Lt. General Jeremiah Useni needs no introduction. The prominent role he played during the reign of late Head of State, Sani Abacha, as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, is well known.
However, there are two things about Jeremiah Useni, who was referred to as ‘Jerry Boy’ at the time. He was indeed a Boy, because he joined the Army at the age of 14. Firstly, he was one of the soldiers who fired shots during the coup against General Ironsi in which the General was killed in Ibadan. Mr. Useni was also the closest person to General Abacha up to his last moments.
This interview, conducted in Hausa by the Hausa language newspaper, Rariya, and translated to English, reveals a lot of things many of us didn’t know, including the conspiracies that denied him the opportunity of succeeding Mr. Abacha after he died.
You joined the Army as a fourteen year old, and you were posted to England for a Course at sixteen, how did you feel at the time?
Honestly, it was like a dream to me because I broke my left leg during a game of football, just one year after I joined the Army. As a young footballer, I had very strong shooting ability with my left leg. Anyone who was unfortunate to be hit with my shots really suffered no matter their size. I spent about four months at the hospital In Kaduna.
Most of the hospital staffs at the time were Europeans, and they were very efficient. They joked a lot with their patients and they related with you as if you had known them for ages. One day, they decided to come and test all of us and see those who had made progress, so that they would be discharged. When they came to me, they asked; ‘can you stand up?’ And I said, ‘yes’. Then I was asked to stand up and walk. The whiteman said, ‘this one is ok now, he can be discharged’.
Later, they said there would be exams to select those who would go to England, and I had spent four years without studies or anything. However, there was a senior officer who was teaching me, and I went to write the exams, and I passed. I was not even sure we were really going to Europe until one day when they came to the dining room and called out our names, five of us; they asked us to go to a particular building, that our attention was needed there.
On getting there, we saw that they had prepared omelet and other kinds of delicacies of the Europeans. At the time, we were used to eating Garri only, we either soak or prepare Eba with one green soup like that. We realised that we might really be going to Europe. That was how I went as a very young boy, and I thank God for that because before we left Nigeria, they were paying us one naira, in fact, we were first paid seventy kobo, until after one year, when they increased it to one naira.
When I went to England, under the Boys Company battalion, they started paying us four pounds after only two months. I wrote to my father to tell him that we were now receiving four pounds as pay, and I asked him to pay any tax he was asked to pay because I was also enjoying. I told him that just to show him how happy I was.
When Ironsi was arrested, T.Y. Danjuma was said to be in Ibadan, and there were reports that you, Duba and Remawa were the ones who arrested him?
It was Garba Dada, the guy from Niger state, the one I was telling you was a Senator recently. He was the Adjutant General at the time, and he was our co-ordinator. We did not stay in one place to meet. We used to drive up to beyond Ijebu-Ode meeting inside the car and then turn back.
Why was Gowon selected after the coup?
He was the most senior officer at the time. But there was another reason too. There were people like T.Y. Danjuma and Murtala. But Murtala was a bit less than Gowon in rank, and was too close to us.
After Ironsi was killed, the country was plunged into a civil war. You were heading the logistics and in charge of most war equipment. What were the challenges you faced during the war?
At times, it is good to be in the forefront in battle, instead of nominating someone. Facing the enemy is a difficult task that requires effective strategy. You need to put in place how to effectively block the supply of enough ammunitions and back up to them. If you do that, it will not be difficult to finish them off. That is the role I played, I ensured that our troops get enough ammunitions and logistic support all the time.
We started with General Danjuma, he was the C.O. and then Mamman Shuwa, who was later transferred to Kaduna as the GOC. So also was Martins Adamu. Adamu was leading Ogoja troop, Danjuma was in Nsukka, and I was in Abakaliki.
What do you think were the reasons Gowon was removed?
People began to feel he was distancing himself from them. He was unreachable. The top officers of the time felt he was building a wall between them, and so they felt there was need for change. But he was not killed, they waited until he was out of the country to Kampala, Uganda before they toppled him, and asked him not to return. Murtala was then made his successor.
How did you meet Abacha, because you were the closest person to him?
All I can say is that it was God who crossed our path together. Firstly, I am a Tarok man, and he was not. He was a Muslim, and I am not. I was also much closed to Garba Duba. What happened was that even while we were young officers after the civil war, when a small town near Enugu was captured, then a message came that I was needed in Lagos. They told me I would be going to Europe. At the time, there was no daily flight to Lagos. So I took a Land Rover, and by 9am the following day, I was at the office. However, I was told I still had three weeks before I departed. So I went back to Enugu. We were all Lieutenants then and they said we should be changed because people in Kaduna were afraid. They said the 4th battalion should move to Kaduna, while the 3rd Battalion in Kaduna should move to Ibadan.
It so happened Abacha was the officer responsible for the movements of the Battalion from Kaduna to Ibadan, and I was in charge of those moving from Ibadan to Kaduna. They were the first to arrive, so I went to receive them at the train station and show them were to eat and sleep. But Abacha waited at the train station so that any train that brought soldiers from Kaduna, he would make sure soldiers from Ibadan followed the train back to Kaduna. We continued to do that until all the soldiers were successfully ferried. We then joined the remaining vehicles back to Kaduna, and I left him at Ibadan. That was how we became friends. And we then went on to meet at 2nd Division Ibadan.
That was also where we met with Duba. He was at Asaba with his Armoured Division, and I was at the Headquarters at Benin. Abacha was at Tom Ikimi’s town. We went out together anytime we met, and we even used to sleep in the same house. Our friendship became so strong that every weekend we visited each other’s houses and spend the weekend together. We were going to the Houses on turn-by-turn basis, up until the time Duba left the Army because of an ailment that was disturbing him. He went to a hospital in Saudi Arabia three times before he said he was tired and would simply retire. The three of us were very much close. Nothing came in between us, and people were even calling us ‘triplets’. That is God you know. That is why I always tell people that fighting is not good. If there were tribal clashes, the three of us would not have been friends.
During the time of Abacha was Head of State, people were saying you were in fact the President, because Abacha was not even seen in public much, and he was not close to his deputy. Others were saying the coup allegations against Obasanjo and Yaradu’a was just fabricated to break them down. What is the truth of the matter?
I have been asked this question several times, and my answer always was that the coup attempt was real. Even if I don’t like you, would I just pick you up and lock you up? There was a coup attempt, and I said this even while Obasanjo was president. When General Diya was being tried, you saw how he was kneeling down to beg Major Al-Mustapha who was not in anywhere close to him in rank. Definitely there was a coup attempt, but because Abacha was a good man, he did not kill them. When Obasanjo was a military Head of state, there was a coup attempt, and he enacted a law that killed the perpetrators.
But he was not killed, he was only jailed for life, and they said when another government comes, they can decide to release him. He was in jail when Abacha died, politics returned and so there was selfishness and all sort of conspiracies. He knows he was the one who signed the law that said even if you did not participate in a coup, and that you only heard of it but decided to keep quiet, you are culpable, and you face the same penalty as those who planned to execute the coup. He made that law.
When Abdulsalam assumed leadership, there was a debate whether he should be released or not, but eventually they decided to release him.
After Abacha’s death, many thought you would be the next Head of State, and there were some arguments. Why did you not succeed him?
There was politics in the whole thing. There were several meetings, but no unified decision was reached despite the fact that I was the most senior officer of the lot. In the end, they said Abdulsalami had been selected, because he was the most senior in terms of office. I left without taking any appointment that is why up till today, no one is accusing me of anything. That was what happened.
How did you feel when that happened? Did you feel cheated or not?
As a Christian, I believe in destiny
In the past, northerners are ahead of the South in terms of governance and administration, but today, the north has been relegated to the background, no one is talking about a unified north anymore, just a community divided along ethnic and religious loyalties. The Southerners also have differences of religion and ethnicity, but it is not a source of conflict there. How did the north get here?
Even you journalists know the kind of cordial relationships that existed in the past. Truth is both sides are at fault. We northerners have our own fault, and those opposing the north also have their own fault. Did the Southerners plunge us into the crises we are witnessing today? Many innocent people have been killed today, to the extent that there was an attempt to kill the emir of Kano, just due to lack of security. Not to talk of the Plateau. One cannot say these crises are as a result of religious differences because it appears to surpass that.
But I believe we found ourselves in this mess because we have turned our backs on God, and we are mostly selfish in our affairs. We have hardened our hearts and are cheating each other, which will not take us anywhere. Everything now is based on religious on ethnic affiliations. Why won’t we continue to suffer? If we had not united ourselves as northerners in the past when some Southerners killed our leaders we would not have overcome. But today, this one will say I am a Muslim, while the other one will say, I am a Christian. How can we make progress? We cannot make progress by calling each other despicable names. Our leaders in the past did not do that.
How can relationships among northern people be improved?
Honestly, enough is enough. Emirs should be visiting each other. We can solve this problem, if we sit down and talk to each other. Emirs have stopped visiting each other. If you are angry with someone, and then he visits you, I am sure you will forgive him. Our governors too have a problem. We organised a meeting in Kaduna, the governors came and everything was so good, then the following day, only Governor Yakowa turned up, maybe he himself came because he was the host. They don’t co-operate. We have to sit and love one another, cry and laugh together. Otherwise, the upcoming generation will not inherit the right things from us.
From the time he was the head of state up till today, many people have different interpretations of who Abacha was. Some see him as a hero, while others see him as a dictator who trampled on peoples’ right especially those opposed to him. Can you briefly describe him?
Many people misunderstood who Abacha was. He was very honest and well mannered. Whenever we sat together, everyone would give their opinion, but whenever he decided, that was all. He knew how to run the economy of a nation despite the fact that he did not train as an economist. When he was the Head of State, he refused to take any loan from the World Bank, so no one dared undermine his authority.
But today, you can say all sorts of things against the president and sleep peacefully in your house. So Abacha was a man who believed in law and order. He was also a man who believed in giving everyone their due. He used to listen to any complaint brought to him that concerned matters of state, and he always made sure he solved the problem. I knew him very well.