By Boladei Igali, Ph.D
In almost all of history, the opportunity to serve in a country’s armed forces is considered as the height of unmatched noblese, valor and glory. However, people are attracted to the armed forces for different reasons. For most, it is the pledge and avowal to place one’s life at the altitude of protecting the safety and peace of the real. In a few number of cases, even in peace times, as was the case of some great Nigerians in the late 1950s and 60s, it was a matter of altruistic mobilization and enlistment by the hands of the great Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello. Ironically, a lot of these people later became some of the most outstanding personnel of the country’s military service. Later, a few of them even became some of the most visible military rulers of this country that influenced the political history in no few ways. Yet still, some others are often attracted to the armed forces bearing on their smart uniforms, regimental lifestyle and the discipline, synchronic parades and ordered ordinances, these being default characteristics of the armed forces.
How Life Started For the Isoko Boy
For Major General Paul Ufuoma Omu, entry into the armed forces was simply a calling to put one’s life on the line for his country, realizing that its end result could as well be a close shave with death or actual incidence of paying the supreme price. He priced those famed words of Martin Luther King, Jnr that “If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” It was on July 1st, 1940 that Omu was born in the town of Igbide in the Isoko area of what used to be Mid-West Province but is today in Delta State of Nigeria. Geographically, the Isoko nation which is located in the north west of the Niger Delta region is one of the main ethnic groups in the area. Isoko communities’ shares populations present in Delta and Bayelsa States and are known to be amongst the most peaceful groups in the Niger Delta. Similar to Omu, other great Isoko sons and daughters such as Daddy Showkey, Fred Amata, Orezi, and Mamude Akugha are highly valued super stars in Nigeria’s public space. With most of its communities lying on the banks of the tributaries of the Forcados River, Omu started life like any other Isoko boy, fishing and farming. But his parents were determined for him to acquire the best of western education and become part of the new modernism that was creeping all over. In his infant years, he had his basic education at St. Phillip’s Anglican School in his village from 1947 to 1954, and later continued secondary at ZIKS Academy in Sapele Town. For Omu, going out of a small traditional town setting such as Igbide to Sapele town, which at the time was the big metropolis in the area was a turning point. This was due to the fact that he was able to see the kaleidoscope of inter-ethnic mix, commercial enterprise and civic-political activities around him and the area. Apart from his own Isoko people, he then had to intermingle and work hard to the top with young people from other groups, Ijaws, Urhobos, Ndokwas, Oshimili (Ibos), Abohs, Itsekiris, etc.
Born during the Second World War, and entering a town, where news and all manner of myths abounded, he became fascinated with the stories of men who came back alive after their participation in fighting for the British Empire in such places as Burma, Palestine, etc. In retrospect, 45,000 men from the Nigerian Army had fought in North Africa, Palestine and South-East Asia. Despite the fact that these stories included accounts that World War II took 72 million to 85 million lives, and could have naturally scared away any young man, for the young Omu, it enamored him the more to present himself for service. As such, after a brief stint as an amateur teacher, upon the completion of his secondary education, he offered himself for military service on December 10, 1962, and thereon continued to ascend the honours roll of distinction.
Preparation For Service
General Omu’s entry to military service saw him go through, along with his peers, normal training at the Nigerian Military Training, Kaduna and later on, at the MONS Officers Cadets School in Aldershot, United Kingdom. MONS was originally the elite school for Royal Signals Training built as far back as 1927, as a special-purpose institution that served the entire Commonwealth of Nations. However, the status of MONS became elevated in 1939 when the 161 Infantry Officers Cadette Training Unit (RMC) that was hitherto located at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst was moved to MONS. Indeed by the time Omu arrived at MONS, the Royal Artillery and Royal Armored Corps had also been added to the portfolio of the institution, making it the select military school in United Kingdom. To this extent, MONS shared same ideals as its American counterpart at WestPoint being “to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honour, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army”.
Omu therefore received the perks of military training which was not only intensive but deliberately made, being a product that was best fashioned for any form of service. Some other top military officers such as General Hassan Katsina, former Governor of Northern Region and Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Army, Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, First Quarter-Master General of the Nigerian Army, who led Biafra to succession as well as General Sanni Abacha, former Military President of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, General Joseph Garba, former Nigerian Diplomat and not the least, Ghanaian Head of State, General Akwasi Afrifa, were all products of MONS. Interesting enough, Omu joined the army on the same day as several top Nigeria’s military leaders. To wit, General Ibrahim Babangida who later became Nigeria’s sixth Head of State. Also, both Col. Sanni Bello and General Garba Duba, both of whom were state governors and power brokers during the military era were also his mates. Besides being a Governor, Sanni Bello is reputed as being aide de camp (ADC) to Major-General Johnson Aguiyi- Ironsi, who interesting enough, was eliminated in a counter-coup in which his friend Garba Duba, is believed to have been one of masterminds. Omu, was therefore at the core of the intelligentsia of the military elite who dominated politics and governance for a good part of Nigeria’s history.
Later in life, he did additional military training courses in the School of Infantry Warminster in the United Kingdom, as well as in the Royal College of Defense Studies in London alongside the prestigious Command and Staff College, Jaji as one of the pioneer participants.
Professional Soldier Per Excellence
For much of his career, Omu was a military officer though and through. From July 25 1963 when he was commissioned, he resigned himself to military duties in the barracks. He is also known to have fought with gallantry during the Nigerian civil war. When the war started in 1967, perhaps because of his origins and bravery, he was assigned as Platoon Commander to dislodge the rebel Biafran troops which had entered Benin, the capital of his own Mid-West region. It turned our sweet and bitter. Although he achieved his object well enough, he was shot in the arm and still bears that scars of a whether beaten general, just like his course mate, Gen Babangida. Down the line, he was appointed Assistant Quarter-Master General of the Second Infantry Division. He is easy to attribute his emerging from the rest of the war unscathed, not to personal valor, tack or other personal qualities, but to the grace of God and the continued intercessions and tireless work of his parents in the Anglican church in what is today known today as Oleh Diocese. Although they never knew or initially approved his entry into military service, like most parents, Pa Samuel Omu and Ma Oghogho, became their shining cavalier and never relented in their own self-imposed responsibilities of intercession; a duty to which the entire Igbide town bound itself to.
After the Civil War ended in January 1970 he had his first major international military assignment by becoming a Member of the Commonwealth Composed Military Tribunal in Trinidad and Tobago which work was completed in 1971. On return to Nigeria, Omu was appointed Commanding officer Third Division Training School, Port Harcourt, a duty which he combined with being the Assistant Adjutant General of the entire Third Division. By 1973 when he was already a Lieutenant Colonel, he was appointed Commanding Officer of the 36-Infantry Battalion, Uyo and later 18 Infantry Battalion, Ikot-Ekpene. Thereafter, he rose to become Commander of the 13-Infantry Brigade Calabar.
Infusion Into Civil Governance
Having carved out a niche for himself as an “adjutant”, that is a staff officer with broad administrative duties, both within the Nigerian Army and with military assignment in the Caribbean, Omu was appointed to perform military juristic duties during his period between Port Harcourt and Uyo. He therefore also served in armed robbery tribunals located in Uyo at the time. With such top military appointment, his visibility could not be obscured at a time when the military where still holding onto power in Nigeria. So, it was not surprising when in July 1975 he was announced as the new Governor of the then Southeastern State which was later renamed Cross River State of which Akwa Ibom State was created much later. It was actually General Murtala Mohammed who had joined the army four years earlier than him and later became the fourth head of state in Nigeria that announced him to lead one of Nigeria’s most important states. Although he had been a thoroughbred military officer, his path and that of Gen. Mohammed had previously not crossed. However, it is believed by some colleagues, that Gen Mohammed who had come with a puritan and activist government had wanted officers of impeccable character and disposition, hence the choice of Omu.
The South-Eastern State where Gen. Omu held sway at the time was quite unique for several reasons. First and foremost is the fact that it was a place of great history significance, including the fact that Calabar, its capital was at a time Nigeria’s administrative centrepoint as Her Majesty’s Consul John Beecroft and successors operated, and ruled much of Nigeria from there. The Efik people of Calabar, unlike much of Nigeria, were therefore sufficiently urbane and enlightened. But more than that, the state was a microcosm of Nigeria, replete with a crossbred of ethnic diversity and heterogeneity. A great historian, Professor Emmanuel Ayandele, first Vice Chancellor of University of Calabar, who coincidentally met Omu as Governor referred to the state at the time, quite arguably, as “an atomistic society, perpetually at war with itself”. Added to this, South-Eastern State of the time was also one of the main oil producing communities, and had all the endemic problems that characterized the Niger Delta. Despite all these, Omu’s legacy in Cross River State includes the fact that he is remembered for the great work of urban renewal which he undertook to give the Calabar City, with the help of his wife, Stella Omu its face look which has continued till today. It is also worthy of note that the Margaret Ekpo International Airport as well as University of Calabar were attracted to the city during his time.
As it is commonly said in reference to the military, “soldiers come and go but the barrack remains”. So in 1978 he finished his service as governor and moved on with promotion as Brigadier-General to command the Third Mechanized Infantry Brigade Kano. Under a military regime, by that office, he was also a member of the Supreme Military Council – the few members ruling junta of those days. Shortly after that, he was moved as Commandant of the Staff College Jaji effective 1985 through 1988, during which time he acted as the GOC 1st Mechanized Division which also qualified him to seat in Supreme Military Council, later renamed the Armed Forces Ruling Council.
In 1984 however, the then military government headed by President Buhari, sought for an incorruptible military officer to help try the high and mighty politicians who had been kicked out of power during the Second Republic, a period covering 1979 through 1983. In particular was the work at the Lagos Tribunal where some of the biggest names were going to face justice. Operating under a draconian military decree and out of personal inverness to fleece and malfeasance, some of the sentences passed down by the tribunal are considered excessive by many legal experts. Thereafter, he became Principal Joint Staff Officer, Ministry of Defense. He was later appointed Director General NIPPS Kuru from where he voluntary retired in September 1990 which was, as it were, his last major assignment while still in uniform.
It would not be complete to speak of General Omu’s odyssey as a top military brass without mentioning his role in bringing sustained economic and social development to his own Niger Delta. With the abrogation of the 1963 constitution and the removal of 50% derivation to mineral producing states, the Niger Delta started to wallow in neglect and environmental despoliation while its oil was being carted away to develop the rest of the country. Naturally, this started to fuel agitation of various forms. The military government as a result allocated 1% to them, which was completely paltry. This therefore fueled more agitation. With the rising tide of petitions from various Niger Delta leaders, including Chief Harold Dappa-Birinye, Chief Melford Okilo, Chief Edwin Clark, Dr. Jasper Jombo and various youth leaders amongst others, the government of Babaginda decided to come up with a framework to deal with this matter. A subcommittee of the Armed Forces Ruling Council chaired by Omu was therefore constituted to make recommendations. It was the outcome of that work that in 1993 led to the establishment of the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) as a special purpose vehicle. In addition, 1.5% derivation to oil producing areas was also approved. While the meetings of the Armed Forces Ruling Council were often held in secrecy, it has now become common knowledge that a sub-committee of the body headed by Omu was behind this recommendation.
Life since taking off the jack-boots
Since after retirement, Omu has continued to keep himself busy, principally with various community-based activities. Principally, he humbled himself to become the President-General of the Isoko Development Union (IDU) and has helped greatly to bring his people together for development. However, as the military government of Babangida planned on transferring power to civilian rule, Omu was again tasked in 1986 by his friend IBB to head a Nine-Man Panel to review the recommendations of a Political Bureau which had been appointed. It is accepted by political watchers that the submissions by the panel which he chaired on this instance went a long way to fine-tune the brief democratic experience of the Third Republic in 1993. Unfortunately the refusal of the military to allow the Third Republic to grow and mature, including the annulment of June 12 1993 General Election frustrated and oblique all his entire effort
In other post-retirement moves, Omu who is tarcitum most of the time and known for his military stoicism, could not watch partisan politics pass him bye and therefore took membership of the then dominant Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Being a broad-minded man, he also encouraged his wife Stella Omu to join him in politics. Yes, she not only became a Senator representing Delta South, but emerged the first woman to attain the status of Majority Chief Whip of Nigeria’s upper chamber. Gen Omu himself undertook various assignments for the party, including accepting appointment, in April 2008, as Chairman South-South Reconciliation Committee of the party in the Niger Delta region. Similarly, in July 2008, in his own Delta State, the then Governor, and Emmanuel Uduaghan, called him out again to join in formulating a perspective developmental agenda which he dubbed “Delta State Vision 2020 Council”.
About ten years ago, former President Umaru Yar’adua appointed Omu as Chairman of the ten-member Governing Board of the highest level national think-tank, National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS). Beyond simply overseeing the management of this important body, he was also requested by the President to study and make recommendations on reviewing the laws establishing NIPSS. Still basking in retirement and enjoying the quiet and peace of his Isoko countryside, he was again summoned by Nigeria’s immediate past President, Goodluck Jonathan, to join the 492 assembly of wise men in Nigeria 2014 National Conference during which he was renowned to have made some of the most far-reaching contributions. He took an equivocal call for “restructuring” Nigeria, meaning the need to return the country, as much as took to its original federative principles which were conditions precedent by the founding fathers, before the military men of his kind stepped.
Today, Omu joins the club of the country’s older citizens. He has been honoured severally with professional, traditional and high national honours, not the least Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR). At eighty, General Omu stands tall, basking in his record of unblemished military service. It is often said that a good name is better than silver and gold. No doubt, Omu’s military service was quite rewarding, touching every facet of his chosen path. Wherever he served, both senior and younger officers got inspired by his high level of professionalism, transparency and integrity. He has earned the good standing among his generation of military rulers, some of whom are not so much applauded, stands out like a lighthouse.
It was William Shakespeare who once said that “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” No doubt, Omu saw his path in life far ahead. Like many other great and wise men of history, he worked hard not to be sullied by the attraction of immediate guile associated with political experience. While he belonged to the cabal of military henchmen, the tainted armour of some of which, tends to dwarf their mammoth national service, both in uniform and toward the country’s political evolution, Omu was more known for his stainless integrity, for truth and honour which are the values that attracted him to wear the uniform in the first place. He and his adoring Wife Sen. Stella Omu and children can recline and serve God, building churches and when necessary, coming out of his cocoon to add his prized voice to the effusive debate on Nigeria’s countless national palavers.
Felicitaciones, bonne anniversaire, Monsieur Le Generale!
Dr. Igali is a former Ambassador and retired Federal Permanent Secretary.