We continue today Brig. General Godwin Alabi-Isama’s explosive interview on his yet-to-be-released civil war memoirs, The Tragedy of Victory: On the Spot Account of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the Atlantic Theatre:
The interview was conducted by SAM OMATSEYE, STEVE OSUJI and FEMI MACAULAY.
I don’t think you have sufficiently addressed the question of why the war lasted that long?
It lasted that long because Biafrans themselves did not just give up, it was their tactics and strategies that were wrong and they believed they were doing well. The amount of ammunition and weapons with which they went to the Mid-West could have been used in defending Biafra. In this case, the Biafrans put in a lot of efforts but when they recaptured Ikot Ekpene or they recaptured Owerri, they should have started negotiation from position of strength. Alright, Nigeria,
if you want us together, this is what we must do and then you negotiate. You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. And the war dragged on.
Now, One Division, I can’t say much about One Division when I was there towards 1969, for instance, they captured Enugu in July or so, they didn’t capture the next place until after six months. They took their time, they were ready, it was Adekunle that was going every time we were running, the troops were tired but because they saw me with them, Adekunle himself was not tired. Adekunle was in Lagos making sure we got all these logistics; that was more important than even the advance. And then, there was Farinde and he would say, okay, troops you carry on, let me go look for ammunition. So what made the war to last those three years was because Biafrans were not pushovers; they were the best trained of the Nigerian Army. Before the war, the West had 10 officers; Hausa had eight officers; East had 37 officers, well decorated officers. It was because we did well in the Congo that they made General Aguiyi-Ironsi the commander of the United Nations’ troops.
But the tactics of war had changed. The war lasted because the Biafrans themselves were not a push over. And it ended in Marine Commando section because we were able to identify their centre of gravity. One Division went to Nsukka, Okigwe, Orlu, Umuahia, you don’t need those places. For instance, the Biafrans captured Owerri. When they did that, they were happy, they started moving troops from Umuahia everywhere to go and defend Owerri. As soon as you move troops away, this place is empty. So we look for the gap and went through the gap and the centre of gravity was there in Uli at Ihiala. They were defending Owerri, we didn’t need Owerri. But Obasanjo made the blunder at Ohoba and 1,000 troops died in one hour. I never had that type of casualty.
What were the blunders on the federal side?
The first blunder of the federal side was that they did not defend the Mid-West. As a matter of fact, we didn’t have the troops. You know when this war started, Biafra started talking about no power in black Africa would defeat Biafra, everybody should come home and with that, everybody was ready and the morale high.
That’s exactly what things were. The blunder on the federal side, apart from the fact that they did not defend the Mid-West properly, was because General Gowon took it easy. If we can only go and capture Ojukwu at Enugu, the war should be over, Gowon thought. He was wrong. The Biafrans were more determined than that and then the Mid-West was over. Because in that Mid-West, Akinrinade warned Murtala, ‘We cannot cross (the River Niger bridge) from here, this tactic is wrong’, but he (Murtala) was the commander. He would be responsible for whatever happened. Akinrinade in protest left the place. He walked away; in the meantime, they had jailed me somewhere.
So Murtala decided he was going to cross, he did, all the troops died. Nobody asked questions.
About how many?
You would be talking about more than a 1,500; that’s a brigade.
They were just falling into water?
What else would have happened? You were in a canoe and the canoe capsized; even if you can swim, the bullets are coming. They shouldn’t have crossed from there; after all, we crossed Opobo river.
Could it not have been that the unforeseen happened. Sometimes even with the best of strategy, things can go awry?
Give me an example.
You are the general (laughter). Because as they were crossing the bridge, look at the Biafrans there, you said he should cross the bridge to go and fight and they were there with their bullets?
Let me tell you what we were trained to do in the military school. You are there, I am here. This is the river. That is the most dangerous operation of the military because just throw stones and the canoe would capsize. We had no landing craft. 500 canoes, the pictures are in the book. The unforeseen is more important in the military than what you can see. What are the unforeseen? You will sit down there and debate with your officers and men. Your troops must know enough, but not too much so that when he’s captured, he won’t go and reveal everything.
On the federal side, on the Marine Commando side, one of the blunders of the war, Obasanjo arrived on 16th of May, 1969, we had captured everywhere. We needed only 30 days to tidy it up and when he arrived, the first thing he wanted to do was to pay salaries. We told him, ‘Oga, we are not in the barracks. If you pay the salaries of these troops; we had 8,000 troops of the Nigeria Army before the war. Now, we have built it up to about a quarter of a million: the cooks, the stewards, the never-do-wells, area boys, the drop outs, we recruited everybody and many of them were the breadwinners of their families. They had children going to schools, they were not in the barracks, they had wives that would pay rent. They had aged parents and in Nigeria, we don’t have social security; we are our brothers’ keeper. With your salary, you know how many family members you feed every month. By extension you know that if you are paid so much, sisters would come, brothers would come, that’s what was happening.
And we said, if you pay salaries there in the war front and the man didn’t die for six months, his salary is in his pockets, he dies on the last day, who takes the salary? But he was bent on doing it, it’s there in the book. As if that was not enough, he said he was going to call Central Bank to the war fronts when he wrote in his book that they were at Igrita, about 50 miles from Port Harcourt; which banker would come with his tie to the war front?
What was his own logic for wanting to pay salaries?
He didn’t mean any harm!
Did he think you were finagling with the money?
Why did he have to take over and pay at the war front?
He didn’t mean harm. It was the level of his IQ on the subject. What he said was that he was taught as a cadet to look after his troops, to give them rest area. Biafrans are 40 miles away from you and you want to have a rest area? They would roast him, but he was never there. Once there was firing, he would say, ‘I’m going to Lagos, I want to see the head of state. I want to go and brief him’. There is a story in his book here, he went to an enclave where they were fighting, he went to inspect troops and there was fighting there. And he said, ‘Alright, you people, continue the firing. I would go and bring you ammunition’. Gen. Paton, go bring ammunition for who, are you kidding? Those were what happened and as I said, he wanted to help.
It is interesting to me that in another interview, you called Obasanjo clueless…
(Cuts in) actually I missed that today.
(Cuts in) would use that right now.
And then you said that Akinrinade actually suggested him to Gowon and that Gowon did not know who he was…
No! Gowon would not know…
That Gowon did not know enough of him?
No, he knew enough of him. He just said, ‘The man is an engineer; he would tell you he’s an engineer. Akinrinade and Alabi, you go and talk to him at Ibadan, see whether you can convince him go to the war front’. This was when Adekunle was removed.
I wonder why Akinrinade would suggest a clueless person?
How would Akinrinade know that he was clueless until he was given a task? I’ll give you an example, when I was younger at school because I did a lot of sports, I was very popular. I would come in the morning and everybody would say Gordon Jean, that was my nickname in school and of course, I was riding high but then, they didn’t want any noise in the school, so the principal made me the monitor. So let me now see who would make noise, you can’t call me Gordon Jean, I was the monitor. You see, unless they give you an assignment, unless they give you an opportunity, how will I know that you couldn’t, until when I see your report and …?
But even then, let me concede to you that until you fail the test, you may not be able to give a proper account of yourself but there must have been some elements of value that Akinrinade saw in him?
There had never been war in the country! You may be walking smartly in the barracks, you may be the person that speaks well at a conference or you may be the person that people will say, ‘That man seems to know what he is talking about’. Until we tell you Oga, come and lead us. Did he do well as head of state, of this country? You people have been writing in the papers. Did he do well as president of the country?
One point I have been pondering is that he was your commander, he was your senior. In the Army do you call your seniors clueless?
No! I’m not in the Army now and am calling him so.
But a general remains a general?
If he comes in now, won’t you salute him?
I will not!
I thought that was military tradition?
That’s not military tradition, are you saying you would be going now and they would close the road for three hours? Keeping billions of dollars in reserve and he hasn’t tarred the road? There is no electricity. It’s like a father who has N15. He has two children at school, the first school fees is N20, the second school fees is N20, you need N40 and he says I have N15 in reserve. He’s an idiot. What are you talking about? He would come here and I would say aaaah oga mi, how you dey sir?
You mentioned the issue of the second blunder of the federal troops at Asaba. Then the one of 3rd Marine under Adekunle; then under Obasanjo?
No, with Adekunle, I didn’t see any of our blunders.
In the book, you mentioned it that Adekunle also wanted attack on Aba and Owerri, it was under him that Shande died, it was under him that Fashola died and Haman died at Owerri and it caused a lot of disaffection in the ranks, especially amongst those who came from the Middle Belt?
When Shande died, it was then that we realised that we had more Middle Belters than even the Hausa or Yoruba.
Then what of the mistake of the One Division, is it because of (cuts in ) what you are implying is that they didn’t need to have gone to so many places?
They didn’t need to have killed so many Igbo on the run?
So in other words, there was recklessness on the part of Shuwa?
You used that word, I wasn’t there (on the scene with him).
Because all they needed to do after capturing Enugu was to track their way to get Uli?
No! Uli Ihiala was not there then. Uli Ihiala was only there after we captured Port Harcourt. And with the ingenuity of the Biafrans, within a month or so they had built another airport at Uli, Ihiala.
How was Uli Ihiala the centre of gravity. Is it because of the airport? Is that the only reason?
Okay, that’s a good point. If we had captured all the ports. We had Bonny, we had Koko, we had Calabar, we had captured all that in order to keep the blockade. We were to block them from receiving supplies of ammunition and all that. Well, One Division had captured the airport at Enugu, we had captured the airport at Calabar. And now, their supply route was by air because we blocked the seas. So Port Harcourt was the place. We captured Port Harcourt. Having captured Port Harcourt, what else? You expect that they would surrender. But they now went and built Uga and Uli airports and planes were flying there. Two airports at the same time; ingenious! Uga in Anambra State and Uli Ihiala in Imo State of today which was the main one receiving all the main aircraft, it was just a road. They just widened the road and it worked.
I have a friend called Buzebonzo who was flying for Nigeria and flying for Biafra as well and Buze would say one day, I would like to go to Uli Ihiala with my family to show how ingenious these Nigerians are and the ingenuity of the Igbo. But do you know that Obasanjo bulldozed the Uli airport? He said we don’t want to be reminded of the civil war. But Biafrans, of course, or let me use the word Igbo now gathered their things together and now they opened a war museum.
Still on this issue of One Division, One Division ought to have done what? Because we see that they were just capturing Biafran territories but it didn’t seem that they had focus?
It is the strategy that caused the tactic they applied. They were not thinking of the centre of gravity. If you capture every Igbo town, would it be okay? When they got to Nsukka, there was nobody in town. When they got to Enugu, there was nobody in town. Let me tell you, when I got to Enugu in 1969, I brought people back into Enugu. I have pictures; it’s going to be in my second book. I did something: I told my orderlies to go and capture any women they could find. Even if she was born today, go capture am if na woman. And they brought these people crying. I had arranged food, I had arranged drinks, to give to the women from Nsukka side. Then I said alright o, all of you if you want to eat, you eat before I come. If I come and una no eat I will pack the whole thing away o but make una eat. I ate my own and before I came back they stopped crying and ate up all the food.
By Wednesday the following week, they sent a message to me saying, Oga, don’t come and capture us again o. If you want us to come to party, then we are ready, we will even bring our sisters. They came, people were getting comfortable. Then Geraldo Pino was on the bandstand, he was the leading band in Nigeria then. I brought him from Lagos to play and the whole town was parked full. And then another organisation in Enugu brought Jimmy Cliff, that was how Enugu came back and people started coming to town. In Marine Commando side, we opened schools. For the first time, they did school certificate in 1967.
(Cut in) In Enugu?
No, they couldn’t do all that in Enugu and other division area but in Marine Commando, we opened schools and when they were talking about raping and no raping, we had girls’ schools; even their fathers could not go and visit them, only the mothers could go. In Port Harcourt, we had Stella Maris, we had girls’ schools. We looked after these children.
What you are saying essentially is that if there were these discontinuities in the various divisions, it shows that Gowon was a hopeless commander?
No, what we are saying, I think you are looking for a headline for your paper (laughter).The point is One Division had their own strategies. You see, it was good that Gowon gave authority to the field commanders. He did not interfere. You remember, for those of you who read this military history when Hitler started interfering with commanders he found that they were not good enough he took over the command himself.
But he took over the command himself in a way he did not think with the rest of his generals?
Well, that’s what happens if you take over command. Definitely there would be friction.
I’m not saying that Gowon should have taken over the command in a dictatorial way; Gowon should have worked out a comprehensive and integrated strategy because what you are telling me is that there was no integrated strategy. In fact, your own integrated strategy came from your own pincers 1, 2 and 3?
I agree, you’ve read my book. The thing was, Gowon gave each commander their objectives; go and capture so so place. When next you want to go, go and report. We didn’t have what was called a core headquarters; core headquarters means one division, two division, three division and I am the commander here, commander-in-chief to command who tells you where to go and how to go and we didn’t do that. In the Nigerian Army, during that time, I’m telling you nobody thought the war would escalate to what it was.
Remember, it was Biafra that first had a plane. They came to bomb the Casino in Yaba, the most populous area in Lagos at the time. And then we captured that plane at Port Harcourt. Nigeria was not ready for it and what did we do? We went and bought planes, we too started bombing. I mean, they were killing you in the North? You were bombing Lagos, kin ti e tije? (What is your own?) What I’m saying again is that we needed a core headquarters to be able to control them but Gowon didn’t want to do that. What he did was to give each one his powers, his administrative and logistic support. Say here is what we want, we need to capture Ojukwu. Ojukwu moved from Enugu to Umuahia, they chased him. I didn’t need that and Adekunle agreed with me that we should look for the centre of gravity.
In other words, you agree with me?
I didn’t agree with you, I’m saying that rather than being told what to do, they left them with the initiative. I didn’t like that.
About the command structure; listening to you and reading your interview, I get the impression that you perhaps felt that your superiors were necessarily bound to listen to your advice based on some presumptuousness of some supposed expertise. I didn’t really get that. You came across as somebody who knew too much and that when he spoke, even his superiors should listen?
You see, in the military we have what is called O’group- other groups. You are artillery, you are armoured, you are engineer, I am commander. You give me your input. The final decision is mine. What I did was to give input and with that input, if you say no, you are the commander. Like Murtala said no and people died.
You tied certain failures to their (Adekunle, Obasanjo’s) rejection of your own positions?
Don’t let us pay the salaries of these boys in the war front and he said no…. he wrote it here (in his book, My Command); look it’s written here. When he said, ‘Oh let us look for a rest area’. Oga, we are from Obubra, Obubra to Port Harcourt, that’s about 1,000 kilometers. Will they bring their troops to the rest areas where you have commanded? Oga, each unit would have their stress recess areas and they would handle it on their own. It’s like telling me to centralise the cooking for 35,000 people. That would be long. And so I got units of 10 people cooking their own food, it was more manageable. And when we said, look, if you insist on paying, we are going to have money everywhere, including the pockets of dead soldiers. And then, he said no, we can arrange it in such a way that the soldiers will keep their money with their officers. Okay if you kept your money with this officer, about 35,000 kept their money with this officer and the officer died, what happens to this money? And there are certain things that are done not because the military said so, but because it’s just not right.
You emerge as someone who is more brilliant than your superiors?
That’s not the right thing. Will you say General Paton was more brilliant than General Eisenhower or that McCarthur was not brilliant? No! But when they talk about tactics some people are more gifted. That’s what it means, people are different. That’s why you have cook, you have stewards; that’s why you have lawyers, you have engineers. It’s division of labour.
Because I told my boss, Oga please don’t let us do it this way, because the last time I did it that way, this was what happened. Obasanjo did not have any war experience; he never commanded the battalion; he never commanded the brigade then. He was saddled with a division and we had been in the war front for about two and the half years before he came. I know what it is when I look at my soldier and he is unhappy, ah John what happened now? And he would say, Oga I never chop o. Ehen, ok, make we go look for chop. That’s different. And you will see Adekunle would pump up soldiers and their morale would be high. We were together in it. When you start giving orders to the man who had not eaten, he would think; who be this man? He no look like Adekunle o, then you begin to see that their morale is low.
But General, it comes down to what you were trying to point out about sending someone who never commanded anything to the war fronts. Were there no other commanders left, to go the war front?
The Yoruba had only 10 officers; the Igbo had only 37. I became a chief of staff at 27. Don’t you see that there is a problem in there and it is not done but it happened. And so who will you call? The senior ones on the federal side were already deployed. Danjuma and Adamu were with Shuwa; Akinrinade and I were with Adekunle. We were coursemates with Adamu; what Adamu and Danjuma were to Shuwa , was what I was to Akinrinade and Adekunle.
From what I read in the book, it looks like the Igbo were on one side, the war was inspired by the Hausa but it was actually won by the Yoruba?
Well, inspired by the Hausa and won by the Yoruba, well I agree with that because the first coup killed Hausa. They killed Ademulegun, they killed (Tafawa) Balewa, they killed the feudal system the people were dependent on and that made them vicious, it made the Hausa vicious. I will give myself as an example of this feudal system. My mother was an Ilorin woman, my father was from Delta. I never spoke the language, only my mother spoke the language. I was four years old when my father died. My mother could not keep me in the village; she had to go to her parents. My name was Godwin, you want to carry a Godwin to Ilorin? You’re kidding. So my mother’s senior brother had just died; they named me Abdulrahman, the name just stuck. Son of the soil, Abduralman. Their family name was Alabi, I was Alabi. I joined the Army as Abdulraman Alabi. The man, every morning, afternoon, dinner, he would give us money to go buy food and we would buy food, that’s Alabi. When the man died, I’m not saying that we didn’t eat well, we didn’t eat at all. We didn’t know how to get food. The older ones amongst us became armed robbers or something; I also became a beggar. I would carry little pan, we would sit down outside there, you would be crying or somebody would toss you one naira. In those days, it was shillings and pennies, they put in your little pan and in most cases with me, I loved sugar cane, I would just go and buy sugarcane and I would eat until my lips would burn. When Alabi died, the whole family died.
What happened therefore was that in the feudal system, they had no job, they depended on the elder, the elder told them what to do and they did and he fed them. So when there is an election and he says alright go vote for the dog, everybody will go vote for the dog. Now you had killed the Hausa leaders and even if it was to arrest Zik (Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe), Akanu Ibiam, Michael Okpara, just pick them all and put them under house arrest. People would have at least been consoled to some extent because after that coup, everybody said these people were heroes, some groups said they were villains.
But Ironsi rather than arrest these people even if it’s only for a day, he did not do that. He then jailed the coup plotters, which confirmed that they were villains rather than heroes. I wrote that in the book. Just as we still have even today, if there is a riot in the North, the first people to die are the Igbo. They sell kerosene, they sell television sets, they sell computers, they sell all the good things. It was the same in those days, they sold the building materials, all the attractive items, television, they sold them, cars, they sold them, bicycles, they sold them. And now, you kill our leaders who were giving us food and you are the ones that have the goods? Then we would rather kill you. And how can we