Brig-Gen. Fred Chijuka was the spokesperson to the late Head of State, General Sanni Abacha in the Army.
He spoke to Sunday Sun on issues of insecurity, new government, his trajectory into the Nigerian Army, his closeness to General Abacha and many more. Excerpts:
You have been a bit silent since you retired from the Nigerian Army, what are you doing now?
When I retired in the late 90s, I had an office at Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS) on the Island, which I operated for some time and handed it over to my relation when I was no longer regular then. I have been the Chairman of my Estate for more than six years; I am now the Chairman of the Board of Trustees (BOT). I am also an elder in my community, Issele-Uku in Delta State. Again, I travel very often within and outside the states for meetings, community issues and attend events as well.
We just witnessed another May 29, what is the most important thing you would task the Federal Government on?
What I will task them is to make sure that life is secured because what I read in the pages of newspaper; how security is being violated, I am not happy with it at all. People no longer go to their farms, when people who are journeying happily are being waylaid and manhandled. Even it is being extended to traffic officers who were doing their jobs, they also get kidnapped. People going about their various businesses are being kidnapped. If security is one major thing the government achieved, it will be a big success because there is fear generally now. When I am travelling home now, I would simply put my life in the hands of God because I pass lonely roads where these wicked ones operate and take people inside the bush. But generally, it is so bad and spreading fast. I am not happy that the country is not secured.
Having had a stint in the military, what do you think is the solution?
The government has the whole solution because they have all military paraphernalia, which include the National Intelligence group, DSS, police, road safety, and army. I am happy that the present Head of State was a military Head of State. He should know what to do, let him give his men the responsibility. If they are finding it difficult to achieve, try another person; recently, there was an in incident in one of the African countries, when the Army Chief wasn’t able to stop what was happening and they changed him. I am not saying he should change the present man, I did not appoint him. He knows his abilities. I am saying that if you try one hand and not getting result, you try another hand. When I got into this Estate in 1996, the place was so dangerous; armed robbers rampaged here. We began to block some entrances, installed gadgets, bars and increased security details. We also made movement a bit difficult for some people and the terrible experience reduced greatly. But this is just a small environment. Government knows what to do better than us for the country. They studied strategic modern actions and ways of security even in the police and military; if they have the resources, they will be able to do it. But I also think they are improving now; along the road going to Delta State, some policemen are sighted on the road to make sure those areas are safe. Travellers have a little hope now.
What is your take on restructuring the country like other elder statesmen have been clamouring for?
I have been reading a lot in the newspapers. No part of the country should be cheated that is what I know. Everybody should feel what belongs to them. I am particular about the fact that any government formed at the centre should be ready to work in unison. One of the things I enjoyed in the army was that when you come there, you see a lot of people you would not have heard the name of their town, but they will become your friend, I will like that kind of the structure to continue. Nobody can claim to have the wisdom of everything. At times, when I think about the restructuring people are talking about, is it to dissolve the states, or to create more states when we are unable to feed the existing ones, there is no means to help the state; a lot of them are owing. If people will come together like President Jonathan did, brainstorm together, work out modalities, maybe one or two things could be added to it because whatever solution you proffer on your own, people will still feel that is not what it should be. But when given the opportunity to contribute, they feel better. I feel there should be a measure of restructuring. For example, maybe give the local government the autonomy to operate sincerely because most of them are not functioning, some do not have headquarters with all the money government has given to them, maybe give the states more money and monitor what they do with it. I am not sure the states are using the money judiciously because if they do, we will not have some of these terrible lapses that are not making people happy. The local government is my main concern; they should be given more powers and then be supervised than looking away from such people.
How did you join the Nigerian Army, was it out of passion or providence?
I come from former Asaba Division and in my town we have limited interests where people emulate others. So, we were not exposed then when we were growing up, my elder brothers and sisters were teachers and I started as a teacher when I left St. Thomas College. Even when I left University of Ife, my aim was to go into teaching and was obviously teaching until the civil war broke out. Graduates were very few then, and the principal came to look for me because he needed an English teacher. I followed him to Northredan Grammar School Ozoro, we all scattered when the war broke out. I took up another teaching appointment at St. Pius Grammar School also in Delta State.
What was your encounter with the Biafra and Nigerian soldiers during the war?
I was a lucky survivor of the civil war on October 2, 1966 when my elder brother Stephen and I were coming back from Asaba in the company of other friends. The former Biafran government was occupying our area down to the East. The Nigerian soldiers have taken two routes, one from Umunede, Ubuluku, Ogwasiukwu then this other one took to Umunede down to Onicha-Ugbo, Issele-Uku, Okpanam down to Asaba. We ran into them and there was serious engagement between them and Biafran soldiers. They killed each other but, Biafrans lost more. Our business was how to get home and there was no way. We were warned not to move and it was getting dark, with heavy rain. I told my brother let us go, along the line, a good soldier among them said those of you who have survived this encounter should stay here and not move. The soldiers had warned that if anyone should go, when they come back in the morning, they would fish out the person and deal with him. But I was telling my brother, let us defile their warning and go home.
We sat where they kept us until 2:00a.m; one of them asked who are those talking there? I boldly trekked to him; he introduced himself as Corporal Asuquo. He inquired our mission there and I told him, after other questions, he set me free. All the senior people had gone and his troop had confidence in him to lead them through that night. When we left the place, at about 3-4:00 a.m, there was a terrible encounter between the two troops and we saw heaps of dead bodies. May God never let it happen again? We all trekked through Ogwashiukwu and saw a lot of people from our community who have settled down in Ogwashiukwu during the war. Another friend of mine who also escaped them ran to my house to ask my mother about me, she said we have not returned, my friend started crying, thinking that we have been killed. My mother went into her room, laid and refused to come out or talk to anyone because her only two sons had not come back from Asaba since the previous day. She came out when she heard we have returned. The greatest thing was that my father brought out his chair by the entrance of the sitting room, opened the door and said we would walk into this house with our two legs. Throughout the night, one would not know where his mind was, but he was busy telling God that his children must come back. He sat there all night until he heard the shout that Stephen and Fred had come back. He now stood up and came to meet us outside. He asked us to kneel down, we did and he laid his hand on our head and prayed for us. Throughout that day, he did not step out because they all felt we had died. That book ‘Blood on the Niger’ is exactly what happened because I witnessed it.
How did you develop interest in the military?
It was still during the war, we saw some of the military officers came to address us and their attitude was quite friendly unlike the ones we encountered that gave us nightmare. I felt that I should find out if these people have different ways of behaving. I started developing interest until I was almost getting into trouble out of curiosity. There was one Major Ogbebor from Benin; he was the one that saved the situation. When the war ended, I said let me try and see if they would reply my application. I got my reply and was told where to go and get interviewed. I went and the former president, Gen Olusegun Obasanjo was the chairman of the panel. At the end I was successful and was taken by the Nigerian Army. Then, I started liking what I saw though there were challenges on the way.
What type of challenge did you face?
As at the time I was there, we had no establishment, which one can say, at a stage, promotion was not part of the job because there was no establishment. So, the offices we worked for were as it should be, but no document. In that case, no one could be promoted as one expected. Then I set my target to leave, but when I discussed with my wife, I stopped the move.
The 1985 coup
That was the coup that brought in the present head of State into limelight. Then, General Babangida was the Chief of Army Staff. Changes were made following the death of the man I was following in the office. Some who were with me said they wanted to leave for another branch, surprisingly, people who had left came back to still meet us. Emotions were high, gossips were rife, and the situation was no longer comfortable. I set my target again to leave in 1990 because I told myself, if there is no promotion again, I will leave.
There was another coup in July 1986 that ousted the present Head of State and bought in General Ibrahim Babangida. When he came in, I was lucky I had worked with the former Head of State, General Abacha, when he was at Ibadan as the Chief of Army Staff. I think he saw the quality of my work, I didn’t know he was interested. Before 1990, I became the Director of Information, but there was still nothing on paper. If there is no establishment, you cannot be promoted. When I hear people run down General Abacha calling him names, I wonder. He was a very kind and intelligent man. I went to his office one day as usual, then he was the Chief of Defence Staff, he initiated the establishment and we had one. He approved it and within three months, I was promoted to Brigadier General from 1993-1996. In 1996, I had written a letter of resignation and went to consult him, he said no: “You must be here with me until I am ready to leave.” Within this time, I had gone to the famous Command College, Jaji in Kaduna State. I was also at the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), he did well for the establishment, yet I wanted to leave. After mounting pressure, General Abacha accepted my resignation and I left the services of the Nigeria Army on September 21, 1996.
What was your encounter with two Generals in the course of your work like?
I didn’t work directly with General Babangida like I worked with General Abacha. I was in an office and once in a while, they will ask us to do something for them. But the case of General Abacha, he took me from Ibadan to Lagos. We were quite close.
Where and how did you receive the death of General Abacha as your close pal?
It was in 1998, I had arrived my office on the Island when another friend of mine came to inform me about the death. I asked him how he heard, he said from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). I couldn’t believe it, so I quickly hurried home. Then my wife was working in Abuja, she travelled that morning without hearing the news, it was while she got to Abuja and heard, she made a comeback to Lagos. My boss was buried according to Islamic rites, but I travelled on my own to see where he was laid to rest. I offered my own prayers for him because he was the man who did everything possible for me. It was painful for me that he died. I was very close to him; in fact, I was part of his family. I am not used to any other person like I was used to him.
At what point did the country get this situation wrong looking at the decadence, suicides, cybercrimes, drugs; how and where did we get it wrong as parents, country and role models?
The very surprising thing is modern development. But unfortunately, our people use it wrongly especially the social media.
It is supposed to be used and shared responsibly, but I am really surprised we have gone to this stage. Parents should pay more attention, it is an unfortunate development.