Wednesday, July 6, 2016, marked the 49th anniversary of the day a bitter war broke out between Nigeria and Biafra, which was fighting to secede from the former. January, 1970 marked the end of the blot in Nigeria’s history- the civil war also known as the Biafran War. The war lasted for three years, leaving an estimated three million people dead in its wake. Many stories of the war have been told and heard but only a few of them have come from a Biafran soldier. Mr. Sam Ohuabunwa is an industrialist, with one of the highlights of his career being a lead player in the management buyout of Pfizer Products Limited, which transformed to Neimeth International Pharmaceuticals Plc.
Sitting behind an oak desk, Ohuabunwa, now retired as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Neimeth Pharmaceuticals Plc, looked every bit the industrialist that his profile proclaims. But to conclude that his quiet deportment and soft words are all that define the 66-year-old business manager will be largely inaccurate.
Beyond being a businessman, Ohuabunwa has served as the President of the Nigeria-American Chamber of Commerce, Chairman of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, in the Vision 2010 and 2020 Strategic committees and several presidential committees including the Presidential Advisory Committee and the Presidential Committee on the Global Economic Crisis.
However, before all those, Ohuabunwa had fought in the Nigerian civil war, where he was a lieutenant in the Biafran army. Today, he preaches peace, which he insists can be achieved through dialogue between parties in conflict.
The businessman shares his civil war stories with DAYO OKETOLA and GBENRO ADEOYE and even shows them a scar from a gunshot wound on his right hand, which today serves as a reminder of the historic event in the absence of pictures.
What led you to join the Biafran army which you have talked about in your book- The Port Harcourt Volunteer- coming from a comfortable background?
It was out of compassion; I hated injustice. I fight people’s battles. I don’t know how to fight mine. If I see someone being maltreated or being mistreated, I would come to stand on their side. That was probably what drew me to the Biafra cause. I was already active in business and also politically conscious for my age, so I followed the trend, the pogroms, the coup, the countercoup, the killings and all that was done that led to Biafra. I travelled very much by rail and there was one day we saw headless bodies of Biafrans being brought on the train from Makurdi. Some had run from Kano and by the time they got to Makurdi, they were beheaded. And when you saw such a thing, you would ask ‘what is the problem?’ Especially since the logic of Biafra was not aggression? We didn’t want to fight anybody. It is like being part of a federation and for whatever reason, justified or unjustified, whether you caused it or they caused it, people begin to kill you. What do you do? You run to your home. But it was not the first time. After a while, people went back; Chukwuemeka Ojukwu forced people to go back when he had had some discussions. So people said ‘okay, if we are no longer safe elsewhere, can we be allowed to organise and be safe?’ We didn’t say we were taking anybody’s property or wanted anybody’s land. I was a guy who also hated to be cheated. My life was not in any way troubled, except when schools were shut to enable our teachers to participate in the efforts and this gave me the window to try to enter the army. There was nothing else we could do. If you have been pushed to this point and you say let me go and somebody says no I want to bring you back so I can kill you more. That is the way we understood it. So I felt justified to join in the defence as there was no other thing we could do except to become slaves. Those were the kinds of sentiments that persuaded me to participate in the war.
Did you get any training?
I wanted to join the navy in 1967 when schools were closed in July. In September, I tried joining the navy in Port Harcourt. When the interviewers asked for my qualifications and saw that I was in Form 4 and that I was yet to finish secondary school, they refused to enlist me and asked me to wait till the war was over. I don’t know why anybody thought at that time that the war would end in a week or two. Then in October, Enugu was threatened and civilians ran away from the city. I think Biafran soldiers felt that if they lost Enugu, the capital of the Eastern Region, they had lost the war. So there were disputations; Nigeria was saying it had captured Enugu and Biafra was saying that it was not so. So Biafra decided to call a world conference for people to see that Enugu was under its control. But the problem was that most of the civilians had run away from Enugu because Nigerian soldiers were threatening the city. So Biafra asked for volunteers, which is where the title of my book came from. The volunteers were expected to come and pretend that they were living in Enugu so that the media would see them and say that normal lives were going on. Immediately I heard that in Port Harcourt, it presented a small opportunity for me- someone who was looking for action. I volunteered and all the volunteers were taken in buses from places like Aba, Onitsha and Port Harcourt. Most of us were undergraduates and students because those who were still working couldn’t volunteer at that time because the war had not got to the point where everybody would be out of job. We tried to occupy Enugu. Our first night in Enugu, we were lodged at the University of Nigeria campus and given hostels so that the next day, they could discharge us to other parts of the city. That night, the Nigerian army shelled the campus and some people were hurt and injured. Some lost their lives. We then ran out and left Enugu. The press conference was supposed to happen the following day. We had lined up our buses again and they said we would not be taken to a popular place like the university campus again. They said it was a known target and that we would be put in some other lesser known places. So as we were about to return to Enugu on the road we took to escape the following day, we didn’t know that overnight, the Nigerian army had already come to Enugu. They had laid ambush. The luck we had was that they decided to shoot when they saw the first vehicle. If they had waited for all the 12 vehicles in the convoy to get within shooting range, we would have all been shot. So there was commotion as the vehicles tried to turn back. Eventually, we did and got to Awgwu. We settled there. Then the Biafran army was in disarray, so they brought one Col. Onwuatuegwu to reorganise the Biafran unit called Ex-Brigade. It was at that point that it was clear that Enugu had fallen and there was no more point to make again. Most of the volunteers went back to their normal lives but some of us, who were itching for action, stayed back and later found jobs for ourselves within the army formation. We began to do odd jobs, carry ammunition to the front, food to the soldiers, and created entertainment groups to entertain the soldiers.
Were you being paid for this?
No pay! We were in the camp; there was food. The other things needed were cigarettes and other things and we could share them. When Onwuatuegwu was organising the army because the commander then had defected and crossed over to the Nigerian army, he saw some names on the list belonging to that brigade but without a corresponding army number. Every soldier had a name and army number. Our names were on the list but with no numbers. He asked ‘who are these people’? So they had to send for us. We were about 25 in number. We were wearing army uniforms because to go to front to drop ammunition, we had to look like soldiers.
Do you have a picture of yourself in uniform?
‘For where?’ We didn’t take any pictures. It is one of my greatest regrets. Pictures were not popular then. I don’t have pictures of the war. So we told him how we got there that we were volunteers and didn’t want to go back. He looked at us and said ‘what great foolish patriots’ we were. That if we had died, there would have been no official recognition, our parents, wards and dependents would have received no compensations and so forth. When he checked and found out that most of us were either undergraduates or other students, he gave us recommendations to go to the school of infantry to be trained as army officers. That was how I joined the Biafran army.
How long was the training?
It was supposed to be for three months but I didn’t complete it. About two weeks to the end of the 12 week training, I went there as a serving soldier along with some others who were there as serving soldiers. In the school, we had fresh cadets who were civilians, and then there were people from the military who were sent there on promotion or bravery. Fresh cadets spent an extra month. We already had some military exposure. But on the ninth or tenth week, we were woken up around 2am. One of our instructors was just saying what seemed like a crazy joke. He said tomorrow now, you would tell me that you captured an armoured car with your bare hands, you would tell me that you alone stopped a brigade from moving, you will tell me that you did this and that. If you think that you are qualified to command a platoon, come out here. We were wondering what he meant. He asked the question three times and I think after the third time, one boy came out. But the guy who came out was someone we were sure was not going to qualify as an officer. He was a lay about and was indisciplined. Then the man asked him, do you know any other person that can command a platoon. Then he mentioned my name. I was commanding my company as a student then; it was just like being a prefect of a class. And he wasn’t having life easy with me because of his style. I called another person, another person called another person. People like Capt. Emmanuel Iheanacho, a former minister, who owns Genesis Shipping Worldwide, was one of my mates. That night, 21 of us came out and were taken to the commandant of the college. They told us that we were needed for battle, and we were moved that night to Umuahia, where we were commissioned by Ojukwu. By 6am, I was already fighting on the battle field. When I arrived on the war front, the people that formed the unit that was going to fight were from different sides and as luck would have it, I was chosen as company commander. Then some of my colleagues were made platoon commanders. I was given three platoon commanders, and troops. We moved to the front from the deployment point. The person we met who was our commander for that sector was Col. Joe Achuzia. We met him at the command post. He said a few things but the one that stuck was ‘Gentlemen, I like to tell you that you have two enemies that you have to face here. One enemy is in the front and one enemy is behind. The enemy in front can kill, maim, hurt, or wound you and you can also kill him or wound him and that is what you need to do- kill him and move forward. But the enemy behind, the only thing he will do is to kill you.’
Who was the enemy behind?
He was. That means ‘no retreat, no surrender’. Just move forward. Don’t run back. By the end of that day, I had lost two of my officers. The third one had used his gun to fire his hand so that he could leave the war front. I caught him in the act. I almost killed him but God prevented me from committing murder. And that was how I went from one battle to another. At a point, I believed that I was not going to survive the war. At a point, my brigade thought that I was either a suicide bomber or had suicidal intentions. So the following week, I was removed from A company, which was on the road to D company, which was on the flank. At the time, D company had been on holiday. There had been no battle in their area. But the second day I got to D company, battle started there and ceased in A. When war started for D, I could not believe it. I said God, is it because I inflated my age to join the army? In 1968, when I was joining, I was 18 years. But I claimed that I was 21 years to merit being an officer. So I was thinking: are these my crimes and sins catching up with me? I was going from battlefield to battlefield. So that was how I fought until I survived the war. I got injured in December 1969.
How did you get injured? Did you drink too much?
Were you drinking in the army?
Yes now, we were drinking Akpeteshie (home brewed alcoholic spirit).
Did you also smoke in the army?
Yes, everything that was smokable. We were soldiers. And there was palm wine too. So it was either palm wine or Akpeteshie. Sometimes it was almost like food. But on this particular day that I was injured, battle had become terrible. Biafra was losing ground but some of us held our ground. There were people like me who would not give up battle. Having felt as if battle followed me and that I could not survive the war, I became slightly reckless. People used to say around me that I had been ‘cooked’ (had supernatural powers). I knew I had none. I just knew that somebody was protecting me. I was commanding a team in the D company area and the push was terrible. There was a four-way junction behind me. The situation was that if the Nigerian army went to the left, they would cut off some Biafran troops. If they went to the right, they would penetrate deeper into Biafra. So the two scenarios were dangerous. So I deployed my troops to the left with the best ammunition, then the other side that would make the Nigerian troops penetrate deeper into Biafra, I also put troops there. Then I lured them to another side entirely which was the least dangerous point. How did I do that? First of all, I put a small fighting unit to resist them, just to pretend that we were resisting them. When their power became stronger, they ran and made sure they left their footprints in the sandy area to show that they had run to the direction which we wanted the Nigerian soldiers to see that they had run to, which they would think was the most important route to follow. We focused their attention there because we didn’t want them to go to the right or the left; that was my strategy as the commander there. So having focused their attention there, we had to prepare to fight. We had dug our trenches and stationed people there. Of course, my plan worked. They pushed and pushed and my guys ran and left their footprints on the ground. Then they ran beyond where we were already deployed, also to give the impression that there was no defence and that they were just running away. That way, the Nigerian soldiers were in a hot pursuit and came into our ambush. And that was what happened. But I didn’t know they were also moving in waves. Not all of them were together. Another wave came and another came and the power became very strong. I was in a trench with one of my guys manning a machine gun. He got hit. So I had to get up to find some other person to fire the machine gun. I crawled to another side and met my second-in-command and said I wanted to get someone to man the machine gun. So I took the person to the place. In fact, there was a soldier there who was hunched over his gun and not firing. I kicked him and asked why he was not firing. Then I realised he had been hit and had no life in him. So as I was about to enter the trench, I got shot in my arm. I felt the pain but I didn’t know that I had been hit. It was when the blood was coming out that the soldiers around me said ‘Oga, you have to go out’. They brought a piece of cloth to tie around the wound. The battle had become fierce and I was commanding troops. So they begged me to go get treatment. I had displayed some foolhardiness or machoism. So I left for the medical reception station to get first aid. I thought it was a small injury. On my way, I saw my battalion commander. He saw me and said he was finished. He said I was the hope he had there. I said I was coming back. So I went to the MRS and from there, I was moved to one hospital and then another hospital. I was in the hospiital when the war ended.
Since you didn’t take any pictures of yourself in the war, can you mention any name with whom you fought or trained in the infantry school?
I’ve told you about Capt. Iheanacho, who was my mate in the school of infantry. There was Uche Amajor, who is living here in Lagos. He was one of our mates. Then there was one Caesar, who was the guy I replaced in D company. It was an exchange. He was D company commander while I was A company commander before we changed positions. He was a very brave boy and he was one of the last Biafran soldiers to die. He died on Umunwanwa Bridge, which was like the last bastion of resistance. The moment the Nigerian army crossed it, it almost signified the end of the war. He died on that bridge.
Would you do it again?
If the same circumstances present themselves, the same thing will happen. If somebody comes now to try to kill me or my children, what do I do? I run away. Then I try to make peace like they tried to make peace in Aburi and some agreements were made to keep Nigeria in a manner that we could all live in peace. Then you came back and reneged on that agreement. What do you want people to do? I believe that similar circumstances would not happen, but should they happen, we would see the same response. It is not as if I’m looking for war to fight. I don’t want secession; I’m happy being a Nigerian but I want to be a Nigerian that is treated equally as another Nigerian. I don’t want to be a second class Nigerian. I don’t want to be a Nigerian that will be conspired against as if I’m an impediment and a problem. So if I am, why don’t you let me go? But as long as you are willing to accept me, then we compete fairly and see ourselves as brothers and sisters. If you are hurt, I say sorry and if I’m hurt, you say sorry. To be fair to you, I don’t think majority of people who believed in Biafra wanted it as a first option. Even Ojukwu that was called a war monger- it was a lie. If not for him, the war would have started much earlier. He did everything to delay the war. He was a trained soldier and he knew you cannot fight a battle with bare hands. He had to delay and get ammunition and prepare. I was one of those who carried placards that he should declare Biafra a sovereign state but every day, the man would come on radio and speak Oxford English. So it wasn’t premeditated or something anybody wished for. I pray that I don’t see a second war. The war was a war for Nigerian unity and it has been fought. We need to learn lessons from it and use those lessons to build a united nation where everybody is treated equally and with respect. The moment this country decides to treat everybody fairly, these agitations we hear about will stop. A man opens his newspapers every day and sees lists of appointments and he looks for his own person, he doesn’t see, the next list, he looks and another and so on, so he asks himself, do I belong to this country? Is it not better for me to be somewhere else? Our country is a great country despite the fact that it is an artificial creation by the colonialists. If Igbo people wanted secession so much, they would not be investing everywhere without looking back. So the agitation is just a response to perceived injustice and all that is needed to be done is to look at the cause of the grievances and work towards removing that. Some of these may be perceptions and some may be real, but each of them can be managed. It is doable. I have recommended this to the department of home security and national unity. We need people with the right temperament to go across the country to hear people’s agitations and deal with them.
You were commissioned by Ojukwu, can you recall what he told you that probably spurred you on during the war?
He said that it was a war of survivor and not a war of aggression and that he expected that we could not be slaves in our land and that when you are pursued outside, you run. And that after doing that, where else would you run to? That we needed to go and defend our land and that otherwise, we might just become slaves. That was the kind of challenge he gave to us and of course, people were fired up to go and defend themselves.
What went through your mind when you saw your colleagues being felled one after another? How did you get yourself up each morning?
At the early stage when you go to a war front, you flinch when somebody dies. You worry and think it could be you. But as the days go by and you see more killings, you get toughened up. There were times I used dead bodies to shield myself. Today, people see dead people and are afraid. But then, we would move close to dead bodies to protect ourselves. At a point, you would become indifferent. And the dead bodies would become another one, another one. It got to a point when everybody was waiting for his own turn. There was a day I just came back from battle and I thought the day was gone. I was with my friends and everybody was relaxed. All of a sudden, a battle started in my front. I got up to go to the front. People were saying please don’t go but I could not be hearing gunshots close by and sit still. I met our man in charge there and repelled the attack and I came back. Even as I was going, I was telling my guys there that even if they didn’t see me again, I had paid the price and made the sacrifice for our collective wellbeing.
Did your parents support you to be in the Biafran army?
My father did because he was ex-service man. He went to the Second World War in Burma. He was also a brave soldier; he showed me his stomach where a bayonet pierced through and came out on the other side. He was rushing and didn’t know that an enemy soldier was lurking somewhere. But he survived. He had a big scar on his stomach. So he supported me when I was going but my mother was angry. My father kept following up with me. Everywhere I went, he followed my movements. He would ride a bicycle and would show up. One of the strangest things that happened to me was when my father brought me cigarettes. Just before I went into the army in 1967, my father caught me smoking cigarettes with my friends and he almost killed me. Here he was bringing cigarettes for me. He didn’t smoke so maybe someone had given them to him. I just found that the relationship had changed. I think he was looking for something to make me happy in the assignment I had undertaken.
Do you still have your scar from the gunshot wound?
Yes, I do. Let me show you. When the bullet came in, it didn’t exit. It bypassed the joint and lodged somewhere here. There was an argument on whether my arm should be operated on to take out the bullet or whether to leave it at the time. An arrangement had been made with one hospital to do the operation before I had to suddenly evacuate. The surgeon said the way hospitals were moving, as we were in the last days of the war, if he operated on me, the wound might be infecated if I had to move from place to place. And since it was so close to the bone, it might lead to a sore that could require an amputation. So he said they would only be sterilising the wound and be giving me injections. The bullet was removed after the war had ended. It was when I had moved to school in Owerri.