Gen Martin Luther Agwai (Rtd) had a successful military career rising to be directing staff and chief instructor at the Command and Staff College Jaji, chief of Army Staff, Deputy Military Adviser at United Nations Headquarters, Chief of Defence Staff and commander, combined United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. He led one of the largest peacekeeping operations in the world with approximately 20,000 troops and 6,000 policemen under his command. In this thought-provoking Interview with SUNDAY ISUWA and ISRAEL BULUS, Gen Agwai reflects on the role of the military in Nigeria as the country marks 60 years of independence. He speaks on why he never took part in any military coup.
Nigeria is marking 60years independence anniversary. How will you describe the Nigeria Military generally from 1960 till date?ADVERTISEMENT
I will not be able to give you a clear picture about the Nigerian Military because as of 1960, I was
still in Primary School. I can talk about the Nigerian Military from 1970 up to the time I left, having served for about 40 years. To a very large extent, the Nigerian Military has been one of those institutions that Nigeria is very proud to have. There are a lot of changes that have taken place in the Nigerian Military. I can make bold to say that everybody wanted to be associated with Military and it’s also an institution most people were afraid of. I make that statement based on evidence that I have at my disposal. The Nigerian Military has come a long way since pre-colonial times to independence and later when Nigeria became a republic. The military has been involved in alot of operations around the world but particularly in the African continent.
You cannot separate the Nigerian army from Nigerian foreign policy because the military is one of the instruments that the government uses to project its own policies and that is why you find out that the Nigerian Military move along with the Nigerian foreign policy. One of our policy has been the largest concentration of black people in the World. We have no option than to become a champion for the black people and that’s why during the apartheid period in Southern Africa, Nigeria was considered as the frontline state that fought apartheid because of the unique position we found ourselves.
Looking at the military as a part of Nigerian foreign policy, some people have argued that if the US military executes a foreign policy they have a clear interest to achieve unlike the Nigerian situation where our foreign policy was Afrocentric and playing the big broader role without any interest. How strategic was that for Nigeria?
First and foremost, I beg to disagree that Nigeria just jumped into operations outside its shores without concrete reasons. I gave you a reason in my first introduction that we are the largest concentration of black people in the World. So, if we cannot step out to fight for the black people and talk for the black people then, who should? We have gone to Liberia, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Congo,
Sudan, name it. We went there first as our brothers’ keepers. We wanted to see the black people living in peace. And what we also quickly forget is that during the ECOMOG days, Liberians found their way to Nigeria as refugees. If there was peace in Liberia will they come here? I know some Sierra Leones that came to Nigeria to look for refuge. If there was peace in Sierra Leone, they won’t come here. So, the fact that we created peace for them to stay at home is enough and also good for us as a country. I will give you two sides to the coin. You are also right that we shed a lot of Nigerians blood in Liberia and Sierra Leone and today, what did we gain from it? Did they see us and appreciate what we have done? If we are contesting for a position in the UN or AU will they support us? On trade, how much trade did they do with us as they do with other people? These are some of the questions you ask, and I think we have never taken care of ourselves because it takes two to tangle. If the other person does not replicate then there is no mutual benefit. Is a two way traffic if we must look at it that way.
Some people say that most of the infrastructural development in Nigeria were done during the military era while others posit that the military intervention through coups brought about set backs. How can you distinguish these two positions?
First, I will not be able to say so much about the military intervention. Throughout the interventions, I was never involved. Remember in 1999 when President Olusegun Obasanjo came to power, he retired most of the senior officers that held polititical appointments
And for the fact that I was not retired and wasn’t holding any political appointment, I will not be able to talk much about military intervention because I was not involved in anything outside military professionalism. As of today, the role I played when the military was in power and the role I played when a civilian president was in power were the same – serving the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Being a soldier willing to serve and protect the territorial integrity of Nigeria and the Sovereignty of Nigeria, I did my job diligently. That is what most people don’t separate. You have to separate the two. Yes, there were military interventions, but not
everybody in the military was involved in running the government. A lot of us were never involved in running the government. But having said that, let me state here, in response to some of the comments
about what the military did not do when they are in power, don’t forget one thing – there is no where in my knowledge, having served and traveled and got trained outside Nigeria and served in several
countries, the military are not trained to be involved in politics. For example, when I was in Dafur as the commander, I have soldiers and officers from 54 countries around the World. No where did they teach
people to plan coup. It’s never part of the military teaching. Military involvement in politics is most unfortunate because it is not the calling in the military. But sometimes, because of the challenges
that the nation have, you have no option but to step in and intervene. Unfortunately, when the military intervened in most African countries, they overstayed there welcome. They get too involved in the politics and move into strange area where they’ve not been professionally trained. So, people are right to say the military has created this and that. But one thing you will never take away from the
military rule in Nigeria and in most countries is that they try to bring into play, what the military knows best. I remember part of the Nigerian coup was the issue of long queues to buy things. It was a big
problem for Nigerians. That time, everybody wanted to be ahead in the queue. So, you will find out that the military bought a lot of discipline. The military, being a result-oriented organisation wanted to bring result. I am happy you said that most of the infrastructures in Nigeria were done during the military rule because they wanted to give something visible to the people. But in failure, I will also not take it away because the military is never trained to
run a government. So, if you are doing a strange job that you are not trained to do, you are bound to make mistakes. But again, the military interventions at that time were what Nigerians wanted. I was a Secondary School Student when the 1966 coup took place. I don’t know much about it. But thereafter, we can talk about the other ones because I was in the military. So, anything from 1970 to 2009, I was in the system. I know that Nigerians came out on the street to jubilate military interventions. So, if they didn’t want it, why did they come out to jubilate?
These are questions we should ask. But I will also tell you that going into an area that you are not trained for has its own problem and that is why I tend to be among those who believe that the military actually perform better under the civilian government than during the military government. Up to the time when I left the service, the major equipment that the military had were bought during the civilian government. Even at that, I will also agree that the military also has its own challenges and the stability of the country is more during civilian administration than during the military administration.