How Obasanjo & I Escaped Dimka’s Coup, General Bajowa Recounts at 80
General Olu Bajowa, OFR, joined the Nigerian Army as a Cadet in training in September 1960 and limbed through the rungs of the Officer Corps to the rank of Major General, he retired in 1980 at the age of 40 years.
The octogenarian speaks to BAYO JIMOH who visited him in his Ikeja residence, Lagos state, about his life, life in the military, how he miraculously survived four coups while in military service and three coups after his recall from retirement, including the February 13th, 1976 Dimka coup and the state of the nation, among other things.
What has life taught you at 80?
As a Christian, life has taught me that I should always be kind and do good, because if you do good you will see good. I also learnt that when you are going up always do good, because when you are coming down you don’t know who is going to help you in life. It has happened to me in the military, if there is any goodwill I have today, it’s mostly the people I assisted when I was in the service. So life taught to me to be a good Christian.
In your generation, parents most often than not resisted their children from joining the Army. Were you in anyway resisted by your parents?
Yes, it’s true that in my generation our parents don’t like there children to join the Army. My father too expressed apprehension, he didn’t want me to join the Army, he wanted me to become a teacher but I refused. My mother supported whatever I wanted to do and what I wanted was fair, as I said death is inevitable you can die young, you can die old, it depends on what destiny holds for every individual. So my father didn’t want me to join Army because of the experience according to him of the Second World War that is 1939-1945; most of those who went to fight during the Second World War didn’t comeback and those who came back were either lame or incapacitated. So my father wasn’t in support that I should join the Army.
What would you say made you to join the Army?
I made up my mind to join the Army for so many reasons. One of the reasons was that when I was in class 2 or 3, we had in our area what we called tax agitation where the people refused to pay tax and state of emergency was declared and the Army came, that was the first time I saw the military and they had all powers moving with authority, and we as boys at that like the type of job where you move with force and authority and they matching left and right so I was encouraged at that time to join the Army and I liked it up to the time late Chief Olu Akinfosile, one of our icons in Ikale land just came back from England as a young lawyer, he defended the people and most of the people arrested were freed. Therefore, I was happy that this is a job that’s very good and everybody had peace after the operation. So, that was what motivated me.
Can you recall some of the unforgettable experiences in the Army?
There are many unforgettable experiences I had in the Army, starting from the Cold War, because when I was commissioned and sent to Germany to take part in the Cold War after my Commision. I came back to Nigeria and I was sent to DR Congo under the United Nations operations and when I came back they sent me to Enugu first battalion. And from there I went to DR Congo for the second time for about one year. In Nigeria, the Nigerian civil war, “operation wettie” these were very critical periods in my life in the military and the coup which God helped me to survive.
Can you recollect the events that surrounded the Dimka’s coup?
Yes, I can never forget about the event of the Dimka’s coup, I dealt with it comprehensively in my book “Soldier by choice” I am lucky to still be alive. As I said earlier, I was listed as one of those to be killed in that coup but on that fateful day, 13th February, 1976, which I can never forget, I was living in No 4, Okotiebo throughout my stay in No 4, Okotiebo, I have never turned right when going out but because of the association between Obasanjo which was very cordial, I liked him and he liked me, he was my mentor. When my wife had a child; because of the harmonious relationship between my family and his, I decided to name the child in his honour “Olusegun” I phoned his ADC, that I was coming to see him but unknown to me at that time, the killer squad that was supposed to kill me waited at a corner. so, usually when I come out of my house I will turned left, but on that fateful day after the feedback from Obasanjo, he told his ADC to tell the people waiting to see him in his office to wait, as he will be late to the office. So after Obasanjo has approved me to see him, instead of turning left, I turned right because he lived at Lugard in Ikoyi. Before then, I had already gotten permission to travel to Ibadan to name my child. So, when I got to him he first chastised me and said “Olu you’re too stubborn, I told you to go and name the child after me” I said no sir, by Yoruba customs you must give me the money, so he gave me the money and I left, it was not up five minutes after I left, the ADC couldn’t get to the office, Muritala has already being killed, he saw Muritala’s dead body, his ADC, car on the road so he ran back. So after I had already left, Obasanjo was shouting “Olu Olu Olu” will run into the killer squad but luckily I didn’t, but it was waiting to see me that saved him, because they were also waiting for him on his way. When they were waiting for me on my way, I turned right. So it was a miraculous incident. so I named my Son “Olusegun Olorunyomi” so he bored two names.
Can you do a comparison of your own days in the Army with the present?
Well, I’m not in the Army now but the Army of our time was a conventional Army. Today is still a conventional Army but the Army now is very large, in our time, we had only three divisions first, second and third division and we are always abroad on international operations, where Nigerian Army made very wonderful contributions and goodwill except for the Nigerian civil war. We didn’t have major incidents that the Army was involved, as such, the atmosphere in our time was different, now though there were coups which destroyed confidence and trust among officers, apart from that the Army now is facing a lot of internal problems than external problems.
What is your advice to the Chief of Army Staff to reposition the Army?
The Chief of Army Staff is doing a good job. It’s not easy to fight a war. War is not what anybody will pray for, after the Nigerian civil war especially, the issue of destruction after the war, the issue of uncertainty among the civilians populace even among the soldiers themselves who fought the war. But unfortunately what the COAS is facing now is different from the conventional war which we used to fight, it’s now asymmetric war, you find out that the enemy want to die now, in our time the enemy didn’t want to die he wants to kill you and survive but the enemy we are facing now want to die with you, kill himself and kill you. Asymmetric war is the challenge the COAS is facing, it needs a lot of training, training of the soldiers in modern equipment and also gathering of information which is one of the major problem they have as at now, intelligence gathering is key in winning an asymmetric war, and intelligence gathering involves everybody, individuals, local government, state and at national level. It is a general issue. Because the people you’re fighting are living with you, that is the problem they have in the Northeast even in the Northwest because the people are living with them, people don’t pass information to the military and there is no synergy, so, gathering of information is key which will inform the intelligence network on what to do and at all times the military must be proactive, if you are not proactive and just reacting to what the enemy is doing, the war will take a long time to be over. So, I will advice the COAS to reoriented the soldiers and train them in asymmetric war as against the conventional war and try also the intelligence services work together in synergy and the people themselves must be ready to help the Armed forces.
Can you tell us your experiences about the civil war?
I’m not the only one who fought in the civil war but as I said before, war is not what anybody pray to get involved in, because it’s very very dangerous and a risky affair and after a lot fighting we are doing will be settled on the roundtable, so, why don’t you start on the table? Hence, we avoid anything that will lead to war because war is very dangerous it’s destructive, it’s not something one will pray to have. I will say that Nigeria should make sure it’s doesn’t go to war the second time, because no nation has gone to war two times and survive. So my experience is that of horror because of the destruction of properties, destruction of lives and also mental destruction, uncertainty of the future and a whole generation could be wiped out which will be a very bad experience.
How has your career being since you left the Army?
Well, I didn’t leave the Army when I wanted to leave the Army, I left the Army prematurely. It was Shagari who took my junior “Mushishi” as COAS, who was course 3 while I’m course 2 and I decided to leave, normally once your junior is taken as COAS, all other senior will be retired that is how I left the Army, I didn’t leave with bitterness because it’s the prerogative of the President to choose who he wants as the COAS. I retired at the age of 40, that was 40 years ago. So I have lived 40 years of my life outside the military. After I left, I decided to go back to school, I went to University of Lagos where I bagged a degree in Administration. The coup as I told you about was part of the military in that generation, Buhari overthrew Shagari, then Buhari was then overthrown by Babaginda.
Then Obasanjo and Abacha came to me that they wanted to recall me because they knew that my retirement wasn’t fair, certainly, they all knew because I was the commandant of the Armed forced Command in staff college in Jaji they decided I should come, they wanted to recall me I resisted but Obasanjo advised I should take it as a National duty even though they are my junior, that I should see it as call to service. So I came back to join them for another eleven years. So I was Minister of Aviation, in charge of Nigerian Airways, Personal Assistant to Babaginda to move the seat of government from Lagos to Abuja and later took over as Permanent Secretary ministry of defence and deputy minister that I did for four years, permanent secretary ministry of Industry for three and half years, and permanent secretary ministry of Science and Technology for two years in 1999 and I disengage. And ever since then I have been on my own.
As you continue in the journey of life, what are your prayers to God?
God should give me good health to continue to serve him and humanity. I thank God for his grace and blessing for keeping up to eighty. When I go back and see what I saw during the “Ore battle”
I told you Obasanjo was the one who sent me to Ore, the number of soldiers who went to Ore to fight the war many of them are already gone, the officers most of them are gone. I’m the only one alive today. My colleagues too, both in the military and civil most of them are already gone. May their souls Rest in Peace. So God has been so kind to me and I feel fulfilled and accomplished in my aim to join the military and to hold the title of a General and left at 40. So I achieved my ambition in life. I got everything God can give to any human being I feel accomplished in profession and fulfilled in life. I have children. I don’t lack anything. I’m still alive at 80. So when I looked back and see my experience of the world particularly when we were defending the western borders and we were fighting to recapture midwestern region which was overran by Ojukwu and Banjo and I think of my colleagues who were commissioned at that time none of them is alive, some died during the war, some in the coup, some natural death. I am going to celebrate my 80th birthday on 27th, when General Akinrinade did his 80th birthday Danjuma was there, quite a number of his course mates were there but none of my course mate is alive to be with me at my 80th. I’m grateful to God to have accomplished my career in life and also live a fulfilled life, very highly fulfilled and I’m ageing gracefully. I pray to God that he should continue to give me good health so that I can continue to serve him and humanity until he decides to call me.
What is your take about the state of the Nation now?
You know more because you’re among the public than I do. Nobody is happy about the state of the Nation as it is today because we have deviated from the policy of our founding fathers when people like us joined the Army in the 1960’s this was not the Nigeria we envisaged. In the past, we had a Nigeria operating a federation, where everybody in the nation, every state and region participated at the central level and autonomous at the regional level and developed at their own pace but with the incursion of the military to government things changed and running a government based on the military high command line of administration is not the best. I think unitary government has been our bane, you can’t run a unitary government successfully under a republican system as a result there is dichotomy where you see that Nigeria is in the league of the poorest nations in the world and corruption a major setback, added to this is that as poor as Nigerians are our politician are the highest paid in the world, you could see dichotomy. There’s a need for restructuring, there should be devolution of power rather than concentrating power to one person. We have over 300 ethnic groups, the thinking of our founding fathers is to have people-centered democracy, democracy is the government of the people by the people and for the people but as it is now, it appears the democracy we are following is for a group of people not for the people and there is hunger in the land and a lot of people are not happy the state of the Nation is baffling, the only solution is for our leaders political leaders,community leaders, religious leaders and traditional leaders to sit in a table and fashion out a constitution that will take us to the promise land as our founding fathers had fashioned, anything outside a federation where everybody will be on its own or any state or region will be on their own with devolution of power where they can rule themselves according to their own culture, the resources they have, looking after their own local security at local level, looking after their own security at the state level then it can be supervised by the federal level and things that unite us should be done at federal. There is a need for restructuring.
Looking at your life’s journey what are those things you would have love to do differently?
That is a tricky question, but I can confirm categorically that in my military life even up to today I have no regret there is nothing I have done that I thought I should have done it in a different way. I fought corruption in Calabar, I don’t regret what I did there, when I was sent to Nigerian Airways I fought corruption, dissolved the board and I took some many decisions that are not palatable to people in power and they say when you fight corruption, corruption will fight back I had no regret. So looking back to my life, there is noting I have done which I would have done differently although situation differs bearing in mind, the circumstances and the facts available to me during my military and civil life everything I did I have no regret.
What advice do you have for the younger generation?
Is it the #ENDSARS generation? (Smiles) for every action, there is a reaction. The #ENDSARS group of people acted the way they did because they are frustrated, action of the system, action of government and its official, the state of the Nation was what pushed them in doing what they did. Having said that, my advice to the oncoming generation is that we should learn there is dignity in labour and the get rich quick syndrome even without working trying to make sure you leave school and want to be a millionaire today is not the best in life. You must try to work hard for tomorrow, you should sow seed. So the younger generation should try to learn that there is dignity in labour and we should not rush.