MADUEKWE HOODWINKED YAR'ADUA INTO SIGNING THE LETTER RECALLING ME FROM THE US â€“GEN. OLUWOLE ROTIMI
Gen. Oluwole Rotimi had his tenure aborted as a military governor in 1975 and was recalled to Nigeria in February last year barely one year after he was appointed Nigeria's ambassador to the United States of America. He shares with VINCENT AKANMODE and EMEKA MADUNAGU the circumstances that surrounded the two unfortunate incidents
How have you managed to cope with life since you were recalled from the Nigerian embassy in the US last year?
What I did was merely to return to what I had been doing before. Essentially, I was into haulage business before my appointment as the Nigerian ambassador to the US. It is a fairly lucrative business for those who know the logistics. I did not have any difficulty settling into that immediately I came back.
How did you get yourself into haulage business?
My background in the army led me in that direction. For some time, particularly during the civil war, I was the Quartermaster General of the Nigerian Army. My office was responsible for the procurement of all the materiel for the war effort. They included arms, ammunition, food for troops, transport, communication equipment, and so on. So, logistics was not a strange area to me. When the opportunity came to operate privately as a transporter, I was so happy to grab it.
Managing the materiel for the war effort must have been an enormous responsibility…
That was a very daunting task. As a matter of fact, apart from procuring materials locally, I spent a lot of time overseas trying to procure arms, ammunition, vehicles, communication equipment and so on. The job was much more difficult because there was official embargo against the Nigerian government. We had to devise ways to get whatever we needed from the black market.
Was the embargo from the United Nations?
No. Mainly, the countries that could supply us arms and ammunition were Great Britain, Western Germany, France and, to a limited extent, the United States of America. But these countries had an official embargo that no war equipment should be authorised to go to Nigeria. So, it was a very daunting task to acquire these materials to support the war efforts of the Federal Government.
What was the reason for the embargo against Nigeria?
We must admit that on the propaganda side, the Biafran army was much better than that of the Federal Government. Any war is an unfortunate thing. There were deaths on both sides. But the idea that caught the imagination of those countries was that the Federal Government had set out to wipe out the Igbo race. Because of that, the Igbo became the underdogs, with the belief that there was a deliberate policy on the part of the Federal Government to commit genocide. But it was not true. In fact, the Federal Government under Yakubu Gowon gave specific instructions to troops. There was a code of conduct we had to observe in prosecuting the civil war. Otherwise, many more lives would have been lost.
As the one that had to acquire the arms and ammunition the Nigerian Army used in prosecuting the war, are there times you feel a sense of guilt that you were responsible for the loss of many lives?
There are moments that I feel for some of my colleagues. Don't forget that the Nigerian Army was always a close knitted group of professional soldiers. To discover that you are taking up arms against the people you grew up with in the barracks was most unfortunate. The fact that we took up arms against one another is regrettable. But I must say that as a professional soldier, you had to obey your commander-in-chief. You also had the responsibility to protect yourself. For instance, if I held a gun but did not pull the trigger first, my opponent would kill me. I will give you an example. At the end of the civil war, Gen. Gowon set up a committee to screen all the officers who fought on the Biafran side. There was a particular officer who is late now. His name was Mike Ivenso. He was extremely close to Gen. Gowon. I threw a question to him. I said, 'Look, Mike, when the federal troops were trying to cross the Niger from the Asaba end to Onitsha, if your friend, Gowon, was in one of the boats being taken across, would you authorise mortar bombs to shell the boat?' He said yes, and I said thank you very much. It was a war situation and it had nothing to do with brother to brother or friend to friend anymore. There was something at stake that was bigger than any one of us.
Why did you have to pick up a career in the army after graduating from the university?
There is a story behind that. When I was at King's College, Lagos, a military cadet unit was established in 1955. I was among the small group that was selected to become members of that unit. Along the line, I got infatuated with the cadet unit. While my career teachers were busy advising me on other careers, I was telling myself that it would be nice to serve Nigeria as a soldier. When I finished my higher school, I went to my career master and told him that I wanted to go into the army. He told me, 'You must be mad! You are taking this matter too seriously!' When he saw that I persisted, he said, 'What you can do is this: you are a university material because you are doing higher school and I know that you are going to get a very good result. Go and get a degree first. I f you still feel strongly about going into the army two years later, come and I will get you into the army.' That was exactly what happened. I was a Western State scholar. There was a job waiting for me at the secretariat. A day after I finished my final exam at the University of Ibadan, I resumed duty as an assistant secretary. When I told Chief Simeon Adebo then that I wanted a secondment to the army, he said there was no precedent for that, so I went back to my old teacher and told him that the man wanted to frustrate my ambition. He said the school would get me into the military school in Zaria for my basic training, and if the Western government wanted to abduct me from there, they could should so. That was how I started training; first in Zaria as a potential officer and then to the UK for cadet training before I returned to Nigeria as a full fledged officer.
How did your family react to your decision to join the army?
They were very hostile. In fact, my mother disowned me. My elder brother, who was an education officer with the Western State Government, had gone to her and told her that her son who had gone to the university and got a degree said he wanted to go into the army, which is reserved for failures. I was not a failure. I got a second class degree. But I remained adamant. But I thank God for it.
Was it fashionable for graduates to join the army at that time?
No, it was not. In fact, the first graduate to join the army was Odumegwu Ojukwu. He too went to King's College and went overseas to attend Oxford University. He too joined the civil service for a short time and then joined the army and became a divisional officer in the East. The second person was Gen. Olutoye. He was an assistant principal in a school in Ijebuland before he joined the army. I was the third.
How did you eventually make up with your mother?
Since I insisted on going, I went. I later came back as an officer and made peace with her. I told her that the army was just like any other career. I told her that there may be war but people also die without going to war. If God had destined it that I would die young, so would it be. My mother lived long. She was 86. She lived with me for a long time here in Lagos, and when I was appointed the governor of Western State, I took her with me. So, she was with me for the four and a half years that I remained the military governor of the old Western State.
Where was your father all that while?
My father died in 1964, which was the year I was taking the school certificate examination.
How were you able to finance your education without your father?
It was my elder brother who helped me, together with some of the inheritance my father left. My father had eight wives and there were 15 of us. So, it was not easy. But we thank God.
How did you feel when your career in the army was abruptly terminated by the coup that was staged by Murtala Mohammed in 1975?
That coup did not come as a complete surprise. There are lots of things that the public will never know until people like us speak. By 1974, there were agitations by the junior officers who wanted to be involved in governance. They were campaigning for a change of the military governors, some of whom had been there for eight or nine years.
Was it not selfish ambition on the part of the junior officers?
What they were saying essentially was that a military posting should not last more than three to four years. They too wanted governance to be meaningful. That was why in January 1975, Gowon brought Obasanjo, Murtala and one other officer into the Federal Executive Council as ministers. They were called federal commissioners then. But the second leg of the promise that Gowon gave all of us was that 18 months after that, he was going to change the governors. When the time came, he never acted. April passed, May passed and June passed but it was the same thing. Then the officers said he was not serious; that he had reneged on his promise. That helped in a big way in consolidating opposition against Gowon from his own constituency. I particularly was urging Gowon to please change us. At one point, he said, 'Wole, what is all this? You are siding with these other people when you have only spent three and a half years in this position.' I told him that was enough. Actually, in 1974, I was already three years in the office. What I did was to dissolve my executive council in Ibadan, came back to Lagos and told Gowon, 'Sir, I have dissolved my council. What is my next job?' He was furious. He said, 'You mean you are now the one to determine your tenure? If you want to work without an executive council, that is your business. Go and manage the situation.' I had to go back and reconstituted the council. I brought in some other people. But, of course, one was aware of all the grumbling that was going on.
A lot of people had thought that the coup then was executed out of sheer patriotism-the fact that Gowon reneged on the handover date.
That was part of it. But we should not put all the blame on him, because he also convinced the officers at the time to renege as well. The officers knew that the longer he stayed, the more the opportunity they had to be in government. Of course, when the new people came, the governors were the target at that time. I was one of the governors. I remember a meeting I had with Murtala a week or two after he got there. He told me, 'Wole, we know you. You are not part of Gowon's rot. But we took a decision that all governors and heads of service should go, and that was why it affected you.' I told him, 'Thank you very much. I won't cry over spilt milk.'
As a former military governor, how do you feel when you hear people blame the military for Nigeria's woes?
The military obviously cannot escape some measure of criticism. In leadership, when things go well, you take the praise. When things don't go well, you have to take the blame as well. But we must also admit that over the years, there has not been an out and out military rule in Nigeria. The military has always involved Nigerians. When you look at the composition of the executive council from the federal right through to the state, you have civilians as advisers, ministers, commissioners, and so on. Those who head parastatals are also civilians. So, I don't think it will be proper to put all the blame on the military. We all have our own portion of the blame.
At what point did you decide to join the Peoples Democratic Party?
Oh, that is another story. When the third term bid of Gen. Obasanjo failed, it became obvious to him that he had to hand over. It was at that point he called me and said, 'Look, Wole, I want you to help us in picking a prospective PDP candidate. He set up a committee of about seven or eight of us, including two women. He said the purpose of the committee was to screen the PDP candidates who were interested. Of course, I was never a card carrying member of the PDP. But I said it would be odd to screen candidates without being a party member. So, I registered myself at my ward in Abeokuta as a PDP member. We did the screening. Unknown to the public, although Obasanjo decided on Yar'Adua, what the committee did was to recommend six out of almost 30 candidates-three from the North and three from the South. And the committee said the party itself should be able to pick one of the six people it recommended.
Who were the six nominees?
From the North, we had Umaru Yar'Adua, Ahmed Makarfi and Jerry Gana. From the South, we had Peter Odili, Donald Duke and Sam Egwu. Another thing we discovered in the committee was that although the committee was given an assignment, there were no guidelines given to us. We had to work out our own guidelines. That was why we did not recommend just one person.
Did you know about Yar'Adua's ill health then?
There was no way we could have known. As I said, even the party did not give us any guideline. We were the ones that used our own initiatives to draw our own guidelines. So, the question of his health was really not an issue as at that time. And I must go further, because you asked me a highly political question about my relationship with the PDP. After we finished the exercise and campaign was to start, it was the same Obasanjo who called me and said, 'Look, Wole, I want you to be the campaign coordinator for the South-West.' I asked why me, and he said, 'You are one of the very few people that can talk to these governors who have really grown wings. You have not gone round to collect contracts.' I asked how he knew, and he said, 'I know. You stayed away from government. You don't go to Abeokuta to collect contracts. And even though you live in Ibadan and your place is a stone's throw from Agodi, you don't go there. I believe you can manage the situation because they have regards for you.' I thanked him for reposing that confidence in me, and that was why I took up the job.
And then you were rewarded with your appointment as Nigeria's Ambassador to the US…
It could very well be. I cannot rule that out.
But you barely stayed on the job for one year before you were recalled to Nigeria. What happened?
Well, that is another story. All I can say is that it was the manipulation by Ojo Maduekwe (immediate past Minister of External Affairs) that got me out of Washington DC. As a matter of fact, and I say this with all sense of responsibility, when I got back to Nigeria, I sought an audience with President Umaru Yar'Adua. When I sat with him in his office, I thanked him for finding me worthy to be appointed as his ambassador in Washington. And I said with regard to my recall, I was at a loss where to start my story. But President Yar'Adua said, 'General, don't start from anywhere. What I did not know before you were recalled, I now know all the details. I looked at him and said, 'Your Excellency…' He said, 'Yes. I did not know that Maduekwe would behave the way he did.' You see, he rushed a memo to Yar'Adua just to call the dog a bad name in order to hang it. I told the President that my reputation was rubbished because I was never issued a query to explain anything. Then the President said, 'There are two things I want to say to you. One, take whatever has happened as an act of God. Two, I want to assure you that I am going to make amends.' I looked at him straight in the face again, and he said, 'On my honour, I will make amends.' At that point, I was completely disarmed.
So, what exactly happened between you and Maduekwe?
It was Ojo Maduekwe who manipulated the whole thing. I had written a petition to President Yar'adua to intervene and save me from the hands of the minister. I sent the petition through the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Alhaji Yayale Ahmed. I also gave a copy of the letter to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Prof. Jubril Aminu. When Aminu saw the letter, he called Maduekwe and said he wanted to intervene in the matter. Remember that Prof. Aminu was once the Nigerian ambassador to the US. He called Yayale and told him not to pass the letter to the President yet. Yayale told me all this and Aminu also confirmed it. Aminu later called Maduekwe and told him that he (Aminu) had told Yayale not to pass the letter yet because he wanted to intervene. But rather than wait for Aminu, Maduekwe went to Yar'Adua himself and presented him with a distorted memo, which Yayale himself said he did not see until later. He (Maduekwe) presented it to the President, requesting for my recall, and the President just put his signature.
Are you saying that you were not guilty of the allegations he levelled against you? He said you were grossly insubordinate.
There was nothing like that. It was all cooked up to achieve a desired end. What insubordination could he accuse me of? When they came for the inauguration of Obama, there was a great deal of confusion. The first signal we got at the mission was that Ojo Maduekwe was leading a delegation to represent Yar'Adua. A day later, we got another signal that there were actually two delegations, one led by Maduekwe for the ministry and the other led by (Chief Emeka) Anyaoku, the former Commonwealth Secretary General, representing President Yar'Adua. Protocol wise, that created a problem. Who comes first, the ministerial delegation or the presidential delegation? But I met all of them at the airport. Foreign ministers were never invited to the inauguration. It was Maduekwe himself who transferred funds from Nigeria to America to be present at the inauguration. As far as we were concerned, we didn't plan for their coming. Neither did they send us funds to look after them. Ojo Maduekwe had arranged a seminar which was hosted at the mission. There, I had to introduce people. Maybe because I introduced Emeka Anyaoku before him as the leader of the Nigeria delegation and him as the leader of the ministry, he took offence. To him, that was insubordination. In June (2008) one of his sons was getting married in Texas (US), and I went there. After the wedding, I approached the protocol officer and told him to tell the minister that at his convenience, I would like to meet with him for five minutes. Do you know that I spent three days in Texas without being able to see him? I had gone there to honour him; I didn't have to be there. That was number one. Number two, in October when the heads of state were supposed to address the UN assembly, I went to the hall and sat directly behind the minister. When I got to my seat, I greeted him, 'Honourable Minister, good morning sir.' He looked back at me but never uttered a word. After Bush, Sarkozy and one other head of state from South America had spoken, Maduekwe got up and I followed him. I followed him from his seat right through the lobby, he knew that I was following him but he didn't stop until he disappeared into a committee room. At that stage, I knew that my presence was not welcome. I just went back to my hotel room, packed my things and returned to (Washington) DC. These were things I told Yayale when I came back and he strongly felt that he should arrange a meeting with President Yar'Adua so that I could tell him all these things.
What do you think could be responsible for the hostility of the former minister towards you?
Before I became the Nigerian ambassador to the US, some houses belonging to the Nigerian government in the country were sold either because they had become too old or because they were too close to the road and so were considered insecure. There were about four of them and they were sold for $24 million dollars. Because Obasanjo had said that nobody should touch the money, it was kept in a special account. That kind of money is supposed to be remitted into revenue for government. Being properties of an embassy, no tax was supposed to be paid, but the government of Maryland said the sum of $1.5 million should be paid as tax and would be refunded after it was paid. From the balance of $22.5 million dollars, $3 million dollars was spent on a new chancery the country opened in Moscow, while the balance of $19.5 million was kept in the special account. Strangely, the Nigerian lawyer who handled the sale of the properties decided to sit on the $1.5 million when was later refunded by the government of Maryland. Then I started demanding that the $1.5 million should be refunded to the embassy. Obviously, if he returned the money, the next thing for me would be to ask that all the money should be remitted into revenue. I later realised that they all had their own plan for the money.