George Onyejiuwa, Owerri
Air Commodore (Rtd) Luke Ochulor was the first military governor of Delta State and one time acting military governor of Rivers State.
Ochulor, who does not shy away from saying things as they are in this interview, traced the trouble with Nigeria, pointing out that only restructuring can save the country. Excerpt:
Nigeria just celebrated her 60th independence anniversary, was this actually the country we all yearned for?
Actually, by the time Nigeria had her independence in 1960, I was in Form 3 in the college; that was a long time ago and I graduated from the college in 1962. At the onset for our independence, hopes were very high. The population was not that very high and was manageable. Again, the awareness of freedom was not there at that moment because we had relied on the directives of our colonial masters, the British overlords. Now, to answer your question, from what we envisaged and the hopes we had when we left college were dashed, I have said it before that our hopes were dashed because of the misunderstanding of what Nigeria was all about. Now, people have been saying that what destroyed Nigeria was the coup of 1966. Apparently, it was part of it, but a child of 60 years old that has not even started crawling will present a very piteous situation. I will say that before 1966, Nigeria was a country that was looked upon by other African countries as the leader and the big brother and we accepted it. But the events leading to the civil war proved otherwise. We had expected other African countries to mediate early enough to prevent that civil war, but in spite of the role played by the Ghanaian head of state at Aburi; we didn’t achieve much because of some other militating factors or elements outside the borders of Africa. We had also thought that since oil had already been discovered in Oloibiri in 1956, what was needed is prudent management of the resources and to make sure that every child born in Nigeria has a piece of bread in his/her mouth that is what we had expected. The story of our history up till today makes what I may call a sorry commentary when we go into it. Up till the time that the civil war ended even though it was excruciating because lives were lost in millions, Nigeria somehow recovered from the effect of the civil war. From 1970 upwards, Nigeria’s resources were still being properly managed until the early 80s; I am not defending anybody. I think what destroyed Nigeria is the presidential system of government which was adopted in 1979. In April 1992, some of your colleagues cornered me after I had handed over the reins of power to the late Felix Ibru as the first executive governor of Delta State. They said, General, what do you think should be the approach of the Nigeria government now that you military people have left. I said yes, we have left, but I don’t know whether we have really left. I said if Nigeria chose democracy and adopt the parliamentary system of government; I believe it will pay us better and they asked me to give my reasons. I told them that having studied the American and European history that I found out that most of the survivalists are doing so, because they are managing a dictatorial type of government and development was faster and that parliamentary system was easier for them and cheaper. But that those who want to come and fleece Nigeria from outside would egg on the people to adopt presidential system so that they would find it easy to corner a few leaders and collect what belongs to all of us. You can see that the presidential system of government that we are operating has made it a winner-takes-all kind of a system.
The majority of Ndigbo believe that the Southeast is yet to be fully reintegrated into Nigeria and that even the three Rs policy of the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon was never implemented in the Southeast. Do you agree with this?
You know Nigeria is a very complex country. The three Rs as promulgated by the then Head of State, General Gowon, was already at the fringe of being implemented and you know that constant change of governments brings about changes in policies. Those who took over from General Gowon failed to implement that policy. But I still blame those who were in a position to change the cause of events by doing everything possible to prevent the civil war from happening in the first place. Once a people are involved in a civil war, hatred will come in and you know, no matter what is done, you can never compensate for life. Even if the three Rs policy was implemented fully and because blood had been shed and from what I read from the Bible, once blood has been shed or you kill a person and especially an innocent person, his blood will seep into the ground, and when that happens, it will cry onto God for help; and a country that has shed blood will have to do what is called recompense and atone for their sins before God can say okay, it’s enough, but Nigeria has ignored that and that is why we are having problems today.
You have said that what destroyed Nigeria is the presidential system of government; that means you support the restructuring of the country?
It’s not what I think; it is what I believe in. You see, when people are pointing to a direction; it would be unfair to ignore that direction. Air Commodore Idongesit Nkanga once stated in an interview that if the Federal Government refuses to grant the demands of the people to restructure, that Nigeria will be forced to be restructured by itself. For instance, if people are told to manage their lives and they refuse to do so, then life will turn around to manage them and you know what that means. That is to say, life can treat you anyhow it wants. So, demands that Nigeria should be restructured should be adhered to by the current administration because it will cost nothing to do that. Now, there is no way that the country can restructure itself without violence being involved. We have already had enough bloodshed and it is still going on in different parts of the country. I have read the summarized portions of the 2014 National Constitutional Conference report even though theories could be likened to Williams Shakespeare’s words; that are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. However, I have looked at the 2014 confab; the eminent persons that gathered in Abuja to deliberate over the Nigerian condition came out with those recommendations, those people should be listened to and everything should be done to restructure Nigeria now.
Are you saying that if the recommendations of the Confab were implemented that it would have addressed the issue of restructuring of the country?
Yes. There is no problem without a solution. Some people have argued asking why the recommendations of the confab were not implemented by President Jonathan immediately. But I have told people that it was because of time constraint as the 2015 general election was fast approaching. The report of the Confab was handed over to the government in 2014. Again don’t forget that the National Assembly would also have to look at some of the recommendations which would require amendment of sections of the constitution. So, the time was too short for the Jonathan administration to implement it. We had expected the government that took over power from Jonathan in 2015 to implement recommendations of that confab.
So, what in your opinion could be responsible for the lack of interest by the current administration in implementing it?
I told you from the beginning that the problem we have in Nigeria is the presidential system of government. It is a government of winner-takes-all, and it is very painful because I mentioned it before your colleagues that there was a governor in Nigeria who spoke on the radio that he will deal with the enemies and the enemies he was referring to were those people in other political parties and those who did not vote for him. How could a governor of a state say that? Instead of bringing everybody together; realizing that no matter whatever you do, your position will always be transitory. When I heard that; I lost faith in Nigeria.
There has been strident calls on the president to sack the Service Chiefs over their inability to tackle the worsening security situation in some parts of the country, especially banditry and Boko Haram. What is your take on this?
The crisis we have in Nigeria has been gathering all these years. When you look at the Almajiri case in the North, you will know that it is a ticking bomb. How do you fight Boko Haram? How do you fight a man who wants to die? So, it is not because the officers don’t have the military experience to deal with Boko Haram. Nigerians have not been able to understand the philosophy of Boko Haram. The philosophy of Boko Haram is based on religion; 9/11 in America happened because of religion where those people from Middle East said they didn’t want to learn how to take off and land aircraft. The first thing we learnt in flying school is how to take off and land safely, but those people said no; just teach us how to take off, show us how to manipulate the directional equipment and that is what they used to land on these targets they destroyed because they were ready to die. So, but in the case of Nigeria fighting modern war, it’s not what you will say that tomorrow I will finish them off. This is why we should pray not to have another crisis or civil war because if we are not able to defeat Boko Haram which started around 2009 and up till now and instead they are even getting stronger with ISIS and ISWAP coming in to join them, then you can imagine what will happen if there is another major crisis or war, that will be the end of Nigeria. Therefore, it is not the question of changing the Service Chiefs. That is not the problem, one aspect of the deployment I pointed out last year is that the president should understand the Nigerian principle of existence, balancing the equation because Nigeria is a complex country and the worst thing you can do is to underrate any man. Irrespective of the rank; we never underrated anybody in the military. I believe that there should be balancing of the equation in the appointment of Service Chiefs. I am not saying that those who are there are inefficient, but there must be a balance; that is the only way Nigeria can move forward. Even during the military regimes; there was always balancing. There are two basic duties of any government, first to provide security and secondly, welfare and once you do that, the people will find their way. Like Air Commodore Nkanga said; if you don’t restructure the country, the country will restructure itself and when that happens, it would be the end of Nigeria. We don’t want what is happening in Central Africa Republic, Somali and Congo DR to happen here. If not for the quick intervention of ECOWAS heads of state, the Republic of Mali would have been in a serious crisis as a result of bad governance and don’t forget that the former president was ousted by the military and today there is a transitional government of national unity. Look at what is happening in South Sudan right now, so we don’t want that here in Nigeria. The insecurity in the country is such that I cannot travel on the road if I have anything to do outside Imo State; I use flight because you are not sure of getting to your destination. And if your relation is to travel to Kaduna or Kano and you are not sure if he will get there; would you advise him to go. The honest truth is that the security agencies have lost control of the situation.
Do you think that zoning the 2023 presidential slot to Southeast would quell the agitation for Biafra by MASSOB, IPOB and others?
I believe it is about time the Southeast is given the opportunity to produce the next president of Nigeria. At the onset before independence and after independence, there were three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, that is the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa, but I don’t know whether that still exists at the moment or not with the creation of 36 states. Those were the three major ethnic groups that were controlling Nigeria politics before and immediately after Independence. But I don’t know whether zoning the president to Southeast would stop the agitation. I fought during the civil war and I know what we went through for those three years and I know very well that after the war; I was recalled by the Nigeria Air Force where I had advanced training in military operations. It was during that period that I realized that modern wars are swift and savage because you can get away with what you did 30 years ago, but you cannot do that now because of the sophisticated nature of modern weapons. Therefore, I would advise for people to be very careful the way they try to incite people into eldorado. But if an Igbo is made the president, perhaps it could stop the agitation for Biafra. I don’t know really but, I believe that those of you who are young should live your normal life. Those of us who survived the war if we open our clothes you will see the marks of the battle on our bodies. We don’t want the present generation of our youths to sacrifice their lives for nothing. Let them use their common sense and develop themselves, whatever happens, there will be a day when Nigeria will settle down and there will be peace all over the place. That’s my advice.