Rebel and leader of the 1966 coup detat, the late major Kaduna Nzeogwu was a junior colleague of Lt. Col David Chukwuma Okafor (retired) who clocked 90 years on Monday. Though many say the one time aide-de-camp (ADC) to first Republic President of Nigeria Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe could not have been unaware of Nzeogwu and his team’s landmark, Okafor would not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ .
The Amawbia, Anambra State born veteran soldier was among the first set of commissioned military officers in Nigeria. But what Nigeria and her military has become are questions he would not like to discuss. In this interview with EMEKA CHIAGHANAM, he reflects on life, memory of his military career and the state of the country, among sundry issues. Excerpts:
CONGRATULATIONS sir. As a 90-year-old man, how do feel about life?
I don’t see anything quite unusual about it. I’m alright, I’ m not sickly. I can manage the little money I am being paid as pension. I’m okay with life. You can see that I’m living in a house. Incidentally, I’m the first son of my father, so I inherited his compound. Anybody who is 90 years old and is not sickly, what else does he want?
I haven’t known headache all my life. If you create headache for yourself, you feel it. I’m contented with life.
Can you give us a flashback of life then?
The olden days are much better. I can tell that then, Nigeria was much better. The value differs these days. Today, nobody really cares for the other. If you look at it, Nigerians those days were friendlier. The idea of creating wealth is quite different in those days.
In those days, they never taught that wealth is greater than human beings; but today, it is different. To be sincere with you, there is no comparison. The difference is much; the upbringing is different if you come to think of that.
It’s not the way that we were brought up that the people of these days are bought up. There was better discipline in my time. The way to make money today is not a straightforward thing. People make money very easily. People adore money today; something that wasn’t attainable in those days. Generally, life was better in those days.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I am from Amawbia in Awka South Local Government Area of Anambra State but was born and bred in Enugu. My parents were among the first settlers in that city. I was born in 1929. I am the second child but the first son.
I went to elementary school at St. Patrick’s, Enugu, and after my standard six, my father sent me to a college then called, African College, later renamed, Our Lady’s and eventually renamed, Chukwurah High School. I think that is the name till date, though not sure. I passed my Senior Cambridge Examinations there in 1951.
On February 6, 1952, I joined the Nigeria Army. I can say that I stowed away to join the army because my father never wanted me to join the army. I stayed at the army barracks for three weeks before the army command took others and i to Zaria.
Because they didn’t take us immediately to Zaria, we remained at the Army Barracks in Enugu for some weeks. I didn’t come out because my father, Chief Davidson Okafor- Odu was a bit influential. He was a transporter. With his lorry; he used to transport those that returned from World War II. Because I never told my parents where I was going, I never got back to them until after six years.
I didn’t write them; there was no form of communication with them. After the training at Zaria, where I trained as non-commission officer, I was posted to Lagos. Anywhere I went, I told the army authorities never to send me anywhere near Enugu, I was more in Lagos.
Then I didn’t know that Africans could be officers in the Nigeria Army because I never saw anybody. But when I saw Gen. Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, who was then Lt. Aguiyi Ironsi, that was when I asked questions. They told me if I could pass the examination that I would be made an officer. I passed the examination in 1955 (Royal West Africa Frontier Force (RWAFF) examination). But before you can be an officer, your commanding officer must recommend you. We had a commission officer called Major Chambers, in Signal Squadron, Apapa, Lagos, when I passed the examination.
When it was time for interview, Major Chambers told me that he didn’t know me enough to recommend, so I didn’t go for the training in 1956. Towards the end of 1956, I was transferred to Zaria. In Zaria, I met Col. Marsh. I asked him to send me for the interview. He told me the same thing that he didn’t know me much, that was in 1957.
Then towards the end of 1957, the colonial authority sent Col. Marsh home and brought Col. Mountain. That one didn’t know me but he asked of me; because I think that this colonel either saw the file or something like that.
I went for the interview. The only thing he asked me was whether I know who he was and I replied that he was our new commanding officer, among other things. He just said ‘thank you very much my boy. I’m going to make you an officer.’ That was how I became an officer. He sent me to Ghana and Britain for training.
I was commissioned in Britain as a full Lieutenant on November 7, 1959. (He fetches a document called Commissioning Parchment for Officers in Britain, singed by Queen Elizabeth that contains all the directives that the Queen in council could give any officer)
Actually, when I graduated from the training in Zaria, they said I would be an education instructor. When I finished from Zaria, we stayed in Zaria, and then went for continuation training at Abeokuta for about two months. From there, I was sent to army headquarters in Lagos, the same 1952.
That same year, I was sent to Ghana for initial training of education instructor (the training you get to be an education instructor in the army). When I came back after the training, I was a corporal (Corporal Education Instructor).
In March, 1953, I was sent again to Zaria. There, I was when I was made a Sergeant Education Instructor. It was as a sergeant that I took the RWAFF examination to become a commissioned officer in 1955.
But I wasn’t sent for the training until 1958, to Ghana for the first initial training to be a commissioned officer. After you pass the initial training – cadet training in Ghana, they will bring people from Britain World Office Board that will interview you people.
If you pass, then you go to England. On finishing my training, I became a Lieutenant and was sent to 2nd Battalion Kawo, Kaduna State.
From there, I went to Cameroun. That was when the French Cameroun was fighting to join the Cameroun. We stayed through 1959 and came back around March, 1960. In October, 1960, we got our independence.
I was still with 2nd Battalion. After October, I was selected among those that will go to Congo (DRC). There were unrests in that country then. I was among the first three Nigerian officers’ advance party there.
I learnt Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi led the contingent?
He led it. You know there was lot of stories surrounding that. Colonial British authorities were thinking we were fit for such operation. It was a tug of war before they allowed us to go with only one or two British Officers. They thought we couldn’t make it.
Even as the most senior Nigerian soldier, they never thought Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi should go. We went and did well. When we came back, I was promoted a Captain, about 1962. And about January 1963, the Governor General, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, called six captains, which I was among and selected me as his ADC. I was his ADC from January 1963 to October 1963.
When Nigeria became a republic in October, 1963, he said he would like to continue with me to get used to what he is doing. He became the first president and I became his first ADC until May 1964, when I left him.
Did you leave him voluntarily or were you disengaged?
Actually, I over stayed. Officially, I was supposed to stay for a year. Before that, the army told him that I have overstayed. But he said he wanted me to stay with him. That same year, the army sent me to Britain for All Arms Division Training.
I came back after the training and was promoted a Major late that year. Then in 1965, I was posted to Zaria, because when I left Dr Azikiwe, I went back to Zaria.
I recall that I once taught Buhari and some other known military officers. I was the demonstration Platoon Commander when they were in the college. That was Nigeria Military Training College, Kaduna. After teaching them in the class, I demonstrated on the field for them.
In what capacity?
As commander of company. Towards November, 1965, I was transferred to Ibadan to take command of the 4th Battalion. We were in that process until the January 1966, coup. Instead of them allowing me to remain, they promoted me Lt. Col. and posted me to London as Defence Adviser of Nigeria at the Nigerian High Commission in London. I was there before the problem of the Nigerian Civil War started.
Because they thought I’m more inclined to Biafra; they asked me to come back to Lagos. They already told all easterners to go to the East and northerners back to the North. I personally traveled from London to Calabar. So, I didn’t go to Lagos. That was my life in Nigeria Army.
Did you retire from the army or was it the crises that disengaged you?
The problem disengaged every easterner from the army. No Igbo person during the crises had business with the Nigeria Army.
Were you re-integrated into the Nigeria Army?
There was nothing like that. They never reengaged anybody. There was no Igbo officer they reengaged.
Was there anyone whose rank was reinstated in the 1980s?
They did that to only one person and that was Col. Ogunewe. But there was something the government did. After the civil war, there was an enquiry. They decided that some of us would be pensionable.
What do you think of Nigeria today?
Because I’m a retired colonel, I don’t have any perspective of Nigeria. I can’t say further. I don’t want people to misunderstand me. Whatever you think of that is what it is. Whatever Nigeria is today is what they want it to be. I can’t tell you whether it is good or bad.
Where do envisage the country to be in the next 10 years?
Because you cannot predict the future, may be it could be better or perhaps, worse. I can’t tell. If I tell you I know, it is a lie. I can’t tell you the direction it is heading. I can’t predict that. We wait and see the shape it will take. I tell you the truth; I have no idea of its direction.
As an individual, what do you envisage in the next 10 years?
Already, I have seen my life, I’m a pensioner. The only thing I expect; if may be they are serious, I think there is a law that says you review pension every five years. I don’t know what it will look like; I can’t guess.
Does it mean you don’t have any projection for the next five to 10 years?
Not at this age, can you plan anything?
I know there are so many physical things that you can’t do, are there no expectations from your children or things attached to you?
You know at this age, you can’t predict anything because you are living by day. To tell what tomorrow may be is a lie because I know that I have reached a certain age. All I know is that I’m just living the life. Luckily, l have not been getting ill to some extent. All I wish is that I won’t have problem.
What can you say regarding your contemporaries in the army and who are they?
My contemporaries so far in this Anambra, they are not living.
And who are they?
They are many. How can I count them for you? They are too many. Ojukwu is there, you have Unugbe, among others.
Before the war broke out, was there any special relationship or feeling among your contemporaries?
In those days, we were much closer together than what is happening now. There are many reasons why you can’t compare what is happening now with our time. Bear in mind that in those days, we had regions and those regions had embassies.
There is nothing to compare. As for my soldier colleagues, those who survived the coups were the ones that remained. There was the July counter coup. All these coups were taking lives. I won’t tell you lies, I cannot imagine what would happen in the next two years. I’m not addressing my mind there anymore; rather I’m saying, well, if God wants me to live, let Him give me good health to live.
Can you say something about the 1966 coup?
All I know they say about it is that it was a tribal coup, but it wasn’t. We weren’t thinking that way that time. The country hadn’t gone the way it is today. Those who carried out the coup knew better their reason for that. You can’t talk about this thing because people will misunderstand you.
Can you lend your voice to the recent call for revolution in Nigeria by the publisher of Sahara Reporters?
Revolution means change of government. If you cannot change the government by normal process, it is not correct then. Revolution is a very serious thing. It means the whole people will reject government. I don’t want to go into that.
Were you to recall any memory, what will it be?
I know that after the war, even those who were our colleagues, were kind to me. They made sure I wasn’t short of money. Some of them would even ask me to come and stay in a hotel where their command is and they are non-Igbo officers. Gibson Jalo from present Adamawa State was one of them.
When I was ADC to Governor General, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, he was ADC to the man that commands the Nigeria Army. By then, I used to teach him some things about the job; so we became friends. He was Lieutenant, while I was captain. We were so friendly.
Some of them missed us as far as I’m concerned. After the war, when Jalo heard that we were in detention, he sent his wife with well-cooked rice and other things to our camp in Owerri and even gave me money and did same for those officers in the camp with me.
And even after, he was still relating with me. He sent his orderly to me to come and stay in the hotel close to him when he was in Benin. I stayed for few weeks. After he finished from work every day, he would come around and you know we used to drink.
We would drink until around 12am before he leaves for home. He did that every day until I told him that I wanted to go. He gave me lot of money. The truth is that they were kind to me, some of those that I met. I don’t need to come and beg you. I just say, ‘look Jalo, I’m financially down,’ carelessly like that and the money comes.
What were you into after your disengagement from the army?
I’m one of those who used to drive Citroen car. Sales manager, Technical Company Nigeria Ltd, a Yoruba man called Mr. Awomolo, used to come to me when I was the ADC to the Governor General thinking that we could buy that car and we didn’t buy and he became my friend. Whenever he comes, if there is food, we eat together.
After the war, I went to Lagos, he saw me. He was excited and he asked me what I was into. I said nothing. He asked if I could manage transport. He said tipper, I said yes, I could. He gave me one tipper on hire purchase. That was how I started transport business. That tipper bought many taxis. My transport business was in Enugu. I have been in Enugu until I came back home in 2008.
Have you anything to say regarding the Boko Haram, herdsmen and the insecurity in the country?
It depends on how they look at Boko Haram and the issue of herdsmen. That’s why I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t want to talk of these people that you are asking me. The herdsmen, didn’t they come here before? Were they doing anything? Are you not a Nigerian?
What’s your message to Nigerians as you mark your birthday?
My message to them is that they should sort themselves out. I mean Nigerians should sort themselves out. Whom are we expecting to do that for us? They know how they went into it; let them come out of it. What else can I say?
But you haven’t told me how or where we missed it and you said we should sort ourselves out?
What do you want me to say? You should ask them this question. As a media person, I think you are to do that job.
How do you want to be immortalised?
If they there is something that I have done that it is worth immortalising me, that is good. .
If both the federal and state governments don’t do that, can’t your hometown, Amawbia, do it?
Actually, if my town is serious, they should know that in the whole of Eastern Nigeria, that I am the 74 officer in the Nigeria Army. Is it a small feat? I’m talking of the set of commissioned officers in Nigeria and that’s because the names were in alphabetical order; you know my surname is Okafor. It is my town that will say that this is our son, he has tried; let us see what we can do for him. I’m the first army officer from this town.
Are you the first from Anambra State?
I’m not the first from Anambra State. Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu wasn’t even the first, neither was Madiebo. Madiebo is still alive if you don’t know. He called me recently. He had diabetes and they cut one of his legs. When I asked him why he accepted, he told me that he didn’t even know when they carried him to the United States and when they did it; that he woke up and saw it. What’s the need? He is in his 70s and they cut his leg. What are you living for? I don’t want any part of my body to be cut, I’m begging God. Anwuna is the first army officer from Anambra State; he hails from Awka and is still alive.
Did you have any close contact with Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu?
It is not a question of close contact. He was under me at some point. He was under me in the Congo DRC, during the crises in that country. He was a junior in our company that also had former President Olusegwu Obasanjo. Major Lajima was our company commander.
What kind of person was Nzeogwu?
Nzeogwu was a straightforward person. If there is something you are doing that is not good, he will tell you.