Historical figures really confound. The moment you thought you knew everything about them, then something happened or some information turned up, you realized that you were absolutely ignorant. This was how I felt when I read Haruna Yahaya Paloma’s: The First Regular Combatant: Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, a compendium of interviews with associates of the army officer on his life and times.
I was getting into my teens in 1966 when the first military coup caught us all by surprise and from what I came to know later, Maimalari was the most prominent victim among the military officers killed in the putsch. At that time public attention was more focussed on the wanton killings of Nigeria’s political leadership which included the Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Premier of the Western Region, Samuel Ladoke Akintola, the Premier of the Northern Region, Sardauna Ahmadu Bello and Minister of Finance, Festus Okotie-Eboh. The attention on Brigadier Maimalari and other military officers came much later and even that came from biographies and memoirs written by their colleagues in the Nigerian Army as part of the narrative on what transpired during and aftermath of the first coup.
The outrage to the killing of Maimalari and two other senior military officers Lt. Cols. Kur Mohammed and Abogo Largema was real and acute in Borno where they all came from. I recall that even though I was just a kid finishing primary school that year in Maiduguri, I overheard muted angry talks by our elders on the murders. However nothing prepared me for the kind of anger expressed in Paloma’s book by the officers and other ranks, all of whom were mentored and led by Brigadier Maimalari.
And these were not just your run-of-the-mill officers of the Nigerian Army. They were the leaders of the military who led the country to war in the period between 1967 and 1970 to overcome the secessionists who declared a Republic of Biafra. I am referring to Generals Gowon, Obasanjo, Buhari, Babangida, Abdulsalam Abubakar, Martin Adamu, Adeyinka Adebayo, Abba Kyari, Salihu Ibrahim, Dogonyaro, Alani Akinrinade, Abisoye, Paul Tarfa, Ibrahim Haruna, Wushishi, Jemibewon, Johnson, Ogbemudia and the like.
From the look of the names listed you could discern that many of these were to become our political leaders – in uniform and out of it – for many years after 1966. They were the ones that formed the bulk of those interviewed for this book. Their civilian colleagues were similarly interviewed for this project and as you would expect they were also in one way or the other associated with the highest rungs of government in the last many years. They included Liman Ciroma, Dr Musa Goni, Maitama Sule, Elizabeth Pam, Tanko Yakasai, Ahmadu Kurfi, Aminu Dantata, Sani Zangon Daura, Lawal Kaita, Justice Mamman Nasir, Jafaru Makarfi and Ado Sanusi.
It is a very unusual book which has enriched our understanding of what really happened in those terrible times. Going by the very bitter reflections of those who were interviewed one could understand why the July 1966 counter coup and its aftermath witnessed such ferocious killings. It was the anger of soldiers on a revenge mission for the death of a beloved commanding officer. Furthermore as Professor Helon Habila said in the blurbs, the narrative style is an ingenious and innovative approach to life writing .The author allowed those interviewed to speak freely about Maimalari and what they said forms the bulk of the book. Those interviewed spoke at length not only about minute details of his early life and his brilliant career but also how he was treacherously brought down at the prime of life, by his fellow officers in the army. All those interviewed were intimately associated with Maimalari whether as schoolmates at Maiduguri Middle School (Liman Ciroma, Dr Goni), Barewa College (General Gowon, Ahmed Joda, Ahmadu Kurfi, Jafaru Makarfi and Justice Mamman Nasir) as cadets he taught and mentored (Generals Abisoye, Joe Garba, Ogbonna, Akinrinade, Mobolaji Johnson and Bamigboye) and those he directly commanded (Generals Obasanjo, Tarfa, Buhari, Jega, Jemibowen, Ogbemudia, and Wushishi).
The interviews were intense and very emotive and readers should prepare themselves for the raw emotions they would come across. The raw emotions expressed by these Generals and their civilian colleagues were pointers to their intense devotion to Maimalari, and after his murder, their preparedness to avenge his death. It was a time when the Nigerian Army was a single entity unbroken into Navy, Airforce etc. and Maimalari then was one of their highest ranking officers. But that was not what set him apart. What made him distinct was that he was the first to become a commission officer who did not come through the ranks. In fact he was reputed to be the first African along with his colleague Lawan Umar to attend the highly regarded Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in the United Kingdom.
Their compatriots that followed them to Sandhurst immediately included Kur Mohammed, Abogo Largema, Yakubu Pam and Yakubu Gowon. When they successfully completed the course in 1953, both Maimalari and Umar became the first Africans to be commissioned as regular combatant officers. Lawan Umar unfortunately left his commission early for other endeavours. Maimalari prospered in the Nigerian Army attending more professional courses in the UK, Pakistan and USA to sharpen his skills. Perhaps due to his pioneering qualifications in addition to his engaging personality, Maimalari had choice posting in the Nigerian Regiment starting as a Platoon Commander. He became ADC to the Governor-General of the Federation of Nigeria and also served in the same capacity to both the Princess Royal and the Duke of Gloucester during their royal visits to Nigeria in 1957 and 1959.
Maimalari then moved to the Army Signals Squadron, from where he became the second in command at the Nigerian Military School in Zaria then known as the ‘Boys Company’. It was here that Maimalari had lasting influence on most of the cadets that passed through his hands. He was their teacher, their mentor, their leading light whom they all hoped to emulate. And we must understand that most of these young cadets rose to hold the levers of power in the Nigerian Army. When the Nigerian Military Training College NTMC was formed in 1960, Maimalari was posted as 2ic where his influence in the training and development of officers in the Nigerian Army continued unabated.
Maimalari became a Company Commander in the Royal Nigerian Army Battalion that served in the United Nations Congo operations where he commanded both Obasanjo and Chukwuma Nzeogwu. He became a Brigadier finally, and was given the command of the 2nd Brigade then based in Apapa, Lagos, with jurisdiction over all the troops in the south. The 1st Brigade which controlled all troops in the North was based in Kaduna, commanded by Brigadier Ademulegun.
Brigadier Maimalari was killed in the night of the 15th January 1966 military coup by mutinous officers under his command who recognized that their putsch would not have succeeded without eliminating him. What happened that night and after was adequately covered in the book. Many of those interviewed rendered the sordid details and even though the interviews took place many years after the event, yet, the memories of the treachery rankled, as if it were a recent occurrence. As recorded some of those interviewed like General Abisoye (now late) and Roland Ogbonna (now the traditional Prime Minister of Avu community in Owerri, Imo State) were overwhelmed by their emotions and broke down in tears during the interviews. We shall have glimpses of rich pickings from the book next week. Keep a date with this page.