Major Debo Bashorun (rtd) was the embattled press secretary of the ex-military President Ibrahim Babangida. He is about to release an explosive book on the death of Dele Giwa and the alleged government involvement. He spoke on this and other issues to Associate Editor, Taiwo Ogudipe.
WHY has it taken you so long to come up with this book?
Launching this book at this particular time is deliberate. But the book has been ready since 1994 when I was in the United States. I was already through with the manuscript but I was looking for an ideal situation or timing where the book will not be misconstrued to project what it does really meant to be. I’ve chosen this time to come out with the book so that nobody would say I’m being sponsored by some politicians either on the right or the left, or that somebody has given me money. So, I’ve decided to come out clean now for the public to judge and to know what transpired when I was in the presidency of General Babangida.
How did you start your military career?
I got into the army as a private soldier. The story of how I did that is very interesting. I had a job with one of the big commercial companies in Lagos. I was sort of given a little promotion and I went somewhere to celebrate it with my girlfriend. That was immediately after the first military coup in the country in 1996. A soldier whom I later understood to be a recruit came in and badgered on us. We gave him drinks. He wanted to snatch my girlfriend and take her away. I resisted. He rained blows on me. He thereafter went to Abalti Barracks (in Lagos) to get his colleagues and came to sack the whole area. That was when I made up mind that I was going to join the army to correct that injustice.
Where exactly did the incident happen?
It was at the Boundary Hotel, Idi Oro (in Lagos). At that material time, Lagos Colony and Western Region had their boundary at Idi Oro.
How was your growth in the army?
I got into the army, I was trained and as soon as we graduated, I was posted to Ibadan. It was at Ibadan that one of the guys who were with me as recruits came back after a brief foray to the war front with the rank of lance corporal with just a stripe. I was still a private soldier. I was thinking if he could become a lance corporal, I should be one too, knowing full well that we knew each other during the training. We knew those who were better than us and those who were not as good as us. So, this guy came in and started telling us stories about the Civil War. I got mesmerised and said I was going to fight in the war front to get some promotion myself. And that was how I did it.
I had my baptismal fire in the Second Division at the Onitsha Sector. I was wounded. I came back to Lagos as a staff sergeant. I was sent to the Armed Forces Resettlement Centre at Oshodi. It was one of those days when the then Colonel Benjamin Adekunle used to go around snatching soldiers from the streets. He came to that unit and I was one of those who were sent to the Third Marine Commando. We were shipped to Port Harcourt which had just been liberated.
I became a platoon commander, a battalion commander. My battalion was 31 Battalion, 12th Brigade under the command of Lt. Col. Macaulay Isemede. One Captain Sotayo was the Brigade Major. We had the likes of General Lawrence Onoja in the brigade too.
How did you get to be with Babangida?
After the Civil War, I realised that infantry officers are not all soldiers. As good as they came that time, there wasn’t any future for them. So I decided to look for something else that could guarantee me a future. On my own, I decided to become a journalist. I started reading on my own and I took the exam to the Nigerian Institute of Journalism where I had my first stint with journalism in 1971. I took subediting course. The NIJ was then at Apongbon (in Lagos).
It took a while for me to get into the Information Unit. I virtually had to force myself to get into where I thought I might be useful. In the infantry they were not allowing soldiers to leave. But I put pressure on the authorities, sending letters of request. Eventually, they caved in. So I joined the Public Relations Corps which was then under the command of Brigadier Folusho Shotomi. He groomed me and sent me to sandwich courses here and there. That was how I learnt through the ropes.
The first coup made IBB Chief of Army Staff. Prior to that time, I had a two-year stint undergoing the editor course at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism then at Victoria Island in 1980. I also just came back from a UN assignment. I was posted to become the public relations officer to the then Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Wushishi. That was where I first met IBB who was then the Director of Army Staff Duties. We got along fine. He was the person who actually created the environment for me to thrive. Gen. Wushishi was one officer you wouldn’t want to work with. He did not care about the welfare of the junior officers. But Babangida was a different kettle of fish then. He was very popular in the army, very well liked. That was when we got together.
During the second coup, he moved from being the Director of Army Staff Duties to become the Chief of Army Staff. Babangida sent for me and he said I was to be his public relations officer. The relationship blossomed and I got involved in his domestic issues, his flagstaff house, the staff there, the family and such other things outside official scope that he asked me to carry out. So, we became very close and friendly.
Eighteen months after that, he and his team struck and he became the head of state after they toppled General Buhari. And he just took me along to continue to work for him and I became press secretary to him.
Babangida had a very good press then. How did that come about?
Short of praising myself, the Nigerian press was very generous to him because of his antecedents as the Chief of Army Staff. He was then detribalised. He called people by their first names. He looked into the welfare of soldiers and officers under him as well as those who were not even under him. So when the coup against Buhari happened, the ovation was very loud for Babangida, saying here was the man who would solve the problems of the country. Everybody was saying He was God sent.
But as time went by, it was discovered that not all that glittered was gold. We thought at the initial stage that we were going into a welfarist government. Gradually, things were taking a turn for the worst. The people were becoming poorer through our policies. And those who dared protest were either thrown into detention or brutalised. Those were the accusations that General Babangida himself on assuming office levelled against the government of Generals Babangida and Idiagbon. When he started getting into these, some of us who were closer to him tried to appeal to him. But you know in the army there is a limit to how you can go.
Was he not listening to his advisers?
You remember Chief Olu Falae was one-time Secretary to the Government and Head of Service. He was a professional to the core. But it is one thing in the military for you to be a professional and it is another thing to be under a commander who doesn’t care what you know. So that’s the problem with the army. There are still traces of that in the army today but the army is changing. Thank God. However, it is not what you know in the army. There is a saying in the army that if you know your rights and you are not given, what can you do?
However, I wasn’t privy to the meetings between Babangida and the likes of Falae. But some of us were sounding boards to what was going on. We collected data from newspaper clippings and so on. We collected bits of information from friends and from what people were saying and handed them over to him. But it was left for him to either take action the way we thought it should be done or he did it his own way.
Some observers were of the opinion that your regime seemed to liberalise drug running, a malaise that General Buhari was accused of handling in a draconian manner. What do you have to say about this?
Well, the records are there for everybody to see. When we were in the army, as chief of staff, one of the assignments that I catered for was handling people coming in and out through the airports. I would be sent to clear the people. At the material time, I wasn’t aware that anything was wrong.