Major General Samaila Iliya (Rtd) commanded the Nigerian Army in Lebanon during the United Nations Mission (UNFIL), and participated in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994 for the United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMIR). He was also part of the United Nations Mission on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONAC), among several other responsibilities, in his days with the army. He shared his memories with JULIET KUYET BULUS.
When and where were you born?
I come from a rural Spartan town called Zuturung. It is located in Zango-Kataf Local Government Area, with Zonkwa as headquarters. The Zuturung people are a sub- sect of Bayidwang, one of the six children of the Progenitor of Bajju ethnicity called Baranzan. I was born there in the year 1952. My birth was not taken in a hospital but I can take you to the exact spot where it all happened.
How do you know the exact year you were born?
At that time, most births were not formally recorded. However, there were other ways of making close/accurate estimates. I had an uncle, Reverend Dogonyaro Bajeh, who knew how to read and write at the time, don’t ask me how he did it. He was simply a great person. He eventually established the village church and became the head, then pastor and now a retired Reverend.
Having attended the famous Kagoro Bible School, he began recording the dates of children’s birth in the village, including his children’s, some of whom were older. He had written their ages in the Bible and other books of adult education (Yaki da Jahilci and Ga Masara).
From then on, that became the bench mark, coupled with the fact that the parents within the village precinct knew the various age groups and their relative seniority. It was a calculated guess for some of us. It was possible to get the years because of significant events that took place during such times but certainly not the month and date.
How was growing up like?
It was fun and exciting growing up at home, though life had its attendant challenges. The village setting was quite communal, a very good way of living, sharing easily without heartburn but without depending on others since there was zero tolerance on laziness. There was a thin thread that joined members and by implication, the homestead and the entire village. Every child belonged to the community and any elder could intervene to give praise or sanctions in case of deviants. Once an elder intervenes where an offence has been committed, parents had no issue with it because they believe such actions were in good faith and in the best interest of the individual and the community.
There were strata or layers of age groups, those above us and those immediately below, it was a respected hierarchy. And we could not misbehave to any elder member(s) of age group as it could draw the ire of the entire elders group. You can liken it to a defence pact where attack on a member state constitutes an attack on all. This beautiful order is gradually fading out due to modernisation while politics is adding to the toll. It is save to mention that there were other forms of ensuring discipline and good behaviour in the village. This is outside the limits of this interview. We communed together. After football matches for instance, we moved from one house to the other eating as a group and sometimes end up sleeping together in one large room only to dispatch to our respective homes in the morning to start the day’s work.
The elders and village hunters initiated the younger ones in hunting expeditions where one could be away for days and even weeks with self-sustainment. The act encouraged one to build courage. It enabled one to recognise the animals in the wild as well as how to track them for long distances. Considering the village setting, there was a wide view and believe that once the homestead was stable, chances are that the village and the nation at large, would witness peace, harmony and development. As the saying goes; ‘the ruin of a nation begins in the home of its people.’
In summary, the life of the village rested on triad of the Church, farming and education. My family was a fairly large one in terms of clan but narrowing it down, my father had two wives. He married my mother as a member of Sudan Interior Mission (SIM) which transformed to Evangelical Churches of West Africa (ECWA). To be able to take a second wife, he joined the Roman Catholic Church which they believed, at the time, was liberal in handling related social issues. I must emphasise that alcohol had no place in the village at the time because the village was founded on the three main pillars I mentioned earlier: farming, Church and education.
The Bajju man takes farming seriously because it is shameful or even scandalous for a family to be associated with hunger. To ensure school children were available on the farm, some families took their lunch to the farm so that after school hours, one was obliged to head straight to the farm, eat, and get cracking. I loved the idea very much, though it did not go down well with some.
Before marrying my father, my mother had been married and had two children, she lost that husband. She re-married my father and had three children. In all my father had six children from three mothers and we lived together without any problem.
My uncle, the retired reverend, ensured every parent sent their children to school. He was upright and took personal charge of the affairs of the village. It was like a personal affront for any parent even older than him to refuse to send their child to school. Once the raining season set in, from April/May, farming took centre stage until harvest in November/December. The time presented itself mainly for relaxation, weddings and traditional engagements.
What challenges did you face when you were growing up?
There were really challenges in the village in my growing up days. As stated in my entry statement, the village lacked and still lacks social amenities, though a few of them have partially been mitigated. My father was a well-known farmer in the village. He would usually make sure his children never lacked food and if he saw any child crying of hunger, the woman responsible would have to deal with his red eyes. The primary school we attended was 12km away. It was a mission school as, government schools were not available at the time. We covered this distance daily under the sun or rain for seven years. Getting up in the early hours of the morning to walk that distance and having our mothers make breakfast, also walking back home in the evening was stressful, but we were also excited about going to school. One great thing was that everyone was well secured.
Which institutions and or schools did you attend?
I did my primary school at home in a town called Fadia Tudun-Wada located about six kilometres away. Having done the mandatory 7 years, I left to join the Nigerian Military School (NMS) Zaria where I started marching as a boy soldier at the age of 13. It was a unique school and has largely remained so. I recall one in Congo Brazzaville (Ecole Preparatoire). It was strictly based on quota system, with 30 boys from the northern region, 15 each from the western (mid-west inclusive) and eastern regions. It provided high quality secondary education as well as military training.
We were paid good allowance so we did not hide our faces. I remember we had the luxury of choosing whether or not to wear St. Michael’s designer. It gave the prudent ones the opportunity to help siblings as well as parents. We were receiving five pounds five shillings monthly. I can assure you that it made us more confident in many ways.
One striking event which was to shape the destiny of the country happened less than a week after I reported, it was the coup of January 15, 1966. We found it difficult to comprehend what was really going on because we were young and green. Between times, we found ourselves herded into the classrooms at night and given collective security by commissioned officers and instructors. It was scary and a jolting experience. What was more interesting is the fact that we were really one family. My set turned out the luckiest; I say that because the same year we graduated, we were admitted into the Defence Academy. It was a seamless transition.
Why the military and would you say it was deliberate or accidental?
First, the military is the best profession on mother earth. Going into the details would be a topic for another time. Briefly, when we were born, there had been a military training range and camp built by the Colonial Army in Kachia, a local government in Kaduna State, which is home to the Corps of Artillery. Anytime they had their artillery concentration (live-firing) we heard the sound several kilometres away. Sometimes, while this was going on, we would wonder whether we could be part of the action. It was one of the incentives in joining the army. The opportunity came and I seized it.
How was life in the military?
The military experience is very interesting. First of all you have a career to build on, to become an officer, then see how you become a General, if possible, command the army as it is always the ambition. But in the end, we only have one person up there. So wherever you reach and retire is good enough. I will say I had an eventful career because I had my promotions up to Major-General. Usually in the military you retire after 35 years of service or 55 years of age, whichever one comes first. As a two-star, I retired two years earlier because my service year came first as I was admitted into the military school early. During my service years, I attended many courses, including the mandatory ones required of every rank. I went to the United States twice to do a course in my specialty, infantry, and when I was transferred to the military police I had to do a military police course and then did an Airborne Course. I was in France on a comparative staff college course which the French considers their war college, having finished from Jaji, where few are selected to travel out of the country as comparative in preparation for teaching at Jaji.
In terms of appointment and work, I attended three United Nations Mission with the first at Lebanon in the year 1979 for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), after the Israelis invaded the southern part of Lebanon and eventually withdrew but a force was required to fill the void. It was an interesting mission because I was a young officer. Also I was in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994 for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR). Arguably, the mission was one of the most challenging in the history of the United Nations. At the time, I was the Operations Officer for the observer group that was deployed there and by the time the genocide started, it was like hell broke loose. The third United Nations Mission was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC). I later returned to DRC to meet the residual issues of Rwanda and Congo sharing the same border. So the people who were fighting in Rwanda left for the Congo. Congo has had issues in the 60s, six days after independence, and because there were secessions and a lot of issues with these, the United Nations deployed a force to look into the situation and mercenaries. People like Gen Yakubu Gowon, Gen Olusegun Obasanjo and First Commander Gen Aguiyi Ironsi and I were privileged to be the second to command the force at that particular time. Congo has issues till today as it is a big country almost two and a half the size of Nigeria, and rich in water, road, and minerals among others. But the irony is that they are equally poor. I am happy they are getting on a little bit now. In terms of peace operations and conflict, all these gave me experience.
Back home, it was also hard, though I am grateful to God I commanded the Military Police Corps as Chief Administration of the entire army, keeping the traditions of the military police and looking into the discipline and welfare of soldiers. And this was the last job I did before I retired. I also served in positions of Company Commander, Military Observer (MILOB) and Force Commander respectively.
Having had a stint in the Command and Staff College as Directing Staff, Chief Instructor, Colonel Coordinator and Director of the Army Faculty, I was posted to the Army Headquarters as the Provost Marshal, where I eventually became the Chief Administration and was later appointed the General Officer Commanding the 81 Infantry Division.
How is life in retirement now?
On the whole, retirement has its challenges. It is said that the first day you start work, it is important to start thinking and planning towards retirement because it will surely come. There is usually some mark of anxiety as one approaches retirement. The interesting thing with the army now is the increment in age limit of retirement. There are three entities involved in retirement and that is the organisation, the retiree and family. You cannot prepare totally for retirement because when the time comes, there are still some anxieties. I feel one should try as much as possible to prepare their family, especially mentally, as one inches towards separation from service. This would help welcome you home without much problem. The organisation has an important role for preparing its personnel for discharge and retirement. The military have tried to do this especially with the soldiers whereby they are sent to rehabilitation centres to do certain trades of their own choosing.
As for me, I had no problem being welcomed back home even though there were some things that remained undone. Little preparation is better than no preparation. When I retired, my wife began to do one or two things and fortunately for me, in less than a year, I was employed as a member of capacity building consultants under the African Peace Facility (APF) with the Peace and Security Department of the African Union (AU) while working with relevant agencies of the European Union and the African Union. Working within a team of three people, we were able to upgrade the status of African Peace Security Architecture of the African Union. I was drafted to work on the African Standby Force. I was made the director of the various exercises which led to the operationalisation of the force in 2015, thus meeting the requirement of the African Heads of States and Government. Since then, I have been managing the retirement. The key point to retirement is contentment.
How would you compare life during your time in the military with what obtains now?
I would not say much about that now because the challenges and context are not the same. Moreover, I am not seized with the routine and what is ongoing in the military. The military in Nigeria, like everywhere else, remains a key organisation factored into the growth and wellbeing of a country. Their task is to defend the integrity of the country. They must prepare to lay down their lives for the good of the nation. They have a lot of challenges and I would say they are meeting those challenges though there may be one or two issues here and there. It is only when you are in the thick of things that you understand these issues. You hear people say ‘you told us Boko Haram has been defeated and now you are saying something different.’ The military is trying, let us support them and correct them where we can. We should also try to protect our military because they are one of the best institutions that has remained standing and we should be happy with them.
What can you say about people’s perception of soldiers?
For the umpteenth time, the military remains the best profession in the world. This statement indeed requires further exposition but which should be a subject for another day. To be frank, it’s the people that should introduce the conversation and the narrative that they have about the military. However, I do know that the negative or mixed feelings the civil society used to have about the military is fast fading. The military are established to protect the territorial integrity of the country including its people. It is a noble task and over time, the military have enjoyed carrying out this noble role. Remember that the training requires the soldier to wear a serious or tough bearing. It is hard training all through. The profession is about breaking bones therefore, a soldier has to be serious in whatever he does. But when one gets to really know soldiers very well and officers, one cannot regret having them as partners and close friends. They know their mission and that is to protect the citizens at the end of the day. Thus, whatever they do is within this line of duty. We may have one or two people that may be a little bit out of line but then, people who know soldiers and are close to them, never want to part with them. Some have the wrong opinion that we are not educated, they don’t know that the military is an industrial complex with players in almost every aspect of life. All the time, the soldier is fixated on the defence of his country. Usually, the military is trained and acquire knowledge related to the three levels of war which include: strategic, operational and tactical levels.
Any regrets from when you were in service?
Depending on what one regards as a regret. Nothing specific as I put in my best with available resources. I would not call them regrets but as an administrator, you would want to see the soldiers you are responsible for come out well and that involves their welfare.
What is your view on the security situation of the country?
This is a tall question requiring much exposition and which this interview cannot cover in a single wave. It is no novelty to state that the security situation may not be dire but certainly, is challenging. It is also important to state that the challenges are being addressed with the seriousness required. While the security practitioners are putting in their level best, it is important that we support them in ways that can augment or enhance their efficiency. However, the security architecture should continually be reappraised to make it more inclusive by taking cognisance of the civil society and their organisations: the local governments, religious leaders, traditional rulers, and other stakeholders. We must understand the fact that never a time has our Armed Forces been this stretched especially in this kind of warfare. Let us continue to appreciate them.
What political party are you aligned with and why?
You have broken our agreement of not talking politics in this interview. I am apolitical. However, since it is said that man is a political animal, it is fair that I make a personal comment. What is difficult for me to comprehend in Nigerian politics is the idea of giving incentives or simply put, pay the electorate to be allowed to govern them. I also know that the politicians would say I am naive. Meetings are held and some party members are not able to locate the venue and by the time they do, decisions have already been taken. The Nigerian politician seems exceedingly selfish. He oscillates freely between political parties for reason of personal gains. Perhaps we will continue to practice nascent democracy forever. I see that, with time as politicians make their mistakes and learn from it, they should be able to bring out a very strong political system that can place the nation amongst the top countries of the world. That is the direction the President wishes we go. I was once in the African Union and the popular feelings were, Nigeria was where other countries should learn politics. Moving away from politics, we Nigerians must make up our minds on where we want our country to be. First, we must build a disciplined society. Secondly, we must respect and learn to give service to one another. We should not wait for anyone to prompt us on these.
When did you get married and how did you meet your spouse?
Marriage happened in 1976 after graduating from the Military Academy in 1973. I was one of the early officers that became an Aid-de-Camp (ADC) to the then Governor of Kwara state, Gen Bamigboye of blessed memory. He was buried on November 3, 2018. He was succeeded by Late Col Ibrahim Taiwo who unfortunately, was a victim of the Dimka coup of February 1976. Normally at that time, they shortlisted about five young officers at the headquarters for interview, these are people he has never met before and after the interview, he decides whom he wants.
I met my wife in Kaduna, she grew up in Minna while I grew up in Zaria and Kaduna. Her father was a Reverend of Baptist Church in Minna and they visited home once in a while. We met and I saw a beautiful girl who was also charming. Our holidays did not coincide with other schools as when they were resuming we were on vacation and vice versa. They would go fetch water and pass by the house. Back in the days, the road to the river could be through someone’s house or even the fetching of firewood without complaints from anybody. That was how things went and we started writing since she was in Minna and I was in Zaria. Her principal, at the time, would read the letters and sometimes say, ‘look you can’t be writing letters by this time.’ But when the principal found out I was in the military, she asked what my wife wanted to do with a soldier. With time though, things happened and the rest is history.
What was the attraction?
Of course she had this striking appearance and bearing. Well dressed, she laced it with a good voice and has been a songbird. In one breath, she is sweet, pretty, Godly, full of empathy, a rare gem while standing out as the glow of the family. We have been blessed with children. God, the all-knowing has called two for eternal rest. Since then, we have picked the pieces to continue with the rest.
Where were you during the country’s independence in 1960?
I was in primary school and we were singing the National Anthem to mark the Independence. We were given beautiful and unique plastic cups for the celebration.
What were your favourite tunes, artistes and dance steps?
Batraam, Fela, Sunny Ade and the artistes of country music of which my wife forms part. Fela remains a legend.
What are your interests now?
I like reading but not much. The government has directed that we return to the farm. I am in the process.
What is your favourite food?
My favourite food is tuwo with bitter leaf soup. I also like kunu a lot.
Advice for the younger generation.
I am happy a large number of the youths today are thinking of many other things to do, that is one of the things this administration has come up with. Let people look at other ways of doing things and not just being a graduate and waiting for employment. They need to be creative, and I think one thing I like about this government is the fact that everybody has gone back to the farm, I get to see Jeeps at farms and forests these days. The youths must look at what jobs they can do because there are no mean jobs. I remember as far back as the 70s when I was in Vienna, Austria, drivers at the time were graduates and while I was in the University, graduates in Nigeria were assured of jobs. I see our youths as very innovative and with the best of brains, they must ensure they use it properly. I see people who studied economics going into publication and other fields. The youths should also be patient and not want to get things easily, it is better to go at the right pace.