A former Principal General Staff Officer (PGSO) of the Nigerian Army and Chief of Staff of 3 Marine Commando Division (3MCDO) during the 1967-70 Nigeria-Biafra war, Brigadier-General Godwin Alabi-Isama, is a reporter’s delight anytime. He canvasses his views with passion and emotion, not minding whose ox is gored. He was at his best, literally shooting from the hips, during a visit to the corporate headquarters of Vanguard in Apapa, Lagos. In a two-hour chat with Vanguard’s senior editors on his book, ‘The Tragedy of Victory, On-the-spot Account of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the Atlantic Theatre,’ the civil war hero made startling comments that are bound to raise dust and generate controversy in the polity. For instance, he said the Northern and Eastern Nigeria have jointly been ruling the country since independence in 1960 and Nigeria has not known peace; there was no pogrom against the Igbo during the war; Biafra would not have lost the war if her military leaders had been tactically disciplined and prosecuted the war professionally; and that Nigeria neglects her heroes and heroines.
He said the problem of Nigeria is disloyalty, not corruption; Obasanjo lied in his book, ‘My Command’; the first 1966 coup is not an Igbo coup but it ruined Nigeria. A Delta Igbo by paternal lineage but a Yoruba-cum northerner via maternal links, Alabi-Isama said God has destined Nigeria to be one country and those trying to dismember the nation labour in vain. He prayed that Nigerians should not witness another war because people are now very vicious. Excerpts:
Motivation to write the book
I did not know I have what it takes to be a writer. We all left secondary school to join the Army because they will not take you if you are from the university due to lack of trust at that time. They thought graduates would leave after a short while. The point has been proven that graduates did not do well in the Army then just as the likes of Rotimi and Emmanuel Ifeajuna, who were recruited from the university to the infantry, did not do too well. Victor Banjo was a graduate but he was recruited for the engineering aspect of the military where they have always recruited graduates. In the medical (corps), you had to be a doctor, but in the infantry they never did. However, they decided to experiment on recruitment of graduates, which yielded no positive results.
For you to be a general in the Army, you would have done a minimum of seven to eight years of training. If you went to the university, I don’t think you will spend up to that to get a Ph.D. I went through all the military training, and when I was to write the book, there were a lot of thoughts on why I’m writing a book. I discussed with some friends, including Adekunle (Adekoya) who is here.
They encouraged me to carry on with the book based on the ideas and my experience. Kunle told me that the book will make a good read. So we started working on it.
On my 70th birthday, General Alani Akinrinade came with a book, My Command, written by General Olusegun Obasanjo. I had heard about it but I had not read it then. He said that Obasanjo, who was our commander, said something about me in the book; that I will have stomach trouble if I read it. I questioned that comment; he then bought two copies and gave me.
How his mother preserved war materials
When I finished reading chapter one of ‘My Command’, I was so annoyed that I wanted to write. Luckily for me, I went to renovate my mother’s house in Ilorin for my 70th birthday. When I got there, I found a big box locked up. With a thought that my mother had kept money for me again, I broke the lock and found my military uniform, cap and so many civil war pictures. Though not arranged, the pictures had been saved for 40 years. When I got hold of them, the pictures were clean and clear. So every picture I looked at, I remembered what happened. ‘Obasanjo had lied,’ I said.
*Gen. Alabi Isama
So, I started writing. Obasanjo has claimed so much for what he did not know, and where he didn’t visit, let alone attack. He didn’t attack anywhere, or capture anywhere; he didn’t command a battalion or even a brigade. Now he was saddled with a division, the best division of the Nigerian Army at the time and that was difficult for him. But he didn’t want us to see that it was difficult for him.
I didn’t write because of Obasanjo
A lot of people would have thought that the book was written because of Obasanjo which is not true. In this book, I have gone beyond personalities, but you can’t avoid talking about one or two people and,
as a soldier, I had never thought that I should be saying ‘oh that man, oh that woman, oh that division, oh that state.’ In my book, I mentioned the states, I mentioned the names of those concerned and if they have any concerns, then they could get in touch with me. In this book, there are 450 pictures and I still have over a thousand pictures. I have gone beyond personalities. What I want really is to discuss my vision in our diversity, to discuss this country. How can we move forward? Where are we now?
How did we get here? If we are satisfied, let’s remain so, but if not, how are we going to get out of it? We did not agree with unitary system of government that was introduced by General Aguiyi-Ironsi, but here we are. We couldn’t get away from unitary government. Why did Ironsi die, why did the Army kill Ironsi or anybody for that matter because he (Ironsi) suggested unitary government?
Things like this happen everywhere in the world, they are what I would say is inexplicable phenomenon in mankind, their destiny took a lot of blood – Alexander the Great, Hitler, Lenin, etc. So people like Obasanjo existed in history, there are people like Nelson Mandela who will say, ‘for this blood that we are shedding, there has to be a result’.
But in our own country, we didn’t have the result for everybody. After the Second World War, elders sat down and said that even those that waved their flags, those who clapped, those who met us on the way as we were advancing; these people were part of the war effort. But we discredited the people that were part of the war effort in Nigeria. We fought for one Nigeria, we are here today talking about unity of Nigeria, is that what we have? If that is what we have, then we shouldn’t discuss it; if not, let’s look at how we can get on and move forward.
Neglect of our heroes
Today, General Benjamin Adekunle is unable to pay his hospital bills. If he stole enough money — I am not here to say if he stole or not, I only know about myself — he will be able to pay his hospital bills. But then, who in this country that is old enough to know will say Adekunle did not do well? I was his Chief of Staff, everywhere we captured, he sent me there and it was because he believed in me. We debated tactics, it’s not usual, that wasn’t part of what we were taught in England. Adekunle did well as a commander. He landed at Bonny which everybody thought was the most difficult thing to do. He captured Calabar, another sea landing. Sea landing operations were the most difficult anywhere in the world, even with General Patton landing in Sicily during the Second World War, he had problems. We replicated his tactics somehow.
Adekunle did well. The whole country heard at that time how Marine Commando captured Oron, Ikot Ekpene, etc. There was no day we did not capture somewhere.
For one reason or the other he was removed, it is in my book. Adekunle arrived back in Lagos; he was not even invited to the surrender ceremony. He was not given any award, neither was he even recognized by anybody.
Now, if you are Adekunle’s son and you were in the Army or you have somebody in the Army, will you go and do it like Adekunle did? You will say: ‘to hell with the country’. That was the problem and everybody in the country talks about corruption. Corruption is everywhere in the world. Maddox has just been arrested and jailed, Stanford was arrested and jailed. Corruption is not the problem of this country; loyalty is; people are not loyal to this country anymore. Lack of loyalty is the problem. A governor will take money and bank it abroad because he doesn’t believe in the country. If he believes in the country, he would use that money to develop his state.
No country succeeds without successors Just tell me today a country that has succeeded without a successor?
I was governor in 1973, what do you want me to be now? You’ll put me as a member of a lousy board somewhere, at 73? Don’t we have youths? We have bastardized these youths. It’s in the book. How did we do it? We have killed our youths — they are broke and broken; that is the word I used in the book. Who is going to succeed Alabi-Isama? What was it that was brilliant that I did in 1973, which I want to do again now? We keep recycling the same people.
When I went to see Adekunle, he said: “Alabi, I am open.” That was the only thing he could say. During the war, we used to have this code that if I tell you I am ‘close,’ it means I am happy. He said I am ‘open’ which means ‘I am in trouble.’
He couldn’t say more. He is only 76 or 77. His abandonment is not fair. Who else will want to be loyal to this country? People have seen Adekunle, they have seen others, so everybody wants to take as much as he can so that ‘it can be better for me for now and then maybe for my children,’ but they have forgotten that what God did not give you, the devil will take. All those people that have stolen money; the devil is giving them what they are spending that money on.
I got no pension, I never got gratuity. Will I allow any of my children to do what I did for this country? It is lack of loyalty to the country that is causing widespread corruption today. So, corruption is not the problem. We need to look for solutions. Adekunle is suffering; it will be unfair of this country if we don’t help that man, because I’m sure the day he dies, newspapers will be awash with eulogies for him. ‘The war hero is dead’, ‘he died penniless’, just like Edet Utuk, one of the best fighters of the 3MCDO. For seven months, the entire Biafran Army could not dislodge 500 men, and it was because of our training. This boy was my staff. The wife said at the launch of my book that they had to go to Obasanjo to borrow some money to take care of him while he was ill and dying because Obasanjo was the commander they knew. When the man (Utuk) came to me at Uyo with the wife, I was only able to give them N20, 000. You need to see how he was thanking me for just N20, 000. Obasanjo drove them back. But the wife said Alabi is at Enugu and he said ‘that’s my boss, let’s go and see him.’ Whatever I had, I had to give them. I never got pension.
Why he didn’t get pension
It is in the book, because they said I stole money.
Contact with military authorities to redress this wrong done to war heroes like General Adekunle
Yes, we have, through the son. In fact, the boy told me that he was kept waiting at Abuja for so many days and he didn’t plan to stay in a hotel because it was expensive for him. But he stayed anyway and got no results.
Federal troops fed Biafrans during the war
That brings me to the question: Will you do the same thing that Adekunle did? People alleged that he said, ‘Oh, we are going to capture them; we are going to do this; kill all the Biafrans.’ But anytime he came to the war front, I will say, ‘Oga you told me to feed them; you told me to recruit them; you carried their children.’
I didn’t see a hungry Igbo man or woman during the war
We didn’t have refugee camp in 3 Marine Commando. Once you are there as a refugee coming from Biafra, we give you food and you go to your house. I want to say that I did not see a hungry Igbo man, woman or child during the war. Those that were hungry are those that were removed from their villages. You need to read the former governor of Imo State, Achike Udenwa’s book. People were removed from their villages to a refugee camp without food. When we arrived at every town, we saw cows, goats, chickens and we ate them.