BRIGADIER-General Godwin Alabi-Isama, was one of the Nigerian soldiers who took part in the Nigeria civil war (1967-1970). The 73 year-old war veteran was the Chief of Staff of the highly respected and dreaded Third Marine Commando commanded by Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle and later General Olusegun Obasanjo. Several other war veterans have documented their experiences of the war and he felt it would not be good not to add his own voice being an active participant in the war.
He said he was more compelled to write his own book about the war when he read General Obasanjo’s book, My Command, which according to him was full of lies and contradictions. ENCOMIUM Weekly met with General Alabi Isama in his Surulere, Lagos residence to ask him some questions about the book and his personal life.
It’s like you have stirred the hornet’s nest with your new book, Tragedy of Victory, with the controversy and hype it has generated even before its official launching?
I did not start any controversy. All I have said in my book is what I did in the warfront, on the spot account as the Chief of Staff of Third Marine Commando. I did not abuse Obasanjo in any way in the book. It was not a personal thing. It is his book, My Command, his stewardship of the war versus mine which I entitled Tragedy of Victory. There is nothing controversial about what I wrote in the book. It was my own stewardship –what I did. Anybody who will say I didn’t do so, must have been in Third Marine Commando.
I have 450 pictures to prove what I did. So, how can anybody now say it is controversial?
The controversy in the book probably stem from what you said or wrote in the book about Chief Obasanjo, trying to claim glory for the success of the war, whereas he did not do much to bring the war to an end.
If you read Page 640 of my book, it is there. Akinrinade called him to say the Biafrans have surrendered to him. He (Obasanjo) asked where are they? Akinrinade answered, we’re at Amaechi. He (Obasanjo) didn’t know the way. He got lost. He wrote it there in his book, My Command. He looked for a soldier somewhere in the midst of battle asking for the whereabouts of his own soldiers. Is that a commander? How can a commander be asking for the whereabouts of his soldiers in the battlefield.
What bothered us is, he (Obasanjo) got the glory, but why did he demonise us (Alabi-Isama and Akinrinade) that made the plans and executed the plans. He (Obasanjo) was not there. What did we do wrong? What did Alabi in particular do wrong? That is the question we are asking now. That is all I have written in my 670-page book.
Why did it take you more than 40 years after the war to write your own account of the civil war?
First, I didn’t know I have what it takes to write a book. Second, I didn’t stay in Nigeria much after the civil war. I was in America for 35 years after the war.
Why did you leave for America?
I didn’t want to quarrel with anybody anymore. Those in government then did not agree with me. I was a senior officer then. I was advising them but they will not agree with me. I started building what you could call qualitative army. Any officer (in the army) today that has a degree started from me. I started sending infantry officers from 1976 that I became Principal General Staff Officer, to the university and turned the NDA to a degree awarding institution. I have all the letters here, that I wrote then to Danjuma (Theophilus) was Chief of Staff. He approved them.
Did you retire from the army before you moved to America?
They drove me from the army, they sacked me. They said I was dismissed by a court martial. There was no court martial. Obasanjo’s secretary got the document and sent them to me and my children. That was the first time I would see the document. There was no court martial anywhere. That we were going to steal N300,000. Later, they said they found the money in the paymaster’s safe. My office was in Marina, Lagos Island. The paymaster was in Apapa. They told the paymaster to come and give evidence, the man said no. he came to my house to tell me. He died the next day. They said he died in a car accident. Tijani was the man’s name. And yet they went ahead to publish a fake gazette against me. They were lying.
Some of the issues you raised in your book were about the forgotten soldiers of the war, who are they?
You will take Adekunle (Benjamin), Akinrinade (Alani), Marine Commando, Tumoye died, General Olaoni, Tuoyo, Iluyomade. Those were my officers. They are coming to the launching. They will all speak. We were all impoverished. How many of Third Marine Commando officers has a building? I am living in a one bedroom here. How many generals live in one bedroom in One Division or Two Division?
How many people benefitted from Third Marine Commando other than Obasanjo himself? Did you see Akinrinade with any oil well? He is still living on pension. I don’t even live on a pension.
Because of your dismissal?
Yes, they owe me $9 million. David Mark was Minister of Communication. The contract I got from United States to put metric switching system in Nigeria. My company in United States did the work. We did phase one, two and three. I finished the job without taking a kobo from them. But for them, they couldn’t pay me.
Up till now?
Up till the moment I am speaking with you, Nigeria still owes $9 million for NITEL. We had to write it off. I recruited David Mark in 1962, with Ogbeha and Adisa. I thought I would be able to talk to them to pay us. They didn’t. These were Obasanjo’s friends. They wanted me impoverished.
You sound very bitter about it all.
No. Why should I be bitter? God has blessed me. I just wrote a book about my stewardship. And I said the book, My Command is full of lies. Every picture in the book (My Command) is a lie. Every map is a lie and every sentence on strategy and plan is a lie. Part three of my book has what you call expose on My Command.
Your book also talked about poor treatment meted out to war veterans like the Black Scorpion…
If Adekunle was a thief he would have been able to take care of his hospital bills. But the man is in his house, he is sick. He couldn’t pay his hospital bill. The army was supposed to pay his hospital bill. Why they could not pay it, I don’t know. I went to his house to see him the only thing he could utter was Alabi, I am open. That was the code we used in the war when you are in danger. If he had said I am closed, it means he was fine. That was our radio code then in the war. He couldn’t say more than that. When he dies now they will say Black Scorpion was a hero, he was this, he was that. They will roll out drums and fly the national flag at half mast.
How did you capture all your activities in the warfront in pictures?
I went on patrol with ten men. We got a place at waterside. We were looking for ways to cross the rivers to go to Biafra heartland. We moved forward not knowing that the Biafrans had surrounded us. When they opened fire, I used to run 100 metres when I was in school but that day I ran 20 miles. I sat under a tree panting and others that also survived were coming one by one. Then, I saw my orderly, Effiong Effiong, you made it. He said I made it, sir. How I wished somebody can see us now, take our pictures to see how we are suffering. He said, Oga, I was a photographer. I have two cameras in my bag. I have a studio here in Uyo but there are no films. What type of film do you want? He said Kodak, I wrote it. I sent it to my mother in Lagos. My mother went to Kingsway. She couldn’t read and write. Una get this thing? They said yes. How many do you want? She asked, how many do you have? They said, as many as you want. My mother said, bring everything, my son needs them at the warfront. That was our first meeting with Abebe family. He was the sales representative at that time. She bought everything and sent them to us at the warfront. I told Effiong whatever I do he must take my picture. But Effiong was a professional photographer rather than taking my pictures alone, he was taking the pictures of everything that was happening during the war, which he later documented. Today, I have these pictures to prove a point about the war.
The title of your book is a paradox of sort, Tragedy of a victory. Why the title?
We fought the war to unite the country. Are we united now? What made it impossible to unite the country? Because we have thieves and vagabonds who have been our super stars.
So, this is not the country that you fought for?
That is it. The book is written for the generations after us. My generation spoilt the country. We were given the railway, where is it? They bequeathed us the Nigeria Airways, where is it? Our Nigerian National Shipping Line, where is it? That is why I said the victory of the war has been a tragedy for us who fought the war and the country as a whole.
There are a lot of women you mentioned in your book that took part in the war. Can you shed light about their roles?
They were our interpreters, guides and guards. The pictures are in the book. These women carried the radio during the war and advanced with the men. Many of them were shot and many died. The most important role the women played during the war was fetching firewood during the rainy season. We had to feed 35,000 people on the advance from Calabar to Port Harcourt. We did it for 30 days. I fed the natives. My troop fed once a day at 5 p.m.
How many of the women are still alive today?
Some of them are still very much alive today. I met one of them in London in the course of gathering materials for this book. Some of them I saw later in Uyo, Calabar, they recognized me. They played their part. Anybody who will discredit the role of women in society hasn’t got a good mother.
People like Senator Ita Giwa…
(Cuts in) You are interested in Ita Giwa and Ndi Onyuike because those are the ones you know in Lagos area. Margaret Eyo became Nigeria’s ambassador to Switzerland. She is late now. Cecilia Ekpeyong became the deputy governor of Cross River State. She is also late. There were many in merchantile houses who are successful. Mrs. Henshaw is still in Calabar, they have Etiabar Guest House. The husband is a doctor. He is late now. These were the people who helped us.
There was the allegation by General Obasanjo in his book that you were using the women for partying?
They were not kids. They were adults. Obasanjo said we used them for socials. What socials did he see? There was a party which he was sitting by the side of the commando girls. That was one of those that later became ambassadors. Those of them in Ibadan and Lagos were they not sleeping with women?
How many women did you marry formally?
I lost count. Why do you want to know how many wives I was married to? Is that relevant to my book?
You seem to be very close to your mother from your account in the book?
She was in the warfront. There are about 20 of her pictures in the book and the advice she gave me they are all in the book.
One of the advice you said she gave you was that you must not shoot any man who looks directly into your eyes. Why did she say that? What did she say would happen if you shoot such a person?
That was an advice of a mother. She did not tell me what the repercussion would be. But as an obedient child, I didn’t shoot any that looked directly into my eyes.
In what special way have you immortalized your mother?
This book is dedicated to her memory. The book is also dedicated to all our colleagues that died during and after the war.
When would you consider the lowest and highest point of your life?
The lowest point of my life was when I met Obasanjo. The highest was when I met Jack Gudshin in United States. My relationship with him gave me the breakthrough in Houston, Texas, USA. I was a night guard in USA before I met him.
General, how do you want to be remembered?
As a man who praised the Lord despite all odds.
Which of the other books about the Nigeria civil war would you say is closest to the truth?
Madiebo’s book, Achike Udenwa and Bullie. Those three books.
Who are the people you are expecting at your launching of this new book?
General Gowon has kindly accepted to be my chairman. General Danjuma who was to be the chairman will now be the Chief Launcher. Professor Wole Soyinka is also going to be there.
What is the cover price of the book?
I will sell it for N5,000.
God has been good to you, what more do you want God to do for you?
To give me money to build a church in my village because more than 90 per cent of people in my village, Kwake in Delta State, still serve juju.
- TOLANI ABATTI and UCHE OLEHI
- This story was first published in ENCOMIUM Weekly on Tuesday, July 16, 2010