By Obi Nwakanma
General Conrad Dibia Nwawo from all accounts was a soldier’s soldier. Accounts of his numerous exploits as part of the United Nation’s Peacekeeping forces in Katanga, Congo, led by General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi are legendary.
His exploits as a commander of some of the fiercest Biafran forces, the 11 Div, the 13 Div, and the dreaded Biafra Commando Forces, are also, for a generation that lived through that era, nothing short of the heroic – the source of much myth. Conrad Nwawo was a warrior, born as he himself once acknowledged, of the lineage of warriors. But he was not “eaten” by war; he lived a long, and storied life. General Nwawo died this past February in his Onicha-Olona home in Delta state, and he was laid to final rest this past weekend at his Akwubili, Ogbeobi home in Onicha-Olona, Delta state.
Conrad Nwawo was in the very eye of the storm of modern Nigerian history, and was a key player in the events that shaped the foundations of modern Nigeria in very unique ways. Born in 1922, Nwawo was educated at the Aggrey Memorial School in Arochukwu, run by the legendary Dr. Alvan Ikoku, and at the Ilesha Grammar School. From 1944-46, Conrad Nwawo trained at the School of Agriculture, Moore Plantation, and thereafter worked as an Assistant Agriculture Officer Grade III in Ibadan, and briefly in the Cameroon. He transferred to the colonial Civil Administration as clerk in the Accountant-General’s office in Kaduna in 1948, while also taking private tuition for the University of London degree in Economics, passing part II of the Inter B.Sc. in Economics in 1950. In December 1950, Nwawo resigned from the Civil service and proceeded to join the then Royal West African Frontiers Force (RWAFF), and was posted to the 3rd Battalion of its Nigerian Regiment.
He later had officer training at the West African Command Training School, Teshie, Ghana, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1953, after completing his training at Eaton Hall Officer Cadet School, Chester, England. Conrad Nwawo was subsequently posted on secondment to the British Army of the Rhine, in Germany. This was a very tactical posting as the Second British Army on the Rhine formed the tactical forward command of British contribution to the NATO alliance in the event of war with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact. From there, after his brief stint, Nwawo was posted to the 4th Battalion of the Nigerian regiment in 1954. It was a crucial moment of decolonization and expansion of the officers Corp of the Nigerian regiment. Conrad Nwawo was one of those real, and very few pioneers Nigerians to be selected and given officer training in an essentially British Army. He was number 10. His experience as a military officer was varied: he began as platoon commander at the 4th Battalion; trained in military logistics and intelligence; and was instructor in tactics and Military law at the Nigerian Military School Zaria. In 1963, Nwawo was awarded the prestigious Military Cross (MC) for bravery by Queen Elizabeth II following his actions as part of the Queens own Nigerian Regiment of the United Nations peace operations in the Congo. After Katanga, Nwawo attended the United States Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and thereafter posted to the Nigerian Army’s 5th Battalion, and from there, sent to the Nigerian Military Training College, Zaria, as Chief Instructor. Among Nwawo’s many students in Zaria include Buhari, Babangida, and many others who became Generals, and ex-these and that’s in Nigeria.
In 1965, Nwawo was promoted to Lt. Colonel, and sent to London as Military Attaché to the Nigerian High Commission at the Court of St. James. He was in that post on January 15th when Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna led the first coup to overthrow Nigeria’s first republic. That coup, now generally known as the “Nzeogwu coup” on account of the remarkable role played by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu possibly changed the trajectory of Nwawo’s life. Nzeogwu had held out in Kaduna after the collapse of the coup in Lagos, and announced himself in charge of the North, and by many accounts was mobilizing to march on Lagos from Kaduna with his troops to complete the failed coup, and take Lagos now under the firm grip of General Ironsi. To avert what would have been the first civil war, Ironsi reached out quickly to Conrad Nwawo in London, who was summarily flown down, and sent to Kaduna to get Nzeogwu to stand down. It was known that Nwawo who had been Nzeogwu’s instructor at the Military School Zaria in 1960 was close to him, and that Nzeogwu had the highest regard for him. It was indeed Nwawo who got Nzeogwu to abandon his plans, surrender, and agree to go with him to Lagos to meet with Ironsi. In the military reorganization that took place as Ironsi assumed power, he appointed David Ejoor, Military Governor of the Midwest, and Conrad Nwawo, the Military Commander of the Midwest Area Command.
The period between January 15, 1966 and July 6, 1967, were bitter and terrifying times that challenged the basis of Nigeria as a nation, and tasked the loyalty of individuals and groups following the events that defined those moment. People had to take stands, and assert loyalties, and so it was with Conrad Nwawo. The wave of killings of Igbo officers following the July 1966 counter coup drove many Igbo officers to seek refuge closer home. Igbo officers from the Midwest like Gabriel Okonweze and Chris Emelifonwu, for instance, had been prominent casualties in the event. The Midwest Area Command under the leadership of Colonel Nwawo soon became the refuge for these officers as they returned to safety. Nwawo led good men – Trimnell, Ochei, Okwechime, Nzefili, Igboba, Ogbemudia, and so on, with Ejoor as Military governor of the Midwest. The Nigerian civil war was brewing heavily, and began with the first shot fired by the Federal forces at Gakem and Nsukka on July 6, 1967. By 9 August 1967, the Biafran Liberation Army commanded by Brigadier Victor Banjo with Emmanuel Ifeajuna as his chief of staff overran the Midwest on their way to capture Lagos. It has been said that this lightening operation had the silent support of the majority of the Igbo officers of the Midwest Area Command, who merged forces with the Biafrans, and allowed them safe passage. We may not yet know the full details of that campaign until, perhaps Nwawo’s unpublished memoir is set to print. But what is clear is that Nwawo and his cohorts took a stand. The idea of the Midwest as a neutral buffer to the East was mostly an illusion, particularly as Gowon had set up a combat force led by Murtala Muhammed set to cross from Idah through Auchi and Agbor towards the Niger, circumventing Benin-city.
The Biafrans only acted more quickly in anticipation, and without question, with collaborative intelligence provided by the Nwawo-led Benin Area Command. The failure of the Midwest operation made Nwawo’s position, and the position of the Igbo officers untenable in Benin, especially with the wave of the massacre of the Igbo in Benin and on to Asaba, following the entry of the federal forces into the Midwest by September 20, 1967. Nwawo fought on the Biafran side, and distinguished himself as a military commander. He stopped the crossing of the Federal Forces at Onitsha, and he fought through a messy ambush in Umuahia, and cleared the Biafran capital of the Nigerians, before it finally fell. Nwawo was a General of the Biafran forces, and in his interviews was unambiguous about his choices. For Nwawo, it was an inexorable call to duty. He had few choices. He was a well-loved military leader, a courageous and brilliant war tactician, and he was in the end one of those who made peace possible, and of whom it must be said, never stood at the sidelines while history passed them by.