Lt. General Donaldson Oladipo Diya was a substantial personage in contemporary Nigerian history. When he died at 78 on Sunday, March 26, 2023, what most people remember was his last act of defiance before the military tribunal that sentenced him to death in 1998.
“This is a setup,” he shouted with handcuff on his hands and chains on his feet. “Where is Bamaiyi? He is the master-minder!”
General Ishaya Bamaiyi, the former Chief of Army Staff, wrote a book to refute those few sentences. Diya lived long enough to maintain his innocence. He knew he fell into temptations and believed he got a reprieve to live another day because of the benevolence of God. In his final days, he was surrounded by the love of his family as he battled the encircling darkness of the void. He enjoyed the love and devotion of his courageous senior wife, Josephine, his children and grandchildren. It was apparent to his family and friends that he had been captured by the silence of eternity.
There was a time Diya’s voice could change the world. That was what happened when he was appointed the military Governor of Ogun State in 1984 after Major-General Muhammed Buhari seized power from the elected President Shehu Shagari.
Pending on his table was the decision to depose Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona, Ogbagba II, the Awujale of Ijebuland, who had ran afoul of the old regime of Governor Olabisi Onabanjo. Adetona was already out of the palace, waiting for the predictable decision of the government. Diya invited Adetona and after a robust discussion, he signed the warrant returning the Awujale to his throne.
Payback time came in 1998. Diya was in detention over the set-up coup and General Sani Abacha had invited leading traditional rulers to come and watch the secretly recorded video of the alleged Diya’s confession.
All the leading traditional rulers in Nigeria were summoned to watch the so-called Diya video and at the end of the show, the Awujale was handed a prepared statement. He was asked to read it to the pressmen who were waiting outside. Adetona glanced at the paper and then handed it back to Abacha.
“Ah! Your Excellency,” he said gravely. “I did not come here with my reading glasses!”
No one could see the danger ahead when Diya joined the army in 1964 when he was admitted into the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA). By 1967, he was a lieutenant and was posted to the Ikeja Cantonment in Maryland. One night, he and his colleagues were summoned into the parade ground. They were taken to Apapa in several lorries, boarded a ship at 10:00pm and headed for the warfront. They landed at the twilight on Bonny Island where they took the Biafran forces by surprise. Their commander, the little Colonel Benjamin Maja Adekunle was the first to land and face the firepower of the Biafrans. Diya was to spend most of the war years at the front.
Diya was to find himself in a different kind of war when he became the Military Governor of Ogun State. It was the era of War Against Indiscipline (WAI) spearheaded by Buhari and Major-General Babatunde Idiagbon, his unsmiling deputy. After Buhari was toppled in August 1985 by his Chief of Army Staff, General Ibrahim Babangida, Diya moved back into the main military.
But politics would not leave Diya alone. General Babangida had sabotaged his own expensive and protracted transition programme when he aborted the victory of Chief Moshood Abiola, the publisher of the Concord group of newspapers, at the June 12, 1993 presidential election.
When the heat was too hot, Babangida stepped aside in August 1993 and handed over to Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan as Head of the Interim National Government (ING). The real coup soon came and Shonekan was shoved out of power and the Abacha era began on November 17, 1993.
The Abacha regime was a creation of Diya and his partisans within the military, especially Major-General Chris Alli, who became the Chief of Army Staff after Shonekan was shoved aside. Diya, shortly after the coup, addressed a press conference in the company of his colleagues and pledged solemnly, “Our stay will be brief!”
Many Nigerians believed wrongly that the purges in the military shortly after Abacha came to power was to pave way for the eventual installation of Abiola as the President. Abiola too must have believed in that pipedream. Diya and his group within the military believed that they installed Abacha and he would listen to them.
They wanted the military to hand over power to Abiola. They didn’t know early enough that Abacha wanted the military to hand over power to Abacha. In August 1994, Abacha scored a bull-eye when he fired Alli as the Chief of Army Staff and replaced him with Major-General Alwali Kazir. Then Abiola was arrested and clamped into detention. Diya struggled under the weight of his loneliness to arrange bail for Abiola, but Papa Adekunle Ajasin, the leader of the Awoist Movement, insisted that Abiola must be released unconditionally. The National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was formed in the Ikeja GRA home of General Adeyinka Adebayo, former military Governor of the old Western State. NADECO supported Ajasin’s stand and gave Abacha an ultimatum.
In those uncertain times, Diya fully supported Abacha and derided the NADECO leadership as toothless bulldogs. When NADECO called a meeting at the palace of the Awujale in Ijebu-Ode, Diya sent security men to disperse them. The battle was joined. It was not the best of times.
Diya knew his days were numbered when he failed to carry out his plan to get Abiola released through the court. One of our mutual friends arranged for me and my colleague, Dele Omotunde, the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Tell magazine, to meet with Diya regularly at his residence in Aso Rock. We knew he was under pressure. An attempt was even made to bomb the plane he was to travel to Benue State.
One night in December 1997, the soldiers came for him. He knew the game was up. He forbade his personal bodyguards to resist, knowing that it would be bloody and ultimately futile. He, who had survived the Civil War and several assassination attempts, was now facing the ultimate battle of his life. That night many of Diya’s supporters were rounded up and hauled into detention. Our friend, the late Professor Femi Odekunle was sleeping when soldiers broke down his door and dragged him out in his pajamas. The nightmare had begun.
On April 28, 1998, Diya stared vacantly as General Victor Malu pronounced the death sentence on him along with many of his old comrades; Generals Tajudeen Olanrewaju, Abdulkareem Adisa, Odekunle and others.
Diya and the other convicts were imprisoned in Jos, the city where Diya once served as General Officer Commanding (GOC) where they were to be executed. The execution was botched when the Black Maria vehicle conveying Diya and his team mysteriously broke down on the way to the execution ground. The firing squad was waiting until the evening when the execution was called-off.
After that, the Black Maria roared back to life and Diya and his colleagues were returned to Jos Prison.
When Abacha heard this strange development, he ordered them to be flown to Kano where the execution would now take place.
On Execution Day, June 8, 1998, someone tapped at the window of Diya’s death-cell. “E don happen o,” the person said in a loud whisper. “Yamutu!”
Abacha had died that morning and a nation was freed from tyranny. Few days later, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the new military Head of State, sent a presidential jet to bring Diya from Kano to Lagos. He had begun another phase of his life.
Dele Omotunde and I met Diya several times after that at his Ikeja GRA home. He could not fail to recall the miracle of his escape from death’s jaw. His incredible reprieve could only be the work of benevolent providence. He tried to get his full entitlement as a retired general but I am not sure he succeeded. He went to the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa Panel to seek for justice. He tried to cope with life in the aftermath of power. It was tough.
“God has already vindicated me,” he said.
I salute Josephine, his courageous senior wife, who helped Diya to finish his race in dignity and comfort. Diya was a good and courageous man whose travails and eventual triumph show that God still rules in the affairs of men.