Saturday, March 20, 2004

I could have save Tafawa Balewa’s life - Babankowa

The first Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa could have survived the January 66 coup led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu Kaduna if then Police Commissioner, Ibrahim Ahmed Babankowa had searched three vehicles that passed through his check point at Sango Otta on the night of January 15TH 1966. But as fate had it they were military vehicles and police don’t usually stop and search military vehicles especially when their occupants say they are on special assignments. The now retired police Commissioner revealed how he later discovered that the corpse of Late Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was in one of the military vehicles and his numerous role critical police operations like the Maitatsine Riot of Kano, raid on Fela’s KALAKUTA Republic, the Tiv riot and the Wild, Wild West crisis in this all-inclusive interview with our Kano Bureau Chief, Musa Umar Kazaure

WT: How would you recount your career in the police force?

Babankowa: My career as a police officer was quite an eventful one. I was involved in so many critical operations for the simple reason that I was one of the first sets of Nigerians to be trained in the Police Mobile Force. Because of the kind of professional training I had, and the broad experience gained, the Police Force had to occasionally invite me to lead important operations in different parts of the country. This trend continued even after I had left the Police Mobile Force.

Throughout my career, I had been involved in many sad and critical assignments as a Superior Police Officer (SPO). But the saddest events of all, in my life as a police officer were the events of the 15th - 20th January, 1966. I was then an Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), serving at Mubi in the former Sardauna Province (now Adamawa State), having left the police Mobile Force.

WT: What motivated you to join the Nigeria Police?

Babankowa: After my primary school in Ringim, I came to Kano and attended the Kano Middle School. On completion from the Middle School. I continued at the Secondary School. The secondary school was started as part of the educational policy then which directed that all middle schools be converted to secondary schools. And that’s what led to my staying in what is now known as Rumfa College. I spent 4 years in the middle school and five years in the secondary school. We were the first batch in Kano here, as the pioneer class in Rumfa College to do W.A.S.C. examinations. While I was in the school, I was very interested in scouting. In fact, I was the scout master in my school. I was very much interested in the forces. First of all, I went into the Nigerian Army. I sat for the exams in Kaduna and was successful. I would have been a cadet officer, unfortunately, I had a misunderstanding with my family because they did not want me to go into the army. They forced me to leave the army, I left, but ran to Lagos and jointed the Nigerian Police at Ikeja. I joined the police force as a Cadet Inspector at the Police College along with other young people from the Northern part of the country. There were only six of us from the whole of the North.

WT: Do you remember the other officers you joined together with?

Babankowa: Oh yes, there was the former Inspector –General of Police, Alhaji Mohammadu Gambo, Gongola Commissioner of Police, Alhaji Sani Former Assistant Inspector-general of police, Alhaji Buba Fika, there was late Mr. Sani Yaroson, Mr. Potter Dabup now Deputy Inspector-General of Police from Plateau, and myself, that’s making six.

WT: Before we go to the other event, tell us about the event of January 15th – 20th 1965.

Babankowa: It was while I was in Sardauna Province in December 1965 that the political crises in the former Western Region reached a crescendo and blew up. For instance, there was a serious commotion inside the Western Regional House of Assembly Hall in Ibadan during that period- This very particular incidence led to an anarchy situation that was known as ‘Operation Wetie’, where rival political groups were spraying each other with petrol and set ablaze. I was called upon to come down from Mubi to Kaduna to take over the riot unit that was organized and lead the operation to quell the trouble in the Western Region.

I led the riot unit to Ibadan, and was later assigned to proceed to Owo (now in Ondo State) with my unit as tension was fast brewing there. From Owo, I was asked to move to Arigidi, a border town between the Northern and Western Regions. The aim was to stop the trouble from spreading to the Northern Region.

While I was at Arigidi, people were being killed at Somolu. Along the Ikorodu - Lagos Road. For that reason, I was asked to move the riot unit again to Somolu where I did my best to stop the mayhem. From Somolu, I normally patrolled Ikorodu, Sagamu, Ibadan and came back through Abeokuta. Sango Otta, Agege and Ikeja. That was my daily routine at that time. At a later stage, another trouble broke out at Abeokuta and along Lagos - Abeokuta - Ibadan Road. Subsequently, I was asked to change my base from Somolu to Sango Otta to deal with the situation there.

I remained at Sango Otta up to January 15th 1966, the day when the first military coup took place in Nigeria. On the night of the coup, I was at a police checkpoint in Sango Otta when a convoy of Army Land Rover, truck and two Peugeot 403 saloon cars were moving towards Abeokuta from Lagos. We had no cause to suspect anything because they were military vehicles. In fact, we felt safer when the military was presumably patrolling around to assist the Police. But we were mistaken. We never knew that those military vehicles were indeed carrying the leaders of the country to their death. We were perhaps the last group of people they saw in their life. The vehicles passed our checkpoint unconcerned. We later discovered, the vehicles stopped about three kilometres away from our checkpoint and diverted into the nearby forest. They entered the thick forest where they shot and killed the people they were carrying. This was on a Friday night, 15th January, 1966. If I had known the occupants in the military vehicles, I would sacrifice my life to save them.

WT: Was that the last you saw of those military vehicles?

Babankowa: No, about an hour later, these same military vehicles came back and passed towards Lagos. Again, we thought they were on patrol and never suspected anything. Meanwhile, in the morning of the 15th of January 1966, we learnt that there was a Coup, and that the Premier of the Northern Region, Sardauna of Sokoto Alhaji (Sir) Ahmadu Bello was killed. Also the GOC in Kaduna, Brigadier Ademulegun was killed, while many other civilians and military leaders were missing. The Prime Minister, Alhaji (Sir) Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was also missing. It was a chaotic situation everywhere as nobody trusts anybody. People were gripped with fear and apprehension.

While this chaotic situation remains, the Prime Minister Alhaji (Sir) Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was reported to have been arrested and removed from his residence and taken to unknown location. The situation remains same on the first, second and the third days after the coup without any news about the Prime Minister’s whereabouts and what had happened to him. Then on the fourth day. Providence intervenes, and I got a clue. I had gone to the clinic at Sango Otta to get medication because I had caught a very bad cold. The only clinic at the town then was like a general hospital where everybody went to receive treatment. As I understand a little Yoruba language. I was able to pick from a loose conversation between some patients at the clinic. They said in Yoruba, that there was an unpleasant smell around their neighbourhood, a very bad smell. They didn’t know what was causing the smell. I picked that one. Later on, I tried to find out where those patients came from, and was told that they came from a village along the road to Abeokuta.

After I returned back to my location. I divided my riot unit into two. I took one half units and went to comb that area to find out what was happening, fully aware that some prominent personalities were missing. To our utmost disbelief, we came to a spot in the forest where we beheld a horrible spectacle. We saw the decomposing corpses of late Prime Minister, one of his cabinet ministers, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, Colonel Kur Mohammed, Colonel Abogu and two others. I was shocked out of my senses, and 1 didn’t know what to do. Later, it occurred to me that I could report our findings to the Inspector General of Police through the nearest police office.

The Ikeja Provincial police headquarters was the nearest, about 10-15 kilometres Away. I knew the Officer-In-Charge there, Chief Superintendent of Police Alhaji Kafaru Tinubu. I went straight to him and said, "I want to speak to the Inspector General". He asked, "What happened?" and I answered, "Look sir, 1 have sighted the dead bodies of the Prime Minister and others. I can identify him, and therefore, I want to inform the Inspector General for instructions". Incidentally, the substantive inspector General of Police, late Mr. L. O. Edet, was on leave at the time, and late Alhaji Kam Salem was the acting I.G., therefore 1 felt comfortable to talk to him. I spoke to him on phone, and told him "Sir, I have sighted the dead bodies of the Prime Minister and others in my location, and they are decomposing".

In his response, the acting Inspector General asked me to come over to the Force Headquarters straight away. In fact, to facilitate my quick arrival, he asked me to use the siren when coming into Lagos. By this time, General Aguyi Ironsi had already taken power as the first military Head of State, and located himself at the Moloney Street Force Headquarters in Lagos where he could get protection of the police. Presumably, he was afraid to remain in his military headquarters for security reasons. Subsequently, the Force Headquarters was encircled with heavy military personnel including armoured cars and tanks. He made the place his temporary Headquarters.

Before my arrival to the Force Headquarters, late Alhaji Kam Salem had already informed late General Ironsi that an officer on emergency operations from the North had discovered the dead bodies of the Prime Minister and others. The officer was coming to confirm that to him. On my arrival at the entrance to the Force headquarters, I was disarmed by the military personnel who were there waiting for me. They collected my two weapons a gun and a pistol. They removed my boot, belt and cap before I was matched bare-footed before the Inspector General who was sitting in company of the new Head of State, General Ironsi.

WT: Was all that necessary?

Babankowa: Well, the situation was tense and may be because I am a northern officer who had just seen the corpse of his leaders murdered in cold blood. Any way as I arrived into the office, late Kam Salem didn’t say a word, but General Ironsi said to me in Hausa, "Officer, Ka ce kaga gawar Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa da ta wasu mutane?" meaning, "Officer, you said you have sighted the corpse of the Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and of others?" I said "Yes Sir" How do you know him?" General Ironsi asked me again. I said, "Well, I had worked with the Sardauna of Sokoto as his Security Officer, Sardauna and Balewa were very close, therefore I know the Prime Minister very well".

Then I was marched out. Later, I was marched in again. It appeared to me at that time that, General Ironsi was not comfortable at all. For a reason best known to him, he ordered that I should be detained at the Naval Base at Apapa. At this moment, the late Alhaji Kam Salem cut in and said, "Sir, if you do not mind, we can put him in detention here under our own custody and produce him at any hour you want him. But I am appealing on his behalf to allow him not to be taken to the Naval Base, but to be detained in police custody". After hesitation awhile, he accepted. Then I was taken to Yaba Police Station and detained in the cell. This event was towards the tail end of the month of Ramadan, i.e. the Muslim fasting period. I was detained in the afternoon around 3p.m. I sat in the cell earnestly praying, and awaiting for Allah’s mercy. Shortly after midnight, I heard somebody shouting, "Where is this officer. Ibrahim Ahmed". They told him I was in the cell, and he ordered that I should be brought out. When I came out of the cell, and the police station, I saw the A.D.C- to late Prime Minister, Mr. Kaftan and also the then Madaki of Bauchi who is also an in-law to the late Prime Minister. Later, I saw a parked ambulance and a truck full of coffins. They put me in a Land Rover and asked me to lead them to the location so that we could evacuate the reported corpses. We moved in a convoy.

We arrived at the scene in the forest. The policemen I posted on guard were still there waiting, guarding the place without food or water since the previous morning. Devotedly, my policemen did not even move away from the scene despite the terrible odour of about seven decomposing dead bodies! I salute the courage, discipline and professionalism exhibited by those police offices. When we got to the location, we saw the mangled body of the Prime Minister crumpled under a tree. His cap (zanna) was lying by his right side. He had on a pure white guinea brocade gown, which had already changed colour. As a result of advanced decomposition, numerous worms were coming out from his body. The Madaki of Bauchi and ADC to the Prime Minister brought plenty white clothing material, which we had to roll the Prime Minister in from the head down to his feet. In fact, because he died and remained in a crumbled position for all these days, I had to put my weight on his knees in order to straiten the body so that we could roll the clothing material around his body. The Prime Minister’s body was the first to be attended to, and was placed inside a coffin. I used a bayonet from one of my officers to scratch on top of the coffin in Arabic script ‘Abubakar’ so that it would not be mixed up with others. The late Prime Minister’s corpse was put in a Land Rover, and I was told to convey it to the V.l.P’s section of the Ikeja airport where there were two waiting aircrafts.

We arrived at the Ikeja airport around 5:30a.m after completing the operation of recovering the dead bodies. The Prime Minister’s coffin was placed into the baggage compartment of one of the aircrafts, which was also carrying members of his family. The families were made to believe that they were being taken home (Bauchi) to celebrate the Sallah festival, which coincidently was taking place on that day. They were not told what had happened to the Prime Minister. The family did not even know that the Prime Minister’s corpse was in the baggage compartment of the same aircraft that was flying them to Bauchi.

In the other smaller aircraft, which was a jet, were the Acting Inspector General of Police late Alhaji Kam Salem, the Assistant Inspector General of Police late Alhaji Hamma Maiduguri, and the only loyal Tafawa Balewa’s cabinet minister still in Lagos, Alhaji Yusuf Maitama Sule Dan Masanin Kano, others included the Madawaki of Bauchi, late ASP- William Garba ADC to the I.G. and myself.

WT: What happened when you arrived Bauchi with the corpse?

Babankowa: It was on a Sallah day when we arrived Bauchi. And on our arrival at Bauchi, people were already returning from the Eid Prayer ground. It was Sallah day, When they saw our aircraft landing, they were filled with joy because that was the aircraft in which the late Prime Minister normally comes in. they clapped and sang that the Prime Minster had come to celebrate Sallah festival with them. The whole town moved to the airstrip in Bauchi to receive the Prime Minister. Due to the surging crowd, we barely managed to find our way out of the airstrip after landing, and moved into the town to break the news of what had happened to the late Prime Minister Suddenly, the peoples’ joy tuned into sorrow, and the whole town went into mourning.

We took the Prime Minister’s corpse to his family house in Bauchi. No one could perform the Islamic ritual washing on the Minister’s corpse because it was already decomposed. The only alternative way in accordance with Islamic injunctions was to spray some water on top of the rolled body. Then the "sutura" prayer was performed on him and was buried in the family compound. Later in the evening, we flew back to Lagos. The acting I.G. then ordered that I should immediately proceed on annual leave, which I did.

WT: You led other important police operations during your career in the Police force. The Tiv riots, the team that raided Fela’s Kalakuta Republic and also the team that confronted Maitatsine in Kano. Tell us what happened at Fela’s Kalakuta?

Babankowa: To start with, I knew fela before the incident and even after the incident, we met. I knew him very well, because I was in-charge of Mushin and it was the most notorious area in Lagos and they had one very big notorious boss of criminals called Amakuka. He conscripted thugs and thieves, I was taken specifically from Makurdi to Mushin to go and deal with the situation in that area. I did it. When the place become normal, I was posted to Agege. Soon, when they realized that I was brought back to clear the place. Now Fela is a genius, very talented, but the way and manner he conducts himself and what he does with other people’s children, is unbecoming of any reasonable person, whereby hundreds of young girls run away from school and come and live with him. So, the government could not just close its eye and allow this type of thing to continue. I could remember when we arrested the girls; some of them were daughters of high court judges, big men’s daughters. I have a list of them up-till today and these children were smoking Indian hemp and taking all sorts of drugs. Something had to be done, that is why I was given this horrible task of cleaning the place. I arrested Fela and other people around and they were prosecuted.

WT: What were your experiences during the court proceeding?

Babankowa: (laughs) I remember one thing in particular. During that case, people warned me that Fela’s mother was powerful, and as such I should be careful that she might try to do something to me for bringing her son to book, but I wasn’t afraid, I gave evidence in court. On one occasion, I was in court when she came and handed me some sweets. People thought that if I took the sweets something would happen to me, but I took the sweets and ate them there. And nothing has happened to me up-till now.

WT: What about your role in the Mai tatsine religious riot in 1980?

Babankowa: I wrote a lecture on the Mai tatsine which is presently being used at the Police College, Jos. The Maitatsine is more recent case. That year I was here in Kano State Command as an assistant commissioner of Police in charge of Administration when the problem of Maitatsine came up. The fanatics started butchering Policemen. One officer from the southern part of the country was in charge. I was asked to take over from him.

WT: What was the reason for this take over?

Babankowa: Because of my knowledge of the area and my experience in handling similar operations. I know the geographical terrain of the area very well. It is also my home state. I was one of the first officers to be trained in the mobile force in Malaysia. At the time, all mobile units were under my command. I arranged the operational order.

WT: Why was the military later invited to take over from you?

Babankowa:The problem we had was that, if we worked up to 6:00p.m by our code of operation you have to withdraw the men. The Maitatsine then take over the territory we’ve covered, so the next day we would have to start all over weakening them. It reached a situation where we knew we had to change strategy. The Maitatsine were good at sniping with bows and arrows. So, at the end of the five days, it was decided the army should come in. Col. Akilu took over and came with artillery. You can imagine the frenzy of the fanatics. They hit the army tanks with cutlasses. Maitatsine was forced to run from Kurmi area of Kano to somewhere on Mallam Aminu Way towards Gwarzo to the point where policemen shot him.

WT: What happened in the Tiv Riot?

Babankowa: I have entered into several situations but the Maitatsine and the Tiv Riot of 1963 were the worst. In the Tiv riots, we lost 8 policemen whose heads were cut off. I remember my sergeant, Victor Kadama, very well. He was a tough man. I wept when he was killed. I do not like to recall that incident.

WT: What happened to the families of the slain men?

Babankowa: They were rehabilitated.

WT: How would you compare the police of your days and those of today in terms of discipline, commitment and dedication to duty?

Babankowa: A! there is no basis of comparison. Police work in those days was a pride to the nation. We were contented with what we were paid, and the pay was good because it was sufficient to take us throughout the year. Could you believe I was paid 25 Pounds as an officer compared to civil servants who were paid about 8 Pounds? So we had no problem with corruption in the police force. In fact it will be the topic in the barracks if your are accused of receiving bribe. Women, children will be gossiping about you and you family. There was high morale among all the police officers and we were prepared to die in service. But what is obtained today is very unfortunate, something need to be done and fast before the police losses its remaining pride, if indeed there is any left.