Pa Mark Idi Nzeogwu, 89, was the elder brother to the late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, leader of the January 151966 first military coup in Nigeria.
At an encounter in Lagos, he stated that if his younger brother had known that the coup would lead to pogroms, and later, a civil war, he would not have participated in the exercise. The octogenarian spoke on this and other national issues in an exclusive interview with DOTUN OLUBI, publisher of The Lagosian’s Voice, in Lagos. Pa Nzeogwu succumbed to death in February this year and was buried on Saturday, March 27 in his hometown, Okpanam, Delta State.
In his last interview before his demise, Pa Nzeogwu spoke on the coup and issues that led to it, on the personality of the late Chukwuma Nzeogwu, his civil war experiences, the clamour for Biafra, his family relationship with President Olusegun Obasanjo, and others.
You were a Christian, then a Muslim. How did that happen?
I am Idi Mark Nzeogwu, and yes, I used to be a Muslim. I am eighty-something now. I was born in 1932. I have my birth certificate. I worked for Taylor Woodrow as a bricklayer in the North. I was part of those that built the tobacco company in Zaria. I lived among the Muslims and our relationship was very cordial. They loved me so much, and I equally liked their ways. This made me to convert to Islam. It was the same experience when I was transferred to Kano. There was that cordial relationship. I was a brilliant bricklayer. So when I wanted to marry a lady in the North, they encouraged me to pick a young girl. I was about 20 years then. It was usual to marry at such an early age in the North.
Did you get the blessings of your people on this?
I had cut them off! I was not talking to them and they were not talking to me. I regionalised the moment I got to the North. My parents were then in Kaduna. We were raised in the North. I love the lifestyle of the Hausa man.
What is it about their lifestyle?
They are very simple. If a Hausa man tells you yes, it is yes.
Are you still a Muslim?
Oh, no, no. Things changed. I am now a Christian. I married another woman, a Christian. And leaving the North, there was no way I could practise Islam. My new wife is Catholic, so, I went back to Christianity. There was a lengthy conversation with the priest at Kaduna at that time, Rev. Father McCarthy; I doubt if he would still be alive. I was given penance to bring me back to the Christian fold before my wife and I could be allowed to wed. We wedded in the church.
Who was Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu?
He was my late brother. He was my immediate junior brother. I was older than him by five years.
What kind of personality was he?
Chukwuma was a very brilliant person. He was straightforward. He hated double standards. I remember meeting him and former President Olusegun Obasanjo then when they were preparing to travel to Congo on a national assignment. They were young soldiers at the time. I could see they were so excited about their mission there. And when I asked them why they were so excited about military mission that could involve the loss of lives, they said they were looking forward to gather more military experience. After that mission, when they returned to Nigeria, Chukwuma was put in charge of the officer’s welfare. He was the one assigned to ensure that the officers that went on that mission to Congo were paid; and he carried out the task without sentiment – no mago-mago. Later, he showed me the plots of land that were given to him and some of the officers who equally owned land there, which was where he would build his house. It was somewhere in Surulere, near Peter Obe’s house (Obe used to be a popular veteran press photographer with Daily Times newspaper). I think it is located on Ibezim Obiajulu Street. Somewhere at the farther end of the street, was Obasanjo’s. This was in 1964.
The plots were given to them by the Lagos Town Council. We took measurement of Chukwuma’s plot. He gave me the contract to commence work there. All the building materials were ordered from Leventis. But the land never got fully developed. When rumours of the coup began to spread across the city of Lagos, some of the Hausa people who were working with me went behind to inform some officers that I am a brother to Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu. That night at about 10pm, some soldiers stormed my house. They asked me if I knew Chukwuma, and I told them I am his elder brother. They asked me where he was, and I told them I had no idea. They carried out a search, turning everything upside down. This was on the land which was then under construction; we had iron zinc make-shift structure which served as our accommodation. They combed the entire area but did not find anything incriminating. It was after they left that I knew that Chukwuma was the brain behind the coup; that he was the one that killed Sardauna and others.
After you told them you were his brother, what else did they do?
They later came back for another search. This time, they put me into a waiting car and drove to my rented apartment where they carried out another intensive search. They upturned my clothes, pictures and other property on the ground, looking for incriminating material. Then they took me to Dodan Barracks. Once we arrived, they brought out a letter they found at my place and read it aloud. It was a letter over a quarrel I had with Chukwuma. When they asked me about it, I told them they could see for themselves that Chukwuma and I were not all that on talking terms; and that I came to Lagos because he contracted me to develop his land. When they realised that I was a Muslim, they asked me to recite the Quran, which I did. But then, they got angry and said my brother was the one causing trouble.
They removed my shirt and beat me with a jack knife, inflicting deep cuts on me and using my clothes to clean the blood. They took me to the Lion Building, and at night, they brought in many people. Somehow, the information leaked to the Commissioner of Police; an Igbo man, that a brother of Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu was in the building. The Commissioner came and pleaded with the men to release me. The leader of the squad that held me was one Captain Mallam Garba. He eventually gave orders for my release and instructed that I be charged to court. I was taken from the room where I was held at Lion Building to the Commissioner’s office upstairs. I could barely walk because I had lost so much blood as a result of severe beatings. I was shivering. There in the Commissioner’s office, I was subjected to another round of questioning. The other set of officers told me that they would ferry me to the other side of the sea by boat and put me in prison. They gave me food to eat. I later found out that they were all Igbo officers. I stayed with them for one month and some weeks and I was brought back to Lion Building again. Then they asked me where I would go if they released me. I told them I would go back to my house. So they brought me back to Lion Building. From there, I went to one Alhaji Dabiri. He was one of those who equally owned some plots of land in the same area as Chukwuma. By then he had finished building his own house. I also worked for him. As soon as he and the others saw me, they ran away. They thought I was a ghost because they believed I must have been killed.
Did you have any contact with Chukwuma before the war?
Not immediately. But he heard about my arrest and imprisonment. I later found out he got hinted by the Commissioner of Police at Lion Building. The man travelled to the East and got in touch with Chukwuma. He told him all that I went through.
Were you born in the North?
No. My parents relocated to the North while I was very young. Chukwuma was the one born there.
When you heard about his death, how did you react?
Well, I was not happy, but I knew he would die because he did not run away after the coup failed. He was the leader of the coup. After the coup, he was taken to Aba Prison. From there, he sent a message through someone coming to Asaba that he wanted to see me, Philo (who died a couple of years ago) and Peter (our youngest sibling). He didn’t allow us to see his eyeballs as he wore eyeglasses. He was brought in a car. He only rolled down the glass to talk with us; he never stepped out. Those who brought him would stay in one corner while he talked with us. He knew he was going to die. He gave us money to buy land for Peter as a sort of investment when he grew up, since he would not be getting anything from his inheritance, according to tradition. He did not own anything – no title; nothing! That was his life.
During the coup, and during the war, where was your family?
My wife was in the North at that time. My parents were in Asaba. After my release, Alhaji Dabiri got in contact with one Magistrate Savage who took me to the park to board a bus going to Asaba. The fare was two pounds then. When I got into that bus, people were staring at me. They were scared. I was equally scared. When I arrived at my country home, the whole place was deserted. Everyone had gone into hiding. Before I left Lagos for Asaba, I contacted my wife in the North. She too had become aware of the situation. I told her she was free to marry another man. At this time, we already had two children – a male and female.
What sort of person was your brother?
Chukwuma was stubborn. He was an independent-minded person. In his school days at St John’s College, he was the leader of the group that caused trouble in the school. That led to his expulsion. Though my father made several attempts to plead with them, the school management refused to take him back.
Did you like what Chukwuma did then?
No. I didn’t like it. Why I didn’t was because it is a grave sin to kill. To kill a man that way, that person must suffer. And whoever kills must be judged.
Why did you think he carried out the coup?
I have no idea, but I think it had to do with corruption and greed. And till today that very reason is still with us.
Our parents were not happy when they learnt Chukwuma planned the coup that led to the war. They cried. They knew they were not going to see their son again. The war had nothing to do with tribe, religion, politics or interest group. During the war, we learnt he was alive. He was killed at Ogbulafor. He had his loyalists and they were heading for the North from Ogbulafor axis when they killed him. Meanwhile, at that time he and Ojukwu were not in agreement. They killed him on the battleground. Immediately, they killed him, the Hausas were very happy. They jubilated. The news of his death was carried all over the world.They said they wanted to unite Nigeria. But Nigeria is not united. What happened then is still happening now. The military have tried but they should leave power. Power is still being rotated among the same set of people. When one leaves, another enters. They do not want to leave the corridors of power.
Do you think your brother and Ojukwu were fighting for the same cause?
Well, they were fighting for the same cause but, along the line, there was disagreement between them. Chukwuma did not like the method Ojukwu was employing to solve the problem. He did not want the war. While he was in detention, he wrote to Ironsi severally to release him and others in Aba Prison.
How did he get out of prison eventually?
I think Ojukwu agreed to release him but their settlement did not go well. He was killed by the Northerners.
What is your relationship with former President Olusegun Obasanjo?
I first met him when I went to visit Chukwuma in their barracks. I saw them preparing and packing their things. They told me they were going on a military assignment to Congo. I said that earlier. I still have some of those pictures where women were flocking around him after they went for some battle. The Congo Peace Mission came as a result of the fight that led to the kidnap and death of some Nigerian officers there. Even after Nzeogwu’s death, the relationship continued as Obasanjo was there to give our parents a befitting burial at their demise. He buried our Papa. He buried our mother. He has always been there for us. For me,he is a good man, as he did not forget Chukwuma. He is a brother to me but they fought on opposite sides. Chukwuma had no intention of fighting. If he knew the coup would lead to a civil war, he would have backed out.
How do you see the current agitation for Biafra?
The Igbo had the chance to make it work when they had support from some other countries. But what happened? If they couldn’t do it then, I don’t think they can do it now. Well, I do not know but that is what my mind tells me. I don’t want Nigeria to break up, but the situation has not changed. So it is likely that Nigeria might break up.
What gives you the greatest happiness?
My marriage from the North. It is my greatest joy. I see my children from my wife doing well, and feel very happy. See this one, Hauwa (pointing to the daughter) and Audu too – even Mairo that married a Hausa man.
But you later married an Igbo lady…
The situation changed but I love and cherish my first marriage more.
What is the thing you will forever regret?
It is the coup, because I lost my brother. If he knew war would break out, he would not have been part of it.
Did Chukwuma have a woman in his lifetime?
He was not into that. He did not keep women and he was never married nor seen with any. He had no woman and no friend. He believed strongly in prayer and usually prayed from morning till night. He was a staunch Catholic.
What advice do you have for Nigeria and Nigerians?
Nigeria should allow those clamouring for secession to go, and not allow war to break out. If the government sees that their trouble gets too much, they should be allowed to go and let us see what will happen.