Retired Vice Admiral Jubrila Ayinla, former Chief of Naval Staff, is not given to granting press interviews. But Saturday Sun was able to corner him, ahead of his 70th birthday, which he marked last Saturday.
In this exclusive interview conducted by ISMAIL OMIPIDAN, the first most comprehensive he would be granting after his retirement in 1999, he spoke about his life. His exploits as a young man, who sells Kola-Nuts, cigarettes and soda soup to survive in Babura, Jigawa State, while schooling, how his mother burnt his first invitation for an interview into the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), Kaduna for fear of losing him and how he survived “automatic retirement” after his junior, Admiral Mike Akhigbe (rtd) was made Chief of Naval Staff, only for him (Ayinla) to still head the service before his eventual disengagement from service.
Let me start by thanking God on your behalf. We live in a country where life expectancy is very low, so when you see a man approaching 70, you should thank God. So, how do you feel at 70?
First of all I thank the almighty God for making it possible for us to see this day at all not to talk about attaining that age. Yes, Insha Allah I will be 70 on December 10. How do I feel? I feel well and good. I don’t know if it’s different from any other day, but I feel well and good.
Can you share with us what it was like growing up, I mean, your childhood?
I was born in Babura it used to be in Kano emirate, but now it is in Jigawa State. My father worked with United African Company (UAC) pre independence, in fact pre establishment of Nigeria because he started working with UAC in 1912 that was the time he was posted to Babura as a produce buyer, he used to buy groundnut. All those groundnut pyramids you used to see, my father used to account for at least one of the pyramids. I was born in the rural Fulani community in Babura, Jigawa State. When I was born, my mother received 11 mother cows. The Fulani do not give out mother cows, they would rather give you 100 bulls than give you one mother cow but they gave my mother 11 mother cows. Apparently they saw me as one of them and that I would become a cattle breeder. I was the fourth child of my father but first from my mother’s side.
So what happened to those cows?
(Laughs!) Very interesting. My mother gave them to those that would look after them in 1948 and eventually just before Gen. Sani Abacha died, a delegation came from Babura to visit Abacha, it was a Friday and we went to the mosque together. This old man went and whispered something into Abacha’s ear and Abacha pointed to me. The man came to me and asked if my father was called Mallam Audu Kampani (Company), and I said yes, the man started weeping and told me he was one of the three people who buried my father. My father died in 1960 and was buried in Babura. He was the only one out of the three people that was still alive. He told me he was the one that my mother gave the cows to keep and that he has been praying to God almighty not to allow him die until he sees me, since 1948, the man was so faithful to his trust that he handed over to me more than 4,000 cows from 11.
What did you do with them?
It was about the same time that my first daughter was to get married in 1998 so we brought some here, but we noticed that by the time they had spent about three days their bones started showing. I asked some people who took care of cows what was wrong? They told me they were desert cows and cannot survive humidity around here; they don’t normally bring these cows here. These are the cows that normally come from Niger and Chad, they are desert cows. We used some of the ones we brought for the weeding and distributed the rest to charity. I then decided that since the cows came from people who donated them they should go and distribute the cows to all the houses in Babura. We enumerated the households and gave each of them.
Wow! That was kind of you. But do you keep cows today?
I see. You were in the military?
What motivated you to join the military?
My father died when I was finishing primary school in October 1960. In those days the school calendar was January to December. He died at the beginning of the season which was in October. And season was October to March so there was a bit of confusion. The method of buying groundnut was that you pay farmers in advance, so he had already paid the farmers; we are talking of £3,000 in 1960.
That was quite huge?
Yes. Then one could build a big house in Lagos with £50 but somehow my mother started struggling to repay UAC. My father’s house of 14 rooms, the annual rent was £4:10. You can see that if we were going to use rent from that house to repay UAC it will take 750 years. But UAC was very magnanimous, they sent somebody who later turned out to be Stella Obasanjo’s father, Chief Abebe to come to our house and find out how my mother managed to pay £40. They found out that we went to sell Kolanut and cigarettes in the morning, and in the afternoon when we came back from school we sold soda soap, which my mother made. I started secondary school the following year. I had done all the entrance examinations to almost all the schools, Kings College Lagos, Igbobi College and some in the East. I was interested in a particular school, Holy Trinity School Sabon Gida Ora because my primary school in Kano was Holy Trinity, an Anglican school as well but my mother decided I must stay in Kano where she will be seeing me.
At that time there were only three or four schools in Kano, Provincial Secondary School (PSS), which is now Government Secondary School Kano; there was School of Arabic Studies; there was Saint Thomas’s which is a Catholic school and the Igbo Union Grammar School . Igbo came together and built the school. Igbo Union Grammar School was the school I went to.
After that year when UAC saw all the pain my mother was going through to repay the debt, they not only wrote off the remaining of the debt they also gave me a scholarship. I had already finished Form 1when they gave the scholarship, for us, it was like moving from hell to heaven and I moved into the school hostel, I was given a room as a scholar and a Vono mattress; I was the first person to use Vono mattress in Nigeria. Vono was under UAC then. They brought the first mattress they made to my school. I was like a king in school; I was paid salary of £10 monthly as a student. Out of that £10 I sent £9 to my mother, £1 was more than enough for me. I had the best of everything. I had electric iron; I had the one that uses kerosene. When there is no light, it is my iron everybody in the school uses.
The £9 I sent to my mother was more than enough for my three brothers to go to school. When I finished secondary school they invited me to Lagos and the person I met again as the General Staff Manager was the same Mr. Abebe, Stella Obasanjo’s father of blessed memory, he died sometime this year, his wife also just died a few days ago. May their souls rest in peace. When I came I was taken to his office at Niger House on Marina. When he came he was asking the secretary where is the man, the new staff posted to Lagos from Kano? When I was shown to him he said I was still a small boy and cannot start work…
How old were you?
I was almost 17, he said I should go back to Kano that they will think of what to do with me. I was still so young so I was able to travel with half ticket. Then, the first coup happened. While we were still in school I remembered that some soldiers came and told us about the Nigerian Defence Academy and taking the entrance examination. I took the examination as a preparation for my school certificate; not because I wanted to go there. We were 36 that took the exam. They hired a coach for us to travel. It was only a wire fence that separated our school from St. Thomas’s. I was the only one that passed the entrance examination; it was about the same time the coup happened and they sent a letter that we should appear for an interview. When I gave my mother the letter, it said at the bottom the letter that ‘if you die in the course of the interview that the Federal Government will not be responsible’ she was cooking then in the kitchen, so she put the letter inside the fire and burnt it. Apparently because of the coup they postponed the interview. It was the second letter which they sent to my school that I got. It was lying on the principal’s table and he didn’t know what to do with it. I had this friend who was one year my junior and he had done something wrong, it was so wrong that they had to march him to the principal’s office for scolding, while the principal was scolding him he saw my name on the letter, and said ‘sir I know that person.’
You see how God works? So the principal said to him ‘you are such a useless boy. I’m scolding you and you are reading letters on my table.’ It was the boy that took the letter and ran to our house. We were like a street from the school. When he brought the letter, one of the tenants who saw the day my mother burnt the first letter, luckily met my friend who was bringing the letter. The tenant told him not to allow my mother to see the letter and that was how the letter was delivered to me. By this time too, UAC had sent a letter to me, they wanted to send me abroad for a management trainee course. Anyway, I told my mother I was going for a job interview. That was how I went to Kaduna for the NDA interview.
About 100 of us attended the interview. And they divided us into two groups of 50 each. In the first set they took 20 and in my set they took 10 of us. I happened to be the last that was interviewed. I was told they had along debate about me because I was underage.
At that time to entre NDA you had to be 18 and half to 22 years old, I was just 17 plus, it was around March 1966. They said I did well in all the written exams but I didn’t do well in the obstacles. In fact they had to come and bring me down from one of the obstacles, I was told to jump down from the obstacle and I couldn’t jump down (general laughter). Anyway, it was one air force officer; I can’t recall his name, they said he was the one who insisted they should take me, that the younger the better, that he went for air force training at a younger age abroad. I wasn’t 18 yet, it was because of me they now reduced the age range for entering NDA. I was the last person to be taken in; we were 30 that started the course. And I remembered one day I was crying that I was going home.
Why? What happened?
They punished some more. The first course, Diya, Joshua Dogonyaro, Salihu Ibrahim and all that, were members of the first course. They punished me some more. The likes of Gen. Mohammed Aliyu Gusau, who was Minister of Defence at a time was like a mentor to me. We stayed in the same room as a cadet in NDA. I passed through NDA, everything was smooth for me, I came tops. I was first in the order of merit both in military aspects and academics.
The first time I went to home, my mother saw me, I was in uniforms, the NDA then we all wore army uniforms. My mother saw me and cried and cried that her son has joined the Nigerian Army! I think it was because of her that I joined the Nigerian Navy because I lied to her that the navy don’t go to war; they wore white and it looked like Nigerian Airways uniforms.
In the military, most young officers play some pranks, share your own experience with our readers?
In those days there weren’t many pranks as such. All these cultism that happen now wasn’t there. I can tell you that while I was in the NDA I didn’t have a girlfriend till we finished. My mates had and I used to show my wife pictures that we took then with my mates and their girlfriends and say ‘you can see I didn’t have a girlfriend.’ We go out illegally, the NDA was then in the old campus so we go on foot through Ungwan Shanu and cross the fence and go to town. Once, I went to town, entered a bookshop and as I went in one of our Indian instructors came in. I was going round the bookshop and he was following me. I went to buy a book actually. When I came out he chased me in his car and I ran to the NDA. When he got to NDA, he called Fire Alarm all the cadets marched out he saw me and said it’s not possible. He asked ‘were you the one I saw at the bookshop.’ I said no sir (general laughter). He couldn’t imagine how he was driving and I was on foot and got to NDA before him. After some days, one Sunday he called me to his office and said I should tell him the truth that he won’t do anything. He asked again if I was the one he saw at a bookshop and I said yes sir. He wanted to know how I got back to NDA before him and I said I ran. He punished me strictly for lying, he said officers don’t lie. That’s may be one of the pranks you wanted to know about.
You had no girl friend while in NDA, how did you then marry at 25?
There was on Lt. Commander Aloysius Oni, whose son later joined the Navy and became a Rear Admiral. Lt Commander Oni was one of the five founding officers of the Nigerian Navy. He was more of a mentor to most of the upcoming younger Naval Officers. I used to be very close to his family. I would even drive his car home sometimes. There was one young lady among the nine girls in the family who was very different from the others. She stood out in many ways. She was fair in completion while all the others were dark skinned. I knew all about the Oni’s girls and a boy but I did not know much about this lady, who later became my wife.
I think it was a party. When it was time to dance, I went straight to ask her for a dance. But she turned me down! I felt very bad. Her uncle, who brought her to the party, noticed it, and scolded her, she later accepted to dance with me. From there we became friends. And that was how the lady who refused me dance became my wife. I married her as Christian, but she later converted to Islam on her own volition. She is more devoted than I and sometimes shamed me with her knowledge of the Qur’an.
Would you say joining the military was one of the best things that happened to you?
No like I said, it was like providence, because of my school certificate result, those days the universities got the results directly from WAEC. I was offered direct entry into Ahmadu Bello University, I had one of the best school certificate results in the country, but when the January 1966 coup happened that was our first time we started seeing soldiers, so we admired them. For those of us that admired soldiers it was a choice between the opportunities I had and going to NDA, I chose the NDA.
Talking about coup, were you involved in any throughout your career?
I was not involved in any coup even though I was mentioned once…
Yes, the IBB coup. How did you survive it?
Oh, you heard about it. I was told that when the report got to Babangida and he saw my name, he said it was impossible, that if I was involved they should release everybody.
Why do you think he took that decision without first hearing from you directly?
I later asked him face to face, we had a one on one and he asked if I was really involved and I said no sir. He said he knows I will not be involved in such a thing, that he knows what I will do and not do, even though I was not in the army. And that is the truth.
Do you think these coups changed Nigeria in any way?
It is a stage in history and it is probably what I could describe as an accident of history. You know history is made after it has happened, you don’t plan history so that is a stage Nigeria had to go through as an evolution. Was it good for us? It was not good for the military but it is still history and it is still ongoing, maybe in another 100 years we can say whether it was good or not for our country.
Do you think we are better for it today as a country?
I don’t know. I’m not a military apologist. In our training one of the things we are taught is to be subservient to civil authority. The military has no hand in governance; they are only there to support legitimate and constituted authority. Coup is an anathema.
In the military and paramilitary, when a junior is appointed over his seniors, it is expected that the senior would give way. But in your time, your junior, Mike Akhigbe was appointed Chief of Naval Staff. Why did you not retire? He was Course 3, you were Course 2.
Oh, where did you get this entire gist from? Anyway, Yes like you said by training it is automatic retirement. I wrote my handing over notes when Akhigbe was appointed, because nobody attempted to take over from me and I left.
I travelled abroad, I was in England or so, but the Head of State, Gen. Babangida sent Alhaji Alhaji who was the High Commissioner to London to look for me. When I came to the High Commission in London he said, and I’m quoting him, ‘we know you are the most apt person to have been made Chief of Naval Staff but for political balancing we needed somebody from at that time, what we now call South- South and also a Christian. But we are not throwing you away.’ And I told him but there was no way I could remain in the navy if my junior was Chief of Naval Staff. He said he was going to give me an appointment that has nothing to do with the navy and that I’ll report directly to him as Minister of Defence. I told him I had not had any vacation in almost six years and he said I should take two weeks and then come back. That was how I was appointed Commandant of the War College; the posting was even a higher office than the service chiefs at that time. I reported directly to the minister of Defence who also happened to be the Head of State. That was how I was back in the service.
What were your duties in the war college?
The war college was in its infancy. I was the first officer who spent any appreciable length of time there. The people who started it didn’t spend a lot of time there. Gen Jeremiah Useni, the coordinator that started the college spent like three months there. Later Diya was appointed, can’t remember how long he stayed. I think about three months or so. Then, Admiral Aloko of blessed memory also spent less than one year before I came there in October 1994 and I spent almost three years there. I saw through three courses. I graduated from the US Naval War College. I brought back a lot books and materials both in my head and on paper. So when I got to the war college, I looked at our curriculum and modelled it after the US war college. They were awarding master’s degree, so I set up with the University of Ibadan, a course to complete what was lacking in our war college. After passing out from the war college, they go to UI to spend nine months before you now got awarded the degree. But now the college award the degree directly.
From what I’ve read about you, every move to give you a political appointment was resisted. At what point did you now succumb, because you eventually served as a minister?
While still at the War College, at this time, Gen. Abacha had become Head of State. We were on overseas tour when I was called and spoken to directly by the Head of State and he said, I quote, ‘I’m told you have rejected political appointments on several occasions, now that your career in the navy is finished,” those were his exact words. May his soul rest in peace, may Allah grant him Aljanat. I said sir, ‘who told you my career in the navy is finished.’ He said well, ‘your junior is the head of the navy.’ I said ‘well sir, if you say so.’ He said ‘well, what would you say if I ask you to be one of my ministers?’ I was silent for some time and then answered ‘whatever you say sir.’ I was aware of the fact that they’ve already announced me as minister even while I was abroad. I was told to come back immediately. This was in July 1996. I told him to let me see my students through first as they were about to graduate. He told me it was my headache if I wanted to combine the job. So I was minister and commandant of the war college at the same time. I was going to the war college by 7am and by 9am, to the minister’s and back to the war college by 2pm.
Where did you get the energy from and how was the experience like?
There was no problem at all. I was able to do them effectively. It was after about three months or so that my successor was appointed.
You served both Babangida and Abacha. What kind of bosses were they?
They were different people; each of them had their strengths and flaws, only God is perfect. My only comment would be that each meant well for this country in their own little way. Babangida was savvy, outgoing and mixes with everybody. He goes in Molue just to listen to what people were saying. He drives himself without any guard to Ajegunle.
Abacha’s time was a bit different. It was like people around him imprisoned him. I remember he didn’t want to come to Lagos at all. I was the one that forced him to come during the graduation at the War College, the last course, and that day they gave all the civil servants holiday, Lagos was lockdown. In fact, the then administrator didn’t believe Abacha will come so he didn’t meet us at the airport. Abacha was also a thorough breed, he was very efficient during his time as minister and he was a listener.
Abacha, I am surprised?
I am telling you. Whatever they are telling you about that man, are said by people who don’t know him. It is only history that can acquit everybody well. I can also tell you that Abacha decided to release Abiola. He would have released him on Monday, but he died on Sunday.
How do you know that?
I know because I know. You people have to do your investigations.
But I am talking to you now, who know, tell us what happened?
I think it is a bit too early in our political history to declassify some of that information now. Nigeria is a very complex country. Some of those are still too raw now. For example if I told you it was not IBB who annulled June 12, you will be surprised.
So who did?
He was only one person in government. He was a good leader. That was why he took the cane on himself. If IBB disclosed those who were responsible, who forced him to annul the election, there won’t be Nigeria today. If he opens up, the nerve on IBB’s head almost pulped that night. He did not sleep overnight.
Back to Abacha, you served him, how do you feel when you hear stories of how he allegedly looted the country blind?
My take on it is that what is being branded as amounts traced to him is more than the budget of the country. If Abacha stole such money it means that Nigeria was completely shutdown. I don’t know where they got all those money. The national budget was N11billion, N1.2 billion went to the military so if somebody steals N20billion out of N11 billion where did it come from?
Are you saying the story don’t add up?
The story doesn’t add up at all. We need to do a lot of investigations.
You were passed over when you were to become Chief of Naval Staff, but you eventually retired as Chief of Naval Staff. Was that providence too?
When I joined the military, all I wanted was to become an army captain. My focus was to help the service. It was Admiral Wey, the first Chief of Naval Staff that during our graduation, as he handed me my medal as first in Order of Merit, said to me, son, ‘what you have in your hand is an Admiral’s badge; it is up to you whether to chip it on your shoulders or throw it away.’ I later had occasion to ask him what he meant because I didn’t understand. He told me it was only hard work that would make me chip it on my shoulders. From then on, I was determined to work hard to get to that rank. And God answered the prayer.
Why did you resist Obasanjo’s attempt to retain you?
Oh, you mean, you knew about that too (general laughter.) Who told you all these things?
I am a journalist
I know, but I am not used to granting press interviews, where could you have gotten all those details. I am surprised. Anyway, it was not so much of a resistance. I was called a day to the inauguration to make a list of officers to be retired so I put my name on top of the list. When he saw the list he threw it back at me. I told him there had been a controversy just before he came that we are not political appointees, as service chiefs, and so it was not that we are all to be thrown out. But that he should let all of us go, so he could start on a clean slate. He told me to compile a list of all the officers that should go. I told him ‘ok I’ll do that of the navy but that he should call the Chief of Army Staff and Chief of Air Staff to do their own. That was my advice to him at 2:00am before the inauguration. So I did that of the navy, 18 of us were to be retired from the navy and I was number one. Obasanjo said I should name a successor and I told him I’ll give him three names, he said I should put them in order of merit.
Incidentally, the man who became my successor wrote my handover note and when he brought it to me and I wrote the names there. He brought it back to me and said sir ‘I am number three on the list; ‘I told him that was my assessment of him. But I told him that if it was God’s wish, he could still make it and he’s the one who was appointed. And this is someone I’ve known since his primary school days. We live together in Kano. In fact his elder brother was one year my junior.
From my interaction so far with you, and the little I have read about you, you don’t seem to put sentiments in dealing with people…
(Cuts in) That was exactly what Abacha said. If you check your history you’ll see I was sworn in as minister alone because I had to have a one on one with him (Abacha). I asked him do you know my relationship with a particular person. He said ‘yes I have the tape of him dancing at your mother’s funeral.’ I asked whether he still wanted me as minister knowing that. He said yes because he knows I don’t mix personal business with official matter.
Did any of your children show interest in the military?
One of them went to Military school, in Zaria but the mother discouraged him, he wanted to join the Air force. The elder brother went to NDA. When he got there they asked him which Ayinla is his? When he mentioned my name they asked whether I didn’t give him a note and he told them his father doesn’t give notes. But I was told that because of me, they did not allow him to go through any interview, they just admitted him, but that was not his calling. He withdrew after three years. His commandant called me to say my son said he was withdrawing and I told him if that was his choice so be it. My younger son wanted to join the Air force but his mother discouraged him.
So presently none of them is in the military?
When the history of Nigeria is written, people like you will feature because you handed over the baton to the civilian…
I was one of those who wrote the 1999 constitution. We sat down for 10 months working day and night because we didn’t want me to leave Nigeria in a vacuum. It was to be a transition constitution. The immunity clause we put there should have been deleted within three months. We put it there to prevent what happened in the second republic when some people took the head of the Federal Government to court.
Another thing we put there which I discovered is missing is that local governments should be a state affair, that the Federal Government should have nothing to do with LGs because government was too expensive. We spend over 60 percent of the revenue on the public servants, where will you get money for development. The military establishment taught us something which we did not learn. When you put three labourers in a field without a foreman they will put down their shovels and go to sleep. Look at the governors, many are not doing anything. In those days the Head of State will call an administrator and ask what is going on in the state. Today nobody is asking the governors anything, not even the electorate and the lawmakers.
Some people believe that 1999 constitution you authored is part of the problem in Nigeria?
I told you it ought to be a transition constitution. Those 18 years from then till now what have they done too to write a new one? It was not only the military people who sat; we had all the best brains, lawyers like Prof. Nwabueze with us. And the military men who sat were best brains like us. It was even the 1979 constitution that we took and made few amendments to. You will notice that nobody is talking about coup again because we have professionalized the military.
Left to me, I will say that once you retire as a military officer, we should have a law that bars from running for any office until after 30 years.
In the United States for example if you want to go into politics they will ask for your military service. Ours is different. The military is now derided. All the problems of Nigeria were caused by the military. Before the military came all our problems were caused by colonialists. Colonialism ended 58 years now and the military left almost 20 years now. Who do we blame next? The blame game should stop. And let us start on a clean slate.
We are almost 20 years into democracy what is your message to Nigerians and the leadership as we go into another election?
While I was on training in is the UK in 1983, I told my professor that the two Germanys will come together, he said I was talking rubbish, the German in my course, a commander said it would probably not happen in his lifetime. Anyway it happened. In 1989 while at the war college I also said the Soviet Union would break into pieces, my professor scored me a C- but it happened. I told them that as at 1937 there as the Truman doctrine on how to break the Soviet Union, it has been declassified now. What stopped that move was the Second World War. They needed the Soviet Union on that flank to keep Germany from overrunning Asia, where they will get all the resources at that time to fight the war.
After the Second World War they resumed the Truman doctrine and they succeeded. All the small wars you see in Europe is because of the breaking up of Soviet Union all the other wars you see elsewhere is because you now have one super power. I also forecast that the third world war will be a trade war between Europe and America, it is happening.
Finally, what do you see, any forecast about Nigeria?
It is difficult to forecast Nigeria because there are too many negative interests. But like I said before, most of our leaders meant well. The present leadership is probably the best we can ever have. The hardship we are going through now is nothing compared with what it would have been if we had continued with the way we were going. I studied Argentina, and Yugoslavia. Most of the things that happened in those two countries are happening here. We need to reverse certain things we are doing.
Some of them are too sensitive for me to start mentioning on the pages of the newspaper. But if I have one-on-one with those I feel needed to know I will tell them. Have you seen a civilian coup before? That is what we should be afraid of. The war against those who have, by those who do not have, that is the coup we should be afraid of. We need to be disciplined. You cannot learn it from the books. But it should also start from the family level. I don’t give bribe, I don’t take. At the wharf, I pay what the government wants paid. If we all insist, nobody will give, nobody will take. The Police must be well equipped to maintain law and order. It is not the duty of the military. The military should not be part of the 2019 elections. It is not part of their duties.
We lack discipline. Somebody is earning N30 million a month but we are saying we cannot pay N30, 000 minimum wage. I tell you a story, I cannot remember whether it was France, we travelled to canvass for waiver for our loans. By the time we landed, we landed with 12 private jets. The people who came to receive us said we were not serious. They said their own Head of State does not own a private jet and we brought 12, to canvass for loan waiver.