By Fred Iwenjora
Since his retirement from Nigeria Police Force where he still ranks as one of the most erudite Nigerian IGPs with many academic laurels in his kitty, former Inspector General of Police and former Chairman Police services commission Sir (Dr.) Mike Mbamaonyeukwu Okiro has never sat down to relieve his life as he has done here in this chat.
How can you describe life after your retirement from active police service?
It has been an interesting experience after going through the hustle and bustle of life as a police officer and now retired and home probably on your own doing your own things and managing your own affairs, waking up when you like or going to bed when you want as compared to the life as a police officer when you had to be up on your toes ready to obey the last orders, carry out duties, going for operations etc. You leave for work in the morning not knowing when you would return. As a police officer, you really don’t have time for yourself or family. You only have time for others, your job and duty. There is a wide range of difference between the two callings. I am very grateful that I served my country and left without blemish and in that manner; I equally served myself and very well.
Considering events between your point of entry into the force and departure, you must be feeling highly favoured…?
I feel very highly favoured and grateful to God. My gratitude knows no bounds. If you read my biography you will read where I wrote about my calling into the police, my service and retirement. I never expected things that way and never did any one expect it that way apart from those who have absolute faith in Almighty God. What I went through before recruitment, during recruitment, to my training, to service in the Force and to IGP and to retirement are things of which I must be grateful to God. I look at myself as highly favoured by God so I thank God; so much for that.
Could you refresh the readers as to issues surrounding your point of entry into the force because most have not read your biography?
For the purposes of time constraints, I will just make it as brief as possible. I joined the police ..do I say by choice or by providence? To start with, I did not like the police as a students’ union activist. Even after Youth service I still did not like the police. Should I say I joined the Police by adventure? It is a long story.
You may have to make it short sir….
During my youth service which I did at Maiduguri in 1976/77, journey from Maiduguri to Port Harcourt took four days. One had to first travel to Jos with the North East line in one day. From Jos, one did the Benue Plateau Transport to Onitsha for another day before boarding to Owerri by Oriental Line in another day. It was on the fourth day that you got to Port Harcourt with the Rivers State Transport Corporation. A corps member was entitled to only a five day pass. So one could not take a five day pass for a four-day one- way journey. So I did not take a pass in one year and was totally disconnected from my parents and siblings in Port Harcourt coupled with the fact that there were no telephones, only telegrams atimes. This worried me much. While brooding about my situation, I saw an advert on Daily Times calling for young graduates to join the police force. A friend of mine even told of how his brother was taken in a flight from Kano where he was serving to attend Police recruitment in Lagos. I reasoned that if they would fly me to Lagos, I might quickly dash to Port Harcourt to see my parents and siblings as the journey would be shorter. About 30 of us applied but only four of us were invited for interview in Lagos. The police sent a Peugeot station wagon driven by an inspector with two armed escorts as there was no airport in Maiduguri in those days. After the interview in Lagos, I was the only one taken. I told the Inspector that I wanted to travel to Port Harcourt to see my parents but he said no way. His instruction was to take us to Lagos and return to Maiduguri. I told him I was not asking for money for my fare to Port Harcourt but capital NO was his answer as he was acting on orders. I wallowed in the thoughts that I had wasted my time going to Lagos. I did not enjoy the return journey to Maiduguri.
By the end of my NYSC, I had about seven jobs waiting for me including the job at the Federal Ministry of Education as lecturer 2 having studied English at the University of Ibadan, a job at the Customs also waited for me, just as the University of Port Harcourt kept a graduate Assistant job for me. That was not all; the Rivers State Civil Service wanted me, the School of Basic Studies Maiduguri wanted me as a lecturer.
Aside these, I also had a place at the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation, publishers of The Tide in the Features Department where I had been contributing while still an undergraduate and then this police job.
I was in serious consideration of which job to take. The School of Basic Studies Maiduguri was the highest paid. I was to be placed on level 9 while at the Rivers State Civil Service, I was to be placed on level 8 step 2.
All these jobs were to begin September 4th after the passing out from national service. I was on the move home to Port Harcourt through Jos as service terminated. This time I decided to see my old childhood friend and sleep on a bed rather than wait around at the garage at Jos with the intention of catching the 6; 00 am bus to Onitsha. But alas, I overslept and got to the park so late that the bus had gone without me. I then decided to while away the time touring the Tin city. One of the notable places I chose to visit was the Police staff college which was just about then recently completed. News about the college filtered when I was selected for the police training I did not care about. When I arrived at the college, shouts of Okiro..Okiro rent the air. I wondered who knew me at the college despite that I was a student activist at UI. It was congratulations all the way as some members of the course 5 had seen my name on the board as potential police officers of course 6 asking when I was coming to join them in training. I told them I was not coming anyway. It was about 26th of August and I knew that before I completed my three days journey to Port Harcourt and enjoyed a vacation, it would have been late to join the training. Yet they called the training officer to intimate him of my presence, pleading that he gave me time to report since I might not be able to report on the 1st of September. I told the officer I would return on the 9th. He made me put it in writing and the Commandant approved. I told myself while signing that letter; nonsense and ingredient (general laughter). When I returned to my friend’s house I told him what had transpired and why I would not join the police. I caught the bus next day and was with my parents enjoying a vacation with the intention of joining the Tide or Rivers State Civil Service. When my father asked me what next, there was no mention of the police because he would scream. He loved me to join the Rivers State Civil Service in the hope that I would one day make it to the Perm Sec position by the special grace of God.While reveling in P.H, a friend of mine visited me and asked me about my job offers and what I planned next. I told him all that were on my table including the police offer and he shouted ‘how manage?!. He said he had tried the police more than three times and no one looked his way wondering whom I knew that helped me secure the offer. He told me police was his best choice of all the offers open to me. I became more confused after he left and started asking ‘God what do I do?’ It was then I took pieces of paper and wrote all the offers, squeezed them and told myself that the first pick would be it. I picked up my Rosary and knelt down in prayers asking for God to help my choice and give me the best. I closed my eyes and picked one of the folded papers. Behold, the first I picked and unwrapped was the police so I said God has chosen a career for me. I quickly packed my bag and told my mum on the next day that I was off to Jos to join the police. She said Ok. On the day I traveled, my dad was entertaining his guests and perhaps was too busy to understand what I was thinking on that day, he said ‘safe journey’. I arrived Jos 19th of September, a whole nineteen days after my mates had resumed course and ten days later than I had applied for permission. Again, when I arrived, resumed, no one said you are late. All these make me feel my joining the police was divine choice made for me by God.
The drama did not end there. It continued about a week after when the course officer came to class one day to announce ‘who is Mike Okiro?’ I answered and he marshalled me to his office and started a series of interviews on my personal data which I told him to see in my file. He later pulled his drawers to hand to me, a telegram announcing that my dad was seriously sick and that I should proceed home immediately. My mind started going places. ‘Has my father died?’ In my area and in many parts of Africa, it is not normal not to announce death directly. My course officer told me to apply for casual leave. I did. However when I got back to the hostel, I pulled out the telegram again and read it thoroughly..’father seriously sick, proceed immediately signed Samuel Okiro. I wondered that a dead man could not sign any telegram. Confusion reigned on that day that I went straight to my friend in Jos to announce how I felt. He opted to travel with me to Port Harcourt. When we arrived P.H we met my father hale and hearty and chatting and drinking with his friends as usual. I greeted him and asked about my mother whom he said was at the kitchen. When I went to meet her at the kitchen, she said ‘your father is not happy with you for joining the police. It was then I got the message clearly. I went to join my friend and we went to town and returned very late in the evening.
As soon as we returned, my father ordered me to ‘sit down’
‘So you joined the police?’ I said ‘yes sir’. Continuing he said ‘Is that what we discussed and agreed upon?’ I did not know what to say. I was tongue tied. He said ‘if you knew you were going to join the police, you should not have allowed me to waste my time and money to train you in the university. I can disclaim you right away’ he thundered. I summoned up courage and told him ‘sir, I am your son, I listen and obey your instructions but there are two things you should concede to me’. He said ‘what are they?’. I said one is the woman I marry and the second is the job I choose to do. These choices are solely mine, I told him. He kept quiet for sometime and later went to bed. But he woke me up again at about 5 am. He told me he had thought over our discussions the previous night and realized that his son had become mature to face the world. He said I should kneel down for his prayers if it is the police I love to join. I knelt down and he prayed for me. After I had said Amen, we left for Jos, my friend and I continued with my training.
What do you consider as your greatest challenge on the job?
My greatest challenge on the job was when I was transferred from Benue state to Lagos as Commissioner of Police. In this area I also see confirmation that God chose the job for me. I had not spent a few weeks in Makurdi before the IGP Musliu Smith moved me to Lagos. I arrived Lagos August 2, 1999. By the end of that same August, I got info that Late head of state Sani Abacha’s son Mohammed, Major Al Mustapha and co were to appear in court in Lagos for the death of Kudirat Abiola. Some press friends had called me to confirm the story. I said it was not true because I had no directive to that effect. After all I was CP and should know before any one. By the next morning I saw on television that the Igbosere court area had been overrun by militant OPC who were threatening to burn the accused suspects whenever they appeared in Lagos. I saw men with cudgels, others with knives and machetes as well as other dangerous weapons including petrol preparatory to lynch the suspects when they came to court. At about 9pm the IGP called me to give directives that I should provide security for the men when they came to court the next day in Lagos. Wow. I did not have manpower in Lagos, I didn’t have weapons and more so, I just arrived. There were no vehicles, no teargas, nothing. How do I handle this? If I needed reinforcement, it would only come from Ogun state or Oyo. How could I get people at Abeokuta or Ibadan at so late a time as 9 pm. If I had manpower, how many people would I kill at Igbosere if the Black Maria was attacked? With the scene I saw on televison at Igbosere, it is possible, the suspects may have been burnt before help could come. I was clearly in distress. I knelt down again as usual and brought out my Rosary and prayed to God again. I said ‘Sir, I didn’t want to join the police. Only you chose this job for me. So here I am. Is this how I will end the carreer you chose for me? Please sir, show me the way and I said Amen. By the time I said the Amen, an idea came to me to change the venue of the court appearance. Lagos had many courts in its judicial districts including Ikeja, Badagry and Epe etc. and any of the courts could take the matter. So I called the IGP to discuss my idea. I told him Ikeja would be fine and he directed me to get in touch with the Chief Judge of Lagos. I directed the DPO Ikoyi who is now a DIG to go and see the Chief Judge but he went and said the Chief Judge was on leave. I got back to the IGP who said I should get in touch with the Registrar who also wanted to know why and where I wished to change the trial to. I told him what I saw at Igbosere was maddening. I also told him Ikeja would be fine and he asked that we see one man at Ikeja. The time was about 2 am. I offered that the court should sit at 6 am but he countered that courts start sitting at 9 am and any earlier sitting would create problems. I called the IG again who directed that the media must cover the trial and that the lawyers of the defence must be present. I reached out to the defence attorney Barrister Akpamgbo, SAN, who was far away in Enugu but he agreed to send his representative and did send. As early as 6 am I stationed an amoured personnel carrier at Igbosere area with the order to stop and search every vehicle entering Lagos Island and Ikoyi as I directed. This was a decoy for people to believe that Igbosere was the venue for the court appearance. When the aircraft from Abuja landed with Mohammed Abacha and co, I ordered the Black Maria that took them to just park behind the Airport Police station. The driver was not to leave his vehicle for any reason. At 9 am, the leader of the team standing by at the Ikeja court reported that all was set so I used my walkie talkie to radio the Black Maria to proceed to Magistrate Court 1 Ikeja, venue for the appearance. None knew what each other was doing except me. I proceeded to the court with a team of about seven men. When the case was called, the accused pleaded not guilty so they were moved to Ikoyi. I continued to be in touch with the driver of the Black Maria who called to tell me that he arrived Ikoyi prisons safely. I then called the senior officer coordinating at Igbosere to disband as operation was over. You could see that the big problem was solved for me by God with my bare hands, no teargas, no weapons and no shots fired. I still consider that as one of my greatest challenges in the force. It reinforced my belief that God chose this career for me. The OPC would have caused big problems for me, the police and the nation at large on that day.
The Rosary seems to be your basic companion…?
Yes, it is ooo and I am very proud to fling it out any time any day. I can remember it was Yinka Craig of Blessed memory who in an interview asked me what was my ‘greatest push in life’. I dipped my hand inside my pocket and produced my Rosary. Indeed it is what pushes me in life. If you read my biography, you will see more. There were very frustrating situations which later ended up in very beautiful ways when I pray The rosary. My journey with the Rosary started very early. It continued during my years at the Seminary. I missed becoming a catholic father. But I may not miss the early morning mass. The rosary has become so much a part of me and seems to work miracles for me when the chips are down.
Did you see your appointment as IGP coming?
Well, I never saw it coming despite that everyone dreams, hopes and aspires to grow to be so appointed. My appointment was dramatic. I was with a friend at Maitama watching television when my PA called me around 10pm to tell me that Ogbonnaya Onovo had been appointed IGP. After his call, we switched on to NTA to see the breaking news that DIG Ogbonnaya Onovo had been made acting IGP. As we lived within same vicinity, I stopped by at his quarter to congratulate him adding that my wife and I would come the next day. He informed me that all DIGs should be at Eagle Square to pull out retiring IGP Ehindero at 8 a.m. I always went to mass every morning. I said to myself I had a choice to go to mass or to leave the mass and go to Eagle Square. I asked myself which was more important. I reasoned that I might be late at Eagle square or miss the morning mass for good. I concluded that I should go to mass and thank God that President Yar’adua did not choose an AIG which would have been early retirement for me as well as many other DIGs. I decided that God deserved praises that I am still keeping my job. I went to mass, concluded, at 8 am and arrived the Force Headquarters at about 8;30 to see that all the DIGs were waiting for me. It was Onovo who called attention for me and I was shocked. An acting IGP calling attention for me? Something must be fishy I concluded. I wondered why Onovo whom I knew from Police Staff College should be calling attention for me. Was he mistaking me for someone else? I had known Ogbonnaya Onovo since we joined the force. On this day in history, I took the compliments anyway and we all headed to Eagle Square. While taking briefing from Ehindero in his office, my PA came to me to whisper to me that the President wished to talk to me. I shuddered. I took the phone and it was the voice of the ADC who said the president wanted to see me at 4pm adding that I should be there at 3;30 pm. I returned to Onovo and told him ‘sir, I am wanted at the Villa, please pray for me o. Please don’t tell Ehindero because they might laugh scornfully at me’. I left my office at 3;15 pm and by 3;30, I was at the President’s office. He said ‘welcome..you are my acting IGP’. When I left the Villa, the first person I went to meet was Onovo. When I told him what happened, he told me it was the reason he called attention for me earlier. He told me the Chief of staff to the president called him to tell him that Okiro was the IGP and not him.
Now having been up and down, back and forth and retired, you must be feeling somehow that members of your force have become targets for the entire populace in the past few years?
It is indeed very sad to note. The police seem to be a common denominator for hatred by the masses. I wrote an article recently where I said the Police is the face of government. Africans vent their anger on unpopular leadership on the police. The policeman takes the blame because he is the only one seen. The history of the Nigeria Police tells the story of the colonial masters who established a police to help them in tax collection and enforcing colonial laws on Nigerians. Nigerians see the police as the people who make them do what they hate to do or stop them from doing what they like to do. They forget that the police man only enforces the law. If we are all driving in mufti, no one would know that I am Mike Okiro except if I am wearing uniform. So I can say that hatred for the police is transferred aggression on leadership. The attack on the police is because they are visible enforcers of government laws.
Any advice you can give on this?
My advice is that some retired officers who are still sound and healthy be sought and brought to contribute their know-how on the security situation in the country. Nigeria should bring them together to share their knowledge rather than bringing foreigners who know next to nothing about Nigeria and may not understand the world view and character of the people as to proffer solution to our security problems. It is a difficult task but it is not impossible.