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The forgotten Lt Gen Oladipo Diya story after his demise


The forgotten Lt Gen Oladipo Diya story after his demise

When soldiers sign on to serve and defend their country, they know there is a fifty-fifty chance of survival from the moment they volunteer. To begin with, there are the mandatory military drills during which some of them may be killed through accidents in mock or serious combat. Second, there may just be an actual war with another country or with local rebels in which some of them may be rubbed out as well.

For the ambitious ones among them, there is just that big chance of advancing their careers through military coups either by unseating a civilian government or military regime. If they succeed, all well and good. But if they fail, they also know the consequences. So, from early in their career to retirement, the path of a soldier is riddled with death. Some make it, others don’t.

For Lieutenant General Oladipo Donaldson Oyeyinka Diya, he survived the compulsory drills at Nigeria Defence Academy Kaduna where he enrolled. He also survived the Nigeria/ Biafra civil war which he fought as a soldier on the Nigerian side from 1967 to 1970. He also attended the infantry academy in the United States of America.

A brilliant officer with positive recommendations from his superiors, Diya’s career in the Army rose correspondingly, becoming the military administrator of his natal Ogun state from 1984 – ’85 during the military regime of General Muhammadu Buhari.

From then on, the sky seemed to be his limit. By the time General Sani Abacha eased out the Interim National Government headed by Chief Earnest Shonekan, Diya found a comfortable role to play in the new junta. He was the equivalent of Vice president to Abacha’s number one position as head of state and chairman of the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC).
Before then however, Diya held some plum appointments in the Nigeria Army.

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He was at the Command and Staff College, Jaji, then National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru. He was still in the military as an officer when he enrolled as a law student at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria. He graduated and after the mandatory one year with the Nigerian Law School, Diya was called to the bar as a solicitor and advocate of the Supreme Court.

Though he never practiced as a lawyer for one once, Diya maintained his rise in the Army, becoming General Officer Commanding 82 Division, Nigeria Army in 1985, Commandant, National War College from 1991–1993 and then Chief of Defence Staff.

In November 1993, Diya rose further in the ranks. He was appointed Chief of General Staff becoming, in effect, de facto Vice president of Nigeria. A handsome man with a glowing silver patch in a headful of black hair, Diya soon became the acceptable face of the military. Much of the civilian populace at this time were chaffing openly about a return to civilian government.

Business mogul and politician MKO Abiola the presumed winner of the June 12 presidential election was in the slammer. Shonekan was out. Both of them are Egbas from Ogun state. So, part of the reason for making Diya the number two man in Abacha’s government was to pacify the Yorubas who’d felt hard done by because of MKO’s detention.

According to reliable sources, Diya played his role to the hilt canvasing for support for the new government, making steady calls at dozens of prominent and influential traditional rulers from the South west.

He also became extremely wealthy in the process, acquiring properties here and there as wide as his command. But then something went awry along the line: ambition got the better of him.
Four days before Christmas of 1997, Nigerians woke up to the news of yet another coup plot by some officers in the military.

The point man was the number two man in Abacha’s government, Oladipo Diya himself who was then in military custody. Some of his co-plotters were fellow Yorubas: Generals Tajudeen Olanrewaju and Abdulkareem Adisa, former GOC 3 Armoured Division and Minister of Works and Housing respectively.

Military investigations showed the coup was slated for December 20 but was foiled, then the arrests the following day. Among the incriminating evidence was a memo written by Diya’s political adviser, Professor Femi Odekunle who urged his principal to

“test the limits of his power.” The memo from the professor to Diya was titled “Confidential Memo Not For Filing.”

There were other damaging testimonies by some military officers such as General Ishaya Bamayi who was Chief of Army Staff at the time.

Diya had pestered him repeatedly about joining the coup such that Bamayi asked him once “what was the matter with him,” that is Diya. In other words, why would he want to rub out his superior (Abacha) who had entrusted so much to him, had made possible his rise in the military up to making him his vice?

Of course, the Vice chairman of the PRC listened to his voice alone, ignoring the more sagely and cautious warnings from those who refused to pitch in with him.

Though the military tribunal sat in camera, Nigerians of a certain generation remember very well Diya’s interrogation by Abacha’s CSO Major Hamza Al Mustapha. It was a sorry spectacle of a formerly swashbuckling general becoming a wimp and crybaby all at once.

The demeaning picture of a general crying before a major became the talk of the town in many bars and barracks across Nigeria for the rest of the year.

It was an unsettling scenario of a full grown senior military officer begging a subordinate to spare him, to forgive him. Gone was Diya’s military swagger. In its place was now a thoroughly remorseful coup plotter who not only failed in his attempt but was caught out. Mustapha was to later comment that the man voided himself during the interrogation – with piss and shit.

Nigerians also saw that picture of remorse by Diya with Abacha in Aso Villa. In the video which is available on Youtube, both Abacha and Diya are sitting on settees, Abacha resplendent in Agbada, complete with the Kanuri cap while Diya wore a simple French jacket. For the late head of state, he wanted to know firsthand if Diya really plotted to overthrow his government. By then, he would have been availed of the info he needed by his CSO and other sources. Still, he wanted to hear from Diya himself.

Like his interrogation with Al Mustapha, Diya never denied spearheading a coup. He also cried and begged for forgiveness from his principal. But what if he had succeeded? Abacha would have been history, done in by his trusted subordinate and Diya would have replaced him as head of state, along with one of his several wives as First Lady.

Two days after New Year in 1998, Major General Abdusalami Abubakar who was Chief of Defence Staff at the time set up a Special Investigation Panel to look into the coup plot. Major General Chris Abutu headed the SIP.

The SIP recommended a Special Military Tribunal to try the officers, which was duly constituted and announced on February 10 by Rear Admiral Festus Bikepere then Chief of Defence Administration. The SMT was headed by Major General Victor Malu.

The trial of the military officers was held in Jos, in camera and on April 28, Malu sentenced those guilty accordingly. Diya, Olanrewaju and Adisa were found guilty of treason and so were given the death penalty. Some others were sentenced to life imprisonment while a few were discharged and acquitted.

In his judgment, Malu pointedly observed that “there was overwhelming evidence proving Diya had amassed a small army of loyal troops by the time his plot to overthrow the regime was discovered.” He also dismissed Diya’s claims of innocence.

“The findings of the Tribunal were that he presided over and actively participated in several meetings in which the coup was discussed. The coup would have been carried out on December 20, the day that most of the accused persons were picked up.”

According to military records, after the sentencing, Abacha ordered the Secretary to the PRC and Head of Civil Service, Gidado Idris, to summon a meeting of members of the PRC to possibly deliberate on Malu’s report.

Abacha gave the instruction on Sunday June 7 for the meeting to convene the following day, Monday June 8. He never lived to chair the meeting. Abacha died suddenly on that day and then Nigerians began to rewrite the history of the coup almost immediately.

It would take another panel Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by President Olusegun Obasanjo in his reincarnation as civilian ruler from 1999 to unearth the truth about Diya’s involvement in the coup. Headed by venerable Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, facts began to emerge about Diya’s role in what some claimed was a phantom coup. Asked whether there was, indeed, a coup, Diya did not respond in the affirmative. He was more concerned with his material possessions – houses and some other landed properties – confiscated by the SMT.

Asked how he came by those same properties on the modest salary of a Lt Gen, Diya offered no useful explanation how he acquired his sudden and humongous wealth. But he demanded to have his ceased properties returned to him. Shikena!

Remarkably enough all through the sittings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, many people thought Diya was a joker, prompting some moments of scornful laughter from the panelists including another venerable Nigerian, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah. By the time Diya left with his two wives sitting to his right and left in an air-conditioned Mercedes, he was waving at the crowd lining both sides of street, like a newly minted hero. But the spectators didn’t see him as one.

They jeered and booed at him calling him ole, ole – thief, thief in Yoruba. Ensconced in the comfort of his car, Diya couldn’t hear the spectators outside. But their message was clear.

Ever since, the general from Odogbolu has lived a relatively obscure and quiet life, devoting much of his time to religious duties: he even built a church in his community, so it was said.

Except for his birthdays, Nigerians didn’t much remember him. Even his own kin pretty much left him alone, which says much for how they regarded a man who once got the instant attention of first class traditional rulers.

And then, on Sunday March 26, Diya’s family let on that the general had died peacefully in his sleep. Born on April 3, 1944 Diya was only a few days to his 79th birthday when he passed on.

Once again, the narrative changed judging from the encomiums poured on him by his kin. This was a Diya who never planned a coup against his superior. In fact, to some of them, it was a phantom coup concocted by Abacha to eliminate his vice.

But as they say, facts are facts and are invariably indisputable however much you try to erase them or doctor them. Besides, turning villains of yesterday into heroes of today is perfectly understandable in a country like Nigeria where ethnic loyalties override national interest. The reasoning is that however odious a person’s actions may have been in the past, they are immediately burnished to a dazzling glow once they pass on.

Yes, by some quirk of fate, Diya and other coup plotters escaped the firing squad, turning them into instant heroes touched by the hand of fate. In line with that thinking, Ogun state government has planned a befitting state burial for a worthy son of the soil, forever retaining their ideal of a hero gone too soon, a role model without blemish or human flaws.

No matter. What can never be erased, as one 19th century Islamic scholar sagely observed in his day, is conscience. “Conscience is an open wound,” founder of the Sokoto Caliphate Usman Dan Fodio declared, “only truth can heal it.”

In Diya’s case, the truth couldn’t heal his conscience however much he tried. It tortured him after the failed coup against his boss – until the day he died.

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