Why People Call Me “Owambe Governor”- Gen Adebayo

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A week to his 80th birthday in March 2008, the  late General Adeyinka Adebayo granted the Editor of Gavel International, Mustapha Ogunsakin an interview that was published in its maiden edition. The birthday was marked for him by his children with pomp and pageantry.  Gavel International reproduces the interview as a mark of honour to the great man. Excerpts:

Sir, you are still very agile for your age. There’s still a lot of energy packed in this body. Can you tell us the secret?

I must thank the Almighty God for giving me strength. From the time I was a small boy living with my parents, I had to walk from our house to school which was two miles away. Then I joined the Nigerian Army and I was in service for 27 years after which I left and started looking after my children, and doing other things I couldn’t do while in service. So I must thank the Almighty God for the strength and I hope He will continue to bless me with it.

You were the first Nigerian to occupy the post of Chief of Army Staff Headquarters of the Nigerian Army. Can you compare the professionalism that the army used to have and what obtains now?

Well. First of all, we had a smaller army initially. I was the Chief of Army Staff HQ to the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) in the Nigerian Army. I was the first Chief of Staff Army HQ appointed. When Brig Ironsi was promoted as the first Nigerian GOC of the Army, I continued as the Chief of Staff until November 1965.

I was sent on a long course to Imperial Defence College, London. We started the course in January 1966 and seven days after I left Nigeria, the first coup took place. I became very worried because even the man who took over from me as Chief of Staff was killed in the coup. His name was Kuru Mohammed, a colonel.

The coup took me by surprise because I never thought there could be a coup in Nigeria. We were very close to one another. We worked together as a team because we did not the British Officers that were leaving to have a bad impression about our capability to hold and control the Army after they leave. I was therefore surprised when I heard about the coup.

In the meantime, Brigadier Ogundipe, who was a Senior Officer was made the Chief of General Staff to the entire Armed Forces comprising of the Navy, Air Force, and the Army under General Ironsi. So I phoned Ogundipe who told me how the coup carried out by junior officers of Major rank took place.

Then on July 28, 1966, I came back from the United Kingdom only to find out that things have changed as the country was now under the Military. At Imperial College, we normally go on World Tour and it was to start in August. My plan was to spend a few days before the tour began and the opportunity to see the Head of State, General Ironsi. I left London on the night of July 28, and arrived Lagos in the morning of July 29. When I arrived, I was informed that General Ironsi was on tour of the Mid-West. From there, he would go to Ibadan before returning to Lagos.

Officers of the Army met me at the airport, Ikeja and took me to the Guest House that was prepared for me. After settling down, I decided to go around Lagos to see some of my friends and family members because I had been away for about six months.  I rounded up my visit at the house of my cousin, Chief Adeyemi (he is late now) who lived on Ribadu Road, South West Ikoyi. We started chatting about our home country-Ekiti until around 11pm when I told him that I had to return to my guest house. I still had on me the dress I wore from London.

He however did not want me to leave. He persuaded me to stay the night. “Sunday, stay with us till tomorrow morning”, he said, and handed me a pyjama. When we woke up I the morning, we heard that another coup had taken place. I was told that the soldiers that staged the coup came to the guest house but luckily, I was not there. Brigadier Ogundipe, the Chief of General Staff that I wanted to meet with General Ironsi could not be seen. I think he too went somewhere to hide,

Later we heard that General Ironsi and Col Adekunle Fajuyi had been kidnapped later assassinated. I was waiting in Lagos to see Ironsi without knowing that both Ironsi and Fajuyi had been killed in Ibadan. I did not know what to do. I became perplexed. I missed the January coup and I also missed the July one.

As the most senior Yoruba officer left, I started moving round the homes of Yoruba fathers, starting from Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, Chief SL Edu and reported what happened. They were also in the know of the events. During my visit to Sir Ademola, he got in touch with Sir Kashim Ibrahim, who was a friend from the North. Sir Ibrahim confirmed the coup and they both started discussing the next line of action. Their discussions went on for three days.

Meanwhile, they had hidden Gowon at the Barracks being the most senior Northern officer. I said it would be difficult for me to work under Gowon because I was his senior. I was also senior to Ojukwu and Ejoor who were under me when I was Chief of Staff Army HQ. Gowon was Adjuntant-General, Ojukwu, Quartermaster-General and Ejoor, a DSO.

People appealed to me that as the most senior Yoruba Officer, I should agree to go to the West. Invariably, I agreed. Meanwhile there was no government. Anyway, I proceeded to the West on August 1, 1966.

How did you feel taking over from your kinsman, Col Fajuyi that was just killed in tragic circumstances? Can you still reflect on these things , as some people  alleged that the two coups were actually Igbo and Hausa coups?

Let me correct the unfortunate statements made by some people. Some alleged that the January coup was an Igbo coup while the July coup was Hausa coup. The first coup was not led by Ironsi while the second was not led by Gowon. It just happened that both were the most senior officers from these areas. The reason behind the allegations was that the majority of the junior officers that carried out the coups were from either Igbo or Hausa parts of the country.

Gen Adebayo

Your call number in the Army is NA 7. Did this number contribute something into your life. People say 7 is a lucky number …

I would say I am the luckiest human being. God has been very kind to me. I missed the first coup. Poor Kuru Mohammed who took over from me was killed. I also missed the second coup by the whiskers. I came home to inquire about the diplomatic policy of my country before embarking on a world tour, on for the coup to be staged 24 hours after I arrived the country. Yet God preserved me. Am I not lucky!

What actually motivated you to join the Army?

It happened that I was looking for work after my education and I had a cousin who was a Dispatch Rider at the Signals Squadron, Apapa. The Squadron was then under the command of Major B.C Bond. He was the one who inquired from my cousin about my identity. It was at a time the Army is trying to enlist Nigerian officers. Major Bond invited me and started asking me questions- who are you? Where did you come from? What is your education? I answered all his questions. At the end, he said these are the kind of persons we are looking for in the Army. It was at a time the British were preparing to hand over Nigeria back to Nigerians. That was how I got convinced to join the Army in July 1948.

I belong to the first set of officer cadets that were sent on a long course. We were sent to Gold Coast(Ghana) for Potential Officers Training. I passed and I was commissioned as a Lieutenant.

You led the Western Region during the civil was. How did you manage the affairs of the region?

Gowon was the Head of State while I was the governor of the Western Region. Ojukwu was the governor of the Eastern Region. This was when Ojukwu contemplated declaring the Eastern Region as Republic of Biafra. Part of the moves to avert a war was the Aburi declaration. We all went to Accra for the talks but unfortunately the Aburi agreement was faulted, and Ojukwu said he was going to declare war.

I was obliged by Gowon to speak Ojukwu with the hope that he may change his mind. So we discussed and Ojukwu was adamant that the East would not come back to the fold again. Despite my wife’s plea not to go, I set out to Onitsha to meet with Ojukwu. David Ejoor, the governor of the Mid West was supposed to join me for the trip but unfortunately, he was not available. I therefore went alone to meet with Ojukwu. We met and discussed. I found out that he did not want to bulge. So he went ahead to declare war on the country.

That was how the civil war started. We sent Banjamin Adekunle to command the troops to fight the Biafrans. We used to call Adekunle “The Black Scorpion” He did his best. The intention of Ojukwu was to capture Lagos. He had already captured the Mid -West. We needed to secure the West and we had no artillery. The only the army had then was in Kaduna.

I therefore got my Chief Engineer in the Western Region and asked him if we can source explosives that could blow bridges. He answered in the affirmative. We therefore go the map of Nigeria and looked at the West and its surroundings. We used our minds and brains and energy. We blew up all the bridges that surrounded the West. The rebels had to run back thinking that the Federal troops had hired artillery to fight them. We were lucky that they ran back. The war was therefore fought within their boundary. They could therefore no claim the West as they had planned.

Meanwhile, the Yorubas in the East ran back home, and I had to set up a committee for their resettlement. Since they came back by train, we met them at Oshogbo and arranged their onward journeys back to their various towns and villages.

People believed that Adekunle had already won the war before the Federal government pulled him out of the war front and replaced him with Obasanjo..

Benji (Black Scorpion) fought vigorously and he was about to finish the war but he was getting tired. The Supreme Military Council therefore asked Obasanjo to take over from him at the front. Luckily for Obasanjo, few weeks after he took over, Ojukwu who obviously was losing the war handed over to his second-in –command, Major Phillip Effiong and left. When Obasanjo got there, Effiong handed over the surrender paper to him. So Obasanjo got the credit, having won the war.

Was there any temptation or pressure from Yoruba leaders not to join the war?

We were at the middle. We assisted the war. We used our cocoa money to finance it and when it came, we fought vigorously to end the war.

Despite the war difficulties, can you reflect on your landmark achievements as the governor of Western Region?

I was very new in the West when the war broke out. I therefore had to bring people around me. The first thing I did was to appoint my commissioners. I knew the West was favourably in support of the Action Group. I therefore chose six commissioners from the party. I chose three from NNDP, and three from NCNC, making 12. Before choosing the commissioners, I was using the Permanent Secretaries and we were doing very well. By the time I chose the commissioners, it was clear I had to instill discipline into the cabinet.

I will give you an instance. Chief Adetokunbo Ademola was the Chief Justice of Nigeria when Justice Sowemimo tried Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the treasonable felony case. Awolowo was found guilty and convicted. I appointed Bola Ige into my cabinet and at a point, he started blowing hot and started abusing Sir Adetokunbo. I fired him!  I sent him out of my cabinet because that was not what I brought him in to do. What we wanted to do was to bring the Yoruba people together. However, I chose another member of AG to replace him.

Then I started visiting the towns in the region. Before my time, it was the policy of the West to respect our traditional rulers. My first point of call was the Palace of the Ooni of Ife. Unfortunately I arrived a bit late and the traditional rulers were already waiting for me with their Agbada Aso-Oke and some were sweating profusely. I had to apologize for my lateness. From that day on, I gave an order that henceforth, traditional rulers should receive a governor in their palace, not that they would be waiting at the boundary of their towns.

Unfortunately, some people incited the Agbekoyas against my government with the intention to cause trouble. I got my security officers and some leaders to talk to their leadership, yet they became more daring and arrogant. At that point, I decided to meet them myself in their base. Tafa Adeoye was the commander of the Agbekoya. People really thought I would not survive the meeting or may not even come back.  Some even said the Agbekoya people will kill me.

When I got to their base in my helicopter, I called out to Adeoye and he came out. I hugged him and I played with them for some time. I then invited him and other Agbekoya leaders to the State House the next Sunday. They came and we talked. I gave them lunch and at the end, they prayed for me. That was how I the troubles of the Agbekoya ended. Through peaceful means, I was able to cool them down completely.

When some people became uncomfortable, they started calling me “Owambe Governor” because I was going to social functions to meet people. I did not deny Owambe. I am still Owambe till today. That was how I met people and in as much as I am alive, I will continue to meet people. My meeting with people helped me a lot in the course of uniting the Yoruba people.  Through Owambe, I was able to unite my people throughout my tour of duty in the South West that lasted for four years and eight months.

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