Since his retirement General Muhammadu Shuwa had been reticent. Until his death on Friday, he lived in his Maiduguri home and hardly appeared in public events despite being a member of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) board of trustees. He declined several requests by this newspaper to grant a media interview. Below are excerpts of an interview with General Shuwa published in a book titled ‘The Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970: History and Reminiscences’ edited by Major-General H.B. Momoh for the Nigerian Army Education Corps and School, published in 2000. It may well be the only interview he granted throughout his life in retirement.We would like to know how you executed the police action (Civil War)?
An order was given from Lagos that we should start something like a police operation and the officer who was with me then was General Martin Adamu. I told him to get the boys acclimatized with the war situation and to get some senior officers. So I called him and told him that we had to start some form of preparation, testing of equipment and weapons for the police action. So no date was fixed and and we put a battalion -2 Battalion-to Makurdi. We started with soldiers some of whom were from the 1 Battalion and some from the 3 Battalion and then divided the commands into two sectors –the Ogoja Sector and Oturkpo/Nsukka Sector. We gave them two commands, one to Major Martin Adamu and the other to Captain Sule Apollo. Sule Apollo had one battalion with him; Martin Adamu had another battalion with him on the Ogoja side. Actually, we started the whole thing with two battalions and they were so far apart. Nsukka to Ogoja, the gap was so wide and I was there sitting in the gap in Makurdi. The third battalion was on its way from Kaduna. By now we had started to recruit all the ex-servicemen who turned up and so we managed to get another battalion which was on its way to train. And so we started and I think we got to Ogoja. It was not much of a problem. To get to Nsukka was a bit more difficult. You see, there was a difference between Ogoja area and Nsukka area. Nsukka was not a friendly area. On the other hand, the Ogoja Sector was a friendly area. The people of Ogoja themselves were eager and were waiting for us to come to help liberate them. So Martin has helped so much that whatever he got to, they told him to go ahead, but Sule Apollo did not have it easy.
Now our main headache was arms and ammunition but we could not cry out openly to say we didn’t have ammunition. So with the little we had tried to show that we had abundance of arms and ammunition and anytime we captured a place, we took a breather.
Given the antecedents –the January and the July 1966 problems –were there any moments when some of you senior officers felt that this kind of action was inevitable and had to prepare for it?
I told you that, in my own personal opinion and as far as the Northern officers were concerned, it never crossed our minds that there was going to be a coup or there was going to be a counter-coup. It never crossed our minds before all these things happened during the Western crisis – then Murtala was the ADC to Majekodunmi. We never for any reason thought there was going to be anything like a coup and the January 1996 coup came and that was the beginning of the whole problem. January 66 coup opened our eyes and we said:
“After all, it is bullets that they have; it is rifles that they have. We have bullets, we have rifles. If that is the case, let us see whether they can beat us or we can beat them.”
It was a strange thing and we had to hold on to see who did what and who did not do what, but the tension was so high that any small thing would spark off crisis anytime. Then the counter coup was organized in Lagos and some of us were very far away from Lagos but we were informed of what happened so that we could control our own troops and then the counter one took place in July 1966.
From the accounts in most of the books, the impression given is that the coup was generally accepted even by Northerners and that people saw Nzeogwu as a kind of hero at least initially.
No, Nzeogwu was arrested and we were waiting for his trial. Nzeogwu and the rest of them were arrested and we were waiting for their trials and what we heard was that they were even hailed outside the military circle and so they started to be arrogant. We were told that in the prison, they were living like kings –beds, mosquito nets, mattresses, etc.
Is it true that initially, everybody including the Northern soldiers jubilated but then changed their attitude after it was discovered that the coup was one sided?
It was never so. None of the officers that I saw was involved in the coup. Some were forced by Nzeogwu at gun point and they joined him.
There was this rumour among Northern officers that the Eastern officers were going to strike again to complete what they started in January.
That is what I am going to tell you. I think we better get our facts correctly. In fact, news was also going round that there was supposed to be a meeting in Kaduna; only the senior officers were supposed to be at the meeting in Hamdala and that the meeting was supposed to be the culmination of everything. That was the meeting that was supposed to take place in which the remaining Northern officers were to be eliminated. Papers were shown. You see, any small intention, even if it is good can be twisted; it can be turned and can be misunderstood. As far as I am concerned, all that I know is that one meeting was supposed to take place in Kaduna and at that meeting, we were told, they had planned to finish the remaining Northern officers.
Now, Sir, the area commands were created after the July coup because of the crisis in various parts of the country…
Yes. It was decided that every soldier should go back to his region of origin and we kept some soldiers in Ibadan but even in Ibadan, late Awolowo and some senior Yoruba officers said that we should move. Even the war had started when they said we should move out of Ibadan.
Was that why, when the movement was about to start General Hassan Katsina was asked to go and address the troops in Ibadan?
No. General Hassan Katsina was never to go and address the troops. When General Gowon took over, it was General Gowon and I that went to address the troops in Ibadan, and what I saw, I didn’t like. We saw the soldiers standing and crying, with tears in their eyes, and I saw a major standing behind General Gowon and he was talking to them. I saw them, the thing was going to go out of hand and I told him it was enough; you better leave them. Some of them turned their back and even one or two sat down when General Gowon was talking to them. They were crying because they love their Battalion Commander so much that they felt so bad about having to leave. He even said we should go and say hello to the wife and when we went, he saw what I meant, she just jumped out and fell on him and started screaming, yelling and shouting. We were supposed to see the then airport and came back to Lagos because the atmosphere was so charged. It was a tensed situation. I don’t remember any time General Hassan was asked to go to Ibadan. I don’t at all. All that I know is that I was asked to prepare to move the Northern soldiers from Ibadan to the North and that was when the war had already started or was about to start. I went to Ibadan and told the soldiers that we were going to move and that they were not to move until I told them so and until I got them the means of transportation and accommodation. I went to the late Emir of Ilorin to arrange for accommodation for our soldiers who were coming back. We were going to put them in Offa. We were to take over all the schools in Offa. But eventually, when the war started and the West was trying to secede as well –they were trying to follow the footsteps of Ojukwu – but when they saw that we were determined they just quietened down. But they did ask for the Northern soldiers to leave Ibadan – that the Northern soldiers had become an army of occupation, but we never left Ibadan.
Was the idea of a police action decision of the Army Command or the Head of State?
He called it “police action”, but as far as I was concerned, it was a war but he called it “police action.”
So there was never a time before the police action started when the military hierarchy was called upon to deliberate on the situation and take a decision?
Who are the military hierarchy? You see, you are talking of an ideal situation. Whom did we have in the AHQ? We have General Gowon, we had Murtala; we had Joe Akahan; we had Bisalla. As far as the Northern officers were concerned these were the officers we had and whether you like it or not, it was directly the North versus the East –whether the West was joining or not. This was the situation and whatever they wanted to do we had to leave from Kaduna to join them in Lagos. We sat down there and argued sometimes from 2pm until 2am and, sometimes, longer.
To be continued