IBB tells his civil war story, 50 years after
How to deepen reintegration ‘
Speaks on the problem with Operation Amotekun
By Chris Onuoha
Former military President, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida (IBB) (ret.), fought on the side of Nigeria during the civil war and went on to lead the country for 15 years later. In this interview, IBB speaks, among other issues, on the aftermath of the armed rebellion as the country marks 50 years of the end of the Biafran war.
There were various issues during and after the war. Can you recall the events of the war itself?
I was a very young officer trying to become a captain in the Nigerian Army then. When the war broke out, I was away in the United Kingdom for training which lasted for a short time. When I came back, I was posted to the 1 Division of the Nigerian Army and I served with people from other parts of the country. And, suddenly, when the war broke, we discovered that we were in a war fighting one another. I can recall some of my very good colleagues as we faced each other during the war. One of them died. Someone who trained with me at India Military Academy, and, suddenly, in July 1967, we faced each other fighting. It was a very horrible and pathetic experience for me as a young officer then.
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What went through your mind when you were asked to fight?
It just showed how things could go wrong in the running of a country. There had been civil disturbances. Immediately after independence, elections were not going properly and there were riots in various parts of the country. These culminated into the civil war. The leadership at that time believed very strongly that nothing should be done to break the unity of the country and we were all trained to defend the integrity of the country. So, any effort to disintegrate Nigeria we will resist it because of the training and political indoctrination we had had.
Were you relieved when the war was over?
Yes! It was a great relief. I was somewhere in Okigwe when my Commander, General T.Y. Danjuma, came and broke the news that the war was over. Immediately after that, on my front, there was a colleague that trained with me in the Nigerian Army in Kaduna who I really wanted to meet and shake hands with. He eventually turned up and we greeted, and he, jokingly, said: “So, Ibrahim, it is you fighting me.” And I responded, “Amos, are you still the one fighting me too?” We had every reason to thank God that we were alive.
In the aftermath of the war, the government of General Gowon put in place a reconciliation process to ease the pains. You were part of it. What was the thinking behind that and what was it meant to achieve?
Well, I think we were informed enough to know that quite a number of countries went through civil wars and, immediately after the Nigeria civil war, we came back and settled down to integrate people into the mainstream of the society. This is what was in our mind but, fortunately, our Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, came up with the three Rs (Reconciliation, rehabilitation and reintegration). He was a passionate believer in the unity of the country. So, having finished the war, when he said; “No Victor, No Vanquished,” we quickly began to adjust to remain as parts of Nigeria.
What was the state of the military at that time?
It was small in size then. When we started, the military was not more than five battalions and not up to 10,000 troops. But by the time the war was over, it was up to 250,000 because of the obvious mobilization. From 10,000 to 250,000, the immediate problem was to reorganize the army to a manageable size, cohesive and properly oriented for the purpose of building a stronger nation.
And we are still talking about the unity of the country…
We saw it. There was an article of faith among the people of my generation. Nobody would want to see the country go into another civil war or disintegrate because that will be unfair to those who put their lives on the line and died for the purpose of keeping the country as one. If we let it go, we will not fair to them. Millions of people were killed, maimed or permanently disabled.
Are you satisfied with how far we have come along the road?
I think I am. Again if you compare other countries that went through civil war, you will find out that we have done well indeed because the war finished in 1970; we had military government and civilian government thereafter. The military was in power from 1966 to 1979 before the civilian administration came up again. We had another military government from 1983 till we handed over to civilian government. We have succeeded in keeping the civilian administration in place. This is all thanks to the military with the determination to install a democratically elected government in the country.
Many of the post-civil war policies like the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), Unity Schools were designed to bring about cohesion. And there are issues of Nigerians not seeing themselves first as ethnic groups but as Nigerians. If you look at those schemes now, was that objective largely achieved?
To a certain extent, I think we succeeded, especially with the NYSC programme, because most of the people who participated in the scheme were graduates of universities and other tertiary institutions. They were intelligent and well read enough to know about what happened and were able to go through the history of the country. For the generation from 1973 till now, they are mostly very strong believers in the unity of this country. That is one thing that has succeeded. And then, at the secondary school level, students were taught about the country, about the civil war to a certain extent. So they grew up with history in their minds about the country. I think it was good for the country.
Nigeria has moved on from the civil war. And there have been inter-marriages with many of the children born after 1970 of the two parents coming from different parts of the country. If the Nigerian people have since then moved on, why is government emphasising national unity?
Old habits die hard as people say. Environment changes. There has been this tendency to recline and go back to old habits. If you suddenly find yourselves, let’s say in politics, we didn’t have what I will call the orientation about what politics is all about. The country is fighting to remain united. We didn’t do much indoctrinating our people through political interaction. The moment we re-introduced politics, the first thing that came to our minds was what the political parties and systems used to be before the civil war. I saw that as a starting point. And when we see that, you could hardly change it.
Rwanda had genocide in 1994. After that, the government that came to power recognised that there are no Hutus or Tutsis, that everybody is one, backed by law. Do you think that could work here?
In the case of Rwanda, I will say that it is leadership. They believe very strongly in their country. That happens with other countries and, therefore, they would like to see their countries united like other people who had this kind of problem of tribal war. It is the leadership that could change such environment.
You don’t believe that drastic measures could work here?
Rwanda has a strong leadership at the state and national levels. I think we should be able to do that here too.
You have been a leader in this country. People who look in from the outside think that it is easier to do things than when you go in. With over 500 ethnic groups with different languages and cultures, and yet led by one person, what was your experience then?
I think a leader should have supporters who believe strongly in what he is trying to do. We tried it, just like the example I gave earlier about the NYSC, military schools among others, but I think we didn’t push it hard. We should have pushed it harder so that people from different parts of the country can sit and say “we met at unity school together”. These are people from different parts of the country who will have no problem interacting. If I went to school with you, or maybe my (former) classmates are in Lagos, I may have no problem going to Lagos because I know all of them are there. That also goes with the NYSC or going to the university together. I think we are a bit slack in that aspect.
One of the things put in place to ensure coexistence in Nigeria was the selection of Abuja as the federal capital; it was conceived as a place which does not belong to any indigene or a settler. You actually effected that movement in 1991. Do you think it worked?
I think it did. Don’t forget that the idea was conceived around 1976 by Murtala Muhammed. He had the vision because of the sheer size of the country. He wanted to keep the country as one so that everyone has something they can call their own. I think the idea was good. Those of us that came after Murtala Muhammed believed very strongly that the vision was right for this country. And so, we pursued it including the former civilian regime of Alhaji Shehu Shagari which tried to make it work even if it was symbolically a military vision.
Some people believe the Nigerian military is more united than the country because the military comprises representatives from different ethnic groups. How does that sound to you?
The thinking is correct. You can’t convince me for example that this country should break. I wouldn’t talk to you for a long time if you tell me that, because I know people died while trying to keep the country as one. My generation always insists that this country should remain one. They fought for it; they know the consequences of war. We know the pains people went through. The little we have to give is to try to keep the country one. It is not too much a demand on us to try to keep the country together.
But at this point, our national unity appears to be dicey…
Well, the reason I said that is because the whole thing depends on leadership selection. One of the things I would have loved to see is, if you want to pick a leader, you should be able to assess him based on his thought about the unity of the country. The unity, will he jeopardize it, or will he try to use everything within his powers legitimately to make sure that the country remains one? There are over 200 million people in this country and there are some in my generation, and the generations below me who believe in this country and to move this country in the direction of national unity. My generation is committed and we should use everything possible, apply logic, advice, talks, just to make sure that the country remains united.
Talking about the military and civil relations that have been contentious, the military is trained to bear arms and not to interface with civilians, but on the other hand, the military sometimes grabs power without caring about whose ox is gored.
That is the military to the core. What you said is the truth which happened immediately after the Second World War. But we are becoming more civilized, more educated in the effort to understand how the military works; that it is supposed to be obedient to a democratically elected government. I can tell you that it is only a stupid soldier that will engage in a coup d’état now, because it is no longer in their psyche, and it is no longer acceptable in Africa and the entire world. The soldier is intelligent enough to know that if he stages a coup, for example, the country will be ostracised by the comity of nations. There will be an uprising against you by the people of your own country. So it is no longer fashionable. That is how we should see the military/civil relations, and the institutions have helped a lot in doing this.
50 years after the civil war, there are people who believe the country is not yet re-integrated, that some people are marginalized. What would you like to see or could be done to hasten or deepen this process?
Our selection of leadership is the most important thing – leadership at all levels: Political, military and economic leadership. When leadership is strong and everybody in every sector believes in his country, I think there will be no problem.
Do you think that the federal character principle, also introduced to deepen our ‘Nigerianess’, has worked?
To a certain extent I think it has because it brought some sense of belonging. But you cannot carry it on to a ridiculous extent by picking a mediocre to do a job. Now, we have reached a stage where, in virtually every part of the country and in any community, there are people who are trained as professionals in every sphere of life. We cannot sacrifice quality on the altar of federal character by putting on somebody who does not qualify for a job.
What’s the latest on things that happened during your administration which you want to put in your book?
I think I learned to belong to the school of thought of Winston Churchill – he was talking of historical legacy. He said history would be fair to him because he was going to write it himself; so, maybe because I was sure of this, I will write if God is willing because I want history to be fair to me.
I know you are also a book fan of some leaders across the world, not just the contemporary ones but particularly Hannibal…
Hannibal was a very brilliant man who came immediately after the Second World War. He was very professional and charismatic. So those of us who believe in professionalism see him as a very good example. Hannibal is a good example when you talk about a tough man. The older military would say “it is not the weapon but the man behind the weapon” that solves all problems. People follow him because he is not going to lead them astray. That is the kind of characters we had at that time. But this time, we don’t need such people. We need people who can use their intellect to convince you on the right thing to do.
Security challenges in the country: The last time, you talked about the military being overstretched. Between then and now, the security challenges, depending on who you talk to, have increased, metamorphosed from one type to another. Who do you think about the state of our security?
I think a lot still needs to be done. Quite frankly, I would say if what we read in the papers and listen to on the radio is true, then there are still challenges in most of these areas where we assumed the security situation has stabilized. It is still there. Just like the case of the young governor of Borno State telling the Defense Minister that there are still few places that people can’t move within the state. I am glad he said so, because, at least, he gave the military some way of thinking. There are still challenges. What we need to do is to get a lot of equipment and information because, to me, there are people who are thinking for this group, the insurgents. When you find out the people who are thinking and using them, supplying weapons and ammunitions to them, then we should put a stop to it. That’s probably the way I assess it.
The military is still overstretched. We have to get the police to do the job. Most of the jobs the military is doing, under normal circumstances, are the jobs the police are supposed to do. The military can only step in when it has gone beyond what the police can do. And there is a process before the military can take over from the police. I think, naturally, there should be more police men to unburden the military.
South-West governors just launched a security outfit called ‘Amotekun’ and other parts of the country may launch theirs. Is this
viable when there is a national security force in place?
That’s typical Nigerian. If you say viable, I will say no, because the states are still quarrelling (with labour unions) over minimum wage; now they want to create another problem. You must equip them (security outfit), pay them salaries, give them all the welfare they need. That’s going to be a problem for the states and where are they going to get the fund? If they had succeeded in convincing the Federal Government to put up some revenue for the purpose of that venture, I can understand, but if they are thinking of footing the bill themselves, I think there will be a problem.
Do you think there will be an overlap of functions of such initiatives and the existing security forces?
What we need to do is to create a lot of security outfits: The mobile police, the National Civil Defence and Security Corps. We have them all over. I think when we assign specific responsibilities to them, it will take away the burden. Processes have to be followed because if the police can’t do it, then other forces can step in.
What do you think of the issue of regional security?
I would have loved to see more commitment at the heads of state level. What they need to do is to look at comparative advantage and say, while some countries provide tools and equipments, others that are good in communication should provide that also. Everyone should be given certain responsibilities for one objective.
What is the Nigeria of your dream?
I want to see us as a strong, prosperous and united country. We must make sure that we provide correct service, sing correct songs and indoctrinate the younger generations that there is every reason to be proud of being a Nigerian.
One big thing we should have done is to indoctrinate the young ones like you on politics because we still haven’t gotten the right mentality about politics. We had come up with two political parties but now we have about 71 of them. In the process, ballot box snatching, violence, killing and other vices (continues to be the order of the day), and, at any rate, we probably would have carried out a study about the attitude of the Nigerian. We found even after independence that we should have two political parties in the country. We formed alliances, about two or three if you put them together; in 1960, we were strong. We could have really established two parties and give room for the emergence of a third party. I think (strengthening) the political institution is what I would have loved to see and not what we have now.
• Interview first aired on Channels Television