General Adeyinka Adebayo (retd), president, Yoruba Council of Elders (YCE) is the oldest and most senior ex-military officer in the country today. He was the first Nigerian Aide-de-Camp (ADC) to the British Governor General of Nigeria in 1957. As the seventh commissioned officer in the Nigerian Army and first Chief of Staff, Army Headquarters, he has seen it all. From being a commissioned officer in the Royal West Africa Frontier Forces (RWAFF) in 1953, as a full Lieutenant through the time he became the military governor of Western Region between 1966 and 1971, he played historic roles in military and political affairs of Nigeria before he retired. In this interview, he spoke about the efforts to keep Nigeria one after the military coups of 1966, which truncated civilian rule and his desire for Nigeria to remain one.
How did you get into the Army at the time some were traveling to the U.K. to study Law or joining the civil service?
Well, I felt I should join the army because it was a new institution in the country and that was how I got into it.
What was the reaction of your parents then?
They had no reaction. They wanted me to go ahead and do what I wanted to do.
Did your parents consult the oracle to ask whether the military career would be successful since consulting Ifa for guidance was a common thing that time?
My parents were Christians. So, they didn’t show me any Ifa. They were happy, they were in the church. And I was in the church with them. I did my best. And they were happy that I did my best.
At some point you were the ADC (aide-de-camp) to the British Governor General, how did you get appointed to that position?
Well, the Governor -General then wanted an ADC. And because I was a young officer then, I was interviewed, and they took me into it.
What was it like, going into that position?
I couldn’t say it was like going into anything. It was a military appointment which I went into. And I did my best. As a Nigerian, the Governor General accepted me. I did my best with him, and I was happy with what I did. I was his ADC for about a year or more. And I did my best. I was a senior soldier then. For instance, Ironsi was Nigeria Army Number Three (NA3), I was Nigerian Army Number Seven (NA7). And I was number 23 (WA23) in the West Africa in the then Royal West African Frontier Forces (RWAFF).
Who was number one in the Nigerian Army according to recruitment or commissioning?
Fred Ugbomah was NA1
You were the seventh commissioned officer in 1953, tell us about some of your contemporaries. How did you feel being in the class of the first set of Nigerian army officers?
Well, we were nine officers from Nigeria, drafted into the RWAFF. Fred Ugbomah was NA1, Duke Wellington Bassey, who we nicknamed “Old Bassey” because he was oldest of us after Ugbomah left the Army. His (Bassey) number was NA2. Aguiyi-Ironsi was NA3, Samuel Ademulegun was NA4, Ralph Sodeinde was NA5, Babafemi Ogundipe was NA6, I was NA7, Zakari Maimalari was NA8 and Omar Lawal was NA9.
Ugbomah left the Army shortly after he was commissioned as Lieutenant. Bassey became the first among us thereafter, so we used to call him Old Bassey because he was the most senior among us who rose higher in the Army. He died as Brigadier in 1996. We always called him “Nice old man Bassey” because he brought all of us together when we in the RWAFF. He was from Calabar.
Aguiyi-Ironsi, Ademulegun, Sodeinde and Maimalari became victims of coup d’etat, while Ogundipe died serving as the Nigerian High Commissioner (i.e. Ambassador) in Britain. Today, by God’s infinite mercy, I’m the most senior officer of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
Can you recall some of your colleagues in the secondary school when you were still much younger, some of your mates?
Well, I can’t remember now.
What will you say actually led to the coup of January 15, 1966?
It was ambition. Just ambition, that’s all. Yes ! It was because (Major Kaduna)Nzeogwu was ambitious. Very ambitious. He didn’t carry out the coup because he was an Igbo man. He didn’t do it because he wanted his own tribe to take over then. No! He did it for his own personal ambition.
But many still have the impression that he did it with ethnic bias because Hausa, Fulani and Yoruba leaders were eliminated and Igbo leaders were spared?
It was later that all those facts were emerging and people started analysing that Nnamdi Azikiwe got to know about the coming coup and escaped. Now let me tell you the whole story. On January 15, 1966 when the first military coup was being carried out I wasn’t in Nigeria. You need to know that I was the first Nigerian to become ADC (Aide De Camp) to British Governor General in 1957. And the first Nigerian General Staff Officer (GSO) Grade 3, later Grade 2 and at last GSO Grade 1. And in 1964 I became the first Chief of Staff, Nigeria Army Headquarters under the last British GOC (General Officer Commanding) Nigeria Army, Sir Welby Everald and the first Nigerian GOC, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi. I occupied that position till November 1965 as a full Colonel.
As the first Nigerian Chief of Staff (Nigerian Army), Lt. Col. David Ejoor served under me as GSO Grade 1, the then Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon also served under me as Adjutant General, and Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu served as Quartermaster-General
When they were taking over power from Aguiyi-Ironsi what excuse did they give as reasons for overthrowing his regime?
They didn’t give any reason. They took over because they wanted to.
Apart from Ironsi and Fajuyi did they kill any other person or officers?
Not to my knowledge. I was senior to Fajuyi. Those who took over were military caucus. They were classmates. They did it as colleagues. They only called Gowon to come and be Head of State because he was the most senior officer from the North at that time. Not that he was part of their coup. They did it with the belief that they would all be promoted.
What effects would you say the coup had on the Nigerian military?
It brought the Generals down a bit. A Lt. Colonel like Gowon who was promoted to the rank of Lt. General over those who were already Colonels was a great problem to the army. It brought in politics into the Nigerian Army and things never remained the same again.
The reason Major Kaduna Nzeogwu gave for staging the first coup was corruption and political crisis…
(Cuts in) Did they know anything about corruption then? What did he (Nzeogwu) know about corruption? Of course, that was the excuse he used. Was it corruption within the northerners or within the other people who were not northerners? It was the political crisis they used to carry out their own political ambition.
Why did Nzeogwu and his fellow coup plotters not take over power after they had killed Ahmadu Bello, Balewa and Akintola if they were only power hungry?
It was because there was seniority within the military. They would have to kill so many senior officers, including Aguiyi-Ironsi that time if they had aimed at overthrowing the civilian government and also eliminate senior military officers to take over power. He was a Major. And there were a lot of Lt. Colonels and Brigadier Generals.
Many critics of military rule believe that if the military had not stayed so long, Nigerian democracy would have grown well and become better. And that the militarisation of Nigerians, which led to emergence of militant groups would have been avoided. What do you say to this?
They shouldn’t have stayed at all. If they had wanted democracy to grow, they should have handed over to the civilian government and supported them militarily. It was because they were ambitious themselves.
Are you not disturbed, sir, that 47 years after the civil war the Igbo are still clamouring for Biafra and the people of Niger Delta are still destroying oil pipelines. And we are still witnessing killings by Fulani herdsmen. Are you not disturbed about these development. How would Nigeria survive all these?
Well, one was not thinking about tribes. We were thinking about Nigeria, the country. So we were worried that there was trouble. And those of us who were ahead then felt we should do our best to end the war and peace returned to the country.
Although the war ended then but at the moment in some parts of the country, some people are still feeling marginalised. They don’t have sense of belonging and are still clamouring for secession, how would Nigeria get over this?
Well, we were thinking about Nigeria and not thinking about tribes. When I joined the Army, I wasn’t thinking as a Yoruba man but as a Nigerian. And I was doing my best. There were a lot of easterners and northerners working under me then. We worked together as brothers. We were not thinking of tribes. We were thinking that Nigeria should come together as one and up till today I still believe Nigeria should be one. And up till now I’m still doing my best to make sure that Nigeria remains one.
There is an ongoing clamour for restructuring of the country, that Nigeria should be restructured politically, what is your stance on this?
Well, there is nothing wrong in people saying that. It is left for the people on top to do their best and what is best for the tribes. I always think that Nigeria should be one. And we must continue to be one, How we are going to be one is left for us, the leaders, to work together and bring those people behind us together to continue to be one.
It is a tough season for Nigerians now with the economic recession. What are your suggestions to President Muhammadu Buhari to resolve the socio-economic problems of insecurity and unemployment that we are faced with at the moment?
Buhari is facing a large people in the country. He is a very junior officer to me. He was a good officer and I still believe he is a good officer because he is doing his best. But there are more people in Nigeria now than before. So he has to work harder. So, it is left to those with him now to assist him to succeed.
Not too long ago, a social commentator who shares same name with you wrote an open letter to Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. He was complaining about the plight of the Yoruba race. People thought that the letter was written by you? I don’t know if you got to read about what the young man wrote. It was in social media.
No, I didn’t read it. You know people around now are more in news and action than those of us who came from the bottom to get to the top.
One of the things he talked about was that Yoruba race at the beginning used to be in the forefront. He said the Yoruba are now in disarray. As the President of the Yoruba Council of Elders what steps has your group taken to mobilise the Yoruba and ensure they are more united?
Well, old people like us are doing our best to get the Yoruba together. It is left for the young ones who have more ambition and vigour now to do better than us.
How is life at 88?
It’s alright. I’m happy. And my duty is to assist those behind me, particularly my children,Å to grow better. And to join other people to behave well so that the country can be together.
What is your advice to Nigerians, looking at the way you struggled to keep Nigeria one and they are more divided now.
(Cuts in) Because there are more people in Nigeria now than our own time.
What is your message to them now that you are still alive?
My advice for them is to behave properly. First of all, to know about the country. Learn about the country’s past and present, and think about the future. And how to bring the country together as one.
You have been insisting that Nigeria should remain one, and people should learn to be one. But there are people who feel the country has been unfair to them.
People as individuals must think well about the country. And the only way you can keep the country together is to first of all keep your family together. And then keep your people together, keep your tribe together and keep them along with other people together in harmony, all in ensuring there is peace.