Friday, May 22, 2009

Oladipo Diya and the struggle for truth

THE publication in The Guardian edition of Sunday, April 5, 2009, of an interview granted by Oladipo Diya, former Chief of General Staff in the government of Sani Abacha, has raised questions about what Diya knew or did not know about the man he served. In the interview, Diya claimed to be as ignorant as the Nigerian public about the extent to which Abacha dipped his filthy fingers into the public treasury for his personal benefit. It's a view that many Nigerians still find difficult to accept, in light of Diya's closeness to Abacha.

When the interviewer tried to tease out how much Diya knew about the gravity of Abacha's corruption, Diya's answer was neither insightful nor reassuring. He said: "I didn't know that Abacha was stealing money. I read about it on the pages of newspapers. I found it difficult to believe that Abacha was stealing money." Many people would be staggered by this comment by a man who is viewed widely as the architect of most of Abacha's devious decisions.

When the interviewer asked, in bewilderment, how Diya, as Abacha's deputy, could possibly say that he did not know that Abacha was raiding the national treasury, Diya again insisted that he knew nothing about what Abacha did. His words: "These things (looted funds) being put (published) on the pages of newspapers were not taken from the budget. People said it was being taken from the Reserve Account...And up till now, I don't know how money was spent or taken from the Reserve Account and it's not something that was discussed or debated at the level of the Ruling Council. So, how would I have known?"

If you thought that Diya would by now have reflected sufficiently over his ignoble role during the years he served as Abacha's number two man, or that Diya would be contrite for what he did, you've got it wrong. Diya insisted in the interview that he had no reason to apologise to the nation. When he was asked if he could think of anything he would do differently if he found himself in a similar position today, Diya replied emphatically: "Nothing, nothing! I was second-in-command; I wasn't the head of state. So, I don't think there is much I would have done differently. My main function or duty was to advise the head of state and to carry out his instructions as detailed by him."

Diya's refusal to accept responsibility for the iniquitous conduct of the government he served in a high position, his consistent habit of shifting blame to Abacha, depicts him as a coward and a thick-skinned apostle of Abacha, at least prior to the emergence of the coup allegation in 1997. When Diya insists that he performed his job effectively and efficiently for Abacha, a dreaded dictator, you have to wonder whether many families who suffered terribly when Abacha and Diya ruled the nation will ever find the spirit to forgive Diya or Abacha or both men.

Perhaps the most arrogant and callous words that Diya uttered during the interview emerged in his answer to the question: "Do you have any regrets?" Diya replied in a coldhearted manner: "I would say no regrets because I did everything that I should have done. If it didn't go well, it's a different thing entirely. That the Almighty God saved me is enough. Maybe it could have been a different thing entirely. I am happy, and I thank God."

For those who do not know, Diya's reference to being saved by God has to do with the humiliation Diya suffered when Abacha accused him of plotting to unseat the government. On that allegation, Diya was arrested, tried by a military tribunal, convicted and sentenced to death.

For all the sordid things that Abacha's government did with the full endorsement of Diya, it came as a huge surprise to many Nigerians that Diya was one of the men who lined up at Nigeria's Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission to complain that their human rights were grossly abused by Abacha. Many Nigerians viewed this as a case of a brutish senior officer who suddenly turns around to accuse a junior officer of abusing him. In fact, when Diya rushed to complain to the human rights commission about the injustice he suffered during the period of his arrest, trial and incarceration, he seemed to under-estimate public anger against him.

When Diya told that commission that his arrest and that of his kinsman Major-General Abdulkarim Adisa was a part of a larger plot by Abacha to eliminate senior officers from the southwest from Abacha's government, he found that the ethnic card he played did not quite produce the result he wanted.

In the end, Diya did not get the "justice" he sought from the commission. As Sola Odunfa reported for the BBC on 18 December 2000, "General Diya came to the commission riding on the crest of public sympathy but he left the venue to boos and jeers from the spectators... He cut a sorry figure in the former Senate chamber as witness upon witness from the military painted a picture of the former number two man as a liar and a cowardly person." The point is that Diya was never loved by many people in the southwest, his natural constituency.

Eleven years after he left Abacha's government, Diya is still viewed as the chief collaborator (some people called him a traitor) in Abacha's grand design to imprison Moshood Abiola and to dilute Abiola's growing political influence. Keep in mind that although Abiola was widely believed to have won the presidential election of June 12, 1993, he was never allowed to claim that mandate because military dictator Ibrahim Babangida nullified the results of that election. Forget the charade that occurred last year when Humphrey Nwosu, the chief electoral officer in 1993, emerged from 15 years of hiding to declare Abiola the winner of the 1993 election.

Before all this, at the peak of his power in government, Diya projected himself as the philosophical pillar of the Abacha government. While Abacha was ridiculed publicly as unintelligent military officer, Diya was viewed as the public voice of that military junta. Diya, as the second-in-command, represented Abacha at most official ceremonies which Abacha could not attend owing to Abacha's fascination for doing business in the dark. When you see a man who spots dark sunglasses in broad daylight and in the night for purposes unrelated to his health condition, the man must be up to something.

The relationship between Abacha and Diya lasted for just four years - from late 1993 to mid 1998. Prior to the collapse of their friendship, things had been going on so smoothly between the two men that when cracks began to appear in the relationship, no one noticed. This was the context in which Nigerians were confounded one day in 1997 by the extraordinary allegation that Diya had plotted to unseat the very government in which he was a leading light. It was during the alleged coup plot that Abacha demonstrated to everyone that he was much smarter than the nation would credit him.

To prove Diya's complicity in the alleged coup, Abacha's agents and loyal officers produced a video film as evidence that Diya was guilty as charged. The video showed Diya, the no-nonsense soldier prostrating and crying before Abacha, as he pleaded for forgiveness. There were speculations that the video might have been doctored by Abacha's officers who did not like Diya. When Diya was hurled before the military tribunal for allegedly plotting with some officers to overthrow the state, many people argued that Diya was na•ve while others contended that nemesis had caught up with Diya. Whether he was a sinner or whether he was sinned against, Diya remains a divisive subject.

Diya must remain grateful to Abdulsalami Abubakar, the military dictator who took over government following the sudden death of Abacha in 1998 and pardoned Diya. Some people prefer to view Diya as Nigeria's equivalent of Niccolo Marchiavelli, the great Italian philosopher and politician who was more known for his outstanding ability to scheme, plot and outmanoeuvre other men. Eleven years after the demise of Abacha, Diya is still wrestling with his inner self about the truth, about what he knows about Abacha, and about how much he is willing to reveal to the nation.