How we took 400 Chadians prisoner under Buhari as GOC —Oyinlola

•‘I no longer see that old order when troops are moving into battle’

Former Osun State governor, Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, is a retired Brigadier General. In this interview by Tribune’s SAHEED SALAWU speaks, among other issues, on the various security problems confronting the country and what can be done to defeat Nigeria’s enemies. Excerpts:

 

You appear to have been quiet; you have not been seen doing much of politics lately. Where have you been?

I have not been quiet. I have been involved in every form of politicking that has to do with this country.   Let me tell you: it is not at all parades and drills that soldiers do shout. There are those drills that we call silent drills. That is what I am doing now. I am doing silent drills (laughter)

 

Before the 2015 general election, you were reported to have gone to Minna, Niger State, with General Muhammadu Buhari, who was the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) at that time, for a meeting. Can you recall how the meeting was arranged and what was discussed at the meeting?

It was the current Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, who called me and said that General Buhari would like to have some discussion with General Ibrahim Babangida and I should facilitate an appointment. I got in touch with General Babangida and he gave us a date. We flew together from Abuja to Minna. When we got there, they had a closed-door tete-a-tete, which I was not privy to. After their discussion, we had lunch together.

While we were having lunch, I recall that General Babangida was telling General Buhari that I used to be one of his very stubborn students at the Nigeria Defence Academy. But I cut in and said, ‘I may have been a stubborn student but that made me a very good commander under General Buhari. We all laughed. I was the one commanding 211 Tank Battalion, Bama, and I had about three tours of duty along the Nigeria/Chad border during the Chad crisis that led to the undeclared fighting between Nigeria and Chad. What caused that was the fact that the Chadians erected their national flag on our soil, and my GOC (Buhari) ordered that we should go and put the Nigerian flag three kilometers into the Chadian territory. We did exactly that. That was 1981/1982. That was when the diplomatic moves started. The operation led to prisoners being taken on both sides. They seized 17 of our men. We took about 400 Chadian soldiers prisoner. Then President Shehu Shagari intervened. He ordered that the 400 prisoners with us be released to Chad before we got our own 17 men back. The command felt that that seemed absurd; my GOC would not want to approach the resolution in that manner.

 

The country appears to be in a security mess. From what you have said, you operated in that axis for a long time.

Yes, I was at various times battalion commander, brigade commander and later the acting GOC of that sector.

 

What could be the problem of the military there now that is making it difficult for the country to overcome its security challenges?

So many factors could be responsible. The number one factor is lack of intelligence network. There is nothing wrong in inundating that axis with our intelligence resources, from personnel to equipment, for the purpose of getting to know those who are supporting or sponsoring these people. It costs a lot to get an AK 47 rifle or to make an improvised explosive device. The people using them are not the ones funding themselves. So, if you don’t cut the source of support, the thing will continue to flourish. The basic thing I know is that intelligence is the greatest asset a force needs to defeat an enemy. When you have information, you will be able to know what to do. That is an area I think they ought to have looked into. And there are so many ways to deploy these boys. If it means making our intelligence people rear cattle there to get information, why not?

The second issue is that they’ve not given them the required equipment. I heard one time that they were counting bullets for soldiers to go and face the insurgents. I could not confirm this but it became a public story. I hope it is not true. They should be able to give them as much ammunition as they can fire at as many insurgents they are confronting. It is a war the boys are fighting, they should be adequately armed and equipped.

 

Was that the situation when you were in the army?

When I was in the army, there was what we called table of equipment. Table of equipment, by standard, can’t be below 80 per cent scale before you move out into operation. I am not too sure whether there is anything like that now.

 

What is 80 per cent scale of equipment?

It means if you are supposed to have 100 rifles, they can’t be less than 80 in your hand before you launch out. That is the minimum you can go with. There is a certain standard. What you require to go into operation must be there. That is the minimum. The number of men, ammunition, the rifles you are supposed to have, the explosives, the vehicle support… everything must be there, in the table of equipment. I’m not sure anybody follows that anymore.

I recall when I was taking the troops to Somalia in 1993. I had General Salihu Ibrahim as my Chief of Army Staff. That operation, Operation Restore Hope, was an initiative of the Americans, which means we were going into the operation with American soldiers. The Americans were to airlift us from Nigeria to Somalia. But I made my Chief of Army Staff understand that I had not reached the scale level with which I could move into operation because I was deficient of the required number of machine guns, grenade launchers and so on. And he made sure that I got to the scale before I was airlifted to Somalia. In fact, I had to contact an American captain at their embassy. I said, ‘If anybody tells you to come and airlift us, you may have to wait for us until I say we are ready’. And that was exactly what happened. The uniforms, the boots, everything was at the scale level because that was the standing order before we were airlifted to Somalia. Now, I don’t think they even follow any scale of equipment.

 

What could make them not to follow it? Is it the kind of training they now get or what?

They have the training. That is where the command comes in. If the commander is not up and doing in his duties, this kind of thing would happen. I recall that soldiers, in Somalia, were the darling of all other forces because they were very up and doing, because they lacked nothing. Another thing, which looks little but has maximum effect in the context of operation, is the morale situation of the forces. If morale is low, you can’t get the best out of a man. And the morale would be low by not giving him adequate equipment to execute his assignment and if his career growth is hampered by the system. Those are some of the factors that lower morale. I’m not too sure this is the same General Buhari whom I served under condoning this. I’m not sure he would accept this kind of situation when he was in service. Everybody is well-trained. We all had the same training. Those coming behind may even have fresh and better ideas. That is why you have a soldier telling the Chief of Army Staff that ‘to hell with you’. It has never happened before. That is why you see soldiers running away from Boko Haram. It is never done. Because of the way we performed in that Somalia operation, former Chief of Army Staff, the late General Victor Malu, when years later, they said Americans would come and train us on peacekeeping, he told everybody that ‘look, if it is peacekeeping, ask them to give us equipment. If you don’t know the competence of our soldiers, call Oyinlola and let him tell you what happened in Somalia. And that is a fact. Our soldiers distinguished themselves in that operation. They outshined other forces. If it is equipment, let them give us equipment, but the training is there’. Presently, if you see a soldier kitted, you wouldn’t know the difference between him and vigilante, whereas when you are battle-ready and kitted, you would know this is a soldier going to war. I no longer see that old order when troops are moving into battle: everything had to be there. A soldier had to have grenades; he had to carry four extra magazines, apart from the one he was mounting on his rifle.

 

When General Salihu Ibrahim was retiring, he said the Nigerian Army had become an army of ‘anything goes’. That was about 30 years ago…

Maybe he was seeing a vision then, because the situation has worsened. It is sad.

 

Is it not possible for you and your colleagues who are outside the system to advise those who are there?

What I am saying right now will not be viewed with a professional eye. Anybody reading this will say, ‘what do you expect of Oyinlola? He is in the opposition’. But I am speaking from a professional point of view, given my 30 years experience there. So, it will be difficult for me to mobilise my colleagues and say let’s go and advise them, a PDP man? It will be viewed from a political point of view; they won’t look at the professional way in which I am explaining things. I don’t see anything wrong in taking counsel from those who have served in that area. I know the Nigerian North East terrain from Doro, which is next to Baga, to Kinasara, which is the last village on our own side of the 25 per cent of Lake Chad. I stayed in every village along that side until Kinasara. It is a vast place, and that is why every time there is a change of government in Chad, they start rebellion in that area and then when they flush out the sitting government, the defeated government moves into the Lake Chad area to regroup and for retraining. It is a difficult terrain.

 

There will be governorship elections in Ondo and Edo states very soon. What are the chances of your party in the elections?

Our chances are very bright. I say so because in the last election, we made inroad in both states in the sense that we won some senatorial districts. With the turn of events in Edo, if the Kogi scenario does not play out again, I see our party winning that state. The same thing in Ondo; I think we have one or two senators. All we need to do is to convince the people that we will do better than the present government. If they didn’t like our party, they wouldn’t have voted our senators. And with the emergence of Eyitayo Jegede, who is from the central senatorial district where the majority of the population is and which has never had the opportunity of ruling Ondo State, as the candidate of our party, if we get our acts together, we will win the election.

 

In your own state, Osun, the party is virtually in perpetual crisis. What are you doing to resolve the crisis?

It is rather unfortunate. I have told my people that nobody will share a rat that is running away. It is only after you have killed the rat that you can say, ‘you take the head and you take the tail.’ We must get our acts together and win election to form a government in the state. And we must not think that one single individual can deliver the goods. Every hand must be on deck if we must win Osun State back. I can tell you that the people of Osun are yearning for the return of our party because they can make the comparison. Not on the basis of propaganda; we worked, and the people have seen it. They are women who have married two husbands and they now know the difference.

I have been trying to see that we all come together. That has been the assignment given to me ever since I returned to the PDP. It has been difficult, I have not achieved it but we will continue appeal to our people that it is only when we come together that we can move as a team and win. I met a divided house and I told them that I was not coming back to any divided house; that they should let us jam it together. That is what I am on now, because if we don’t combine our efforts, the chance of winning the state may continue to elude us. Eerun eekan soso ni koko le gba s’ara. Ti eerun keji ba fi le ba, it is dead (Cocoyam can survive only one season of drought, otherwise it dies if it faces drought twice). Even if you pour the Atlantic Ocean on  it, it will not survive. Unfortunately, eerun eleeketa ti ba wa (Unfortunately, we are in the third season of drought). It is getting to a hopeless situation.

 

Alhaji Mamman Daura, last week, said that instead of zoning the presidency, competence should determine who becomes the next president, what is your opinion on that?

Competence? Is there any village or town in all the zones of this country that you cannot find a competent standard-bearer to occupy the position of the president? Go to any corner of this country, when talking about competence. Is competence a monopoly of a particular region or zone? Nigerians are so educated and making waves in their various pursuits that there is no corner that you cannot find competent candidates to lead this country. Set the standard. Set the scale that a candidate must go through, the qualities and qualifications he must possess. Give us the template and see if you will not see a thousand and one competent candidates in all the zones.

 

Looking at the whole thing, from 2015 to now, what would be your assessment of how the APC has managed Nigeria?

Whatever I will say about the administration, they will not see it as being fair, because I am in the opposition. But the whole world has seen it: that we have never had it so bad in this country. It is only an insincere person that would tell me that we are having the best of times under this administration.

 

We understand you are a farmer with farms in Borno State.

I have 200 hectares of farmland in Auno, a village close to Maiduguri, Borno State, which I cultivated every year. But since the insurrection of the Boko Haram, I have not been able to farm that land. That is 11 years now, since 2009. I always planted millet and, particularly, red beans. Averagely, I harvested 200 bags of red beans there every year. For 11 years, I have not been to that farm. The farm is still there. My farm manager is one of my colleagues that retired from the army, a Colonel. He is still there in Maiduguri. He told me when we discussed a few days ago that the trees that have grown on that farm now would be good enough to make planks.

 

What advice do you have for Nigerians as we move forward in the midst of the COVID-19 problem, security problem, economic problem and other challenges?

What I want to advise Nigerians is that we should set aside sentiments and come together to confront the difficulties, the challenges facing us and our country. We should jettison sentiments of tribe, religion, zone, and etcetera. As long as we want to remain one, united, indivisible Nigeria, we must all engineer how we can drive the vehicle of Nigeria to a very safe harbour. And justice and fairness are germane to it.

 

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