Col. J.O.G. Achuzia (rtd) is a former officer of the Biafran Army. Now an elder statesman, he told PAUL OSUYI, in this interview in Asaba that it is time the Federal Government recognised that there was once a nation called Biafra. Excerpts:
Looking back, what do you think has changed between the time you along with others fought the civil war and now?
I am formerly of the Biafran Army and like all those that participated in the struggle, after the pogrom that took place in Nigeria in the late sixties, we thank God that that grueling war was over, and today we are trying to fashion a new Nigeria which unfortunately does not seem to click. And I believe that the problem is not a problem of knowledge of how to package the country but greed which is the common human disease that has infested the totality of Nigerian government, that is the problem we are facing at the moment.
You were on the side of Biafra during the civil war, what was the agitation like at the time?
In my days, there were no agitations, events were just happening. First, the issue was not that of the civilian public, it was merely a military problem. The politicians were busy politicking, out of the civilian politicking, the problem of the Western House started which led to a lot of blood letting by civilians in the West, that was around 1963/64. We considered the matter a Western regional political issue as at then. Before that could end, the military who had been to abroad for operation in the Congo came back and before you could say Jack Robinson, a coup took place. The mis-interpretation of the coup because of the Nigerian attitude which continues to persist till today, that Nigerian attitude is ethnicity. It is because of the ethnicity that has always been at the background that made our Northern brothers to ascribe the coup as an Igbo coup. Mis-management on the part of the military because of inexperience led to another counter-coup that cost the life of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces who in his zeal brought about the end of the coup, and those young officers that carried out the coup were quickly gathered up and incarcerated. All these were the background of events in my days when I was just in my early thirties, in fact, I was just stepping into my thirties.
Can you compare what is happening today, with respect to the agitation, to what happened in your days?
I will say there is a vast difference. Take for instance what happened a few days ago throughout the whole of the South-Eastern region. When I say South-Eastern region, it affected all the states in the South-East, all the states in the South-South. So, it is not a question of Biafra being a South-East problem or a South-South problem. It is the South-Eastern region of Nigeria because Nigeria was originally on a tripod of South-East region, South-West region and the Northern region. So, you can see that what took place, took us back to what Nigeria was during the first republic. It also has a different coloration because in the lower part of Benue and Adamawa, the areas in the north bordering the South participated, but this has a different coloration. Why I say that it has different coloration is that those who carried out the demonstration which was of course their right because the Constitution says so that every Nigerian has the right to freedom, of association and freedom to demonstrate so long as the demonstration is orderly are Nigerians. The people who demonstrated were from the ages of 40 downwards. The war ended over 40 years ago, that gives you, without much thinking the type of people we are talking about. These were children, half of them were born in Biafra at the time, and their birth certificates say they were Biafran citizens. When the war ended, Nigeria did not address this issue, reasons being that our counterparts who took it upon themselves to manage the affairs of reconstruction, rehabilitation and so on, made a terrible mistake. That mistake was that they did not look into the situation that existed because most of those born during the three and half years the war was going on were babies with Biafran birth certificates and exited the country as Biafrans. Now they are adults, and as far as they are concerned, where is Biafra? The Eastern region of the territory called Nigeria. They visited, saw the hostility and things not going right. Based on their perceived knowledge and intelligence, they felt the best thing is to reclaim our territory, maybe we will make it a model for the rest of Nigeria to follow, hence the agitation.
From your analysis, is the agitation or protest justified?
The justification of a situation depends on perception, one’s perception. Why I say one’s perception, I have just given you, told you who are the Biafrans and who are the people demonstrating. You will not see me or people that fought in the war of Biafra parading the streets in an attempt to bring back the hand of the clock, no. I repeat these are children whose identity, background and what makes a human being is your name, where you were born, the citizenship that you belong, that you were born in, that is what makes a human identity. So, are we trying to say that they are no more human beings or that they, all of a sudden, if they come back to Nigeria as they have come down now, for them to get that identity changed makes them virtually alien.
You said the Western House crisis of the sixties was a regional issue, there is the Boko Haram ravaging the North-East at the moment, and now how do you classify the pro-Biafra agitators?
It is a regional issue.
What should government do about it?
Without having to be repetitive in my recounting of events, I have said time and time again that there should be a round table conference where all cards from all the regions should be placed on the table with no question of no-go area. You see, the issue of ‘no go area’ is because of the dishonesty within the armed forces who crafted a Constitution within the military system. And when they came into government and perceived the lucre that exists within the civil governance, now translated from military to civil, it is almost like Myanmar, the country near India where we call Burma during the First World War and the Second World War. Myanma got independence through the military but the military made sure that any election, they say we give you right of election but after each election, they have a right to nominate 25 persons into the government whereby they choose which side they will support and give that 25 per cent to make it a majority party. That is what Nigeria has been suffering, Nigeria since 1966, after the coup had been subjected to the pressure of military Constitution. The military said they have suspended the Constitution, mark the word ‘suspension’ not abrogated. When you suspend something, it means that in the future, you will resuscitate it but the military exited without resuscitating the Constitution. My country men, the civil populace rushed into governance using the same military Constitution. The answer is very simple, the Constitution we are using till date is a military prepared Constitution. The civilians were so naive that instead on being told that the military has exited and they are now ready for civilian rule, the first thing they should do is suspend or abrogate the military Constitution, resuscitate the civil Constitution which was suspended. Constitution goes in succession, so the first thing is to abrogate the present military Constitution, no matter what favours who and what did not favour who. Resuscitate the original Constitution that we had, examine it, know how to amend it so that we know where we went wrong in the first place and stop tinkering with military Constitution which will take us nowhere.
The renewed agitation by the pro-Biafra groups came up after Buhari was sworn in as president, could it be a fall out of the March 28 Presidential Election which Goodluck Jonathan lost?
No! It is easy to attribute it to that but it is not. The agitation was going on while Jonathan was on seat, the agitation was going on while Yar’Adua was on seat. In fact, at one time, it was said that it was the MASSOB who were supporting the Ijaw militants. Like I said, the agitation is that there are certain people in the South-East and South-South who were born during the three and half year war, who did not know Nigeria, it is Biafra that they know. And it is difficult to wipe it off their psyche, these are the leaders of the demonstrations.
What is the place of Nnamdi Kanu in the Biafra configuration?
Nnamdi Kanu is one of these young men that I talked about, I doubt if he saw his father carry gun during the civil war but he has heard of it just as you have heard of it. Having heard that your father carried gun in defense of his territory called Biafra that belongs to them, are you going to exclude yourself? No!
The protest appears to be peaceful at the moment but where will it lead to, will it end up in arms struggle?
Nobody prays for arms struggle, it is only somebody who has never seen a war that clamours for war. And usually, it is only cowards that die many times before their death. Having participated in a grueling civil war, I would not wish it for anybody neither do I wish it for my children. Like I tell my children, the answer is not agitation but I will not ask you not to participate, to demonstrate, to show or to orchestrate your inner frustration. Frustration bottled up when it explodes, it is catastrophic. For that, even in civilized world, all over the world today, you find demonstrations going on, it is people who could not be pro-active to manage the demonstration that you find where problem arises – killings, fighting, destruction takes place. But I am glad and I will say kudos to the Nigerian Police this time. You see, I like people who keep their words and I believe the present crop of police officers, commissioners who are at the helm of affairs are more educated, better oriented and understands what it is all about. But most importantly there are children that were born immediately before the civil strife, and some born within the civil strife, who are Nigerians or Biafrans within the civil strife, and those born immediately after the civil war. So, they understand one another. I have the pleasure and opportunity of having interactions with some of these commissioners, my request is simple, it is the inalienable right of every citizen to demonstrate when they want as long as that demonstration does not lead to civil strife, the demonstration does not lead to destruction of public property. Once it is a peaceful demonstration, sheathe your sword, let your men be on the outside and watch events, if anything is destroyed, those demonstrating will pick the culprits and hand over to you. We are a civilized country, don’t let us behave as if we are in Dafur. This time, they obeyed the instructions, and do you know what I was hearing, people were calling me saying that they do not understand, so much crowd out for demonstration with the police walking side by side and nothing happening. You see, people thought that there would be explosion and killings, no! All they were asking the Federal Government was for the government to release our compatriot that you detained, have dialogue with our elders, our fathers are still alive, have dialogue with them and let us re-package Nigeria to accommodate everybody. If we do not get Biafra as an independent country, we can answer Biafra by name instead of being called South-Easterners.
How do you answer Biafra by name?
Is Arewa not northern-based? But they answer Arewa. All we ask is that the ancient name by which our forefathers were known when the Portuguese arrived within the 13/14th century that the people they met were Biafrans, hence the bight of Biafra. That name should not be lost because it is our heritage, we are not asking to exit Nigeria, of course not, we have a lot at stake in Nigeria. It is up to the government whether they change the name Nigeria to what it should be or what it should not be. But being called North-East, North-West, South-East is un-African.
What should the present Federal Government do to leave its footprints in the hearts of the people of Biafra?
What the Federal Government should do for us, we are not asking him to make all Igbos ministers, giving us ministerial appointment means nothing, that is individual acknowledgement, it does not reach the hearts of the people. First, we repeat, restructuring of Nigeria, Nigeria should be restructured and when we say restructuring, we mean exactly restructuring. At the moment, we have a lot of problems going on, initially, since the Boko Haram issue, things have been going wrong. The past government did not want to address it, it seems as if there are people who want strife to be going on this country. Suggestions have been made and I believe as I am speaking now, that there are people being killed in Berom and all those places in the Middle Belt by Fulani herdsmen. One soul lost either in the North, west or east is one soul lost in Nigeria. Any government or any leader that is insensitive to that is not a proper leader. What we need is a leader who is sensitive to our problem, our problem is not really what they say, corruption was inherited from the people who packaged Nigeria. They made it so, hence the introduction of ‘dash’ into our lexicon. When you do something for somebody, he gives you something and you say he dashed me, you partake in the proceeds of corruption under the guise of dash. If you imprison all the people that they say they cornered all the millions and billions, how do you get the money back? The countries where these monies were deposited can only promise that they will help you to collect the money. Reasons, those countries were unable to get their hands on those monies but through the efforts of the home government who tries to clean up corruption, it is the home government that tells the government outside that X person deposited so much money in your bank but banking procedure forbids even that country from tampering with the money. What they are waiting is for the home country to force their man to release the key that opens the treasure that had been lying in their vault. Once, that is there, it is a question of negotiation, we will take some and give you some. To us, that is not good enough, first of all let us try to put our country in order. It is only in Nigeria that we do not know the number of Nigerian citizens because no census exercise has been carried out that is reflective of the population. And each successive government tries to shield the corruption that existed in that enumeration. So, corruption is not cash only, corruption is in the approach of governance. Our civil service is extremely corrupt because they corrupted the civilian politicians.
In other words, the Federal Government should tackle corruption to leave an indelible mark in the hearts of Biafrans?
Yes, because for a Biafran, a child of 40 years old, government says no matter what is your qualification, for you to get to certain employment, your must state name, age, sex, citizenship, local government, place of birth and so on. Having filled those forms, on interview, you are asked to bring your certificate of birth, and you produce it that you were born in Biafra, automatically you are rejected. Hence I said that the government must accept that Biafra existed, qualify it, give it a place within the ethos of Nigeria just like the Western region is asking for Oduduwa. Once this is done, we are all Nigerians but my territory where I come from, where I was born is Biafra. For a westerner, where he was born is known as Oduduwa. In the North- West, I am a Nupe man and so on. Why are we ashamed of answering the ancient names of our forefathers? Nigeria is a British concocted name, it does not reflect what and who we are, and as long as it does not reflect what and who we are, all hands can never be on deck to move it forward.
As the protest continued to be sustained, what is your advice for the young men and women involved?
My advice has always been same thing, I can’t tell them to stop protesting but most importantly, my advice will go to the government. For those you hold in detention, free them, let them go, let them emulate the way their compatriots who demonstrated on their behalf did this last weekend because if they are freed there will be no need for demonstration. That did not say that they will not demonstrate until they have their rights to call themselves Biafrans within Nigeria. We don’t like the word South-Easterners, we don’t like the word Eastern region, and we don’t like the word South-South zone. A people must have a proper identity. Why don’t they call Adamawa North-Eastern zone, it answers Adamawa, others answer Taraba and so on. Let us answer Biafra and we will hail the leadership to high heavens for just doing that, it is better than giving us millions, billions and trillions. (The Sun)