When people talk about yet another Biafra, I laugh.- Nzekwu
Mr Godwin Uba Nzekwu was born in 1943, in the family of Mr Benjamin Nzekwu from OmozelleUmuezearoli, Onitsha. He attended Central Primary School and ModebeSecondary School, both in Onitsha. After the war in 1970, he travelled to Kano for greener pastures and joined the banking system from which he went into teaching, staying there for six years before moving to thefederal ministry of information as an information officer in 1977. He worked in Enugu, Onitsha, Abakaliki and new Anambra (Awka) where he retired in 2007 as a senior information officer. He, here, tells his experience in the war during this interview with UCHENNA EZEADIGWE.
Can you recall exactly where and when you were, when you had there was an outbreak of civil war?
By way of background, the civil war started in 1967 and we had a problem before it started.There had been what we call pogrom in which a lot of people were killed in the north because of the January 1966 coup that was perceived as unbalanced. Major General JTUAguiyi-Ironsi became the head of state after that coup in which Sir Ahmadu Bello who was the Sardauna of Sokoto and premier of the country’s northern region, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the prime minister and finance minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Ebo were killed.It was seen as an Igbo coup because it was led by mostly Igbo army officers. After the coup, Ironsi made a decree for a centralised government that greatly watered down the existing federal structure. Sensing that they would not be able to cope in the new arrangement because of their relative disadvantage in education, northerners opposed the new decree and planned a counter coup where Ironsi was killed along with the governor of western states. This was the initial way the war started and I was about 20years when I finished secondary school in 1965 and I went to kano in search of job because there was no job. After sometime I was in Onitsha when the problem started.The northerners had started killing Igbos in the north. I was a civilian from 1967 to 1969 when I entered the Red Cross Society just to avoid joining the fighting forces. About two months before the end of the war, I was conscripted into the army and I had my training at Igbariam from there we went to the 11 Divisional Headquarters at Nnewi. I didn’t go to the war front. I was there treating and assisting the wounded.
At what point did the war reach your area and where were you on that day?
I was at Onitsha and one day we were somewhere discussing the war which started from Nsukka far away from where we were and we never believed they hadoverrun Nsukka.Suddenly, we began to hear heavy sounds emanating from the western side which is from Nsukka. Shelling and bombardment came from almost every angle and people scampered for safety. I couldn’t understand what was going on until after some hours.Everywhere went cold. Then we realised that the war had really started and, in the evening, when we came out from our hiding place at Inland town, we saw many corpses littered on the ground while some were wounded.That was the very first experience I witnessed. It continued till it became unbearable for us and my parents had to pick few things and we left Onitsha.
How did you and your family deal with food challenges and how did you survive the war famine?
It was horrible though we travelled to food producing areas in Anambra west fir food`. At the initial stage we were able to afford some good food until the war became so intense that people started looking for alternatives to food. Rodents were sources of meat/protein including lizards which, at some point, were used for some itshealing properties. Although the food did not last long. At a stage people started suffering due to lack of food and medicine. The Nigerians barricaded the major entrances for bringing in food and such that there was little to eat and drink. Soon disease set in killing mostly the children while the surviving ones were left with kwashiorkor and dysentery. However, the war had a lot of psychological effect on our people because of famine.
Many people engaged in deadly trade known as Afia-Attack during the war; did any of your family participate in it and what were your experiences?
During that period things were difficult because we were barricaded. The Afia Attack started from what we called Biafra 1, and there was what we called Biafra 2. During the war we travelled from Biafra 2 to Biafra 1 to Nigeria because they smuggled some commodities to sell. How do we get the money?We used Biafran pounds while they used British pounds? So, if you wanted to get some commodities, you usually give out wrapper to those women who were involved in the trade. They usually sold those cloths and used the proceeds to buy cigarette, bread, medicines, pomades, salts and any other vital commodity, as the case maybe. It was a very difficult and dangerous business going on that time because many people were killed and even sold into slavery at some point. Many were killed. One hardly saw men participate in the Afia attack; hence, the trade was made solely for women. The reason was that men were seen as illegal commodity because they were caught, they might be conscripted into the army. It got to a stage when 70-year-old men were recruited into the war and so Afia attack was not for the men.
What was it like living through days and nights filled with constant aerial bombardment, shelling and gun fire, with people dying?
You had to be ever alert. There was no sleep because of constant bombardment.You would lie down to sleep and, in the next few minutes,bombardment would start and people would run here and there. People were dying; things were tough and life unpredictable as a result of the bombardment. People suffered because of the harassment during the war. War planes were hovering all-round the eastern states. In fact, it was horrible and terrible, I haven’t seen such an ugly situation and will never pray it happens again. That is why when you people are talking about Biafra, I laugh. So many people took their lives because they did not want to experience the war. Those that had people in authority escaped the war.
Can you recall some of your relatives and friends that died during the war?
There was hardly any family that did not have a story to tell concerning losing a dear one during the war. I lost Ernest Okafor my cousin, and so many of them that died. Mostly those I came out from school the same year with; those that went to war. I have my elder brother, though, as an exception – he went to war, fought very well and survived the war.
How did the people of your age relieve tension during the 30years of civil war?
We were still young then and few activities happened just to relieve tension. Often times we could sing, play dramas and dance although at some point we could hear plane coming and missiles flying. Then we could abandon whatever we were doing and scamper for safety.
There where agitation that Nigerian soldiers were brutal to civilians at the height of the war. Did you witness such incidents of torture, rape?
Normally we did it and they did it too because we were at war. Soldiers could come in a particular place and kill everyone on sight or even rape the women there. The Biafran soldiers did it and Nigerian soldiers also did it. If it happens thatsoldiers station around your area, they will take advantage of what is happening in that area. Rape was rampant, not to talk about torture and some cases you had a human being drained of blood and left to die. Those blood were used to treat other wounded soldiers or kept at the blood bank. There was torture on both sides. The only people who escaped the brutal activities of the civil war were those who have people in higher positions or prominent individuals in the society some of whom escaped without much ado.
Can you recall where you were and how you recall that the war has ended
By the end of the war 1970, I was with my mother and her siblings at the farm area, the Ayamelumlocal government area. By then, I had left the 11 Division and re-joined my family before the end of the war. I had a friend called John Emecheta from Onitsha. That fateful day, we were together, as usual relaxing and listening to radio because, at that point we had noticed that the Nigerian Army had withdrawn from constant bombardment and so we heard breaking news Aya e begonu meaning that the war had ended. Obasanjo was the person that went for the negotiation and we learnt that Ojukwu had left. We have to trek back to Onitsha from Omoh and it was terrible because, as you went, you saw dead rotten bodies all over the bush paths, some with their guns and machetes. When we returned to Onitsha after the war, Onitsha, the once bubbling city we left behind when the Nigerian troops invaded it, we could hardly recognise it. It had been a war front and the telltale signs were evident all over. Everything was totally destroyed and thick forest had overtaken many parts of the city. At the point, we were so happy though snakes and other reptiles took over most abandoned buildings. So, we had to settle at Fegge from where we went to our village to clear the debris of war and within some time my parents were able to fix our building.
How did you feel the first time you returned home and what did you meet the first time you returned Onitsha?
I was so happy when we returned, it was as if a new dawn had come. At first when we arrived, we met snakes, wild animals, demolished buildings, corpses, burnt vehicles, shops, just name them. A lot of properties worth millions were destroyed and we had to start from the cradle to clean up the area, rebuild what was damaged. Some of the returnee survivors were unable to locate their houses but, at a time, they settled down somewhere. I thank God I was alive.
Can you recall some of the properties you lost when you returned from the war?
We lost our house and farm, including our bicycle. My brother’s house was alsodestroyed. Though my parents never had a car, my uncle who had one never returned to see it again. It vanished and so was his father’s house razed down.In fact, war is bad and never will I support it.
Almost 49 years after the war ended, do you think that the Nigerian government has addressed the issues that led to
the Nigerian civil war?
I can’t actually say what is happening because it is all politics. They said no victor no vanquished, but we are being cheated. I know some of us returned to their normal jobs and nothing happened to them, nobody was sacked.All of them were returned back and we worked together. However, they tried, they didn’t kill us because every one of us was tagged a rebel because we were fighting against the government whichconstitution stated that no unit will separate from the country. What they were supposed to do they have not done it. The issue is that they now have upper hand and that is why we are being marginalised. To me, they have not addressed the issue. I could recall when the war ended that one of the people who had millions in the bank was given 20 pounds.
As someone who lived through such a terrible period, would you subscribe to current clamour for succession of southeast from Nigeria as Biafra State?
For me, because of the experience I have I don’t want war.If it will be easy to get Biafra we will have it but if it is through war of forceful take over, I can’t subscribe to it because of the suffering we had because we decided to separate from Nigeria.The whole Biafran states then have been fragmented and so we will find it very difficult to survive any kind of disintegration. We don’t know what is happening or what will happen in the near future but for now let everyone be calm and steadfast in prayer. Is it the five states that will be created as Biafra? That is a proposal which is not possible except Nigeria disintegrates and every tribe goes her way? That is the only recipe that will enable us to know peace.