A former Chief of Army Staff, Ishaya Bamaiyi, has given a vivid account of how the then senior officers engaged in the battle to succeed former military head of state, Sani Abacha, who died in the early hours of June 8, 1998.
Mr. Bamaiyi, a retired lieutenant general, gave the account in his book, “Vindication of a General” which was launched last Thursday in Abuja.
According to him, after Mr. Abacha’s burial in Kano on that day, the most senior military officers returned to the Council Chambers of the Presidential Villa, where they met to decide who would head the government.
He said though he was not interested in the position, the choice of successor to Mr. Abacha was narrowed to the then Chief of Defence Staff, Abdulsalami Abubakar; the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Jeremiah Useni; and himself.
“We returned from Kano and went into the Chambers to decide who would become the Commander in Chief. While in Kano, some senior officers had decided that the COAS (Bamaiyi) would take over the government,” Mr. Bamaiyi said in the 252-page book.
“I had never been interested in any political office, had avoided them so far, and had no intention of taking up the positon of Commander in Chief. I made this clear to the senior officers who insisted I should take over, including Generals SVL Malu, Magashi, and Aziza.
“I was aware that some junior officers who were against my taking over as Commander in Chief because they knew I would not tolerate them in service.”
The former army chief said despite his lack of interest, the problem he had with Mr. Abubakar (who eventually emerged as head of state and commander in chief) was that of convincing the senior officers to accept him (Abubakar) because he had been convicted by a court martial sometime between 1970 and 1972 for tampering with soldiers’ salaries.
He said rather than serving two years imprisonment, being dismissed or reduced in rank having been found guilty by the court martial presided by the late Colonel Nenger, Mr. Abubakar’s former classmates at the Provincial Secondary School, Bida, at the Army headquarters “worked it out and reduced the sentence to a reprimand.”
Mr. Bamaiyi said soon after the meeting commenced, Mr. Abubakar started distributing papers as if the choice of the next head of state would be by an election.
He said, “Officers were not prepared to accept an officer with a record of conviction as a head of State. The issue of succession now fell to me, and some of the commanding officers and the staff told me I had to take charge to save the situation. I told them I believed in Abubakar and we should support.
“While this was going on, some junior officers were campaigning against Useni and me. They believed that once I took over, they would be in trouble, but I never had any intention of taking any political post. I had joined the army not for politics.
“When I told the senior officers I would (not) take over as Commander in Chief, the officers close to me said I was going to regret my action. I did not believe them because General Abubakar and I had been very close since we had been Lieutenants and played hockey for 2 Mech. Div. with Generals Shehu Yar’Adua, and Useni.
“As soon as we got into the chambers, Abubakar started distributing papers as if there were going to be an election. Meanwhile, people were there with Bibles and Qurans because they did not know who the Commander in Chief was going to be.
“It took a lot of persuasion to get the officers to accept Gen. Abubakar. This was why during the swearing in of the Commander in Chief, the Quran and the Bible were brought into the chambers unknown to many officers and the PRC members.”
The former Army chief explained that after the discussion, no decision was reached because papers were passed around for officers to nominate a Commander in Chief.
He said, “When it was my turn, I got up and announced we had all agreed that Gen. Abubakar was to be the Commander in Chief and had been promoted to a four-star general. Abubakar was sitting next me. That was how we succeeded in making Gen. Abubakar the Commander in Chief in spite of his record of conviction.”
He said he was glad that the minutes of the meeting taken by one T. Fagbemi clearly stated that he (Bamaiyi) nominated Mr. Abubakar and also suggested that the new head of state be promoted to the rank of a four-star general.
Mr. Bamaiyi, however, said he regretted that after Mr. Abubakar became the head of state, he (Abubakar) changed.
He narrated that the new leader who ruled from June 8, 1998 to May 29, 1999, did not only begin to doubt his loyalty but also felt threatened.
According to him, one of the reasons was that he (Bamaiyi) was opposed to the decision of some retired military leaders, including a former president, Ibrahim Babangida, to return former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, to power.
He said, “He (Abubakar) started holding meetings with Generals Babangida and Aliyu Gusau. I was receiving reports of their getting together. I did not bother myself about such meetings because I knew we were not staying long in government.
“Unknown to me, Gen. Abubakar had already committed himself to Generals Babangida, TY Danjuma, and Aliyu Gusau on General Obasanjo’s coming in to take over from him – a proposal I totally objected to, which I told Generals Abubakar, TY Danjuma, and Aliyu Gusau in very clear terms.
“My stand did not go down well with the generals, and Gen. Abubakar started feeling unsafe. He started using some officers, especially from Intelligence, to write all sorts of reports against me saying I was too ambitious and wanted to be the Commander in Chief since no one would have stopped me from taking over after General Abacha’s death.”
Mr. Obasanjo later won the 1999 elections and governed Nigeria from 1999 to 2007.
Mr. Bamaiyi was charged in 1999 with the attempted murder of the publisher of the Guardian newspaper, Alex Ibru, during the Abacha dictatorship.
The former army chief was discharged and acquitted on April 2, 2008 after nine years in detention.
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