By Bashir Adefaka
Chief Olabode Ibiyinka George (CON), 66, who retired as a Commodore of the Nigerian Navy, has paid his dues as a player of politics in Nigeria, notwithstanding his ordeal in the hands of what many have described as political adversaries, which led to his incarceration over a matter that now has become an issue of litigation at the Supreme Court.
Respected for his articulate views and thoughts on national and international politics, Chief George has been severally eulogised for his outstanding performance during his time as nineth Governor of old Ondo State where he made the highly versatile state one of the most peaceful States in the federation. He also boosted the state’s education system with the establishment – by edict in 1990 – of the Ondo State Polytechnic, Owo (now Rufus Giwa Polytechnic, Owo).
The former Chairman, Board of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and strong man of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, PDP, in the South-West of Nigeria, played a role in how the Fourth Republic successfully emerged. Popularly called ‘BG’ by his close friends, Chief George spoke to Saturday Vanguard at his Lagos home on Monday. Excerpts:
As a primary school boy, football was said to have virtually occupied your heart. How much of that experience could you still remember?
At that time, I was a very rascally boy. Football meant a lot to me. If it were to be like today, I would probably not have gone for any further education (laughs). At Isale Gangan, we had a local stadium. We played league then on knock-out basis and on the final match day, they would put rag mats around the place and you had to pay money to enter the local stadium to watch the finals. My club then was Seven Brides of Seven Brothers.
That was the name they called it. I was the captain and I was very well known then. At times, when we played and we won, people would carry me on their shoulders in jubilation, singing and going to my father’s house. Once they got to Apa Tira I would say, “Please put me down” because my father must not know that I was going behind closed doors to play football.
In those days, whenever my father returned from work, he would always be at the window listening to radio and looking outside . So, for a crowd to now come and drop me and say Bode went to play football, that would mean hell and for my father to know that I was going behind to play football was an abomination.
Then, there was one time when we were to play the final and it was scheduled to be on Sunday and Sunday was dedicated mainly to serve the Almighty God in the family. On Sundays in those days, we rarely had free period. We went to church in the morning, came back home, took our meals and headed back to church.
I was a member of the choir. So our club manager wanted the league to have its final in Isale Gangan and it had to be played on Sunday. I would never forget that experience because I would never dare to inform my dad about such a thing that would not let me to go to church on Sunday. Then, I told my club manager that, “look, this is your jersey, you can look for somebody else to play my role.”
How would I tell my father that I was going to play football on Sunday? Onola or no Onola, final or no final, how the hell would I have done that? I said I was not going to play that Sunday. He then said, “Can I come to your house and tell your father?” I said, “Please don’t come near my house!”
I didn’t know that the club manager went behind me to meet my father and so, he (my father) got to know that I had been playing football. Then getting closer to the d-day, the man came again and when I saw him coming, I disappeared. My father was a very tough man. He kept calling, calling me and I was hiding in grandma’s quarters until grandma now heard and said, “Baba e npe e” meaning, your father is calling you. Then I told mama agba (grandma) what had been happening and she said, “come, let’s go there.” When I saw my father and the club manager, I was afraid. But unexpectedly, my father said, “you can go and play.” And he, himself, was invited as special guest to watch the match (laughs).
The crowd that day was too large. I think we lost but my father became very, very happy that I was well known in the area through football. Many of my friends; we played together. General Tajudeen Olanrewaju, Jasper, was playing for the Oklahoma Bombers (laughs) and even Prince Adebiyi who is contesting for the Obaship of Lagos was also there. The Onabolus, the Fashanus and the Fasholas of Isale Gangan were all there and it was fun.
What role did your parents play in your growing up as a child?
After my primary education at St. John School, Aroloya, I went to Ijebu-Ode Grammar School. And I thank God eventually that I did. I was too rascally that my father just wanted me out of the place to go to school. You know in those days, we took the same examination for CMS Grammar School, Methodist Boys High School and Baptist Academy for Ijebu-Ode Grammar School. I was admitted in Lagos but my dad just wanted me out of the place and that was how I got to Ijebu-Ode Grammar School.
At Ijebu-Ode, I now had an organised programme as to when to wake up, when to go for studies, when to play games: we were structured. I think that gave me the grace to apportion my time properly with all the early discipline in the boarding school in those days. We had a good principal, Rev. M.D. Osinsanya, no nonsense! When it was time for work, you work; time for play, you play; time for food, you eat; time for studies in the evening and so on.
My father was shocked when he began to see my results from the school because I was second to nobody in my classes throughout. Now looking back at myself, I found out that it was the fact that we were now structured. Punishment was immediate if you messed up or you fell out of line and of course, time for football was also there. I think I was in Form Three when I started playing for the ‘First School Eleven’ and eventually, I became the school football captain. I belonged to the literary society, doing debate and so on. I also ran the miles for the school in athletics but football was my main. All through the Ijebu region during my days in the grammar school, either in debating or football and so on, I was well known and so it was fun.
After the grammar school, we went to the university and after university, before we knew it, we were in employment. In fact, in my graduating year at the University of Lagos, we were eight students graduates of electrical engineering. Eight students! And before we even wrote our final examinations, the Niger Dams Authority had come to interview us and three of us were employed. We got a job even before we left the university such that at the end of the examination, what you needed to do was to know that you already got a job. If that kind of thing happens now, it will be like a dream.
How and why did you decide to quit the plum job of Niger Dams Authority for the military?
I will tell you what happened. I had a friend, Somolu, who was also on the employment of Niger Dams, which was the only power producing company. Although there was ECN, Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, it was the only customer we had because we would produce and the ECN would buy the bulk. They also had their own power stations. The ECN were much bigger than us, we had less than 30 engineers working at the Niger Dams.
We had the late Mr. Amu who was our boss. We had Seke, Gbemi and I. We were the youngest engineers and Engr. Owoeye and Akinlabi from Ondo were the two that were employed from Ahmadu Bello University. Not many universities were offering engineering at that time. We had only the University of Lagos, Ahmadu Bello and UNN which, of course, was closed down because of the Civil War and we had the University of Benin, which was just coming up. Just ABU and Unilag really offered engineering.
We came to the Niger Dams as pupil engineers; we had done all the theoretical thing in the university and you needed the practical before you could become a full fledged engineer. So my pupillage training was done in Niger Dams Authority for the first stupulated two years.
At the end of it, the World Bank then looked at the two corporations, the NDA and the ECN and then recommended that the two be merged and that was what brought about NEPA, National Electric Power Authority. It was the merger of Electricity Corporation of Nigeria and the Niger Dams Authority that brought NEPA.
It was during the merger arrangement that an advertisement came for enlistment into the Nigerian Navy that they needed young graduate engineers whose discipline was electronic and electrical engineering and who would be further trained on weapons system.
Already because I was scared of what our fate would be as people from very small unit, (the Niger Dams) into the ECN now a big monster called NEPA, my fear was that we were going to be totally consumed and packed out of relevance (laughs). So when I then saw the Navy advertisement I applied. I even asked Seke to apply but he refused. I applied, went for the interview and I was taken. That was how I left civil life and joined the military life.
Did you experience regret after leaving the civil life for the military?
I never had any regret taking such decision. Immediately we got into the Nigerian Navy, we had the normal training and with the training, they had to take the civilianness out of you and take you into the real military life. Then I went for the weapons’ course at the Royal Naval Engineering College in Europe and I was there for about a year. It was a conversion course and my best subject was control engineering. Most of these things centred on control. An example is, you know, you have a ship, do you understand? Now you have your weapon on the ship. You have an aircraft approaching you and you have a gun to track it, and if it’s tracking, the radar will look at it, assess it – the distance, the speed – by calculation. It would do a quick assessment and when it has done all the assessments and calculations, now you want to pass information to your weapon to begin to shoot down the aircraft. Isn’t it? So what you do is that, you will now do an interpolation so that, if the aircraft is flying at 60… and you know the distance, you can quickly calculate the time of speed of your weapon and even your ship.
So you calculate the feature position of that target and so the information with the computer calculating all that and now giving the information to your weapon. So, when you fire the aircraft in this direction and in firing you know the speed of the aircraft, by the time the aircraft flies to this direction, the it will be there for the bullet to meet its target.
All the timings, the dynamics, the calculations that are involved, we call it the computer-aided analysis. So that was my own background and that was my specialisation in the military. Then, of course, after we joined the Navy, first thing was the weapons and then the torpedoes. You had the surface-to-air, surface-to-surface.
All these missiles came while we were just growing up (in the military) and I must confess that I owe this country a lot because I was trained! I was given the best of training in this country, best military training. So my bias has always been with the Navy. I am Navy and Navy is me; because whatever I have done, even what I’m doing now, that is the opportunity the nation gave me as a freight farer.
I went to best of Naval colleges: I went to the Royal Naval Engineering College, I went to the US Naval War College and the course in the college gives you all the exposures to real naval life. You know in America, you have three categories of Navy: the deep sea Navy, the other which is just a little patrol around your government fallow water links and the other. You know, deep sea Navy means you go ocean-wide, worldwide. It used to be number one in the maritime world.
And then, I did a lot of weapons system trainings in Holland and I spent many years there. That’s the basic training for weapons system. Of course I did a lot of trainings on weapons. For a long time, I was just being trained all over Europe. I remember my first child was asked: “Who is daddy?” And he said, “Daddy is the one who is always travelling.”
Then it was during that period that I was fortunate to have non-regimental posting to (old) Ondo State as Military Governor when Ekiti was still under Ondo State and later on I was at the Villa and then I found myself back in the civil world.
How did you meet Chief Olusegun Obasanjo?
I never knew I would be jumping into politics and politics also came by pure chance. I was in exile enjoying myself and all that until Baba (Obasanjo) was ill. Baba’s wife, the late Stella, was my very close person. I was part of all the marriage celebrations and all that. I knew Baba, more, through her and when I was in exile in London, they came and I took them out for dinner and so on. Baba had just been released from prison then and I think he travelled to England to also thank all those leaders who were of help to him while he was in prison.
Then he told me that, “Look, Nigerians are coming to me asking me to come and become president” and I told him that those people didn’t mean well for him. That was my first comment to him. But the next time he came to London, I was already seriously thinking about it and I concluded that he should go for it. Chief Ebenezer Babatope was there in London, Niyi Alonge was there, Yemi Ogunbiyi too was there. We had a meeting and we were talking about Nigerian politics. I came to a conclusion at that time that if they needed him, then he should go!
The country was in a state of chaos and they needed somebody very experienced, somebody who was tested, to stabilise the system and solve all those problems. So when Baba came back, I told him, “Baba I think those people meant well.” He said, “You too, you done join dem.” I said no sir, that it was good. And I really meant it.
Then I gave him the parting shot that, “If at the end of the day you make up your mind that you are going to run with all those people, I will come and join you.” He said, “You? Aloku soldier!” meaning old soldier. I said, “Yes, I will come.” And that was how I came back from exile because then, he later made up his mind and it was when he was going to talk about it with other people that I arrived, right at the meeting, and I didn’t know that AIT was going to broadcast that meeting as a live programme. So people saw me there and they said, so I was also there and it was there they saw that I had come back to the country because they knew I was in exile.
But what led to your exile?
I was in the Villa where I served with General Abacha and General Diya as Principal Staff Officer. I didn’t like the way I was retired because it was heavy politics and I mean heavy politics. I was disadvantaged as a Yoruba man. This is all history now but just for a mention, let me say that we had a general meeting where (MKO) Abiola was discussed. My good friend, General Tajudeen Olanrewaju, who was then Minister of Communications, was not at the council meeting that day.
They must have sent him somewhere on national assignment and at the meeting, some people were condemning Abiola. We made our comments and, gba gba gba, they emptied the barrel (I was fired). I remember I told General Diya as my parting shot that, “Ti won ba ti yogi leyin ogba, ogba awo” (when pillars are removed from behind the fence, it collapses) and I said to him that I wished him the best and I left.
My father was still alive that time and when I came home to tell him that they had fired me, he said, “Quickly now, go and pack your things and come back home!” You could still remember the tension because there was so much tension at that time. That was the time of the arrest of some top military officers and my impression was that, “Ha, the cleansing has come” (laughs). If you look at the situation at that time, you would know that yes, this is the new Southern cleansing and they were talking about Abiola and they said there was coup; there was no coup and all that. I said, “heh!” I packed my things and left the country. I remember I told my wife that, “If you don’t go and pack your things and come here, you better go and look for another husband.” I remember also as principal staff officer that any time Baba visited the villa, I was all over the the place trying to get appointment for him to see either General Abacha or General Diya. The details will come later in my memoirs.
But the Oputa Panel set up by the same Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, when he became President, recommended that those generals punished with the so called Diya coup be compensated, apologised to and that all their military rights be restored to them…
(cuts in) You see, let’s leave that to another heavy debate…
(cuts in again) But the disgusting aspect of it is that nothing has been done about the generals’ matter. Why do you think it is so?
We have written what we can write. Is it up to 25 years now? No and so, like the Americans would say, it is still in the hot plate. It is still classified and so by the time it is de-classified, all the details will come out to full fledge public domain.
But for now, you know, on both sides, people have been hurt and the best thing to do is to do the palliatives to calm nerves. We pray that God will give them good health to live up to that time because the personnel are all still alive.
You can see now what people are talking about late Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu; it is over 25 years. So it is ripe to now de-classify, open up all the details and allow the younger generation to learn about their country. So if you say this too early, you may be getting into classified official information.
Why did you describe your posting as military governor of old Ondo State as non-regimental posting and how did President Ibrahim Babangida at that time arrive at that posting?
I called it a non-regimental post because, as a soldier, you don’t have any say about your appointment. If you are lucky you may be consulted when you get to a certain rank but you must be like a general and they tell you that, “We are going to do this” so that you can prepare your mind for it. As a matter of fact, it was my driver who heard that I was appointed military governor of old Ondo State.
Who are you to say no? It’s not a regimental post like in the Navy where they would just say you would be taken from one ship and be on the shores or you are appointed a director and so on. And when the day they would remove you comes, they would remove you and that is all!