Major-Gen Godwin Abbe, who clocked 70 years recently, reached the zenith of his profession. He held various positions, including being appointed Defence Minister, Minister of Interior and former Military Administrator of Rivers and Akwa-Ibom States. Abbe, fondly called General by his admirers, recalls events that marked his childhood and enlistment into the Army, among other issues, in a chat with journalists in Benin City.
Adibe Emenyonu was there
How are you feeling at 70?
For me, it is of excitements and mixed feelings. When you attain this age, you suddenly realise that God has been merciful to you. You thank God for the protection one has enjoyed without money. But basically, it is more of gratitude to God because I know that it is not by might or by right reaching this age.
What has life taught you at 70?
I learnt to be grateful to God, to be patient, satisfied with whatever I have and I have now leant to shun materialism. It is clear that life itself is journey of multi-dimensional lessons but above all, life has taught me to give gratitude to God and to any man that has been kind to me.
Why did you choose to join the military?
At childhood it was an excitement. I went into the military at the age of 18. You will be amazed that as a soldier then in Benin, you didn’t have a pay for a bus ride, or pay for ticket to enter Ogbe Stadium to watch football matches. These were the excitement that we saw. Watching military films must have also played a role and they were part of the excitements too. My father was a policeman, it was a combination of all these.
How did your family take your decision to join the military?
My father didn’t like it but my mother and grandmother were very excited. My father hated me for joining the military, but my grandmother was happy because she thought that, according to Benin mythology, I was her father’s reincarnate; that I died fighting within the state city system and that I was going to take the job I had done before.
What was it like being given a gun to shoot your enemy for the first time?
If you find anybody who fought in the civil war, they will tell you it is on rare occasion that you come face to face with your enemy. It is only on close quarter battle and it is very rare. So, if anybody tells you he sees the enemy at close quarters, it is a complete lie.
Any situation where you had a close shave with death?
In June, 1969, I was involved in an ambush in Kwale and we were coming from a village called Osisa in a town called Utagba-Ogbe. They (Biafran soldiers) ambushed us. We were nine in the vehicle but I survived with my orderly who later died. They were better; they anticipated our movement because the Chief of Staff then, General Hassan Katsina was visiting Kwale. I could have been killed but something went wrong with the person who was to shoot me and he said: “get up, get up” and immediately I took to my heels and got lost inside the bush and when his weapon started firing I was in a different direction, I did not move so he got scared and ran away. So, later in the evening I came back with my colleague, late John Shagaya cleared them while they were celebrating and we removed the dead bodies. That was the closest that I can remember. You know we were all boys; I was about 20 years old. There were fears but not the kind I have now because I have children, I won’t like to do those things I did 50 years ago.
How did you survive many military coups?
Oh, you want to know if I was involved? I’m alive and you are seeing me. The reason was simply loyalty.
What can you describe as your highpoint in the military?
As my career progressed, I had several exciting moments but I look forward to a brighter new day. I cannot pinpoint one, if one would be frank. The first pleasure was surviving the Nigeria civil war; that was the first joy because everybody, especially those of us who participated saw jets looming at very low level. So, when General Yakubu Gowon declared that the war had ended, when he said no victor, no vanquished and that we should embrace each other; it was one of the most exciting moments for us because we had assignments, rumour was on that my battalion was to be given a new mission, so it was a huge relief. I didn’t think that the war was necessary; I thought it was nasty and I was too young to understand the totality of it.
What is your message to Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB?
You see, every agitation is centred on dissatisfaction and injustice. As far as I am concerned, based on their observation they think that the country should be restructured, that there are people who are monopolising the resources of the country; if there is equity and justice, why will they want to get out of a system that is fair? So the solution is for them to be told that they can agitate and not to declare for war against the state, it is very risky because they themselves will not survive it.
As an Edo man and a Nigerian, what was your growing up like?
I was born in Benin, at St. Philomena Hospital; my grandparents are from Okemole, what you call Lagos Street today. I grew around Okemole, new Benin. I went to Baptist School, I spent most of my time with my grandmother and she was nice. The first best friend I even met in my life was my grandmother and she taught me so much.
There is this notion that the military incursion into our political system affected our democratic development. What’s your view?
You see, that expression is usually made from the position of ignorance. If you look at the history of other nations that have developed like America, Great Britain, Germany, India and Japan, most of these countries had military interregnum if you recall. The profession of the military is an all-embracing one, so it is out of place to say military incursion in Nigeria politics has been to the disadvantage of the development of the country. At that time of our socio-political evolution, the military thought they could make a change because those who had responsibility to bring about continuous unfettered change didn’t show signs that they had capacity or were willing. So, the military thought they could do it better. When the military came in, the society applauded them. Was there any military government that ruled without having civilians as active members either in advisory capacity as commissioners or ministers? The truth of the matter is that this is where we are as a nation and that is why the military in 1999 decided that enough is enough. In fact, the military deserves commendation. It is a mark of qualitative leadership for the military to say we tried and we have failed and we accepted democratisation in 1999 and said let us hand over to a democratically elected government, at the time of General Abubakar, when I was a member of the provisional Ruling Council. As soon as General Abacha died, we said no, we should hand over.
The military did not rule in isolation, so if anyone is having such opinion, that is wrong. Our predicament predates that, we have had obstacles as a nation to our developments, which is what is still on now. Some nations of the world have seen us a source of raw material and a market for their finished goods and every other thing that is said is immaterial and they have everything to keep that status quo. They will find a leader who is outspoken and focused and they will make life miserable for him, they will squeeze him externally. They have the power, information and the technology to do it and they also will get into us and cause confusion by setting one against the other. They know our weaknesses, religion, tribal, ethnic and they capitalise on all that. It is unfortunate we also encourage them. Why should we now allow foreigners to come and start pontificating and telling us about democracy and, in the process, sow seed of discord among us?
Are we not giving these people reason to intervene in our democracy, when we still engage in undemocratic practices?
What should concern us as a nation is to address some of these weaknesses that we have identified. The Emir of Kano was discussing the socio-malaise of a polygamous system that has served us no good. He was discussing about the North, it is also practiced in the South. How would you imagine a 60-year-old man marrying a 25 years old girl and after 10 years of marriage, the 60 years old man is 70 and the girl is 35 year old and probably they have five children but because of recklessness the old dies leaving nothing for the children. It is the amalgamation of these children that will be in the streets, snatching ballot boxes and used as thugs because of desperation. So we should start having government that will address some of this indiscipline in the society. It is only when we start addressing this that we will not have a situation where an individual whose take home pay is probably N100,000 per month will have 13 children. Now, tell me how he will not be corrupt.
Is it that governments do not know what do?
You are discussing government as if government is coming from the moon. Government is from within; it is from among us that you select people at the ward, local and state level. Is it not from among us we select people to go to the state house of assembly to represent us? When they come to solicit votes, they come with drinks and kola nuts and you expect them to go there and make laws? What kind of laws are they going to make when they have not recovered the money extorted from them by the same society. These are the same people that when they get to position of authority their family will swam on them that this is their opportunity, then tomorrow you turn around that they are corrupt?
What is your solution to end Boko Haram insurgency?
Why is Boko Haram striving? It is striving because of injustice, and poverty. Terrorism generally is premised on resistance to existing authority. It is very difficult to give a date when this kind of war will end. It is like a medical doctor that is trained coming to tell you that a patient diagnosed with cancer will be cured on a particular date, you will know that that doctor is incompetent. Terrorism in any society is usually a protracted war.
What is your position on the recent Amnesty International report on Nigeria’s approach to security challenges?
You hear of our soldiers going to fight and they are not properly armed. No, we have to shut our eyes and really arm them so that they can incapacitate anyone from stopping the government from delivering. When you are talking of incapacitation, I am talking of real incapacitation, bringing death and destruction to those who will stop us from progressing, which is what I think the president is doing. As for the Amnesty International, are they here to help us or they are here to destabilise us? What kind of comments are they making? Somebody slapped my son, he has also bitten him, my son is bleeding and you say I shouldn’t hit him with a club and break his head and remove the teeth he used in biting my son. You will say you are Amnesty International and you have come here to discuss the fundamental human rights of people who are destroying, killing innocent Nigerians in the north eastern part of this country. Rather, you are saying I should treat him with kid gloves. I will do no such thing. The Nigerian army should not listen to human rights. It is when we have succeeded in incapacitating them that you can begin to talk about human rights. Anywhere in the world, fighting insurgency is usually a long drawn struggle. It is not a thing for politician to discuss; we have to attain military victory substantially, clear the coast, then move development there; give the displaced water, light, empower the local government and then restore law and order. There is nothing religious about it.
What about allegation of funds being diverted by military authorities?
I will blame the Nigerian state, it means there is something wrong with the system, how on earth? In our time, we didn’t have that access, where are you going to get the money from if the system is functioning properly? You blame the Nigerian state. It is a shame that anytime you turn your back, somebody has embezzled so many millions, what we should be addressing is system failure. It is like in a home and you suddenly wake up to say that the house girl has stolen gold in the house and you want police to arrest her, you say a child has stolen five thousand naira in your house, how have you been keeping the money, what is the system of managing the money? What is wrong is the system. No individual should have access to that amount of money. There is no society today that is not corrupt. The difference is that there are established organs of spending funds. I am not saying that there are incorruptible people. What I am saying is like in your house when you take a cane to flog a child because that child has stolen N1,000, but as far as I am concerned, you should be blamed for keeping the money where the child will have access. I am not saying that we shouldn’t blame those who are corrupt but that we should establish systems of expenditure that will make it difficult for an individual to have access. It is a systemic problem. So, for all those that have been accused of corruption, it means that there was a window through which they as individuals have access. There is something wrong with our system, there is nothing wrong with something being wrong, but what is wrong is our inability to now block those loopholes so that in the future, we won’t experience such.
Why do we have incessant attacks on our soldiers?
The Boko Haram themselves, are they not trained? Just like football where smaller countries beat Nigeria, in war, you either win or you lose. The truth, however, is that the matter also has something to do with our socio-political evolution. Who are those that have been in charge in recent times? How have we selected the leaders that have taken over, what has been our succession plan as a nation. In every segment of the society, it must be determined that this person will be the next commander, he must have had certain qualities that are unassailable, he must be able to know that the bullet does not discriminate between religion and tribe. So, when you are identifying leaders, and upgrading people to positions, our succession plans matter, it should be reviewed such that the best should occupy strategic positions. For instance, if you want a very powerful Fourth Estate of the Realm in this country and you go and pick people who cannot write simple English, how are they going to communicate, how will journalism flourish? Then you cannot tell people in primary school that if you want to learn English, go and read newspapers so as to learn usage and not abusage of English.
What is the morality in the court martial of soldiers who run away from battle even when ill-equipped?
It is treason for you to run away in the face of the enemy. The weapons are there, the probability is that those ones were probably not ready to face the enemy and that is why I am talking about even the quality of training and quality of leadership. All these things come to play, but whatever it is, a crime of that level is treasonable. It is like you saying that a policeman who loses his rifle while sleeping on duty should not be arrested and disciplined because he told you an armed robber snatched it. Or that a journalist who wrote a report that is untrue should not be sanctioned. It is the same thing; there are rules governing each profession. In the face of the enemy such act is cowardice and cowardice is death sentence. Sleeping on duty takes a maximum punishment of 20 years imprisonment, it is a serious matter. Assuming all of us are sleeping and two of you are posted to watch and make sure that we sleep and then the two of you decided to sleep. Every other person is now in the hands of those two persons told to guard us. If they decide to go to slumber, it means all of us will be killed. If you find them sleeping, you try them and sentence them to maximum punishment.
Countdown to 2019 election, are you not worried with the state of affairs?
No, I am not worried! I expect that we get over it. We may have challenges but we will get over it. What we are doing now is not new. Is this the first we are going to conduct election in this country? It is just the politicians who are beating drums of war because they are afraid of their investments and future. They are worried that some of them might drop when they lose, so they frame all sorts of stories but for those of us who are watching, there is nothing to be afraid of. If the sky is falling down, it will fall on all, so what we expect to happen is that the needful should be done and we are expecting that the police will protect all Nigerians who want to vote and perform their civic duties unmolested and that they should be protected, and we are expecting that the ballot boxes should not be snatched. That is what the policemen are paid for and we are saying that no citizen should be beaten with the police looking the other way. So, why should people be molested while going to vote? So we are saying that if everybody tries to do his or her own bit as far as the election is concerned, by the grace of God, there will be a result. If you say some people will rig, is this the first time they will be rigging election? Is it only in Nigeria that they rig election, so why should I be afraid? I have hope, in fact I am excited to see the February election come and go, I want to see how Nigerians will exercise their right and I want to see where the pendulum will swing. Whether democratisation will be taking place or we need to do more work to be able to sustain this drive that we are about taking as a nation.
What is your advice to Nigerians?
Nigerians should learn to be grateful to God. We pay lip-service; I don’t think we are fully grateful to God. Nigerians should change their attitude to materialism and should review their social system of bringing up children.