By Emeka Obasi

War is indeed, a series of surprises even as yesterday marked 52 years since the declaration of Biafra which culminated in a bloody war that took the lives of three service chiefs.

A protestor brandishes a banner as he takes part in a demonstration in Durban, South Africa, on May 30, 2019 during a Freedom March for Biafra held worldwide and organised by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to mark the anniversary of the unilateral declaration of independence in 1967 that sparked a brutal 30-month civil war in Nigeria.

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We should all learn from history. War is no respecter of rank or title. Nigeria lost a chief of Army staff and also lost an Air chief. Both died in a flight. The Biafran Chief of Air Staff did not die flying, he was killed while attending a briefing just as Federal troops continued to push across the Niger.

Lt.Col. Joseph Ityowa Ronald Akahan was made Chief of Army Staff by Lt. Col Yakubu Gowon  in November 1966. It was when the country was in crisis and soldiers from the North did not trust their Southern colleagues.

At that time, there were at least four officers outside the North who identified with Gowon and were superior to Akahan. There was also a Fulani Prince ahead of the new Army Chief.

Col. Akahan led the Nigeria Army to war against Biafra. On a certain day in 1967, he flew in a chopper to his hometown, Gboko, in the Tiv area of the Middle Belt. It was getting dark and some of his friends advised against flying. Akahan took off and was gone.

The helicopter went down in flames killing all on board. The pilot and co-pilot were identified as George Ozieh with service number 232 and Olawale Lawal [233]. Both were officers of the Nigerian Air Force.

Ozieh was Igbo and hailed from Ogwashi Uku in the Mid-West. His brother-in-law, Flt. Lt. Gabriel Ebube, was fighting on the Biafran side. One of his buddies, Flt. Lt. Lanky Ogbolu, had lost a brother in-law, Lt. Col. Gabriel Okonweze, in the July 1966 coup to troops under Akahan.

Lt. Col. Chude Luis Sokei was at Sandhurst at the same time as two cadets who later emerged as leaders in Ghana: Okatakye Afrifa and Fred Akuffo. Another Course mate, Alphonsus Keshi, an Igbo from the Mid-West, felt more comfortable living in Nigeria.

Sokei knew about the January 1966 coup and was to lead operations in Enugu. Unfortunately, he was sent to India on course shortly before D Day. He was moved to the Air Force just like some of his Army colleagues.

Sokei became Chief of Biafran Air Force after Col. George Tamunoiyowunam Kurubo defected to Nigeria. The former’s first job was to Head the Task Force that planned the successful hijack of a Nigeria Airways flight from Benin to Enugu.

On March 15, 1968, senior Biafran officers gathered under a tree at Afor Igwe market ,Ogidi. Federal soldiers were advancing in full force and something had to be done.

The meeting did not end well.  Shrapnel from mortar fire penetrated Sokei’s heart. He was gone. Two other senior Biafran officers were lucky. Though wounded, they lived to fight again.

The Nigerian Air Chief, Col. Shittu Alao, also did not survive the war. He died in a crash. His light aircraft was flying to Enugu but ended up in Uzebba, Mid-West. That was on October, 19, 1969.

Alao, a bulky Ogbomosho, Yoruba man, born to a Shendam mother, had also trained at Sandhurst as an Army Cadet.

All three Service Chiefs were Sandhurst products. In a space of two years, between 1967 and 1969, they were all dead. None of them clocked 40 years and none spent up to 10 years as a commissioned officer.

Akahan’s death created a vacuum which could be filled by officers who were senior but were overlooked earlier. Col. Wellington Bassey, Col Adeyinka Adebayo, Lt. Col David Ejoor, Lt.Col Eyo Ekpo and Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina were available. Ekpo was ruled out because he was Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters.

Again, Gowon who had been promoted Major General, overlooked all of them and picked Col. Iliya Bisalla who no doubt, was a very bright officer. His Sandhurst course mates, Cols Murtala Mohammed and Mohammed Shuwa were out fighting as General Officers Commanding [GOC] of the first and second division respectively.

Bisalla and Gowon were quite close and hailed from the Pankshin area of the Middle Belt. Much later, when the Nigerian leader got married to, Victoria Zakari, in 1969, Bisalla was the Military Coordinator. His wife, Mildred, was one of the four ladies-in-waiting.

The Fulani did not welcome Bisalla’s appointment. Katsina was commissioned in 1958. Bisalla received his, in 1961. Gowon knew something had to be done. Katsina was made Army Chief while Bisalla ended the war as a GOC.

Sokei’s death saw Biafra

appointing Wing Commander Godwin Ezeilo as replacement. The import was that he was the only trained pilot to lead the Air Force during the war.

The man who replaced Alao, Emmannuel Ebije Ikwue, was not a pilot. He was an Army officer who passed out from Sandhurst alongside his predecessor,  Okpo Isong, Musa Usman and Godwin Ally.

It was in the bid to become a pilot that Alao lost his life. The boss did not feel quite comfortable commanding people who could fly fighter jets and bombers. In that group were young officers like John Yisa Doko, Gbadamasi King, Abdullahi Bello, George Musa Jebak, Ibrahim Alfa, Salaudeen Latinwo, Usman Jibrin and Anthony Okpere.

Col. Alao began with light aircraft. That fateful day in 1969, he flew solo, with Enugu as destination. Somewhere around the River Niger, he lost bearing and planned to return to Benin. That never happened. The plane crash landed on a football field in Uzebba.

Alao’s son, Lawal, joined the Air Force as a graduate in 1984. I met him in 1989 as he was introduced as Aide de Camp to Air Chief, Ibrahim Alfa. I guess, Lawal is still serving as an Air Vice Marshal.

Like the Air Force, the Nigerian Navy was not commanded by a combatant seaman. Rear Admiral Edet Wey was a Marine Engineer. The job was done by Nelson Soroh, Mike Adelanwa and Akin Aduwo.

The Biafran Navy was led by a grounded seaman, Captain Wilfred Anuku, from the Mid-West. He was at Dartmouth with Adelanwa. Anuku also fought as an Army Officer.

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