Diya…The life and times of Nigerian general who cheated death. By Muyiwa Adeyemi (Politics Editor)


When he was found guilty and sentenced to death by the military tribunal that tried him and others for allegedly planning a coup to oust the maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha, from office, many thought that was going to be his end.

But the former Chief of General Staff, General Donaldson Oladipupo Diya, survived the ordeal and lived for more than 25 years before he finally breathed his last, yesterday.His death, at the age of 79, at a hospital in Lagos came as a surprise, though he had not been seen in the public for close to two years as a result of an undisclosed ailment.

Announcing his death in a statement signed by his first son, Oyesinmilola, the family said: “Our dear daddy passed onto glory in the early hours of March 26, 2023.

“Please keep us in your prayers as we mourn his demise in this period. Further announcements will be made public in due course.”

Until he breathed his last, the late Lt. General Diya was always willing to tell whoever cared to listen that he was innocent of the offence his former boss accused him of.

To Diya, who was also a former Military Governor of Ogun State, the phantomm coup was a ploy to get rid of him and other officers mostly from the Yoruba ethnic stock, including, Major General Tajudeen Olanrewaju and Major General Abdulkarim Adisa.

Unknown to him, the activities of pro-June 12 activists and the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) had reached the peak and was already becoming a threat to Abacha, who had concluded plans to transmute to a civilian president.

The five registered political parties at that period, described by the late Chief Bola Ige, as five fingers of a leprous hand, had adopted Abacha as their consensus presidential candidate, but the international community and pro-democracy activists were opposed to the attempt to bury the mandate given to the late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola on June 12, 1993.Southwest states, especially Lagos, became the centre for demonstration against Abacha’s government and constant stay-at-home protests.

And the agitation from Yoruba monarchs and leaders was said to make Abacha doubt loyalty of some military officers from the Southwest, who he thought could be influenced against him.

In fact, some Yoruba leaders that served in Abacha’s government with the hope that he will hand over to Abiola had voluntarily resigned from his government.

Diya became the prime target of Abacha’s killer squad, who tried unsuccessfully to exterminate the life of Odogbolu-born solider by bombing his official aircraft on December 13, 1997 at Abuja International airport.

Few days after escaping the aircraft bombing by whiskers, he was accused and arrested on December 21, 1997 for plotting a coup to violently overthrow Abacha.

After his arrest, a military tribunal sitting in the Nigerian town of Jos sentenced six people including Lieutenant General Oladipo Diya to death by firing squad in April 1998. The accused were brought to the main military barracks in Jos for the trial. Security was tight, and the men on trial were chained at their ankles during the proceedings.

In a dramatic statement at the outset of the trial, Diya asserted that he had been framed by another officer close to General Abacha, Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi, who approached him with the idea of mounting a coup. Given the explosive nature of the charge, the government then closed the trial to the public.

The head of the military tribunal, General Victor Malu, the former Commander of the West African regional peacekeeping force ECOMOG, responding to Lieutenant General Diya’s defence that some officers framed him, said it was not necessary to know who had initiated the conspiracy. He noted that all Diya had to do was prove that he had not been part of the plot at any stage.

General Malu assured the defendants that they would be given a fair trial and unlimited access to information they needed to defend themselves.

“This tribunal will not conduct or tolerate a trial by ambush,” he said.

International community questioned the secrecy surrounding the trial and warned of the probability that there could be an unfavorable reaction, if Nigeria carried out of the sentences.

Though, the death sentence was commuted to 25 years in prison, many believed Abacha still wanted to kill Diya. He became a free man on June 1998, when the maximum ruler died in a mysterious circumstance.

General Abdusalam Abubakar, who succeeded Abacha, freed Diya and others arrested and convicted for the coup.Diya was known for his Spartan lifestyle and strength of character and control for acquisition of wealth.

For him, leadership meant personal sacrifice.

A leader must be dead to personal and family inordinate desires and associated social and peerage pressures. Leaders are confronted with several opportunities for self-enrichment and personal aggrandizement at public expense.

The late General belonged to a few persons who held high political offices in Nigeria without using the offices for personal ends.

This explains why despite several plots, he was never indicted (privately or publicly) for award of any contract or for selling public property to himself or his immediate and extended family members contrary to what is boss, Abacha did to governance.

As a military administrator of Ogun State in the 1980s, Diya set the precedents that subsequent regimes in the state built upon.

The Ogun State Property Investment Corporation (OPIC), the major corporation responsible for physical development of the state is a creation of Gen. Diya’s regime.

He cancelled night social parties in the state, which other regimes after him sustained and relocated mechanic workshops, known as abule meko from inside the towns to designate places outside major towns in the state.

Many people in Ogun State will also not forget how Diya’s administration implemented laws preventing domestic animals from straying around the towns.

It is also an acknowledged that nobody fought the ‘War against Indiscipline’ (WAI) better than General Diya, then a colonel, when Buhari/Idiagbon held sway.

Unknown to many, outside public office, Diya was a philanthropist, who used his personal resources to meet the challenges of the less privileged, especially through the Gen. Oladipo Diya Foundation.

At his instruction, activities of this foundation are not publicised. His Spartan, disciplined life exemplified the very best in leadership that could make the difference in Nigeria’s search for equity, justice and fairness in our national life.

As a patriot, he wanted government to pay more attention to the welfare of citizens and expressed dissatisfaction at the level of insecurity in Nigeria.

During his 77th birthday thanksgiving service, where he thanked God for the grace of life, the retired General said: “As mortals, we must celebrate every day as it comes. However, by the special grace of God and some divine arrangement, I am alive and in good health to celebrate my 77th birthday. I give all glory, honour and adoration to the Almighty God.”

On the state of the nation, Diya wrote in the statement he titled: ‘A Clarion Call for Peace in a Nation in Dire Need of Unity’: “This special day also affords me an opportunity to reflect and attempt to proffer a solution on the state of our dear nation, Nigeria. There is no gainsaying that we all need to come together to confront our common enemy – war and its apostles – so that we can rise together as one.

“Nigeria is a uniquely blessed nation. God has bequeathed on us a large vibrant population; a vast land filled graciously with milk and honey. North, East, South or West, everywhere you turn, there is a mineral resource that will remind you that God loves us.”

Diya said the country’s natural resources are turning citizens against themselves and “what we are witnessing in the recent past is alarming. It is taking a dangerous turn. The signs are ominous. We seem to have forgotten that, fundamentally, we are brothers and sisters from one source, in one nation with a common destiny. Let us pursue peace and eschew violence at all costs, by all means.

“Many actors have made their positions known. A lot more have pointed accusing fingers. We have turned the table and changed the narratives, just to suit our positions. One thing is certain, we cannot continue like this. Enough is enough. Let us cease the practice of name-calling. There is no part of the nation that does not have its inherent security challenges. Hence, the first solution is to look inwards. Let us do a soul searching.”

The retired general noted that while Buhari’s leadership had recovered numerous territories hitherto occupied by insurgents, more work needed to be done.

“More work, however needs to be done by the government to solve the perennial problem of banditry, farmer-herder crisis and all forms of terrorism in the land,” he said.

“Security matters should not be toyed with on the altar of politicking. Hate speech, fake news, as well as inciting ethnic-religious acts should be completely eradicated. I have fought many wars in my life. I have been out there all my life. I know the feel, the smell, the agony and the long time implications of wars. After a war, there must still be a dialogue, so it is better to dialogue and talk our way out of the problems.

The late military general and lawyer was born on Monday April 3, 1944 in Odogbolu, Ogun State, Southwest Nigeria. He attended Yaba Methodist School, Lagos, from 1950 to1956 and thereafter became a pioneer student of Odogbolu Grammar School, which he attended between 1957 and 1962.

Diya studied Law at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he obtained an LLB degree, and attended the Nigerian Law School, where he was called to bar as Solicitor and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

The late general joined the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna and fought during the Nigerian civil war.

He later attended the United States Army School of Infantry, the Command and Staff College, Jaji 1980 to 1981 and the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru.

Oladipo Diya was Commander 31, Airborne Brigade. He was appointed Military Governor of Ogun State from January 1984 to August 1985. He became General Officer Commanding 82 Division, Nigeria Army in 1985. He was Commandant, National War College (1991–1993) and was then appointed Chief of Defence Staff.

Diya served as the Chief of General Staff, the equivalent of Vice President of Nigeria under General Sani Abacha, from 1994 to 1997.

Diya lost his wife, Folashade, in May of 2020.