By Emeka Obasi
Friends at war! That best describes the crisis that engulfed Nigeria between 1966 and 1970 for Generals Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and Yakubu Chinwa Gowon were buddies. As young officers, they wined, dined and did so many other things together.
Both were born in the North, one year apart. Ojukwu in Zungeru, Gowon’s place of birth is Pankshin. And they went through Anglican schools. The former spent a short time at the CMS Grammar School, Bariga, Lagos. The latter was at St. Bartholomew’s CMS School, Wusasa, Zaria.
This Anglican background would later lead them to meet the Ike family. Edith, Ifeyinwa[Violet] and Jeff were very well brought up children. Their father, from Ndikelionwu in the Eastern region, had relocated to the North in the mid 1930s as one of the first Anglican teachers.
Ojukwu’s Northern roots never failed him. Armed with a degree in History from Oxford University in 1955, he abandoned his Civil Service job as Assistant District Officer[ADO] to join the Army in 1957 through Zaria. Gowon had enlisted in 1954 straight from Barewa College, Zaria.
Ojukwu was commissioned and sent to the Fifth Battalion, Kano in 1958. Gowon began at the Fourth Battalion, Ibadan but never forgot his good, old North. Kano and Ojukwu became like champagne and bottle, always together.
In 1961,Ojukwu taught Tactics at the Military Academy, Teshie Ghana. One of his students was Murtala Mohammed, who was Gowon’s junior at Barewa College. When he returned, he was again sent to Kano. From there, the Major was redeployed to First Brigade, Kaduna.
Ojukwu and Gowon found themselves with the United Nations Peace Keeping Forces in Congo in 1961. In 1962, the former attended the Joint Services Staff Course in Lartimer, Chesam. By January 1963, he was promoted Lt.Col. The latter went through the same course in May 1965 and became a Lt.Col in June 1963.
As 1964 petered out, Ojukwu assumed duty as Commanding Officer, Fifth Brigade, Kano. At that time, Alhaji Ado Bayero, a former bank clerk and Ambassador to Senegal, had become Emir of Kano. The traditional ruler had two very close Igbo friends, John Okoroafor and Mike Agamuche, Personal Counsel to the Sardauna, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello.
Ojukwu also became very close to Ado Bayero just like he was to Gowon. Their meeting point was Samaritan Club, Kano. The two military officers got close to the Ike family. Both saw Violet, described as: ‘tall, charming and one of the peaches created by God.’ Their eyes were on Edith. Ojukwu’s driver was Yusuf Azi, a Birom man.
Ojukwu admired Edith as much as Gowon admired her. Two friends, one target. Eventually, Ojukwu allowed his friend to make a move and it worked out. The lady would later become Gowon’s fianceé and they had a son, Musa Ngonadi together. The Civil War separated them.
Violet got married to, Simon Gboko Yough, a Tiv diplomat who later rose to the position of Ambassador. Today, she is 70 and still looking pretty. A street bears her name in the Victoria Island area of Lagos. Edith died in 2003.
During the war, their father was tormented by his own people, Biafrans. Possibly they could not understand why his daughters dated men fighting their new country. Ojukwu came to his rescue with soldiers for round the clock protection. It was funny because within the larger Ike family at the time, [Prof] Vincent Ike, had a Yoruba wife who was even more Biafran than some Igbo.
Ojukwu played rugby at Epsom College, Surrey. He also set a record in discus. Gowon played Hockey for the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and was also into soccer, athletics and boxing.
By 1966, therefore, Ojukwu and Gowon had become not only pals, they were also equals. Brigadier Oluwole Oluwole Rotimi, who like Ojukwu joined the Army as a graduate and was also a military governor, explained it.
Rotimi said: “Antedate of seniority meant Gowon who joined the Army in 1954 and Ojukwu who joined in 1957, were at par because of Ojukwu’s university degree.” Ojukwu was the first indigenous Quartermaster General, Gowon the first Adjutant General.
The Samaritan Club connection was so tight. In 1966, Ojukwu, as Governor of Eastern region, appointed the Emir of Kano, Chancellor University of Nigeria Nsukka in place of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. In 1967, Ojukwu held hands with Gowon at Peduase Lodge ,Aburi and both leaders ate from the same plate to the admiration of Ghanaian President, Gen. Joseph Ankrah.
Now consider this: Captain Francis Osakwe was in the cockpit of Grey Ghost, the flight that took Ojukwu to exile in 1970. The same pilot flew Gowon to Kampala in 1975,the general was toppled by Murtala and began life in exile.
Believe it. When President Shehu Shagari granted pardon to Gowon in 1981, the four-star general’s response was that same should be extended to Ojukwu. That happened in 1982. Both men had been declared wanted courtesy Official Gazette No.3, Volume 66 of January 18,1979 by the Olusegun Obasanjo military regime.
Gowon had appointed Sule Kolo Ambassador to Switzerland in November 1966.In August 1967, Ojukwu made Maj[Dr.] Albert Nwazu Okonkwo, Administrator of Benin. Kolo and Okonkwo were indeed blood brothers in spite of their names.
In 1970, Gowon redeployed Kolo to the United Kingdom as High Commissioner. Murtala sacked the diplomat in 1975. The import was that when Gowon moved to London after the Murtala coup, he had no place to lay his head. It took an Igbo man, Emma Otti, to offer him accommodation at 42 Finchely Road.
Ojukwu lost his half brother, Lt. Tom Bigger, at Nsukka during the war. Gowon’s younger brother, Captain Isaiah Gowon, was jailed after the 1976 coup. Another brother, Squadron Leader Moses Gowon, was sacked.
Squadron leader John Ikeokwu Chukwu, was close to Ojukwu as part of Biafra’s daring fighter pilots alongside Austin Okpe, Willy Murray- Bruce, Ibi Brown, Larry Obiechi and Alex Agbafuna. Gowon took him in after the war. Murtala sent him to fight in Angola. He died there.