*Talks about “how we met, married and coped with war”
Brig.-Gen. Clifford Wanda and Brig.-Gen. Cecelia Akagu are arguably the only couple to become generals in the Nigerian Army. They share their experiences with PUNCH:
When and how did you join the Nigerian Army?
Wanda: I started my military career as a Boy Soldier in the Nigerian Military School in 1974. That was my entrance into the army. After graduating from the military school, I proceeded to the university where I read medicine. After graduation, I was then commissioned into the Nigerian Army in 1986 as a Lieutenant medical doctor.
Akagu: I didn’t know much about the army until 1984 when I went to Makurdi, Benue State. I went out with my uncle and I saw some people running. I asked my uncle what they were doing and he said ‘they are people who want to join the military.’ I picked what my uncle said and went away. During the next intake, I went there. I had a friend called Stella, a Calabar lady. She came to me and said ‘Cecelia, how do you feel being called retired Colonel Cecelia?’ That was how we went for the form and I went for the recruitment (exercise). During the recruitment, they were not too sure of my name. I used to be very skinny and slim but when they assessed me, they knew that I was fit for the job. When they were doing the selection, they picked a lady and said, if she was not picked (shortlisted), I would be the second person to be picked. When I got to the camp, they asked if I was Monica, I said no. They said, ‘Thank God. We didn’t want to make a mistake. We wanted you to be among the girls to be picked.’ That was how I started the journey.
Of all the professions available to you, why did you choose to become a military officer?
Wanda: I have always loved the army because I first came in contact with the army through my foster dad who was a soldier; I lived with him and grew up with him. That was the beginning of my love for the army. Again, I went to a primary school that was in the barracks – a military primary school in Enugu. From my father and having lived in the barracks for long, I took up the interest. In fact, I was so much in love with the military that before I took my First School Leaving Certificate, I insisted that I must go to military school. I was not going to take any examination other than a military school examination, which I did and passed. I proceeded to military school in 1974. It would interest you to know that when he (foster father) bought the forms from the military school, I was so small then that they refused to give him the forms. They requested that if I was interested in the army, I should raise up my hand. I raised my hand but they said I was too small. But when there was no other person to take the forms, they gave it to me, which I filled. I took the examination that year and I made it to the military school. Such was the love I have for the army.
How did your parents and those around you feel when you insisted on following your military passion?
Wanda: My foster dad, who I grew up with was already in the army. He loved it and even though my siblings didn’t want me to go to military school and join the army, that was what I loved they were saying, ‘you can die, you can be injured.’ For me, it was like an adventure. It was something I loved. I grew up in the barracks, I saw the way soldiers did their things – the military gear, the discipline, and everything associated with the military. I could not be discouraged.
As a lady, was there a time when you felt like making a U-turn due to the rigours of the training?
How did you meet your wife?
Wanda: We met in 1990 during our training – our orientation course. Having been commissioned, we started our orientation course in Jaji. We were course mates, so to say, even though she was a Second Lieutenant and I was a Lieutenant. We met during the course and the relationship started from there.
What did you see in a fellow officer that made you woo her?
Wanda: I saw so many things in her but the most prominent ones are that she is always cool, calm, composed and you could see a woman who is in charge. She doesn’t fidget; she is not the fidgety type, she is always in charge. I saw a woman I could trust and that would hold on if I was not around. Above all, she was God-fearing. These are some of the things I saw in her.
What were the qualities you saw in him that made you accept his proposal?
Akagu: I did social science. When I was growing up – right from secondary school – I told myself that I was going to marry a scientist. As young as I was, because I am dark, I told myself that I was going to marry someone that is fair, fine and very intelligent. We met and became very good friends. We were however fighting at the beginning; we were not really agreeing. I remember one of my roommates, Toyin – she’s a brigadier general too – telling me each time we fought that ‘is it not you? I know you will always reconcile.’ That was how we started until the relationship led to marriage.
What was usually causing the fight?
Akagu: I used to be very authoritative; I always wanted to be in charge and he was a gentleman. Of course, if you want to marry a wife, you will try to groom her to become who you want. I was resistant but after some time, I changed. He used to call me ‘small man’ and ‘Margaret Thatcher.’ I later realised that anytime I showed such qualities, I was not getting anything (positive) from him. So, I advised myself that even though I’m a soldier, I am a woman too. I decided to humble myself and that was the end of the fights.
After overcoming the opposition to your choice of profession, was there any opposition to your decision to marry a fellow soldier?
Wanda: The initial thing was, ‘you have to come back home and marry from the East.’ I’m from Ngwo in Enugu. Remember that I said I had a foster dad who was from the North. My siblings and others felt that, ‘now that you have grown up and become somebody, you better come nearer home. If you want to marry, why don’t you come home by marriage rather than remaining in the North and marrying from outside of home.’ There was the opposition, not just because she is a soldier, no; they did not oppose that. It was because she was not from my area. We were able to overcome it over time.
Akagu: Yes and no. My parents lived in the East, so they know Igbo culture. Igbo was my first language. They had to take me back to our village for me to learn our language. I am Igala from Ankpa in Kogi State. When I came with the request that I wanted to marry somebody from the East, my mother used a proverb that summarily translates to ‘something one hears about from afar is now right on one’s laps.’ I invited him; they saw him and accepted him. Over time, my parents’ opinion changed. Naturally, people will want you to marry from your place.
What is the peculiarity in your marriage as two senior military officers?
Akagu: Like I said earlier, even though I am a soldier, I am a woman. The first thing women have to learn is that they must first of all accept who they are. The Bible has told us our roles as a housewife, mother, home keeper and our role in the church. I have always been relying on God for all the things I do. I don’t argue with him. When he takes a decision, we look at it together. In most cases, we accept what he says. Even sometimes when I look at the issue and I feel that it is not very convenient for me, because he is the head of the family, I will accept it.
There is the feeling that soldiers are aggressive in nature and have no human face. How have you been able to manage your marriage to a colleague such that the man of the battlefield is different from the man at home?
Wanda: When people talk about soldiers being very brutal, I don’t subscribe to it; I don’t believe that soldiers are brutal. Yes, generally with our training as soldiers, we use some bits of aggression – but controlled aggression – to get a job done. But when it comes to the home front, we must distinguish between outside and home. What I do is that whenever we get home, we drop the insignias and now know that this is the home front. Of course, being in the army together has given us some leverage and advantage because we complement each other in the service. If she has challenges, she can bring them home and we will sort them out together just like during the course; we did things together and sorted out issues together. If there are certain things she doesn’t understand, she can ask me – we can ask each other, complementing each other not only in the family but also on the job itself. That is the advantage.
When it comes to family life, as I said earlier, we jettison insignias and ranks, we live as a family, we fear God and we put God first in all we do. When you look at Ephesians Chapter 5 verse 25, it tells you the role of a man; you should love your wife. That love is always there. Of course, in any home, you have challenges. When challenges come, you try to sort it out through the principles laid down in the Bible.
What is the biggest challenge in your marriage?
Wanda: There are challenges and the biggest one I know is about postings. There is a specific one: When I was in Liberia – I was there for almost three years – in the 90s, she was here with our son. When I came back, our son could hardly recognise me. Those days, we could stay on operations for a long time. It was a big challenge. Of course, some of these things are the things to consider when young people want to marry. You must think about it, knowing that being a soldier, that possibility of separation for a long time will be there. Take that into consideration before getting into the marriage. The longest was that time I was in Liberia and she was here in Nigeria. Of course, some postings come and she will be there and I will be here. We’ve overcome that and we have forged ahead with our lives.
Akagu: Like he said, when they (postings) come, by God’s grace, we have always conquered.
What kind of feedback do you get from people when you’re both in your military uniform and they know that you’re a couple?
Akagu: When we go out and soldiers see us, they salute and we will be the ones that will respond. That is military.
Wanda: When people see us together, they might not even know that we are a couple in the first place. And when they get to know that these two persons are a couple, they are surprised: ‘Oh, look at them,’ they said. People are scared seeing the two married generals or colonels. There is always that fear and people have always expressed amazement. We tell them it is by God’s grace. Some will be bold enough to come and ask, ‘Are you actually married?’ ‘Of course, we are married and we have been living together all these years.’
When you were pregnant or nursing a baby and your husband was far away from you, how did you cope with that?
Akagu: By nature, I am a very strong person. He would always tell me that pregnancy was not a sickness. I happen to be the first female finance officer, so I have female friends. They always come and are always there for me.
Do you cook and do house chores like most women?
Akagu: Right on the table now, you will see the food I just cooked this afternoon.
Wanda: I just finished eating her food.
Akagu: Of course, I have to cook.
Would you encourage your children to join the military?
Wanda: We have two children and we have given them a choice. They have options to choose from. If they choose to join the military, it is fine with me. But I cannot ask or influence them to join the military. What we did was to express our open mind: ‘If you want to join, fine; if you don’t want to join, fine too.’ The way it is now, they have chosen not to join the military.
What are the reasons your children gave for not wanting to follow your military footpaths?
Wanda: They have not given any specific reason but I feel that maybe they are feeling overwhelmed with what I will call ‘flooding’ or ‘impulsion.’ Their father is a soldier, their mother is a soldier and they may want to experience a different kind of life – a simple life. All their life, they have been in the barracks with regimented life and things like that. Maybe over time, they want to have a different life experience.
Does it mean you don’t socialise at all?
Wanda: We socialite a lot. We have civilian friends, we go out; we go to church and we go to parties sometimes. We go to get-togethers and things like that.
With your experience, would you allow your children to marry a soldier?
Akagu: Like he said, if they want to marry a soldier, so be it.
What are the challenges ahead that you will prepare them for?
Akagu: If my daughter wants to marry a soldier, I will tell her about my experiences. You cannot have your husband always to yourself because there will be instances when he can go to war or be posted (away) and you can be alone with the children.
How does it feel when your husband is at the battlefront somewhere and you’re home alone with the children?
Akagu: Let me share my experience with you: I think I was a major then and the war in Liberia then was very terrible. I went to see my commander. He asked me, ‘Have you heard from your husband?’ I said, ‘no.’ Then, he said, ‘Is he dead? Maybe he is dead.’ I said, ‘No.’ He asked, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because the Bible says that my husband will not die by the edge of a sword.’ We are Christians and that is our promise as soldiers. What I do in most cases is pray. There are some instances when there were really issues because of the war. I was always on my knees.
Are there times when he was home and you were posted away?
Akagu: Of course, I was in Minna (Niger State). Sometimes, I have to go on a course and I have to leave the home and keep the children in the hostel in school. I have worked in Minna, I have worked in Makurdi; there are instances like that.
How do you manage the home when you are left with the children?
Wanda: When it comes to our relationship at home, it is not as if there is a hard and fast rule; there is no rigid line that must be followed. If she is not here and I am here, I will do my best to take care of the children and do all I can for them. If she is the one at home, she will take care of them. The roles are not rigid. It is to ensure that our children grow up well. That is what happens. Our base is in Lagos but sometimes I am in Kaduna and she is in Minna. We still remain in touch with the children, depending on where they are. Again, by the times the postings started coming, they had already grown up.
While you were on the battlefield in Liberia, what went through your mind each time you remembered that you had a wife and children back home?
Wanda: Mine was a little bit of worry in the sense that I wanted to come back to them alive. As she said, that time was very terrible. So many things happened in Liberia. I missed them. I wanted to come back and be with them. I was not worried because I know the kind of woman that I married. I know she is capable of taking care of them when I am not there. That was my first consideration for the marriage. That is why I used to call her ‘small man’ because she has the ability to rise to every challenge. I didn’t have that fear. I knew she was able to hold on until I return.
Have you had any embarrassing moment as a female soldier?
Akagu: I used to be a very proud soldier. Those days, we used to wear khakis and I always wanted my uniform to be well-ironed and the trousers to be straight. As a result of that, I used to trek from Obalende to Army Headquarters here (Bonny Camp) because when I sat down, the trousers would be folded and I would not look as neat as I always wanted to be. There was an instance I was to share a lift with a general and the man looked at me and said, ‘I’m sure you’re not the one that ironed this uniform.’ I looked at him and asked, ‘Why did you say that?’ When we came out of the lift, a soldier told me, ‘Ah, he is a general.’ I said, ‘Wow! You should have told me. I would have asked him for the secret of his success.’ I was always very full of myself; very proud and always wanted to be very neat. What I also noticed is that when people see us (female soldiers), they always feel like ‘these ones are women.’
How is the experience of growing through the ranks to that of a brigadier general today?
Akagu: It has not been easy but I thank God everything has been going well. Right from being a Second Lieutenant to a Colonel, I run my seniority naturally with my male counterparts. Like I said earlier, I happen to be the first female finance officer. We all rose to Lieutenant Colonel. When I got to Lieutenant Colonel, I got promoted twice. The third time, I was promoted to a Colonel. This time around, I was promoted to a Brigadier General.
Wanda: I’ve always loved the army. I also thank the successive Chiefs of Army Staff. Over time, they considered me worthy to be promoted to the next rank. Of course, there are challenges and hurdles but most of the Chiefs of Army Staff considered me fit to be promoted up to this rank of Brigadier General. Also, they recognised the services that I rendered. I am a medical doctor and ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) consultant, a consultant ENT surgeon and a Fellow of the West African College of Surgeons and the National Post-Graduate Medical College. They (military authorities) recognised these things and deemed me fit to be promoted.
Akagu: I am an accountant of the Finance Corp. Presently, I am the Director of Army Accounts Inspectorate, Ojo.
How are your children now?
Akagu: Our first son is an architect. He has a Master’s Degree in architecture. He is in Abuja now for his NYSC (National Youth Service Corps). He has a sister; she read biology in the university. Apart from them, we also have foster children. We just wedded one; she is heavily pregnant and we are expecting a baby anytime from now. We also wedded one lady that the church gave to us to train. We married her out last year. We are expecting a baby very soon. There is another girl that we have; she is from the North. You can see that she has been distracting me. She is the little one that we have in the house now.
There is a norm in the army that once your wife is on the same rank with you, she is your senior by a step. How do you feel when saluting her?
Wanda: She is the mother of the house, so I have to salute her. I do salute her. We must respect our wives apart from loving them. We must honour what they do because their work is not easy. You will see a woman that will do the same work that you do and she will still come back to prepare food and take care of the children. Women have a lot of roles to play. I don’t mind saluting her because she is wearing one rank higher as the mother of the house. Even now that she is wearing same rank (with me) on the same shoulder, that means she is two steps higher than me.
Do you salute her in public too?
Wanda: Anywhere! I recognise her and I respect her.
Akagu: Both of us are army officers, we come back from work almost at the same time and I will still dash to the kitchen – sometimes in uniform – and ensure that I still play my role as a wife and as a mother. But what is common these days is that young girls now have this issue of ‘when we both do the same kind of work and when we come back from work, men are stronger and they should be the ones to go to the kitchen.’ It is not realistic. Younger women should be able to emulate some of us to have a successful home.
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