Lt. Gen. Jeremiah Useni (retd) was an active participant in the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970. As a participant in the putsch, which ousted President Shehu Shagari, on December 31, 1983, he became the military administrator of the defunct Bendel State. He was also the minister of transport and aviation and later the minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). In this interview by SANYA ADEJOKUN, he spoke about his experiences in his long years of service to fatherland.
It is 60 years since Nigeria got independence from the British. What is your assessment of the situation?
We have been having all manner of crises like banditry and rape, all of which have taken a new turn. Every day, there are cries on television; old people are sleeping with 12 year olds, or even lesser ages. So, we have had so many experiences; sometimes cool, sometimes hot. And of course, the latest is the COVID-19 which has taken so many lives. When it started, many people didn’t believe, but many people believe now that the thing is real because many are dead. Somebody is standing and you hear they have fallen down and then gone. So, that’s what we are experiencing now, and it is so serious because it’s not affecting Nigeria alone; it’s affecting the whole world. So, it has not been easy. There have been many experiences, both good and bad. That’s what I will say.
Did you participate in the civil war?
Oh Yes! I was a Second Lieutenant when it started and it ended when I was a major.
What was your experience?
It was not nice, not nice, especially for us in the military where we found ourselves fighting one another. Most of us were trained in the same place; we went to the same academy and then suddenly, we found ourselves facing one another with guns. So, it was not a good experience. The only difference with what we are experiencing now is that some decided to call themselves Biafrans, not that they are not Nigerians. So, non-Biafrans fighting against Biafrans and Nigeria was not ready to carve another country out of Nigeria, but God helped us that it did not take as long as we are experiencing now, up to only three years, the whole thing was over. And when we thought we had peace, we started having these other problems like banditry, people fighting. During the Biafran war, it was one region confronting the remaining three.
After the Biafran war that we had to create more states. Before the Biafran war we had the East, West, North and the Mid-West was the last region created. Today, we have 36 states for administrative convenience; and the country is divided into six geopolitical 6 zones: North-East, North-West, North-Central in the North, and then down South: the South-East, South-South and the South-West.
The insurgency that started in the North-East, tried to cover the whole nation. So, with such experience, we have to grow together as a nation, we have to accept we are Nigerians. I don’t think anybody is ready to get out of the country now. That is the experience we had. It is a very sad experience, where people are being killed every day; it’s not nice. When it started in the North-East, people were saying it was Muslims versus Christians, but even within the North-East there, Christians are killing Christians, and Muslims are killing Muslims. You hear of bandits versus farmers and the rest of it, and of course, you see killings going on in the South-West, in the South-East and the North-Central. So, nowhere is left at all.
The country had four regions in the First Republic but now, it has 36 states and the FCT. If you look at the present configuration, have we gained more than when the country was four regions?
Of course, we have. What we may argue is whether we have more peace than those four regions. As for development, if you make a village a local government headquarters, definitely, that village must have local government structures and the states that are concerned will like to ensure that every local government within its area is connected by tarred roads. It will have a hospital. But whether peace has been enhanced is another thing. As for development, we cannot argue as we have more development now. Almost every state now has an airport, and also universities. So, for that, I think we have some development.
But in terms of cohesion, it didn’t bring much cohesion?
That’s the problem we have now.
You said the civil war wasn’t a good thing. What caused that? Given what is happening, will you still fight for Nigeria?
Yes, I still believe in one Nigeria. If anything happens to give me the impression that somebody wants to divide Nigeria, I will fight to keep Nigeria one.
So, if you will, you were once the chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF); now, you have formed another group, and you’re a frontline leader of the North Central Peoples Forum. Why did you break away from the ACF where you were the national chairman?
I didn’t break away from ACF, I am still a member.
What is the North Central Peoples Forum?
We realised that if you look at the six zones, in the North for instance, we have North-East, North-West and the North-Central. All these areas have problems. There is the North-East Elders Forum; they’ve been working on how they can unite their people to stop fighting and also get help from the Federal Government and now they have the North-East Development Commission. So, we want to follow how it’s going there. Each of these zones is having problems. Now, the North-West, because they have this problem too, have formed the North-West Elders Forum. They are working towards getting a development commission. And we in the North-Central don’t want to be left behind, and you cannot just get a development commission; you must start somewhere. So, we don’t want to say this based on this, but if we start up as the North Central Peoples forum, it means no matter your religion, party, the things you believe, you are from the North-Central. We want to get together as a body and fight for what will bring development. The Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) is for the entire 19 states in the North, and don’t forget that it’s these states that were broken into three (zones). So, we are three brothers and everybody wants to excel. We are not breaking up; I am still a member, I have not left. I was the chairman, Board of Trustees (BoT) for five years. Before then, I was deputy chairman to Chief Sunday Awoniyi.
People don’t understand. They have been asking me why we broke away from the ACF. We give the example of how the North-East Elders Forum got a North East Development Commission (NEDC) and there is a lot of money going there now. It doesn’t mean that what is happening there is not happening in the North-West and it is happening in North-Central. If it requires that these groups have to get together and fight to get development, why not? We are one North. We are not breaking away.
Why have the northern elders not being able to bring peace to the North? Why have the elders not been able to talk to the youth?
Even twins quarrel; brothers quarrel. The North does not mean it is one region. I mean, you can call it one region, but we are not one tribe. So, if you are fighting, and you decide to create small committees to try and make peace, and it’s working, is that not better than to sit down and have nobody saying anything? So, this will help bring more unity, development, cohesion; that’s what it is. And why do we have different states to start with? We were four regions before; now, we have 36 states, so, what brought about this? Today, people are still asking for the creation of more states; within a state, people are asking for more local governments; within the local government, people are asking for more districts. Probably, Nigeria will need to get experts to determine why people are asking for more states. It’s just that it’s only the military that has been able to do this. The civilian government has been on for more than 20 years, and have not been able to create one local government, and the agitation is real. And because they have not been able to do that, more fighting is going.
I’m happy that the new Ooni of Ife went down to see the Aláàfin. Has that happened before? During the Operation Wetie, I was in Ibadan as a Lieutenant and the University of Ife wouldn’t have been operational. People were fighting. People broke off from the Action Group to join Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). I was in ijebu-ode. If you came to Ijebu-Ode from Ibadan, then you’d be attacked at the other end. If you are coming from Lagos, and you passed through Ijebu-Ode, nobody would attack you. I had to go there and make peace. Around 2:00am in Osogbo, there was fighting going on there. From Osogbo, I had to move somewhere else. These are Yoruba speaking the same language, why are they fighting? Not to speak of the North, where there are up to 52 tribes in Plateau alone. So, the younger ones growing up thinking that their people are much better, why are they following these people, then you know where fight starts. So, even the noise that tomorrow belongs to the youth, are we, the older people teaching the youth how they (elders) lived those years? Are we not the ones encouraging the youth, and saying ‘look, these people have been cheating us?’ Then, the youths will come and say because our people are not educated, so, they cheated them. So, there is a sort of confusion and that is what has brought all these challenges.
You said that even as a young military officer, you were able to mediate between rival politicians and they listened to you. Today, why are people not listening to the military?
Things are changing. I’m not saying that the military is like before, right! When I joined the military as a Second Lieutenant, I was riding a motorcycle but today’s Cadets go to the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) with cars. It was when I became a Lieutenant before I got a loan to buy a car, and I bought a small Opel car. But some officers today can buy a Mercedes Benz car without obtaining any loan. Things are changing. It could be that some leaders relaxed the stiff rules of the past. Look at where a General was caught with ₦400 million cash and was to be court martialed, and he said that he would not accept the result of that court martial. Throughout the three-year Biafran War, we never had that; an officer to have ₦400 million. People are just playing with money anyhow.
You mentioned that in Plateau alone, there are about 52 ethnic groups. How can we galvanise that diversity, because it appears that it is now Nigeria’s problem? How can we galvanise that diversity to forge development? Is it any longer possible?
It’s possible, but people have to change. You see, even churches are quarrelling among themselves. People will swear that they will adhere to the rules, and at the end of the day, they don’t. We have put material gain more than what we should do. Those who have more are stealing more; so, that’s the main problem. It is very difficult for anybody to come and say that this is the answer, because how many will adhere to such a decision? If you look at what is happening now, people think the President (Muhammadu Buhari) alone can do everything, it’s not possible. The President has about 50-something ministers. They swear an oath, but are they adhering to it? Most of our elected people, if you have no money, you cannot contest. So, there is no other way than to continue to pray that we do the right thing. We take pride in killing and abusing ourselves. We make the law, but we do not follow the law. I will say God is very patient with us. There are so many things that we swear in the name of God that are false. You as the press can do more research.
On the issue of insecurity, you have said that the President cannot do it alone, but is he listening to the people? For instance, people have complained that part of the reasons insecurity is pervasive is due to lack of confidence. Some people think that everybody that is important in security issue is from a particular section of this country, and so, others believe that they cannot trust them, and yet, you said that the President cannot do anything. Is he also not partly to blame for creating an atmosphere of distrust?
Well, people can think so, but as I told you, no matter what the President does, he’s taking advice from people that you’d think are telling the truth. There are so many reasons. We’ll continue praying for him. Let’s pray for those who are giving him wrong information to please desist. If they are to help him, they should help him. When he came in, it took him some time to select his team, but people were complaining as if he had the list in his pocket and he refused to release. So, it’s not a thing that you’d blame one person; that is what I’m trying to say. I’m not saying that the President is a God, but we all have ourselves to blame.
At a time, we knew you to be close to General Abacha because you were Military Governor of Bendel State in 1984. How did you do it then? Was there consultation or did the head of state as Commander in Chief pick people on his own whims?
For everything you do, you still have a small group: Once it is more than one, it’s a group. Once it is two, we can say it was joint. So, if you have a coup, mostly people who make the choices are within those who planned the coup. So, it could be the leader of the coup, the head of state, or people who planned the coup could decide to know: who is the leader? So, when it comes to appointments within the military hierarchy, there are those officers you might not bother to contact at all, because they’ve been barred. You’re just planning to retire them, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be one man, who will say that I am the leader for this; it’s always a joint thing.
Are you still close to President Buhari?
Yes. I used to work for him as director of transport when he was appointed as the military governor of the then Northeast.
How much are you missing General Abacha because you were close?
Alot. All they are saying now is because he’s dead. If he was alive, they won’t be saying about him what they are saying. One thing I will always repeat is that for five years, Abacha never travelled overseas, never borrowed money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank, never killed people.
Will it be correct to say that Abacha never killed anybody?
Tell me the people that he killed. If somebody was killed during my regime, it doesn’t mean that I killed the person. If he had killed, then Olusegun Obasanjo would have been the first person because he was affected in the coup.
It’s a surprise to me that you have condemned corruption and other terrible things. People have said that corruption became a norm during the Babangida regime, which you were part of. But the way you have spoken is a different thing entirely. What has happened? Is it perception or is it because you are aging, so you are getting closer to God?
When Pope John was to visit Nigeria, I was the Chairman, Organising committee. They picked the Minister of Foreign Affairs then, Tom Ikime to organise that visit. The Bishops told Abacha that they didn’t want him because of the way he talked to them and the way he behaved. Abacha told them that I am not a Catholic, but they insisted that they wanted someone who can talk sensibly, and someone that they’ll respect. Abacha called to inform me, and I told him that I’m not a Catholic. He said that the people said that they want me. Individuals are individuals. The most corrupt country can still have people that are not corrupt, whereas, in a country where you say isn’t corrupt, you can still get people who are. I was there for five years as FCT minister. One will expect to see me in a very big house. Some will come and say that: you were a minister for five years, and this is your office? I will answer that I came to work. Abacha was very close to me; I didn’t ask him to give me oil allocation. I know staff who worked after me who have excess. I only tell people: do good and you will see good; do bad and you see bad twice. Look at the National Hospital, dead.
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