A PUNCH EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW -- BY NONYE BEN-NWANKWO AND ADEOLA BALOGUN
Captain August Okpe (rtd) was the Chief Pilot of Biafra during the civil war. He tells ‘NONYE BEN-NWANKWO and ADEOLA BALOGUN about his childhood days and his experience during the war.
Why did you decide to write the book, Last Flight, almost 40 years after the war?
I was taking my time. The Igbo say that whenever a man wakes up is his morning. But I don’t even understand it when people talk about the years. Books on the Second World War are still being written. Every now and then, somebody comes up with a fresh angle. What is the big deal about years? The book has been written; let’s just read it and know what it is all about.
Why did you title it The Last flight?
The title is derived from some components of the book. It has to do with what happened towards the end of the Nigeria/Biafra war. The book is written specifically to convey what happened in the air aspect of the Nigeria/Biafra war. Remember that a lot has been written about the ground war but nothing about the air war. I was actively involved in the air war, and it is only natural for me to write about it. I have the facts and figures. All I needed was to collate them and ensure that accuracy is maintained in terms of time. I am not writing a kindergarten book or fables for my children.
How long did it take to you write it?
It is difficult to say. I don’t know when it started and I don’t know when it finished. The important thing is that the book is out. What you want is information. It doesn’t matter how long it took to write the book.
Was there a reason you got enlisted in the Biafran Air Force?
I did not enlist in the Biafran Air Force. I was in the Nigerian Air Force and the crisis started. So, automatically, I had to join my own region. The upheaval, the national crisis, moved people. At one time in Lagos and the North, there were virtually no Easterners.
You look so young one would hardly know that you are in your 60s...
Are you jealous? I am 66. I am sorry, that is my age.
How did your parents take it when you decided to go into the military?
Everybody had grown up and left the house when I was born. My parents got married in 1915 and they didn’t have a child until 1925. Everybody told my father to remarry but he didn’t. I respect him so much because he lived an exemplary life. He made some of us look untidy by comparison. He was castigated and told that he married a beautiful ‘man’. But he ignored all the castigations. Later, they started having children until my mother got to her 50s. She thought she had malaria; she didn’t know she was pregnant. She went to the hospital and she was told that she was pregnant. Eventually, I showed up. I went to very good schools and decided to be a pilot. My mother was opposed to it. She couldn’t understand why I chose a profession that is full of danger. I persevered and went to Canada. When I finished training and came back, she didn’t know whether to cry or smile. There was a reception when I came back, where she told people how I was born. She said that since she took a lot of malaria drugs because she thought she had malaria, maybe the drugs affected my brain. Otherwise, she said, I would not have thought of becoming a pilot.
You trained in Canada. Why did you come back to Nigeria?
I came back to fly for the Nigerian Air Force that sent me there. You cannot go and train on your own; the Air Force sends you. When you finish, you are expected to come back and fly for the government that sent you.
How did you escape to Biafra during the war?
It is in my book. It is not something I can say in two or three words. It was very traumatic. The title of that chapter in my book is Fugitives from Injustice. We ran. We tried a lot of things. At a stage, we escaped by air planes. Food was not the problem. To reach a place of reasonable safety and stay out of harm’s way was paramount in our minds. We even grew beard so as not to look as armed forces personnel, because we didn’t want to be identified and we didn’t want to walk with erect. We tried not to show that we had anything to do with the military so that we would not get noticed. They were looking for us then.
Given the chance, would you want to be in the military again?
If I reflect on the experience and advantages I garnered from being in the military, I will do the same thing again for obvious reasons. It gives you a lot of discipline. I am the youngest in a family of six children. Like I said earlier, my parents didn’t marry on time. And when they did, they didn’t have kids on time. By the time they had me, my siblings had left. I grew up as an only child. People always felt I was spoilt until I got into the military. The military beat the spoilt brat thing out of me. Today, I see myself as an alert and very positive individual that has got the benefits that are derivable from the military. I got a lot of training from the military. They weren’t counting the cost; they just wanted result. With all the academic training I got in the military, I think I am a made person. I am very happy about it. The way I look, my gait, the way I speak, I have the military to thank for all this. In terms of physical regiment, they encourage sports. Up till tomorrow, I play squash, I swim and I play tennis. I am not likely to have the pot belly everybody is carrying about.
What was the war experience like?
I was trained for it. I was a military pilot. I wasn’t trained to just carry passengers in comfort. This one, you will be trained to recognise that you can be fired at and you are trained to use weapons of destructions; bombs and every other thing in between. The war came and we had to put them into practice. The unfortunate thing was that we were using the acquired practice against ourselves. That was the sad part of it.
Your father fought in World War and your son is also in the US army. Does it run in the family?
My father fought in the Second World War. That time, it was a world war. In one way or the other, people got involved whether they liked it or not. Nobody gets into the arm forces with the purpose of fighting a war. You don’t normally expect it. But after training as a pilot, I found myself in a regional war. My son is in the US army. He was in the 1991 war for the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq. He fought the war and came out with meritorious awards.
After the Nigeria/Biafra crisis, you were not reabsorbed into the Nigerian air force…
Did you feel bad about it?
Not necessarily. They probably felt my activities were too prominent. You don’t fly an aeroplane and expect not to get noticed. My activities were reported in a lot of books. One book referred to me as the Chief of the Biafran Air Force, which I wasn’t. I was the Chief Pilot. I quarreled with them over that. I complained and automatically, the Federal Government saw me as a very senior rebel. It attracted a lot of prejudice against me in terms of many things. Some of this information was available to the military tribunal. Probably, that influenced their decision not to recall me. They recalled a lot of my colleagues, like Rear Admiral Kanu, Rear Admiral Madueke, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe and others.
But in 2006, you were eventually granted pardon and your sack was turned into retirement. Did you expect it?
In Nigeria, you don’t know what to expect and what not to. But the important thing is in the interest of restitution and peace and also for the country to move ahead. Since it was said it was a fight between brothers, one must expect such dispensation; no victor, no vanquished. It is okay to expect it. I turned my back on it anyway. If anything happened, fine. But it came that way and I thanked God for it.
During the war, did it occur to you that you could be killed?
It could have happened to me. The human system reacts to threat to itself. It is only natural to worry. I don’t think there is anybody who does not worry about threat. You will worry but your mind still has to be in control so that you can evade the forces that are trying to kill you. It is just like in the aircraft; when there is a problem, you do not go crazy in the plane. You get worried, I agree. But you have to be in a frame of mind to handle the reaction to emergencies. To have courage does not mean there is absence of fear. It is how you handle fear that matters most.
Why did you choose to be a pilot?
I have always wanted to be a pilot. That craving got satisfied when Nigeria decided to start an air force. I saw it as an opportunity to fly except that it was in the military. I joined the military as an air force pilot. Years later, I continued as a civilian pilot. After the war, when I was asked to leave the air force, I went and got converted as a civilian pilot. That was what I was doing until I retired in 2000. I have been flying aeroplanes since 1963. I have done nothing else since then.
We hear that people who are involved in war usually suffer a major trauma after the war. Have you experienced any trauma?
I don’t think I have any post-traumatic stress syndrome. If I have, it is not manifest and I don’t feel anything. Some of the soldiers, even those that are stoic and tough and unyielding are prepared to say that they are suffering from post-traumatic syndrome. It may be because they feel good about it or to get some compensation from the government. I don’t think I have it. I never knew what it was until they started talking about it. I think I am all right.
Do you still remember some of the horrible experiences of the war?
You can call them incidents or events, but not in the traumatic sense. At times, you might dream that you are crashing an aeroplane or firing or being fired at. But I don’t see them as nightmares.
Were you married during the war?
I got married just a month before the war started. It was okay. Flying in a dangerous zone as a married man and later as a father, I don’t know what to tell you about that. But we had to do what a man is supposed to do. It gave me more impetus to carry on the way I did to protect these children that I have produced during the same war. I hope that didn’t make me overdo it any way.
Was there a time you tried raiding oil wells in Port Harcourt?
Of course, yes. Any time the Nigerian forces overran a particular area and occupied it, we tried to deprive them of their resources there. My instruction from the Biafran high command was to inflict economic damage on Nigeria, to deprive them of the resources they used to buy armoured vehicles and the aeroplanes which they used against us.
As a civil pilot, was there a time you were almost involved in a crash.
There was a time something like that happened but luckily, there was no loss of life. Once you are a pilot, there is always that possibility that anything can happen. If everything is done well, short of the unexpected, flying is the safest means of transportation.
It is generally believed that military men are promiscuous…
I wouldn’t have entertained such question, but since you are a woman and women are always probing the men, I will answer. I want to disabuse your mind of the notion of promiscuity by the military. My colleagues in the military are very disciplined and moralistic individuals. My case is even worse because I am an airline captain. People say pilots are promiscuous. We are not promiscuous. One thing you must remember is that people in uniform look very attractive. If they appear to be promiscuous, it is the women that are disturbing them. Airline captain uniform is even very provocative.
You are yet to remarry since your wife died.
I am looking for another person. If I see, I will get married to her. Even my aunt asked me if I am still mourning my wife. I told her I had not seen the right person. If you see her, let me know. I want to remarry. I am told that married people live longer. Since I want to live long, I want to marry again. I am looking for the right person. Lots of women want to marry me. I can compete with any younger guy. A man is as old as he feels while a woman is as old as she looks. I may remarry any moment from now.