Colonel Mrs. Alice Kikiwegi Onogwu (retd), née Mordi served in the Nigerian Army Medical Corps for 28 years before retiring as a full colonel. She enlisted into the army against the wishes of her father, about four years after the nation’s independence at a time when the country was experiencing political upheavals culminating in the first military coup of January 15, 1966. As a military health officer, she was in the thick of things, caring for injured officers including Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu before and during the ensuing 30-month civil war. In this interview with PAUL OSUYI, the octogenarian shared her experiences and contacts with Biafra warlord, Lt Col Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Gen. Yabuku Gowon, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo and others. Specifically, she revealed the content of a letter from Major Nzeogwu in which he complained to Gen. Ogbemudia how Nigeria was drifting from a united country they all fought for.
When asked who is to be blamed for civil war, she said, “I can’t blame anybody because they were all fighting to get Nigeria to be one, to keep Nigeria one. But are we still one? That is another question. That was the idea of Nzeogwu. I got Nzeogwu’s letter the day he was buried in Kaduna, asking me to tell Ogbemudia that this is not what they fought for, they wanted one Nigeria, peaceful, loving country. Are we still the same?”
How did life begin for you?
I left home early at the age of four with my uncle to go to Jos. They had lost their first daughter and decided to take me along. My mother had triplets and lost one of the triplets. So there were two left with other grown up children, in fact I am second to the last. I had to go to Jos. I was in the nursery school at Jos, St. Theresa. When I finished, my uncle was transferred to Ijebu-Ode, I had to go with them, by then he had had two other children. Then my two brothers and the twins who were supposed to be triplets joined me at Ijebu-Ode. From there, we moved to Akure and then to Queen of Apostles College, Kakuri in Kaduna. I finished in 1958 and went into the School of Nursing, UCH, Ibadan, and finished in 1962. I left for London in September of that year to do my midwifery. And when I finished, I did my postgraduate course in gynecology. I came back to Nigeria in 1964 because my uncle was bedridden. I stayed with him for a while and when I saw that he was getting better; I decided to go back to UCH to work for 11 months. Then I joined the army on April 28, 1965 in Lagos, and I was posted to Military Hospital, Yaba. I was there till 1969 when I went back to England for military training.
Why did you join the army?
While I was at UCH, they used to evacuate patients from Lagos, there was this lady who was in uniform and she brought a patient from Lagos to Ibadan. The name of the patient I cannot remember but I went to the officer and asked her where she was coming from, she said Lagos, and that she was a nurse, and asked if I wanted to join the army, I said yes. I loved the uniform; she wore white and green cap, no veil. But I didn’t realise that they wear veils underneath, when they are traveling out, they put on the green cap. We were over 4,000 that came for the interview in 1965 but only two of us were taken for nursing, and the two happened to be from Delta – the other one was in the navy while I joined the army. I don’t like water that is why I didn’t join the navy.
As at the time you joined the army, it was a period of political turbulence in the country…
Yes! It was on then, we were all at Ibadan
What was the experience like at that initial stage?
Well, not much really. I didn’t read any meaning to politics, even up till today, I don’t have much interest in politics but I know there is politics in Nigeria. My room at UCH faced the House of Assembly, so I saw them fighting in the place, throwing chairs and all that.
Can you tell us about the triangular military bandage?
They use it for arm sling sort of, like when you have stroke and your hand is dropping, you use it to suspend it. So Nzeogwu had injuries on the left side, which could not be bandaged or plastered, so I had to use this for him.
The injury Nzeogwu had was it during the war?
Yes, it was during the crisis, the first coup of January 15, 1966. I was in Kaduna then, and I had just returned from military training in London when it happened.
What was your relationship with Nzeogwu?
I did not know him; I didn’t even know where he came from. But I went to his hometown with my first son when his mother died, to show him Okpanam. As time went on, I started to know that he was from Okpanam because he refused to follow me to the hospital. I went to the brigade with one Dr. Rimi who retired as a Major General, to go and treat him. But what happened was that they woke us up at about 2am that there was a coup, and by the time we all met at the office, they cast lots for us to go and treat the wounded soldiers. The lot fell on me as the youngest officer in the place to go, so I had to go with Captain Rimi. So I told him to come to the hospital to have an x-ray done but he said that they don’t fight war in bed, that was what he told me. I said Sir with the x-ray we can have an idea of where to remove shrapnel because he was wounded from his legs up to the shoulders. It was a hand grenade, you throw it, and if you go down fast, it will not affect you but those around you. He targeted a house but did not go down; hence he had the injuries on his left all through.
Can you tell us about your experiences during the war?
In 1966, I was in Kaduna till the pogrom in the North when the Igbo were being killed, and I personally drove my car to the railway station in Kaduna north to go and see with my two eyes if it was really true or not. And we were very close to Kaduna north, I could drive straight but I can’t reverse, so I reversed into a Major General’s car. While I was apologizing, he said that I should find my way back to the hospital. I went to the railway station and I saw a pregnant woman whom they put knife into her belly and the baby was sitting on her lap. She was not dead and the baby was not dead either. It was at this stage that I decided that probably I would have to go back to my own state. Then there was an officer who came to ask for tea from us, we gave him tea but by morning he was dead. There was another one who just got married and the wife was pregnant, but we had managed to evacuate the wife to the East, he too was injured, he was shot in the mouth, he couldn’t talk but could write. So I took that man to Enugu but when we got to the plane, the soldiers guarding the aircraft refused to allow me take him, so I said we wanted to go and do a test, and we had just had the delivery of the wife of the officer that night. So he said madam go. My luggage was still at the railway station. That was how I left Kaduna for Enugu. So when I got to Enugu, I told my colleagues about what was happening, so they said I should go and see Ojukwu. I had to go to Ojukwu, and when I saw him, I explained everything to him. He phoned our director in Lagos that all Igbo speaking nursing officers and doctors should return to Enugu or to Benin, their base. I worked for about two months in Enugu and I was not happy with the way we were being treated because every morning we wear uniform and go to work without cold drinks because there was no fridge and we were six officers in one room meant for an officer. So when I pleaded if they could give us a room, the man said I should go back to my state, so I had to leave and came to Benin. I started that military hospital in Benin at Second Avenue next to Government House. That was where I met my husband.
Who were the key actors and what role did they play?
I wouldn’t know because they were all taking positions as it was happening. There was an account by Ademulegun, he was the first graduate officer in the army and they all came for the war really, but it wasn’t properly done, according to them because in the north, the governor, Kashim Ibrahim, I treated him there as well as all his aides. In the south, it was not well done, we had to move them to Lagos, and then he went into detention. When we came to Benin, all the Igbo speaking people came back to Benin, we started well there until there was Biafra, Ojukwu insisted on having Biafra and secession. So, some of the officers were transferred to Asaba so that they can operate with him but it didn’t work. I was taken from my house to go and work, I was working with the Biafrans, every soldier, whether federal or Biafra, I treated them. I worked with Major Okonkwo happily until we all decided to move when the federal troops got to Ikpoba Hill. We were to go through Ikpoba Hill but one officer came and said to me that I should follow Warri road. We had to go via Sapele and came out in Agbor, and at Agbor, there was this long queue of vehicles and late Major Ogbu who was one of the five that did the coup, saw me and said what are you doing here, and I said I was going homewards. They had to clear the way for us. We all came home and stayed at home. I was covering Agbor, Ogwashi-Uku, Asaba, Issele-Uku but every morning I go to Asaba first to see if there was any sign on the way. One morning I saw some group of soldiers by the prison yard and I said to my husband that these were engineers. And there was a bridge in front of us, and that if the federal troops were trying to come in; they will blow off the bridge. My husband asked me how do I know, so I went to ask them and they confirmed that they were waiting to blow off the bridge. So we came back through Okpanam to Ogwashi-Uku.
One sad tale about the war was the Asaba massacre where a lot of people were gathered in one spot and murdered in cold blood…
… It was not even Asaba; it was Abagana, that was where they were fighting into Asaba.
The Asaba people even this year commemorated it…
… That was the one they had in front of the hospital, even I lost all my property in our house there because we were living opposite the general hospital, which is now FMC. The house behind that chemist belonged to one Mr. Okonkwo, my in-law; we were living there when we moved out of the quarters. That was where they threw a hand grenade and destroyed the whole house. By the time I came back from Ogwashi-Uku to collect my things, I found my SRN badge on the street. I was able to collect my certificate with that badge.
So the Ogbe-Osowe account by Asaba is not the correct account?
What happened was that they did not come to kill them, they were doing thanksgiving sort of, that they had been liberated. It was when they were doing that that federal troops came in; they didn’t know that federal troops were around on this our road coming from Ore area. So that was what happened. Even Chief Okogwu, IBB’s father in-law was killed in that incident. I would not call it massacre really because it was not like they wanted to kill all of them, they were simply caught in the crossfire. They came to dance for the troops that came in, and the rival troops got hold of them. Federal troops came in to attack the Biafra troops, that was how they were caught in between in front of the hospital.
Who would you probably blame for the war?
I can’t blame anybody because they were all fighting to get Nigeria to be one, to keep Nigeria one. But are we still one? That is another question. That was the idea of Nzeogwu. I got Nzeogwu’s letter the day he was buried in Kaduna, asking me to tell Ogbemudia that this is not what they fought for, they wanted one Nigeria, peaceful, loving country. Are we still the same?
Do you ever regret joining the army?
Well, no, but my uncle who was the father that trained me did not want me to join the army on the grounds that they would not allow me to get married. I said if I am going to get married, I will leave the army but he was annoyed with me that I joined the army. So I made these same feelings felt in the army when I was retiring after I was promoted a full colonel that even though I was very happy retiring, they should pray that my dad will forgive me that I have gotten all that I wanted.
Based on your experience when you were getting into the army, what is your advice particularly for young ladies who want to enlist into the army?
If they are interested they should come in, they will go through all these military trainings. If you think that you are fit and strong enough to do it why not come in.
What have been your happiest moments?
I’m a happy-go-lucky woman. I’m an extrovert. I like everything around me, so everything around me is okay but when I pray so hard and God gives me what I want, I become happier. I wanted five children and God gave me three, I’m so happy.
So there is no outstanding event that made you happy?
It is the oneness in my family. When I say in the family, I mean in the house where I grew up. So I always thought that having a husband and a wife is very good to bring up children. There is a lot of peace and joy in it than in a polygamous home.
Any low moment?
Except when I am sick. Yes death, death is very painful, nobody can say much about death. God created us and He has given us a day to wake up and a day to close our eyes. So when death comes, it is very sorrowful; with my husband being sick and now dead. For years he had been ill, moments of sleepless nights, moments of pains, moments of recovery, moments of falling sick again into that same sickness, I had fear, the fear I had was how do I cope with the children but God was so kind, they had all finished their schooling, they were all married. So occasionally I speak to myself, in fact, I don’t believe he is dead because I was sitting right in front of him when he breathed his last, and I said thanks be to God. And the doctor said to me that I am a very strong woman, I said I am not strong, he had told me what to do. Even today, I would have been on my way to Ebu with him because he promised to celebrate my 80th birthday at Ebu. I don’t know much about Ebu, because I left home early and never really spent time there. When I was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, it was announced all over the radio, my paternal uncle heard it and was running to go and see it on television but before he got there it was off. So I sent him the photograph of me in that same uniform.
During your years in the army, what were some of those challenges you encountered and how did you overcome?
It has to do with postings, we were posted from one station to the other and with you having children, it was not easy to go on posting. You have to look for schools, change of uniforms and so on, and leaving my husband behind, he didn’t have to go on the posting with us. We may stay in a place for three or four years. We decided to make Benin our base for all the children to meet during holidays because when they were growing up, they got separated from the primary school to secondary school. So luckily for me anyway, when I was leaving Kaduna, the two boys were in Jos Command Secondary School, I was able to get school for them into Federal Government College at Kaduna with the hope that it will be easy for me to come by plane and see them on their visiting day. Unfortunately as soon as I came to Benin, they changed the plane flight to go to Jos instead of Kaduna. So it was devastating, I didn’t know what to do. I had a cousin in the place, I had to buy things in cartons and give her to deliver to the children but she used them too for her own children. That is just it, because once your name is out for posting, you don’t stay more than three days you are gone, no matter what you are doing.
The army of your time and what we have at the moment, what is the difference?
I don’t think there is much really. It is just that, well it depends on the home you are coming from to be fully disciplined, army is just a disciplined corps, that’s all. But some of them are not disciplined like they came here the other night to cook for Major Uwechue, and five minutes to twelve at night, my son came to call me that the brigade commander from Asaba was around. I had to go out to them and while he was talking to the officers, some of them were talking away. I just shouted “shut up”, they all turned round to look at me, and I said you can’t be talking when your boss is talking, you listen. And when I finished, I just said to the man, thank you for coming and I left them.
Could that be responsible for the inability of the army to finish off the insurgents in the Northeast?
No! Who are the insurgents? They are Nigerians, our brothers as far as I am concerned. They have a purpose for that fight, they should let us know. Young boys are being sent to that place; everyday you see people say I am going to the army, what are they going to the army for? To go and die. It is not easy. They are our people causing all the trouble. They should try and sort out themselves and make sure that the country is one. I used to travel at night, I love traveling at night, around 8.30pm, I leave Benin for my village when I was putting up a small building there so that by morning we start work early, and by evening I am back to the station. That was without permission; unless you are on vacation you can’t leave your station. I remember once I was pregnant during the war, we dug trenches and we go into the trenches during attacks. My uniform was white; they gave us a tarpaulin to use to cover the white while in the trenches. I decided to come out, there was no point. If you want to die, you die clean and not inside out with a dirty uniform.
Now you are celebrating 80, what would you do differently?
After the celebration, I am going to my village to look for my brothers. In fact, I want them to know me in that village, they don’t know me, and they just hear my name and my parents’ name. Our family was so much devastated that at times I don’t like talking about it but to God be the glory, there is still one or two around outside the country. This is Obasanjo’s book and my husband marked this portion for me to read, it was what Nzeogwu told Obasanjo that he should look after me. It says: ‘I’m a little restricted about whom I can write, and so please extend my regards to Lawson who was an engineer, he is next to me on the commissioning board. I cannot write now, also thank Dr. Rimi, Lt. Miss Mordi for looking after me so well in those hectic days following the revolution. My wounds are now fully recovered but the scars still itch like mad because of the shrapnel inside.’ I thank God for whatever happened, his boy was to collect his property even though they were all looted according to him. His little brother then who looked like that little girl is now a Professor of Mathematics.