We buried 300 air raid casualties in one day – Omenugha
Chief Micheal Cosmas Ogubunike Omenugha hails from Umudim, Nnobi in Idemili South local government area of Anambra state. He is a medical doctor with a practice in Nnobi. More popularly known as Ichie Obama, he is also a cabinet member of the traditional ruler of Nnobi kingdom.
In this interview with Francis Ekpone, Ichie Obama shares his experiences during Nigeria/Biafra war and warns youths against any war again.
Where exactly were you when the war broke out?
I was in Lagos state then. I witnessed the civil war but was not old enough to carry ammunition. I, however, joined what was then known as the Boys’ Company, tagging along with Biafran soldiers and spying on enemy camp. I didn’t carry gun.
My father died in January 1965 and was buried here in Nnobi. Shortly after his burial and funeral ceremony, we went back to Lagos. At a time, life in Lagos wasn’t easy for us anymore. My mother was having it tough so we had to come back to Nnobi. I was in Primary 3 when my father died in 1965 but when we came back to Nnobi, I started from Primary 1 because I wasn’t conversant with our system here in Nnobi. I was born and brought up in Lagos.
We were here when my mother was struggling, taking red oil to Lagos, the proceeds from which she deployed in paying our school fees. I recall that, sometime in 1966, I was in Lagos and one night, one of the principal characters in the January 15, 1966 coup de etat, who was among those in charge of the Lagos axis of the operation just ran to our house one night. Their coup had failed and he ran to our house, banging very hard and incessantly on our door that late. Being a known townsman, my mother opened the door and let him in. he stayed the night but, before daybreak, he had disappeared again.
We didn’t know what a coup was at the time and were not aware there had been one in the country. By morning, we started hearing that there was a failed coup. My mother quickly sent us back home to Nnobi.
It was while we were in Nnobi that Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, then military governor of western region, were killed in the July 29, 1966 counter-coup. We were also here when then military governor of eastern region, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, declared the independent state of Biafra on May 30, 1967 following the breakdown in implementation of the Aburi Accord. Then head of state, Lt, Col. Yakubu Gowon, had said it was a mere police action, boasting that, within 24 hours, Biafra would be brought to its knees. That ‘police action’ was to take them three years and that was to show you that Igbo were not the kind of people you can wish away so easily.
The day the Nigeria Air Force bombarded Otuocha, many souls were lost and they were all buried here in Nnobi at the Central School. They bombed the town on an Otuocha market day and more than three hundred people lost their lives. They used a tipper truck to carry corpses of our brothers and sisters to Nnobi for burial. What happened in Otuocha that day is one thing I won’t forget so easily about the war. The issue of kwashiorkor was something else.
International relief agencies like Caritas International distributed relief materials like egg yolk, milk, salted stock fish and other items. I joined the war as a scout. There were refugees everywhere. All the schools available then were used as refugee camps.
At what point did Nnobi experience the war?
Nnobi never experienced the war.
I can only say it’s God, though, our traditionalists say that the Idemili deity prevented the war from getting to Nnobi. No single bullet was fired at Nnobi by the Nigerian soldiers and no single bomb was detonated there. But, at Nnewi and other neighboring communities, Nigeria soldiers detonated bombs.
How come the dead were buried in Nnobi?
Nnobi seems like the sub headquarters of Biafra then. The Biafra Food Directorate was located at Nnobi, probably because of its safety. We also had Transport and Fuel Directorates in Nnobi. You see why I said that Nnobi, by then, became the sub headquarters of Biafra. The Fuel Directorate was at Community Secondary School (now Nnobi High School), Nnobi while the Food Directorate was at Central School. That was where they fried yam or cocoa yam, packaged them and shifted them to the war front. It was called dry pack. The Transport Directorate was located at Our Lady’s Secondary School, Nnobi. So, when the mass killing occurred at Otuocha, the vehicles here were sent to Otuocha to convey the corpses here for mass burial. St Joseph Awka Etiti served as the Military Hospital and we had what was called 11 Div Depot.
Some scout boys like you did not survive the war; how did you survive the war?
It was God that saved my life. We were three boys; one Ogidi boy, one Obosi boy and myself. There was a road along Igwe Okpoko’s house. The federal troops camped at Community Secondary School, Obosi and we went there to do our normal job of spying on them. We were just moving like ordinary civilians. We didn’t move like scout boys. We were wearing tattered rags like refugees. I can’t explain exactly what happened to the Ogidi boy but the only thing I know was that the time we returned to base, he wasn’t there with us. Two days after, we were sent to spy again and on our way there, we saw where they hung him. They packed salt in his mouth and used something to tie his mouth at one oil bean tree (Osisi Ukpaka). It was after that ugly incident that I left Ogidi and came back to Nnobi. It was then that I decided to be moving with the Red Cross Society.
Since food directorate was located at Nnobi, were their cases of hunger and starvation in your town as experienced in other communities?
The Food Directorate was meant for the soldiers. People donated yam, cocoa yam, garri and other food items from different towns and the people working at the directorate will peal and fry the yams and package it in a nylon before sending to soldiers in the war front. It was not for civilians. The people taking care of the civilians are the Caritas International for the Catholics and World Council of Churches for Anglicans. Those were the people distributing relief to the refugees in various camps.
How did you manage the famine posed by the war?
That was the situation we met on ground and couldn’t do anything about it. We ate whatever came our way. Anything you considered edible. We even cook raw mangoes. I ate mango seed that time but since after the war, I have not tasted it because God can forgive somebody because of the war but now, I doubt the forgiveness. We cook unripe paw paw like yam and eat. Some people went as far as eating lizard. When you see people pursuing lizard, you will think they are pursuing antelope.
Did any of your family members participate in Afia attack?
Yes, of course; my mother did. My mother was a very strong woman. They were going to the Republic of Benin (RoB) through Onitsha. They pass through the River Niger and Oko Island where they go to buy fish. None of us suffered from Kwashiorkor in our family because my mother got fish for us and we got corn meal and milk. By the grace of God, we didn’t lose any person in the war. My late eldest brother was an army officer. He was a captain in the Biafran army before the war ended. Immediately Onitsha fell in 1967, he joined the army, went to the School of Infantry and became a commissioned officer, but he suffered from what we call, shell shock during the war but no bullet got him all through the war. Shell shock is the shock that makes one deaf and dumb.
How did you relieve tension during the war?
The Nigeria soldiers entered Nise, part of Agulu and Onitsha area. Parts of Oba were also affected, from the Ozubulu axis. They didn’t get to Ihiala. Nnobi, like I told you was cool. No single shelling or bomb entered Nnobi. Our traditionalists said the enemy saw Nnobi and its inhabitants as an ocean and that was why they didn’t land at any place. During the war, nobody talked of winding down. Even if anybody offered anything to you, you didn’t relax because the mood then was generally unhappiness and gloom.
What of the experiences of torture and rape?
We never experienced such in Nnobi. Nigerian soldiers only entered Nnobi after the war in 1970. They came and camped in all these places and that was how they married a lot of our girls. They stayed for a very long time after the war.
What was their relationship with the people like?
It was cordial. The whole place became peaceful after the war. No single case of torturing and raping.
How did your people receive the news of the war end?
It was a case of uncertainty; nobody was sure of what would happen next. Those Bifaran soldiers’ guns were all hidden away. People panicked and threw them it into the bush. People started disguising themselves. Soldiers disguised as civilians to avoid prosecution until things started normalising. We all received the end of the war with joy. There was a period of party and merriment after the war. We called it survival party. It happened every weekend and people enjoyed themselves. Oriental Brothers and other artists started singing and celebrating.
49 years after the war, do you think Nigeria government has addressed the issues that led to the civil war?
Not at all. The answer is absolutely no. What is even happening now is worse than what led to the civil war. In 1967, the Hausa believed that the coup was plotted by the Igbo which, even the military said wasn’t an Igbo coup. Banjo was not an Igbo man. The major reason for the coup was to save Awolowo because he was being maltreated by the NPC-led federal government because NCNC went into alliance with NPC and Awolowo was then in prison. He was tried for treasonable felony and was put into prison. It was Ojukwu that released him. The Yoruba are not good people; instead of seeing Ojukwu as their friend, they turned against him.
Awolowo even disappointed Ojukwu. He promised to declare the independent state of Oduduwa if Ojukwu declared independent state of Biafra, which he never did. As small as I was then, I still remember these things. One thing with Biafra was that they had good communication network. One Okokon Ndem would be on the radio, shouting and giving update on happenings, urging people to always be at alert. The Nigerians started killing our people because they believed that the 1966 coup was an Igbo coup.
As somebody that witnessed the war, would you subscribe to current clamour for secession of south east from Nigeria?
As an elder, I would rather suggest that our people tread with caution because our people are not united. All the south eastern states are disintegrated and that in-fighting I see as an opportunity for the enemy to penetrate them easily. So, I don’t wish we go look for Biafra through violence. Let them use diplomacy and get what they want. It is possible to get independence without bloodshed.
As a war survivor, you celebrated your 63rd birthday recently. Looking back, can you call yourself a fulfilled man?
My wife and children took me for a lunch. God has been very merciful and doing wonders in my life. When I look behind, I have the cause to glorify the name of the lord because my father did not reach that ripe age before he died. My eldest brother did not also reach that age before his demise and here I am, not only clocking the age but very healthy as well.
Talking about fulfilment in life, I don’t know what else one needs to say he is fulfilled in life. God blessed me with six children; four males and two females. My first son is a medical doctor; he is now married to a medical doctor also and has given me a grandchild. So, I have seen my grandson but my father could not see any of his grandchildren.
My second son, Obinna is almost completing his doctorate programme abroad and as a matter of fact, you won’t say he is not doing very well. To me, that is a blessing. My third child, a female is a medical doctor and the husband is also a medical doctor and they have given me a grandson, what a blessing. My fourth child, Chinedu, just finished his National Youth Service and gotten a federal job, is this not a blessing? My fifth child, who is a male is in seminary (He wants to be a priest). My last baby girl, that is my last daughter is reading law in the university.
So, looking behind, I can say that I am overwhelmed with joy and I always tell my parishioners that I am the only person God loves in the parish. That is the only way to show appreciation to God. In summary, I can say I am fulfilled. Fulfillment is not measured by the amount you have in your bank account but in your heart, how contented you are as a person.
You sited MOOM hospital in your hometown, Nnobi; what can you say about patronage?
The patronage is not so wonderful but I am not complaining because it is not possible for me to treat all the sick people in Nnobi. I am more satisfied if I have only five patients in a day and give them a satisfactory service than having 100 that I will not take good care of. The reason is because the more you see more patients, the more you are killing yourself.
If you observe critically, you will observe that many doctors don’t live long. They keep on fighting to save people’s life and won’t take care of themselves and that is why I am unique because I won’t behave that way. Most Nigerian doctors are not sociable. You hardly see them in social functions but only in the clinic. For me, I attend burial and funeral ceremonies, wedding and naming ceremonies.
I am an Ichie in Nnobi and I attend all the meetings. I won’t say because I am a doctor, I won’t do any other thing but seeing sad people. No sick person is happy. They are very sad people both in outlook and in their thinking. Most time when you give them their bill, they transfer their aggression to you as if you caused their sickness. The most I see in a day is 10 patients, then, I go home and feel refreshed. This is my 34th year in practice. My eldest brother practiced for ten years and died in Lagos and he was a medical doctor.
“Then head of state, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, had said it was a mere police action, boasting that, within 24 hours, Biafra would be brought to its knees. That ‘police action’ was to take them three years.”
“The day the Nigeria Air Force bombarded Otuocha, many souls were lost and they were all buried here in Nnobi at the Central School. They bombed the town on an Otuocha market day and more than 300 people lost their lives. They used a tipper truck to carry corpses of our brothers and sisters to Nnobi for burial.”