Book Serial: Brass bands, starched uniforms: The road to the Army

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Yes, that’s all it took for young Godwin Alabi-Isama who had gone to see detachments of the Nigerian Army in their crisply starched uniforms march past to the beat of an accompanying brass band….a bloody civilian thus made up his mind on a career in the Army

Fresh accounts of a 40-yr old war
A fresh account of the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War, by a major actor, beginning with the question: Why the Army for a career? In this first instalment of our serial of this book, Brigadier-General Godwin Alabi-Isama tells his own story, in his own words of how he got attracted to the Army, the recruitment process, training here in Nigeria and abroad, and more. Enjoy his memoirs….

My Attraction To the Army

MY attraction to the army was rather unusual because there was nothing military about it.  It was not borne out of the usual big-talk of love for the fatherland to fight to save the country in the face of external aggression, or against centrifugal forces aiming at getting the country disintegrated.  I was 19 years old in 1959 when I first saw the Army march past at Oke Bola in front of Ibadan Boys High School (IBHS).

I neither knew nor even suspected any potential threat to our country’s socio-political stability. But with the benefit of hind-sight today, I can say that some important people may have known that real challenges confronted the nation and so did some senior military officers at that time.

Financial benefit was not part of my attraction to the army either.  I had no idea what they paid soldiers, so the pay packet was not an incentive, more so because I was from an averagely comfortable family.

* Army Band in UK

* Army Band in UK

In fact, I cannot think of any special military characteristics that would have influenced me into a career in the armed forces other than their musical band, the well ironed uniform and the unison with which they marched — which, in retrospect might suggest a latent attraction to regimentation, pomp and pageantry. The command culture of the military and its characteristic aggressiveness, in their raw state, never appealed to me. What, therefore, could have attracted me to the Army?

It all began in 1959 when I was a student at Boys High School, Oke-Bola, Ibadan. I was a very good sportsman. In fact, I was the captain of my school soccer team. Our school shared the same fence with Late Chief Obafemi Awolowo (Awo)’s residence and soldiers usually marched past in front of the Action Group leader’s house. Awo was Premier of the then Western Region, and the leader of a political party called The Action Group.

As a young boy, I did not read any political meaning into soldiers marching past Awo’s house.  But from the sheer beauty of it, I developed likeness for the way they filed out in their parade.  I just liked their organization, and their uniform.

One day, as part of their sports activities, my school was invited to the 4th Battalion in Ibadan for an invitational relay race with other schools. Incidentally, during the sports event, the person who came first in the long jump, jumped only fifteen feet. Back then I used to do long jump at school, and I could jump eighteen feet with ease. If the best long jump soldier could only do 15 feet, then I thought I had what it took to be in the Army. But my fascination for the Army heightened during their parade to collect their medals. It was something else.

Alabi-Isama2

They had a musical band playing; the soldiers were marching in unison, Left-Right, Left-Right.  Their trousers and shirts were painstakingly ironed with standing edges looking as though they were razor blades that could cut through anything on its way; their shining, well-polished black shoes which reflected the sun, so overwhelmed me, I just opened my mouth in total amazement.  This was all it took to make the military my profession. They were simple reasons but they were and still remain as honest as they were simple.  Up till today, these have remained my inspiration and likeness for the profession.

I then went to ask those standing around how I could join the army.  At that time, life was very easy.  As soon as one was in Class Four (fourth year) in the High School, Labour ministry officials would bring a Form from the Labour Office to schools for anyone interested to insert what type of work one would like to do.  For me, my first choice of work was to be the House Master of St. Theresa’s College, the Girls’ college next to my school, on the same street at Oke Bola in Ibadan.  Their athletes were always at our school’s sports ground, for their sports training, practice, and competitions.  My main motive for wanting to become a coach in a girl’s school was the love I had for sports, but others saw it differently and were amused.  They wondered how a young man would want to be a House Master of a Girls’ school.  They thought it was sensual, but that was far away from my thoughts.

With time however, my leaning towards the military became stronger as I matured in reasoning.  Sometime later, I completed the army form and waited for which of the results would come first.  Again, at that time I was not thinking of being an officer especially because my desire to go into army was natural, innocent, simple, and honest, devoid of any selfishness or egotism; and that remains my pride. I knew next to nothing about the officers’ corps.  But in spite of my simple and honest thought of becoming just a soldier, fate, it would appear, had another plan for me.

Then I received a letter at school, with a warrant to obtain a railway ticket and report to Zaria for military recruitment. I obliged.  As we assembled for the exercise, one Captain Stamper took a long look at me because he may have observed that somehow I was different from the others who seemed not to have been to school at all.
He then walked up to me, and asked:
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes,” I answered and I told him all about my school, and that I was the Captain of my school soccer team, and I boasted that we were the soccer champion of all schools in the entire Western Region.

Meanwhile, all the man asked was if I could speak English. He was, nevertheless, impressed.  He took me to one office where another English officer was, who asked about my home town, and I said Ilorin, and I further told him that I was then writing my school certificate examinations in nine subjects. I added that I was writing my English paper that Thursday but that I had come (to Zaria) because I received a letter and warrant to report that day.

I added that I was told the Army would not negotiate date and time with me, to which they both laughed.  He asked if I knew anything about becoming an “officer?” I asked for more explanation what that was all about and both of them laughed because I sounded amusing to the two gentlemen.

It was then that they told me to take a seat, and that I was qualified for an examination to be an officer, and in about 10 minutes the other officer with Capt Stamper came up with a railway warrant for me to travel to Apapa in Lagos, from Zaria to take an examination in a week’s time, and that if I passed, then I will be on my way to becoming an officer like them. Wow, that was unbelievable.

I looked at these two men again, so clean and bright. I thanked them, and went away. I subsequently met Capt Stamper at Kaduna during officer cadet training and he was very kind to me. He spoke with me almost every day, and asked how I was doing. We had a soccer team at Kaduna during training at Nigerian Military Training College (NMTC). Capt Stamper was always happy to see me play; he was one of our instructors. I took the army examination in Geography, English, Mathematics and I passed. That was where my military career actually started.

Military training
Having been enlisted into the army, our training began in earnest.  My classmates were Alani Akinrinade, Theophilus Danjuma, Samuel Ogbemudia, Ayo Ariyo, Chiabi (from the Cameroon), Philemon Shande, Ignatius Obeya, David Bamigboye, Pius Eromobor, Simon Uwakwe, Ihedigbo, Ben Gbulie, S. P. Apolo, and Emmanuel Abisoye.

We got tutored and kitted at Zaria for a while and then at Kaduna NMTC. We were the first NMTC (Now Nigeria Defence Academy, NDA) Cadets in 1960, and from there 15 of us who passed the examinations went to Mons Officer Cadet School, Aldershot, in England. Of the many crucial principles emphasized during our training, I took particular notice of three which I may illustrate here:  First, that the officer should see himself as the symbol of the group he is leading such that his mere facial expression can make or raise the morale of his men and he must be dependable, which in turn, would determine the fortunes of any encounter with the enemy. Secondly, that tact is, in itself, a better act of valour. In other words, if the same or even better result could be achieved without pain, why fire the shot?

Yes, war must always be as a matter of last resort. And thirdly, an officer must learn to accept situations as they are and see how to handle them as they arise. Hard thinking and improvising is needed rather than crying over spilled milk; that is, be independent, and use your initiative all the time, for the benefit of the group; which the instructor called “interdependence”.

Meanwhile, a situation was brewing in the Congo which,  as things unfolded, facilitated our training perhaps earlier than had been envisaged. Nationalism had assumed such proportion in Africa, particularly in the Congo, where whoever was white was a Belgian and had to be killed. And so to drastically reduce if not completely rule out the loss in death of the junior British officers that led the Nigerian contingent to the Congo, the Nigerian Army, as a matter of deliberate policy decided to Nigerianise the junior officer cadre in the Nigerian contingent sent to the Congo.

They organized a quick examination for us, before we knew it, the first crucial result was out and 10 out of 15 of us returned home to go to the Congo, while the remaining five went to Sandhurst Officer Cadet School, which is the premier Officer Cadet military training school in England. I definitely preferred going to Sandhurst than going to the Congo, but to Congo I had to go; so we returned home to Nigeria.

I was back home in Nigeria within six months, and was transferred to 3rd Battalion at Kaduna. While driving from Lagos to Kaduna to resume duty, we drove past my former school at Ibadan Boys High School (IBHS). I was in my well ironed uniform and well polished shoes, and wearing my new rank as an officer. Co-incidentally it was the Inter-House Sports Day of the school.

As a sports enthusiast and in appreciation of my alma mater, I diverted without an invitation, and even participated in the Old Boys’ Race. It was a great day, with all my orderlies saluting, and the whole school cheering, the principal and all the teachers and invited guests looking at me with such joy and all shouting “Captain Alabi, Captain Alabi,” I had just left them only a year and half ago. I must confess that at this point in time, being a young officer in the army was a new kind of social status which was becoming an elite sort of thing. Many people who saw me that day joined the army later.

They saw that it was a successful venture and not that of a drop-out or for the lower class of society, which had erroneously been the thought of many, particularly in the Southern part of the country. My example popularized the notion that there was prospect for school leavers to start a military career as an officer; not just a recruit. That was the extra inspiration that I gave to others but received from none except perhaps Captain Stamper. Yemi Alabi and Akinlabi among others from IBHS asked me how to join the Army, and they finally did.

Tomorrow

Read about how Godwin Alabi-Isama embarked on a recruitment tour of the country in 1962, and ended up recruiting into the Army some of the names that made headlines while they lived, while others alive continue to make headlines. They were yesterday’s boys, today’s big men. Enjoy how David Mark, Abdulkareem Adisa, Raji Rasaki, Tunde Ogbeha and many more alive and deceased became officers.
The Tragedy of Victory is available in bookstores and on amazon.com

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