By Omoniyi Salaudeen
After a prolonged rebuff, the Niger Delta Avengers has agreed to put on hold its earlier threat to declare a republic of its own on October 1 and tentatively acceded to the Federal Government’s entreaty to dialogue on the possible way to end the lingering crisis in the oil rich region. In this interview, a respected retired army General and former minister of police affairs, Gen David Jemibewon, while lending support to the idea of a roundtable talk, expressed absolute confidence in the capacity of the Nigerian army to quell destructive activities of any recalcitrant group, including the militants in the creeks.
He said: “I want to believe that in spite of a few things we have read about the military in recent times, Nigeria military is equal to the task.”
Last week, former President Olusegun Obasanjo expressed a very serious concern about the unity of the nation in view of the hostilities that have engulfed the country: the Bokom Haram insurgency, destruction of oil installation in the Niger Delta region, Biafra agitation for self determination, Fulani herdsmen, kidnapping and a host of others. As one of those who fought in the civil war to keep Nigeria one, how do you feel now seeing the nation drifting?
From the short span of life that I have lived in this country and from what I have seen and what I know, it is unfortunate that we are where we are today and seeing so many groups causing instability in different regions. But again, it is not unexpected in a country where there is multiplicity of various professions, tribes, communities, religious affiliations and so on. I think what is important is that in spite of these divisions we forge common unity among the various interest groups. So, what is happening may be something we don’t expect, but it cannot be ruled out in a circumstance like ours. It is only the level at which it is happening that is frightening. So, having fought in the civil war and having lived the number of years I have lived and opportunities I have had, one feels slightly disappointed with all that is happening. But I don’t think we should lose hope.
We should continue to do our best. People who have the spirit of building a strong nation should get together and continue to do their best to promote those things that unite us rather than those things that divide us. In any society, you find good people, you will find people who are negative and you find people who are positive.
In a situation like this, it is possible to get those who are positive to convince those who are negative to think positively. So, I want to believe that there are more good Nigerians than those not too good Nigerians. We should continue to do our best to keep the country together.
Some well-meaning Nigerians strongly believe that the unity of this country can no longer be sustained under the present structure and, therefore, want a restructuring that could promote harmonious relationship among the various ethnic nationalities.
What is your take on this?
What is restructuring? I have always said that we need proper definition of the word restructuring and why we need to do it. Is there any other word for restructuring? For me, restructuring can be applied to any situation. It can be applied to personal life of human beings by way of restructuring a pattern of behavior.
It can also be applied to a family, a community and a country as well. But it requires definition so that we know the content of that restructuring. I think we need to have a proper definition of the concept. When we have arrived at a consensus as to what we mean by restructuring, we can now say this is the plan for restructuring and these are the sequences. Nobody should be afraid of restructuring once it is well defined. But what are the contents of restructuring? That is the way I want to go. And that is why there is a need to talk first and have a proper definition of it.
Part of the highlights of the agitation for restructuring is the need for power devolution to the constituent parts. Are you opposed to power devolution?
Devolution of power is one of the issues. What are the other issues? From my own position, I am not opposed to restructuring. Restructuring is something that must happen, if there is to be progress and development. But devolving powers may not necessarily be the only thing that is required in the restructuring people are advocating. I am not opposed to restructuring.
But whether we restructure or not, there should be sanity in this country.
At the moment, one cannot say that he is happy with all that is happening. But then, we must come to terms with what we mean by restructuring. In other words, there must be a dialogue.
There is a renewed threat to the unity of the country now from the Niger Delta Avengers. In their latest released statement, they said they would declare the Republic of Niger Delta on October 1 which coincidently is the day of independence celebration. How do you feel with this threat?
If you look at what has always happened in the Niger Delta over a periodic space of time, you will find out that these type of things come up from time to time. From Isaac Boro till now, there has always been something uncomfortable coming from there. But we must realize that those who create this situation are not necessarily the elders or the highly successful and most prominent Nigerians from that region. So, while it is disturbing, I don’t think we should take it as being the decision of majority of the people in that region. We must not treat the action of few dissidents and come to the conclusion that it is the entire population of the region that is against the unity of the country. Like it had happened in the past, I want to believe that the crisis will be a thing of the past. While it is very discomforting, I don’t think we should assume that the agitation represents the view of majority and enlightened people of that region.
Will it be right then to dismiss the threat as a joke?
We cannot dismiss it as a joke. It is a signal, but we cannot decide to commit suicide because of that threat.
We should rise up against the threat. But we should not because of the threat label the entire populace as wanting to destroy the country.
You mentioned similar attempt by Boro in the past to declare a republic. As we read in history, Boro actually held down the country for good 12 days after the declaration of Niger Delta Republic. Don’t you think the Avenger group too is capable of doing the same thing?
You are a young man, younger than I am. And probably too, you are a historian, I wouldn’t know. I don’t know the number of days, but I know lives were lost and it was a great distraction. But all the same, the country remains united. The country is greater than any individual; it is greater than any regional power within the federation. We fought during the Nigerian civil war and the country remains united.
All I am saying is that there will always be threats, but wherever the threat is coming from, I want to believe that with determination and unity, we will quell the threat. That is the point I am making. If it is the entire Niger Delta region that is against the country, it is a different matter. It would have been good to have total unity in the country, but it is not so for now.
Even in the United States as a great country, what unites them is their powers, their unity. Yet, you have people taking guns here and there and killing people. You cannot but find this type of things in the society because of the nature of communication. Some people want to copy what others are doing whether it is positive or negative. So, you find a lot of things happening which ordinarily should not happen. Whatever happens in America, within minute or second, you get the information in Nigeria. Whatever happens in the UK, Germany or Russia, within a matter of minute, you get the information across the world.
So, you find people who are copying without minding whether it is negative or positive and disrupting the society. However, once majority is united against the minority and with unity, nothing is impossible.
If the avengers turn down all entreaties for peaceful dialogue, do you think they have all it takes to sustain a Republic?
That is why I told that while we should take the threat very seriously, we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over it because those in authority, those in charge of operation of government are in support of the unity of the country. You cannot but have some dissidents who are not happy about certain things. That is why I am saying we shouldn’t dismiss the threat but we shouldn’t allow the threat to get us stalked. We must ensure that we improve the quality of life of the people in the society in which we live in and I am sure government is doing just exactly that.
But how does it sound to you hearing them challenging the military to come and meet them in the creeks?
Because you are a journalist, you may not know about military operation. Who are they to challenge the military? What powers do they have? What training do they have for them to challenge the military? I believe our military is equal to the task. I am not too sure and I don’t believe there can be any clash that will be above the one we had during the Nigerian civil war.
And Nigerian military came on top. That must be our reference point upon which we should rely. I want to believe that in spite of a few things we have read about the military in the recent times, Nigerian military is equal to the task.
Is it possible for any of the ethnic nationalities agitating for self determination to walk out of the Nigerian state peacefully rather than going into any major confrontation like the civil war?
It can only happen through the plebiscite, I don’t think so. I am not too sure that there is any country that will be willing to disintegrate without proper constitutional procedure.
But it is possible through plebiscite to let such group walk away?
I wouldn’t use the word walk away. If the constitution makes provision for such and stipulates what method to adopt, of course, it is a possibility. But I am not too sure any country will allow it. A country is like a family. When you take a single unit of family, nobody will want any member of his family to just walk away disassociating him or herself from the family.
But, of course, if there is an agreement that in the event of certain things happen, we will come together and discuss how we can go in our different directions, such method will be adopted. Without that, I don’t think it is possible for any country to break away like that.
How would you react to the Boko Haram insurgents seeking to swap Chibok girls with their colleagues held in detention by the government?
I must be honest with you; I am not sufficiently informed about other things other than what I read in the newspapers.
And I think the Chief of Army Staff has responded appropriately and positively by saying that the decision on the matter is a political one. The job of the military is to bring peace and be on top of security. I wouldn’t want to make any further comment beyond what I have said.
What is the way forward to nip these hostilities and agitations in the bud so that the unity of the country can be sustained?
I think we must continue with dialogue, we must continue with discussion, we must continue with exchange of ideas.
Even within those people who are not agitating for anything, we should be able to ask them their own idea about how we can address these problems. For the People who are agitating, they may not be happy because they haven’t got sufficient information.
So, communication both formal and informal is very important. And government must also have a means of getting information not necessarily through the constitutional method of military intelligence but through the various leaders who have a means of obtaining information beyond the constituted channels.
Sometimes, some of those people working with the authority will just want to give beautiful stories that will please their bosses, whereas they may not go into the in-depth of what is happening. Therefore, government must go beyond the procedure of getting information.
Gen Alani Akinrinade disclosed to me in my recent interview with him that you both attended Offa Grammar School and also coincidentally met in the military College.
How would you recall the memory of those good-old-days as school boys?
Yes, I think it will be correct to say that Gen Akinrinade was my senior at Offa Grammar School. He was a year ahead of me and he has been a great admirer of mine. He had been a very decent gentleman both as a student and as a senior in the military. He had always been my senior and I admire him very greatly. We had a very good relationship even though we didn’t know what the future had in store for us when we were at Offa Grammar School. Right from Offa Grammar School, we had a very good relationship. On one or two occasions, we had the opportunity of attending the same course. He has been very supportive; he is somebody I feel absolutely proud of both in and out of uniform. He is a very decent person. And fortunately, his son and my son are really pretty close. They went to the same secondary school also in Offa. ‘Lere was my son’s best man when he got married. My son was also ‘Lere’s best man when he (‘Lere) got married. So, it has been a well knit family. The foundation started when we were youths when we didn’t know what the future held for us.
So, he is somebody I have a very great respect for and I am happy for him. He was a very competent officer.
Oh, what a great coincidence? You met in the army and your children also continued with the relationship.
Our relationship didn’t start in the army. We met at Offa Grammar School. Then, he joined the army and I also joined the army and the relationship has remained. As a matter of fact, I probably would have left the army earlier than I did, but because he became Chief of Army Staff, I just felt it wasn’t going to be fair to leave the army and I made him to know that. In fact, I showed him a draft letter of my retirement but I shelved it because he became Chief of Army Staff. Like I said, I have many good things to say about him. And it is not just me alone; even those who didn’t have the privilege of attending the same school with him at the lower level enjoyed good relationship with him in the army.
Coming such a long way from grammar school, was there any tendency from him to give preference against your other colleagues in the course of your military career?
Up to the time I left the army, there was no preference for anybody. Your performance and your competence were those things that earned you high positions. There was no preference. But if you know somebody and you have a good opinion about him as a boss, it becomes incumbent on that person, if he is reasonable, to do his very best to support such boss. That is exactly what happened. When I was in the army, I used the opportunity well by performing to the satisfaction of my boss irrespective of who he was and where he came from. So, there was no time I either solicited for promotion or transfer. I just did my best and God was very supportive of my career.
So, who eventually left who?
I left the army before him.
And how did he feel when you left?
I shelved my earlier retirement plan because I wanted to give him my support when he became Chief of Army Staff.
From there, he became the Chief of Defence Staff, the first officer to hold that position and he held it pretty well.
How did he react when you eventually bowed out?
There was no need discussing that with him. Everybody joined the army on his own and everybody had the chance to leave when he wished, particularly when you have the opportunity of leaving honourably which I did. I was perhaps one of the very few who wrote the application to say they wanted to leave the army. I must praise and show gratitude to President Shehu Shagari because the year I really wanted to leave, he called me and tried to talk to me. He referred to me as a bridge holding the North and the South together. I guess he said so because I come from the Middle belt, what used to be Kabba province.
I stayed one year extra; otherwise, I would have left a year earlier. As I said, I happen to be a fairly lucky person. And I thank God for that.