We had the chance to sit down with Barnaby Phillips, one on one, to discuss his fantastic book, Another Man’s War, which revitalises the memory of Britian’s forgotten African Army and particularly focuses on one man’s struggle, Isaac Fodoyebo, a ‘Burma Boy’ from Nigeria.
What inspired you to research and write Isaac’s story, and overall the book, which covers a wide time frame in Nigeria’s history?
I spent my childhood in Africa, in Kenya. I have always loved history as a little boy and ended up studying History with an African course at Oxford. My interest in Africa was fuelled by my upbringing. When I left Oxford I did another course in African studies. Then, I was working with BBC in Nigeria, from 1998 to 2001. At that time, I was at a military parade and saw these veterans who everyone referred to as ‘Burma Boys.’ I thought to myself that there must be an amazing story behind that. I left Nigeria in 2001, but I hadn’t done anything about it.
Over the years, it annoyed me, and I felt I should have done something and might have missed my chance. In 2009, I knew this was something I’d love to write about and possibly do a documentary on. I went to the Imperial War museum in London, and went through everything they had. I then came across Isaac’s account, which was published on a limited scale. I read it and found it amazing and fascinating, it was well told and written by a fluent English speaker. I thought it was incredible. I took the time to find out if he was alive, and he was.
I can only imagine what it must be like to meet the forgotten hero, you talk about it in your book, but personally, what was it like to see him?
I was really nervous; I called him from Greece, where I was working back then. I knew he was alive but I wasn’t sure how he’d be willing to share his story. But, he was really forthcoming and instantly agreed. In fact, he was really delighted to have the opportunity to tell his story. I had a good feeling and left for Lagos soon after. When we first met, he was everything I could hope for and more; delightful, warm, still had a sharp mind and memory. I was very privileged to get to know him.
The new generation isn’t as connected to this history; the civil war alone seems like ‘ancient history’. Do you think there is a need to increase awareness of this issue for Nigerians home and abroad?
Nigeria is a very young country, not just literally but also demographically. The civil war is history. There are so many remarkable characters in Nigeria but the ones that tend to get written about are people in power and may not always be the best example of what Nigeria has produced. So, somebody like Isaac can be an inspiration for young Nigerians and this is something that is needed. He is everything the cliché of Nigeria is not, modest, unassuming, virtuous. I think it will help Nigerians and young Nigerians to learn more about their heroes and find one within them.
Although I’ve lived in Nigeria, I’m still an outsider, Nigerians will approach the book in a different way and understand things in a different way. It will have a different depth. The hope is that Nigerians will read this book and go and find other stories out there and be inspired to tell stories of forgotten heroes in Nigeria.
You couldn’t have predicted the impact of WWII and the momentum it would stir up (such as the race of independence that soon followed). Nigerians felt their significance in the world which gave rise to the struggle. And to think such stories aren’t told more often?
That was another reason I was driven to this book. Once, I had the narrative drama of Isaac’s story, it was a peg I could hang the rest of the stories of African men on, with broader experiences of hundreds of thousands from West and East and southern Africa. It was such a distinct time in African history that these soldiers came back from war, and suddenly all these countries rushed towards independence, which they didn’t think of before the war.
They were almost comfortable in their bubble, they didn’t know there was better world out there, all they knew was what they had, then they got this chance to travel and it put things in perspective for them, they figured out their significance, it opened their eyes. This army was the first to go so far, further than any before; this was clearly an indication of their importance and significance.
Historians will argue about the extent to which these returning soldiers played a role in the struggle of independence of their countries, that’s a very valid argument. But what is beyond argument is how the individuals were transformed by the experience themselves, once you’ve been through something like that, and that applies equally to a young man from Liverpool or a man from rural Nigeria, your life is never the same again.
It really puts things in perspective for them, doesn’t it? Isaac made an impulsive decision in the ‘heat of his youth’ or something he describes as ‘youth exuberance’. But when he comes back, he is just happy to be alive and home.
Yes, and he was not a bitter man at all. He was very optimistic and grasped the opportunities available to him in the years after. He was able to take his children and grand children further along the road than possible.
He had daughters and even though that was cause of friction between him and the wife, as it is in any developing country, especially in that time, he still invested equally, and grew to accept it.
Yes, he was very optimistic. He invested in his daughters.
Inspiring. What do think about the elections? Will you be covering them?
I have covered a few Nigerian elections in my time, Unfortunately, the situation in north-east is dangerous. Even if I were to go, and as any foreign journalist will tell you, in a volatile context such as that you almost can’t do your job properly. The stories are simply not safe to tell. Nevertheless, it is going to be fascinating, like all Nigerian elections.
How do you feel about the local attitude towards the military in Nigeria? It tends to be negative as they are just coming out of a military rule.
Yes, it tends to be negative. I wouldn’t hold them responsible. The Nigerian soldiers fighting in the north-east now, you can’t hold them responsible for abuse of power from people like Sani Abacha or Ibrahim Babangida. At the same time there are very serious accusations of human right violations because of poor management in the army. Not to say that Boko Haram is going to be a clear-cut strategy, because there are serious lapses, in terms of leadership and corruption and of course, the human rights abuses in the north-east. All of this has only compounded a tragic situation.
And how do you feel about Boko Haram?
I am very pained by it. I’ve covered a turbulent period in Nigeria’s history, from 1999 to 2000. I covered devastating religious riots in Kaduna, awful sights I never thought I’d see; massacres, mosques and churches burned to the ground. You would think in those days that you’ll never get suicide bombers in Nigeria, things will never deteriorate to that extent but they have, and much worse than we could have predicted.
Ever since Nigeria has come into existence, we have worried it’ll break apart, reaching that point, so voices of doom and gloom should be put in perspective because Nigeria has appeared to be breaking apart at many points, but never has. What I think I feel is different now, and what I have noticed on my last two trips, is that it feels increasingly unlike the far north-east. When I see people in Lagos, and I compare how they were 15 years ago, they’re improved substantially. They pay taxes, mortgages, drive on streets with lights and signs – it is a fully functioning society consisting of a middle class. On the top end there are thousands of people who are making incredible amounts of money, with revenues from industries such as construction. You only have to see how the business classes on flights are packed every day, multiple flights a day, back and forth from London. They just feel they live in a different country to the north and that undermines Nigeria’s stability. These two areas are diverging very fast.
The country is divided. Some might say that other developing countries go through the same struggles. Do you think this has a part to play in the country’s development?
There has always been a north and south divide; you can’t be romantic about it. 2014 was the 100th anniversary of a hasty British decision to merge these areas together. Many, many Nigerians regret that. When I lived in Nigeria, I felt the only thing worse than Nigeria together would be Nigeria splitting apart. That will be even more painful. What do you do to the thousands of Christians, in Kanu or the Hausa in Lagos? Of course, older Nigerians remember massacres in the civil war in 1967, which tragically hangs over Nigeria today, and is very evident in the politics of the elections coming up.
Is the violence felt all over or is it reasonably contained in areas in Nigeria? There seems to be a ‘moral panic’, and not just with Nigeria, with other countries in the developing world too, where events and violence is portrayed at a bigger scale by the media, than it actually is, in reality?
Well, I think there are two ways of answering that. Clearly, it is a huge country – about 150 million people and there is a vast majority that are not affected by ethnic or religious disputes on any given day, they live peacefully. However, it is fair to say that the levels of communal violence in major cities are truly shocking. Kaduna is a city I got to know very well. I saw two enormous sects of riots caused by the proposed implementation of Sharia Law. Broadly speaking, the Muslims congregated to the northern part of the city, and the Christians, in southern part of the city. This was tragic; because you see how an integrated community unravels and become two separate communities. It is very hard to put things back together, as any foreign journalist would tell you; truthfully, it is hard to get results and facts in Nigeria, not everything is recorded, there is scarce communications, and it is hard to get to places. Moreover, the local authorities control affairs to their own convenience. Overall, it is very hard to know what actually happens and there were occasions that the scale of what was happening was truly devastating.
How long did it take you to write “Another Man’s War”?
In 2011, I went to Nigeria to meet Isaac, and he suggested I go to Burma, in an attempt to find and meet Shuyiman. After that, I filmed a documentary, which I very much enjoyed. I thought I have to turn this story into a book. I had already done a lot of research, of course, but I needed more substance for the book since you can’t gloss over things. So, in 2013, I took 6 months off work, and that’s when I did all the research, mainly in London at the British Library. I then traveled back to Nigeria for Isaac’s funeral.
How was the funeral?
It was a wonderful event. In most traditions, if somebody dies at a respectable age with successful life, leave kids behind and has lived well into his late 80s, there is sadness, and I was sad when he passed away. But there is also a celebration of life. Isaac’s funeral was a celebration of his life. It was a huge event in his village, and it went on for five days, I was there for five days and it was very memorable and his family was very kind and looked after me.
How was the trek to look for Suyiman in Burma? Considering it is a remote region and rain forest-like, how did you personally find that experience to be?
It is a remote area, Myanmar. It is also an area which is very unstable; there is a lot of friction between the Buddhist and Muslims. The village was in off the beaten route. We were pretending to be tourists so, we had to be circumspect in our movement. We were doubtful if we’d find the village and the family. Isaac’s recollections were vivid but very vague, fortunately, we found some fantastic guides in Myanmar, and we explained the scenario. They became equally engaged, and were very resourceful and skillful. Our prime concern was how we made sure we have found the right people, because there’s always the chance that locals could say ‘it was me’. But when Suyiman’s family replicated Isaac’s story from their point of view, there was no doubt. We knew they were the ones.
Must be a wonderful experience,
It has been.