EX-SOLDIER AND FORMER AIDE TO BABANGIDA CLOCKS 105 YEARS, REVEALS HOW HE NARROWLY ESCAPED FIRING SQUAD FOR ALLEGEDLY TYPING GIDEON ORKAR'S COUP SPEECH
Pa Ebinah Udontuk, ex-soldier and former Personal Assistant (PA) to the former military President, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, clocked 105 years on May 25, 2010. The stenographer par excellence, received western education by a stroke of luck, as his mother and grandmother vehemently resisted his attempt to go to school.
Their reason being that educated people usually abandon their parents, even in death. That, for instance, accounted for why he started primary school at the age of 23 through the use of force and by escaping from his two mothers.
He lost his father when he was just three months old. He faced similar opposition from his mother and grandmother when he wanted to enlist into the army to fight the second world war.
Pa Udontuk, who joined the Biafran army when the civil war broke out and later switched his support to the Nigerian army, would have gone the way of coup plotters (facing the firing squad), if he was found guilty, after someone accused him of typing the speech read by Gideon Orkar in the April 22, 1990 coup to oust Ibrahim Babangida. But, he was given the clean bill of health, after he was detained and investigations conducted.
At 105 years, he is optimistic of celebrating more birthdays, may be, hinging his optimism on the fact that his grandfather, Udontuk, died at the age of 192 years. This is no joke. The old man cancelled this interview several times, because, according to him, he wanted it conducted next year, when he would be marking his 106th birthday. The retired Staff Sergeant spoke to Daily Sun extensively on a number of issues.
I learnt that you celebrated your 105th birthday on May 25, 2010. Let me start by wishing you happy birthday in arrears.
Thank you very much.
Now, may we know you, in other words, tell us your names?
My names are Ebong Ebinah Udontuk.
Where are you from?
I'm from Ikot, in Udontuk village, Akwa Ibom State, in Ika Local Government Area.
When exactly were you born?
It was on the 25th of May, 1905.
It means you were born in … (cuts in)
In 1905. I was born between 8.00 and 8.30 a.m according to the late Titus Udontuk, who recorded my birthday. And that was the reason my grandmother and my uncle gave me the name, Anyanwu.
Why were you given the name, Anyanwu when you are not an Igbo man?
Firstly, the reason may be because I was born early in the morning, when the sun was about rising. Anyanwu means sun. Secondly, my grandmother came from Ukwa in Ndoki, Abia State. Those must have informed their decision to give me the name.
Tell us little about yourself
To be frank, my parents, that is, my mother and my grandmother did not like Western education. They didn't want me to go to school because according to information, my late father, Ebong Udontuk, died when I was just three months old. Then, Ebong had no brother who could take care of my mother. My mother took me to their village, to stay with her mother and I grew up there. Therefore, the question of going to school was not possible. I was there when the second world war took place.
I wanted to join the army then to fight the second world war but my mother did not agree. On hearing that, my mother wept. She and my grandmother rushed to the recruitment centre, Abak Division, picked me from there and gave me the beating of my life. They beat me thoroughly. By that time, I could not even write the alphabet 'A'. But later on, when my mates started laughing at me, I began to follow them to school and started learning how to read A, B, C, D.
How old were you then?
I was over 23 years when I started going to school. From A, B.C I went to Secondary school.
So, you went to secondary school?
Yes, I did. But I stopped at class four, at Central Commercial Academy, Enugu, now Central College of Accounts, Enugu.
Let's go back to when your mother and grandmother came to take you away from the recruitment centre. What happened after beating you up?
It annoyed me greatly and I continued going to school. And my grandmother continued to oppose it. Her reason was that people who go to school are learned men, who rarely stay at home to bury their parents when they die. This is because my grandmother loved and had much interest in me. I ran away from home and went to stay with my mother's elder sisters and still continued going to school.
My mother came to her sister's house, where I was staying and wanted to beat me up again and I escaped. I remained there and continued with my education. It was at the final examination, which took place in December that the Headmaster of the school asked whether I was the boy that was always moving about with the late Chief Sam Nkanta.
My mother was among the parents, who came to the school that day and when I saw her I tried to hide. Again, the Headmaster announced that the boy, that is myself, has no father he was supposed to be addressing correspondences to. It was at that point that the late Sam Nkanta got up and told him that he was my father. He told the Headmaster that my names were Ebinah Sam Nkanta. I wrote the names down myself. Today, all my certificates and other credentials bear Ebinah Sam NKanta.
But Nkanta was not your biological father?
Yes, he was not. But when it got to the point of going to seek employment, one of the sons of Nkanta kicked against it. He told me not use their father's name to work in the County Council as we knew it then, especially, when the Council wanted to send me for a training, as a secretary/typist. At the Council, the problem of discrimination also set in. They asked me to go to where I came from and I did . I later confronted my mother to tell me the history about myself. I asked her to tell me how the names I was bearing came about.
He told me exactly what happened and I told her I was going back to my village, whether dead or alive. I moved to my village to stay with my late father's family members before I went to Port-Harcourt to look job. I succeeded in getting one as a 'labourer' in Angus Builders Company which specialised in building construction. Later, the civil war broke out and when the Nigerian soldiers entered Port-Harcourt, I ran back home to live in the village. From there, the late Chief Orok of Urua Inyang Ika gave me a note to go to Abak to meet on Bossar, who employed me as a typist.
Shortly after that, able bodied men were being conscripted by the Biafran army and because of my profession, I was given the job of a typist and posted to where the military police is presently. That is, after Onicha Ngwa, Abia State. There, I obtained a pass to go and see my mother who was terribly sick. The night I entered into my village was the same night the Nigerian army entered Inyang Ika and there was no way of going out. I had to stay at home.
Two days after, they used metal gong to announce that able-bodied boys or men should come to a village called Ikorojo to be recruited into the Nigerian Army and I went there like others did. One of my relatives saw me, pointed at me and told the Nigerian soldiers that I was a Biafran soldier. Because of that, I was arrested and locked up in the guardroom.
After five days, Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle paid a visit to the 18 battalion and they brought those of us that were locked up and lined us up. They brought me out and called me 'Biafran!' I told them not to dress me in borrowed robe. I explained to them that I was not a Biafran and that the land, sand, tree, and everything here in Ikah was supposed to be loyal and bow to the government that is nearer to us. I further told them that since they had liberated us, I was no more Biafran but a Nigerian soldier.
They inquired the battalion I belonged to and I told them I was a typist in the office. Adekunle asked if I could type very well, I said yes. He asked the Adjutant to take me to the office and give me a typewriter to type some documents. They took me to 18 battalion office and I successfully typed what they gave me. They brought the copy to Brigadier Adekunle and he asked me, if I would like to join the Nigerian army and I told him I would join, if they would recruit me. There and then, he ordered the Quarter Master to give me army uniform. I collected the uniform and became a Nigerian soldier. He said I would go for training later. That was how I became a Nigerian soldier till the day I down tools on March 31, 1991.
Did you retire voluntarily?
Yes. I am a retired soldier, a pensioner. I retired as Staff Sergeant.
Have you been receiving your pension regularly?
Yes, till tomorrow
I also learnt that you were Secretary to the former military President, General Ibrahim Babangida?
Yes, it was IBB who redeployed me from 13 Brigade to join him as his Personal Assistant (PA) in 1983, and they took over the government in 1985, and I still worked with him in the State House. I was posted back to the State House II, Army Headquarters, before the late Sani Abacha redeployed me to the Conference Room because of my profession. After the Gideon Orkar coup of April 22, 1990, somebody levied false allegation against me. He accused me of being the one that typed the coup speech which Gideon Orkar read and I was arrested.
But was it true?
No. After investigation, they discovered that I was not in any way involved in typing the coup speech. My leg, my hand, even my ear did not hear it nor did my eyes see the coup speech. The next thing I did was to find my way from the Army Headquarters to 2 Brigade, Port-Harcourt and worked there as a chief clerk. It was there that I put in letter for my voluntary retirement.
It means, you would have been killed by firing squad, if it was discovered that you actually typed the coup speech?
I would have been dead by now.
How was it, working for IBB?
Oh! He was a very good man, I was PA to him.
When you say, very good man, what do you mean? Was he taking good care of you or what?
He was a very, very lovely, very considerate.
How? Can you tell us more
He was someone who did not want any of his soldiers to suffer.
Let's go back to Gideon Orkar, did you know him personally?
I knew him as an officer.
Just as an officer? Nothing ever brought the two of you together?
What kind of person or officer was he?
Infact, I cannot describe him very well because I did not work closely with him. The people I worked with were, General Sani Abacha, General Godwin Abbe, General Ademokhai. They were the officers I worked closely with.
You described Babangida as a considerate man.
Very, very considerate.
How would you describe the man, Abacha?
Oh! Abacha? Well, as Chief of Army Staff, he was very good but I didn't move closer to him.
So, you can't really say much about his person?
Yes, I can't say much about him.
Did you witness the Dimka coup of 1976, which led to the death of General Murtala Mohammed?
No, I was in the 13 Brigade then.
I was told you posed in a photograph with the queen of England. How did you manage to come closer to her, to the extent that you were able to take photograph with somebody of her caliber?
I was a schoolboy then when she visited Nigeria. We were asked to be on the road to welcome her. It was a thing of joy pride taking picture with such a prominent and responsible personality.
So, that was how you came closer to her?
Was she Queen Elizabeth the 1st or second?
I can't remember the one now but she was the one after the death of King George. She was the first queen to visit Nigeria.
How was it, being a soldier? Did you go to the war front?
I did not.
That means, you were only assigned typing of documents?
Generally, how did you feel being a soldier? I'm asking this question against the backdrop that a soldier must either kill or get killed. Were you not afraid of death when you were
joining the army?
I was not. As a man, I wasn't afraid because as a soldier, you have your own personal gun. Anywhere you are, you are expected to be
with your gun. It is only when the attack is serious that you may be required to leave the office to go to the war front and to still come back to the office when the situation is a bit calm.
Is it true that you also posed in a photograph with the late journalist, Dele Giwa?
No, I didn't.
You said something about Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle. What kind of officer was he?
He was the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 3 Marine Commando then.
People said he was a no nonsense officer and very gallant one too. What is your impression about him?
Yes, he was a very gallant officer. As a fighting soldier, I regarded him as our officer.
If the war was to be very hot or serious to warrant dragging you out from the office to the war front, and you came face-to-face with your enemy, what would be your first reaction?
First, I will pray to God to fight my enemies on my behalf.
As a soldier, will prayer be enough to defeat your enemy? Won't you fire a shot?
I will fire, but according to the direction of God. You know you can't fire anyhow. You have to know your movement and that of your enemy, and when to take action as a soldier.
Talking about prayer and spirit of God before killing an enemy, but the Bible says you should not kill. How do you draw a line between God and your killing a human being like you?
(Prolonged laughter) Let me tell you, that Bible quotation does not mean that a soldier should not kill. You have to save your life before any other thing. If the enemy is interested in killing you, then, you have to defend yourself.
So, if you face an enemy and your life in danger, it doesn't really matter if you are a Christian or not, you have to kill him first before he kills you?
No Christianity there, I have to fire the person first.
But by so doing, you have committed murder, killed a human being, the Bible says, 'thou shall not kill.'
'Thou shall not kill' does not mean that I should not defend myself. It was pointed out in one of our security trainings, that we should first, save life before property. That is, we have to save our lives before anything else. Instead of enemy killing you, you kill him first.
You were said to be very good in stenography and shorthand.
Yes, I was trained by the army in 1980, 81, 82. I did my Confidential Secretary Grade III in 1983.
You said you stopped at class four, does it mean that the extra knowledge you acquired was through trainings?
Yes, I didn't exceed class four in a commercial school. In the commercial school, we learnt Shorthand very well. We studied Accounts, Typewriting, Office Practice, Commerce, Mathematics, Chemistry, Geography, History. Then, we were taught History of the British Empire.
Now, let's get it right, were you IBB's Confidential Secretary or Personal Assistant?
His PA. That is, he would call me and I would go to him to type some correspondences, or write down something, dictated to me and later type them for him to sign his signature.
How long did you serve as IBB's PA
From November 1983 to April 1984, before I was redeployed.
Do you still communicate with your former boss, I mean, General Ibrahim Babangida?
You mean now?
Yes, I remember I once visited him in his residence.
You mean in his Minna Hilltop residence? When was that?
In 1993. Since that time, I have not visited him again. Even when he lost his wife, I was about to go there, before this eye (pointing at his reddish eyes and using handkerchief to clean watery substances coming out from them) started disturbing me. I couldn't go again.
Can't you call him on phone to say, 'master how are you'?
No, no, no, I think it is an insult for me to call a big man of that stature on phone.
Insult? Even at your age?
Is it because of your military training or background, which places emphasis on junior officers, respecting senior ones and treating them like lords, so to say?
We are trained to give respect to our seniors.
So, because of that, you can't call him on phone?
You prefer to visit him?
What is wrong in calling him on phone?
Again, I may call him on phone to say, sir, I heard what happened to you and he may say, 'I don't know you'. But when he sees me personally, he will say, ok, are you? He will recognise me.
That's alright. If you see IBB today, for instance, as your former boss, what would you tell him?
I will go straight to him and salute him.
You give him compliments?
Yes. I will give him compliments
Will that be enough? Are you not going to tell him other things like…?
I will first of all, salute him.
Do you think that retired soldiers deserve better treatment from the government, better than as they are presently?
Well, as it pleases the government.
Sir, how many children do you have?
I had five children. One died, I now have two boys (men) and two girls (ladies).
I saw you discussing with your daughter about opening of a bank account. Is it for you or for who?
Nobody should expect me to be spending my retirement money anyhow, without making provisions for the education of my grandchildren. I want to open bank account for my grandchildren's education. That's what I'm bequeathing to them as their grandfather.
It is not every one that will be lucky to live up to 105 years. You even wanted to postpone this interview till next year, when you are expected to be celebrating your 106th birthday. What is responsible for the longevity you are enjoying now? You are still agile. Besides the troublesome eyes that are becoming dim, you are still active. Is it because of the kind of food you eat or what?
I don't know. It is my creator who knows. I can't tell. It is my God who created me that knows the reason for my attaining this age. I still have the feeling that I will live longer than this age. According to history, my grandfather, Udontuk, died at the age of 192.
May be, that explains why your daughter informed us that you shifted this interview till next year. Are you targeting to live up to 192 years like your grandfather? Because it seems you are not in a hurry to go to the next planet, as the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe would say.
Yes, I didn't want the interview to hold this year. I wanted it to take place during my next birthday celebration, May 25, 2011. But its God that will decide how long I am going to live on earth.
If you were to be asked how long you would want to live on earth, how long would you suggest to God?
I cannot predict but it is only my God who knows. But I have the firm belief that I will still celebrate my birthday next year. My spirit tells me so.
You are very optimistic person .
Yes, I am.
You can see the situation of things in Nigerian you fought war to preserve as one. How do you feel when you look back and remember the Nigeria of yester years, comparing it with the Nigeria of today. Are you happy?
Well, I am not happy. Things are not as they were before. Corruption is too much now. People no longer have respect for government properties, especially, government money. Some young boys want to become millionaires in one night or day.
Was it not like that during your days?
It wasn't like that before and many young men don't want to work these days. It is not only young men. If you go to hotels, you see many of our young girls drinking, smoking, to the extent that the girls smoke hard drugs like cannabis and others. So, Nigeria of today is not what it used to be.
Before, you could afford to keep your property in an open space and still find it there the following morning. But today, it will not be there. Even before morning time, they would have stolen it and when you see the intruders and want to raise alarm, they fire you, that's all. It is not good.
What is your advice to Nigerians, even to the leaders?
Well, it is in the hands of the leaders to repair the country. If our leaders can hate bad conduct, the country will be good. If our leaders can punish offenders, irrespective of their wealth, because the junior ones sometimes, learn how to commit crimes from the 'big men'. They follow them to commit crimes, especially, when they discover that the wealthy ones get away with their crimes. If we can be truthful, when somebody does bad thing and you tell him he has done something bad, another person will be cautious when he wants to commit similar offence.
At 105 years, do you have any regrets. I mean anything you would have loved to achieve that you have not achieved?
I'm not regretting anything because my God has given me what I needed from him.
Death is inevitable. Before you die, for instance, which height would you want Nigeria to get to, so that when you get to the great beyond, you would have what to tell your ancestors. At least, positive things?
I want to see Nigeria in good condition.
I want to see everything going on smoothly, to see people have respect for government properties, respect for the elders and for the elders too, to respect the youths and protect government properties. And the government should create jobs for the school leavers.
Are you a Christian, I mean, do you go to church?
I am a born Christian, a Catholic. There are some people who change their denominations any how, jumping from Catholic to Qua Iboe, from Presbyterian to Apostolic and so on, believing them to be the best churches. But I was born and brought up in the Catholic Church.
You now see people moving from one church to the other, forming their own churches, making them to be money collection centres every Sunday. I don't do that. As I was born and I started learning Catechism, I realized that Catholic Church is where I would learn what would help my spiritual growth. I was born a Catholic and will die a Catholic.
So, you don't really like people, who move from one church to the other. But they are looking for salvation.
(Laughter) Salvation comes from God. When you believe in Him, if you believe in God you will receive your salvation.
And not by moving from church to church?
There must be reason(s) for your decision to die a Catholic. What is so special about the church that made you to say you will remain in it till you die?
The reason is that Catholic Church taught me a lot about God, through Catechism. If you read Catechism and compare it with the Holy Bible, you will see the difference. If you combine it with what you see in the Holy Bible, if you use it to advise yourself, educate yourself, you will see the benefits of serving God, you will see the wonderful works of God.
I discovered in the course of this interview that you have the ability to remember what happened many years ago.
Your memory bank, mental alertness, so to say, is still intact. Could it be because of the kind of food you eat or do you still attribute it to God?
No, not because of what I eat, my best food is garri.
With what soup?
Egusi or ukasi soup or any type of vegetable. I enjoy it a lot. But the food I don't like eating is akpu or fufu. It disturbs me a lot each time I eat it. If I eat it now, before 6 pm, people will start running helter-skelter in order to save me. My tummy doesn't like it at all. It is not compatible with my stomach at all since my youth days.
Also, my stomach does not like pounded yam. If I eat it now, there will be confusion and the kind of sound my tummy will make will be frightening. You will be hearing 'kpuu, kpuu, kpuu, kpuu. If I eat something like rice now, the next minute, I will be terribly hungry.
When I came here, I saw you engaging in petty trading. At this age, don't people cheat you? For instance, after selling something, you may want to give a customer the balance of say, N10, and end up giving him or her N20.
Nobody can cheat me. As you see me, I still read.
You still read?
Yes, very well, even though, bad eyesight has set in, you can see that one of my eyeballs (pointing at he right eye) is bad. I use petty trading and staking of coupons to keep myself busy. I forcast pools.
On that note sir, I would like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk to you, despite many postponements.
Thank you too, for coming.