• Cites Maitatsine uprising in Kano he ended in two weeks as an example
• ‘We would have been fighting another Civil War were we to be under military rule’
• On 1966 coup: Nzeogwu putsch not an Igbo takeover bid
• ‘I am still researching into Gen Adekunle’s problem with Gowon govt’
By Wale Akinola, Charles Kumolu and Kennedy Mbele
FIFTY-one years after the end of the Nigerian Civil War, multiple forms of insecurity across the country have brought Nigeria to what many described as the point of another war. With instability escalating by the day, citizens are fast losing confidence in the ability of the Federal Government to ensure the security of lives and property.
To ensure Nigeria does not go to war again, Civil War veteran, Brigadier General Godwin Alabi-Isama, in this interview, analyses the root of the current problems, suggesting likely solutions. The 80-year-old Alabi-Isama, who, as a Commander in the Third Marine Commando, authored the strategy that ended the 30-month conflict, also narrates how he nipped in the bud what could have been Nigeria’s first case of insurgency in 1976.
With hindsight, he relishes his high and low moments at the war front.
What prepared you for a career in the military? Today is my 80th birthday anniversary (his 80th birthday was in December but Amala Group where he is Chairman organized a get together in Lagos to celebrate the occasion on the penultimate Thursday). What prepared me for the military was very simple. I lost my father when I was four years old. So I grew up with my mother and sisters. My mother was always travelling. She often left me with my grandmother. My grandmother would take me to the football field on Saturdays and Sundays to play football. She would sit down and wait while I played. She died on June 22, 1950. My mother did not allow that because she was always afraid that I may break my leg.
I was always following her, selling kola nuts. But, when I went to Ibadan Boys High School, the Army at Oke Bola shared a fence with the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Soldiers were always passing through our school. I love their military uniform. Sometimes, I would follow them, watching them as they marched.
What year was that?
That was in 1958. They were always passing through and marching in uniform with music playing. I like things done well. Up until today, if you don’t do things well, you are my enemy. I won’t give you my job. The military would pass in front of Chief Awolowo’s house as a show of force and I would follow them. They would invite our school to Army Unit Games. One day, as we went there for the games, an officer jumped only 12 feet in the long jump and, by the time it was my turn, I jumped 17 feet. Later, I met the officer and asked “How can I join the Army?” He asked me what class I was in, I told him we had done part one of my English Language examinations and, that time, if you don’t pass the English Language, you have failed. A day before part two of the examination, I got the Army Warrant. In those days, you fill a form in class four, indicating where you would want to work after your WASCE. In my form, I stated that I wanted to be the House Master of St. Theresa’s College (girls only). They thought I was interested in girls but that was because I was the one coaching them as they didn’t have a football field. In our school, I was the Football Captain. I would mark the field single-handedly.
I learnt how to do things right. I took the Warrant to the Principal and showed him. He said, “If the police sent you a Warrant, you know you are in trouble, now the Army has sent you a Warrant.” I told him I would go, hoping I could write my part two examination when I returned. If I didn’t go, I probably wouldn’t have made it into the Nigerian Army. When I got there, I was the shortest, others were very tall.
Are you saying the enlistment was automatic, no training?
I didn’t attend any training. All I knew was just to join the military and those that were recruited then were called ‘godogodo’ because they were extremely tall. I was like a bottle of malt among bottles of beer.
The officer in charge called me and asked a few questions. All he was interested in was if I could speak English Language and once that was established, I was taken. I was the smallest among all the intakes. That was how I joined the Nigeria Army but Ibadan High School, more than any other thing, prepared me well. I was the Football Captain of Ibadan High School where things were done well.
Did the military at the time meet your expectations?
That is exactly what I was looking for to do things well. In fact, for 15 years, I was the Football Captain of the Nigerian Army.
There were coups and counter-coups during your career…
I was at Asaba, I was not part of all those coups and counter-coups. I was the Commander at Asaba. I volunteered to go to Asaba because in Benin at the time, over 80 per cent of our officers were of Igbo extraction. They were not willing to defend Asaba where Biafra was coming into.
They were defending Lagos – Benin Expressway. It was like they didn’t want the federal troops to come in. I volunteered to go to Asaba. When I got to Asaba, because I couldn’t speak Igbo, I got some girls. Did they ask why girls? And I said I lived with my mother and sisters, I knew the power of women.
They went into town and Onitsha to obtain information about the Biafra movement for me. My mother came to Asaba and went with me to the battlefield. She wondered why we didn’t want Biafra to come while we said we wanted one in Nigeria. She misunderstood it because of her inability to read and write. There was an old girlfriend of mine, who left Kaduna for Enugu with her parents during the killings of Igbo in the North. It was in the house of the new boyfriend he heard that Biafran soldiers had a meeting where they agreed that their only obstacle to capturing Asaba was that Commander called Alabi.
They resolved to eliminate me and other officers would simply join them. They didn’t see anything hard in that because the officers were all Igbo and would just join them. Finally, the former girlfriend came in a boat and informed me that Biafra will arrive at 10 pm to kill only me. As soon as she delivered the message, she ran back into the boat. I asked her to wait but she couldn’t. She left with the boat. Another informant also told me that Biafran soldiers were marching up. Finally, Biafrans arrived. I was in the room, they took it with a lackadaisical attitude that they would just attack, kill the man and move on, forgetting that my destiny was secured.
What was your assessment of the issues that led to the civil war?
We would have been fighting another civil war if this were a military regime. We are all debating current issues because we are in a democracy. But when the issues that led to the Civil War happened, Ojukwu didn’t agree, Gowon didn’t agree and here we were. Those who planned the January 1966 coup incompetently handled it because they had no alternative plans. They didn’t say if we fail, what will we do next?
You mean the Major Nzeogwu group had no plan B?
They didn’t have a plan B in the event of failure. Actually, they didn’t fail. What happened was that they couldn’t continue. It is like someone driving from Lagos to Ilorin who couldn’t continue the journey because of traffic gridlock at Ibadan. Major Nzeogwu (coup leader) was successful in the North. The ones here, South-West, panicked because they couldn’t get Gen Aguiyi Ironsi who had taken over. They even said Ojukwu and Ironsi made the coup fail, which is not correct. If they had informed these two people, they wouldn’t make the coup fail.
The general belief was that it was an ethnic coup…
It was not an Igbo coup but a coup of like minds. Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo were involved. They took it for granted but if you miss a point in a coup, that point will be critical to the result. That is why if you want to kill, you must kill all. If you leave your friend because of the favour you received from him, he could be the person that will truncate the coup. In a coup, you must carry out what you have agreed to carry out.
How would you justify the counter-coup that followed?
Well, naturally they found out in Nigeria as of the time, the Yoruba had 10 military officers; the Igbo had 37 while the Hausa had eight. Even Yoruba officers were killed alongside their pregnant wives in the coup. That was why it was easy for General Gowon to take over. Let me say this again, it is not possible in this country for one section to defeat the other. The North cannot defeat the South nor can the East defeat the West in any battle.
When the war started, the Igbo had the upper hand in One Division in the North but one of the greatest mistakes the Igbo made was to cross River Niger in 1967. They didn’t need to do that. All they needed was their Biafra. And they had it. They should have defended their Biafra instead of crossing the River Niger.
Do you mean the Mid-West invasion?
Yes, the Mid-West invasion was very wrong. It was a lousy move because the Mid-West ought to have been an extension of your security and not main Biafra.
You played a very significant role during the Nigerian Civil War and sacrificed a lot. Now, the country is experiencing those things that led to the civil war. How do you feel?
Well, I am happy you said I played a significant role and that was my undoing in the Nigerian Army. The problem we have in Nigeria today is ethnic, not religious. In 1976, I drove Maitasine out of Nigeria, though that was not my job. General TY Danjuma, retd, was the Chief of Army Staff at the time. When the killings in Kano continued, I went to General Danjuma and asked him to allow me to go to Sambisa forest and solve the problem, even though the Commander was there. It took me 15 days to defeat Maitasine. The problem we have now is a very simple one and we can end Boko Haram war and bandit attacks also in 15 days but we like climbing the ladder from the top and, in doing that, we are bound to fall. In 10 or 11 years, we could not defeat a rag-tag army.
Something is behind it and, for me, what is behind it is the body language of the President. This question you just asked is a very long story and cutting it short will not benefit us. Anyway, it didn’t start with President Buhari. It started with ex-President Obasanjo who, with a wave of the hand, said ‘Oh! don’t worry, they are looking for Shariah, it will fizzle away.
That is incompetence. Boko Haram is not a human being. It has no blood and flesh. It is an idea. It is like the Jews and their pains in the land of Egypt, which made them remember Canaan, the promised land. If you have pain, you solve the problem. What should have been done to Boko Haram in the early days was to sit them down and listen to their problems.
That was how I solved the Maitasine problem in 15 days. I called both the captives and their captors, and sat them down. There was only one graduate among them. He was very brilliant. I said to him “tell us what the problem is?” which he did. And I asked him to suggest an appropriate solution.
One of the points he raised was that they were fishermen who resorted to farming in Lake Chad but the lake dried up. He said the Fulani usually grazed on their crops on their farms. Today, a Fulani man will sell a cow for N100, 000 or N150, 000. But it is not easy for a farmer to plant corn and sell for N100, 000. The Fulani were richer. A fight ensued between the farmers and the Fulani, leading to the crisis.
The Fulani have never defeated the Kanuri in any battle. The last fight was when El-Kanemi defeated Uthman Dan Fodio. Up until today, the Kanuri have never been defeated by the Fulani. I had to ask one of the fighters how we could resolve the conflict. He said “we don’t want their cattle to feed on our crops,” and I replied, “but the cows must eat.”
We were able to arrive at a solution with that method.
As a little boy, l learnt something from my mother’s family called Ubandoki in Ilorin. I learnt that if you buy a ram to be killed at Sallah, you must provide food and water for it even if you are killing it the next day. I asked them if they could prepare grass and sell it to the Fulani herders as a business and they agreed. The Fulani also agreed to be buying grass. David Mark (former Senate President and retired general) was with me at the time.
I have the pictures of that event too. I don’t know why David Mark did not even try things like that or suggest that to Mr.
President when he was Senate President. Killing will not solve the problem of insecurity because that will not kill the idea. They killed Yusuf, the leader of Boko Haram, but it didn’t solve the problem. Is Boko Haram not still operating? You can’t continue killing. What is the aim of the killings? We are looking for peace. How can we be looking for peace, and you voted $1bn to fight Boko Haram? That is about N400billion. You can use N200billion to look for peace and the other N200billion to fight.
So many stories were told about the late General Adekunle, who commanded the famous Third Marine Commando during the Civil War. You worked closely with him. Are those stories true?
What stories did you hear about him?
Some people said he was irrational…
He was the best Commander I ever worked with. In the Army, if your Commander tells you what to do, you must do it. General Adekunle would debate with you. And the reason the authorities preferred General Alani Akinrinade and I was because we had our examination called Captain to Major examination and, in that examination, Akinrinade took first in the first one and he, Adekunle, failed. When I came back from my training and wrote the same examination with Adekunle, I also beat him. TY Danjuma was four steps behind me in the Army.
Already, we were told in our training school, which had soldiers from other countries of the world, that the best may not necessarily be the Commander of our army. We were told that only the person acceptable to the government of the day is often made the Commander. Adekunle, knowing the two of us, would not give us order like a Commander. He was such a beautiful Commander who taught us many things. But then, Adekunle was not there when we captured Port Harcourt.
Why was he not there?
He was in Lagos to get supplies. We had debated the Port Harcourt attack. Bonny to Port Harcourt was 80km while Calabar to Port Harcourt was 480km. He wanted us to move from Bonny to Port Harcourt, just as every Commander would want. But it was not a picnic. We were not just going to walk across. Why would you come from a distance of 480km instead of 80km? I was the one the convinced him that it was better to come from Calabar – an idea that was very difficult to sell. We had a lot of creeks on the way that would stop us and even if we got to Port Harcourt from Bonny, from Bonny to Calabar would be in the hands of the Biafra forces. How will our people in Calabar get their food? It was better to clear the entire area from Calabar. We had Akinrinade already at Bonny. Adekunle had his own map and plan that we will attack from Bonny and I had mine that we will attack from Calabar.
After about a week of debate, he couldn’t find his map. He thought I must have taken it but I didn’t. We asked him who was the last officer that visited him and he said one Archibong. They went and searched Archibong’s house and found the map there. We left it just like that because he had already made a copy and sent it to Biafra, hoping to return the original but didn’t know we were going to look for it that day. We left it like that for Biafra to believe we were going to attack Bonny.
We found other things in Archibong’s house. He was Adekunle’s friend. Akinrinade was shelling Port Harcourt and they thought we were coming from Bonny. Meanwhile, I was coming from Calabar with my troops. The Biafrans thought we were just bypassing. It was a diversionary effort. By the time I landed at Elelenwa Junction, Biafra had sent all their troops to face Akinrinade at Bonny and when I arrived behind them it was too late for them to retreat. Adekunle was a good Commander who had discussions with his officers. In my new book, I tried to find out Adekunle’s problem with the government. We were so successful that at a stage they said we were successful because we were operating in a friendly area. Then, I went to attack Afikpo and captured it in one night.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo did not reply to your claims about the Civil War that he didn’t win the war but only lucky to have claimed the credit. It is like he accepted the claims or what do you think?
I think you got the answer. He could not reply for many reasons. The first one was that he was not on the war front with us. Adekunle worked so hard as Commander. He would pick the dead. He would pick the wounded, remove his shirt and attend to them. He was a busy Commander.
He was somebody I would always like to work with. At one point, I told my boss, Adekunle, “You are getting tired.” It was just like me driving from Ilorin to Lagos for my 80th birthday celebration. What did I do when I arrived in Lagos? I was just drinking and dancing. Many people of my age would have collapsed had driven six hours from Ilorin. Adekunle and Obasanjo were two different people. I didn’t know Obasanjo very well but Akinrinade did. We went to General Gowon and suggested changing Adekunle because of his tiredness. But you see, in my new research, I discovered they didn’t trust him anymore.
They thought he would be an officer that would organise a coup after the war because he had so many Yoruba officers around him. They did not trust any of us, particularly me.
I have found some letters and other documents Adekunle wrote to Gowon and almost everybody, including the Chief of Staff, but they starved him of supplies. It was too late for the North.
I think they wanted to capture Nigeria through the war but it was too late. The Chief of Staff and Akinrinade had enough reserve to finish the war. When we went to brief Obasanjo in Ibadan, it was a very difficult situation. Akinrinade asked me to do the talking. We told him the war would end in 30 days. I didn’t quite agree with Obasanjo. After talking for about two hours, the man didn’t offer us a drink. He asked us, “How do you know that Ihiala is the centre of gravity of Biafra?” I said, “I don’t know the training school you attended but the one I attended showed me that Ihiala is the centre of gravity of Biafra.” I asked Akinrinade to continue with the talk because I was tired.
We had told him that it will take 30 days to end the war. Anytime the battle was hot, Obasanjo would go and brief Gowon. We told him, “Oga, we don’t need to capture Ohoba to end the Civil War”. We didn’t want to be running the Marine Commando like One Division. We didn’t want to be going from village to village. We just wanted to capture key areas and end the war.
He didn’t quite understand. As he told us he wasn’t going to the war front. He said we suggested his name so that he will die on the war front. We told him that we are also somebody’s children. We just told him to remain where he was and let us finish the war in 30 days. The man was there for six months and people were dying. We advised him against going to Ohoba, but he went to Ohoba and lost 1, 500 soldiers in one hour of battle.
Have you seen Obasanjo of late…?
I was one of the speakers at his 80th birthday in October 2014 in Abuja. After my speech, he said “Alabi, you didn’t even mention your being Kirikiri for 15 days. I didn’t put you in Kirikiri.” I replied, “Your Excellency, God put me in Kirikiri, but he had to use somebody and he used you to keep me there and I am alive today. Where are other soldiers? Everybody died except me talking to you now. It is by his grace, favour and mercy that I am here in front of you.” To end that story, Gowon sent an order and we briefed him that it will take 30 days to end the war and that we were tired as it was our third year at the war front.
Anyway, when Obasanjo arrived, he thought we were in the barracks and said he wanted to “inspect this and that”. And our soldiers were dying. The Biafrans defeated us at Ohoba with his plan when we told him not to go. Biafrans were emboldened by their success and were also coming to capture Port Harcourt. If they had captured Port Harcourt, I would have still defeated them. We made a plan. As he (Obasanjo) left for Lagos to brief General Gowon, Akinrinade called Yoruba officers. namely Anifowoshe, Obade, Oni, Tuoyo and Isemede.
He was not a Commander but a staff officer. He took them and they went. Innih (George Innih) had 3,000 troops that were supposed to join Akinrinade’s 4, 000 troops to make 7,000. Obasanjo now took Innih to Arochukwu. We didn’t need Arochukwu to end the war. That was where we were going. It was such a diversionary movement. Anyway, Akinrinade was not happy. He told Obasanjo that he would kill Innih if he saw him but it was not Innih’s fault, it was the Commander that gave him the wrong order. Akinrinade ended the civil war with 4, 000 soldiers.
General Akinrinade ended the war?
That was how the Marine Commando ended the war. In line with our plan, I was sent to Enugu. When I got to Enugu at the One Division, there was nobody in Enugu town. The war was still on. I went there as Quarter Master General and saw the way they were fighting. I didn’t like it. I went to Shuah who was the Commander and requested that I wanted to organize a party. He asked if I was crazy. He said I was thinking One Division was like Marine Commando. “This is One Division, the heart of Igboland”, he said. I said, “Sir, I captured Afikpo in 24 hours.
If you permit me to organise a party, you will see how it will go.” “Who are you going to dance with?” he asked and I told him there were women around. He said there was nobody in town but I insisted, saying “just permit me to organize the party and you would see what I will achieve”.
It was in Justice Aniagolu’s house. We went out looking for women and got about four of them. They were crying that we came to capture them. We told them they were not captives. When we got to the house, I served them the food I had prepared and some drinks. They were too shy to eat the food and I said, “Look I am going out for five minutes, if I come back and you have not eaten the food, I will take away my food and drink”.
Before I came back, they had finished the food. Then I played music and we began dancing. Then, I went and called Shuah, the Commander. He opened the door and saw what I had arranged and said “Alabi, you again?” I said, “Oga, no problem if I do anything wrong, sack me from the Army”. Afterwards, I took the women to their various homes. They were shocked.
Before the death of Justice Aniagolu, I went to his house with one lady called Perpetua Onyejekwe and I greeted him. He had a lot of drinks. I painted the picture of his house and how I cleaned it up after the party. He said they told him it was one Yoruba man that did it, though I am a Delta man. When we dropped the women off they said, “Don’t come to capture us next time but if there is a party inform us so we can bring our sisters.” From then, I could just send my driver to pick them up whenever there was a party.
Remember the war was still on and Marine Commando was still moving on. There was a lady called Maria. There was no toothpaste, no toothbrush. In fact, there was nothing in Enugu. We sent this girl on a flight to Lagos, gave her some money to buy things and she started selling in Enugu. Within 24hours, she sold everything she bought. At the time, there was a band in Nigeria called Geraldopino. That was the best band in Lagos at that time. We brought it to Enugu to play. This is just to tell you how we got people back in Enugu the Marine Commando way. We could have one in Nigeria. We were not fighting to kill Biafrans but to achieve one in Nigeria. The idea was not to kill them but to have one in Nigeria. Biafra defeated us at Ohoba, Aba, Owerri and Orlu. We had to sit down and think about what caused it.
The cause of the defeat was more important than anything else. Why should we lose Aba? The same thing happened at Ohoba where we lost 1, 500 soldiers in an hour. That was the highest number of soldiers we ever lost. From Calabar to Port Harcourt, only eight soldiers and two officers were lost in one hour of battle, but we lost 1, 500 soldiers under Obasanjo in one hour. The Marine Commando was moving, but One Division was not moving. Marine Commando had no arrangement for spending the night anywhere but was always on the move. That was how we got people into Enugu. My mother came to Enugu at the time. I have the pictures.
Your mother came to Enugu?
My mother was on the war front, advancing with us. She felt that “if this boy should die, the next bullet should kill her. “This boy must not die”. When the war ended, we hugged each other. That was how the Nigerian Civil War ended. When Akinrinade radioed Obasanjo to say the war had ended, the Biafran officers who gathered with their soldiers did not surrender with their hands up. The officers said, “We are not fighting anymore. What are the terms and conditions? We have to go and meet Gowon.” That was how they came to meet Gowon and that was how the war ended. When Akinrinade called Obasanjo and said “Oga, e did finish o, Biafra say they no fight again”, Obasanjo got lost. He didn’t know where to go. If you were the Commander, where did you send your troops? Obasanjo could not argue with me. He didn’t know but he was the boss. There is nothing wrong with you being the boss. I was telling him “don’t do it that way”, but he did it his way and so many soldiers died.
The issues then are the same issues troubling Nigeria now, renewing calls for Biafra. How do you feel?
Biafrans want to come back because they didn’t get justice. You journalists know. I wish I were a journalist because you report the news, you don’t make them. If it is fake news, the government will step in and give us the real news. Let me give you an example of the injustice I mentioned. Joint Admission Matriculation Board, JAMB, was established in 1978 by the Obasanjo administration, not the Buhari administration. But we blame Buhari for almost everything. For instance, the railway to Maradi was not started by the Buhari administration. It was started during ex-President Jonathan administration. RUGA wasn’t created by Buhari. The Land Use Decree was promulgated by the Obasanjo regime. When you are talking about justice, it started from JAMB. They said 10 per cent will come from town A, 50 per cent will come from town B. 70 per cent will come from Town C and all that. These children attended the same Law School. They knew one another and then the government promoted 30 judges out of which 24 came from the North, according to the story we read. Four came from the South-West and two from the South-South. No single one was from the South-East. This South-East was the one that made 60 per cent in JAMB. How do you justify that?
They felt that it was wrong. There is injustice. This is just one of the numerous examples. But, if that story is not correct, the government did not say anything. Maybe if we look at the totality of all the lawyers in Nigeria, we will discover that the North had less. Easterners felt aggrieved among many other reasons. For instance, there was a piece of news, whether fake or not, that the Army and Police killed IPoB leader. If it was that easy to kill IPoB leader, why has Shekau not been killed? Everybody will begin to wonder why things are happening like this.
In 11 years, we could not defeat Boko Haram. It is not Buhari’s fault. He didn’t start it, he inherited it but he could end it. The painful part of it was that he granted an interview to a white lady at CNN in London during which the lady asked about the civil war in Nigeria and Buhari told her that his officers and Commanders shared the money he gave them to buy weapons as if they were sharing cake. Today, nobody has refuted that report with its video clips as evidence. But the same President dismissed a journalist on arrival with a wave of hand even after a very warm greeting aimed at getting his attention. You will go abroad and respond to a white journalist’s question by disclosing to her the information you should have given us at home so that we can understand your problem.
What do you think of IPoB, MASOB?
I think they are doing what they are doing as a result of pain. You know that pain speaks. Killing their leaders will not prevent them from their operations. Osama Bin Laden was killed several years ago but Al-Qaeda is still there. It is an idea that has to be defeated with a better one. That was what happened to the Nigerian Civil War. The people started to trust Nigerian troops.
The government said they are capable of handling the situation. But people are dying in the North and crying in the South.