http://www.sunnewsonline.com/webpages/news/national/2009/oct/17/national-17-10-2009-001.htm Civil war expose Aburi meeting secret Ojukwu endorsed Gowon as head of state Gen Mobolaji Johnson By DURO ADESEKO Saturday, October 17, 2009 General Mobolaji Johnson Photo: Sun News Publishing More Stories on This Section Ever since the civil war ended, much have been said about the things that led to it and the roles played by the actors, especially as regards the meeting the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon and leader of the secessionist Biafra, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, held at Aburi, Ghana. However, one of the military chief, who attended the Aburi, General Mobolaji Johnson, has sensationally revealed some of the things that transpired. He revealed that Ojukwu actually endorsed Gowon as head of state, before making a volte-face to declare the Republic of Biafra. In an exclusive interview with Saturday Sun, General Johnson, who was the first military governor of Lagos State, revealed that Gowon told the Aburi meeting that the late General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was picked up at Ibadan and killed, Ojukwu rose from his seat to shake his hands. He said: "We went inside the inner room. That was when Gowon briefed us as to what happened to Ironsi at Ibadan; how the boys picked him up and killed him. That was when Ojukwu now got up and shook the hands of Gowon." According to General Johnson, Ojukwu also agreed that Gowon should be head of state, revealing that the only request Ojukwu made was that Gowon should not be addressed as the Supreme Commander, as Ironsi was. Instead, he revealed, Ojukwu wanted Gowon to be addressed as head of state, adding that he also requested that the meeting give him something with which he could go back to his people, who were aggrieved. General Johnson also spoke on why Brigadier Ogundipe, who was next to Ironsi in rank, could not succeed him as head of state. According to Johnson, Ogundipe sacrificed his career and his status to restore peace to Nigeria. General Johnson spoke on these and many other issues. As one of the first set of rulers of Nigeria, what is your assessment of the development of the nation at 49? Yoruba says: Oba mewa, Igba mewa (Ten kings, ten different times). We had a different type of set-up when we were in government. It was a military set-up. It was a set-up that people, like me, could operate. Then I could just talk to my colleagues and do things the way I knew it. So, I believe that many things done in our time were possible because we never thought of politics. In my time, they investigated all the governors after we left office. During the Murtala Muhammed regime, the military investigated itself. General Rotimi of the West and I were the only two who were found to be clean. What did my fellow governors do? They bought one government property or the other. But what we are hearing today makes a different kind of corruption. There is no accountability. We talked of millions of naira in my time, but it is billions and trillions they are talking about now. So, to compare is not easy. We had different circumstances. But the nation must still go on. It seems as if Nigerians are being shortchanged by the type of administration they get. The system is different. Our own was military; we ruled by decree. But now, they have to combine the American presidential system before they take decisions. As the first military governor of Lagos, what legacy did you leave behind? Well, I think I can talk about different legacies in the state that was created. I was not just the first military governor; I was the first governor of Lagos. When people talk of military governor and civilian governor, you are giving prominence to confusion. I was the first governor of the state. I had my priorities then and they are there to be seen today. We believed in getting people outside closer to the centre. I opened roads to achieve this. The road network that I put up became the first expressway in Nigeria. I told them it was taxpayers' money at work and if they paid their tax, more would be achieved. So, that is one of the things we did in those days. We did the Apapa-Oshodi Express road without which you wouldn't have had Festac Town. There was a lot of armed robbery at the end of the civil war. Many guns were flying around and we had to hold the bull by the horns. We set up tribunals to try armed robbers and they were shot publicly and I think that arrested the problem of armed robbery at the time. On health, we did a lot. We had the first doctors' strike on our hands and we arrested that by building quarters for resident doctors in Marina, Lagos. In education, we did a lot. Adeniran Ogunsanya built schools so as to accommodate the students who were interested in furthering their education. In agriculture, we did a lot too. We produced eggs. We had farms in places near Badagry and Epe areas. Can you briefly recount the process that led to the creation of states, including Lagos? If you remember, we were having a civil war when Odumegwu Ojukwu created the state of Biafra and the military didn't believe in the division of this country. We believed that there should be one country, no matter the difference. So, when he heard that Ojukwu wanted to create Biafra and that the whole of the East, including Rivers State and Cross River State would be included in it, we acted. We felt that Ojukwu should be used as a catalyst. We just used the opportunity to create more states. That is how we thought of creating states and we drew the carpet off Ojukwu's feet. It was a masterstroke. By the time he announced the state of Biafra, the other states and parts of Biafra were no more with him. South East and Rivers states were created out of that area. They became autonomous states and we gave them money from the centre to organise their states, though they couldn't operate as states in time, because of the civil war. Ojukwu was just a catalyst in the creation of states. In the creation of state, I said Lagos should not be left out. Administration began from Lagos. There was a time Lagos belonged to the West and there was a time it belonged to the Federal Government. By the time I came on board, Lagos was a federal capital. So, you pushed for the creation of Lagos? I didn't push for it. The people of Lagos have been agitating for their own state before I came (as governor). So, we saw it as an opportunity to create Lagos State along with others and then have a balance. There had been agitation in other areas, like Ogoja State. People like Joseph Tarka agitated in Benue. Middle Belt people agitated for their states too. So, we just took it as an opportunity to satisfy or at least make attempt to satisfy the yearnings of the people from various parts of the nation. What informed the decision by the military to take over government from the civilians in 1960? Well, if you go back to the first coup, which was on January 15, 1966, you find out that I was not part of the coup. But I was in a strategic position to know just a bit of what happened. I didn't know the minds of the coup plotters, but I knew enough of what was going on. Kaduna Nzeogu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna were there. Ifeajuna and I were in the same brigade headquarters. He was what we called Staff Officer Grade I and I was grade II. I didn't know what was going on. I was just doing my job. With hindsight, I found he was trying to drag me into the coup. He went to my wife and said: Look, this one is just a Jacky, working, not even looking if anything is going on. He is just a British trained, a Yes Sir type of man. He takes orders without blinking.' I never knew what was in their minds, but I know there was Operation Wet e in the West; there was insecurity in the West and they believed that it couldn't continue. The country was very unstable and they wanted to bring stability to the country. It was a turning point in Nigeria's history. Blood was shed; it led to a civil war and led Ojukwu to want to pull out the country to form Biafra. How did you hear about the first coup and how was it foiled? I didn't foil the coup. Before the coup, I was agitating for a posting. I said I was being short- changed. You have to pass exams to go up in the military. I passed my Captain to Major exams and I said that I should be sent abroad to Staff College. But then, I was shortchanged and I was very bitter about that. So, I was asking for a posting. One of the things they said was that I was not commanding troops. David Bamigboye and Ogbeya were under me then as my staff captain. Ogbeya was Captain A and Bamigboye Captain Q. Because I was agitating for a posting, Ifeajuna tried to use that to get me. He said my posting was changed from Enugu to Ibadan. There were rumours then that they were trying to plan a coup. So, I was going to be posted out of second brigade. The party Brigadier Mamailari had that night was to welcome new officers and send off the other ones who were leaving. That was the party we had before the coup. I won't go into all those details now. But I didn't know about the coup. How did you hear about the coup? I didn't know about the coup. Sir, how did you hear about it? Where were you? In the morning, when I was going home after the party, Ifeajuna took my wife home because she just had a baby on December 15 and the coup was January 15. She had to come home and breastfeed the baby. Ifeajuna brought her home. When I was coming home I passed through Iyala Road, where Ifeajuna was leaving. I saw cars in his house and I thought since it was a Friday night, maybe they were having suya night. So, I didn't branch. I went home. When I got home, my wife told me that she didn't like what happened in her dream. She said she saw a picture of Julius Caesar the day he was killed, how the plotters came together and then killed Julius Caesar. She said we were in a car from Kaduna to Lagos and how the car ran into a house and nobody came out except Ademoyega. She said there was no light in the house and that it was like a plot and she didn't like it. I just thought she was talking about Ifeajuna going after a woman or something. I didn't take it seriously until about 6am. They came and told me that something had happened and some people were killed in Lagos. I went to the brigade headquarters, where I was the second in command to Ifeajuna at Apapa. The gate was opened for me and Murtala Muhammed told me what had happened. The Minister of Finance, Okoti Eboh and the Brigade Commander could not be seen. So that was how I got to know about it. Was there any directive from the headquarters to you? No directive. We were just to make sure that we stabilised things. Then the army headquarters told us to look out for those they believed were part of the coup. We were to make sure we stabilised our various units. You were close to the first military head of state, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. Was he the one that appointed you as governor? Ironsi appointed me as administrator of Lagos in 1966. Don't forget that he became head of state in January and I was brought back from Benin in February. He appointed me administrator of the Federal Capital. There used to be Minister for Lagos Affairs. The last Minister of the Federal Capital before my appointment was Musa Yar'Adua, the father of the incumbent President of Nigeria. So, Ironsi appointed me and I learnt that he had too much pressure in Lagos. They didn't allow him to look at the whole country. So, he said there should be somebody who could take over the problem of Lagos. That is how he brought me from Benin. I was always a trouble-shooter. I was sent to Ibadan and I stopped the shooting that was going on and I collected all the weapons. I diverted the thinking of the soldiers from wreaking havoc to sports. David Ejoor was crying, asking how he could be military governor without having military presence in the mid-west. I was again sent there to establish the first military formation. I was second to Ejoor. That was when I had my first experience with public administration. Ironsi brought me back to Lagos to be military administrator. What kind of person was the late Aguiyi Ironsi? Ironsi was the old type of soldier. He was one of those who rose from the rank, not those just commissioned straight from school. I served with him at the Brigade headquarters when he came back from the Congo. He was the head of the United Nations operation in Congo and he took care of the UN troops. After the expiration of his tenure, he came back to Nigeria and that was when there was agitation for who should be the head of the Nigerian army. He was chosen and I was his staff officer. I found him to be knowledgeable. He had the background of the army in him. You may say that he was not too academically sound, like people who got commissioned. But, he was very effective and very sound. I found my time with him to be very pleasant. How did Ironsi emerge as head of state? Was his emergence controversial within the army hierarchy? No. Don't forget we didn't have many generals then. He was the head of the army. He had become the General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Nigerian Army. He was in charge of the whole army. When the coup happened, he told the parliament that the only way they could control the situation is to transfer power to the military. That is how the parliament called an emergency meeting. Was he acceptable to the military top brass? I don't know what you mean by being acceptable. There was open rebellion that resulted in his killing within six months If you look at the January coup, it was against the people of the North and the Yoruba. The Igbo were left out and people now felt that it shouldn't just go on like that. You find that Ironsi, being an Igbo man, had a problem in his hands on how to contain the boys who did the first coup and then to keep the country going. So, it wasn't easy for him. It wasn't easy for him to punish most of the boys who did the first coup and majority of them were Igbo. The North felt that they should not sit down and watch the development like that. The cream of the elite of their officers was killed. Yoruba lost Shodeinde and Ademulegun, who were killed. So, it was in retaliation that the people carried out the second round of the coup. Before the second coup there was a rumour about it. There was so much distrust. You don't know who was who. It was in that atmosphere that the second coup happened. That was what brought Gowon to power. He was the only senior northern army officer available. Martins Adamu and Danjuma said he was the only one they could take orders from. So, they struck. There is the story that one Brigadier Ogundipe was next in rank to Ironsi and Ojukwu insisted he should be the next head of state after Ironsi, but that he ran away. Well, he did not run away. That man sacrificed his career for the unity of Nigeria. He sacrificed his rank and status for peace in this country. I say this because I was present that day at Obalende police headquarters when Ogundipe opened the window and asked us to look outside. He told us to look at the killings going on, saying that it must stop. He talked to a few of us because the boys were at Ikeja cantonment. We were just talking by telephone. Ojukwu was talking from the East, saying that he (Ogundipe) shouldn't allow it and that by status he should be the next head of state since they could not find Ironsi. Ogundipe said they must stop the killing and that there must be peace in the country. He said if he were going to be an impediment to peace, he would leave the country. He said he would sacrifice his career and leave the country, so that there would be peace. He said if that was the sacrifice he had to make, he would. He didn't run away. So, it is true Ojukwu insisted he should be the next head of state? Ojukwu said that he should be the next head of state if Ironsi was not found. He was sitting down there in the East not knowing what was going on in Lagos. Ogundipe said that he had to sacrifice his career and Ojukwu was saying that he should be head of state and not Gowon. Ojukwu and Gowon were of the same rank. So, Ojukwu said it shouldn't be anybody from the North. But the northern boys, who staged the counter coup, said that is the only man they could take orders from was Gowon. That was it. When the Federal Government met Ojukwu at Aburi, Ghana, why did Nigeria renege on the agreement reached with Gowon? We went to Aburi on the invitation of the then head of state in Ghana, General Akran. As a senior man in the military, he invited all of us to come to Aburi, in Ghana to talk and that we should not allow the bloodshed to continue. We went as colleagues, not seeing each other for a long time. Ojukwu came with the press and everything. He had made up his mind to secede. Did he tell you that? He didn't say so in many words. You could see that from the action. I told them that when we moved apart we would never be friends again. I told them that we should have one nation and keep the nation going. During the discussion, it came to a point when Ojukwu said that since we were talking about head of state, what happened to the other head of state, Ironsi. I think Gowon then told General Akran that we should not talk before the press. We went inside the inner room. That was when Gowon briefed us as to what happened to Ironsi at Ibadan; how the boys picked him up and killed him. Gowon briefed you? He briefed all of us. That was when Ojukwu now got up and shook the hands of Gowon. Gowon told Ojukwu that he believed in the continuation of the country as one and that we should not divide the country. Ojukwu then said well, we should let him go back with something to his people who were aggrieved. Ironsi was addressed as the supreme commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces. He said we should change from supreme commander to head of state. He wanted the word supreme removed. Gowon became head of state. I think it was Babangida who changed it to President later on. That was what happened then. Did Ojukwu agree that Gowon should be head of state? Yes. He agreed. Gowon and Ojukwu embraced each other. We said nobody should do anything about the communiqu until we met again. That was what happened in Aburi. That is what happened there. Coming from Aburi, Gowon emphasised that he would make sure that we kept the country as one irrespective of anything. If that was the situation, why did you create states in order to draw the carpet from Ojukwu's feet, as you said earlier? The states were created after the meeting, when we were informed that Ojukwu was going to create the state of Biafra. Gowon moved quickly to create states. You said that when Gowon narrated how Ironsi was killed, Ojukwu shook his hands. Why was that? Until then, nobody knew what happened to the past head of state. Gowon, for the first time, explained how he was killed. The announcement before then was that the head of state was missing. That was what the media said. If Ojukwu only requested that Gowon should not be addressed as the supreme commander, how was this supposed to benefit his people? The mentality was that supreme appendage was somebody who is supreme. So, for him it was let Ironsi go with supreme and call the next person head of state. What was actually discussed at Aburi? We discussed issues concerning the country. Ojukwu said we should move apart for a while to let things cool down. We said that once we pulled apart, it was not going to be easy to come back together. That was it. Ojukwu also talked about troops not being loyal; that there were killings of the Igbo. He asked how we could live together in such circumstance. We told him that we should try and forget those things and continue living together. Did he agree with you? Yes, he agreed. Why did Ojukwu and his people later make the famous declaration: On Aburi we stand? He said we agreed to move apart and we didn't agree to that one. The meeting didn't believe all he said and we said nobody should issue communiqu until after the second meeting. That was the way they saw it. They wanted to push the situation so that we would separate. We believed in one country. Admiral Wey said and Gowon too said it. The consensus was that whatever we did, we must remain one. There was no agreement to pull apart? No. The Aburi meeting was to forestall that. Why did Ojukwu then declare a state of Biafra when you granted him his request not to call Gowon supreme commander? Well, that is left to him. He made up his mind before he came to Aburi that the country should be divided. He wanted the oil area and the Igbo enclave to be state of Biafra. We didn't believe in that. Was Ironsi concerned about federal or unitary government? I was close to Ironsi when he brought me back to Lagos to make me administrator of the federal territory. I can even remember what happened when my name was announced as administrator. It was a time they were doing a lot of enquiries into some of the parastatal corporations. I think they were dealing with the Nigeria Railways. They were making a list of people to pick for the board. I found out that all the names they put there were from one part of the country. Ironsi always wanted me to comment when situation was like that. So, he asked me to comment. I told them I was not trying to be a tribalist but that I knew that one wanted to suggest names, the names that would come to one first were the names of the people one knew. I told them that by coincidence, names of the people that would be on the board were from one part of the country. I said we might have to revisit the list and suggest other names. Ironsi looked at them and said: I told you that Bolaji is sound.' He said they should go and look at the list again and correct it. I think it was the following morning that my father said: Congratulations, your name has been announced as the administrator.' That was the last thing I did to convince Ironsi, who I worked with as staff officer when he was Brigade Commander. Was he committed to central or unitary government? The regional governors were there. When we talked, he was talking about centralising administration and that there was too much powers for the regions. I think Nwokedi's report said that. So, he made that decree that centralised the public service and that authority would be from Lagos. That was the mistake Ironsi made. He did not consult regional governors and the supreme military council? There was no supreme military council. But he used to meet with governors and the administrators. Did he just make the decree without consultation? Well, I think it was the report he announced. The North said it couldn't work. What was your own attitude and what did you tell him? I wasn't called to comment. I just know that it happened at the time and there were reactions. Was the Nigerian civil war avoidable? I don't think the civil war was avoidable. The alternative was to allow Ojukwu to go with the East. We could see he had made up his mind to secede. Is it true you married at age of 24 and stopped child bearing at 30? I married at the age of 26 and my wife was about 23 then. In two years time, I would mark 50 years of marriage. Did you stop child bearing at the age of 30? I had my last boy when I was about 30 or 31. You married at 26 and stopped child bearing at 31, that is five years. How many children do you have, sir? I have three boys by my wife and I have one away game. The away game would be 40 this year. How did you meet your wife and what do you like about her? My wife is a lovely woman. In her, I found a companion and confidant. The courtship was for five years. It is marriage arranged from heaven. She is a mother, a housekeeper and everything to me. How did she take the child you had by another woman? She didn't make too much fuss about it. She asked what we were going do. She related with the boy. This boy is getting married this year. The first marriage he had didn't work. We were at Warri to do the introduction with the family. Did you marry the mother? I didn't marry the mother. How did you adjust to civilian life after retirement? How are you fairing as a bloody civilian? You can say bloody civilian, indeed. We were not prepared for retirement. Retirement came overnight. We were lost. I didn't know what to do with myself. But thank goodness for the grace of God. I followed a friend of mine to a golf course one day and there was an argument on who was taking a shot and who was not taking a shot. The argument got so heated up; we went back to the golf course. One of them said to me: You always said sportsman, sportsman and you laugh at us. Now put the ball down and give it a shot.' I swung at the ball and they all burst out laughing. The ball was at the same spot. That was the day I asked myself how this small thing could beat me. That is how I got into golf. In the mornings when I took my children to school, I would go to the golf course at Ikeja. I used it to while away time and kept my mind off all problems. Is it true that you brought Julius Berger to Nigeria and that you are the chairman? I was the chairman of the board up till August last year. I didn't bring Julius Berger to Nigeria. It came to Nigeria through international tender to build the Eko Bridge. Was this during your administration? It wasn't during my administration. But they were completing the Eko Bridge when I became administrator of Lagos. I saw the lovely job they were doing and I said these are the people I like to work with. The states were created and they too wanted to stay in Nigeria and we worked together. What year was this? I am talking of 1966/67. At 73, do you still attend social functions like social parties? It depends on the type of person celebrating. I am not a socialite. I attend functions of people whom I know. Who is your hero? My father has always been my hero. He was the man I took after. I joined the military because of him. His name is Joshua Omotola Johnson. He lived up to the age of 96. I wanted to be like him. The military uniform was so good on him and I thought, one day I would wear the uniform myself. He was a strict and friendly father. We were lucky to have the kind of parents we had. You introduced house rent edict and specified how much landlords could take from tenants. What informed your decision at the time? Landlords over charged the tenants. In Lagos, there were different types of houses. I sent people out to categorise the houses, to know which ones were mud, bricks and flats. We categorised them. We fixed the rent per room. We set up a tribunal to try disputes between landlords and tenants. In praise of this, Ayinla Omowura, the ace Apala musician, waxed a record, Aiye e ma ta pa sijoba, e fara mo Mobolaji (Do not kick against government, support Mobolaji). Is General Mobolaji Johnson a rich man? By Nigerian standard or what? By any standard I am not a rich man. I have enough to eat and look after my family and myself. I am not a businessman. God gave me the talent to plan ahead. I own property and I collect my rent. I don't receive two years rent. I collect every year and I plan my life according to what I have. What do you do as chairman of the board of Julius Berger? I supervise the company as chairman of the board. Did they pay you? We had sitting allowance. They don't pay salary to board chairman.