Sunday 22 April 2018

Obasanjo Was A Clueless War Commander - Gen Alabi-Isama (Photos+Video)

 Alabi Isama And Obasanjo Eating During The Civil War In 1968
A retired Brigadier-General and Chief of Staff, 3rd Marine Commando, during the Nigeria civil war, Godwin Alabi-Isama, has disclosed that former President Olusegun Obasanjo was not only clueless during the war, but acted as a weakling in many instances.

According to General Alabi-Isama, Chief Obasanjo exhibited a lot of weaknesses that did not portray him as a gallant soldier throughout the period he served the army during the war.

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In an interview published in the current edition of TheNEWS magazine, our sister publication, the retired General punctured a lot of claims in My Command, a book written by the former President chronicling his experience in the war.

According to him, Obasanjo never wanted to be part of the war. He was so scared of death that he evaded every opportunity to go to the battlefront.

He disclosed that retired General Alani Akinrinade picked Obasanjo to lead the troop after Benjamin Adekunle was dropped as the commander following an alleged unethical conduct.

“Gowon was not sure that Obasanjo would want the job of replacing Adekunle because he was an engineer…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 aso 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,” the retired soldier said, adding that this comment got him angry and that he reacted instantly by reprimanding Obasanjo.

He said he reminded Obasanjo at the venue of their meeting how he and his engineering corps were unable to blow up the bridge in Ore when the Biafran army was advancing to Lagos and how the situation was salvaged by Mr. Akinde of the Public Works Department at Ibadan, assisted by men of the Ministry of Works.

“I was so incensed that I continued to pour venom on him,” he added.
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In the picture: From left, Alabi Isama, Akinrinade, Adekunle, Godwin Ally, and Col. Alimi Ogunkanmi. 
Alabi-Isama said as against Obasanjo’s claim that he ordered the bridge to be blown up, the idea actually came from the wife of then Governor Adeyinka Adebayo. He explained that she was the one who suggested to Obasanjo that the action be carried out.

When Obasanjo eventually took over as the Commander of the 3rd Marine Commando, Alabi-Isama said he and Akinrinade gave him a comprehensive briefing, but that he refused to listen because of the grudge he harboured from his first encounter with Alabi-Isama.

As a result of this, his first battle experience, according to Alabi-Isama, was a disaster.

Emphasising Obasanjo's cluelessness, he said the first decision he made when he took up the leadership of the troop was to start paying the soldiers on the battlefield by allotment.

“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,” Alabi-Isama explained, adding that Obasanjo lost 1, 400 men in the attack, something that never happened before he took over because he refused to listen to advice.
Related image
Briefing over, Col. Obasanjo was ready to go as commander of 3MCDO, but his very first move was a disaster. In complete disregard of our advice, he planned an attack from the same problematic...

In another incident, the retired General said Obasanjo ran away from the scene of an attack claiming he was heading to Port Harcourt, an eight-hour journey, to get ammunition for the same battle when he could ordinarily radio the army headquarters.

He described Obasanjo as completely incompetent and inefficient, saying the former President never went to battle even as a commander during the war.

“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,” said the army general, who is set to launch a book titled The Tragedy of Victory: On-The-Spot Account of The Nigeria-Biafra War In The Atlantic Theatre, his own version of the war experience aimed to counter some of the ‘lies’ by Chief Obasanjo.

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The Tragedy of Victory: On-the-spot Account of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the Atlantic Theatre by Godwin Alabi-Isama

The war ended in 1970. This is 2013, how come it took you this long to write this book?

First of all, I didn’t know I had what it takes to write a book. And secondly, I did not really want to write the book. As soon as I left the military in 1977, I went to the United States where I lived for 35 years. I came home for my 70th birthday, General Alani Akinrinade (rtd) was there and we got talking about the war and I said well this (Olusegun) Obasanjo’s book My Command; he said if you read it, you will have stomach trouble. It is not worth reading. I said well let me just read the book, he brought me two copies. And with those two copies, I tell you even till today when I read it, I get sick. First of all, the pictures in the book are wrong. Then the maps in the book are also wrong. He drew the map of places he didn’t know and had never been, he didn’t ask questions. If he had asked questions, he would have learnt. He didn’t do that. Luckily for me, because I was renovating my mother’s house in Ilorin, I saw a big box and I opened the box thinking my mother left me some money. I opened the box to find my old uniforms, my cane, and plenty of war pictures. She didn’t arrange the pictures, she just poured them into a bed sheet, you know how these old women tie things, and she poured them into the bed sheet, tied the bed sheet, put it in a box and covered that box with a cello tape. Except for two pictures, everything else is still crisp clear.

How did I get around taking the pictures? We were looking for a crossing point at a place called Eki, in Anang area, we wanted to cross into the main land and I went on patrol with the troop, it is not normal for a chief of staff to go on patrol with the men but I wanted to see it myself, so when we got there we found there were no (enemy) troops there; we didn’t see anybody so we decided: well let’s move forward. So we moved forward. We didn’t know that we were surrounded. By the time they opened fire everybody ran and so I ran. At school I used to run 100 and 200 meters; that day I ran 26 miles. I sat down under a tree and I was panting, then I saw my orderly, Effiong, “You made it!” I exclaimed. “Yes,” he said, “I made it sir.” And I said to him that I wish somebody would see us now and see how we are suffering, we could even take the pictures and go show them in Lagos how we are suffering. He said, “Oga, am a photographer but because of the blockade, I had no film, I was out of business, but I have a studio and I have the chemicals and everything but no films.” I told him to write the specification of the film his camera uses. He wrote it and I sent it to my mother in Lagos. My mother went to Kingsway and bought large quantities of Kodak films and sent to me at the war front. I told Effiong, If I stand, take my photo, if I sit take my photo, if I cough, take my photo, fortunately he was a professional photographer. He took professional pictures. He took the terrain, the bridges, in fact, all the movement, the strategies; as a matter of fact I just discovered some pictures that he took of my war room. Since I had warned him never to enter my war room, I think he took them from the key hole.

Then they transferred this young man (pointing to an elderly photographer in the room), and he said he was also a photographer. You are a photographer too, o ti ya! (jolly good, join the show!) So this man also took part of the pictures that you are seeing here today. I was lucky. They took over a 1000 pictures. I never thought they were anything, just one of those albums. My mother didn’t like where you see dead bodies, she would throw the picture somewhere here and there. But after reading that Obasanjo’s book, it would have been my words versus his words but for these pictures. The pictures told the story. I have 650 pages of scripts here with 450 pictures, 35 war maps and 19 documents. It has not been equalled anywhere. Many of the civil war books were written by Biafran officers and men. The Nigerian ones, I think only Obasanjo wrote; the rest didn’t write about tactics or strategies of war. Even now, the book by (Adewale) Ademoyega wrote about the problem of genocide but he was in jail so how would he know where the genocide happened. Anyway, I got this pictures, I started writing. By looking at one picture, I knew where it was taken and what happened there.

Talking about books, you must have read other Biafran war books. Which of them do you think was a little bit close to what happened: Madiebo, Ademoyega, etc?

Only two of them, (Alexander) Madiebo’s is correct, absolutely correct. And I mean the word absolutely correct. The other one was by Achike Udenwa, I understand he was a governor somewhere. In the book, he wrote why there was starvation. Moving people away from their villages; they left their goats, they left their cows, they left their chickens and everything and we were eating the chickens….and they were starving. How far will you go, and what will you carry? How many cows will you be dragging along? You know, so Achike Udenwa and Madiebo, I think those two books are very reliable accounts.

But they are books that take it from the Biafran perspective? Yours is viewed as the first major book that tells it from the federal side?


Now having been as you related, you served in two of the divisions. At the beginning you were supposed to be with Murtala Muhammed and then you also served under Benjamin Adekunle. What would you say were the blunders or mistakes of Biafra?

First of all, starting from August 8th 1967, Biafra should not have gone to the Mid-West at all. Their going there shocked even the federal government. Because (David) Ejoor at that time wanted the place to be neutral because more than half of the Mid-West was Igbo speaking people, the other half is non-Igbo speaking people. But all of them together were killed in the north. Be it Yoruba or Ibibio, you were dead! Now, there was that neutrality in the Mid-west. Breaking that neutrality was like Hitler in ‘Operation Barbarossa’ when he went to Russia. Now, what clearly happened to them was that they got to the Mid-west, they looked at Ore, it’s a large expanse of land and they were defeated by the large empty space. Like the Germans who saw endless land but wondered what are we going to do here? That was even enough to have finished them. And when Nigeria counter-attacked at Ore, they, Nigerians had to run away, the Nigerian troops ran way. And that’s why you have Oleku ija Ore. Ha, this one wahala dey o…everybody scattered. But you see, from there on, when Nigeria re-organized and they started counter-attacking, why was Nigeria successful? It was because the Biafran troops had gone too far. They were now exhausted, they have had a battle, how many people did they put on the road? Let’s say for instance they had about 10 vehicles, what happens if there was a puncture with one vehicle. It means the troops inside that vehicle would cease to advance. Or for whatever reason they had a fan belt problem. It was a complete blunder. It shouldn’t have happened at all, but it happened. And when Nigerians had the upper hand the Biafrans were tired and they were now running back. It gave the Nigerians the confidence that when we attack these people they would keep running, so they kept chasing them. That was what happened. Not that Nigerians were better, no! The Biafrans were exhausted, they had seen large expanse of land, how far could they go to the right or left or forward? There were few of them. There was no back up, there was no reserve, there was no planning. And then plus the situation where they said Banjo had deceived them. Look this type of situation had always happened in military history. If you look at 281 BC, there was this General Pyrrhus, that’s why you have what is called Pyrrhic victory, he exhausted himself. And that was what happened to Biafra. The strategy was wrong, the tactics applied were wrong.

What route should they have taken if they didn’t go through Midwest?

Alright, if I were in their shoes, what I would have done was to ask: what was the aim. It was important to know what the aim was, let me give you’re an example of what I mean. Many people always miss it. In military you can’t afford to miss it. Let’s say we are going to attack Lagos, what is the aim, when we get to Lagos what are we there for? You say to collect tax, if you are advancing from Ibadan and you got to Victoria Island, you really have not got to Lagos because your aim is to collect tax. You must stop the people from going away, the people you are going to collect tax from. If your aim was to get to the sea and say yes I have captured Lagos, you will miss that aim. Your troops will go to the border to make sure nobody will run away, then you’ll make sure that you pamper people so that they will understand why you are there. If you kill them, who do you collect tax from? So it is your tactics and strategies now, your aim will dictate the tactics and the strategies applied.

Why were they (Biafrans) going to Lagos? What was the aim? If it was to scare them, if it was to capture Lagos, whatever you are trying to achieve, get the aim and then you will know the tactics. How many vehicles do they have coming to the Midwest? The Midwest officers, the Igbo officers they depended on ran away, they didn’t stay with them. Nwajei was not there, Okwechime was not there, those that were there were like Oche, Eziche, they were junior officers so they told those ones to carry on and they stayed back. We are still talking about the blunders. When Biafra entered the Midwest, I was commander at Asaba guarding the Asaba Niger Bridge. They first went to Ogbe Hausa at the cable point like Sabongari. They killed all the Hausa there and I mean all, children, women, everybody. Those that escaped swam across into Onitsha, and they were killed. It’s in Madiebo’s book; it is in Emma Okocha’s book. Emma Okocha is from Asaba and he wrote this story. I was lucky, not that I was clever when they attacked me, I had grenades ready. Because I was staying at the Nkeffi Guest House which today is Grand Hotel; it was a glass door, they had shattered the glass. Through that, I threw the grenade, it landed well. So the fact that I was able to overpower 20 people was not because I was clever, I was lucky. It’s like David and Goliath. When David shot his slings it went the right way. It is God that directed it for us to meet today.

So that’s one blunder. At that time, you don’t need more than 15 people to capture Lagos. There was no GSM, five people will go to the border, five people will stay at the airport and five people would wait at Dodan Barracks. You could do that at that time because there was still movement. People where still moving, there was no restriction because of the neutrality of the Mid-west, so he could have just infiltrated into the place and then once he has taken over the airport, control towers, and you stopped all planes coming in you simply commandeer all the planes to Enugu to bring in your troops, depending on what aim you want to achieve. You know what, their blunders were too many and then they alienated the natives, the natives of Anang, the Efik, the Ibibios, remember this story, that war story did not start during the war. Eyo Ita was supposed to be the Premier of the Eastern Region. They didn’t let him, he had that in mind I have his picture. These people where actually waiting for a day like that day and they supported the federal troops. The Biafrans did not recruit these people into their army and those who went into their army did not like to be with Biafra. Udenwa wrote about that in his book. We recruited the natives because they could swim. Without Isaac Boro we wouldn’t have got Port Harcourt, that’s a fact. He taught me (I was his commander) how to walk on the marshy area. He would say ‘ Oga make you use your toes as if you are dancing ballet.’ And then I will use my toes and he would say Oga, you are not moving well and I will say oh shut up! But he taught me and we were successful. I am giving him the credit because that is what he deserves. I kept asking the same question, were the people Biafra or was Biafra the people in the book? If Biafra is for all of you and you have that calibre of politicians in the place, you have that calibre of engineers you had, you needed to have all hands on the deck. Whether you are from Bayelsa or anywhere, you all suffered during that killing in the north, during the unrest. All you needed to do was call back your key politicians and tell them to go and campaign. Zik and all of them; but Ojukwu put Okpara in jail. He jailed Okpara, he wanted Zik himself to fail, all his businesses were taken from him, and so they already had been defeated before the war started.

The issue of believability is central to this account because it is a historical work and from the federal side, apart from Obasanjo’s book this is supposed to be another major work, why should we believe your own narrative? Two, you spoke of Obasanjo’s wrong pictures and wrong maps. I don’t know what you mean by wrong pictures. Three, you seem to have relied more on the power of memory in your recollection of events; there was no diary, why should we trust your account?

You don’t have to trust me. I have 450 pictures in the place. For instance, Obasanjo said we had an Officers’ Mess, his picture is in the book, eating with bare hands without fork and knife and cracking chicken bone and there is no dining table. I am talking about facts and figures. If somebody is talking about your village for instance and he is telling you that there is a statue of Gowon in your village, you who own the village will say Na lie, na there them born me, na leg I take walk around pass this place and there is no statue like that. You will be talking facts and figures. I, Alabi-Isama commanded the troops that captured Obubra, the entire Cross River of today. I captured the entire Akwa Ibom of today, I led the troops that captured the Rivers State of today. I led the troops that captured the Bayelsa of today. I was there with my feet, the soldiers asked Oga, we go go again? I said we dey go. Eh I get blisters, I will remove my shoes, look at my own blisters and we were there together. My pictures are there in the book.

They say pictures don’t lie, you said Obasanjo had wrong pictures?

Yes the wrong pictures, for instance in his book he said I was at Itu and he was talking about Ikot Ekpene; he said that he was at Ikot Ekpene and he had a masterly briefing, the picture was Obeya at Itu, it was not Ikot Ekpene. And then there was another picture at Uli Airstrip where he said alright, all soldiers move out and he took the picture alone at the centre of Uli Airstrip. When Adekunle came to the war front after we had captured Port Harcourt, he said he would like to advance five miles with us. We showed him the map, we showed him where we were going, we showed him where we were and the type of enemy we would meet. He advanced with us and when we came back he announced, “everybody come, photographer, Alabi photographer come and take this picture.” There was a bit difference and I am saying so. I was there, he wasn’t there. He could not be writing about where he was not.

This photographer was there with you?

He was there. His picture is there in the book. So when I say a map is wrong, for instance, we went to close a border. Cameroon border at a place called Nsakpa. I can mention the name because I was there. And then he drew the map to show that we went through a road. We didn’t go there. I infiltrated 7000 troops and came out behind them when they were on the road. I told them I didn’t need casualties. I didn’t need dead bodies; I needed to capture the place. If I had followed the route, we would be fighting Biafran soldiers. I would have had casualties. How did you think we would have captured Port Harcourt in 30 days advancing from Calabar, 480 kilometres? We did not enter any town.

So you are implying sir that Obasanjo’s work was a huge misrepresentation of what happened?

What work did he do?

The book

Every part of the book.

Hold on sir

This is the book

Was a huge misrepresentation of what happened?


Apart from your centrality to the event, I am sure there are other senior people like yourself who perhaps for the sake of this question, who perhaps had the same idea of what happened contrary to what Obasanjo published. How come they had not come out before your own book to tell the federal story?

They don’t have the pictures; it will be your word versus my word. Obasanjo was the president of the country he was the head of state of the country. Alabi was nobody; you never fight anybody standing when you are lying down.

So the strength of your book lies in the pictures?

That’s it. That’s all. Otherwise it would be my words versus his words.

Still on the blunders, you also said that the Biafran troops spread themselves unnecessarily in the Midwest so they wasted troops?

They did the same thing even in the main war itself because you see in the world war the Japanese were all over Mariana Island in the Pacific and the Americans would just touch a hole. I love General Paton. From Obubra, (I wished there is a black board here,) I would have drawn this map, I know the whole place, I was there. From Obubra to Port Harcourt is over 1000 kilometres, how many people will you put in every inch of the kilometre? Between one kilometre and the other, there is a gap. So let us say that they put 10, 10,000 you would have had more than a million in the army, they didn’t have it. Let’s assume for the purpose of this discussion that they had a thousand or 10, 000 in one point. I went to Port Harcourt with 35, 000, blew through the place. We knew the style, we went to the same military school and during those strategy discussions with Adekunle, he would be Biafran today, I will be Nigerian. If you do this, how will you do this? And invariably, all we discussed came to pass. For instance Biafra came to counter attack in Ikot Ekpene. They went as far as to a place called Ikpe junction. They had no more reserves. I had not even attacked them. They just saw an open place. Ikpe junction was a killing ground. They didn’t do all that and then, you know why we didn’t eat bush meat? If a soldier would kill bush meat he would have to shoot, the others, maybe Nigerians themselves would kill him because from the direction of shot we would open fire. We never ate bush meat and the soldiers know that. And so when our troops would fire somewhere, Biafrans would fire to the place. Ha! Now we know where they are. We had no intelligence report of where they were. We used to send ladies to go along with refugees and the ladies would tell us what they saw, how many they saw, which building they were staying in and so on.

There is a question about logistics am worried about, 35 000 men is a large number so how were you able to manage and move that number?

I am happy you asked that question because I was 27 years old. How much of it did I know? But one thing I was taught was that if your logistics is wrong you will lose the war. General Alexander Madiebo told me that central cooking was not possible for them after the first two, three months of the war. So they lived on the land. So the logistics was out of this world. I wrote about that as part of our challenges. First of all, you had to cook for 35,000 men, how did I do it? I divided them into sections of tens and they would go and cook. You’ll come to the central bulk breaking point, you collect your garri or your yam or whatever and you will go and cook for your 10 men. It was easy to manage 10 men and that means there are about 3,500 cooking places. Where was the firewood or where was the gas or where was the electricity to cook? We depended on the marine commando ladies we recruited. Many of them died of landmines looking for firewood, so you can see that even those ones on intelligence on radio and all that were not as important as those ones supplying us fire woods for cooking. The logistic was enormous. In the mangrove forest, in the water logged areas, it was enormous. For instance, we built pontoons to cross Opobo River. It’s all in the book.

Certainly the logistical challenges must have influenced the duration of the war, what other things do you think contributed to making the war last as long as it did?

Well, definitely not from Adekunle’s side. He wanted me to capture Obubra in 30 days, everybody running kitikiti, today if you start walking from Calabar to Port Harcourt, I don’t know whether you will make it in 30 days. Then we were fighting, we were advancing, we were moving and even Gen Madiebo in his book said that within one hour or so, we had captured about 50 miles. How was that possible, he asked? It was the tactics and the strategy. It worked; if it didn’t work we would have been drinking water at the Atlantic Ocean. Our backs to the Atlantic our chest to the Biafran bullets; we had nowhere to run to and if the logistics went wrong, the soldiers would starve, they will not be able to move. If the ammunitions were not enough, they will not be able to fight. If their shoes had blisters and no socks and no foot powder, they will not be able to advance. So many things were involved. The morale of the troops depended on the morale of the officer himself. The officer himself must be seen with the troops. The Biafrans didn’t do that.

About how many men do you think you lost, just an estimate on your own side?

In 3rd Marine Commando, I lost eight from Calabar to Port Harcourt.

All through the war?

I did not lose any single one in Obubra. Two officers – Captain Fashola at Bori and Isaac Boro at Okrika and I have records.

I don’t think you have sufficiently addressed the question of why the war lasted that long?

It lasted that long because Biafrans themselves did not just give up, it was their tactics and strategies that were wrong and they believed they were doing well. The amount of ammunitions and weapons with which they went to the Mid-west could have been used in defending Biafra. In this case the Biafrans put in

Still on the potency of photos, one remarkable individual who was at the war front in a soft capacity also experienced the interview with Alabi-Isama. There was a small group of observers in the room, and this unobtrusive man was eventually introduced as the war photographer whose lenses captured the violent drama of those unforgettable years. He was 69-year-old Bolomope Amusa, who said, “Photography is the best method of keeping permanent record.” Not only Alabi-Isama owes this man an incalculable debt, the world is indebted to him as well for his visual documentation of the war. The documentarian’s skill produced an amazing range of pictures that covered various faces of war. Although one individual was not in that room, her spirit hovered. She was Alabi-Isama’s mother, who somehow kept the pictorial treasures, perhaps waiting for this day when her son would need them to tell his own story.

Indeed, Alabi-Isama’s war memoir seeks not only to contradict Obasanjo’s; its ultimate ambition is to rubbish the latter as well. This is a fascinating combat, to speak in martial terms, for both soldiers belonged to the legendary Third Marine Commandos (3MCDO), with then Lt. Col.  Alabi-Isama as Chief of Staff and then Colonel Obasanjo as Commander, having replaced the famous “Black Scorpion,” then Col Benjamin Adekunle, ahead of the surrender of rebellious Biafra. It is an irony of history that both men are shooting from conflicting sides about a war in which they were participants in the same camp.  “I’m detribalized, so my thinking is clear,” Alabi-Isama told the interviewers. Apart from the fact that he had a Christian father from the Niger Delta and a Muslim mother from Ilorin, Kwara State, his reference to ethnicity was inevitable, for it was the nub of the escalation of hostilities that lasted three years. However, although the guns stopped booming in a physical sense, the martial metaphor remains. Interestingly, but sadly, the country is still in a state of war, still torn by the ethnic idea, still held captive by tribal imagination. This noticeable frozenness, of course, has consequences. The intense ethnicization of the space of political power, with the centrifugal results threatening the country’s soul, remains the bane of the polity.

This tragic trajectory informed Alabi-Isama’s perspective that the war merely gave a Pyrrhic victory.  His position: It neither improved “our humanity” nor enhanced “our unity”.  True, the pervasive material poverty, the concentration on self, the expansion of the personal to the detriment of the collective, the continuing assault on uniting cords, even the cynical faithlessness regarding  the possibility of convergence in diversity, these are current expressions of  the apparent  failure of the Nigerian Dream.

“You know those who really lost in this war?” Alabi-Isama asked. He supplied an answer, saying, “The children who witnessed the killing of their parents. Their psyche was marred for life.”  In this way, he captured the evil of the time. He recalled words that rekindled the war, such as, “pogrom and counter-pogrom”, “genocide”, “blockade”, “starvation”, “war strategy”, “war reporting and sensationalism”.  He also spoke of fascinating afflictions of war, the “tiredness” and “madness” that affected the combatants.

To properly situate Alabi-Isama’s role in the war, it is noteworthy that at the outbreak of hostilities, he was at age 27, according to his book, a troop commander until August 1967, and guarded the Niger Bridge at the Asaba end, before his transfer to the 3MCDO at the Calabar front. He led the attack with three brigades from Calabar to liberate Odukpani, Ikot-Okpora, Iwuru, Akunakuna, Itigidi, Ediba, Ugep, Obubra, Afikpo, Oban, Ekang and closed the international border against Biafra at Nssakpa. He also led the 3CMCDO troops from Calabar in April 1968 to capture Creek Town, Itu, Uyo, Ikot-Ekpene, Oron, Eket, Opobo, Abak, Etinan, Bori-Ogoni, Akwette, Afam, Aletu-Eleme, Elelenwa, Okrika and Port Harcourt in May 1968.

His war experience as a tactician and strategist, the highpoint of a military career that spanned 1960 to 1977, forms a major part of the book. His early life also takes some space, with the poignant loss of his father when he was just four years old and the filial bonding with his mother being of particular significance in his story. He actually joined the army as Abdurahman Alabi, taking his mother’s family name, and by age 37 his military career was over, on account of retirement allegedly occasioned by a clash with the establishment.

Danjuma Buys Alabi-Isama’s Book For N10

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R-L: HRH Oparaku Peter Ado, General T. Y Danjuma, former minister of Defence, Brigadier-General Godwin Alabi-Isama (Book Author) and Dr. Amuda Aluko, ofida of Ilorin during the book presentaion titled ” The Tragedy of Victory” written by Brigadier-General Godwin Alabi-Isama

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I don’t think you have sufficiently addressed the question of why the war lasted that long?

It lasted that long because Biafrans themselves did not just give up, it was their tactics and strategies that were wrong and they believed they were doing well. The amount of ammunition and weapons with which they went to the Mid-West could have been used in defending Biafra. In this case, the Biafrans put in a lot of efforts but when they recaptured Ikot Ekpene or they recaptured Owerri, they should have started negotiation from position of strength. Alright, Nigeria, if you want us together, this is what we must do and then you negotiate. You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. And the war dragged on.

Now, One Division, I can’t say much about One Division when I was there towards 1969, for instance, they captured Enugu in July or so, they didn’t capture the next place until after six months. They took their time, they were ready, it was Adekunle that was going every time we were running, the troops were tired but because they saw me with them, Adekunle himself was not tired. Adekunle was in Lagos making sure we got all these logistics; that was more important than even the advance. And then, there was Farinde and he would say, okay, troops you carry on, let me go look for ammunition. So what made the war to last those three years was because Biafrans were not pushovers; they were the best trained of the Nigerian Army. Before the war, the West had 10 officers; Hausa had eight officers; East had 37 officers, well decorated officers. It was because we did well in the Congo that they made General Aguiyi-Ironsi the commander of the United Nations’ troops.

But the tactics of war had changed. The war lasted because the Biafrans themselves were not a push over. And it ended in Marine Commando section because we were able to identify their centre of gravity. One Division went to Nsukka, Okigwe, Orlu, Umuahia, you don’t need those places. For instance, the Biafrans captured Owerri. When they did that, they were happy, they started moving troops from Umuahia everywhere to go and defend Owerri. As soon as you move troops away, this place is empty. So we look for the gap and went through the gap and the centre of gravity was there in Uli at Ihiala. They were defending Owerri, we didn’t need Owerri. But Obasanjo made the blunder at Ohoba and 1,000 troops died in one hour. I never had that type of casualty.

What were the blunders on the federal side?

The first blunder of the federal side was that they did not defend the Mid-West. As a matter of fact, we didn’t have the troops. You know when this war started, Biafra started talking about no power in black Africa would defeat Biafra, everybody should come home and with that, everybody was ready and the morale high.

That’s exactly what things were. The blunder on the federal side, apart from the fact that they did not defend the Mid-West properly, was because General Gowon took it easy. If we can only go and capture Ojukwu at Enugu, the war should be over, Gowon thought. He was wrong. The Biafrans were more determined than that and then the Mid-West was over. Because in that Mid-West, Akinrinade warned Murtala, ‘We cannot cross (the River Niger bridge) from here, this tactic is wrong’, but he (Murtala) was the commander. He would be responsible for whatever happened. Akinrinade in protest left the place. He walked away; in the meantime, they had jailed me somewhere.

So Murtala decided he was going to cross, he did, all the troops died. Nobody asked questions.

About how many?

You would be talking about more than a 1,500; that’s a brigade.

They were just falling into water?

What else would have happened? You were in a canoe and the canoe capsized; even if you can swim, the bullets are coming. They shouldn’t have crossed from there; after all, we crossed Opobo river.

Could it not have been that the unforeseen happened. Sometimes even with the best of strategy, things can go awry?

Give me an example.

You are the general (laughter). Because as they were crossing the bridge, look at the Biafrans there, you said he should cross the bridge to go and fight and they were there with their bullets?

Let me tell you what we were trained to do in the military school. You are there, I am here. This is the river. That is the most dangerous operation of the military because just throw stones and the canoe would capsize. We had no landing craft. 500 canoes, the pictures are in the book. The unforeseen is more important in the military than what you can see. What are the unforeseen? You will sit down there and debate with your officers and men. Your troops must know enough, but not too much so that when he’s captured, he won’t go and reveal everything.

On the federal side, on the Marine Commando side, one of the blunders of the war, Obasanjo arrived on 16th of May, 1969, we had captured everywhere. We needed only 30 days to tidy it up and when he arrived, the first thing he wanted to do was to pay salaries. We told him, ‘Oga, we are not in the barracks. If you pay the salaries of these troops; we had 8,000 troops of the Nigeria Army before the war. Now, we have built it up to about a quarter of a million: the cooks, the stewards, the never-do-wells, area boys, the drop outs, we recruited everybody and many of them were the breadwinners of their families. They had children going to schools, they were not in the barracks, they had wives that would pay rent. They had aged parents and in Nigeria, we don’t have social security; we are our brothers’ keeper. With your salary, you know how many family members you feed every month. By extension you know that if you are paid so much, sisters would come, brothers would come, that’s what was happening.

And we said, if you pay salaries there in the war front and the man didn’t die for six months, his salary is in his pockets, he dies on the last day, who takes the salary? But he was bent on doing it, it’s there in the book. As if that was not enough, he said he was going to call Central Bank to the war fronts when he wrote in his book that they were at Igrita, about 50 miles from Port Harcourt; which banker would come with his tie to the war front?

What was his own logic for wanting to pay salaries?

He didn’t mean any harm!

Did he think you were finagling with the money?


Why did he have to take over and pay at the war front?

He didn’t mean harm. It was the level of his IQ on the subject. What he said was that he was taught as a cadet to look after his troops, to give them rest area. Biafrans are 40 miles away from you and you want to have a rest area? They would roast him, but he was never there. Once there was firing, he would say, ‘I’m going to Lagos, I want to see the head of state. I want to go and brief him’. There is a story in his book here, he went to an enclave where they were fighting, he went to inspect troops and there was fighting there. And he said, ‘Alright, you people, continue the firing. I would go and bring you ammunition’. Gen. Paton, go bring ammunition for who, are you kidding? Those were what happened and as I said, he wanted to help.

It is interesting to me that in another interview, you called Obasanjo clueless…

(Cuts in) actually I missed that today.

..and incompetent?

(Cuts in) would use that right now.

And then you said that Akinrinade actually suggested him to Gowon and that Gowon did not know who he was…

No! Gowon would not know…

That Gowon did not know enough of him?

No, he knew enough of him. He just said, ‘The man is an engineer; he would tell you he’s an engineer. Akinrinade and Alabi, you go and talk to him at Ibadan, see whether you can convince him go to the war front’. This was when Adekunle was removed.

I wonder why Akinrinade would suggest a clueless person?

How would Akinrinade know that he was clueless until he was given a task? I’ll give you an example, when I was younger at school because I did a lot of sports, I was very popular. I would come in the morning and everybody would say Gordon Jean, that was my nickname in school and of course, I was riding high but then, they didn’t want any noise in the school, so the principal made me the monitor. So let me now see who would make noise, you can’t call me Gordon Jean, I was the monitor. You see, unless they give you an assignment, unless they give you an opportunity, how will I know that you couldn’t, until when I see your report and …?

But even then, let me concede to you that until you fail the test, you may not be able to give a proper account of yourself but there must have been some elements of value that Akinrinade saw in him?

There had never been war in the country! You may be walking smartly in the barracks, you may be the person that speaks well at a conference or you may be the person that people will say, ‘That man seems to know what he is talking about’. Until we tell you Oga, come and lead us. Did he do well as head of state, of this country? You people have been writing in the papers. Did he do well as president of the country?

One point I have been pondering is that he was your commander, he was your senior. In the Army do you call your seniors clueless?

No! I’m not in the Army now and am calling him so.

But a general remains a general?


If he comes in now, won’t you salute him?

I will not!

I thought that was military tradition?

That’s not military tradition, are you saying you would be going now and they would close the road for three hours? Keeping billions of dollars in reserve and he hasn’t tarred the road? There is no electricity. It’s like a father who has N15. He has two children at school, the first school fees is N20, the second school fees is N20, you need N40 and he says I have N15 in reserve. He’s an idiot. What are you talking about? He would come here and I would say aaaah oga mi, how you dey sir?

You mentioned the issue of the second blunder of the federal troops at Asaba. Then the one of 3rd Marine under Adekunle; then under Obasanjo?

No, with Adekunle, I didn’t see any of our blunders.

In the book, you mentioned it that Adekunle also wanted attack on Aba and Owerri, it was under him that Shande died, it was under him that Fashola died and Haman died at Owerri and it caused a lot of disaffection in the ranks, especially amongst those who came from the Middle Belt?

When Shande died, it was then that we realised that we had more Middle Belters than even the Hausa or Yoruba.

Then what of the mistake of the One Division, is it because of (cuts in ) what you are implying is that they didn’t need to have gone to so many places?


They didn’t need to have killed so many Igbo on the run?


So in other words, there was recklessness on the part of Shuwa?

You used that word, I wasn’t there (on the scene with him).

Because all they needed to do after capturing Enugu was to track their way to get Uli?

No! Uli Ihiala was not there then. Uli Ihiala was only there after we captured Port Harcourt. And with the ingenuity of the Biafrans, within a month or so they had built another airport at Uli, Ihiala.

How was Uli Ihiala the centre of gravity. Is it because of the airport? Is that the only reason?

Okay, that’s a good point. If we had captured all the ports. We had Bonny, we had Koko, we had Calabar, we had captured all that in order to keep the blockade. We were to block them from receiving supplies of ammunition and all that. Well, One Division had captured the airport at Enugu, we had captured the airport at Calabar. And now, their supply route was by air because we blocked the seas. So Port Harcourt was the place. We captured Port Harcourt. Having captured Port Harcourt, what else? You expect that they would surrender. But they now went and built Uga and Uli airports and planes were flying there. Two airports at the same time; ingenious! Uga in Anambra State and Uli Ihiala in Imo State of today which was the main one receiving all the main aircraft, it was just a road. They just widened the road and it worked.

I have a friend called Buzebonzo who was flying for Nigeria and flying for Biafra as well and Buze would say one day, I would like to go to Uli Ihiala with my family to show how ingenious these Nigerians are and the ingenuity of the Igbo. But do you know that Obasanjo bulldozed the Uli airport? He said we don’t want to be reminded of the civil war. But Biafrans, of course, or let me use the word Igbo now gathered their things together and now they opened a war museum.

Still on this issue of One Division, One Division ought to have done what? Because we see that they were just capturing Biafran territories but it didn’t seem that they had focus?

It is the strategy that caused the tactic they applied. They were not thinking of the centre of gravity. If you capture every Igbo town, would it be okay? When they got to Nsukka, there was nobody in town. When they got to Enugu, there was nobody in town. Let me tell you, when I got to Enugu in 1969, I brought people back into Enugu. I have pictures; it’s going to be in my second book. I did something: I told my orderlies to go and capture any women they could find. Even if she was born today, go capture am if na woman. And they brought these people crying. I had arranged food, I had arranged drinks, to give to the women from Nsukka side. Then I said alright o, all of you if you want to eat, you eat before I come. If I come and una no eat I will pack the whole thing away o but make una eat. I ate my own and before I came back they stopped crying and ate up all the food.

By Wednesday the following week, they sent a message to me saying, Oga, don’t come and capture us again o. If you want us to come to party, then we are ready, we will even bring our sisters. They came, people were getting comfortable. Then Geraldo Pino was on the bandstand, he was the leading band in Nigeria then. I brought him from Lagos to play and the whole town was parked full. And then another organisation in Enugu brought Jimmy Cliff, that was how Enugu came back and people started coming to town. In Marine Commando side, we opened schools. For the first time, they did school certificate in 1967.

(Cut in) In Enugu?

No, they couldn’t do all that in Enugu and other division area but in Marine Commando, we opened schools and when they were talking about raping and no raping, we had girls’ schools; even their fathers could not go and visit them, only the mothers could go. In Port Harcourt, we had Stella Maris, we had girls’ schools. We looked after these children.

What you are saying essentially is that if there were these discontinuities in the various divisions, it shows that Gowon was a hopeless commander?

No, what we are saying, I think you are looking for a headline for your paper (laughter).The point is One Division had their own strategies. You see, it was good that Gowon gave authority to the field commanders. He did not interfere. You remember, for those of you who read this military history when Hitler started interfering with commanders he found that they were not good enough he took over the command himself.

But he took over the command himself in a way he did not think with the rest of his generals?

Well, that’s what happens if you take over command. Definitely there would be friction.

I’m not saying that Gowon should have taken over the command in a dictatorial way; Gowon should have worked out a comprehensive and integrated strategy because what you are telling me is that there was no integrated strategy. In fact, your own integrated strategy came from your own pincers 1, 2 and 3?

I agree, you’ve read my book. The thing was, Gowon gave each commander their objectives; go and capture so so place. When next you want to go, go and report. We didn’t have what was called a core headquarters; core headquarters means one division, two division, three division and I am the commander here, commander-in-chief to command who tells you where to go and how to go and we didn’t do that. In the Nigerian Army, during that time, I’m telling you nobody thought the war would escalate to what it was.

Remember, it was Biafra that first had a plane. They came to bomb the Casino in Yaba, the most populous area in Lagos at the time. And then we captured that plane at Port Harcourt. Nigeria was not ready for it and what did we do? We went and bought planes, we too started bombing. I mean, they were killing you in the North? You were bombing Lagos, kin ti e tije? (What is your own?) What I’m saying again is that we needed a core headquarters to be able to control them but Gowon didn’t want to do that. What he did was to give each one his powers, his administrative and logistic support. Say here is what we want, we need to capture Ojukwu. Ojukwu moved from Enugu to Umuahia, they chased him. I didn’t need that and Adekunle agreed with me that we should look for the centre of gravity.

In other words, you agree with me?

I didn’t agree with you, I’m saying that rather than being told what to do, they left them with the initiative. I didn’t like that.

About the command structure; listening to you and reading your interview, I get the impression that you perhaps felt that your superiors were necessarily bound to listen to your advice based on some presumptuousness of some supposed expertise. I didn’t really get that. You came across as somebody who knew too much and that when he spoke, even his superiors should listen?

You see, in the military we have what is called O’group- other groups. You are artillery, you are armoured, you are engineer, I am commander. You give me your input. The final decision is mine. What I did was to give input and with that input, if you say no, you are the commander. Like Murtala said no and people died.

You tied certain failures to their (Adekunle, Obasanjo’s) rejection of your own positions?

Don’t let us pay the salaries of these boys in the war front and he said no.… he wrote it here (in his book, My Command); look it’s written here. When he said, ‘Oh let us look for a rest area’. Oga, we are from Obubra, Obubra to Port Harcourt, that’s about 1,000 kilometers. Will they bring their troops to the rest areas where you have commanded? Oga, each unit would have their stress recess areas and they would handle it on their own. It’s like telling me to centralise the cooking for 35,000 people. That would be long. And so I got units of 10 people cooking their own food, it was more manageable. And when we said, look, if you insist on paying, we are going to have money everywhere, including the pockets of dead soldiers. And then, he said no, we can arrange it in such a way that the soldiers will keep their money with their officers. Okay if you kept your money with this officer, about 35,000 kept their money with this officer and the officer died, what happens to this money? And there are certain things that are done not because the military said so, but because it’s just not right.

You emerge as someone who is more brilliant than your superiors?

That’s not the right thing. Will you say General Paton was more brilliant than General Eisenhower or that McCarthur was not brilliant? No! But when they talk about tactics some people are more gifted. That’s what it means, people are different. That’s why you have cook, you have stewards; that’s why you have lawyers, you have engineers. It’s division of labour.

Because I told my boss, Oga please don’t let us do it this way, because the last time I did it that way, this was what happened. Obasanjo did not have any war experience; he never commanded the battalion; he never commanded the brigade then. He was saddled with a division and we had been in the war front for about two and the half years before he came. I know what it is when I look at my soldier and he is unhappy, ah John what happened now? And he would say, Oga I never chop o. Ehen, ok, make we go look for chop. That’s different. And you will see Adekunle would pump up soldiers and their morale would be high. We were together in it. When you start giving orders to the man who had not eaten, he would think; who be this man? He no look like Adekunle o, then you begin to see that their morale is low.

But General, it comes down to what you were trying to point out about sending someone who never commanded anything to the war fronts. Were there no other commanders left, to go the war front?

The Yoruba had only 10 officers; the Igbo had only 37. I became a chief of staff at 27. Don’t you see that there is a problem in there and it is not done but it happened. And so who will you call? The senior ones on the federal side were already deployed. Danjuma and Adamu were with Shuwa; Akinrinade and I were with Adekunle. We were coursemates with Adamu; what Adamu and Danjuma were to Shuwa , was what I was to Akinrinade and Adekunle.

From what I read in the book, it looks like the Igbo were on one side, the war was inspired by the Hausa but it was actually won by the Yoruba?

Well, inspired by the Hausa and won by the Yoruba, well I agree with that because the first coup killed Hausa. They killed Ademulegun, they killed (Tafawa) Balewa, they killed the feudal system the people were dependent on and that made them vicious, it made the Hausa vicious. I will give myself as an example of this feudal system. My mother was an Ilorin woman, my father was from Delta. I never spoke the language, only my mother spoke the language. I was four years old when my father died. My mother could not keep me in the village; she had to go to her parents. My name was Godwin, you want to carry a Godwin to Ilorin? You’re kidding. So my mother’s senior brother had just died; they named me Abdulrahman, the name just stuck. Son of the soil, Abduralman. Their family name was Alabi, I was Alabi. I joined the Army as Abdulraman Alabi. The man, every morning, afternoon, dinner, he would give us money to go buy food and we would buy food, that’s Alabi. When the man died, I’m not saying that we didn’t eat well, we didn’t eat at all. We didn’t know how to get food. The older ones amongst us became armed robbers or something; I also became a beggar. I would carry little pan, we would sit down outside there, you would be crying or somebody would toss you one naira. In those days, it was shillings and pennies, they put in your little pan and in most cases with me, I loved sugar cane, I would just go and buy sugarcane and I would eat until my lips would burn. When Alabi died, the whole family died.

What happened therefore was that in the feudal system, they had no job, they depended on the elder, the elder told them what to do and they did and he fed them. So when there is an election and he says alright go vote for the dog, everybody will go vote for the dog. Now you had killed the Hausa leaders and even if it was to arrest Zik (Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe), Akanu Ibiam, Michael Okpara, just pick them all and put them under house arrest. People would have at least been consoled to some extent because after that coup, everybody said these people were heroes, some groups said they were villains.

But Ironsi rather than arrest these people even if it’s only for a day, he did not do that. He then jailed the coup plotters, which confirmed that they were villains rather than heroes. I wrote that in the book. Just as we still have even today, if there is a riot in the North, the first people to die are the Igbo. They sell kerosene, they sell television sets, they sell computers, they sell all the good things. It was the same in those days, they sold the building materials, all the attractive items, television, they sold them, cars, they sold them, bicycles, they sold them. And now, you kill our leaders who were giving us food and you are the ones that have the goods? Then we would rather kill you. And how can we

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