General Ishola Williams on Lack of National Integrity

Posted: August 27, 2015 in Dairy of a Freeman, Naija Scene, Security, State House

General Ishola Williams was at peace with himself that Friday afternoon when the team arrived at his office, in the Iju area of Lagos. This was the man who made news in 1993 when he walked out on the army and General Sanni Abacha on the premise that the army takeover was immoral. Far removed from the life of pleasure and putrid abundance that is the lot of many other retired generals, the team
met the general engrossed in his research work in peace and conflict studies.

General Williams, erstwhile head of the Nigeria chapter of Transparency International, is presently on the faculty of the Pan African Strategic and Policy Research Group, a forum he is using to espouse issues that generate conflict in Africa among other development issues. Given his exchange with Gen. Abacha and another squabble when as a colonel he queried a chief of army staff, General Williams was asked
whether he considered himself a troublesome officer. In responding to the contrary, he
nevertheless admitted that he may be controversial.

Undoubtedly so, as is revealed in
this interview during which he spoke on the rot in the army, the fight against corruption among
many other issues.
Excerpts from the interview:
What have you been doing since leaving the army in 1993?
Since I left the army, I have been engaged in the running of an organization that was initially into
peace and conflict issues in Nigeria, West Africa and Africa for some few years. We are also
looking at how Economic Community of West African States, (ECOWAS) can situate itself in a very good position to be able to mediate conflicts happening in Liberia, Sierra Leone at that particular time.
When President Carter left as the President of the United States, he created the Carter Centre and he started coming into African nations. His centre went into two major areas; health and
democracy and governance issues. He came to discover some of the challenges of governance,
elections and elements leading into conflicts and after looking at the studies that were conducted
by so many compatriots, he discovered that there was need for Africans themselves to study those conflicts to be able to cover the gaps and for Africans themselves to be re-involved in
mediating those conflicts. At the time, African countries were dependent on the United States academically, intellectually
and even for mediating its own conflicts. So they told us that if we are not very careful, our own people will believe we cannot resolve our own conflicts and we must not get ourselves into such situations. So we were advised to form a group of people that can do these studies since several Nigerian students then studied in the universities abroad.

We then formed a group with some people from the Institute, some of them at the universities and with some few military officers interested in West Africa.

Did your group envisage the crises gripping the country now?
(Cuts in) No, no, no. You did not even need to envisage that because I was in the military when we had this Maitasaine all over the place and the Army had to call in the Air Force to bomb places
like Kano even within the urban areas. As we were dealing with them in Kano, they were coming up in Maiduguri, Yola and other places. Maitasaine taught us a lesson but did we adopt the lesson? And even if we did, did we make use of the lesson? Some few years after that, when I was Commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), I wrote a letter to the commandant of the Nigerian Defence Academy, (NDA) and the Minister of Defence then that we need to learn a lesson from Maitasaine. We were lucky to overcome them then because we had far superior arms and the people of Kano did not like Maitasaine. The rich people living in Kano then could not understand what Maitasaine was about, they were wearing expensive wrist watches and couldn’t accept their teachings of don’t do these or that. The situation was like that of governors who wanted to introduce Sharia, of course the rich Muslims in those states didn’t want it. I remembered in my letter to the military authority then, I told them that we must learn from it. The thing about us is that we don’t look at events from outside and how they can affect
us. We have not been having thinking governments. What we have are governments that only live for today, so if there is a problem, government cannot deal with it because there are so many issues that have been swept under the carpet. I will give you an example. See the Ogoni issue that President Buhari has just assented to. How long ago have they submitted that report? Why
was it neglected? Something that is as important like that and the Ogoni people have been protesting about it and even said they will not allow Shell in, nobody cared. One sentence, ‘I will do it’ and that was all. See the victims of Boko Haram in the North East. The Federal Government promised to contribute N5 billion. What is a N5 billion in a trillion budget? How can you delay that kind of thing when your fellow human being is suffering? So in countries where people are thinking and people are compassionate, once such reports come, you act. So sometimes I do not believe those in government are human beings, it is either they come from Mars or they come from Venus.

There is no system for incubating good ideas in Nigeria. No system at all, how much more to want to talk of the future. Why? Because once you become a permanent secretary, what you are thinking of is how to make money, you think of when to retire and you don’t want to retire a poor man. So in putting that first, you will first think of things that will bring money for you that will enable you to retire comfortably. And if you are a permanent secretary and you have two children studying in Ghana or United Kingdom and you require about $30,000 or $40,000 to pay school fees, put that to naira, where does he or she get that from? These are the dynamics of corruption. So even if you see what is good that can benefit us today and the future, you don’t care because you are more concerned in your pocket first. It is just like a popular saying in Nigeria when people ask what is there for me.

So, why did the army not respond to your letter?
As a Commander of TRADOC, I looked at the situation and said, see, we need to restructure
the Army such that it will be able to tackle such problems in the future and we need to change our ways of thinking before the civil war to a new type of war that we have to face in the future. But instead of them to look at the letter, they pushed the letter aside and that was the end of it. What did the retired Chief of Defence Staff, Alex Badeh say recently when leaving office? How can a whole Chief of Defence staff
of a country talk about its own military like that? Some would have expected him to have resigned.

Why do you think he did not resign?

Integrity. It is an integrity matter.

What do you mean?

Integrity is simple. When you see that your boss wants you to do something that is wrong, you tell him sir, you are going the wrong way, then you put in your papers. But that is not common in Nigeria.

If you were in his situation, what could you have done?

(Cuts in) I could have left. That was the situation I was in 1993 when General Sanni Abacha came
into power through a coup and I said no, it was wrong for us to have a coup d’état and he said,
no don’t worry. It took me three days to leave, the coup happened on the 24th and on the 27th, I just left.

When you were putting in your papers, did you not have pressures from family, friends and colleagues?

It was not the business of my family; it was the Army that was putting pressure on me not to
go. Even General Abacha himself wrote me a letter not to leave but I said no because I believed the coup was wrong and I knew we were heading for a disaster.

Did you respond to Abacha’s letter?

No I did not respond to him.

Did he speak to you or did you call him to tell him what he did was wrong?

There was no need to call him. He understood why I left because I worked with him at the Ministry of Defence, with General Diya and he
understood my position.
It was very clear. He knew there was no way he could change my mind. I left the Army with an
empty bank account. I left because I told myself
I must leave and thirdly, I must use my head to find a way.

So how did you and your family cope?

My wife was lecturing at the university then. So we were able to manage through. Once you don’t get used to the life army wants to provide for you, you will not have any problem.

Are there men of such minds still in the military?

That is what I am saying that there is no organization in the world where you don’t have
some thinking people but unfortunately, those thinking people don’t get to the top. Life is very interesting and that is why you have this word people call “destiny”. Have you asked this question that what kept driving President Buhari over four times for over 16 years? What kept driving him and eventually ended up winning. And how many people have attempted before him and had given up? That’s life.

Do you think President Buhari is a thinking man?

I don’t know because I have never worked with him.

And you never crossed his path in the Army?

No we never crossed each other’s path. Buhari was an infantry officer and I was in the signals.
So we never crossed each other’s path.

Can you compare the military of your time and that of now?

What has been happening in the military is very sad. Like everything in Nigeria, it has been very wasteful. I was in charge of research and development in
the Ministry of Defense for about three years, every proposal that I put across was killed. Even
to produce ordinary military uniform, I got the textile firms to do some research for the type of uniform our military will wear, we will have only one textile material and the colour will be different for the various services, we don’t need to import anything at all. I was taken to Panama by the United States Army to go and see how they test the materials
used including camouflage. I wrote the report and came back and gave it to a textile firm in Nigeria and they were ready to
produce it, that could have saved this country millions of dollars but no, they refused.

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