August 11, 2019

EL-ZAKZAKY: How we saved Chief of Army Staff when Shi’ites struck — NDA Commandant

Adeniyi Oyebade

• Alleges IMN has history of crises
• ‘We’ve infused current security challenges into curriculum’
• Recounts moments in battlefield

By Ben Agande

Major General Adeniyi Oyebade is the Commandant of Nigerian Defence Academy, NDA. Oyebade was the General Officer Commanding, GOC, 1 Division, when the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, IMN, clashed with the entourage of the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, in Zaria. In this interview with Sunday Vanguard, he explains that he neutralised the threat posed by the IMN to the Army Chief during the incident. He also talks about his career.

Adeniyi Oyebade

Adeniyi Oyebade

When the history of General Oyebade would be written, one thing that cannot be left out is the fact that you were the GOC when there was a bloody encounter with the IMN otherwise known as Shi’ite. Looking back, do you think there was something you would have done differently?

I do not think so. Every general is sufficiently enlightened to know existential threats in the polity. The issue of the IMN was not peculiar because the military and all security agencies had been grappling with all sorts of criminality, and extremism. I had a good knowledge of the IMN even before that incidence. The IMN had a documented history of crises and breach of people’s rights among others. When that unfortunate incident that threatened the life of our Chief of Army Staff occurred, I had to make sure that it did not escalate into a major threat not just to the people in Zaria but the entire Northwest. To me, there was nothing peculiar to that operation. Our mandate, direction, and mission were very clear: Make sure that all lethal weapons held by any group were cleared. The incident took the military aback. It was a shocker for me. The boldness with which the IMN confronted the military to endanger the lives of our troops and the assassination attempt on the life of the Chief of Army Staff was shocking. We don’t take that lightly because any threat to the head of any security agency is a direct threat to the security architecture of this country. How do you explain that a service chief was killed? Nobody will understand. We did everything we could to ensure that it didn’t escalate the way it did but the threat was too glaring. A soldier was killed and many were injured but we knew that we could not back down until we took out those weapons. We recovered several dangerous weapons. I believe the federal government is handling it.

With the turn of events especially the increasingly violent nature of protests by the IMN, do you feel vindicated that you acted the way you did?

I don’t want to see it as General Oyebade’s operation. It was a military operation. I just happened to be the GOC on the ground. Any other GOC worthy of his calling would have done whatever it took to ensure peace and security in his area of responsibility. With the benefit of hindsight and with the foreknowledge of the IMN, what has happened over the last few months reconfirmed what we already knew about the IMN. For me, it was clear. It was not a personal thing. We abided by our rules of engagement and we did it professionally. We acted within our rules of engagement and we saved thousands of lives. If you want to know the truth, go to Zaria and ask questions. They will tell you the history that dates back to over thirty years. But that was not our concern at the time. Our concern was that there was a serious threat to the lives and properties in Zaria. Aside the threat to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff, nobody could have allowed that to happen.

To what extent have you infused the current security challenges into the syllabus of the institution?

Every training is geared towards meeting the security challenges that we face. When I was appointed as the commandant, I had just left as the General Officer Commanding one Division. I had a very good understanding of the challenges that the military was facing. Coming here has allowed me to bring in my experiences in the training of the cadets. When I came here, we did a review of our curriculum and those aspects that are still relevant to our operations were kept and those we thought were outdated were discarded. We expanded our counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency training, anti-kidnapping and anti-banditry training. We brought realism into our exercises. We expanded our media training so that cadets will be able to handle the media during operations. We have done a lot of reviews.

Did you join the army because you were passionate about it or because you were looking for a guaranteed means of livelihood?

I do not think that a young man of 18 years had an idea of how to earn money. What I wanted to do was just to get busy. When I left secondary school, what I wanted to be was a lawyer but as fate had it, my result wasn’t released early enough by the West African Examination Council , WAEC. It was too late for me to apply for Law. I had to wait for another year. My mother decided that while waiting for the year to lapse, she had to get me busy. A company in Lagos employed me as a clerk, even though I was more like an errand boy. It was while I was there that I saw an advertisement in the newspapers calling for admission into the Nigerian Defence Academy.

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I recalled that when I was in my final year in secondary school, some Army officers came to secondary schools in Lagos to talk about the NDA. Many people were not interested but I decided to give it a shot. I had the forms, went for the exams and the rest, as they say, is now history. It was destiny that guided me. I didn’t set out to be in the Army but the moment I stepped into the NDA, I knew that this was where I ought to be.

What was your most remarkable moment as a cadet?

If you ask any officer, they will tell you that all they wanted to do was just to get out of the place because it was tough, rigorous and challenging. I almost gave up but I asked myself, what will tell people back home? I had packed my bags to leave NDA. I was just waiting for an opportunity to jump the fence and leave when I had a second thought. What will be doing? What will I tell my friends who had organised a party for me and were already calling me a “general”? I dropped my bag and went back determined as ever to remain and endure the training. After that incident, I was determined to stay and I put all my heart into it.

Did it cross your mind that one day you will be a commandant of this same institution?

I do not think there is anybody who can say with all certainty that he is going to be this or that in the future. Of course, we all have our dreams but you never can tell. Looking back, some of my course mates died as young officers, and others died right after we left the NDA. I had been declared dead in combat while Liberia during the ECOMOG operations. At the back of your mind, there is a desire to want to be a big shot in the military but you can’t say definitely what you will be. Having risen to the rank that I am now and the progression that I have made, it is not something that I could have predicted. Over a hundred of us came into the NDA but we are just two who are left in the Army.

You have risen through the ranks to have become a proud, battle-tested infantry General. What was it like the first time you were under live fire?

The first time I was under fire was in Liberia. I had just been promoted Captain and was deployed to Liberia in 1991. I was the Acting Commanding Officer and I was deployed deep inside the jungle of Bo Waterside. Right in front of my deployment was the rebel organisation led by Charles Taylor. We had some clashes and that was my first baptism. It was scary but we got used to it and were able to wade through the storm.

My second tour of duty in Liberia was very bloody. I was shot and wounded. We had to fight our way for several days out of rebel entrapment in the jungle. We were young, vibrant and daring. Looking back, it was a baptism of fire but then, that is what the profession is all about.

Did you find any difference between what you were taught at the Defence Academy and what you saw on the field of battle?

The training in NDA is just foundational. It prepares you for possible combats when you leave NDA. What we try to do and as it was then was to ensure that cadets have sufficient tactical training so that they when they graduate, they should be able to function as platoon commanders. We had that training. And with further exposure to tactical level trainings, we were prepared for what we saw and to carry out our responsibilities.

You trained when the country was under military rule. Did you look forward to being given civilian positions too?

For me, I have never desired to be anything other than being a military officer. As cadets, we never had experience of democracy but I never desired or nursed a thought that I would be anything outside being a military officer. I just love being with and commanding my troops. I just love being a professional soldier.

What is your dream for the NDA?

My dream for the NDA is not far from the mandate the founding fathers of the institution created. It is a training ground for young officers to be effectively and efficiently trained to lead the armed forces of the future as military commanders. My desire is to make sure that, given the prevailing security challenges, we must ensure that at the NDA produces cadets who are sufficiently and professionally trained to carry out their duties and to be subordinate to democratic authorities. That is our mandate.

As a military officer who is trained to kill, how many people have you killed in the course of your service?

People have the misconception that the military is there just to kill. No! We defend our country. We are trained to defend our people. We are not killers. As a father, if there is a direct threat to your family, and you took whatever action that you needed to take to defend your family and in the course of that, those who attacked you are killed, do you consider yourself a killer? The military operation is not about killing. It is about protection. The killing is not the way you put it. If there is a direct threat to the country, we must defend the country and its people. In the course of doing that we manage violence. And in the course of managing violence that is offered by the adversary, anything could happen.

Many people think that military officers love women. Does that apply to you?

Like every young man, not just in the military, you have admirers but you must be disciplined. People have the misconception that military men are randy. It is not true. Military men are responsible family men. I have been married for more than 30 years to my wife. Does that make me randy?

People generally believe that for anybody to gain admission into the NDA, the person’s father must be a general or the person must be highly connected. How true is that?

That is not true but I can understand why people say that. When it comes to the military, it is not just about earning pay. It is about somebody who understands clearly that the job that he chose is a job of life and death. This year alone, in the quest of defending our country and people, we lost young officers who left the academy barely three years ago. Some have been wounded. They paid the supreme price for the unity of this country. It is not something we take lightly. The military is a formidable bastion of the defence of the unity of this country.

We welcome people to the academy. We are looking forward to taking the next batch of young boys and girls. It is a national army that is why every tribe, every religion, and every faith is well represented in the army. We have taken a step further to ensure that if there is any tribe that we identify as not being represented in the army, we will look for that tribe and take them in. We have female cadets and they are doing well and we are looking forward to taking more.

What do you want to be remembered for when you leave NDA?

I think it is for the people I have led and the people who found me worthy to be the commandant at this time to assess me. My job is to make sure that I improve on what we are doing and ensure that the best officer cadet leaves this NDA as a professional. Once I achieve that, it is left for those who put me here and those that I lead to decide how they want to remember me.