More than 360 days after the abduction of Chibok girls by Boko Haram insurgents, Nigerians are still ‘waiting’ probably for the intervention by President-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd). However, Chairman, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Ilorin chapter, Colonel Oladele Babajamu (rtd), who was the former Commander of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), advised that dialogue is inevitable. In this interview, he recapped his experience in Nigerian Army, among others. Excerpts:
Remembering your days in Liberia, Moronvia, and the rest, can you reflect on the best of your experience in Nigerian Army?
I spent 30 years in Nigerian Army. But before then, I had Diploma in Electronics and Telecommunication from the then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. I also hold a Masters degree in Strategic Studies. Today, I am into full time rental service business and writing. I joined the Nigerian Army in 1981 through Nigerian Defense Academy (NDA). After I was commissioned as Second Lieutenant, I was posted to Ohafia Army Artillery. From there, I proceeded to Liberia in 1991 to lead the ECOMOG team, where I was promoted to the rank of a Captain. I commanded the 333 Artillery regiment, Maiduguri. I was later moved to Army headquarters in Kotangora, and also served in Minna. Between 2008 and 2009, I went to War College now Defense College. I finally retired from Directorate of Army Data Processing in 2011 at the age of 52.
You were retired in 2011. In the real sense of it, were you really tired of fighting war as a combatant soldier?
Not really. It is the promotion system so to say. You know the Army is a pyramid. There are lots of people at the base, but very few people at the top. As you are going up, there are lots of conditions. Once you don’t meet them, you go on retirement. If you are presented before promotion board twice and you are not promoted, you will be retired. There is also what is called ‘Age on Rank.’ As I was a Colonel, by 52, I was supposed to be a Major General. Since I couldn’t meet up with that rank as at then and ‘Age on Rank’ comes up before the board, I just have to leave.
Can you share your experience with us as a Commander of ECOMOG team in Liberia?
We were the first set of Nigerian Army to go to Liberia in 1989. I went with the Air Defense Troop. We have a weapon called SAM 7, otherwise known as ‘Surface to Air Missile’, which we had to carry to Liberia. Most of the officers did not understand the mechanism of this weapon. What gave me upper hand was that I read Electronics. We spent 10 days in Sierra Leone under the headship of General Aquino, a Ghanaian, the first ECOMOG Commander. We went by ship that came from Ghana. When we got there, there was fire all over the place because the rebels did not want ECOMOG intervention. But we were able to force ourselves on them. One of the rebel leaders, Charles Taylor, was the one who was able to secure the free port in Moronvia for us. We were there for nine months as the initial troop to establish peace. Our operation was basically around Moronvia. It was when other troops for enforcement came that we started moving into the interiors of Liberia.
What kept you going throughout this period in Liberia?
One thing that kept me going was what I heard before I went to Liberia. A man of God prayed for me that before September of that year, something might happen that would change my life. Anytime we were in the war front, I would always tell my colleagues that I was going home because the man of God did not say I would die in the course of discharging my duties. Sometimes, we just sat down and you would be hearing fire. I held on to the prophecies that I received. One interesting aspect of this adventure was what happened three days after we got to Liberia. At the Free Port, we saw a room; we cleared it and four of us started sleeping there. One day, the field men came and drove us out, saying they wanted to use it for hospital. Two days later, the Charles Taylor troop, National Patriotic Front of Liberia, shelled the place and all the patients inside died. That was how God saved us. That was nearest to death. Even when I was going to be decorated with a new rank, the rebel started shelling. We had to take cover immediately.
What was your greatest challenge as a leader of that troop?
Our greatest challenge was feeding. There was no food anywhere in Liberia. Most of the time they had to import food from Nigeria. The funniest thing was that we brought some cow from Nigeria, but everything got rotten inside the ship. We have to throw it away. For about four or five months, we did not eat meat. There was this man called Jobitex, who had canned food likemoin moin, egusi and gari. Those were the favourite foods then. One day, we saw a goat floating on the river. We had to catch the goat and kept it until we saw our doctor. We requested for him to test it lest our enemies might have poisoned it for all of us to die. He later told us the goat was free of poison because no goat can survive poison for 24 hours. We slaughtered the goat and made good pepper soup out of it.
Uniformed men have peculiar issues. They always have children spread all over where they are posted to. Do you have similar experience?
When it comes to expression of emotion, I think it is frankly quite personal. I had a fiancée in Nigeria before I left. Every human being likes adventure. We always like to make friends. But I used to tell them over there then that whatever I do there ends there. I didn’t have the intention of getting married from there.
Can you relate the current national insecurity in Nigeria with that of Liberia?
The circumstances and scenario are different. The Liberia crisis was a regional issue. Even some soldiers didn’t know why we were there. Sometimes, we asked ourselves while there, ‘Why did we come here?’ Some people said it was because Babangida was a friend to Doe; but even Doe was eventually killed. People put a lot of sentiment into what is happening in Nigeria.Boko Haram started by attacking churches. Some people were not talking that time. Gradually they started killing people; later they started killing Emirs. Now, they are trying to wipe out some villages and hoist their flag. It’s a different issue. Guerrilla warfare is a very difficult aspect of warfare. Nigeria Army was trained for conventional warfare. These people are still Nigerians and we still have some sympathy for them. In military, there is something we call winning the hearts and minds. They say it is ‘carrot and cane’ system. You can’t say because your child is naughty you won’t cane him. After caning him, you still draw him towards yourself.
Since Nigerians believe too much in prayers, the first option is spiritual. Number two is dialogue. Everything in life is negotiable. I was very surprised when people were saying government should not dialogue with Boko Haram. Why? They should dialogue with them. The last option should be military option. Another major problem in this country is that we want military solution to every problem. The course of the military is to disperse people that are rioting. What of the cause of riot? Have you been able to address it?