Africa: Why We Killed Ironsi And Installed Gowon — Jeremiah Useni
Lt. General Jeremiah Useni needs no introduction. The prominent role he played during the reign of late Head of State, Sani Abacha, as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, is well known. However, there are two things about Jeremiah Useni, who was referred to as ‘Jerry Boy’ at the time. He was indeed a Boy, because he joined the Army at the age of 14. Firstly, he was one of the soldiers who fired shots during the coup against General Ironsi in which the General was killed in Ibadan. Mr. Useni was also the closest person to General Abacha up to his last moments. This interview, conducted in Hausa by the Hausa language newspaper, Rariya, and translated to English by PREMIUM TIMES’ Sani Tukur, reveals a lot of things many of us didn’t know, including the conspiracies that denied him the opportunity of succeeding Mr. Abacha after he died. Enjoy…
You joined the Army as a fourteen year old, and you were posted to England for a Course at sixteen, how did you feel at the time?
Honestly, it was like a dream to me because I broke my left leg during a game of football, just one year after I joined the Army. As a young footballer, I had very strong shooting ability with my left leg. Anyone who was unfortunate to be hit with my shots really suffered no matter their size. I spent about four months at the hospital In Kaduna. Most of the hospital staffs at the time were Europeans, and they were very efficient. They joked a lot with their patients and they related with you as if you had known them for ages. One day, they decided to come and test all of us and see those who had made progress, so that they would be discharged. When they came to me, they asked; ‘can you stand up?’ And I said, ‘yes’. Then I was asked to stand up and walk. The whiteman said, ‘this one is ok now, he can be discharged’. Later, they said there would be exams to select those who would go to England, and I had spent four years without studies or anything. However, there was a senior officer who was teaching me, and I went to write the exams, and I passed. I was not even sure we were really going to Europe until one day when they came to the dining room and called out our names, five of us; they asked us to go to a particular building, that our attention was needed there. On getting there, we saw that they had prepared omelet and other kinds of delicacies of the Europeans. At the time, we were used to eating Garri only, we either soak or prepare Eba with one green soup like that. We realised that we might really be going to Europe. That was how I went as a very young boy, and I thank God for that because before we left Nigeria, they were paying us one naira, in fact, we were first paid seventy kobo, until after one year, when they increased it to one naira. When I went to England, under the Boys Company battalion, they started paying us four pounds after only two months. I wrote to my father to tell him that we were now receiving four pounds as pay, and I asked him to pay any tax he was asked to pay because I was also enjoying. I told him that just to show him how happy I was.
Many people were afraid of joining the Army at the time you joined. Were your parents alive at the time?
They were alive. It was my father’s friends that did not want me to join. My father was a Royal Guard, and you know a royal guard does not fear anything. He was the most influential official next to the emir, who knows any judge at time? We didn’t even see a policeman until we went to Jos. My father’s friends were advising him not to risk his only son, because I was an only child, but he said since that was what I wanted, I should go ahead, he told them that only God would decide if I live or die.
You had some time with the Sardauna and his Ministers, such as Michael Audu Buba?
We just hear them speak on the radio, or read about them in Newspapers, but I saw Sardauna a lot when I was in Boys Company. He used to visit us, because there was a sugar cane farm, where we used to train, and after such trainings, most of us do get some sugar cane in the farm. Sardauna used to come there and we saw him a lot. I first saw him in 1957.
After your return from England, Sardauna , Tafawa Balewa and others were killed in 1966. Where were you at the time?
I was with 4th Battalion Ibadan. The coup came to us as a surprise, like a thief in the night. We just heard in the morning that Sardauna and the rest were killed. In fact, we did not get the news on time. Where was our C.O Lt. Col. Largema? And Brig. Maimalari and Col Kur Mohammed? We learnt they were all killed. And we asked, what type of coup was that? At the time, we were not concerned with where you came from or what your religion was. As long as you were from the north, we cherish each other so much. So we organised ourselves and agreed that what happened was very dangerous. We also learnt later that a broad government was being formed. A northerner will be transferred to the South, while a Southerner will be transferred to the north. General Hassan katsina was the governor of the north at the time. People like Kashim Ibrahim were also gone. So those of us, Army officers from the north were very angry really.
What was your rank at the time?
I was a Second Lieutenant then, my mates were Ibrahim Babangida, Garba Duba, Mamman Magoro, and the rest. I was together with Yelwa in 4th Battalion, while Duba was in Kaduna. There was another officer from Niger state, I have forgotten his name, and he was even a Senator recently. We realised that Igbos were behind all the killings, and were angered the more because they were not even arrested. Although, they were later arrested and taken to jail, but information came to us that they were just enjoying themselves there. Even their ranks were returned to them and they were wearing their uniforms inside the jail. We started meeting to find a way out. Our Brigade Commander, Maimalari was killed, Col. Pam, Tafawa Balewa and the rest were all killed. We continued to meet in secret and strategising on how to take revenge. But while that was going on, words started going round about what the Igbo officers were saying: that they had killed the snake, but had failed to cut off the head. Which meant those of us left might make them suffer later, that there was therefore the need to finish us off. Instead of them to show remorse and apologise, they were planning another sinister attacks. We were together with Col. Remawa at the time, he was serving in Abeokuta, and we heard of a grand plot to kill our emirs. A meeting of all emirs was called in Ibadan, all our emirs gathered in Ibadan, that the head of state, Ironsi, would address them. So we said, are we going to let him come, address them and leave? Or should we just kill him or what? Our fear was that he was in the company of our emirs, and you know bullets do not select whom to hit. What do we do? We don’t want even a single emir to die. We also considered arresting him at his lodge before he goes to meet with them. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi was the governor of South West at the time, and the head of state, Ironsi, was staying in his house in Ibadan. So we don’t want a situation where they would say he conspired with us. So we decided the best thing to do was to open fire there even if Governor Fajuyi was also caught, so that they would just be buried together, and that was what happened. Before that time, a party was organised for officers, they brought all sort of drinks for us there. In fact, since joining the Army, I had never seen so many assorted drinks like the one they brought for us that day. The plan was to get us all drunk, so that they would just come and open fire on us and kill us all. That was what they planned for us at the 4th Battalion Ibadan because we were the most feared, because we were the ones who lost a brigade Commander, Lagerma. When Murtala returned from Lagos empty handed, everyone was just crying because Lagerma was a very nice man. After the Coup, Gowon was made the Head of state.
When Ironsi was arrested, T.Y. Danjuma was said to be in Ibadan, and there were reports that you, Duba and Remawa were the ones who arrested him?
It was Garba Dada, the guy from Niger state, the one I was telling you was a Senator recently. He was the Adjutant General at the time, and he was our co-ordinator. We did not stay in one place to meet. We used to drive up to beyond Ijebu-Ode meeting inside the car and then turn back.
Was Domkat Bali also in Ibadan at the time?
No. He was at Abeokuta. In fact they were the ones who started shooting before us. We said, if we just kept quiet, they would have arrested our Boys there.
Why was Gowon selected after the coup?
He was the most senior officer at the time. But there was another reason too. There were people like T.Y. Danjuma and Murtala. But Murtala was a bit less than Gowon in rank, and was too close to us.
After Ironsi was killed, the country was plunged into a civil war. You were heading the logistics and in charge of most war equipment. What were the challenges you faced during the war?
At times, it is good to be in the forefront in battle, instead of nominating someone. Facing the enemy is a difficult task that requires effective strategy. You need to put in place how to effectively block the supply of enough ammunitions and back up to them. If you do that, it will not be difficult to finish them off. That is the role I played, I ensured that our troops get enough ammunitions and logistic support all the time. We started with General Danjuma, he was the C.O. and then Mamman Shuwa, who was later transferred to Kaduna as the GOC. So also was Martins Adamu. Adamu was leading Ogoja troop, Danjuma was in Nsukka, and I was in Abakaliki.
What do you think were the reasons Gowon was removed?
People began to feel he was distancing himself from them. He was unreachable. The top officers of the time felt he was building a wall between them, and so they felt there was need for change. But he was not killed, they waited until he was out of the country to Kampala, Uganda before they toppled him, and asked him not to return. Murtala was then made his successor.
How was your relationship with Murtala?
He was a gentleman. I could remember when it happened, we just returned to Jos with my troop. We moved all our military hardware on our vehicles and train and we even had to hire more vehicles. When we arrived Jos, we went round the town with our entourage up to the Government House just to show the people we have come, only to learn the following morning that Gowon had been toppled. I was a Major at the time.
When Murtala was killed, it was observed that most of the perpetrators were from Plateau, such as Dimka and Bisalla; how did you feel?
Honestly, I was really surprised. We were honest and cordial with each other, not knowing that some people had sinister motive. When we did our own, it was revenge against the Igbos, but people we don’t understand did this one. But we thank God that they were identified after investigations. It was Dimka and his people that were planning to return Gowon to power. But Bisalla, was saying ‘I am here, why should you go looking for someone outside’? This country is lucky to have people like General T.Y. Danjuma. When Obasanjo became the Head of State, he was supposed to be the second in command, but Danjuma said no, there was no need for Murtala to be killed, and an Obasanjo was made the head of State, with a T.Y. Danjuma second in command. Then Shehu Yar’adua was brought in when he was a Lieutenant Colonel but he was doubly promoted to a Brigadier General and made the second in command to Obasanjo. Yar’adua was a gentleman, and that decision was taken to promote peace in the land.
How did you meet Abacha, because you were the closest person to him?
All I can say is that it was God who crossed our path together. Firstly, I am a Tarok man, and he was not. He was a Muslim, and I am not. I was also much closed to Garba Duba. What happened was that even while we were young officers after the civil war, when a small town near Enugu was captured, then a message came that I was needed in Lagos. They told me I would be going to Europe. At the time, there was no daily flight to Lagos. So I took a Land Rover, and by 9am the following day, I was at the office. However, I was told I still had three weeks before I departed. So I went back to Enugu. We were all Lieutenants then and they said we should be changed because people in Kaduna were afraid. They said the 4th battalion should move to Kaduna, while the 3rd Battalion in Kaduna should move to Ibadan. It so happened Abacha was the officer responsible for the movements of the Battalion from Kaduna to Ibadan, and I was in charge of those moving from Ibadan to Kaduna. They were the first to arrive, so I went to receive them at the train station and show them were to eat and sleep. But Abacha waited at the train station so that any train that brought soldiers from Kaduna, he would make sure soldiers from Ibadan followed the train back to Kaduna. We continued to do that until all the soldiers were successfully ferried. We then joined the remaining vehicles back to Kaduna, and I left him at Ibadan. That was how we became friends. And we then went on to meet at 2nd Division Ibadan. That was also where we met with Duba. He was at Asaba with his Armoured Division, and I was at the Headquarters at Benin. Abacha was at Tom Ikimi’s town. We went out together anytime we met, and we even used to sleep in the same house. Our friendship became so strong that every weekend we visited each other’s houses and spend the weekend together. We were going to the Houses on turn-by-turn basis, up until the time Duba left the Army because of an ailment that was disturbing him. He went to a hospital in Saudi Arabia three times before he said he was tired and would simply retire. The three of us were very much close. Nothing came in between us, and people were even calling us ‘triplets’. That is God you know. That is why I always tell people that fighting is not good. If there were tribal clashes, the three of us would not have been friends.
During the time of Abacha was Head of State, people were saying you were in fact the President, because Abacha was not even seen in public much, and he was not close to his deputy. Others were saying the coup allegations against Obasanjo and Yaradu’a was just fabricated to break them down. What is the truth of the matter?
I have been asked this question several times, and my answer always was that the coup attempt was real. Even if I don’t like you, would I just pick you up and lock you up? There was a coup attempt, and I said this even while Obasanjo was president. When General Diya was being tried, you saw how he was kneeling down to beg Major Al-Mustapha who was not in anywhere close to him in rank. Definitely there was a coup attempt, but because Abacha was a good man, he did not kill them. When Obasanjo was a military Head of state, there was a coup attempt, and he enacted a law that killed the perpetrators. But he was not killed, he was only jailed for life, and they said when another government comes, they can decide to release him. He was in jail when Abacha died, politics returned and so there was selfishness and all sort of conspiracies. He knows he was the one who signed the law that said even if you did not participate in a coup, and that you only heard of it but decided to keep quiet, you are culpable, and you face the same penalty as those who planned to execute the coup. He made that law. When Abdulsalam assumed leadership, there was a debate whether he should be released or not, but eventually they decided to release him.
People also said General Yar’adua had put pressure on your government, insisting at the constitutional conference that power must be transferred to a civilian authority, and he must have known about the coup because he had known about all the others in the past?
Well I cannot say anything about what I have no adequate knowledge about. Yar’adua and I were very close. He was my good friend.
When you were FCT Minister, you set up a committee of traditional rulers in which you were the chairman The name of the committee was Traditional Rulers Forum and Leaders of Thought. Why was it formed, and what was the achievement of that committee?
We met a lot of problems on the ground when we came to power, and I realised that they were relegated to the background, they were not revered and their advice were not heeded, but whenever there was any crises people rushed to them for solutions. So I set up that committee so that traditional rulers would know what was going on, and also know that they were highly valued by the government. There were actually two committees, one of traditional rulers and the other of leaders of thought. We did not claim to know everything, so our success came in the fact that the traditional rulers were telling us what was going on among the people, and what we needed to do for the people. It is ideal to be discussing matters of national security with them, but it is never done until something happens before you see officials rushing to them in confusion. One day, Abacha informed governors to include them in their security meetings. When a crisis occurred in Kano, Abacha called the emir and asked him what was happening? The emir replied that they had discussed and there was no tension anymore, and the emir told him ‘had we not been involved you would have heard of violence all over’. We also looked at the allocations to traditional rulers and realised that if you were not in good terms with the governor, he would deprived you of funding. He will not renovate your palace, unless if you are subservient to his wishes. Emir of Zaria was getting only 3% and the Sultan was not getting up to 5%. Some Traditional rulers from the South were so surprised when they heard that. You know there, most of them are even businessmen. So we set up an investigative committee to help the emirs, under the leadership of the emir of Gwandu, Jakolo. Emirs of the past were the ones who give orders for something to be brought to them, and it was brought, but emirs these days have burden and many take them to court for daring to touch anything belonging to them. So we felt pity on them and took the report to Abacha saying 10% is too much, but they should at least get 5% of allocations under their domain. Instead of holding these meetings in Abuja alone, we were holding them in various states. We started with Oyo, then Enugu. We were to hold the 3rd one in Kaduna then Abacha died. The emirs and chiefs were enjoying it because they were getting to know each other well and their domains too. I could remember one day, Abacha was seeing off the emir of Katsina after a visit, and when he saw me, he told Abacha,’ this is our Chairman, he told me we are going to Enugu and I have never been to Enugu before’. He said if it were before, if he told his people that he would be visiting Igbo land, they would ask him if he was crazy, he also said, ‘but now that everything is fine, I will go’.
Will you like to see such a committee continue to exist?
Of course yes. They need to continue with it. One day, I met the Oba of Lagos, he told me he had travelled very far and had seen a very mighty forest without a single tree.
Just like you said, you, General Abacha and Duba were like triplets. There were reports that you were together the night he died. How did you receive the news of his death the following morning?
I was very sad, despite the fact that I was not told in time. It was much later that I was told I was needed urgently at the villa. In fact, at first, I was even denied entry. One of my boys became angry and corked his gun and said ‘was he not here last night’? Before they allowed us to get in. I got there almost 11am. I met IGP Coomasie and other top government dignitaries there, those that were informed before me, in spite of the fact that his family knew I was his best friend. At first, I thought the family was informed that I had a hand in his death. They started asking me questions about what I knew about the death. We were together since we were junior officers, is it now that I would kill him? After their investigations, they realised that I had no hand in his dead.
After Abacha’s death, many thought you would be the next Head of State, and there were some arguments. Why did you not succeed him?
There was politics in the whole thing. There were several meetings, but no unified decision was reached despite the fact that I was the most senior officer of the lot. In the end, they said Abdulsalami had been selected, because he was the most senior in terms of office. I left without taking any appointment that is why up till today, no one is accusing me of anything. That was what happened.
How did you feel when that happened? Did you feel cheated or not?
As a Christian, I believe in destiny.
In the past, northerners are ahead of the South in terms of governance and administration, but today, the north has been relegated to the background, no one is talking about a unified north anymore, just a community divided along ethnic and religious loyalties. The Southerners also have differences of religion and ethnicity, but it is not a source of conflict there. How did the north get here?
Even you journalists know the kind of cordial relationships that existed in the past. Truth is both sides are at fault. We northerners have our own fault, and those opposing the north also have their own fault. Did the Southerners plunge us into the crises we are witnessing today? Many innocent people have been killed today, to the extent that there was an attempt to kill the emir of Kano, just due to lack of security. Not to talk of the Plateau. One cannot say these crises are as a result of religious differences because it appears to surpass that. But I believe we found ourselves in this mess because we have turned our backs on God, and we are mostly selfish in our affairs. We have hardened our hearts and are cheating each other, which will not take us anywhere. Everything now is based on religious on ethnic affiliations. Why won’t we continue to suffer? If we had not united ourselves as northerners in the past when some Southerners killed our leaders we would not have overcome. But today, this one will say I am a Muslim, while the other one will say, I am a Christian. How can we make progress? We cannot make progress by calling each other despicable names. Our leaders in the past did not do that.
How can relationships among northern people be improved?
Honestly, enough is enough. Emirs should be visiting each other. We can solve this problem, if we sit down and talk to each other. Emirs have stopped visiting each other. If you are angry with someone, and then he visits you, I am sure you will forgive him. Our governors too have a problem. We organised a meeting in Kaduna, the governors came and everything was so good, then the following day, only Governor Yakowa turned up, maybe he himself came because he was the host. They don’t co-operate. We have to sit and love one another, cry and laugh together. Otherwise, the upcoming generation will not inherit the right things from us.
From the time he was the head of state up till today, many people have different interpretations of who Abacha was. Some see him as a hero, while others see him as a dictator who trampled on peoples’ right especially those opposed to him. Can you briefly describe him?
Many people misunderstood who Abacha was. He was very honest and well mannered. Whenever we sat together, everyone would give their opinion, but whenever he decided, that was all. He knew how to run the economy of a nation despite the fact that he did not train as an economist. When he was the Head of State, he refused to take any loan from the World Bank, so no one dared undermine his authority. But today, you can say all sorts of things against the president and sleep peacefully in your house. So Abacha was a man who believed in law and order. He was also a man who believed in giving everyone their due. He used to listen to any complaint brought to him that concerned matters of state, and he always made sure he solved the problem. I knew him very well.
*We translated this interview from Hausa and republished with permission from Rariya newspaper