David Akpode Ejoor belongs to the enviable corps of military officers who were trained in the finest tradition of the force. Like many other soldiers who made up the officer corps at independence, he attended the best military schools abroad, where they were taught the importance of subordination to civilian authorities. But Ejoor and some others found themselves in government. After the unfortunate events of 1966, he became Military Governor of the defunct Midwest Region, which was later renamed Midwest State, then Bendel State and has now been split into Edo and Delta states. In this explosive interview with BIMBO OGUNNAIKE AND AZEEZ FOLORUNSHO, Gen. Ejoor talked extensively how the military intervened in Nigerian politics, his career in the force, how Providence made him escape mass execution during the first coup, why he believes that the Igbo had planned to stage a coup even while the British were still in power, and why Biafran war broke out, among others. It is a rare walk into the past. Enjoy…
The military was not the first choice for most young men of your time. How did the journey start with you?
A woman called Umeroro gave birth to me. I was born in 1932. She put me to school and when I finished my school, she sent me to Government College, Ugheli. When I finished college, I didn’t have money to continue to do the HSC to enter university. When the time came, my principal said since I had no money to pay school fees, I should go home. But he gave me a letter to the Comptroller of Customs in Warri. I didn’t know what was in the letter and so when the Comptroller read it he said your principal said I should give you a job. He asked me, “When are you starting? I said now. He said, “alright, come tomorrow”. That was how I started work in the Customs.
What year was that?
It was 1953. After the first six months, a colleague came from the college to say that they were looking for the people to join the Army. I told him that I was already working but he gave the form. So, out of interest, I filled the form and by September 1953 they replied me and said that I should come to Enugu for examination to join the army. Before then, I had never been to Enugu. I couldn’t tell the Comptroller of Customs that he should excuse me to go to Enugu for exam. So I had to resign and go to look for money because at that time any money they gave to me at the end of the month, I gave it to my senior brother to keep for me, I did not keep the money. So when I wanted to resign, I didn’t have any money. I had to rush to my brother in school and told him that he should give me money; that I wanted to resign. He said, ‘you are playing with your career.’ He gave me money and I went to the treasury, paid and dropped my letter to the Comptroller of Customs. I didn’t allow him to read it before I left. I just ran away from him because I knew he would not let me go. The following day, I asked my mother to get me some money. Three days after, I found my way to Enugu to do the exam there.
How many of you did the exam that day?
We were six that day but at the end of the day, we were asked to come for an interview in Lagos. I was the only one that passed from Enugu. We did the interview in Lagos and only four of us passed. The four of us were then sent to Ghana to do our initial training at the Regular Officers Training School. After six months, those us who passed, about four, were selected to go to England for the Officers Cadet Training. When we got to England, we went to another selection board and it happened that only two of us passed — that is, I and Victor Banjo who worked with Ojukwu. Banjo and I went to England to do first, the Short Service Commission Course which lasted for six months and at the end of the six months we were asked to go to Sandhurst for interview. At Sandhurst we did almost three years course. We were commissioned in 1956 by the Queen, the present Queen, and then we came back to Nigeria. Some of us later went back to England for other military training. That was how I started my career.
When you were about joining the army, what was the attitude of your parents?
The immediate brother by my mother was killed by some people in 1951.So as far as army is concerned at that time people would say when you join the army you are going to die. So I couldn’t tell my mother that I wanted to join the army because she would never agree. I did all this, went to Accra for the training and after the training I now told her that I was going to England but it would be training in the army and she couldn’t say no then because I was the only boy left. With two sisters, only three of us were left out of seven children.
Do you share the view that Biafra was a tragic mistake in Nigerian history?
First of all let me tell you this. When the British were here, we were the last Nigerian officers to be commanded by the British soldiers. (He called for a picture hung on the wall of his sitting room to be brought down to show the first set of Nigerian military officers at that period).The senior person to me in Nigeria was Bassey, the second is Ironsi. Even when the British soldiers were here, the Igbos wanted to rule. Why they wanted to rule was that Azikiwe was the then the Governor General and more or less Head of State. The constitution did not give any power to Azikiwe so this annoyed the Igbo people to say “how can we run a constitution in which the Head of State cannot advise the government, the government cannot contact the Head of State for any advice?” So, the answer was well, to take over since they were already leading and yet they had no control over the government. That was why the Igbo soldiers decided to organize a coup but at that time there were four major leading officers who include me, Yakubu Gowon, Bassey and Ojukwu. The Igbo people relied on Ojukwu for the coup and were able to convince the Yorubas. Ojukwu and Banjo contacted me and Gowon for a coup. But we refused.
How many of you refused to participate in the coup?
Gowon and I refused and they had to go on their own but we then reported to that European officer, General Foster. I and Gowon reported to him that some people were trying to plan a coup. Then he called all of us — the Nigerian Army officers — and advised us not to organize any military coup. When Ojukwu’s father heard about this, he put a memo to House of Assembly that all Europeans should leave the army. It was that year that all the Europeans soldiers were sent back to their country.
Which year was that?
That was in January 1955. Then Ironsi who was number two took over the command the army. While he (Ironsi) was there, Ojukwu still had the coup plot in his mind. He told Ironsi that he should not allow Ejoor and Gowon to be in Army Headquarters saying as long they remained in Army Headquarters they would not be able to do the coup. So, Ironsi in 1955 sent Gowon on a course in United Kingdom but he left me alone. And when Igbos were worrying him that Ejoor was still there, he told them that “this man from that small state, minority state, you can handle him. He cannot do anything. Go away, and leave me.” So he left me and I was able to counter any coup that they were planning in 1955. By December when Gowon came back, it was like a small war in Ironsi’s office. Some army officers told Ironsi: “We told you to send these two people away, now Gowon has come back. What can we do now? Ironsi was embarrassed and so after Gowon came back on the 20th and on the 23rd of that month, Ironsi sent me away from Army Headquarters to Enugu , saying “he should be hidden there.” I went there and then they tried again but the one they tried was in January 1966 after I had left Army Headquarters. But at that time they say whatever happened, Ejoor and Gowon must die. They threatened those who were to organize a coup on behalf of the Igbos in Lagos side.
Who was that person?
Emmanuel Ifejuna. The one in Kaduna, Ezeogwu I think you know that one. Ifejuna was holding a very big post in the Brigade then; he was a Chief of Staff to Mamalari. He sent a message that we have this meeting which would last a week that I should come to Lagos. He was the one that book me in Ikoyi Hotel in room 17. My number in the army is 17, so it is a lucky number for me. I got to Lagos for the meeting and then the meeting started on Monday. Then on Thursday, I don’t know what happened in my hotel room, I just complained that I didn’t like the room, but they couldn’t change it on Thursday. It was on Friday, the last day of the meeting that I came back to the hotel by 4.30 pm . When I got to the hotel room, they had changed my room because they knew that the following day I would leave. So I said alright. Because of the cocktail party which Mamalari organized for us, we could not come back on time. I left the cocktail party at about 11.pm when we should have left by 8.pm.There was no need for us to come on time. Although he called it a cocktail party, it was like a buffet dinner. I ate to my satisfaction and when I got to the hotel, I didn’t go to the dining room to eat again. I just went straight to my bed and slept off. It was three o clock that night that the coup plotters came. They killed my colleague, the one commanding Western Region, and after putting his body in the boot of the car, they rushed to my room, to room 17, to kill me thinking that I was there. According to their story, they didn’t want me to see them so when they kicked the door open, they just sprayed the bed with bullets and then round. When they switched on the light, nobody was there and they started saying to themselves, “he is gone, he is gone” and I was snoring downstairs. That is how at least I can tell that God saved me from the coup.
Now for Gowon, Gowon had just come back on the 20th of December and he was posted to take over a Battalion in Ikeja. He had not moved to his official house. He was staying in one of the officers’ mess accommodation. That night, he did not come back to where he was staying because he went to see his prospective in-law. He did not come back in time so when the coup plotters went there they did not see him. They were now saying it was me and Gowon that would counter their coup. The following day, the news was that there was a coup. I was told that my colleague was killed and I went to his room and all what I saw was just blood. His body was not in the room. I went to the person who was in charge of death, Brigadier Pam, to come and take the blood sample and check. But when I got to that place, his wife told me that his husband was taken away in the middle of the night around 3 a.m. to a rendezvous where he was killed. Then I rushed to Maimalari’s house who was then our commander where we had the cocktail party. When we got there, his soldiers just told me that Mamalari was killed in Ikoyi, Awolowo Road by the petrol station that night. I now told myself that how can I just rush to Enugu when I had heard this bad news? I went to Ironsi’s house to see if he could tell me anything before I went to Enugu. But when I got there, his soldiers said he left his house at 4 o clock in the morning. What do I do? The head of the army, we could not find him. So, I said to myself, ‘let me go to the army unit maybe I will get more information from them.’ I rushed to Ikeja Battalion and it was there, luckily, I saw his car in a car park. I sent my guard to check his office if there was anybody, and to ask them whether I should come in. Then I heard them all shouting, “tell him to come, tell him to come.” When I got in, I saw Ironsi sitting opposite the door pointing a gun at me, saying: “David, are you with me or against me?”
It was a surprise to him because he thought I was dead. I shouted back at him that, “You are our father. Whatever it is, I am with you. What it is anyway?’ He said: “Alright, sit down” And so I sat down and he told me how the Prime Minister contacted him to say that he was being attacked with Okotie- Eboh and all that. He promised me that he was going to get some help but he couldn’t raise any help and that was why I had to go to the battalion itself to get some soldiers under his command. He told me that he had to send Gowon out with soldiers to go and trace the coup plotters. I couldn’t see Gowon at that time. After I had told him the story, he said he was going to the Police headquarters for a meeting where he was appointed Head of State. I told him I was going to Enugu to join my troops and to join my wife and children. He just turned round to me and said, “David I cannot order you to Enugu now.” He did not want me to go to Enugu.
Why did he not want you to go to Enugu?
Probably, in their plan I was to have been killed. I was not in their team. He said I should not go to Enugu and he left. I concluded that Ironsi was part of the coup and that I could no longer rely on him because he was part of the coup plotters. I said to myself, ‘my loyalty is to my country and I will not take any instruction from any officer anymore.’ I said, ‘if I go to Enugu by road I would not arrive.’ So I went to the airport for an aircraft to take me to Enugu. When I got to Enugu, everybody was shaking. The officer, my Second in Command, Major Gabriel Okonweze told me that he was not expecting me. I asked him why he was not expecting me. He said he was given instruction to take over the command of the battalion, that I was not coming back. I said, ‘how did you get this information? Is it by radio, telephone or what?’ He said no and put his hand in his pocket and brought out a letter which directed him to take over the command of the battalion. When I put the letter inside my pocket, he said no, that it was his letter and I said, ‘but I am still the commander.’
I left the battalion and went to see Dr. Opara, the governor of Eastern region, came back to the battalion and ordered that all soldiers that were deployed outside the battalion be brought back to the barrack. I assembled them by 4 o clock and addressed them. My second in command was telling me, “don’t tell them that anybody is dead, don’t tell them anything?’ I said, ‘I will tell them these people were taken to unknown destinations. I will not say I saw any dead body. I saw blood, yes, but if I do not mention it that way, whenever they get to know, you and I will be the first victims of Hausa soldiers.’ So I told them what I knew and then we ran the battalion with peace. Then on the third day, when Ironsi was made the Head of State, he withdrew me from Enugu and called me back to Lagos.
Why do you think he removed you from Enugu?
Since I was still not dead, he could not trust me in Enugu. When got to Lagos, he now said that I should be the Governor of the Mid- West.
He used that to compensate you?
More or less, but you know that he had to behave in a way to show that he still liked me. Having removed me from Enugu, he brought me to Benin. That time, most of the officers in Mid-West were from the Anioma area, predominantly Igbo, because as it was we were nine lieutenant colonels in the Mid-West. I was the only one that comes from Urhobo and the remaining eight were from Anioma. Now that the person they wanted to kill was the governor, ‘how would I rule that place with satisfaction?’ I worked with them I did not know that they were against me. I worked with them in the day time but in the night they worked against me. It wasn’t easy. God just preserved me because they did all sorts of things to see whether I could die.
Barely 24 hours after General Ironsi visited your region, he was kidnapped by soldiers from a section of the country along with the Governor of the Western Region. They were both killed. What was in your mind when you heard that the man who made you governor was killed?
The fact was this: he visited Western Region after leaving my place. The idea was that he did not want my killing to take place while he was there.
You own killing?
Yes. When he got to Ibadan, the counter-coup people, led by Brigadier T.Y. Danjuma waylaid him. They killed him in Ibadan. When he was with Adekunle Fajuyi, Fajuyi did not want them to take Ironsi away just like that. So that is why they killed Fajuyi too, not that they had anything against Fajuyi at that time. That was how I escaped death for the second time. As I am talking to you, I have looked at death, where there was nothing I could do. I was just waiting for death to come for seven times. How many people have gone through that? Looking at death, not that I was told. The other ones that happened when I do not know is different but the one I saw I know.
Are you saying the lack of trust and ill-fighting among the top generals at that time led to Nigeria’s civil war?
The civil war was straightforward. The Igbo wanted to take over the ruling of Nigeria. So, when all these cunning actions that people who were preventing them from organizing a coup had not been killed, that is Gowon and I, the only thing left was to have a civil war. That was why there was a civil war and in the civil war, the first place Ojukwu attacked was the Mid-West. I did not know that he was already in league with all the officers from the Anioma area. When the Federal Government was suspecting them, most of them ran away to the East and joined Ojukwu in the Biafran army. At that time, Banjo himself being a friend to Ojukwu, because they joined the army the same day and were commissioned, was suspected to be organizing a coup. Ironsi had sent him, well … not to prison but more or less arrested, but sent to the East where he was detained in one of the prisons there. But friends, Ojukwu he released him and made him the commander of the Biafran troops. He was the one that commanded the Biafran soldiers to attack Mid-West before moving to Lagos. The Igbos tried to rule Nigeria by force, what they could not do through the ballot box; they tried it through coup. They tried the coup, it failed and now decided to do a civil war.
During this war, you said Ojukwu was coming from the East through your zone to Lagos. What were the things you put in place to checkmate him at that time from moving to Lagos?
As I told you I do not know. It was just that morning that I heard firing in the State House where I was told that the Biafran Army was in the Mid-West. I could not believe that Banjo would be the person to kill me because he was the closest person to me in the army. What happened was that when they got to Ikpoba Hills in Benin, the person that was sent by Ojukwu to kill me was ordered to take me dead or alive to Enugu was different because Banjo did not know about this. So when they got to Ikpoba Hill, this officer from the Mid West, from Anioma told Banjo he should give him time to let him go and find out where I was in Benin and take me to Enugu dead or alive. The firing started about 7’o clock. I just managed to get the radio to tell Gowon that I was being attacked by the Biafran army. I just took the weapon of the operator and ran down to the gate to join the soldiers who were firing and we started firing together. But after sometime we ran out of ammunition. What do we do? I just said if they come in now, they are coming for me, to kill me. These soldiers who were defending me, why should I allow them to die? And then if I leave this place, they would be killed with my wife and children. Why should I allow any of these people to be killed? I said they had to kill me first so that other people would survive. I jumped down from where I was and walked towards where they were firing. I thought that was the end, I didn’t know what was happening and then I found a verandah in one of the houses not far from the State House. I decided to move my leg but I couldn’t move any part of my body. I looked up and saw somebody holding my leg and my hand. He was kneeling down when I was thinking about other things, I did not know that somebody was holding me. I asked him, ‘who are you?’ He said he was Chief Asemota. I thanked him and said I had to go now. He said, “no, you can’t go, they are everywhere.” When he got up and started dragging me in, I asked him, ‘have you not seen any of the Biafran soldiers here?’ He answered, ‘they were two in this verandah. It wasn’t long when they left that you came. If you had met them, they would have killed you.’ I told him, ‘my time has come. Those who sent me here want me dead. My time has come, let me go so that you or any of your family members will not die.’ He said no. I argued and argued but he did not agree. So I got up annoyed, to walk out. But before I could get to the door, he ran past me, locked the door and threw the key out through the window. What do I do now? I could not break the door like that. Then I persuaded him that he should go and look for an Urhobo person around the area who could take me away from Benin. I waited for him and he found somebody from Urhobo who said he was coming in the afternoon. Up till the night, we did not see him. So I said he was not interested. The following morning, around 7’o clock, I heard a woman shouting ,“there is war; you are going there. If they kill you now, and who will bury me?’ That was what he was saying in Urobho. I peeped through the window and I saw the woman running after the son, and returning into the compound. I recognized him as one of the people I grew up with.
- First published in the Nigerian Compass circa 10th February, 2009