A former Principal General Staff Officer (PGSO) of the Nigerian Army and Chief of Staff of 3 Marine Commando Division (3MCDO) during the 1967-70 Nigeria-Biafra war, Brigadier-General Godwin Alabi-Isama, is a reporter’s delight anytime.
He canvasses his views with passion and emotion, not minding whose ox is gored. He was at his best, literally shooting from the hips, during a visit to the corporate headquarters of Vanguard in Apapa, Lagos. In a two-hour chat with Vanguard’s senior editors on his book, ‘The Tragedy of Victory, On-the-spot Account of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the Atlantic Theatre,’ the civil war hero made startling comments that are bound to raise dust and generate controversy in the polity.
For instance, he said the Northern and Eastern Nigeria have jointly been ruling the country since independence in 1960 and Nigeria has not known peace; there was no pogrom against the Igbo during the war; Biafra would not have lost the war if her military leaders had been tactically disciplined and prosecuted the war professionally; and that Nigeria neglects her heroes and heroines.
He said the problem of Nigeria is disloyalty, not corruption; Obasanjo lied in his book, ‘My Command’; the first 1966 coup is not an Igbo coup but it ruined Nigeria. A Delta Igbo by paternal lineage but a Yoruba-cum northerner via maternal links, Alabi-Isama said God has destined Nigeria to be one country and those trying to dismember the nation labour in vain. He prayed that Nigerians should not witness another war because people are now very vicious. Excerpts:
Motivation to write the book
I did not know I have what it takes to be a writer. We all left secondary school to join the Army because they will not take you if you are from the university due to lack of trust at that time. They thought graduates would leave after a short while. The point has been proven that graduates did not do well in the Army then just as the likes of Rotimi and Emmanuel Ifeajuna, who were recruited from the university to the infantry, did not do too well. Victor Banjo was a graduate but he was recruited for the engineering aspect of the military where they have always recruited graduates. In the medical (corps), you had to be a doctor, but in the infantry they never did. However, they decided to experiment on recruitment of graduates, which yielded no positive results.
For you to be a general in the Army, you would have done a minimum of seven to eight years of training. If you went to the university, I don’t think you will spend up to that to get a Ph.D. I went through all the military training, and when I was to write the book, there were a lot of thoughts on why I’m writing a book. I discussed with some friends, including Adekunle (Adekoya) who is here.
They encouraged me to carry on with the book based on the ideas and my experience. Kunle told me that the book will make a good read. So we started working on it.
On my 70th birthday, General Alani Akinrinade came with a book, My Command, written by General Olusegun Obasanjo. I had heard about it but I had not read it then. He said that Obasanjo, who was our commander, said something about me in the book; that I will have stomach trouble if I read it. I questioned that comment; he then bought two copies and gave me.
How his mother preserved war materials
When I finished reading chapter one of ‘My Command’, I was so annoyed that I wanted to write. Luckily for me, I went to renovate my mother’s house in Ilorin for my 70th birthday. When I got there, I found a big box locked up. With a thought that my mother had kept money for me again, I broke the lock and found my military uniform, cap and so many civil war pictures. Though not arranged, the pictures had been saved for 40 years. When I got hold of them, the pictures were clean and clear. So every picture I looked at, I remembered what happened. ‘Obasanjo had lied,’ I said.
So, I started writing. Obasanjo has claimed so much for what he did not know, and where he didn’t visit, let alone attack. He didn’t attack anywhere, or capture anywhere; he didn’t command a battalion or even a brigade. Now he was saddled with a division, the best division of the Nigerian Army at the time and that was difficult for him. But he didn’t want us to see that it was difficult for him.
I didn’t write because of Obasanjo
A lot of people would have thought that the book was written because of Obasanjo which is not true. In this book, I have gone beyond personalities, but you can’t avoid talking about one or two people and,
as a soldier, I had never thought that I should be saying ‘oh that man, oh that woman, oh that division, oh that state.’ In my book, I mentioned the states, I mentioned the names of those concerned and if they have any concerns, then they could get in touch with me. In this book, there are 450 pictures and I still have over a thousand pictures. I have gone beyond personalities. What I want really is to discuss my vision in our diversity, to discuss this country. How can we move forward? Where are we now?
How did we get here? If we are satisfied, let’s remain so, but if not, how are we going to get out of it? We did not agree with unitary system of government that was introduced by General Aguiyi-Ironsi, but here we are. We couldn’t get away from unitary government. Why did Ironsi die, why did the Army kill Ironsi or anybody for that matter because he (Ironsi) suggested unitary government?
Things like this happen everywhere in the world, they are what I would say is inexplicable phenomenon in mankind, their destiny took a lot of blood – Alexander the Great, Hitler, Lenin, etc. So people like Obasanjo existed in history, there are people like Nelson Mandela who will say, ‘for this blood that we are shedding, there has to be a result’.
But in our own country, we didn’t have the result for everybody. After the Second World War, elders sat down and said that even those that waved their flags, those who clapped, those who met us on the way as we were advancing; these people were part of the war effort. But we discredited the people that were part of the war effort in Nigeria. We fought for one Nigeria, we are here today talking about unity of Nigeria, is that what we have? If that is what we have, then we shouldn’t discuss it; if not, let’s look at how we can get on and move forward.
Neglect of our heroes
Today, General Benjamin Adekunle is unable to pay his hospital bills. If he stole enough money — I am not here to say if he stole or not, I only know about myself — he will be able to pay his hospital bills. But then, who in this country that is old enough to know will say Adekunle did not do well? I was his Chief of Staff, everywhere we captured, he sent me there and it was because he believed in me. We debated tactics, it’s not usual, that wasn’t part of what we were taught in England. Adekunle did well as a commander. He landed at Bonny which everybody thought was the most difficult thing to do. He captured Calabar, another sea landing. Sea landing operations were the most difficult anywhere in the world, even with General Patton landing in Sicily during the Second World War, he had problems. We replicated his tactics somehow.
Adekunle did well. The whole country heard at that time how Marine Commando captured Oron, Ikot Ekpene, etc. There was no day we did not capture somewhere.
For one reason or the other he was removed, it is in my book. Adekunle arrived back in Lagos; he was not even invited to the surrender ceremony. He was not given any award, neither was he even recognized by anybody.
Now, if you are Adekunle’s son and you were in the Army or you have somebody in the Army, will you go and do it like Adekunle did? You will say: ‘to hell with the country’. That was the problem and everybody in the country talks about corruption. Corruption is everywhere in the world. Maddox has just been arrested and jailed, Stanford was arrested and jailed. Corruption is not the problem of this country; loyalty is; people are not loyal to this country anymore. Lack of loyalty is the problem. A governor will take money and bank it abroad because he doesn’t believe in the country. If he believes in the country, he would use that money to develop his state.
No country succeeds without successors Just tell me today a country that has succeeded without a successor?
I was governor in 1973, what do you want me to be now? You’ll put me as a member of a lousy board somewhere, at 73? Don’t we have youths? We have bastardized these youths. It’s in the book. How did we do it? We have killed our youths — they are broke and broken; that is the word I used in the book. Who is going to succeed Alabi-Isama? What was it that was brilliant that I did in 1973, which I want to do again now? We keep recycling the same people.
When I went to see Adekunle, he said: “Alabi, I am open.” That was the only thing he could say. During the war, we used to have this code that if I tell you I am ‘close,’ it means I am happy. He said I am ‘open’ which means ‘I am in trouble.’
He couldn’t say more. He is only 76 or 77. His abandonment is not fair. Who else will want to be loyal to this country? People have seen Adekunle, they have seen others, so everybody wants to take as much as he can so that ‘it can be better for me for now and then maybe for my children,’ but they have forgotten that what God did not give you, the devil will take. All those people that have stolen money; the devil is giving them what they are spending that money on.
I got no pension, I never got gratuity. Will I allow any of my children to do what I did for this country? It is lack of loyalty to the country that is causing widespread corruption today. So, corruption is not the problem. We need to look for solutions. Adekunle is suffering; it will be unfair of this country if we don’t help that man, because I’m sure the day he dies, newspapers will be awash with eulogies for him. ‘The war hero is dead’, ‘he died penniless’, just like Edet Utuk, one of the best fighters of the 3MCDO. For seven months, the entire Biafran Army could not dislodge 500 men, and it was because of our training. This boy was my staff. The wife said at the launch of my book that they had to go to Obasanjo to borrow some money to take care of him while he was ill and dying because Obasanjo was the commander they knew. When the man (Utuk) came to me at Uyo with the wife, I was only able to give them N20, 000. You need to see how he was thanking me for just N20, 000. Obasanjo drove them back. But the wife said Alabi is at Enugu and he said ‘that’s my boss, let’s go and see him.’ Whatever I had, I had to give them. I never got pension.
Why he didn’t get pension
It is in the book, because they said I stole money.
Contact with military authorities to redress this wrong done to war heroes like General Adekunle
Yes, we have, through the son. In fact, the boy told me that he was kept waiting at Abuja for so many days and he didn’t plan to stay in a hotel because it was expensive for him. But he stayed anyway and got no results.
Federal troops fed Biafrans during the war
That brings me to the question: Will you do the same thing that Adekunle did? People alleged that he said, ‘Oh, we are going to capture them; we are going to do this; kill all the Biafrans.’ But anytime he came to the war front, I will say, ‘Oga you told me to feed them; you told me to recruit them; you carried their children.’
I didn’t see a hungry Igbo man or woman during the war
We didn’t have refugee camp in 3 Marine Commando. Once you are there as a refugee coming from Biafra, we give you food and you go to your house. I want to say that I did not see a hungry Igbo man, woman or child during the war. Those that were hungry are those that were removed from their villages. You need to read the former governor of Imo State, Achike Udenwa’s book. People were removed from their villages to a refugee camp without food. When we arrived at every town, we saw cows, goats, chickens and we ate them.
These people left all these things because they were told that Nigerians will kill them and that we will rape their women. Rape who? You don’t rape Calabar women, you don’t rape Annang women. Anang women came out dancing. So, we recruited these people, and they said we recruited them for socials. There was no food. There was no market, farm, fishing, factory and banks. There was no business. The only people who will give you food are the soldiers. This matter being discussed is not a joking matter. I pray we don’t have another war. But even if we have another, it’s not going to be the Nigeria-Biafra war because people are very vicious now.
No basis for the first coup of 1966
When that coup took place, they said there was corruption. Where is Sardauna’s estate? Where is Balewa’s estate? Where is Adekunle’s estate? The North had eight officers, the West, 10 officers, the East had 37 officers. With 37 officers, you still organized a coup. The coup was not an Igbo coup. Some people got together and discussed with the people they felt they could trust. Even today, if a Yoruba man wants to discuss something, he’s not going to call a Hausa man. He’s not going to call an Ibo man, but a fellow Yoruba man. That was what happened. But you need to read Paschal Odu’s book. He was my course mate. In that book, he narrated his experience at Lafia and the Nigerian Railway where some people were jubilating and partying after the killing of Sir Ahmadu Bello. They were seen taking the pictures of the Sardauna and smashing them on the floor. Even Chimamanda Adichie wrote in her book to say ‘when they were going to kill the Sardauna, he was crying like a goat.’ If I knew that one of them had killed my mother, I will level that family and their neighbours.
Why Hausas were vicious after Balewa’s killing
The Igbo did not understand why the Hausa were vicious. It was the feudal system. I grew up in a feudal system. I was a beggar on the streets. My father, a Deltan, died when I was four years old and my mother brought me back to Ilorin. I had to bear Ilorin name. Now, my mother’s uncle, who was the head of the family, will give about 20 of us money to go and buy food in the morning. The same thing went for lunch and dinner. When the man died, who was going to give us food money? There was nobody. The older ones among us got involved in all sorts of vices. The little ones like me will just carry plate and start begging for alms on the streets. That’s how we ate until the eighth day celebration, when the then Emir of Ilorin, the father of the present Emir, took me and sent me to school. This was how I went to school.
So, when you kill the elders, it becomes a problem. It’s the same thing that has caused the problem of Boko-Haram, the Maitatsine. Once you have killed the elders, you have created a problem. People, who had their youth service in the North, will attest to the fact that when you give the Almajiri money, he will reject it and ask for food. And we did not see why they were vicious and somebody was jubilating that they had killed their leaders.
When the dusts settled after the coup, they realized it. Michael Okpara ran away. Akanu Ibiam, Nnamdi Azikiwe and every other person were alive in the East. You killed the Yoruba and the Hausa. At that time, the Igbo had more than 75 per cent of the country in their hands and under their grip. University of Lagos had Eni Njoku as Vice Chancellor; University of Ibadan had Kenneth Dike; the Army was commanded by Aguiyi-Ironsi; the Air Force, Kurubo from the East; the Navy had Wey from the East; the Customs, Police, Immigration they were all from the East. Jaja Wachukwu, Foreign Affairs Minister; Okoi Arikpo was Internal Affairs Minister. Matthew Mbu was Transport Minister.
In Balewa’s government, the Hausa had three ministers; the NCNC, which was the party of the East at that time, had 11 ministers. In fact, the Finance Minister was Okotie-Eboh. The Hausa only had the Ministry of Defence. So the Ibos killed the Hausa to do what? You killed them because there was trouble in the West.
On General Alexander Madiebo’s comments that if Biafra had one-tenth of what Nigeria had, it would have won the war
I told General Madiebo that the East had the best of Nigerian officers. They won laurels abroad. That’s why Ironsi became the leader of the United Nations contingent in Congo. Our Police were wanted everywhere. I have been successful from failures and not from excuses. The Igbo man is still talking about excuses. I’m an Igbo man and, let me tell you, I told General Madiebo, ‘Sir, you are still talking about a defeat; Igbo people were not defeated in the war. It was Biafra that was defeated and Biafra was the entire Eastern Region.You alienated the Annang, the Kalabari, the Ikwere, the Ibibio and you thought it was only Igbo that were Biafra; that was why you lost the war. It was not Ibo that lost the war but Biafra’. I also told him, ‘Sir, if I were you, I needed just a brigade to win the war.’ You may not defeat Nigeria, because there are Hausa in Togo, Niger and Chad that will come and join them. The Calabar in Cameroon will not; neither will the Yoruba in Cotonou. Their (Hausa) religion will let them do that’. I said ‘you don’t need weapons to even win that war’. He said ‘Alabi, you again.’ Our Atlantic coast in this nation is about 1, 000km from Lagos to Calabar. How do you defend a thousand kilometers from Lagos to Calabar? With how many troops? It’s marshy; it’s below sea level; it’s mangrove. How will you defend the place? I said, ‘Sir, there’s what is called buoys in the Atlantic Ocean, their blinking lights show ships the channel to follow because you cannot dredge the entire Atlantic Ocean. So they dredge a particular place for the ships to pass through and the buoys will be blinking. Sir, at the time you were defending your Atlantic coast, if you changed the position of the buoys, the ship coming will run aground. Do you need any weapon to do that? That’s how I captured Jozina.’ But God in his mercy wanted to have one Nigeria. I may not be there, but one day, this country will say, ‘oh, we don’t know that this is how we would have done it’. Why do you grow kola nut in Yoruba land and it’s eaten in the North and revered in the East? You still don’t know that God wants this country together? The North tried to secede but couldn’t. The East tried but they couldn’t go, and you still didn’t see that God in His infinite mercies wants us as one country?
Those who are disloyal to this country will not go far and I’m saying so. I have seen it all. The day we were going to capture Jozina, which was just a ship carrying weapons, they said it was carrying food. We said, ‘let us inspect it’ and they said ‘no.’ We changed the buoys, when the ship got there, they couldn’t go further. When we inspected the ship, we saw weapons. We didn’t use any weapon to accomplish this. The East could have defended Onitsha Bridge. The East could have defended the Atlantic Ocean and face the North with any tactics that we learnt. You have to use your own sense based on what is happening on the ground. Biafran officers did not do that and I was shocked.
How I escaped Biafran soldiers in Asaba
They came at night and went and killed all the Hausa. Then they came to attack me at Catering Rest House. I threw a grenade, for those that didn’t die I followed it up with machine gun. I’m alive today because God Almighty said so. It’s not because I was clever. But it wasn’t a war the East could have lost. It wasn’t a war they could have won. It was a war that would have had a stalemate like Korea, and then United Nations will say’ leave them alone’. But what were they fighting for at that time, when they were controlling about 75 per cent of the country?
On what he makes of Chinua Achebe’s comment in his book, ‘There Was a Country’ that General Adekunle committed genocide by killing unarmed Igbo masses?
Look, Adekunle was not there in the war front. Adekunle was in Lagos, while we were at the war front. So, which Adekunle was committing genocide? I, Alabi-Isama, commanded the troops from Calabar to Port-Harcourt in 30 days. I didn’t enter any town. So, who were we killing when the 3 Marine Commando was not operating in Igbo area? We only got to the Igbo region towards the end of the war. After we had captured everywhere around the South, then we went to Aba, then to Ihiala, which was the centre of gravity of Biafran troops. We didn’t need to kill anybody. That was what caused the problem between me, Obasanjo and Adekunle. ‘Oga we didn’t need to kill anybody, let’s do it this way and that way.’ At the end of it all, we did it my way and it was what ended the civil war.
So, when was this genocide? Genocide to kill who?
Look, Ojukwu said that there was no power in black Africa that could defeat the East. I agreed with him. First you brought a plane to come and bomb Yaba and Casino area. For those of you who knew Lagos at the time, these were the most populous areas of Lagos. Nigerian government had no answers for it. Awolowo went to beg, he went to the East to say, ‘look, don’t let us fight.’ Do you know that Ojukwu told him in Yoruba? ‘Look, Oga, we have left! If you want to join us, leave Nigeria and come and join us.’ When Awolowo arrived in Lagos, he told Gowon, ‘Look, these people are serious. Either we sue for peace now or whatever we are going to do, let’s do it fast.’
Gowon said ‘no, let’s make a plan to counter this so that this country will not break.’ Awolowo said ‘I agree with you, this country will not break. If that’s the case, let’s go.’ And that was how they started planning. They started looking for planes everywhere. The Americans would not give us; the British will not give us. Then, they went to Russia and Russia gave conditions. And Nigeria said, ‘Okay, just give us because this man will defeat Nigeria. He has the officers and the will to do so.’ In the book, I stated that when an Igbo man starts crying, he has seen enough. I captured it with a picture. Those Igbo people that were shouting ‘Enyimba Enyi’ ‘Yen anyi egbe’ (Give us gun, we are ready to fight) we are ready to fight. What were we (Nigerian soldiers) fighting for? We were just paid soldiers. But they (Biafra) made a mistake. They came to the Mid-West. If you read the military history, why did Russia defeat Germany? Germany went to Russia in Operation ‘Barbarossa’, it’s in the book. Then a little tiny Island called Malta, it’s in the book. They didn’t acknowledge the importance of Malta. Igbo did not know the importance of Oron in the war. There was a confluence, an estuary there. If you control that, it’s like a road junction. You need to read Effiong’s book. He went to advise Ojukwu, ‘Let us control this junction at Ikot-Ekpene’. Ojukwu said, ‘Well, you might as well put one battalion at Nnewi.’ Sarcastically, he told Effiong off.
The Igbo did not think of Ibo coup. But when they were planning, they looked for their Ibo kinsmen who will understand what they were planning for. Will they call a Hausa man that they are going to kill the Sarduana? Or call a Yoruba man that they are going to kill Ademulegun? They killed Ademulegun and his pregnant wife on the same bed. If you are controlling about 75 per cent of this country at that time, tell me exactly what would have made them to organize a coup? Even if you had a good reason for the coup, what they didn’t do was to say ‘wait a minute, what will happen after this coup?’ In military school, we were taught what is called feasibility study. It’s called appreciation. You will look at the variability of what you are trying to do. In fact, they should have known that if that coup failed, an inter-tribal war will erupt. ‘And if there’s an inter-tribal war, can we win? Who are the people that we have?’ You will count how many soldiers you can muster and how many weapons you can get. They
killed Ademulegun, a Yoruba officer and a Brigadier-General, with the wife on the same bed. Was the wife a soldier? Even the Yoruba didn’t care because they don’t operate a feudal system but it was not so in the North. Those are the situations you will sit down to analyze.
‘If we do this, what happens?’ That’s the way we are trained in the military. Like Obasanjo did, he went and attacked Ohoba. Do you know how many troops that were there that you are going to fight? How many troops do you have versus the number they have? Do you have the kind of weapons they have? Those are the considerations before you go on attack.
On comments that the genocide or pogrom that the Biafrans were talking about was committed in the North before the war.
I’m telling you what people conceive as pogrom. You have killed their leaders. Did they not kill Sardauna in the North? That’s their leader. Let us face facts here. I’m saying that after these Hausa and the Yoruba were killed, the Igbo started jubilating. Everybody is talking about pogrom, what is even a pogrom? I’ve explained what the feudal system is all about to northerners. If you had killed all the ordinary Hausa, do you know there wouldn’t have been any war? They wouldn’t have even bothered. It would have reduced the number of people they had to feed. Once you killed their leaders, you had killed all of them.
That’s why I suggested that there must be two-party system in this country. Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa will be spread in the two parties. Once you have a third party, Igbo will take one, Hausa will take one, the Yoruba will take one and you will never have unity. What will give you unity is to start now to get the politics right. What we haven’t got right is the Constitution. Every Head of State that comes in would want to write a new Constitution. We need something sustainable. Even if you write the Constitution today, you will be writing a PDP Constitution. What you need is representatives of the different tribes, let them sit down and draft a Constitution for the country. Let’s stop blaming anybody for our woes. Rather, let’s draw a line now and therefore move forward.
Why Ifeajuna and some other graduates didn’t do well in the Army
As for Ifeajuna, we were mates; we went to the same training school in England. When they staged the first coup, they didn’t do what we call appreciation – feasibility study; if this business fails, what do we
do next? That coup finished this country. And since then, people have written about the woes of the country. So, if that is the case, the next thing is to call everybody and ask: ‘What is the problem?’ People don’t even know why these things happened. If you don’t get the reasons why things happen, how do you get a solution for them? People are always complaining of bad roads, no food, no railway, etc. Our elders gave us Nigerian Airways, we inherited Nigerian Railway. We inherited Post Office, Nigerian Shipping Lines; Inland Waterways, but where are they today?
So, because of what they (Ifeajuna and co) did, they killed the country on the grounds that there was corruption, nepotism, tribalism and all that. Don’t we have them now? Will the coup have stopped it?
North, East have been ruling Nigeria since 1960
I’m telling you that the Northern NPC and the Igbo NCNC have been ruling this country from 1960 till date. And the country is not moving anywhere. In the First Republic, the NPC and the NCNC ruled this country. They were at each other’s throats. All they wanted was to break the West and they couldn’t break the West. In the Second Republic, when the civil war ended, the Igbo accused the North of genocide and pogrom. Chinua Achebe himself went to join PRP, Ojukwu joined NPN. These were Hausa-led parties. So, NPP of the East with the NPN of the North ruled this country in the Second Republic. In the Third Republic, you had NRC, SDP. The progressives went to join the SDP and they won elections, but General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the elections. Why? I Alabi-Isama refused to know. Because I didn’t see why a Nigerian would do a thing like that to this country. That’s why I said these things can’t be explained. If you want the country to be ruled by you, your tribe, kinsmen and community, then, it has to be by education and competition, not by handicaps.
Now looking at the Fourth Republic, you have PDP in the North and in the East. The West said they rigged it, but Tinubu and his group decided not to be part of it and they re-strategised. In today’s republic, only two states in the North are not governed by PDP. Only two states in the East are not PDP. There’s no PDP in the West. The country is still being ruled by the Igbo and the Hausa and yet there’s no peace. That is my opinion. I was 20 years at independence. We were supposed to be the leaders of tomorrow, so let there be competition. Unless, there’s competition, you can’t get the best. It’s all in my book.
By Clifford Ndujihe, Deputy Political Editor