Maj. Gen. Sebastian Owuama (rtd) is the first military officer to lead the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN). In this interview with Johnson Ayantunji, Assistant News Editor, he spoke on his life in and outside the barracks.
You are more than half way into your tenure as the 46th president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), how has the journey been so far?
It has been very challenging and interesting, especially when one is operating on a different turf from your usual home turf. A lot of challenges, which I would like to refer to as opportunities, when these challenges come, you begin to look for ways to solve them, especially in a world-class professional body like the ICAN where you have people who are professionally your seniors. You have those who are your peers. You have those who are your juniors. The challenge is enormous, and you just have to apply the correct mix of leadership, man management, and resource management to achieve success.
In specific terms, what would you say are these challenges?
Coming from a very strong military background where you issue orders and you expect everybody to comply, when you talk, your word becomes a command immediately. You are now in an environment where you make a statement and somebody tells you he will not agree with you. This is the way I feel. You must listen to the person. I am not going to beat my chest and say yes, I am much-democratised military general. But the feelers I have are that members of my governing council, even in meetings, do attest to the fact that I have shown democratic dispositions even more than the politicians and democrats themselves. I believe that the best way to have an entity move forward is to listen to everybody. You must have that patience; you must have that perseverance to listen to everybody because even a fool makes sense at times. If the fool does not display his foolishness, you will not be able to discern the wisdom of the wise. You must allow people to talk; you must allow people to air their opinion. At the end of the day, superior argument, superior logic that should convince someone that it is better for an entity to move right rather than move to the left. I have leveraged very much on this. I have allowed people to air their views, vent their anger on issues they feel contentious and hurting. After that I move to the next person and on and on and on until everybody has had a say or an input into very important matters. At the end of the day, I come up with my own propositions and perspectives on an issue. I believe in the victory of superior logic and argument. If at the end of the day they are convinced that the direction in which I want to push them is the one that would benefit the institute as a whole, they usually tow the line. If at the end of the day there is overwhelming evidence that I should drop that proposal, it is not an act of cowardice or feeling of defeat or loss that you back down. Perhaps, I have deployed a wrong strategy or tactics to push forward the proposal. I will go back and over a period of time, I will do some networking, talk to one or two individuals and tell them why we have to do that thing.
You are the first military officer to head a professional body like ICAN; even in Africa as a whole, how did you pull it off?
It was not any mysterious feat or miracle. It was by sheer dint of hard work and God’s favour and luck. Yes people could say I am the first military officer to occupy such a position, I must be sincere with you, and there is nothing extraordinary I did. I was just being myself. Or one may say I was just being focused or visionary. I got elected into the council, it was at the height of the military down turn in the history of Nigeria. Not many people were favourably disposed to having the military outside the barracks. But then, it is one’s pedigree that speaks for him. And I am happy that members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria built on the foundations established by the founding fathers of fairness, justice, equity and openness. It is an institute that is gender sensitive. It is an institute that does not look at your background. Like Martin Luther King said, ‘at the content of your character and person’. That is what gave me the opportunity to be elected into the council in 1995. Of course there was that bias, there was that stigmatisation. There is nothing anybody can do about it. It was like carrying the green passport once you land at the Heathrow Airport or John Kennedy Airport, first and foremost you are a drug peddler or you are a credit card scammer.
But probably by the time they got through your profile and you answer some questions, you just hear the immigration officer stamp your passport and say you are welcome to the United States. There is that stigmatisation. This soldier, what is he doing here? This is not the barracks that you are going to paint us red. But I took the stigmatisation in good strides just as I took it in other sports clubs and associations I relate to where anything goes wrong they say you soldiers you are creating problems for us. It was as if I was the military personified. It got to the extent that you had people pointing fingers at my face. But I took it in good faith. I allowed them to talk, after which I put forward my argument. So, I had built up this resistance, this rapport, and this engagement on issues. I say let us discuss the issues. Forget the fact that I am from the military. What are the issues on ground? That had helped me greatly to navigate my way as it where.
What would you say prepared you for all these?
Preparations! No. Did I go to the classroom to study and prepare for examinations? Yes, but, to assume leadership position? No! I have been a focused individual. When I set my mind on any thing, it is like fanaticism of a religious zealot. Nothing distracts me from there until I meet my goal. I might have challenges and opportunities but somehow I manage to navigate my way through. Individuals have some innate qualities and abilities. Even as a young university undergraduate whenever I interacted with my colleagues at social functions and engagements, they say Sebastian, you have this uncanny ability to get away with so many things as you argue your way and convince people when you are making a hard saying and all of a sudden everybody accepts it. I think it is something I came into this world with. I did not have to go to the four walls of a classroom to know when to back off from an argument or fight and know that I am not fully prepared to win that argument. I go back, bid my time, wait for one, two, three or five even six years and come back to the same issue and at the end of the day, I get through. Perhaps this is one of the rare qualities that God has endowed me with.
Some believe in Nigeria that the military do not have the patience and the academic endowment to go through school and come top in flying colours like you did. How would you react to that?
Many, many years ago, there was this popular slogan: ‘Bukuru no dey for army (No grammar in the military)’ that was an era, probably before the civil war and shortly after the civil war in Nigeria. But you would recall that no condition is static. The environment in which the military is operating is ever changing. The Nigeria of the 1966 was definitely not the Nigeria of 1974, 75. I want at this juncture to commend the foresight and vision of the then military leaders immediately after the civil war. People like Generals Theophilus Danjuma, Jallo and so on who felt that there was the need to build a capacity for the Nigerian Army, to move above the level of Bukuru no dey for the army and to move to the level of an elitist army. They opened up opportunities for young soldiers and officers who excelled for advancing themselves academically and professionally within and outside the military environment. I can tell you at the moment that the Nigerian military may conservatively have the largest reservoir of highly qualified and skilled manpower more than any entity in this country. We have generals who have PhD in architecture, PhD in engineering. Look at the immediate past Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Abdulrahman Danbazzau, he has a PhD in criminology. The current chief of Army staff he is a fellow of the Nigerian Society of Engineers. If you go into the army now, the chances of your seeing a private soldier who is not a diploma holder is rare. We have private soldiers who are chartered accountants. We have private soldiers who are medical doctors, who are architects and engineers. Any field of human endeavour, you have them in the army. The military in Nigeria is in the forefront of professionalism more than any institution in this country.
How did you get into the army?
I attended a secondary school called Saint John’s College (now Rimi College) in Kaduna. Our next door neihbour, Nigerian Defence Academy was an institution and establishment we all looked upon. Most of the graduates of that school end up at the Nigeria Defence Academy. I remember I had the opportunity of riding on ferried cars (armoured vehicles). They brought in young officers, 2nd lieutenants, lieutenants and captains. As a way of motivational talks they brought these things to us and we were excited with the well-starched uniforms, the smart way they saluted. It was something we loved and admired. All of us thought of having a stint in the military. That is why today, if you have to do a census of any school in Nigeria that has produced the highest number of generals, admirals and air marshals without exaggerations, Saint John’s College Kaduuna has had more than its own fair share of contributing to that institution. So, it was a natural flow for me. I did not have to do any extra research on the internet or career talk. As a young university undergraduate I interacted with those of my classmates like Col. John Madaki (retired) and so on. Military was part of my life. On weekends, instead of going to my parents, I was going to him. He would come and we would go out together. Unknown to my friends, parents and family members the military thing had always been there. By the time I ended up in the doorstep of the military, it was a big surprise to them.
How was growing up in the North like?
Growing up (in the North) was the sweetest thing and I wish the experience could be played back. That is the way every Nigerian should grow up. Honestly I never knew Gusau, where I grew up was never my hometown. I never knew where I was born was not my home town. All we knew was Kaduna boy, Kano boy. Even if you were from Oro (Kwara State), where we had a number of them or from Ijebu-Ode, we were not looked at, as coming from Oro or Ijebu-Ode, or from Owerri where I come from.
How would you compare it with what we have in Nigeria today?
It is big departure from what it should be. Everything about Nigeria now encapsulated into tribes, ethnicity and religion. Even within the states it’s either he is from zone one or zone two or zone three. Within the zone we have degenerated to that level that we are talking about families and in the family we are talking about mother. Rather than having a nation where diversity, culture and every other thing should be relegated to the background, we now have brought out those primordial things to dominate discussions and it is very tragic.
When I went back to my hometown at the outbreak of the civil war, it was difficult for me to adjust. My nickname was Alhaji. There was hardly any sentence I would make without adding haba, madalla. They said: “Onye Hausa? (This hausa man where is he from?”) That showed you the depth of cohesion we had in Nigeria in those days. Now, if you compare it with what we have in Nigeria today that shows you how wide apart we are. I do not know the kind of engineering feat we have that will bind the country together again. Look at what is happening in Jos. Look at what is happening in the northeastern part of the country. Everywhere, there is trouble and everything is defined in where you come from. Put down any legislation now people will talk in terms of how it favours the North, the South, the East or the West.
Who are those that had the greatest influence on you?
Is it in the military or the academic?
Growing up I had a distinct character definition of myself or who I wanted to be. I had friends from all shades and colours. As a young man outside Saint John’s College Kaduna and a young university undergraduate I had friends who smoked Indian hemp, I had friends who were always drunk, but I never took any of those things. If you had that discipline in you, in the midst of filthiness and a rotten environment, you would stick out like sore thumb, as it were. In a much more open environment later in life, I still remained who I am. If in a gathering of 100 people and 99 are doing the wrong thing, I could just be the odd man out doing what I am doing. At times, in the secondary school days, they would call a Jew and I would say you are the Israelite. I would wait for them until they finish smoking their Indian hemp and we would go and play our football. While they were smoking, I would be bouncing the football outside. I would not go inside. That is strength of character. They were not the best of children that any parent would want his child to mix with. But I had no other play friends. That really prepared me unknowingly for the future to stand firm on issues I feel convinced about.
In Nigeria, most retired officers either go into farming or politics.
I am breaking new grounds. What is wrong with being in a professional body? Now that I have blazed the trail, there are many more Owuamas in the background. I am telling them come out of your shell. We all cannot go into politics; we all cannot go into farming. When my mother was alive and growing up, I hated farming like anything. She would beat me because I refused to go to farm. She would tell me ‘hunger would kill you and your wife’ I said if farming was the only source of income for me, let me die of hunger.
The generals, who went into farming, must have agrarian background. They must come from a community of farming. All they have done is to take farming to another level. Where you formerly had subsistence farming, they have succeeded in farming on a large scale, which would feed so many people.
You served in the army for 30 years. What were you doing before you joined the army?
I was in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka from 1971 to 1975. Thereafter I went for my National Youth Service Corps in the then Benue Plateau State, Jos. I was in the third batch of the NYSC. Thereafter I had a small stint with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Enugu Branch. When I was about leaving the CBN, I had running battle with my then immediate boss because he refused my leaving the CBN for any other place. Perhaps he saw in me what I never thought I had. He said young man stay here; you will get to the top of this bank. You can become the Governor of Central Bank. I said I do not have the requisite knowledge, he pressurised me. It was a big problem releasing me. At a stage, he had to involve his wife who invited me to their home. She said, ‘Your Oga (boss) has been pensive about your leaving the Central Bank. He feels you have a future, he feels you have a career.’ I said, ‘madam if I continue my career progression in the bank, I am going to be a frustrated man. I want to go.’ At the end of the day, the man allowed me to leave.
Much later I got to the rank of a major, I had gotten married, I had qualified overseas, I had gotten back and I was making remarkable successes, I never knew he was monitoring my movement. I went to the CBN here in Lagos, to conduct some research. I was at the Nigerian School of Finance and Administration. And we met at the elevator. He was so excited at meeting me. I did not recognise him initially. He said follow me and asked ‘do you recognise me?’ I answered, ‘are you not Mr. Ibekuwe?’ and he said yes. It became a problem for me going to look for the material I came for. The man took me round everywhere and told people about me. He was a motivator in my life. He said to me, I told you, you would succeed in life. When you have people who believed in you, then you were bound to make a success of your career. There is no way I can write my success story in the Nigerian Army without a mention of my boss, my big mentor, retired Maj. Gen. Victor Odeka. He believed in me, more than I believed in myself. He is of a different ethnic stock. We only met while in service and he took me like a son. He wanted to know what I am doing at every point in time. Even while I was going on leave, he wanted to know when I would come back. He took special interest in me.