General Godwin Abbe (retd) is a former Minister of Defence and Interior, who will attain the Biblical age of three scores and ten on January 10, 2019. Ahead of his 70th birthday, he fielded questions from some journalists on a wide range of issues, including next year’s general elections. TONY OSAUZO covered the session.
He is excited about the elections, to see where the pendulum will swing, but unlike some retired Generals, he gave reasons why he will not take sides openly. He however advised President Buhari to graciously step down if he loses next year’s election.
At 70 , how does it feel?
For me, it is exciting and I also welcome the new age with mixed feelings. When you attain this age you suddenly realise that God has been merciful to you. You thank God for the protection one has enjoyed without money. But basically it is more of gratitude to God because I know that is not by might or right reaching this age.
What has life taught you at 70?
I learnt to be grateful to God, to be patient, satisfied with whatever I have and I have now leant to shun materialism. It is clear that life itself is journey of many multi-dimensional lessons but above all, life has taught me to give gratitude to God and any man that has been kind to you.
Why did you choose to join the military?
At childhood it was an excitement. I went into the military at the age of 18. You will be amazed that as a soldier then in Benin, you didn’t have to pay for a bus ride or pay for ticket to enter Ogbe stadium to watch a football match, these were the excitements that we saw, watching military films must have played a role and they were part of the excitement too. My father was a policeman, it was a combination of all these.
How did you survive many military coups?
Oh, you want to know if I was involved? Am alive and you are seeing me. The reason was simply loyalty.
What can you describe as your highpoint in the military?
As my career progressed I have had several exciting moments but I look forward to a brighter new day. I cannot pinpoint at one if one would be frank. The first pleasure was surviving the Nigeria civil war, that was the first joy because everybody especially those of us who participated, saw jets looming at the very lower level so when General Gowon declared that the war had ended when he said no victor, no vanquished and we should embrace each other, was one of the most exciting moments for us because we had assignments, rumour was on that my battalion was to be given new mission, so it was a huge relief. I didn’t think that the war was necessary; I thought it was nasty and I was too young to understand the totality of it.
There is this notion that the military incursion into our political system affected our democratic development. Do you agree?
You see, that expression is usually made from the position of ignorance. If you look at the history of other nations that have developed like the Americas, Great Britain, Germany, India and Japan, most of these countries had military interregnum if you recall. The profession of the military is an all embracing one so it is out of place to say military incursion in Nigeria politics has been to the disadvantage of the development of the country. At that time of our social political evolution, the military thought they could make a change because those who had responsibility to bring about continuous unfettered change didn’t show sign that they had capacity or they were willing to, so the military thought they could do it better.
When the military came in, the society applauded them. Was there any military government that ruled without having civilians as active members either in advisory capacity as commissioners or ministers? The truth of the matter is that this is where we are as a nation and that is why the military in 1999 decided that enough is enough. In fact, the military deserve commendation. It is a mark of qualitative leadership for the military to say we tried and we have failed and we accepted democratization in 1999, let us hand over to democratically elected government at that time General Abubakar; I was a member of the provisional ruling council as soon as Abacha died, we said no, we should hand over. You see, the military did not rule in isolation, so if anyone is saying that, it is wrong; our predicament predates that.
We have had obstacle as a nation to our development, which is what is still on now. Some nations of the world have seen us a source of raw material and seen us as a market for their finished goods, everything that is said is immaterial and they have everything to keep that status quo, they will find a leader who is outspoken and focussed and they will make life miserable for him, they will squeeze him externally, they have the power, information and the technology to do it and they also will get into us and set confusion by setting one against the other. They know our weaknesses, religion, tribal, ethnic and they capitalize on all that. It is unfortunate we also encourage them. Why would we now allow foreigners to come and start pontificating and telling us about democracy and in the process they are sowing seed of discord among us?
Are we not giving these people reason to intervene in our democracy when we still engage in undemocratic practices?
What should concern us as a nation is to address some of these weaknesses that we have identified. The Emir of Kano was discussing socio-malaise, a polygamous system that serves us no good. He was discussing about the North, it is also practiced in the South. How would you imagine a 60-year-old man marrying a 25 years old girl and after ten years of marriage the 60-year-old man is 75 and the girl is 35 years old and probably they have five children but because of recklessness, the old dies leaving nothing for the children. It is the amalgamation of the children that will be the ones in the streets, snatching ballot boxes and doing thuggery because of desperation.
So we should start having government that will address some of these levels of indiscipline in the society. It is only when we start addressing this that we will not have an individual whose take home pay is probably N100 ,000 per month and he has 13 children, tell me how he will not be corrupt.
Is it that the government doesn’t know what do or what?
You are discussing government as if government is coming from the moon, government is from within, is it not from among us that you select people at the ward, local and state level? Is it not from among us we select people to go to the state house of assembly to represent us? When they come to solicit votes they come with schnapps and kolanuts and you expect them to go there and make laws? What kind of laws are they going to make when they have not recovered the money extorted from them by the same society? These are the same people that when they get to position of authority their family will swamp on them that this is their opportunity, then tomorrow you turn around that they are corrupt?
How did your parents take your decision to join the military?
My father didn’t like it but my mother and grandmother were very excited. My father hated me joining the military but my grandmother was happy because she thought that according to Benin mythology, I was her father reincarnate, that I died fighting within the state city system, that I was going to take the job I had done before.
Was there any situation where you had a close shave with death?
In June, 1969, I was involved in an ambush in Kwale and we were coming from a village called Ossisa in a town called Utagba, they ambushed us. We were nine in the vehicle but I survived with my orderly who later died. They were better, they anticipated our movement because the Chief of Staff then, General Hassan, was visiting Kwale.
I could have been killed but something went wrong with the person who was to shoot me and he said get up, get up and immediately I took to my heels and got lost inside the bush and when his weapon started firing I was in a different direction, I did not move so he got scared and ran away.
So later in the evening, I came back with my colleagues, late Shagaya and cleared them while they were celebrating and we removed the dead bodies. That is the closest that I can remember, you know we were all boys, I was about 20 years old. There were fears but not the kind I have now because I have children, I won’t like to do those things I did 50 years ago.
What is your message to the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB?
You see, every agitation is centred on dissatisfaction and injustice. As far as I am concerned, based on their observation, they think that the country should be restructured, that there are people who are monopolizing the resources of the country and that if there is equity and justice, why will they want to get out of a system that is fair? So the solution is for them to be told that they can agitate and not to declare war against the state, it is very risky because they themselves will not survive it.
How can there be an end to the Boko Haram insurgency?
Why is Boko Haram striving? It is striving because of injustice and poverty. Terrorism generally is premised on resistance to existing authority. It is very difficult to give a date when this kind of war will end. It is like a medical doctor that is trained, coming to tell you that a patient diagnosed with cancer will be cured on a particular date, you will know that that doctor is incompetent. Terrorism in any society is usually a long protracted war.
What is your position on the recent Amnesty International report on Nigeria’s approach to security challenges?
You hear of our soldiers going to fight and they are not properly armed, we have to shut our eyes and really arm them so that they can incapacitate anyone from stopping the government from delivering and when you are talking of incapacitation, I am talking of real incapacitation, bringing death and destruction to those who will stop us from progressing which is what I think the president is doing.
The Amnesty International, are they here to help us or they are here to destabilize us? What kind of comments are they making? Somebody slapped my son, he has bitten him, my son is bleeding and you say I should not hit him with a club and break his head and remove the teeth that he used in biting my son? You will say you are amnesty international and you are coming here to be discussing fundamental human rights of people who are destroying, killing innocent Nigerians in the North Eastern part of this country, you are saying that I should not remove the teeth of that guy, I will remove the teeth, that is what the Nigerian Army should do and not listen to human rights, it is when we have succeeded in incapacitating them, and incapacitating them anywhere in the world, is usually a long drawn struggle, this is not a thing for politicians to discuss, we have to attain military victory substantially, clear the coast, then move development there; give them water, give them light, empower the local government then you have law and order, nobody will come and ask them whether they are Nigerians or not. There is nothing religious about it.
Countdown to 2019 election, are you worried with the state of affairs?
No, I am not worried, I expect that we will get over it, we may have challenges but we will get over it, what we are doing now is not new. Is this the first election we are going to conduct in this country? It is just the politicians who are beating drums of war, they are afraid of their investments, they are afraid of their future, they are worried that some of them might drop when they lose so they concur all sorts of stories but for those of us who are watching, there is nothing to be afraid of, if the sky is falling down, it will fall on all, so what we expect to happen is that the needful should be done and we are expecting that the police protect all Nigerians who want to vote and go and perform their civic duties unmolested and we are expecting that the ballot boxes should not be snatched, that is what the policemen are paid for and we are saying that no citizen should be beaten and the police will turn blind eye.
Some former military officers seem divided over support for Buhari. Where do you stand?
It will be uncharitable at this point in time for me to take sides, I am going to exercise my right to vote and that is personal to me and I will rather wish at my level that I am allowed and all the citizens to decide who they want to rule them. If they want President Buhari to continue, good for them, he will continue and if they want another person, so be it and President Buhari should be prepared to step down, nothing is forever but I will not at this point take sides. Because if I take sides at the national level, I may not be helping the situation, I may be inflaming an already combustive situation. Buhari was sick and some people said he should resign, that was uncharitable, somebody who was sick, does he have a mind of his own?