For Col. Peter Obasa (rtd) the man who gave the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) the military orientation that it has retained till date and championed the upgrading of the Nigerian Defence Academy into a degree awarding institution, his career in the Nigerian Military would appear to have been brewed from heaven destined to race to a great and glorious finish. Trained in the best military institutions locally and abroad, Obasa left bold and sterling footprints everywhere he was posted. His colleagues regarded him as a model; his superiors considered him as a rising star, the man with the Midas touch. In his first three years as the Director of NYSC, Obasa was described as an ‘Angel’, a man of impeccable character. But in a sudden twist, the Kwara-born octogenarian witnessed a reversal of fortune that saw him cascading down from the pinnacle of comfort into a jail house where he spent seven years and 56 days before he was released by the administration of General Ibrahim Babangida. Obasa recently released a book titled: House of Exile, where he chronicles his ordeals and experience in prison.
In this conversation with Ayo Arowolo, Obasa, now 80, shared eight lessons he learned from the valley. Plus much more. Enjoy the reading.
LESSON 1: RESERVE ABSOLUTE TRUST IN GOD
The first thing is that you should reserve absolute trust in God alone and in no one else. You should stay close to Him. He is the author of the universe, knows what happened yesterday, what is happening now, and what will happen tomorrow. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is hidden from him. He has the story of the entire universe in his palm. He knows everything about you, about everything and every person he created. It is, therefore, wisdom to rely on Him only. What I am saying is highly spiritual.
By the way, I can claim to be a very spiritual person. When I was arrested they did not tell me I was under arrest. I was just invited by the Provost Marshal to come and explain a few things to him and after that he told me to go with some people and those people came with me to the house. They said they had the search warrant to search my house and they conducted the search and took what they wanted to take away and then invited me to follow them. I had nothing than a French suit on me, nothing more than that. Then, I took a New Testament Bible. I am a Christian, a catholic. I had the testament which I never opened. I had it in my breast pocket that was what I took away with me. From that time on, everything became mysterious. Without a warning, I began a journey into what then looked like the land of the unknown. I got to where they clamped me in prison. At that point, I had to kneel down and ask my God what was actually happening. I had no clue any longer. What was meant to be just a mere invitation turned into something that would change the course of my life completely. I didn’t know what I had done; I didn’t know where it was leading to. I asked God a series of questions: I asked God to tell me what to expect. I told God that I am not a prophet; I am not anybody special; I am not like Moses that heard directly from him; that if he had anything to tell me, he should go ahead and make it plain to me. I wanted him to speak to me through the New Testament Bible that I brought. I told the Lord let your message come through this tomorrow morning, that by the time I would say my prayers and the first thing I would do, I will open this book let your message come directly from the page that I will first open . You cannot believe what happened! When I opened my Bible after my early morning prayers, the page that popped up was Hebrews 13 verses 5 and 6. The conclusion there is that the Lord has promised that he will neither leave nor forsake me. That gave me peace and confidence and I knew without any iota of doubt that God would work out everything according to his will. I could confidently say the Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid what man can do to me, in spite of the bewildering events that were unfolding before my very eyes. That was a striking message, and I have held to that message up to this moment. I am holding on to the message till I die ─the Lord is my helper.
I was in prison for seven years and 56 days; I was released in august 1991. It was the Buhari administration that arrested me, but when Ibrahim Babangida came in as Military President, I wrote several petitions. And it was his administration that authorised my release from prison.
The point I am making is that if you can trust God even if you don’t understand what is happening, you would gain spiritual knowledge that is not possible in any other situation. I am bold to say that my period in prison was the most spiritual of my life. I learnt quite a lot about life in the prison that I has kept me confident up till this moment. When you have run out of options and you don’t have any other things to hold on to, that is when God would show you who He is. That was my experience. I learnt more truths about myself, about God and about others in the prison.
LESSON 2: YOU HAVE TO FORGIVE THOSE THAT HURT YOU FROM YOUR HEART
I learnt this over a long period of reflections that when you forgive those who have offended you from your heart, you are actually doing yourself a lot of good. I would say I have maintained good health because I have learnt to let go. I am 84, and I drive myself; I do virtually everything by myself. I am healthy. I forgave the Tribunal the day the incident happened. For Buhari even though he jailed me unjustly, I have forgiven him. I actually had nothing against him as a person. Buhari was my superior colleague and I saw him as such. I know the kind of person he is: he is dogmatic, very rigid. If I still had something against him, I would have used my book against him because the book was written when he was contesting the Presidency in 2015. I would have worked for his opponent, but I did not do any of such. In fact, I voted for him and persuaded my son to do same. I forgave them from the very first day the incident happened. If you are Christian, you cannot but forgive whomsoever must have wronged you.
NUMBER 3: DELEGATE AUTHORITY, BUT ENSURE SUPERVISION AND MAKE SURE CLEARANCE ALWAYS COMES FROM YOU.
I did a lot of delegation of authority in the Youth Corps. I did that because the first two Chief Executives before me had a standard organisation which was already running smoothly at the Headquarters. You had different subheads that were, and there were no reasons to start changing things. They knew what they were doing. The Head of Finance to whom I delegated a lot was doing well under previous Directors-General. So, I did some supervision and for the first three years, the Tribunal said everything was fine that I behaved like an angel, but in the fourth year, something went wrong mysteriously. In that fourth year, I was getting ready to leave the Scheme, and I was preparing my handover notes at the end of three years. My mind was no longer there, but they insisted I should stay on; so I stayed and I wanted to change the Head of Finance and Administration because I think he was taking too many things unto himself and I got one officer promoted an Assistant Director to take over. I knew him in the University from which we graduated in the same course of study. To me, he was a known person, but the man refused. He said he wasn’t coming to Lagos; he said he would forgo his promotion. So, I had to fall back on the previous Director, but then, I started checking the Finance and Administration more regularly. There was a time I took their payment ledger and kept it in my office and told them if you are paying anybody, come and take the ledger, enter the payment and return the ledger to me and through that time, I didn’t see anything wrong with things. I continued with that until November that year when my time was up and I returned the ledger to them. Could you believe some cheques were written in December but backdated to October 30, cheques that ran into 200million Naira? The ledger was with me till October 30, and in spite of my checks and balances, cheques were written and backdated! The prosecution called it the harvest day. I had nothing to do with the cheques, nothing to do with the contracts, but I was still prosecuted by the special investigation panel.
LESSON 4: BE HONEST AT ALL TIMES
The fourth lesson is this: be honest at all times. Your storyline will never change. You have to tell the truth, no matter how bitter the truth is even if it’s going to be inimical to your own defence. Let the truth be out, let your conscience be clear that you are telling the truth. So on your last day when you meet your Maker, you have nothing to be afraid of because you will have been cleared. The truth at all times: that’s my philosophy, that’s my policy. I hang on to the truth no matter how bitter it is even if it is against me, I admit my faults readily. Some if pointed out to me I will easily admit my fault and say sorry. I never hide my faults and I always say what is true. It is better to do it that way that is what I learnt at home from my parents. Truth is valuable and if you are a Christian, the Bible tells us all liars will go into the lake of fire. So, you have to hang on to what is true; all your pronouncements must be true, no lie must come from the tongue of a Christian and a true Muslim because I read the Quran. The truth is valuable; it’s sacrosanct, it’s holy, it’s perfect. So, all lovers of God must be truthful.
LESSON 5: BE FOCUSED AND BE YOUR OWN MAN
You must be focused and know where you are going, and do things in accordance with your own conscience. You can take advice from anyone, but you must follow your own mind and stamp your personality on your decisions.
I’ll give you an example in the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) when I was there. I noticed certain things were not right in my own estimation. When I was Director, I decided to register the candidates for GCE A’Levels in addition to their NDAC (Nigerian Defence Academy Certificate of education) just to crosscheck the quality of one of the certificates in the same Academy. I wrote a memo asking the Academy to transform into a Degree-awarding institution. And I am very proud to say that that memo went through the Academy Board through Head of State in Council, and the idea came from me, not from any other person. If any officer in the Nigerian Army says he did it, he’s a liar. After the Academy was approved as Degree-awarding institution, the Police have their Academy, too, which was copied from the first Academy. I think the Navy and the Air Force have theirs, too, and the idea came from me.
Be focused and stamp your personality on anything you do, that you can point your finger and say this was done by me. The transformation I made in the Youth Corps is still there till today.
LESSON 6: WHEN YOU ISSUE INSTRUCTIONS, LET THEM BE IN WRITING, SIGNED AND DATED.
When you issue instructions, let them be in writing, signed and dated. Keep a copy; if you do that it will be impossible for people to tell lies against you when you are in adversity, and people gang up against you to say you did this or you did that. You will always be able to produce your copy and say these were my instructions.
Whatever instructions I gave, I signed and dated. I collected some things from the store and the Chairman of the investigation panel said he could swear I had some government property in my possession. The things he was talking about were tissue papers, toilet soaps and the consumables that we used in the Corps. Those were the government property he said I had in my possession. When they brought those things to the Tribunal, they said how can you prosecute anybody for those things he took −tissue papers, soaps. So, what is the problem there? Thank God I signed for everything.
LESSONS 7: BE CAUTIOUS ABOUT TAKING UNSOLICITED ADVICE.
If anybody gives you unsolicited advice and say ‘oga’ do this and do that. First, find out if that advice benefits the person personally. If he comes to you and tells you to institute certain ideas, find out if he will benefit from those ideas or he’s just doing it because he’s interested in the affairs of the Scheme. I received ideas in those days, and I think some of them were engineered by personal interests. I wouldn’t have known that at the time, but luckily, a lot of things they wanted done I didn’t do. If I had done them, things would have been worse than they were for me, because it would have been discovered that I participated in the award of contracts and in floating a company to take contracts. And I couldn’t have done that kind of things that would have been ethically wrong, having a company taking contracts from an institution that you are overseeing −a government institution. I could never had done that, and I am happy I didn’t do it because during the trial, they brought out cheques issued to a company and they said the company belongs to me, and I knew I didn’t have a company. I just told them to put the cheques aside when one of the witnesses came I begged my lawyer to ask him if he knows anything about those cheques. The cheques were photocopied and the bank manager signed them, that they were issued to my company, which meant I had a company.
But when the witness came, I asked my lawyer to ask him, Mr. Adenuga, who was the owner of the company! Adenuga looked up and said the company belonged to him and the court murmured and something that they said belonged to me then belonged to someone else? The President of the Tribunal, then, stood up and said this is bad, that the long arms of the law will be used to catch up with the person who perpetrated this crime. But I am sorry to say that in my case, the law has no arm, or the arms were twisted because they were never used to catch up with the people who told lies against me.
LESSONS 8: DON’T JUDGE OTHERS TOO QUICKLY AS YOU MAY NOT HAVE ALL THE DETAILS.
Do not judge, as others do. You do not have the facts, the details, and you probably are not there. If you tell a story that Mr. X is a thief, and everyone now believes the story but Mr. X is not a thief; now the whole society calls him a thief. Many destinies have been ruined by that kind of behavior. The kangaroo tribunal said somebody was guilty; then, they sat behind closed doors they were not open to the public. So, what they did was in secret, tried somebody in secret, found him guilty in secret, and now, came to the public and say he’s guilty! How can that be accepted in a civilised society? So, as an individual when you are not there, don’t judge; and if you accept it at, the day of judgment you will account for it.
LESSON 9: TRUST YOUR NEIGHBOUR BUT BEAR IN MIND YOU WILL BE DISAPPOINTED.
I learnt this the hard way during my ordeal and that was why I came up with that lesson. If you trust your neighbor, you might be disappointed and the reason I came up with that is that all my life I have always trusted people, and it has always ended up in bitter disappointment. Let me illustrate with my first experience in the Primary School. In my first year in the elementary school, I learnt the lessons the teacher taught us, and I believed in the lessons word for word and practised especially the moral lessons. There was a day I saw two boys quarrelling and I told them that teachers said we should not fight, why don’t you stop? I tried to pacify them, but I couldn’t and what came to my mind as a young boy was to put myself between the two parties. And, as I did that I received general blows from both quarrelling parties. But one of the boys went home and told his mother that I teamed up with the other boy to beat him up. The boy’s mother, then, went to report to the head teacher that I teamed up with the boy to beat his son up. The story was twisted completely. I still remember vividly in 1945, when the head teacher stripped me naked in the class and gave me 24 lashes of the cane. For doing no wrong! The real truth known to the two boys was that I was trying to separate two fighting people. That was my first experience. Up till this time, I could not explain why that would happen.
The second one was a reverend gentleman who accused me of something I didn’t do. He didn’t stop there; he preached a sermon about it on Sunday. But something I noticed about those things was that each time it happened, God always stepped in and elevated me to a higher level where I believe he wants me to forget the whole issues. But I still remember because my memory is not blotted out. That was the second one.
Then came the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) business. I had nothing to do with the contracts, not because I didn’t have the power to do so, but I just felt that my primary duty in the Corps was to change the scheme to make it more effective and more relevant to the growth of Nigeria. I was not concerned about awarding contracts. My goal was to use the money provided to make sure that the Scheme met its objectives. And the monies voted to NYSC were spent on what they were allocated for. I made sure all the allocations were spent on what they were meant for; they were not wasted. The money that was spent didn’t come from our allocations at all; it came from a different source, a source I didn’t even know existed. There was a different financial window between the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Scheme. We had a facility whereby departments could go outside their budgetary allocations to spend money. I was not aware of all those; yet, I was punished for something I did not do.
So that’s why I say trust your neighbour but always know that you might be disappointed, so you don’t get angry when you are.
So, I am not saying I was not found guilty, but I am saying the Tribunals were illegal, as the laws were backdated. So, if you are found guilty by a kangaroo court, you are not guilty because you were not tried under proper legal conditions. Thus, I was not guilty of anything. I was just punished for what I didn’t do.
Up till this moment, the mistakes I made were spiritual mistakes, not physical ones. If you belong to a group that serves God in their own way, and they have rules and regulations, and you accepted to be bound by these rules and regulations. After you have accepted the rules and regulations, and you accepted to be bound by this rules, don’t go out to do anything against these rules. You are bound by either Christianity or Islam. Honesty must go hand in hand with your faith. I can only go in broad term if I have to go into specifics. I would have to go down on my knees and confess my sins and I have confessed to God and my priest because these are sins against God. They have nothing to do with my neighbour’s or the society. For example, the law of God says ‘thou shall not commit adultery, thou shall not fornicate.’ Then, as a young officer you junketed around with other young officers; you were adventurous, dashed from one corner to another, and then, you went into nooks and crannies and did certain things which were not thoroughly in line with the laws of your faith. And your conscience tells you it’s wrong. These are the sort of things I am talking about. It has not affected my neighbor; this is between my Creator and me, strictly speaking.
BEST ADVICE EVERY RECEIVED
Best advice? Interestingly, the best advice I received was from my Bishop, again, that is a spiritual one. He approached me, gave me nomination forms to be completed, to be made a Knight. I kept the forms; I couldn’t complete them because I felt in my mind that I was not the right candidate to be Papal Knight. I thought that I was not spiritually efficient; that it is not up to the standard, and why would I deceive myself and complete forms? I kept the forms; he kept reminding that I had the forms for three months. At the end of third month, I said I should forward the forms I told him: Your grace, I have not completed the forms, and he called me to his office. He gave me a lecture and the lecture goes thus: He said my friend, when you appear before your Creator on the day that you die, you will be made to account for what he has done for you and what you did with what he has done for you. He gave you a family; what did you do with your family? Did you take care of your family? Did you provide for their needs? Did you make sure that they were confortable within your means? Did you make sure that all they needed was supplied by you? If you can answer these questions honestly and say yes, I have done the very best within my means for my family. I have not in any way neglected them then, if there is any other thing that you are doing that causes your conscience to worry, you don’t worry; God will take care of you. Complete these forms and I completed the forms because I had been told that if I am sure I have taken care of my family properly – good education for my children, make sure my wife is confortable, have given her everything that she needed, everything like that. But if there was any other thing I was doing outside that causes a pang in my conscience, I should let God take care of it and complete the forms. And I did. I was doing the paper all night. I didn’t believe that I should be the paper knight. I thought that people who are holier than myself should become the knight. This has been the best advice I have ever heard.
ONE GREAT LESSON
One lesson I learnt is that my family is the most important thing in my life, next to God. And, my wife is my best friend; we had remained the best of friends till she passed on, and we were very loyal to each other. People who know us will readily confirm that I was my wife’s best friend, and for several years even in her afflictions, I was by her side and I didn’t regret it.
My secret is my loyalty to God, and my faithfulness to God is something unquestionable. I know the Lord knows that, and I rely on him completely and if you rely on him completely, you will see things will work in your life.
I have testimonies to give and some of them will sound very strange. One testimony is I drive myself anywhere I am going and I am fond of driving because I never trusted any driver. I think my life is better held in my hands than any other person. On all my journeys to Abuja, I drive myself, but I always have somebody beside me to assist me. I had a driver but after some time I dispensed with his service. I ask my son to assist me if he is not at work. That time I was going to Abuja, before we set out on the journey, we said our special prayer composed for this family. We said our prayers, and we left. We got to Ekiti State, not far from Oye, the Police stopped me. I stopped. They asked me questions, and I answered them. They asked me to go and I moved. Believe me, I didn’t see anyone come across the bonnet of my car: a little girl probably shorter than the bonnet of the car passed across and to my son’s horror, I knocked the child down and passed over the child and my son said I had crushed a child and I said how because I didn’t see anyone, and of course, I came out of the car and my son being more agile than I came out first to look for the girl on the road but alas the girl was not on the road. She was sitting by the side of the road with lacerations on her head, but the car passed completely over her. The Police there were my witnesses. Then, I went to the girl and she stood up, but she was crying and my son said she was not hurt that this is a miracle. How come she wasn’t crushed and I said I didn’t know that I didn’t even see her and I passed over her? Then, a sergeant came over to me and said, ‘Oga’ you are clean. If you hadn’t been clean, you would have killed somebody, but I leave that in the hands of God because it was the Lord who did it. I didn’t even see the girl. I think what happened was that since I wasn’t speeding I was just taking off, I knocked the child down, and she was arranged in between the two wheels. So, I didn’t crush her with the wheels, just rolled over her. That’s one lesson.
WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY
If I have to live my life again, I will still remain loyal to my God and put everything that I listed into practice. If I will be DG of NYSC again, and if I wasn’t comfortable with any staff, I will remove him immediately.
My day starts very early. I wake up at midnight; I have a dialogue with my God; we talk one-on-one. He’s my Creator; he’s my Father; he’s my friend; he’s my everything. We more or less chat, and this is funny. After that, I go back to bed and wake up at 4.30, and go to morning service, come back like 7.30, and then, have a breakfast or something. After that, I read a little to keep myself busy and later I go into the yard to see if anything needs to be done or go out to pay my electricity bill or go to Bureau of Lands to see if I owe any money. I do everything by myself since I am able to do it. Why do I have to delegate that to somebody else? God is keeping me; so I do things by myself −I told you we dialogue.
I helped a lot of people in my NYSC days; and frankly. I don’t remember their faces. I was helping people in my official capacity. There were some people who would come back and say I helped them and I will say I was doing it officially doing it in the performance of my duty, and it was not personal to me. But I must say people have been very generous in all honesty. There have been many officers who have been very generous, especially Directors-General of the NYSC. I won’t name them but a good number of them have been forthcoming, and very generous, very helpful.
ADVICE TO YOUTH
Be devoted to God. Take God as a primary focal point.
Set out your objectives, and ask God to help you to set out your objectives right in life. What do you want to be? You want to become a doctor, a pharmacist, an engineer, an architect, or a lawyer? Table it before God to assist you and fashion your way towards your objectives. Ask God to assist you, and of course, when it comes to your choice of subject, you know what you want to be and what you want to do your choice of subject must reflect what you want to become. That is that I will tell an aspiring youth.
I wonder if I have up to three. I’ve read many books, many literary products of African Writer Series. I think I’ve read practically all of them. Then, some literary products such as Eli don Strasse, Victoria, Conrad, Nostromo, John Burkan, and many others. But the books that made a lot of impact on my life: First, the Holy bible. I read it from page to page severally. Second, a book written by a nun, St. Theresa of Avilla; it’s called the call to contemplation. It really made an impact on my life. These are the books. Other books I read for pleasure or to collect information or some of them I read as text books to pass examinations.
Yes, I remember now, it’s my in-law, the husband of my late sister. His name is Ben Akefe, from Kabba, my hometown in Kogi State. What he did for me wasn’t that he gave me money. When I left home in 1953 for Agbor, passing through the Catholic School to attend Teachers’ Training College, St. Columbus School, I got there in a strange environment. I didn’t like the school; it didn’t look like a secondary other than a primary school. So, I decided to go back home but I didn’t know how to tell the principal, that I didn’t like the school. One day, I told my principal I am going home to collect my fees, but I had my fees on me, which was 5 Pound. But I decided to leave the school. So, I left and got to Gbojigboji, in Agbor. I carried everything I brought to school, and very interestingly, the very first car I saw when I got to Gbojigboji was a pick up. I ask the driver where he was going, he said he was going to Asaba and he said he would take me to Asaba and when we got to Asaba. He asked me where exactly I was going to in Onitsha. I didn’t know the place, but I have a sister there whom I met once when she got married and I didn’t know what my sister really looked like. As luck would have it, the driver took me to Onitsha and he asked where I was going but I told him I didn’t know the place but from the letters written the address sound like Ileloja Street and the driver, being a nice man, got to the town and asked somebody and the person said it could not be Ileloja, which is a Yoruba name, but it’s Inareja, and that he knew someone from Kabba on Inareja Street. That was my journey to Onitsha and the part played by my brother in-law when I got to my sister. I told them my story that I didn’t like the school that I was going back home to farm and so on. My brother in-law just looked at me for a long time, and said, ‘you are a very stupid boy.’
We do not flog and we do not beat up our in-laws, otherwise I would have picked up a cane to lash you properly how many schools have you been to? How many primary schools do you know to think that it does not look like a secondary school? What do you know about schools? If you don’t pick up your bag and go back to that school, I will beat you. That did me a lot of good. I lost my interest in school, but because of his harsh reaction to my decision, I decided to go back to school and believe me from that time, the journey of my career in education began. If I had bolted out, I probably wouldn’t have been the best that I am.
VIEW ON FAILURE
I see failure, if it’s not caused by myself, it’s an act of God. So, you have to contain and absorb it as much as you can. It’s a temporary delay a failure cannot last forever it can only last for a while.
When I encounter difficulties, the first thing I do is I ask God for a way out, and I pray too. With sincere prayers, I now look at the difficulties one by one, and try to solve them. I try to isolate them one by one objectively, look at the simplest one first, try to see if I can solve them first, and start moving from there to the next one. It’s a kind of selective approach, objective evaluation and dynamic solution. If I am confronted with a problem, first thing I do is look at it objectively, and ask my God for direction. With sincere prayers, I ask for inspiration and then, I settle down and see how I can isolate it in strands, one from another and tackling them one after the other until I get to the end. And I sum up, I adopt objective appraisal, selective appreciation and dynamic solution.
We kept a joint account because I am not good financially because when I left detention, a friend took me to the UK and gave me 32, 000 Pound Sterling to invest in some kind of trade and venture. I started buying cars and shipping to Nigeria and doing very well because the cars were beautiful, well-handled and still serviceable.
But it got to a stage when smugglers started bringing cars into the borders, and I could not compete with them. Then, my business flopped; even when I changed to other things, I think I am not cut out for business.
The idea of having the Nigerian Defence Academy to become a Degree-awarding institution came from me. They should have it on record. I brought the idea, I wrote the memo, and I did everything. Also, even in the militarization, the National Youth Service Corps was something I brought in, and the process is outlined in my book, ‘House of Exile’, in the prologue. Wither they want to remember it or not, it is there. That you have military officers as DG of the Corps is something that came directly from what I did, by changing the orientation course bringing in the military personnel to handle that programme. How many years do I have left? I am already old; I am over 80 years old, and I am living on ‘borrowed time’. In a football game, after regular time has expired, the referee will put in injury time or referee’s discretionary added time. I think I am living on discretionary added time, and I don’t know how long I have to live. I don’t have any programme left. All I want to do is stay close to my Creator, that the day I go, I will see him with a clear conscience.
WHO IS PETER OBASA?
Obasa is a stubborn guy. When he holds on to a view, he never changes, and he tells the truth no matter what even if it runs contrary to his defence. That is what I will tell about Col. Obasa.