‘Why I refused to sign Abiola’s detention paper’, says Lt-Gen. Oladipo Diya
Lt-Gen. Oladipo Diya (rtd),has held senior military postings and commands among which is as a former Chief of General Staff and former military governor of Ogun State. Gen Diya, who recently turned 70, in this interview reflects on his life, career, the late Gen. Abacha and the late MKO Abiola. He spoke with Editor Festus Eriye, Deputy Editor Olayinka Oyegbile and Gboyega Alaka.
IT’S not every day that one clocks 70; what would you consider the high points and maybe the low points of your last 70 years?
I don’t know where I should start from. What I consider the highest point, would be the day I was commissioned. I believe in the word labour, high display of discipline; in fact from everybody around me. Being an officer cadet, they wanted the best out of you, so every little thing you did (wrong) was always accompanied by punishment. So the day I was commissioned was exciting: lights went off at midnight and a minute after midnight, the lights came on again and you’re decorated with a pip on the shoulder and you immediately become an officer from that point. And everybody salutes you. Even the sergeant, who had earlier marched you in, immediately salutes you.
I’d like to know, why did you choose soldering at that initial point? You could have chosen medicine, engineering or maybe Law (well, you eventually became a lawyer).
That’s a bit difficult for even me to explain. I simply made up my mind. And luckily, my West African School Certificate result qualified me because the advertisement was asking for those who had successfully completed their West African School Certificate examination and the Military Academy encouraged that if you had a good West African School Certificate, either in Grade 1 or Grade 2, with credits in English and Mathematics; you would be given direct entry to the Nigerian Defence Academy. All you need do was to attach copies of your certificate or result and they would invite you straight for interview, instead of taking the examination. That’s quite unlike now, when things have changed. Even if you have a PhD today, and want to go to NDA and still fall within the age of 17 and 22; you will still have to go through the NDA Entrance Examination. But at that time, you can go in by direct entry. I went through direct entry. Like you said, my father wanted me to be a lawyer or maybe a doctor, because that was the trend at that time. But I’m happy that I still managed to read Law eventually and finished at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; and later went to the Nigerian Law School and was called to the Bar to the satisfaction of my family.
Looking back now sir, you rose to the peak of your career in the military; but from the benefit of hindsight, what are those things you think you should have done but which you didn’t do?
Well, I think I did all the good things that should happen to a man. I came out successful as a second lieutenant; I was posted to the 6th Battalion, Ikeja, and I became a platoon commander – which was the normal posting. In fact, we were commissioned into crisis; that is the NDA Regular 1. We were 60 that started the course in January 1963, and everything was going fine. I did my Lieutenant to Captain promotion exams, I passed. The same thing Captain to Major exams, and Major to Lieutenant Colonel. So I was not lacking in anything. To be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel then, we had to go to Command and Staff College, Jaji. I went with my course mates and passed. So I became a full Colonel. I was posted to command the Nigerian contingent in Lebanon. It was a successful appointment. I was there for two years before coming back. Later I was promoted full Brigadier; then Major General; and later five of us were promoted Lieutenants- General. Along the line, I was appointed military governor of Ogun State. I was there for about two years. Then I was appointed General Officer Commanding a division; one of the highest appointments one dreams of (as a soldier). I was GOC 82 Division in Enugu and later GOC, 3 Armoured Division Jos; from there I moved down to Lagos, where I was appointed Chief of Defence Intelligence. Thereafter, I was appointed Commandant, National War College and later Chief of Defence Staff. To me that was the highest appointment, professionally. Two years after, I was appointed Chief of General Staff, the equivalent of a vice president in the military. That was political.
Your statement that you were commissioned into crisis presupposes that you had experiences during the war. What would you say was the most remarkable experience you came away with?
Well, it is true, anybody who like us was privileged to be in Regular 1 were commissioned around March-April 1966 and that was almost the peak of Nigeria’s crisis. And I was posted to 6th Battalion. The only good luck I believed I had was that the commanding officer of that battalion was then Major Benjamin Adekunle. That was a fantastic officer and I had the privilege to start under him. Initially our CO, Major Adekunle had told us that our battalion had been earmarked for the defence of Lagos; so we thought that was not too challenging. But two weeks after, he just came, blew the trumpet (meaning there was an emergency) and told us that we were no more in the defence of Lagos and that we were now to capture Bonny. This was a sea-borne operation! And to be suddenly told as a young man, who had just come out of the Defence Academy that you were going to go on a sea-borne operation was more or less a bombshell. Don’t forget we had earlier been told that we were to engage in a defence operation. So immediately he told us that, we all went back to sieving through our notes and military history books, reading up everything relating to it. And most of us just concluded that sea-borne operations were generally tough. And looking at the distance between Lagos and Bonny, we would definitely spend two days. So we concluded in our minds that this was a tough operation. But the CO had said it and we all had to comply. And everybody around me was junior officers. The only person, who was a captain at that time, was the late Shehu Yar’Adua. Nevertheless, we all started getting ready.
Your role in the evolution of modern day political history of Nigeria cannot be over-emphasized. I’ll take two major thing: The first had to do with the presidential elections in 1993, where you were one of the most senior officers in the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC). From the benefit of hindsight, would you say that the action that the military took in annulling that election was a correct one?
Yes, I was member of the ruling council, but I will still say that I was a junior member. In fact, when I was appointed, I was surprised; but I considered it a great honour and privilege. And when the annulment came; the truth is that the fact wasn’t open to many of us. I hope you haven’t forgotten that it was still a military regime and military regimes do not pretend. Everything was done through hierarchy or seniority. So what you say is very important; in fact, how you say it is also very important because at the end of the day, when you leave the Council meeting, you are still going back to your formations and every formation still has a commander. If you are commanding a brigade, you know that there is still a GOC. If you’re commanding a company, there is still a battalion commander. So the summary of what I’m saying is that the facts were not too exposed. Usually, before the Military Council meeting, we would first have the Service Chiefs meeting and it is usually the decisions reached at the Service Chiefs meeting that are brought to the Military Council meetings for adoption. These are your bosses and you have to be careful before you start going against your bosses. So the hierarchy of the military was still intact.
From there you became Chief of General Staff (CGS)- the equivalent of vice president; how will you describe your period and experiences, because that was still one of the most turbulent periods in Nigeria’s history? Did you have the latitude to operate?
Well as the Number 2 man, the latitude was there and wider than if you weren’t in that position. And as Number 2 man, you had specific roles. At that time, I was in charge of parastatals, hosting and appointments of military governors and they were all answerable to me and really cannot carry out any independent action without clearance from the office of the Chief of General Staff.
Nigerians would be very interested in this. The impression Nigerians had of the then head of state, General Sani Abacha was that he was a very tough man, very difficult; for someone who was close to him and worked with him for a long time, how would you describe the late C-in-C?
If you asked me, Oladipo Diya about General Abacha, I’d say he was a soft man, kind; a man who would take the trouble to listen to you and then whatever you arrived at becomes a decision binding. So I have no complaint about him. It is very difficult to explain so many of the things that eventually transpired. But I will say that I had no problem with the person of General Abacha. In fact, if there was anybody that had any problem with General Abacha, I was in a position to even intercede.
So what went wrong?
What went wrong? The truth is that even I cannot explain it. But I know one or two things eventually went wrong. It was when things started happening that I myself started seeing cracks. I mean there is no point hiding things unnecessarily. Like when the late Chief MKO Abiola was arrested, I didn’t know. I was on tour in Enugu. It was the late CC Onoh, who told me that Abiola had been arrested. I ended my tour and left Enugu the following day. It was when I got back (to Abuja) that I was now told of the arrest. But then, the story told me was not complete, because I was not told where he was arrested, where he was being kept…. So I just felt that maybe I would be told at the appropriate time. But three days later, a detention order was brought to me to sign, and I refused. I said I was not going to sign a detention order for somebody who had already been arrested without my knowledge. And again, I asked, “Where is he being kept?”
If you are very accustomed with the rules, the Chief of General Staff was the only person who had the power to arrest and detain; and that order was changed the following day and instead of the Chief of General Staff being in charge of arrest and detention, the IG was vested with the responsibility. So it was the IG that signed the detention order. I thought that was a crack. Maybe one or two other issues again, but that was not enough for me to describe Abacha as anything different from the impression I already had of him.
At that point, didn’t you think that a signal was being sent? You are from Ogun State and the late Chief Abiola was also from the state; and he took away the power to arrest and detain, probably on the premise that ‘Oh he is refusing to sign the detention of his brother’.
Well, I really didn’t think something might be coming in that sense. I just felt that there was a crack. That detention order should have been signed by me; but since it has been changed by law, then it’s a law. Once there is a decree signed by the head of state; then it’s a law.
This crack that you talk about, did you ever think that it would get to a level where you would be accused of planning a coup?
Anybody can be accused of planning a coup. Under civilian dispensation, it’s not so easy to accuse somebody of such a crime because the processes are not easy. In fact, you cannot accuse somebody and still be the judge or be the executioner. In a military regime, it is different. The person who accuses you is the person who will constitute the court, he’s the one who will constitute the investigation and once the court finishes, they would even submit the verdict to him for approval. And once he approves, then it is carried out. So you should recognise the limitation of the military regime.
You went to detention over a coup allegation, but did you envisage that you would regain freedom as quickly as you did? And how did you survive?
The detentions are there. I have always believed that once anything has been sanctioned by God to happen, it will happen. I would not be the first person to be accused of planning a coup. In fact, I cannot remember any of my seniors who had not gone through what I went through. General Olusegun Obasanjo was also accused of the same offence and tried; in fact by the same set of people, Gen Ishaya Bamaiyi, Gen Patrick Aziza…. So it was nothing new. What actually was new was the fact that one survived. That was indeed a miracle.
Apart from yourself and General Sani Abacha, one very notable figure who seemed to have some kind of mythical image was Major Hamza Al-Mustapha. Was he as powerful as he was made to be?
With all due respect, I don’t want to talk about Major Al-Mustapha because he is extremely junior to me. I mean take a look at the gap between a Major and a General. The only thing that touched me was one tape he was circulating and I was just surprised when I saw the tape. And it made me imagine the level of the inquisitiveness of our press men. How could you be playing a tape that had no voice? Not a single word came out of that tape. So you could see that the tape was the imagination of somebody just to flag off an idea, amplify it and blow it out of proportion, as if it truly existed. It is true I had a discussion with General Abacha, when these officers were arrested. And these officers while going to the State House passed through my house, because there is no way you will go to the State House without passing through the house of the Chief of General Staff. And all we were discussing then was that the military should leave. And we were talking of leaving in October and these officers said they were going to tell Abacha. And they were all in mufti. So when I learnt that they had been arrested, I was stunned. I went to Abacha and said ‘These officers came to me and said they were coming to discuss such and such matter with you.’ And I said ‘Please release them. I am responsible.’ How that tape now came out now and turned out that I was begging Abacha. Up till now, nobody can say that they heard a single word from that tape. Now, what I was afraid of was what actually happened on the day of the trial, because I only saw General Olarewaju and General Adisa. I was stunned. And that was when I now asked, ‘Where is Bamaiyi, where is Aziza, where is Muda…’ can’t remember now. The other Mudashiru was a GOC of 2 Division, because the impression given to me was that they were all arrested. And when I now got to the court and only saw Olanrewaju and Adisa; that was when I now knew that this is truly a conspiracy and it was organised from the top. And I, Oladipo Diya was the target. That was what broke the camels’ back; and the news went all over the world. So naturally, I was stunned. I was expecting that if you think that we have said something, or that we were planning something, then you put us on trial and let us all defend ourselves. And these people that have been arrested were all guided by the Abacha people: all the soldiers in my house were Abacha’s men; all the soldiers in Olanrewaju’s house were Abacha’s men; all the soldiers in General Adisa’s home were all Abacha’s men; so who was planning the coup and with what. So the phantomness of the coup just came out glaringly for everybody to see. So we thank God.
Did General Abacha ever tell you that he was planning to transform from a military head of state to a civilian President?
What I can say was that we had a one-on-one discussion, where he asked for my view: ‘Do you think we should continue?’ That was his question? And like I was telling you, I joined the army as a boy and I do not know any other world; I don’t know how to lie, I don’t know how to deceive people. Even when I’m talking to my children, I’m always very frank. When a child is doing well, tell him or her that they’re doing well. And that is my life. If you ask a question, I will give him the answer. The correct answer was ‘no, don’t let us continue.’ Then he said why don’t I discuss it with the other service chiefs? Let’s have their opinion. That was the first feeling I had that he probably wanted to continue. And I called these service chiefs and met with them. And I now went back and told him that, ‘No, none of them told me that we should continue.’ But maybe what they were telling me was different from what they were telling him. I don’t know and I leave that to God. But it was later that I now discovered that one of the service chiefs was carrying a tape recorder in the back of his uniform, apparently giving me the impression that something was fishy. But again, when you go through a travail and you go through it successfully, you don’t want to bear any grudge.
One of the most challenging periods of your government was the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists, how sensitive was the military administration to the international pressure that was coming in? Did it have an impact on decisions you were taking?
You see, I have to tell you this. If you go through the details of the incident that actually happened, you will remember that we had the Ogoni four. The Ogoni four were all prominent sons of Ogoni and they were killed. And the people who were alleged to have killed the four, turned out to be the Ogoni nine. And in fairness to General Abacha, he arranged a court, headed by a judge of the Court of Appeal in Abuja. As I’m talking to you, that man has even been recognised and promoted as a Supreme Court judge or a judge of the Court of Appeal. And again, when the Ogoni nine were being tried, they had access to legal support. In fact, the late Gani Fawehinmi was the lawyer of Ken Saro Wiwa. And again, the then President of the Bar Association, Mr. Daodu was the plaintiff. Anyway, the point I’m just trying to make is that all these fall within the purview of the law. It was really a bit out of fashion with military style. If Abacha had appointed a military officer to be president of the court, people would only have shouted. But the fact that he could appoint a judge to be in charge was a plus for him; and also allowing the accused access to a lawyer. At the end of the day, that court sentenced Ken Saro Wiwa to death. So it was not a military arrangement in any form. All these people that I’ve mentioned (apart from Gani Fawehinmi) are still alive. The only thing that I will just hold a bit was that the ruling council went through the proceedings and approved judgment of the court and then nobody was told about the time of the execution. That is the only thing I will hold against Abacha. He did not allow anybody, including me to know the time of the execution. But again he could counter me that the military law does not state that once an execution has been approved by the ruling council, the head of state should now come back and tell you when the execution would take place.
What do you think of President Jonathan politicising your pardon, because people felt he only used it as a guise to legitimise the other pardons. Secondly, did it come with reinstatement of certain benefits and entitlement?
You see when the pardon was mentioned, I was in London on a short trip. I was interviewed and I tried to explain that there is a difference between amnesty and pardon. What we were granted initially was amnesty and that only set us free from our respective places of detention. And all of us were included in that amnesty, including the former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. But later his own amnesty was turned into pardon and all the benefits that he was entitled to were restored. We were granted amnesty, it was not pardon. But when President Jonathan now turned it into a pardon, I had a press conference and I tried to explain the difference between pardon and amnesty. What we were now going to be enjoying was pardon as pronounced by the President. And since then, we have started enjoying the benefits of the pardon. My entitlements were restored; my military entitlements were restored and the president himself now addresses me as General Oladipo Diya Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON). So there is a mile’s difference between pardon and amnesty.
You still look vigorous, even at 70; what do you do with your time now? As a qualified lawyer, are you practising law or are you a full time pastor?
All are encompassed. Luckily, I had the privilege of reading law and I was called to Bar at 32. I also thank God that three of my children are lawyers; three of them again are medical doctors and two of them are chartered accountants. So I just feel so relaxed in their midst. One of my brothers is actually running my chambers, so anytime there is any term of argument, we sit in my office and talk and iron things out. Thereafter, I’d say ‘Now you will go to court (general laughter).’ I also have one or two small outfits that also keep me busy.
Source- The Nation