– Lt. Col. M. O. Nzefili – Part 1


Through the medium of a personal biographical account, from time to time, I shall invite officers who are willing and able to give an account of their years in the Nigerian military, particularly during the decolonization transition.  In this way readers may glean insights – through the eyes of an eyewitness – into that era in Nigeria’s military history. 

The first of my “witnesses to history” is none other than Lt. Col. M. O. Nzefili (rtd).  I thank him very much for agreeing to share his experiences.



I was born to Chief ONWUKA NZEFILI ODIGWE of OKOLORI – EFOR, NDOKWA EAST Local Government Area and Mrs MARY ANASHI NZEFILI of IKILIBI, UTAGBA – UNO, NDOKWA WEST, Local Government Area, both of DELTA STATE of NIGERIA on November 22nd, 1933. 

My mother was the first of five wives of what became a polygamous family.  I am the last son and the only surviving son of my mother’s six children of four boys and two girls, and the first of my father’s eleven surviving children of four boys and seven girls.

I saw the evils of polygamy at its roughest as my mother had to leave me in the hands of another wife, a mate, with whom she was in good relationship and when this left after having my sister Rebecca, I was handed over to yet another wife, the mother of my sister Angelina Egbaechi.

I attended the Native Administration Primary School, Efor, 1938-1943 (Infant Class I-II and Standards 1-4) and at the N.A. Central School, Kwale, Ndokwa West 1944-1945 (Standards 5 and 6).

I sat for the Entrance Examination to Government Middle School, Warri in 1945 and passed and was admitted into Secondary Class One in 1946.  The School metamorphosed to Government Secondary School, to Warri College Warri, and finally Warri College Ughelli.  This was so because the school was established in 1945 and had to go through the process of achieving the status of a full fledged Secondary School, and to acquire its own distinctive name, different from all others.  It is now the Government College Ughelli, Delta State.

I was at the Secondary School from 1946-1951 (six years) which the first two intakes had to do before sitting for the Cambridge Senior School Certificate.  The third intake did the examination in five years.  By the time we passed out in 1951, the School had moved from Warri to Ughelli and so from Warri College Warri, to Warri College Ughelli, Delta State.

By the time we left Warri, Urhobo Collegiate School had become Urhobo College and with Hussey College were the only two colleges left in Warri.  At the college, my favorite events in sports were long jump, triple jump and the pole vault.  All of which I keenly participated in. 

In 1952, as a result of my passing the then Civil Service Examination which we sat for in January 1952, I was invited for an interview at the Nigerian Railway Corporation in July, the Nigerian Broadcasting Service and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. 

The Railway interview was first to come up and I had to attend it at Ibadan.  The result came out on the same day. I was successful and was directed to report to the Nigerian Railways Lagos, a week later in the same month of July.

We trained for six months at the Traffic Training School Ebute Metta and on completion were posted to Apapa Wharf as a Station Staff and Booking Clerk under the Operating and Commercial Department.  It is interesting to note that before coming to Lagos for training, I had never seen a Railway Train or anything Railways all my life, coming from the Delta part of the country where I was born and where I schooled. 

I was here till 1954 when on a Public holiday; I went to the Race Course to watch the Queen’s Birthday Parade.  For the first time in my life, I saw British and African soldiers, officers and men on parade in their smart uniforms and the officers carrying swords and wearing a special belt that has an attachment from the left side of the waist up to the right shoulder and down at the back to the left to another attachment that carries the scabbard of the sword.  The belt, I was told later on enquiry, was called the “Cross belt” or “Sam Browne”.  They were worn only by officers, white or black and by the Regimental Sergeant Majors. 

Those two items, the sword and the belt, fascinated me and I made up my mind there and then to join the Army to become an Army Officer.  From where I was, I could not notice that they were wearing heavy boots for this almost put me off when I got close to one RSM Udofia who lived near me in Surulere and from whom I tried very hard to learn as much as possible about the Army.  He did a lot to encourage me and his encouragement reassured me that it was a profession worth pursuing.

From RSM Udofia, I gathered that entry was not direct but that one needed to take the Army Examination and had to pass, to be interviewed and to be selected before being enlisted.  One had to look for information by checking at the Headquarters, Nigeria District and radio announcements.  Incidentally, at this time the politicians were demanding for Nigerians to be trained as Officers and so I applied, sat for the examination with serving soldiers and other civilians for the same course.  I was surprised to see the large number of applicants including RSM Udofia who never gave me any hint that he also was going to sit for the same examination.  The examination was an eye opener because in Nigeria then, the Army was condemned as a place for drop outs and illiterates. All the civilian applicants became wiser after the examination which was tough and at a level equivalent to Cambridge School Certificate or higher. 

The results were not long in coming.  I passed both the examination and the interview and was selected for the January intake, 1955.  It required the full cooperation of my Chief Clerk to arrange for me the change of Shifts to enable me sit for the examinations where dates clashed with my times of duty.  This my boss rose to become a Ports Manager in Nigerian Ports Authority which took over later the Railway Ports.  From my earlier enquiries, I had been told that we would leave Nigeria and go straight to England for admission to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst Camberley Surrey, England.  So we were surprised when our flight landed in Accra (Gold Coast) now Ghana and we were received at the Regular Officers’ Special Training School, Teshie, Accra. 

We the civilians became suspicious.  Do they train Military Officers in Africa?  The serving soldiers amongst us were not forthcoming.  They were already regarding us as competitors despite our well known lack of knowledge of anything military and this weighed us down.  We were later to learn that the British Company Sergeant Major (CSM) in charge was observing these traits and did penalize some of them for unofficerlike behaviour.  In my set there were three serving soldiers, Philip Effiong, HM Onyi, and John Onuaguluchi.  With me as civilians were Christian Onyedike and Lewechi Ogbonnia.  We thus were six, three soldiers and three civilians.  We now noticed that we were addressed as Officer Cadets. The same address applied to the serving soldiers even though they were a Company Sergeant Major, a Sergeant, and a Corporal in that order. 

The following day we were on parade, soldiering had started.  There was documentation and kitting.  We found ourselves issued with uniforms including heavy boots and socks.  Uniforms had to be adjusted to fit by tailors and we had to polish these boots to shine such that toe caps so shine that one’s image could be seen on them.  Beds were made to specifications about the dimensions of folded pillow slips, bed sheets and blankets in rectangular shapes and were inspected every morning.  These were nothing new to the old soldiers but to us civilians who normally sent our clothes to the washer man, this was a confusing undertaking particularly when they would not allow us patronize any washer man even when we could afford it.  It was no surprise therefore when Christian Onyedike had to escape by Tarzan Transport back to Nigeria.  In Army parlance he had gone AWOL but nobody looked for him.  In fact commissioning of African Officers had not gone down well with the British and the fewer the number the better.  My reason for not doing the same was that

(a) I had given up my employment at the Nigerian Railways/Nigerian Ports Authority (I was one of those who elected to transfer from the Railways to Ports Authority). 

(b) My father had earlier objected to my joining the Army and had to be convinced by a young family friend, Prince A.C.R Oputa who was one of those conscripted from King’s College, Lagos during the World War II.

As training progressed under the Command of Capt. Cracknell, the Commandant ably assisted by CSM Chambers, we began to fit in and to realize that what we were in for was more serious than being on parade with Swords and Sam Browne both of which we expected to be issued to us at inception but which unfortunately was beyond us.  The serving soldiers among us understood and merely laughed off our enquiry.  The soldiers were not helpful to us and in many cases watched us burn our boots while copying them in the process of shining our boots.

Unknown to them, the Sgt Major Chambers (CSM Chambers) was keeping watch on them and their gradings were affected by the report on some of them about their relationship with their civilian counterparts which betrayed unofficerlike qualities.

At the end of the course in Accra, my room mate could not make it and was relegated.  Lewechi Ogbonnia and I were selected for the Regular Course at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Camberley Surrey, England.  Those for Short Service Course made it to Eaton Hall near Chester.

We were given a short leave, this being the time Sandhurst was changing from 18 months course to a two year course.  We were in ROSTS (FOUR) and the Course before us ROSTS (THREE) got to Sandhurst to do a fifteen month Course which was Course 18 in Sandhurst.

We missed the Course 19 as ROSTS 4 overlapped it and so we joined Course 20.  We thus became the first West African Cadets to do the 2 year Course in Sandhurst although Sandhurst’s first 2 year Course started with intake 19.

We did not go direct to Sandhurst but had to go to the Home Counties Brigade Depot in Canterbury Kent, England for acclimatization.  From there we moved on to MONS Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, Hants, England for Basic Training and entered Sandhurst (Basic Wing) in January 1956.

The training in Sandhurst was very rigourous from the beginning to the end.  There were three Colleges in Sandhurst then, Old College, Victory College and New College.  Each College had four Companies.  The distinguishing mark of the Colleges was the colour of the Lanyards.  Red for Old College, Yellow for Victory College and Blue for New College.

I was in New College, Somme Company named after the Battle of the Somme in France. The Competition among the Colleges in every endeavour was continuously keen among the students and staff of the Colleges.  Each college aimed at coming up tops in whatever they did, be it Boxing, Drill etc.

I was in the Football and Athletics team.  My events were Pole Vault, Long Jump and Triple Jump.  I took part in the Western European Military Cadets Athletics Meeting (WEMCAM) which was held in 1957 at the Dutch Military Academy in BREDA, HOLLAND.

I was also a footballer and played for the Academy.  In Nigeria I captained my Unit Teams and continued to play until 1960 when my posting to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with an Infantry Battalion left me no room for further participation.

We passed out of Sandhurst as Second Lieutenants on 19 December 1957.  Our colleagues on Short Service Course in Chester passed out after six months with the rank of Lieutenant and had since returned to Nigeria.

For Sandhurst officers it was time after two years for Young Officers Courses.  I chose the Royal Army Service Corps. I therefore did my Young Officer’s (YO) Course at the RASC School, Buller Barracks, Aldershot, Hants England, Course 70 (Junior Officers Course or JOC 70).

Courses here were mainly on Supply and Transport.  We learnt about equitation and motor cycling, motor vehicle driving up to class E.  One was able to drive a car, a lorry and such like and was licensed so to do.  I had one motor cycle accident during training down a steep slope.  The motor cycle was badly smashed and a land rover had to recover me and the motor cycle.  This disturbed the equitation during the week. 

There was an incident that made a lasting impression on me in Buller Barracks.  One morning I was going for breakfast and on my way met my colleague from our time in Sandhurst, undergoing the same Course, Ted Harvey.

Like a joke he told me “Mac, you go and sit near the young man at the head of the table”.  I asked, why? And he replied “you just sit near him”.

I did not mind him.  I got to the Dinning Hall and there in truth was a Lieutenant at the head of the table.  Harvey and I were Second Lieutenants.  I sat directly opposite him and rushed my breakfast and finished shortly after him.  We left almost together, I following a few steps behind. 

We arrived at the letter rack and out of sheer curiousity, I glanced to see the name on where he was removing some letters.  Shock!  Am I seeing clearly?  I allowed him to move ahead while I pretended to be checking my own box.  What did I see on a closer look?  H.R.H. the Duke of Kent.  A member of the British Royal Family, a relation of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?  We know what it could have been were this to be in a Nigerian Training Establishment in which a President’s relation is a student.

The Course in Buller Barracks was very interesting and you saw how your training was preparing you for an important part to play in the Army in future.  There were very many practical exercises and the driving and motor cycling exercises took one to various parts of Aldershot and other parts of Hampshire.

Equitation looked simple and enjoyable at the beginning until you went out on exercises with the horses.  Feeding and maintenance of those horses were no joy.  It was energy sapping.  Leading the horses on exercises taught me that you had to be a lover of horses to be able to look after them well.  For a Southern Nigerian, far removed from horses in our environment, this would be a new experience.

Time keeping in the R.A.S.C was very meticulous.  This is so because troop lifting from A to B gets tied up with other operations including the delivery of ammunition.  Practice makes perfect in this because it is done at such times the RASC vehicles must reach points A,B,C, D and E at times corresponding to times given in the Operation Orders.  No excuses.  Vehicles must be in perfect conditions at all times and so must officers and men be too.

The Courses overseas have now ended and I must return home and to my unit.  The equivalent of the RASC in Nigeria, were the Transport Company in Lagos (Apapa) and the Composite Company in Kaduna. The Headquarters was at Apapa.

I reported to the Headquarters at Apapa where I was well received, given a few days leave to see my parents at home and on return to proceed to the Composite Company in Kaduna. 

Before leaving I asked the Director of Supply and Transport if he could allow one or two of the officers to visit me at home and see my people.  He promised he would.

A few days after my arrival at home I was pleasantly surprised to behold a Land rover coming into our compound led by Captain Philips RASC.  A British Second Lieutenant on National Service and Second Lieutenant Rudolph Trimnell, a Nigerian, accompanied Captain Philips. 

The Nigerian officer, a Short Service Officer, was commissioned after me.  He came from my part of the country but I never met him in Britain, much less in Buller Barracks.  A driver took him home to his village at Ashaka in Ndokwa East, not far from me.

My visitors were fed on European diet prepared by a retired European cook who was Randy.  We live on the banks of Ase Creek off the River Niger and they thoroughly enjoyed themselves swimming in the hot African weather.  The other past time was hunting and they traversed the hunting grounds playing hide and seek with the buffalos and other game but retrained themselves from shooting at elephants which they said were under age.

We left a few days later taking Second Lieutenant Trimnell with us.  They had endeared themselves to the local population who entertained them every evening with local music and related fun.  The journey was not smooth as the vehicle developed a lot of trouble including battery failure continually.  With this we had to spend the night enroute.

I arrived Lagos and spent about two days before leaving for Kaduna to take up my posting.  The journey took two days by train and at the other end was a reception party that took me to the Officers mess.  I reported the following day to my Officer Commanding, Major MacAndrew. 

I was shown round the unit and was posted to the MT as Platoon Commander. On being appointed the Supply Platoon Commander at the Headquarters, I handed over to Second Lieutenant R Trimnell who joined soon after, and took over the MT Platoon from me. At the Headquarters, I was later appointed the Headquarters Subaltern doing jobs similar to that of a Battalion Adjutant, but in a Service Company.

Under me were trained and efficient Supply staff who were outwardly pleased to work with me, their first “African Officer”, for so they called us.  Much later on and after the civil war, a private soldier who had been commissioned during the war and who I got the QM staff to kit up from rags when I was taking over from a young British National Service Officer, revealed to me that before my arrival, the British NCOs had brain washed them insinuating that they would suffer under African Officers.  In effect they were prepared for the worst against me.  But for my actions and the treatment of the soldiers that worked with me, they were overwhelmed with joy and gratitude and so resolved there and then to treat me like they treated the Expartriate Officers.

I was in Composite Company until 1960 when I requested for posting to an Infantry Battalion. But before then I had been appointed the Military Liaison Officer for the Commonwealth Air Forces during the Independence Celebration 1st October 1960 in Lagos, the then Federal Capital of Nigeria. I had already been promoted Captain early in the year before this appointment.

There were, The Royal Air Force, The Royal Australian Air Force, The Royal Canadian Air Force, and The Royal Rhodesian Air Force. In appreciation of my service to them, The Royal Australian Air Force presented me a beautiful commemorative plaque of the RAAF in a short but memorable ceremony. I treasured this plaque ever so much but it was looted in Benin during the Nigerian Civil War.

My posting was to the 4th Battalion Nigerian Army at just the time they were leaving Nigeria for service with the UN Peace keepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ONUC). I was with the “D” Company but not long after, the Company Commander was shot and seriously wounded at the Manono Airport. He was evacuated to Rhodesia and I took over as Company Commander. I was then a Captain and this was October 1960.

The Congolese Army was very disorganized and the Republic had broken up into two, the other half being Katanga.

The Fifth Battalion that moved before us was in the North in Bukavu in Kivu Province. We were in Manono, Katanga. The Katangese Army was led and financed by the Belgians and so was better organized. We got to Manono with “A” Company fighting their way by road from Kamina (N.A.T.O) Base while the remainder of the Battalion went by train.

Our job was mainly taking care of Refugees, Escorts and protection of the defenseless. We did our best to be between warring factions in order to prevent contact between combatants.

In those days, there was nothing like Peace Enforcement, so we were on many occasions on the receiving end as we could not fight back without clearance and authorization from the United Nations Organizations in New York, the United States of America.

In my career in the Nigerian Army, I served in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on three occasions, in 1960-1961 with the 4th Battalion, Nigerian Army in KATANGA, in 1962 with the 5th Battalion in KASAI in the North and in 1963 with 2nd Battalion in LEOPOLDVILLE now KINSHASA in the South.

In 4th Battalion Nigerian Army, we served in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a complement of British Officers who were not acceptable to the Congolese who thought they were “White Nigerians” and so they must be like the Belgians who they wanted out of their Country. In fact, our government did not have enough of Nigerian Officers to man two Battalions, the 4th and the 5th which left earlier. The 5th Battalion had a full complement of Nigerian Officers but the 4th had to have a combination of the Nigerian and British Officers to make up a full complement. In fact it was commanded by a British Lieutenant Colonel while Lt Col J T U Aguiyi-Ironsi as he then was, commanded the 5th Battalion, the first Nigerian to ever command a Battalion, in peace or in action.

I had my baptism of fire during this tour of duty with the United Nations when my Company was ambushed by the Congolese and I had to fight my way back to base on December 31 1960. This event was published in the Nigerian Daily Times of January 4 1961. We were on the normal Escort Duties by train. It was also during this tour that Mr. Patrice Lumumba was murdered in  January 1961. [January 18, 1961]

A few days later, we were yet on another Escort duty when the Balubas of Katanga, a terrible and vicious warrior tribe in Katanga ambushed us having ingenuously removed the Rails from the Railway Lines over the bridge at a gully to derail the train. The train engine went over the bridge span by force but the coaches derailed, tilting to one side.

They opened fire which we replied to and cleared them from the area while making sure the train was effectively guarded to prevent them from getting near or inside the coaches. They were stupidly fearless and that was why they suffered casualties.

We could not move anywhere until the re-inforcement of Infantry and Engineers we called for arrived from our Headquarters in Manono the following morning. Only God saved us from certain death were the tilted coaches to have overturned into the deep valley below from a level overlooking a fast flowing river parallel to the Railway Line.

[One would notice that I have refrained from quoting numerous specific dates of events. The Civil war atrocities resulted in the loss and the looting of my property in Lagos, Benin and at my home in Delta State. This has been very unfortunate because various important documents and records were lost and could not be salvaged at the end of the crisis.]

On returning from the Congo in 1961, I was nominated for the UK Company Commander’s course in Hythe and Warminster which I attended with other Commonwealth students. It was a very useful course.

In 1960, while I was still with the Supply and Transport Company in Kaduna, I commanded the Transport Company that lifted the 5th Battalion to Bamenda, Southern Cameroon, then part of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in yet another operation.

During the Tiv riots in 1964, I had the duty of deploying a Company of my troops from 5th Battalion, Kaduna, in Tiv Division of Benue Province. This was an operation ordered by the AHQ, Lagos and being the most senior Infantry Officer in Kaduna and the Acting Commanding Officer of the Battalion at the material time, I received orders to handle this operation. The speed of deployment impressed the late Premier of the North to merit his commendation when he met me at the Airport where I was seeing off the Officer Commanding the Operation who had to leave by light aircraft to Makurdi where the advance party was heading to by road. He had seen them on the move.

One of the most memorable occasions in my career was when I was appointed the ADC to the Emperor of Ethiopia. The appointment was clouded in secrecy for it was code named “Operation Kano Lion” to cover the Lion of Judah.   He had to rush back home on his DC-6B aircraft – through Nigeria – from a diplomatic trip to Sao Paulo in Brazil because his son, Crown Prince Asfa Wassan, had been entwined in a plot to overthrow him. [The unsuccessful coup attempt, led by the Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard, took place on December 13, 1960.   Selassie finally returned four days later, flying from Kano to a loyalist airfield in Asmara). The Right Honourable Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was then the Governor-General of Nigeria. The Emperor later graciously presented to me and to then Captain Alexander Madiebo, ADC to the Governor-General, the medal “Grand Star of Ethiopia.” This was during a subsequent meeting of Heads of African States in Lagos in January 1962.

I was also conferred with other medals, namely the Independence Medal and the UNOC Medal (United Nations Service Medal).  With three medals early in my service to my Country, I was very pleased with myself until the events of 1965-1966 that led to the Civil War changed the Hopes and Aspirations of Nigerians.

The January 1966 Coup d’etat took most of us unawares [Then Major Nzefili was the 2ic at the 4th Battalion, Ibadan.  His Commanding Officer, late Lt. Col. Abogo Largema, was assassinated at the Ikoyi Hotel in Lagos that morning. Then Major Nzefili was awakened with the shocking news of the coup by frantic early morning phone calls placed directly to the Letmauk Barracks, first from the US Embassy, and then the British Embassy, both in Lagos.  “What is going on in your country”, they asked?].

Because of the intransigence of both Lieutenant Colonel Gowon and Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu as they then were, the Country was thrown into an avoidable, wasteful, unnecessary and fratricidal war.

Because of the similarity of the spoken language of our people of Aboh and Asaba Divisions both on the Western side of the Niger to that of Igbos of the East, our people suffered so much pain, humiliation and what have you from both the Nigerian and Biafran Armies. We fled the pursuit and destructions by Federal Troops to the East where we were received mainly with suspicion. We had to choose between two evils and so we stayed on the Biafran side till the end of the war.

At the end of the war on January 15 1970, all officers on the Biafran side were assembled at Port Harcourt and screened. Some were cleared and others were detained for their parts in the Coup and their activities during the Civil War. I was one of those cleared and I headed home to rejoin my family.  My father was with me throughout the war as it was unsafe for him to remain at his home. My mother was in hiding in the bush throughout, as some of her own people turned out to be pointers, showing rampaging soldiers where wanted people like her lived. She escaped by a whisker. My father-in-law; a retired Police Officer who had no reason to flee from his house and village was thoroughly battered causing him the loss of the vision of one eye and a broken scapula. His photograph in uniform was displayed in the sitting room but this made no sense to the Nigerian troops.

The stories about the Civil War will always bring back bitter memories and were better forgotten, but from what has been happening after that shameful event, it would appear that we have learnt no lessons from that tragedy.

I held the following posts during my service which the war interrupted and finally abridged.

(a)   Adjutant 4th Battalion NA

(b)  Second in Command 4th Battalion NA

(c)   Acting Commanding Officer 4th and 5th Battalions at various times

(d)  DST briefly at Army Headquarters before being posted to Supreme Headquarters from where I was appointed the General Manager of the Nigerian Railway Corporation by the Supreme Commander, General Aguiyi-Ironsi, Head of the Nigerian State then. A few weeks later, while in the Nigerian Railway Co-operation, I was promoted Lieutenant Colonel in 1966. I had been promoted Major in 1962 before the second Congo Operation in Kasai

It was from Supreme Headquarters I fled to the 4th Area Command Benin City after the Counter Coup of July 29 1966 and so on to the Civil war that followed.

May Nigeria never see another Civil War, I pray.


Edits (in Italics) by Dr. Nowamagbe Omoigui, with special thanks to Marjorie Nzefili for her assistance in securing this manuscript.

[A follow-up section may be expected, depending on questions readers may ask in response].

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