Former spokesman of the Defence Headquarters, Gen. John Agim Agim (rtd), had always known what he wanted from life, even as a young man. Conscious of his father’s favourable disposition to a career in the army after saying that he loved the uniform of cadet soldiers each time he visited Kaduna, Agim made himself available for recruitment into the Nigerian Army immediately he completed secondary school. From a mere recruit, he rose to the rank of a Brigadier-General and became the Director, Defence Information, before his recent retirement from the army. A Ph.D holder, the ex-Defence spokesman spoke with PAUL UKPABIO about his time in the army and his marital life, among other issues.
HOW easy was life in the army?
Life in the army is difficult to talk about in a short session. Even if we spend the whole of this month talking about it, we will not be able to put everything down because it is in many parts. I joined the army immediately I completed secondary school.
Was it something you planned?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that in my early stage in life, my father used to talk to me about the cadets in the Nigerian Defence Academy. Each time he returned from his travels to Kaduna and saw the young cadet officers, he used to admire them. But at the same time, there were some young doctors around us then who inspired me to want to be a doctor. But when I left secondary school, I met some young officers who actually made me feel like being one of them.
Where did you have your secondary school?
That was in Ikom, Cross River State. I attended Boki Boys Secondary school.
What was there in the army that made you to stay on?
The army is one of the most disciplined vocations. It is a vocation where you can have your career plan fulfilled. For instance, I did not just rise through the ranks to get to a Brigadier-General, the army also ensured that I went to school and became a graduate of Communication Arts. But it didn’t end there; I also had an opportunity to further my education. Today, I have a PhD in Mass Communication. So you can see that the army has a planned career for anyone that is interested in such.
But was there any time you felt like quitting while you were in service?
Of course yes! There were many times I felt like leaving. In fact, for me to have remained till I rose to the position of a Brigadier-General was because my wife encouraged me to stay on. She wanted me to be sure before taking such a decision. She told me not to rush into it but make sure that I planned the exit properly. I got my PhD when I was a Major in the army. And for me, it was a good time to leave! At that time, I was ready to step out and try other things. But she told me not to rush it; that I should remain calm to avoid taking a rash decision and also hear from God.
Were you discouraged from any quarters when you decided that you were going to join the army?
Yes, I was. Usually, when anyone decides to join the army, there are always people around the person to say, ‘No, don’t go there because of the risk involved!’ A lot of people around me felt that it wasn’t the right decision, especially my friends. There was not much resistance from my family members though, but my friends insisted that I should not go into the army. The good thing, however, was that nobody’s advice would have mattered or stopped me. That is because I had already joined before revealing it to the family and others.
I joined the army as a recruit in 1979. It was while I was in the army that I got admission to study for my first degree, which was Communication Arts at the then University of Cross River State, which later became University of Uyo. It was initially a university owned by the governments of Cross River and Akwa Ibom states when they were one. The army sponsored it. When I came out of the school, I was given a direct regular commission with the rank of a Lieutenant.
What do you remember about your childhood?
My early life was full of adventure, but somehow, I knew quite early that education would advance me higher in life. So after secondary school, I joined the army as a recruit, though I still had my eyes set on education. And I saw that some of us who became graduates moved higher in rank. Being a graduate also meant that one would be well exposed in the army and at the same time know more about what the military is all about. That challenged and encouraged me to hold on to education. So I went to the university to study for a degree.
I later went back for a master’s degree in Public Relations at the University of Nigeria. Then again, I went for another master’s degree in Mass Communication in ESUT. This enabled me to have good exposure in the military.
Were you already married then?
I got married as a graduate. My wife is from Akwa Ibom State while I am from Cross River State.
How did the soldier meet his wife?
(Laughs) I met my wife while we were in the university. She was in the Faculty of Science. We met on one of those days on campus. I would say that it was love at first sight. I thank God that our marriage as it is today is blessed with four children —three boys and one girl.
As a soldier and one who more or less was always in school, did you really have time for your family at home?
That is another thing about the military: we hardly have time for the home front. So you have to pray to have a strong wife, and I think that my wife was able to fill in the gap for me and take care of my family. On many occasions, she had to be the mother and the father for my children while I moved around. I moved around a lot within the country and outside the country on different military postings. But when I am back and at home, I gave them all the necessary attention.
They must be grown up now…
Yes. Our first son is married. For our second son, we are looking up to God to give him a wife.
Now that you are retired do you miss the army?
(Laughs) To have been in a place for about 35 years of my life, I feel like a fish out of water. I am presently just learning to live outside the army. I thank God that I successfully served my country and that I am out of service in good health and I am still able to do something for myself. Though, I am still thinking of more things that I can do to contribute to my community.
Considering that you are still healthy, what informed your retirement from the army?
I had completed my meritorious military service in the ambit of the time required. I have spent 35 years in the army. I am retired but not tired. I am still alert mentally and physically, and will be 56 next month.
So far, how has retirement been?
I have been able to rest. Now I have a private office where I am consulting. I am into security services. I provide private guards, public relations and strategic communications to companies and individuals who need such services.
What can you recall as the turning point in your military career?
The turning point in my military career I would say was when I gained admission into a university as a private soldier. That is because every other thing that I have become today, has been because of that. It was as a result of my academic qualification after graduating with my BA Hons that I became a commissioned officer in the Nigerian Army.
How did you relate with your colleagues on the campus as a soldier?
A lot of them respected me while some were afraid of me. But I was also conscious of that and I didn’t bust anyone of them. By my nature, I am very accommodating. I tried to have a good relationship with a good number of my colleagues, and that relationship continues even till today.
Were you living on the campus?
In my first year, I lived in a hostel on the campus but moved into a hostel outside the campus in subsequent years. I enjoyed campus life very well. You know I was a young man at that time. I was in my early 20s when I got admission into the university. So I did everything young people do on campus.
Why did you move out of campus?
I guess it was more about having more comfort. You know I was already a soldier before gaining admission into the university.
During your career in the army, were there moments you came face to face with death?
Yes, there were many of those moments when I was face to face with death. That is what life in the military is all about. You are more or less dead until you come out alive. At the end of the day, I can only say that it was God that saw me through. I was in Sierra Leone where we were engaged in combat war with lots of casualties, where you see people next to you dying, and even back home in my last appointment as the Director, Defence Information, an assignment that took me around the country. Most of those places that I went are hotbeds of killings. Anything could have happened to me. It could only be God.
The story of a military career is like an adventure. A civilian can only understand it when he or she is in a war situation. There are times when you finish from a military exercise that you know that it was only God that helped you to survive. There would be no way that you would boast that you came out of the exercise by your knowledge or will. When later you look back and see where you came out of while others died, you will bow to God that it was only He that made you survive.
How challenging was your position as the spokesman of the Defence Headquarters?
It was a very challenging position. I think the most challenging. There were times when on the spur of the moment the police had challenges around the country and they wanted the military to come in. And as soon as there was respite in those places, the military became a problem in those places. So there were always complaints, issues brought before the table of the spokesman. Meanwhile the commanders don’t get as much of such complaints. So one had to go around these hotbed areas to douse tension, explain the actions of the military and make the country understand that the military is there for the country.
One other thing that I discovered in most of our operations within the country is that the civilians don’t usually see it as an operation done for their own good. They see it as operations done by the military for the military. It shouldn’t be. So, it was a very challenging period for me. And I had to engage the journalists as well. Sometimes they called and when I didn’t respond immediately, it became an issue. Sometimes the journalists invited me, but when I was not able to be there, it became an issue. It was a challenging assignment.
Having spent most of your adulthood wearing uniform, what can you say of your sense of style?
I am privileged in the sense that I went to campus and interacted very well. I also read public relations and communications. That helps my sense of dressing because in public relations we were taught how to dress, social etiquettes and all that. So I am very fashionable. I wear suits, Nigerian traditional clothes. I love agbada, and sometimes I just want to be comfortable in Jeans and T-shirt. When I was Commandant of Nigeria Army School of Public Relations, I taught my school how to dress.
What are your hobbies?
I swim and I read widely and love making friends.
Some people are of the opinion that the Nigerian Army has in recent years been politicised. What is your opinion on this?
I don’t think so. I think that the long stay of the military in politics really affected the military. But then after 1999 when the military handed over power to the civilians in the present democratic dispensation, there have been a lot of re-orientation in the military to make them focus on their traditional duties. We are in the whole of the states of the federation. In some of these states, the governors want the military to do police jobs for them, and if the military should agree to that, definitely people will not want to live in those states. So I wouldn’t say it is politicising the military. Rather, I would say that the security situation brings the military outside the barracks unnecessarily.
But then, most of such security situations are such that the police alone cannot cope. So the solution is to bring up the police to a state whereby the military will be allowed to stay in the barracks, within the limit of its own career.
The process of governance in a democracy is sometimes cumbersome. Do you think Nigeria is embracing democratic values as fast as it ought to?
I think so. You have already mentioned the cumbersomeness. Nigeria is definitely embracing it. But we must give ourselves more time. As we go along with democracy, things will continue to improve.
Insurgency and banditry remains a major issue in the country right now, do you wish that the army becomes more involved than it has been lately?
I am even thinking that the police should be made to take up some of those functions that the military is presently doing. I wouldn’t want the military to be more involved in it. Already, the military is getting too involved. The police ought to recruit more numbers, and equip them to handle the issues around the country.
Are you proud of the Nigerian Army so far? And is life today better for the soldiers in the Nigerian Army?
When you are talking about the Nigerian Army, you have to also look at the other military service. Yes, I am proud of the Nigerian Army. The army has done its best. Take away the Nigerian Army from the country, especially at this moment, and you will not be able to talk about Nigeria as a country.
How best do you think that the civilian population can help the army in performing its duties?
I think the civilian population needs to appreciate the Nigerian Army as it is done elsewhere. In most countries of the world, citizens give the army support. They go out to show the military that they have done well even through commendations and the like. The Nigerian military go outside of its normal role, even fighting issues such as corruption, fraud and so on inside and outside the country. You can see the role of the military in the fight against Boko Haram which is not limited to this country alone, as it stretches outside the shores of Nigeria. The Nigerian citizens have to learn to appreciate the military and encourage them. It is time to appreciate your own people instead of talking down on the military. As it is, the civilian population does not appreciate what they have in the military. These are people who put their lives on the line to make the country work.
As the spokesman for the Defence Headquarters, which was more technical for you to relate with in terms of communication to the public, Boko Haram or killer herdsmen?
There was nothing so technical or difficult about them. But most times, one noticed that people preferred to believe the lies that the enemies propagated to them than the truth that we the military tell them. Before the enemies launch an attack, they put in place an orchestrated propaganda organ to indicate that they are having an upper hand in the fight. And their fake stories are the ones that are more interesting to the media men. They forget that in carrying such stories, they are projecting and encouraging terrorists act, because you are showing that they are in control, which is not the true picture of things at the battle front.
What advice will you give to young people looking out for a career in the Nigerian army?
I will tell them that it is a noble profession where you can grow to become anything you want to be in life. The military has room for everything. I am an example. I can compete anywhere in the world.
Should we expect a book from you someday?
As a Major, I published ‘The Principles and Practice of Public Relations in the Military.’ That was in 2005. And in 2011, I published another book. And before I stepped out of service, I released a media handbook. I hope to write more books in the near future.
No regrets. I can’t think of anything that I could have done differently. If one dwells on regrets, one will go to the grave early (laughs).
In the midst of war in Sierra Leone, were there situations you had to go without food for days?
The military training we get already takes care of whatever situation we find ourselves. In training, we are taught how to survive in whichever situation we find ourselves. Even if we are captured by the enemy, we know how to survive so we don’t die as a prisoner of war. So by the time we go for the real operations, to us it usually looks like a rehearsal because we have already seen the worst during trainings.
I urge Nollywood film makers to try and see ways of how they can produce a few of our drills so that the public can know some of the things that we go through. I can assure you that we have a robust training that when you come out of it alive, you know that it is not you but God. You can go for several days without food. And for each of our recruitments, there is a percentage expected to die during training. And that could be as much as between 15 and 25 per cent. That alone shows you that it is no play zone or a boys scout lifestyle. That is why when filling a form to the Nigerian Defence Academy, you sign a bond that you are responsible for your decision.