21st November, 2013
Major Debo Basorun (rtd.) wants the public to know what transpired during the regime of former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida. There is sure so much to know about an era widely considered grotesque enough to be regarded as the accelerator of the country’s descent into an ethical free trade zone. His position as press secretary to Babangida, before a near-fatal parting of ways, gave him a ringside seat, unexpectedly providing him tonnes of goods for his forthcoming memoirs, Honour for Sale. In this interview with BAMIDELE JOHNSON, FUNSHO BALOGUN and FOLARIN ADEMOSU, Basorun, a recent entrant into the septuagenarian ranks, speaks about the book, Babangida, his hellish life after disagreement with his boss, his period in exile and the murder of Dele Giwa
What exactly is the motivation for writing of your book, Honour For Sale?
I think I have a duty to familiarise the country with the events that culminated in my leaving the presidency of General Ibrahim Babangida. I do not want things to be swept under the carpet. There are many opinions as to why it has taken me this long to decide to publish the book. One of the reasons is to let things mature before deciding to take such a dangerous step, if I can call it that. I call it a dangerous step because the dramatis personae in the Dele Giwa saga are still very powerful, very wealthy, with their connections still intact. I don’t have anything but God. And having crossed the threshold of 70 years, I have decided it is now the time. I am getting closer to my grave, naturally or if induced. I have decided it is time to let the public know what transpired.
How did you find your way into the Presidency?
I would say providence. I came from the backwaters. I joined the army as a private, rose through the ranks and God has been with me ever since. I was very hardworking. I would want to say, without being immodest, that I was one of the best in my class. Wherever I found myself, I tried to be one of the best.
Your book paints the army during the civil war, in which you fought, as that of an institution riven with ethno-religious politics. In the book, you allege that people from a certain section of the country were deliberately sent to die at the war front.
What I can call it is ethnic cleansing. We call it tribalism in Nigeria because we have not reached the advanced stage of some countries that use the right expression. It was nothing short of ethnic cleansing. You must be referring to the incident that happened at the Armed Forces Resettlement Centre, Oshodi. There was a commander, who was from one part of the country. He made sure that those of us who were being sent back to the front, irrespective of the fact that some of us were still recuperating from war injuries; people of my tribe and from the South, were being sent back to the danger zone.
Where were the people from the presumably right sections posted during the war?
At the outbreak of the war, there were actually two divisions in the Nigerian Army. Third Marine Commando came into being as a result of manpower shortage at the warfront. It was a brand new unit comprising mainly of young men from the South. The other two divisions were dominated by Northerners and were well equipped. They were the real personnel of the army before the outbreak of the war. So, these two divisions formed one division of the Second Division. One was commanded then by General Mohammed Shuwa, who was recently killed by the Boko Haram. The other one was commanded by General Murtala Muhammed, who was a lieutenant colonel, I think. The 3rd Marine Commando was a child of circumstance, a result of shortage at the war front. That was why it was set up.
You started getting into trouble early in your career. You were a subject of a series of fraud investigations. Why always you?
I would not say I was always getting into trouble. It was because I was very straight and honest and I would want to attribute that to my upbringing, which gave me values that have served me well till today.
If you are referring to the court martial, I was a 2nd Lieutenant then. At the time, I was made a pay officer at the Directorate of Army Public Relations. Then, it was on Broad Street, Lagos. There was this reorganisation, prompting our corps to be reduced to a department, a sort of relegation. The paymaster was recalled to his unit. The leaders in the department looked around and picked me as the person who would be the pay officer. What I did then was to leave Broad Street for Abalti Barracks, which was the garrison then, to collect money on behalf of the troops serving with us on Broad Street in Lagos. Unknown to me, the acquaintance roll figures were inflated without my knowledge. I would just pay and submit the returns to the garrison and obtain my receipt. That was what helped me during the trials.
The book describes the office of the Chief of Army Staff under General Wushishi as resembling the stock exchange. Who were those involved in trading on the floor of the office of the Chief of Army Staff?
You will also see in the book that many officers were setting up front companies to award themselves contracts. This is a well known fact. But these are things people dread to say. My frankness and courage have earned me harassment, punishment and being pushed around in the army. But I am somebody who grew up with those values and I don’t intend to drop them now.
Why did it take you so long to get allocated an office space in the office of the Chief of Army Staff (during General Wushishi’s time) as you have claimed?
Tribalism. If I was from the North, my case would not have been like that. It was tribalism, pure and simple. I remember that during General Wushishi’s time, about 99.9 per cent of the officers and men in his office were from the North. I was the only one from the South. The other person close to that was Lieutenant Taiwo Obasa, who is from Kogi State.
The beginning of your problem with General Ibrahim Babangida was the memo for the removal of Arabic inscriptions on the army crest. At the point, did you not think that you were doing something that had the potential for combustion?
No. Not if you knew Babangida then. Babangida was a saint of sorts to most of us in the army. After the Dimka coup, he and General Mamman Vatsa were the two shining stars. But Babangida, because of his charisma and public profile, had a little edge over General Vatsa. When eventually he became the Chief of Army Staff, most of us believed that he was the person that could effect changes in the army because he had always expressed belief that certain things in the army needed to be changed. When he became Chief of Army Staff, it was natural for me to say: ‘Sir, now that you are on the seat, these are the things militating against the proper perception of the army as a national institution.’ I informed him, through a memo, of the need to remove Arabic inscriptions from the army crest. Babangida did not act on the memo for weeks and months. It was later discovered that Halilu Akilu, Director of Military Intelligence, got to know about the memo and raised hell. He called me names and said I was an apostate. He argued that being a Muslim, myself I was not supposed to raise an objection to the Arabic inscription. But this is a secular country. My father was a Muslim, while my mother was a Christian. I attended a Catholic primary school. My secondary school was founded by the Anglican Church. But I realised that the inscription was making the public perceive the army as a Muslim institution, rather than a national one. How could we, 30, 40 years after independence, still be having Arabic inscription on the army crest? I thought it was wrong and did not think it was something that would cause problems for me.
It was a confidential memo. How did it get into Akilu’s hands?
Babangida will answer that. In the book, I wrote about spies; intelligence guys hovering all over the place in the army headquarters. So, maybe unknown to him, some of the spies planted by Akilu’s office or from somewhere else in the intelligence unit might have gotten hold of the memo and informed their bosses of it.
But prior to the encounter with Akilu over your proposal to have the Arabic inscription removed, what was your relationship?
I hardly knew him. Akilu was posted in from the Infantry arm. This is an aspect of army politics that I tried to touch in the book. He was an infantry officer. He was brought in by the powers that be to lord it over intelligence officers.
One of them was General Azazi. He was a core intelligence officer. Akilu was brought in from the infantry, I think around Bama. Before his arrival, the powers that be ensured that other intelligence officers of equal rank were posted out to different places. By the time Akilu landed, there was no competition. By the time the people sent on various courses were returning, they were redeployed. Even with their intelligence background, some of them were redeployed to the infantry.
Your book depicts a degree of closeness between you and the late Mrs. Maryam Babangida, with you claiming to have persuaded her to take on the public role she did as the wife of the Chief of Army Staff. What was your reason for nudging an unwilling woman into taking a public role for which she later earned criticisms?
What I wrote in the book is that traditionally, the wife of the Chief of Army Staff automatically is the President of the Nigerian Army Officers Wives Association, NAOWA. At the time Babangida became the Chief of Army Staff, I still took him for the same charming and very unassuming man I had always known. He gave you the latitude to take decisions. So, I walked up to him. At that point in time, Mrs. Babangida was a very shy person. She was not as flamboyant as she later turned out to be. And it is a pity that people say one should not speak ill of the dead. My own philosophy is the opposite of that. You speak well of a dead person if he or she did well and if not, the assessment will be the opposite. I have no inhibitions about stuff like that. General Wushishi’s wife was a very private person. She had very strong Islamic beliefs. Therefore, most of these things were considered by her as anathema to the Islamic faith.
You hardly saw her at functions. And the few ones that she attended were arranged according to her beliefs. It was not a really functional organisation that she headed. When it was Maryam Babangida’s time to take over, I advised General Babangida that his wife should play a positive role to assist him in promoting the image of the army and towards getting things right with the welfare of the army as a whole. She initially resisted, but I kept encouraging her and she later gave in.
Would you say you regret what you did, given the way she turned out, especially your allegation that finances were mishandled?
In the book, what I said was that during the time, the Adjutant-General was one Brigadier-General Nasarawa. Through my office, funds were made available to NAOWA. As the president of NAOWA and wife of my boss, I did not have the courage or guts to ask her to document financial transactions between us. With the benefit of the experience I had in the army during the court martial days that I referred to earlier, I had to think quickly about how to prevent such a thing happening. I had to report back to General Nasarawa that things were not going the way they should. I knew that if you handle money in the army and you do not document it properly, you might be in trouble. I would not say I regret it. All did was to see that we got the best out of the army. But unfortunately, that was not what it turned out to be.
General Babangida, by your assessment, was a fantastic man prior to the time he was Chief of Army Staff and up to the time he was Chief of Army Staff. To what would you attribute the change in his personality after becoming president?
The political dynamics of this country actually got into his head. That was not what people knew him to be. When you go into that political office, no matter how military you may be, if you are not yourself, you can easily be derailed. And that is what happened to him.
At the level of Chief of Army Staff, you are still under the somebody’s command. But as president, you are the ultimate commander and you believe nobody can stop you. People allow such things to get into their heads. And when they do, the results are usually not good. One would expect that somebody of General Babangida’s calibre would be the saviour that this country had been looking forward to. That was what most people thought, including my humble self. But it turned out, gradually, that he was not really what he seemed.
When Babangida became president, he set up Detainees Review Board of which you were a member. You said a list of certain people was given to the board, which was instructed that those on the list must not be rigorously interrogated before being released. Those on that list, you claim, were people you had been sent to take through customs and immigration checkpoints at the airport. What exactly did you think they were bringing in or what was the need for you to have been asked to go to the airport and walk them through?
When Babangida was the Chief of Army Staff, one of the duties I performed was clearing people. Being the PR person, I was detailed to assist in bringing in his guests from the airport. Normally, I would call the Director of Immigrations, the Customs and Air Force commanders to alert them to the fact I would be coming to receive Babangida’s guests on particular flights. On getting to the airport, we would drive straight to the tarmac, get the person(s) down and take him or her into the vehicle. Some soldiers would be there to process the immigration documents. In the process of doing this, right from the plane, whatever the luggage contained, we loaded into military vehicles and drove straight to Dodan Barracks. That was all I thought I was doing until when we took over from General Buhari. There was this SSS dungeon where they put people. Most of those in the dungeon were on the verge of being arraigned before a military tribunal for drug trafficking. By the time Babangida became president and set up this committee of which I was a member, we had instructions to review the cases of detainees. It was one of the Babangida regime’s way of buying public acceptance. Buhari was considered to have been draconian and we thought that by releasing detainees, we would be buying some goodwill. The board was given instructions not to grill those on Babangida’s list but to just clear them for release. That was what we did. It is what I call a lesson in political education.
The Babangida government came in with a populist face. But at some point, people found him out and criticisms began. You hint in the book how critics were dealt with. We want you to take us through the various methods–carrot, stick.
During the early days we were the darlings. And most of the journalists conversant with what was going on then knew I was the face of the regime. I can tell you that most of us in the military did not know it would turn out the way it eventually did. When we started enacting policies, decrees and what have you and people were complaining, it got to a stage when the president became very irritated. Critics were dealt with by damaging their businesses and through inducements.
I will give you a good example. The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, was very strong to break. Normally, we would penetrate most of these associations, remove the leadership, and plant our own people in leadership positions. But it was not so with some of them, like the NBA. We tried everything we could, but we could not break the association. So we got the intelligence people to get what we call the agent provocateur among them–those who really did not like the leadership for one reason or another–to our side. Once we did, they started disrupting the activities of the organisations during meetings and so on.
When chaos was created, we would step in, claiming we could not allow things to go on like that. We would remove the leaders and sometimes clamped them in detention.
General Aliyu Gusau, former National Security Adviser, hasn’t come out in your book smelling very nice. What was your problem with Gusau?
My problem with Gusau was that I could not speak Hausa language. That was the only problem I had. Remember that anybody being posted to the office of the Chief of Army Staff (I don’t know if there is a slight change now), if you did not speak Hausa, you were a goner. In fact, it was in the army as a whole. Let somebody come and controvert me on that.
Secondly, if you were not from the North, there were certain positions that you wouldn’t be allowed to hold. It was providence that got me there, I did not have a godfather. As soon as I finished my course at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism in 1980, Shagari was about to go to Abuja then. And my Director of Public Relations was one Colonel Fashina. He looked around, among the young officers, and said: “Debo, you have to go with them to Abuja. Go and set up the Public Relations Department of the Chief of Army Staff.” Initially, I hesitated.
But remember, I have a pedigree, a resounding success in that regard. The 22 Armoured Brigade in Epe was a cesspool of problems between soldiers and the community. They were at each other’s throats for years. It is a well known history in this country. I was sent there and I created the Public Relations Department.
Your relationship with the current NSA, Sambo Dasuki, according to your book, also did not appear to be a very chummy one. What were the issues?
I would say we got on fairly well in the army. What I wrote about him was his powers. We did not have a direct confrontation. All I did was to write on what he was in the army. He was a crown prince and behaved like one in the army. I wrote that he never spent a day in the sun. What that means is that if you’re straight out of the academy and you are posted from one headquarters to another and then another, in the army, we would say you have never spent a day in the sun. That was exactly how it was with Sambo. He was a silverspoon kid that had tremendous powers in the army. That was exactly what I wrote about him. Reports had it that when he was in the Nigerian Defence Academy, he was the only cadet riding a car, which is forbidden to students. If you were a cadet, you had to mix with others, irrespective of your background. I was told the powers that be allowed him to ride a car as a cadet. That tells you something about him. And he brought that into the army. When we met in the army, it was the same thing, with senior officers coming to him for favours and all sorts of things.
In your account, you suggested that you were a conduit through which a hefty bribe got to General Babangida from some Lebanese businessmen. How did that happen?
This is why I said this is a tell-all book. I am not telling you that I was Jesus Christ. I will not tell you that I was not old enough not to know what a bribe was or is. But if you knew what was required to serve in the army, you would realise it is everything but normal. That was just one instance. Because I cannot be speaking without mentioning at least an occasion. And you can see that everything I wrote in the book, I always referred to at least an example. And there are people who are still living, who will buttress what I am saying. So, he sent me there and I met these guys who ended up giving me money to pass on to him. I went to him and said the guys asked that the box of money be given to him. He was cold and somewhat embarrassed. He told me to keep it. He might have had some dealings with those guys or that sort of thing. The box of money stayed in my house for about a month or so. My family was worried that armed robbers might pay us a visit or something. Eventually, I had to put pressure on him before he took it from me.
To what would you ascribe his reluctance to take it?
It could be that he was not comfortable with the guys sending the money through me or whatever. But remember, we are talking about the Commander-in-Chief. You are not going to start asking him what he thought about it. His word was law. When this interview is published, people will try to destroy me and say bad things about me, but what I challenge them to do is to prepare a platform for us and let us come and have it out in the public.
Remember that this man (Babangida) is loaded. He has money. He built Abuja. He built the Third Mainland Bridge. If that doesn’t tell you something, then you don’t know nothing.
Were there other occasions that you took bribes to him?
I know many Nigerians, currently in top positions, that served as conduit for bribes to my Oga. They are still in town. But it’s a case of me against them. If I allege that you did this at a particular time, you can come out and say you didn’t do it. It’s very easy to dismiss. That is why I have just allowed some of these things to go. In my conscience, and God knows, I am telling the truth.
It was on more than one occasion then…
More than one occasion. It was an easy thing during our time. Things happened.
In spite of the grief you feel at your treatment in the hands of Babangida and his lieutenants, you still managed to say a few good things about him. And one of such was your claim that in one of the cases you had, he refunded your legal expenses. What was this about?
It was when I took them to court. Remember that when I came back and I knew my life was in danger, I threw in my resignation and it took them a long time before they rejected it. Because there is no precedent, I took them to court on the basis of my fundamental human rights. What happened was that when the heat was on them, after I executed a legal action that they should allow me to get out of the army, as there was nothing stopping me from getting out of the army, they said no, that I had to go on a posting. And this place I was told to go on a posting had a history of people getting killed there. So I refused to go, not wanting to be an easy prey. And now that I am over 70, I am willing to die if they want to kill me. It cannot be worse than Dele Giwa’s death.
You have just mentioned Dele Giwa. And I think that you tried to suggest that the major factor in the collapse of your relationship with General Babangida and with the army as an institution was the Dele Giwa affair. What do you know about the Dele Giwa affair?
If tell you I knew how Dele Giwa’s murder was planned, I’d be lying. But if you ask journalists, who were in town at that time, they would tell you I was the only army officer with black band on my arm, going about with the procession for Giwa. When Giwa was assassinated and the whole country was abuzz with the allegation that it was the government that killed him, I asked Babangida and he denied. In those days, his no was no. I asked him what we should do and he replied that I should know what to do as a PR person. In a bid to prove to the world that we did not have a hand in it, I suggested that I would be part of the funeral procession, with his permission. He gave me the permission. At every procession and rally, I was the only officer in uniform. But there is no way you can hide the truth.
The Nigerian media, being what they are, started asking questions, especially when we had allegedly set up a panel to investigate the death of Dele Giwa.
Allegedly? Does it suggest that you don’t believe a panel was set up?
I used allegedly cautiously because, initially, I believed and that was what I was dishing out to the public. The members of the panel were Muhammadu Gambo, the Inspector-General; Akilu and Kunle Togun. But nothing was forthcoming.
We used to have staff meetings on Fridays and Mondays and any issue that affected the government was brought to the table for discussion. It was in one of those meetings that the issue of Giwa came up and I gave them feedback from the public. I told them what people were saying. I think Babangida did not think it through before asking me to go and check the latest on the investigation with Gambo. I drove to Gambo’s house that day and met him. It was there that he told me that he had sent a preliminary report to General Babangida. I think after I left the house, they called each other. By the time I got to the office the next morning, I met a furious Babangida, who started asking why I went to Gambo’s house to ask questions about Giwa. I reminded him that it was at the meeting that he asked me to go there. He calmed down. From there, intelligence people came in and they said I was a security threat, making all sorts of allegations without proof. It just got to a stage where the stories didn’t fit any more.
They’d tell you one thing this minute and come up with a different story the next. If they really set up a panel, it should produce a report after several months. But nothing was forthcoming. That was a black dot on the regime. I was insisting that we had to tell the people something; the findings of the panel.
It is one of the reasons I wrote the book anyway.
Your conclusion that Babangida knew about the murder appears based on the fact that Gambo said a preliminary report had been submitted and Babangida’s earlier suggestion that you should seek an update on the investigation from the Inspector-General.
Yes. If I appoint you as a head of a panel and gave you a certain assignment, then you must be able to tell the people what actually happened. In America, there is something they call cold case files. These are cases of 50 to 100 years. They would still revisit them and unearth things. So many discoveries have been made. I don’t want you to think I am out to paint them black. No. That is not my mission. My mission is for us all to come before the public. Let Nigerians know what happened because it could happen to you. We should be able to sanitise the polity. It is our duty.
How did your meeting with Gambo affect your relationship with him?
Gambo is an excellent person. I can tell you that. We related very well; no problems. I had easy access to him, just like other service chiefs. I went to them at will, even to General Abacha, when he was Chief of Army Staff. I went and came the way I wanted. If I wanted to see him, the door was open.
But it was not so with Akilu…
Akilu is somebody who nursed grudges. I am not saying it because this is Debo. You guys can investigate. There are people who served with him. He is the sort of person who holds grudges and will never forgive.
There is a claim in your book that Akilu attempted to stitch you up, sending you on an assignment in the US.
It was a mission that, right from the start, I made up my mind it was going to be impossible. Babangida knew the country’s image was in tatters and he was looking for a way to burnish the image. They set money aside and did everything. But the money did not come to me. My own duty was to meet some guys in America to try and fashion out a propaganda package. But at that juncture, I had been classified a security threat. I was not sure that I would not fall a victim like Dele Giwa. It was one of those things that made me decide against carrying out the assignment.
You were given the phone numbers of two men said to be Public Relations executives in America. What happened when you got there?
I just refused to meet them. Akilu told me to spy on fellow Nigerians and record their conversations, which I refused to do. That was the cause of the problem. This is well stated in the book.
On your return to Nigeria, how did you explain your failure to carry out the instructions given to you?
I was picked up at the airport, straight to Akilu’s Gulag in Apapa. I was taken to his dungeon, detained and harassed. I think I spent four days there.
What were you accused of?
Treason, this time. They did not accuse me of failure to carry out the mission to the United States, but of going to America to hatch a plan on how to overthrow the government. That was what they came up with. For days, different people interrogated me.
You returned to the office after interrogation. There were staff changes around the president and the late UK Bello had taken over as Aide-de-Camp. To what would you attribute this?
The normal practice is that if there was anything to be shared by presidential staff it would be in a memo form. Everybody would be handed a piece of paper to digest it, so that when we came for the meeting, we would understand what to say and everybody would be well equipped to come with their thoughts and findings. But this time around, it was not like that. It was a way of trying to give the dog a bad name. Akilu came up with a report that there was a threat to the presidency and that the life of the President was in danger. He said they had been investigating and had arrived at a conclusion to take certain measures. That was to set the ball in motion. At the next meeting, IBB was not there. His Principal Staff Officer, Colonel Anthony Ukpo, came up with a paper, read by U.K Bello, saying that my office should be moved out of the compound.
People asked why because I was the only person they did that to. The reason was that they wanted to get rid of me by all means.
They knew their chances were limited until they could get me out of circulation. Then, they could easily dispose of me. Why my case was bizarre was that I was a serving army officer. We had civilians, who slaughtered cows for the president, horse attendants and gardeners, still within the vicinity of the presidency, and they were not considered threats. These were people who went out to wherever they wanted, interacting with different kinds of people. They were poor people, if you can call them that, who did not have the resources that we had. For me to be singled out tells you what their motive was.
What happened after you were moved out?
I was told never to come to the seat of power again despite being a commissioned officer that had not been posted out. I heard from the rumour mill that there was a plan to post me out. I would not have refused a normal posting. But when I was posted to Makurdi, I knew my days were numbered.
How did General Babangida respond to your plight when you told him of it?
Each time I met him, he would say: ‘Debo, don’t worry. I will stop it.’ But it continued. There was a day, after I had been told to stop coming to Dodan Barracks, that I was told to go and sit down at home. I had never heard of that in any army.
I was told to go and sit at home, that when it was time for a posting, they would tell me. I refused to take that. I told them I was a commissioned officer. It was either I was posted in or posted out. I had to be somewhere. They said my salary had not been stopped and there was no need for me to fret. I disagreed. I told Lt.Col Elias Nyan, a lawyer and friend, who suggested that we should go to see Admiral Aikhomu, the Chief of General Staff. I am sorry to say that Aikhomu was a ‘yes sir’ officer. You cannot compare Aikhomu with Ukiwe. Ukiwe could stand his ground when he was Chief of General Staff.
But I had to see Aikhomu, which I did reluctantly. However, it turned out that he was my saving grace. I give that credit to him. He spoke with the president and the president gave me an appointment. On the day of my appointment I was even surprised that nobody stopped me at the entrance to Dodan Barracks. I got in and saw Babangida. But for the first two hours, he just ignored me. He was playing tennis with some guys. Suddenly, UK Bello just appeared. He was very aggressive. He was very short-tempered.
He is unlike Dasuki. Dasuki is quiet and would not make noise or make a scene. UK Bello came and told me to leave. I ignored him. He moved to attack me physically. I responded the same way and people had to separate us. The President was right there. But at that time I was with my back against the wall and was ready to dig it out with them. I knew the only salvation I had then was the media. If such a thing should leak to the media, they knew they were in trouble. Babangida hated people going to the media to say anything bad against him. He was somebody who wanted to protect his image and project that everything was fine. It was at that juncture that he came and listened to me. I gave him an ultimatum that I would leave the army. I am not saying this because I am no longer in the army or something. People who knew me in the army would tell you that once my mind was made up on something, I always did it. Babangida said what I was going through was just a phase and he would bring an end to it.
A few days later, he called me to say he had secured admission for me at the Administrative Staff College in Badagry. He did not want me to go in anger. Nobody thought I could resign after my graduation. I went to ASCON for the course and while I was there, visited Dodan Barracks occasionally. Babangida told me to see him at the end of the course. When the course ended and I was given the diploma, I went to Dodan Barracks. At the gate, I was told I couldn’t enter. I asked if they didn’t know me. They said they did, but they argued that anybody whose name was not on the protocol list could not enter. They refused to budge despite my insistence that I was a staff there that did not need to be on the protocol list.
I sat there. If you know how the State House was configured, you will know there is a path or channel through which you can always go out. When Babangida was seeing his guests off, he’d take that route. I sat in the ante room, hoping that when he was seeing his guests off, he would see me. But when the guests were leaving, IBB did not see them off. I told myself I would wait. Suddenly, Akilu appeared, yelling and swearing. He asked me to leave. I refused. I was so incensed that we nearly exchanged blows. He realised I was ready to fight. He retreated, but told the soldiers not to allow me in. I kept on waiting, but when Babangida did not surface, I left.
Afterwards you now decided to hire lawyers to fight your right to retire from the army and you ended up with the late Alao Aka-Bashorun.
I went to Aka-Bashorun and told him my problem and he asked whether I wanted to fight the system. I told him all I wanted was to be a free person, The traps that had been set for me would eventually kill me and nobody would hear about it. That was why I hired Aka-Basorun. And he did a very good job. Remember that Femi Falana was one of the members of his staff then. That was the beginning of the relationship with Femi up till today. We had a meeting and I gave them all the army books and they did a research, concluding that nobody could stop me from resigning. So I resigned. It shocked them.
An account in your book states that you once went to court with a weapon concealed under your agbada to prevent your arrest. Did you think you could have succeeded?
I would have succeeded. In the army we call it an element of surprise.
What happened was that the army kept ignoring court orders.
I became frustrated at not being able to move freely and wondered what it was all about. I am a soldier, too. I procured a weapon and envisaged a bloodbath if they tried to arrest me in court. I knew I would die eventually. But I would have killed many because they would have assumed they were coming for an unarmed. Anyway, Aka-Bashorun saved the day. I showed him the gun and he said: ‘What.’ He ran to the judge and whispered in his ear. It was the only day that Justice Thomas put his feet down and said the court should be cleared of everybody. He said he did not want to see any soldier around. The intelligence officer that led them there insisted that they had to pick me up, despite orders from the court. It was the judge that saved the day, not wanting to see dead bodies around him.
Was the judge aware that you had a weapon on you?
He was aware. I just sat there waiting for the time to strike. That would tell you the extent of my frustrations. I could not stay with my family after initiating the suit. I would sleep here today and sleep in another place the next day. There was a siege on the whole Ikoyi area. The moment they realised I had fled the country, they just threw my family out, beating them in the process.
The book has a portion devoted to one Mustapha, General Babangida’s cousin, who became a rich guy overnight. What was your relationship with him?
Mustapha Babangida and I were friends when he was brought in as soon as Babangida became the Chief of Army Staff. He was living in the boys’ quarters and related well with us. Gradually, he started getting introduced to people and registered some companies. He became a front, began running errands for Babangida. It happened that he was given a contract by the recently deceased Admiral Mike Akhigbe, who was governor of Lagos State. The contract was for the construction of classroom blocks at the school at Ojo Cantonment. He did a shoddy job. Some foreign journalists came into the country to do a report on education in Nigeria, choosing Lagos. I don’t know how they got to that place, but they got there and discovered that the job was shoddy. They wanted to investigate the contract terms and one thing led to the other. Mustapha then wanted to show them he had power and sent soldiers to beat them up. But those guys insisted. When they realised they had a big fish on their hands, they persisted and wanted to know other things. It was Babangida who settled it because it became a problem. He called the foreign journalists and I don’t know what transpired. I was checking foreign papers for their report, but nothing came out. That was the end of the story.
Another account in your book is about the stormy relationship between the former President and his late wife.
I would want to believe General Sunny Ifere is still alive. Some of the disclosures I have made in the book are bound to be challenged by some people who have benefited. I hope General Ifere is still alive. I have tried to track him down but nobody has told me where he is. He is the person who should tell you this. He went out with General Babangida on a particular evening and by the time they came in the wee hours of the morning, I think Mrs. Babangida suspected he must have gone out to do something improper. I don’t know what sparked the suspicion, but she tore off the badges on Babangida’s uniform.
I intervened, but the woman refused. I had to go and call General Gado Nasco, who came and persuaded the woman to leave the husband. Nasco is still alive. When General Ifere came in the following morning, he did not know what had transpired. Mrs. Babangida slammed the door in his face. That incident was one of the problems that led to his retirement from the army.
Didn’t you have issues with her?
Personally, no. She was very generous to me and my wife, giving her lace materials and those things that women give to each other. But I refused to allow my wife to be subjected to the indignities that she was subjecting other women to. The way she treated other women left much to be desired.
Tell us about your years in exile. When did you leave Nigeria?
I left Nigeria on 19 April 1989.
I got to America on 22 April 1989. The person I was supposed to stay with disappointed me. He never knew I could escape from Nigeria. All along, he promised he would receive me there. He is not a Yoruba guy, and that was what prompted me to want to stay with him. But as soon as he realised I was on American soil he reneged. I phoned him from JFK and I told him I was in America. At first, he did not believe me. When I asked him to call back the public phone I was using and I picked it, he started coming up with excuses. From there, a good Samaritan, a Nigerian, came to me and asked me what the problem was. He suggested that I should stay with his family and I did. I never got back in touch with that friend of mine. I just cut him off. This was somebody I assisted back in Nigeria. He was a government contractor and I never took anything from him.
How did you stay afloat in America?
Working at all kinds of things. Initially there were no jobs, so I went to relatives to help me out. Not too long after, I bought a business, a convenience store, and started trading there.
That was how it started. Later I got into logistics and then I went back into oil and oil. That was what I did last before coming into the country.
What do you do these days?
I am into business. Little contracting here and there. With people helping me to eke out a living. Good Nigerians.