“All of us have somehow flirted with madness, rebellion, or simply the desire to return to that natural state in which rain is rain, the earth is the mother of all fruit, and the night covers us like a cautious lover …” Raquel Carrio
My first encounter with ‘Reluctant Rebel’ written by Lt. Fola Oyewole was on a sultry afternoon on November 30 1983 at the University of Ibadan Bookshop. After parting with the sum of N2.50 which was the cover price then, I soon became the proud owner of another book on the Nigerian Civil war. Before then, I had consumed other books based on the war such as ‘The Biafra Story’ (1969) by Frederick Forsyth, ‘Why We Struck’ (1981) by Adewale Ademoyega, ‘Sunset In Biafra’ (1975) by Elechi Amadi, ‘The Nigerian Revolution And the Biafran War’ (1980) by Alexander Madiebo among others.
Back home, I finished reading the very engaging book the same day and tucked it away in my study. However, the current increasing agitation for a return to Biafra by some Igbo groups made me go back to the book in an effort to see if I could unearth something that will give me an understanding of the reason why man is always trying to move his homeland or culture towards the abyss; towards the loss of its utopias and roots, and finally to destruction.
Oyewole was a Nigerian Military Officer of the Yoruba stock who was imprisoned in the Enugu Prison before the commencement of the Civil war but was released by Lt Col Ojukwu when the War began. Although he had the choice to return to the Federal side, Oyewole chose to fight for Biafra for the entire three years duration of the Civil War. As Oyewole himself put it; “I was not supposed to be in the East, all Westerners having been expelled the previous October. It was an act of benevolence that I was allowed to stay in the region at all. Why should I aspire to serve in her army or regional command? If I was not satisfied I had a choice – go home. But at that moment that was the last thing I wanted to risk without adequate guarantees’’.
Even at that, the author who christened himself ‘A Reluctant Rebel’ did not believe in secession. As he put it; ‘’ I had never embraced the idea of secession even though I was accommodated and fairly treated in Biafra: I still knew as the Biafrans knew too, that I was a Nigerian. The Biafrans produced many reasons to justify their actions. However, I was not convinced secession was the best answer to their problems neither did I think war was the best or right solution. But whatever my views, I was still a soldier under orders, so I had no choice but to comply, and on Friday 4 August 1967 1 left Enugu for Onitsha to join 18 Battalion. I was not alone on the journey: Captain Adeleke had also been posted to the same battalion, and we travelled in our personal cars one after the other. We reported at the unit location that same evening. The following day we were both appointed as Infantry Company Commanders, by the Commanding officer, Major H. Chukwuka. I was to command ‘D’ (Delta) Company.
Although Nigerian literature is replete with several accounts of the Nigerian Civil War as mentioned above, I consider Oyewole’s ‘Reluctant Rebel’ to be in a class of its own. The book detailed a one-man account of what happened before, during, and after the 30 months Nigerian Civil War of July 1967 to January 1970 due to the then Eastern secession (Biafra). The well written book contained activities seen from the Biafran side of the war through the eyes of a Yoruba soldier fighting for Biafra. With hints of humour every here and there, the book proves to be a good read, regardless of some esoteric military terms and information. With the many blood chilling revelations seen from the angle of the soldier who saw it all, ‘Reluctant Rebel’ is a good reminder of another remarkable war story ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque which was set against the First World War from the point of view of a German soldier.
Divided into 10 Chapters, the opening Chapter depicted the release of the author from prison by Lt Col Ojukwu (Ojukwu Sets Me Free) and ended with his return to jail (Back to Jail) this time, by the Nigerian Authorities who did not consider his release from jail by Ojukwu as a legal action. In between these two Chapters were the remaining 8 Chapters with highly enticing captions such as; Biafra Goes To War, Into The Mid -West, Back To Headquarters, Scientists And Mercenaries, Wartime Courts-Martial, Pressure On All Fronts, The Beginning Of The End, and The Federals’ Final Push’
Oyewole was not the only Military Officer of non-Eastern extraction who fought for Biafra. Others were Lt Col Victor Banjo, Major Wale Ademoyega, Maj C. K. Nzeogwu ,Capt G. S. Adeleke, Lt F. 0. Olafimihan , Lt B. 0. Oyewole , Lt A. N. C. Azubuogor, Lt A. A. 0. Egbikor among others. While some of these non -Igbo soldiers had been in eastern prisons before the onset of the Civil War, some of them especially those from the Mid -West had moved into Biafra after the beginning of hostilities for different reasons ranging from their own protection to that of insistence by Biafran authorities who could not totally trust non-Igbo soldiers who claim to be fighting for Biafra in the Mid- West.
Although many of the incidents in Oyewole’s book have now become common knowledge, the fact that they were narrated from the Biafran side by a credible witness makes the information very reliable. Regarding the events that preceded the war, Oyewole had this to say; ‘’ May 1967 was the worst for the stage-managed demonstrations; with their attendant disruptions of normal life. Civil servants seized the opportunity of taking illegal holidays. At the slightest opportunity they abandoned their jobs to go to rallies or demonstrations which ended in their houses during hours they normally should have been at work. Markets were closed at short notice for traders to attend one demonstration or the order. Even those who did not believe in the demonstrations were forced to join; failure to do so involved the risk of mob action against both the trader and his wares. Motorists often had a rough deal, being made to carry symbols of support for the demonstrators which were often large enough to obscure the driver’s view. Drivers going in the opposite direction to demonstrators ran the risk of being stoned and returning home without any windscreens in their cars’’.
As for the famous Aburi Confab in Ghana, Oyewole like many other commentators on the war, applauded Ojukwu’s performance at the meeting. According to Oyewole; ‘’Listening to the live recording of the Aburi proceedings no one could be left in doubt that Col Ojukwu dominated the deliberations. He did more talking than any other member of the Supreme Military Council: most of the proposals adopted were his ideas’’
In the same breath however, Oyewole upbraided the same Ojukwu for not managing his ‘victory’ in Aburi very well. As he put it; ‘’But Ojukwu threw modesty to the winds and made fools of his Supreme Military Council colleagues. He publicly declared himself the champion of a ‘Southern Cause’, to the embarrassment of both the West and the Mid-West governors. Slowly but steadily the East was isolating itself’’.
Oyewole also believed that Gowon’s decision to split the old Eastern State into three during the twelve states creation in the country was a master stroke. As he put it; ‘’ Gowon decided to divide the Federal Republic of Nigeria into twelve states. Six of them carved from the former Northern Region and three from the former Eastern Region. The Mid-West remained as it was, while a new Lagos State was cut out of the Western Region. That was more than the East had bargained for. The Calabar-Ogoja- Rivers States were created. Hitherto, agitation had been for one COR State, now there were two, South Eastern State (Calabar and Ogoja) and Rivers State. Thus, by the stroke of the pen, as was to be the saying later, Nigeria became a Federation of twelve autonomous states. It was a masterstroke that tilted the political balance in favour of Gowon. Had the twelve States not been created, Nigeria would in all likelihood have disintegrated; Biafra would have survived and the other regions too would have merged as mini Republics’’
As the war progressed, many incidents some comical, some agonising continued to play out as if to justify the commonly held opinion by some high ranking Igbo Military Officers such as Brigadier Njoku who was later detained and replaced by Lt Col Alex Madiebo (later Brigadier-General) as the Biafran Army Commander that Biafra was not ready for war at the time war was declared. As Oyewole put it; ‘’ Njoku’s detention had not come as a surprise. – Njoku never believed in secession which he knew was to bring war. He knew the army he commanded was not for it and he said so. That did not please those bent on secession, who never faced up to reality. Njoku just had make way for somebody they could manipulate more easily—which does not mean that Madiebo believed in secession either; it was a matter of ‘watch it, see what happened to your predecessor’
According to Oyewole, those who worked closely with Ojukwu said that at first he was not in favour of secession, but its arch-advocates blackmailed him into it by saying Ojukwu was against it because of his father’s assets in Lagos. However, once Biafra was born, Ojukwu became the master of all. However, it was Oyewole’s belief that the declaration of Biafra was the climax, though a blunder. As he put it; ‘’ After giving his people Biafra, Ojukwu had nothing more to give save more losses of lives, limbs, property, opportunity, self -respect and above all loss of sanity. Secession cost the East the support of many others in Southern Nigeria, Africa and the world at large. To support Biafra, to encourage secession, was a danger not many nations would risk. The East had a good case until it was re-christened Biafra. She would have been able to justify almost any action short of secession’’
Oyewole’s position on Ojukwu’s unpreparedness for the war was later corroborated by Brigadier-General Alexander Madiebo, the Commander of the Biafran Army, who replaced Brigadier Njoku. Madiebo would know what he was talking about having participated fully in major military operations and tasted the bitter pills of intrigue and ‘sabotage’ politics. What stood out in Madiebo’s highly acclaimed book ‘’The Nigerian Revolution and The Biafran War’’ was the author’s critical perspectives about the conflict. Contrary to expectations Madiebo did not lionize his Commander-in-Chief rather, he analysed the power plays in Biafra and how Ojukwu covered his unpreparedness for the war with subtle and overt manipulations of the Biafran war hysteria. The impression one got from the book is that Madiebo was a dedicated Biafran but no fanatic.
Oyewole however was able to give credit to the Biafran army where it deserved it. Firstly was the ability of the rebels to withhold a better prepared and better armed Nigerian Army for 30 months when the Federal authorities had projected a ‘police action’ that would be short, precise and mild.
Secondly was the air superiority which Biafra had over the Federal forces during the early stages of the war. According to Oyewole; ‘’ Biafra in the early days of the war enjoyed unparalleled air superiority over the Federal forces who had not thought of extending their police action to the air thus allowing the Biafrans to roam the air with impunity’’. The other major Biafran success was its sudden invasion of the Mid West which according to the author, ‘’hit the Lagos war planners by surprise and threw them off balance’’.
Even though many war commentators placed Ojukwu’s ill preparedness on the front burner as the cause of Biafra’s failure, the author did not heap all the blame on his Commander In Chief. Oyewole acknowledged the immense efforts of the average Biafran who saw the war as a challenge to their very existence and put everything they had into its successful prosecution. According to the author; ‘’Men came forward in droves to be enlisted into the Biafran army even though they realised their lives were at stake. Individuals and organizations made donations towards winning the war. Women even though could not participate in the actual fight joined the Red cross to give whatever assistance they could and even volunteered to cook for the soldiers even for those in the front lines’’.
Oyewole believed that Ojukwu’s main headache came from his well-to-do fellow Biafrans (not the ordinary ones who remained loyal to the end) those who egged him on, those who assured him that arms and ammunition would not be a problem. As Oyewole put it; ‘’When it was time for action and he asked them for the promised arms and ammunition, they told him such a thing did not exist or was not as easy as they thought. It was too late. Ojukwu on his part had his personal honour to preserve no matter the cost. There was no going back’’. And as they say, the rest is history.
Personally, I do not have anything against any individual or group of people demanding for what they consider their right. It is however painful to see more and more young people commencing on plans of action which they are ill prepared for. And rather than learn from history, they plunge heedlessly into projects they don’t even understand. Such actions provoke in me a feeling of absolute sadness and solitude, because these are not gratuitous decisions. They are actions usually provoked by poverty and frustration ala Boko Haram et al. But whose fault is it? Are we not all guilty of this primordial tendency towards anarchy and disorder?
In her famous treatise entitled; ‘Acts of Writing and Rebellion’ Raquel Carrio, the well- known Cuban essayist observed thus; ‘’ In some way we are all rebels. Each of us have wanted at some point to abandon the kitchen and the loom (especially when there are no men to take care of, or children to produce, because we are at war) and go to the mountains to sing and dance, and perform the millennial rituals of fertility until dawn’’
As I re -read ‘Reluctant Rebel’, it occurred to me that instead of feeding the renewed agitation for Biafra, it will be a good thing for our youths who form the bulk of the agitators, and who were not primary witnesses to the previous horror to pause and go back to a better understanding of why and how the first putsch played out. By so doing, they would appreciate that it is better for them to learn to enjoy the sweet and fertile land of their fathers instead of becoming caught and imprisoned by sterile prejudices, puerile discussions and primordial actions that will bring nothing but ill wind.
Dr Wale Okediran is a former National President, Association Of Nigerian Authors.