenant General and Chief of Army Staff while Bisalla was promoted a Major General.

What Oluleye showed is how coups, politics and thirst for power destroyed discipline and professionalism in the military to the extent where the army became an institution of “any thing goes”.Oluleye’s legacy is primarily that he spoke the truth to his colleagues, analysed the problem with the military and put these on record for future generations.


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