I was the tactics instructor at the Nigerian Military School (NMS) Zaria in 1962, where I met Mr. H.H. Kirk Greene, the Principal of the Institute of Administration located at Zaria. He was a very nice British gentleman, and very friendly. He was the first to inform me, before my commanding officer Major Wakeman of NMS, told me, that I will be sent on tour of the entire Northern Region to educate students in all schools about joining the army and the NMS. The recruitment drive took 60 days.
This gave me a lot of opportunity to know the entire Northern Region of Nigeria.
Any officer, who joined the army from 1962 and from the North, did so after the tour. It was almost made compulsory. It was an awareness tour, and I had to explain the benefits of joining the army. The incentives included the fact that you will be able to continue your education; you will be paid a salary – especially those from primary schools not older than 13 years, to enter NMS for 4 years training.
You were fed free, with free uniform, free accommodation and opportunity for sports. I was the sports officer for NMS as well as their military tactics instructor.
The military school won the Davies Cup as the soccer champion of all secondary schools in the North that year. So most of the schools already had an idea what NMS was and its sporting prowess. Those recruited in 1962 into NMS Zaria, were a total of 72 children not older than 13 years of age, and included the following:-
- – Abdul One Mohammed – Late
- – Karimu Adisa – Late NMF125 – Bawa Tnadah – Late
- – Adamu Alfa – Late
- – Mohammed Maina – Late
- – Ibrahim Rabo – Late
- – Sunday Ezenwa – Late
- – Godwin Dike – Late
- – Anthony Opurum – Late
- – Julius Wright – Late
- – Kola Balogun – Late
- – Lasun Odeleke – Late
- – Kenneth Onwukwe – Late
Of the 72 students recruited into the Military School in 1962, a total of 26 are known dead and one known to be blind while a total of 46 are still alive in one profession or the other. Among those alive, as this book was going to press are: –
- – David Mark
- – Abdulkadir Babangida
- – Tijani Aliyu
- – Solomon Ogundare
- – Bzigu Afakriya
- – Jonathan Ogbeha
- – Emeka Okere
- – John Ihejieto
- – Paul Ndimele Omeruo
- – Andrew Okozala Okoja
- – Isaac Areola
- – Raji Rasaki
- – Isaiah Gowon; and
- – Ogbole Omugboga.
They were recruited without anyone knowing their parents or on the basis of any corrupt practices. Those were the days of yore.
How Ogbeha was almost denied admission
For instance, NMF 140 Jonathan Ogbeha, now Senator Ogbeha who was 13 years old then cried and really wept that he was advised to talk to me by one of the other officers. He had passed all the examinations and the interviews but had failed the medical aspect of the tests. This young boy told me that the medical officer after testing his private part said that he had sexually transmitted disease, and he had never had any experience with any girl.
Then I calmed him down, and asked if he went to the toilet before the test, which he confirmed. Then I knew what had happened; because while we were in England, the same thing happened to me. Just before the medical test, I went to the bathroom and when I was tested, I was told that I had STD; whatever that was. I did not know and had never heard such words before. I cried my eyes out.
I was to be sent back to Nigeria. What will I tell my mother – what a shame it was going to be for my mother who had joyously told everybody in her Ansar-ud-deen mosque to keep praying for me every Friday, that her son was abroad, but she knew better not to say that I was in the Army. Then, as God and my destiny would have it, Captain Tom, my instructor was just passing by and saw me weeping. He asked what the problem was and I told him that I was told that I had what is called STD, and I did not know what that was. It was there and then he asked if I had been to the toilet before the test and I answered, “Yes sir”.
He said that something similar had happened to him also as a young man with the Scots Guards, an Army unit in Scotland. He then took me by the hand and ordered a retest, which I passed.
I did the same with NMF 140 Jonathan Ogbeha. I took him by the hand, and ordered a retest of his medical examination which he passed. In today’s Nigeria, I am sure the young man would perhaps have been replaced by a higher bidder in some of our institutions. I am, however, pleased that most of us who spoilt Nigeria are over 70 years old now; we were those of 20 years and above at independence in 1960.
We shall meet our Maker sooner than later; and I say once again that Nigeria will outlive all the evil doers, whoever they may be, that did not give peace to our dear country and people because of their injustice. The Lord will judge. “So mote it be”, like late Oba Funso Adeolu, on stage as Chief Eleyinmi in The Village Headmaster of yore would say.
With the uncontrolled killings of Ibos and their look-alikes in the North, during and after the July 1966 counter coup, the government in its wisdom, after an international conference which is not part of this book, created Four Area Commands in order to douse the tension that was everywhere, especially in the Northern region. Military people were to go to their regions of origin; Nigeria had four regions at the time — the North, the West, the Mid-West and East.
The politicized Army: Road to conflict
Those who planned the January 15th 1966 coup led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, an Ibo speaking officer of Midwest origin, did not appraise in-depth the consequences of failure and how they could handle it. So when it failed, it was beyond their ability to handle. Then came the counter coup of July 1966 by the Northerners which succeeded, and which made all the Ibos wherever they were in the country to feel unsafe except in their own region of origin. This not only affected the military, it had severe political, social and economical consequences for the country; but I will like to limit myself to its impact on the military. While Ibos of Eastern origin moved to the East, the Midwest Ibos also moved to their region.
There was complete breakdown of law and order within the military itself, necessitating the return of soldiers to their regions of origin. By this action, a regional ethnic military structure emerged, and everybody went to his/her region of origin. The 4th Area Command was in the Midwest with its HQ at Benin City. The situation became more complicated with the Northern troops that should have all moved to 1st Area Command at Kaduna remaining in Lagos and the West and refusing to quit.
The West did not like that and felt occupied, as all their senior officers and politicians did not like the idea of Northern troops in their midst. The West, therefore, was not too keen to join in the war effort as the war was considered as the North versus the East or the Muslim Hausas versus the Christian Ibos. The Midwest was also neutral because of the majority of Ibo speaking officers there. On the 18th of June 1966, Governor of the Midwest state, then Col David Ejoor announced that the Midwest Region would be neutral in the unrest, even though salaries were being paid by the Federal Government in Lagos.
So all troops went to their area commands, where they would at least feel safe from other tribes. The Army, like the political parties was now divided and set up on tribal lines.
Posted To Asaba
The situation at the time in Asaba was not only dangerous; but nasty for the 4th Area Command. Lt. Col. Trimnel had earlier been transferred to guard the Asaba Bridge but he was sick with a knee problem and was limping, so he complained, but no one listened. Lt. Col Trimnel was not even an infantry officer; he was of the Supply and Transport. Meanwhile Cols Nwawo and Okwechime, Major Ochei, and many more of the Ibo speaking officers of the 4th Area Command refused to guard the bridge against Biafra. Col Nwawo was the most senior Nigeria Army officer in the Mid-West, so he was the commander of the 4th Area Command.
Meanwhile all the non-Ibo speaking officers of the 4th Area Command were given one type of diversionary job or the other. For instance, Major Sam Ogbemudia, in order to keep him away from pure infantry duties was appointed Quarter-Master. Another non-Ibo speaking officer was Major Pius Eromobor who was appointed Intelligence officer. It was then I went to the commander, Col. Conrad Nwawo, to volunteer to replace Lt. Col. Trimnel at the Asaba sector.
I was a Major then. So he agreed, and I moved to Asaba the next day.
Biafra’s first military blunder
What I did not understand as an Army officer was how on earth Biafran troops got to Sapele and Warri! What would they be looking for there? What tactics or strategy was that? One would have thought that the Biafrans had an aim and a plan to achieve it. To my mind, if I were in the Biafran High Command, Lagos was my objective, what would be my aim? Biafrans’ entry into the Midwest was to my mind a military blunder.
There were better objectives than Benin and Lagos. What about Benue? The Benue River would have given Biafra a very good line of defence to the north. The Biafrans depended on the Midwest Ibo officers who in the end were not helpful to their cause. A traitor is always a traitor, and what you compromise to get, in the end you lose. Some of the Midwest senior officers that sold out and went to join Biafra were, Lt. Cols. Conrad Nwawo, Okwechime, Ben Nwajei, Igboba, Ochei, and the worst of them all, Capt Joe Isichei.
The man called Achuzia, a civilian Midwesterner, fought for Biafra, as did Lt Col Morah, who became the paymaster in Biafra. How could Biafra win such a war, because as soon as the firing was too heavy to bear, they thought of mama and papa back in the peaceful Midwest, then they ran away. Most were losers. Let us for once imagine that Biafra became a reality; what part of Biafra will these officers belong to? What will happen to their children in future?
For readers of this historical account to understand the situation a little better, it was like troops advancing to capture Ibadan from Lagos but bypassed Ibadan, and got to Ilorin. Ibadan will beg for mercy. So, why worry about Asaba, Warri and Benin City when the big stuff was Lagos. I was not sure if the Biafrans had a plan for their Aim. And what was the aim anyway?
Speed in the military is not running 100 meters dash, but by making haste slowly according to the plans made. It took three to four days to announce a governor for the captured Midwest. Their arrival at Benin carried no punch with it. They just got some innocent children killed for Biafran currency- worthless. I remembered what Chief Dafe told me about the invincibility of these senior officers, and when the time came to show the stuff they were made of, they were jelly and soap bubbles.
Capture by Biafrans
Just as we got to Agbor junction, a Biafran soldier recognized me at the road block. He was one of my footballers. He shouted, ”This is the man that killed some of our people at Asaba”. My wife was still crying – so I was arrested, and we drove to the Biafran commander’s office. And who was he? Major Ochei. Then Captain Ochei was my boss way back at Zaria Military School (NMS) in 1962.
We were at the military school together as Tactics Instructors at Zaria in 1962. An incident happened which he reminded me of when I was marched to him. “You stupid man”, he said, “you think you know too much; but for your mother who used to give us pounded yam and gifts, I would have killed you now, you killed many of our soldiers at Asaba and ran away”.
He said he would not kill me; instead I would join Biafran troops to attack Ehor. At that time Nigerian troops had blocked and blown one bridge to further delay Biafran advance to Lagos beyond Ore. When they opened fire at the ragtag Federal troops, which were hurriedly put together at Ibadan and moved to Ore, most of the Federal troops fled – that was what led to the Yoruba slogan – “O le ku, Ija Ore” (it was tough at Ore Battle).
Alabi Isama, a Biafran officer?
In the meantime, I was ordered to command Biafran troops deployed as reinforcement to Ehor to counter attack the federal troops commanded by Lt. Cols. Akinrinade and Murtala Mohammed. He introduced me to the officers and men.
Then we started talking tactics and strategy. He knew me well for both of us had worked together before as tactics instructors. He agreed that they had made a mistake by attacking me at Asaba, and that they lost over six hours as a result. Their plan was to arrive at Benin at midnight and Lagos at between 5-6 am during the rush hour. He further told me that he was searching for Ogbemudia, who had joined the Nigerian troops, and many of the non-Ibo speaking officers.
He also mentioned that the signal I sent from Asaba alerted everybody and rather than getting organized to fight, they all ran away. He also told me that Captain Tuoyo, the guard commander at the Government state house led the only soldiers that fired any shots at all. We spoke for more than an hour. I continued to drag the discussion longer and then I asked him to brief me on what next.
He told me that but for the alert signal from Asaba which I sent they would have caught the Lagos and Ibadan troops napping but that the Biafran troops will now reorganize at Benin in view of the new challenges and head on to Lagos the next day after clearing Ehor town of federal troops. But if Ehor was difficult, he showed me how he would withdraw and where to on the map.
Note from Major Ndiomu
Then came a lady I knew as then Major Charles Ndiomu’s friend when we were at Benin 4th Area Command; with a note for me. I asked her, where is my brother? – She gave me the note to read. “Alabi, now that you are out, I trust you, I am at Forcados, can I come out?” I replied on the same note “I am out and alive, you may not be. Stay where you are; when the federal troops arrive, I will contact you”. I let Mr. Okonofua read the note. He looked at me surprisingly and I said:
“Akinrinade is coming, he knows where to find me, and he is already at Ehor advancing to Benin”.
Akinrinade knew where to find me or where to look for me in Benin. When we were young officers, we had some friends at Mission Road in Benin, and that had always been our rendezvous. I was sure that he would look for me there. I had already left a message with details of the Biafran plans as discussed with Ochei and let him know that I was making other efforts to reach him. Akinrinade thus knew that I was trying to escape.