In the book, Muhammadu Buhari: The Challenges of Leadership in Nigeria, John Paden, a former professor of public administration at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, recounted how the young officer, who commanded a brigade during the war that lasted from 1967-1970, narrowly escaped death.
Paden wrote: “Buhari was among the first of the junior officers to be sent into battle. He served until the end of the war. Buhari fought at Awka, and later commanded a brigade at Makurdi. He also had to defend areas between Enugu and Abakaliki. He learned to distinguish the types of weapons being fired at his men by the sounds of the gunfire.
“On one occasion, while marching with his men toward Ogoja, Buhari ran into a group of rebels, and the federal soldiers suffered serious casualties. On another occasion, a rebel sniper killed someone standing next to Buhari.”
Paden said many in Buhari’s battalion died from typhoid as a result of lack of clean drinking water, describing in detail the difficult terrain the troops had to overcome during the war.
“The rainforest of the southeast was very different from the dry savannah of the north, and often Buhari would lead his men with machetes as they cut their way through thick vegetation. Buhari emphasized the importance of seemingly unimportant matters, such as the need for his men to keep their socks dry lest they be crippled by fungus. The health of his men was of critical importance, as was his own,” he wrote.
“During the war, Buhari did not observe fasting during the month of Ramadan, nor did many of his Muslim soldiers. To have done so would have resulted in physical weakness and a death sentence on the battlefield . He believed that Islam is not only tolerant and peaceful, but also capable of accommodating a variety of human circumstances.”
Throughout the war, Paden wrote, “Buhari made it clear to his men that they were not fighting the Igbos. Indeed, some of the men in his battalion and even some of his superior officers were Igbos.”
Buhari insisted that they were fighting “the rebels” and believed that the war could have gone either way but Nigeria was lucky, according to Paden.