Obasanjo’s Reminiscences On 1966 Coup

Olusegeun Obasanjo


Finally, the parley with General Olusegun Obasanjo, winds down with a verdict on the Nigerian youth and his reflections on the 1966 crises and the subsequent civil war:

‘Mistakes Were Made On Both Sides…’

Do you think the rebellion that led to Biafra was right?

Look, like I have said, there were actions and there were reactions. And, you see, in human interactions, reactions are normally stronger than actions. In the law of physics, action and reaction are equal and opposite but in human interactions, action and reaction are opposite, but they are not normally equal. It is either the reaction – if you have the opportunity – is stronger than the action, or action is stronger than reaction, if you are weak and feeble.

There were actions and reactions, but at the end of the day, we have to backtrack. We have said that the coup was a mistake of some naïve, may be, nationalistic officers. So, the other reaction must be taken from that context. As a result of that, there were reactions. Then, there were reactions, to reactions and more reactions to other reactions. I cannot really justify anything. All I would say is that we came out of it. The way we came out of it, we thank God for it.

Olusegeun Obasanjo

Nigeria could have been divided by that and I remember that in 1999, when I was going round and people were advising me, suggesting to me what to say, or not to say, I went to Kano, to one distinguished Kano man and he said to me that his own position was that he didn’t want to have to carry a visa, to go to Lagos, or to Enugu, or to Port Harcourt. And so, I also said to him, yes, I am considering contesting because I, too, do not want to have to carry a visa to come to Kano, or to go to Kaduna, or Calabar, or Port Harcourt.

I don’t think it is a question of what is right, or who is right, I think that what we should say is that, that period, was an unfortunate period for Nigeria. We thank God we put it behind us.

What do you have to say, sir, about the recent controversy stirred up by Chinua Achebe’s book, in which he has pointedly accused Chief Obafemi Awolowo of masterminding the starvation that killed off millions of victims during the war?

I don’t comment on that type of thing…I don’t comment on that type of thing. Look, I was a participant. Awolowo was given a task to manage the finances of the country, to fight a war. He was not given control of killing anybody. If you would accuse anybody, it should be those of us who were commanders in the field. And if you cannot accuse us of that, (and you cannot) how could you accuse anybody else? Because as I was fighting in the field, I was feeding and as young men were coming out of the Igbo enclave, I was sending them for training. And when they finished their training I gave them guns, to face where they were coming from.

That was how I fought the war. When I was going to take Owerri, for instance, I didn’t bombard the town. I could jolly well have bombarded Owerri…

(Cuts in)…Can you describe that action, sir?

(Waves it off)…I won’t… (General laughter)…I have said it several times and publicly, too, that civil war is one experience that is harrowing – when you are fighting, to unite. If you are fighting to destroy, that’s a different thing, altogether. How do I fight people that I want and see as brothers? The day the war ended in the field, I got David Ogunewe. We were going round. Poor man! He didn’t have shoes and I said, take my shoes, because we were together in 5th Battalion. Even Emeka, [Ojukwu] himself, used to call me ‘Omoba’. We were all colleagues – Ogbugo Kalu, Mike Ivenso and others, including Patrick Amadi, with whom I joined the army the same day. So, how do I see them as enemy?

I believe, on both sides, mistakes were made. We put those mistakes behind us, to move on.

Another controversy that surrounded Chief Awolowo concerned you directly. It was widely rumoured, particularly in the Unity Party circles, that Chief Obafemi Awolowo won the 1979 presidential election, but you favoured the North and handed over power to Alhaji Shehu Shagari…

Did Awolowo win…did Awolowo win?

That was what the UPN, in particular, claimed…

UPN said…did Awolowo win?If Awolowo didn’t win, why should I hand over to him? If Awolowo didn’t win, on what ground would I hand over to him, because I’m a Yoruba and Awolowo was Yoruba? If I did that, God will not forgive me. I was there to be an impartial adjudicator. And Chief Michael Ani, who was the umpire, didn’t tell me that Awolowo won. If he had told me that, Awolowo would have won.

You see, that is another thing we must kill in this country. I must look at you for what you are worth. Not because you are ‘dianyi’, or ‘mgbati-mgbati’, or ‘malam’. No. What is the quality of this man? How do you do justice, show fairness? How do you now build a nation? We have to build a nation, whether we like it or not. Some people still believe they can secede. I think it is fantasy. Well, good luck to them.

You were chairman of the Board of Trustees of the PDP before you suddenly resigned, was it that the party was doing certain underhand things that you didn’t like, or what?

Well, I told people that I want to face four things. One, I’m building a presidential library. In fact, I want to pay more attention to it. This opportunity that has opened for Africa, with the situations in 2008, in America and Eurozone crises, has opened a window of opportunity for investment in Africa. I want to go around, getting investments for Africa, generally and for Nigeria, in particular. Then, there are those young men and women in Africa, who believe that they need to be mentored and I make myself available to them. That was one of the things I went to do in Senegal, recently. This group of Africans, they call themselves ‘Africa 2.0’, I talk to them and mentor them. And then, the international arena is making more demand on my time.

So far, you have been the only Nigerian leader to ever talk of a presidential library, what are we to expect of this current, pet project of yours?

It should be a repository of all that happened in my life and what impact Nigeria has made on it and vice-versa. It would be a museum and archive and a place of education, for those who want to be educated; a place of research, for those who want to research and a place of tourism, for those who just want to look and enjoy themselves.

Olusegeun Obasanjo and Basil Chiji Okafor

What advice do you have for the youth of this country, particularly, the restive ones?

The advice would not be for the restive youth alone. What I want to say to the youth is that I don’t accept this idea of tomorrow for the youth. No. You must be part of today. If you are not part of today, your tomorrow might be spoilt, marred, or totally destroyed for you by those who are in-charge of today. So, the youth must fix themselves into today, so that tomorrow would be available to them.

As for those of us who believe that we have the God-given right to do things as we like, let us remember that we would give account here. But the account-giving is not only here, we would give account yonder.

You truly appear to love young people from all over and mentoring them. In this particular regard, I refer to your chief-of-staff, Andy Uba, who is not even Yoruba, but was your closest aide, whilst you were in office. What can you say about your relationship with him?

Andy was the first person that saw me in the morning and the last person that saw me at night.

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