Brigadier-General Godwin Alabi-Isama (retd.), Chief of Staff of the famous 3rd Marine Commando during the Nigerian Civil War, pokes holes in former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s claims about his role in the war
Why did you have to write this book, given that so many accounts of the civil war have been written over the years?
So many books have been written on the war by the Biafran side. On the Nigerian side, I have not seen many books except Obasanjo’s book, which was an account of a man who was there. By Christmas, I will be 73 years old and I have been living in the United States for the past 35 years. I left for many reasons. People had lied against me and they were senior people with immunity and impunity. There was nothing I could do about that. And as a strategist, you don’t fight people when you are lying down.
Three years ago, I came home for my 70th birthday. I got to my mother’s home in Ilorin and found a big box. I felt my mother must have left me some money or something. When I opened the box, I saw my military uniform, shoes, special beret and I saw a collection of photographs. My mother did not arrange the pictures, she just poured them into a bedsheet, tied them the way Yoruba people tie things when they travel and then wrapped them up in nylon. Despite being kept for 40 years, these pictures remain crisp and clear; nothing is wrong with them.
General Alani Akinriande attended my birthday and we got talking about the war. He brought me Obasanjo’s My Command and Not My Will. I knew about the books, but I had never read them. He said: ‘When you read them, you will have stomach ache; you will not be happy with the books.’ When I started reading My Command, I discovered that the man was making claims like ‘I didn’t want too many casualties, I wanted to divide the enemy into two enclaves’. I didn’t know what he was talking about because he wasn’t even there. This was the plan I gave to him and he quarrelled with me over it. I thought he should have been happy that an officer under him had that type of knowledge. Instead, he quarrelled. Yet, he has claimed credit for things he knew nothing or little about. He approved payment of salaries to soldiers at the war front. How could you do a thing like that? A soldier had a year’s salary in his pocket. The day he dies, that is the end. So what happens to his family back home? The Nigerian Army had a population of 88,000 before the war. We later went up to about 250,000, including cooks, stewards, unemployable area boys. Anybody and everybody joined the army. They were accepted. Many of them were breadwinners of their families, they had aged parents, they had children going to school, they had house rents to pay. So with (Benjamin) Adekunle, we designed what was called allotment. That was what the army taught all of us to do. With that, they would say: ‘Pay my wife or pay my daughter or pay whoever.’ It was allotment and we had troops in Lagos handling such. It was going well. But when Obasanjo came, he said the first thing he would do was to pay salaries. He wrote it in the book. As a matter of fact, he thought he was doing well. He clearly had no competence in the subject he was discussing.
Is that the motive for writing the book?
When I read all those things and the ones he said he did, which he didn’t do, and the ones he did and said he didn’t do, I decided to write. And with the pictures in my hand, I started remembering what happened.
Why title the book ‘The Tragedy of Victory’? There seems to be a paradox.
We fought for the unity of Nigeria; are we united? What did we fight for if we are still searching for unity? Where are the tragedies? Look at my officers that fought the war. Where are they in the scheme of things? Forget the officers, let’s go to the soldiers. I met some of the soldiers in their villages. I have pictures here. One had diabetes and there is no military hospital in the area. He had no money for treatment or to buy drugs. Many of them are night guards. Many of my troops that advanced with me to Obubra, to Ugep, to Oron, to Calabar are night guards today. And these are the ones lucky enough to get jobs. The others are sick and can’t pay their hospital bills. How do they feed their families? They can’t farm. They are getting older, many of their pensions were not paid, their children could not go to school and many of them have become beggars. Others took to robbery. The thieves and vagabonds have become our superstars, they have become our role models. So, I thought I should put the records straight. I have the pictures to prove it, I have the maps, I was Chief of Staff of the 3rd Marine Commando.
In fact, Adekunle wrote a book edited by his son, Biodun, and my name is not in the book. Why did that happen? In those days, when we captured a place, the press would come and would want to interview Alabi-Isama. I’d tell them that they must interview Adekunle because he was the one telling us where to go and what to do. But that wasn’t true. I was the one that made the plans. I was the strategist. My book will prove to you that I led the troops that captured the entire place that is now called Cross River State. I led the troops that captured the entire Akwa Ibom. I led the troops that captured Bayelsa. But you have heard of Black Scorpion, you have heard of Obasanjo, but has any of you heard of Alabi-Isama except when I recently returned to Nigeria? I decided to stay away. It was like quarrelling with the impossible. This is the situation and that is why I thought, Well, let me write something for posterity.
At the time you joined the army, it wasn’t exactly the most prestigious place to go. From the little we’ve seen in your book, you mother had the means to take you elsewhere. Why did you join the army?
You could say it was an accident or it was destined to happen. I was a student of Ibadan Boys’ High School. The school shares a fence with the home of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Every morning, troops were always marching past. We didn’t know why. With the benefit of hindsight, we realised that it was because of Awolowo that the army was showing strength. I loved their music, the parade and uniform. Those were the things that attracted me to the army. I did not know enough about their salaries. Even when I went to join the army, I didn’t join as an officer. I went and joined as a recruit. In Zaria, I got a letter and then Captain Stamper, one of the Europeans, saw me and wondered what a little boy like me was doing in the midst of tall people. And he asked: ‘Do you speak English?’ I said, Yes and I started speaking. He cut in, saying: ‘All I asked is, do you speak English?’
I told him that I had just finished the exam for my eighth paper plus part one English, and that the day we were speaking was when I was supposed to be writing the second part of my exam in English. I explained that the army did not allow me finish my exam. Once the army gave me a warrant, I had to catch the train. He then replied that I was qualified to be an officer. I asked what that was and he said: ‘To be like us.’ I was thrilled by the thought of being like an oyinbo? I was ready for it and that was how it happened. And they gave me a warrant to go to Apapa to take the test and I did. That was how I joined the army. My mother almost died. She went to mallams, pastors and everywhere for God to forgive her sins because she thought she must have committed a sin and was being punished through her son’s decision to join the army. In those days in Ilorin, it was a sin to have a soldier in your family. People would not want to associate with such a family. And here was a woman with her only child going into the army.
My mother was convinced she had sinned against God and would say: Mo ti se Olorun pupo (I have committed a grave sin against God).
One of the biggest figures to emerge from the war was Benjamin Adekunle, under whom you served. Given that you were very close to him, we would want you to paint a picture of Adekunle as a man and a soldier.
Well, I will be biased. But let me say he was my commander. I was not with him when he captured Bonny. The capture of Bonny has been adjudged as one of the best military operations in African military history. I was not with him when he captured Calabar. He was a capable officer and he did have people like me breathing down his neck or providing him with strategies. But thereafter, he left me to do things. So from Calabar to Odukpani, to Ugep, to Obubra, Ikom and along the Camerounian border, he sent me to capture those places. Then he sent me to go and capture Port Harcourt. Why was he not there? He was bringing in supplies. To win a war, your quartermaster is more important than even the bullets. He had to provide the bullets and food. How do you fight a war without these things? Adekunle was a very capable officer. Today, he is sick and can’t pay his hospital bills. I was told the army has supported him up to a point. I was told that his Ogbomoso people have also done their bit. They contributed money and renovated his house. His family does not want people to see him in that condition. So, he has been kept away from people. He’s looking terrible, very terrible. When I went to his house, they held his hands as he came downstairs to sit by me. We had a code in those days. If either of us was in trouble, he would say ‘I am open’, but when you are happy, you would say ‘I am closed’. That meant you didn’t need reinforcement. Adekunle couldn’t speak. The only words he could utter were ‘Alabi, I am open’. Every 15 January, all of you, including the press, celebrate the Armed Forces Remembrance Day. But there are heroes alive that have been forgotten. In fact, one day, I was on television here in Ibadan and I said one Major Salau’s monthly pension was N5,000. When he saw me later, he said: ‘Oga mi, it is not N5,000, but N2, 600.’ Those heroes are getting older. Some of us have arthritis, some are blind today. Colonel Yemi Alabi is blind. He has bullet lodged in his eyes. He was warned that if he removed it, he would die and if it remains, as it has, he will be without sight. So, he chose to be blind. Major Adenuga is blind. Nobody is helping anybody. In Ibadan, Lagos and the big cities, there will be hospitals. You probably would say you are an ex-service man and they would let you go. In the villages where these people have retired to, where are the hospitals or clinics? I saw retired soldiers, who have diabetes. But there are no hospitals in their villages and no one to pay the bills where there is one to go.
There have been claims that Adekunle drank blood during the war.
Here’s Adekunle’s picture. He was holding a Biafran baby. I was his Chief of Staff; I was the person he sent to attack and capture those places. He didn’t go to those places, so where was he sucking blood?
•Alabi-Isama during the war
Adekunle did not operate in the Ibo area until the later part of the war when we captured Aba and were going to Uli-Ihiala. And that was his undoing. He wanted Owerri, Aba, Umuahia. ‘Oga, we are not ready to go to those places and you are not going to send me there,’ I told him. The attack on Owerri, Aba and Umuahia, OAU, was his undoing. Port Harcourt could not have been captured without Isaac Boro and that is the fact.
In the military, we are taught to put the right people in the right places. When I put Isaac Boro in the creeks, that was his speciality. He showed us how to move through the creeks, how to come out behind the enemy line. People like Ayo Ariyo, who was senior to all of us and was an elder, was told where he would go. He was older than myself, but was made to serve under me. I would tell him, ‘Egbon mi (my elder), we have to capture five miles today’ and he would say he already did last night. He gave me all the cooperation you could think of. Adekunle was not there. He was in Lagos getting supplies. I just read the book written by his son. There was an account of him quarrelling with them in Lagos for not giving him the supplies. When he got to the war front, instead of telling us what happened to him in Lagos, he didn’t. He quarrelled with all of us because we quarrelled with him. ‘You’ve been in Lagos for 51 days, how are we going to continue this fight?’ we asked him. We didn’t know that he had a problem in Lagos until I read the book. And even in Adekunle’s book, my name was not there. We were all trained in the same place and the same way. We all went to the same military school at home and abroad and your tactics would be the same. What we used to do with Adekunle was that he would be Biafra, we would be Nigeria. We would ask if we attacked this place, how would you react? He would tell us and then, we would block the hole. Then the next time, we would alternate and invariably, it happened that way. What we thought of was what happened. From Obubra to Port Harcourt (we are talking about over 1,000 kilometres), Biafra defended every inch of that land. If you defend everywhere, you cannot be strong anywhere. So, when we were going to Port Harcourt, I went with 35,000 troops; 5,000 of them were for administration. We passed through some of their weak points and the rest of the place collapsed. There was nothing special about it.
It is claimed that he killed many of those soldiers to make money…
I’m telling you he was not there. If he made that kind of money that the rest of them made, he would be rich. But today, he cannot pay his hospital bills. They said some people sold some of his houses and collected the money. The police came to arrest Adekunle. That’s part of the tragedy I’m telling about Adekunle is just one man out of the 60,000 troops of the 3rd Marine Commando.
So how did he get relieved of that job?
It is in the book. Adekunle was tired. In the military, there’s what is called Post-Trauma Stress Syndrome and it is in the book. Adekunle would be talking to you about something and would drift into another matter. That was a sign that this man was tired. Adekunle would be discussing tactics and strategies with you and suddenly, he would be asking you where the next party would hold, how many drinks would be needed and how many people we would need to dance. These were the signs. We were warning him that he was tired. We warned him against the plan to go to the Ibo area and attack Owerri, Aba and Umuahia. We could capture Uli-Ihiala, which was Biafra’s centre of gravity. A centre of gravity is a place that when I hold it like your balls, you would surrender to me. That’s why you see boxers continue to punch your head so that your knees would buckle. The Adekunle that I knew, that I worked with, didn’t do anything wrong except that he was tired. And it got to a stage where he was losing ground and we were stupid. I was just 27 years old and would always go against him. He then ordered that Akinrinade and myself be ambushed. The story is in the book. The mother of the man he sent to ambush us had just visited and I took this woman in my jeep with escorts to Port Harcourt, where his son was. As we were going, shots were fired at us. We thought the woman was sleeping, but she had fainted. But I took her to the child, who was the military police commander. The next day, the man escorted his mother back. My mother was there, too. The two women became friends and I presented her with a bottle of whisky. She then went with my mother. Then this same man from Benue, who’s dead now, was ordered to ambush me. Adekunle sent for Akinrinade and I to report at Port Harcourt at 7am. That meant I had to leave Uyo by midnight. I left at midnight to pick Akinriande at Asa and had to drive without headlights for fear of being found out by enemies on the way. We left Asa at 4:15am and drove to Port Harcourt without headlights. We had to get a password across the line to get through. For example if you say Jack, I should say Johnson; if I fail to say that, they would open fire. When we got to Port Harcourt, we knocked, but he was not home. He was in the office. Adekunle never slept at night. He would be drawing maps. So we went to his office and met him with a Lagos musician, Roy Chicago. As soon as we entered, Roy Chicago said: ‘Oruko yin lafin jeun l’eko, ema jaa (We take pride in your names in Lagos, so please don’t quarrel). We didn’t know what he was talking about. So Adekunle asked us how we got there and we reminded him he told us to come at 7am. He gathered himself together and said he would talk to us separately. Akinrinade was asked to stay outside. He was outside when the dispatch rider that was sent to Uyo to deliver a note that we should not drive through Asa on our way back arrived. The man had the note since he did not meet me there. He met Akinrinade standing there. So he gave the note to Akinrinade, who read it and immediately barged in, shouting: ‘Let’s get out of here; they wanted to kill us!’ I read through the note and looked at Adekunle. I would have just shot him dead right there. I asked him what we did to deserve being ambushed.
We took the note to Gowon and others and we explained to them what had happened. Finally, they realised that many of the officers, including Adekunle, were tired and decided to change them. But to change them, the senior officers that were left were Hausa and Gowon was worried that the first and second divisions were already headed by Hausa officers and there was no Yoruba officer to lead the third division. We had Olutoye, we had Shotomi, we had Oluleye, but it was Akinrinade that suggested Obasanjo to General Yakubu Gowon. I didn’t know the man before then. Akinrinade was the first person to take me to his house in Ibadan. Gowon was not sure that Obasanjo would want the job of replacing Adekunle because he was an engineer. We told him Obasanjo did not need to be convinced because the post he was holding in Ibadan as the garrison commander was an infantry job. Gowon said we should contact him. When we met Obasanjo, we told him our mission and gave him a comprehensive briefing on the situation at the war front.
We went with maps and explained to him the defects of Adekunle’s plan to attack the Igbo heartland. We also told him about Operations Pincer 1, 2 and 3 and explained that if Pincer 2 was adopted, the war would end in 30 days. We spoke for three hours without food or drink. Obasanjo simply listened. And when he spoke, he said he was an engineer and he was not going to the war front. He also said we wanted to have him killed by nominating him for a spot at the war front. I was enraged and gave him a dressing down. I reminded him of his conduct when the Biafrans entered the Midwest and we asked the army to immediately blow up the Ore Bridge to delay the Biafran advance to Lagos. Obasanjo’s engineering corps did not know what to do. It was one Mr. Akinde of the Public Works Department at Ibadan, assisted by men of the Ministry of Works, who blew up the bridge.
I was so incensed that I continued pouring venom on him. The suggestion that the bridge be blown up came from the wife of Governor Adeyinka Adebayo, whose husband was in Iseyin because of the Agbekoya riots. The Agbekoya had moved into Ibadan and were close to the Governor’s Lodge in Agodi and had freed inmates at Agodi Prisons. Mrs. Adebayo said: ‘Eyin ni Army Commander, eranyan lo’be (You are the army commander, please send someone there!).’ This fact is contained in General Adebayo’s biography. But Obasanjo wrote in My Command that he was the one that ordered the bridge blown up. Akinrinande made Obasanjo the Commander of the 3rd Marine Commando, where he came and caused problems because he was clueless.
•Brig. Gen. Alabi-Isama (retd). Photos: Emmanuel Osodi
When Obasanjo took over, we briefed him in a comprehensive way. However, I didn’t know that he held a grudge against me over our encounter in Ibadan where he accused Akinrinade and I of wanting to get him to the war front so he could be killed.
Obasanjo’s first battle experience was a disaster.
Why did you say that?
He was clueless. In his book, he said: ‘The only thing I made up my mind to do was to pay soldiers in the war front.’ I have the pictures in the book. George Innih agreed with him and that was why Innih became governor twice, became commander of a division, became this, became that. Once you are on his side, you know that your life is rosy. We’d been paying by allotment.
Now, to the first battle experience. I’m telling you that it was the greatest disaster of the Nigerian Army in the civil war.
He ordered an attack on Ohoba, some 40 kilometres from Owerri, just four days after taking over from Adekunle. He did not even know that we had to plan. We told him that we should not carry out the attack. He told Godwin Alli, who was the commander there, that we corrected a few words in strategy. We didn’t because it had nothing to do with English. It was strategy. How do we now counter-attack this place? We gave him examples of the World War. You don’t just put up a strike and two days later you say let us go back. You want to know the number of enemies that you are facing, their length, breadth, depth and what type of weapons they are coming with versus the weapons you have, the morale of your troops. In one hour of battle, Obasanjo lost 1,000 men. It is in his book. In fact, he wrote that he lost 1,400 men. He wrote there in his book which he called My Command.
We had never had a thousand casualties. From Calabar to Port Harcourt, 480 kilometres, I had only eight dead. Among these were two officers–Captain Fashola and Isaac Adaka Boro. In his book, he said Isaac Boro went on a social visit. He did not. The man left me at 6 o’clock after he came for his orders for final battle into Port Harcourt. And after receiving the orders, he died at 6.15 in the morning. He was going back to his unit and saw a building that was locked with the windows shut. Usually, an officer would ask the orderly to go see what is inside. He went there himself and opened the door. The soldier had only one bullet left and shot Boro. I have the picture of the soldier in my book. When we captured him, we had to send him to the headquarters, because my mother had told me I should never shoot anybody that was looking at me in the eye. I wrote it in the book. I just sent him to the headquarters, but my photographer ran with me and took the picture. I didn’t even let the soldiers beat him up. Adekunle should not have been removed. The proper thing was to have sent him on a month-long holiday in Lagos.
I was in the trenches, but I was enjoying myself. I didn’t experience too much stress. I was young, running here and there. There were soldiers who showed me their bruises and I showed them mine to make them know I was there with them. We ate the same food and drank the same bloodstained water.
Obviously, you did not enjoy working with Obasanjo.
How could I enjoy working with a man who did not have enough depth? I’ll tell you another story. When Adekunle transferred all of us, I told him that he had cut his wings and that whoever advised him wanted him to cut his wings so that he could not fly. He transferred Ariyo to Calabar, myself to Uyo, Akinrinade to Aba. I had the biggest brigade, the Scorpion Brigade. Octopus was 3rd Marine Commando. With that brigade, I was explaining to him why we were the best organised. We were defending our own centre of gravity–Oron–and I told him to remember how the Russians defended Sevastopol. Oron was our Sevastopol and centre of gravity. If Biafra could get to Oron, they would break Calabar to the left and Port Harcourt to the right. We would not be able to get our supplies by ships and would have no place to give us supply. But the more I mentioned these things to Obasanjo, the more he got irritated because, as I told you, this man was clueless. I didn’t enjoy working with him.
The man you said you did not enjoy working with is believed to have ended the war.
That one is another story. Any monkey can end the war. On page 124 (paragraph 2) of his book, he writes: ‘On reaching Ugar airfield without seeing my two officers, I turned back very near Orlu. I met a junior officer who claimed that he knew which way the two officers had gone. He led the way, while I followed him.’ A junior officer led a General Officer Commanding? Did you hear of a junior officer leading Adekunle to the war front? He continues: ‘Soon, we met the officers feeling rather happy and pleased with themselves. They told me they had just met Effiong (Philip) and a group of rebel officers and civilians and had arranged a further meeting with me for the following day. I insisted on being taken there and then to where the senior rebel officers were. My officers said it was unnecessary as they might have all dispersed.’ I didn’t write this.
He wrote that he went to get ammunition. There was a fight in an enclave and he went on inspection. And as soon as they started firing, the General Officer Commanding said, ‘Let me go and look for help.’ It was un-military to say that. If Adekunle was there, they would have seen fire. Then, Obasanjo went back to Port Harcourt. He wrote that he went to Port Harcourt to see whether he could bring ammunition. We didn’t operate like that in the Marine Commando. Akinrinade, Ola Oni and Tomoye were there and each officer had a box of ammunition in his car or jeep. He (Obasanjo) even wrote that he had extra ammunition in his vehicle. Why didn’t he use that? Now, which is faster: to go back to Port Harcourt from that spot, which was a four-hour drive, or to radio back to headquarters to bring ammunition? Why would you even need to radio your own headquarters when the battalion headquarters was there? We had a battalion, a brigade and then a division. Why did you have to go to the division when the battalion was there and the brigade commander was there? It was not a divisional battle.
Would you say Obasanjo was incompetent on account of that?
He was completely incompetent, inefficient and like Murtala (Muhammed) would say, ineffective. From what I read to you, who got the surrender? He was looking for Akinrinade and Tomoye. They had already held a meeting with their officers and had radioed him. It was about five hours’ drive to the place, but he didn’t know where to go and got lost. They waited and waited but could not see him, so they carried on. Look at the picture which he took at Uli-Ihiala and see what he did. He told the soldiers to keep away and they did and when he left, look at what happened to the soldiers – they were free and danced. I am quoting his book. Even in litigation, the book is my witness.
In the book, I put Adekunle’s picture. Do you see a difference there? Adekunle called all of us together to take a photograph. Do you know the photographer? Look at him behind you. Is it usual for officers to hug their men? You don’t hug; you salute. But this man would hug you and play with you. In order to give him a bad name, they said he was drinking blood and killing people. How many people would he kill out of 60,000?
In My Command, Obasanjo described you as an intelligent army officer and that if you had deployed your intelligence better, you would have been considerably greater
That’s why I showed you what I did. I led troops that captured today’s Cross River and the whole of Akwa Ibom as well as Rivers states. I led the troops that captured Bayelsa. I won cups in athletics in the army. I went abroad; I was world champion in shooting. I have the pictures here. I went to Pakistan and got a medal for horse riding. What else do you expect of a military commander, or any other human being for that matter?
So to what would you ascribe the unflattering assessment in his book?
First of all, he said I was an intelligent person and I thank him for that. But to say I didn’t deploy my intelligence well enough, I don’t understand. Probably when you interview him one day, he would explain to you what he meant by that. I proved to him that I was the best. I told him why we did not need to attack Ohoba. He attacked Ohoba and we lost 1,000 men.
Do you think the favours Obasanjo enjoyed as a soldier and a politician are unmerited?
I am a Christian. God in his mercies said: ‘I will give to whom I want it, be your strength or knowledge.’ He has a purpose for whatever gift He gave to anyone. He has a reason for giving you a better look than the other person; two hands instead of one. Anything He does cannot be questioned. Obasanjo, like Ojukwu, is an inexplicable historical phenomenon. Such men emerge at rare intervals. It is up to you to decide whether or not Obasanjo did well in politics. I wrote in my book that Obasanjo promoted the man who failed and left the one that succeeded. That was politics and I never liked politics. As far as I was concerned, that was bad. It is left to the politicians or historians to look back and say if the country did well under Obasanjo. As a military commander, Obasanjo was my boss. This country accepted the book and gave him the credit. I am saying that he didn’t deserve the credit for ending the war.
In your book, you said when Obasanjo became the Head of State he did certain things that made General Theophilus Danjuma ask: “Did I not tell you?” Was it that Danjuma wanted to become the Head of State after the 1976 coup?
After Dimka coup, Danjuma was right to say, “Why will you allow the person who ran away to become the head of state.” I wrote in my book that Danjuma was right and I was wrong. General Alani Akinrinade said we should do it the right way, by supporting the most senior officer to become head of state. This is also documented in my book. Danjuma knew and said Obasanjo didn’t like us. There is a difference between doing what is right and doing it the right way. In his book, Not My Will, he claimed that ‘Akinrinade came to drive me to the meeting’. Akinrinade was neither his ADC nor driver. Akinrinade was commander of the division in Kaduna. Couldn’t he see what Akinrinade went through to come and escort him to the meeting. He led troops to the home of the late Chief S.B Bakare, where Obasanjo was hiding in Ikoyi. He wanted to make sure he was not killed by those who didn’t want him to be head of state. Obasanjo needed Northern support, so he had to make Danjuma his friend. Unfortunately, we had quarrelled with Danjuma because we didn’t listen to him when he said Obasanjo should not be made head of state. He wanted to be head of state.
You haven’t been particularly nice to General Danjuma in your book. Was it because he was involved in your eventual retirement from the army?
I didn’t want to be nice to anybody. I just wanted to tell the truth. The gazette said I was dismissed through a court martial, but was there a court martial? The fact is, there was not one.
What led to the gazette?
I didn’t know what led to the gazette, but I was accused. I was told N300,000 was missing. I didn’t hold the money because I wasn’t the accountant and not the paymaster. But I controlled the vote for training and sports. I went abroad and came to be told that my account had been overdrawn. I decided to set up an inquiry, headed by Odeka. He wrote a report that it was a wrong entry and had been corrected. Then, another officer, called Bamidele, wrote a report exonerating me. It was on the letterhead of Army Finance Unit. He was a footballer that I brought into the army to do sports. I thanked him and invited him to my house for lunch. He came for lunch and revealed that he was told to write something incriminating. I asked him who they were, but he didn’t tell me. The third day, I heard that he was part of Dimka’s coup. Those involved in the coup were shot and he was one of them. The same morning, the N300,000 they said was missing was in the paymaster’s safe. The paymaster, Tijani, was a Hausa man. They told Tijani to testify, but he refused. He died the next day in a car accident. So, Tijani died with N300,000 in his safe.
What do you think you did wrong to Danjuma or Obasanjo to have warranted what happened?
The only thing I did to Danjuma was perhaps because he didn’t become the head of state after Dimka’s coup. But to Obasanjo, it was a carry-over of our quarrels from the war front. If it were in a good country, there would have been an inquiry. General Patton of the United States Army slapped a soldier and he was demoted. We lost 1,000 soldiers and nobody asked questions. There should have been an inquiry to know how they died, so that the troops of today will not make the same mistake. If there are punishments for crimes, there will be deterrence.
You alleged that Adekunle was going out for battles, but Obasanjo stayed away.
Yes, Obasanjo didn’t go to any battle. You can ask any officer or soldier if they saw him. For instance, he went to inspect Colonel Iluyomade, but when he got there, there was shooting. He quickly got into his jeep and ran away. He was shot in the buttocks, while running. A general will be shot in the chest, and not in the buttocks.
How true is Obasanjo’s claim that there was widespread indiscipline in the Third Marine Commando?
That’s Yoruba way of doing things by condemning whoever was there. There was no indiscipline, but Obasanjo had to discredit Adekunle. He alleged they were shooting themselves in the hand.
What about the Sector One which you commanded?
The Sector One incident was because the commander was far back. People that were besieged for seven months were asked to go back and they refused. It wasn’t an act of indiscipline because we had been there for seven months without food. Telling them to go back was a lapse in judgment. He should have taken them to the next sector and brought fresh troops in for the attack. But he didn’t do that. And you know it was the women that used to bring us information. Obasanjo said they were recruited for socials.
Was it just all work and no play at the war front? How much of partying went on there?
You have read the book. Didn’t you see me dancing with my mother? Didn’t you see me dancing with girls? I am not gay! One day, my wife went to meet my mother and told her everytime I was seen in the car, there would be women. She complained for almost an hour and my mother listened. Then my mother knelt down as if to beg her. Instead, she started thanking God that her son was not following men; he was following women. My wife burst into laughter.
Women were an integral part of the 3rd Marine Commando war success. The Uyo Ladies Association danced for us and even brought out masqueraders. We had no costumes; we removed our trousers and danced. Anywhere in the world, the only way you unwind is to be happy.
Talk to us about the photographs. What roles did you and some actors play to get them properly documented?
First, we went on patrol. It was not the duty of the Chief of Staff to go on patrol, but I went with them. We were 10 and trying to look for a crossing point by a river. We got to the place and couldn’t find anybody. Impossible! We didn’t know that we had been surrounded. When I was in school, I used to run only 200 metres and participated in long jump. That day, I ran 26 miles; bullets coming everywhere and people were falling. I ran to a tree and sat down there. And within five minutes, my orderly, Effiong, showed up where I was standing. I was excited that he made it and wished someone could take our photograph there so that people in Lagos would know we were suffering.
And he said: ‘Oga, I be photographer.’ He said he had a camera and a studio, but no film. I asked him to write the type of the film he used and I sent it to my mother in Lagos. My mother could neither read nor write. She just went to Kingsway Stores and asked them if they had ‘this thing’. They asked her how many she wanted and she asked them how many they had. They told her they had two containers of it and she said she would buy all.
She bought them and sent them to the war front. With this, I instructed Effiong to continue to take my photographs, whatever I did. But as a professional photographer, he was not taking my pictures, he was documenting the war. Then they transferred this young man to me, who also said he knew about photography. He and others carried no weapons except their cameras and God was protecting them. It is whoever God approves that arrives from a war front–whether or not he carries guns or wood.
There are many accounts about the war with regards to genocide. The latest was the one by Chinua Achebe. How much of this much talked about genocide did you witness?
It is a long story. Achebe in his book said Nigerian troops killed at Uyo. I was the commander at Uyo and I got international observers to go there and see what they did to the natives at Uyo. The Biafrans burnt their houses and killed them, but Achebe said Nigerians did that. But in Madiebo’s book, he confirmed what happened. I infiltrated from the North to cut off the Biafran troops that were coming from Umuahia and ambushed them. We didn’t need dead Biafrans; I didn’t need casualties, but their vehicles. I left a gap at Azumini and deliberately allowed them escape through there. I captured 26 vehicles.
Were you keeping a diary?
No! Once I saw any photographs, I knew what happened.
Did you also cross-check what you have stored up in your head with the records from other sources?
Who has records in Nigeria? Do you know how many died? Some people would just say two million while others would say three million. Who kept records? I cited dates because I was part of the experience.
What have you been doing in America?
I was doing telecoms. I wanted to do something that people had not done in Nigeria. I wanted people to begin to say this person has something up his sleeves.
You said earlier on that there were officers who wanted the war to end.
Adekunle wanted the war to end quickly. Within 30 days he sent me to Obubra; again 30 days later, he sent me to Port Harcourt and we needed 30 more days to end the war.
Did Murtala Muhammed also want the war to end quickly?
I wouldn’t know. I didn’t serve with him and they had a disaster. Akinrinade warned him not to attack Onitsha from where they were. He didn’t listen and when he did it, everybody died.
How did the issue of a snake swallowing a soldier happen?
I wasn’t there. They took picture. Then the snake had swallowed our soldier. They had to kill it. Then, there was an elephant at the back of our soldiers in Opobo. They didn’t know that they had elephants behind them. This is to show you that we combed the place. There was a place we got to and it was the people who showed us the way. They wouldn’t do that for the Biafrans. While shooting, you must use wisdom. You don’t just go killing people. We gave people food and told them if they allowed us be killed, they won’t get the food again.
As a matter of fact, do you know the people who had kwashiorkor? They were not Ibo people but refugees from the neighbouring areas like Ibibio, Efik and the rest who were told that Nigerians were coming and would kill the people and rape the women. They believed them and ran with them. The 3rd Marine Commando did not operate in Ibo area. At the later stage of the war, we captured Aba and we went to Uli-Ihiala to end the war. The refugees were not Ibo people. Some of them came back and told us stories. They loved us because we were nice to them. They were an integral part of our success. Ours was no propaganda. We took international observers to the areas and they saw what was happening.
I used a lot of women in my operations. They were the nurses, those who got information for me, those who told me ‘Well done’. Nobody came to tell me that any soldier raped them. There was no quarrel. The international observers were different from the journalists. Nigerian journalists were there and we gave them uniforms. Peter Obe was there. He and one Agnes Filani took many of my photographs. In my second book, I will be showing pictures of 26 women who operated with us and even some I met abroad.
You saw Ndi Okereke [Onyiuke], she was 17 years old at that time. [Florence] Ita-Giwa was also less than 20 years old then. Some of them were useful to us as interpreters and scouts.