A security chief wrote Abacha that I was head of NADECO’s military wing —Oyinlola
•‘I tried waking up my mother after she died’
Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola retired from the Nigerian Army as a Brigadier-General. He served as a former Military Administrator of Lagos State and was elected as a civilian governor of Osun State. In this interview by ADEOLU ADEYEMO, to mark his 70th birthday, he speaks on his life journey, including military career, politics, as well as the present All Progressives Congress (APC) administration. Excerpts:
The day you lost your mother in 1959 at the age of eight, how did you get to know and what was your immediate reaction?
I saw many people and I was wondering why. It did not look like I lost somebody close to me. It just looked like a normal palace occurrence. However, when she was lying down and people were streaming into her room in the palace, I had to go and whisper to her that, ‘everybody is coming to greet you and you are sleeping.’ I was surprised she didn’t answer me. It was when they were going for the burial… I knew she was the one in the coffin and I followed them to the burial ground. When she was being taken into the grave, I told one of my uncles (my mother’s brother) who carried me to the grave side that I must go with her and he said I could not and I buried my teeth in his chest. I didn’t feel her death beyond that then but when I grew up and whenever the counsel of a mother was needed, I shed tears.
The following year, at nine years old, you also lost your father, how was the experience?
The experience of my father’s death, I recall that day. But I think the second or third day after he died, some alawos (traditionalists) came to the palace and they shouted that we should shut the door. What is happening shut door during day time? I was wondering. They came to do the traditional rites, but one thing happened that we got to know later. Two of the children, I think Dr Oyinlola and Pade, went and stayed quietly behind the bed where the body of Baba was laid. They wanted to see who would tamper with his body. Whether those ones got to know or not, they then said only women should not come, but the grown up male children of Oba Oyinlola should come and witness what they wanted to do. They didn’t do anything to his body. They came in and only prayed that ‘Kabiyesi, bi aye se ye yin, e je ko ye awa naa o (Kabiyesi, as life was pleasant for you, may God let ours be pleasant too).” After that, the body was given to be buried and we went to church and buried him. IK Dairo entertained the guests later. So, me and Toye (younger brother) were there dancing all the way through, not knowing the meaning of what had happened to us.
Growing up, did you ever think you will be this big in life?
No, the only thing I know is that during one of the end of the year parties at Saint Michael (my primary school), I played the role of a king and the way I acted and spoke, the grown up ones at the event were crying. I don’t know what really moved them.
You turned 70 on February 3, 2021. How do you feel being 70?
I thank God I am 70. It is by His grace. My mother died young, in her 40s; my father was 68 when he died. I really appreciate God in my life. I will continue to enjoy God’s grace. My intention is to continue to do good things, do things God has sent me to do and help fellow human beings. I want to influence life positively and make impacts. As a golfer, I like to continue playing golf. As a party lover, I would continue to attend parties if invited and dance to the best of my ability. At 70, I don’t want people to see me as an old man with no social zeal. I want to continue being a socialite even after 70. I don’t pray to just be at home, idle.
How did you feel when you were retired suddenly from the military at the age of 49 years with all other military and police officers who had served as military governors?
I never thought of a sudden retirement. I did not for once plan for it. It was like a chapter got closed in my entire life. Not for anything at all but for the fact that I had a great interest in the military. Retirement would come definitely but one must prepare for it. My interest in the army was not spontaneous. I had developed that when I was young. I joined the military as a private soldier in 1969 before I developed myself to become an officer and I faced the job very squarely such that my family came next to my job. My joining the military did not come as a second thought. The military blood had been flowing within me. I think my retirement after serving as a military governor shocked me because there was this belief in the military circle that soldiers could be over-ambitious, especially those who had been governor one time or the other. By the time I was retired, I never missed a promotion cycle. I knew of the decision to retire us three weeks before it happened. My relationship with Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, who was an influential minister in the government that time, gave me the premonition of my retirement. He was a good friend of mine, so he told me the time, day and date of my retirement. On the day I was to leave the service, I took the decision, a very gallant one, of meeting my boss, General Odaro to surrender all the documents and weapons with me. He couldn’t understand what I was saying that I had come to the end of my career in the army. I told him he would hear the announcement very soon. I saw it coming and boldness soared. Not that I never wanted to quit when the ovation was loudest. No! But after reflecting on the love I had for the military and all the efforts I had put in for years, I felt emotional because the military had always been my first home. I asked one of my junior officers to prepare my hand over note. I was busy playing golf when it was announced. When I got home and informed my wife that I had been retired, she started to praise God. One funny thing happened the following day. I got up, came out of my room fully dressed in uniform. I had forgotten that I had become a civilian. I later went back into the room and changed to mufti. I then headed for the office to go and officially sign necessary papers, especially the handing over note.
How did you do it moving from a Private to an officer within one year?
To the glory of God I would say I have always been fortunate. It was Almighty God who moved through me when I became a Private. I had two options: one was to go back to the Defence Academy and become an officer; two, I could go to the university to further my studies. I decided to take external studies at Exam Success at Ikorodu towards ensuring that. As at that time, then Captain Raji Rasaki was posted to my unit. As fate would have it, luck smiled on me as he was inspecting the parade one day. He just asked me to step out and follow him to his office. When we got there, he instructed me that I should be his batsman. I replied that if it was because of my well-ironed uniform, I wasn’t the one doing it myself. I told him I paid the person washing and ironing my uniform one pound per month. He was surprised at what I said as a Private. He then asked for my qualification and I replied I was a School Certificate holder. He went further to question me on why I did not go to the academy. I said I was only interested in wearing the uniform. He then took great interest in me for my courage and boldness. He encouraged me and I gained admission into the Defence Academy. That is why he has a special place in my heart up till today.
You were governor in Lagos and Osun states. When you look back, what brings you joy always out of everything you did in both states?
Actually, I became the governor of Lagos State at a very turbulent period – the June 12 crisis. But as turbulent as Lagos was then, I was able to be an administrator who was completely in charge, security wise, not minding all odds. There were challenges but I thank God for giving me the wisdom and the wherewithal to wriggle through very successfully. So, if I look back, history will put me in the category of those who ruled Lagos State in the midst of unending crises and yet, God gave me the grace to enthrone peace without firing a shot. And in Osun State, God again used me to end the age-long war between the Ifes and Modakekes. I ended the war which had been on for over one hundred years.
When we talk about peace, what would you say as a Yoruba leader regarding the violent actions of some Fulani herdsmen? What advice do you have for their leaders?
I hold onto dialogue. I have always been a student of dialogue but I think dialogue is being over-stretched here. And where dialogue fails, crisis looms. We need to act fast before the situation degenerates into something else. One, I want to believe that as a nation, every citizen has the right to live in any part of the country peacefully and in accordance with the provisions of the law. Two, every citizen should live in peace and has the right to be protected and not molested. However in this case, it has been established with concrete evidence that some Fulani herdsmen now go about with AK-47 rifles, killing those who accommodate them. I think it becomes a criminal thing when you move about killing innocent souls. A criminal should be apprehended and prosecuted and justice is what we are talking about here. As a stranger in a land, one is expected to be peaceful. But, the reverse is the case here. Those who call themselves their leaders need to be spoken to. Why should Yoruba be unsafe in their own land, why? That should not be at all.
You met General Ibrahim Babangida at the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA). What role did he play in the development of your career?
He played roles throughout my career and he continues to play it after my career. He was my Company Commander in NDA and I became quite close to him. Now, because of my desire to go to the university…when you are leaving the NDA you were asked to make three corps choices in the order of interest. With my interest in education, I filled Signals in the three spaces. General Babangida asked me why I decided to choose Signals and not his own corps, Recce. I replied that in my area, if you don’t have university education you were not regarded as anything and Signals was the only corps that allowed its officers and men to go to the university. But he had decided on where to send me. On the day the posting came out, we ran to the board to know where we were posted. I saw my name in IBB’s Recce which later became Armoured Corps.
How did you meet General Olusegun Obasanjo?
I came across him after the Dimka coup of February 13, 1976 which claimed the life of General Murtala Mohammed. Then Colonel Babangida directed me to lead the Recce team with tanks to guard Obasanjo’s residence before he moved to Doddan Barracks. I met him (Obasanjo), saluted and introduced myself. I saw that his face showed he was very emotional about what had just happened. I got back to IBB and told him what I saw. He said, “idiot, did I ask you to go and look at his face?” I laughed silently and said ‘sorry sir.’ Then, when I was MILAD in Lagos, one day, the Commissioner of Police, the late James Danbaba and the Garrison Commander, General Patrick Aziza, came to me looking for a guest house. I wondered what the two senior officers needed a guest house for. They told me Obasanjo had been arrested and was being kept in police station. I was sad and I asked them if anyone could put either IBB or General Gowon in a police station no matter the degree of their offence. I cleared my guest house and General Obasanjo was moved there. Throughout Obasanjo’s travails while I was MILAD, he was in touch with me from prison through his late wife, Stella. That almost got me into trouble with General Oladipo Diya when, out of caution, I informed him, as the most senior from my part of the country, that I was in touch with Baba and did one or two obligations for him. Baba and I became quite close later when I joined politics and I became governor of Osun State.
What was your experience like engaging the opposition in Lagos during the June 12 crisis?
It was tough but God did the job for me. One ironic thing about that experience was that as the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was fighting me from outside, there were enemies within too who were writing fake security reports linking me with NADECO. In fact, there was a particular one signed by a very senior security chief in which I was described as the head of the military wing of NADECO. It contains a long list of Yoruba people from all walks of life. The details are in my forthcoming autobiography.
When is that coming out, the book?
Very soon. It is almost ready. It sheds lights on many things that happened during that period of long knives.
You were quizzed in connection with the Diya coup.
Yes. I appeared before the Special Investigation Panel led by General Abutu Garba. I was told that I was part of the coup. I denied it and challenged them to bring whoever said I was part of it and let me confront that person. They said Col. Emma Shoda, Diya’s Military Assistant was my friend. I said yes, he was also my course mate. They said I gave my colleagues land allocation in Lagos when I was MILAD (Military Administrator) there as part of financing the coup in advance. I said that was not true and that I made the allocations in obedience to the Head of State’s instruction that we should make our colleagues comfortable. At the end of the day, I was asked to go. Later in Abuja, I met General Garba, who was also that time my commandant at the War College, Abuja where I was a student, and asked him to tell me who mentioned my name in connection with the coup. He said nobody. He said it was the Villa that said they must drag me, like other senior Yoruba officers, into it. But the matter died there.
What is your opinion on the division among Yoruba leaders?
I will tell you a story. When Abacha was scheming to transmute to a civilian president and opposition to his schemes mounted from the South West, the system descended on Yorubas in the Federal Service. They were being systematically removed. Even those of us in the military were not spared the harassment. I was the MILAD (Military Administrator) of Lagos and, one day, I met the late Ooni Okunade Sijuwade and discussions veered off to this matter. I told him that it was the crack in Yoruba’s wall caused principally by the quarrel between him and the Alaafin that was responsible for the lack of respect and fear for the Yoruba. I told him that if they spoke with one voice, the whole country would be afraid to touch any of their children who were then suffering persecution. The Ooni asked me what I thought he should do. I told him he and Alaafin should resolve their differences. The Ooni said he was ready. I phoned the Alaafin but I could not reach him. So, I sent my protocol officer, Ayilara, from Lagps to Oyo to deliver the message to Alaafin. Kabiyesi Alaafin agreed immediately and also told me to fix the meeting for any venue. He said even if it was Ooni’s house, he said he would attend. To test his resolve, I fixed the meeting for Ooni’s Ikeja residence and Alaafin was there. They met, discussed dispassionately and resolved their differences. That is the spirit of unity we need in today’s Yorubaland among the leaders otherwise the people will just continue to suffer and grumble forever.
As a retired military officer, what is your take on insecurity in this country? What is the way out or do we continue this way?
Nigeria has never been this divided. We need to sit down and discuss or renegotiate the basis of our togetherness. Honestly speaking, there is the need for restructuring. We need to sit down and have a true federal republic of Nigeria. In the 60s, every region ran its own area according to the needs and desires of their people. Let’s decide our fate and let the powers at the federal be reduced. Imagine the educational policy of Awolowo. Every other region emulated him and things went fine for them. Whether we like it or not, the security of this nation has collapsed and we need to rise up to the occasion. The way out is total restructuring. Let the youth be meaningfully engaged and productive. We need to be protected. Enough of bloodshed! Let there be more powers to the states. Our federalism needs to be revisited. We need to get it reviewed. Our oneness needs complete overhauling. People are dying daily. Let’s go to the negotiation table. I mean a meaningful conference must come up. Why can’t we run federalism the way America runs it? We have peculiarities. Let there be state policing. You cannot come from Kogi or Kano to secure my state in Osun. No, we have peculiarities and idiosyncrasies; the way I run my educational system cannot be the same as that of Sokoto. We need to review our federalism. Or in the alternative we have the report of the 2014 National Conference that was well conducted. We can revisit the document and implement what is inside. Let us restructure; we had a federal administration from 1960 to 1966 during which every region ran its own area according to the needs and desires of their people. Now, we are called a federal republic, there are ways and manners in which a federal state is being run, why can’t we keep to the letters of a federation? Where we took it from, we saw how institutions made democracy to progress.
So, if you have subscribed to federalism in governance, why can’t you hold to the tenets and keep to the dictates of a federation? I run my educational scheme the way it suits my people and not a straight-jacketed educational system running from Borno to Osun State that will not work.
On the police issue, we had local police in the western region and those policemen were drawn from the locality, there was no how a thief would steal and they would not get him, they knew all the bad boys within the vicinity. Where we drew this system from, they have local police. The laws of one police system cannot override the other. I remember on one of my visits to America, and a security man was detailed to go along with me wherever I went. I was to buy golf equipment but I had to cross to another state to the shop where I had to buy it. The security man said he had no authority to cross from here. Then, I said ‘well, I would go and come.’ He did not go with me because his jurisdiction did not extend to where I was going. I bought the equipment and he was waiting for me on the other side. I joined him and he accompanied me throughout my visit until I returned. That is where we took the federal system from.
What do we expect from you as the PDP Reconciliation Committee chairman for the South-West?
We now have full understanding. We are reconciling our leaders. We want to give kudos to our leaders. We want thorough harmonisation. At the end of our assignment, we will present our resolutions to the stakeholders and from there, we will handle each state, X-ray their problems and embrace unity.
What are your grievances with this administration and how would you rate it?
There are lots of inequalities. Those in APC do not practice what they preach. They say people should not go for foreign treatment and yet, they are the front runners. There are imbalances in appointments. A particular section enjoys juicy appointments and yet, we say one Nigeria. The naira was 197 to a dollar in 2015 but now, it is N500. Is that the change they promised us? Is that the next level they promised us? Nobody is safe, not even the president in Katsina; kidnappers and bandits are everywhere. They kidnap emirs. They kill obas here. Senators are not safe; sitting governors are attacked. The ordinary man is not safe anywhere and everywhere. What change is that? When PDP government increased petrol price, they screamed; they brought out all the civil society groups. They were picketing government offices. What is the price now? The disappointing thing is that those civil society groups, who were shouting over the increase of petroleum prices then, now keep mute and the price has been increased three times.
How would you assess your successor as governor?
I am human. I have no right to judge. God has the powers to judge. People can only comment and submit opinions. Governance is easy to criticise. It is when you are there that you know what governance entails. It will be difficult to judge somebody if you are not able to assess the parameter and factors he worked with and which influenced the decisions he took.
You once dumped the PDP, why?
It was the party that dumped me, I never dumped the party. For God’s sake, I was the national secretary of the party and I felt that as at that time, the leadership of the party was not running the party in consonance with the constitution of the party. I could not see black and call it white. I would speak the truth. I’m not just a politician but also a lawyer. I dislike injustice. They conspired and removed me as the secretary. I went to court and won. The party immediately after the judgment suspended me as a member and some forces who believed they could impose injustice on the party went ahead to get me out of the party. And now they regret their action. But, we thank God, things are now taking shape. Our reconciliation is yielding fruits. We are getting there. PDP will be there. PDP remains a force and a voice as a party to be reckoned with. It is my party.
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