Chief Olabode George, a retired Commodore in the Nigerian Navy, is a former Deputy National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The Atona Oodua of Yorubaland in this interview with TEMIDAYO AKINSUYI, shares his experience in his days in the military, how God delivered him from being implicated in the Abacha coup and other issues. Excerpts:
It is surprising that given your long years in the top hierarchy of governance in the country, you were not really close to the late sage, Papa Obafemi Awolowo while he was alive. What was responsible for that?
I was in the military during the period Papa Awolowo held sway as one of Nigeria’s greatest politicians. What would I say I was doing with the politicians? I respected Papa Awolowo even though I knew him from afar. Even the late Alhaji Lateef Jakande who was like a big brother to me in Lagos, I had no business with him. I remember one time.
He was governor of Lagos then. Something happened to my land and I went to see him in his house at Ilupeju in my uniform. He sat down on that his state chair and people were coming from right and left. When he saw me, he said ‘Bode, join the queue’. So, I also sat down and one by one we were moving until I saw him. He knew me very well. But what will I say I was doing with politicians like Papa Awolowo and others? I have no business with them as a military officer.
Another issue was that Papa was far up there but because my family house from my mother side came from the Herbert Macaulay stock. So, politics was always within the household. Herbert Macaulay who was my great grand uncle was the first Nigerian politician. He gave his life for the unity of this country. His greatest political son at that time was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. He didn’t care where you are coming from or who you are. As long as you are a Nigerian, he would accept you.
He preached about the unity of the North and South and fought the colonialists till he died in 1946. I was a little baby then but my mum was always going to his house which was located at the present General Post Office in Marina. The British colonialists demolished it completely to obliterate his name.
How could a monument like that, the house of the first Nigerian politician which could have been historical be destroyed just like that? So, I didn’t know Papa Awolowo but when I became governor, I met Oluwole. Papa Awolowo has passed away when I became governor but I met Mama HID Awolowo. I met Papa Adekunle Ajasin and so many of his followers at that time.
What role did you play during the June 12 crisis especially on the issue of National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) which was at the forefront of restoring the mandate of Bashorun MKO Abiola, the acclaimed winner of the 1993 presidential election?
I was in the military service then. There were genuine people in NADECO who were really serious about the June 12 issue. There were also fake NADECO people and we know them. I was working with General Diya in the villa and we saw it all. In fact, it was as a result of that ‘bad belle’ that I was retired. We had a meeting after they had arrested MKO Abiola.
I remembered that day. It was one of the major issues that polarised the military. There were those who said ‘Mr. President, you accused Abiola of declaring himself president and so he had committed treason. Any serious-minded man who wants to declare himself as president is like a coup. Will that person go to Epetedo to announce that he has carried out a coup? Sir, let’s focus on where we are going’.
I remembered that time there was so much tension in the country amongst the senior officers. There were two groups who said he (Abacha) should let Abiola go. Let’s do a quick plan, revisit the constitution, settle this matter and ‘get the military back to the barracks. We thought that was the most reasonable thing to do. Some others thought no and said Abacha should continue in office.
That was what led to what the late Bola Ige called ‘five fingers of a leprous hand’. They set up five political parties, with the sole aim that Abacha should succeed himself. That was unnecessary tension started. If the intention was getting there, settle whatever differences you thought were mitigating against this country and the military just quickly fix it and back out, it would have been beautiful.
I remembered we had a meeting of senior officers and immediately after that, they were just picking those of us who are opposed to them. That was how I left the service. So, my impression about NADECO was that some were genuine and very committed but some were fake. They wanted to ride on the back of that NADECO whereas they were still negotiating with us in the military.
Are some of these fake NADECO men still alive today?
I won’t mention their names now. I will mention their names in my books; very disgraceful people who were pretending to be fighting for the actualisation of June 12. Today, they are now at the top of the echelons saying ‘We fought for NADECO, we fought for June 12’. They were fake. Fake like a rubber that didn’t grow on the tree. I will expose them soon.
Given your closeness to General Diya, how come you were not implicated in the Abacha coup in which he (Diya) and others were arrested and tried?
That was because I had left the military before it happened. That’s why I said God works in many mysterious ways. I will always tell the truth to power. It was a dog-eat-dog period even among senior military officers. The camaraderie that was established to unite the military was absent.
If the military is divided, it’s a very dangerous thing for this country because we don’t fight wars by tribes. These are your colleagues, irrespective of wherever they come from because you are all going through the same channel in the tunnel and it could you or him who can be shot. So, that’s your comrade. You carry him and save him.
The truth is, military intervention into governance destroyed the military. When we came in, your neighbour is your brother. I have told you my relationship with Admiral Murtala Nyako. Till tomorrow, he is my brother. If anything happens to him, I will be there in a jiffy and if anything happens to me, he will be here. We met in the navy and that was the kind of camaraderie that the military established.
All that disappeared during the Abacha era. You can’t go to the mess to relax; you can’t talk; you can’t debate. Whereas do you expose your brain? You are afraid to talk anywhere because they read meanings into what you say. A month before the crisis they retired me. When I told my father, he said ‘pack your things from Abuja and come home’.
I was very close to Papa Adegoke of Adegoke motors, a real Papa Aladura. He was always very prayerful. When I told him, he said he went into a vigil, praying and saying ‘God, why this this happen now?’ He said suddenly, one of the pastors said ‘Baba, what if God rescued him from trouble through this early retirement? He said how do you know the plans of God? Eventually that was what happened.
I was preparing the speech for the Head of State because we had won the Olympics and General Abacha was to receive the Dream Team and it was my schedule to prepare the draft speech because I was in charge of parastatals. That was my last official function in the Navy before I was retired.
Not long after I left, they swooped on the whole of our office and raided General Diya and others. I thank God for His grace. It was a bad blood that was sown and now it’s past as an experience. Some of us are still alive, some are dead but I pray that we should use it as an experience to make sure that such massive hatred and division will never happen again. I’m not looking at it through the prism of revenge.
No, let us learn from history and avoid the pitfalls of the past so that we can improve the relationship within ourselves because if the military is not united, this country will not hold.