Retired Major General Olu Bajowa’s insistence that Olusegun Obasanjo should bless the christen of a son named after him(Obasanjo) saved both of them from being killed in Dimka’s coup. Olusegun Bayowa ever since has been the thin line that hold his daddy and Former President Obasanjo. Retired General Bajowa’s interview in The PUNCH Newspapers is much revealing
Interview by ADEOLA BALOGUN
Olu Bajowa retired from the army as a major-general at the age of 40 in 1980. But instead of brooding over his premature exit from the profession he loved so much, he braved the odds by returning to the university. Now 70, he tells ADEOLA BALOGUN the gains of his decision to be better educated
How would you compare your retirement now with the one you had 30 years ago when you left the army?
I’ve more time to rest now; I’ve no worries and I’m preparing for the last day.
My first retirement was very early: it was premature at the age of 40. At that time, I was still vibrant and I think I was still very useful to the nation and that’s why I dusted my books and went back to the university and got a degree.
I was recalled by the regime of Gen. (Ibrahim) Babangida and I served the nation for another 15 years in different capacities. I was in the Ministry of Aviation; I was at the Nigeria Airways as chief executive.
Later, I moved to the Presidency, where I was the coordinator in charge of the movement of the seat of government, federal ministries, embassies and all parastatals of government from Lagos to Abuja.
Thereafter, I was honourably reassigned to be the military director-general at that time, the deputy minister and from there I moved to the Ministry of Industry.
That precisely was how I spent the years. Now I’m tired and I have to just be looking back to the years I was a youth, when I was in government and trying to impart the little experience and the knowledge I had to the younger ones by writing books.
I’ve documented a lot of my experience in my books. The last one, which I planned to launch on my 70st birthday, is called Soldier by Choice.
How challenging was it coordinating the movement of the capital from Lagos to Abuja?
It was highly challenging because relocating the federal capital of Nigeria, which is the most populous black nation, was not easy.
We had to move by road, and you know the state of our roads; some of the movement was also done by air and you know that we were not that advanced in air transportation.
It was a new thing at that time because only a few countries had done that in the world, relocating their capital like India, Brazil where we could borrow some experience.
Because of the barrenness of Abuja at that time, nobody wanted to move; a lot of people were not keen; houses were not built; accommodation was deficient generally and there was a lot of infrastructural deficiency.
But like anything in the world, pioneers suffer. But now, Abuja is one of the best cities in the world because a lot of money was pumped into it.
The first three ministers of the FCT, Gado Nasko, Mamman Vatsa and Jerry Useni worked very hard to provide infrastructure for people to move in.
The embassies who were used to comfortable life in Lagos found things tough initially in Abuja. But now, Abuja is a modern city; if we didn’t move at that time, nothing could have happened but I think the movement then was a fantastic thing.
But the movement was done in a hurry…
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it was after the (Gideon) Orkar coup, which exposed the porous nature of security in Lagos.
The decision by Gen. Murtala Muhammed to relocate the capital was a brilliant idea and he set up the Aguda Committee, which comprised many prominent Nigerians.
A lot of things were done; houses were built but not enough. Though plans were on for us to move, it was the Orkar coup that brought about the sudden movement; otherwise, it would have been more gradual.
You were at the Nigeria Airways; what would you say really went wrong with the national carrier?
The problem of Nigeria Airways was mismanagement and corruption. It is sad that NA had to eventually go underground.
The managers, the managing directors, the board saw the airline as a conduit of taking their own share of the national cake.
And as such, eventually because of mismanagement and corruption, which was very prevalent at that time, the government took a decision to sell the airline and whether it was right or wrong, it is for posterity to judge.
Why did you join the army or did you become a soldier by choice going by the title of your book?
There was no issue of forcing me; it was my personal choice. When I left school, I came to Lagos and was planning to go to teachers school, but I got a temporary job in the House of Parliament. It was when I was working in the HOP that I took the decision to join the army.
Zik (Nnamdi Azikiwe) at that time was more or less next to God, as far as we were concerned and he became the governor-general towards our independence.
I was fascinated by the gait of the young man who served as his Aide-de-Camp when Zik came to inspect a guard of honour which was composed of British men.
The young man who could not be more than 21, 22 was smartly dressed and when I had the opportunity to be close to him when he came to the canteen, I went to him and asked him how he could be very close to the Zik of Africa in the midst of white people. He told me his name and said he was his ADC. He told me the meaning of ADC and how he became a soldier.
He said he was sent to Sandhurst, UK when he joined the military academy to train. When I showed him my papers, he said I was qualified and told me to write the adjutant-general of the army. That was how I made up my mind to join the army.
But were your parents happy that you joined the army then?
They weren’t happy; they said if I insisted I wanted to go to the military, they would prefer me to join the police because they believed that once you are a soldier, that is the end of life. In fact, that was what led to my early marriage. My mother was crying, she said she wanted to see her grandchildren.
My parents were afraid because of the experience of a lot of our people who did not come back from the Second World War. We were two from our local area, Akindele and I. Between the two of us, we agreed that I would go to the army, while he went to the police.
We reasoned that if in future there was an opportunity, it would be difficult to choose the two of us from the same area as number one and number two.
Unfortunately, he died in an accident as a commissioner of police and I believe he would have become an IG the way he was going. When I was the commandant of the Command and Staff College (Jaji), he was the commandant of the Police College in Jos. So both of us were growing up but unfortunately, God was wiser than us.
You joined the army after being fascinated by the smartly dressed young man, but did you find the army interesting after enlisting?
Yes, very interesting, challenging and any rank I reached in the army was on merit. I will say that in our time, the best brains in the younger generations were drawn into the armed forces, and even the police. I would still choose the military if I could come back to this world.
Even despite the way you were retired prematurely?
Even despite that and surviving nearly six coups, yes. I still believe the military is the best profession; you are well groomed, trained and the world is at your feet. Before I got into the army, my aim was to get to the top, to be a general.
You were said to be well positioned to be the chief of army staff, what happened?
Well, that is politics. When (Shehu) Shagari became the head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, it was his decision to choose the chief of army staff and usually in military parlance, if your junior becomes the COAS, or the chief of defence staff or the inspector-general of police, the seniors have to be eased out; it is normal anywhere in the world.
When Shagari took over, I was in Course 2 and was in line and if it was by examination, I don’t think anyone would beat me to becoming the COAS. My junior who became the COAS was lucky, but it was highly political.
Were you bitter about it?
No, why should I be bitter? I took it as the end of an era which is the beginning of another. I was 40 years of age, still young. I could still face the challenges of life and I decided to take the bull by the horn and went back to school.
And if you look at it, I still came back to be in charge of not only the army now but the entire armed forces as a permanent secretary in the MOD.
As the next to the minister of defence, I was coordinating the activities of the army, the navy, the air force and the Defence Headquarters, which is the overall senior to even the COAS. Though I wasn’t COAS, God compensated me to be the head of the military affairs. I didn’t compete for it, I was invited.
If I was disenchanted and unhappy because I was retired prematurely, I might have not gone back to the university and I might not have been recalled.
How did it feel as a retired general going back to school?
It was the issue of personal conviction.
After all, Gen. (Yakubu) Gowon, who left before me, went back to school. In those days, teachers went back to school after teaching for so long and I believe the first set of people who went to the University of Ibadan should be in their 40s or so. At 40, if I was still teaching, I would still have gone back to the university.
So, I didn’t consider it very difficult to dust my books and go back to school.
But you were a general in the army and an influential personality for that matter…
If you carried that too much, you would fail in life.
Although I was a general, I saw it as just a profession, I could be better off somewhere else.
If I was carrying that that I was a general, I won’t be what I am today.
Later on, I had a PhD in theology; I’m doing law and thank God, I have affected my society and when I’m with colleagues now, both who are civilians and military, home and abroad, they see me as a well-groomed officer.
But if I had left when I was retired early and went back home to be a farmer like my father, or became a fisherman like my people or decided to go and do business, I didn’t have the basic things to be a business. Or I was going to be a politician: I was not trained as a politician.
But when I went back to the university, I was exposed to all facets of life and I could think better; I could see that there was a difference between the military and academics. And I believed my recall to service was because of the feedback the authorities were getting about me because I led my class throughout.
At that time, I dressed simply and I didn’t carry airs of being a general about. In fact, the class voted me as student leader and I used my experience to suppress uprising among the students because student unionism then was very vocal.
I was in the dormitory with all of them; we ate the same food; we were together in the library together; those who were brighter in a particular section, I sat with them.
All my lecturers were young boys; they respected me but still I sat down as a student and I learnt.
In the military, it is believed that the brightest were always recruited into coup plots but you said you were never consulted once but always listed for elimination, how?
I never took part in any coup; I was never consulted; none of my friends in the army was involved in a coup.
I took the job with my mind and my loyalty was 100 per cent and people knew me for that.
Probably because of that, I was always being slated to be eliminated and the coup plotters dead or alive knew very well that if they told me, I wouldn’t take part and might leak it out.
So, nobody ever told me about any coup and I never thought of overthrowing the government.
Can you recall a particular close shave with death during the various coups?
I will like to recall two. The first one was the famous July counter-coup, when I was arrested and detained in the guard room. All the officers in Ikeja were eliminated except me.
That one was very crucial that I can never forget because a lot of my colleagues and mates were killed. The second one was the (Bukar Sukar) Dimka coup, where I escaped just by providence. At that time, those who were supposed to kill me were waiting about 50 yards in civil dress away from my house.
When I came out of my house, instead of turning left as I used to do, I turned right to go and see (Olusegun) Obasanjo. When I was a young officer, I was a playboy and my wife reported me to Obasanjo that I was not staying at home.
Then I was complaining I didn’t have a male child and my wife said how would I have a boy when I would never be at home. Obasanjo called me but I denied it that it was not true.
Though I had friends and I enjoyed myself like a young man, he said I should stay at home and I decided to stay and stopped seeing anyone again. Then my wife who was pregnant went to the Catholic Hospital in Ibadan, where she had a baby boy. I was so excited when I heard the news.
He was born on February 8 and the coup took place on February 13. I asked for permission to go to Ibadan for the christening of the baby; (Theophilus) Danjuma was my boss; I was the quarter-general of the army; he approved it and on the morning of the 13th, which was the day of the coup, which I didn’t know, I phoned Obasanjo’s ADC to say I wanted to come and see him.
He said, ‘For what?’ I broke the news of the baby boy to him and that I wanted to go to Ibadan. He said he had heard about it, that Danjuma had already told him and that there was no need to see him again since Danjuma had approved my pass.
I said, ‘No sir, I want to see you because I want to name the child in your honour’ and he said, ‘Oh yes, go ahead.’ But I said there was also the issue of security I wanted to discuss with him and immediately he heard that, he said I could come. Don’t forget, Obasanjo himself should have been killed because they were waiting for him too.
He told his ADC to go and tell them in the office that he would be held back a while to have an appointment with me, but that they should wait for him.
For the four years I was on No.4 Okotie Eboh Street, there was no cause for me to turn right; Obasanjo lived at No. 26 Lugard Avenue. The people were waiting for me on the left and as I came out, instead of turning left, I turned right. In front of me, Col. Dumuje was coming and he waved to me; both of us were flying flags. Opposite me was Vatsa’s house.
The moment I came out, the scouts alerted the coup plotters and they thought I was the one driving towards them in the left; that was how Dumuje ran into them and he was shot.
Meanwhile, I had gone and was unaware of what had happened and when I got to Obasanjo, he was already waiting for me.
I told him that I wanted to go and do the naming ceremony of the baby boy and that since he was the one that talked to me to stay at home, he had to give me the money for blessing as I was naming him after him. He opened his wallet and gave me money and said he was in a hurry to grant me another request.
Then I drove off; the ADC he sent could not get to the office, he was the first person to see Murtala’s dead body and he ran back to inform Obasanjo.
Meanwhile, Obasanjo too was agonising that Olu had just left and probably would run into trouble. When I got to Awolowo Road, there was a pandemonium and I was hearing shooting at Dodan Barracks end.
My driver was confused and wanted to drive back home but I said, go to the hospital because from the hospital, I would be able to know what was happening as a result of those that were being brought there dead or injured.
I asked for the C/O and they told me he was in the theatre operating on Dumuje; I was alarmed to hear that Dumuje that had just waved to me moments ago could be in the theatre.
The wounded officer narrated how he ran into the armed men as soon as he passed by me; then I knew there was a coup. That is one aspect of my life which I can never forget. I believe God helped me because if I didn’t have that child, there was no cause for me to insist on seeing Obasanjo that morning, thereby saving our lives.
I would have taken my bullet, which Dumuje eventually got. Some of my colleagues who were detained in Ibadan got grenades thrown in their cells; they could have done that to me and if they did, I would not be alive today. As it is now in the army, I have senior and juniors, not contemporaries.
Any near death incident during the war?
Of course, you can’t fight in the war and not have a close shave with death. I fought the Ore battle with my soldiers and we went into Bendel through Ibilo. (Alani) Akinrinade was then my brigade-commander, while I was a battalion commander.
All of us were under Murtala as GOC. There was a close shave all the time because when you are going, you don’t know what can happen because the sniper is looking for one person – the commander – and once the commander is killed, the entire troop are in disarray.
You named your son after Obasanjo; did you train him to become a soldier like Obasanjo?
Yes I did; I will show you the picture of him and Obasanjo during my birthday. The statement I made in the church that the thanksgiving I was doing was not only for me and Obasanjo. But for Obasanjo, I won’t be living today; but for me, Obasanjo would not be living today.
But for God who gave me my son, we would not be living today. When he finished school, I asked him to come into the army, he took the exam and the Nigerian Defence Academy took him.
Everybody worked hard to see that he made it after he finished from London.
I was then the permanent secretary in defence ministry. I told him, ‘Segun, this is the profession I did to bring you to this world and I want you to follow me and I would give you my general’s staff and my sword and my boots.’ He just went back to England that he was going to pack his things; that was the last I saw him. He stayed back.
Then I sent the first son of my second wife, Kunle, to military school, where he spent eight years.
I thought that Segun probably turned the job down because he was already a grown up and had achieved whatever he wanted in life.
When Kunle finished, he was in the NDA and when I left the service and went to London, he just came to visit me and after visiting me, he decided he was not coming back to the military anymore.
There was no pressure I didn’t put on him to change his mind but he would not change. I just take it that maybe providence was responsible.
All my children are all doing very well in different professions. I felt it is my luck not to have a son in the military as I would have loved to and I tried.
People say that Obasanjo doesn’t give people money but he gave you. Apart from being a military colleague, what magic did you play for him to give you money?
Obasanjo is a traditionalist. The money he gave me was not for buying a car or build a house. I asked him for the traditional money to name my child after him and he gave me. It was a symbolic token.
I don’t think it is true that he doesn’t give money because I visited Obasanjo when I came back from England with my boys and when I was leaving, he opened his purse and gave my boys a bundle.
And when I married my second wife, I went to him to introduce her to him and when I was going, he went to his room and gave a bundle of money to my wife. But maybe those who wanted him to give them millions are those saying something like that about Obasanjo.
I didn’t have any cause to go to him to demand such an amount of money. Like a Yorubaman, he performed his role perfectly well on the two occasions I visited him with my family.
If you were asked to describe Obasanjo, how will you do that?
Obasanjo is my senior in all ramifications and by upbringing and profession, juniors don’t write confidential reports about their bosses. But you can say what you perceive about them.
When he marked his 74th birthday, I was there and luckily, I was the only one who was called to come and say something about Obasanjo.
I said he was not only a colossus at 74, but he was also an icon and an elder statesman with tested nationalistic credential.
He is a soldier’s soldier and a general’s general par excellence.
The Yoruba nation would have been occupied by the Biafran forces during the war, but for Obasanjo, the second area commander who gave me orders to move my 11th Battalion from Ibadan to defend the Western Nigeria border at Ofusu Bridge and fight the Ore battle.
We served together at Army HQs, Lagos; I served under him at Ibadan as a lieutenant-colonel and climbed the rungs of the military career to the rank of major-general when he was the C-in-C of the armed forces and head of state.
I know Obasanjo very well; he is a detribalised commander with sound knowledge and penetrating intellect who became the hero of the Nigerian Civil War.
Unfortunately, despite all his achievements, Obasanjo is a misunderstood general and former president.
It is very sad that when he attended my birthday, the only thing that was highlighted was that he collapsed, which was not true.
What then happened?
Obasanjo did not collapse at my birthday. He was the first visitor to arrive in my house and we all went together to the church in a convoy.
There was nothing like collapse: Obasanjo at 74, is of age, no doubt. He probably stood up and went to the toilet when he was pressed or uncomfortable; he had to go to my house because there was no toilet in the church and came back. I wouldn’t know whether he told the governor or Gen. (Adeyinka) Adebayo or (Akin) Aduwo that he was uncomfortable.
He came back and supervised the cutting of the cake but unfortunately the press had gone with their report that he collapsed.
In fact, we went into the reception and he led me into the septuagenarian club. We ate, he sang and made a speech. Somebody who collapsed would not have been able to make a speech.
Nobody bothered about what he said about me concerning the Ore battle or what (Olusegun) Mimiko or Adebayo said about me. Obasanjo didn’t collapse but because he is a newsmaker, the media feasted on his leaving the church, whereas I’m sure some bishops might have eased themselves at the back of the church without anybody raising an eyebrow.
You are the Baba Ijo of a church but you have two wives. Did you become a polygamist by circumstance?
I’m from the royal family and it is rare to see royals in Yorubaland shunning the issue of polygamy. I told you I married very early and my wife had six children for me at the age of 40.
I was still young and instead of me falling into temptation, which Obasanjo warned me against, I decided to take a second wife so that I don’t have to be jumping from one lady to another. Nevertheless, I got married to my second wife with the approval of my first wife.
They lived together for 10 years before my second wife left for England. I will tell you that it is not easy to manage two women, but my father had six and if I have two, I think I have tried.