From Petrus Obi, Enugu
HONOURABLE Juventus Chijioke Ojukwu is a retired army officer who joined the army as an officer cadet in 1962. He trained and graduated in Canada and represented Idemili Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives (1979 to 1983).
A classmate of President Muhammadu Buhari at the Nigerian Military Training College, Ojukwu who fought the civil war on the Biafra side said he was detained twice for alleged involvement in the 1966 coup. He also told our reporter that the Nigerian Civil war was not inevitable.
He spoke extensively on his days as a soldier, the 1966 coups, Biafra as well as other burning issues just as he boldly told whoever cares to know that he joined the All Progressives Congress, APC because of Buhari.
How did you join the army, sir?
My interest in the Nigerian Army was enkindled when I was at Kings College as a cadet. The principal then, a white man, saw the potentials in me and said “…you either be a lawyer or an officer in the army”. From there, I went to the army but before then, I was in the Governor General’s Cadet. We were just three in Nigeria namely, Duro Ajayi who was my classmate at Kings College and course mate in the army and the late Brigadier General Audu Bako who was at the Government Secondary School, Keffi. So, we were selected as the Governor General’s cadets from among cadets in the various colleges and that meant we were on scholarship and if we performed well, we would be enlisted into the Nigerian Army. It was not automatic. We competed with other young Nigerians who wanted to enlist in the Nigerian Army, but we were the Governor General’s cadets and that was during the time of Sergeant Robertson.
I later attended Nigerian Military Training College Kaduna, the formative ground for those who aspired to be officers in the Nigerian Army. We spent six months. Some of my colleagues served as Generals. I was not that fortunate; because of the Nigerian civil war, I did not get to that rank in the Nigerian Army. However, I give thanks to God. I am still regarded as a retired officer of the Nigerian Army. The books say so. I was among those granted presidential pardon by General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd).
You just mentioned the civil war. What role did you play during the war?
Of course you know that in 1966, there was a military coup in Nigeria led by some majors referred to as the five majors. The most famous of them all was Major Kaduna Nzeogwu. Then Major Ademoye, Major Ifeajuna and Major Chukwuka. We were still young officers and so we never knew about the planning. Technically, everybody who was in the army was involved. In Kaduna for instance, everybody was certainly involved. Then I was serving under the late Brigadier Hassan Usman Katsina, a great man and good hearted indeed. There are not many Nigerians like him. He said he didn’t like coups as they beget coups. I will never forget that. He was a great friend of Chukwuma Nzeogwu. As a result of that coup, some of us were rounded up and imprisoned for reasons we did not know. I still don’t know why. That was after General Aguiyi Ironsi had taken over from the coup plotters. Some of us were in handcuffs and taken to prison and while we were in prison, crisis ensued. Later, we were released and the Nigerian civil war broke out.
So you were released in 1967?
Yes, that was my first imprisonment because I was imprisoned again. So, it was during that short period of release that the war broke out and hitherto there was the Eastern Command of the Nigerian Army. There were so many things people don’t get right when they are reflecting on Nigerian history. The Eastern Command of the Nigerian Army later metamorphosed into the Biafran Army. The Nigerian Army was hitherto made up of the Mid-Western Command, the Eastern Command and the Western Command. I was in charge of the Armoured Corps, because my specialty is armoury. I trained as an Armoured Officer in Canada. So, when the war broke out, there were only two of us who were knowledgeable in armoury. Myself and my late friend, Colonel Chris Igbokwe. That suffices for the role I played during the Nigerian civil war. When I was in Ibadan prison, I did a substantial manuscript of several pages but the prison authorities seized it. I will talk about it in the new one I am doing.
At what point sir, were you arrested the second time?
After the war, Lt Colonel Yakubu Gowon detained us again; those of us who were still alive. Some of our colleagues had died. He kept us in prison for 5 years. Some stayed there for 6 years. I spent a total of 6 years and 5 months in prison. The war ended in January 1970. I went straight from the war front to prison. We were asked to report at Owerri and from there, we were bundled on a night flight to Lagos, not only those who were involved in the war but all those who were in Nigerian Army and had fought on the side of Biafra. Then they did their investigations and sent some of us back to prison and I was one of them.
Would you say the war was necessary at that time?
The war was never necessary. No war is ever necessary. You may ask if it was inevitable, avoidable and others. Many Nigerians and many leaders have not shown that they have good hearts and that they have the spirit of God. They are ignorant of the fact that nobody has a permanent abode in this world. We have very few statesmen in this country. When we don’t have such people with human heart, war can always come up. So, the Nigerian civil war could have been avoided. I don’t want to blame any side.
Why are you in APC?
To tell you the truth, I’m in APC, because of Buhari. I could never have been in PDP, if there was no APC given the type of people in the party. Let me tell you a short story. In 1978, when the ban on politics was lifted, I visited a friend of mine in Lagos, Gen Ibrahim Babangida. At that time, I used to visit Buhari who was then minister of petroleum. So, Babangida asked me the party I would join since the ban had been lifted. I told him I didn’t know the party I would join. He knew I was a politician. I equally told him that I knew the one I would not join. But I mentioned a few persons who were in the party and he told me the party was NPN. Each time I tell people why I joined APC; they tell me I am naïve. But then, Buhari’s somebody I know and can associate very well with. That was why I joined APC.
During my time in the Nigerian military, I met a lot of people and I never knew any of them could be a head of state. That was not our ambition. We had good training, good upbringing. We were trained by people who had honour and integrity and imparted such on us. My principal at Kings College was a retired British officer. So, in the army, I met people like Gen Buhari, the late Audu Bako, Chris Igbokwe and Gen Ajayi who was my classmate, Gen Olawoni, Shehu Yar’Adua and the rest of them. We continued like that. Some people did not make it but these ones I mentioned did and we grew up to be officers and gentlemen of the Nigerian military. We loved the profession. I still do. Buhari has a Master’s Degree in Strategic Studies but because our people are loud mouthed they keep vilifying others. The bottom line is that many of them are Godless. Anybody who knows God will not be running others down. In this interview, if I abuse anybody you can call me to order.
Are you disappointed in Buhari, given the present situation in the country?
I’m not disappointed, not at all. Though people are suffering, they are hungry but it’s not the making of the president. When Buhari was campaigning, his emphasis was security, corruption and the economy. To begin with, our economy is not doing very well but it has improved. We must look at history. Before Buhari came in, we had a booming economy to the extent that we had what was referred to as excess crude oil account and healthy foreign reserves. Some people including Chief Olusegun Obasanjo advised us to save for the rainy days but Nigerians opposed the idea. Many people were interested in sharing the money and this was on the eve of President Buhari taking over. The foreign reserves plummeted. On top of that, about that same week, earnings in crude oil slumped. Globally the prizes dropped. Not only that. The production of oil, which we exported, dropped from 200Bpd to 100Bpd. All these happened as Buhari was coming in and people have very short memory.
The second thing is security. There is insecurity in the land. When you talk of security you don’t mean Boko Haram insurgency alone. There is kidnapping, armed robbery and what have you. But the Boko Haram insurgency has really affected the entire country. Remember, when Boko Haram started, some people including one columnist said the insurgency does not exist and that it was simply a ploy to pull down Goodluck Jonathan’s administration and make his government unworkable.
Security, I must say was overlooked by the previous government. Another writer blamed Buhari for what was happening in the North-east. In my contribution, I said you don’t need to blame the General alone. You have to blame the super general and that is the commander-in-chief. The president was interested in being re-elected and not in security. But Buhari has tackled security headlong.
Now the big one is corruption. I have heard people ask, “Is it anti-corruption crusade that we shall eat? People are hungry and they are suffering.” There are people who will prefer to be given N10, 000 by the PDP and let the looting continue. So, in anti-corruption war, I must say a big kudos to President Muhammadu Buhari. This is actually the first time in Nigeria that corruption is being exposed in broad daylight. Anybody who tells you that Buhari is not truly fighting corruption must be a die-hard criminal. Now we have the whistle-blowing saga. Without that, nobody could have known that a top official in NNPC hid a huge amount of money in his compound. How could you have known that about two $289 million dollars was withdrawn and kept somewhere? There are so many things happening.
However, there are bad eggs within the administration that are corrupt. It takes people like you and I to expose them. There are usually people who are saboteurs in the administration of a good man.
The Igbos feel they are being marginalized by the Buhari administration. Are they?
They are right to feel the way they feel but feelings are not always correct. They often derive from emotions and when emotions and reasons contest, emotion will always win. But it does not mean it’s correct. Reasons are based on hard facts and premises. Having said that, when our people look at some appointments, we feel we are not being treated fairly. It’s correct. It’s right as well. However, it must not be stretched too far and issues must be addressed correctly and sensibly and it’s here that I want to ask our people to rethink. Yes, they need to do some rethinking in the area of politics. If you feel aggrieved, there are ways of addressing grievances. In fact, in the army, we have what we call redress of grievance. It’s not by abusing anybody. It takes you nowhere. During the 2015 presidential election, Igbos did not vote for Mr President. Even Igbo votes given to him were less than what he actually got. People don’t talk about these things. INEC returning officers contributed to the mess. They did the same thing to me in 1979. I was to be rigged out because the opposition party then said they were going to return all their members. But I told them that they couldn’t do that because I am a trained soldier and will guard my votes. Our people have to learn how to address issues and ways of doing things. They have to think of another way of addressing Nigerian politics. We must adopt constructive method of courting political enemies. There are some people, especially journalists, who think they know it all. What they write with their pen is hatred and betrayal and they think they are fighting the Igbo cause. We are all human beings and we should be careful the way we do things. We have to come round and see how we can consolidate our relationship as a nation. No one group can become president without the alliance of other groups and you cannot have the support of others when you keep insulting them. So, this is a very important call to the Igbos.
Do you think there’s still need for Biafra, given the agitation of IPOB and MASSOB?
I don’t think there’s need for Biafra today, tomorrow or even next. You work with the tools you have. You are a first class journalist and you are using your tools of being an inquisitor to discharge your duties. Now, some of the tools I have are my background and training and I know in the military, you have to examine issues looking at the pros and cons and then you arrive at a solution. My reason for saying no is this. What’s my objective of having Biafra? If the prime objective is to be free from marginalization, it cannot be achieved by having Biafra. This is because there is marginalization even among the people who claim they want to go. In Enugu State here, there is marginalization. In my hometown, there is a level of marginalization. Biafra will not even guarantee better life for Igbo people, because the people who constitute this area are very hardworking and resourceful people. They are intelligent and independent-minded people. If you now have a component known as Biafra, what you are saying is that we want a place where we shall be free to do whatever we want. Some people feel that independence means absolute freedom. Lawlessness and indiscipline. But the level of indiscipline we exhibit now will breed anarchy. What we need is a culture that will make us realize our responsibilities and our duties. Let us start by obeying traffic laws here. Let us start by paying our taxes. Let us start by educating our people on the need to establish good relationship with others out there.
There have been defections from PDP to APC in the South-east. Is that good for the South-east?
I say yes and no. I say yes if the motive is to strengthen our bargaining power. But if the motive is to belong to where they can always chop, we will have to look at that. Most persons who want to defect are people who don’t have good character. But the constitution allows freedom of association and so forth. But if I had a say in APC, I will be looking at those who are defecting with one eye. Nigerians don’t know what it means to be in the opposition. An opposition party tries to ensure that the man ruling is on his toes. But if it tallies with my appeal to the people to give support to the president, that will be good for us. There is need for moral regeneration. According to George Washington, democracy must be anchored on morality and morality must be anchored on the fear of God. Take away these things from democracy and it would not work.
What would you tell Buhari if you see him today looking at the current economic situation in the country?
I have seen him a few times in the past. If I see him now, I will look at him in the face, I will tell him to keep asking God for the grace not to be deterred in the discharge of his duties and to also pray for good health. He must also watch his back because there are saboteurs. The other advice, I will keep to myself. Many of us pay lip service to God. They think the world ends here. Mother Theresa was known for taking care of the poorest of the poor. She saw the face of God in all those people. And that should be our disposition too.