…Says 1990 overthrow bid vindicated trial of 1986 plotters …’I begged Babangida to spare Buhari, Idiagbon’
On Wednesday, April 22, it was 30 years since some middle-ranking army officers, led by the late Major Gideon Orkar, attempted to overthrow the regime of then-military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, fondly called IBB.
In this exclusive interview, Babangida’s former Chief Press Secretary, CPS, Chief Duro Onabule, provides fresh insight into how the atmosphere was at Dodan Barracks on that day. Onabule, a former Editor of defunct Concord Newspapers, also shares some personal experiences with his ex-principal that provide a glimpse of the former military President’s heart.
It is 30 years since the 1990 coup believed to have been led by the late Major Gideon Orkar. Some accounts exist about the event and we believe certain aspects may not have been rightly stated. As someone at the seat of power at the time, when did the coup events begin to unfold?
First, I would have been trapped in Igbara Oke because a colleague in Dodan Barracks, Segun Akinluyi, lost his mother and she was being buried on April 21, 1990. I and my colleagues in Dodan Barracks attended the burial.
There was a commendation service in Benin City. After that, she was to be buried at Igbara Oke and I decided that having attended the service at Benin City, I should return to Lagos. We took the Principal Staff Officer to IBB, Anthony Ukpo, to Makurdi. Wole Coker of NTA and myself returned to Lagos. If I had gone to Igbara Oke for the burial, I would have been trapped there. I was in bed at about midnight when a friend called me on phone, saying he had got a call by someone, who said shooting was going on at Dodan Barracks.
As we were talking, the sounds of shooting rent the air and my friend told me that it was the shooting he was talking about. We were hearing it on the telephone. On the second day when the situation had been brought under control, when I was given the list of those wanted for the coup at Dodan Barracks, I went through the list of wanted soldiers and was shocked to see the name of one fellow, Lt Col Tony Nyiam. I asked Col Tony Ukpo “so this man is among” he responded in pidgin English saying “no be your friend?” I was shocked when he asked the question. When I met him later, I said “how did you know that he is my friend?”
Lobby for appointments
What happened was that being IBB’s Chief Press Secretary, CPS, many people approached me to help them lobby for appointments. This man, Col Nyiam, was one of them. He didn’t come directly to me. He came through a friend, Lanre Oke, who also told another friend, Daramola Adebiyi, who then told me that the man would like to be given an appointment. I spoke to IBB about it. He said the man was one of his officers and added that his name was among those to be given appointments.
I had never met Tony Nyiam as of then but the fact was that I lobbied IBB on his behalf and he promised me that Nyiam would get an appointment. I asked Col Ukpo again how he knew the man was my friend, at that point, he reminded me about the day I went to lobby IBB, saying that as I was coming out of IBB’s office, he came in to see IBB for the same purpose and IBB told him that I had just left his office after lobbying for the same man. IBB also gave Col Ukpo the same assurance he gave me. That was how Ukpo got to know that I was lobbying for Nyiam and assumed that he was my friend. I was shocked.
There must have been chaos at Dodan Barracks. What was the atmosphere like?
They shot dead my friend, Col UK Bello, who was the ADC to IBB. He was theircourse mateand they killed him, meaning that if I ran into them on that day, they would have killed me. Despite the fact that I was lobbying for him and his appointment was on the list, I would have still been killed if I ran into them. That was a traumatic experience. That was when I swore not to get involved in anything concerning the military. On the second or third day, I had to apologise to IBB.
Did you just say apologise?
Yes, I went to apologise for lobbying for Tony Nyiam, whose name appeared on the list of coup plotters. To discover that the same man, who I lobbied for was the same person, who plotted against IBB, was shocking and I had to apologise. When I was apologising, IBB said “Duro, why are you bothering yourself? If you are apologising what do you want me to do with myself? These people are my officers. I promote them and send them on courses. Go back to your office.” I was surprised that IBB took it so casually. He appreciated my innocence.
That was an experience people do not know. I too would have been shot dead if I ran into them. If they could kill UK Bello, their course mate, who was promoting their interest, they could have killed anybody in IBB’s government. Why I appreciated IBB’s liberal reaction to the issue is that there is another former Head of State, who would have acted differently. If that event had occurred under him, he would have recommended me for trial and Nigerians wouldn’t have known that I was innocent. Nigerians would have said that I was wicked that IBB made me his CPS and I joined the plot against him. Since that day, I said never again.
The coup happened when access to information did not come easy. That suggests that you must have been under pressure from all corners to know what the true situation was. Can you describe how it was?
It was purely a military affair. That was why Col Tony Ukpo as Principal Staff Officer to IBB had to give out information. It was not a civilian plot and it was handled militarily. Another aspect that people overlooked was that four years earlier, a military plot was pre-empted. Those involved were arrested, tried and executed. Even those presumed to be responsible Nigerians including high-ranking military officers were saying that since the coup was aborted at the planning stage, the action of the government was wrong. I was shocked at the level of their intelligence. A military officer, who is privileged to prevent a coup, would not wait for the plotters to strike. That would be suicidal.
Murtala Muhammed, Ironsi
If Murtala Muhammed was able to pre-empt his coup, he would have been alive today. If the late General Aguiyi Ironsi was able to pre-empt his coup, he would have been alive although he operated under a different atmosphere. If he had the privilege of knowing that he was going to be assassinated, he wouldn’t have been able to act because he would be perceived to be moving against a particular section of the country, whose leaders had been assassinated six months earlier. He would have been accused of trying to move against one part of the country. It would be foolish of any military officer to wait for those planning a coup to strike.
This is not about military strategy but common sense. If people argued that they were still at the planning stage in 1986, were those behind the 1990 coup at the planning stage? In Ghana, a counter-coup took place and all former Heads of State were executed. If the then Head of State knew that a coup was being planned and he allowed them to strike, he paid dearly for it. The attempted coup of 1990 vindicated the trial of 1986 coup plotters.
There are different accounts about how your principal, IBB, was kept safe. What is the true story?
Normally, at Dodan Barracks, IBB stayed until 1 am or 2 am before going to bed because visitors were always around. That was what happened on that day. There were visitors and after they left the shooting started. When he asked his security details what was going on, they said nothing was going on. He queried why they said nothing was going on even with the shooting. The security team left and in an attempt to quash it near the radio station in Ikoyi, his ADC, UK Bello was assassinated. By the time he got the message that UK Bello had been killed, he knew he had a battle at hand.
To persuade him to leave Dodan Barracks was an issue. He left the house and was on the periphery, just outside the Barracks and people were making different suggestions on where to go but he wanted to know the direction. I think he was being careful not to take the direction the plotters were already stationed because it could have been possible that even among those suggesting the direction to take, one person may be loyal to the coup plotters. He was also concerned about the boys fighting for him. He took his time before leaving the scene. Once he was able to contact then-Defence Minister, the Late General Sani Abacha, who was on his side, he knew he had no problem. It would have been a different case if General Abacha was not on his side.
It is claimed in some quarters that some of the plotters were close to IBB and that the issues they raised could have been discussed with him instead of attempting to overthrow his government. Were the plotters really close to IBB?
Not some of them, virtually all of them. They were course mates and friends of Col UK Bello. They were coming to visit him or lobby for appointments. That was why he had to be sure of the situation before leaving. It could have been dangerous to just follow anybody when they struck because, under such a situation, the loyalty of those telling him to leave would be in doubt. He was able to contact Gen Abacha, whose loyalty was not in doubt and that was how he was kept safe.
Significantly, some of the issues raised by the coup plotters for which they excised some parts of the country are still here 30 years after. There are still issues of ethnic domination and marginalization such that some people are still talking of secession, national conference and sovereign national conference among others. What is your perspective?
Once a northerner is always a northerner. That is the truth and nobody should be carried away. One of them was saying that the Southwest has lost its voice. Did he expect us to be fighting with them against the core north that made them? Was it not the core north that made them? Even Kwara that is largely made up of Yoruba people would prefer remaining in the north to any idea of joining the Southwest. It is because it is convenient for them. Just as the core north made them, non-core northern states, they made the core north.
Some of the coup plotters are still around. Have you encountered any of them since the events of the coup day?
I didn’t know any of them before the coup. I only saw them when they came visiting, not that I was their friend. There was a day I ran into one of them, Col Nyiam at the airport. He recognised me and we got talking. I advised him to lie low because he was lucky. I told him that others were not so lucky. Whether he took my advice, I wouldn’t know. There is one of them I respect so much. He is a professor of law and hails from the Niger Delta region. The man has been comporting himself and no one knows he is in the country.
Apart from writing your column, many people think you should have been in politics…
Journalism has standards. And if you are a journalist, you would value the professional standards. You may not find it comfortable working with these people, politicians, these days if you value professional standards, because some of the decisions they make may not be in the interest of your values. With the way they loot public treasury now, no journalist would be comfortable with that. Given my professional and parental background, I couldn’t have been in politics.
It is believed that the late Publisher of defunct Concord Newspapers, Chief MKO Abiola paved the way for your appointment as CPS to President Babangida to strengthen their friendship. What is the story?
Believe whatever information you have. Unfortunately, my boss, Abiola, is dead. So I can’t discuss him on this issue. When Chief Abiola told me about the appointment, I didn’t want to accept it. I told him that I preferred my job as the Editor of Concord. Abiola said no, adding that the man, IBB, was his friend and he told him to release me. Abiola added that he promised IBB that he would allow me serve as his Chief Press Secretary. My boss is no longer around to dispute or confirm whatever I would say on this. He saw it as glory for me and Concord.
It is like being appointed Chairman, Board of NTA. Did anybody arrange that for me? When you are a citizen of a country, you don’t have to be a member of a political party for the government to recognise you. So long as you are active, the government can take note of you. I didn’t wait for Buhari to win in 2015 before supporting him. As far back as 2002, I started supporting him. I even defended him in my column in an article titled: If Obasanjo, why not Buhari? That is even despite the fact that his regime detained me many times.
I later discovered how government works. Governance means taking unpleasant decisions. That is governance all over the world. I had nothing against him even though he detained me many times. Before IBB appointed me into his team, I was writing my column in Concord, I guess he was reading. Probably, my ideas were tallying with his ideas. He picked the best hands in the country including Ransome Kuti, Chu Okongwu, Prince Bola Ajibola, Kalu Idika Kalu and Olu Falae among others. Till date, he is reputed to have had the best team in the country. I felt honoured to have been part of that team. Before then I had never met him.
The office of the CPS was very powerful at the time you occupied it and many people thought you had the ear of the President. Can you share your experience?
Any CPS or Media Adviser to the President must have the ear of his principal. There was nothing peculiar about me. It depends on how the individual operates. Nobody would give you power in such a position, you have to take it otherwise the position of CPS would not be fully utilised.
For instance, six months before the June 12 elections, I suggested that we should allow the incoming government to make many decisions before the handover date.
Somebody just went to announce the increment of pump price to N2 from 70 Kobo. I had earlier argued the case with IBB that the pump price should not be increased because it could lead to a riot. He agreed with me that we should leave everything for the incoming government. Before the election, I heard on NTA that the price had been increased. I met IBB and reminded him that we agreed that the price would not be increased. He said he didn’t know about it and I said since he was not aware, I was going to reverse it.
He gave me the go-ahead and by 9 pm, I had reversed it to the previous price. That is what I meant that nobody would give you power, you are to take it. Not that I had the power but that is governance. If you are invited to serve in a government, it is on the assumption that you have something to contribute and what I did was part of what I could contribute. Any CPS in my position would have had IBB’s ear. Before I accepted to serve in his administration, I said I needed the freedom to express my view and the freedom to have access to him. I also made two other requests. Throughout my stay, I operated within those conditions. One other condition I gave him was that nothing must happen to Gen Muhammadu Buhari and Gen Tunde Idiagbon, who were in detention. IBB agreed.
I who was detained by Buhari and Idiagbon told Babangida before accepting his appointment that nothing must happen to them. He asked me why I said so and I told him that it was God that put him in the position. I explained to him that others tried it in the past and they were shot. I said since God has put him in the position, he must deliver and he agreed with me.
BY CHARLES KUMOLU
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