In this interview with our Correspondent, Lt. Gen. Chikadibia Isaac Obiakor (rtd), former GOC, 2 Division, former ECOMOG Commander and Nigeria’s first Military Adviser to UN Secretary General on Peacekeeping, relives his childhood days, his participation in the Nigeria/Biafra war; his entry into the Nigerian Army after the war and his involvement in ECOMOG peace-keeping operations in Liberia.
On his birth and parents
I must say that I was born like every other child, into the family of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Obiakor, an artisan Grade I engine driver initially with the Nigerian Railway Corporation, before he joined the Federal Ministry of Works as a technician until he retired in 1961. We were 10 in the family - six boys and four girls. I attended St. Bartholomew Primary School and eventually ended up in Nigerian Military School, Zaria.
On when he joined the Nigerian Military School, Zaria
I joined the Nigerian Military School, (NMS) Zaria in January 1963. By the time I was in Class 3 or 4, I was the school high jumper. I also played basketball till 1965 when I was selected to do citizenship and leadership course. The 1966 coup took place when we came home on holiday and that was a rude shock to me. My first military operation was in May 1966 during the ‘Araba’ riot in the North where many Southerners were killed and maimed. Those of us in the senior class in NMS were deployed to Zaria to keep peace. You can imagine, as boy soldiers, we had no parochial interest. We were told to maintain peace and we did just that.
On how he escaped from Zaria during the civil war
After the May 29 deployment in Zaria, we went back to school as some level of peace had been maintained. My parents were in the North then. So, I told them to relocate to the East on July 29, 1966 precisely. We embarked on the journey to the East during the holiday. We didn’t know that there was a counter-coup. At Makurdi, we noticed heavy presence of soldiers on top of the bridge. It was when we got to Enugu that we knew that there was a problem. Odumegwu Ojukwu, then Military Governor of Eastern Region ordered that we should not go back to the North. He directed that we should be deployed to government schools in the East where they have military cadet corps. I found myself at Government College, Umuahia, where I continued my class 4 up till 1967.
It was when we were preparing for school certificate examinations that the war broke out. Our seniors were deployed to train as officers while my group was deployed to train as civil defense people. I found myself in a Community Secondary School as Commandant. The last assignment I undertook was to train the Abriba contingent. At the end of the training, I handed over the parade to Ojukwu himself and the boys were deployed to the warfront before I proceeded to Okigwe to train as an officer. I was commissioned in 1968 and selected as member of Ojukwu’s Special Force. We were later deployed to our various units.
On any particular incident that brought him close to death and how he survived
I had a close shave with death at three different times. The first was at Eleme High School where I functioned as second-in-command to late Air Commodore Emeka Omeruah, who was my Commanding Officer. I sustained my first injury there before we were withdrawn and ferried by gunboat to Okrika jetty. Later, I was deployed to George Island where I had my second injury from a mortar bomb. I was ferried out for medical attention. I was operated upon and thereafter evacuated to Okigwe Garrison to convalesce.
Later, I was deployed to the School of Infantry, Orlu as an Instructor to train officers. From there I was deployed alongside late Col. Eze at Uzuakoli where we gave a very good account of ourselves. After an impressive outing, I was drafted to Elele to carry out the same type of operation to repel the federal troops. While we were waiting for ammunition, federal troops got intelligence and struck. We were helpless for about one week as we were bombarded daily by the federal troops. There was no communication whatsoever with our headquarters. The casualty rate on our side was increasing every day. My soldiers became restive, especially with the killing of Lt. Ike by mortar bomb.
Some soldiers that had local knowledge of the area suggested that we could actually establish contact with the STF HQ that evening. I raised a platoon to establish contact with the STF. When they came back, we planned a diversionary attack by launching an attack on the federal troops who responded as expected. We aborted the offensive and left the location same night to establish formal contact with the STF who took us to Ohafia. On arrival the story changed and we were charged for cowardice. I was marched to defend myself against charges of withdrawing my men from the battlefield. I told them that I did that because I lost communication with HQ for many days. And when an officer losses both radio and physical communication with superior authorities, he is entitled to a decision. I held that it was suicidal to continue to remain there. The case was dismissed. Thereafter, I was appointed as GSO operation, 45 Brigade where I trained commandos.
On end of his Biafra story
Yes, before the war came to an end, I had my third injury from an artillery attack in July1969 while I was living in the ADOs house. An artillery attack from the federal troops hit my bedroom window. I ran outside. The second shell landed on my chest. I broke six ribs, cut my lungs and fractured my diaphragm. I was rushed to the military hospital, Emekuku, where a life-saving operation was performed on me by the late Prof. Udekwu. That was how my Biafra story ended.
On how he joined the Nigerian Army
I was already in the Nigerian Army Military School when the war started. When the war ended those of us who were officers were kept at Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri. I sneaked to Zaria and met our commandant who shed tears when he heard our stories. He raised a memo explaining that children were not part of the war because they were conscripted. Gen Olusegun Obasanjo was then directed to release all of us. I went back and led my other colleagues back to NMS in April 1970. I did my School Certificate same year, wrote the Nigerian Defense Academy entrance examination and was posted to Lagos as a private soldier in January 1971. By May, I passed NDA exams as member of 10th Regular Course.
On his appointment as UN Force Commander, Liberia
My first mission was ECOMOG. I was part of the team that went to Liberia as Brigade Commander, 30 Artillery Brigade. I also doubled as ECOMOG Chief Coordinator for the 1997 Liberian elections. I came back to Nigeria, went War College and came back to teach in the same War College. I was promoted to Major-Gen in 2001. Later, I was Chief of Administration (COA) Army HQ; Commandant, Army School of Artillery; GOC 2 Division Ibadan. Then, there was a slot for UN Force Commander. Two of us were sent for interview in New York. I passed and was appointed UN Force Commander, Liberia 20019- 2011. I retired after about 40 years (instead of 35 years) of unblemished service.
As a former Military Adviser to the UN Secretary General, why is it difficult for the UN to stop inflow of arms to terrorists?
At the level of international politics, there are things that are done for the sake of political expediency or correctness. Countries that produce arms know their markets. Most often, they don’t ask what the arms will be used for. Already they know that they are lethal and they have made up their minds to produce arms because that is economics. They cannot close down their industrial complexes. There can’t be conflict without people having interest in it - that’ is a basic fact. And the UN you are talking about is an aggregation of countries who are there to serve their own interests first. It is only where their interests aggregate - where there are common interests and benefits that actions are taken. That is why life has no value. When the interests of the various parties are not served, people can keep dying. Look at what is happening in Iraq and Syria. Who is ISIS? Where is their industrial complex? Boko haram, where is their industrial complex?
On identification of countries that sell arms to Boko Haram by the Intelligence unit of the Nigerian Army
Nobody should fool anybody that they don’t know where Boko Haram procures their arms, or even their sponsors. In Nigeria, do we name or shame people that are committing atrocities? Or don’t we know people that sponsor evil? There is no conscience in this business of governance and international politics. When you operate at the level of UN, you will weep for humanity. They were there when over 800, 000 people were massacred in 100 days in Rwanda. Even the Nigerian civil war, didn’t they see kwashiorkor and malnourished children? While some countries refused to sell arms to federal government of Nigeria, some countries did. In all these, there is no conscience, no truth is being told. If A and B are in business and both interests are served, there will be peace.
On his advice to Nigerian youths
Everything boils down to leadership. What legacy are we leaving for our children? Parents today go to examinations miracle centres to get already made results for their children. They nurture these young ones in the warped thinking that hard work does not pay. Today, we have graduates who cannot construct simple sentences. And so we continue the vicious cycle - recycle morally and academically bankrupt leaders. It is unfortunate.