Says ’Biafra war consumed NDA first graduates’
ARGUABLY, Col Paul Osakpamwan Ogbebor (rtd), 70, is the first Nigerian to be enrolled into the Nigerian Defence Academy, NDA. Among the 61 cadets of Course 1, he was one of the 34 that graduated. He is also one of the 18 who are still alive.
He fought the Nigeria-Biafra civil war of 1967-1970 and opines that the war has cemented the country’s unity. Although at the NDA, he was one of the best in academics, sports and soldiering where he won many laurels, Ogbebor was one of those whose military career was short-circuited by high-wire intrigues and witch-hunt that characterize Nigeria’s military and public service.
Ogbebor’s love for the military had no bounds as he envisioned and worked hard to be enlisted. He bore no one ill-feelings over how he was detained, tortured and finally eased out of the army because of his efforts to save General Samuel Ogbemudia (rtd), a former military governor of Bendel State, who was roped in, in the coup that killed former Head of State, General Murtala Muhammed, on February 13, 1976, and spearheaded by Colonel B.S. Dimka.
Admitting that it was sad that he did not get to the peak of his military career like some of his peers and subordinates, Ogbebor saw his premature retirement in 1976 as the will of God. Waxing philosophical, he said that he is still alive is a bonus since he did not know what would have happened if he had remained in the military beyond 1976.
How? “When I was leaving the prison, I was very annoyed with the military. I thought they had disappointed me because I wanted to become a career officer; I wanted to progress to the zenith and I was working very hard for it. So what they did to me, I was very annoyed but, later on, my mind told me to forget everything, that it could have been worse because, after the retirement, they brought me a paper, my name was on the list of people who were to be killed; to be shot at the Bar Beach.”
To cap his illustrious military career, Ogbebor has given the polity an illuminating and refreshing book, the first of its kind and the only one so far, on the origins of the Nigerian Defence Academy, drawing from his experience as a pioneer cadet, who started and saw how the academy developed in the first four years.
Titled: “Nigeria Defence Academy – A Pioneer Cadet’s Memoir,” the 307-page book, which is broken into 16 chapters, chronicles, in vivid details with pictorials, Ogbebor’s quest for a military career, the early days of the Nigerian military after independence, how NDA was born – the structure, training programme, general services and curriculum; and how the January 1966 coup, the counter-coup and the accompanying civil war affected the school and Nigeria.
In this interview, Ogbebor shares his thoughts on what motivated him to write the book, why his military career was short-lived, why Nigeria is struggling 52 years after independence and how to move the nation forward among others. Excerpts:
On what motivated him to write the book
Asked what motivated him to write the first book on the NDA, he said: “When I was in London, I bought a book on Sandhurst, which is a British military academy. After going through it, I thought there should be an account of the NDA. I also visited West Point, which is the United States Army Defence Academy. After then, I started writing.”
However, writing the book came with an avalanche of challenges. “I could not lay hands on any material. I visited the NDA, there was no material. There were no people to discuss with because many of them were not there at the beginning and so they didn’t know much about the beginning. Few years after the NDA started, the civil war started and attention was on the war. There was no record; nothing!”, he lamented.
Undaunted, Ogbebor had to proceed, depending “mostly on remembered events and photographs I personally took by virtue of being the chairman of the Defence Academy Photography Club for the duration of Course I.”
He recalled: “All efforts to get photographs from members of Regular Course II were in vain. The reasons for the hiccups included the Nigerian civil war, which broke out few weeks after the commissioning of Course I cadets as officers with most going straight from the academy to their formations in preparation for the commencement of the civil war. Unfortunately, many neither ever returned alive nor ever again saw their belongings.
In the same vein, members of Course II were trained, commissioned and deployed under war hysteria. In addition, many of the Nigerian pioneer members of staff were deployed to the war-front, most of whom are now dead, while the pioneer Indian officers returned to their country. And even their replacements, after many years, were replaced by Nigerian officers, who themselves trained in the academy. No proper records were really passed along from generation to generation in the academy. The same could be the bane of any institution with no regard for proper records.”
How civil war claimed graduands.
For arriving the academy on January 19, 1964, while his 60 other peers arrived on January 20, 1964, Ogbebor became the first cadet to be enlisted. Of this number, only 34 graduated, 15 left to fight on the side of Biafra during the civil war and today only 18 are alive. He disclosed that those who are alive are meeting regularly and are planning to start alumni of the NDA.
Counting the cost of the war on the NDA, Ogbebor lamented that 50 per cent of those in the first and second intakes were lost during the war on both sides (Federal and Biafra). “I was involved in the war from day one till the end. We ended the war in Owerri. I was in-charge of Biafrans who surrendered at Shell Camp, Owerri. Many of them were my seniors, juniors and friends in the military. One of them, Austin Ezenwa, was my teacher at St Patricks College, Asaba. Ezenwa is now the Igwe of Abagana. I was surprised to see him in the war, “he stated.
On the raging controversy over Prof Chinua Achebe’s comments that General Yakubu Gowon and late Chief Obafemi Awolowo used starvation as weapon during the war, which led to the death of many Biafran children and women. “I was in the field fighting. I wouldn’t know if Gowon and Awolowo used hunger and starvation as a weapon. Those are undercurrents of the administration in Lagos. I was in the battle field fighting. However, there is suffering in every war. In every war, there must be kwashiorkor, “the retired colonel stated.
Why he left the navy
After the first two years of training, Ogbebor was one of the seven cadets, who left for the navy. But he had to retrace his steps to the army after a short stint because even though “navy is a beautiful place, it has to do with ships and with the sea. I mentioned that I was the only member of my course who went to the sea and was never sea sick.
“And in the evening, I will sit at the upper deck and enjoy everything. But, after a week, I became bored. The ship became too small for me. I couldn’t just imagine my life living in that cubicle. I enjoyed a lot of freedom; freedom of speech and everything. So that was what deterred me from staying on in the navy.”
Inculcating discipline in armed forces
Asked if the NDA had succeeded in inculcating discipline in the military given the series of coups the country had witnessed, Ogbebor said the academy had achieved most of its objectives because it was inbuilt in the training programme. He nevertheless lamented that “coups will not perfect the military institution because the military has its own hierarchy and it is completely isolated from the general system, the political system.
“The only thing is that during the war, people were brought to the NDA to be trained for only four months and some were brought there to be trained for only two months and sent to the war. These ones were purely war materials. But the regular courses continued after the war.”
Abridged military career
By his account, among those who went through the NDA, he is the most senior since he arrived ahead of his mates. He was also one of the most brilliant and high performers in soldiering by winning laurels here and there. Incidentally, his peers and those who came after him rose to the peak of the military profession but he left as a colonel.
Asked what happened, he said: “I believe that whatever happened was normally ordained by God, otherwise it could never have happened. Until Murtala Muhammed was assassinated on February 13, 1976, I was the Commanding Officer, Nigeria Army Corps, Ikeja. A lot of responsibilities were given to me. The whole of Lagos was divided into two: Area A and Area B. I was in charge of Area A — from Ikeja to Apapa.
“Things were moving well but one day, General Ogbemudia’s wife came from Benin to see me, crying and wailing and saying that her husband had been whisked away and since then they had not seen him. Not quite long, another person, Dr. Amos Odaro, came to my house. He said his elder brother, an engineer, was also taken away. I said, ‘What has he done?’ He said he did not know.
On Sunday, I drove straight to General TY Danjuma’s house. He was living in the Defence House, Ikoyi. I told him what I heard. He asked me how I came; I told him I came in my car. He said, ‘alright, enter your car and follow me.’
“We drove to the Army Headquarters and, when we got there, he gave me a blue sheet of paper. When I read through it, it was the minutes of how they were going to take part in a coup that killed Murtala Muhammed. It was held in Ogbemudia’s house. I said, ‘Can I investigate this matter because this doesn’t follow the military pattern.’
People want to take part in coup, they sit down and write minutes. So, they gave me the paper. We sent somebody to Benin, Engineer Ohile. He worked in the Ministry of Works; he worked in the Governor’s Office and worked in the University of Benin; they were just starting the university then. So I said he should go and get me a copy of a letter he signed when he was in the Ministry of Works, when he was in Governor’s Office and when he was in the University of Benin.
So they brought it and I called the Commissioner of Police, who was in-charge of handwriting and we asked if he could look into the piece of paper and advise. He found that the signatures on the three papers from Ben
in were consistent but the one Danjuma gave me was not consistent. So, he made his report. I took that report and went to Danjuma and told him to look at the signatures.
“So Danjuma and I went to see General Obasanjo, who was now the Head of State. And that led to the removal of General Agbazika Innih, who was then the military Governor of Bendel State. He was deployed to Kwara State. I thought that was all but two days after, on the 19th of March 1976, the Chief of Staff, Danjuma, invited me to his office. When I got there, he said I was under arrest. From there, I was taken to Ikoyi Prison. I spent three months there. Nobody really asked me any question except that somebody came one day and said, ‘What do you know about the 1976 coup that killed Murtala?’ I said I knew nothing.
He said, “We also heard that there was another coup being planned which Felix Ibru reported and it looks as if you are the one planning it.’ I said, ‘I don’t really know Felix.’ He said, ‘Felix said he gave N200 to somebody’. I said, ‘I don’t even know Ibru not to talk of collecting money from him.’ So that was all. I spent three months in Ikoyi Prison. Then, I was moved to Kirikiri Prison to spend another three months. “One day, they came to tell me that I was retired. I said thank you. In September 1976, I was discharged from prison.
On the lessons he learnt and how he survived in prison
“The lesson I learnt is that God has hands in everything. When I was in detention, some of us were condemned; in 24 hours, you will not see light. It was made to break some of us. But I did a course called ‘survival course’ where we were expected to adapt to difficult situations if we were captured.
“They normally bring water around six o’clock in the morning. When they brought water I pleaded that they should give me an orange. I used the orange as a football and played it in the cell, a nine by six feet enclosure. I played and joggled the orange vigorously that I would be sweating profusely.
“I adapted to the situation because if I was to be captured in war, the situation would be worse than that. At first, I thought someone was doing this to break my will, but the longer it took I discovered that it was no longer a joke. So I started singing a song: ‘I have the whole world in my hands.’ I just believe that it was faith. It was perfect faith”.
How he felt when he was leaving the prison
“When I was released from prison, I was very annoyed with the military. I thought they had disappointed me because I wanted to become a career officer; I wanted to progress to the zenith and I was working very hard for it. So when they did this to me, I was very annoyed but, later on, my mind told me to forget everything, that it could have been worse because after the retirement, somebody brought me a paper, my name was on the list of people who were to be killed; to be shot at the Bar Beach.
“I think it was to be on the 24th of March, 1976, there were 42 names there. My name was the last one but General Domkat Bali said, ‘it was only 41 people that were sentenced to death, how did you get the 42nd person? Colonel Ogbebor, how did you get here, how did they smuggle your name into this list?’ They said I had been charged. He said, ‘go and bring his file.’ Nobody had my file because I was not charged, I was not questioned. So, he used his pen to cancel my name. That is how I was saved.
“But colonel Wya never had that fortune because he was shot at the Bar Beach. He was married to a British, a white lady. The white lady wrote to say that her husband was never involved in the coup. After everything, the Minister of Defence wrote to the wife that it was a mistake. You know what she did? One Sunday, she just entered a car with her four children. She was living in Kaduna.
“She drove towards Kaduna, she saw a big truck coming and she just drove into it. She and her four children died. She left a suicide note saying that she didn’t know how to go to the civilized world and tell them that her husband was shot at the beach by mistake. So, that I am alive is the handiwork of God. When I came out at first, I was annoyed but, later on, I decided to forgive everybody”.
How cadets received the 1966 coups
“The first coup, we didn’t know of it. We heard gunshots in the night. We didn’t normally have feelings for that because of the training. We thought the authorities were conducting an exercise for some students. It was in the morning that we were told what happened at the Deputy Commandant’s Office. Then, Ironsi took over as Head of State. But in spite of the coup, there was cohesion in the academy and the cadets continued their course until the cadets had their first passing out parade on March 27, 1966.
“By this, the naval cadets were able to complete their basic training in the NDA and had traveled out of the country to the various foreign naval institutions for their specialization and commissioning. But the army cadets had one more year to spend in the NDA for specialization and commissioning. Then the fear and question again was whether the prevailing political situation in Nigeria would allow the army cadets to complete their training and be commissioned in March 1967.
“In spite of the fervent efforts to safeguard and continue the academy courses uninterrupted; things were never the same again. Both the military and civilian staff in the academy, who were Ibos, had lost their sense of security and, in turn, fled. The officer cadets of Courses I and II, who were from the Eastern Region, had developed fear. In fact, no Nigerian staff and cadets remaining in the academy was sure of his fate irrespective of one’s place of origin. The atmosphere in the academy was no longer conducive for learning. The academy had to close in June 1966 for a two-month vacation”.
On whether the January 1966 coup was an Igbo coup
“No, it was not. The handling was very successful in the North but the handling in the South was treated with sentiments. Most of the people killed were Yorubas and Hausas. It was only Nwogu that was killed in the East and that raised eyebrows of northerners and they organized their own coup”.
On whether the civil war was avoidable
“At the time we fought, we were obeying orders. We were trained to obey orders. The pattern of our training is to be loyal to your country by all means, even if it means taking your life to defend your country. If there is a war, there is war. We never looked at the political aspect of it.
“There are many indices to show that there was something wrong. For instance, the papers published, Daily Times was sold only in the South, not in the whole of the South, but in what we call South-West. Although it was a federal paper, it was not federal at all. New Nigeria was only sold in the North. The Pilot was only sold in the East. Then, you cannot travel to the East and easterners cannot travel.
There was panic at Jebba Bridge, at Niger Bridge. Then, there were lots of altercations between Gowon and Ojukwu. It was only divine intervention that could have prevented that war. But God said there must be war, so there was war. It has to be rough before it can be smooth. We have a parable in Benin that says when a man marries two wives, until they fight and one woman is able to defeat the other one, there won’t be peace in the house. They have now tested their strength and one knows that she is stronger than the other one. So, there will be peace in the house. The same thing now applies to Nigeria”.
On whether true reconciliation has been achieved 42 years after the war
“What you see now is purely politics. You find one leader talking this way and the other talking that way but when there is something in common they share. You find that people in prison don’t know the country, tribe or state they come from. People in the hospital don’t know what religion they are practising.
“People in prison are fighting for a common goal. What matters to them is freedom. What matters to people in the hospital is health. But people who have health, who have freedom and everything, want to advance their fortune. They look for whatever it is to put forward. So, at the end of the day, we all will agree”.
52 years after independence are we really a nation?
“Look at our footballers, when they go out to play football, they are there with a common goal. See how they try hard to win. The problem with Nigeria today is that there is no national goal. During the war, to keep Nigeria together was a task. For that one, 90 per cent of Nigeria’s resources were mobilized to achieve it. If you are a medical doctor, you are commandeered.
If you are a lawyer, you are commandeered. If you have a house, it is commandeered to achieve the survival of Nigeria.
That was why we were able to win. Since that war ended, tell me what happened that the whole country is pulling its resources towards achieving? Nothing! That is the failure of leadership in Nigeria. You were here when Buhari/ Idiagbon came. You can see how the country was moving towards something. They had content and were moving Nigerians towards a goal.
“While I was in India, I was learning Hindu in an American embassy school. I was a Major then. There was a teacher teaching us, his name was Krishna. If you go to the Connaught Place, Delhi, at four o’clock, you would see them packing dead bodies of people, who died of cold and hunger in the night.
‘Can’t you do something for these people?’, we asked. “We can do something about them,” one of them said, “if we pull the resources of the whole of India to save these ones, we can only save 20 per cent of them.
The remaining 80 per cent will still die. So what we are doing is that we are not bothering about these ones now. We are bothering about their children. We are putting our resources to develop our economy so that the economy can now serve these children’. That is what they did and India is better for it today”.
On the way forward
“When Yar ‘Adua came, we started something but it was too many – seven-point agenda. Seven is too much. A goal should be one. President Goodluck Jonathan came and said Transformation Agenda. Transformation in people’s what? How much have people been educated? A goal should be well articulated and there should be a plebiscite for all Nigerians to understand and vote and, after voting, it becomes their bible. It is not what one Head of State will sit in the room and conjure. People must be involved”.