For the first time, General Lawrence Onoja has opened up on the cause of the rift between him and the Senate President, David Mark and why there seems not to be any hope of reconciliation in sight.
In this no-holds–bared interview with some newsmen in Makurdi, Lawrence Onoja who has never relented in contesting with Mark revealed that the present rivalry between him and the Senate President was the handiwork of people who were probably not happy with the cordial relationship that once existed between the two of them.
These people, he indicated, sowed seeds of distrust, creating a crisis of confidence. “Initially, we ignored it, but with time, these go-betweens swelled up the problems and trust and confidence were completely eroded in between the two of us.” Onoja insisted that the campaign for creation of Apa State is only a political gimmick employed by Senator Mark to perpetuate himself in office. He opined that nobody becomes famous for just making promises adding, “people will remember you for what you have done as a person not for what you promised to do.” Excerpts…
Rift between David and I
First of all, I come from a very humble background. My father was a catholic, he was a catechist in the Catholic Church, and wedded my mother in 1946. And so when my brothers and sisters were dying one by one, his brothers got up and said go and marry another wife, but my father said never, that even if it’s only one child that remains, people must hear his name, that’s what he said in 1958, when I was in class three in primary school.
So, because of that background and I was a practicing catholic, I wedded my wife in a catholic church. I do not hate anybody, I cannot hate you. If I do anything wrong, I go to ask you, please forgive me if I’ve done you any wrong, because I believe if you ask for forgiveness and you love your neighbour as yourself, is probably the shortest way of going to heaven, that’s my belief as a Christian. On all the occasions I’ve tried with my children, to go to him to say what is the problem, he has always said he has nothing against me.
The allegation I hear from people is that, his grudge is that I was a military secretary when Abacha retired 18 officers in which there were 10 Babangida boys. If you remember, I was the military secretary then, and once the Army council has decided on the retirement, normally as a military secretary, they will send you the files and say write to this people. And you will draft a letter and say ‘I am directed by the army council that from so and so date you are retired with full benefits, you are de-kitted’, and so on like that and then you will sign.
So the rumor or the kind of thing we hear is that he complained that I was the one who retired him. And so he did not make the rank of a general and I made the rank of general, these are the kind of things I hear. But you know and I believe he knows that I don’t retire generals; the military secretary is in charge of discipline, posting, retirement as ordered by the Army council and the Head of State as the case may be. You don’t have the powers to retire anybody, but you will see my signature on his retirement paper and he went about the town in Otukpo saying I retired him.
And some people believed it, but some said ah no, but he is not a head of state, he can’t retire you. I think that’s the only thing I don’t know whether the situation is as a result of mere jealousy, because I was one of the lucky military officers who benefited from the scholarship scheme, and I went to Oklahoma, I read for my first and second degree, came back to Jos and read a third degree.
For a lot of officers, if you are in this category, they tend to fill you think you are too knowledgeable and all that. I don’t know whether it is because of the jealousy as you know jealousy and envy have no medicine and again if somebody looks at your personality from what we are told, and he believes you are the type that can attract beautiful girls more than his, sometimes they get angry, and so I have the misfortune all the time.
The bone of contention
In 1986, when I was governor, his father came to me in Jos, stayed with me and I gave him a job. He did it and I sent a car; the father got a car and during the Christmas, myself and him, we went to the father’s house where we had lunch together. We were going round Otukpo town. Also, when he was military governor in Niger, I go there on weekends; we sleep on the same bed. But along the line, some people came in between us. They will go to this one and say ‘’ do you know what this man was saying about you? He said you are like this and all that, they collect two naira from there, then they will come to me and say the same thing, then I will give them transport money.
Initially, we ignored it, but with time, these go-betweens swelled up the problems and trust and confidence were completely eroded in between the two of us. So if you ask us, we will tell you that none of us had run after any of our girl friends when we were young men. Not as old men now. None of us. We didn’t chase our wives, we don’t do that. So, I cannot pin down anything that is actually responsible, other than maybe envy for a quality you have that I don’t have. Maybe something like that, I am not too sure.
Any hope of reconciliation between the two of you?
Not at this moment, because it’s too late. I have made overtures myself as a person to him, as a junior officer. He is a Brigadier and I am a General and you know the difference between the two. I went to him that we should make peace. I even took my son that we should make peace but he wouldn’t reconcile.
I’ve sent friends like Arthur Eze, George Imoghalu, they went and talked to him that in the past, he should consider the position of minister to me, but he refused. I want it to be on record that during Obasanjo’s time, my name went to Obasanjo seven times for various appointments, ministerial twice, and the senate president stopped them from going through. Yar’adua was my staff in Katsina when I was governor there.
Immediately he became president, because I was in his campaign team throughout the country, he nominated me for Minister of Defense, the Senate President stopped it. He said I didn’t support him, but that I supported Young Alhaji. That was the accusation, so they stopped it. I was again nominated for NSA, he went and said no. And even this Jonathan Goodluck, immediately he came, he nominated me, the Senate President stopped it.
So what makes you think that now that Jonathan has only four months to go before election, what kind of olive branch would you offer to me now? In the next four months to accept what? I am not a hungry person as such. I may be retired and on pension, he may be a Senate President but I am not a hungry person, am a very proud general. And let me tell you, Idoma people did not vote for Senate President, they voted for a senator to represent them. And if you are doing well at home, of cause since there is no limit to National Assembly people they can allow you go as many times as you want. The issue is has he done well in Idoma land? Has he attracted federal presence in Idoma land? The answer is no.
He comes home with helicopter, he doesn’t go by road. If you are traveling between Otukpo and Enugu, you can see the road. That is the number three man coming from the area. If you are traveling from Otukpo to Oju, you can see the road. If you go to Agatu, you can see the road yourself and he comes home in a helicopter so he doesn’t know that these roads are bad.
When I was a military governor, I was able to construct the road through the help of General Abacha of blessed memory from Ogboju to Kogi. I did that road. I was able to ensure the presence of a federal government college at Otobi. David Attah is alive, and when we wrote the memo Abacha approved it.
I was able to ensure as Principal general staff officer, and that is the number three man in the presidency in 1996, three local governments were created in order to make the Idoma area local governments to nine instead of six making us to qualify for state ownership. So, these are my contribution to the development of Idoma land. There is nobody who becomes famous for promises, people will remember you for what you have done as a person not for what you promised to do.
What is your response to insinuations that you had the opportunity to create Apa State?
Those who are of that opinion are people who are bereft or have no knowledge of the basics of politics. My first degree is Political Science and I can tell you that a state is greater than a local government. There is no way I will go for a local government instead of a state for my people. So, that shows you that those people are naive in political theory.
Secondly, in 1996, as a Principal General Staff Officer, I was in charge of all the states and local governments. When Mbanefo’s panel was put in place, and they went round the whole country, they recommended 12 states, two per zone. When they came to north central here, they recommended Nassarawa and Apa.
In fact, Apa state was number seven. But when it came to the actual creation exercise, General Abacha, one of the criteria for creating a state was that the area must not be less than 1.3 million, the Idoma area was 734,000 at that time. So, General Abacha called me and said ‘’ my officer, you have worked with me for five years, unfortunately I am not going to create your state because your population has denied you of a state. I am going to give to Nassarawa because they fulfilled the population criteria’’.
And what Abacha did was to say, I have approved five local governments per state, I am going to allow the Idoma area although you are the minority to take three and let the remaining two go to the Tiv area maybe that will increase the number of your House of assembly members. That is why in Benue here, we have 10 from the Idoma area and the Tivs I think they have about 19.
So, there is no way I can allow just a local government to replace a state. It’s in conceivable, it’s illogical; it just shows that those people do not have any knowledge of political theory. And so it is not true. It’s the work of mischief makers but I do not expect anybody who is sound to believe that kind of story. People will try to spoil my mind, my name and to make me unpopular in the Idoma area but unfortunately, I am not an unpopular person in the Idoma area. You can go round and ask. It’s because of the things I have physically done to improve the environment that I make bold to talk today.
One of the campaign strategies of the Senate President is the issue of Apa State creation. Do you think he as senate president can single-handedly create Apa State?
That campaign to me is a political gimmick construed to deceive Idoma people because I make bold to say here that the Idoma people went to school very early. The first northerner to get a masters degree is an Idoma man. I don’t know if you know history too well. He is Dr. Edwin Ogbu as early as 1957. He got a masters degree along with Azikiwe from Lincon University. Dr. Ogbu was considered for governor of the north but may be because he wasn’t a moslem, they didn’t give him.
The first Tiv graduate was Akiga in 1964. Before 1964, the Idomas have produced graduates because they went to school in Uzuakonu, Nsukka and a few of these places. As at 1995 when I was doing my PhD in Jos, I ran into figures where a primary school enrolment of the Idoma area in 1995 was even higher than the Tiv speaking area.
But now, they have overtaken us and the reasons are obvious and understood by you. So, that Apa State creation is a gimmick because let me tell you, recently, Bankole, the Speaker had said that it is not possible to create states now because it is not on their agenda. Ekweremadu had consistently said that they, the Igbos are the ones who should have a state so that they can balance the number; six per zone except the north-west that has seven.
But that this National Assembly cannot create states because it is not on their agenda. If there was a sincere demonstration on the part of the senate president, when they were reviewing sections of the constitution, they would have reviewed the section that has to do with state creation to make it simple, but they didn’t. So, that is why I was telling you that nobody is popular for promises. You are popular for what you do for people.
Idoma people have been waiting for Apa State for the past 12 years and it has never come. So, any Idoma man who still believes it now is probably out of the moon; he is not a true son of Idoma. It is a political gimmick. When it would come, it would come. We are praying for it and a single person cannot bring a state. It has to be the collective effort of the people.
All the Idoma sons and daughters like me and others would have to make contacts with emirs, chiefs, Olus and talk to them to prevail on the National Assembly when it is finally recommended.
Don’t forget that if you start the process of state creation, it takes not less than five years to complete right from referendum to the referendum signed and of course you must determine the organ that will even conduct the referendum. But as at today, the constitution doesn’t specify who should conduct the referendum. So, they have to get that sorted out. From the referendum stage to the state House of assembly where it would be debated upon and passed, before it is sent to 2/3 of the states in the country, 24 must approve that the state is created.
Then, it comes to the National assembly, each of the Houses will pass it. Then a joint committee would be set up to look at it, to recommend, then they vote on it. It takes about four to five years to complete. After I went round in the nine local governments and explained these procedures, people were saying yes. The man has been deceiving us. If it is true, it should have come 12 years ago yet it has not come. So, people now know that it is a political gimmick aimed at ensuring that he perpetuates himself in the senate forever and that is unacceptable to some of us. A change has to take place.
He has contributed his own, he has reached the zenith. I have never heard of a Senate President who says he wants to contest for Senate. If he goes back now, is it predictable that he will be Senate President? He may not be, it may be. I am told that about 54 of the Senators have lost their bids to come back.
If elected, what would be your area of priority?
I will ensure peace and unity in Idoma land, by ensuring that all those who are elected to either state House of assembly, federal House of assembly, will hold quarterly briefing at the ochidomas palace, to tell idoma people what we should do. That has never happened in the last twelve years in Idoma land. No briefing of any kind, nobody knows what they are doing in the National Assembly, all the money that is approved for constituency project, nobody knows how they spend them and that is not accountability.
I must make sure that whatever is given to me to develop the constituency, I show it to the people and they will be the people to suggest the projects that they think should be done, not me. I have never been part of eating government money. When I governed the plateau and Katsina States, nobody has ever said Onoja was involved in anything to do with corruption and I will be transparent. So my priority is to make sure that there is peace in Idoma land.
Then we can build on development, then using public relations and my contacts we will be able to now make sure that we attract federal presence that the federal roads, if I sit down with a minister of works today and I say I have a problem and I say, you must tar this road for me, that’s how I did it when I was in uniform. Also, I’ll make sure that we respect the traditional institutions that are in existence, they are our fathers and we must respect them, you don’t insult them. You don’t take a vice president to Otukpo and refuse him going to pay courtesy call to Ochi’doma. No.