Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
WITNESSES TO HISTORY:
- Lt. Col. M. O. Nzefili (rtd) – Part 2
continued from http://www.dawodu.com/omoigui50.htm
Lt. Col. Mac Nzefili (rtd), a 1957 graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, was among the first 30 Nigerians ever commissioned into the Army. Therefore, he belongs to that unique pre-independence first generation of officers.
In the second and third parts of his testimony as a witness to history, the Colonel responds to questions sent in by readers from all over the world who read the first part of his testimony as my guest. I summarized the questions into focus groups for ease of reference.
Among other things, Part 2 contains details never before revealed about events at Ibadan in the days following the January 15, 1966 military coup in Nigeria. As the second-in-command at the 4th Battalion, Ibadan, Nzefili (who was then a Major) bears witness to the confusing situation left behind in the wake of the assault on Premier Akintola’s lodge at Ibadan by a team of out-of-town soldiers from the Abeokuta Garrison led by Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi. He also describes the situation in the battalion following the assassination of his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Abogo Largema, at the Ikoyi Hotel in Lagos by a team led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna.
In response to other questions, the Colonel also discusses his escape from Lagos following the Northern counter-coup of July 29, 1966 and his re-emergence in his home Midwest region as part of what became the 4th Area Command after the Aburi conference of January 1967.
In Part 3 of his testimony, he will respond to questions about the August 1967 Biafran invasion of the Midwest, his subsequent escape to Biafra, the May 1969 kidnap of Italian oilmen at Kwale, and the Nigerian Railway Corporation which he once served as the General Manager. He will round up by taking up additional questions – if any - following the publication of Part 2 of his testimony.
Younger generations are grateful to the Colonel for sharing his insights and appeal to others to come forward as guests with their memories. I have made minor edits in Italics where necessary to clarify issues and dates for readers. The testimony is his.
RESPONSE: My first Army Number in the Gold Coast (Ghana) at the Regular Officer’s Special Training School as a Cadet, was N/A 18151047. At the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II commissioned me into the British Army. Our numbers will be found in the British Roll. We passed out on 19 December 1957. Nigeria was still British Protected then.
On being posted to the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF), now dissolved, I had a new number, WA 64 (West Africa 64). When Gold Coast became Independent as GHANA, the remaining British West African Countries went their different ways and a further change in Military Numbers took place. My new number became N25 (Nigeria 25). Note that N/A and N before the military numbers did not mean the same thing. "N" is for Officers and "N/A" for other Ranks including Cadets.
RESPONSE: I knew nothing specific about the coup of January 15, 1966. The planning and execution were such guarded secrets that you had to be one of the conspirators to know. I was neither recruited nor did I take part in any way, shape or form.
We had just finished the Battle Group Course at Abeokuta in December 1965 where I was 2i/c to Lt. Col. Francis Fajuyi and also the Chief Instructor. The other instructors were Majors S. A. Adegoke, Adewale Ademoyega and Iliya Bissala. There were some Captains and Lieutenants whose names I cannot remember now. So I was settling down in addition to rehearsing the parade for the Presentation of Colours to 4th Battalion, Nigerian Army that year. In fact I was attending the rehearsals from Abeokuta having had the advantage of experiencing the preparation for participation in such a parade at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. I was then the second-in-command (2i/c) to Lt. Col. Abogo Largema, the then Commanding Officer of 4Bn NA, Ibadan, Western Region of Nigeria.
Ibadan was very insecure then as every evening and night witnessed sporadic shooting from all sorts of weapons including automatic weapons in the town by opposing supporters of Chiefs Ladoke Akintola and Obafemi Awolowo. Both men were at war with each other politically (Awolowo was in Prison). I was in touch with my Commanding Officer and the Brigade Commander 2 Brigade both in Lagos where they were at a conference ending on 14 January 1966.
The Regional Police Commissioner, Chief Odofin Bello, requested military support verbally, as the commotion in town was getting out of hand. I gave him my Commanding Officer’s address for I had no powers to deploy troops on the request of a Police Commissioner. I got quickly on line to Lagos to brief my Commanding Officer who told me to take no action. Soon after, the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Zak Maimalari, phoned me to say I should tell the Commissioner to place his request through his Inspector General in Lagos who should then make a formal request to the Army Headquarters. I did so.
As a result of political tensions in Ibadan and the Western Region, then known as the WILD WEST, the Officers Mess had become an office during the night, for Command and Control. Almost all the officers of the 4th Battalion were, therefore, assembled at the Officer’s Mess that night. Lieutenants Bala Haladu (now Lt. Gen. Balarabe Haladu (rtd)) and Ibrahim Bako (now Brigadier Bako (deceased 1983)) received most of the calls.
Sometime during the night of January 14/15, I later asked my C.O (Commanding Officer) – Lt. Col. Abogo Largema - if I could send an infantry company to the other side of Sagamu to bring him back home to Ibadan. He told me not to worry, that he would return the following day. That was the last I would speak to him. The coup plotters murdered him a few hours after midnight at Ikoyi Hotel in Lagos. January 15th had dawned.
At Ibadan we left the mess late (around 2 am) but by 4 am (15th January 1966), the American Embassy followed by the British Embassy phoned me to announce that there was shooting by soldiers in Ibadan. I told them that my troops and the Battalion were intact. The Commissioner of Police then rang to say that Chief Akintola had been killed. Before the shocking news could sink in, the Governor, Chief Fadahunsi, also rang to say that Chief Fani Kayode had been taken away by soldiers.
I jumped out of bed, dressed up and got the adjutant to alert the battalion having quickly briefed him. The battalion was intact. With a company, I headed for the State House, got the company commander to change guards, and went in to see the Governor.
It was from him that I learnt that Chief Akintola had been killed, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello had been killed, and that there was no news about the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the Finance Minister Chief Festus Okotie Eboh. He was badly shaken with the wife holding tightly to him. I re-assured him about the action taken and with a platoon I headed for the Premier’s lodge to see things for myself.
At the Lodge, right from the entrance there was an incredibly large quantity of empty cases (spent shells or bullets) all over the place. Chief Akintola’s body was lying lifeless at the porch covered. I confirmed he was the one lying face up under the bedspread. Farther away was the body of somebody we later learnt was the electrician to the household lying lifeless, dead.
I returned to my Unit. All attempts to get my Commanding Officer (C.O.) in Lagos were futile. All lines had been cut. By this time we had not yet known the fate of my CO, nor from where the attack on the Premier’s lodge came from, but Lt. Col. Gowon (as he then was) phoned from Lagos to ask if I was loyal. I said yes. He would not tell me much about my Commanding Officer other than that he was safe. He asked me the same question about three times with me answering the same way but at the third question, I asked, "but to whom"? He replied "To General Ironsi" and I said "yes".
A lot of unpalatable things happened in the days after 15th of January. My C.O., when going to Lagos, left a medical doctor friend of his in my care. This doctor put up with the C.O. and remained in his house after the C.O’s departure. He came from Kano and would be flying back to Kano on the morning of the 15th of January. I saw him off to the Airport that morning where we met Lt. Col. George Kurubo from Lagos on his way back to Kaduna (Kurubo was then C.O. of the 3rd Battalion in Kaduna). It was from Kurubo that we learnt details about disturbances in Lagos. The doctor boarded the same plane. However, because the doctor visitor was taken to the Airport in the late Colonel’s Mercedes Benz car driven by his driver, this incident was later to be misinterpreted by some soldiers from Largema’s home place to mean that I killed Largema and was seen driving his Mercedes!
One of the officers in the battalion, Major Adegoke, phoned me from Ijebu-Ode. Contrary to my advice to stay where he was and keep away from the Battalion for some time, because things were not normal, he came anyway and arrived while I was away on a reconnaissance mission along Iwo Road and at the University. He was arrested and was being led by Lt. Ibrahim Bako when he broke loose and started to run. Lt. Bako pursued and, with both arms out stretched, was shouting, "Don’t shoot, don’t shoot" but unfortunately a soldier on sentry near the Officers’ Mess far away, took aim and shot him down. He died before getting to the hospital. (January 17th)
By this time (January 18th) Col. Adekunle Fajuyi had arrived Ibadan as the new Military Governor of the Western Region. I reported to him on my return from Iwo Road but strangely, he had already heard from other sources. Nonetheless, I welcomed him to Ibadan and to Government House according to instructions.
Meanwhile, after Adegoke’s incident the soldiers in the battalion were gradually becoming unruly. Col. Gowon (who had been appointed Chief of Staff, Army) got to know of the problem from Intelligence and came along with Major Mohammed Shuwa for him to take over from me since majority of the soldiers in all the Battalions were of Northern extraction. Nevertheless, even in Gowon’s presence, some of them were behaving abnormally. Some attempted to cock their guns, which necessitated their being seriously talked to and unsparingly scolded by Col. Gowon. This had the desired effect. I asked him to take my family with him back to Lagos while I chose to remain behind with my troops. He later returned to Lagos, as he came, along with Major Mohammed Shuwa.
Back at the Mess, Major Linus Ohanehi, one of my Company Commanders, called me aside and told me that my house had been attacked and the plan was to kill both of us that night. Capt. Achebe, the QuarterMaster (QM) confirmed the information about the attack on my house and on his word of honour confirmed the safety of my family. I told Major Ohanehi to find safety in town if he could but I, as the acting Commanding Officer, was not leaving the Battalion.
Two soldiers from late Col. Largema’s compound had carried out the attack on my house. They fired indiscriminately into my sitting room, hitting the pram in which my seven month old baby, Martin, was sitting but miraculously missing him before my wife raced down stairs to carry him to safety away from the house together with the other children. Distraught at the sudden and brutal murder of her husband in Lagos, late Col. Largema’s wife also attempted to stab my wife.
A Corporal from late Col. Largema’s place was offered money, ten pounds, to kill me. He came and told my wife and showed her the money but narrated how kind I was to him in the Congo. He was in my Company back then. He was poisoned and I had arranged to send him back to Nigeria for treatment, which is how he was saved. He, therefore, refused to do the bidding. The incident in the Congo had made him a regular visitor to the house and this naturally made him the target for the offer. When my wife asked him his next move he said he was returning the money and nothing will make him harm his "Oga". He did exactly as he said he would do.
This was the situation of uncertainty and distrust in the battalion until Captain (T/Major) Mobolaji Johnson was posted in to take over from me as Second-in-Command and Major Joe Akahan took over, also from me, the duties of the Commanding Officer. (This occurred in February/March 1966. Johnson was later posted to Lagos in June 1966 as Military Administrator, while Akahan remained as CO, 4th Battalion.)
I was then posted briefly to Army Headquarters as Acting Director of Supply and Transport (DST) and later to Supreme Headquarters and from there to the Nigerian Railway Corporation as the General Manager by the Supreme Commander himself. Not long after, I was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in May 1966.
RESPONSE: As the General Manager of the Nigerian Railway Corporation I was completely cut off from the Army. My instructions came directly from the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters (then called Chief of Staff of Armed Forces). On this day, 29th July 1966, my orderly came in very early. He was not as composed as before. I asked if he was ill. He said he was not feeling quite well and I asked him to go home. It was much later I learnt he knew what was to happen but to avoid being one of those to come to my house, he left home very early. He had come to warn me but had no courage to do so although he did not want to be part of it either. He was a Northerner.
I left early to the office to receive members of Justice Adefarasin’s Commission probing the Railways. I was addressing them when I got a telephone call saying that a counter-coup was in progress. The caller said the Supreme Commander and the Governor of the West were missing and that I should leave the office.
I accordingly advised the members of the commission to make their ways back but not in a convoy. I told them briefly what was happening and that their investigation would have to be suspended. They moved out quietly and in an orderly fashion.
The hide and seek game then started. I went to Abalti Barracks in mufti (civilian attire) to sign for a weapon. A Major was waiting at the entrance to identify me. Having collected my weapon I moved my family out of the premises. No pin was removed from the house. My loyal driver who had resisted several temptations by soldiers of 4Bn NA to kill me by motor accident was asked to go to the Niger Embassy for shelter. I did not know then that he was from Langtang until Col. Gowon told me later.
Assassins were sent to my house at the Railways compound, Ebute-Metta, and at No. 2 Okotie Eboh Street, Ikoyi. My house at Okotie Eboh Street had long been under surveillance since I had served at the Supreme Headquarters. On being posted to the Railways, the Supreme Commander ordered me to move into the Railway quarters. I had an Opel Kapitan car with Maroon colour. The civil servant posted from the Governor’s office at Enugu to Supreme Headquarters had, by God’s grace, the same model of Kapitan and identical colour. Thus, any time the watchers came around, they saw this car and were assured that I was still occupying the house. So on the night of the coup when the house was surrounded and the occupant ordered down, the pointer on seeing him said he was not Col. Nzefili. So he was saved. So was I.
Col. Conrad Nwawo was opposite me and his house, like mine, was also surrounded. He was overseas but returning that day, diverted and did not reach his house. That also saved him.
I was hiding and moving from house to house but getting up-to-date reports through my civilian officers in the Railways. From them I heard there was a massacre at Ikeja cantonment. Two of the surviving officers, one of them being then 2nd Lieutenant Peter Ademokhai (now Major General P I Ademokhai (rtd)) were left with bullets in their bodies. Three or so bullets were removed from Peter Ademokhai but two others had to stay in, as they would pose a danger at removal.
One night, two of the Railway civilian officers, a Medical Doctor and a Lawyer sought to see me after continuously pestering my wife. She booked appointment for the following night. They thought I was in Surulere where I was initially. My wife came with the message that the Doctor and the Lawyer were gathering Eastern Officers to make for the East. They said Col Ojukwu sent for me which I knew was a lie, and that General Ironsi was at Umuahia. I told her as she well knew I was not going to the East for anything. All the same she could bring them some distance from where I was and come to fetch me ensuring she was not being followed.
The following day after taking them on a wild goose chase to extract more facts from them, she left them in Obalende, about 300 yards from where I was. She debriefed me further before I surfaced with her to meet them. We all entered a VW Beetle car with the Doctor driving and headed for Yaba. We got to where Col. Tony Eze was hiding somewhere in Yaba. Col S. Nwajei was the only other officer from Mid-West. We told them we were not traveling to the East. If we must see a Governor, we have our own in Benin, then Col. David Ejoor.
When they could not persuade us to join them, we asked to be dropped at Obalende at a friend’s from where we were taken to my proper hideout and so we went our different ways.
I continued to hide from place to place, always disguised until an elderly Yoruba friend of mine, Mr. Olowu, arranged to smuggle me out of Lagos to Ikorodu from where I made my way home through Benin without stopping. My secretary had earlier given me a report about the road up to Agbor and so I was able to avoid most of the checkpoints between Lagos and Benin.
When my friend arrived back in Lagos his driver reported him and he was arrested. He denied knowledge of me. Having spent most of his business life in the North supplying the Army, his Hausa was impeccable and he was, therefore, released. It was a sad event because the driver was a Yoruba man too.
My wife was with her mother at Ebute-Metta from where she visited our children at their Boarding School at Ibadan. I later returned to Benin from home to pay my compliments to Governor David Ejoor. From his office he got Col. Gowon on phone, unknown to me, and asked me to speak to the person on phone. I was pleasantly surprised because this was the first time I would speak with him after the counter coup that brought him to power. He assured me of my safety if I returned to Lagos.
I was not afraid of Gowon. I trusted him but not some of the soldiers around him in Lagos who a few weeks earlier had killed a Captain of Igbo extraction who was under Gowon’s protection (Captain Okoye). The officer was being sent out of Nigeria for his safety but was arrested and murdered at Ikeja Airport on his way out. I mentioned this to him as one of my reasons for avoiding Lagos. I was still loyal.
In January 1967, Col. David Ejoor also asked me if I could go to represent the Fourth Area Command at the formal burial of Col. Fajuyi at his hometown of Ado-Ekiti in the West. However, I sensed danger and declined.
I was relocated to Benin where I was appointed the Officer Administering Aboh Division, my home Division. Later, together with Col. Henry Igboba and Major Ochei, we were appointed Commanding Officers of the Units at Auchi Area for Col. Igboba, Benin Area (Oluku etc) for Major Ochei and Agbor Area and beyond for me. We were to build the units from scratch to a Brigade strength each, the units in those areas to bring the fighting force in the Mid-West to a Division strength.
It was during this time that mischief crept into the Mid-West Entity for some officers became involved in nocturnal movements and visits to the East where the plan for the Mid-West invasion was hatched.
Before the invasion, I was recalled to Benin to organize the Civil Defence of Benin and environs and it was while I was on this job, entirely with civilians, that the Mid-West was invaded through Asaba. The mystery of the Mid-West participants in the plot was exposed when in Benin they were seen with badges of higher Ranks. One had double promotion to Full Colonel. Those of us that knew nothing about all these intrigues inadvertently became labeled by Nigeria as Rebels, same as the Eastern Officers. Irreparable damage had now been done and distrust crept in among officers from different parts of the Mid-West.
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