By Obi Nwakanma
General Alex Madiebo, and General Patrick Anwunah died within months of each other. Alex Madiebo, General Officer Commanding the Biafran Army was buried on August 22 at his Awka country home in Umuokpu, Awka.
Last week, within three weeks of his burial, Patrick Anwunah, his friend, classmate and fellow Awka man followed him in death, almost as though they chose to be eternal comrades-in-arms. Alex Madiebo was a slightly older boy, (b.1932) when he and Patrick Anwunah (b 1934) were admitted in the same year to the Government College Umuahia in 1948. AlexMadiebo was admitted in January 1948, while Patrick Anwunah was admitted in September of 1948, as a result of the changes in the school year.
That path seemed from then, eternally crossed. After school at Umuahia, they both appeared at the selection board in Enugu to try out for officer training, and for the Regimental life. It may have been the success of George Kurubo, boxing champion an ahead of them by one year at Umuahia, that may have inspired that choice. Kurubo had gone on to Sandhurst and seemed to be enjoying military life.
It may have been the influence of Mr. Wareham, their Geography master, who had been a Captain in the British Army in Word War II. But Madiebo and Anwunah appeared before that selection board in Enugu in 1954, among other including John Pepper Clark, who came from the Government College Warri. J.P Clark was eventually rejected as a resultof his height, but his Ughelli class mate Mike Okwechime made it through the board, and so did Arthur Unegbe, and from Kaduna, Jack Yabubu Gowon, and they all ended up at Teshie, the five ofthem, and from Teshie to Officers Training at Eaton Hall, and thereafter to Sandhurst, where they were commissioned, among the first generation of Nigerian Army Officers trained in the elite British academy at Sandhurst. Their lives would also thenceforth be intertwined in the eventsof the unfolding national history.
Alex Madiebo had a distinguished career. He was Aide-de-Camp to Dr. Azikiwe as Governor-General in 1960; fought gallantly in the Congo, and was appointed the first Commanderof the Nigeria Corp of the Artillery. On January 15, 1966, a group of officers of the Nigerian Armed Forces carried out a coup whose later consequences triggered a deadly counter-coup and a civil war. In the 15 January coup, the Federal Premier, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was killed alongside some top-ranking military officers from the North. Madiebo’s friend and Sandhurst course mate, Colonel Artur Unegbe, the Quartermaster General, was killed.
The premier of the West, Ladoke Akintola, was killed. In Kaduna, the powerful premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello was killed. It was a horrendous event. While his friend Patrick Anwunah, with Ironsi in Lagos, had mobilized to quell the situation and take charge of Lagos from the putschists, Madiebo who was in Kaduna when the troubles started, deployed his own skills.As he has very carefully detailed in his very elegantly written War Memoir, he strategically and skillfully talked down Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu from launching a campaign to the South following Ironsi’s seizure of Lagos, leading to the failure of the January 1966 coup. It took guile, tact, and temerity.
In the fluid moment, Madiebo apparently remained calm and collected, and was thus able to guide the process until he stepped down a most volatile situation that could have turned very explosive. This was one of the most important attributes of Alex Madiebo: he did not have the pugnacious bearings of most trained soldiers. He in fact appeared more like a Headmaster in military fatigue. That mien hid his extremely potent mind. He was commander of the Artillery Corp in Kaduna, and he could feel the darkening plain, because of the after effects of the January 15 coup. His fingers were on the pulse of unfolding events, and at a crucial moment, he received intelligence of the plot to kill Ironsi and foment trouble.
In hand with the detailed plot, Madiebo proceeded quickly to Lagos, sought audience with General Ironsi, the military Head of State, and provided him unimpugnable story-and-source of the plot by Northern officers. Ironsi listened patiently to Madiebo, and then invited Gowon, and asked Madiebo to repeat his story. Alex Madiebo calmly repeated his story. Ironsi turned to Gowon and asked, “Is this true? Is it what you folks are planning?” which Gowon very promptly denied. The upshot was that Madiebo was ordered back to Kaduna and reprimanded for rumor mongering. Madiebo saw clearly therefrom that General Ironsi was doomed. Ironsi was unwilling to take the most basic steps to secure himself, or contain any possible insurrection in those edgy six months to his eventual death.
Nevertheless, Madiebo returned to his command post in Kaduna, and was caught in the crosshairs of the bloody counter coup of July 29, 1966. He escaped to the East in a train tank, and then Biafra happened. Ironsi’s death on July 29 in Ibadan led to a change of guard. But from January 15, 1966, Patrick Anwunah, a highly trained General Staff Officers, who also detailed his own experience in his own war memoir, stood with Ironsi from that night, and quelled the coup in Lagos. As GSO 1, and adviser to General Ironsi, Anwunah was basically Ironsi’s National Security Adviser. He was Head of Intelligence, and he organized Ironsi’s General Staff. On July 19 1966, he held Lagos, and confined the Coupists to the Ikeja barracks where they had massed preparatory to flying off to Kaduna.
From July 29 until August 4, when a breakthrough occurred in the impasse with Gowon assuming the Headship of the Military Government, Anwunah and a muster of the loyalist forces held on until, given the fluid situation, he too had to escape to the East with the change of guards. Escaping to the East meant a slow but steady build up to war. Back in the Eastern Region, Odumegwu-Ojukwu quickly appointed Patrick Anwunah to GSO 1, the office he held with Ironsi. Meanwhile, on the declaration of Biafra, and the commencement of War, his friend Madiebo led the Biafran Artillery Corp, and fought at Gakem and Ogoja.But early losses of the war, and the threat on, and eventual fall-off Enugu, the capital of Biafra, led to the reorganization of the Biafran Army by Ojukwu.
The Army Commander, Hillary Njoku was removed, and Colonel Alex Madiebo was brought to Command the Biafran Army in September 1967. It was in the heat of war that Madiebo showed his true mettle. He organized the Biafra Army into a very effective and resilient fighting force. Outgunned, and outmanned, the Biafran Army under the Command of General Alexander Attah Madiebo fought, until the very end. General Madiebo was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in Biafra, and he earned his pips as a Military General squarely on the battlefield.
He was of that quality of War Generals who could never be described as titular or stuffed-sofa Generals. Alex Madiebo was a General’s General. On January 10, 1970, Madiebo flew out with Ojukwu into exile, and it fell upon General Phillip Effiong, the Chief of Army Staff, to lead Biafra and end the War. The story of the end of that war, and the peace mission to Lagos would still be told, but among those who went to Lagos to sign the Accord concordial was Brigadier Patrick Anwunah.
It is perhaps a reflection of the oddities and ironies of life that Anwunah who signed the instrument of peace and surrender of Biafra’s sovereignty never returned to Lagos. They never took them back into the Army. He later studied Law and lived his life from 1970 in Enugu where he died last week at 87. Madiebo returned quietly from exile, and settled in Lagos, in the same neighborhood as Colonel Tony Eze, another ex-Umuahia, and first Director of the Signal’s corp.
They were not brooding or bitter men. They took theirlives in stride, and kept fighting for the pensions of the men they led, and for the dignity denied them for taking a stance and defending a people marked for death. These men were, by all measures, titans. The loss to Nigeria of their professional expertise may have led to the crisis of discipline and values in the Nigerian Military which literally held Nigeria hostage from 1966 to 1999. The Generals Madiebo and Anwunah leave the scene, proud men, unbent by war or adversity. That is their legacy. That is the true mark of these last lighted torches of their generation of soldiers trained to build the foundationof a modern nation.