Sunday, January 16, 2022 8:00 am
Lt. Col. Fola Oyewole, a Nigerian Military Officer of Yoruba stock, fought on the side of Biafra during the civil war. Before then, he was, because of the first coup 56 years ago (15 January 1966), imprisoned in Lagos and in Enugu but was released by Lt Col Odumegwu Ojukwu. Saturday 15 January 2022 was the anniversary of the coup.
Oyewole wrote his own war account entitled “Reluctant Rebel”, which joined other civil war narratives like ‘The Biafra Story’ (1969) by Frederick Forsyth, ‘Why We Struck’ (1981) by Adewale Ademoyega, ‘Sunset In Biafra’ (1975) by Elechi Amadi, ‘The Nigerian Revolution And the Biafran War’ (1980) by Alexander Madiebo among others.
In this interview with Ademola Adegbamigbe and Femi Anjorin, the retired army officer narrated what happened during the first coup, his participation in it and why he, despite being Yoruba, fought on the side of Biafra like other non Igbo officers like Lt Col. Victor Banjo, Major Wale Ademoyega and others.
On 15 January 1966, the military struck, how will you assess the journey so far? Because there is always this stock phrase that the military spoilt Nigerian politics?
Well I don’t subscribe to that and maybe you will understand why I said that. I do not think that the military really spoilt Nigeria. More importantly, you will find out that right from Aguiyi Ironsi to the time the military sort of ended its intervention, if they had ended it at all, the military hadn’t any say in what was happening, it’s always the civilians dictating the pace, advising the military.
It was on the allegation that you were among the people that planned that coup that you were detained by the federal government… we want you to assess the situation then that really prompted the military to strike?
I was not one of the master planners of the coup. It will interest you to know that by half past eleven on the night of January 14th, 1966, I had no clue about the coup. No clue whatsoever.
So why did they link you?
Precisely, I was friendly with Emmanuel Ifejuna who was the brigade general and then after they had planned and done everything possible as the saying goes, some of the people who agreed to what they had agreed decided not to take part, it was a matter of getting anybody who could help and by virtue of my position, I had a telephone in my house which was the same thing that happened to most people there. The original planners started telephoning. Where are you…? I want to see you. It was an emergency period. I was second in command to the Transport Brigade in Apapa and we were on 24-hour alert. (So, like they will say something like this… something is happening in Ogbomosho blah blah blah, can you help out? We did get instructions 24 hours).
It didn’t come as a surprise, so that is what happened. They drove to my house at about twenty five minutes to twelve and asked me to come to Ifejuna’s house. I got there and I saw a lot of officers, sitting down and they had even finished what they were talking about, and they said, you stay and I will brief you.
Were you effectively court martialled before you were detained?
No… No… No… there was no trial, no court-martial nothing. I tell you, I got picked up before 8 o clock on Saturday morning and a group of senior officers interviewed me. I told them what I know and they said go and wait, that was the beginning of it all.
There is a political tilt on how the coup was carried out and it has been generating controversy till today. Critics said the coup was lopsided. Ladoke Akintola was killed in the West, then Zik and Mike Okpara “were not around”. The argument was that they got wind of what was going to happen and left. There is this argument as to why were leaders from other parts killed and the Igbo leaders allowed to escape? What is your position?
I wouldn’t subscribe to that argument. They said Zik was ill, he was going for treatment and then he left the country and at the time of the coup, he wasn’t there, whether he got wind or he didn’t get wind of it, I would not know. Those who planned the coup must have taken a decision but it does appear that it was not in totality deliberate. I give you a specific example, the signal commencing the action in Enugu was delivered that morning and it did say: “Arrest, secure the key points and wait for further instructions”. And if you are in doubt, that was why Fani Kayode was arrested in Ibadan and brought down to Lagos, they wanted to kill him but what stopped them from killing him in his house in Ibadan was because of the instructions (waiting for further instructions) and he was brought down to Lagos.
This interview is meant for people that are under 50 because even some people who witnessed what happened have forgotten. Tell us what happened before and after the coup happened and the pogrom leading to the Biafran war…
From that 15th of January, I was in prison, so it was all about they say, they say, they say.
Looking at that time and now, have the factors that led to the coup and pogrom gone?
For me I wouldn’t think so. This question of quota system, being fair to this side and outside, taking advantage is still there. It is probably even worse. That’s the way I look at it. It is unfortunate, otherwise the country should have moved forward better than we are now. That’s the way I look at it.
It was quite surprising that the people who really carried out the coup were not allowed to govern…
In planning the coup they had an idea, they know what they wanted and went ahead and achieved it but they did not have the power. So what can you do?
Now let us come down to your book, Reluctant Rebel. What prompted you to write it?
When you find out that there is life in you. In the last two years I have been trying to do some writings, I can’t do so, but in prison there was nothing to do but eat, sleep. I wrote everything in prison.
Were you not monitored?
Yes and No. You had to find a way!
What were the challenges that you faced in writing the book?
I faced none because the face that kept recurring or that I was remembering, I documented it. I didn’t need any reference book. I didn’t need anything. The book is a narrative of a personal experience.
Do you still feel the same perception about the coup? I mean this is a coup that you do not know anything about, just because some people backed out and you were then drafted in?
They said Zik was ill, he was going for treatment and then he left the country and at the time of the coup, he wasn’t there, whether he got wind or he didn’t get wind of it, I would not know. Those who planned the coup must have taken a decision but it does appear that it was not in totality deliberate. I give you a specific example, the signal commencing the action in Enugu was delivered that morning and it did say: “Arrest, secure the key points and wait for further instructions”. And if you are in doubt, that was why Fani Kayode was arrested in Ibadan and brought down to Lagos, they wanted to kill him but what stopped them from killing him in his house in Ibadan was because of the instructions (waiting for further instructions) and he was brought down to Lagos.
I was not the only one. There are some other people who didn’t know until that day. For instance on the night people were briefed, a colleague was in the briefing and he told them, look I have to consult my family. They looked at him and said ok, go and consult your family. Just by the corridor, they told somebody: “Follow him maybe he will be the first casualty of the coup”! Of course, what do you want him to decide? So simple. That gentleman is still alive today.
In what area did you take part in that coup?
Arrest, seize facility and others…
In your book, you write that after the coup, you were detained in Lagos and then transferred to the East but Ojukwu released you. We wonder why you didn’t run away.
Where do you want to run to? In Nigeria I was absolutely persona non grata, is it heaven you want to run to? Apart from that I and my other Yoruba colleagues had the fortune of having a chat with Chief Obafemi Awolowo when he came to the East. He and leaders of south east I can’t remember all of them. On behalf of Nigeria, they came to plead with Ojukwu and we had the fortune of meeting him (Awo) because my late uncle M A Oyewole was Awo’s friend. So when he was leaving Lagos, he jokingly told him, you must come back with my son. So when he came to the east, Awo started looking for me. Eventually he left a message where I would meet him and I did. I told my colleagues and we all went and we saw Awo and in the course of the discussion, we did ask if we could come home and he said ‘not now, don’t try it’. So what do you do? And the easterners were not chasing us, so why not stay where you are accepted? So we stayed.
You didn’t run away. But why did you decide to fight on the side of Biafra?
Now there was a trade I learnt- that is soldiering. What will I be doing in Biafra if I did not fight? I only practiced my trade. It is as simple as that. You could not just be walking around town doing nothing.
But Ojukwu asked people who wanted to leave to go to the federal side…
That is before the war. If you remember early 1966 before the war till late 66 during the pogrom, by the time the war started, non easterners were in the east, they had not gone.
In the book you said you do not believe in secession.
Despite that, you have it in your book that Ojukwu had genuine grievances, yet you fought on Biafran secessionist side, help us reconcile those positions…
You might have your objections but the powers that be, this was what they wanted, you have no choice. Mark you, I was not the only one who, given the chance, didn’t believe in secession, more so because we were not ready, we did not have enough arms. We had manpower, yes, credible manpower was there, but manpower alone doesn’t do it.
You were at a point, according to your book, with Captain Adeleke, another Yoruba soldier, who was he?
He was a colleague. He is the one who said he wanted to consult the family and we were friends, we both worked in Apapa before the crisis.
I want you to describe what happened to other Yoruba people or non Igbo who fought on the Biafran side – Lt Col. Victor Banjo, Major Wale Ademoyega, then Major Kaduna Nzeogwu an Igbo from Opanam in Delta?
They were detained like me, and Nzeogwu was detained, that was a common factor.
In the book, you applaud Ojukwu’s performance in Aburi, explain to us what actually happened because there is this argument that he bamboozled Gowon
If you listen to the Aburi accord or the proceedings as a whole, you will duff your cap for Ojukwu whether he is a villain or whatever you want to call him, call him. He really dictated the pace of the discussion, he was prepared for it, he kind of put together all the things and if you listen, the moment he started talking, others kept quiet and when he finished, they will say ok ok ok. To give you a full grasp of what the theme was, you need to read the comment of the super perm sec who led us to where we are today.
Was it Philip Asiodu?
The group – Asiodu, and the rest. Their recommendations, what they brought back from Aburi was agreed to be implemented but when they came here they tore it into pieces.
Ok, was it after the agreement was signed in Aburi? They came back to Nigeria….
To put it in whatsoever you can say political implementation. They desired to analyse it, it was an agreement not suggestion, that’s where our problem sort of started.
If you listen to the Aburi accord or the proceedings as a whole, you will duff your cap for Ojukwu whether he is a villain or whatever you want to call him, call him. He really dictated the pace of the discussion, he was prepared for it, he kind of put together all the things and if you listen, the moment he started talking, others kept quiet and when he finished, they will say ok ok ok. To give you a full grasp of what the theme was, you need to read the comment of the super perm sec who led us to were we are today.
Kindly let us into what the agreement was? Because there was this talk of confederation, federation…And some critics said that was where Ojukwu bamboozled Gowon…
At the conference, Ojukwu spoke his own views, and they were entitled to theirs too and fortunately or unfortunately they agreed. So what do you bamboozle?
Do you have any reason to disagree on the war accounts of people like Frederick Forsyth, Wale Ademoyoga, Elechi Amadi?
It is their opinion. I only sympathise with them, they were writing after so many years after the event and in all modesty I will say I wrote more accurately than many of them. I wrote immediately after the war. I have nothing to refer to. I did not copy anybody and I wasn’t getting wiser after the event. I only reported what I saw. They have their own opinion, that’s how they see it.
How will you describe the experience, in such traumatic detention circumstance, it is difficult to have power of recollection, how did you navigate?
That is the easiest thing to do, especially when I started writing it. What really prompted it was the account being given by a lot of these Igbo people- of what happened or what did not happen only to exonerate themselves. What is all these storytelling, rather than keep quiet? That’s why I wrote. I wrote my book 1971-72 which wasn’t published until 1975. I don’t think any soldier wrote before 1980. Everything settled down. The difference is clear!
What’s your view on the war accounts by Ojukwu himself and even Obasanjo?
I refuse to read, I don’t want to read. You cannot say Obasanjo was not telling the truth or Ojukwu was not, but if you want to value or know the value of Obasanjo’s book, go and read Alabi Isama, you find the difference. I am proud to say nobody has come up to say anything opposite in what I wrote. It was more or less reporting.
Awolowo was accused of being behind the blocking of food supply to the easterners which really affected the civilian populace, what is your view on this?
Well he is the only one who has the view on it. I don’t have any view.
Critics have been arguing about whether or not what he did was right…
Is anything right in war?
People who were in charge of Biafran propaganda said oh, the federal side took the advice of Awolowo and stopped food to the East….
Awolowo said, hunger, is the legitimate instrument of war so what else do you want to say? You want to be feeding your enemy so that he can fight you? Anything you have, you use it.
Awo defended himself . I want your reaction to that. He argued that the Biafran soldiers (you were with them), were seizing food meant for the civilian population, that’s why the civilians were having kwashiorkor and soldiers were looking robust. How will you react to that?
O ma se oo (It is a pity!). I didn’t look robust anyway. If anything, civilians were donating food to the soldiers. It is not true. It is the civilians. They know they have a stake, and they said, lets maintain these soldiers so that they can fight for us. And where is the food anyway? In Biafra, Ojukwu introduced what we called land army because there was no food. So land army will say, yes we have this area now, it will be good for cultivating corn-if it is corn, plant.
I wouldn’t subscribe to the argument that soldiers were taking food from civilians, where is the food? The ones available it was like let us share, for instance which was an argument I put up on fuel price, fuel subsidy. I used to produce petrol for Biafra-I, Fola Oyewole. Yes. It is like brewing ogogoro, put it in something, fire it, and it would produce steam, and pass it through cold water. So if you have a small river around your camp, about one third of the crude you put is petrol, the second third or there about is kerosene, without doing anything and the next is diesel, because we didn’t know what to do, we threw away the rest, but people who do know can tap it into something.
The point is the kerosene I got, I didn’t need. I gave to people of Owerri Nkwo Orji, the village where my camp was. Then I was chief so to say, I gave them anytime I boiled- petrol, kerosene, so everybody was looking after everybody so to say. If you snatched food from civilian, who do you want to control? Who do you want to command? It doesn’t make sense.
Despite that you eugologise Ojukwu, at a point in your book, you criticize him…
No. I stated facts. Like Njoku was put in detention without being relieved of his post and he was in detention till the end of the crisis, he is dead now, and may his soul rest in peace. There were areas where Ojukwu was really in control, there is no doubt…
Kindly appraise Ojukwu before, during and after the war (as a politician), how can you describe him?
Ojukwu was not a politician, he was not a politician. It is all survival instinct. Now that he has survived the war, stayed in exile and even the people he fought for started criticizing him, he wanted to make a strong point, self preservation, survival.
Then, how will you describe Ojukwu before the war, during the war?
That’s a tall order. Ojukwu was a man who controlled his environment. You see the army then had what we called grade one officers, Ojuwku, Banjo, and so on and so forth. And Ojukwu was always in control of his environment. There is something extraordinary about him, he couldn’t grudge you, how many graduate officers in the army, he was conscious of it and you couldn’t blame him for it!
Many criticize Ojukwu for being dictatorial, taking sole decisions above members of his Supreme Military Council and Consultative Assembly, what is your take on this?
When you are in a war situation, it is a difficult thing to say otherwise. What I mean is nobody wanted to be seen as being against the commander, let’s be honest. And they will interpret it as oh he forced us to do this or that. In some cases, he wrote his speech, from that speech you could see where he was going. Then when it is your turn to talk, what do you intend to say, to say he was wrong in his conclusion? Let’s be honest.
Why was General Njoku replaced with Madiebo?
Where Njoku was being a professional, he assessed the situation and said ‘we are not ready for this war.’ And somehow, it filtered to Ojukwu and Ojukwu thought he was against him, he was not partisan. Njoku’s position was the position of the average professional soldier. Yes. We might have reason to fight the war but we must play for time, you just can’t start a war if you don’t have the material and that was the disadvantage against Ojukwu.
Here again, there are the people we call, Ojukwu nye anyi egbe, ka anyi je waa nu (Ojukwu give us weapon to deal with Gowon). The overzealous civilians, who thought that just to carry a gun was enough. The Biafran army were more or less divided into two, the professional soldiers and the ones who were telling Ojukwu to go to war without caring about the implications or what it would take. Njoku being a professional man couldn’t just say yes. So the only way to ease him off (and if Ojukwu had eased him off and left him alone, it would have been better), he put Njoku in jail.
Did you fight along with some mercenaries?
Fola Oyewole fought with mercenaries? Or Biafran army fought with mercenaries?
In your own segment?
No. No I did not. Incidentally where I would have, I commanded a company in Ohelle but then it hadn’t gotten to that level of mercenaries. No I didn’t.
I want you to talk about the ordeal of the Igbo especially the civilians during the war, what did you see in your company or around your company? The picture that was sent out was that children had protruding stomachs and stuffs like that…
Indeed there were cases of kwashiorkor. They existed and I am sure if you have seen the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) now, you will see some of them in such a situation, there is no way you can rule it out, there is no way.
Christopher Okigbo, that intellectual and poet died in what many people referred to as controversial circumstances. Many of us don’t know, you were with Biafra, can you explain to us what really happened?
In your opinion, it is controversial, but ordinarily, most of the people like I said, the enthusiasts who didn’t want to think about rationale, Okigbo was interested in the war, he went to the front and he didn’t have the training, he was killed in action. Nzeogwu so to say was killed in action but he had no command. He and his men jumped into it and that it is how he was killed. Nzeogwu should have been commanding a division at least but Ojukwu didn’t give him a command.
Was it out of suspicion or what?
Leave that to you and me. That was sacrifice. I give you a good story. When I was instructed to prepare vehicles to move weapons to the various fronts from the railway, so we went, got there and what we wanted was high calibre weapons, we searched the whole train, they didn’t exist. Ojukwu joined us at the railway and he said God! At the point he said, but there are weapons, rifles, anybody who wanted to fire, give them. Training or no training – give them and that is how it started and some of the young people lost; enthusiasts, lost their lives in Nsukka front, you see that is how I am amazed, people see war as play thing, war is not a play thing, you must be prepared for it.
What will you in one sentence, say was Ojukwu’s mistake in that war?
He acted before time. You can imagine, all the weaponry, everything belonged to Nigerian army and they had it, Biafra had superior man power, most of the officers were of Biafran origin, material is important. Ojukwu tried his best but he had this failings which we must not lose sight of, which is only natural anyway, that is how I see him.
Was there at a point the Biafran high command started suspecting Yoruba officers? If so, Why, if not, why not?
That is incorrect and never never. Civilians maybe but within the army there was no suspicion. I give you an example. Once I was travelling from Onitsha to come to a place called Agbo Ogwugwu, it is close to Enugu. Then I was arrested. Why was I arrested?
On December 3, 1967, when I took delivery of my first Peugeot car, one Igbo man took delivery of his own too and it happened that for about 6 – 7 months we were servicing our cars at the same place. Once he came to the hotel in Onitsha and he saw a man, he knew I was a Yoruba man, but he didn’t ask me, he greeted me, and he said can we have dinner tomorrow and I said with all pleasure.
While I was changing, the hotel was surrounded and I saw the boy and I asked what is it, and he said we are looking for a Yoruba major, I said where are you from, he said we are Biafran boys, and I said I was the Yoruba man, he said you are under arrest. I said what? That time FG just captured Asaba and they taught I infiltrated from Asaba to Onitsha and I said what is the next thing? I said before then, let us go and see the DPO he knows me. The boy came in two vehicles and I drove mine. I followed them, unfortunately for me, we got to the police station, the DPO was not around, his officer who has seen me regularly for weeks kept quiet, they denied me and said ah. If they denied it would have been better, they said ‘we don’t know him.’ I said ok lets go to the army headquarters, a colleague of mine, Major Anan was there, and they said ehnn this Anan self, one day we will deal with him, come it is the Biafran boys who want you not Anan.
I followed them and they had a point under the bridge where they carried out executions, they were taking me down there. So we went on, as luck would have it, as we got to the entrance of the bridge, Colonel Iwanwa was there, and he said ah Fola, kedu (how are you, what happened)? We have been waiting for you and I said, you can’t see me oo, I am under arrest. He said these riff raffs arrest you? Ahh you better come to army headquarters where everybody knows you. So to say soldiers didn’t trust Yoruba officers maybe it exist but I didn’t experience it. But some civilians didn’t feel comfortable within the 18 months of the war but towards the end I was a celebrity!
The other time you were explaining that Nzeogwu died in action, it was like a coded language, please can you explain more…
He died trying to fight with the Nigerian troops with his rag-tag boys, not an organized unit because nobody gave him a unit but the urging was too much, he couldn’t sit down watching, and soldiers really respected him, officers respected him so he would gather a few people and say common lets go, not an organized attack, and he got killed.
Presently there is agitation for Biafra led by Daniel Kanu, what can you say about the agitation? Is the agitation right or…
The agitation can never be right. Who is he? What does he know about Biafra? The Kanu boy, he doesn’t know anything about Biafra and without apology if anybody should agitate in Nigeria today with the set-up, maybe it is going to be the Yoruba people. But since I am one of them I just want to look because I think the Igbo are getting more than their share but they are still complaining. What can you do? But I don’t know where the trend of Biafra will lead them, I don’t know. I can’t even see it leading anywhere except crisis; if they know what it is to have a war, they won’t do it. Enthusiasm of the ignorant!
Not all Igbo elders are supporting it, but the youths are into it
Selfless Igbo elders won’t support them; the likes of Ezeife are not talking sense. If you listen to him, I don’t think he is right. They should let a sleeping dog lie. Again it is the fault of the government because I think there is enough, how much did we spend on this jamboree of this Confab, what has come out of it? I don’t think anybody is thinking about it. I for once thought it was unnecessary. If you really want anything reasonable to happen, take this Aburi accord, take the Justice Uwais report. I think it is Justice Uwais or one judge, who advocated: select a maximum of 12 people and let them think about it because left to me before 1966 we could improve on what happened then and you can see these days everybody wants federal fund, nobody was asking for federal funds in those days, every region was working on its own, today people carry brief case, our quota in Abuja, why? Go and examine what the constitution in those days was, examine the Aburi accord, examine what Justice Uwais commission contains, see how it can be managed, see how it can be married. These, about 400 people? They can’t give us a good deal – constitution, good money thrown away – billions. It is sad.
Despite that Biafra gave its all, it lost the war, what will you say was the last straw that broke it?
The straw can’t be anything except arms and ammunition. Don’t forget, here again the Igbo, they shot themselves in the foot. Some promised Ojukwu, just carry on we will give you arms, when it came to the crux, where are the arms? Aah. There was a committee for ammunition. To show you that there was never discrimination against me as a person, I was on this committee, the person nominated to go and negotiate arms for us, he went and never came back, he went to England and disappeared. Incidentally I think he was a pharmacist. You send people to go and monitor the enemy, they said yes. They go there and settled down and started living. We call them BOFF (Biafran Organisation for Freedom Fighters) and some people used a vulgar language. I am sure you have them too on Nigerian side but because they won the war you won’t hear it.
But there is a kind of what I will call a distinction between those who supported Biafra in Africa especially the Francophone countries, what is the reason for that?
France is the force. France didn’t make any noise but we knew where the interest was.
There is this expression sir, ole ku ija Ore (battle of Ore was tough)… What were the Biafrans coming to do on this side?
This is very sensitive. It is a nasty experience. Before coming to Ore at all, the war was supposed to be in the east against the west and the rest and as at that point the Biafrans had people in the west waiting to receive them. Fine I said I commanded troops at Ugheli, Ugheli was not part of the team, Oghele wasn’t. But here again, Banjo and Ojukwu decided to have quarrel and they quarrelled to the extent that if you capture the west, it is going to be under Biafra. It won’t be a separate entity of itself.
Who made that assertion?
Ojukwu. That was why we stayed that long in Bendel of that time or Midwest of that time otherwise it is to walk across and people were waiting including some officers of this side to support. While they were arguing, the federal side got wind of it. Meanwhile Banjo was accused of hobnobbing with the British deputy commissioner in Benin. While they were quarrelling over this, the federal troops got an upper hand and moved into the Midwest.
Between these two instances, were there any other instances when Ojukwu and Banjo quarrelled?
I think that is the one I can remember. Before then in the Nigerian army both of them being graduates had an affinity like that. When we were released from Prison, I was released in Enugu. I was brought from Owerri to Enugu where we declared to have been released, they look for houses in Independence layout for us, Banjo lived in Government place – they were so close.
But things fell apart between them,
Well it is this question of capturing Lagos and so on. That is all I know. They were very close. It was the question of affinity that they looked down on non graduate officers but that’s something on the back. It is unfortunate.
Going back to the 50 years of the coup, what mistake will you say Nzeogwu and his people made?
I will say none. As far as I am concerned, individuals made mistake in the pattern of the people killed. There was something like a mini war amongst us in Kirikiri, ‘why did you do this or that? This was not your instruction, the instruction was to arrest and wait for further instructions, why was this man not given a chance, why did you go to a hotel to adopt and kill people…’
These were silly mistakes, and if that was known, some of the people wouldn’t have taken part and having said that all those detained were southerners. Do you mean, even in the north, it was southerners who did it? Not a single northerner was detained, so Nigeria still has problem.
That takes us back to the first question we asked that Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa were killed…
Killed by Nigerian troops and not necessarily Igbo troops. Troops of the Nigerian army.
Nzeogwu went and killed the Sardauna …
Were you there? Even me I can’t say who did what. We all knew Sarduana lost his life and it was an aerial operation.
After retirement, what have you been doing? People will be curious to know
What will I do at this age – 77?
But you retired a long time ago, between then and now
I tried my hand on business, being a career transport officer; I tried running transport business in partnership with a cousin. Later, I joined the Lagos state as a commissioner – local government service commission. When the road safety war was to start, we had a planning committee which I was drafted into because of my experience in transport and supposedly I was doing my best.
Somebody said, oga, it seems road safety corp has become your baby. I was still with the commission, as a certified commissioner in the local government service commission. I said No, but he said you have been appointed as a director.
Was it the time Professor Wole Soyinka set the team up in Oyo State?
Soyinka was in Ibadan. In fact I went to Ibadan… Road safety was in Lagos but not every state. It was only Ibadan and Lagos
You did not finish secondary school…
I went to City College and I didn’t finish. When the teacher training in 1955 was to start, my father said I should be a teacher, so I became a teacher and at 17 plus I worked for Salvation Army and they decided to make me headmaster and I said am too young to be a headmaster, I must consult my parents.
Was it at that point you joined the army?
I joined the army in 1961
Did your parents agree?
They didn’t agree. Incidentally a cousin of mine was living with us and he too applied, while I was going through the exam, they wrote him to say he should try some other time because my initials with my father’s initials were the same thing. My father got the letter, opened it and said ahh thank God it has been rejected. That weekend I went to Ibadan for the final selection, I came back and then my father said have you seen your letter, I said yes, it is not mine, it is for my cousin and incidentally I have been away in Ibadan for a week, that is for the military interview and I have been selected. That’s how I joined. By the end of the course, I was nominated to go to England and that’s how I started.
Can you tell us within the war, the day you came face to face with death apart from those who wanted to go and kill you then?
Maybe the day I was moving to Oghele from Onitsha. Some people stopped the convoy. I didn’t even know what to do. It was a mere ambush, and then suddenly I assessed the people who were facing me. These rag tag people, they are not soldiers. I told the convoy, go to wherever you are going and I told the assailants, ‘don’t mess around with this convoy’. And that was all, that was the nearest.
And they obeyed just like that?
Perhaps, some people may say being a Yoruba man you used juju to command them!
No, no. And other time when I was running away to join the Biafra. In Agbor but I was lucky, they didn’t know me- the troops- and they said common open your booth and I buried my head in the booth and they didn’t see anything and they said go, I passed along four different check points until I reach…
You were leaving this side to go and join the Biafra.
Look at it this way, you don’t have no choice, two the fact is that people are not hostile to you, they were not, I was very well taken care of. Whereas if somebody as high as Chief Awolowo could tell me that he could not guarantee my safety, should I be foolhardy enough to insist by settling in Nigeria. Chief couldn’t and not just me – Banjo, Adeleke and others and papa said for now it is not possible to guarantee your safety.
And that’s how I escaped. Mere luck and that was it.
We are still curious about your loyalty to Biafra
Look at it this way, you don’t have any choice, two the fact is that people are not hostile to you, they were not, and I was very well taken care of. Whereas if somebody as high as Chief Awolowo could tell me that he could not guarantee my safety, should I be foolhardy enough to insist by settling in Nigeria. Chief couldn’t and not just me – Banjo, Adeleke and others and papa said for now it is not possible to guarantee your safety.
Although by the time I got to Oghele, Warri, I wanted to escape and come to Lagos, I would have done it successfully and people said don’t go, don’t go.
Kindly asses the role played by Soyinka and Solarin during the war. Because Soyinka was punished for having sympathy for Biafra, the suffering masses; even Tai Solarin was seen in a picture with some malnourished children.
I know about that because he met us. It is a matter of conscience, what they thought was right and ideal for their courage and of course Soyinka paid for it but he is the happiest and proud man for his actions. He has no regrets and I thank him for that.
*TheNEWS interviewed Oyewole, then 77 (at the time we interviewed him for publication on this platform on Saturday, 9 January, 2016)