About this time in 1976,General Iliya Bisalla was so sure of life despite his detention at the Kirikiri Maximum prisons. And that was before driver Mathew Nga spotted Lt. Col. Bukar Suka Dimka on his bus in Abomega.
Dimka was arrested by policeman Jika Iya, flown to Lagos. It was his word against Bisalla’s. On March 11,Bisalla,was executed by firing squad for treason. The Head-of-State Gen. Murtala Mohammed had been assassinated on February 13, 1976. Bisalla was Defence minister under the Murtala Mohammed regime. The Military tribunal that tried the plotters had one Lt. Col. Mamman Jiya Vatsa as secretary.
He would later rise to the position of Minister of the Federal Capital Territory. On March 5, 1986, Vatsa faced the bullets, for the same reasontreason. That was just ten years after Bisalla. Both died in Lagos, the former at the Bar Beach, the latter in Kirikiri.
Two generals, two different plots, supposedly against friends. Bisalla and Vatsa had so much in common, even without knowing it. Bisalla was killed following the death of his military course mate, Murtala. Vatsa died on allegations that he wanted to oust his course mate, Ibrahim Babangida.
All four were active during the Civil War. Two as Divisional Commanders, the others as Battalion Commanders. Bisalla and Murtala were at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst between 1959 and 1961.Also part of that Intake 27 were Ibrahim Bata Malgwi Haruna and Mohammed Shuwa.
As Colonels during the war, Bisalla became a GOC[General Officer Commanding] just as Murtala stepped aside after the River Niger tactical blunder. Vatsa became a Cadet of the Nigeria Military Training College [NMTC] Kaduna same day as Babangida, on December 10,1962.
Ted Hamman, Garba Duba and Ozoemena Igweze were part of the course.
All were commissioned Second Lieutenant in December 1963.During the crisis, Babangida fought in Uzuakoli as Battalion Commander. When he was injured, Vatsa was drafted as replacement. Bisalla was a minister in his friend’s government and was executed for plotting against the same friend.
That also was Vatsa’s lot. Both were shot in Lagos. The duo hailed from the North Central geo-political zone. Really not much difference between Iliya and Jiya. Bisalla died in March 1976,Vatsa in March 1986. Bisalla’s friend, Murtala married Ajoke from the South. Vatsa’s buddy,
Babangida went for Maryam Okogwu also from the South. Murtala named his first child Aisha,that is also the name of Babangida’s first baby. Murtala ascended the throne in 1975,Bisalla was shot in 1976 . Babangida came in 1985,Vatsa was killed in 1986.Murtala was succeeded by a Yoruba from Abeokuta. Babangida handed over to another Yoruba from Abeokuta. Thirty-eight years ago, we lost Bisalla.
Vatsa left 28 years ago. Honestly, there is so much between them that history cannot wish away. Even at the point of death, Bisalla maintained he could not have plotted against his course mate. As Monsignor Pedro Martins offered last prayers, the Defence minister’s last words were “I was to be set free yesterday but for this boy Dimka who implicated me. God knows I knew nothing about it. Allah Sarki[God is King]“.
Last words mean so much. There were insinuations that Bisalla’s grouse with Murtala was the elevation of Yakubu Danjuma to the position of Army Chief with the rank of Lt. General. In today’s setting, the Defence minister is senior to all Service Chiefs.
If that was Murtala’s reasoning, it was ambiguous to have promoted the Chief -of -Army staff above his boss. “I have never nursed ambitions that are not in conformity with the law. This will not be my final hour. I have God’s promise on that,” Vatsa told the Gen. Charles Ndiomu Military Tribunal that condemned him to death. Vatsa also thought so much about his family.
“May I appeal to you, that by the time you finish with me, I am afraid, my children will forever be afraid of the system.” Tied to the stake and ready for the bullet, he was said to have given his gold wristwatch to one of the soldiers on duty for onward delivery to his wife, the Efik woman Sefiya.
She never got it. However, those who blame Babangida for not saving his friend, are as many as those who say Babangida turned a blind eye when Vatsa’s first daughter was alleged to have murdered a farm hand in their Kaduna farm.
Whatever affected Bisalla and Vatsa, has also affected Nigeria. Bisalla’s first daughter is today married to a Yoruba, just like Murtala. The Gbajabiamilas can tell better. Not many know that just as Babangida has in-laws in Delta State, Vatsa had step children not very far away from Asaba.
Sefia was first married to an Ebu-Mordi from Ebu in Delta State.Though in the Igbo speaking part,Ebu people speak a dialect of the Igala language.