Chidi Obineche interviewed Commodore Okoh Ebitu Ukiwe, the first Chief of General Staff in General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida's regime, in the Monday November 29, 2004 issue of The Sun.
The interview was titled How I walked out on IBB. Two unmistakable facts emerged from that interview. The first is that, contrary to what was always accepted as the truth, Commodore Ukiwe was not fired by the Babangida regime. He walked out on it. Ukiwe mentioned two top officials of the regime - Babangida himself and General Domkat Bali, the Chief of Defence Staff - who are still alive and well and, therefore, are in a position to corroborate his story.
The second is that there is no love lost between Ukiwe and Professor Jubril Aminu who was Babangida's Education (and later Petroleum) Minister. Through the length and breadth of Ukiwe's interview, the retired Naval officer made little attempt to mask his contempt and disdain for Professor Aminu, currently a senator, whom he held up as unscrupulous and - to a large extent - responsible for the mess that IBB's regime turned out to be.
Sample: As the then Chief of General Staff, Ukiwe was asked the role he played in the OIC controversy, which dogged the Babangida administration? His answer: I did not play any role in any OIC controversy. It is people like Jubril Aminu and his clique of fundamentalists that created the problem for themselves. I did not know when they planned and executed a trip to Fez in Morocco to move Nigeria to join OIC group of nations. I was not aware. I did not know. They did not consult me. Yet, I was called the number two citizen. Who mandated them? If there was something called Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), and the matter was not brought before this body, who then mandated them to go there, and what did they go for? What appears to be a crime to people like Jubril Aminu was my honest statement that I was not aware of that trip and in fact, that we had not held any discussions to that effect.
That was all I said. But Jubril Aminu thinks that this country is where people like him can go behind, plot whatever they like and impose it on every Nigerian. This country is a multi-religious country, and the country does not admit of joining any religious organisation. Any country can join religious bodies they believe in, but not a nation being dragged into a religious organisation, without even a man they called number two citizen knowing about it.
Why, you may ask, did Ukiwe choose this time to come out shooting from the hip, firing from all cylinders? He left the military regime and his naval career on October 6, 1986. In the intervening 18 years, he had never publicly discussed the circumstances of his exit from the two institutions. If his biography had been published, and the details were therein, people would have seen things as having come about as a matter of course. The biography or memoir is normally the "appropriate" vehicle for "setting the records straight".
So, what informed Ukiwe's decision to talk at this point in time? The provocation is to be found in the front-page story of the Saturday Sun of August 28, 2004. Titled Revealed: Why Ukiwe was sacked, the first sentence of the story written by Steve Nwosu, the paper's editor, went thus: "Professor Jubril Aminu, an insider in the Babangida regime, reveals how IBB's first Chief of General Staff got booted out of government: the OIC connections and the power play."
According to the story, Aminu claimed that Ukiwe got the boot for being more of a politician than a soldier. He said Ukiwe did not bother to attend that year's National Day celebrations in Abuja and did not to send in his apologies to his superiors who waited in vain for his arrival. Should Commodore Ukiwe have taken lightly a statement that impugned his professional integrity, especially as his subsequent reaction made the point that Professor Aminu "an insider of the Babangida regime" had stated less than the facts of what transpired at the time? This explains why he went to town on Aminu.
Predictably Aminu fired back by way of paid advertisements in Nigerian dailies. Sample: "[Ukiwe] equally savaged a number of others in what journalists might call a 'no holds bared' vituperous (sic) reaction. It is quite clear that he haboured great resentment for some of his colleagues, particularly his boss at the time.
His opinion of the President he last served obviously differs from mine. He also nursed a poorly concealed animus against the Moslems, Islam, OIC and the North. All these are evident in spite of his unconvincing pleadings that he was not against Islam. Did I talk in my reported statement about Islam or Ukiwe and Moslems, Ukiwe and the North, etc in my answers to the planted question? No. Commodore Ukiwe is entitled to his attitude to people and institutions and I do not see it as my place to take him up on all that. But I have to try and explain and comment where I believe his stormy tirades could mislead on the facts."
Unfortunately, Aminu's explanations and comments on Ukiwe's interview failed to address the critical issues that were raised. Ukiwe said he left the government, that he was never fired. Why did Aminu not disprove this? Ukiwe said Aminu was among those that held Babangida's junta hostage.
Why did Aminu not refute the assertion? Instead he resorted to cheap blackmail by claiming that Ukiwe "nursed a poorly concealed animus against the Moslems, Islam, OIC and the North." How did Aminu come by this curious conclusion? Or did Ukiwe grant two interviews? It appears that no one can highlight any perceived injustice in this country without being branded anti-Moslem, anti-Islam, and anti-North! Aminu is a Moslem, he professes the Islamic faith and he comes from the north. Why should these mean that a disagreement with him automatically translates into antipathy for his faith and his origins?
Any serious analyst of the Aminu/Ukiwe exchanges would have little difficulty concluding that, at the heart of their quarrel, is the manner in which Nigeria was smuggled into the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). Ukiwe said and maintains that Nigeria's membership of the Islamic body was neither discussed nor approved by the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) which was the highest decision-making body in the country at the time. Did Ukiwe lie in this connection? Jubril Aminu refused to address this question. Instead he contrived to range religious fanatics against Ukiwe. That reeks with unfairness.
About Nigeria's membership of the OIC Aminu said, "I consider it good for Nigeria and I know a number of multi-religious African nations that belong to the OIC." But that was not the Ukiwe's point. Even if the OIC were the best thing that happened to every Nigerian, dead, living and yet to be born, Ukiwe's point is simply that secular (or multi-religious) Nigeria did not enter that body - an association of Islamic countries - through due process. In this wise, even if the Vatican joined the OIC tomorrow morning, it will not make a case for Nigeria to remain in the body.
To put a few questions to Jubril Aminu. What if a Christian General was Military President of Nigeria? And what if, without a word to either the Supreme Military Council or Nigerians, he smuggled the country into an Organisation of Christian Countries? Would Jubril Aminu be addressing press conferences across the world, saying that he considered it good for Nigeria and that he knew a number of multi-religious African nations that belonged to the OIC?
I delayed the submission of this page until the conclusion of Sunday's CAF Championship game between Enyimba of Aba and Etoile du Sahel of Tunisia. It is a great Christmas gift to Nigeria. May success based on justice attend all other aspects of our national life.