By Jude Owuananam
Ishaku and Ishaya Pam were barely two years old when their father, Lt. Col James Yakubu Pam, was abducted by soldiers in the early hours of January 15, 1966. In this heart-rending interview, Ishaya, a former two-term Chief Medical Director of Jos University Teaching Hospital and Associate Professor of Obstetrics & Gynaecology; and his twin brother, Ishaku, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Royal Society of Medicine as well as a Clinical Director in the British National Health Service, tell the story of how they weathered the storm created by the unfortunate event of that day
Question: As kids, what were your impressions of the events of January 15, 1966?
At the age of one year nine months we were too young to understand what was happening to us. Our older ones, Kaneng (eight years), Jummai (six years turning seven on 16 January, 1966) and Yusufu (four years) have better recollections. We have had to piece together the catastrophic event from accounts by our mother, siblings and books we came across. Because of the severity of the trauma we never discussed January 15, 1966 between ourselves until more than three decades had elapsed and even so, hardly with our late mother. The pain was, and is, still quite intense. In Nigerian culture children are shielded from the death of someone close. While this is well intentioned it means the death is never quite resolved and each child has to develop their own coping mechanisms. Our home was attacked by soldiers led by Major Humphrey Chukwuka, our father’s deputy Adjutant-General and included 2nd Lt G.Onyefuru, Sergeants NN Ugongene, H. Okibe, B. Anyanwu, L.Egbukichi and P.I. Wueke. We got to understand what happened when we were about four years old. It was a shock and we really didn’t believe he was gone forever. Our mother narrated how some soldiers came and took him away and he never came back. Initially, we were perplexed that he didn’t resist as a soldier, but she explained that we would all have been killed had he returned fire. I thought it was a wicked, dastardly act that had imposed emotional and physical deprivation on our family.
Ques: Did you have an inkling of what was happening and were the events explained to you later?
Not much was explained to us. We had to do a lot of reading when we got to secondary school. Luckily, we found a copy of John St Jorre’s book “Crisis and Conflict volumes 1 and2” in the school library. At 12 years, we read the gory details. Armed with this information, we started asking questions.
Ques: What impressions did you have of your father since you were not really old enough to experience his love?
We heard his voice on recorded tape a few times. The occasion was the birth of the youngest member of the family, Ibrahim Gambo. Our elder sisters were hoping for a girl, so Dada was consoling them. He was an avid photographer so there were quite a few pictures of him. We’ve had lots of positive stories about him from loved ones. What we’ve read also makes us proud. A few were obvious lies and driven by a need to paint him black, to justify his murder.
Ques: As you grew up and the reality began to dawn on you that your father was no more, how did you take it, especially the circumstances under which he died?
Living without a father was tough, given that our mum had to take on both roles. She had to bring up six children. We lived frugally, mostly in three-bedroom flats. She worked most of the time and our two elder sisters had to mother us. We were fortunate to also have some dedicated nannies who became surrogate mothers. We remember Laraba, Elizabeth, and Mary Sura who still live with us! It was painful seeing our friends with their fathers. We always wondered about what might have been, had we not been forced to travel down a bitter road. We also acknowledge the support of many of his colleagues, friends and our relations
Ques: What were your experiences living without a father figure? Was your mother able to provide the fillip?
Our mother, Ngwo, was literally superhuman. She was able to provide us with a good upbringing and solid education, and still make an appreciable impact on Nigerian society.
Ques: How close were you to your other siblings?
We the siblings have been quite close. It’s not surprising since we grew up sharing many things. For example, Ngwo could only afford to buy one chopper bicycle so we rode it in turns! There was also a time when all four boys slept on a single bed, when we moved back to Jos in 1967 and 1977. The older siblings Kaneng, Jummai and Yusufu looked after the younger ones, Ishaku, myself and Gambo. We have been blessed in spite of the severe downturn in our lives after our father’s murder. Kaneng is an administrator, later a banker and now an entrepreneur; Jummai, Justice of the Nigerian Court of Appeal; Yusufu, ex-Attorney General of Plateau State and successful private legal practitioner; Ishaku, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Royal Society of Medicine as well as a Clinical Director in the British National Health Service; Ishaya, former two-term Chief Medical Director of Jos University Teaching Hospital and Associate Professor of Obstetrics & Gynaecology and Ibrahim Gambo, Head of the UN Green Fund in South Korea. We thank the Almighty for his mercies and blessings.
Ques: Knowing that your father was brutally murdered as a young man, do you still hold a grudge against the State or have you forgiven those who killed him more than 50 years after?
Hold a grudge? No. We have long since forgiven his killers, even though a few are still struggling to justify their actions. Ben Gbulie, for instance, wrote about a (non-existent) two-story Kaduna mansion given to my father by Northern politicians. They criticised his role in putting down the Tiv insurgency in November 1964.This was a riot that had gone beyond civil disobedience to armed guerilla warfare that had overwhelmed the Native Police Authority, and the Nigeria Police force. Major Christian Anuforo of the Recce squadron, the man who fired the thirteen shots that killed our dad, had been sent away for insubordination and replaced by Major Hassan Usman Katsina. Without providing any evidence, the least being casualty figures, they claimed that his approach was heavy handed. Even newspaper accounts of that era put a lie to their stories. Monsignor Pedro Martins in his book, “In the shadows…” praised Lt. Col James Pam’s intelligent approach to quelling the insurrection. The subject has been researched by Jibo, Bem Audu, Oravee and others. A bunch of brash, young men driven by a misguided sense of patriotism, ethnicity and personal animosity, committed wholesale murder and tried unsuccessfully to cast that as a revolution. A straight line can be drawn from their lop-sided actions to the May riots, the genocide against the Igbos in the North , the retaliation by Northern Army Officers in July 1966, through to the Civil war which accounted for the death of more than a million innocent lives to the marginalisation of the Igbos from national leadership and to the rise of Igbo militancy in the shape of IPOB and similar organisations. Also national development was severely affected.
The memory of January 15, 1966 may be fading but the effects continue to resonate in the affairs of the Nigerian State. We have also forgiven the Ironsi government for not putting our father’s killers on trial and giving him the full military burial he deserved.
We do think, though, that some good can still come out of those dark events if the promoters of January 15, 1966 can look objectively at their actions, retract their wrong allegations that they have made about men they murdered and take that first step towards national reconciliation. They will find that there will be others who will be willing to join them in healing the wounds of the past and bequeathing young Nigerians a future based on truth and equity among the peoples of Nigeria.
Ques: Looking at what you have achieved in your life, would you say that you would have done better with your father around? Can you figure out what the future would have been with him around your formative years?
Would we have done better with our father around? Even though one is speculating, we think we would have. He was a highly trained professional, dedicated to duty, responsible, disciplined and a family man. Our mum had the same values too, and he would have reinforced them.
Ques: It is ironic that despite the fact that your father had been honoured elsewhere, his state, Plateau, is yet to show any appreciation for the sacrifice your family has made for the nation? Do you have any regrets for this?
He has been honoured by the country. He was the first trained artillery officer; the first commissioned officer from the Middle Belt. He received a post-humous award ( MFR). The Officers’ Mess in Kalapanzin Barracks, Kaduna, is named after him. The road leading to National Hospital, Abuja, also bears his name. Many books refer to the sacrificial role he played in crushing the January 15th 1966 coup. His role in peace keeping in the Congo is well documented. He trained the nascent Tanganyikan (now Tanzanian) Army and was honoured with a lion skin and traditional shield by President (Julius) Nyerere. He led the battalion that put down the Tiv riots. He was the Adjutant-General at the time of his death.
By honoring him, Plateau State would be honouring itself. We regret that an opportunity has been missed so far in providing a role model for our youth.