…Recalls circumstances leading to his conviction by military tribunal
By Demola Akinyemi
FORMER Director General of the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, Colonel Peter Obasa (retd), at 81 is agonising over his unpaid gratuities and pensions 35 years after his compulsory retirement from service.
In this interview with Demola Akinyemi in his Ilorin residence, the octogenarian was moved to tears when he shared his trials experience, life after retirement, among several others.
Obasa who chronicled his travails in a biography titled ‘House of Exile’ also insisted that he was not guilty of all the allegations against him that sent him to prison during the military administration of Muhammadu Buhari and pleaded with President Buhari, for help.
How has it been since you came out of jail, or should we say after retirement?
I must say very interesting. Very interesting in the sense that I believe in one true God and He protects you all round. That is what has made life interesting for me. Even when in detention, I didn’t notice the passage of time. Let me tell you in all honesty, I was very free and I had a peace of mind that the world cannot give you. I missed my family at home but the Lord that I relied on kept assuring me that my family was alright and if you know that your family is alright, you don’t have to worry too much and you can see Him taking care of you.
Who took care of you in detention?
There were people who came and took care of me from outside but the prison officers were very good. So I think God used them and other people to take care of me. After exit from the prison, I came out and very interesting too, a friend of mine came and gave me a ticket and five thousand pounds to go to UK that I should go and rest there for sometime .
So I travelled to the UK. He gave me hotel accommodation and paid for it. I was there for four weeks during which period he discussed with me what I would do. I didn’t have any plans and I didn’t have any savings. They took all my money including my savings. My salaries and everything, they called all of them kickbacks and they took them away. Believe me, public officers are still accepting gifts and not all gifts are kickbacks and they called everything I had including my savings kickbacks.
They took everything I from me. So, my friend asked me, what do you want to do?. I said I don’t have a plan, the only thing I know I tried to do was to set up a bakery here in Ilorin. I was also interested in a motor trade .I said if I had something like 30 thousand pounds, I would buy at least four cars from the UK and ship them to Nigeria and sell them at a profit. So he said, you can start your oven at home but on the UK side, I will sponsor what we want to do in UK.
I started by buying used cars and bringing them home through Tin can island in Lagos. It wasn’t too difficult to clear them. They were very good cars. You know people there use their cars very well. They might be old, but they were still serviceable. I was doing very well. I can quite recollect that there were cars on which I made close to N400,000 on a single car. I was going to UK very frequently because the turnover was very high. But then, things turned round when smugglers started going through to Cotonou to bring cars into Nigeria and they sold at prices that I could not sell my own. I used to bring my cars through the custom and paid my dues. So, I realised I could no longer effectively perform in the motor trade. So, I went into bringing in used refrigerators. Again, that was very lucrative. I would load the containers with refrigerators that were used for only three years for ten pounds. Some you could buy for 5 pounds and they were very good fridges that some people had used for not more than six months. There is one refrigerator in my house that I bought; I have been using it for 20 years now. So, I was selling refrigerators and I was doing well.
It got to a stage that Ibo chaps would come and purchase my refrigerators with the containers at the port and after I would go back to the UK from there. But later the military administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo came and said we shouldn’t use fridges that were used on CFC, (Cloro floro carbon) that it was depleting the atmosphere. So, the fridge trade also dropped. If you have to buy a new fridge and a new refrigerant in it, you could not be buying them for 5 or 10 pounds or 15 pounds, it was very expensive. So, I found that all my lines of trade or enterprise were truncated and, I was more or less stranded.
But my friend in the UK who had been supporting me, he too had some problems .He bought certain things for government and the total cost was a billion naira and till now, they did not pay him. So, I had a down trend in my businesses.
I decided to look inwards to see what I could do. People around were very helpful and they gave me a several business options that I could do. Until, it got to a point that I couldn’t run around anymore. And my children took over particularly one of my children who had been supporting me all along. More or less like the Yoruba man would say “mo n jeun omo “ meaning I’m eating the fruit of my labour.
Why did it take you this long before agitating for your pensions?
Early in 2003, I approached the Army and gave them the federal government Gazette that I want my gratuity and pension. I showed them the photocopy of the gazette. They said I should bring the original. I went to the National Library and begged the librarian to give me the original. So, what he did was to photocopy the entire Gazette and put that back in his folder and he gave me the original.
I took the original to Abuja and gave them. At that point they said I should write to the president to pardon me. I said to pardon me for what? They said that I was dismissed from the Army because I was jailed by the tribunal. So, the next thing is to ask for pardon and I said you don’t ask for a pardon for an offence you didn’t commit.
My conscience clears me because I didn’t commit any offence. In any case , this is the Gazette publication that says I’m compulsorily retired, not dismissed. In this same publication, there are dismissed officers .Voluntary retirement, dismissal, and compulsory retirement. They are all here (pointing to the book) if I was dismissed, the Gazette would have said dismissed.
But it said compulsory retirement. With compulsory retirement, I’m entitled to all my pensions and gratuities .That is the regulation. They told me that I was dismissed and I needed to write the president for pardon.
But I said, with dismissal, the army withdraws certain things from you .You cannot use your rank. They withdraw your ceremonial dress, they withdraw your mess kits, they withdraw your service suits and then they withdraw your officers’ sword. When these four things are withdrawn, it shows that you are no longer able to use your rank and ex whatever.
But I still have all these items with me. I’m not ex, I’m retired, they are arguing on dismissal. If there was a dismissal the Gazette would have published it. So, if the federal government official organ says you are retired, you are retired and in any case, everything under the federal government is subject to the federal government. When you publish something and the federal government publishes a different thing, the Gazette takes precedent above every other thing.
Federal might is saying this is what we are going to do, and in any case, if there was a dismissal, I would have been given a letter. But I don’t have a letter to tell me I was dismissed.
Could you recall the issues leading to your retirement 35 years ago?
I just finished my tour as the Director in National Youths Corps scheme, now it is called Director- General, that was January 2,1984 that was when I left the scheme.
Did you leave the scheme or you were retired?
No, that was when I left the scheme, my posting to the place was in 1979 and I served four years and three months. That was when my tenure expired because they had actually sent someone to take over from me. After leaving, I was posted to Army School of Education, in Ojo cantonment Lagos. I was there from January till July same 1984.
It was in July 1984 that they accused me of financial impropriety that when I was the director, certain things happened and they set up a panel to look at what happened. It was in July 3, 1984 that the Special Investigation Panel (SIP) officers came to my house and invited me to their office.
There I saw Mr. Ismaila Gwarzo, he was Assistant Inspector General of Police then. He was chairman of the SIP. He told me that I have been detained by the Chief of Staff Supreme Military Council, SMC, the governing council then. I was detained in Ikoyi, and a week later they showed me some documents and I asked to comment.
What were the documents about?
The documents looked to me like contracts that had been awarded by the National Youths Service Corps and that was what I said, but that I would not know who authorized the contracts, that I would not know who the contracts were awarded to, that for the four years and three months that I was there I did not know any contractor.
The contractors were patronized by the youth corps. When they brought these documents they did not tell me that whatever you say would be used against you in trial, that you have the option to remain silent, nothing of that nature.
Secondly, when I started writing my explanation they said do not write on the first two lines that I should leave the first two lines vacant and that I should start writing from the third line. I did not know what the purpose was. Later I discovered that they wrote on the two vacant lines that his rights were read to him and he decided to make statement.
That was very crude and wicked. For that one, I said may God would punish them because I was very bitter. Not that I’m happy that God punishes anybody but why could they be so wicked?
Do you have any idea what prompted this treatment?
I do not know, it is like ambushing somebody.
Did you step on some powerful toes?
I didn’t to my knowledge. Again, it was impossible because while I was in the youth service I did not turn down any request by my colleagues in the military, they were all treated. They extracted some statements from me under duress and sometimes they suggested things.
There was a particular time after these statements had been made, then they said they saw money in my account and sent someone to me, that look colonel, we know you didn’t award contracts, that you didn’t have anything to do with contracts but this money in your account, let us share it and we would allow you to go. I said haba, that should not happen, let us tell the truth and let the truth defend itself. I said if you are going to court lets go I didn’t even know that they were going to a tribunal.
I said I’m not sharing any money with them, that they should we should go and see through the case and the truth will defend itself. But unfortunately the way the tribunal was set up with particular reference to all the issues surrounding its establishment and promulgation, the truth could not defend itself. First and foremost, the laws were backdated for three years, and in essence it means that what you did three years ago, which was legal, three years later, they were decreed into illegality.
Secondly, the tribunal was set up by the SMC. The members were members of SMC they were the people who would judge you and punish you. They accused you, they judged you and they punished you. No, there must always be separation of powers. But the SMC accused you, judged you and punished you, that was wrong. At that time the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, condemned the action and asked its members not to appear before the tribunal to defend anybody, to show how badly constituted everything was and how illegal the whole setup was.
What was the outcome of the tribunal?
The tribunal concluded that I was guilty of taking kickbacks. I documented everything about the tribunal and my family in this my new book. I have a witness that says it in very clear terms on page 28 of the book. Quoting from the book…”Mr Olalere Omiyale the Chief Accountant of the NYSC in 1983 during his trial said several things worth reporting here.
In The National Concord of June 5 1987, it reported him saying that he refused to collude with Mr. Orinowo, a contractor, and Folorusho Kila, assistant director in-charge of finance and administration, to allege that Obasa solely awarded all contracts . He even referred to me as a true Christian and a gentleman.
Then, here comes a Newspaper of 12th July 1987. The publication however added that the director did not award contracts .He said all the contracts were approved by the Assistant director or people authorized by him and he named the people as Oreyemi, the Chief administrative officer and Babatunde Babajide, an Assistant administrative officer .Omiyale further told the tribunal that he had no evidence to show that the director of the NYSC knew anything about the contract.
This is the Chief accountant of the institution who is saying this about somebody .He is the person who dispensed the money out. He knew how the things went and this was what he told the tribunal during his own trial. Despite all of that, they said I was guilty and they said they sentenced me and I told them that there were many mysterious elements in my case and the mystery would unravel with time. That was what I told them in 1984 and the chairman of the tribunal echoing my prediction said indeed there were mysterious elements in my case.
Who was the chairman of the tribunal?
It was General Paul Omu, he said he couldn’t understand why an officer would have operated for three years like an angel .Three years, no fault, nothing and then in the fourth year, he turn round to be receiving kickbacks. I said they would unravel with time and the time has come to state the truth and let the world know what transpired in 1984. Let the world decides whether what the tribunal said about me was true or not. This is my own account in the HOUSE OF EXILE of the tribunal. The statement of the tribunal, everything that transpired in the tribunal and then my own submission.
How many years jail term were you sentenced to?
The thing was a kind of rigmarolling and they said that there was no right to appeal . It was 20 something years. I can’t remember now.
But I have never taken the whole thing seriously for one reason . When General Ibrahim Babangida became the president and the appeal tribunal said I didn’t appear before the tribunal, only my lawyer went there and the documents were what the tribunal used to do a review.
I thought that was a lopsided something. If there was going to be a review, somebody should be able to present fresh evidence…and we couldn’t present anything . So, the new tribunal said I was guilty and they reduced everything to 14 years.
But I said I didn’t take it seriously because I had a belief in one God and I believe that God, He protects and protects completely .He doesn’t protect you left and leave your right unshielded .He doesn’t protect your front and leave your back vacant .
He protects you all round. That is what the Lord has done for me. I don’t know whether the world wants to believe it or not but I have seen it happen to me. This is 1984 we are talking about, and this is 2019. It is 35 years ago when I said there were mysteries and the mystery would unravel with time.
Has the mystery been unraveled?
Yes it has, it is here(pointing at the book]