By Seun Sonoiki
As a voracious reader of diverse literature on Nigeria’s military history, and a film producer with a pedigree in packaging documentaries for the Nigerian military, particularly the Nigerian Army, I was quite familiar and fascinated by the name Martin Luther Agwai, long before the grey-haired, genial and strikingly dark – skinned General shot into public limelight following his appointment as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in June 2003. Interestingly, however, even as his reputation as a high flier preceded him and despite my years of interest in the Nigerian Army, I never met with General Agwai at close quarters until shortly after he became the 14th COAS in 2003.
And that first meeting, which was fortuitous, took place in far – away Sierra Leone, laying the foundation for a relationship which endured through the twilight of the cerebral General’s illustrious military career and even beyond.
To showcase the significant roles it had played in restoring peace as vanguard of the ECOWAS Task Force in Sierra Leone (ETFSL), a multinational military intervention force deployed in the war – torn West African country in 1997, and also project its giant strides in the discharge of the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL, which succeeded ETFSL in December 1999, the Nigerian Army had, in 2003, commissioned an independent television production firm specializing in documentaries to handle the crucial tasks. The Army High Command under the leadership of then COAS, Lt General Alexander Ogomudia, had deemed the initiative necessary to enable it checkmate a severely damaging propaganda by the Western media, which, with sustained negative reporting, denigrated and viciously undermined the role of Nigerian troops in restoring peace and democratic governance to Sierra Leone. Based on its conviction that seeing is believing, the Army High Command had opted for an audio – visual production as the most potent tool for rendering an authentic account of its roles in the two missions to its relevant publics. This writer led the three – man crew that generated content for the production of the said video documentary series in Sierra Leone.
After a one-week shoot, the content – generation exercise in Sierra Leone was wrapped up. On its scheduled date of departure to Nigeria, the film crew had gone to the Freetown Headquarters of Sector One of UNAMSIL, which was commanded by then Brigadier General Nuhu Bamalli, who doubled as the Nigerian Contingent (NIGCON) Commander in UNAMSIL, to say goodbye to the affable General who was our chief host. The plan was to head to the Lungi International Airport (LIA) afterwards to catch the flight back home on a commercial airline. But then, the uncertainty usually associated with the projected duration of the content – generation phase of film production unfolded.
For, to the surprise of the crew, General Bamalli announced that a signal had been received from Army Headquarters, Abuja directing that the one – day visit of then newly – appointed Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Martin Agwai be covered. That meant that the return trip of our crew to Nigeria had to be shelved because the flight operated by the lone airline plying the Sierra Leone – Nigeria route would have departed long before the end of the visit of the COAS to the country.
Naturally, the unexpected situation triggered mixed feelings. While welcoming the opportunity it offered to meet with General Agwai and also further enrich our content with the highlights of his visit, the development scuttled our well laid out plan to return to base on that day to enable us flag off content – generation in Nigeria, a task that was scheduled to begin the next day. More despairing was the fact that the next commercial flight to Nigeria would not depart Sierra Leone until three days afterwards, which implied that the crew will be marooned in Freetown for that long. The events of the next eight hours, however, obliterated the disappointment stoked by the aborted trip to Nigeria. During that period I witnessed first – hand the inspirational and remarkable leadership qualities of General Martin Agwai which reinforced my conviction that soldiering is indeed a noble profession.
The first insight I had into General Agwai’s traits was registered within fifteen minutes of his arrival when he graciously agreed to accommodate the three – man crew that I led in the Presidential fleet’s Gulf Stream aircraft, which flew his team to Sierra Leone, on his home-bound flight to Nigeria at the end of his whistle – stop visit. Much to my surprise, General Agwai had acquiesced when at the end of airport reception formalities NIGCON Commander, General Nuhu Bamalli, respectfully sought this favor.
This was after the NIGCON Commander had explained to the COAS the compelling reason why our scheduled departure to Nigeria was aborted. While General Bamalli lived up to his promise to make the request of General Agwai, I had remained skeptical when he pledged to us ahead of the arrival of the flight of the COAS that he would do so. My skepticism was based on my perception that a Brigadier General dared not make such a request of his COAS, especially given the highly regimented nature of the military profession. But, unknown to me then, this was a different COAS entirely.
A personable officer who encouraged his subordinates to relate with him without fear. When we met in 2006 at the Ibadan Headquarters of 2 Division of the Nigerian Army, on his tour of duty as General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Division, I had inquisitively asked General Bamalli what informed his audacity to seek favor from his COAS for us to join his flight to Nigeria from Sierra Leone in 2003. A visibly amused General Bamalli explained that, based on his profound knowledge of the personality traits of his boss, he was optimistic, ab initio, that he will entertain and also accede to the request.
This was how General Bamalli put it then: “I had the courage to make the request because, having spent about three decades in service when you and I met in Sierra Leone, I had known General Agwai to be approachable, considerate, pleasant, humane and kind. And as you saw at Lungi in 2003 he demonstrated all those virtues remarkably”.
Back to the encounter with General Agwai in Sierra Leone in 2003. Soon, it was time for the COAS to fly to Makeni, former stronghold of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone in the northern region of the country. His mission: to meet with and formally inform troops of the Nigerian Army battalion deployed in Makeni as NIBATT 15, UNAMSIL of the decision of the Nigerian Government that their battle – tested battalion will be deployed shortly in strife – ridden Liberia. NIBATT 15 had been chosen as the vanguard of a UN peace – keeping force under the nomenclature of United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) which the world body had resolved to induct in Liberia to bring to an end the country’s second civil war. General Agwai’s unusual humility would soon come to the fore on this flight.
Soon after the humongous, rugged and high – occupancy military transport helicopter conveying General Agwai’s enlarged team from Lungi airport to Makeni attained cruising altitude, its commodious cabin was rendered downright uncomfortable by persistent gusts of strong winds, which gained uninhibited access into it through its windows that were wide open. The resulting fierce reverberations caused the cabin to shake vigorously and persistently, to the utter discomfiture and trepidation of many of its passengers, most of whom appeared to be flying on board that model of sturdy military helicopter for the first time.
The worrisome situation was further aggravated by the deafening noise of the roaring engine of the mighty helicopter and the tumult of its spiraling elongated propeller blades. Since they were unaccustomed to the features of the helicopter, concerted efforts made by some agile soldiers and officers to shut its windows or readjust them, and thus make its cabin much calmer and comfortable, proved abortive.
Yet, here with them in the cabin was the highly respected COAS of the Nigerian Army being assailed by rumbling gusts of wind relentlessly.
Unperturbed, General Agwai, who was clad in a crisply – ironed and immaculate regular green army uniform, which was adorned with epaulets that gracefully displayed the badges of his prestigious three – star general rank on his athletic shoulders and which was equally festooned with several badges of honor that spoke to his long years of distinguished and meritorious service to his country, took in the unfolding drama with astonishing calmness. Then the unexpected happened !!!. The revered COAS unfastened his seat belt, rose smartly from his seat and walked briskly to the side of the cabin where the windows of the helicopter were positioned. With the two arms of all the officers and soldiers sat on board now stiffened ram – rod and stretched downwards either side of their thighs in a salute posture, an act of deference to a senior in military tradition, and as the massive helicopter surged forward on its flight path to Makeni, General Agwai deftly altered the hatches of some windows to shut them down. Some other windows that probably needed to be left opened throughout the flight were readjusted by the COAS to deflect the direction of wind – flow into the cabin through them, all to make the occupants of the gargantuan airborne helicopter more comfortable.
Needless to say, General Agwai’s intervention triggered palpable signs of relief on the faces of all passengers on board the helicopter as they became visibly more relaxed.
Done with his selfless and caring gesture, General Agwai nimbly made his way back to his seat. As the COAS passed by him, NIGCON Commander, General Bamalli, still stiffened in the attention poise, gestured a glowing smile and shook his head in a visible demonstration of amazement as well as deep respect and admiration for his COAS for his humane action. After all, by military discipline, General Agwai’s comfort should be tended to by his subordinates in the helicopter and not he to theirs. But General Agwai obviously felt compelled to offer an assistance he knew he was better positioned to render under that difficult circumstance. For, during his 2000 – 20002 tour of duty as Deputy Force Commander of UNAMSIL, the General had travelled on board the helicopter on several occasions. So what he simply did was bring his familiarity with its features to bear in providing relief to its visibly worried occupants, without regard to his exalted position and rank.
Unknown to me, General Agwai was not done yet with offering a curious television producer a much deeper insight into his caring traits, and without any orchestration. One of the time – honored traditions of the military when senior officers arrive on visits to units and formations is the inspection of a quarter guard. It is a form of parade presented to honour such visiting senior military officers.
Expectedly, General Agwai was accorded this honour right on arrival at the headquarters of NIBATT 15 in Makeni. After all, he is the sitting COAS. Given my years of interaction with the military, I had gotten to know what inspecting a quarter guard meant to quite a number of top military officers.
To some, it is a perfunctory chore simply conducted to fulfill all righteousness. In such instances, the quarter guard is inspected without any dramatic event. To yet some other officers, the inspection offered a platform to relay forceful messages on their attitude to regimental discipline. To such officers, inspecting a quarter guard is meant to identify infractions and recommend soldiers adjudged to have fallen short of expected standards in conduct and kitting for disciplinary action.
But General Agwai rather opted to use his inspection of a quarter guard mounted in his honor in Makeni to empathise and bond with the Non – Commissioned Officers (NCOs) cadre of the unit through one of their own. Whilst on the inspection dais he halted in front of and engaged with an NCO. During the brief interaction, the COAS warmly asked the NCO some personal questions that spoke to his interest in the well – being and welfare of the soldier and his family. At the end of the parade the joy of the soldiers who mounted the quarter guard knew no bounds as they were pleasantly surprised and visibly elated that ‘a whole COAS’, a figure adored and revered by every soldier, could show such interest in the personal well – being of an ‘ordinary’ NCO. I later got to know that this was a signature gesture of General Agwai all through his tour of duty as COAS, as he was said to prefer to use the inspection of quarter guards to motivate and inspire soldiers who mounted them.
The resolve of the COAS to honour his promise to us of passage to Nigeria on his flight would still be put to severe test though. Sincere as General Agwai might have been to his commitment, he probably never bargained that he may be compelled to not fulfill the promise, and for good reasons. At least so we had rationalized when a moment of uncertainty arose that made our return to Nigeria with him look somewhat unrealistic. Having served in Sierra Leone for two years (2000 – 2002) as Deputy Force Commander of UNAMSIL before his posting to the UN Headquarters in New York as Deputy Adviser, Department of Peace – keeping Operations (2002 – 2003), which preceded his appointment as COAS, General Agwai’s short visit was a home – coming of sorts. Little wonder that at each location visited, he and members of his entourage were warmly received and showered with gifts to celebrate and congratulate him, especially for the uplift to the pinnacle of his career.
After all, here was a comrade in arms who had done remarkably well in his career soon after the end of his tour of duty in Sierra Leone. Back at Lungi airport for the flight to Nigeria, the several items gifted the entourage were assembled on the apron. That was when it dawned on me that the promise made to us by General Agwai could no longer be kept. And due to no fault of his too.
The Gulf Stream aircraft no doubt has enough seats to take our three – man crew alongside General Agwai’s entourage of four, and the flight crew of three. However, if room had to be made for the array of gifts, then there would be no space available to accommodate our crew alongside our operating equipment and accessories on board the relatively small aircraft. Amidst the ensuing uncertainty surrounding the possibility of our crew making it back to Nigeria on the flight of the COAS we had resigned to fate. The stark reality that we were bound to spend three days marooned in Freetown finally dawned on us. But that presumption turned out to be premature and unfounded, all thanks to the empathy of General Agwai and his fidelity to fulfilling the promise he had solemnly made to our crew.
Walking sprightly from the VIP lounge of Lungi airport towards the apron, General Agwai had asked to know the whereabouts of members of the film crew he had promised seats on his flight back to Nigeria. No sooner had we identified ourselves than the COAS issued firm orders to the NIGCON Commander to arrange for the gifts presented to his entourage to be flown to Nigeria on the next scheduled flight of the C130 Hercules transport aircraft that conducts logistics shuttles between Nigeria and Sierra Leone for the Nigerian Contingent.
This selfless and benevolent gesture automatically granted us space in the Gulf Stream aircraft conveying General Agwai’s team back to Nigeria. Not done yet, General Agwai advised all passengers to visit the rest room to “empty your bladder”. In obvious reaction to the astonished look on their faces, the COAS explained that by the time the equipment and operating accessories of the film crew were arranged in the aircraft, with Abuja being the destination, no passenger on board, including himself, will be able to have free access to the rest room of the aircraft for the close to four – hour flight. To demonstrate how seriously he took the counsel he had offered, the General announced to the passengers, including the film crew, that he will take the lead in emptying his bladder and advised others to take a cue, as he proceeded to the rest room in the VIP lounge of Lungi airport to ease himself. Almost within the twinkle of an eye, the trip to Nigeria, which had looked like a mirage a moment earlier, had now become reality for the crew. This dramatic turn – around was made possible by General Agwai who did everything possible to fulfill the promise he had made to convey us back home.
On arrival at the Presidential Wing of the Abuja airport shortly before midnight, General Agwai did not abandon us to our fate. First he ordered his aide de camp, then Major John Ochai, now a Major General and Commandant of the Nigerian Defense Academy (NDA), to arrange for us to join his convoy to his official residence in Niger Barracks, Abuja. After he had settled down on arrival his residence, I heard the voice of the General in the living room ask what arrangement was being made for the accommodation of “the film crew that flew with us from Freetown”. This was even as we had ceased to be his liability, having arrived Nigeria.
I responded that we had made arrangements for our hotel accommodation in Abuja before departing Freetown and only needed help with transportation to get to the hotel. This was arranged, expeditiously too, and within minutes we were already at our hotel where we retired to bed shortly afterwards.
Back at our Lagos base, I had done a Thank You letter to the COAS expressing appreciation for his humane disposition towards our crew and the evident concern he showed for our welfare. Although the letter was dispatched by courier service, I never ever believed the COAS will acknowledge, let alone reply to it.
Surprisingly, in less than 10 days I received a very polite and warm response to the Thank You letter. The reply was personally signed by General Agwai, even as it would have been equally deemed an immense honor if it had been signed on his behalf by his Military Assistant, a powerful aide to the COAS. I found the gesture humbling and touching and it dawned on me that when he treated us kindly in Freetown and showed interest in how we got to our hotel on arrival in Abuja, General Agwai was only being his caring and humble self and was neither playing to the gallery nor was he seeking to curry goodwill. This marked the beginning of an enduring relationship with the General which taught me copious lessons in humility, and opened new vistas for me in my relationship with the Nigerian military as a producer of professional – grade documentaries. And for all this honor, kindness and generosity I remain eternally grateful to the unassuming General from Gidan Mana, a small sedate community in the Southern axis of Kaduna state.
On this auspicious occasion of his 75th birthday, I wish the amiable, humble and kind – hearted General Martin Luther Agwai the blessings of good health and long life as well as the resounding joy that comes from realizing the fruits of one’s labour. Again, I pray God to sustain the gift of uncommon grace and charm which He endowed General Agwai with so generously and which has continued to endear him to his large army of admirers. May the General also continue to savor the glory of his well – deserved moniker, ‘A Soldier of Peace’, bestowed for his outstanding roles in the conduct of peace support operations, astounding contributions to the resolution of global conflicts and his unwavering commitment to the enthronement of global peace. As he marches self – assuredly into the second half of the seventh decade of his illustrious life, I commend to General Agwai the lyrics of his favorite praise worship song to mark his birthday: “I have seen the Lord’s Goodness, His Mercy and Compassion, I have seen the Lord’s Goodness, Hallelujah Praise the Lord. Oh Lord You are so Good, You are so Good to Me, For you are Excellent in My Life”. Happy Birthday, General Martin Luther Agwai.
Seun Sonoiki is a documentary film maker.