The Ghost Of Biafra: 51 Years After, The Flames Still Burns
This year’s Biafra Remembrance Day held to commemorate the 51st anniversary of the declaration of Biafra civil war on May 30, 1967, may have come and gone- but the memories of the historic event are still thick among those who fought the war. In this two part-series, Caracal Reports Correspondent, JAMES OJO traveled to the south-eastern part of Nigeria to gather the experiences of Biafran veterans who fought the civil war and how the Nigerian government has neglected them after the war ended.
Part 1: Living memories of Biafran war veterans
It was a Sunday morning on the 27th of March, 2018- two-days away from the March 30th, sit-at-home declaration by the Independent People of Biafra, IPOB, Chukwu Nneke Alphonsus, 70, staggered out of his apartment at the Disabled Biafran Veterans Camp, Umunna, OnuImo, Imo State, in the south-eastern part of the country. A careful look at him summed up the brutality and gut-wrenching memories suffered by Biafran fighters in the hands of the Nigerian army- a paralyzed left side, unbalanced standing posture and various scars splattered on his body. He is the Chairman of the Disabled Biafran War veterans’ camp.
In his eyes were written bottled-up anger, waiting to explode. At 20, he was one of those who fought the civil war that rocked the country between 1967-1970. Some 100,000 people were said to be massacred during the war while some sources estimate that between 500,000 and 2 million Biafran civilians reportedly died of starvation. The war erupted due to an alleged marginalization of the Igbos by the Nigerian government and the alleged unjust killings of Igbos in the North.
“Young man, what did you say is your mission,” he bellowed in a quivering, yet resolute voice, addressing this reporter. After our correspondent explained his mission, he thrust his right arm into the air, as if he was trying to engage the reporter in a fight.
“What you just asked me is not so easy as you think,” he said, this time, his voice soaked with emotions.
“I fought the Biafra war in a big way. We entered the war in a big way and fought in a serious manner because of the invasion. The war was caused by the cruelty of the northerners against Igbos. They murdered Igbos, crucified Igbos and did all sorts of evil to them which the world was supposed to intervene at that time but they couldn’t. Why they did that, we don’t know even till now.
“I was at Lagos with my brother, a business tycoon then we came back and heard the news that they had captured our land. They (referring to the northerners) crucified us and did a lot of rubbish, and we had to fight back, and we entered the war according to the directive of our now late leader, Col. Odumekwu Ojukwu.”
“Even the dead, grass and sand will continue to fight until we are granted Biafra.”
According to Alphonsus “Some of us that were disabled, amputated entered like that and fought. During the war, a blind man beside me pleaded with me to take him to the war front to fight. So we fought the war in a big way no matter how. But our people don’t see it that way, they see it differently, and that’s not how they are to think. So, even if we remain three or four, we would continue fighting. Even the death will continue fighting, the grass and the sand will keep fighting, we would not stop until God grants our desire.”
He continued: “What we are saying is that the real Igbos mark this Remembrance Day to remember that we are still together move ahead but still as far as the war derided the Igbos of their rights, let me tell you American war lasted not up to a year due to the fact that the European knows their rights, and granted then independence, the same with Cuba but look at Biafra things are always different.”
‘We fought Biafra war without food, uniforms and arms’ –Oliwe, Biafran War Veteran
Like every child, Emeka Oliwe, 65, had dreams while growing up- go to school, graduate, get a job and enjoy the luxuries that come with life. But unknown to him, fate had other plans.
He was barely in his elementary six, at the age of 14, when the civil war broke out. And he had no other plans than to join the army to fight the war.
“I joined as a child soldier, I was barely fourteen then,” he began, opening chapters into how he joined the Biafran army that fought the war.
“I was still in primary school at Otukpo, Benue State in the north-central part of the country in those days. Then Primary education ran into seven streams, so I was in stream six hoping to finish my seven the following year before the war interrupted, so I joined as a child soldier,”
He continued: “I am the wooden surgeon of Ex- Biafra so to say. Well, the experience we had was thoroughly horrible and horrifying, that was because Biafra fought that war ill-prepared. ill-prepared because Nigeria attacked without notice and Biafra had to fight back without prior preparations, therefore, those of us who were listed into the Biafran army, who were not Nigerian soldiers before the war those of us who joined during the war had virtually no training, fought virtually without arms, without food, without uniforms, it was horrible and even those of us who were wounded like myself who had spinal cord injury, we almost went without any medical treatment, the most we got in Biafra could be described as first aid, it was thoroughly horrible.”
‘I’ve no regret fighting the war.’
The thought of being condemned to a wheel-chair for the rest of once life may not sound pleasing to many, but not for Oliwe, who got his spinal cord shattered by bullets during the war. And his reason: Biafra ‘achieved’ its aim during the war.
“I have no regret whatsoever for fighting the Nigeria-Biafra war,” he said. He rolled his wheelchair close to the concrete made the corridor of his residence, fetched a red-cloth, wove it around his head and adjusted back to his earlier position.
After a while, he resumed, “I don’t have any regret fighting Biafra war because Biafra could be said to have scored almost 150 out of 200 percent. Biafra fought for two reasons: One is to prevent the extermination of the Igbo race and secondly to establish the Biafran republic. Over these two targets, Biafra achieved remarkable success, so I don’t have any regrets. If we haven’t fought the war, maybe there would be no Igbo race by now because the intention of the Fulani- Hausa people was to eliminate all the Igbos except those that are five years of age below. It was only fighting back that prevented that. As for establishing the independent republic of Biafra, it is still an ongoing process, so that’s why it’s not yet 200 percent,” he said.
‘Nigeria failed woefully during the war.’
According to Oliwe, “They (referring to Nigeria) had two targets in mind for fighting the war, one is to exterminate the Igbo race, in that they failed woefully because Igbo race is still solidly around and secondly, they wanted to keep Nigeria one. After wasting all those billions of resources and human lives to keep Nigeria one, Nigeria is now more than disunited than ever. Nigeria is now less united than before the war started. There is chaos everywhere today, not only those agitating for Biafra. So regarding building things, they failed woefully while they also failed in exterminating the Igbo race they failed woefully.”
On the significance of marking Biafra Remembrance Day, he said: “The memory it awakens in me is that of that bible project that is yet to be actualized. The significance of the day is that it reminds the world that that little baby is still crying and it should be listened to, it’s problems should be stopped so that it would stop crying. The Remembrance Day thing is to conscientize the world. The world has lost its conscience, so the Biafran day celebration makes the world to remember a project that’s left unfinished and also make the world to be alive to its responsibilities because, without Biafra, the whole world is incomplete.”
“We’re not praying for another war but…”
For Oliwe, achieving the independent state of Biafra is a fight to finish. “I think we are prepared in the sense that we are not going into it militarily, we are not praying for war, but then if we are pushed into it again, we can go back. We are prepared politically, diplomatically, at roundtable conferences, Biafra is making consultations. Everything lies in the hands of God; he has the final say. Whoever is currently agitating for Biafra is not making a mistake. I would call it a noble project. Therefore, I would encourage them to hold fast to it because Biafra is not only the solution for the Igbo race, it’s not only the solution for Nigeria, it’s not only the solution for Africa but also the solution to the world problem
“Biafran project is a noble project; it would save the Igbo race, it would save Nigeria, it would save Africa and the whole world. I am saying that emphatically. Therefore, whoever is agitating for it has my Kudos. I would only urge them to go about it decently.”
“I was shot at the brain, stood for almost 30 minutes without hearing a sound during the war’- Okoeluu, a Biafran war veteran
At 19, Ambrose Okoeluu, now 67, had already joined the Biafran army who fought the battle. It was in the cool of the evening. He wedged on his wheelchair, flanked his wife and daughter of about six years old. He was one of the very few who survived the war, but with severe damage. Aside from getting his two legs paralyzed, he suffers hearing impairment, often struggling to hear what people speak to him.
Like many of his colleagues who fought the war, he was not prepared beforehand. He said: “The war came suddenly and we started fighting it. We started struggling for our lives, that was why we were drafted into the army, we never knew anything about war, it came suddenly, and we had to enter it and fight for our own from 1966 to 1970, so that was how we fought the war, and we had no arms.
“During the wartime, I was shot at the brain by a bullet called Bazooka– a locally produced grenade. I stood there for more than 30 minutes before I could hear anything so when I’m talking to people they have to raise their voices so that I can hear them properly.”
‘Going to battle again is not a good choice.’
Having witnessed the bloody massacre that occurred during the war, the idea of Biafra agitators engaging Nigeria in another war is not the best.
His words: “Going to battle again is not a good choice because fighting the war we could see how hard it is. Going to fight a war now won’t even be possible because the population this time is more than that one. It would be good to follow it in a non-violent manner if Nigeria would allow us to go. We don’t want to fight again.”
Advising the present generation agitating for Biafra, he said: “My advice to youths agitating for Biafra is if Nigeria wants us to stay, instead of killing people, let us stay at home because this world is not our home.”
“I never knew I would survive when they shot me through the artery’ Akpo, 64
In a sweltering afternoon, in 1966, Lawrence Akpo, now 64, sauntered through the flowing blood of his fellow Igbo kindred, butchered to death in the Lafia, Nasssarawa State in the northern part of the story by the rampaging Hausas. Just 16, then, he barely had known what war was all about. He was one of those who scampered for safety to avoid the impending massacre.
But after a while, he mustered courage and joined the Biafran army to fight the war.
“Before the war broke out, I was staying in the northern part of the country, Lafia in Nassarawa State precisely. To my dismay, the northerners started killing the Igbos like what is happening now, so we started running back in 1966 when the war started, we didn’t fight back in the north.”
He paused. Cut a forlorn figure and then let out a heavy sigh.
He continued again: “After that, the northerners came back here and fought us in our own land. I joined the army in 1967 in Enugu at the age of 16. When the war started, there was nothing to defend ourselves with, we just had to make do with machetes and even stick or iron but our enemies came fully prepared but as God would help us, when we capture or kill our enemies, we take their guns and use it to fight the rest of our enemies. The war started at Nsukka early August 1967 when they came to Nsukka to fight, threw bombs in Enugu town so we had nothing to fight with, but then we got recognition from countries like Gabon, Ivory Coast and others who came to our aid by supplying us weapons. I got injured on 13th April 1969 at Umuahia, Abia State. I was shot in the chest, at the right-hand side through the artery. I never knew I would survive. My rank during the war was Brigadier.”