By Rotimi Fasan
IT’S now about a week since former Chief of Army Staff, Ishaya Bamaiyi, presented his memoir to the public. This book I have not read but the bits that have been reported of excerpts from it are enough to give one a sense of what the general wanted to achieve with it. To hear Gen. Bamaiyi’s name mentioned in the media was like a call from the dead. I was immediately flung back to a terrible time from the past. His was a prominent name from the dark days of the Sani Abacha years, I thought, and I wondered what the news was about him this time. As I mulled over what his name might be doing in the media I also wondered which of the Bamaiyis the report was about. Was it the older or younger one?
Nigerians must remember that the Bamaiyis, Musa and Ishaya, were brothers who rose to the enviable ranks of generals in the army. Musa, the older one who was a Major general, became prominent as a dreaded former Chair of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). His heavy mustache and very dark complexion gave him a severe and forbidding look. It was the look some of us from the South have come to associate with military men, specifically, soldiers and army personnel, from the north: dark, brooding and uncommunicative. These are the kind of soldiers, the imagined, barely literate ‘godogodo’, you encounter at checkpoints during riots or general mayhem and breakdown in public order. Even though Musa, by his own account, brought Ishaya into the army, Ishaya would later become his boss both as Lieutenant general and Chief of Army Staff. Ishaya in this capacity did not appear to have treated his older sibling nicely.
The bitter feud between them, which was apparently never resolved before the death of Musa several years ago, would complicate the story of the younger Bamaiyi, his exact person and role in the debacle that followed the death of Abacha in June 1998 and MKO Abiola a month after. But I’m here getting ahead of my account. The point is that Ishaya Bamaiyi is something of a Neanderthal man in the political sense. He had, given his role in the military era, long been consigned into oblivion and ostracised from what, for want of a better description, one might call decent or respectable military company. This point was in some sense underlined by the fact that of the most senior military men around today Gen. Yakubu Gowon is perhaps the only one who still sees eye to eye with Bamaiyi. This would appear to be more on account of Gowon’s own mild temperament than anything in Bamaiyi’s character. Always the gentleman, Gowon assumed the persona of a peace maker long after he left power and took on the self-appointed role of chair of Nigeria Prays. It’s clear that Gowon in his “no-winner-no-vanquished” way would have chaired, as he has done on many occasions, similar events by those former military leaders Bamaiyi now considers enemies.
It was therefore Bamaiyi’s book that brought him back to public memory. He would be lucky if the reception he gets from this outing is near favourable. The man’s revisionist agenda cannot be missed even from the little published so far from his ‘apologia’. There is, by the way, nothing wrong with revision once that is honestly done and admitted to. There is even nothing wrong with rehabilitation which is the primary purpose of this book. Ishaya Bamaiyi surely wants to rehabilitate himself since nobody, not any among his contemporaries, or juniors like Hamza Al Mustapha, the former Chief Security Officer of Abacha, appears ready to cut him a slack. But it amounts to a little bit of overreaching when a man yet to clear the cloud of suspicion in which he is enveloped chooses to dance in self-congratulation as Bamaiyi appears bent on doing with this book. This can be seen right from the title- The Vindication of a General. What kind of vindication is Mr. Bamaiyi excited about here? Is it vindication from suspicion/accusation of vaulting ambition to be head of state, or alleged complicity in the murder of political opponents?
Bamaiyi came into prominence or notoriety (choose which you will) in those years of Sani Abacha when Nigeria plumbed the depth of ignominy, a time the country fell to the very bottom in national and international reckoning. And Bamaiyi was hardly an innocent player in the shameful saga of the truncation of a people’s will and state terror that brought this about. One is hard put to recall any act of support for the people’s democratic aspirations by Bamaiyi at this time. He was a hawk who showed his hands in dark, spooky schemes that only worsened the pain that was Abacha’s despotism. To hear him place himself beside MKO Abiola, or talk glibly about how the man was betrayed by his associates in the anti-military coalition, while the likes of Bamaiyi (playing Pilate?) tried to midwife the country back to democracy, is quite an effort at revisionism. Some of us remember the narrative differently.
There are a couple of silences, deliberate gaps, in Bamaiyi’s account of how the country was returned to civil governance. Space would not permit any elaboration here. But hear this: “When Gen. Abubakar took over, he and I had discussion about the military and how Nigerians hated it. We agreed we should make a clean break by ensuring the next president would be someone without a military background….I was later told that …others involved wanted someone from the South-West, which did not make any sense to me. I stood for an open election for Nigerians to decide who ruled them (my emphasis).” Why did it not make sense to Bamaiyi that an easy way to resolve the lockjam created by the annulment of the June 12 election, presumably won by a Yoruba man after many years of Hausa-Fulani leadership, was to concede the presidency to the South-west? The answer to that is part of the silence in Bamaiyi’s recount of events.
He gives a clear hint of the self-interest that characterised the intervention of military leaders at the critical period preceding and immediately after Abacha’s death. He talks of Abubakar’s desire to be head of state. But he does not mention his own blinding, even murderous ambition to succeed Abacha, a fact that apparently pitched him against Al Mustapha his fellow vendor of self-aggrandizing tales. Like Al Mustapha’s accounts (through which he virtually turned the Oputa Panel into a stage for amateurish displays of supposed insider knowledge), Bamaiyi’s book provides no new or important insight. What it seems to have is an abundance of conspiracy tales that are many years behind time.