Chief Olabode Ibiyinka George is a former navy commodore and onetime military governor of Ondo State. In this interview, the former deputy national chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) spoke on his early life and other issues.
Let’s talk about your early years.
I was fortunate to have come from a very well known family in Lagos. My great grand uncle and great grandmother were first cousins to Herbert Macaulay. Growing up in that family, we learnt a lot about what grandpa was doing to unite Nigeria.
On my father’s side, my great grandfather was a reverend gentleman who evangelised in the current Nupe area of Niger State. That was how he met his wife, who was a Nupe woman, and brought her to Lagos.
Our family house is located in the heart of Lagos Island, between Isale Gongon and Campus; that’s where I grew up.
The old man was a reverend and his wife was converted. The Lagos of those days had a congregation of Nupe people – today’s Oshodi. The traditional masquerade of Nupe people is still centred in Oshodi. Each time people refer to the Oshodi family of Lagos, they call them “the Tapa.” So you can see that a relationship had been in existence.
Is “Tapa” the Yoruba name for Nupe?
Yes. I was brought up by my grandfather, who was a reverend gentleman. His son became the organist in the Methodist Church in Lagos. My father was also able to play the piano; he was in the choir, but he didn’t continue with the church thing.
That’s the union of the Agangan Williams, the Philips and the George, but the most interesting part of it is that my paternal grandmother came from Brazil.
After the slave trade, their parents came from Bahia (Brazil). I have been there to see the other half. He had two wives and decided that one, with her children, should move to Africa.
Were they emancipated?
Emancipated from Bahia State. The other wife and her children stayed there. So my great grandmother, with her children, two girls and a son, sailed to Nigeria.
My paternal grandmother came here when she was five years old and they settled at Kpokpo-Aguda, where Brazilian returnees stayed in Lagos. She stayed there with her mother and siblings. She was the youngest of the three. She was a fantastic cook.
We were kids and always trying to run to grandma for Brazilian delicacies and all that. That was where I grew up. I was always between my maternal grandmother and paternal grandmother. My mother and father really had little effect because they were young.
My father fought in the Second World War, but he eventually worked as a civil servant in the Ministry of Defence. My mother was an auxiliary nurse at Island Maternity Hospital, near Prison Street.
How would you describe your early years in school?
I remember that in my first day in school, my father put me on his bicycle and took me to St John’s Primary School in Lagos. It was a community school. Most of those who grew up around the same area all attended the school.
I remember that on that very first day, he just grabbed me in the morning and got me into the uniform. I think I was five or six years old. The school wasn’t too far from our family house, so every morning he would drop me, and after school I would go back.
And growing up in that area, we had all kinds of people from everywhere – the Hausa, Igbo, all tribes in Nigeria.
Also, Eko, as we called it before the creation of Lagos State, was a trading port. Even when the Portuguese first came, all they wanted to do was to trade. We say in local parlance that “as long as there is buying and selling along the end of Marina, Lagos will never be poor.”
Everybody will come with their wares; that has been our culture. That’s how it grew economically and became the centre of commerce in the whole of West Africa.
It was the same thing in Kano. If you go to Kano you will see all kinds of people from all over Nigeria coming to trade. It was the trading centre for the North, exactly like Lagos.
While growing up, football was my major concern rather than academic work in school and my father didn’t like it. He didn’t understand why I was not doing well in school. He thought it was external influence of the boys in the area and all that.
My father was a disciplinarian. If you fell out of line he would knock you back. So we kept our distance.
But I was happy that I had my grandparents who would take care of me and scold him for beating me.
Where did you go for post primary education?
After primary school, I wrote examination into Methodist Boys’ High School in Lagos. I had never been outside Eko.
We had a tenant in my house who told my father that I didn’t do too well in primary school. My father was always complaining. I would do lessons with teachers, but I wasn’t really very focused.
That tenant suggested to my father that I should go to a boarding school in Ijebu Ode, a grammar school, where there was discipline. It was not really like the military, but you would be conditioned. There was discipline, so you would follow the dictates. There was the academic and soccer, the social part of school. And it was a religion-bias school.
So, I did the entrance exam and he was able to convince me; and that made my life.
Ijebu Ode Grammar School was the premier grammar school in the whole of Ijebu land. I landed there as a little young man in 1960 after my primary education in 1959.
In the boarding school you were cocooned and compelled to do things. It was like going to a military training camp. There was time for everything, including reading, sports, eating. It was the best for me as I became really very organised.
During the first term, we were lucky to have an Englishman as our teacher, especially in Mathematics, Physics and those basic subjects. He made them dead easy. He seamlessly explained those things I used to struggle in and I became interested.
I remember that in the first exam I was in the 10th position in a class of 30. My father was surprised and asked if that was really my result.
From second term till I finished in the fifth year, I was never second. It was incredible, even to me. You just needed to follow the dictates, discipline and time to work, play and engage in social debates. I was involved in everything, even school acting. Those five years were wonderful for me.
If I had to relive I would still go to that grammar school because it turned my life completely around.
What influenced your choice of career?
I was lucky to have good teachers who moulded us. They made things easy for you to understand; there was no need for cramming.
The process was fantastic.
When I got to the 5th form, I wasn’t sure whether I should do sciences because I was the best in sciences, Mathematics, Literature, History and English. It was a kind of tug of war for me to choose. Maybe I would have been a good lawyer if I went to the literary side.
In the 5th form, the International School, Ibadan was just starting the higher part. There was an ISIL school at the University of Ibadan and we heard so much about it. The school was run by Americans, so I went there to do the entrance exam.
After the written exam, we were interviewed. An American gentleman called me and asked me to explain straight line and quadratic equations. It was easy for me to explain and he was very happy.
When he told me about the school fees, I said that my father, being a civil servant, won’t be able to afford it.
He went to see the headmaster and they offered me three quarters of the school fees as scholarship to enable me become one of the pioneer students of the higher school. I was very happy. I went home and told my father and he was also happy.
In my school we had a scheme where the best two students in any class in final year would spend their higher school in their school. It was like an exchange programme.
In England. Their principal called me about a week after the exam and said they understood that I went to do an exam somewhere but didn’t want to stay in the grammar school for a Higher School Certificate (HSC). I was stunned. How did he know?
He showed me the letter written by the school and said he had sent our names to the United Kingdom school, Brentwood School in Essex. We were two. We would go by January to start our HSC there, so I had to make up my mind on either to head back to ISIL or go to England.
In those days, if anybody arrived from England, the whole area would converge, dance and praise God.
I was going to London at that age and my father and mother were excited. Everybody in the family was excited.
We finished our exams sometime in early December and by the 15th of January, we were on our way to the United Kingdom. I was flying in an aeroplane for the first time, it was a Lufthansa flight. We left here in the night and arrived there early. My father bought me a new suit, and you could imagine going from the equator to the middle of winter.
We landed in Frankfurt. And as we came out of the plane, you can imagine how we felt as young children in that cold weather without any topcoat, scarf or any woolly thing. They had to get us some blankets to get to the terminal. That was my first experience in Europe. We had to connect from Frankfurt to London.
When we got to London, we heard our names being announced and we were wondering who knew us there. We approached one of the air hostesses and asked what to do because we heard our names on the system.
She took us to the information desk, and apparently, the school had sent those who were to meet us. They were trying to direct us to go through a certain gate.
How long did you stay in England?
A whole year in the class.
Just for HSC?
Didn’t you continue studying?
No. We came back to finish the exam here and I applied to two universities. We finished in 1966, which was an interesting year in Nigeria.
There were three major universities in Nigeria—Ahmadu Bello, and Ibadan and Lagos offering engineering.
I remember very well that with the results we had, we were offered scholarship at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU). And most of the professors in the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Architecture were British. They had links with all the oil companies. Based on your Cambridge and London results, you were offered scholarship.
I remember that I and my best friend then, Sanmi Anibaba, were offered full scholarship to head to ABU. I was very happy, especially because I had not been to any part of the North. But we had heard about ABU.
As we prepared to go to the North, the civil war started and we could no longer go there. That was how we ended up in the University of Lagos.
General Mobolaji Johnson was the governor. And life was so meaningful that you could determine what you wanted to do and where you would go without encumbrances. We related easily with everybody.
In those days there was a cafeteria where you would eat free food. Four of us were engineering students. I told them that our colleagues had gotten scholarships from the West, so why won’t we go and meet our governor. They agreed.
The following day, after lectures we headed to the governor’s office in Lagos. When we got to the gate, showed them our identity cards and said we wanted to see the governor, the guards asked if we had an appointment and we said no.
When they looked at our names they said we should come in; so we entered and prostrated to greet them. They asked what we were looking for and we told them that we also needed scholarships.
They took it up. They were nice. They told us that they would present our case to the government and something would be done. Three months after that, they started the Lagos State Scholarship Board. Those who benefitted would not realise what we did.
So you were the first beneficiaries?
Of course, we were the first.
Where did that take you?
We graduated from the University of Lagos. We were eight in my graduating class – seven men and one woman. I read Electrical Engineering. And before we wrote our final exams, companies had come to interview us and offered us jobs. We had choices to make.
The Electricity Corporation of Nigeria offered us jobs but I didn’t like it. It was a massive corporation, probably the largest government-owned corporation at that time. There was also the Niger Dams Authority in Kainji headed by Mallam Yahaya Dikko. He was the first managing director. The total number of engineers they had were just 20, with the young ones – those of us who just joined them.
That was where I did my training. In those days, after three years of your theoretical work you had to do two years of practical work before you would be considered a full-fledged engineer.
I enjoyed it. We were exposed to the real practical side of the profession. Engineer Amu and one other gentleman from Kogi, Engrineer Sule, trained us. They gave us a lot of challenges. We knew all the theoretical things we learnt, but we saw the practical things on the field.
At what point did you move to the military?
The war had ended and the Nigerian Navy was trying to reorganise and modernise, so they needed young and well trained engineers to man their new equipment. In those days people used to physically sit on weapons, using their eyes to trail incoming missiles or artillery. It was absolutely inefficient, so they needed new people who could be trained in naval engineering. They advertised and I went for the interview and was lucky to be accepted.
The Russians gave us some warships during the war.
What prompted the move to the navy?
I went to navy headquarters and met with General Aikhomu, who was a lieutenant commander and wanted to know more about navy. He was like a big uncle to me.
He said I should come and all that, but I told him that the salary navy was going to pay me was just half of what I was earning. He said I would not regret it in future. He said they were also reviewing the salaries of military people. So I was convinced. I also met the deputy head of operation in the navy, Admiral Adelawan, and they encouraged me.
I remember I went there with my wife, but we had not yet married; we were planning a family. And if I was going to be there, it was necessary for her to go with me because she would hold the home in future, especially as I was changing my life from being a civilian to becoming a military man.
I was admitted and we got married immediately I finished the military training. I got married as a sub-lieutenant with all the things that accompanied military wedding. We enjoyed it.
Did you enjoy your career in the navy?
Perfect. If I had the opportunity I would still join the navy.
What was very interesting about the navy to you?
First, we set out to make a change. We went for conversion training at the Royal Navy Engineering College. I did the conversion course because I became a weapon systems engineer, which meant that I was in charge of weapons maintenance.
At some point you became the most senior person and were appointed a military governor, were you surprised?
It was a non-regimental appointment. They looked at their best shots and recommended them for appointments. They would not want you to go there and disgrace the military. It was not part of what we were trained to do, but we learnt. However, managing people was part of our training. We were managing people who were trained with certain behavioural patterns, and if you fell out of that line, it was instant punishment for you.
But you were going to the larger society where you could not control anybody anyhow. On any occasion, you expected people with behaviours from zero to infinity and you had to manage them. That was a different experience for me.
Let me quickly say that I did a lot of training. I had been to the United States war college and done a lot of training on weapons and systems in Italy; all over the world. I got to the peak of my career. I became the director of weapon systems at the naval headquarters.
We had finished an operation and were going back to our various locations when my driver who took me to Port Harcourt woke me up in the morning and said he heard my name on radio among those appointed as governors.
I said he should get out of my room because he had already offended me. It was around December time and I had decided that he was going to spend Christmas in cell when we got back to Lagos. I thought he was still out of his head. I tuned the radio because I was to go back to Lagos. There was an FM radio station in Port Harcourt in those days. It was very powerful. They mentioned three of us.
By the time I got downstairs at the Presidential Hotel, Port Harcourt, there was crowd because the news had gone all over the place.
Does that kind of thing really get into somebody’s head?
You need the grace of the Almighty God to remain very humble in whatever position you find yourself. I preach that to people and tell them my experiences of life. If you allow it to get to your head you will be down like a fallen apple.
But you were a young man, so it is inevitable that some of you would allow such things to get into their heads.
Upbringing is important.
I had never been to any part of Ondo State, I had never had any opportunity of doing any of such things. But as a student I was very active in university politics, but it did not go beyond that.
I remember that in my first day in Ondo State, I looked around and all the traditional rulers (obas) had lined up to give me the wisdom of elders.
I had read the books of Pa Awolowo. In any democratic government, there are three tiers of government—the executive, legislature and judiciary, but in a military administration you only have the executive and the judiciary. The legislative arm that represents various constituencies and needs of the people is not there. And everybody is looking at you for solutions. I was 42 years old.
If you don’t know the feelings of the people, how do you rule them? How do you manage their resources for their benefit? That is the essence of political life and public office. So, I called my secretary to the government, a brilliant and selfless individual and explained the problem we had and asked how we would solve it.
I gave him my own suggestion and he added his own. I said that every Monday I would meet all the permanent secretaries because they were the accounting officers.
Every Tuesday I met with the ministries and they would present their problems and the projects they were doing. If they were doing well they would let you know, and if they were not doing well, they would also let you know.
Some of your political opponents have alluded to your tenure in Ondo as not democratic, how would you react to this?
Nobody will tell you that. However, in a big society, everybody cannot like you. There will be those who would undermine you even if you had the best performance. Just ensure that you satisfied your creator and the people. If you think they would praise you while you were there, watch your back.
Why did you go into mainstream politics after you retired as a military governor?
I learnt how to hear from the people and have feedbacks. I was in touch with the feelings of the people and that encouraged me. We were able to manage the resources of the land. We were able to do what people thought were impossible.
But you never contested election to test your popularity.
The only election I contested was to be the vice chairman of the South West zone of our party, and nobody rejected it. They supported me. And we won the election, both in Ekiti and Ondo.
Are you still in the Peoples Democratic Party?
I am an irredentist PDP man.
Why do you think you lost election in 2023?
Traditionally, in Africa if you have a problem at home you don’t go to the marketplace to start settling it. What I can say publicly is that we lost tenacity, commitment and loyalty to the tenets of the founding fathers of our party. The founding fathers sacrificed a lot for this country.
People like Bola Ige, Alex Ekwueme, Jim Nwobodo, Solomon Lar, Alhaji Ciroma and others came together and said the military boys must never come back. And they were honest. We called them the G-14. They came out with certain criteria. They knew why the First Republic failed.
It didn’t matter whether you were from the North, South, East or West.
Looking at what is happening in the PDP today, do you think that if Atiku Abubakar had settled its problem with the G-5 governors things would have been different?
Absolutely. I was in the centre of it all.
Are you disappointed that Bola Tinubu won the election?
I have my personal conviction that all didn’t go well, with what Professor Yakubu Mahmoud was saying; and I will tell you why?
You know that’s my area of operation as a weapons system engineer. Imagine that you were at sea and at war and a missile had been fired at your ship and your early warning radar picked it up and sent all the information to the computer. The computer is already working and you now said there was a glitch and it stopped working. Do you know what you have done? You have killed everybody on board that ship. I ask: What kind of computer is he running? Who designed that kind of system?
There is no computer for that kind of warfare that will not be robust enough. If one channel is blocked, there are other channels. It must work on the deal day. But he told us that there was a glitch.
Now, the company said they watched you people switch the computer off. Because you are spoiling their business, they said their computer didn’t stop, you switched it off. We need prayers.
Do you think the judiciary is capable of overturning a presidential election in Nigeria?
I am praying that this would help this country because a lot of people don’t have faith in the Nigerian judiciary.
You said you would leave this country if Bola Ahmed Tinubu won the election, were you talking in parables?
I was talking in parables. This will be my 25th year in politics. I also spent 25 years in the military. I am getting close to 80 now, so what am I looking for but to go and live where I can take a walk without looking back and forth to see who is running after me, where I can live in peace until the Almighty God calls my flight.
Are you still planning to do that?
We will need the grace of God to keep every Nigerian sane.
Do you see yourself reconciling with the Tinubu presidency?
The interesting thing is that he is my friend; that’s exactly his prayer to me. I have worked with five presidents in this country, so I don’t need any more job from anybody.
Outside politics, how do you spend your days?
I spend a lot of time with my children. I also do a lot of reading and listen to news and current affairs.
You still look robust, what’s the secret?
Generals don’t retire, we only fade away.
Are you still an active politician?
They are telling me not to leave them because we must solve the problems of our party. We need to reconcile people. We can disagree but we don’t have to be disagreeable.
Do you have any hobby outside politics; do you do anything for pleasure/leisure?
These days are not like the good old days. Now, wherever you are going you have to be careful. We hear of stories of people being poisoned and those shot for doing nothing.
What about family life?
I and my first wife divorced. We started together from the university. And I told you what we did in the navy. I remarried. She is much younger but it is a perfect match to me. I am contented and satisfied. When you have a good woman with you it will reflect.
So you are not looking forward to ‘the flight’ coming too quickly; the later the better?
For the Almighty to call my flight, what else do I want to do? In fact, what I want to start doingis to mentor the younger generation.