Lt. General Jeremiah Useni is the man that played the prominent role 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 by Brave Heart Ibe Anthony, 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. Excerpts…
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.
Many people were afraid of joining the Army at the time you joined. Were your parents alive at the time?
They were alive. It was my father’s friends that did not want me to join. My father was a Royal Guard, and you know a royal guard does not fear anything. He was the most influential official next to the emir, who knows any judge at time? We didn’t even see a policeman until we went to Jos. My father’s friends were advising him not to risk his only son, because I was an only child, but he said since that was what I wanted, I should go ahead, he told them that only God would decide if I live or die.
You had some time with the Sardauna and his Ministers, such as Michael Audu Buba?
We just hear them speak on the radio, or read about them in Newspapers, but I saw Sardauna a lot when I was in Boys Company. He used to visit us, because there was a sugar cane farm, where we used to train, and after such trainings, most of us do get some sugar cane in the farm. Sardauna used to come there and we saw him a lot. I first saw him in 1957.
After your return from England, Sardauna , Tafawa Balewa and others were killed in 1966. Where were you at the time?
I was with 4th Battalion Ibadan. The coup came to us as a surprise, like a thief in the night. We just heard in the morning that Sardauna and the rest were killed. In fact, we did not get the news on time. Where was our C.O Lt. Col. Largema? and Brig. Maimalari and Col Kur Mohammed? We learnt they were all killed. And we asked, what type of coup was that? At the time, we were not concerned with where you came from or what your religion was. As long as you were from the north, we cherish each other so much.
So we organised ourselves and agreed that what happened was very dangerous. We also learnt later that a broad government was being formed. A northerner will be transferred to the South, while a Southerner will be transferred to the north. General Hassan katsina was the governor of the north at the time. People like Kashim Ibrahim were also gone. So those of us, Army officers from the north were very angry really.
What was your rank at the time?
I was a Second Lieutenant then, my mates were Ibrahim Babangida, Garba Duba, Mamman Magoro, and the rest. I was together with Yelwa in 4th Battalion, while Duba was in Kaduna. There was another officer from Niger state, I have forgotten his name, and he was even a Senator recently. We realised that Igbos were behind all the killings, and were angered the more because they were not even arrested. Although, they were later arrested and taken to jail, but information came to us that they were just enjoying themselves there. Even their ranks were returned to them and they were wearing their uniforms inside the jail.
We started meeting to find a way out. Our Brigade Commander, Maimalari was killed, Col. Pam, Tafawa Balewa and the rest were all killed. We continued to meet in secret and strategising on how to take revenge.
But while that was going on, words started going round about what the Igbo officers were saying: that they had killed the snake, but had failed to cut off the head. Which meant those of us left might make them suffer later, that there was therefore the need to finish us off. Instead of them to show remorse and apologise, they were planning another sinister attacks. We were together with Col. Remawa at the time, he was serving in Abeokuta, and we heard of a grand plot to kill our emirs. A meeting of all emirs was called in Ibadan, all our emirs gathered in Ibadan, that the head of state, Ironsi, would address them. So we said, are we going to let him come, address them and leave? Or should we just kill him or what? Our fear was that he was in the company of our emirs, and you know bullets do not select whom to hit. What do we do? We don’t want even a single emir to die.
We also considered arresting him at his lodge before he goes to meet with them. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi was the governor of South West at the time, and the head of state, Ironsi, was staying in his house in Ibadan. So we don’t want a situation where they would say he conspired with us. So we decided the best thing to do was to open fire there even if Governor Fajuyi was also caught, so that they would just be buried together, and that was what happened.
Before that time, a party was organised for officers, they brought all sort of drinks for us there. In fact, since joining the Army, I had never seen so many assorted drinks like the one they brought for us that day. The plan was to get us all drunk, so that they would just come and open fire on us and kill us all. That was what they planned for us at the 4th Battalion Ibadan because we were the most feared, because we were the ones who lost a brigade Commander, Lagerma. When Murtala returned from Lagos empty handed, everyone was just crying because Lagerma was a very nice man. After the Coup, Gowon was made the Head of state.
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.