Col. Olusegun Oloruntoba (retd.), one of the military officers arrested, jailed and tortured by the regime of Gen. Sani Abacha for the 1995 phantom coup, tells Punch’s Bayo Akinloye about his view of Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi’s book, calling it a tissue of lies.
When did you join the Nigerian Army?
I belonged to the Nigerian Defence Academy Combatant Army Corps 11. I joined the Nigerian Army as a cadet of the Nigerian Defence Academy in January, 1972 and I had a very successful career in terms of performance and promotions in the army until I was falsely accused of plotting a coup to overthrow the government of Gen. Sani Abacha – a coup that never was. It was a phantom coup.
How were you involved in that phantom coup?
I think I was implicated as an organiser of the coup out of sheer malice and blackmail. In 1993, our brother, Chief MKO Abiola, won the June 12, 1993 presidential election, which was peaceful, free and fair but was annulled anyway. In the army, I was singled out as one of those officers who were highly and vehemently opposed to that annulment.
Did you make your stance public?
Yes. I was one of the officers in those days that questioned the military hierarchy concerning the annulment of the June 12 election. We wanted to know what led to the annulment of the election. I remember my then General Commanding Officer at Jos; he is still alive, Brig Gen. Ahmed Baku (retd.). He called all of us who were commanders and commanding officers and told us on a particular day that he wanted our views on the annulment; that he was going to attend the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council meeting. I was one of those who made an observation that the then Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, who annulled the election, should make a very clear broadcast to the nation if he had cogent reasons for annulling the election. And, if there were no reasons, he should call Prof. Humphrey Nwosu (Chiarman of the defunct National Electoral Commission) to announce the results of the election. That observation of mine was supported by most of the military officers present at the meeting – in 1993.
I think from that period onward, it appeared I had been labelled as somebody who was not friendly with the military government. Therefore, when it was time to frame up people in 1995, it did not take them a second to add my name to the phantom coup plotters’ list. Back in 1993, I think shortly after the annulment, there were series of meetings. Then, towards the end of 1993, I was posted from Jos because they felt it was dangerous for me to remain a commander. They then posted me to Jaji to teach. It was while I was a teacher in Jaji that a gang-up occurred and my name was put on the list of alleged coup plotters trying to oust Abacha’s government.
But all I had as a soldier was my marking pen and my students. Then, as an alleged coup plotter, I wonder how I would have organised troops and weapons to execute the coup by invading Aso Rock. I was accused of being the one to actually capture Abacha. As of that time, I had never set my foot in Abuja. How could a commander capture a city which he didn’t even know the direction (of)? You can see that it was a clear case of malice and blackmail.
What do you know about Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi?
I served with Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi (retd) when I was in the army; he was my brigade commander in Ikeja, Lagos State. I am surprised about what he wrote in his book (Vindication of a General) that the 1995 coup was real and not a phantom coup. Left to me, what would anybody have expected from Gen. Bamaiyi who was the mastermind of the phantom coup of 1995? But be that as it may, anybody can access the Oputa Panel report on the Internet and see what Oputa said. Oputa stated categorically that after a very thorough investigation, it was very clear that there were no coup plotters; that it was nothing but a power play and an attempt to eliminate some people considered as enemies of the government.
For Bamaiyi, who was a former chief of army staff, if I were to meet him face to face, there were certain questions I would want him to answer if there was a coup plot: One, were he and his group able to confirm that few or more people discussed a coup plot? The answer is no. Two, were they able to identify what we call ‘O’ group (that is, Order group); people who are given order or administrative instruction of an impending coup? Three, was there any coordinating conference by any set of people or officers? Four, was there any operation order for the so-called coup? And five, was there any task allocation document? Once you are going for an operation, people must be given information on what to do. Then, was there any target or hit list found on anybody during their search of officers and their homes? Was there any contingency plan found in anybody’s house? And, was there any indication that there was an attempt to mobilise troops? How could you carry out a coup without having troops?
Next question is: was there any indication of any set of troops deployed as of the time we were arrested? Because they claimed we were to strike the following day. I don’t know how I would have carried out such an operation without the necessary things being put in place. Then, there is something we call H-hour (time of operation) and D-day (date of operation); did they see any of such document during their search? Did they find such document on anybody? Was there any weapon retrieved from anybody that suggested preparation for a coup? The last question I would ask Bamaiyi is: what were the findings and recommendations of Oputa panel in relation to the 1995 phantom coup? Oputa stated very clearly that there was nothing like coup plot by anybody, and he made some far-reaching recommendations for the Federal Government to grant us appropriate compensation. And not only that, when Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar took over the reins of power, what action did he take? He gave orders for all of us to be released immediately. After that, Abdulsalami gave instructions to the army headquarters that the four years we were detained in prison should be converted to active years of service and all our entitlements be paid. If indeed there was any coup by anybody, would such an instruction come from the then head of state?
Do you think Gen. Bamaiyi wrote the book to draw attention to himself?
If Gen. Bamaiyi wants to draw attention to himself, there was no reason for him to come out and claim that the 1995 phantom coup was real. Bamaiyi should know that a coup d’état isn’t a tea party, neither is it a disco party – it is not a picnic. A coup d’état is a dangerous and serious business which can result in death. For Bamaiyi to come out and give such submission is very unfortunate, uncalled-for and unbecoming of a senior military officer. For the fact that he was my former commander, and for the fact that he retired as a lieutenant general, I will have to reserve some of the comments I would have made. I wouldn’t talk much. To me, for any general to come out (to say what he said in his book) after the revelation of the Oputa panel on the phantom coup is sad. Since he was part of Abacha’s government, what do you expect him to say? In the wake of that coup allegation, initial investigation revealed that there was no coup and that all of us should be released back to our units. A second investigation was set up and I was visited in my torture cell by Maj. Gen. Muja Pero. He said, ‘Oloruntoba, you’d better tell us the truth.’ I replied, ‘Sir, you’re a brigadier-general and as one, for the past 90 days you have been searching for evidence of a coup plot and you couldn’t get any. Sir, even me, as a colonel, if I am given such a stupid assignment, I would have turned it down and would have told Abacha that there is no coup anywhere. Why must there be a coup plot?’ I added, ‘I am ashamed of you as a brigadier-general.’ He’s alive; let him come out and contradict what I have said.
There was one Col. Omenka and others who tried to force me to implicate Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, Gen. Shehu Yar’Adua, and Gen. Kazir. They said that if I could implicate Obasanjo and others, they would turn me into a state witness. I said, ‘Jokers! If you don’t know me, Col. Oloruntoba, go and find out.’ I told them that I was not the one they would use to implicate anybody. They threatened to ‘waste’ me and I urged them to go ahead. I told them, ‘At my age (I was 40-something then), I could not be threatened with death.’ They are all alive. I long for a day, in a conference, where I can meet with all these jokers – all those Goebbels and mistakes of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
After Gen. Abdulsalami had ordered for our release, can you believe that some of those devilish, so-called army generals were planning to gather all of us accused of the coup in Lagos, put us in an aircraft to take us to Abuja to meet with the then head of state. Their real plan was to blow us up in the aircraft and blame everything on Abdulsalami. But that plan leaked. I know them; I’ll just assist them by not mentioning their names.
Was Bamaiyi among those who conspired to blow up the aircraft that would have conveyed you and others?
Let us give him the benefit of the doubt. If the occasion arises, we will name all those devilish plotters who wanted to kill all of us for no reason.
Was Hamza Al-Mustapha one of the plotters?
At the appropriate time, we will let Nigerians know them. So, Abdulsalami was informed about the plot. He was advised never to allow us to be brought to him in Abuja for any briefing. It is stupid for anyone to come out and be opening old wounds – we knew what we went through. Up till now, I am still nursing the injuries I sustained while being tortured in prison.
Please share the experience.
At a time, I was being interrogated, while they were looking for a coup plot at all costs; there was no type of torture I didn’t go through. Several times, I was suspended in mid-air; they tied my left leg to my left hand and I was suspended like a fowl for roasting for a very long time. My wrist and ankle were completely battered in a bid to have me implicate people in a coup that never existed. But I was determined to put them to shame to the extent that whenever I was let down, I would walk like I had not been tortured at all, singing heartily, ‘Who go suffer? Na dem go suffer!’ with my colleagues joining in the chorus. There was nothing they didn’t do to us.
Though Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo was also a victim of the phantom coup, he was said not to have cared for the welfare of his co-accused after he became a civilian president. What do you know about that?
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was twice our commander-in-chief; first as a military head of state and later as civilian president after our release from detention. It was unbelievable and beyond any reason whatsoever that the same Gen. Obasanjo that was detained along with us would become president and commander-in-chief and all the reliefs recommended by the Oputa Panel, he did not implement them. It was very sad and unfortunate. I am very sorry to say: if it were Gen. Yar’Adua that found himself to be president after our release, we won’t be begging anybody for compensations. Yar’Adua would have implemented everything (Oputa panel recommendations) in our favour. I shared the same ‘Death Cell’ with Gen. Yar’Adua. He told us, ‘Gentlemen, be assured that nobody can kill you but be ready to face torture for some time. No matter how long it takes, those of you who want to go back to the Army will be allowed to do so. And if anyone of you does not want to go back to the army, we’ll find better jobs for you.’
If such a person were to be alive and was to become the nation’s president, there would have been no need for any panel in the first place. All the recommendations made in our favour were purely administrative. Gen. Obasanjo didn’t need any panel to compensate us adequately. He knew what we went through but for reasons best known to him (he never did that) for eight years that he was in power. There was a particular year that he invited us all for a dinner – that should be February 2006. He assured us that the government would take good care of us, urging us to be patient. He even promised that July 14, which happened to be the day we were all sentenced to death, the government would invite all of us and our family members for a state dinner and that after the dinner, the Federal Government would then unveil its plans for us. Well, for the dinner (and the plans), maybe that will happen tomorrow, I don’t know – nothing happened. It is unfortunate. I know though that if God says we’ll be duly compensated, no human can stop it.
Do you think that you and others can get justice from the Federal Government under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari?
Our President and Commander-in-Chief, Muhammadu Buhari, is known to be highly principled and honest. He is not somebody who will condone injustice against anybody, from the little we know of him when we were in the army, though he was far ahead of us. We are urging him to flip through the files of the recommendation of the Oputa panel and grant all the reliefs recommended in our favour. I am personally convinced that if he looks through the document, he would cause justice to be carried out on our behalf because he too was a victim of injustice – after his dethronement as a military head of state, he was detained for about five years. I appeal to him to please ask for that document.
Do you regret making your view known to the army establishment concerning the June 12, 1993 presidential election?
If another June 12 comes up and another set of cabal decides to annul it, as a retired officer, I will still rise up to speak against such a development. Concerning Gen. Bamaiyi’s phantom coup, my greatest regret is that at the time we were all shipped off like chickens, there was no comprehensive plan of a coup by anybody and for the fact that a fellow Nigerian, Chief MKO Abiola, was deprived of his victory and not only that, they went ahead to imprison him until he died in detention. If there was a well-coordinated plan to sack Abacha as of that time, I would have been 100 per cent ready to be part of that. If I were captured in action in 1995 and had to die, I wouldn’t have given a damn. But it’s unfair and immoral to sentence people to death over a packaged tissue of lies.
Let Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi go to the Army Headquarters and search for the letter written by the Army Headquarters on our behalf that we remained serving officers of the Nigerian Army from the day we were arrested in 1995 till March 4, 1999 and all our entitlements should be paid and those years we were incarcerated should be converted to active years of service and Gen. Abdulsalami, a godly man, ensured that was done. Abdulsalami would have been retired by Abacha; he knew what injustice meant. But there are other reliefs the Federal Government has yet to implement.
Gen. Bamaiyi claimed in his book that Gen. Abdulsalami has a case to answer concerning Abiola’s death. Do you believe that?
I will consider Bamaiyi’s word on that as loose talk. I don’t expect a general to talk in that manner. But if he has concrete evidence against Gen. Abdulsalami, let him tell Nigerians, instead of asking the nation to ask Abdulsalami about how Abiola died in detention.