The National War Museum in Umuahia brings to life Nigeria’s most tragic years, writes Solomon Elusoji
On July 6, 1967, war broke out between eastern secessionists and Nigeria’s federal troops. The conflict was birthed from a complex animosity that had its roots in Nigeria’s cultural and political diversity, a product of British colonialism.
“The growth of nationalism in the society and the subsequent emergence of political parties were based on ethnic/tribal rather than national interests, and therefore had no unifying effect on the peoples against the colonial master,” a military scholar, Abubakar Atofarati, wrote in the early 90s. “Rather, it was the people themselves who were the victims of the political struggles which were supposed to be aimed at removing foreign domination. At independence Nigeria became a federation and remained one country. Soon afterwards the battle to consolidate the legacy of political and military dominance of a section of Nigeria over the rest of the federation began with increased intensity. It is this struggle that eventually degenerated into coup, counter coup and a bloody civil war.”
During the war, which lasted for two and half years, there were about 100,000 overall military casualties, while between 500,000 and two million Biafran civilians died from starvation. It was a tragic moment in the nation’s callow history.
To remember the war, several books and films have been made. One of the most important of such literature is Chimamanda Adichie’s novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, which was later adapted into a movie directed by Biyi Bandele, The story follows two sisters who are caught up in the war’s outbreak.
But, curiously, the war continues to be a sensitive topic in Nigeria. In 2014, the Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) flagged the screening of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, citing national security issues. While people around the world watched the film, in Nigeria, its release was delayed. “One of the reasons Nigeria is more divided today than it was before the war started is because we have refused to talk about the elephant in the room,” the film director, Biyi Bandele told the BBC then.
Bandele is right. History is largely avoided in Nigerian classrooms and the government has little interest in reviving discussions around the war. This, of course, leads to a kind of collective amnesia that makes possible the repeat of history. In 2017, Mr. Nnamdi Kanu an Igbo secessionist leader jailed by the Muhammadu Buhari government for treasonable offences, emerged as the face of the latent Biafra nation. Although the dissent was quelled, the factors that gave rise to his emergence are still in play.
Perhaps, one way to keep the country together will be to build a sense of national narrative through encouraging citizens to understand the war’s history. Interestingly, seated in the heart of Igboland, is an institution that perfectly performs this role: the National War Museum in Umuahia.
When THISDAY visited this January, the sun was full of bluster and the clouds were clear. A group of workers huddled under a tree, and a group of young visitors were inspecting one of the automatic guns used during the war. Sited in Umuahia’s Ebite Amafor community, the museum complex sits in the middle of a sprawling compound dotted with lanky coconut trees.
“This is a first-of-its-kind museum in Africa,” the museum’s Curator, Mercy Aduoka, told THISDAY. But last year it received just 18,014 visitors.
After the war, which ended in 1970, a Nigerian Military government, decided to immortalise its events “for the purpose of preserving for posterity Nigerian war efforts through the ages.” On January 15, 1985, the then military Chief of Staff, Major-General Babatunde Idiagbon, launched the complex.
What the museum tries to achieve, according to its Chief Education Officer, Peace Otumbadi, is to provide a comprehensive narrative of Nigeria’s military and war history. Otumbadi, who has been a staff of the museum since the late 1980s, gave THISDAY a detailed tour.
The museum has three indoor galleries. The first one is called traditional warfare gallery, which showed the kind of warfare technology used in ancient Africa. The walls were adorned with pictures such as Shaka De Zulu with a spear. Then there were the Amazons, women warriors wielding muskets. The use of animals – horses, donkeys – featured greatly during this period.
“Look at this soldier with sophisticated weapons; when you compare him with Shaka De Zulu, you can see that the difference is clear,” Otumbadi said, pointing out a contrast.
Pictures from the American War of Independence were also available and the imaginary paintings of the early men with tools for fighting during the stone and iron age.
A very interesting feature of this section was the display of traditional weapons, ranging from different types of guns, stones, daggers (classified as a ‘shock weapon’, because of the reaction of the victim), lances, javelins and lots more.
The display included different types of shields made from animal skin, metal, raffia, most for protection against bows and arrows. Then there were iron chainmail, horse saddles, horse rider shoes and trumpets, used mainly for communication. The use of charms during early African wars was also represented.
“What we are trying to show here is the concept of technological advancement, to trace how our arms have evolved,” Otumbadi said.
The second indoor section, tagged the Armed Forces Gallery, was dedicated to narrating the origins of Nigeria’s military: this involved the types of uniforms and weapons the military used during the colonial era and the personalities that shaped its evolution. This history cut through the Nigerian Army, Navy and Air Force.
For each of the military arms, there were sections devoted to ranking order, pictures of its main historical events and personalities, and a display of their ceremonial and combat uniforms; rare pictures of relevant military leaders such as Muhammadu Buhari, were sighted in this gallery.
The third section was the Voice of Biafra bunker, from where the then Biafran leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu and his men radioed information about the war to the world. This section featured the Biafra flag and coat of arms, the radio transmitter, and more pictures of the war and the personalities that shaped its origin and resolution. The escape hatch of this bunker led to a tunnel which travelled several miles across Umuahia to Ojukwu’s bunker. Although the tunnel has now collapsed, covered by red earth.
When THISDAY visited Ojukwu’s Bunker, a Senior Technical Officer and Guide, Christian Eke, said the bunker’s depth is 26.9 feet and that it was built within 90 days.
“The three main reasons why it was built were for them to conveniently hold secret meetings to chart the course of the war,” Eke said. “Also, for relaxation and to host important guests.” However, the bunker, when THISDAY visited, was quite empty.
Beyond the indoor exhibition, the National War Museum’s outdoor exhibition is a feast for the eyes, with its array of airplanes and automatic guns on display. One of the ships used to prosecute the war is also on display. “All the weapons here are the real ones used during the war and not replicas,” Otumbadi said.
Some notable mentions include the Bofor Anti-Aircraft Gun/Launcher fabricated by the Biafran Research and Production Unit (RPU) engineers. It was used by the secessionist’s Air Force to guard strategic military locations.
Also on display is the Ilyushin 28 Bomber and Fighter Aircraft donated to the Nigerian Air Force by the Egyptians. The Russian made aircraft, which flies at the speed of 8833km/h, earned the name ‘Genocide’ during the war, because of its random destructive capabilities. “Its entry, together with Mig 17, which were flown by the East Germans, changed the course of the war against the secessionists,” a display at the museum read.
Another notable weapon on display at the museum is the ‘Flying Ogbunigwe’, which was manufactured by the Biafran RPU engineers and was used to launch bombs towards the enemy.
Some other notable weapons and equipment at the museum include several Armoured Personal Troops Carrier, Ferret Scout Cars, a Biafran Fuel Refinery and Biafran Armoured Cars.
To end the tour, Otumbadi led this reporter into the one of the ships used to prosecute the civil war. Its entrails were dark and stuffy, but it reeked, too, of history.