I thought I’d conclude the weekend with two interviews with army officers from very different generations. The first one is with Lt-General Jerry Useni (rtd), the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory in the Abacha regime. Useni was Abacha’s right hand man and a close friend of his. In this interview, Useni claims that the January 1966 coup was an Igbo coup, and that Abacha could have killed former President Obasanjo if he wished.
The second interview is with Major-General Saleh Maina, GOC of the 3 armoured division of the army in Jos. Maina has been under intense criticism recently, and was accused by Christians of pro-Muslim bias in his handling of the recent Jos religious violence, and of ignoring text message warnings about the violence. Here, Maina conducts a very robust defence of himself and gives a detailed account of the Jos violence.
Cover Stories, Interview Mar 28, 2010
* His relationship with Abacha
* How Obasanjo came after me
*January 1966 coup: The plotters were allowed to enjoy
* ….And why there was a counter coup
Lieutenant General Jeremiah Timbut Useni (rtd), aka JERRY BOY, is the Sardauna of Plateau and Nasarawa but he is one unusual individual who has a split personality. One is that his mien could be so fierce that everyone around him would sit up. Yet, this Langtang born army officer loves to enjoy and does enjoy life, might we add, to its fullest. A sampler: “There is this saying that says work, work, work and no play makes a man a fool. You can not be serious all the time. When it comes to work you have to get it done and after that you have to relax and enjoy and play with people as if nothing has happened. When I’m working, I do my job. “My name is Jeremiah and the short form is Jerry so I added Boy to it so I’m Jerry Boy, which means I’m young. I’m not Jerry Man, I’m still Jerry Boy and that’s how my colleagues know me. But when we got to work, everyone must do his best and after that, it’s a different ball game.”
And as if to demonstrate the split nature of his personality, Useni’s countenance changed when the coup plot of 1995 allegedly involving former President Olusegun Obasanjo, was raised: [b] “Whatever anybody says, Abacha never gave orders that people should be wiped out and killed, but for the Ogoni issue where a tribunal was set up and a documented judgment was given. But we are living witnesses to the massive killing of villagers during the last civilian regime of Obasanjo. Abacha didn’t kill people for planning coup but we know Obasanjo ordered people to be killed for coup plotting during his reign as Head of State; he killed. Abacha had all the opportunity to shoot and kill Obasanjo for the coup plot of 1995 but he didn’t. Today they are saying Abacha was the one that was bad. “If Abacha wanted to kill Obasanjo for that coup he would have killed him”.
[/b]For a man who served as state governor, multiple minister, pioneered the creation of Nigeria’s National War College in 1992, and one who was the closest human being to late General Sani Abacha, Useni’s office in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja, is oddly modest for his accomplishments the Nigerian style: A simple, nondescript, detached duplex without the trappings of modern architectural facelift. This writer actually missed his way because the expectations were high regarding Useni’s quality of life. But again, those who know Useni very well say he’s just a happy-go-kid from Langtang, Plateau State. This is just the first part of this encounter with Jerry Boy. In part two, be prepared to read the truth surrounding Abacha’s death, the Jos killings and the way out, as well as the multiple autopsy carried out to determine the cause of Abacha’s sudden death. It is explosive. This is a bumper; we’ll serve the next bumper next week. Excerpts:
By JIDE AJANI, Deputy Editor
This is amazing and unbelievable?
What is amazing?
Your life style! This office accommodation! I mean, where did all the money go?
Okay, I’m trying to relate this office accommodation of yours to the money you were said to have made during the Sani Abacha years when you and the late head of state were in charge? Over 30 years in service, multiple ministerial positions, state governor? Are you hiding here or something?
(Laughs) Thank you very much. This is how I am. I come from a very humble background.
(The tone of his voice recedes) Nothing! Nothing!!
I actually missed my way trying to locate this office; I was looking for a magnificent building befitting the right hand man of the late Gen. Abacha?
People thought so. Even when I was in government, people said I amassed so much wealth. I had a running battle with Obasanjo when he became President. They said I had mansions everywhere – in Jos and Langtang, Plateau State. When they got to Langtang they were investigating and asking people ‘where is General Useni’s mansion’ and people started laughing, ‘which mansion’? They became disappointed. I am not after material things.
Yes! I was here in FCT as minister for five years. No construction company ever built a house for me. Some people were minister of FCT for just months, the company built mansions for them here, their state capital and even their village.
It was after I left government that I completed my four bedroom bungalow that I am staying in now.
Yes! If you go to ministers’ hill, that is where I built it, not some thing magnificent! I finished it after leaving office. I had all the opportunities to do anything I wanted to do having served for five years. I am just a simple person. Whatever I have I share with people and because of that most people thought I had plenty. All I’ve always wanted is to make people around me happy. Because I laugh and joke with people and I feel happy always, some people thought I must have amassed so much for me to be always happy – ‘Oh! Useni has everything’. Well, that has always been my life style.
You have seen for yourself now that I couldn’t have left office and I’ll have this rented office in this estate.
Rented? You mean it’s not yours?
No! It’s mine but this is an estate.
Let’s pick these things one by one. You were the first Commandant of the National War College, NWC and even that pioneering engagement, in today’s Nigeria, would make millionaires out of many. What was the philosophy behind it?
You’re right but that was not me. I was the pioneer commandant. There were many reasons why we set it up. We wanted our officers to be professionally efficient and, therefore, we sent our officers overseas but the vacancies were limited.
There were times you had only two vacancies abroad and when you send officers in that manner, some officers would never have the full training because after the Staff College training which you attend as a major, what happens to you as a colonel and brigadier so we decided to have our own.
After all the argument – pros and cons about two attempts were made but it did not succeed and my own was the third and I was determined to make it work. We could have chosen other names because only America goes by the name War College – some of our officers were trained in Britain, India and America. When we started we got assistance from Britain; America wanted to give us retired officers but we turned them down. Britain gave us officers from the Navy, Army and Air Force from the rank of Group Captain which is equivalent to a Colonel.
We also sent some of our officers to Britain for orientation for one month and they joined the other expatriates.
Some people say you have a spilt personality: That you could be very brutish and yet when you want to catch your fun, it is fun unlimited – drinks, women. Would you agree with that?
There is this saying that says work, work, work and no play makes a man a fool. You can not be serious all the time. When it comes to work you have to get it done and after that you have to relax and enjoy and play with people as if nothing has happened. That has been my life. When I’m working, I do my job. But once I finish my work, then you see Jerry Boy in action. I can play. Jerry Boy! That’s me.
How did that name come about?
My name is Jeremiah and the short form is Jerry so I added Boy to it so I’m Jerry Boy, which means I’m young. I’m not Jerry Man, I’m still Jerry Boy and that’s how my colleagues know me. But when we get to work, everyone must do his best and after that, it’s a different ball game.
You fought during the civil war. With what we have as Nigeria today, would you agree that that war to save Nigeria was really worth it?
Yes, it was; otherwise Nigeria would not have existed anymore and only God knows whether if Biafra had been allowed to go, others too would have followed. It was worth the trouble, inspite of all the nonsense that is going on in the country today. Most of those who are there today do not know what happened so they can talk any how and misbehave in government.
There would have been some very horrific moments for you during that time?
Oh yes! I remember a place called Okehe, after Nsukka, there was this hospital there. [b]Two of our governors Audu Bako and Usman came around and we were conducting them round and they saw somebody dead on the floor there and we moved on as if nothing happened and then there was another one who wasn’t dead but was near death because of his injuries and it was Bako who asked him ‘my friend, with all these charms you have round your waist and body you still got wounded?’ He was an ex-soldier and he responded thus: ‘my son, if not for these charms I would have been dead’. So, inspite of the injury, he still believed in his charm.[/b]
The other governor then said ‘let’s leave this place because of all these dead. The whole place was littered with human bodies but what do you do? Stop the war because people are dead or because people are dying? No! You have a duty to perform so you perform your duty but we have a lot of leaders today who do not know what it took, may be they witness armed robbery, that’s all. When you see war, you see people’s bodies shattered, legs broken.
Which event affected you directly during that war?
My friend, war is war. It doesn’t matter what happens to you or the next person. War is war, whether you kill one or you kill 100. You’re there to kill or likely to be killed but at the end of the day it is about winning the war. [b]What made me fear most was the beginning of the war, we had nothing. Biafra, too, had nothing but the people were creative and they improvised so that really got us worried. Even when we were in Enugu, the type of propaganda they were using was excellent and it scared the hell out of people but after a while we got used to it.
We got some of our fighter jets from Russia but our so called masters, Britain and America didn’t give us any. Russia came to our aid during the war. While Gowon was calling for Police action, the Biafrans were stockpiling arms. We captured some of them around Ogoja and seized machine guns from them, sophisticated machine guns which we never had. Lagos was surprised too and that was before the war and even when the war started, Gowon was still talking of police action. It was after that that we declared total war. To me, it was scary in the beginning.
We had a meeting one evening in Enugu around a coal mine, we were working on information we got. I wanted to go to one area not knowing that the information we got and the people we were looking for were actually going to operate in the area I was heading for and I came under fire, heavy fire where I sustained injuries and I was taken away for treatment. The scars are still there till today and if I had known I would have been more prepared because I would have died.
If Britain which had just given Nigeria independence did not support Nigeria, what reasons were adduced?
It was best known to them. You know they always discuss with one another. At first America gave some equipment but when we asked for more, they didn’t give us again.
Some people believe that the incursion of the military into governance was an error and it has dragged Nigeria backwards? Where were you in 1966 during that first coup?
[b]1966 I was a Second Lieutenant. Yes it was a big error but the unfortunate thing about it is that those who say it was an error are the same politicians who ask for coups to be carried out.
That coup of 1966 was an Igbo coup because when you look at the list of those who carried it out they were Igbos and if you look at the killings, Yorubas and Hausas were killed – Akintola in the West; General Maimalari, Brigadier Kur Mohammed, Sardauna Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa and his secretary from Itsekiri was also killed. None from the East was killed, so this pointed in that direction. And even after the coup, we had this unitary government at that time which further suggested something else at that time, especially when you look at the way the coup went. That was not all. Even having done that, they felt that they had not done enough, another plan was in the offing to eliminate more officers from the North.
I didn’t get that clearly: Who were those who had another plan in the offing to eliminate more people from the North, the same coup plotters of January 1966?
Yes, the same coup plotters, the same people and that elicited the counter coup. [b]Before the counter coup, we were told that the officers who carried out the first coup were under arrest, under lock and key but in fact they were just enjoying; some of them had even been given ranks, ready to put them on if they had succeeded in the second coup. They regarded them as heroes.
So that was the justification for the Gowon coup of July, 1966?
Yes, there had to be a counter coup.
What you’re saying appears strange?
Yes, we’ll write the memoirs at the appropriate time. People just rush and rush and write memoirs but you have to wait. You write memoirs at a ripe age. People have been urging me to write memoirs but I keep saying I will write it at the appropriate time.
When Gowon took over as head of state he was a lieutenant-colonel but he was fair to everybody. Today’s Nigeria is different and even our people blame us that we did not do anything for them. At that time, we had all the opportunities in the world to do everything selfishly. At that time everybody was more interested in working for the country.
Today, once you are there, you look after yourself first. As a minister you look after your people first. If you are governor, every project must be pushed to your people and your place.
But there are those who insist that had the military left the politicians to continue with their nonsense then, they would have worked out a way to correct the wrongs of that era?
Which people? Killings were going on and the same civilians came around to say won’t you people do something? Do you want everybody to be killed before you do something?
[b]Let me tell you, there was never a time that the military set out to do a coup, civilians would always be the ones who would come with the idea because they will benefit. [/b] Look at the states, just the military governor, all the commissioners are civilians, local governments are made up of civilians. It is only at the federal level that you have a mix but on the whole the civilians are still there. If you get good advice you succeed; if you get bad advice you fail. And it is this same people who would come around and instigate. If you put your feet down they say you are a dictator. But today, we have seen the worst happening in our country Nigeria. They say it is only during military regimes that you remove people in the air (sudden broadcast) but we have seen that during civilian regimes too people get to know of their sack in the air. Civilians too do not follow due process and the constitution.
You talked about putting your feet down, during the Sani Abacha regime, of which you were more or less the Head of State’s right hand man, putting your feet down was something else, against NADECO?
We stood firm. During that time people thought we were shouting NADECO down. We have seen the worst in a civilian regime. At least we shouted them down, what happened during Obasanjo’s regime to the opposition? Even now we see some governors with private armies to do away with their opponents.
Abacha was a Muslim from Kano State; you are a Christian from Plateau State. How did you, too, come about this relationship which existed before his death?
People say they are surprised by our relationship because they saw us as people who were apart geographically but yet were the closest. Let me say this today: nothing is impossible before God Almighty.
Our relationship was not based on material things, just that we were of like minds and that was it. [b]We first met after the counter coup of 1966. That was our first meeting and from that moment even till death, we remained good friends.[/b] Government wanted to give more confidence to the civilians, it said the military personnel in Kaduna should move to Ibadan and the one in Ibadan should move to Kaduna, the same thing happened in the East and even in Benin.
I was the logistics officer in Ibadan and we had to move to Kaduna. I could not move ahead because I had to oversee that. The trains were working and we sent our people to Kaduna and when it was returning, it would bring the people from Kaduna and Abacha’s people would be brought. When my people were leaving Ibadan, they left me in charge and when their own advance team was coming to Ibadan, Abacha was in charge and that was how we met in 1966. When he came I showed him the accommodation and we had to work together and any time the train was coming, we went there together to receive his people and through that we forged a bonding.
Some people thought we became close because of his becoming head of state and I being the minister of the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, that brought us closer; no. At the time I am referring to in 1966, we never knew we would become what we became. We were just lieutenant or captain at that time.
Later when I was transferred to Benin, I was transport officer, he was a staff officer, later Brigade Commander, and we had Garba Duba in Asaba and every weekend we visited each other and we moved round like that and we maintained this friendship up till today and even with Abacha in the grave, he remains my friend.
When Abacha took over on November 17, 1993, could you please let us into the inner workings of the last 48 hours before Abacha struck?
Well, the way things were going on at that time I knew it would not last after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election, the issue was such that Ibrahim Babangida could not continue and he had to step aside.
We had expected that while stepping aside, he would put the most senior officer in charge but instead, it was given to Shonekan, who was a civilian. We had Admiral Aikhomu, who was Vice President; we had General Sani Abacha who was chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Minister of Defence; (I think Aikhomu was made to step aside with Babangida). But Abacha was not given, Shonekan was given and they said Interim Government. But there were questions: One, was Shonekan going to organize the fresh elections? Two, what was the motive behind skipping Abacha and giving Shonekan? There were thick clouds.
Why was Abacha skipped?
No reason was given to us. At least, I was a senior officer then and I was attending senior officers meeting but no reason was given. The reason was best known by those who did it. The country was so fragile then. And then there was this confusion about stepping aside: One, were you stepping aside so that somebody would pass and then you follow him? Two, are you stepping aside permanently?
Or are you stepping aside so that somebody else would just get out of the way and you come back?
Then what does stepping aside mean (laughs).
But nobody will accuse Babangida of not knowing what he was doing. In an interview I conducted in 1991 with General Domkat Bali, the latter said Nigerians played into IBB’s hands and that when he came with the issue of military presidency, he knew what he wanted to achieve by supporting military authority with executive powers of the president?
Well, to me it doesn’t matter really what the name is all about. Military regime you can be called anything and I don’t know where the minus or the plus comes in. There is nobody ahead of you so whatever name you give yourself does not really matter. As Head of State, you don’t need a prime minister.
Some say you have a Chief of Staff, some say Chief of General Staff. Even when Babangida was calling himself President, he still had Chief of General Staff and it was when he was trying to move towards civil rule that he said okay, his Chief of Staff should put on civilian dress and address him as Vice President but even then, the question should be asked: Why didn’t he from the word go as President, address his deputy as Vice President but he allowed his deputy as Vice President to drop his uniform. These are just names. You are in charge, you are in charge.
So, when he stepped aside, why give Shonekan? What was it that led to the take over by Abacha, what was the last straw which broke the back of the Interim National Government, ING?
Well, I wasn’t part of the ruling body then so I would not know the last 48 hours as you put it or what actually happened then. I had my job to do but whenever senior officers were meeting I was invited.
Back to the relationship with Abacha, you talked about putting your feet down but Abacha’s style was not liked by many?
Some Nigerians who said they didn’t like the Abacha government, people like Wole Soyinka, who said the Abacha government was bad turned round to say that Abacha’s government was better than Obasanjo’s own, Soyinka said so. They protested during Abacha’s time but they were repeatedly stopped during Obasanjo’s government which was a civilian regime where people should be freer. Why bring Police to arrest people? By that time, we had our challenges but as they say you still have to marry two wives to know which one is better (laughs).
But whatever anybody says, Abacha never gave orders that people should be wiped out and killed, but for the Ogoni issue where a tribunal was set up and a documented judgment was given. But we are living witnesses to the massive killing of villagers during the last civilian regime of Obasanjo.
Abacha didn’t kill people for planning coup but we know Obasanjo ordered people to be killed for coup plotting during his reign as Head of State. He killed. Abacha had all the opportunity to shoot and kill Obasanjo for the coup plot but he didn’t. Today they are saying Abacha was the one that was bad. If Abacha wanted to kill Obasanjo for that coup he would have killed him.
But that coup of 1995 was said to be a phantom coup, that Abacha merely set people up and forced some to give evidence?