Former Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Azubuike Onyeabor Ihejirika in this interview, breaks his silence in retirement, talking about what drove him into the military, his days as a rising officer, the thrills and pangs of service, perennial security challenges as well as his view on the performance of the nation’s Armed Forces in tackling them, especially, Boko Haram.
What do you think about the recent extension of tenure of the Service Chiefs by President Buhari?
The service chiefs come under the direct command of the commander -in -chief. So, for the commander- in -chief to extend their services means that he is satisfied and impressed by their performance. Extension of service is based on performance on the job, while appointment is based on the experience and your perception of how they will perform. So for their services to be extended, it shows that they have actually discharged their functions creditably. I am of the opinion that the service chiefs have done well so far and they should continue.
What is your assessment of the counter insurgency war?
The counter insurgency war is not a straightforward operation. It is an operation that involves too many aspects. There is a civil component, there is a media component and there is a military component.
Well, my opinion is that the military has done well under the present dispensation. And I also think that we cannot rest on our oars, we need to do much, much more to uproot the insurgents by dealing with certain issues that led to the insurgency in the first place and other issues that helped to sustain the insurgents.
I am not going to say anything new that has not been said before. For instance, in 2011, I cried out that what we were having was terrorism, which later dovetailed to insurgency. At that time, the message was not clear to a lot of Nigerians and even the international community. At that time, our neighbors did not bother to cooperate and the insurgents seized the opportunity to build a lot of their bases in territories adjoining Nigeria.
Nigeria’s border is very, very porous and it has been said time without number. The Customs knows it, the Immigration knows it, the military knows it and a territory as porous as Nigeria makes insurgency to thrive easily. Secondly, desertification, particularly the situation in Lake Chad, led to massive unemployment.
Not government employment, but desertification denied a lot of youths engaged in fishing and other forms of agriculture their basic livelihood thereby making them available for recruitment by the insurgents.
For example, the terrorists’ ideologies need to be countered properly and not just by condemning them, but by doing things that would convince the terrorists and would- be terrorists that what is being preached by Boko Haram, is wrong.
Boko Haram, by their narratives give a lot of unemployed youths hope for the future and that needs to be countered.
So, one of the things that need to be done is create jobs in a form that youths will directly benefit, rather than big time contracts that go to multinational companies.
For instance, tree planting along the borders will help to define the borders; will help to engage the youths on a continuous basis. No form of poverty alleviation will be better than employment of youths, getting the youths engaged.
The government has done very, very well in practical terms in the field of agriculture.
But there is absence of produce boards like we used to have during the colonial period.
There should be government boards ready to buy off whatever the farmers produce so that farmers do not suffer the effects of glut, because that is one area that is discouraging farmers today. There is more interest in farming in Nigeria today than never before, but there is no arrangement to buy off things from farmers.
Government should go to the farmers and buy things from them and not expect the farmers to struggle to transport things and take to the cities or to sell to middlemen that will rip them off.
How and where do you think Boko Haram get their funding from?
The greater part of Boko Haram funding comes from bank robbery, kidnapping and so on. When there is spate of kidnappings whether in Kaduna, Yola or Niger, ransoms are being paid, terrorists are being funded through that way and it is difficult to stop people from paying ransom, because when life is involved, it’s a very delicate issue and nobody will listen to you. Now what can we do?
Another area to look at is the police. There has been so much emphasis on the military. The military will clear Boko Haram and they will also have the job of securing the area.
Ideally, when they have conducted an operation, the police and other agencies are supposed to take over and the military free to move forward.
A situation where the military will fight Boko Haram and then keep and look after them while in detention and then keep vigil, patrol the area they had already cleared Boko Haram off makes the military to get overstretched.
So, there must be serious practical action to raise some elements of the police to the state whereby they should be able to take over and recommence their police duties in areas that are being affected by insurgency one way or the other.
Why did you join the Army?
Well, most girls and boys at tender age have always embraced and admired people in uniform. I have always admired people in uniform because I see them as tough and all that, but incidentally by the time I got to the Nigerian Defence Academy and the job became too tough, there was no way of backing out, because it was a personal decision I had taken.
A lot of us backed out due to the strenuous condition of training at that time and besides the Army is an exciting profession. People who have served in the Army for years like myself end up making friends across the length and breadth of the country.
Sometimes when you describe some civilians as idle, it’s not because they are physically weak, it is because of obvious limitation in their knowledge.
A civilian could be born in Enugu, he will do his primary, secondary and university education in Enugu and Nsukka and become a professor there and the next day, he is made a Minister of the Federal Republic.
He does not know what Borno looks like, he does not know what Niger Delta looks like, he does not know what life in Lagos is like. He does not know immediately the diversity and the beauty you see in diversity and he does not even know how great Nigeria is.
Those who join the Army are people who are privileged to transverse the length and breadth of their country. There is no major city in Nigeria today that if I travel to, that I won’t get an officer, either retired or serving, to call on me. So there is no benefit greater than that one.
Did you contemplate running away from the academy during training?
I think it is the experience of most that there is a period that you ask yourself what is this all about. You can imagine hiding under culverts as a means of escaping punishment. You hide under culvert and sleep with mosquitoes and some occasions when we have bad occasions like a colleague dying in the midst of training, such occasions were there, but the morale aspect, the esprit de corps helped overshadowed those ones. But luckily for me, apart from once, that I missed promotion, my career was so smooth.
What about allegations of marginalization in the military?
I was never marginalized by anybody, so I don’t even understand what it means. I held very important appointments and executed very serious tasks. As a Lieutenant, I constructed a bridge across Ipaja, in Lagos. As a Major, I supervised the reconstruction of several barracks.
In fact, as a Captain, I held several important posts both regimental and extra regimental; as Lieutenant Colonel, I served in ministerial committees. I was like a consultant to Ministry of works or the Minister of Works in several regards.
Also within the same period, I contributed to the establishment of PTF, I played a key role in the establishment by acting as adviser to the consultants, AFRI projects, that set it up.
Did your wife marry you because of your uniform?
Well, I was just lucky that my wife’s father was an old soldier. He was in the Nigerian Army Artillery Corps during the post Second World War, that was my luck. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have married me, because her friends were asking her ‘what do you have to do with a soldier?’
But because my father- in- law was an ex -service man, he thought it was the most exciting thing in the world for an officer to marry his daughter. And when he prayed for us during our marriage, he said that I was going to reach the peak of my career and command the whole army and he witnessed my becoming the Chief of Army Staff just before he died in 2011.
What was it like when you first wore the Army uniform to the village?
Well, it was a very exciting thing because the boys would follow and run after me. I wore my uniform anywhere I went, and I have these young boys in great numbers following me anywhere I went.
How was the day you passed out of NDA?
That was a wonderful day, it was on December 17, 40 years ago. We exchanged pleasantries with our course mates. We remembered God; to mark that day, I went for a thanksgiving.
What do you miss about the Army?
Maybe it is too early for me to miss anything about the Army, because since I left office, I have been involved in many Army activities. I’m always there to make my contribution to them, commend them on areas where they are doing excellently well and to suggest areas that need improvement. As it is said, there is always room for improvement. Any General who thinks that there is no room for improvement is not worth the rank. At every time, you must always look for one area. If nobody tells you, you must try to discover it by yourself
How do you spend your retirement?
I spend my retirement by staying in the village and engaging in menial farming and cottage industry like my bottle water factory. I am also into yam farming, fish farming, attending events, attending meetings at community level, attending conferences mostly by the military and occasionally by NGOs.
You went into politics after retirement from service and disappeared, what happened, any political ambition?
I never went into politics, but there was so much pressure on me to join politics and I decided to make consultations. And from my findings through consultations, I decided not to go into politics. As for plans to go into politics, no immediate plans for such, no immediate plans.
When was your saddest day as an Army officer?
Well, my saddest day as a military officer was when the C-130 plane crashed at Ejigbo, Lagos in September, 1992. I had too many friends and colleagues on board that aircraft that died.
The best man during my wedding, Lt-Cdr C.O. Ochigbono, died in that crash, Major O.O. Mba, from my place who organized my wedding here died there, the best all round cadet officer of my course, Major FU Bassey, died in that crash. My very good colleague and friend though my junior, Major S.A. Jibunoh, died in that crash, very good friend of mine Major Muazu, we were in the same company in Abyssinia, he died in that crash. Major Abolade, my immediate neighbour at Basawa barracks, another fine engineer officer died in that crash. Where I lived at Riv road, I was on the ninth floor, my very good friend and course mate Major Ogunaike, died in that crash. I can count and count and count. It was too much to bear.
When was your happiest day in the military?
I can’t remember because Maybe I had too many happiest days and it is difficult to pick one particular.
Your best food?
In the military, we learn not to have best food. Every Nigerian food is best food. When I went to Ibadan recently, they tried to serve me rice as if I was somewhere in a function with salad and I said no, it should be Amala, and that was my food. The day I went to Ekiti, I ate pounded yam throughout. If I go to Lafia, I eat Tuwo, day in day out. If I go to Rivers State, they know that they will serve me fish. If it is in my village, I eat odudu, a kind of native beans. So, one thing you must learn early in the Army is to enjoy your meal and not to have best food.