I HAVE NEVER KILLED AS A SOLDIER
He is the only child of his father, a retired soldier and lived most of his early life in the barracks. But he had to leave at the age of 10 following the death of his father. Despite the harzard associated with the military coupled with his status as an orphan, he took a plunge into the profession. And he rose to the rank of a Major-General in the Nigerian Army.
Today, he is the Commandant of the Nigerian Defence Academy(NDA), Kaduna, Nigeria's premier military training institution. Major-General Mahmoud Yerima, a member of Course 17 of the NDA, in this interview with Daily Sun told of how he was lured into joining the Army, his father's arm of the military. Excerps.
Why I joined the Army
'My up-bringing contributed to my choice of joining the Army because my father was in the Army. He served the Nigerian Army for 22 years and retired in 1962. While growing up, I got more exposed to the army than the other services. That paved the way for me to go to the Nigerian Military School(NMS), Zaria, for my secondary school education. NMS is an army school, it automatically influenced my choice of joining the army.'
I have never killed as a soldier
'No, I have never killed as a soldier. It is a well-known fact that soldiers are trained to kill but we don't just kill for the sake of killing. If you are involved in an operation where you have to kill, then you kill. But even when I was in Liberia, I was not really at the warfront. I am a logistician, I was busy organizing the logistics for the forces who were at the forefront where the fighting was going on. Though we were at the forefront where the fighting was going on, I never really took part in the fighting. That doesn't mean if I had the opportunity to kill I will not do it.'
Who is General Yerima?
'General Yerima is the Commandant, NDA, Kaduna. I am an Ordinance Officer, an only child. I have no brother. I have no sister and I am an orphan. I lost my dad when I was 10 years old and I lost my mum in 2003 when I was at the National Defence College. My father was a sergeant in the Nigerian Army and he left in 1962 after serving for 22years. I am from Borno State but I have spent most of my life in Kaduna. I am married and I have five boys and two girls.'
My children and the military.
'I have five boys and two girls and two of them are already in NDA trying to take over from me. One is in the Navy and the other one is in the Army. The other one is in the University of Maiduguri. One is in the Military School, Zaria. One is in the Air Force Comprehensive School in Ibadan. I cannot tell if all of them want to join the Military School, but it looks like the one in the NMS may want to join because of his background. I will not say no if he really wants to join the military because I always encourage my children to do what they want to do.'
Life as an army officer
'Life as an army officer has been quite challenging and interesting right from my days as a cadet. I have been up to the task because I was nominated amongst my mates to go to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, UK, where I graduated. While at the NDA, I read Sciences and I was offered admission to the Royal Military College of Science in the UK, where I got a degree in Applied Science. So I have had a fairly good foundation because by the time I became a lieutenant, I was already a degree holder.
That encouraged me
'With the exposure I had with the Royal Military College of Science and the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, I knew I was doing quite well as a young officer. I find myself in this position now. But above all, I think I have had a good fulfilling life as an army officer. I have been to operations, mostly in Liberia, during the Liberian war, and most of my career too I have been attending courses here and there traveling all over the world. It has been a very fulfilling life for me as a military officer.'
NDA in my days.
'I trained here at the academy. When I was a Cadet here, we were quite few and it was an entirely different ball game altogether. At that time, it takes two and a half years to become an officer and what we went out with was just A Levels that was moderated by the University of Ibadan. There was no academics as such. Not to the degree level. We were quite few. It was very easy to keep an eye on all of us. The instructors were many and you couldn't dodge. Things were very orderly, I will say, even though there were challenges here and there. Then I left for Sandhurst, I saw a different type of training that was more realistic than what we have in NDA. They have all the resources and I was able to compare the training here and the training in Sandhurst.
'On my return as Commandant, I made efforts to put my two experiences to bare. The first thing I noticed when I came into this place was that so many things that I knew happening in NDA were no longer happening. The cadet, during my time was a very proud and disciplined cadet. Issues of AWOL, going out for days, brutality, theft and all that were very, very rare. I came to NDA and I found this very large population and so many things were wrong.
'I had to look at the issue of discipline. Discipline was not particularly what I wanted, being a very good disciplinarian. So many things were happening. Cadets were going on AWOL. Cadets were absenting themselves from classrooms. Cadets were engaged in acts of brutality to the extent of inflicting bodily harm on their fellow Cadets.
When one tried to correct them, one was exposed to a lot of pressure from outside.
'I was determined that if we are to pass out gentlemen officers that are going to be useful to the armed forces of this country, then they must start by being very disciplined. We cannot afford to pass out a cadet that is used to physical contact then when he goes to the field, he tries to manhandle the soldier. As an officer, if you rough handle a soldier and he decides to beat you back, then discipline is thrown to the dust.
'I started from there and I am happy to say that by and large and to a great extent, that has stopped, or it has reduced. Let me say that what we have agreed here is that anybody who gets involved in physical combat is going to be withdrawn and we stand by it.
'The issue of AWOL, what I met here was that one could go and come back. That is, you just leave the Academy and then come back and get light punishment which did not happen during my time. I never remembered any of us sleeping outside. But some Cadets will just take off and come back and they will be given light punishment. It is only when you are absent for 72hours that you will be withdrawn.
We decided to look at the books on the standing order for cadets training. We discovered that in the book, there is a provision that if you are absent for one day, you get relegated. We adopted it and that took care of the incidences of AWOL. And by that, we have instilled the required discipline on Cadets.'
Why there was no discipline.
'I cant really say why discipline, which is the hall mark of the military anywhere in the world disappeared at the NDA. But I believe it is as a result of interference from outside. Even as I am talking to you, when a Cadet commits a serious offence and he is withdrawn or relegated, people try to interfere. They try to beg you. If you oblige and another Cadet commits the same kind of offence then you don't have any morale justification to dish out any form of punishment to that Cadet. That was how discipline started being eroded to the extent that you find yourself in a situation where you just turn and look the other way when Cadets are behaving in a way that they are not supposed to behave.
'In trying to instill discipline at the Academy, I may have stepped on toes. When I get any call on that subject matter, I make it my duty to explain to you. We have standing regulations at the NDA and I ask you to put myself in your shoes. If the son of Mr. A commits a particular offence and he is punished according to the books and a son of Mr. B, does the same thing and you don't do anything about it, then what standards are you trying to show?
'In fact, you will lose your credibility even as a Commandant. So I explain to them and sometimes they will just reluctantly leave me alone but the pressures are there.'
My greatest problem as commandant.
'Initially, when I came here, the issue of water was a very big problem here. As I am talking to you now water from Kaduna State Water Board does not get to this place. Everywhere is borehole. I have sunk so many boreholes here since I came. The other one is infrastructural development, having moved from the old site to the permanent site. The project has not been completed.
'Most of the facilities that Cadets are supposed to be using for training are currently at the old site. We have to ferry Cadets everyday from the permanent site to the old site and from the old site to the new site. That movement has its attendance risks. Carrying people's children up and down is not easy. But thank God, we have very good drivers so we have never recorded any serious accident.
'The issue of the completion of the permanent site is a major headache for me and also for anybody who will take over from me. Until all the facilities are put in that place, we will continue to move Cadets back and forward and you know the old site is quite far from this new site.
'One of my greatest problems when I newly took over was the fact that cadets were taking ill very frequently with malaria. I discovered there were plenty of mosquitoes here. I have been able to arrest that with the fixing of nets in the hostels. If the people you are supposed to train for the armed forces are always falling ill, then there is a big problem.
'Also the Cadet Mess was in bad shape, so also were the cooking utensils. I was able to import state of the art industrial cooking materials and renovated the Mess to make it conducive and hygienic for Cadets.
Why training was increase to five years. 'It was two and a half years duration during my time when the academic qualification was A' levels. Then in 1985, it was turned to degree awarding institution. We had to grapple with the problem of degree and military training.
'Along the line, the academicians were complaining that they didn't have enough time to pursue the academic calendar. The National Universities Commission(NUC), was monitoring the progress of the academic aspect of the NDA. Outside there in the field, the soldiers were complaining that look the guys that you are turning out are not well groomed the way it should be.
'That prompted the issue of five years. It was actually five years but it was converted to four years because the services were complaining that the turn-out of officers was low. They brought it down to four years. Then people now started complaining. The academicians said time was not enough. The military chaps say the quality of officers coming out is not high enough. We now had to revert to five years. Principally, the last year is left purely for military training. The four years are for academic training even though we inject some military training in between.'
Most difficult times
'One of the most difficult times at the NDA is during the recruitment period. Everybody wants his ward to come to NDA. You keep telling them that there is a standard in NDA. You must sit for the exams and you must pass. We keep telling them that they should be patient, try to coach their wards so that they will pass the exams. It's quite demanding because we have over 38,000 candidates applying for the exams out of which you take about 240. You take six from each state and four from the FCT. It is quite competitive.