Rear Admiral Peter Ebhaleme, the author of ‘From Cassock to the Sword’, understands the nuances of Nigeria’s polity like the back of his hand. The former member of the Gen. Sani Abacha regime’s Provisional Ruling Council and later that of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, in this interview with Funke Olaode, posits that Nigeria is going through the vicious cycle of history and his optimistic that the storm will soon be over. Ebhaleme, who had once served as the governor of Cross River State and chairman of the Military Pensions Board, also narrated his encounter with Abacha –how he was summarily dismissed from the Presidential Villa – and his time with Prince Charles of the United Kingdom
Congratulations on your birthday anniversary. How would you say life has treated you in the last 70 years?
I must say that life in the last 70 years has been as Paul the Apostle said, ‘I am what I am by the special grace of God.’ The grace of God has sustained me through the seminary and the military; through all the trials and tribulations. It is only God otherwise I don’t know how I would be alive. God has done everything for me: delivered me from challenges, tribulations, (assassination) attempt on my life, the stroke I had and many accidents. But I came out victorious. Thus, I have been motivated to write an autobiography (which was launched in July when I turned 70) to share my story and motivate others.
That autobiography titled, ‘From Cassock to the Sword,’ revealed a lot about your early life. Why did you abandon the seminary for a career in the army at age 16? Were you influenced by your father who fought in World War II?
No. Naturally I am a very adventurous person. As I said in the book, when you stole my father would not cane you he put a tag or label around your neck with the inscription: ‘As you see me so I am a thief, I stole …’ depending on what was stolen. I would have to carry that to school for two weeks. The Reverend Father saw me with it several times so he asked me to come and live with him and that was why he pushed me into the seminary. I went there because of the influence of the Reverend Father, Father Chukwudozie of blessed memory.
I can say that my going into the Nigerian Armed Forces was by providence and my adventurous nature. During the holidays, I saw a young soldier about my age in British uniform who was attending a military school. Incidentally, I found out that we studied the same subjects (Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics).l I marvelled and asked, ‘You’re a soldier?’ And he said, yes. So I could say peer influence in a positive manner motivated me to join the military. So out of adventure I joined the army. My father did not know but found out when he saw me returning home with army uniform rather than a cassock during the holiday.
You partook in the maintenance of peace as a ‘boy solider’ during the first military coup of 1966. What was your experience like? How has that episode changed your view about Nigeria as the ghost of that era continues to haunt the unity of the country?
Generally, after the coup there was a general upheaval; what we called ‘AWARE’, meaning let’s divide. You know there were a lot of killings, especially Igbo and a lot of people were brutalized. We tried our best to do our jobs. The most horrifying experience was when some people ran into the church, they were chased and slaughtered. I remember the reverend father of that church committed suicide because he could not stand it. Unfortunately, it seems as if history has been repeating itself as the nation is currently going through a trying period. I believe that Nigeria has a role to play in the comity of nations. The devil is the one fighting but will not succeed – when and how we’ll triumph, I don’t know. But God will help us out.
You served in the Nigerian Navy and according to you – in your book –, you did what others did and got away with it. Was it a godfather factor or what helped you?
No. I did what others did and got away with it; the things I did I don’t know how many army officers would have got away with them. I stood by my faith. In Calabar, I said I would not touch what is not mine. It is the reason I showed Admiral Murtala Nyako my testimony in form of my autobiography. I brought him the day of the book launch to share the testimony because he knows all that happened in 1995. In 1990, I nearly lost my life because I said don’t steal and I insisted I would not be part of illegality. In the Military Pensions Board, I said I wouldn’t touch a dime. If I did, may I not live. I am what I am by the grace of God.
You became a member of the highest ruling body under the Abacha regime and later that of Gen. Abdulsalami. Do you have any regrets being part of those regimes?
Sincerely, I have no regret because the Bible says all things work for good for those that love Him. God is alive and I believe He is only allowing some of these things so that we can come out stronger. I am happy I have served this country and I am still serving. My faith is what is holding me. I won’t want to do anything that when the heavens hear it, they would be ashamed of me – that is my stand and I have tried to maintain it.
In that book, you said you had a lot of issues with Abacha on law and principles. What gave you that courage to confront the man many feared to face?
The truth is that when we went for the Navy board meeting, for instance, Gen. Sani Abacha was a man who didn’t work with the rule of law. Let me give you an instance: If someone commits an offence and the person is court-martialled, perhaps two years loss of seniority or two years’ imprisonment. He (Abacha) might disregard it. It was very embarrassing. I would say to the chief of naval staff, ‘let’s tell this man what the law says.’ When I began to quote the law as it says in my book, I would think he was enjoying what I was saying. Instead he asked, ‘Did I send you to read law so that you can come and quote it to me in the Villa?’ So he asked me to walk out of the Villa. I have to trek from the Villa to the gate. It was very embarrassing and it’s an experience I can never forget.
Again, while other military officers were retired, you were one of the officers chosen to remain in service after May 29, 1999. How would you rate Nigeria’s democratic setting in the last 19 years?
I believe strongly that we are still a nation under construction. What we must know is that we are still young in democracy compared to other nations that are over 200 years old in democracy. You must agree with me that this is the first time that we have a steady democracy and there are bound to be mistakes. People learn from their mistakes. All these years after the first coup, we know that it has been one military interruption or the other. I believe that where we are now is a learning stage and whatever the mistake we are going to come out of it. If we compare ourselves with Malaysia and all these Asian Tigers, we should find out how many years they spent in democracy before they got to where they are. I would say that civilians should be allowed to learn from their mistakes and we are going to grow better.
You once attended Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, St. Vincent Division, with Prince of Wales, Prince Charles. What’s your experience? Was Prince Charles given preferential treatments?
Prince Charles was not given any preferential treatments. Sincerely, he attended classes like us. The only difference was that we didn’t have access to his result because it was not placed on the notice board like every other person’s. And also as a senior officer in the Navy, he put his cap under his armpit – it means ‘don’t disregard me’. When you see him coming, his cap is under his armpit so he nods. Besides that, there was nothing different. The truth is that he was very humble.
You started your career with the late Gen. Teidi, Tunde Ogbeha and Sen. David Mark. How would you describe your experience with these men?
In the case of Gen. Teidi, he was my childhood friend and we have come a long way from the military school. Teidi helped to boost my academic progress. He was more experienced than me. I was his best man at his wedding and I was with him the night before his death. It was a loss and I cannot forget. As for Tunde and David Mark, we are good friends or we were good friends, especially in sport as I mentioned in my autobiography. David Mark was an all-rounder just as Tunde. They were extremely good at sport, especially football. We call Tunde ‘flying Jones’ as a goal keeper – a ball would not pass through him. He used to fly like a butterfly and David Mark was always a centre forward. It was an attraction to watch football. They were also good at hockey and golf. These men were excellent and represented military schools even up to national level.
Why didn’t you join politics like them?
Even though we all started military school together I believe politics is a calling and if you’re not called, you’ll crash. I look at myself as a professional soldier. I joined the military at the age of 15. My ambition was to be at the top as a general. I didn’t leave the seminary as a result of any deficiency; it is a calling which I decided to take.
In your days as a naval officer, illegal oil bunkering was hardly unheard of. These days vessels miss on the high sea with allegations that naval officers connive with pirates and bunkerers. What is your take on this?
What it happening there is as a result of high level of corruption. Corruption has eaten deep into the fabrics of our very existence and a fight against corruption is the most difficult thing to do because corruption must fight back. Eradicating corruption is a process and it takes the grace of God to fight corruption in Nigeria.
As a one-time chairman of the Military Pensions Board, you narrowly escaped being lynched by pensioners who besieged your office in Ikoyi in 2001. What actually went wrong?
In any system when you attempt to fight corruption it must fight back. It is everywhere – the military is not exempted. It is not an easy task: you must be ready to face it. But I thank God the committee that probed the cause of the attack on me at the Military Pensions Board was able to get the truth. To God be the glory, Dr. Uyi was delegated all the way from London to give account of what happened. The report is very clear and I was vindicated. God used him to save my life. Initially, he was on the side of the pensioners, believing the Federal Government was unfair to the people who fought the war and the same man was the person God used to save my life.
But you were later summoned by the National Assembly to give account of N32 billion. Has the issue been laid to rest?
The report of the National Assembly on how generals looted pension funds released in September 2004 tells the story. I am humbled by the report. Sometimes, I ask myself: am I so good? I know this can only be God and I give God the glory.
Displayed in your living room – for everyone to see – is the military uniform torn by the pensioners. Seventeen years after, why do you still keep it here?
I have kept it in a glass case to always remind me that if not for God I would not be alive today. Therefore, I am determined until I take my last breath. I will not eat the king’s meat. Like Esther said, ‘if I perish, I perish.’ So keeping the torn cloth is a reminder.
With the Mainagate pension saga that seems to have been swept under the carpet. What is the way forward to ensure that Nigerians no longer labour in vain?
The truth is the pension saga is just a minute microscope of the main picture of overall corruption in Nigeria and still it takes Nigerians to have a change of mindset that we came to this world with nothing and will go with nothing. Sometimes I see emancipation of wealth as a disease because you cannot sleep on two beds at the same time. You can’t drive two cars at the same time. Sometimes, you start wondering about the amount of money individuals amass – it’s frightening.
You claim to heal the sick during your sojourn in the navy. At what stage did you go ‘spiritual’?
I couldn’t have claimed to heal the sick because I’m not Jehovah Rapha. Whatever happened is to the glory of God because God uses human vessels to do his work and I am privileged to be a vessel of honour. In 1990, I tried to give my life to Christ through the instrumentality of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International (FGBMFI). Even though it was a work in progress, working out my salvation I caught the Rhema in 1994 like Esther and I said I would not go back to my vomit.
What is it about Nigeria that keeps you awake at night?
Sincerely, I don’t have anything about Nigeria that keeps me awake at night because I believe that weeping may endure a night but joy cometh in the morning. I can see Nigeria coming out gloriously to take its rightful place in the comity of nations. It is an emerging giant in the world economy. I look at Nigerian sociopolitical challenges as a temporary setback. It is just as one is going through the wilderness, which is not a permanent. I see Nigeria coming out stronger in spite of all its problems and difficulties. I have very strong hope and believe that tomorrow will be a better day for Nigeria.