The night grew weary as several of the questions put to the Biafran leader began to receive almost the same monotonic response: “I will tell you when I write my memoirs…” He had to be in fact, coaxed, to talk about the war, no matter how briefly.
He had just returned from exile during the rains of 1983 and, to his mind – which was, perhaps, correct – it was too early to talk about the war. But when would it not be too early to confront and address the issues that almost tore Nigeria to shreds?
Months slipped into years and the man had immersed himself in politics, particularly, that of his home state, Anambra. After much pressure, he threw out what looked like a squelcher at a public, thirsting to hear the story of the war, from the horse’s mouth, as it were. ‘Because I Am Involved’ was a disappointing anticlimax and it became, at once, clear that the man may never be able to deliver The Book.
What to do?
Well, if he wasn’t going to get into the political nitty-gritty of the war, proper, perhaps, we could skirt around certain related subjects and, who knows, he might well get into it, by and by.
So, now that the war was 13 long years behind us, what was his relationship with Yakubu Gowon, his erstwhile friend and chief adversary, on the other side of the conflict?
“Oh, my friend, Jack,’ he began…
What? His friend, Jack? Does this man realise that I was a boy-soldier in that war? His friend, Jack? What were we fighting for, then? My jaw sagged and, deep inside me, I was hurt and seething with a hot rage. His friend Jack! What nonsense, I thought. That statement was to haunt me for months, to come and it took quite some time for it to sink into my consciousness that, that war was nothing personal to us as individuals, as such. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop thinking of colleagues, relatives, friends and numerous others I did not know who had perished. War, indeed, was a senseless thing.
The man must have read some expression from my eyes and face, as he suddenly smiled, gently and said, “Well, that is to be expected…”
There was a brief, odd silence, after which one tried to even romanticise certain aspects of the war, such as the heroic performances of volunteers like the Swedish nobleman, Count von Rossen and even mercenaries such as Major Taffy Williams, despite the guns-for-hire attitude of some of them. Then, we also talked about his own military exploits, among other subjects…
Let us talk about the white mercenaries that fought on the Biafran side. There was this rumour about Rolf Steiner once attempting to overthrow your government…
(Cuts in)…I’m not aware of Steiner trying to overthrow the government, no…I’m not aware of that…
Did he ever show signs of insubordination to the Biafran Army authorities or anything like that?
He had personal problems with certain officers within the Biafran Army but at no point did he try to overthrow the government of Biafra.
Was he at any point, during the war, sent back home, or did he fight to the end?
No, no, I think, actually, he left probably some eight months before the end and even when I went into exile, he continued sending me Christmas cards. Mind you, he was imprisoned later in Sudan and when he was released, he sent me Christmas cards.
What sort of personal problems did he have with the officers?
With officers, jealousies, or…you know, in a situation where everything is at a premium, each officer is trying to get the maximum for his own troops; each one is trying to bring victory; each one is trying to win battles and present me with something spectacular, so it is only natural that they will all sort of try to snatch odd things from one another. Yeah.
[For further reading on the subject, see interview with Colonel Achuzia].
During the course of the war, three army officers and a civilian, namely, Majors Ifeajuna and Alale, as well as Colonel Victor Banjo and Mr. Abam, were executed by firing squad, for what someone had regretfully termed, “the introduction of the poisonous word, sabotage”, into the Biafran Army and nation. Sir, what really happened, what led to the execution of those men?
I think Nelson Ottah has written quite a lot about them. The thing I like about that book is that he gave, I think, transcripts. Yeah, so I think there is really nothing to say. The whole thing went through a judicial process and they were found guilty and I had the agonising period that comes to any leader when he has to confirm, or not confirm a sentence. I confirmed the sentence and that was it.
And that leads us to the Midwest Operation. All of a sudden, the Biafran troops were reported to be in Okitipupa, the next thing, they were struggling to defend Asaba. Again, sir, what happened?
I will tell you when I write my memoirs…(laughter)…
Which means that sometime in the future, you really hope to write your memoirs?
Oh God, when I retire from politics, in fact, I’m going to give myself a long time to write. I haven’t had time. I have many ideas I want to put down on paper and, in fact, my own concept of myself is not so much a leader, as a teacher. I would like to put a lot on paper. If I’m thinking of any legacy, that is where my mind is going, not sort of, some pregnant Swiss Bank accounts.
This one concerns your famously quoted statement of the conflict period, that no force in Black Africa can subdue Biafra…
(Cuts in)…What would you consider me, leading Biafra, to get up and say, ‘we have no weapons, we have no ammunition; we are so weak’…what am I supposed to say? No. I make no apologies for anything I said along those lines. The Nigerian side said even worse things: ‘We would overrun them in two weeks’ and so on.
No, I had my duty to maintain the morale of a people who were being attacked. I mean, there is nothing serious about that sort of talk…(prolonged laughter)…
It was alleged that Dr. Azikiwe said that you once approached him, whilst he was President of Nigeria, for there to be a military coup detat. Was this true?
Now, let’s say this: here is a man I respect very much and we all know that age does play certain tricks on our memories…(long silence)…
In other words, sir…?
(Cuts in)…I’m saying that age plays tricks on our memories, I leave it at that.
(Pause)…So, what do you really think of Dr. Azikiwe…?
I must remind you what I said initially, that the details of the crisis are yet to be written from my own point of view. I do not think, as a responsible citizen of Nigeria that this is the time to delve into those details.
Generally, the question you raised about the Owelle of Onitsha…about the Owelle, we all have fathers. We do not choose our own fathers, we happen to our own fathers. The Owelle of Onitsha, in the context of the Igbo nation, has a father position. You and I also know what tricks memory plays on old age. I do not wish to go into too much detail. What I know is that at a certain stage and these are historical facts, he was sent on a mission on behalf of Biafra. When he got to Europe, he defected to the Nigerian side and tried to force his advice on the Nigerian authorities. This advice I considered not in the best interest of the Biafran people. History will judge…history will judge.
Let us look at the Nigerian side of the conflict. There were stories that Col. Benjamin Adekunle was in constant contact with you and even ferried some Nigerian arms and ammunitions to Biafra. In fact, the rumour mill had it that the deteriorating situation in the Port Harcourt sector of the war, at the time, was attributable to him, a reason for which the Nigerian authorities finally removed him, as Commander of the 3rd Marine Commando. How true was this? May we also talk about Danjuma and certain statements he made about you, on your return from exile? And also, what is your assessment of Murtala Mohammed, as a person and Obasanjo, as well? Then, Gowon himself, what kind of relationship existed between the two of you?
It is very difficult to assess officers on the opposing side. My only true recollection of those men were the young officers I knew prior to the crisis. During the crisis and during the war, there was a whole lot of propaganda. Some of them I have seen, on my return, others, I have not; some are alive, some are dead.
As young officers, we all had very good esprit-de-corps in the Nigerian Army and we worked together very well. We had mutual respect, one, for each other. I don’t want to and I cannot, in fact, judge their wartime activities which, I’m sure, is what you would like to hear about. And remember, also, that in my position, even when I went to the [war] front, I hardly confronted any of them…(chuckles)… so, this is the position.
Naturally, since my return, there has been, I think, Danjuma, who has made certain comment. He has every right to his own opinion. My own opinion of him, I want to keep to myself for the time being.
What is your opinion of Chief Obafemi Awolowo?
I think I’ve said that, too, before. I think, for a man to be the embodiment of the aspirations of so many, for so long, the man must have certain extraordinary qualities. I respect, I salute those qualities. I have also said that my own assessment of his leadership is that he has been a very good leader for what he considered his own people. I wish that he had considered all of us, his own people and been equally good to all of us. That is it.
Are you bitter about his activities during and immediately, following the end of the war?
I think I have told you before that bitterness is not a word in my dictionary. There is no bitterness. If I saw Papa Awolowo today, I would embrace him and we would still be on different sides, politically. You see, his political line runs opposing to the interest of my constituency and I point out in graphic terms, his deficiencies, vis-à-vis my own constituency.
What are those deficiencies?
As for Chief Obafemi Awolowo, I was one of the people who stood out in front of the court the day he has condemned to prison and wept. Yes. Because when I was growing up, I had a certain admiration for the man. Today, I think he has a brilliant mind. In fact, I will only wish that Chief Obafemi Awolowo would be less Yoruba and more Nigerian. This is my intimate wish. If he were less Yoruba and more Nigerian, perhaps, he could have made it.
Could you expatiate on that last sentence, sir?
Chief Obafemi Awolowo has done great things in Nigeria but the beneficiaries have been, essentially, the Yoruba people. One, this creates jealousy and therefore divisiveness in the amalgam which is Nigeria. It is human to be jealous when you find one group benefitting. We would wish that everyone had benefitted, as well.
We find also that in his drive for power, Chief Awolowo has held on obsessively to one ethnic group in the nation, the Yoruba nation. He has held it as his political base and he would brook, not the slightest chip of it. That, again, accentuates the ethnic divisions within Nigeria.
As to administrative competence, honestly, I cannot say. The only time we had a taste of Chief Awolowo’s government was when he was Premier of the Western Region. I don’t know how many of you remember but at that time, the level of corruption was probably higher than anywhere else in the federation. We also remember that the level of victimisation of opposition was pretty high under his regime, in the Western Region. Of course, with time, all the jagged edges are smoothened over. But, he didn’t have any further choice actually, to really impose…all we can say is that we have seen what his acolytes have been doing. But this cannot be justly placed on the shoulders of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. So, we are now left with analysing his rhetoric. And that, I say, is more punitive, than constructive. It is more punitive.
I would like to see…but then, who am I to tell him what to do…? But as an individual, I think, for national unity – particularly when he is out of power – he should be more conciliatory in his approach to power because, his aggressiveness tends to exacerbate feelings and always tends to place the powers that be on the defensive. This is my own opinion. It’s unfortunate that his entire life will come and go and he will not really have a chance to show his mettle. It is most unfortunate. And this is because he made a wrong turn when he rooted himself in the so very easy ethnic mode.
Even today, I am consciously resisting being locked into the ethnic mode because one can arrive at being a demigod in one’s ethnic group but that is the end of it. Nigeria does not need conquest. It isn’t conquest that we are after. What Nigeria wants is leadership, solidarity, concord.
Let us return to the officers, once more: Murtala, Obasanjo and Gowon. What kind of contact, or relationship did you have with them, pre-civil war days?
Obasanjo, I got on fairly well with. He was rather junior. In fact, all the people you have mentioned are quite junior to me, actually and I wouldn’t know them that intimately. Don’t forget that I was made a lieutenant-colonel before the last British officer left Nigeria…(chuckles)…it is a long time, these were young officers.
I certainly remember Obasanjo arriving, Mohammed [Murtala], I remember teaching. Gowon is the one that is more…in fact, he is my contemporary and you always notice that I refer to him as my friend, [Jack] Gowon. He’s a good friend of mine and we have had vicarious contacts since the end of the war.
Up till this moment, sir?
Yes. If I go to London, I would ring Gowon, why not? We’ve had dinner together…
As recently as when?
Quite recently. His son, here, I am his guardian…in Enugu, here. He’s at school, now.
Is he a son of Victoria Gowon?
No, the one Edith [Okongwu] had for him before his marriage.
Now, to Alhaji Ado Bayero, the Emir of Kano, you talk so fondly of him, what is your relationship with him, like?
He’s a great friend of mine. We’ve known each other for many years. I knew him even before he became the emir and don’t forget that my last station was Kano, when he was emir, so we maintained very close relationship. And we still maintain it till today.
How do you feel, sir, when certain officers that were very junior to you in your Nigerian Army days, haul brickbats at you, a situation that would have been totally unimaginable before the war?
That happens to everybody, actually, as you get older. It happens to everybody. If you watched, recently, the Lagos rally of the NPN, for a long time, Adekunle [Benjamin] who was, in fact, an officer in my battalion, (the last time I remembered him) he had always taken a very strong position against me. I don’t know why. But when I saw him, I forgot the intervening years and I embraced him – a company commander under me. There is no problem. Perhaps, he has a reason, but certainly, I have nothing against him.
You see, about this war, the thing you have to understand, I grant to anybody who is not an Igbo, the right to fight on the other side. Because, what is the whole thing about? The word in dispute is unity. I don’t know what I would have done, had I been a Hausa. Perhaps, I would have been very rabid against the Igbo – I don’t know. So, I grant them the right. They did their duty as they saw fit, at that time, I did mine. And I’m proud that I was able to do my duty. That was it.
In fact, if I ever have anybody that I find difficult to understand, it is the Igbo man, or woman, who was found wanting at that crucial period, that’s all.
What do you have to say about the people who sort of deride you for holding on to the rank, or title of an army general when, in fact, your last known rank in the Nigerian Army was, lieutenant-colonel?
I think the people are just being rather silly. After all, sergeants that I appointed, colonels, are still being called colonels, all over the place. And people that I made generals are being called generals, in the newspapers. But I have nothing to be ashamed of, being a general. Mine was not even an army rank, it was granted to me by the Consultative Assembly, in joint session, with the chiefs and elders of Igbo land.
And not only that, if you are talking about efficiency, the number of people parading themselves as generals, today, were people that I taught in military schools, in Nigeria. And not only that, I have proved my worth militarily, professionally. To be able to hold Biafra on a shoe string, for two and a half years, the logistics alone involved in doing that, is a greater feat of military professionalism than most of the people that we now kotow to, in the world. No, when the history of warfare is written, I’m sure, if for nothing else, my ability, logistically, will be one of the few wonders, of military expertise.
Photo Credits: google.com, except Ojukwu & children courtesy, Ojukwu family; Ojukwu in Biafra, courtesy, C. David-Osuagwu, Information Service, Biafra; Ojukwu at interview, The People’s Eye Photo.