Fola Oyewole: My link with first coup and why I fought on Biafran side

Retired Lt. Fola Oyewole, 77, a Nigerian Military Officer of the Yoruba stock, fought on the side of Biafra during the civil war. Before then, he was, because of the first coup 50 years ago, imprisoned in Lagos and in Enugu but was released by Lt Col Ojukwu.

He 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.

Q: On January 15, it will be 50 years that the military struck, how will you assess the journey so far? Because there is always this stock phrase that the military spoilt Nigerian politics?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: So why did they link you?

A: 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.

Q: Were you effectively court martialled before you were detained?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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…

A: From that 15th of January, I was in prison, so it was all about they say, they say, they say.

Q: Looking at that time and now, have the factors that led to the coup and pogrom gone?

A: 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.

Q: It was quite surprising that the people who really carried out the coup were not allowed to govern…

A: 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?

Q: Now let us come down to your book, Reluctant Rebel. What prompted you to write it?

A: 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.

Q: Were you not monitored?
A: Yes and No. You had to find a way!

Q: What were the challenges that you faced in writing the book?

A: 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.

Q: 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 now 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.

A: 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.

Q: In what area did you take part in that coup?

A: Arrest, seize facility and others…

Q: 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.

A: 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.

Q: You didn’t run away. But why did you decide to fight on the side of Biafra?

A: 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.

Q: But Ojukwu asked people who wanted to leave to go to the federal side…

A: 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.

Q: In the book you said you do not believe in secession.

A: Yes.

Q: 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…

A: 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.

Q: You were at a point, according to your book, with Captain Adeleke, another Yoruba soldier, who was he?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: They were detained like me, and Nzeogwu was detained, that was a common factor.

Q: 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

A: 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.

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