Fifty years ago, this past January, the short-lived country called Biafra came to a very humiliating end. To say that the Igbo people and some of their cousins in the old Eastern Nigeria passed through a meat grinder in the preceding three years would be a great understatement.
However, that history is largely lost on the majority of Igbos living today for they were not alive during the war. But they must have seen enough television evidence of the carnage from other wars in this century alone to be able to imagine the trauma children like me suffered during the Nigerian-Biafra war. For about five years after the war ended, I was having nightmares, especially when I was ill with malaria, and febrile. And the same applied to other children who went through the same ordeal. For me the horrifying dreams were about air raids by Nigerian jet bombers and fighters, and sometimes they were about our people fleeing on roads as refugees.
The greatest mistake any group of people can make is not learning lessons from their past. The travails Igbos are undergoing today in this place called Nigeria are nowhere as terrible as the atrocities that were committed against innocent Igbos from 1966 to1967, which directly provoked our people into seeking protection that the military government of General Yakubu Gowon was unwilling to provide. But then as now, the way out is not to seek secession. Then as now, we have more invested in Nigeria than any other ethnic group. Indeed the Igbos can make a strong case that we have more right to ownership of Nigeria than any other ethnic group, and there is absolutely no reason we should think about abandoning Nigeria to others. We made that mistake last time, and we will not make that mistake again.
Consider this: We Igbos are in a stronger position, more suited, to kick people out of Nigeria than the other way round. We have always had that capability, but were not just thinking in that direction. There are valid reasons to say that the British created Nigeria for the Igbos. Starting with the fact that when the British were departing after granting Nigeria her independence, they handed the administration of Nigeria to the Igbos. This applied to the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Police, the Railways, the Federal Civil Service, even the Northern Nigerian Civil Service. This did not occur by chance. It happened because the Igbos joined the colonial governments in droves, in their region and outside their region; they were willing to go anywhere. That’s what took them to the North and West in the first place. I will use individuals to illustrate how all this came about.
The father of Gen. C. Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Sir Louis, started out in the federal civil service in the North, which was where Gen. Ojukwu was born. He retired early as an agricultural produce inspector in Ibadan. The Igbos flooded the Railways finding that it was mostly their people that were traveling by rail across the country, and eventually began providing virtually all the train drivers, technicians and clerks. Sir Louis Ojukwu observed that the fast-growing inter-regional travel by rail was heavily dependent on Igbo customers and set up his transportation company, Ojukwu Transport Ltd., to move passengers and cargo, which made him the richest man in the country. My mother once told me that in those days it was either you went by train or you went by Ojukwu Transport. The father of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was a civil servant in the North’s original capital, Zungeru, in today’s Niger State, which was where Zik was born, and Gen. Ojukwu as well, by the way. Closer home, once out of secondary school, my father landed his first job as a clerk in the colonial district office in Kano, joining his much older brother. My maternal grandfather served with British colonialists in Maiduguri in the 1930s, and later worked in the Railways. This story repeats in thousands of Igbo families.
Who disputes that Igbos made up at least 75 percent of all commissioned Nigerian Army officers as of 1965, with the same applying to the Navy and Air Force?
Indeed the Igbo people worked side by side with the British colonialists, they were hands-on partners with Britain in the nation-building of Nigeria. One can extrapolate that Igbos exhibited high competence and a high work ethic, which the British valued and rewarded. The British rewarded people on the basis of individual merit and not by a quota system. And this was all before 1960, before the NCNC led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe entered a ruling alliance in Parliament with the Ahmadu Bello-led NPC, which gained the Igbos top political appointments.
We Igbos simply failed to use our power and position wisely and strategically. First of all, we were blindsided by a few mid-level Igbo military officers upturning the apple cart in an unwise coup in January 1966 that we didn’t ask for, simply because they could no longer bear Ahmadu Bello’s oppression of the Tivs. To add to which was their knowledge that Ahmadu Bello had approved the military invasion of Yorubaland slated for January 17, 1966, designed to crack down on the ongoing bloody political revolt in the Western Region. But that’s the Igbo nature, they hate to be oppressed, and they also hate to see other people oppressed. Then, when our people were massacred as a result, we didn’t pause and have our known, tested leaders get together and craft a good strategy for us to use to fight back, always keeping the prize of ownership of Nigeria in mind. But instead our people let one single man without political experience decide our fate: Eastern Nigeria’s military governor, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
The situation was the same with the top Nigerian military commander, Gen. Johnson T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, an older Igbo officer. His brief rule and his actions while in power were all taken by our fellow Nigerians as the responsibility of the Igbos; ironically, people he was not even consulting. I dare to say it here: After successfully crushing the January 1966 coup led by the junior officers, it was wrong for Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi to now seize power. It would have been infinitely better if he had restored the civilians to power immediately, and in the same vein carried out a quick court martial of the failed coup plotters. He further compounded his errors by not protecting himself adequately. As my father Dr. Basil Nnanna Ukegbu once remarked to me, if it had been Col. Ojukwu that was in Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi’s position, the Northern revenge coup would not have succeeded. Once given the information that a coup was afoot, Ojukwu would have arrested the coup plotters and shot them.
When my dad, who had recently been a Member of Parliament, came over from the University of Ibadan to visit him, bringing along a 14-page advisory, Ironsi brought in his Private Secretary Mr. Hamzat Ahmadu to sit in. [Later, a long-serving high-ranking ambassador, Mr. Ahmadu had served President Nnamdi Azikiwe and General Yakubu Gowon in the same position.] Ironsi was trying to prove that he was not planning anything untoward with his fellow Igbos, while at the same time individuals such as Northern Region governor, Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina, whom he had recently promoted, were openly boasting about the revenge coup the Northern officers were planning.
But most amazingly, when Col. Hillary Njoku, the new commander of the Second Brigade, in Lagos, privately asked for permission to quickly recruit and train a new infantry battalion made up of Igbos, Ironsi declined. Col. Njoku was basically the Igbo officer closest to Ironsi, and had recently been the commander of the Second Battalion at the Ikeja Cantonment. Njoku accompanied him to Ibadan, but narrowly escaped from the Western Government House, although he sustained gunshot wounds. Col. Njoku told my dad that he reminded Ironsi that although Igbos comprised most of the officers of the Nigerian Army, conversely most of the infantry soldiers were from the North. Col. Njoku said he needed a new battalion of Igbo infantry troops that could provide protection for Ironsi. It would not have been a difficult project, because the Igbos comprised over 70 percent of the Nigerian Police at the time. And he could have quickly recruited Igbo members of the Mobile Police. My father said they [the politicians] had formed the Mobile Police, a paramilitary unit, principally to protect the politicians from the Army soldiers.
There are, I suspect, a great number of people who believe that Igbos unlike their fellow Southerners, the Yorubas, are not much of strategic thinkers. Facing the seesaws and vagaries of life Igbos are often thought to be too emotional, oft ready to leap without looking carefully—once they feel seriously affronted. This alleged characteristic of Igbo men goes back centuries of recorded history. And many a time their hubristic exuberance ends in failure. In my view, this usually happens when Igbos fail to use their God-inspired democratic mores and they let one or two individuals seize hold of their destiny. Many in the Igbo nation today are keeping quiet when groups such as IPOB and MASSOB seize the mantle of leadership that nobody appointed them to, much as Igbo people of old allowed General C. Odumegwu-Ojukwu to seize the Igbo destiny and do as he wanted; at the time because it was a military government, and they also thought they had no answer, no other recourse, for General Yakubu Gowon and his blood-drenched backers.
When in 1994 General Sani Abacha seized power from the renowned corporate executive Mr. Ernest Shonekan, the retired CEO of the iconic United Africa Co. plc, and jailed Mr. Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential election, the reaction of Igbos was to flee the North and the West, most grabbing what personal possessions they could carry and running back to the East, and some fearing danger on the roads fleeing the other way across the border into the Republic of Benin. To their amazement there was no conflagration, the Yorubas basically did nothing, didn’t go to war with Abacha and his cohorts.
But that was not the end of the story. The Yoruba leaders, activists young and old, secretly mobilized. Overtly they formed NADECO, an international political pressure group with a then heavy presence in Washington DC. They also formed more covertly an armed militant wing called the O’dua People’s Congress (OPC), under the leadership of the now late Dr. Frederick Fasehun, which spawned younger firebrands, notably Mr. Ganiyu [Gani] Adams. Eventually the OPC began operating in plain sight, not hiding from Abacha. In Washington NADECO was very active, and largely through its work, Abacha ultimately became a pariah in most of the world.
At home in Nigeria brave journalists at TELL magazine, and other publications such as The Sunday Magazine, etc., tackled the Abacha government in what became known as “guerrilla journalism,” aided clandestinely by the Intelligence agencies of some Western powers, who may have also helped to physically dispatch Abacha in mysterious circumstances, allegedly using a female Indian agent posing as a prostitute. When it was all over, the Yorubas got their presidency without a fight. Of course there were some casualties, most notably Mrs. Kudirat Abiola, Mr. Alfred Rewane, and Mr. Alex Ibru.
Quite often, it has to be admitted, Igbos have a ridiculously overblown sense of their capabilities when it comes to big confrontations. I note the case of Nat Turner, a black slave in America, a young religious preacher whom I believe was of Igbo ancestry, who organized the most notable slave rebellion in American history. He gathered some fellow slaves together in the State of Virginia in 1831, collected weapons, and attacked the whites. Some early successes fizzled out as the whites gathered from plantations in nearby counties and counter-attacked. Turner was eventually captured, drawn and quartered, and his head cut off and used for sport. There was also the case of King Jaja of Opobo, the Orlu native, from today’s Imo State, who became a formidable leader, king of a coastal trading territory with Opobo as his capital, who dared to confront the British Empire, and was tricked into detention and exiled to the West Indies. King Jaja wanted to retain all upcountry trade for himself, but the British wanted in. Remarkably, King Jaja started out as a slave boy at one of the Ijaw ruling houses in Bonny.
Fast forward to 1967 in Nigeria. The Igbos had the misfortune of being led by a young man who was politically inexperienced, militarily inexperienced, yet full of self-confidence and panache, who rapidly segued into a military dictator. He came to truly believe that he was more patriotic than everyone else and could righteously make decisions for the Igbo race single-handedly. To him, it appeared, the Igbo people’s republicanism and tradition of consensus decision-making be damned. Not so fast, my man. That was all wrong. The Igbos were largely a fragmented collection of villages and towns until the 20th Century, but all had one thing in common—they were democracies, where the elders, the ndichie, set and oversaw policies and regulations, and youths and women (separately) were all allowed to make inputs in debates prior to decisions being taken. It was always rule by consensus. Igbo enwegh eze. The Igbos have no kings. That has always been our modus operandi, that has served us for centuries.
In the runup to secession, Eastern Nigeria military Governor Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu shunned the advice of his military elders and mates alike—Col. David Ogunewe, Col. Hilary Njoku, Col. Ime Imo, Col. Patrick Anwunah (recently head of the Nigerian Army’s Military Intelligence), Col. Henry Igboba, Col. Conrad Nwawo. He pushed aside and sidelined the known Igbo and Eastern Region political leaders of the day, notably Dr. Michael I. Okpara, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Francis Akanu Ibiam, Dr. K. O. Mbadiwe, Dr. A. Nwafor Orizu, Barr. Raymond Njoku, Senator James K. Nzerem, Dr. Uzoukwu Nzeribe, Dr. Jaja Wachukwu, Dr. Aja Nwachukwu, Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani, Mr. H.S.K. Osuji and his brother Mr. T.C.K. Osuji, Mr. Matthew Mbu, Mr. Frank Opigo, Mr. Wenike Briggs, Mr. N. U. Akpan,…the Eastern Region’s Police Commissioner, Mr. Patrick Okeke. These, among others.
Col. Ojukwu saw little need to involve fellow Igbo and other supportive Eastern military officers in pre-planning and decision-making for any future war. The processes of such strategy pre-planning, something akin to what the U.S. military calls “war games,” could directly and accurately predict victory or defeat. This was basically ignored by Ojukwu who very early as the military governor of Eastern Nigeria set about neutralizing anybody military or civilian whom he deemed important or popular in the minds of the ordinary people. He worked hard to suppress all the Igbo military officers who were senior to him and more experienced than he was.
An example is Col. Hilary Njoku. The acrimony that developed between the two men got so out of hand that Ojukwu went and laid a complaint to the then Catholic Bishop of Owerri, The Most Reverend Joseph B. Whelan, whose diocese at the time included the old Owerri and Orlu provinces and Port Harcourt. Col. Ojukwu complained that Njoku, the Chief of Staff of the Army, wanted to remove him from office. After the Midwest debacle in October 1967, he put Col. Njoku, who played no role in the disastrous affair, under house arrest, saying that Col. Victor Banjo, Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Mr. Phillip Alale and Mr. Sam Agbam and their co-conspirators had penned a decision to replace Ojukwu with Njoku and make peace with Col. Gowon.
But Col. Njoku claimed he knew nothing about the planned coup against Ojukwu. And he told his family friend, my dad, Nnanna Ukegbu [a former MP and Chief Whip of the NCNC in the Nigerian Parliament before the crisis], when my dad visited him in Enugu during the period, that Ojukwu froze him out of the planning for the Midwest Invasion. Col. Njoku was officially the Biafran Army’s Chief of Staff, but Ojukwu mistrusted him. In truth it is known that one reason that Ojukwu gave the command to his Yoruba buddy, Col. Victor Banjo, was to say to Yorubas it was their fellow Yoruba leading the invasion. But that ploy backfired horribly. Banjo turned out to be a traitor.
Only an insignificant few of the Igbo political leaders of the day, one of which was my dad, who had no iota of military experience, supported secession and the inevitable war. Indeed, of all the senior Igbo and other Eastern military officers, as many as 95 percent of them, told Ojukwu not to declare secession, bluntly warning him the East would lose. Police Commissioner Okeke (later to become the Inspector General of the Biafran Police) excoriated Ojukwu at a meeting, making it clear to him that Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon was the head of state, whether by hook or crook, and that if Gowon ordered his arrest, he would carry it out. Mr. Okeke told Ojukwu to look for another strategy instead of secession to fight Gowon.
Ojukwu called the second meeting of the “Eastern Leaders of Thought,” an assemblage of the political, traditional, business, and administrative leaders of the Eastern Region, in early 1967, and his intention was to inform the people he was ready to declare secession. But what he met once he started to speak was thunderous opposition. Pandemonium broke out, and prolonged shouts of “No! No!” rent the air. Ojukwu was shocked speechless, and he stood there flustered. My father jumped from his seat and went to the high table where Ojukwu was and seized the gavel. My father: “I started banging on the table and banging on the table. Eventually people there took notice, stopped shouting, and gradually began to laugh at me. I’m sure people there were thinking I was mad. Then I told them ‘please let us hear this young man out.’ [My dad was three years older than Ojukwu.] Then Ojukwu continued speaking.”
According to my father, in the end, a compromise was reached. The mandate the assembly gave to Ojukwu was that he could declare secession under appropriate circumstances and at the appropriate time. A few days later back in Owerri a member of that meeting, an Owerri luminary Mr. T.C.K. Osuji and my dad ran into each other. Mr. Osuji was furious with my father, asking, “What were you doing at Enugu? Do you people want us all to get killed?” Years later after the war, recounting this story to me, my father added, “This tells you that Aro people are so smart.” The renowned Osuji family in Owerri are known as Owerri Aro [that is, originating from Arochukwu/Arondizuogu].
It was the young people, principally undergraduates at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, outraged by the massacres of Igbo military officers and an estimated 30,000 innocent Igbo and other Eastern civilians, who gave then Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu support to declare secession. Young neophytes, tyros who had no notion of what all-out war entails.
To make matters even worse, Ojukwu now engaged the Federal forces in a conventional infantry war. Presumably, it was the only way of fighting that he knew and had been taught in military school.
Very bitter when we lost the war in 1970, my dad, who fought in the bush as a BOFF guerilla commander, lamented of Ojukwu: “He is a historian, people don’t get into this type of revolution and lose. He should have had a sure-fire plan that we win.”
The Igbos and the folly of war (2)
One cannot be arraigned for declaring a war, which every ruler has to do once in a while, but only for running a war badly. — Bertolt Brecht
What Ojukwu did to senior Igbo military officers to make them irrelevant in authority he also did to the most senior Igbo politicians. In May, 1966, military governor Lt. Col. Ojukwu arrested and detained the very popular and revered ex-Premier of the Eastern Region, Dr. Michael I. Okpara, and ex-Secretary to the Government of Eastern Nigeria, Mr. Jerome Udoji, accusing their government of embezzling £93,000 (probably over $6 million in today’s money).
He also turned on the ex-President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Col. Ojukwu’s father, Sir Louis-Phillipe (LP) Odumegwu Ojukwu, was at this time Chairman of the African Continental Bank, which Dr. Azikiwe had founded for Eastern Nigeria in 1937, but had later been nationalized by the Okpara government. The bank called for Zik to immediately repay the £162,385 Dr. Azikiwe and his businesses owed the bank. Dr. Azikiwe was mortified by the attacks and wrote a letter of complaint to Sir L.P. Ojukwu.
Dr. Azikiwe and Sir Louis were long time friends; who had on previous occasions helped out each other, Dr. Azikiwe being obviously in the stronger position with his tremendous influence, in turn as Regional Premier, then Governor-General of Nigeria, and in the preceding three years, President of Nigeria, albeit a ceremonial position.
In the same month of May 1966, Col. Ojukwu went further to sack Dr. Azikiwe from the position of Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, a university Dr. Azikiwe had founded for Eastern Nigeria. Col. Ojukwu replaced Dr. Azikiwe with the Emir of Kano, Alhajj Ado Bayero. Imagine the affront Zik and his multitude of followers must have felt. In 1972, General Gowon appointed Dr. Azikiwe Chancellor of the University of Lagos.
As you will read later in this essay, Zik and other top political leaders among the Igbos and their Eastern allies soon overcame their misgivings about Ojukwu and helped the fledgling country, Biafra. This came about because Dr. Azikiwe and Dr. Okpara both swallowed their anger when at the end of July, some two months following Ojukwu’s attacks on them in May 1966, Northern soldiers wiped out insane numbers of Igbo officers, followed by savage massacres of innocent Igbo civilians residing in the North. Six weeks later, on September 12, 1966, Col. Ojukwu’s father Sir Louis died. A little less than a year later, war broke out, and Dr. Azikiwe and Dr. Okpara came out to support Biafra. Zik had been in “protective custody” (a nice way of describing house arrest) in Nekede, a few miles from Owerri. With his Decree No. 5, Col. Ojukwu had the power of life and death over anyone who opposed him, or even who disagreed with him.
Dr. Azikiwe strenuously lobbied African presidents to recognize Biafra and against massive opposition from these leaders still succeeded with four (out of about forty) of them: Ivory Coast, Gabon, Tanzania and Zambia. He (represented by his son Chukwuma) and Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani also obtained recognition from Haiti, whose leader François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and Dr. Ikejiani had briefly been schoolmates at the University of Michigan, in the USA. Those countries helped in various ways to keep Biafra alive for a long time. Who would forget the role played by Zik to get Biafra recognition from Ivory Coast which made it possible to get albeit inadequate French military assistance. Dr. Okpara also campaigned vigorously abroad, but most crucially he handed to Ojukwu the British pounds Sterling bank accounts in London held by the Eastern Nigerian [Commodities] Marketing Board.
In retrospect, Ojukwu may have felt an inferiority complex over his father’s intellectual deficiency relative to both Dr. Azikiwe and Dr. Okpara. From humble beginnings like most of his peers, Sir Louis Ojukwu became a super-rich businessman. Unquestionably Nigeria’s wealthiest man of the era, he had huge holdings in real estate, was the first president of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, and sat on the boards of key Nigerian companies. He was a big trader in cement and textiles, and of course owned the largest transport company in West Africa, which was a prime mover of raw materials for the British during World War II. However, Sir Louis had had only one year of secondary school and his diction was below par.
Unfortunately and indeed sad to say, Ojukwu thought himself a know-it-all. He was completely satisfied with the advice of the members of his inner circle, notably his fellow Nnewi indigene Barr. C. C. Mojekwu, his Paris-based brother-in-law, Mr. Chris Onyekwelu, and Mr. Francis Nwokedi. He thought most other Igbo leaders were a nuisance and for the most part he treated them shabbily.
But make no mistake, Ojukwu was an extraordinary man. Only few people can have the courage and audacity to embark upon and lead an endeavor of such magnitude, of starting a new country from scratch, and facing mountainous odds. He was also not unmindful of the challenges that lay ahead. As far back as October 1966, seven months before the declaration of secession, he had begun to make plans to acquire weapons to prosecute a full-blown war. Into 1967, he was aware that Biafra’s Achilles heel was the Atlantic coastline, and that it was imperative to neutralize Nigeria’s ability to command the waters and the ports. He also was aware of the need to gain the support of a military power which could provide weapons. Unfortunately in each respect, Ojukwu fell short.
It all seems clear that Col. Ojukwu couldn’t have been thinking broadly enough when he began plotting the formation of Biafra. Not strategically enough, that is. Indeed, a careful analysis would show that he was far better as an administrator, a manager of scarce resources, than he was a visionary leader who thought far and wide, and thereafter acted strategically. Without a doubt, and rightfully so, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was enraged by the genocide committed by Northerners who had slaughtered 30,000 Igbos and other Easterners, including people, Igbo refugees, he had told to return to their abodes in the North with assurances that their lives were safe. Indeed the gory, reprehensible extermination of their brothers and sisters required superhuman restraint on the part of the Igbos. Virtually no Igbo family was unaffected by the gratuitous blood-letting.
The number one problem, it turned out, was that Ojukwu declared secession too early, much earlier than he had planned, a decision precipitated by Gowon’s sudden creation of 12 states out of the four existing regions. Ojukwu had not completed his preparations when Gowon launched the attack at Gakem in Ogoja Province on July 6, 1967, to begin the war. This was a few days before Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu was to fly down by helicopter from Enugu to my father’s school, Owerri Grammar School, Imerienwe, to participate in a requiem high mass led by the school chaplain Rev. Father Murphy, for the late Major Christian Anuforo, who was a key participant in the January 1966 coup. My father had taught the two officers while a junior teacher at St. John’s College, Kaduna.
About a couple of months before the outbreak of hostilities, Ojukwu had sent his envoy Mr. M. C. K. Ajuluchukwu to the Soviet Union. The latter met in Moscow in June 1967 with the Soviet ambassador to Nigeria, Aleksandr Romanov, and asked for recognition and military support for the month-old Biafra. The Soviets told him they would come in if the Biafran government nationalized the oil industry and gave them some major oil assets. Ojukwu declined, stating that his government did not have the funds to compensate the international oil companies Shell, British Petroleum, Gulf, Safrap/Elf, Agip, along with Mobil, Amoseas and Phillips. He added that the Biafrans did not have the skills to operate the oil fields. It was, however, rumored that Ojukwu told those near him that his people had just come out of the colonialism of Britain and did not want to become a colony of another power.
A month later, when Nigeria could not buy weapons either from Britain or France or the USA, it turned to Russia, reportedly on the advice of Obafemi Awolowo. Gowon sent his Minister of Information, Mr. Anthony Enahoro, who went and got a deal with the Soviet Union, after signing a “cultural agreement.” Enahoro promised that Nigeria would nationalize the oil industry but that they first needed urgent military equipment and supplies to use to fight and recover the oil fields from Ojukwu’s control. The Russians did not waste time, and quickly supplied war planes and of course artillery and AK-47 assault rifles to the Gowon regime. But Gowon and Awolowo did not nationalize the oil industry, as Britain changed its mind and also began sending military aid, albeit always half-heartedly and secretly because of strong domestic opposition.
Ojukwu bought three World War II-era B-26 war planes from France through third parties but as far as I can tell only two actually saw action—in the Nsukka sector, and against airports and targets in Lagos, Kano and Kaduna. But the plan to sink Nigeria’s Calabar-based lone troop carrier, the NNS Lokoja, and the Dutch-built frigate, NNS Nigeria, acquired in 1965 and based in Lagos, did not succeed. One of the Biafran B-26 planes which had tried unsuccessfully to bomb the Nigerian warships was destroyed on the ground by a Nigerian Soviet-supplied MIG, leaving the fledgling nation vulnerable to a sea blockade.
Ojukwu fought the fight that Nigerians preferred that Biafrans fight. An infantry war. A war where Biafrans would be seriously undermanned and severely under-armed. Our new country lasted three years not because of Ojukwu but in many ways in spite of Ojukwu. That Biafra lasted as long as it did was largely due to the resilience, resourcefulness and indomitable spirit of the Igbo people and those of some of their neighbors who supported them. And to their unflagging and in my opinion misplaced belief in Ojukwu, partly fed by Biafran propaganda and falsehoods.
During world championship boxing fights you often hear a coach telling his fighter, pleading, “You’re fighting his [opponent’s] fight. Don’t fight his fight.” If the other fighter is a puncher, a better puncher than you are, you don’t go stand in front of him and exchange punches. You may instead concentrate on dodging his blows and doing counterpunching. Or if you are ambidextrous, you may switch to boxing as a southpaw (a left-hander) to entirely confuse him, as he would be completely unprepared.
You can draw an analogy from the Biblical duel between David and Goliath. The Hebrew soldiers were afraid to take on the Philistine giant Goliath in a one-on-one matchup; as it is said, mano a mano. Let me digress here for a little bit. In ancient times, a thousand years ago and before, soldiers wore armored coats to fight in battle, along with their swords, lances, javelins, and shields. They also wore helmets, some of which had visors, that protected much of the face. When an officer came around, a junior soldier would use his right hand to push the metal visor up so that the officer could see his face. That is said to be the origin of the right-handed salute given by soldiers to this very day.
David was not intimidated by Goliath’s weaponry and gigantic size, like King Saul and Israel’s best soldiers were. With God inspiring him, David did the completely unexpected, didn’t fight Goliath’s fight. And won!
So, when Goliath came forward from his side for battle, he was astonished to see an unarmed teenager wearing ordinary clothes coming forward from the Hebrew side. Goliath could not believe what he was seeing, and raised the visor attached to his helmet, to see better and confirm this was real. David didn’t waste time and used his sling to fling the rock with deadly force. The rock hit Goliath on the forehead, knocking him unconscious, making it easy for David to finish him off—cutting off his head, using Goliath’s own weapon.
Now refer back to the Nigerian-Biafran War. Ojukwu decided to fight Nigeria’s fight. Regular infantry war, whereupon he placed the Biafrans in an untenable disadvantage. In the first battles around Obudu, Biafran soldiers were spectacular and routed Nigerian soldiers. It was four Biafran soldiers killed with over 100 Nigerian soldiers dead. But such outcomes did not last long. And the tide soon changed. And the Nigerian Army’s onslaught was on.
It was much later that Ojukwu incorporated guerrilla warfare, with the formation of the Biafran Organization of Freedom Fighters (BOFF). My dad, Basil Nnanna Ukegbu, received full officer training, and became the Tactical Commander of BOFF “A,” — Aba and Owerri sectors. One day in 1969, I saw this big sheet of paper on my dad’s command desk. It had field reports by BOFF in all the sectors. This comprehensive situation report (SITREP) had been sent to my dad from BOFF Commander Brigadier Ebenezer Aghanya. There was one report I particularly noted. It was a Biafran Military Intelligence intercept of a message from the Nigerian 3 Marine Commando Division Headquarters in Port Harcourt sent to Army Headquarters in Lagos. The words were ingrained in my mind.
“The problem is not rebel soldiers. Our problem is the rebel bandits. Their hit-and-run operations in and around Port Harcourt are causing a loss of morale among our troops.”
Well, Ojukwu’s military command gave only minor attention to the BOFF. People in the position that Biafra found itself, if they wanted to succeed, resorted almost fully to guerrilla warfare. That’s a significant aspect of civil wars in the 20th Century.
The separatist Tamil Tigers fought the government of Sri Lank from 1976 until their defeat in 2009. The civil war in Colombia has lasted over 50 years because the rebel groups FARC and others have used guerrilla warfare to fight the Colombian Army. Fidel Castro used guerrilla warfare to defeat Fulgencio Batista’s Government forces and seize power in Havana, Cuba. Col. John Garang of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), fought the Sudan government for decades. The South Sudanese finally got their brand new country. Dr. Jonas Savimbi of UNITA first fought a guerrilla war against the Portuguese colonial Army, then from 1974 fought a guerrilla war with the Angolan government that lasted almost 30 years, continuing even after the American Government abandoned him.
In Southern Rhodesia [formerly Zimbabwe] rebel leaders Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe did not fight an infantry war against the Army of Prime Minister Ian Smith. Nkomo got trained and equipped by the Soviet Union and fought a guerrilla war. So did Mugabe who got trained and equipped by China. Guess who won the revolutionary war? It was definitely not Ian Smith, his army and his Selous Scouts, who thereafter disappeared from history.
I hate to say this, but it appears my fellow Igbos haven’t learned the lessons of their history. There’s not only one way to skin a cat. Indeed the adage says that there are many ways to skin a cat.
The Situation with Antebellum Regional Alliances in Nigeria
Whether it is well known or not by Nigerians, and Yorubas, in particular, the fact is that Obafemi Awolowo did not actually undergo the rigors of prison life while officially in jail at the Calabar Prison upon his conviction in 1963 for “treasonable felony.” His political ally in the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), Dr. M. I. Okpara, Premier of the Eastern Region, took great care of him. [The UPGA comprised the Zik/Okpara-led NCNC and Awolowo’s Action Group, along with Aminu Kano’s NEPU and Joseph Tarka’s UMBC). A house was kept for Awolowo outside the walls of the prison, staffed by a cook and other domestic help. Awo ate his meals there and slept there but stayed in the prison during the day. [There are two authorities for this statement: my father, who learned this from Dr. Okpara, and told me about it decades ago, and Mr. Mbazulike Amaechi, an NCNC party stalwart and federal minister at the time, who disclosed this to the press in August 2019. Like my dad did in early 1970, Mr. Amaechi had also paid a visit to Dr. Okpara in Dublin in the summer of 1978. [Furthermore those in the know in Nigeria have reason to believe that sometimes VIPs sent to jail in remote corners of Nigeria don’t stay in prison but pay people who take their place and serve their sentence, while they go into hiding.]
It is worth noting that when Awolowo flew to Enugu on Saturday May 6, 1967 with a National Conciliation Committee team from Lagos on a peace and reconciliation effort, Col. Ojukwu met with Awolowo and didn’t see any need to include Dr. Okpara in the meeting.
The meeting concluded on Sunday May 7, 1967. Ojukwu had with him Lt. Col. Imo, Lt. Col. Effiong, Lt. Col. Kurubo, Mr. C. C. Mojekwu, Prof. Eni Njoku, Dr. Pius Okigbo, Mr Okokon Ndem, Dr. Nwakanma Okoro, Mr. C. A. Onyegbule, Mr. N. U. Akpan, and Dr. Anezi Okoro. The people with Awolowo included Prof. Samuel Aluko, the renowned economist; Mr. Jereton Mariere, former Member of Parliament, the Urhobo governor of the Midwestern Region and the Chancellor of the University of Lagos; as well as the former Western Region Commissioner of Police Mr. Emmanuel Olufunwa, and Mr. J. I. G. Onyia.
You can see here that Ojukwu did not bring along any notable Igbo politician. Yet, Awolowo, the man that came from Lagos as head of this peace and reconciliation team authorized by Gowon, was a master politician, a man that Dr. Okpara had dealt with for years, and with whose party he had been in a political alliance. Ojukwu chose not to see that Okpara could negotiate better with Awolowo. He disregarded the possibility that Okpara could more effectively deal with Awolowo and bring the latter to a better understanding of the Eastern position. With Okpara’s presence they could have maybe reached some beneficial compromises that could have protected and advanced Igbo interests and averted the war. In any case Ojukwu told the visitors to their face that he was ready for war and boasted that he had a better army than Nigeria’s.
Igbos and the folly of Biafra (3)
In the days following the May 1967 meeting in Enugu, after it became clear that Ojukwu was bent on secession, Awolowo accepted Gowon’s appointments as Vice Chairman of the Executive Council, Commissioner for Finance, and de facto Prime Minister, which had been Awolowo’s lifelong ambition. What did Ojukwu have to offer? Moreover one should not ignore the fact that although very protective of his Yoruba people Awolowo was a Nigerian nationalist at heart, perhaps not as much as Zik, but no less than say, Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, or even Major Chukwuemeka Kaduna Nzeogwu. In sum, Ojukwu compounded his early failings by excluding Okpara and other bigshot politicians from the meeting with Awolowo, preferring instead to use a team of people lacking any background in national politics.
I make bold to assert that most Yorubas (Action Group supporters), who had been allied with the Igbo-led NCNC in the UPGA alliance, could have sided with the East against the North, if the political chess game had been played differently by Ojukwu.
But even well before this juncture, Ojukwu needed to have brought more experienced people around him, like Gowon was doing. He was right there watching as Gowon gathered very experienced people from all over Nigeria around him, including Easterners, no less. Gowon would then make one tactical move after another, and all Ojukwu could do was react.
Ojukwu had signed a warrant for the release of Obafemi Awolowo from the prison in Calabar soon after he became the military governor of the Eastern Region, but for months did not act on it. Then Gowon issued an order for the release of Awolowo, even though he was not in any position to carry it out since Ojukwu was in total control of the East. But Ojukwu was then obliged to release Awolowo since he didn’t want to be seen to be keeping the Yoruba hero in jail. However Awolowo was grateful to both men.
Gowon would meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury and assure Britain’s top clergyman he is a Christian, not a Muslim, and would protect all Christians, including Igbos. He would suddenly create twelve states, basically diminishing Ojukwu’s position, as Ojukwu became the military governor of the East Central State, just one of the three new states that comprised the former Eastern Region. Gowon would suddenly change the Nigerian currency in February 1968, with just a two-week notice, basically wiping out Biafra’s cash holdings. A slapdash collection of largely untrained Nigerian troops, with the grand name of 3rd Marine Commandos, led by Lt. Col. Benjamin Adekunle, would depart to the Biafran coast aboard the Nigerian troop ship NNS Lokoja accompanied by the frigate, NNS Nigeria. It took them a week to reach Bonny Island and seize the undefended Shell-BP oil terminal, guaranteeing that for the rest of the conflict Nigeria could ship Biafra’s crude oil abroad and collect all the revenues.
In his memoir, Col. Adekunle said he was stunned to find no Biafran soldier on Bonny Island when he and his troops arrived there. You might question whether Ojukwu ever considered that Biafra could be blockaded and what he would need to do to prevent that from happening. In truth Ojukwu feared a blockade could happen but was woefully unable to prevent it.
The Calamitous Midwest Invasion
The Yorubas and their foremost leader Obafemi Awolowo had declared they wanted Yorubaland kept out of the fighting. Awolowo had earlier demanded once freed from prison that Gowon should send all Northern soldiers away from the West. Gowon ignored the demand, but it was for this reason that the Nigerian Army invaded Biafra from the Nsukka and Ogoja areas. Col. Njoku told my dad, his family friend, that if he had led the Midwest Invasion, he would not have wasted any time in Benin like Col. Victor Banjo did. He said he would have ordered the troops to head straight on to Ijebu Ode overnight and be on their way to Lagos by early morning. He said he would have expected the first battles to take place in Lagos.
As it was, an officer from my local government area in Imo State, Ngor-Okpala, Major Festus Akagha, after an unnecessary wait in Benin defied the traitorous Banjo and pushed forward towards Ore with troops of the Biafran 12th Battalion. Col. Mike Ivenso and his 13th Battalion overran Auchi and Agenebode and went on to capture Okene with the intention of cutting off the Nigerian soldiers that were at Nsukka and heading to Enugu. The 18th Battalion commanded by Major Humphrey Chukwuka had swung south seizing Sapele, Ughelli and Warri.
Contrary to the expectations in Enugu, Col. Banjo had another agenda entirely, one quite different from the one approved by Ojukwu. Instead of pressing forward with the offensive, he was instead secretly working on a conspiracy with Yoruba officers in Ibadan and Lagos to get rid of Gowon; this, after deceiving Gowon they were on his side. Meanwhile Banjo was collecting money and supplies from Benin City and also collecting from Enugu. But very treacherously he was not sending the supplies to the warfronts. While doing his shenanigans to discombobulate Ojukwu and delay the operation, Banjo ordered his battalions at Ore, Okene and Warri to stand still and not advance any further.
The delay by Banjo gave time for Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed and Major Ibrahim Taiwo to cobble up the new 10th and 11th Battalions of the Nigerian Army and race forward to challenge Major Akagha and his men at Ore. The first confrontations were disastrous for the Nigerian Army as the Biafran soldiers almost wiped them out in a series of ambushes. But then the Biafrans ran out of ammunition, as Col. Banjo had denied them any reinforcements or re-supplies. So, the Biafran soldiers scattered, and it was an open road from Ore to Benin for Murtala Mohammed and the Nigerian Army. Major Akagha, visiting my dad not long after, said he trekked in the bush for two weeks to get from Ore back to Asaba and Biafra.
This recurring question about strategy. U.S. soldiers are trained to trek scores of miles carrying their gear that can weigh more than 50 pounds per man. Those of us who were of age in May 1982 during the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina read about Lt. Col. Herbert Jones, and how the Royal Marines and the Paras did a 90-km (50-mile) three-day trek across the Falklands, carrying their kit that each weighed 36 kg (80 pounds). Could select Biafran troops have avoided Yorubaland entirely, trekked in the bush by the Atlantic coastline, before the outbreak of hostilities in July 1967, making their way from Port Harcourt to Warri to Ondo to Epe, divide up so that one group headed to Victoria Island and Lagos Island, and one group headed to Ikorodu and on to Ikeja?
If General Ojukwu had been committed to strategic planning, the Biafrans had the chance to cripple the Nigerian Navy and forestall any sea blockade. In his memoir Col. Benjamin Adekunle recounted how Igbo naval officers took away critical parts from the engines of the Nigerian warships as they were departing to the East. Igbo sailors and engineers were the people operating those ships. But new parts could be bought, and mercenaries could and were hired to operate the warships for Nigeria. But imagine if those Igbo engineers and sailors had placed time-delayed explosives in the engine rooms of those Nigerian naval vessels and sunk them. The Nigerian Navy would have been destroyed even before war broke out. It is not easy to get new ships, they take time to construct, unless a country gifts you one, which would have been unlikely at the time. But there would have been no blockade of Biafra, and the ports in Port Harcourt and Calabar would have been open to receive imports.
It wasn’t as if the Biafran leadership was entirely bereft of thinking about such subterfuge and sabotage. Igbo operatives did detonate bombs on Moloney Street, in Ikoyi, targeting the Police Headquarters, for example. Another group hijacked a Nigeria Airways Fokker 27 passenger plane during a flight that originated from Benin and was bound for Lagos, and successfully diverted it to Enugu. The four hijackers were airline Capt. Ibikare Allwell-Brown, along with Onuora Nwanya, Sam Inyagha, and Mark Odu.
Ojukwu thought he knew it all; that he had everything covered. Wrong. He believed he didn’t need all the bright Igbo, Efik, Ibibio, Anang, Ijaw, even Yoruba and Midwestern, political, military, administrative talent, available to him. He believed his boast: “No power in Black Africa can subdue us.” And: “…they [Nigerians] will be surprised by what they are going to get.” After a few days of initial successes in the Obudu battlefield it turned out this was mere bombast. Well, one can say that Ojukwu held on to his dream till the bitter end in the first week of January 1970. One can also say that the dream had long become a nightmare.
I take this opportunity to commemorate Col. Timothy Onwuatuegwu, whose end came during the fog of Biafra’s collapse. He was my dad’s war colleague; and I pray God forgives him for some of his actions during the January 1966 coup. He was a valiant Biafran officer, and commanded the “S” Division in the Owerri-Port Harcourt Axis. Ojukwu failed to take him out of the country as Biafra collapsed in 1970, well-knowing the role Tim Onwuatuegwu had played in the January 1966 coup. My parents said the colonel was killed at the border as he was attempting to escape into Cameroon. Biafra’s Army commander Gen. Alexander Madiebo said he believed that Ojukwu did not like Onwuatuegwu. I dare to add, much as he didn’t like or trust Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu either.
I also commemorate Lt. Col. Henry Igboba, native of Ibouzo (Ibusa), in today’s Delta State, my dad’s beloved schoolmate at St. Patrick’s College, Calabar, who was killed in Benin by Nigerian soldiers while under house arrest because he refused to join Col. Victor Banjo to betray Biafra.
In the same vein, I commemorate those courageous Biafran army officers and soldiers who at the end shot themselves, committed suicide, rather than bear the defeat of Biafra. Similarly I commemorate the thousands of young Biafran men and boys who lost their lives or were maimed fighting in the war. Some may say they wasted their lives and limbs in a needless and winless war, that’s not how I see it. They fought for a just cause, and their service and sacrifices will never be in vain, will never be forgotten. I add here that I also applaud the actions of those few Yoruba officers who during the war did what they could to save the lives of innocent Biafran civilians, unlike officers from other tribes, including Christian officers from the Middle Belt and from today’s Akwa Ibom State, and non-Igbo officers from today’s Edo and Delta states..
I also commemorate Prof. Kalu Ezera, one of my father’s best friends, former Member of Parliament, a professor of Political Science at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, who was a top-ranking Biafran diplomat. Native of Ohafia in today’s Abia State, he too was killed in the fog following the collapse of Biafra, shot at a checkpoint by a Nigerian Army captain from Kabba in Kogi State, as he was traveling back to Nsukka to resume duties. Gowon did order a court martial and that officer was executed.
The Struggle for Peace (Almost Zero Support for Biafra in Africa)
After telegraphing it for months, Ojukwu finally declared secession on May 30, 1967, without fully considering the likely fallout of such a momentous move. Virtually all of Africa came against him and our people. Most African countries are a patchwork of tribes, and as much as most of those African presidents deplored the atrocities committed against innocent Igbos by the Hausa, Fulani, Kanuri and other northerners in Nigeria, they hated even more, the idea of some tribes in their own countries breaking away because of one grouse or another.
The European ex-colonial powers for their part did not like the idea of their former colonies breaking up into smaller units. Britain did not like the North seceding and neither did they like the East seceding.
The French did not go the whole hog in arming Biafra because they were afraid that the British could retaliate by instigating insurrections and secessionist tendencies in some of their own French ex-colonies. There was a large Yoruba minority in Dahomey (today’s Republic of Benin) who might like secession. There were also thousands of English-speaking people in Western Cameroon who would like the idea of secession. Not to forget the situation in Chad where the President, François Tombalbaye, a Christian southerner, was running a brazenly repressive government and was facing strident calls for secession by Muslims in the North and Central regions. In nearby Niger there was a large population of Hausas in the South, making up to 50 percent of the entire population of the country, and who might like the idea of secession. Besides, France’s oil-rich North African former colonies supported Nigerian unity.
About 2006 or 2007, I bought a book at the bookstore of the Presidential Hotel in Port Harcourt. It was Gen. Philip Effiong’s memoir titled: “My Biafra Odyssey.” One point he made in his book was that maybe things would have turned out differently if we had not said we were fighting for secession. He added that when Gowon created the three states out of the Eastern Region, Ojukwu could have responded by creating three states and given them his own military governors, while remaining at the top.
The whole idea intrigued me at the time and I took it further in my mind. There was nothing stopping Ojukwu from pushing his then well-known position that he did not recognize Gowon’s takeover after the July 29, 1966 Northern soldiers’ revenge-coup massacre. He could have doubled down on his insistence that the military hierarchy status quo ante be maintained despite the successful coup by soldiers from the North. He could have instead declared that he would fight to restore order to the institution of the Nigerian Army and to quickly restore civilian rule. These were the same sentiments he had loudly expressed right after the counter-coup of July 29, 1966, when Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe found himself unable to take up Ojukwu’s appeal to take over the armed forces, with Supreme Commander Gen. J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi abducted in Ibadan and presumed dead.
The battle lines would then have been drawn, pitting his side of Nigerians versus Gowon and Gowon’s side of Nigerians. Most of Africa would have been sympathetic to Ojukwu’s side after all those massacres. Zik’s lobbying of his network of friends across the leaderships of North, East and West Africa would have been vastly more successful in providing support. Those leaders at the time would not have sided with Gowon and the savages, especially the Christian presidents among them.
Most countries of the West—U.S., U.K., Germany, Italy, France, indeed all of NATO, with the exception perhaps of Turkey, would have sided with the eloquent Oxford graduate. The much-vaunted highly effective Biafran propaganda machine [run by Geneva-based PR firm Marcpress] could have instead been used to help Ojukwu’s side in the tussle with Gowon’s side. At worst for any of these countries they would have remained neutral.
Igbos and the folly of Biafra (4)
Fruitless Peace Negotiations. The End of Biafra. Today — Which Way Forward?
On September 7, 1968, as renowned Biafran diplomat Raph Uwechue recounts, some anxious senior Igbos held a meeting in the Algerian capital Algiers where an OAU summit which would tackle the imbroglio of the Nigerian civil war was to be held in a few days. The group included Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Michael Okpara and Dr. Kenneth Dike, the erstwhile Rector of the University College, Ibadan and, with them, the considerably younger Mr. Uwechue. They sent a message to Ojukwu back in Biafra “that since Africa was sympathetic to the Ibo cause, but at the same time opposed to secession, he should use the opportunity of the Algiers meeting to seek OAU guarantees for a confederal arrangement such as was agreed in Aburi [Ghana].”
Mr. Uwechue added that “Gen. Ojukwu not only rejected the advice outright but asked some of us to recant or resign. Dr. Azikiwe left for Paris in disgust and went to London in voluntary exile.” The bilingual Mr. Uwechue, the latter-day Ohaneze ndi Igbo President-General, native of Ogwashi-Ukwu in today’s Delta State, resigned his post that December as the head of the Biafran diplomatic mission in France. Shortly thereafter he wrote that when they began Biafra, it was all about saving Igbo and Eastern lives. Now, Ojukwu was giving absolute priority to saving the country Biafra and his leadership, not saving the lives of Biafrans and ending the immense suffering and misery.
Right from the beginning, almost all the African nations were dead set against the Biafran secession from Nigeria, and the OAU Charter specifically stated that unity in each member state should be upheld. So, 40 out of the 44 (or 33 out of the 37, depending on the counting) African nations sided with the Nigerian federal government headed by General Gowon. Support for this position was clearly expressed by the East African Standard newspaper of September 3, 1968:
“Recognizing Ibo concern, nonetheless it should be reiterated that Biafra took the initiative in secession, though the OAU specifically supports unity. Even if any hope of success existed in the beginning, none is left, and for Col. Ojukwu to continue resistance when the ring is closing is reminiscent of Hitler in his Berlin bunker. Sacrifice of life and the prolongation of suffering are reasons more potent than any OAU resolution per se for accusing him of useless and callous disregard for his people. Biafra has lost the war and the terms for a cease-fire should have been accepted months ago. Every day has added death and suffering – needlessly sacrificed to personal obstinacy in the face of OAU condemnation.”
Well, the Kenyan newspaper was a little hasty in counting Biafra out. The valiant Biafrans still had some fight left in them, and in the New Year reversed some of their losses, even though the trend of the war still pointed to eventual defeat.
General Philip Effiong wrote in his memoir that every time they [the Biafrans] scored a major military victory, he thought that was the time to make peace with Gowon. But Ojukwu wouldn’t agree, even if it was clear to them they would lose in the end. But if they made peace then, Gen. Effiong argued, they could do it with dignity and get something reasonable in return. But Ojukwu wouldn’t have it that way. He was a dictator, said General Effiong in an interview published in the April 1970 edition of the old DRUM magazine. If one agrees with Effiong’s reasoning, the stunning recapture of Owerri by Biafran troops in April 1969 was the last chance.
A last-ditch peace settlement was attempted on April 17, 1969, when the OAU Consultative Mission on Nigeria held its last meeting in Monrovia, Liberia. Present were Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, President Ahmadu Ahidjo of Cameroon, Mr. I. K. W. Hartley of Ghana, and Mr. Diallo Telli, the Secretary-General of the OAU. At the end of three days, no progress was made towards a peace agreement. The Mission’s communiqué asked that “the two parties of the Civil War accept, in the supreme interest of Africa, a united Nigeria, which ensures all forms of security to all citizens.”
The 6th Assembly of Heads of State of the OAU which opened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on September 6, 1969 again took up the intractable Nigerian-Biafran civil war. It was the last OAU initiative on a settlement of the Nigerian conflict. The OAU presidents voted once more for the unity of Nigeria, the four African countries which had recognized Biafra—Ivory Coast, Gabon, Tanzania and Zambia—only abstained. The leaders passed a resolution that called on the two warring sides to agree to a ceasefire and hold negotiations that would maintain Nigeria’s unity.
After their Owerri debacle in late April 1969, the Nigerian 3rd Marine Commando Division was in flux. Morale was low, a high number of the officers and rank and file wanted their commander, Col. Benjamin Adekunle, removed. There was a high incidence of soldiers going AWOL, and some were inflicting wounds on themselves so as to get away from the frontlines. Gowon was frustrated, and the civilian Nigerian populace had become disenchanted with the seemingly never-ending war. Meanwhile Biafrans fighting from Aba and from the liberated Owerri had linked up at Igritta, a mere 15 miles to Port Harcourt. [My 27-year older cousin Christopher, three years earlier a student at the Federal School of Science, Onikan, Lagos, was a company commander right there at Igritta.]
Gowon himself was tired and wanted the war to end. He even declared at one point that he wanted peace without pre-conditions. All he wanted was for Ojukwu to announce the end of secession, so he Gowon could get something out of it. He said once the end of secession was announced, “everything will be negotiable.”
By the first week of December 1969, even though Biafran soldiers were better armed than they had ever been, they had lost the will to fight on. Simply, they were tired, and they could no longer continue fighting on empty stomachs. They simply folded. Suddenly. The rout began with the sudden total collapse of Brigadier Anthony Eze’s 12th Division in the Azumini sector.
With the new American president Mr. Richard Nixon warning British Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson at the beginning of summer 1969 that the genocide and suffering and war had to end or his government would recognize Biafra, Harold Wilson personally took control of the fighting from Gowon. He sent his own British Army officers to take over control of the floundering 3rd Marine Commando Division, identified as the Nigerian Army’s most capable fighting unit in the damning report written for him on the inept Nigerian Army by the British military attaché in Lagos, Col. Robert Scott.
The British military officers came to Port Harcourt in the summer of 1969 and took over the planning and execution of Nigeria’s final military offensive. A picture taken by the famous photojournalist of the Daily Times Peter Obe exists, where the two British officers are sitting on a table, working on a military map, while Lt. Col. Olu Obasanjo, with a rifle slung on his shoulder, along with another Nigerian Army officer, are standing behind them. Obasanjo has always taken credit for planning and executing that offensive code-named “Operation Tailwind,” and his claim has been corroborated by others such as the later general Alabi-Isama. But that is false; which should not be surprising. After all Obasanjo was from the engineering corps, he wasn’t an infantry officer, and as of then had absolutely no experience commanding large numbers of infantry troops in war.
Harold Wilson flooded the 3rd Marine Commandos with new weapons, Russia brought in new multiple warhead (multiple barrel) artillery batteries which when fired set off explosions that would last minutes, driving the fear of God into the ragtag but incredibly brave Biafran soldiers. The British Army officers’ plan was simple. With aerial and land reconnaissance, they pinpointed the exact locations of the Biafran troops around Igritta who were threatening Port Harcourt. They then carried out a flanking maneuver, a seven-mile cutoff of the Biafran troops. Went seven miles behind the Biafrans. The Biafran troops who escaped, came out as stragglers. Meanwhile, there were no longer any functional Biafran Army units capable of challenging the 3rd Marine Commandos as they began their offensive from November 1969. Very significantly, they changed their traditional tactics of “advance and hold territory” to “advance and keep moving.”
Dr. Azikiwe had abandoned the Biafran cause a year earlier and gone into exile in London. Well, within four months of that failed last peace meeting in Addis Ababa, Biafra had collapsed. Ojukwu fled with his family, along with a few other people, leaving the Igbos and other Biafrans to sort themselves out with the rampaging victorious Nigerian soldiers. Igbo females bore the brunt of the rampage. Nigerian soldiers fanned out in the villages and cities of the former Biafra and seized Igbo wives and their daughters and turned them into sex slaves.
Gen. Effiong was very aggrieved and alarmed and eventually went to warn Col. Obasanjo and advised him to send a message to Gowon to expect Igbos to resume fighting if Nigerian soldiers were not immediately withdrawn to the urban areas and the rapes stopped. It was not an idle threat. Thousands of Biafran soldiers had left the frontlines in the last weeks of fighting and gone home and hidden their rifles in their backyards. Indeed my father had recruited scores of regular Biafran Army officers along with BOFF guerilla commanders, right after the war ended, and there were enough ex-Biafran soldiers with weapons and ammunition for them to commence an effective guerrilla war.
Unbeknownst to his family members, my father, Nnanna Ukegbu, refused to give up the fight after the war officially ended. Within weeks, he disappeared from home. He told me years later that he traveled to Lagos, then to Badagry, and made his way into Benin Republic (then called Dahomey), obtained their passport with the help of his friends, and found his way to Europe. He visited a number of European cities, including London and Paris, to meet with European communist and socialist parties, aiming to obtain military assistance for a fresh guerrilla war. He also traveled to the Irish Republic to spend a few days with the man he took like a senior brother, Dr. Michael Okpara, who had been Premier of the old Eastern Region. Dr. Okpara was in Dublin doing a refresher program in medicine in the university, and they had to share the single bed in his tiny flat.
Dr. Okpara repeated to my dad what the European communists had told him and others. Dr. Okpara said: “The French told us a few months before the end of the war that they will provide no further help, that we should make peace with Gowon’s government.”
Similarly the communists had just declined to help my dad with materiél for further fighting. Those French leftists actually supported Biafra more than is generally known. Indeed it was the frequent strikes by the communists and socialists against the government of Gen. Charles de Gaulle over labor matters in France coupled with their strong support for Biafra that had pushed de Gaulle to give the little assistance he gave to the Biafran cause.
Which way to go, Igbos?
Igbo grievances are numerous. And various Nigerian governments since 1970 have willfully ignored these issues, and indeed let them fester, which is why today we have the emergence of such separatist groups as MASSOB and IPOB.
Let’s be very clear. MASSOB and IPOB are not terrorist organizations as the Nigerian government and its captive Judiciary have proclaimed. These are young men and women who bear no arms and who attack no one. They should be able to exercise their fundamental human rights and their rights under the extant Nigerian constitution to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom to organize peaceful assembly. No sane person can expect these Igbo youths to stay and keep quiet while their people are openly neglected, discriminated against, marginalized, oppressed and, to rub salt into injury, the Nigerian governments using their own [Igbo] wealth to perpetrate these injustices. IPOB is a legitimate political pressure group, which has garnered worldwide acknowledgment. That being said, the problem for Igbos is and has always been: what is the best way to go about righting the wrongs done to them?
Today, the Igbos find themselves at a crossroads again. Where do they go, in which direction? Restructuring? An Igbo President in 2023? Revival of Biafra?
Getting to the core, the question that needs to be answered is: Where do Igbos go now for counsel and leadership on these existential matters?
Right after the civil war in 1970 and all through the military dictatorships that followed, the North made sure that they sidelined and cast into the political and socio-economic wilderness all Igbo intellectuals, especially those who played roles during the war.
As Mr. Umaru Dikko, President Shehu Shagari’s Minister of Transport, taunted Mr. Moshood Abiola in 1983 when Abiola announced he was going to challenge President Shagari for their party’s nomination: “We made you. We can also make your driver a millionaire [a billionaire in today’s naira].
In the case of the Igbos, those Northern military dictators economically empowered literally Igbo drivers so they could lord it over their betters. This is the type of people who are now known as “useful idiots.” My father called them PIMPs — “Post-Independence Mercenary Politicians!”
Why don’t we for a change keep away from the rabble rousers and the demagogues? This time around why don’t we let some respected, credible, patriotic, tested, experienced Igbos be the ones that get together quietly, dispassionately, without noise, and without fanfare, chart a course for the Igbo people?
Have you heard of Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, Dr. Ezekiel Izuogu, Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife, Prof. Alphonsus B.C. Nwosu, Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu, Prof. Barth Nnaji, even the old warhorse Mbazulike Amaechi? Do you know that John Nwodo, Jr., has been in politics all his life? His father Hon. John Nwodo was a minister of the Eastern Region in Dr. Michael Okpara’s cabinet. Nwodo Jr. won the presidency of the Students Union at the University of Ibadan in 1974, an unheard of feat before then and after. That position in the early post-war era was a monopoly of Yorubas. And being a university student leader between 1970 and 1978 used to carry a lot of weight because student unions at the universities in Ibadan, Lagos, and Ife, aided by fearless lawyers, especially Mr. Kanmi Ishola Osobu, mounted the only effective opposition to the military dictators of the time.
This was years before John Nwodo, Jr. became a federal minister in the Shagari government. So, add to the list Ohaneze President-General John Nnia Nwodo. These older men could bring in to join them younger men and women of proven ability and Igbo patriotism.
♦ Hector-Roosevelt Udunna Ukegbu, is a graduate of the University of Lagos, where he was a student leader; he also graduated from the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York; St. Gregory’s College, Ikoyi, Lagos, and the Owerri Grammar School, Imerienwe.
Editors’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of The Easterner. The Easterner is also not responsible or liable for any inaccuracy therein.