Biafra war: I did the coup, fought the war; I still want Biafra – Col. Nwobosi
Col Emma Nworah Nwobosi, 82, participated in the January 15, 1966 coup d’état, the first such in Nigeria. He led soldiers in different battle in defence of the young Republic of Biafra. In this interview with MOKWUGWO SOLOMON (published in our June 21 edition), Nwobosi, who held the prestigious title of Ogene Obosi kingdom in Idemili North local government area of Anambra state, spoke on the coup, the war and the state of the country, Nigeria.
Could you recall where you were when the civil war broke out?
I was in Enugu, the capital of the then Eastern Nigeria, when the rumbles and disagreement between the then military governor of Eastern Nigeria, Lt. Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, and the then Nigerian military government started. Before then, there was a coup followed by a counter coup in Nigeria. I happened to be one of the executors of the coup.
What was the reason for the 1966 coup?
It happened because, things were going haywire in Nigeria. So, we, the young officers in the army, were not happy that things were not going well. The then civilian government in Nigeria, led by Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, as prime minister, was not in control of the affairs of the country; because he had a bigger boss called Sir Ahmadu Bello, then Premier of Northern Nigeria. About 95% of problems of Nigeria, at that time, did not emanate from the prime minister, the executive head of government. It was, rather, from the regional premier who had all the powers and these powers were not constitutional. He arrogated them to himself just because he was the leader of the Northern People’s Congress, NPC, to which Balewa belonged. We were the middle cadre in the military then, saw the unpleasant way things were going in the country and couldn’t stomach them anymore.
Among those of us who were not happy was Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. He got that name Kaduna because, he was born in Kaduna. Nzeogwu took over from a British, who was in charge of the country’s intelligence unit in Lagos, the then capital of Nigeria. Nzeogwu uncovered a number of things that were going wrong in Nigeria and, as a military man, he had to report to his boss, the prime minister. Unfortunately, the prime minister was not in charge. He was a “Yes Sir” man. Later, Nzeogwu was transferred from Military Intelligence to Kaduna; where he became the Commandant of the Nigerian Military College.
I got to know Nzeogwu during our days at St. John’s College, Kaduna. He was my senior. Some of us, including Nzeogwu, in our spare time talked about the unfolding events in Nigeria. Everybody started getting dissatisfied. That was when we started thinking of changing the government. Some of us in the North were talking about the coup, others did same in Ibadan, Lagos and Enugu where we had military outfits then. That was how the thought of the first military coup was conceived.
Some Nigerians tagged it an Igbo coup. How true is that?
Different ethnic groups joined in the first military coup. There were Igbo people, there were Hausa, Yoruba, Efik, among others.
What was your initial reaction when the war broke out?
I was trained for war; but the war I was anticipating was a war between Nigeria and any other sovereign nation; not a region which was part of Nigeria. I did not feel comfortable that the war broke out because it was a battle which had to do with human life. I also saw it as something that had to be done.
How did you find yourself at the battlefield?
I was called upon by our head of state, Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu, to command an artillery unit. Though the most senior officer then that should have done that was Alexander Madiebo, he was my boss at the Nigerian army. However, in Biafra, he was assigned to a brigade. So, I was given the mandate to set up the artillery unit. So, I moved to Okigwe, where I assembled old artillery officers for training. We were issued combat weapons which, unfortunately, were disappointing, not the kind of weapon expected for the war. Ojukwu encouraged us to move on with what we had. We later moved from Okigwe to Hilltop. There was a secondary school there. Already, Major Tim Onwuatuegwu was situated there with his own men. So, we shared that college premises and dormitory. Later on, I was directed to move my men to the Nsukka front, beyond the university campus. As of then, the war had broken out fully.
Could you recall the deadliest battle you fought?
The deadliest battle I fought was in Obolo-Afo in Enugu state. We had a lot of casualties. It was in that battle that I sustained a life-threatening injury. I never thought I would survive the wound. Shell bomb struck me, broke my ribs and my spinal cord. When it hit me, I had a black-out. I thought I was gone. Biafra soldiers carried me shoulder high to our brigade headquarters in Ukehe, Enugu state and, later to Enugu township where I received emergency treatment in our hospital. My partner, a young soldier, who used to sit around me and run errands for me, was killed by the shell. It was when I became conscious in the hospital that I was told that the shelling that hit me also shattered him.
Besides the young officer killed by the shelling, who were some other comrades you lost during the war?
They were many but I will mention only one or two. One was Major Tim Onwuatuegwu. By the time Timothy died, the war had ended and the story was that he was walking to get out of Biafra into the Cameroon. So, in Abakaliki, a Nigerian soldier recognised him and he was arrested and taken to Enugu. They were planning to take him to Lagos before he died. Nobody knew the circumstances that led to his death. He might have been killed by the Nigerian soldiers; he might, as well, have killed himself.
Another prominent soldier was Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. Nzeogwu was with me at the Nsukka front. Those days, he did a lot of successful exploits. He would go into Nsukka with a number of soldiers, armed with guns and hand grenades. There was a popular hotel where Nigerian soldiers and their women enjoyed themselves in the night hours. Nzeogwu and his soldiers would sneak into that vicinity at night, attack them and inflict heavy casualties on them. They were doing this successfully repeatedly. It happened that during one of such expeditions, Nzeogwu took with him one Thomas Digger (who was Ojukwu’s half-brother) and a number of other soldiers. When they finished their regular attack, and were going back to their base, some Nigeria soldiers laid ambush and shot them. It was when they checked on the soldiers they shot that they discovered that Nzeogwu was among them. They mourned him, took his body to Kaduna where they gave him state burial because, he was not only a prominent person in the Nigerian army but a very likeable soldier. The heroic burial they gave him might be a propaganda because when we were busy denying that Nzeogwu was not killed, they were busy giving him hero’s burial in the middle of the war; maybe, to let the world know about his demise.
What were some of the major challenges Biafra soldiers encountered fighting the war?
Two major challenges were lack of weapons and lack of food. Biafra soldiers were very dedicated towards defending the young republic and our propaganda worked very well for us; but then, we had the disadvantage of not having sophisticated weapons. We had no mortars; we had no anti-tank weapons. The Nigerian soldiers had all these. Whenever they started raining their weapons, we could not reply. The Nigerian army was using AK47 but Biafran soldiers were using close combat weapons. If you had AK47, you could fire an enemy a far distance from you as long as you can see him, and the velocity of the gun will hit and kill the enemy. If, however, you use close combat for an enemy at a far distance, by the time it hits him, it would only scratch his body. We had the disadvantage of fighting an enemy who had armored vehicle.
So, along the line, we started using our own initiative to get weapons. For instance, whenever we knew that an armored vehicle of the Nigerian army was to pass through a particular road, we would set a trap on the road by digging a very big hole, and set an ambush with soldiers. So, as soon as an armored vehicle passed thought the road, it would sink. We would give the troops in it a close battle and pull the vehicle out after it all for our engineers to fix for our own use. That was how we got a number of armored vehicles we used in Biafra.
During the war, some humanitarian organisations, such as the International Red Cross, Caritas International, the Presbyterians, among others, flew relief materials into Biafra and they were mainly to salvage malnourished (kwashiorkor) children. Ojukwu set up what we called Biafra Land Army and the aim was to help boost agricultural production. However, due to the war, attention was not given to farming. The relief materials helped us but did not go a long way. So, hunger also disturbed soldiers who fought the war.
Did you witness any case of rape or torture as meted on the then Biafra civilians during the war?
I did not witness any. I heard about such incidences of rape, torture and other atrocities but I was too busy in the battle front targeting the enemy and never had the time to monitor how Nigerian soldiers raped our women.
How did you feel when the news came that the war had ended?
I felt very bad, because, we could not achieve the target for which we fought the war. The night Ojukwu boarded aircraft from Uli Airport in Anambra state, travelling to Ivory Coast; he called his second in command, General Philip Effiong, and briefed him to hold the country in his absence. Though I did not ask any questions, I realised something was wrong.
What was your rank in the Biafran army when the war ended?
Before I joined the Biafra army to defend my young country, I was already a captain in the Nigerian army but was a Major in the Biafran army.
How did the Nigerian government treat people, like you, who fought on the side of Biafra during the war?
Immediately after the war, I proceeded on a 14-year self-imposed exile. But my colleagues, who took part in executing the coup and fighting the war were detained. My friend in the army, Col Joe Achuzia, though not part of the coup, fought the war on the side of Biafra. Achuzia and one Major Shadrack, who was in the military police, were put in detention for seven years for what the then military government of Yakubu Gowon called “sadistic behaviour”. However, there were few Igbo or, rather, southern officers who were later re-absorbed into the Nigerian army.
As former Nigerian soldier, how did Nigerian government compensate some of you that fought on the Biafran side?
We received our entitlements. Even when we were in detention after executing the first coup in the country, we were pleasantly surprised that our salaries were still running. We were able to receive our salaries while in detention. I remember while we were moved from Kirikiri Prison to Enugu Prison, and later to Owerri Prison; we found out that our salaries were running; and with the help of prison officials, your account could be transferred as you wished. Once in a while, one could write a cheque to cover a list of items one needed and they were purchased for one. Even in the Owerri Prison, I once wrote a cheque on my account and a football was bought for me so that we were able to play football while in detention.
Over 50 years after the civil war, do you think that Nigeria has addressed the problems that led to the war?
I would have loved that you rephrased that question to read: “After 50 years, how much backwards has Nigeria moved?” This is because, we cannot talk about Nigeria moving forward. The country never moved forward since then. In fact, if the country had stood still – marked time – it would have been better for it than the condition we find ourselves as Nigerians. We have gone terribly backwards after the war. Our status, as a country, is nothing to write home about. Things have so degenerated that sometimes, one would feel ashamed saying that one is a Nigerian. Look at current appointments in Nigeria; from the beginning to the end, they are all northern Muslims. I was laughing when I heard our people saying and believing that in 2023 an Igbo man will be made president. When a president in power does not allow you to hold the post of a messenger, then, you believe that in 2023, he will make you president. Sometimes, I do not like discussing the affairs of this country, because, they make me feel sick in the stomach.
When we did the coup in 1966, people ignorantly said that it was an Igbo coup. We had officers from every section – Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo etc. I had an Urhobo lieutenant as part of us.
Nigerians should be interested in what caused the January 1966 coup and the civil war and not just keep saying it is an Igbo coup. We did not even fix January 15, 1966 for the coup. It was when we heard that a major northern cabal in the army was planning a coup that young officers like myself, Madiebo and our friends from Yoruba, Hausa and other parts swiftly mobilised to do the coup on January 15, 1966.
Considering unfolding events in Nigeria, and having witnessed the war, would you subscribe to the clamour by IPOB and MASSOB for separation from Nigeria?
Of course, I do. From the way people of the south east are being treated in the present-day Nigeria, it becomes evident that we are rejected. As an Igbo adage would say, a rejected man does not reject himself. We cannot reject ourselves. We should rather work hard to achieve our own independence. I did the coup; I fought the war; I also want to see Biafra realised. This agitation led by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu is a step in the right direction. He needs to be supported. I just wish our people would be focused enough to speak with one voice, not this person saying this today; and tomorrow, another person will start saying a different thing.
What is your view on the influx of herdsmen and almajiri into southern Nigeria?
Whoever sees what is happening and says he is seeking an advice just wants to know whatever somebody would say. You’re in your house and, suddenly, a stranger enters and starts behaving strangely and starts killing people. We see pictures and videos of Fulani people coming into Nigeria through a border that is very porous. What type of country is that? My advice is that people of the south east should put their house in order, gird their loins ready to defend themselves.
What is the hope of Nigeria having a president of Igbo extraction in 2023?
As far as I am concerned and considering how things are moving presently, there is no hope for Nigeria having a president of Igbo extraction in a foreseeable future. Anybody promising a president of Igbo extraction in 2023 is making jest of the people of the south east. You must count one before you count two. How could a people, who hate you so passionately today and find it difficult to employ you as a messenger, come out the next day to give you the presidency? How could that happen? My 82-year-old gray hair cannot deceive me. If, at my age, I will still discuss or believe that kind of talk, I must be a foolish man. An average Fulani Muslim will only tell you what you will like to hear at any point in time in order to deceive you and hold firm to power. It is left for people with shallow mentality to believe. I am not being pessimistic but, as far as 2023 is concerned, Igbo presidency is elusive.
How much do you participate in the Nigerian politics?
I have never been enthusiastic about playing politics in Nigeria. I remember when I returned from exile, Ojukwu had already returned and the Nigerian government promised him heaven on earth and he called on me to join him in Enugu. Having worked well with him during the war, I accepted but when he told me about going into active politics with him, I refused. That was because, as he knew already, I never liked politics. I like to follow politics but I don’t like to play it.
Ojukwu was active in politics. I worked with him as his chief of staff in which capacity I would do everything to help him organise his office and his activities. It was never for him to expect me to join him in playing politics. So, we had that understanding because, politics is never in my gene.
How do you while away your time as an elderly man?
I enjoy eating a lot of groundnut, fresh, roasted and fried. I enjoy cashew nuts too. I also enjoy taking brandy at my leisure times. They make me feel good. I think less about politics of Nigeria. Thinking about governance and political developments in Nigeria worries me.