*‘I saw children jubilating in barrack when Abacha died’
By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor
Admiral Anthony Oni(retd), retired from the Nigerian Navy as Chief of Policy and Plans, a position next to the Chief of Naval Staff in hierarchy. He is a former Flag Officer Commanding Western Naval Command. Prior to his retirement, he had acted as the Chief of Naval Staff when Admiral Samuel Afolayan voluntarily retired from service.
In this interview, Oni, who recently clocked 70, x-rays Nigeria’s security challenges, submitting that solution is not with the military but the civilian authorities. Oni, the first Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group, ECOMOG, Navy Task Force Commander in Liberia, also provides a glimpse into the high wire politics that characterised military rule, revealing why he didn’t have his career cut short in an era of military coups. He also gives an eyewitness account of the murder of then Liberian President, Samuel Doe, an incident regarded as one of the immediate causes of the seven-year-Liberian Civil War.
What does attaining 70 mean to you?
I like to celebrate my days. I noticed that many people around me attached importance to my 70th birthday. I am sure it is because 70 is a biblical age. I don’t know if I prayed to attain the age of 70 but I always prayed to get old in good health.
There is no gain in getting old without good health. I became more interested in my 70th birthday because I found out that many of my classmates, who I thought were my mates, were actually older than me. As they were clocking 70 before me, I became so much interested in attaining 70.
My 40th birthday was also eventful maybe because it was the first time I built a house of my own. I didn’t know when 50 and 60 came, though I celebrated them by playing golf. Because I am a sociable person, many looked forward to my 70th birthday but COVID-19 prevented us from having a big event.
You were in the military at the time Nigeria witnessed many military coups that led to premature retirement and death of many officers. In view of this, was there any time you were rattled by the fear of not living this long?
Apart from the coup of 1966 and 1967, others happened during the time I served in the military. I joined in December 1970 and served up to the time I retired in 2005. These were periods that it was only by luck that you may not be involved in any coup in any way.
Those were very difficult periods. I went to Liberia where we lost many officers. People died in my presence. Going to a war front changes your mind as a soldier. It also strengthens you because you watched people die while you survived. But one shouldn’t be afraid of death when it has not come. Even when death comes you should face it.
I learned this more in Liberia because I saw instances where I spoke to people who later died a few hours later. Also, religious teachings made us realise that death is not in our hands. It is only when God wishes. I was never afraid of death neither was I ever in doubt that I will get to 70.
I am just conscious of doing what would keep me safe always. I recall a coursemate of mine, who interrupted a statement I was making by asking if I was sure I would live up to 50. I dismissed his interjection and said I knew I would live. We had been in difficulties at sea and we survived them. The only thing I was scared of was getting maimed. I never prayed for that.
You have an imposing physical structure. Could that have been the reason you joined the military?
My father was serving in the Nigerian Navy. He was a paymaster in the Navy during the Civil War. He joined the Navy from the Royal Marines. I had seen military people during the Civil War but I wasn’t interested in the military. My dream was to become an engineer. That was the reason I studied sciences.
After the second coup of 1967, I was reading the newspapers and saw the biography of newly appointed governors. I read Diete-Spiff’s biography and was amazed. Before then, I knew him as someone who usually came to visit my dad. He had just returned from Britannia Royal Academy at the time. He had an open-roof green car he drove then.
When the coup happened, he was appointed as the governor of old Rivers State. I read through his biography and I saw that he attended Britannia Royal Naval Academy. I just wrote to the school that I wanted to join. The institution replied, saying I must come to write the examination in the UK. They said I would return to Nigeria if I failed.
After then, I saw an advertisement by the Nigeria Defence Academy, NDA, and applied. I didn’t tell my dad. I took the form and went to Alhaji Ganiyu Dawodu , who was Chairman of Lagos City Council. He signed, attesting that I am a Lagosian. I was invited for the interview.
The late Gen David Ejoor was the Commandant of NDA at the time while Gen Ike Nwachukwu, retd, was the Secretary of the interview board. I reported in December 1970. Three months later, they said the British government wanted three cadets.
That was how I was sent to the same institution I had written to earlier. When I got there, I was feeling homesick. And I was told that if I was going to study engineering, I would spend extra three months. I didn’t agree and had to change my course to executive.
I was just attracted by the sight of Spiff in uniform. People like him and Ike Nwachukwu looked good in uniform and you couldn’t help but like them then. The fear of dying in the military didn’t occur to us.
Tell us about the command positions you held and some notable experiences you had…
I retired as the Chief of Policy and Plans, Navy Headquarters, in 2005. Anybody who is Chief of Policy and Plans must have been there for two or three years and must have mastered the plans of the Navy. The person is automatically the next man to the Chief of Naval Staff. And he can succeed the Chief of Naval Staff because it would be easy for him to implement the plans of the Navy.
That was my last position. Before then, I was the Flag Officer Commanding the Western Naval Command in Lagos. The position is called General Officer Commanding, GOC, in the Army. I was the Flag Officer Sea Training and Chief of Operations and Training at the Navy Headquarters. It used to be Chief of Operations. I was the first Chief of Operations and Training.
I was also a moderator at the Nigeria Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, NIPPS, Kuru. I attended Course 19 there. I was the first Naval Task Force Commander, ECOMOG. I was the one in charge of landing the first 3000 troops in Liberia.
We brought them from Free Town, Sierra leone to Free Port in Monrovia. We brought them on August 24, 1990. I was waiting to be posted to Port Harcourt when the Liberia crisis started. Five ships were put under me to be taken to Liberia. Originally, our mission was to evacuate stranded Nigerians in Monrovia, but the story changed when we got there. I am grateful to God that we are alive today.
When they came to capture Samuel Doe, I was in Free Port. I was there when Johnson captured Doe. I witnessed the event. The next day, our Head of State, Gen Ibrahim Babangida, invited me to Lagos to report what happened. I was given a plane that flew me alone to Lagos for the purpose.
Upon arrival, I went to Dodan Barracks where I faced seven generals. Babangida, Abacha, Aikhomu, Yusuf of the Air Force, Etim of the Police and two other persons. They were all members of the Armed Forces Ruling Council, AFRC. I told them what happened and went back. That was how the whole ECOMOG mission started.
You just said you witnessed the capture and killing of Samuel Doe by Prince Yomie Johnson, who is now a serving senator in Liberia. Did you just stand by and watch a group of rebels capture and kill a serving Head of State?
We were supposed to be peacekeepers. That is the reason our helmets were painted white. We had demarcated the area. At the time of his death, Doe had been pushed to the Executive Mansion, the presidential palace.
Charles Taylor was manning the Upper North while Johnson was in charge of all the ports. What ECOWAS said was that everyone should maintain the status quo. It meant that no one should move from his area until all peace talks were concluded.
I think Samuel Doe was getting too agitated. He thought when Nigerians came, we were going to strengthen his hold on power, but we said that was not our mission. It was advised that everybody should remain in his territory. But Doe woke up one day and said ‘’this is my country, you people came here to take over.”
He assembled about 17 vehicles and moved to the port. I went with the ships to patrol at the port. I saw a fleet of cars and became surprised. I used my binoculars and discovered that Samuel Doe was the one coming into the Port. I knew we were going to have a violent situation.
I told my crew to stay on their ships once we had berthed. Our headquarters, where General Iweze and General Aquino were quartered, was close to the scene. Johnson had men at the port who were giving him information. His men at the port gave him information that Doe was coming.
When he cornered Doe at the port, we just told our troops to stand by and watch what they were going to do. They just started having hot exchanges in their dialect. We started hearing gunshots. I had to order my boys to open fire on containers at the port. It was simply to scare them.
Johnson’s men replied, saying they were not fighting Nigeria but Doe. We told them not to come near our ship. 76 men were killed at the scene at the end. It wasn’t that I was told. We saw it happen. I asked my men to count the number of dead bodies.
We also had people who ran into our ships from Doe’s side. We had to search them thoroughly because they were very fetish and had charms. We saved them from Johnson and later released them. It was the incident, killing of Doe, that led to the changing of General Aquino from Ghana.
He couldn’t handle the situation. Gen Joshua Dongonyaro was brought in as a replacement. People were expecting that Nigerians would have fought to save Doe. But that was not the issue because everybody had been given an order not to go beyond certain boundaries.
You were in the military during military rule. Some of your mates and juniors were given political appointments like Military Administrators, MILADs and ministers among others. Considering that those appointments were easy paths to wealth at the time, how did you feel not getting any?
I have never lobbied for an appointment. And I wasn’t even a fan of military rule but since I was in the military, I couldn’t have opposed it. I heard that people lobbied for positions, but I didn’t do such. Even though a lot of senior officers knew my day and could have considered me if I lobbied, I didn’t do that.
I heard from the ADC of some senior officers that my name was penciled down for certain positions. They even said I should lobby since I had been considered for political appointments. I often replied that being a Commander of the Navy was my aim.
My ambition at one time was to be the Commandant of the Naval Academy because I saw the way the Commandant of Britannia Naval Academy was revered. Even Admirals admired and honoured him. He was like a god to me. I admired him a lot, especially during a parade. I loved to command. I wasn’t interested in political appointments.
The fact that some military people in politics were accused of corruption, made me dislike having anything to do with politics as an officer. I enjoyed the job I was doing. And I am happy I didn’t take any political appointment because if I had taken one, they would have thrown me out of the Navy when Obasanjo came in 1999.
Recall that they checked the accounts of some people and retired those who were found to have a huge amount of money. Unfortunately, some of them that retired prematurely were very good officers. For instance, people like Amadi Ikwechegh could have made the military proud. I had my mates like Acholonu, Ogugua and others. They were all appointed MILADS but later had their careers terminated prematurely. I never loved military incursion in politics.
How was it like surviving the politics of the military then considering that it was a period the Nigerian armed forces was said to have to have been structurally configured to favour the North?
I don’t believe the military at that time structurally favoured the North. It is just this nonsense about juicy appointments.
But as regards the real military job, round pegs were put in round holes. For example, if you can’t fly a plane, you can’t fly a plane. I don’t think any unqualified person was appointed to fly a plane simply because he is a northerner. But a lot of people saw the appointments as real military work. People like me valued command appointments.
And it helped our career. Of course, appointments were the easiest ways to make money, but they were not appealing to me. On the issue of favouring the North, maybe it was because the northerners were the people ruling then. And they appointed some of their aides from their areas. I am not saying some people were not favoured.
Even some southerners were favoured too. I had the opportunity of lobbying if I wanted anything but I didn’t do that. They all knew me as omo baba oni because my dad was a father figure to them. If I had lobbied people like the late Chief of General Staff, Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, I would have got whatever I wanted.
On the question of surviving the coups and military politics, I think the fact that I talk too much made me an unfit person for a military coup. I am sure that made them steer clear of me because I would have asked them why they were suggesting a change of government. I am a very blunt person.
The day I retired, I was very happy because it was a tough era. Can you imagine being in the military for 35 years and surviving despite rumours that I was going to be retired by Babangida or Abacha ? They were always saying that. For instance, during the regime of Abacha, I finished my studies at NIPPS, Kuru, and remained idle for four months because Abacha said he must be aware of the appointment of any four-star general.
The list was taken to him several times but he wasn’t available to attend to it for four months. I thought we were going to be retired. I complained to the late Admiral Mike Akhigbe, who was the Chief of Naval Staff. He asked why I was worried. He said I shouldn’t be worried since I was being paid my salaries. We finished at Kuru in 1997 December.
I didn’t get an appointment until the end of April 1998. I started playing golf then and won Indian Cup at Ikoyi Club. I was grateful to Abacha for that. Those were difficult times. We were mindful of our words. When Abacha died, I didn’t know until I came back from work.
When I got to the barrack, I saw children jubilating that Abacha had died. I was surprised and drove them away because I thought they weren’t sure of what they were saying. I made further enquiries and learned that CNN had announced it.
I wanted to go to the tennis court but had to stay back at home because the situation wasn’t clear to me. I survived by staying out of trouble. When I saw people talking about the need for a change of government, I stayed away from them.
During your time in the military, Nigeria was known for peacekeeping missions abroad. For instance, the military was instrumental in the restoration of democracy in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Today, Nigeria faces security threats on all fronts and the military seems overwhelmed. When you juxtapose what the military achieved then and its current domestic performance, how do you feel?
The public seems to get things wrong. It is not the military but the political regime that would bring peace. Love Buhari or hate him, he made a very salient point recently, by saying that governors should stop complaining and protect their states. That has been my position. If for instance, I am the governor of Lagos State, there are things I would do to address insecurity in the state.
First, all local government chairmen should be able to know those who reside in their areas. In Germany, if you live in House 10 and decide to move to House 12, it is the landlord of House 10 that will provide your record to your new landlord. By doing so, the identity of all residents is known. Such a practice can be replicated in Nigeria. If vigilante groups are well strengthened, they can fight crime effectively.
For instance, Amotekun is a good vehicle for fighting crime, but it is being overwhelmed by politics. I was in Minnesota when George Floyd was killed. The state didn’t rely on President Trump to send federal guards. It relied on the local security architecture to handle the situation. We can do that in Nigeria, but our leaders make too much noise without doing anything. I don’t think our governors understand their responsibilities.
Governors should ensure that local governments are effective because they are closer to the people. If we had knowledgeable people as chairmen and councilors of local governments, we wouldn’t have the security challenges we are experiencing. Security starts from the local government level and it is the local government chairmen that should drive that.
Why did governors meet Buhari to complain about herdsmen when they have local vigilante groups? In the military, we were not trained to attack the surface. They shouldn’t have expected Buhari to send troops to their states when they have vigilante groups.
But the governors do not control the Police, Army, Navy and Air Force…
They don’t have to control them before they secure their states. I don’t control the Police but I can call them when there is a situation that requires their attention. If I can do that as an ordinary citizen, why can’t governors do so?
They fund the Police more than Federal Government. We are not just doing the things we are supposed to do. The governors should do their jobs and stop complaining. For instance, when attacks happen in states, there are people governors can use to gather intelligence so that we can know who the culprits are.