Farewell, Alexander Madiebo

Biafran War General Alexander Madiebo (1932-2022) 


Shortly after the book, ”The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War,’ written by Alexander Madiebo, who was a Lt Colonel in the Nigerian Army and later promoted to a Major General was published by Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu in 1980, l saw my father reading the book on a daily basis. At that time, l did not realise my full connection to the events and some personalities in that book or indeed that of the entire Igbo race for that matter. l later realised why he was reading the book with great interest. My father, an entrepreneur at the young age of 34 years in 1967, was one of the richest men in Port Harcourt with ownership of four houses there, a lot of landed properties, two brand new cars, the best photo studio, Sams Photos, with 13 members of staff and a manager, often frequented by Nigerian President Nnamdi Azikiwe, opposition leader Obafemi Awolowo and even Europeans, including those working in the crude oil industry. All these were lost, including three of my siblings to the Biafran war.

Many years later when l read the book from cover to cover, it dawned on me that Madiebo who hails from Awka in Anambra State and recently died at the age of 90 years was not just a master story teller but a world class military strategist.

When you read his book, you learn many invaluable lessons of life. The most important lesson you would learn is that every action a human being takes carries consequences.

For example, it was Madiebo and one or two other persons who convinced Chukwuma Nzeogwu after the January 1966 coup failed in the South of Nigeria and General Aguiyi-Ironsi had become the Head of state of Nigeria to surrender himself to the authority of the new leader. Had Nzeogwu done otherwise and proceeded to ”complete” the coup in Lagos and southern Nigeria, the history of Nigeria could have been different today and maybe the 1967 to 1970 civil war may have been averted.

In my work with some Nigerian politicians, businessmen and indeed many human beings, l have observed that many of them pay scant attention to strategy or often ignore good advice based on research, experience, feedback. A few of them who are patient and wise enough to adopt a strategy for what they want to achieve often do better than others who do not. The reason is obvious. To formulate a good strategy for whatever you want to do and execute same is very tasking. Many human beings do not have the patience, wisdom or resilience to execute same.

Madiebo in that classic book also told the story about how his course mate at the United Kingdom elite military academy, Sandhurst, General Yakubu Gowon had tried to get him out of harm’s way by penciling down his name for a course abroad at the height of the 1966 crisis. But Madiebo, a very wise man, turned down the offer because he felt he needed to be around to protect his wife and children as the uncertain events of 1966 unfolded. Had he accepted the offer, he would have been outside the country when the epochal events of 1966 to 1967 unfolded and perhaps he would not have played the central role of the General Officer Commanding of the Biafran Army and a war tactician of the highest order.

Madiebo also told a story of how he advised an Igbo officer to leave the Kaduna Army Officers Mess at the army barracks in 1966 after the counter-coup because of the mutiny by ‘northern’ soldiers against their southern colleagues. Madiebo left, but the Igbo officer who refused to heed his advice was later that night arrested at the same officers’ mess and was killed. This story often reminds me of the famous statement by one philosopher that, ”He who cannot be advised cannot be helped.” In life taking a good advice from someone who is more experienced and more knowledgeable than you can make a big difference in your life. If you take the advice, you move to success, if you do not, sooner than later you would come face to face with failure to your utmost regret.

Another lesson one can learn from Madiebo’s book is the importance of planning and organisation in whatever anybody who wants to be successful in life does. In all the battles he plotted in Biafra, he did a lot of planning and succeeded in defeating the enemy with minimal resources. His story of how he escaped from Kaduna to the Eastern part of Nigeria in the water tank of a train after hiding in the bush is another interesting narrative full of wisdom and strategy.

Madiebo also has a great sense of humour. Although the events he narrated were very serious and grim, underneath them was a mischievous sense of humour. He told a story about a telephone conversation with Lt Colonel Emeka Ojukwu who was in charge in the army formation in Kano. When Ojukwu was being told of the events of the January 1966 coup, he kept saying, ”good, good, good” to every statement made to him. One could not then decipher whether he was in support of the issues being discussed with him or against.

Ojukwu, the Oxford trained historian in one of his displays of a sound knowledge of the English language, once sent a signal to Madiebo. Ojukwu in a very short message was trying to give a background to a situation that required that Madiebo take over a particular war assignment from two officers who ought to have carried out the assignment. To paraphrase him, he told Madiebo that a certain Biafran officer ”hopes” while another officer is ”hopeless.” This was Ojukwu’s way of telling him that the two officers cannot be in charge of the impending battle.

He also narrated an encounter with Frederick Forsyth, the celebrated British Broadcasting Corporation Correspondent and famous author who he frightened off from his area of operation because he didn’t know whether Forsyth was a spy for someone or a genuine sympathiser. Another funny narrative of his was how Achuzia, a civilian was given the title of a Lt Colonel by Ojukwu for his bravery during the war. But Achuzia was posturing as a full Colonel. According to Madiebo, in the military tradition, a Lt Colonel could be addressed as a Colonel although he was not a full Colonel. Achuzia was protesting that Madiebo was ”demoting” him from the rank the Head of State had bestowed on him by designating him as a Lt Colonel. Still on Achuzia, Madiebo told another story of how Achuzia, a fearless soldier went into another battle without adequate planning and lost. While trying to evolve a battle strategy, Achuzia who had grown impatient told Madiebo to stop all these ”Sandhurst” planning and allow the boys (soldiers) to fight. After the battle was lost, Ojukwu now directed Madiebo to take ”personal” charge to recover the place. And Madiebo did. I later met Ojukwu, himself, in 1994 and had a good relationship with him.

Madiebo is a foremost military tactician and strategist. He narrated how he was on a routine visit of the front lines of the Biafran war fronts before the first shot was fired and saw some young Biafran soldiers with their rifles engaged in idle chats. He reprimanded them and told them to start digging trenches to keep them busy and create a defensive strategy. When the war started shortly, it was those trenches that saved the soldiers from artillery bombardments and death.

One of Madiebo’s fascinating narratives was the ‘Abagana Ambush’ where the dreaded Nigerian commanders, Colonel Murtala Muhammed set up a convoy of ferrets, armoured vehicles, transport vehicles and hundreds of Nigerian soldiers and military stores to ”link up” Onitsha. However, the convoy was destroyed by a Biafran ambush party. Some of the arms and ammunition recovered were used by the Biafran Army that was suffering from scarcity of these military wares.

I later realised my further connection to Madiebo when l found out that he attended my school, Government College Umuahia. In his own book, ”The Last Flight: A Pilot Remembers The Airforce And The Biafran Air Attacks,” another Old Boy of my college, Capt August Okpe observed that Government College Umuahia produced 13 senior and mid-level officers in the Nigerian armed forces who later transfered their services to Biafran Armed forces at the onset of the civil war hostilities.

As the Chairman of the 2007 Dinner Committee of the Lagos Branch of the Government College Umuahia Old Boys Association Awards And Dinner night l interacted with some of these gentlemen including Lt Colonel Anthony Eze who also played a prominent role in the war. It was Eze that told me that if a complete account of the Biafran war was to be written, Ojukwu, Madiebo and himself would have to sit down together and write it. They never did.

However, anybody who wants to know why Biafra failed should read Madiebo’s book. And l think Ojukwu in many of his interviews after the ill-fated war, agrees largely with Madiebo that Igbos should not fight another war.

Madiebo also made me to develop interest in military books for which l can modestly say that l am a connoisseur. It has influenced me to the extent that l do not do anything serious without evaluating it and painting possible scenarios around it, including its outcome and potential consequences.

In conclusion, l wish to send my condolences to Madiebo’s wife, children and family. As one great philosopher said, ”If we are related, we shall meet.” I met Madiebo in several ways after l first met him in that book which my father was reading in 1980.

Njoku, a lawyer, author and political strategist, writes from Abuja.

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