Nigeria’s war time Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, at the end of the Nigerian Civil War in1970 announced ‘’No victor, no vanquished’’, a slogan, many thought, was meant to give those on the side of the defunct Biafra a kind of psychological relief and ‘sense of belonging’ in the affairs of the country. However, one of the top Biafran war commanders and a very close, trusted associate of Ojukwu the Biafran leader, Col Joseph Achuzia a.k.a “Air Raid’’, “Hannibal’’ or “Achucriminal’’ was thrown into jail for seven years after the war on the orders of the Federal Government under Gowon.
A British trained Aeronautic engineer and one-time Secretary General of the apex Igbo sociocultural organization, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Achuzia spoke inside his sitting room at his Asaba residence. Though the interview was conducted by Asaba.com following Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu’s death in 2011, it remains as relevant as ever. Excerpts:
Could you comment on the Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu you knew ?
Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu has always been known to me right from my secondary school days, when we were in Kings College together. Then later we met in Britain. And by the time Nigeria became independent, in October 1960, and I came home, we met again. By then he had already become entrenched within his position in the Nigerian Army. We did not interact before the first coup took place; and immediately after the coup I left back to Britain. And I was following events because he was a key player in the scenario that was unfolding. Then the next landmark in my relationship with him took place when he was appointed the Governor of Eastern Region and Ejoor (General David Ejoor, rtd) was also appointed a governor. Ejoor was sent to Enugu and Ojukwu protested, which made the then Head of State, General Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi to change the postings and sent him to Enugu while Ejoor was posted to Benin. When we got to Enugu the situation was such that a townsman of mine was also the Secretary to the Eastern Regional Government in the person of C. C. Mordi, from Asaba here. A lot of things were going on: the killings in the North, pogrom; so many Igbos from the North were rushing down home; and what was taking place made me to have a closer look into the sort of programme the then governor of Eastern Region, in the person of Odumegwu Ojukwu held for the Igbo people because the trauma being created by the extensive killing was such that it required somebody with a proper insight in dealing with human tragedy to handle. Soldiers, civilians, civil servants were affected. In fact, what took place affected the core inner group that held Igbo citizenship together, something that made the Igbo Union, which one regarded as all supreme in everything, of which Ohanaeze today, the Igbozuruome of today, were modeled after. Igbo Union had to retreat to the East. And in doing so, every Igbo person, male, female, child everything, for survival, was heading eastward.
Why did Ojukwu protest Ejoor’s posting to Enugu?
It seemed that Ojukwu, who probably foresaw tomorrow, knew what would happen in the future. Perhaps that was the reason he protested against Ejoor being sent to Enugu because I am quite certain, in my mind now, not on hindsight but from what I saw around that time that the posting wasn’t correct and that Ojukwu was right to protest. From then on my interest became more firm and solid, in terms of support, which I made up my mind to give to him. He came to Enugu, we met, discussed briefly, then I left back to Britain. It was while I was back in Britain that 1p.m news, in the afternoon, in London, it was announced that, Chief Obafemi Awolowo said that if the East goes, the West will go. So I realised that the whole of this thing was heading towards a shooting match; and I felt that with the loss of so many experienced, trained officers from the East that they, Eastern Region, would need every hand available on deck. That made me to board a plane coming back to Nigeria then to meet another coup, the July 1966 coup, which brought Gowon on board. I spent two days at Airport Hotel in Ikeja. When Murtala Mohammed was a Major, I knew him. George Miller, a friend of mine married to a German that I was going to stay in his house knew him (Murtala) but the instruction at the airport when we came out of the plane was that nobody goes out anywhere. So we were taken to the Airport Hotel. George Miller, being friendly with Murtala, brought him and we met. We discussed and he assured that I should wait for a day or so and there would be flight to Benin. He kept to his words. Two days later, the route to Benin was opened again. And myself, my wife and child were taken to the plane which we boarded to Benin. From there we headed to the East. By this time the situation was getting critical. That second coup that we met was so devastating that it wasn’t only the army but everybody of Igbo origin or that came from the Eastern Region, including those Igbos from the Midwest became involved in the selective killings that were taking place. And the vision which Ojukwu saw, when he protested now crystallized itself because the Midwesterners, Western Igbos, that were returning from the North and from the West, heading home, on reaching Benin, were not welcomed. Reliefs that were being distributed were not given them. Placements in the civil service departments where they were working, to enable them obtain salary or whatever would be given for succor were not allowed. They were told to go and meet their people in Enugu. So they all trooped out and headed for Enugu. We were also around to assist in receiving them. In fact, that was when Ika Igbo Association was formed, just as today you are hearing Anioma, Anioma; Anioma wasn’t in our lexicon then. What we had was Ika Igbo. And our interaction with Ojukwu and his government was concretised at that time. From then, even though the army in the Midwestern Command, the high echelon, was more of Midwestern Igbos, the civil service cadre that should have lent weight to them and support were no more available. Most of them had headed across the Niger. And it must also be borne in mind that the Nigerian boundaries vis a vis East and West were not as they are today, where you have as Ogbaru and those places used to be Midwest, Midwestern Region, the Niger wasn’t a natural boundary, it was the effect of the war that brought about the Niger, at the end of the war being regarded as a natural boundary and the configuration that took place since then still makes it difficult for the Igbos to settle down properly.
The Ojukwu I knew
As I was saying, you are talking about Ojukwu. Here was a man because of his vision, somehow prepared by God or providence, whatever it is, prepared him and placed him at this point in time in history at a place where he was to act as Moses for his people. This was the reason why all his pronouncements had always been that efforts must be made to make sure that the Igbos still remain recognised within the set up and arrangement called Nigeria. He made a lot of pronouncements and also, at the same time made a lot of requests from the Igbo people. I remember that there was a meeting he called of Leaders of Thoughts. During that meeting, he said what we are asking for is not separation but what we are entitled to by being partners in the arrangement called Nigeria. He said we were being pushed with intention of pushing us out of Nigeria, and this we will resist. For the first time he was the one who clarified what we mean in my mind and conditioned my attitude during the period of warfare, in the battle field. He said they can push us, we will take our stand in our own soil with our back against the wall but we will not give up what we have already created in Nigeria. He said, in terms of civilised norms implanted into Nigeria, it is the Igboman alone that feels he must build a decent house, not only to accommodate his family, but to accommodate those in whose land, in whose territory he acquired wealth and built these things. He said the Igbo man by education, self help, both within the commercial business group, the civil service, the entrepreneurship are the Igbos that we can’t abandon. We must resist the push. Having heard all these, one wonders why, what do we do to redress the needless ferocious attack and traumatisation by the pogrom. Everybody encouraged him to go to Aburi. He went. What he came back with emboldened us to mobilise our people to wait for the onslaught of Police action when the army was unleashed on the Eastern Region as if they were intruders. We tried to resist, hoping that it would be just something that well, in a month or two, Nigeria would get tired; we will get back to the roundtable to discuss issues. But what we were getting back from senior civil servants that were out and envoys that we had outside was that this attack unleashed on us wouldn’t last long, that if they pushed any further that there were countries within the civilised community, who will then come to our aid. So everybody guarded their loins ready to continue resisting to be pushed out so as to give time to and chance for help to come. That help never came. The help that came from a few African countries and the half-hearted help from the French side seemed to be the only help that we could expect. In the meantime, through his propaganda machinery and the way he interacted with the grassroots of our people, everybody was ready to lay down their lives to defend the cause he believed in, which he made us believe in. This was the reason why young students, graduates from University of Nigeria, Nsukka, everybody was clamouring “Ojukwu give us guns” ‘’we will defend ourselves’’. The guns were not there and those that were there were not sufficient to even equip the army, let alone giving young graduates, who did not know how to handle guns.
Why we forced Ojukwu to declare Biafra
All of a sudden, we were given a date that on such and such a day the federal government is going to carve up Eastern Region. Ojukwu then called a Consultative Assembly of the people, among which were the Ika Igbos, also given a pride of place as part of the Igbo nation. Our traditional rulers from the Midwest, the Igbo speaking areas attended that conference. I was privy. I was there. And around 1pm a news flash came. What we were hearing as rumour became a reality: Eastern Region was carved. They carved out Rivers State and South East State. So we went into the afternoon recess and by the time we came out of recess and went into afternoon session, a decision was quickly reached that we can’t sit back and see ourselves divided, so the best thing to do was that we must ask Ojukwu to declare the State of Biafra. Before that there had been a lot of argument, here and there, over the issue of what name do we go by. So many different names and configurations were bandied about but finally we asked the group of lawyers assembled to prepare a communiqué declaring the state of Biafra. Even that meeting, Ojukwu wasn’t there, he was still in Government House. This meeting was being held within Hotel Presidential. So by the time the decision was reached, this was carried to him, we were surprised that he said no. He will not do it. He said that he will not declare. We thought either they didn’t teach the military what is meant when somebody is trying to cut you to bits. If he didn’t understand, we did. So message was sent back to him and an ultimatum was given him that if by 8:00 O’clock that night he didn’t declare the state of Biafra, not only will we remove him, we will declare and decide who leads us. Later in the evening he finally announced the state of Biafra. So we all rejoiced that now, at least, if Nigeria continued attacking us, we now knew how we were going to fight. The Eastern Region was one whole entity notwithstanding the earlier announcement by federal government creating three states out of Eastern Region.
Ojukwu as a magician
First to keep the morale of the people going, Ojukwu performed like a magician. People say, ah Okokon Ndem, Uche Chukwumerije, so many of them within the propaganda machinery, it was somebody that gave them the inspiration. Without Ojukwu, they wouldn’t have risen to the occasion. The army quickly changed by creating a situation where civilians were quickly mobilised into what was called Civil Defence. It was these Civil Defenders that became the backbone of the Biafran Army and one should not forget that the Biafran Army is the Nigerian Eastern Command, whoever is recruited there belongs to Nigeria and is part and parcel of the Nigerian Army. The strength infused in them by Ojukwu made for the staunch, gallant defence of that realm by that army. When there were shortage of arms and equipment, Ojukwu called on the Biafran educated engineers and they met and he said go and find an answer. Supposing we don’t get arms from anywhere or no money to buy since Nigeria was changing her currency, find an answer to these equipment scarcity. We quickly formed the Research and Production (RAD). The story of what RAD did I will tell at a future date, not now. BOF was created, the story of who and what happened, I will tell at a later date because I was at the helm of all these groupings, to give direction and show them what to do.
Were you in the Nigerian Army before the war?
Are you saying that Ojukwu was not interested in the Eastern Region pulling out from Nigeria because many say his stubbornness and personality led to the war?
No! Like I said we followed his actions from the first coup. If it wasn’t for Ojukwu and the role he played, the North would have been the battle ground because Nzeogwu was holding the North and the army firmly in his hands. And the North could have been the battle ground. But that aspect of Ojukwu’s action which favoured the people who are now saying that he caused the war, if he didn’t take the steps he took, the story would have been different. The people who should be criticising Ojukwu are the Igbos because every Igboman, including the Northerners, were happy with the situation when the first coup took place. And the role Ojukwu played, like I started by saying that he objected to his posting as governor that he would rather be posted to Enugu, to the East and let Ejoor go to the Midwest.
How should Ojukwu be buried, as an officer of the Nigerian Army; as a General of the Biafran Army or Eze Gburugburu of Ndigbo?
Any of the caps fits him. I repeat, any of the caps fits him. But you ask me, in everything there are always stakeholders, notwithstanding, the relations, which, under our tradition, are the first port of call for burial, by his position. He is now a public figure belonging to the Igbo race, belonging to Nigerian army, while at the same belonging to the Nigerian civil populace. Every one of these arms gained by the experience of coming in contact with Ojukwu. So, the burial should be such that all stakeholders should feel a sense of belonging within the process of his final interment.