General Domkat Bali was Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, member, Armed Forces Ruling Council and Minister of Defence when General Ibrahim Babangida (who is marking his 78th birthday on Saturday 17 August 2019), was military President. Bali was the one who, by virtue of his office, announced the execution of General Mamman Vatsa who was tried for an alleged coup plot.
In 2006, TheNEWS team, made up of Babajide Kolade-Otitoju (now of Television Continental, TVC), Ademola Adegbamigbe, Sylvester Asoya, photographer, Akin Farinto, interviewed Bali at Ikoyi Golf Course, Lagos. They asked him that when he worked with Babangida, did he remember one action he took and later thought he should have acted differently? For example the coup trial that involved General Vatsa.
General Bali answered: “I don’t know whether I would. My regret is that up till now, I am not sure whether Vatsa ought to have been killed because whatever evidence they amassed against him was weak. My only regret is that I cannot say, don’t do it’. I am not so sure whether we were right to have killed him.
“That was ok. He was not the only one. There were others involved and the decision of the Council then was that, I being the Chief of Defence Staff (which covers the three services), would be the one to make the announcement. And not only that, we made sure that those who were connected were killed before my announcement. And I said so in my statement that those who were involved had already been executed. And I have asked myself whether I was crazy to have announced something like that.”
General Vatsa Unjustly killed- Domkat Bali
Apart from his retirement and the Vatsa coup, General Bali, in this interview with Senior Editor, BABAJIDE KOLADE-OTITOJU, General ‘Editor, ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, Assistant Editor, SYLVESTER ASOYA and Photojournalist AKIN FARINTO, condemned IBB’s attempt to return to power, murder of Mamman Vatsa and the third term plan of President Olusegun Obasanjo, as well as the economic policies of the two leaders.
For a long time, Nigerians have not heard from you. why have you, until now, chosen to lie low?
I don’t know whether that is very fair. I was not always talking when I was the Minister of Defence. But then you people knew me as frank. But outside the government, I don’t have to go about talking unnecessarily. So I don’t talk much, not by design, but by my nature.
What have you been doing since you left office as Minister of Defence?
It has not been easy to adjust after the military because the military is a routine (wake up in the morning, have your breakfast, go to the office, a scheduled programme every day). So it became part of me. But from the point of retirement, it became strange to wake up in the morning and not knowing what to do. I had to adjust. It was not easy initially, but now I am happy with it. I am happy because you are now the architect of your own program and life. You decide what to do and what not to do. You are not told to do one thing or the other. So you can say I am at home with myself now.
In Nigeria, it is customary for retired Generals to be on the board of companies. They even chair many. Some even own companies. Where do you belong?
I wish I had a company of my own. Talking about being chairman of companies, I have benefited from that up till now. I don’t know why. But I was chairman of HFP Engineering, a Jewish company, when I left government in 1991. It is located in Victoria Garden City. I am no longer chairman and I have no shares in it at all. I was a member of the Board of Trustees of Nigeria Wire and Cable, Ibadan. My shares there are few. I was also a member of the Board of Trustees of an Insurance company. All these kept me going. Apart from those activities as member of the board of some companies, one way or the other, I also dabbled into part-time farming. As a small time farmer, I discovered that Nigerians cheat. They cheat when you are tilling the ground, they cheat when you are harvesting, cheat when you are applying fertilizer and they cheat at every level. It is a terrible Nigerian culture to cheat.
But we hope you have not been frustrated out of farming?
No. I still do it because as I said, I do it as a hobby. There was a time I felt most unhappy. A woman with a child strapped to her back and another one in her arms came to my house and said, “General, we are desperate, we could not eat anything last night, me and my children. And my husband is no more.” She told me that whatever I could give to her, she would appreciate. So I gave her half a bag of maize. I have never seen a more grateful individual. Since then, I have been doing so as a hobby.
Certainly, the involvement of the military in government is abnormal. It is an illegal thing that became legal only by the acceptance of it by the generality of the people. But it is not a normal thing for the military to rule at all. It certainly has affected discipline and professionalism in the military because the regimentation of the military was affected. The normal role of the military during peace time and doing what is relevant to the military became distorted. The attention of the military was diverted from its norms towards governance. That affected the body greatly.
As Defence Minister, a lot of things happened during your tenure. Some were politically motivated. Do you have any regret about playing that role and the circumstances which led to your quitting government at that time?
The only regret is that the Nigerian situation provided the circumstances that led the military into taking over government. I have not regretted being a party to the government. Even today, I tell people that there will come a time, illegal as military regime may be, we cannot have a vacuum. If we do have a vacuum, the military is the only organized body that has the means to intervene if things go bad.
I don’t like to use the word ‘never.’ I made a point earlier on that there must not be a vacuum because nature abhors vacuum. Nature does not accept vacuum. If the people assume that a situation is no longer normal somebody somewhere can take over. The only organized body with the ability to do that is the military.
You will be surprised to hear that we are very good friends. I think Babangida and I understand each other. We know each other, he knows what I can tolerate and what I cannot. He understands that I can be frank but that I will not disgrace him. After I left, one of the places he visited was Langtang (and I come from Langtang). IBB had to pay a visit to the Chief of Langtang. I had to be around because I am from there. Not only that, I was also going to read the Chief’s speech to welcome him to the palace. So there was anxiety in the town as people were saying ‘aha, Bali and Babangida, since they parted company, let’s see what will transpire”. I credit Babangida for his very crafty nature. He came to the palace in a bus full of other people and I was in there when he arrived. I went there to receive them. Babangida simply grabbed me. People were surprised and wondered how the two of us could react to each other the way we did. People saw the two of us embracing each other. They were very surprised because they were expecting tension between both of us.
So have you had cause to talk about the matter since then?
He knows what happened then and I know what happened as well. In all fairness to Babangida, the only time he took me by surprise was when he came to my house to tell me that he intended to dissolve the cabinet. He said we should not worry because he would give us other appointments. My only question to him was: “What appointment will you give me; after all I am a member of the Armed Forces Ruling Council.” I wondered what else he could offer me that was better than what I already had. Anyway he said, ‘Don’t worry,’ He dissolved the cabinet when I was in Jos for a weekend and then appointed me Minister of Internal Affairs. To be very frank with you, the Ministry of Internal Affairs is a very important ministry, but that was not my problem. My problem was that as a military officer, I was senior both to Babangida and Buhari, but I served under both as Minister of Defence and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. I could accept that they were heads of state. You cannot remove the fact that I was a senior to both of them. And when Babangida came, he said, ‘ok, you are no longer Chief of Defence Staff but Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.’ If I am not that then I am also junior to all other military people other than the Head of State, which I would not accept.
I could accept that I was junior to the Head of State but to accept that I was also junior to other junior officers to me, that was unacceptable. That was the main reason that I had to leave. Not because I was made the Minister of Internal Affairs. Some people said it was because I was taking over from John Shagaya who was also a junior officer. Those were not the issues at all.
What you are saying suggests that you do not blame Babangida for all that transpired with regards to your removal
No. I can only say that perhaps he led and made people like us – Gambo, Alfa, Chief of Air Staff – to believe that we were together and that we were the most powerful (only to realize we were not). He dissolved the Council twice. The first was a rehearsal, apparently.
He brought all of us back. The second was the real thing and he did that mainly out of pressure from the junior officers who were at that time looking for appointments. That is the dilemma of the military regime and it reflects on the military itself.
How would you assess his administration, especially handling of the economy?
I personally thought he went too far with the IMF thing. I was more in line with Buhari who did not like the idea of IMF dictating terms to us. I went along with Buhari but Babangida decided to take action. If you remembered, he threw the thing to a national debate to say whether we should accept the terms given by the IMF. The general attitude or thinking suggested that we should not, if I remembered correctly. But he came up to say we should allow him to take a decision and implement things. I cannot remember exactly how he put it. But it was that whether we liked it or not, we should allow him to dictate what to do. To that extent, he went too far. Along the line, he got carried away, but I think he had god intentions.
You said that he must have been misled by junior officers. A lot of people believe that Babangida actually had good intentions and started well, but that along the line, the likes of the late General Sani Abacha hijacked his government and began to dictate to him. Do you share this view?
Why do you want me to repeat myself? I don’t know who hijacked his government. I didn’t mention names. I said some junior officers, along the line, influenced him to effect the changes, hence all the young boys became appointed as ministers and whatever.
When you worked with Babangida as Defence Minister, do you remember one action you took and you think you should have acted differently? For example there was the coup trial that involved General Vatsa. Would you have acted differently?
I don’t know whether I would. My regret is that up till now, I am not sure whether Vatsa ought to have been killed because whatever evidence they amassed against him was weak. My only regret is that I cannot say, don’t do it’. I am not so sure whether we were right to have killed him.
The lot was on you to announce the execution….
That was ok. He was not the only one. There were others involved and the decision of the Council then was that, I being the Chief of Defence Staff (which covers the three services), would be the one to make the announcement. And not only that, we made sure that those who were connected were killed before my announcement. And I said so in my statement that those who were involved had already been executed. And I have asked myself whether I was crazy to have announced something like that.
What kind of soldier was Vatsa?
He was a very good soldier. I can tell you for sure that Vatsa was a very good soldier.
People said he hated Babangida to a fault!
No. I think there must be something between the two of them. I think they went to the same secondary school or something like that. There was something between them since secondary school days. I think that they didn’t seem to trust each other much. It may have been something that started when they were in secondary school that created that long-term hatred.
When Babangida assumed power, he appeared populist but over time, he became stronger and more powerful. How did he achieve that when people like you were around?
You should ask Babangida that question!
But Babangida is a very jovial person and he is a man that you can get to like easily. He portrays himself as a very likeable person, cheerful and kind.
He wants to come back and rule Nigeria again. What is your opinion about that?
If I meet him and he asks for my personal opinion, I would advise him to be a kingmaker not a king. That is my advice to him. I do not support his coming back.
There is a speculation all round, and some people are actually campaigning that President Obasanjo should elongate his tenure. What do you think will happen if he goes ahead?
That money is changing hands on account of this is one of the saddest parts of Nigerian politics. To start with, my disappointment is the fact that we are being led by people (most of whom) were not elected at all. Democracy, I was told in the secondary school is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is not a government of cheats who are bent on looting the treasury. That is what we are having now. So I don’t believe we are practicing democracy at all. To that extent, my disappointment is that we are not practicing what democracy should be.,
What is your personal disappointment about this clamour for a third term?
As far as I am concerned, the third term issue is very wrong. The right thing, people say, is that we the military gave the constitution. It is not a valid argument. The constitution is a document backed by generations of Nigerians and it states that ‘we Nigerians have accepted blab la bla.’ That is the preamble of the national constitution. It may have been drafted under the military and handed over to the civilians. To that extent, they are right, they said it was Babangida who sat down and drafted it. It wasn’t him. it was a group of civilians who drafted it. When you talk about the people of Nigeria, soldiers are not many – the Head of State, governors and a few ministers. All the others, including ministers, are civilians.
Can you do a comparison of the economy now and during your time?
What I never liked about the Babangida regime is the devaluation of the Nigerian currency. What I give the Abacha government credit for is that he kept the Nigerian currency stable throughout the time he was there. Now I don’t know. I can give Obasanjo credit for a lot of reforms he has been carrying out, including privatization and so on. There are positive issues on those grounds. But he himself blamed Babangida and said that reform must be with human face. Obasanjo must also allow his reforms to have human face.
It has been argued that power should be shared along geo-political lines, but some people, especially in the North, are of the opinion that power must be rotated along North and South rather than geo-political lines. Where do you stand on this issue?
If power has to be rotated at all, it should be on ethnic basis. I agree with General Gowon on that. It should be the Hausa/Fulani, the majority in the North, the Yoruba in the West, the Ibos in the East and the minority in the South-South. That is, if power must rotate at all. But I personally do not believe that power should rotate, if things are fairly done, if people are free to elect people. As I said, people are now rigging election for the sole purpose of putting themselves into offices in order to loot. So I don’t believe in rotation personally. But if it must be done because of the need for unity, it must follow the arrangement I discussed earlier. Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba of the West, Ibo of the East, minority of the North and of the South-South. That is, if there must be rotation at all.
I want you to appraise President Obasanjo on his anti-corruption crusade.
Obasanjo means well in this regard. I said so earlier on. I think and believe so, One of the greatest problems we have in this country is corruption. It is the biggest evil that has permeated all facets of the Nigerian society. The civil service, I don’t know whether the banks are spared but the civil service has already been corrupted. Corruption is a serious issue. There is an anti-corruption official who has a child in my wife’s school in Abuja so when I met him at the Parent/Teachers Association meeting, I congratulated him and said well done for doing a good job. But unfortunately, over the period, people are saying that he has become a tool for Obasanjo against people he doesn’t like. That is a negative part and I said you cannot fight corruption if you yourself are corrupt. But you need to fight corruption with somebody who himself is upright.
There are some lawmakers who are taking money to ensure that Obasanjo’s third term materializes. How can he be said to be fighting corruption under such circumstances.
I agree with you that it is a wrong way to fight corruption. Nigeria needs a very strong leader. I can even offer that Nigeria needs a benevolent dictator, a man who wants the greater good of Nigeria. But you cannot fight corruption when even you are encouraging corruption. But some people will say at least he is fighting corruption. I keep telling them that he is selective.
Are you interested in political office?
I don’t fit into Nigerian politics. As of now, I don’t because I am not used to being told lies. I am not used to telling lies to people. I am not used to bribing my way to get things done. It is not my nature.
You fought in the civil war. Do you have any fear that if care is not taken, Nigeria may experience another civil war?
I honestly have none. The first one was even a mistake to have happened at all. I dread that another one should happen. I don’t know of any country that has survived too many civil wars. And I am a strong believer in one Nigeria. I tell you what, I come from a small tribe – the Tarok tribe in Langtang. It is a small tribe within a small group. If the North secures independence from the rest of the country, the Hausa/Fulani will be so dominant that they will lord it over us whether we like it or not. A bigger Nigeria will check such excesses. So the bigger Nigeria is, the freer the tribe and myself will be. I am a strong believer in Nigeria.
There is this talk about Langtang Mafia, powerful retired soldiers. Is it real and does the Langtang Mafia still exist?
I wish it is real!
But how did such a large crops of brilliant officers come from a small zone?
All I can say is that it is partly co-incidental and partly the value system. Where I come from, people admire valour. Even as children after the second world war, soldiers who returned from the war would march as soldiers and harass market women, drink their burukutu free and go away. There was the attitude that soldiers were brave people who have fought all over the world. I like the police but there are not many of us in the police. Police are not regarded in the same manner. So it is not by co-incidence alone but by value system of the people. They admire bravery.
How, in a nutshell, would you describe the Nigerian president as a leader and soldier?
He was my senior, don’t let me abuse my senior. In the army, that is criminal.
Vatsa: A Taciturn General
There is an aura of venerability around individuals who do not talk frivolously. And when such people talk, their utterances are respected. That, in many ways, applies to General Domkat Bali, a former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida (IBB).
Since he quit the army in 1990, Bali has kept a low profile, spending his time in private business. At various times, he has been chairman, HFP Engineering, an Israeli company based in Lagos, and member, Board of Trustees, Nigeria Wire and Cable, Ibadan.
He also tried his hands at farming and almost withdrew from this engagement because of frustrations caused by cheats who worked for him. But the pathetic condition of a nursing mother who came to his house in Langtang, Plateau State, begging for food, changed that. Bali gave her half a bag of maize. When the retired General is not on his farm, he occupies himself with the game of golf.
Although taciturn, he was highly respected in the military. In 1983 when Bali was the Director, Army Training and Operations, President Shehu Shagari ordered the withdrawal of troops he had earlier deployed to the North-Eastern Nigeria to curb the activities of smugglers.
However, Major General Muhammadu Buhari, then General Officer Commanding (GOC) 3rd Armoured Division Jos, refused to obey Shagari’s order. The Chief of Army Staff, General Garba Wushishi, had to order the withdrawal, which Buhari grudgingly obeyed.
A rift developed between the politicians and the military, which wanted to carry out a putsch. To do that, the coupists needed to consult the most senior army officer – Bali. They sent Babangida. Bali reportedly advised the officers to “give the politicians time to sort themselves out”.
One day, Bali was on his way to Langtang and decided to pay Buhari a visit in Jos. The GOC seized the opportunity to persuade Bali to support the coup against the “corrupt and undisciplined politicians” Bali agreed.
When Babangida ousted Buhari in August 1985, he still found space for Bali, his senior, whom he appointed Defence Minister and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, there were two developments which Bali would always remember with some measure of sadness: the circumstances surrounding his retirement and the execution of General Mamman Jiya Vatsa over an alleged coup plot.
On 17 December 1985, over 100 officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force were picked up and, for three weeks, probed by the Brigadier-General Sani Sami-led Preliminary Special Investigation Panel. Seventeen of them were court-martialled at the Brigade of Guards Headquarters, Lagos, by a Special Military Tribunal convened by Bali.
Those accused were Major-General Vatsa, Lt. Cols. Musa Bitiyong, Christian A. Oche, Michael A. Iyorshe, M. Effiong; Majors D.I. Bamidele, D.E. West, J.O. Onyeke and Tobias G. Akwashiki; Gaptain G.I.L. Sese and Lt. K.G. Dapka. Others were Commodore A.A. Ogwiji; Wing Commander B.E.N. Ekele and Adamu Sakaba, and Squadron Leaders Martin Luther, C. Ode and A. Ahura.
They were tried under the Treason and Other Offences (Special Military Tribunal) Decree No 1, 1986.The tribunal was chaired by Major-General Charles Ndiomu. Other members were Brigadier YerimaYohanna Kure, Commodore MurtalaNyarko, Col. Rufus Kupolati, Col. E. Opaleye, Lt. Col. D. Muhammed, Alhaji Mamman Nassarawa, a Commissioner of Police, and Major A Kejawa, the Judge Advocate.
Vatsa, according to Nowa Omoigui a defence analyst, was accused of financing a coup “using the cover of a farming loan to Lt. Col. Musa Bitiyong. “Worse still, Bitiyong was allegedly tortured to implicate Vatsa by making reference to certain private political conversations they had, which Vatsa denied.”
Vatsa was also accused of “harbouring bad blood against his friend and classmate, Babagida.”
General Bali told THE NEWS: “I think there must be something between the two of them. I think they went to the same secondary school or something. There was something between them since their secondary school days. I think they didn’t trust each other much. It must be something that started when they were in secondary school that created that long-term hatred.” Revealing his regret, Bali said “I am not sure whether Vatsa ought to have been killed, because the evidence they amassed against him was weak. My only regret is that I could not say ‘don’t do it” I am not so sure whether we were right to have killed him.”
The second experience that still pains Bali was the way he left the military. When Babangida reshuffled his cabinet on 29 December 1989, he removed Bali as Defence Minister and pushed him to internal Affairs. He refused to accept the position and left. In his words: “I could accept that I was junior of the Head of State, but to accept that I was also junior to other junior officers, to me, was unacceptable.”
Born on 27 February 1940 in Zamko, Langtang, Plateau State. Bali attended elementary schools at Mban and Langtang, Plateau State, and the Provincial Secondary School, Kuru, from 1955 to 1960. Bali’s military career began when he entered the Nigerian Military Training College, Kaduna in April 1961. He later attended the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, England in 1961 and had further military training at the Gunnery Staff Course, Larkhill, UK in 1968; Staff College, Camberley, Surrey, and the Royal College of Defence, Cowdon, U.K.
When Bali was commissioned a Lieutenant and later, Captain, he was appointed Battery Commander, Nigerian Army and commander, Artillery Regiment. As a Major in 1968, he became Commander, Corps of Artillery, a position he held till 1970 when he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
In 1973, he was appointed Commandant, 9th Infantry Brigade, Nigerian Army, Akure. The next year later, he became the Adjutant-General of the Nigerian Army. In 1976, Bali was promoted to Brigadier and sent to command the Corps of Artillery. The following year, he became the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 1st Mechanised Infantry Division Kaduna and later , GOC, 4th Infantry Division, Lagos. He was in that position till 1979 when he was elevated to Major-General and became the Commandant, Command and Staff College, Jaji and later Director, Army Training and Operations. He occupied this position till 1983 when the military struck.
The new military regime, headed by General Muhammadu Buhari, appointed Bali as Minister of Defence, Chief of Defence Staff and member, defunct Supreme Military Council. When Babangida took over in August 1985, he appointed Bali Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, member, Armed Forces Ruling Council and Minister of Defence. Bali retired as a Lieutenant-General in 1990.
Since his retirement he has been Chairman, Yakubu Gowon Centre and the Pan-African Association of Telecommunications Congress.