Biafra: The Horrors of War, A Review

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BY ALEX OTTI

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
– George Santayana 1863 – 1952

Let’s take you on a journey down memory lane. Imagine a youngster, born in Kano but whose parents are from the Eastern part of the country. Brought up as a Northern Nigerian kid, he had come to regard Kano as his home. His parents lived and worked in Kano. He started school in Kano and made a lot of friends there. For these young happy Nigerian kids, Kano was home. They spoke fluent Hausa and there was no difference between them and any Kano ‘indigene’. Our subject would join his parents to visit their village, Awka, once in a year during the Yuletide and return to Kano as soon as the ceremonies were over.

He could recall that as a five-year-old, a white colonial officer, in company of two policemen had shown up in their house, seeking to arrest his father who was then a journalist. His father’s alleged crime was writing an editorial critical of the British colonial government. Luckily, his father was away to Lagos on official assignment. On sighting the intruders, his mother refused to open the door, explaining that the man of the house was not at home. The intruders would take no such explanation and proceeded to break open the door and force their way in. His mother was so terrified as the white man and his obedient followers went from room to room in search of his father who they suspected was hiding somewhere in the house. The five-year-old boy was so enraged with the invasion that he grabbed the trousers of the white man with his teeth and began to tear at it. The terrified white man took to his heels and abandoned the house hurriedly. He couldn’t understand the kind of courage that this young boy had to make him descend on him so violently. He needed to make a quick exit before something more menacing followed!

This youngster was not done with courageous feats. He had tried convincing his parents that he wanted to be enrolled in elementary school, but they would not pay heed to him as he was, in their view, not yet up to school age. In those days, the rule was that if your hand, placed over your head, could not touch your ear, you were deemed not old enough to start school. However, one day, without his parents’ consent, he just showed up in school. The headmaster promptly sent him back for the same reason that he was not up to school age. Undeterred, the next day, he showed up again, this time sobbing and creating quite a scene in the headmaster’s office. The headmaster caved in and admitted him. He thus started school before his mates and remained steps ahead of his peers up till this moment.

Life in Kano seemed to be going well until January 15, 1966. A military coup had been staged by a group of officers from several parts of the country and were led by two brilliant Sandhurst-trained officers, Majors Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna. A few coincidences seemed to justify the argument that the insurrection was ethnically motivated. First, the coup leaders were of Igbo extraction and the killings seemed to be sectional as no senior Igbo military or political officer was killed in the coup. Secondly, the man who eventually emerged as the Head of State following the coup, was of Igbo extraction. It was not important that he had in fact, been the one who led the group that quashed the coup. The impending national conflagration was palpable and our subject’s father, being a notable personality in the country, was among those who made attempts to tone down the impending crisis by holding meetings with different groups both in Kano and other parts of the country. At the end, his father was detailed to lead a delegation to Lagos to meet the then Head Of State, Gen. Ironsi to brief and advise him on the realities facing the country and how to he could deflect the impending doom. Gen. Ironsi, a no-nonsense military man, would object to him speaking to him in Igbo language and also object to the request that the meeting be held without the presence of his ADC, Captain Sanni Bello. As the delegation mounted further pressure, Gen. Ironsi thundered, “that man is my ADC. He stays here and you must speak in English language or nothing…. I am a Nigerian! With me, there is no Yoruba, there is no Hausa. We are all one and the same. Please speak!”

Thus deflated, the visitors left without delivering the actual message they had brought along. Not long after, precisely on July 29, 1966, there was the counter coup, where Ironsi and many other military officers, mainly of Igbo extraction, were assassinated. There were reportedly two components of the coup. One led by Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon and the other led by Major Murtala Muhammed. Because the January coup was led by two soldiers of Igbo extraction, some people tagged it an Igbo coup and this drove the execution of the ‘revenge coup’ in which Ironsi himself was killed. A careful review of the circumstances surrounding the coup raises strong questions as to whether it was really an ‘Igbo coup’. For instance, out of the 14 key players in that coup, 2 were Igbo, 4 were Yoruba, 5 were Northerners and 3 were from the Southern minorities of Urhobo, Ishan, and Ijaw extraction. The leader of the coup, Nzeogwu, was known to be a radical who had no patience with ethnic nor religious sentiments, but just a left-wing ideologue. Moreover, he was widely known as ‘Kaduna Nzeogwu’, until the coup took place. Besides, the reasons for the coup are already well known and had nothing to do with ethnic chauvinism.

The young man was still in Kano then and was mortally terrified as his Northern friends whom he had had great and brotherly relationships with, began either avoiding him or outrightly referring to him as a traitor. They had been made to believe that his people of Igbo extraction, had been involved in eliminating Northerners and therefore, revenge loomed in the air. He insists that the January 1966 coup as corroborated by prominent witnesses and participants, including Wole Soyinka and Olusegun Obasanjo, was not ethnic based but a few elements of the Hausa/Fulani extraction used their large numbers in the army and for sectional reasons, wreaked a catastrophic holocaust, killing Ironsi and exterminating many Igbo people which eventually set the stage for the nightmarish pogrom that culminated in the Nigeria/Biafra Civil War. He points out that, “for the 3 Hausa politicians and 4 army officers killed in the so called “Igbo Coup” of January 1966, over 200 soldiers of Eastern origin were killed in the revenge coup and another 50,000 civilians were massacred all over Northern Nigeria. He had harsh words for the people around the world who were silent as over 3 million Igbo people perished in the ensuing war; the British who were complicit; Russia which provided aerial support to the oppressors; and America which paid little attention.

As the pogrom intensified, he had to flee Kano with his mother and siblings in a long unforgettable train ride to Enugu from where they made it to their home town in Awka.

The train was forcefully stopped in Markurdi by heavily armed Northern soldiers who disembarked all adult males ostensibly in search of fleeing Igbo Soldiers. Having ensured that all the men, some of them traveling with their wives and children, had been offloaded, they allowed the train to continue with the journey while the men were lined up and summarily executed. A full-fledged war had started. As he put it, most wars are either for freedom or for domination and this war was not different. According to him, if Biafra was allowed to succeed, it would have been one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world as it housed most of the oil deposit in the country, together with some of its best brains. He was of the opinion that the war which by the way, was senseless, was triggered by the North for the sole purpose of controlling the oil from Biafraland. He regretted that the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who had earlier boasted that the Yoruba would also secede once Biafra announced its secession, buckled and rather joined the North to pummel Biafra. As the minister of Finance, Chief Awolowo was quoted as saying that “all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder’.

Having relocated to Awka, he started a new life in his village, but this was again short lived as the theatre of war moved close. He had to abandon Awka with his parents and siblings to a safer location. He narrated a touching story of how his 85-year old grandmother refused to leave with them and was subsequently brutally murdered by the Nigerian soldiers who invaded the town a few days later and set her house on fire with the old woman inside. They subsequently became refugees in Orlu, living in tents mounted in open fields. Hunger and starvation, which inevitably were major instruments of that war, were difficult to adapt to. Days on end, Russian mercenary jets, flown by Egyptian pilots, would drop bombs on civilian targets, wiping out everything in sight. Rather than break the spirit of the people, the Biafrans were so united and determined to fight to the last man. In his words, one thing that stood the Biafrans out and probably was responsible for their survival, was the courageous and brave attitude of the people.

He offered himself several times for enlistment in the Biafran Army and was expectedly rejected on account of young age. One fateful day, he was accosted by Biafran soldiers in Orlu in search of cowards who were fleeing from joining the army. They insisted he must be about 19 because of his frame and height. While those around were protesting that he was not of age, he was eager to join them and was glad to be conscripted. That marked the beginning of his journey to Umuahia to undergo a two-week training programme as an army recruit, even at the tender age of 13! Thereafter, he was given a gun and some bullets and sent to the war front. He fought tirelessly and was deployed to different units of the Biafran army. His schedule included getting intelligence information about the enemy which he did dutifully. As he reflected on the activities of that time, he realised how sophisticated Biafra was. The training, though short, was excellent. “They made their own bombs and rifles, refined their own crude oil, built their own Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) and patrol boats and converted ordinary planes to fighter jets- all done without the requisite tools and materials”
Early in 1970, the Nigerian side got very large consignments of ammunition from Great Britain and Russia and started a ferocious attack on Biafran soldiers and civilians.

Biafran soldiers were being overpowered and the system was collapsing. The Biafran Head of State, General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, had to go on exile to Abidjan. On January 12, 1970, Major General Philip Effiong, Chief of Staff of Biafra, surrendered and that marked the official end of the war. Our subject subsequently made his way back to Awka with the scars of the war remaining with him till this day. He had this to say “From the day that this war ended until today, the Nigerian State has become a wasted opportunity without any bright future. It has become a kleptocratic state that is divisively dysfunctional. Its political structure is not inclusive and devoid of equality for all component units. Nigeria now lacks equitable distribution of power, resources, and accountability, and it’s being populated by incompetent leadership and tyrannical leaders. Contextualising, this country Nigeria …exposes the level of evil, inequality, monstrous corruption, religious and tribal bigotry and violence and above all, the adulation of envy and hatred for the Igbo.” He went further to state that unless the country made sacrifices and pursued a new ethic of leadership and followership devoid of tribalism and religion and institutes good governance founded on truth, justice, equity and fairness, the prevalence of greed, hate, avarice and narcissism would engender another civil war which might be more devastating and destructive than the last one. He went further, “after fighting a war it claimed was to reunite all the people under one country, the extent of sectional fragmentation and ethnic agitation have become alarming”. He concluded by calling for the restructuring of the country to achieve true federalism and devolution of powers as brilliantly espoused in the 2014 National Conference, where he participated actively.

I have no doubt that you would, by now, be wondering who this youngster, that we have been referring to is. Well, the man is no longer that young as he is now over 60. His name is Dr. Okey Anueyiagu. He is my friend and my brother, blessed with so much cerebral power and a brilliant pen, in the mould of his famous father. He has several other talents that make him a unique Nigerian in the midst of mediocrity and despondence.

Okey has just published a book, titled “Biafra, The Horrors Of War: The Story of A Child Soldier”, and it is to this work that we are dedicating this column today. This 277-page book is written in simple English and packaged well for your reading pleasure. What we have done here is to give our readers, a sneak peep into the book, which I consider a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about the civil war from the perspective of an active participant. You would do yourself great injustice if you don’t get a copy to read.