My mother wept when I joined the army
“HE’LL be with you very soon,” the aide said as he ushered us into the living room.The four-man team was at his home to formally present him with the letter investing him with The Sun Lifetime Achievement Award. Barely three minutes later, General Samuel Ogbemudia (retd) walked in. That morning, he moved his steps slowly with the aid of crutches. ‘This is as a result of an accident,’ he said. He has been assured by his doctors that he’d be back on his feet in a matter of few weeks, he said reassuringly.
Not even his condition or age had been able to rob him of his grace and radiance. He has his quiver loaded with wits. Indeed, for a man of his status-former military governor of old Midwest Region, civilian governor of defunct Bendel State as well as former minister, his white-washed house speaks volume. It is neither one of those eye-popping architectural masterpieces nor located in the highbrow area of Benin City, the Edo State capital. He is no doubt a simple and humble personality. A septuagenarian, Ogbemudia had his early education at the Benin Baptist School and later, Government School, Victoria, in the Cameroons before proceeding to the Western Boys High School, Benin City. In 1957, he joined the Nigeria army and trained at Teshie, Ghana and at Netheravon and Salisbury Plain in England. He also attended the officer cadet school at Aldershot, England in 1960, and was commissioned second lieutenant in 1961. A former instructor to the Nigerian Military School, Zaria in 1964, he also attended the United States army special welfare school at Fort Bragg, South Carolina. Heserved with the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Congo and in Tanzania.
This elder statesman speaks on life as a soldier and politician, the civil war and offer advice on how to overcome the challenges bedevilling the nation, particularly the issue of corruption.
What’s the meaning of your name, Ogbemudia?
Ogbemudia, in ordinary interpretation, means, ‘this family has come to stay’ or ‘this child has come to live.’ My mother had so many children, but she lost quite a number of them and there was instability in the family. At that time, it was the witches that had the honour of being accused of being responsible, but we now know that child mortality is caused by carelessness or something. So, when I was born, my grandmother said, ‘this one has come to stay.’ But, incidentally, it wasn’t my own name. My grandfather was Ogbemudia. His parents called him that name. So, when I was born, my father decided to give me his own father’s name. He is Osaigbovo Ogbemudia. His Christian name was Sunday -S.O. Ogbemudia. When I was born, he gave me Osaigbovo Ogbemudia. So if I were to answer it like (Anyim Pius) Anyim, I would have said Ogbemudia Ogbemudia Ogbemudia. But I said no, I would answer my Christian name, Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia.
What influenced your decision to join the army?
I was in my father’s house at Agbado Street (Benin City) when a friend of mine said he heard the army would be coming to display. So, we all went to the King’s Square, where the Museum is now… the PWD (Ministry of Works) and our football field were also there. The soldiers arrived and matched from the D.O’s (District Officer) office through the ring around the museum and along the Mission Road. There was one man in front who juggled his stick and was playing unimaginable trick with it. I loved his act and said to myself, ‘I want to join the army and be like that man.’ That was what led me to the army. But I got to the army to know that the man was only a Sergeant. I didn’t know that he was only a Sergeant, I thought he was the commander of all of them there. At the recruitment centre, the military officer in charge of recruitment was asking us what we wanted to do in the army. All the boys before me were saying, ‘I want to be a driver, I want to be a mechanic, I want to be this, I want to be that.’ One Lance Corporal I’ve never met in my life came to me and said, if they asked me I should say I wanted to do general duty. I said what does that mean? But there was no time for him to explain to me. So when the officer asked me: ‘What do you want to do?’ and I said general duty, he said to me, are you mad? I said no sir. He asked, what’s your qualification, and I said school certificate. He said okay, stay there. He left me there I carried on attending to others. It was like he had forgotten about me totally.
I started blaming myself: ‘Why on earth did I accept that man’s suggestion without knowing what general duty means.’ Whether I had committed an offence or not, I didn’t know. So I stood there until he finished with the rest and he called me back and asked again, what did you say you want to do? I said, general duty. He posted me to number 8 Platoon. After three months training, those who wanted to be drivers, mechanics or whatever, were posted to their various institutions and I was left behind. Every morning, I was made to carry a rifle. Many a time I regretted it. Later, an officer arrived, his name was R.A. Njoku. He looked at me and said, can I take you to my platoon? I said yes sir. So, I went there. After about a month, they reported that the new recruit he brought was very competent and he needed further training. One morning, they told me I should get ready to go to Ghana for training. And in Ghana, they reported the same thing (that he was competent), and that I should proceed to the UK for further training. When we finished training in the UK, the Commandant announced that they have a soldier who had done so well, that if he were an Englishman, he would have asked him to remain here (UK) as a teacher, but that he would recommend that at his unit, they should post him to the headquarters in Accra. Up till that time, he didn’t mention any name, but suddenly, he said the name is Samuel…but he couldn’t pronounce Ogbemudia. I stood up and they all applauded me.
By the time I returned to Nigeria, getting ready to go to Ghana as an instructor, they said I should go to Lagos to take Royal West African Frontier Forces examination. So, I went. There was a young man who sat beside me who turned out to be Mobolaji Johnson. We did the exam, the result came and I passed. We were kept in the Barracks for seven days, after which we saw on the notice board names of those who passed. My name was there. So they sent me to the Military College for six months. Few days to the end of the training, they called me to the office and told me that I have been selected to command the passing out parade.
After that, they said I should go to the UK after which they sent us back to Nigeria. We landed at Kaduna and one of the officers came to inform me in the aircraft that there were many military officers at the lobby asking everyone who Samuel Ogbemudia was. I was afraid because I didn’t know why they were looking for me. Because of fear, I remained in the aircraft. I finally disembarked when there was no one left in the aircraft. As soon as I stepped into the lobby, Colonel Cavana walked over to me and said, ‘Samuel Ogbemudia?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He stretched out his hand and said, ‘We’ve heard so much about you.’ Twenty one days after my arrival, they announced a promotion for me. Again 21 days after, I got another promotion as Captain and they said I should get set to go to the Congo.
What was the reaction of your father and mother when you told them you were going to join the army?
I lost my father when I was very young. But my mother cried all night because some people in Benin told her that I was being taken to the war in Suez Canal. Truly, that was when the British Army invaded the Suez Canal. The white man had to come home with me to tell her that I wasn’t going to war, that I was going for training. The day I was to leave Ikeja, my mother was there. The luck I had was that we were dressed in suit rather than in military uniform. Even though she hugged me, she was still crying.
As soon as I landed in London and I was in the school, I sent her a photograph to assure her that I was in school and not in the warfront. It was after one year that I returned. I came home on leave. By then, I was in Kaduna. I went to my Commanding Officer and told him that I needed a car and he said yes, we will give you loan, go and look for the car that you like. I went to UTC and I saw an Opel Record. We paid 700 Pounds. (That included the cost of a comprehensive insurance cover.) When I traveled home (Benin) with my first car, many people were wondering. Some people went to my mother and told her, ‘look, some boys do steal cars and bring them home, ask your son where he got his from.’
The first day they saw me in military uniform was the day Archbishop Ekpu was made a Priest at Uromi, because I wore my uniform to the service and I read the lesson on that day. (Patrick Ebosele Ekpu, Archbishop Emeritus was ordained on July 7, 1963). They saw me wearing something on the shoulders, not a sergeant or corporal. So, they began to say, ‘it’s true oh, he is a soldier.’ Also, my in-law who was a sergeant in the police, told them that ‘this man is an officer, not like us oh.’
As a soldier and civilian, you have fought different battles. Which one, among them would you say was most challenging?
The one I fought as a soldier, I used weapons; the one I fought as a civilian, I used mouth. But the one I fought with mouth was much more challenging because, everyday something new was cropping up, especially as I was contesting against an incumbent governor, Prof. Ambrose Alli. The Nigerian Observer which I set up when I was military administrator, gave me hell. But the day after the result was announced that I won, the editor put a banner headline: ‘We offer you no apology, Ogbemudia is the best.’ People said I should sack him, but I said no. I called him and said, you know I have the right to sack you? He said yes. I asked him if he was prepared to give me the same loyalty he gave the other man, and he said yes. So, I said, go and do your job.
As a soldier, did you kill anybody?
I‘ve never killed anybody. Soldiers don’t kill people, they kill enemies. I killed enemies. And my type of profession is not shooting at somebody, it entails using heavy guns to range. For instance, as we are sitting here (in his living room), if somebody says to me that he believes the enemies are using the Ikpoba bridge, can you prevent them from using it, I can do that by what they call predicted shooting. And once I start, nobody will pass there. You pass there at your own risk.
Does the fact that somebody died in the course of your operation haunt you afterwards?
If the death involves my own person, yes, I will cry. I cried when my orderly was killed. We were going together, with about three feet between us, when he was hit by a bullet. The instruction was that we should disarm the Katangi Army in the northern command in Congo. The United Nations said we should leave where we were at 6 am. Less than 100 meters from the trenches we just left, there was volume of fire; bombs and all sorts of things.
Have you read any of the war memoirs written on Nigeria’s civil war by many war veterans? How do you see them; and why haven’t you written yours?
I have read so many of them. Some are merely exaggerated, others written from other people’s views and some are factual. The police said, what a man sees with his eyes is evidence. The man who saw, who took part and he stated what he saw and did, that I believe.
If you asked my why I haven’t written mine, I will tell you there are many things worrying me, and I don’t want to remember them. Not too bad, but they bring me funny memories. For example, at one stage, here in my compound, we had more than 500 people from the East who were being protected. I know their names, I know their addresses, but I don’t want to talk about them because it hurts.
Was the war really necessary?
Yes and no. Yes, because the two sides were adamant to caution. No, because we could have been better without the war. But it was necessary for each one to prove his point.
I fought on the federal side and I have no reason now to say I did not. But what I always believe is that what we entered the battle with, the idea of what we expected to achieve, we left them behind. Why did we fight? We said we didn’t want Nigeria to break. Why didn’t we want Nigeria to break? By coming together, we formed a more respectable society and that everybody there would be treated equally and merit would be at the top of the ladder. If we look at things since then, I think merit has been relegated. So, it’s no longer a very suitable thing to tell the man who died that the reason he died is no longer why he died.
Where did we go wrong?
We went wrong because the people who fought the war and were in a position to correct or implement the decisions reached, did not follow it up.
Does that suggest that war is still going on in our minds and social interaction?
Well, if you call it war, you won’t be too wrong. There is something they call cold war. I think, myself, that in the minds of some people, there is still that cold war. That was why many people called for a meeting of communities so that they can decide whether they want to go or whether they want to remain. For me, I’ve always wanted Nigeria to remain as one because we command greater respect than when we part ways.
When I led the Nigerian team to East Africa for sports, many countries were so few. The populations of some of them as announced were 1.2 million, 3 million, 4, 7, 20 million. Then, Nigeria, 100 and something million, everybody shouted. The so-called giant of Africa producing teams proportionate to its size.
What would you then suggest that the present government does about the recommendations of the national conference held two years ago?
When I traveled home (Benin) with my first car, many people were wondering. Some people went to my mother and told her, ‘look, some boys do steal cars and bring them home, ask your son where he got his from.’
I don’t know what is contained in the recommendations, so it would be wrong to say anything about it. But what I’ve always said is that we need a true federation; a federation where all the segments can grow at their own pace. It is not right that the Federal Government is paying N20 and so the state governments should also be paying N20. The state which can pay should pay and the state which cannot should pay whatever they can pay. So we need a true federation.
In America, you can be a lawyer in one state and may not be able to practice in another until you take their exams.
People say that corruption, decadence and other ills came to this country through the military, have you heard that and how does that come to you?
I’ve heard it, but it is wrong, it is not true that it came from the military. The military, as you know it, is by itself, a community; it’s by itself the best organised political party; it’s by itself, a standard that anybody can go with. But what we have always said is that if we form a government, we should not always stay too long because the dislike for it will be greater than the government it will replace.
They talk about corruption; that corruption is a bad thing, but they should name one country on the planet where there is no corruption. Over-orchestrating our own is not in our interest, that is my own view. There is a court of law, if you have evidence against anybody, carry him to the court and punish him. I’ve heard some Chinese leaders shot because of corruption; I heard that the former prime minister of Israel was just jailed 18 months for corruption, but they didn’t tell you what he did. So we should fight our own anti-corruption fight quietly, behind closed doors. Many people may not admit that they are corrupt because it is already a public issue, but they will do behind closed doors.
So what should be the remedy?
The remedy, in my personal opinion, is for Nigerians to sit down and discuss in earnest, not playing to the gallery. There is nothing wrong with Nigeria if we know how to pursue our agitation like a family. There are some families where you have children that are not doing well. The fathers don’t go to the streets shouting that the children are bad, unless the thing gets out of control. You can correct it inside the house and come out of the gate and smile. Tell me, in America, is there no corruption? Or is there no corruption in Britain, in France, in Russia? Corruption is everywhere but they are not orchestrating it as we are doing.
How were you able to achieve all you did as a military administrator?
First and foremost, you cannot compare the military with civilian government. The military was a unitary form of government, the governors were on posting. For instance, the Midwest had its constitution; the Western region had its constitution; the Northern region had its constitution, then there was a federal constitution. Yet, they didn’t argue with the federal; they tried to keep within the ambience of the constitution. But today, the governor is elected and he can do without listening to the federal.
For instance, you can prepare a budget in the military, the federal wants to know what you want to do, and they may tell you, ‘no, that’s not right, change it.’ But you can’t do that to a civilian governor. The political parties that are supposed to sit on the neck of the governors to see to it that they carry out all the promises in their campaign manifestoes are too weak to do that. So, for any state to perform requires the assistance of the central government. But the governors promise what will make them popular rather than what they can do. So you need a strong central political party with a think-tank that will influence the activities of governments. If they cannot, then they cannot achieve anything. So like I said, if you have a strong party, you can do well, but if you don’t have, no government can do well. The party has to be the think-tank of the government. All policies of the government must be reviewed by the party. In the army, that is what they do. I’ll give an example with when I built the Sapele bridge. Before the construction of the bridge, they used to cross the river with pontu. It cost us 1.5 million pounds and we wanted the money back. So, I went to Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was then the federal commissioner for finance. He said, I will pay you, and within 20 days, the cheque was ready. So, my friends in the West went to protest; they said, why are you doing like this? We have been writing to you to give us money, you didn’t. But when Ogbemudia wrote to you, you just gave him a cheque. Awolowo said yes, the man has a programme, you don’t have a programme. If you have any bring it. So they said okay, we will go and prepare our programme. When Awolowo came here (Benin), he said to me, until this morning when I left the office, no programme has come. So you cannot run a government without a programme.
In a nutshell, I was able to do all I did because I had good training from Fort Bragg. Then, I was determined to prove my critics wrong, particularly those who said soldiers are illiterates.
It is said that when you came in as governor of Midwest region, you already had a blueprint made by Dennis Osadebey. Those who came before you, like David Ejoor, didn’t run with that vision, but you came and worked with it. We want to confirm if that’s true?
Let me take the story back. In 1962, the Federal Government entered into exchange programme with the United States and they decided that they should start implementing the content of the exchange programme. The first one was to train an officer in counter insurgency and they nominated me to go to the United States army special welfare school at Fort Bragg, South Carolina in 1962. When I was leaving Nigeria, I had in mind that I was going for a military training. But on getting there, I found that they taught nothing about military; it was all about governing and how to build. In the examination I first sat for in the school, one of the questions was: ‘A country called Brybania is passing through a difficult time: drought, flood, all sorts of disaster. As a presidential adviser on agriculture, medical, health, etc. In 5,000 words, how would you advise him?’ I did my best to pass the exam, not because I was interested but because if I failed, I won’t get promotion. When I came back, I complained to the Chief of Staff that the course they sent me had nothing to do with the military, so they cancelled it.
On the day we arrived in Benin after the liberation (2nd Division), they invited the permanent secretaries to come and brief me as the temporary administrator; everything that was said about Brybania surfaced. When the Permanent Secretary of Agriculture started talking, I said stop, and I ran home to collect my handout, went through the solution and returned with the papers. When they finished talking, I said, my instruction would be as follows. So I gave them what I wanted from them. Not only were they surprised, they thought that every military man was an illiterate. After that, I told the Secretary to the Government I wanted so, so and so, but few days later, he did something totally different. I called him and asked why he did that, and he said he had the impression that that was what I wanted, and that in any case, that was what they had always done. So, I said, from today, I wiould not give you verbal instructions. All my instructions would be in writing and that was exactly what I did, from volume 1 to volume 20.
One of the funny ones was the National Sports festival. After going round the state, I wrote a paper to everybody: National Sports Festival is on so, so date, we have so many weeks available to us for training. The following steps would be taken; Ministry of Works would go to Afuze with the attached drawings and build indoor sports halls for training, quarters to accommodate the athletes, and so on.
Then coming to the Sports Council itself, I instructed that two camps be established: Afuze and Fugar. I said Fugar would be for basketball because we had a Reverend Father there who was a frontline basketball player in the United States who had agreed to train our boys. At the end of the training, they got to Lagos and nobody was able to compete with them. So everything I said was on paper. These were additions to the dreams of Osadebey. Then, Osadebey had proposed a university for the Midwest, but without specifying the location. He set up a committee headed by Prof. Thomas Oritsejolomi. So, when I came, I called him and he advised me. That was how University of Benin came about.
You also set up a bank…
At that time, we were banking with ACB. I had a friend who came to me one morning and said the manager had asked him to come for a loan. I asked him what he wanted to do with a loan? He said, ‘well, I don’t know but he asked me to come.’ I said okay, you go. He came back and said he gave him a loan of 700 pounds but he took back 500 pounds and gave him two hundred. When I asked how he was going to repay it, he said they didn’t discuss that. There and then I said we were not going to put our money in ACB again. I called my commissioner for finance and instructed him to work out the modality for establishing a bank. He did and we floated the New Nigeria Bank.
You have always lived in this house?
Yes! Even as a governor. When I was appointed governor, I went to the Government House after Ejoor left. I looked at it and I felt it was too big. I might take my children there and when they leave there tomorrow, they may feel frustrated and disappointed that we were coming to a smaller house. So, for their own future, I decided I would stay with them. The day of the coup and they gave the governors 24 hours to leave Government House, it didn’t affect me. I just took my brief case and came back home. And during my second tour as a civilian governor, I stayed here (private house). The only difference was that we had many policemen and soldiers, about 20 or 30 of them, but inside the house, the same cooks, the same stewards; I never accepted any government’s own. They remained in the Government House. When visitors came to my house in the evening, they got only what they would get at my private house, not as in Government House. The only time I slept in the Government House was when the Sultan of Sokoto came, I stayed there for three or so nights.
What does The Sun lifetime Achievement Award mean to you?
First of all, I believe the award is a recognition of my activities. And to put it in one word, I have been vindicated.