Biafra War: I regret missed opportunity to fight beside Nzeogwu – Modekwe
In 1966, Emmanuel Modekwe was a technical officer with the Nigeria Railway Corporation in Enugu. Working there made him a first-hand observer of the evidences of the bestiality inflicted on south easterners (mainly Igbo) in the northern parts of the country as few of these (paradoxically lucky) victims arrived the Enugu train station with barely any breath still left in them. Witnessing many returnees with their own severed limbs as hand luggage and the mangled bodies of their casualty loved ones as only luggage of value (meant for decent burial at home) on board the rail coaches really hurt Modekwe. It was such that he was already radicalised by the time these incipient embers of seclusion, even breakaway from a hostile Nigeria, were showing in bolder and bolder relief all over the place. Modekwe spoke to Ig Nwangwu.
How old were you at the time the war started?
By July 6, 1967, I was 27, working with the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) in Enugu in the then Eastern Region of Nigeria.
What was your immediate feeling and personal response to the outbreak of the war?
It was a feeling of relief and joy; relief and joy because that outbreak had been preceded by an atmosphere, in Enugu and the whole region, which was besieged with horrifying evidence of the resolve of the north, mainly, and the then federal government of Nigeria under the headship of Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon not to let us be, after pushing the region out of the Nigerian federation. It was that same atmosphere of palpable unease, eeriness and foreboding that had made the populace to pressurise the military governor of Eastern Region, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, to lead them out of Nigeria, leading to the birth of Biafra, May 30, 1967. From then on, like they say, anything was possible … and expected.
Can you recall the exact details of the atmosphere you said pervaded at the time, Sir?
As a staff of the NRC, I witnessed the arrival of battered survivors of the massive killing in the north. These included the bodies of some casualties of the killing, decapitated bodies of men and pregnant women whose foetuses had been wrenched off their wombs and both mother and foetus stabbed to death. These maimed and killed Easterners were said to have been packaged and delivered through wagons deliberately to send a warning to Ojukwu because of the declaration of Biafra in response to the Gowon federal government’s balkanisation of the country into twelve states on May 27, 1967 in which the Eastern Region was broken down to East Central State, South Easter and Rivers State with headquarters respectively in Enugu, Calabar and Port Harcourt. This federal government shot meant to kill two birds – pitching the Eastern Region minority groups against the majority Igbo Biafrans and ensuring that Ojukwu was denied access and authority over the oil resources which were majorly in those minority areas. It was seen as a necessary supplement to the physical blockade of the Biafra hinterland with a Nigerian naval ship – NNS NIGERIA – thus rendering Biafra landlocked. This was the backdrop to the eagerness that greeted the begin of the war.
Did you find it an appropriate response?
O, definitely! It was the best response to the brazen and unchallenged, indeed, federal government-aided killing of bona fide citizens from a part of the country by those of another part. People literally went gaga over it all and trooped to the army barracks, demanding to be recruited into the Biafra Army. A lot of them were successful while many were turned back even in their repeated attempts.
How did you join the Biafra army?
I was lucky to be one of the successful ones. I was in the second batch of the Biafra army officers to be trained at the Colliery Secondary School, Hilltop, Ngwo, near Enugu. That was the very first Biafra Army School of Infantry in Biafra before it was moved to Bishop Shanahan College in Orlu. It was a crash programme, understandably, for about 150 of us and lasted roughly two to three months after which we were commissioned second lieutenants. The duration was actually enough because, within us, we were already soldiers, determined to fight for Biafra against the overwhelming evidence of our unwantedness in Nigeria, if you’ll allow that word.
What was the post-commissioning deployment like; I mean your journey in the Biafra army?
My first deployment was to the Ogoja and Nsukka sectors of the war. I was sent to the Nsukka sector under the command of Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu but he never came back to the battalion headquarters as he was away on fighting patrol at the front with Tom Bigga, Ojukwu’s half-brother. We were excited at the prospect of fighting alongside the famous Nzeogwu. We waited until the following day when news reached the camp that Nzeogwu and Tom Bigga fell into a Nigerian ambush, killed and their bodies taken away by Nigerian troops! We never got to meet him.
So, you missed the opportunity of fighting with Nzeogwu?
O, that was one opportunity I still rue to this day. We’d heard so much about the bravery of Nzeogwu and the ideological acuteness of the January 1966 revolution he was reputed to have led for the sanitisation of Nigeria.
What was the mood in your base regarding the information that Nzeogwu had been killed?
It was gloom all over; but the military in us and the determination of the soldiers to defend Biafra took over. We were immediately deployed by another Major. I was deployed to the 18 Battalion, located behind the University of Nigeria, Nsukka Farm Settlement at the time. As a second lieutenant, I was given command of the ‘C’ Company of the Battalion
Were you in that sector all through the war?
No, I wasn’t. We were later deployed away from the battalion, over to the brigade headquarters at Agbogwugwu with Col. Eze as brigade commander. That was after two months in the 18 Battalion Nsukka.
We were rested for just two days at Agbogwugwu before our movement to Aba was announced. We were told that His Excellency and Head of State of Biafra, General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu (more popularly referred to as HE) had directed that our unit, now exposed by our exploits in the Nsukka sector, be summoned for a special assignment. We moved at night in two 911 lorries and, on getting to the army base in Aba, were met by Col. Patrick Anwunah, the Biafra army Adjutant General. He, like most Nigeria army-trained senior officers, usually moved all over the place, somewhat ubiquitous in the collective effort to pool resources together for the successful execution of the war. Though they had specific duty posts, they did not stick to these duties, mostly at the rear, just because they did not hold field commands. Col. Damián Orogbu was another such officer, he being the head of Signal Corps of the Biafra Army. The HE addressed us 11 pm that day.
Would you remember what Ojukwu told you people that night?
HE thought he needed to psyche us up somehow and delved on the inevitability for Biafra to stoutly respond to the threat by Nigeria to kill us in our own backyard after the brutality against us in Northern Nigeria. Our spontaneous, interjectory reaction to his address showed him that he was preaching to the already converted. He, therefore, went on to pronounce our mission – to confront and thwart a plot by Nigeria to make an inroad into Biafra through the Bight of Biafra at Eket. Eket was the capital city of Biafra’s Eket Province. In unison, we gave him our word that we would do just that. It was a rare and chatty night with the Head of State of Biafra and it ended in very high morale; what with the generous splash of those famed delights for soldiers everywhere – drinks and cigarettes.
How much success did you make of that mission in the Bight of Biafra?
We worked very closely with the Biafra Navy personnel who had two gunboats which were fitted with Biafra-manufactured ammunition. With these, they kept the mighty NNS Nigeria and her crew in check. The HE had promised us (and, indeed, provided) the necessary arms and ammunition for our mission and we really deployed these to maximum effect, shelling the damned ship and, for three months, inflicting such damage on the Nigerian warship that she had to recede further into the Atlantic. The Nigerian threat was thwarted or, possibly, aborted entirely. Before our arrival, the Nigerians had been used to only the Biafra Navy and their gunboats but the deployment of infantry men was a new dimension they could not cope with. Our mission was a success, definitely; and it added to the fighting profile of both the unit and its individual officers and men all through the war.
Having quietened the Nigerians there, our unit was incorporated into the 56 Brigade under the command of Col. INC Aniebo.
Late one evening, at a tattoo parade, General Phillip Effiong, Col. Patrick Anwunah, Col. Damian Orogbu and others addressed us and asked how many of us hailed from Awka.
You’re from Awka, Sir?
Yes, I am! There were, actually, three of us – Lieutenant Rowland Dike, Lieutenant Emmanuel Ekwenugo and I. It’s a pity we lost Ekwenugo, a very handsome and brave Biafran soldier, in that war. We were told that Awka was under threat and that we would join the effort to ward off the already heavy and ferocious attack on the town. The Nigerian troops were particularly savage acting on the belief that Awka, of famous craft and technology pedigree, was the source of the wonders that the young and barely armed Biafra had been able to wrought in frustrating the Nigerian war machine. Lt Col. Hassan Usman Katsina, military governor of Northern Region, had boasted that the campaign to crush Biafra was mere ‘police action’ to last just a couple of days. Contrarily, the war had dragged for over a year without any sign of Biafra being subdued, in their thinking, because Awka had been manufacturing arms and ammunition which sustained its resistance. So, Awka had to be levelled to the ground, with as much venom and ferocity as possible. The drive for indigenous Awka expertise among the Biafra army officer corps was Biafra’s response to that situation. At the parade, other officers even sought to join the Awka campaign but they were turned down since the Awka effort would not be executed at the expense of Eket and the Bight of Biafra.
So, you were on the move again?
Exactly. Awka was within the operational area of 11 Division of the Biafran army in Nnewi. We reported at the 29 Battalion based at Mater Amabilis Secondary School, Umuoji, Anambra state. It was under 51 Brigade with Col. Linus Ohanehi as commander. On our way to Umuoji, we got word that the Nigerian troops had already overrun Awka and at Abagana! What was envisaged as an ad hoc assignment in Awka now turned into a transfer to 29 Battalion, Umuoji. We had Major Alex Osuagwu as commander and we covered Umuoji and the adjoining areas up to Nkpor. I was given command of ‘A; Company.
When Col. Godfrey Nebo took over from Ohanehi at the 51 Brigade, he made me a combatant point officer, something of a utility officer, to head an interventionist unit to meet special needs and exigencies. In the unit, we had the brave Capt. Dan Njilita who was an undergraduate of UNN before the war, Ifeachor from Enugwu Ukwu and Sylvester Akonobi, younger brother to Col. Robert Akonobi, then in command of 57 Brigade in Otuocha. Together, we taught the Nigerians great lessons in warfare.
In all these, what would you say was the impact of the issue of sabotage in the war effort?
Yes, we heard such stories but they did not bother us, the fighting troops. This is because we, at the war front, did not have the luxury of indulgence in news as was the case at the rear. The only one that bothered us was the Republic of Benin campaign which, unfortunately, wound up a debacle.
With all the bravery and canny war strategies you portray, why then did Biafra lose the war?
We lost the war to carelessness, inexperience and lax discipline condoned by some of our senior officers on whom much trust was placed by the Biafra military/political hierarchy. For instance, a particular divisional commander was known not to have been effective and/or up to par. He was so trusted that, in spite of loud outcry against his command record and clamour for his substitution, the hierarchy left him. You know that any military unit in war is as good as its command structure or commander. It is believed that if he had been removed earlier than he was, we wouldn’t have lost the war. It was a notorious fact that the federal troops gained territories in his areas of command often without firing a shot! An instance was the case of a commander who got stripped down to his underwear by his superior over issues with a young maiden. This was reported to the divisional high command but this same divisional commander did nothing about it. The offended officer had no better recourse than seething over the shame. The feeling of abasement soon got so gripping that the young army commander just defected to Nigeria. Having been an integral part of the Biafra military campaigns in the sector, he crossed over with all details of Biafra troop deployment, armament and tactical plans of his unit, all of which he availed the Nigerian side during debriefing. The Nigerians, under the command of then Col. Olusegun Obasanjo, soon put these to use, gaining ground without much hassle. This is thought to be the prelude to the eventual push that brought Biafra to its knees.
What was the fate of your family – parents, siblings and other relatives – all this while you were in the war front?
I did not know where they were. I joined the army without recourse to my family and proceeded from one campaign to another thinking little about their whereabout. I wasn’t sure of their fate since fleeing Awka while I was at the Bight of Biafra. I got to know later that, with the fall of Enugu, my father, also a railway staff member, was transferred to Port Harcourt and my mother in Awka with my siblings. They joined my father in Port Harcourt, after Awka fell. I, once, spent a two-day sick leave, after an injury, with them in Port Harcourt. They were doing well because my father was still earning his salary and had enough to run the family. I lost touch with them when Port Harcourt fell because they moved, first, to Aba, then Umuahia and, later, Awgbu, nearer Awka. I didn’t get to know about their presence in Awgbu until my younger brother met someone who told him I was the Commanding Officer of 5 Battalion, Oba. He sought me out and that marked my reunion with my family. Shortly after, the patriarch of the Onwuamaegbu family of Oba, a lawyer, in whose house I lived, encouraged me move them to Oba, given the closeness of Awgbu to Awka where the Nigerian troops had dug in. He offered me ample accommodation space for them and I moved them.
Sir, could it have been all fighting and strategy sessions with you guys then; no relaxation, fun and the like?
We tried to catch fun in our own way. The army headquarters would have their own ways with a number of music bands that sprang up to allow soldiers thaw a little. Those of us at the front had our own ways of doing it, within the proximity of our bases and with an eye on developments on the enemy side. Yes, we relaxed, but only when necessary.
How would you rate the quality of the men you had to face in the battles?
The federal army appeared to have thrown in their best-trained soldiers at the onset of the war among whom were heavy casualties. As the war wore on, they had to bring on hardly trained boys who, contrary to the fable that Biafra was a walkover, saw resilient opposition and became too afraid and unwilling to confront us. We always laughed at them when we saw them hiding behind the armoured cars, ferrets etc! In quality of manpower, they were no match for us.
What do you think about the military/political leadership on the Nigerian side about the war?
If someone like Murtala Muhammed had captured Onitsha with all his attempts, the end of the war would have been too bloody. God just held him back to avert bloodshed. The ‘no victor, no vanquished’ official stance of the Gowon government was a mere slogan, going by what we have seen since 1970.
Do you recall any spectacular battle to share here?
The world press once witnessed our nearly seven-hour battle in Afor Nkpor where a sniper who was directing a ferret from a tree top shot and hit my left wrist. By instinct, I immediately turned and aimed my bazooka at him. He came crashing down, dead. I fielded questions from the world press on that response and marksmanship even as two bullets lodged in that wrist. One of them was immediately extracted while the second one ‘lived with me’ up till August 9, 2009 [40 years] after which it just fell off while I was at a funeral in Uga, Anambra state.
Now, how did you receive the news of the end of the war?
It was a shock. I didn’t see it coming. On January 10, 1970, I sent my orderly to the African Continental Bank [ACB] in Nnewi with a cheque. He came back after over an hour, which was unusual. The bank did not open and the atmosphere in Nnewi unusual. I dashed across to the head of our medical unit and he, too, expressed surprise. We both drove to Nnewi, in full Biafra uniform, passing by our Brigade headquarters at Ojoto which looked deserted, without guards and the gate wide open! As we drove along, people were baffled at us, still in Biafra army uniform. We got to the 11 Div headquarters Nnewi and it was the scene of desertion! We drove past Ojukwu’s house in Nnewi and saw over 100 armed mobile policemen on guard. We headed to the Military Hospital in Ozubulu where we were informed by someone that the war had ended. I went back to my unit at Oba and announced the end of the war to the officers and men. There was general wailing and disappointment all around.
The following day, however, I went to Onitsha, still in full Biafra uniform, to seek out the Nigerian commander of 145 Battalion whom I sparred in many battles there. I later identified him as Captain Ibrahim Rabo, a chap who, along with Lt. Col, Buka Suka Dimka, Captain M. Parwang and Lieutenant William Seri, was in the ambush team that killed General Murtala Muhammed and his aide de camp, Lieutenant Akintunde Akinseyinwa, in the February 13, 1976 coup. He wasn’t around but his officers and men, who paid me the due military compliments, lavishly entertained me, stuffing my vehicle with rolls of cigarettes and drinks as parting gifts.
Do you think the federal government has been faithful to its no-victor-no-vanquished declaration?
It is unfortunate the federal government pretends not to know the 1966 coup de etat was purely military, not civilian an Igbo affair. Civilians had nothing to do with it and the federal government should not have colluded in the massive killing of civilian Igbo population in the north. There has been no sign of remorse since then; it is just a slogan to deceive the world. As Ojukwu once told the BBC, Biafra is of the mind and the Igbo should remain in Nigeria and allow those who refused us leaving Nigeria exhaust themselves either way – peace for all or war which they, not the Igbo, have to fight.
Finally, what would be your advice for President Buhari on Nigerian unity?
If he sincerely fought the war to keep Nigeria one, he should, today, change his attitude toward the Igbo and agitating, unarmed Igbo organisations – MASSOB, IPOB, Ohanaeze etc. These were all there under Presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan but were not handled with so much venom, in contra-distinction to the pretence and collusion over the murderous activities of armed Fulani militia being passed off as herdsmen by the federal government.
“As Ojukwu once told the BBC, Biafra is of the mind and the Igbo should remain in Nigeria and allow those who refused us leaving Nigeria to exhaust themselves either way; peace for all or war which they, not the Igbo, have to fight.”