(Guardian Newspapers of Nigeria)
By MADU ONUORAH
Col Peter John Okoli retired as Commander, Nigerian School of Artillery, Kachai, Kaduna State in September 1990. He enlisted into the Army as a boy soldier at the Nigerian Military School Zaria in May 1958 and was commissioned an officer, after graduating from the Haile Selassie Academy Ethiopia, on October 12, 1965, a few months to the first coup of January 15, 1966. He recounts of his escape from the killings of the coup, the civil war that he fought on the side of Biafra, his absorption into the Army in 1972 and the military generally. He still has the scar of the bullet wounds he got on 17th June 1967 in the Nsukka sector of the civil war and the bullet-ridden uniform he wore on that day, among other memorabilia.
Where were you on January 15, 1966?
I was in 2nd Field Artillery Battery, Abeokuta. We used to have two batteries of Artillery. One was in Kaduna and the other in Abeokuta. In fact, that of Abeokuta was just being formed. We were the officers who formed the nucleus of that Battery. I was in Abeokuta barely two and half months after my commission when the coup took place.
What happened in your unit on that day?
In fact, the whole thing took me by surprise like it did most people. That morning of January 15, 1966, I went for tennis with later Gen AB Mamman because we shared the same flat. We were Second Lieutenants then. We were walking back to our houses when we saw an officer whom I later on came to realize was Major Anuforo. We saw him in the Officers Mess with some troops and 911 trucks, with some soldiers, in front of the Mess. He had a submachine gun with him. We greeted him and passed. But the way he looked at us was somehow. We didn’t know what was happening. It was later when we got to the office that we started hearing that there had been a coup. And our own Battery Commander Capt Nwokosi was the one who carried out the operation at Ibadan in the house of the Premier, late Chief Akintola. We didn’t know. It was that morning we came to realize this.
So, what happened from there?
From there, after the news of the coup had been broadcast, we tuned the radio and started hearing and then we got instructions to move down to Lagos. The late Major Obienu was then commanding the Recce Squadron in Abeokuta, that is, the Armoured Unit in Abeokuta. So, we went to Lagos with his armoured cars, and with our Artillery guns. We went to Lagos and were deployed in strategic locations. I was at the airport under Captain TY Danjuma, the former Minister of Defence. I was then one of his platoon commanders guiding the airport.
Were you at the airport when the counter-coup happened
: No. We were at the airport only for a few weeks. After that, we all returned to our different units. So, I was in Abeokuta when the July 29 counter-coup took place.
What happened on that day?
: It is a very long story. For me, it was a very bitter experience. That night of 28/29 July 1966, Maj Gen AB Mamman, my friend came and woke me around 10.30pm. I had gone to bed. He woke me and said the Garrison Commander; late Lt Col Okonweze wanted all officers in the Officers Mess. We went together and met other officers. We were there and the commander briefed us. He said he got information that a coup was imminent and that some of us officers were part of it the coup. He started advising us that we shouldn’t get involved because we were all brothers and we shouldn’t harm one another.
Meanwhile, we sent for the Garrison RSM, when he came, he was instructed to go and alert the soldiers and tells them what was happening. And he was also to reinforce the Guards we had at various places. After some time, we saw him coming back. Walking by his side were his soldiers, our own soldiers, about a section strength. They were in a single file coming towards us with rifles at high port. I didn’t entertain any fear because they are our soldiers. I felt probably they were going to reinforce the Guards at the Commander’s house because the Commander was then living behind the Mess. So as they were walking towards us they started going in a circle.
Then suddenly, they just swung round facing us. Hands up! Hands up! Before you knew what was happening, they corked their guns. I was sitting next to Lieutenant Olaniyan of the Artillery. Next to Lt Olaniyan was one Lt Kasaba of the Recce squadron. Major Obienu, the Commander of the Recce group was also sitting, with the Garrison Commander somewhere. Some other officers had not come like Captain Ogbonna, later retired Major General Ogbonna. Our Artillery Commander then, Capt.. Domkat Bali, later Lt Gen Bali wasn’t in the Mess either. He had taken over the Command of the Artillery after the first coup when Major Nwokosi was been detained.
When the soldiers said hands up, the guy in my right, in a reflex action, took off like a bullet. Then I followed. Three of us – Kasaba, Olaniyan and myself just took off. And immediately, the soldiers opened fire on us. We ran and scattered into the bush, every man to himself. All we had were shots behind us. When I ran off, I walked through muddy areas and crossed the Lagos road, after a long distance. Then, in front of me was the Ogun River. And the only way I could cross into the town was through the bridge. But I felt that maybe the soldiers might be holding the bridge. So, it may not be safe taking the bridge. Then another alternative was to swim across the river. I wasn’t a particularly good swimmer although I was born at the bank of the River Anambra. I could swim but that night I didn’t know what I could meet so I decided to stay the night just near the bank of the river, between the river and the road. I was there throughout the night.
All through the night, I was hearing occasional shots in the barracks. Then in the morning, at first light, I stood up. Looked at the road and I saw some soldiers coming with arms, returning to the barracks. I felt probably they might have come to Aro hospital, maybe looking for fleeing officers or something like that. So I laid back again. After they had passed I crawled near the road, asked one man if there was any problem in the barracks in Lafenwa, the area of Abeokuta where the barracks is located. He said no. I then asked if there was any troop movement around Lafenwa area but he said no, he did not see anything.
Then when a Taxi came by I just jumped into the taxi and asked the driver to take me to the other end of Abeokuta called Ibara. Before, then I had ascertained that the soldiers were not on the bridge. At Ibara I got out and went to a friend’s place and told them what was happening. They hadn’t heard anything. I got to their office, used their telephone to call the barracks. I called the barracks and asked to speak to Col Okonweze the Garrison Commander. They told me he went to Lagos. Then I asked if I could speak to Maj Obienu but they told me he also went to Lagos. I said, is everything all right in the barracks? They said yes, everything is all right. They said who are you? I said I was a Police officer that I was speaking from a Police station.
And immediately on the same phone, somebody was calling me. I heard a voice. PJ! PJ! And I was speaking to the operator. That was AB Mamman’s voice. I said AB Are you all right? He said yes. He said what’s going on? I said where are you? He said he was in the barracks. I said what the hell are you doing in the barracks as that time. I hadn’t known exactly what was happening. I thought the soldiers actually were revolting against all the officers. It was after Mamman said he was still in the barracks that I started putting two and two together. So after I spoke to him he told me, he said P J listen, stay wherever you are. That’s what he told me. He said stay wherever you are. I said Ok. I thanked him and hung up. That was the time I felt things were really happening in the barracks.
Then I went into hiding in the town and spent a night. The next day there was this announcement by Brigadier Ogundipe announcing the coup and saying that things were now all right and those soldiers should return to barracks and all that. So I stood up and collected my things ready to return to the barracks. But then I thought, am I not too hasty about this? So I sent the man in whose house I was staying. One man, they call him Yellow. He was working in the Railways. Later on they killed that man for helping me and other Ibo officers to escape. So I sent him to go near the barracks and see if it was safe for me to come back. He went with his friend and he came back and said it wasn’t safe at all, that soldiers were in the town searching houses looking for fleeing officers. So they got me a taxi. I boarded the taxi and drove some few kilometres outside the town towards Sagamu. From there I waited and boarded transport going to Sagamu, then to Ijebu Ode and later Benin.
At Benin, I stopped because I had a cousin at Benin. That’s where I stopped and waited for sometime for things to become normal so that I will go back to my unit. But it never got normal. In fact, I was there when some soldiers from Ibadan came to Benin and went to the prison and collected some officers who were detained in the prison as a result of the first coup, that is, January 15 coup. They collected them and finished (killed) them. So it was after that that I left Benin and reported to Enugu. By the time I got there they had already included me among the casualties. And later, I got to learn that Col Okonweze, Major Obienu, Lt Orok and my two colleagues who ran into the bush with me but came back were all killed inside the Officers Mess. So, if I had come back, I would have been killed like them.
What were you feeling when all these were going on – betrayed or bitter?
I wouldn’t say bitter really. I was scared as a young officer. I mean it was a very scaring experience. I was quite scared. Later on, one really felt bad because we are colleagues. The thing is that the counter coup was as a result of the first coup. And you know, there was this impression that the first coup was an Ibo affairs although it wasn’t only the Ibos that executed it. But many of the big officers who planned it happened to be Ibos. Major Nzeogwu, Major Ifeajuna, Major Anuforo, Major Okafor and Major Ademoga. These were the five Majors that planned it. Major Nzeogwu who executed it did so many Northern soldiers.
Was AB Mamman aware of the coup and what was his role?
You see, Gen AB Mamman was one of my best friends in Abeokuta. We worked together. There was another guy called Pam. He was of the Recce Squadron. That one was my classmate right from Military School Zaria. So we were really very close. So Pam and Mamman were my best friends. So, to ask me whether Mamman was aware of the coup, I really wouldn’t know. But if he was aware of it, certainly, if he had informed me, the whole thing would have been compromised. So in coups, this secrecy is of utmost importance. So he probably did not know because you have to inform as very few people as possible. When the coup starts, now you start bringing in people. So he probably did not know. And even if he knew, it would have been out of place to have informed me.
But what I am sure is that he didn’t want any harm to come to me because we were close. Because if he had wanted to get me, that time I phoned, when he got my voice on the phone he would have asked me to come back to the barracks, that everything was alright. You know, it was after the war when we met that I asked him how he got my voice on that phone as I was speaking to the operator who was in the exchange room. You know what he told me? He said that morning; he went to the Signals office exchange room to send an important message to Lagos. So when he got there the operator was speaking with me. So the operator told him, look Oga, this voice is familiar. So he asked him to pick the other telephone, which is on parallel line. When he picked up that line he heard my voice and then called me.
Did you ever go back to Abeokuta?
No! That would have been suicidal. In fact, my younger brother was sent to look for me when I hadn’t come back. My people sent him. He now met me in Benin in my cousin’s place because he stopped over at Benin. So I told him that you are damn lucky that you met me here because if you had gone to Abeokuta, may be in the barracks to look for me it would have been a different story.
Where were you at the start of the civil war?
In Enugu. All the officers from the Eastern region were all assembled at Enugu. We all ran back to Enugu. We were there when negotiations were going on between Eastern Nigeria and the Federal Government to avert any further problem. But then negotiations did not achieve compromise and then the war ensued. And I was part of the Biafran Army? All of us that fled our different units were in Enugu. We were so many. New units were created, may be in anticipation of the war. In fact before the declaration I was at Awgu as a training officer. We established a Depot at Awgu. The war started on the 6th June and on the 10th of June I was posted to the Nsukka sector because the Federal might really moved fast and by 6th they were already in the outskirt of Nsukka.
When I got to Nsukka, I was commanding a company although I was in the Artillery. That time we didn’t have any Artillery gun because all the Artillery guns and everything were on the Nigerian side. What we had were just the arms that were left in 1st Battalion Enugu. Before the war, we had five battalions. The sixth one was under formation. We had five battalions – First battalion was in Enugu, Second battalion was in Ikeja, Third Battalion was in Kaduna, Fifth battalion was in Kano and the Sixth one was under formation. So just the few arms left with the First battalion was what we had to use plus a few arms that we were able to smuggle in. But all these were small arms. No support weapons, no heavy equipment.
So, what were you fighting with?
You know, that time we were young officers; we only had to do what we were asked to do. But we were not in a position to take decisions. Quite a number of officers actually weren’t really keen on going to confront the Federal troops and declare that independence. Personally, I felt that if Ojukwu had continued to negotiate he probably would have got a good bargain from the federal government. But after that Aburi he felt fed up. He felt there was no basis for negotiations anymore and went ahead and declared. But personally I felt if he had continued to negotiate, maybe while he is negotiating he would be preparing just in case negotiation fails.
But I think we were a bit hasty in that declaration. You can’t secede like that and think you’ll go scot-free. At the initial stage everybody went with full force and all that you know. But later, people had to take it easy. It was really a futile exercise I must say because the Nigerian Army had everything. In fact, before we started we didn’t have one percent of the weapons they had. Yes, out of the five battalions only one here. The two artillery batteries – one was at Abeokuta and one at Kaduna. We didn’t have any. The armoured Units, the two Recce Squadrons all were with them. And the support units, the workshops, base workshops, were in Kaduna and Lagos. The Ordinance, Signals, other units, none was in the East.
Where did you go from Nsukka. Were you with late Major Nzeogwu?
Well, I was with Major Nzeogwu a day before I was shot. Yes, I was shot at Nsukka on the 17th. I entered the war on the 10th. . In fact, that’s the uniform I was wearing when I was shot on the 17th pointing at the uniform with bullet blasts. After I was shot, I was hospitalized. In fact I was in the hospital when Enugu fell. When Enugu fell, we were evacuated to Awgu. So after my wound healed and I got discharged from the hospital, by then they had been able to smuggle in some artillery guns. So I was now posted to artillery.
Where were you and what happened at the end of the war?
When Ojukwu left (Biafra), we continued withdrawing when the federal troops started the final push. I was commanding the Artillery Battery. My base was between Aba, Ikot Ekpene axis. I was supporting the 12th Division with my artillery. They continued to push us towards Owerri until we heard of Phillip Efiong’s announcement that everything was over. And then, all the officers were asked to report to Owerri. And we all reported at Owerri. That is, the whole officers who were in the Nigerian Army before the civil war, not the Biafran commissioned officers. We all reported at Owerri and we were flown to Lagos and detained for some time. They interviewed us one by one. After, we were allowed to go to our villages. But some were still detained, that is those who were involved in the first coup. Ojukwu released some of them who were in Enugu prisons and Calabar and they fought. Those who were really involved in the first coup were still detained and were released after about another four years.
When were you recalled back to Nigerian Army?
That was in January 1972. We were laid off for two years in 1970 and 1971. In January 1972, I was recalled. Yes, we started from where we left off (before the civil war). We left Nigerian Army as Lieutenants. And when we came back to Nigerian Army, we started as lieutenants again. By then our mates and even our juniors were Majors.
Are there any differences between the Nigerian Army of today and that of the 1960s?
Well, the civil war really dealt a great blow to the Nigerian Army, in terms of discipline, professionalism and standards. You really cannot run away from this thing. This is because during the war, you have to recruit fast to meet up with the recruitment of the war. So, in doing that, we weren’t selective in the recruitment. It wasn’t thorough so we were just packing everybody. But before the war there was a thorough selection to make sure that you get the right people. Because of this rush, the training given to them were not adequate both the soldiers and the officers. So, because of that, standards are bound to fall. There are no bases for comparison because in those days, officers were what we call “an officer and a gentleman”. Your word is your bond as an officer. For example, your cheque cannot bounce. I remember those days, if your cheque bounces, in fact you are cashiered. Oh yes. And we were adopting British standards. As a Second Lieutenant for example, I went to Kingsway Lagos, issued them a cheque and they had one Gramophone delivered to me. But now, you cannot do that. Even if you are a General, nobody takes any cheque from you. And you see many things going on in the units now like Administration. Every unit is expected to be inspected to make sure that the unit is ready for war or to ascertain the preparedness of that unit. You check ammunition. You check equipment, clothing and every other things. Even there used to be in those days what we call line inspection where the platoon commander goes to inspect the soldiers’ quarters for cleanliness. But these things are not there anymore. Accountability; you can imagine last time we heard some soldiers and officers were court- martialled for selling arms to Niger Delta militants. And this thing started some years back and nobody knew about it. That means they have not been checking these things. How can a whole rifle miss? Not one, not two, not three. And nobody discovered it? I remember during my time in NMS when we went for bush exercise, somebody lost a bayonet, just one bayonet shouts. That was hell. We looked for it, we couldn’t find it. We came back. The next day morning, we were back to the bush including the British officers, looking for one bayonet. Until we found that bayonet, nobody rested. But now even a whole armoured car can even get lost nobody cares.