By Austin Ogwuda, Asaba
Josephine Okwuekeleke Tolefe, the first female to attain the rank of an Army Captain in Nigeria will clock 80 on December 15. She rose within a period of two years from Second Lieutenant to the rank of Captain in the Nigerian Army before the civil war.
The retired Captain who hails from Ogwashi-Uku in Delta State is a professional Nurse and in an encounter with some journalists in Asaba, she spoke with nostalgia about how she was inspired to delve into the male dominated field; what her romance with the military impacted on her and other issues:
In the beginning
When we were first accepted into the military in those days, we were impressed when we saw the Queen’s Army. The ladies in the British army looked so smart representing their country and a few of us thought why couldn’t we represent our country in situations of war for defence instead of hatred?
We admired the ladies in the British Army and wanted to be like them but we found out that in our case, we were a bit disgruntled as a result of the civil war and we worried about how we could stop it. The hatred then was so much that it could not wash away in few months. We are still praying that we still recapture the dreams of our nation.
In our time, women did not hold sway. We did not know where to turn because every civil servant in the country had the belief that if you work for so long, at the end of it, you would get a retirement that was befitting. But as females in the Army in those days, that was not clear.
Hatred from our male counterparts
Our male officers knew where they were going , how many years they could work, thinking of the year they were in and how many more years they could put in their best but the female officers could not do that. We had no leeway. Many of the male officers were not too happy having female officers. They said they would not like to have a woman who was an officer, whose husband was also an officer. The argument then was that if you got a 24-hour notice of transfer to Kaduna or Zaria or Enugu or something like that, the family would not be so comfortable. For that 24 hours, you would be thinking. If you resigned today, you couldn’t go today. You had to think about that because our men were not giving us a sort of guideline as to what to think about according to the civil service guideline. So, we were just working like civilians which some us were. Then, when you now got to the level of lieutenant, second lieutenant and then became a captain, you found out that things were not going to change. Many of the civilians who started with us went away thinking about how they would make use of their certificates and apply their certificates to life. But some us thought that it was not wise for us to leave the army just like that whereas the British Army ladies were still very boisterous in their job and we on our part could not do very much. So , at the end, only two of us got pension at that time.
When I joined the Army, I was very excited to see men and women preferring themselves as men and everyone was very kind to each other. We were friends. We joined the army to offer something to the country because we had civilians as well as nursing sisters in the military forces. It was when this idea of war and agonies of war came in that most people thought that it was not pleasant as we thought. If you were fighting against Nigeria and you are Nigerian, it did not speak so well of you. You didn’t feel happy about the fight no matter who was winning. What was actually being done was diminishing Nigeria. Some of those that died were people who had something in their brains to offer but they could not offer it because they died prematurely. So we lost. We cannot say somebody was victorious in an army that you were fighting against your brother and against your sister.
For instance,there was war in Congo at one time. Nigerians had to go and pacify each side so that they would stop fighting. Our troops went from Abeokuta cantonment and women and their children were left behind. Our boss then was Muhammadu Buhari. He was our Commander then and incidentally, when I arrived in the Army Land Rover, he was the one who came to the railway station to pick me up and to warm my food because there was nobody there anymore except a few people because they had all gone to Congo to fight.
“So, it was really nice seeing a senior officer warming the food and being the cook, running around and he sat there with me while we spoke. He gave me a talk about how the cantonment was being run and how everybody has been happy. So we went around together and we spoke and we found out what our duties would largely be. So it was nice to be in the military forces at that time.
Nigeria/Biafra Civil War forced me out of the Army
Like I said before, if Nigerians were fighting because of our territory or our territorial integrity, we would understand this. I was very happy to do something to help our country but when it come to the point of fighting your brother and even killing somebody who was your friend or brother, with whom you have been to school , you would have shot him before you knew that this was a wrong person to shoot . So, we knew then that being in the army, we should pray more that they should stop the war because it was not going to help us and it did not help us. We did not learn much by hurting each other but we thank God that after sometime, it stopped and life became a little bit normal but before then, a lot has gone under the bridge and we needed to do something about it to bring about peace. So this was why my stay in the army was short because it was unbearable to do something under these circumstances and actually when I left, some of the Army officers came back to ask me to join our people, but that is another page of history.
The Army highly influenced my later life
“I was able to look after my own discipline. People say this is the time we do this, I must be there at that time. The army influenced me to be able to know that I should not be loitering around when I should be somewhere else. So that was a good teaching and I would even my father as a teacher did his best to make us stand on our two feet and do our jobs not to look at other people just do what you need to do and make sure you did it well. Having gone into the army and I saw my father how he was behaving, I now decided that to be discipline and be honest. Be honest in what you are doing, I mean honesty. If you know this thing is going affect someone else negatively, don’t do it, but if you know that it going to help somebody or your community, then you go ahead and you do it as well as you can. And you can argue out why you did certain things and stand by it. This is what the army helped me to achieve.
Life after quitting the Army
Josephine, who throughout the chat wore infectious smiles said “I thought that I wish I had relived my life, that I had done something more during my lifetime than just being the first female military officer, I would have liked to do something but time is running out. After this military, I went to work in the UCH and I enjoyed my work there, I learnt a lot. And coming out from there, I joined a charitable organization; you don’t get anything from any government. Our organization is known as Pro Laborei Dei (for the labour of God). So, one would not say one is doing much, at least you have the thinking that by helping other people and taking care as much as you can that you are doing something good.
Hates indecent dressing with passion
“You know the television has not done us any good. It is okay to say that you learn from it but as far as I am concerned there are lots of things that should not be on that box, that tube (pointing at the TV set). You know the children coming up think that is the right thing, there is nobody to say this is not the right thing, not many people would say that. Our priests and people who know moral education know that we lost a lot by not educating our children morally.
Trained as a professional Nurse at the Midwives Training College, High Coombe Surrey, United Kingdom, the retired officer was granted Short Service Commission on 7th February 1961 in the rank of Second Lieutenant with seniority in the rank with effect from same date and she was the first female Commissioned Officer in the Nigerian Army and was the of the Nigerian Army Nursing Service now known as Nigerian Army Medical Corps.
She became Second Lieutenant (on Commission) on 7th February 1961, Lieutenant – 9th Mary 1961 and Captain on the 1st of June 1963 voluntarily retired from Service on the 5th of February, 1967.