Sunday, 17 January 2016
I want to know where my father was buried before I die — Lt.-Col. Yakubu’s daughter
How old were you then?
I was eight years old. I just turned eight and about three months.
Did you, as an eight-year-old, have an idea of what transpired on that day?
Yes, I can to this day. It is not just a faint idea of what happened; it is indelible in my mind. It is a memory that has not gone at all and is imprinted in my mind. So, I will tell you what happened as an eight-year-old then. We went to bed that night, but our dad had gone to Brigadier (Zakaria) Maimalari’s house to attend a party. He was invited too, I think, with other top military officers. But what I know was that he had gone to the party. My mother did not follow him; she usually did, but why she did not follow him, I don’t know. She was at home and we went to bed, not knowing what time he got back. I have twin brothers, Ishaku and Ishaya, and I usually slept with one twin and my sister, Jummai, would sleep with the second twin. At an ungodly time of the night — of course I wouldn’t know what time it was as a child — I just woke up and my mother grabbed me and yanked the mosquito net, took a hold of me and was screaming, ‘Kaneng, help me! Help me! Get up! Get up!!’ As she was screaming, as a child, I just lost it and was screaming as well. I was screaming until I opened my eyes and saw my mother holding me. I thought they were thieves. She wanted me to help her. Can you imagine an eight-year-old?
I believe it was so because I was the eldest. And that was my immediate reaction. I got out of the bed and ran with her to her bedroom, which was adjoining ours. There, I saw my dad trying to calm her down. He held her and she was also calling the name of the steward, a soldier. She said ‘Corporal Yakubu, come out.’ In that confusion, I was screaming and the other children also woke up and everybody was screaming. He was trying to calm all of us down. And then, four soldiers came in and my mother started calling their names one by one. She identified all the officers by name. I remember the name Chukwuka. She said, ‘You, you Chukwuka.’ She was screaming. My dad yelled at them, ‘What do you want, why are you coming to my house at this ungodly hour?’ One of them was at attention and said, ‘Sir, you are needed at the office.’ That was what I heard. He said, ‘Very well, walk out and allow me to dress up. I will come out and be with you.’ They walked out and he started dressing up.
Of course, my mother was still screaming and did not want him to go out. He kept telling her to control herself; that he was going to dress up and follow them; that she should not worry. In fact, in that confusion, something cut my sister’s leg; either a sword or bayonet, I don’t know. So, my father dressed up and got out of the room and started following them down the stairs. Before then, he made some few calls while he was with our mother and I think it was at that time they cut the phone lines. The first was to Maimalari. Our mother who saw the numbers told us that she could recognise the numbers because, then, it was four digits. I think it was that call that alerted Maimalari that made him to escape. The second call was to General (Aguiyi) Ironsi. Ironsi appeared not to have shown any surprise as he kept saying, ‘I see! I see!! Okay!!!’ He dropped the phone and went down the first stairs. We were all following him as well. It was then that they cut the telephone lines. We went down to the second flight of stairs and outside. My father got into the Land Rover and said to my mother, ‘Liz, take care of the children.’ So they all went in and drove off with him.
We were all running after the Land Rover, screaming and crying and running. Apparently, what we later found out downstairs was that they shot their way through the front door and they shot all the four tyres of his car, which was parked in front of the house. And apparently, they had overpowered the guards at the gate and stationed four soldiers there. They must have been about 12. Some of them moved into the boys’ quarters. The Corporal Yakubu my mother was calling had actually dressed up and stepped. And as he did, they just put a gun to his chest and told him that any wrong move, they would blow him up. They held him and all the other workers and all soldiers at gunpoint. Some again entered through the kitchen door. There were more shots at the kitchen; they shattered the cake my mother had baked for my sister’s birthday, coming up the next day — the 16th. The bullet scattered the cake. I remember that very well. Of course, the other four were the ones that came upstairs.
At that point, as a kid, what was going on in your mind?
I knew nothing about soldiers and coups. I was just eight. I just felt that it was robbers that had invaded the house. It was very traumatic and when I saw the soldiers, I was confused. My father was a military officer and we were used to having soldiers around us. It was strange, but the strange thing was: Why would soldiers barge into the house, shoot their way through and come right up to the bedroom. I had never envisaged that kind of scene in my life. So, it was very traumatic and after that I had nightmares. I kept dreaming it. I would wake up in the middle of the night and start screaming. People would have to shake me to wake me up. That went on for months, even after I went back to the boarding primary school, then in Kaduna.
As the events unfolded, when and how did you learn of your father’s death?
While we were in the house at that state (of confusion), when daylight broke, at the wee hours of the morning, Uncle Jack (General Yakubu Gowon) drove in and immediately ran out of the car. As soon as he saw my mother, he said, ‘Liz, Liz, where is James?’ My mother was just crying. She managed to say, ‘They have taken him away; they have taken him away.’ Gowon’s eyes were red. He just tried to comfort my mum and he said to her, ‘Don’t worry, we will find him.’ Those were his words and he jumped into his car, the soldiers following, and he left.
Your mother was calling Chukwuka because he was his second in command. Did he tell her why they came?
He just said he (Dad) was wanted in the office and he promised her he would bring him back.
So after then, when your mother finally learnt of your father’s murder, how did she feel?
She felt a sense of betrayal. This was his constituency; the Army in those days was a close-knit family. Some of them would come and relax in our house, ate from her pot and she was a good cook. They were free to eat; they came into her kitchen, even those he was superior to. Definitely, the feeling was that of complete betrayal and shock.
Putting aside all those events, how did you feel growing up without a father figure and what was the impact of the role your mother played in your life and lives of your siblings?
It was tough growing up without our dad, honestly, because he was a complete family man and he was involved in our upbringing. Even though he was a military officer, he was deeply involved and his family was his priority. On weekends, he would say, ‘Look, we are going on a picnic.’ ‘Where should we go?’ he would ask my mum. They would just put us in the car and my mum would pack foods and mats and things like that. I remember one very good example that has stayed to my head: When we were living in Kaduna, he took us to Zaria Road. The twins were in the pushcars because they were quite young. He would go and look for rocks. I think being a Plateau man, he was used to the rocks. We would go on top of the rocks, spread the mats and they would put the kids on the pushcars and take us to the mountain. My mother would bring the snacks and foods and my father would bring out his small music box. He would play the music to us and the food would be provided by our mother. We were just a happy family. When we were in Lagos, virtually every weekend, we would go to the swimming pools and he would teach us how to swim. So, we missed that a lot.
My mum missed her best friend, her partner. They were very close. The words he left behind — ‘look after the children’ — were what she held on to in her life and right up to the end. She never remarried and because of that instruction he gave her, she took care of us and her life revolved around us. She was not just a mother to us; she was a mother to all. People she came across, she went out of her way to solve their problems or help them in any way she could. She did not only have us as her biological children but many other children all over. Many people would come after she passed on to say, ‘I am mama’s firstborn.’
One would have thought that having married one of the finest and well-loved officers, Mama would have exploited that position to take you abroad considering the circumstances of his death, but she chose to raise you up in Jos. Why was this so?
First of all, after the events of January 15, 1966, General Gowon had sent a signal to her family in Kano because she was of Fulani extraction. And her mum, a Fulani lady, was alive and her siblings were in Kano. He (Gowon) told them that he was sending my mum and the children to Kano. Even in that condition, she quickly said to him, no. She told him she was going to Jos and not Kano. Automatically, his mind was that she would go to her husband’s place, Jos, and be with his family. That was one target she had in life; to bring up her children in their father’s place so that they could grow up, knowing who they were and where they came from. She wouldn’t want any disconnection from my father’s roots. She came to Jos and went straight to the village in Kwang and to her husband’s parents and siblings.
And there, she stayed until she got a job many months after with the civil service in the then Benue Plateau State. This is where she worked and lived and spent her whole lifetime. Apart from her stint in Lagos, after General Gowon became Head of State, he invited her to come and stay with him when he was about to get married. He pleaded with her to join him in Lagos and work. She moved to Lagos with us and we lived there until December 1975 when we moved back to Jos. She had to come back to Jos and disengage herself from her job with Dodan Barracks in Lagos, and she had been in Jos all this while.
Would you say the military establishment that your father served in has been fair to your family in terms of honouring and recognising him after his death?
I will say: Is there any fairness in this world. If you are looking for fairness, I will say General Gowon, who was very close to my dad and the officers that were killed, did his best to take care of all the families whose father’s were murdered. He did his best at that time. Indeed, and subsequently, like any other organisation, there are gaps and areas where they need to improve upon with respect to their soldiers who died in the course of serving their country. I was very happy to hear recently that the military has established an insurance scheme to take care of their men who died in the course of their duties so that they can have some benefits. They did their best at that time.
All the civilians that were killed during the coup were given decent burial. Even Maj. Nzeogwu’s body was exhumed from Asaba and buried with full military honours in Kaduna. But we never heard of such for the officers that were killed in that coup. Do you know where your father was buried?
You hit the nail on the head. Like I said, is there any fairness in the world? That’s what I meant.
We’ve never known where our father was buried till this day. We don’t know where he lies. Even my mum did not know until she died. That is one question we all carried in our minds — all the six children. This is an opportunity for me, on behalf of all my siblings, to say to the Army and to plead with the Army, 50 years since these people were killed. They were the crème de la crème of the Army. We plead (with the Army) to tell us where our father was buried.
That is the only way they can put to rest the pains that we all carried to this day. It is not easy, especially when you think of all the opportunities we missed growing up without a father. All we knew that was that they were exhumed from where they were hastily buried and the corpse taken to Yaba Military Hospital.
The post-mortem result we had showed that his body was actually recovered. His body was identified by Col. A. O. Peters, then, Lt.-Col. Henry Adefowope, Maj. E. W.O. Thomas and other medical officers of Yaba Military Hospital. The report showed that he was shot repeatedly in the chest and jaws. That is all we knew. Up till now, we do not know where he was buried.
If all the civilians could be given proper burial, why not these officers? Even Nzeogwu, as you mentioned, was re-buried with full military honours. We don’t know why Gen. Ironsi did not deem it fit to accord his officers the respect and dignity they deserved. We are using this opportunity to say we should be shown where our father was buried and he should be re-buried with full military honours as Nigeria’s first artillery officer and the adjutant general of the Nigerian Army. He did not plan the coup; he was a victim of the coup and so should be properly honoured. Then, we will have peace in our hearts. Our mother never knew until she died. My heart even yearns for my younger ones who never knew their father. I had the privilege of knowing — at least the first three of us. But the last three — the twins and Gambo — never knew their father. Is it not fair for all of us to know?
‘This is where your father was buried.’ What is wrong with that? It is 50 years on. The ghost of the deceased will still be hovering around. Unless we know where he was buried, then, we will have peace in our hearts.
Mama once narrated one incident she had with Maj. Chukwuka before the Oputa panel. Did she tell you what transpired between them and the excuse Chukwuka might have given her for not returning your father as he promised her?
Yes, what I know she said was that she asked to see Maj. Chukwuka in Enugu and he went to see her in the hotel. She asked everybody to excuse them. She was in the room alone with Maj. Chukwuka. What I know she said was, ‘I have forgiven you for your role in the 15th of January, 1966. I have let go. I ask that you also forgive yourself and move on.’ I think she had heard something about his life. And she said to him, ‘I have released you; I have forgiven you for everything that happened. So you find it in your heart and move on in life.’ That was all I know she told him.
And she did not tell you about Maj. Chukwuka’s response?
No, she did not.
There was expectation that Mama would write about her experiences in the episode. Why do you think she did not want to pen down her experiences until she died?
I think there are a lot of things she knew that she would not want to reveal for the sake of peace in Nigeria, because she was a lover of peace and would do anything for peace. She symbolised peace here on the Plateau because she was once made the chairperson of the peace conference. And she used to be called Mama Peace. Long before then, she had been known as a lover of peace and she would not reveal anything that would contribute to controversy or that would wake up the death of 1966. She would rather die with it and she died with it. Even with us her children, she would not discuss anything that would cause us pain or trauma or reveal to us anything that she knew. It’s unfortunate but I believe that God will reward her because her intentions were pure to maintain the peace in this country at all cost.
With your dad’s standing in the military, one would have thought that one of you would have joined the Army. Did any of you try and what was your mother’s response?
Not only did one of us show interest but he attempted. The first person to show interest was my brother, Yusufu Pam. He is the first and, of course, he had the fervour for the military. At the back of his mind was that his father was a military officer. He took the examinations and came out tops. I think three of them did. But my mother put her foot down and said no way and it really elicited negative reactions from Yusufu. But he got over it afterwards. To add to that, even the first grandchild in the family, Manji Daze, went to Air Force Military School and upon graduation had the option of going into the Nigerian Defence Academy. But I tell you, I did not have the nerve. I must reveal that I discouraged him because I don’t think I have the liver to take the trauma again, not in my lifetime; maybe after this generation, the next may consider it.
Looking at all that had happened, do you still hold grudges against the military?
It was not the military that caused the assassination of my father; it was a few individuals in the military. It happened several times after 1966. I love the military and I always say the military is my constituency. We grew up in the military.
There is this perception that the military did not do anything to protect its officers and that General Ironsi allegedly knew about the coup and did nothing? Did you in any way meet with any of the dramatis personae to explain to you why they acted the way they did?
As a child, I bottled up everything that happened. It was from my mum that I would have asked but it was too painful for her to say anything. Since my mother wouldn’t talk about it, I couldn’t ask questions. That was the first person. I just respected that I bottled it up. But there was one encounter she told me.
There was a time Ironsi was on tour and he came to Jos and sent for my mother. That was the first encounter she had with him after the coup. My mother asked him some questions, especially about the phone call. In fact, she accused Ironsi of knowing about the coup. Unfortunately, he could not defend himself. All he did was to give my mother a wrapper his wife asked that he give to her.
My mother looked at him in the face and said, ‘Tell your wife, the rains that had beaten me will someday beat her also, take her cloth back to her.’ Few months later, Ironsi was killed in a counter-coup. Years after, we have learnt to forgive but the gap in the whole story, which we still need answers to, is where he was buried. There are people who are still alive and who were in the Army then and who have not come out to say something.
Don’t you regret that?
I do regret it. I and my siblings do regret that and we feel that they are obliged to tell us where they were buried. It is okay for them to keep the details of what happened to themselves but the details about his burial should not be a secret. I use this medium to appeal to them: ‘Before I die, I want to know where my father was buried.
Your father has been honoured elsewhere but not on the Plateau where he came from. The officers’ mess in Kaduna was named after him. Why has he not been honoured at home?
Quite honestly, this is a question I want somebody on the Plateau to answer. It is unfortunate that even in Abuja, places were named after him and the other officers that were killed. In Plateau, we have military officers who have been honoured by having streets named after them. Lt. Col. Yakubu Pam is the first officer from the Middle Belt, not even Plateau.
And yet, there is no honour for him from the Middle Belt. We talk about the Middle belt so much and we have not honoured our past heroes. As long as we have not started from history to give honour to whom it is due, I think we will certainly have a problem going into the future. When you go abroad, they did not joke with their heroes. Martin Luther was celebrated and he would continue to be celebrated.
They have been celebrated because they died for something. If people died for something, the best that could be done is to keep their memory alive. There is a road here in Rayfield that was supposedly named after him but no mark at all. Meanwhile, when you go to Maiduguri, you will see Maimalari Barracks. Other people know the importance of history. It is a tragedy when you do not celebrate your heroes.