Biafra War Veteran Narrates His Experience During The 1967 – 1970 Civil War
Pius Obuzo Biafra was a Standard 6 pupil at Nimo in Njikoka local government area of Anambra state, when the 1967 – 1970 Nigerian – Biafra civil war broke. The 19-year-old enlisted into the Commando Unit of the 18 Battalion of the Biafran Army where he operated, mainly behind enemy lines and many of the Biafra frontlines. This earned him a promotion to the rank of Captain. Now 72, the war veteran reflects on his wartime experience in this interview with OLISEMEKA OBECHE.
Where were you when the Nigeria – Biafra civil war started?
I was a 19-year-old, still in Standard 6 at Saint Mary’s Primary School, Nimo in Njikoka local government area of Anambra state. I did not know what was happening until many people started returning from the North in large numbers. The first set of returnees told us how northerners attacked and killed their compatriots after the January 15, 1966 coup d’état in which Nigerian military officers, led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, toppled and killed politicians and military officers. It was frightening hearing all that these people did to the Igbo in the north in the aftermath of that coup. From then on, everybody became interested in following the crisis as Lieutenant Colonels Yakubu Gowon and Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu engaged in talks over the future of the country, particularly the one that held at Aburi, Ghana.
When the Gowon federal government reneged on the agreements from the talks and took actions to the contrary, practically pushing the Eastern Region, of which Ojukwu was military governor out of Nigeria, Ojukwu had to declare the region an independent Republic of Biafra. It thus became obvious that war was coming. Although my mother didn’t want me to join the army, my elder brother having already joined, I trekked from Nimo through Neni, Agulu, Nanka to Ekwulobia up to Uga in pursuit of enlistment. I ended up joining the Biafra Army 18th battalion. Apart from the training being intense, food was hardly enough and there were no plates to serve us. After cooking, the cooks dished hot rice straight onto our palms and we had to eat it that way or starve. That did not deter us, anyway. Later we moved to Abatete training depot and learnt how to operate locally made weapons like Ogbunigwe (‘mass killer’, in Igbo language) and the rest.
How long did the training last and in which unit did you serve?
Our training did not last long because of the shortage of men in the war fronts. We even had girls also training with us. We were lucky to be trained for weeks. Some were recruited and sent straight to the war front. It got to a point that people were conscripted and immediately sent to the war front, untrained and most of them dying. I was deployed to the 18 battalion of the Biafran army after training.
Where was your first deployment?
It was Abagana sector as part of the Biafran guerrilla unit, led by Major Jonathan Uchendu. When we got intelligence report that the Nigerian army, led by Murtala Mohammed, were transporting their logistics through Abagana, we quickly laid an ambush. That was in March 1968 when the Nigerian Second Division, which had captured Onitsha, was trying to link up with the 1st Division that was already entrenched in Enugu. They were in a long convoy of over 100 fully loaded trucks supported by armoured cars. They fell into the ambush and suffered about the heaviest casualty the federal forces ever experienced all through the war.
After that, we headed to Ikot Ekpene and engaged in what they called Operation Wipe Out. Our operational mode was such that, once we dislodged the enemy and cleared the area, those in the militia took over the position and dug in while we moved to any other location our services might be needed. When we moved to the Calabar sector, we faced serious sabotage from the indigenes. Unfortunately, they usually gave Nigerian troops information on our movements and locations. However, we managed to survive despite that act of sabotage. It was at Ikot Ekpene bridge that I nearly died. I survived by God’s grace which enabled me as I responded quickly enough.
Unknown to us, some officers gave out our tactical plans and movement to Nigerian troops who ambushed us at the bridge, a booby trap. Unfortunately, the first batch that crossed that bridge got wiped out completely. Luckily, I was a bit behind with others and we managed to escape. It was an experience I don’t like talking about because none of the fallen chaps deserved to die. They were sold out.
Apart from this issue of sabotage, what other factors affected your unit during the war?
Shortage of guns and ammunition also contributed to Biafra’s downfall, just as lack of food. We had a one-man-one-bullet policy with guns we called ‘Ojukwu catapult’ and Mac4 rifle. The implication was that we used our rifles, especially the bullets with care. With the invention of Ogbunigwe rockets and ‘Ojukwu flying rockets’, we were more deadly on attacks. Once we mounted and hid it, we lured Nigerian soldiers to the area and we could detonate it from a safe distance.
What about food supply?
Well, like I said before, food was insufficient. The food available to us mostly was rice cooked in a drum. Then, anywhere you were, once you heard the bugle, you would run to receive the hot food on your palm. Whatever you can manage to eat out of it becomes all you have. It was much later that we began to receive food supplies from the Biafra Food Directorate.
Where did you face the toughest battle during the war?
We faced major battles at Nkpor, Abagana and Oguta sectors. Then, the Nigerian troops were trying to enter Onitsha from Awka, Enugwu-Ukwu and we had to stop them at all cost. The battle was very fierce. There were massive casualties on both sides because the topography of that axis made it very dangerous for combat. It reached a stage that even Ojukwu came out to lead the attack to give us moral support. Col. Joe Achuzia also contributed greatly to Biafra’s prolonged defence of its positions in Onitsha and other places. Unlike Ojukwu, he often stayed on defence and when the fight intensified and some Biafra soldiers tried to withdraw, Achuzia would threaten to shoot any such runaways. Achuzia instilled fear in his troops and if you dared panic, you would hear his baritone voice: ‘Mr man stop there; if you run, I’ll shoot you!’ To avoid that, his troops are always preferred to die fighting rather than be shot.
Do you still remember some of your comrades that did not survive the war?
There are many of them but I cannot remember their names now.
Did you witness any near-death experience in this sector?
Yes. There was a particular time I was on OP (observation post) assignment at a location between Enugu-Ukwu and Abagana and Nigerian troops cut me off from the tree where I was spying on them. I spent seven days on top of that tree. Our unit relied on my information to plan its attacks. Without an OP and accurate recce exercise, a military force cannot launch a successful attack. They relied on my recce operation which was facilitated by my lean stature as I could always pass for a small boy hunting birds with catapult, often going close enough to the Nigerian troop locations and getting information on them. There were a number of times they saw me at their camp. They suspected I was actually spying on them but would not harm me because I was not in uniform and was not armed. On this particular assignment, I was on top of a giant tree when they cut me off and there was no way to escape without them catching me. The only option I had was to remain atop the tree. I ended up spending seven days without food or water there. While hiding there, I was able to see how they were preparing to attack us without them knowing that I was on top of tree above.
Luckily for me, on the seventh day, our unit launched a surprise attack to flush them from the area and they were on the run. However, I noticed that they positioned a crippled soldier on top of their bunker with a heavy machine gun, HMG, and other arms to inflict damages on us. So, as our men were rushing towards the bunker and the cripple was getting ready to finish them off, I gave them a signal to hold on. Luckily for me, I had a hand-grenade with me which I managed to climb to the middle of the tree before hauling into the bunker where the cripple was positioned. That finished him off instantly. We packed all the arms and ammunition they stockpiled there. That was how we usually acquired weapons from Nigerian troops during the war. Without such operations, Biafra would have run out of arms and ammunition much earlier and at critical stages of the war because we did not have enough.
How did you feel after that feat?
It was a moment of joy for me, but I was too weak to enjoy it because I was almost passed out by the time I came down from that tree due to exhaustion from lack of food and water. Staying on top of that tree for seven days was one of the hardest things I ever did. I just had to remain there because it was a matter of life and death. If they had caught me, I would have been wasted. So, I preferred to die up there to allowing them torture me to death. That was what kept me going until our unit dislodged them. When I came down, I couldn’t hold myself any longer. I went straight to casava planted around there and started eating them raw. If anybody tries the kind of things we ate that time to survive, such a person will die. Sometimes, they will take us to no man’s land for weeks without food supplies and we had to rely on whatever we could get to stay alive. Then, we use to roast lizard with scent leaves to eat when there was no food. Hunger really dealt with us that time but it did not stop us.
However, I was filled with joy when Col Achuzia came and said: “My boy, you go home and rest, come back next two days”. When I returned, they rewarded me with promotion to the field rank of second lieutenant!
Aside this incident, what other notable operations did you participate in?
There was a time we spent up to three months at Agulu lake. We guarded that axis to restrict the enemy from penetrating because that’s the route to Nnewi. We knew that once they took over Nnewi, Biafra would collapse so we were instructed to stop them at all costs. Though our major task, as commando battalion, was operation wipe out the enemy and the militia to take over, we had to stay there for that long to ensure that they did not advance.
What do you think contributed to Biafra’s collapse in the war?
I think Ojukwu tried his best to inspire Biafran troops to victory but lack of ammunition and preparation affected us a lot. Like I said before, there was no ammunition for us to fight. We were using small and obsolete weapons. Although, the Biafran leadership tried to buy arms from different sources during the war and we also managed to mop up some from Nigerian soldiers, they were hardly enough for us. Secondly, our people did not have sufficient time to prepare for the war. Those recruited in the army hardly received sufficient training before deployment; and there was hardly enough kits and logistics for them to fight the war. Lack of food, medical supplies, then sabotage which led to unnecessary loss of lives and positions to the Nigerian army also contributed to our downfall.
Did you ever meet Ojukwu personally during the war?
Yes, he always came around wearing his red hat and trademark beards to support us whenever the battle became tense at that Abagana sector. Gowon never did that for Nigerian troops. I consider Ojukwu to be a great hero because he was fearless.
What would you say propelled you, personally in fighting the war?
I decided to give my life to the war because I did not want to see my mother or people being slaughtered because we chose to survive as Biafra. With what was happening at the time, no normal man could elect to stay at home while his mates were in the war front fighting for Biafra.
Did you sustain any injury during the war?
Lucky enough, I passed through so many near-death experiences but didn’t sustain any injury during the war.
Where were you when you heard the war was over?
I was at the Abagana war front. I was not praying for the war to end but my prayer was that God’s will should be done because the Nigerian troops had pushed us to the extent that we were already feeling defeated. That was after we had learnt that Ojukwu had left Biafra. The news came with some relief but I was sad that all our sacrifice was about to be wasted.
How did your family feel when they saw you for the first time after the war?
When I returned from the war, there was joy in my family for my survival. But there were other families that were not as happy because their children did not return. It was a mixture of sadness and joy in the community at that time.
Was there anything significant that happened during the war that touched your life deeply?
Yes. The risk I took to save other people’s lives. One day, when Nigerian troops were attacking us at the Abagana sector, I heard a baby crying inside a house and the door was locked. Bullet was flying around and I was under attack, but I decided to save the baby. So, I shot the lock twice and the door opened, I dived and rolled on the floor, crawling to where the baby was kept on the bed. I picked the baby, placed it on my back and started crawling out of that place. As I was heading out, I saw a man that was shot badly on his legs and he could not walk. Bullet was flying up and down and it was obvious that if I did not rescue him also, he would die. He was begging me to help him out. I thought of how to help him and the only option was to back him and then placed the baby on his back. It was a risky move because bullets were being fired in our direction and I didn’t want to let them go.
We managed to walk to a safer distance before I dropped him to have some rest. At that point, he begged me to cut his leg instead of allowing him to die there because it was disturbing us from making progress. After initial hesitation, I cut the leg and it gave us the freedom to move to safety. When we reached our security checkpoint, they held me up, demanding any means of identification from me. Speaking in vernacular, I explained our situation and we were allowed to continue. Again, when Achuzia saw me and asked if I was the one that saved the man and the child and I said yes; he told me to go home and come back the next two days. He also promoted me again and ordered that the child and the man be taken to a hospital at Adazi for proper medical attention.
Incidentally, almost 30 something years after the war, I met that man again at the same Abagana. It was in a different situation. It happened that I accompanied my elder brother, who owned a hotel in Kano, to Abagana, and we stopped at a filling station to refuel his car. While my brother was away and I was leaning on the car, I saw a man whose one leg was cut off shouting help me and looking at my side. I was wondering why a beggar was looking at me like that until he came closer and declared that I was the one who cut his leg. By that time, people had started gathering and watching us, so I quickly told him that I didn’t know what he was talking about. It was then that he said: ‘don’t you remember that day you backed a small child and I also begged you to carry me because of my leg injury?’
Immediately, memories of that incident flashed through my mind and I recognised him. I felt so sorry for him as he even started thanking me for saving his life. From the way he was going about it, people locked up their shops and gathered around me. Then, one palm wine tapper then came to me and told me that the man I saved his life was their kinsman and that he had three sons who were overseas doing well. He further told us that the man’s children had on several occasions asked their father to come overseas to live with them but he would refused and that he had about three different houses. Then, they started donating money and cheering me. When my brother came out, he was surprised after I explained what was going on to him. They later asked me where I hailed from and I told them and they said they would come to our house to thank me with the man’s children later in December.
After that encounter, we left and it was a big surprise for us when during Christmas celebration, a convoy of cars drove into my father’s house and, indeed, it turned out to be the man and his children truly coming to show appreciation for what I did. They bought a big white ram and other gift items. When the eldest son began to speak, he said that, without me, their father wouldn’t have given birth to them as he would have died that day. I was so emotional that that singular act could go a long way like that. I told them that it was to the glory of God.
Do you remember the man’s name and where he came from?
I think, his name is Okafor and he is from Abagana. He was a sergeant at the time of the incident.
What was your rank when the war ended and Biafra ceased to be?
I was a Biafran army captain by the end of the war. I earned it because of my performance on the battle fronts even though I was not educated, having ended my education in Standard 6 at the primary school level.
How did you re-start your life after the war?
After the war, the commanding officer of Nigerian army who saw me and liked me, took me to a northern woman, simply called Hajia. She was cooking food for soldiers at Abagana and I started helping her to serve food. Then, there was great hunger post-Biafra. People were looking for what to eat. So, I found myself helping her to attend to her customers. That time, young boys from Nimo would come to that place at Abagana and I would be supplying them food that was left over by Nigerian soldiers. Later on, the woman relocated to army barrack at Umuchima, Orlu in Imo state. She took me along.
At some point, Hajia asked me to bring someone to serve her and I had to bring my elder brother and he was made the manager of the place. From there, I travelled to the north and started work at Peugeot Automobile Nigeria Limited in Kaduna. The white man that was my boss then, later took me to Bauchi, Sokoto and Kano. We were travelling round the north doing construction work. We built the 18-storey Bank of the North House and I was the foreman then. When the man was travelling back to his country, he wanted to take me but I refused. Then, travelling abroad was not in vogue as it is today.
Over 50 years after the war, how do you assess the Nigerian government in terms of the effort to address the causes of the war?
Nothing has been done at all
Do you support agitation for Biafra?
If am not in support of Biafra agitation, all my colleagues that lost their lives during the war would come after me. What I stood for then is what I stand for now, and forever. And that is Biafra!
Some people are saying we should have Igbo presidency and forfeit Biafra; what do you have to say about this?
I feel sorry for those top officials saying that we should have Igbo presidency.
What else will you like to tell the Igbo that do not think of the actualisation of Biafra? Those in authority who do not think of Biafra behave like that because their families are comfortable and they forget the poor Igbo. This attitude is very wrong. All hands ought to be on deck with Nnamdi Kalu to make Biafra a reality. The British caused all these troubles by going through the north because they realised that the Igbo are wise. We, the Igbo, should come together as one and make it happen.