By Gambo Dori
GENERAL Paul Tarfa’s memoir, A Profile in Courage, is acknowledged to be a fine addition to the collection of what had been written on that traumatic period of our national life that still resonates in many ways today.Of course, this refers to the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s when the military first struck and then got bogged in the quagmire of the very problems they aspired to solve in the first instance. Tarfa wrote affectionately about his upbringing in Garkida village and how he landed in the military in the mid-1960s. Some months after getting his commission in 1963, he saw action in the Congo and on his return was posted to the Guards Brigade, a strategic perch that enabled him to witness, first-hand, the nation’s agonizing history unfolding.
He witnessed and wrote extensively about the upheavals of the 1960s, the coup, the counter coup and the civil war, the main actors and what he thought of them. Out of all these mayhem,the coup that really boggled Tarfa was the July 1975 conspiracy that overthrew General Yakubu Gowon. Tarfa had all along thought a coup could not succeed against General Gowon because he was well protected by the well trained and loyal soldiers of the Guards Brigade.And they were all led by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Garba, a kinsman of the General who had assembled and trained the finest available soldiers who mainly hailed from Benue-Plateau State. Tarfa was second in command in the brigade and in many instances had acted as its commander. And probably due to long associationin the brigade Garba and Tarfa had become quite chummy. Garba was neck-deep in the conspiracy to remove Gowon but had not taken Tarfa into confidence until a few hours to the D-day. Tarfa continues in the book:
“The Head of State had to travel to Kampala, Uganda, to attend the Organization of African Unity, OAU, Heads of State Summit. He left after the usual airport protocols. The following day, Friday the 28th, Garba asked me to go with him to Yaba to collect his clothes from his tailor, Banjoko Cuts. On our way back from Yaba, we talked as usual on general issues of interest to both of us. Getting close to the gate of the Brigade of Guards Officers Mess, at the junction of Ribadu and Okotie-Eboh Roads, Joe stopped the car and threw a bombshell.
He said, ‘Commarah (comrade – a name we called ourselves), today I will tell you something’. I asked, ‘what?’ He said, ‘The Commander-in -Chief has travelled out of the country but he will not come back as Head of State. There will be a coup and he will be removed’.‘What? I don’t understand you. What are you telling me?’ My shock was apparent. ‘How can that happen?’ Joe pointed out the weaknesses of the government to me as reason the coup had to take place. But I had known him for more than 11 years as a loyal and dedicated officer to the Commander- in Chief. I had never heard him say anything bad about Gowon before so I was very surprised and worried when he suddenly had a change of mind.”
Tarfa was bewildered by these exchanges and he argued with Garba for a while. As they entered the Mess other incidences occurred to indicate that a coup was in progress. Tarfa phoned and got confirmation from Lt Col Shehu Yar’Adua, the linchpin of the conspiracy. When he got further confirmation from the Directorate of Military Intelligence, DMI, it saddened him a great deal. It dawned on him finally that there was little he could do to stop the coup as all the senior officers were deeply involved.Tarfa further said in the book:”It was a very trying moment of my life. Garba and I were easily the best of friends who respected each other very much. We were more than just colleagues. We had hardly ever disagreed on any matter but that was the first time we had a difference of opinion over an issue.”
And so it came to pass. The coup took place and a new set of soldiers took over the reins of government once again. In the ensuing reshuffles that took place, Tarfa was posted to be Provost Marshall where he was given the additional assignment of taming the traffic situation in Lagos for preparations against Festac-77. I have already covered how he handled that assignment with gusto and even allowing his soldiers the liberal use of the horsewhip on reckless drivers thus earning from Lagos press the sobriquetof the Koboko Chief.
His high-profile postings were largely ahead yet as his administrative skills were valued by a succession of military regimes. Towards the end of the Obasanjo regime, he was posted as the Administrator of Oyo State to mid-wife the civilian administration. When the military government handed over power to civilians in 1979, Tarfa returned to military duties as Brigade Commander of the 3rd Infantry Brigade, Kano and later to Command and Staff College, Jaji to head the directorate of the Army Faculty.
And when the military returned to power in 1983 Tarfa was posted as Commandant of the Nigerian Defence Academy – a posting he cherished a great deal for many reasons and particularly because he led the Academy to its transformation into a degree awarding institute.Curiously, Tarfa was retired and shunted into the office of Managing Director, Nigerian Railways -a corporation that was fast degenerating.It was a job he confessed he didn’t know anything about. Yet he put his nose into it but it didn’t take him long to realize that without massive infusion of funds, the Nigerian Railway Corporation could not be resuscitated. And when he could not get the needed government support, he decided to bow out.
General Paul Tarfa’s A Profile in Courage, along with General Joe Garba’s Revolution in Nigeria: Another View(1982) and Ahmadu Kurfi’s My Life and Times(2004) are narratives that collectively give another vista into the sordid happenings of 1966 that degenerated into the civil war and the prolonged military rule. Garba was a young lieutenant and 2nd in command in the Guards Brigade at that time and Kurfi was Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. They were witnesses to the events and largely corroborate Tarfa’s viewpoints. There might still be more to tell and these narratives should challenge those who were there to let us know more. Many of these actors are now aging and should know that time is not on their side.
Early last month, I was scouring the sites on my laptop when I noticed an article that is captioned: Ibrahim Bunu Tells the Truth to Authority. I was taken a back because the article is in those nondescript, shadowy, sites. I checked and found that it is not even captured in the mainstream sites nor is it in any of the Nigerian dailies. Yet, I read it and because I found that the views expressed in the article rather odd and in my view would not sync with the persona of Ibrahim Bunu I know. So I decided to put a call to him for confirmation and clarification.
The Ibrahim Bunu I am acquainted with is an architect who had served as a Minister of Housing in Shehu Shagari’s cabinet and also of the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, in Olusegun Obasanjo’s civilian government. When I raised the matter with him, he was bewildered and frantic with indignation that someone for some ulterior purpose is using his name to advance an agenda that has nothing to do with him. He told me that I am among the many who had called him to enquire if he had written that article. He categorically denied it and said that all avenues of reaching the authorities are open and available to him and would not have any reason generate attacks in the media.