Nigeria/Biafra war continues 50 years after dropping guns – Ezeani
His Royal Highness, Igwe Onwuamaeze Damian Ezeani is the traditional ruler of Neni in Anaocha local government area of Anambra state. In this interview with MOKWUGWO SOLOMON, Ezeani, fondly called Igwe Ugonabo Neni, speaks on the Nigeria/Biafra civil war, life and condition of Ndigbo in present-day Nigeria, among other salient issues.
Could you recall where you were and how you got to know that there had been an outbreak of war between the federal government of Nigeria and Biafra?
I was in Port Harcourt as a young man when Biafra Republic was declared on May 30, 1967. It was also there that we heard that Biafra was attacked by the federal troops at Gakem in Ogoja, Cross River state. It was a very terrible thing for all of us in Biafra then. The then federal government said they were taking what they called ‘police action’ against Biafra; but it was actually a full military action on the young republic.
What were your recollections of other incidences of the war as you experienced and how did you survive it?
I can recall that initially, the people of Biafra returned home from different parts of Nigeria, because, they were being killed; men, women, children and even pregnant women. It was an obvious genocide against the then Biafra people. So, people had to come back from different parts of the country for their safety. It was not that they wanted to come back; they were forced to do so. While coming back, escaping to safety, many people still lost their lives, along with their relatives, many families getting wiped out under different circumstances.
What led to the declaration of the Republic of Biafra was well documented. The agreement reached at Aburi in Ghana’s eastern region in January 1967 at a meeting attended by delegates of both the federal government of Nigeria (the Supreme Military Council) and the Eastern delegates, led by the Eastern Region’s military governor, then Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu failed. It had been billed to be the last chance of preventing all-out war and held between January 4 and 5, 1967. Given this, the people of the Eastern Nigeria felt there was no alternative than to go out of the Nigerian federation for a safer environment. They prevailed on Ojukwu to take them out Nigeria as a separate entity called Biafra. This was to enable them to properly defend themselves from the obvious attack by Nigerian soldiers. At the onset of the war, young men enthusiastically joined the Biafran army in their numbers to the extent that the soldiers outnumbered available weapons. I recall that, at the onset of the war, many young men, who wanted to join the Biafra army, were turned back, in fact, chased away. However, as the war progressed and war theatres kept increasing all over the new country, there was need to enlist more soldiers into the Biafran armed forces. There was shortage of men to defend the front; that was when the authorities started to enlist more young men. It got so bad, as some point that soldiers moved from house to house, forcing young men to join the army. By then, they started what they called enlisting by quota system. They said that each community would bring a specific number of young men to join the army. As the war progressed, it was even difficult to train soldiers well before they were thrown into the fray at the war fronts.
How did your family survive the food challenges of the war?
Indeed, during the war, more people were killed by hunger than those that died from the barrel of gun on land air or sea. Hunger affected mainly children, new born babies and their mothers; especially those that were forced by the advancing invading Nigerian troops to flee their homes and become refugees in other, safer locations or communities. International organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, Caritas International and others, came up with aids and donations which helped many Biafran people to survive the war. They brought a lot of food alright but to distribute them out was big challenge because, at a stage in the war, Biafra was completely landlocked. It was terrible. At a point, mothers got so malnourished that they could not lactate – a child would be sucking its mother’s breast and no milk would come out, the mother already as thin as a skeleton! By then, kwashiorkor had set in. We never heard of the word kwashiorkor until during the war. It was because of the hunger that affected even the soldiers that made the Biafra side unable to sustain the war. So, the war ended in January 12, 1970. I mean the shooting war because, the war had been there even before independence, and the war is still there till date. Nigeria/Biafra war did not start in 1967 and did not end in 1970. The war between the two groups had been there before 1967 and had continued after 1970. If the war actually ended, our country, Nigeria, would not have been in this shape with wanton killing, kidnapping, herdsmen attack, Boko Haram menace, murder of Christians and discrimination of South East people in federal appointments. The war started long ago and the war has not ended yet.
Many people engaged in the trade called Afia Attack during the war. Did you or any of your family members engage in the trade?
I did not engage in the trade. The trade was a survival strategy adopted by some people in Biafra, whereby they engaged in exchange of commodities. Igbo people lived in clusters in between the areas federal forces were controlling. Some areas captured by federal troops did not suffer food shortage. Salt was the most important commodity then. So, people travelled from one enclave to another to buy things. In that process, you had to cross the territory where enemy forces were controlling. Many people, who engaged in the trade, were killed in the process.
What was it like living through the days and nights of constant aerial bombardment, gun shots and shelling?
It was a bitter experience for people of Biafra at that time. It was something no one would ever like to remember or experience again. It was something no one would even want even his enemy to witness. This is because what took place during the war was calculated wickedness against Biafra people. What the federal troops meted on Biafra people was crime against humanity; and the entire world kept quiet as if nothing was happening. Personally, I believe what happened to Biafra people was an international conspiracy. Those that belong to the then Biafra are still being made to undergo similar experience in the present-day Nigeria; that was why I told you that the war has not ended.
Could you recall some of your friends and relatives that died during the war?
My experience during the war got me hardened; so that I am no more scared at the sight of death. I lost two persons that were very important to me; my immediate elder brother, Emmanuel Ezeani, and my childhood best friend. I lost both of them in a very dramatic fashion during the war. My childhood friend came to our house one day during the war and asked me how people would be at the war front while a full-fledged young man like him would be at home. So, he told me that he would be going to join the army. I stayed very long with him in my house discussing the issue before I escorted him back to their house. He joined the army the next day, and that was the last I saw him. I was likely the last person to see him among our contemporaries before he joined the army and finally died. The war affected me personally. It was traumatic and a lifelong experience that will hardly be forgotten.
How did Biafra people relieve themselves of tension during the war?
Nobody was getting any relief during the war; rather, what happened was that people were being hardened because of the horrible experiences of the war. During the war, death was cheap! Personally, I got hardened because, I said that one day, it must be my turn to die. But for soldiers, they composed songs to boost their morale at the war front.
There were allegations that soldiers were brutal to civilians during the war. Did you witness any incident of torture, rape and so on?
Genocide was perpetrated on the Biafran people and the world looked away. I did not actually see soldiers from Biafra side raping women; but I was aware they had girlfriends and women friends. Because, at a time in the war, you could give food to a woman and she would sleep with you. I was aware there were incidents of rape and torture at the side of the federal troops, but I wouldn’t know to what extent.
Could you recollect specific difficult times experienced by people at the side of Biafra during the war?
The entire 30 months of the war was full of difficulty as far as Biafra was concerned. The major ones were lack of food and lack of means of movement. Civilians and soldiers moved very long distances on foot. The war proceeded to such a time that the federal soldiers had to confiscate all the vehicles in Biafra, making movement very difficult. So, Biafrans were used to walking long distances; most times, on empty stomach. Apart from that, as I said earlier, death was very cheap; death was staring everybody in the face. So, it was extreme hardship all through. I can tell you that as a young man, I never believed that Biafra would not survive. But I guess elderly people knew it would be difficult for Biafra to win the war.
Where were you and how did you feel when you heard that the war was over?
We were at a place called Oguta II in the present-day Imo state, when the news broke that the war was over. When this happened, some of the senior soldiers ran away. Some of them addressed junior officers on the development before everybody dispersed. After the address, we had to trek from Oguta in Imo state to Neni in Anambra state. It took us about 36 hours to get to our town because everybody was used to walking long distances. On the question of how I felt when the war ended, I will tell you that nobody in Biafra was happy that we lost the war; because, nobody knew what was going to happen to us. It was all apprehension in the air.
How did you feel immediately you arrived home, seeing destructions and all the things ravaged by war?
There was not much destruction in Neni because, the war did not get to the town. There was tension everywhere as everybody was looking forward to the return of their relations that joined the army. It was a period of stock-taking. Who has come back and who has not come back? After a period of time, it dawned on some people that they had lost their loved ones who did not make their way back home.
Almost 50 years that the war was declared ended, do you think Nigerians have been able to address the issues that led to the war?
Like I told you before, the war neither started July, 1967 nor ended January, 1970. The war continued in different ways and in different styles. Considering the killings and injustices meted on the then Biafra people in Nigeria today, would one say that the war is over? Considering the obvious marginalisation, wanton killings, abductions and shooting of guns in all nooks and crannies of the country, would you say that the war has ended? People are still killing their brothers. Every day, you hear of Boko Haram, herdsmen menace, kidnapping and abductions. All these go to reinforce my belief that the war has not ended; until the country is able to enthrone equity, justice and equal rights.
Considering the situation of Igbo people in the present-day Nigeria, would you support IPOB and MASSOB in having a separate entity called Biafra?
The most painful thing about the war is that people are twisting history, as if the war was about Igbo people. Of course, that was what Nigerians want to tag it, but it was not. It was Eastern Nigeria that wanted to secede. You are now saying IPOB, MASSOB and Igbo; it remains the same painful misinformation about the war.
On whether I support IPOB and MASSOB on their agitation, what do you want me to say? Everywhere you go in Nigeria, you see marginalisation, inequity and bloodshed, and they are not limited to the Igbo; but people choose to deceive themselves. But don’t you think they are coming to the end? Even the people who think they are not marginalised are even more marginalised than the Igbo people. So, who is free? It is just like holding a person on the ground; once the person is on the ground, you are also on the ground because, once you stand up, the person will also leave the ground. When you pin somebody down, you pin yourself down also. We need to interrogate our situation in Nigeria. If we had to go our different ways, let us separate peacefully, the reason being that human life is very precious. We should not continue to kill ourselves. We must introduce equity. If equity means everybody and every section going their own ways, let it be so. If we had to stay together and maintain equity, justice and fair play, so be it. But as things are going in Nigeria today, we cannot deceive ourselves that we are one Nigeria; something must give!
“The war had been there even before independence, and the war is still there till date. The war did not start in 1967, and did not end in 1970. The war between the two groups had been there before 1967 and has continued after 1970. The then Biafra people are still being made to undergo horrible experiences in the present-day Nigeria; so, the war has not ended until the country is able to enthrone equity, justice and equal rights.”