By Dickson Okafor
LT. Gen. Chikadibia Isaac Obiakor (Rtd), is an accomplished military officer. He served the Nigerian Army for 40 years in several capacities and was at a time Commander of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). The Awka, Anambra State born general was appointed Military Adviser, Peacekeeping Operations and Assistant Secretary General, Military Affairs, United Nations (UN) Headquarters by former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon in July 2008 and that was the last position he held before retirement.
In this interview, he explains why he will support President Muhammadu Buhari second term bid, noting that sentiment costs Ndigbo political relevance in the All Progressives Congress (APC) led-government.
What prompted you to choose the military as a career?
I fell in love with the army because I was born and brought up close to military barracks. The major thing that caught my interest was the way soldiers dress. They dress well and because I was born in Zaria where there is full military presence, I chose to enlist in the army due to the love I had for the military.
What were some of the values you saw in military officers that attracted you to the military that are lacking in today’s army?
The values remain the same except for the practitioners, but there are requirements for a good military. It’s either people are meeting the standards or they are falling short of it and if you fall below standard you will pay dearly for it.
Were your parents against your choice of profession?
I enlisted in the army through military school and I had interest in the military before I enlisted. So, my parents knew I loved the army and they did not at anytime try to stop me.
How is life in retirement?
Let me start by defining retirement in two ways, the Nigerian way and the correct way to retire. Nigerian way of retirement is when you retire you are expired and what do you do with an expired product? You discard it and that is wrong. In the correct way, retirement means you are not on daily basic task; that you bring your experiences in your area of specialisation to bear after retirement for others to make use for the development of the country or society and not when you retire you are considered tired. In an organised environment, they have the panel of the wise or old people whose advise are sought. There is an adage in Igbo that says, “What an old man sees while seating, a young man cannot see while standing”. The truth is that having put in 40 years in the service of my fatherland, I have garnered some experiences which if engaged I could share with young leaders. So, I’m still active in retirement.
Having helped to bring peace to nations like Liberia and Sierra-Leon, are you saying you were not invited by the immediate past and present administrations to help execute war against insurgency in the North-east?
I wouldn’t say we were not consulted, but the truth is that we don’t have a methodological approach to things. That does not mean that when it comes to national security, we don’t do diligence. We do diligence when we are outside this country on peacekeeping. We comply with international best practices but when we come back here we find it extremely difficult and somehow we get disorganised in the process of solving problems. The reason is we are not only selfish; we are in self-denial of the fact.
Terrorism is now a global phenomenon and Nigeria has her fair share of it. What would you say is responsible for the emergence of terrorism in Nigeria because we used to hear of suicide bombing in the Middle East and some Arab nations, but it is now rampant in Sub-Sahara Africa?
The whole world is engulfed in terrorism. We hear of suicide bombing everywhere and people are leaving their beautiful environments to join terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. People from nations all over the world are leaving their countries to join ISIS and other terrorist groups because there is dissatisfaction in the way most nations are governed with reference to Africa. The greatest undoing of Nigeria and African nations is bad governance. Yes, bad governance is responsible for terrorism. Elected leaders are expected to deliver on social contract and also deliver dividend of democracy to the people. That people leave their countries to join ISIS is a way of agitation because they are not happy. Therefore, the root cause of terrorism is bad governance.
The new song in Nigeria now is restructuring. Are you among those advocating for restructuring of the polity?
As I had said before now, call it any name, what people are saying is that the way we are going about governance is inappropriate to the federating units. So, what do we do? We need to take a look at how we have been going about governance and address them appropriately. It is not restructuring like the way you restructure your house, but as an entity Nigeria is viable. One of the statements made by the late Dr Nnamdi Azikwe in 1956 when Nigeria was about to go to a conference in Indonesia, is “Nigeria has a manifest destiny”; somehow our leaders don’t think outside the box. For crying out loud, Nigeria is the largest black nation in the world. So, in this context we have a role to play particularly when you take a look at the derogatory statement made about us by people from other nations. We need to prove that we are not what they say or think about us. We need to lead the black race by example and that is what Zik meant by our manifest destiny. It is not by mistake we found ourselves in this geographical expression called Nigeria but a divine design by the Almighty God. Unfortunately, we are not aware of this. Look at us; Nigeria is geographically beautiful. There is nothing you want in any country in the world we won’t have in Nigeria. So, is it man made? It is we the human beings in Nigeria that are not focused. We don’t know or appreciate what we have; we look at small things instead of looking at global things.
Many may argue that as one of the leaders of this country having served the nation for 40 years, you are part of the problem, what will be your responses?
Yes, as one of the leaders of Nigeria, I accept responsibility for the decay in the system that gave rise to agitations in virtually all parts of the country. Do you know why? We never accepted that we were in self-denial. We never sat down and thought about what the Nigerian civil war did and learn from history and experiences from that war. Did we communicate our experiences to those young boys and girls that are agitating for Biafra? Did they know what happened? Do they understand the meaning of war? Let me ask you a simple question. If you are coming out from this house and somebody push you back from outside, will you come out from the same door? No. If we have groomed these children and made them understand the danger of war, would they have chosen this approach to agitate? No. There is no child in primary school in Japan that is not told about the impact of what happened in Horrisima and Nakashaski. These boys who are agitating are doing it the best way they understand. All over the world people are agitating for one thing or the other.
Which side did you fight during the Nigerian civil war?
I fought in Biafra. I ended the Biafra war as a captain.
How were you able to be absorbed into the Nigerian Army after the war having fought for Biafra?
The fact is that I was in military school, Zaria in 1962 and by 1966 I was in Class 4. You know the trouble of Nigeria started in 1966 when the first coup took place and after the first coup. It was graveyard peace as a result of Araba riots. In the process of the riot, southerners were killed because the North said they wanted to go out of Nigeria.
You mean the North wanted to leave Nigeria?
Yes, they wanted to leave Nigeria. That is the meaning of Araba. It means let’s separate.
What was your experience as a Biafran soldier?
As a member of the Biafra army, I was a boy soldier and a cadet private soldier. So, you can see at every stage of my life, I had an experience. My joy is that I made the right choice of career.
So, there was a time the North wanted to separate from Nigeria?
Yes. I was not told. I was there and we maintained peace in Zaria during the riot. We the boys from military school kept peace and after traveling to Enugu, we never knew there was a counter coup when we were in the train. We all parted our ways and when the holiday was over and we wanted to come back to school they said we should not come back. We were deployed to Government Colleges and I was deployed to Government College, Umuahia. There I finished my Class 4.
What was your reason for fighting on the Biafra side?
There was no reason. We just found ourselves fighting for a cause we couldn’t explain.
What was your role during the Nigeria/Biafra war?
I was a captain in the Biafran army. Before the war broke out, I was a student in the military school. So, immediately after the war, we were re-absorbed into the military school by the Nigerian government in 1970. I was posted to the medical corps of the Nigerian Army in Apapa. There, I served as a private soldier before I went to the Nigerian Defence Academy.
What caused the war?
The mayhem of May 29, 1966 where the Igbo were killed and other southerners too; the counter-coup of July 29, 1966 and the lack of understanding between the Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon and Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, led to the civil war.
How did you and your family survive the war as Igbo living in Zaria?
There were many untold stories, which I may not be able to tell now. But given the fact that my parents survived in Zaria, we had no option but to relocate to the East based on my advice. On May 29, 1966, the military schoolboys were on holiday and we were on a train going to the East. We passed from Zaria, Kaduna and Enugu before we dispatched. This is not to say that the war did not affect my parents, it did affect them.
What are some of the lessons you learnt from the Nigerian civil war?
I learnt a lot of lessons. The war forced us to grow up faster than we should. In fact, the war turned us from being children to men. It speeded up our growth and after all said and done, war is not a venture anybody should invest in because at the end there is no victor, no vanquished; but everybody is vanquished. I mean everybody in war is vanquished because the losses you incur you will never redeem. So, tell me how you have won if you lose things and you came out with a feeling that you won. The physiological injury still remains. So, it is better you don’t start it.
You were not linked to any coup throughout your career. What was the secret?
I think God did not want me to get involved. Apart from that, I’m a person whose upbringing is built on discipline and my love for the military. At a time I was almost ostracised by my people because I was not making efforts to be appointed military administrator even when I was of the rank. So, people just ignored me because as far as they were concerned, I was not a player in the field. But I cared less because I focused on my military career. I am a professional hence I had no business in politics. Even as I speak to you now, many people still ask me, ‘Obiakor, are you interested in politics?’ I don’t think people like us can go into partisan politics because we cannot be bent. We took oath to serve Nigerians with our heart and strength. So, we can’t start telling lies in the service of the people and this nation. What you call politics in this country is not politics; it is just a ploy to defraud and steal the wealth of the nation. And if you are not ready to soil your hands, they won’t allow you into any position of authority. That is why some of us are not interested in politics.
You lost one of your best friends and colleagues, Lt. Gen. Andrew Azazi in a helicopter crash. Did you suspect foul play?
I wouldn’t know if there was foul play in the death of a friend and colleague, Lt. Gen. Azazi, because the investigation was inconclusive. I would want to believe that it was an accident. It’s unfortunate because we lost a brilliant officer who had a lot to contribute to the security and well being of this country. However, if there is foul play, those responsible will never go unpunished. He had vast experience in the working of this nation and he was bold to make statements on Boko Haram when he was National Security Adviser at a time when those who were supposed to suggest or comment on how the activities of the sect could be brought to an end were afraid. He did not mince words when he made those statements that some government officials were sponsors of Boko Haram. Gen. Azazi said the truth, nothing but the truth typical of a good soldier who swore on oath to serve his country patriotically.
How has the military helped to nurture our nascent democracy?
The military has shown so much maturity. The military has done so well and exhibited so much maturity higher than that of the civilian because it doesn’t seem as if democracy that started in 1999 has witnessed enough progress. It’s such a wonderful thing to see the military sitting in the barracks submitting to civil authority. The military has shown that they are growing.
Many believe that the psychological effect of the war is with Ndigbo because the 3-Rs promised by Gowon have not been implemented?
There is no argument about that. The question is why was it not implemented? The 3-Rs are Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reconciliation. What did our people do about it if not now that these children started to agitate? We have problem of leadership. Whether anybody likes it or not, the problem of Nigeria is poor leadership. When we tell ourselves lies and we believe those lies, that there is a problem. Modern leadership thrust demands that those leading the people must first of all be sincere to themselves; moral uprightness is required of them. Not only being sincere, if you have no business being in leadership position, there is no need taking up a position of authority. But because of self-aggrandisement, mediocres and people without leadership attributes assume positions of authority. Is that how they want to lead the people? They don’t have the interest of the masses at heart, rather they are self-serving. Otherwise, look at the crop of leaders we have had? We are just lucky to have President Muhammadu Buhari now in the driver seat else Nigeria would have run into more economic troubled waters. Therefore, we need leaders of the people and not people leading themselves and lining their pockets. Somebody who has no credentials, no past records or antecedents jumps into leadership position and automatically he becomes a policy maker. What do you expect? He starts living big and goes beyond control. To me, anybody who has no credible means of livelihood should not aspire for political position or political appointment. Not until you can feed and take care of yourself that you can aspire to lead people. Here, going into politics means going to make money not to serve because they are going to prey on the people.
Are you fulfilled?
Yes, I am. By the grace of God, I achieved much as a military officer.
Many are of the view that the encroachment into politics by the military bastardised the system and paved way for bad leadership. What is your take?
If I may just ask you one simple question, how would you rate our achievements from 1999 till date? I will say 30 per cent. Is it the military that had been in power since then? If we know the military bastardised the system, what have we done to correct it?
The leadership since 1999 has been dominated by recycling of former military leaders?
Those flying such idea will always produce narratives that will suit them. Whether military or civilian, if you are a good leader, you are a good leader. In fact, if you are a successful military leader, when you can convince people to go and die, then you should be a better civilian leader because you know the worth of life. Worst hit are countries in the South of the Sahara. Checkout emerging countries like Brazil, Argentina, Pakistan and Indonesia; their pace of development is steady. Why is it that the Americans like their presidents to be ex-military officers? People who have served? Why? People like Russian Putin. A very good example of an emerging nation in Africa is Rwanda. Go and see the level of development going on in Rwanda. I just came back from Rwanda few weeks ago and while there I saw the effect of a leader. I mean a visionary leader with the knowledge and ability to turn things around for good. They say he who goes to equity must go with clean hands and that is the basis of the exemplary leadership in Rwanda. He has a dream for his country. Remember that almost one million people were killed in the Rwanda genocide in 1994. But go to Rwanda now and you will see what leadership is all about. The whole place has changed and if you want, I can show you some clips. If I should tell you that Rwanda from next to nothing has 100 per cent health insurance for its citizens you won’t believe it. It is the cleanest country in Africa and focused.
How do we compare this with the present administration in Nigeria and the fight against corruption?
They are trying their best; that is how I can put it. Although it is too early to sum up, but let’s wait till 2018-2019 to see how much they have achieved. Yes, corruption is bound to fight back because the people waging the war against corruption are limited while corrupt people are too many. If I should advise, I will suggest that the masses should fight corruption and not government. If we had used the masses to fight corruption, by now corruption would have been out of the gate. When they said change to me, I thought the conceptualised change in which case change in everything we know. So, there would have been programmes; hence the moment they launched change it would have been total and those who would have driven it would have been the masses. The people would have taken the challenge and I tell you if the people say they are going to fight corruption, no corrupt person will be around.
But the masses you are referring to are hungry, so how can they fight corruption with empty stomach?
They are hungry because of corruption. Corruption is responsible for hunger in the land. Have you seen a country like ours that wasted excess crude oil money and there is nothing to show for it? What President Buhari is saying is very true. We were earning $140 per barrel in 2013 and 2014 and we were selling about 2.8 million barrels per day. Where is the money? In private pockets and you expect Buhari to keep quiet? What infrastructure did they add since we started earning such amount? Virtually all the roads in Nigeria are in bad shape even in Abuja here. Tell me one infrastructure the previous government did in the Federal Capital territory (FCT). Is it Airport road or Kubwa road that is yet to be completed? Show me one infrastructure that was built in Abuja in the last seven years? None. Tell me what else had happened in terms of infrastructural development?
Many have accused the government of being selective in its anti-graft warm. In your view is the fight against corruption one-sided?
It has to be so because the fight is not massive. That is why I said the people should be at the forefront of the war against corruption. And if the programme had come out at once, we won’t be talking about the fight being selective or one-sided. During the War against Indiscipline (WAI), what happened? School children will tell an adult not to drop a piece of paper on the floor. If you were inside the bus, you dare not throw something out of the window. People queued at the bus stops, in the banks and in public places.
Are you saying Buhari is on track?
Yes, he is doing his best to fix the country. Buhari is doing what previous leaders were unable to do. His integrity is above board. Buhari is not interested in acquiring materials things. He is contented and if you must work with Buhari, you must discomfort yourself. When he went to his hometown, Daura, for Sallah all the furniture in his house were moderate. People gathered expecting free money. But trust Buhari, they went back disappointed.
Are you saying if Buhari decides to run for second term you will vote for him?
Yes, if he is healthy. At least the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t know. I’m not a politician and I don’t belong to any political party but in terms of integrity from what I have seen, I’m yet to see the person that can defeat Buhari if he decides to seek re-election in 2019. If I should tell you my opinion about politics probably you won’t ask me again if there is alternative to Buhari in 2019.
Why are you shying away from politics?
I’ m getting old.
Why then are you in support of Buhari’s second term bid considering that he is also old?
My take is this — because of ineptitude of Nigerian youths, the old generation of politicians holds sway. What are the youth doing? They have the number; they have the strength and capacity to lead this nation. But where are they? What are the youths waiting for to take over from us? Until the youths are ready, we will continue to govern.
They don’t have the means?
What is the means? You have the votes that can enable you choose any person among you to preside over the nation. Look at what is happening all over the world; it is young people that decide who governs except in Nigeria. Nigerians youths are saying we should hand over to them, which is impossible because power is not given but taken. I challenge Nigerian youths to take power from us.
Buhari has been accused of marginalising the Igbo in his appointments, what is your take?
I cannot answer that question directly because there are other things involved.
How can South-east actualise president of Igbo extraction now that agitation for Biafra is gathering momentum?
First and foremost, we don’t have the number. So, if we must actualise Igbo presidency, we must go into alliance with people from other regions. Igbo cannot produce president without the support of other geo-political zones. In 1999, as a student in the Nigeria War College, as the nation was about to embrace civil rule, I did a project on which zone should take the first shot at the presidency. In politics, what determines who wins is number; if you don’t have the number the best thing to do is to go into alliance. We now went into history. The South-south that surrounds us is not in good terms with us. Why? Because in everything, we marginalised them and that was the reason Adaka Boro fought. Is he not the one that started agitation of marginalisation of South-south in 1965? So, you see. They say charity begins at home. In that report, I said let’s go and support South-south for presidency in 1999. We went to a South-south group and told them what we were planning and they were shocked. They couldn’t believe that Igbo could decide to relinquish power to minority having ruled them for a long time. They accepted it and we went to the South-west and they were equally shocked that we were ready to play second fiddle and that was our assignment in the war college. We conveyed it to the Igbo leaders not to contest for the presidency in 1999 rather they should support South-south so that in the future they will support us.
So, Igbo presidency cannot be actualised?
It can be actualised if we go into alliance. We don’t know how far the alliance between the North and South-west will go.