Source: The Sun News On-line
Captain Josephine Okwuekeleke Tolefe (retd) is the first female commissioned officer in the Nigerian Army. She was granted Short Service Commission as Second Lieutenant on February 7, 1961 into the Nigerian Army Nursing Service (now Nigerian Army Medical Corps). She voluntarily retired on February 5, 1967.
Born on December 15, 1931 in Ogwashi-Uku in Aniocha South Local Government Area of Delta State, Captain Tolefe hails from Umudie village. She sat for the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate School Certificate Examinations in December 1950 . Thereafter, she attended the Midwives Training College, High Coombe, Surrey, United Kingdom and graduated as a Registered Nurse of the General Nursing Council for England and Wales on August 3, 1956. She also was admitted by the Central Midwives Board of England on December 31, 1961 to practise as a registered nurse.
Captain Tolefe, who would be 80 on December 15, recently spoke to journalists in Asaba and relived her experience in the military. Paul Osuyi was there. Excerpts:
Motivation for joining the army.
Well, we had a few talks when we were accepted into the military. Many of the male officers were not very happy having female officers. They said they would not like to have a wife who was an officer because of short notice of transfer, which would make the family uncomfortable. For instance, supposing you get a 24-hour notice of transfer to Kaduna or Zaria or Enugu or something like that, you would see that the family would not be so comfortable. For those 24 hours, you are thinking of what to do. If you resign, you can’t go immediately. But then we saw the Queen’s Army, you know ladies in England who were in the armed forces. They appeared very smart and confident.
We could see that they were happy representing their country. So a few of us thought we could also do same for our fatherland. But shortly after I joined the service, the civil war broke out. I found out that in that circumstance in which you were up in arms against your fellow compatriots, it was not a tea party. We became so disenchanted and disgruntled because that was not what we had expected.
As I had said, there was some ill-feeling among the men when we were enlisted into the service. The situation did not change even when we got to the rank of lieutenant, second lieutenant and then captain. Many of the civilians who started with us went away to see how they could apply their certificates in other areas of life. But some us thought that it was not wise for us to leave the Army just like. Whereas the British Army ladies were still very boisterous in their job, we here could not do very much. As a result, only two of us got pensioned at that time. I must say that the bad blood engendered by the civil war was so much that it could not be wished away. We are still praying that Nigeria’s situation return to what it was in the good old days.
Civil war influence.
When I joined the Army, I was very excited seeing men and women referring to themselves as men. Everyone was very kind to one another. We were friends. One joined the military to offer service to the country because we also had civilians then as nursing sisters in the armed forces. It was when this idea of war and agonies of war came in that most people discovered that it was not as pleasant as we had thought. If you are fighting against Nigeria and you are a Nigerian, it does not (give) a pleasant experience; you don’t feel so happy about the fight no matter who is winning.
The only thing was that you were actually diminishing Nigeria. Some of those that died were people who had something in their brains to offer but could not offer it because they died prematurely. So we lost; we cannot say somebody was victorious if an Army that you were fighting against is made up of your brothers and sisters. I am hoping that we have realised that we have not gained anything by getting annoyed with our brothers and sisters. For instance, we had war in Congo at that time; the Congolese were fighting themselves and killing each other at the time and Nigerians had to go and pacify the different factions so that they could stop fighting. Our troops went from Abeokuta Cantonment leaving their women and their children behind.
The Buhari encounter
Our boss then was Muhammadu Buhari. He was our commander and incidentally, when I arrived in Army Land Rover, he was the one who came to the railway station to pick me up. He took care of me because there was nobody there anymore, except a few people. Most of them had gone to Congo to fight. So, it was really nice seeing a senior officer warming the food and being the cook, running around and sometimes, he sat with me and we discussed. He gave a talk about how the cantonment was being run and how everybody was happy. So, we went round together; we spoke and found out what our duties would largely be. It was nice to be in the military forces at that time.
I was very happy that I was given an oportunity serve my country. But when it came to the point of fighting your brother, that was a very trying moment, because the chances of killing somebody who was your friend or brother could not be wished away. You would have shot before you realised that this was a wrong person to shoot. So, we knew then that being in the Army, we should pray more that the war should stop, because it was not in the interest of anyone. We did not achieve anything by hurting each other. But we thank God that after sometime, the war ended and life returned to normal. But before then, a lot of water had gone under the bridge and there was the need to do something to ensure lasting peace. So, this was why my stay in the Army was shortlived. I found the situation in the Army and the country after the civil war really unbearable.
Impression about the late Ojukwu.
Oh, he was a proud man. He did his work diligently. I remeber when we wanted to change uniforms; because having left the West African Frontier Force, we needed to have our own uniforms, Nigerian uniform. He was one of the officers that helped in designing the uniform and getting something that was befitting. I would say nobody is perfect and you just work and put in as much as you can.
Influence of the Army on latter life.
The Army inculcated a high level of discipline in me. When you say this is the time we do this, I must be there at that time. The Army influenced me to be able to know that I should not loiter around when I should be somewhere else doing something meaningful. That was a good lesson the military taught me. Also, my father as a teacher did his best to make us stand on our two feet and do our jobs, rather than looking at other people. He used to tell us, “Just do what you need to do and make sure you do it well.” Joining the military helped to reinforce and promote what my father had taught us–discipline and honesty. We should strive to be honest in what we do. I mean honesty. If you know this thing is going to affect someone else negatively, don’t do it, but if you know that it is going to help somebody or your community, then go ahead and do it as well as you can. And you can argue why you did certain things and stand by them. This is what the Army helped me to achieve.
Impression about the present level of development in the Nigerian Army.
I have not got much to say because I have not been to the barracks for some time to do any informed analysis or criticism. But I believe that the Army should bring back its discipline. Secret of being strong at 80.
I will attribute it to the grace of God. It is not that I have done anything extra-ordinary. I do little exercises when I can. I don’t do it every day. It just pleased the Lord to make me strong. Even my parents were strong. My father died at 88. Until my mother died at 93, she was still working actively. So, I think it is something God has put in our system and it is working for us. And for that, I cannot stop thanking Him today.
Well, sometimes, I wish I had taken another look at my life; I wish I had done something more during my active years than just being the first female military officer. I would have loved to do something but time is running out. After the military career, I went to work in the UCH and I enjoyed my work there. I learnt a lot. When I left UCH, I joined a charitable organisation where you don’t get anything from government. Our organisation is known as Pro Laborei Dei (for the labour of God). So, I would not say I am doing much but I have the feeling that by helping other people and taking care as much as I can, I am doing something good. I don’t want to go back retelling family life and all that because there is a lot that needs to be corrected. I thought I was trying my best but when I looked at the past, I realised that it was not the best at all. I should have done better.
Advice to younger generation
We should try and go back, look at where we were before. I was proud of Nigeria when the Senate prohibited same-sex marriage. Can’t we reason? If God wanted same-sex marrige, He would not have created us man and woman. Imagine the scenario: this is a man and his partner is a man; they are not going to have children. It is not possible. Then, they would now be going from one clinic to another to see whether the midwife or doctor gynecologist can give them a baby. God did not intend it like that. The same thing between two women, they are not going to have children. We should go back.
What we need to do is to go back to the Ancient of Days and make sure that we do what He wants us to do and be sorry for all we have done in the past years to annoy God. We have really annoyed Him in my own opinion. Maybe there are many who think they have done very well. We must go back to learn those things our parents taught us in those days. Secondly, you know the television has not done us any good. It is okay to say that you learn from it, but as far as I am concerned, there are lots of things that should not be on that box, that tube. You know the children coming up think that everything they see there is the right thing. More often than not, there is nobody to tell them it is not so; that all they see on TV are not the right things. Our priests and people who know moral education know that we lost a lot by not educating our children morally.
Most memorable moment in life.
Well, this was when I found God in my life. I was able to realise that if you have God you have got everything. But it is so difficult for us as human beings to know that if you really found God, you have really found everything. There is nothing God lacks. There is nothing He cannot give you. But being what we are in the flesh, we don’t want to think of that; we think of other things. And I really want to thank God for all of us. I believe we should not leave things as they are; we should try to make a change wherever we are so that things will improve. If you see somebody who is not well dressed, you don’t have to shout at the person, you can politely say, “Come, you are not very well dressed, I can see the whole back.” You know that sort of a thing. And maybe we would begin to show some people the way of doing things and also learn from them. We are never too old to learn. That is my thinking.
Philosophy of life.
To try and see that I am doing what I should be doing, according to my teachers, at the right time. And if something is not good, I should not do it. These days, I simply wake up in the morning and say, “Lord, take over.” Whatever He wants me to do, I will do because what I have achieved, I didn’t do it on my.
By Paul Osuyi