The history of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is not complete without a mention of its bloodiest conflict: the Nigerian Civil War. A lot happened during this tragic chapter of our history and today, we will take a look at one of the most harrowing events of an African nation that had just gained independence. On a fateful Saturday, the 5th of August, 1967, Nigeria’s first war-time Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Army (now called Chief of Army Staff, COAS), a thirty-year-old gentleman colonel was on a visit to his hometown of Gboko in Benue-Plateau State. Born into a family with an impressive ancestry of Tiv warriors, Joseph Roland Ityowua Akahan was a fearless man. One of the country’s most brilliant military minds, he impressed the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces and Head of the Federal Military Government, General Yakubu Gowon, who called him ‘a young and able officer’.
As Joe (as he was fondly called) Akahan left that day for his hometown full of energy and in a vibrant mood, nothing told him that he was already in his last hours on earth and that the visit was going to be the last to his hometown. The tragic end of Akahan remains one of the most painful episodes in the long history of the Nigerian Armed Forces, it was a death that shook the entire nation and almost totally demoralized the federal troops and an army that had just taken on one of the largest secessionist movements in Africa. But what happened that day?
The circumstances that led to the death of Akahan were really interesting. As at the time Akahan made his ill-fated trip to the land of his birth, the Nigerian Civil War had just started few months earlier following the declaration of independence of the Republic of Biafra from Nigeria on the 30th of May, 1967. It was time of action especially for the Biafran Forces. Secessionists from the Eastern Region were fully harassing the Middle Belt of Nigeria spraying the area with bombs from their Biafran warplanes. The effects were devastating, with the toll on lives and property a very heavy one. Interestingly, some of the areas most affected by the relentless Biafran aerial bombardment were Makurdi, Gboko, Oturkpo (all in Benue-Plateau State as it was called then) and Lokoja and Okene (in Kwara, now Kogi State).
So you can imagine the scenario that was playing out at that time. The hometown of the army chief himself, Gboko, was being decorated with bombs by the Biafran Air Force. As a matter of fact, a day before Akahan arrived Gboko, a Biafran secessionist place had finished terrorizing the town. It must be pointed out that these Biafran raids were not light attacks, they were heavy bombardments and they were so serious that they threatened to jeopardized the advance of the Nigerian troops towards Enugu, which was then the capital of secessionist Republic of Biafra. When Alhaji Kam Selem, the Inspector-General of the Police visited Makurdi and saw the level of the destruction meted out by the Biafran bomb raids, he was so alarmed that he quickly called on the Supreme Military Council to take ‘remedial measures’ and provide greater protection to Nigerian soldiers in the forward areas. It was a big shame and an embarrassment of epic proportion for the Nigerian military government and all eyes were on its young chief, the Joe from Tivland. That enemy forces kept terrorizing his land of birth was more than enough injury to the vibrant British-trained army chief. He had to prove his worth and teach the secessionists the bitterest lessons of their lives.
Akahan was the head of the Nigerian Army and he was a native of Gboko. It was a double call of duty for him. He was of the stock of a people known for their valiant acts of courage and bravery on the battlefield and he was also the one to ensure the territorial integrity of every single inch of the Nigerian nation. His duty was to ensure that not even a handful of Nigerian territory fell into Biafran hands. So his trip to Gboko that day was a crucial one. He had to see what was happening on the war front with his own eyes. His own family members and relatives were in Gboko and each day was nothing but sheer terror for them as the Biafrans paraded the skies of Benue-Plateau. He had to visit Gboko, not just to inspect the level of damage but to let his people and all Nigerians know that all was under control and that they were not suffering alone.
Imagine when Boko Haram militants stormed Vimtim, the hometown of the former Nigerian defence chief Air Chief Marshal Alex Sabundu Badeh in Adamawa State and sacked the entire town, can you recall the amount of disgrace he was subjected to? The concentration of the shame brought unto the military by that single incident was one of the factors that catalyzed the eventual loss of former President Goodluck Jonathan in the March 2015 general elections and the imprisonment of Badeh himself today. I am making reference to this so you can picture what Akahan was facing then.
The day Akahan was to storm Gboko, he was not the only prominent native of Gboko who was in town to see the people. Also present that day was his namesake and the Federal Commissioner (now called Honourable Federal Minister) of Transport, Mr. Joseph Tarka who was also visiting his family.
DAYS BEFORE THE VISIT TO GBOKO
Three days before Colonel Joe Akahan flew to Gboko, he had left Lagos for Bida from where he went to Kaduna then to Makurdi. It was on the morning of the day that he died that he flew in the helicopter to Gboko. As planned, Nigeria’s number one soldier flew into Gboko that morning and saw his people. He also had time to assess the level of damage inflicted by the secessionists.
THE HELICOPTER CRASH
Aviation experts say that although helicopter crashes do happen, they are exceedingly rare. They say that it can happen especially when there has been an explosion within the cabin of the helicopter and that an engine trouble very rarely causes a helicopter crash as long as there is an open space where it can land.
For the eyewitnesses who were at the Gboko Airstrip to see their distinguished son leave, the chopper took off without any flaw. According to a lot of his friends and colleagues, Akahan was a man of detail, a very thorough and calculating man who almost never took any unnecessary risks. Akahan was always interested in the tiniest of details.
When he reached Gboko, he ordered a proper and thorough ground check of the military helicopter and this was done. The helicopter had two pilots and one of them (we do not which one) even took it on a test flight. From Gboko to Makurdi where there is a base of the Nigerian Air Force, the distance was just 70 miles and that could be covered by any competent helicopter pilot in about 30 minutes. The vegetation between these towns is savannah type meaning there was more than enough flat and open grassland for the army chief’s chopper to land in case of any emergency if it was on the right flight path.
Akahan had planned to return to Makurdi the same day he arrived and it is assumed that he must have told his two young pilots this. But when he landed, his schedule was so choked that he was not free until it was already getting dark. But Akahan was not to be deterred. So when he announced to his friends, relatives and colleagues that he would be flying to Makurdi that night, they were all shocked and genuinely bewildered. It was already too late and too dark.
JOE, DON’T GO, WAIT TILL TOMORROW
Akahan’s namesake and one of his closest friends, Joseph Tarka (mentioned earlier) thought Joe was cracking a very expensive joke. But when it dawned on all of them that Joe was dead serious with his leaving for Makurdi that same night, Tarka did not find it funny anymore. In the strongest of terms, Tarka warned his army chief friend of the dangers inherent in flying that night. Joe, it is too dark, too risky and too dangerous, wait till tomorrow, his friends and relatives pleaded with him. Tarka was particularly concerned and he asked him various questions: Joe, what if you run into a Biafran war plane and they shoot down your helicopter especially as they just bombed some people to pieces yesterday? Joe, what if your helicopter gets lost in the pitch darkness of the night? What if there was a case of mistaken identity by the federal anti-aircraft guns or aircraft and they shoot you down in error? Tarka and others tried their best to convince Akahan to wait a few hours till sun rise.
But Akahan was a fearless man of war. Not even the cover of night will turn him into a coward. He must leave for Makurdi that night. He appreciated the concern of his friends about his safety but launched his counterarguments and felt he was taking little to no risk. Akahan argued that the helicopter was in an excellent shape and the distance they were to cover was a very short one, just about 25 to 30 minutes. Akahan also disclosed that their flight path was over a territory that had never been invaded by the Biafrans and that there would be no secessionist anti-aircraft missile battery in the area. He also explained that the correct code signals had already been pre-arranged so there was very little risk of mistaken identity. As Akahan reeled out his reasons, some of his kinsmen nodded in agreement while some others were disappointed that their great son would not be spending a few extra and precious hours with them. Akahan was in a hurry to reach Makurdi because waiting for him there was the Inspector-General of Police, Alhaji Kam Selem and they had urgent matters of national importance to discuss before Selem flew to Kaduna the next day.
Somehow, by 8:00 o’clock in the evening, Akahan had managed to convince his people of his departure. He entered his helicopter, waved to his people and melted into the dark clouds. As his excited people waited for his craft to disappear from view, the helicopter pilots steered the machine in a north-westerly direction, towards Makurdi. All seemed well. A coded signal was already radioed out to Makurdi that the Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Army was on his way approaching from Gboko. He was expected to touch down in Makurdi in a maximum of half an hour. There were just three people in the helicopter: Akahan and his two pilots.
But after 45 minutes, signs of trouble had began to show at Makurdi and Gboko. One hour passed and no one had seen Akahan or his helicopter. Big trouble! In the middle of a bloody war, was the Nigerian army chief captured by the Biafran rebels? The anxiety spread immediately and everyone was in a state of frenzy. People feared the worst and attempts were made to contact the helicopter, stations as far as Kaduna roared into action trying to link up with the prime military craft, all efforts failed. It was dark and time was after nine o’clock. No GSM, no social media, no Internet and nothing as we have today. Somehow, the news of Akahan’s disappearance leaked. Back in Gboko, no one could sleep, it was a vigil all night and early in the morning the next day, Akahan’s friends and relatives in Gboko were more than confused, the entire town was thrown into disarray. Rumours, hearsays and all sorts of information rented the air.
Later in the morning, the worst of the worst was confirmed. Nothing could describe the tragedy of that day in Tivland and all over Nigeria. Lying in the bush some seventeen miles from its take-off station in Gboko was the Nigerian army helicopter, in ruins. The location of the crash was slightly off the course of the helicopter. As the first villagers approached the crash site, they had faint hopes of seeing survivors but what they saw made their hearts sink totally in their chest cavities. Lying yards apart were three corpses – Akahan and his two pilots did not survive the crash. In an instant, the news spread, Akahan, Nigeria’s glorious army chief leading the nation in a civil war was gone, all too soon.
The villagers formed groups around the site discussing in their native tongues the tragedy that had befallen their land. They gave different accounts of what happened that night in August 1967. Some of the villagers said they saw the helicopter hit by lightning while others said that it burst into flames all of a sudden. Others used the graves of their ancestors to swear that the helicopter had collided with a mysterious object in the sky. Although they all had different versions of the same tragedy, there was a point that all the eyewitnesses agreed upon: there was a mighty flash, like an explosion, then the helicopter came hurtling down to earth, in flames.
AFTERMATH AND THE IMPACT
His death came when Nigeria was in a full war mode. Some analysts say this was the reason why the government could not launch a proper investigation into the crash. On the 7th of August, 1967, the Federal Military Government officially announced the passing away of its service chief and the two helicopter pilots. Official cause of death? Accident. But that did not stop the questions from pouring in.
Akahan’s death was a massive bombshell for the Nigerian Army. Their commander was gone, gone in a fiery blast. Nothing else could have damaged the morale of an army. Just five days after Akahan’s death, the excited Biafrans took advantage and sneaked into the Mid-West State (now what we call Edo and Delta States). The result was total disaster for the Nigerian troops as the earlier advancements of the federal forces upon Enugu was slowed by redeployment of forces. The advance on Port Harcourt was totally stopped and that was because the left flank of the Third Marine Commando was exposed to real danger.
It was a joyful moment for the Biafran rebels. One, the commander of the Nigerian army was gone in a helicopter crash and two, they felt it was sweet revenge for the federal ambush of Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu at Nsukka where he was killed. Nzeogwu was the colourful architect of the events that eventually led to the rebellion i.e Nigeria’s coup of January 1966. A major in the Nigerian Army, Nzeogwu switched his allegiance to that of the Biafran Army after his release and gained the rank of a lieutenant colonel. While fighting on the 29th of July, 1967, Nzeogwu was trapped in a fatal ambush by the federal forces near Nsukka where he was conducting a nocturnal renaissance operation against the Nigerian forces of the 21st Battalion under Captain Mohammed Inuwa Wushishi. Nzeogwu was killed in action and his body was later identified. For the Biafrans, it was a bitter pill. So when they heard of Akahan’s disastrous end just a few weeks after, it was celebration in the eastern camp.
While the Nigerians mourned, it was wild jubilation all the way among the Biafrans. In fact, a leaked secret military document showed that the Biafrans planned ahead of time to bomb Akahan’s funeral (which they did). Excerpts from the document read:
‘The military burial of the late Lt. Col. Joseph AKAHAN who died in an air crash at Gboko last week-end has been arranged to take place at Ikoyi Cemetery, Lagos, after a Church Service which is scheduled at 1000 hours date. Lt. Col. GOWON and Commodore J. E. WEY are due to lay wreaths on his grave at the burial. It is suggested that an air raid of Lagos island and the Ikoye cemetery before noon today by our Air Force will not only disorganize the arrangements but have a sharp and devastating effect on the already sagging morale of the Nigerian troops and Lagos populace.’
As indicated above, evidence showed that the Biafrans have information on the movement of the federal leaders. A bombing raid planned by the Biafrans during Colonel Akahan’s burial did take place at 1:00 pm when a B-26 aircraft attacked the State House on the 11th of August, 1967. Luckily, no damage was done and unknown to the secessionists, the federal government had decided to shift the time of the burial at the last minute, without giving any official explanation, a testament to the success of the Nigerian counterintelligence forces.
THE UNRESOLVED QUESTIONS
Remember that a day before Akahan entered Gboko, the Biafran Air Force had just launched a devastating air raid on the town. Was it an ordinary coincidence or it was a warning shot from the Biafran rebels who might have heard of Akahan’s impending visit and planned for his doom? Why was Akahan’s helicopter off course? Why was there an attempt by the Biafrans to hijack the Army Chief of Staff and hold him hostage in the secessionist-held area? When the pilot went on a test flight at Gboko, did he deliberately radio the secessionists and give them the details and full information of Akahan’s flight that evening? Or did the Biafrans intercept the radio message of the pilot as he was innocently contacting the base station at Makurdi?
The villagers said they saw a big flash and an explosion, was Akahan blown out of the sky by an enemy missile? Was he killed by a friendly fire from the Nigerian federal government troops as a result of a mistaken identity? Was there a hijack by one or both his pilots? The government listed the cause of the crash as an accident, what type of an accident was it? Did the helicopter manufacturer had time to investigate and observe the crash site or the destroyed craft? There are no answers yet but hopefully with time, the government will shed more light on the overlooked aspect of Nigeria’s history. Interestingly, later during the civil war, another Nigerian service chief, Shittu Alao, the Nigerian Chief of Air Staff would also die in another helicopter crash. He was piloting it himself. The circumstances that led to these high-profile crashes during the Nigerian Civil War have not been fully declassified by the Nigerian federal government.
WHO WERE AKAHAN’S PILOTS?
Immediately after the crash that killed Akahan, everyone involved was seen as a suspect, and that included his two dead pilots. Did one or two of them sabotage the flight and attempted a hijack? Did they betray Akahan? No clear and convincing answers yet but the two pilots were actually close friends. If Akahan noticed that the helicopter was off flight, he might have decided to intervene physically having detected a possible hijack and diversion of the craft into enemy territory. He might have fired some shots, we do not know precisely the drama that happened minutes before his craft plummeted down to earth in a roll of fire. But, a hole was made in the helicopter. Was it a bullet hole made during the struggle for the control of the aircraft? Or was it truly an accident in the dark? Again, no clear answers.
The two young pilots that day were officers of the Nigerian Air Force. One was second lieutenant Olawale Lawal and the other was Second Lieutenant George Ozieh, both schooled in northern Nigeria, got enlisted in the Nigerian Air Force in the same year, with just two months apart, got commissioned the same day as Second Lieutenants with Ozieh’s number being 232 and that of Lawal being 233. Both left Nigeria for training in West Germany the same day and returned the same day. They were both single and had no recorded children. Ozieh was aged 25 and Lawal was 24. Lawal was a Yoruba from Kwara State, born at Aye-Ekan near Otun Ekiti in Ilorin Division, his father was a Muslim farmer. George Ozieh on the other hand, was Igbo from the Mid West State. He was born in Ogwashi-Uku in Asaba Division. Ozieh’s father was a pensioner who delved into private business and the Oziehs were devout Catholics. Did one or both of the pilots nurse pro-Biafran agitations that made them work against their boss? Again, no clear answers on that.
A BIT ON AKAHAN
A Tiv by ethnicity, the late Colonel Joseph Ityowua Akahan was born on the 12th of April, 1937 in Gboko Local Government Area of Benue State. For his secondary school education, he proceeded to the Government College, Keffi (in modern-day Nasarawa State but then part of the Benue-Plateau State). He was there from 1952 to 1956 when he finished and obtained his Cambridge School Certificate. On the 4th of September, 1957, he joined the Nigerian Army and started his career at Teshi in Ghana.
About two years after that, on the 11th of February, 1959, he was commissioned a lieutenant. That was after he got training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in Britain – then the most popular ground for Nigerian officers. In 1960, he also attended a small arms platoon weapons course at Hythe, Kent, also in England and the following year, Akahan was promoted to the full rank of Lieutenant.
From that stage, promotion was rapid for Akahan. After another course at the Staff College at Camberly, England, from which he returned early in 1965, he was posted to the Army Headquarters in Lagos where he assumed duty as the Deputy Adjutant-General with Gowon as his boss, the Adjutant-General. In April 1966, Akahan, popularly called ‘Joe’ by his friends and colleagues was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel and became the Chief of Staff (Army) in November of the same year. On the 10th of June, 1967, less than a month before his disastrous exit, he was promoted Colonel. He was just 30.
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