Colonel Paul Ogbebor (retd.), a battalion commander during the Nigerian Civil War, gives JETHRO IBILEKE his recollection of the war
In your book, The Nigerian Defence Academy – A Pioneer Cadet’s Memoir, you wrote that when you were growing up, the image of the army was that of a refuge for “drop-outs, illiterates, criminals and the Godforsaken.” Why then did you join the army?
First of all, that image persisted only among people here, not in the whole of Nigeria. Why am saying this is because the Northerners knew the importance of the military. That was why the Emir of Katsina sent his son there (the late Major General Katsina); that was why Musa Yar’Adua, who was then a federal minister, sent his son there. That was why Mohammadu Ribadu, Minister of Defence, sent his son there; that was why Murtala Mohammed’s uncle sent him there. Most of the Emirs had their children there because they knew that throughout the whole world, the military is the seat of power.
For instance, in America, at 8:30 a.m everyday, no matter where the President is, he must have a meeting with his military chiefs of staff. This is because without security, there will not be peace; without peace, there cannot be development; without development, there will not be civilisation. Though you have achieved that civilisation, you want to sustain it. That is why the military remains the seat of power the world over. And if you look at all the history of the world, if you go to any important city of the world, the cenotaph or whatever you have there is story of war and victory. That’s what the Northerners have been orientated to realise.
When I was young, a relation of mine, who fought in the First World War, came home after retirement. Although he was privileged to be employed in the Royal Prisons, he was always in his military outfit and I always liked him. Right from the age of five, I started putting my feet in his boots.
Then, some soldiers came to Benin and marched round the city. I was so fascinated; I fell in love with them. Another thing was that I went to watch a film called Bataan. It was about the encounter between the Japanese and the allied forces in the Burma campaign. I was so fascinated with how the Japanese frightened and defeated the allied forces. I was so fascinated.
In 1960, when I went to Enugu during Nigeria’s independence celebrations, the Nigerian Army staged a tattoo as part of the ceremony. I was so fascinated to see how they were crawling and demonstrating. I also went down on my stomach and started crawling until one soldier caught me and threw me out. But one of the soldiers asked if I was interested in joining the army and gave me an address.
Immediately I got to school, I wrote, but they gave me a very poor reply, saying I’d have to wait till I passed my school certificate exams. I was so disappointed and wondered why I needed to have education before joining the army. But Nigeria was very good in those days. They still remembered to write to me after two years, asking me to come and take the entrance exam. I took the exam and I passed. So, soldiering had been in me. And am told that my family, the Ezobas, were warlords. So, it could be genetic.
By the time I got there, all the people I met I liked. Then, we didn’t know what was called religion or tribe. We saw everyone as Nigerians. And at St. Patrick’s College, which I attended, we had people from everywhere. I was already a cosmopolitan being.
You were a cadet when the first coup happened. How did you respond to the upheaval that followed?
Nigeria was already on the boil at the time the coup came. The West was boiling; the Agbekoyas were killing people. Awolowo and Akintola were on each other’s throats. Awolowo had already been sentenced for planning a coup.
The North was approaching boiling point because the Tivs were fighting the federal government. There was an incident where so many policemen were sent to the Tiv area and they tied all the policemen to trees and killed them. They didn’t want to be under the North any longer. They wanted their own region.
In the East as well, there was a division. Though it was not an open quarrel between Michael Okpara, who took over from Zik, and some other people. The restiveness was not as serious as what we had in the West. The political division, allied with tribal division, became so serious that the Daily Times and Nigerian Tribune that were published in the West were not allowed to sell in the North. The New Nigerian that was published in the North, was not allowed to sell in the West and in the East. The West African Pilot that was published in the East was not allowed to sell in the West. Again, before you crossed from West to East on that bridge, you will be searched. The same thing in the North.
At the time the coup took place, Nigerians had a respite, they were very happy. It was jubilation that day in Kaduna despite the fact that the house of Ahmadu Bello was on fire and he was killed. In fact, they were going there to loot. It was the next day that people started reading tribal meanings to it. . Why? Ahmadu Bello, a Northerner, was killed; Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, was killed. Many northern officers were killed. Some Yoruba officers were also killed. Only one Ibo officer was killed.
They reasoned that the Igbo did it to take power from the North. That was why the northerners hatched reprisals.
In June, September and October 1966, about 7, 000 Igbo people were killed in the North. Being in the North at the time, what was the atmosphere on the streets and in the barracks like?
In the June/July, it was very bad. It was mainly in the barracks. There was bloodletting. What happened was that Ibo officers in the North and their families started running away, but the government assured them. I remember Gowon went round to appeal to the soldiers that it would never happen again.
But that of September was not only about soldiers. It affected civilians and it was all over the North: Gombe, Bauchi, Maiduguri and Kano. Those who wanted to escape and entered trains were killed or maimed. The bodies were taken to Enugu. Ojukwu was aghast. And from what I read, he said although he loved this country. He was born and raised in the North and was commanding the 5th Battalion in Kano. He didn’t take part in the coup. But when the pogrom took place, he remembered that he was an Ibo.
What do you think of the secession?
Secession was anger taken too far. The Ibos are a very cosmopolitan people; they’re republicans. Anywhere they live, they develop, they spend their cash there. They lost their properties. But the leaders are different from the people and the leaders knew more of what happened. And from the story we were later told, some people in the West had a meeting with the Easterners to say: ‘Let’s divide Nigeria. Let the Ibos go as Biafra, let Midwest go as Republic of Benin and let the West go as Republic of Oduduwa.’ I was told that there was that secret pact. I think that could have been what really forced Ojukwu to go to that extent. So, secession should not have been the response to what happened.
You are from the Midwest, which supported neither Biafra nor the federal side that was actually the northern side at the beginning of the war. Why did you choose to fight against Biafra when officers and soldiers back home did not want to? And what is your view of the desertion by over 200 Yoruba soldiers in the first few weeks of the war, claiming they did not want to fight with northerners who were dominating the country?
That’s a very good question. I think that was towards the end of 1966. Obasanjo made a statement that since Nigeria was no longer safe, Nigerians who were not indigenes of wherever they lived should move to their places of origin. That sent a very strong message. He was a Major when he made that statement.
The outcome was that soldiers and other people started moving to their places of origin and that led to the formation of Northern Command, Western Command, Midwestern Command and Eastern Command. That weakened the unity of Nigeria. As you said, the Midwesterners believed they should not be involved.
At that time, I was in Lagos. Then, one morning, I heard that Biafra had occupied the Midwestern region. I tried to contact my parents. No way. I tried to contact the people I knew and I was unsuccessful. That brought huge apprehension. Immediately, 2nd Division was set up under the command of Murtala Mohammed. And as history will have it, I was told to form a battalion, so I formed the 81 Infantry Battalion. But there were no soldiers. I went to Iddo Garage, got some area boys, one of whom was Lateef Jakande’s younger brother. His name was Gani. I was later given permission to go to Kirikiri Prisons to get people. I brought them to Ikeja Cantonment for grooming. The items available to me then were pants and singlets for them; there were no uniforms and there were no guns. I carved woods and gave to them for training.
So the loss of my home base and my new exposure of training raw people to become soldiers fired me up.
As I was training them, I had instructions to move an advance party from Lagos towards Ife. And the people were still in singlets, blue pants and canvass shoes. They were holding sticks. It was on the way they brought me some guns and uniforms. From Ife, we moved to the Teachers’ Training College in Ondo, from there we moved to Okene. It was at Okene we were properly kitted. It was a picnic of a sorts to me. I was enjoying it.
From Okene, I was asked to go and secure Okpela. When we were climbing those hills in Okpela, we heard gunshots and my soldiers dropped their guns and ran away. But I had suspected that may happen, so I set up a sort of net behind. As they were running away, we got all of them. I didn’t quarrel with them. What I did was to tie most of them to trees and started shooting over their heads. Some of them fainted; they thought they were dead. When we finished the exercise, I brought them together and told them ‘this is war and those gunshots that flew over you could have killed you, but they didn’t, so they are not for you. You will not hear the one that will kill you. Any sound you hear is not for you’. They got the message. We went up again and captured the place. From then on, my soldiers started enjoying the war.
A beautiful thing happened when we got to Sabongida-Ora. The Biafrans had already destroyed the Bridge when we got there. We had some long vehicles carrying logistics, and Murtala Mohammed said the drivers should drive the vehicles into the river and we used them as bridges to cross the river. It was at one of the bridges that one of our officers, now General Zamani Lekwot, was hit by a bullet in the chest and I was asked to add his own battalion to mine.
On the Yoruba soldiers deserting war, I cannot comment on what I don’t know. In war, there are so many rumours, but I know that there were many Yorubas in my battalion and they fought very well. However, it may be because of the secret pact I mentioned earlier. I knew that many people who came through Ore axis didn’t perform well; they deserted.
In the American confidential files on the war, you were one of those officers described as very disciplined and who saved hundreds of Igbo lives in Asaba and Ogwashi-Uku. Could you tell us your experience in the liberation of the Midwest?
I am very happy that the Americans have records on me. I will bet you that the Nigerian government that I served does not have. You won’t believe that I don’t have a single medal for my efforts. You won’t believe it that I had to spend six months in jail for what I knew nothing about. That is to tell you that Nigeria has no record of its past, but the American government has dossier on me. And to say that I was humane, I am so grateful to God that I am alive to see it. That’s the second time this sort of thing will happen to me. About 15 years ago, I had a call from Peter Igho (of NTA) from Onitsha. He said he was with the BBC doing a documentary. He said he had a directive to contact me that I knew about the war. He inquired where I was and asked to come. That was how I featured in that No Victor, No Vanquished documentary.
So, this is the second time. I am very grateful to my God that I am alive to hear this, not as unknown soldier. When I got to Ubiaja, I saw a man who was killed and his two children were crying. I took them along. It was at Ilushi that I put them in a school and gave them to somebody to look after.
Between 25 September and 9 October 1967, Asaba was hellish. As the Biafran troops were retreating from towns and villages, they were killing non-Igbo Midwesterners. Tell us about what you saw.
In war, you only have well trained officers as nucleus. For example, we were only about 5000 before the war started, the whole of Nigerian Army, including Navy and Air Force. But during the war, it expanded to over half a million. Where did you get these people from? The community. And you cannot give them the kind of training soldiers were given. I spent four years to train as an officer. So, people like that don’t know the history of the army; they don’t know what is called esprit de corps. They believe that the army is to kill, but no! We were taught never to kill because when we kill, we’re having innocent blood on our heads. But if it’s in the course of protecting ourselves, it is a collateral. God will not hold us for that.
So what am trying to say is this: that people were killed in Asaba was not because we wanted to kill them. We entered Asaba on the 4th of October and the people were very warm. They danced and jubilated. They entertained us. We were very happy with them. But in the early hours of the third day, we heard gunshots all over the place. With the gunshots, we knew they were from the Biafrans. We went round searching for the people shooting.
What we did to reduce the effect was to bring out males above 12 years to an open field. The gunshots persisted, so we asked all the women to come out. They were shooting at our soldiers, killing them. In such a situation, people can lose their professionalism and start acting wildly. That was how they went from house to house and started bringing people out. And once in a while, they killed people.
I also still remember a very pathetic case, near the Catholic Church in Asaba. I saw people being taken to the front of the church and shot. There was a woman who held her son and was crying. I saw a soldier hitting her with a stick, so I ordered him to leave the woman and her son. The person in charge was a senior officer and was very annoyed with me. At that point, I had to cock my gun and God touched his mind. He left them. I took all the people to a spot. I also saw people locked in houses, waiting to be killed. God also used me to save them.
I then contacted my commander who, in turn, contacted the divisional headquarters, which then ordered that we should bring the people to Okpanam. But what happened to the people was very phatetic. There were over 4,000 old men, old women and young men. But the soldiers we detailed to take them to Okpanam just went to a corner and killed all of them and put them in a common grave, against my order and the GOC’s order. That has become a very black aspect of the war.
The Americans, in their dispatches, observed that your division had soldiers called regular combatants and they also have another unit called “Sweepers”, which came to conduct mass executions. We want you to shed more light on the sweepers. Did Lt Col. Murtala Muhammed or the Army Headquaters know of them?
When you say regular combatants, those are the actual soldiers trained. We never had anything called ‘sweepers’ because all soldiers were always under the command of commanders. Murtala Mohammaed was very strict and godly. I remember that he gave instructions that any person who took innocent lives will be court-martialed. He also instructed that any woman or children abandoned should be put in the nearest prison around us. He arranged for them to go to school. That was what he did. What I know is that the Nigerian Army Engineers were called ‘sappers’. Maybe ‘sappers’ were wrongly called ‘sweepers,’ I don’t know.
I remember some soldiers involved in killing a nurse, a Kwale lady called Lucky, at Auchi in September 1967. The soldier said a medical doctor, Captain Atalabi, asked him to go and bring the nurse to him dead or alive. And when the soldier got there, the girl said she would not come. He shot the girl. The officer and the soldier were court-martialed, the soldier was shot for obeying an unlawful order and the officer who sent him was demoted in rank.
There was another case in Ogwashi-Uku, where two soldiers killed some civilians. They were tried and shot in Benin. That’s to tell you how strict the military law is. We operate under the Geneva Convention. Once you raise a flag or surrender, you can never be killed. We didn’t kill innocent people. That’s to tell you that neither Murtala nor the Army Headquarters condoned secret killings.
In one recorded incident, you were protecting Americans and innocent civilians at St. Patrick’s College, Asaba, when the sweepers came to execute them, claiming to be acting for a “Major Jordane”. Do you remember this?
It is true that we led many people into St. Patrick’s and there were some white men there. People came there to loot and then took the opportunity to spill blood. But God also used me to stop them. Whatever I did, God was using me to do it. God just brought me to that place at the appropriate time to save the people.
Also it was reported that Igbo people were being taken to CMS for execution and later thrown into the river. You were given 150 Igbo people to execute, but you led them out of sight and fired harmlessly into the ground and asked them to run away. The American documents reported you later did the same thing in Ogwashi -Uku. Other soldiers who participated in the executions claimed they were avenging the death of those killed by Biafrans. Why did you not avenge the killing of your own people by the Biafrans?
There was never a time in the war that 150 were allocated to one man to kill. That’s not possible. That one is a movie script. The only one I know is that incident in which I gave over 4000 people to be taken to Okpanam for protection, but one devil diverted them and killed them. There are things that happen in war and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why wars are not good. And as an officer, I had to put my training into use. If it means killing my officer, I will kill him; if it means killing unprofessional soldiers, I will do it. But I didn’t kill.
Have you met any of those whose lives you saved during the war?
In 1973, I went to study in Britain. I bought some rugs in Liverpool and was looking for a way to bring them to Nigeria. I was told there was a cargo ship that was coming to Nigeria. I asked of the captain and they said he was not there. I asked of the 2nd captain, he came. I told him that I wanted him to take something to Lagos for me. He said the ship was on hire. He asked who I was and I replied I was Major Ogbebor. He asked me to wait. On his return, he came with one man who asked if I was Ogbebor. I said yes. He asked if I was in Asaba during the war to which I replied yes.
The man said although the ship was on hire, he would make it available to me. They took me up, gave me food and drinks. They emptied their captain’s store, sent somebody to Liverpool to get my rugs and put them in the captain’s store, which was locked and the key was handed over to me. The ship was supposed to go to Lagos, but because of me who lived in Port Harcourt, the went to Port Harcourt first.
When I asked why, they replied: ‘You saved our souls.’ They said they could have been dead. I can’t remember their names now, but I was told later that one of them was the captain of the Nigerian ship that sank around Portugal many years ago, and he died there. There are others like that. I remember a former Managing Director of Nigerian Railways Corporation. Engineer Okoro is his name. He knew me when I served in Owerri during the war. He also said I helped to save his life.
It was reported in the American documents that some Midwestern officers collaborated with the Biafrans, including Ogbemudia, who later defected to the federal side. What do you think?
Ogbemudia was my senior in the army. He was already a captain when I was a cadet, but I knew him in Kaduna. I was in Lagos before the war, when he came to see my commander, Ashiru. It was then he told me that they came to take explosives and weapons to Midwest. He told me that they were querying him on what he wanted to do with the explosives. But from what I learned later, he said his reason was to secure Onitsha bridge against the Biafran advance. From what I learned, the military had their doubts, but they issued him those things reluctantly. That was the last I heard of him before the war.
After some time, I knew from intelligence reports that the federal government was not sure of the stand of all the Midwestern Ibo officers. In fact, that was one of the reasons they did not want to issue the ammunition he requested.
When the war started, I learnt that Ogbemudia crossed through the creeks and went to Lagos and he was received very well by Gowon. One evening, Ogbemudia came to meet me at Ehor. He spent a night with me. He told me that the federal government gave him a vehicle when he said he wanted to go back to Midwest. By that time, I had already captured Ehor and Akinrinade had already taken over as commander of my brigade.
I was never in the Midwest with him to know the role he played, but all I knew was that he came to Lagos to see my commander and then, he wanted explosives, ammunition and weapons, and there were some security problems. But from intelligence reports, I learnt that the explosives and other things were taken by the Biafrans and used. That was what I heard. What I will say is that security reports had it that many Midwesterners were working with the Biafrans.
What role did Major David Ejoor play and why did he hand over to Okonkwo before going into hiding? What was the role of Col. Banjo?
What I knew was that a few weeks before the war started, I was sent from the Army Headquartes to see Ejoor. There was a special equipment that I was supposed to instal. I went and spent three days to instal that equipment. I was at the table having dinner with Ejoor when he said: ‘It has happened,’ and was fidgeting. I was a very junior officer, so I could not ask him what had happened. It was later I learned that war had been declared and from intelligence reports, I knew that Ejoor was not having the fullest cooperation of the senior officers in the Midwest. It was under him that Ogbemudia came to Lagos to collect those explosives. It was about two weeks after Ogbemudia came to collect those things, which were supposed to prevent the Biafrans from entering, that they entered the Midwest. What I later heard was that the Biafrans took away those things.
Is it not safe to say that Ogbemudia was a collaborator?
I cannot come to that conclusion.
But you said the things he came to collect for the prevention of Biafran incursion into the Midwest were taken away by the Biafrans.
Yes, but he was not the commander; he was only in charge of logistics. He represented the commander to get those things from the Army Headquarters, so he may not know what was happening.
How much did you know of Banjo and his involvement with the Biafrans and allegation that he was collecting money from Okonkwo?
I didn’t know Banjo at all.