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Three Elephants Of Biafra

By Obi Nwakanma

Enyi o, Enyi o…
Enyi o, Enyi o o…
Enyi Biafra Alaa la –
Enyi Biafra Alaa la –
Chetakwanu Odogwu Achuzia –
Odogwu Achuzia bu Enyi Biafra –
Chetakwanu Mike Okwechime –
Okwechime bu Enyi Biafra –
Chetakwanu Ukwu I. Ukwu –
Ukwu I. Ukwu bu Enyi Biafra
Enyi Biafra alaa la –
Enyi Biafra alaa la…

Three great elephants of the Igbo world who fought fiercely in defence of their homeland, and the dignity of their humanity died, each within days of the other, just like a great relay. And what a great race they ran. In a Nigeria increasingly without authentic heroes, the lives of these three men reflect the meaning of true heroism, and point for this generation, the remarkable quotient of action, and conduct that marked the lives of the best of passing generation, which can be an example for the rest of us. Each of these men deserves a full, sustained, and longer tribute, but the convergence of their death makes for a unique reflection. It is equally symbolic in a powerful way, for these warriors, held together, and determined in very unique ways, the fate of a people, at a crucial time. Thus their passing feels symbolic and weighty; like a march-out parade; a lowering of the flag. This hiss in the mouth of time that signals the end of an era.

I salute the man they called “Hannibal.” Joe Achuzia earned his pips in battle, and like a true war General – the Igbo call them “Ochi Agha” – he stood tall to the end of his days, unbent by defeat. Like the legendary Carthaginian General from whom he took his inspiration, Joe Achuzia fought wide and deep; he got stymied in the mud; but he led his men fearlessly; wherever the battle was hottest, Achuzia was to be found. Born in 1928, of the Ahaba (Asaba) by the Cablepoint, the great Niger was the source of his being. As boys they swam in it; crossed the river frequently to the great market town at Onitsha; went to the legendary St Joseph’s Catholic school, and from there to Kings College, Lagos in 1942. Among the boys he met at the prestigious Kings was a redoubtable boy, Emeka Ojukwu, who came to Kings in 1943 at age 10; the youngest boy for years to be admitted to Kings, but who had a fierce mind of his own, just like “Hannibal” Achuzia. They were among the boys who in the anti-colonial ferment instigated by the great Nationalist leader Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, staged the first schoolboys resistance to colonialism in 1944, resulting in what basically became the first move towards creating an anti-colonial, pan-Nigerian nationalist front. They were youngster inspired by the great political idealism of that era. Ojukwu stood trial as a minor; his millionaire father after that ordeal sent away to boarding school in Epsom. Achuzia finished from Kings, and went on to the UK to study Engineering, and the rest of the years were a mystery, as he clearly received special Forces combat training and was recruited into the Operational Field Services of what might have been the early stages of a shadowy Nigeria’s postcolonial National Intelligence apparatus to conduct international espionage. That early part of Achuzia’s life remains a mystery. But he did establish himself in Port-Harcourt, and by the 1960s was running his own nascent Engineering Company. The war began, and like most Igbo, Achuzia sided with Biafra. The massacre of civilians in his hometown, Asaba, by the Federal Army led by Murtala Muhammad must have fueled his sense of outrage and conviction. He fought like a lion, and his fearlessness earned him the nickname, “Air-Raid Achuzia,” and his military exploits, the name “Hannibal.” Achuzia’s name struck fear in the hearts of fighting men, as well as inspired many a heroic action. There is the legend that he would, in the midst of a fierce battle, wave away bullets saying, “not for me, not for my boys” – and he would sooner shoot a slack soldier on the legs, just to make an example of such a slacker. War was serious business, and it was also death. Achuzia was perhaps after General Ojukwu, the most famous Biafran war commander. He stood to the end in defence of the Igbo even after the war, acting at various times as Secretary-General of Ohaneze, and was a consistent campaigner for justice for the entire Igbo. A true son of the Igbo, Joe “Hannibal” Achuzia deserves his rest among the immortals of the land. When the fullest account of the Biafra war is finally written, it would show that Achuzia ended that war under conditions for which the likes of Tim Onwuatuegwu had to be sacrificed. War was death, and Achuzia understood it fully.

Colonel Mike Okwechime was Obasanjo’s commanding officer in the Army Engineers. He was the first Nigerian to command that group, long before it became the full Corp of Engineers, and established some of its foundational principles. Every professional military Engineer knows that had the crisis of 1966 not happened, and Okwechime still at command, the Nigerian Army Engineers would have been a world class arm of the service. He was a professional to the core, and a formidable soldier. Educated at the Government College, Ughelli of the class of 1948, he and Arthur Unegbe, Yakubu Gowon, Alex Madiebo, and Patrick Anwunah were in the same class at Sandhurst in 1954. Among them should have been John Pepper Clark, in his class at Ughelli, who came to the selection board at Enugu in that cadre, but could not make selection, possibly because of his height. But they were all to make their marks. Okwechime was leading a Nigerian delegation to the Commonwealth games when the July 29 coup that killed Ironsi happened, and he did not return to Lagos. He was among the Midwest officers who returned to Benin to form the Midwest Army – the Fourth Area Command of the Nigerian Army under Colonel Conrad Nwawo with its Headquarters in Benin. As it happened, the Midwest Command was the buffer between the Federal Army and the Biafran forces. In the events leading to war, the Midwest under Colonel Ejoor took a position of neutrality. But it was clearly an untenable situation, with the federal troops already established at Idah, and primed to through the Midwest from Agenebode through Agbor towards the East. To deflate the pressure on its northern borders, and re-take initiative, the Biafrans planned and executed a lightening move through the Midwest, in what is now known as the Midwest campaign, led by General Banjo, clearly with the support of the mainly Igbo officers of the Midwest Area command. That campaign with a planned beachhead got stymied in Ore for all kinds of reasons not within the current purview of this tribute. The Biafrans were dislodged from the Midwest, an in the melee of the entry of the Federal Army, Igbo officers, among the most senior like Okwechime fell back to Biafra, where they fought to the very end of the war, Okwechime becoming the Adjutant-General of the Biafran Army. Years later of course, after the silence of the guns, he became more known as the Chairman of the Nigerian Football Association, and the National Sports Commission, and remained active in the affairs of the Anioma-Igbo.

Poet, Economist, and social theorist, Professor Ukwu was a scholar, and perhaps the finest theorist of the ancient Igbo market systems. He spent much of his academic life at the University of Nigeria, at the Enugu Campus, where for many years he was Director of its famous Center for Development Studies, and where he made significant contributions in the formulation of development ideas that remain relevant to this day. But long before that, Ukwu, who was educated at the Aggrey Memorial Grammar School in Arochukwu and the University College Ibadan, where he studied Geography, and where he was first published as a poet in the poetry magazine, Horn, later earned his PhD at Cambridge, and taught in the department of Geography, University of Ibadan until 1966, when the crisis began. He was active in Biafra, and late in 1968, was appointed by General Ojukwu as Director of the Biafran Organization of Freedom Fighters, BOFF, the Guerilla arm of the Biafran resistance, charged with training and commencing the guerrilla phase of the war, should the formal military options fail. The war was however resolved on a “No victor, No Vanquished” principle, and one of the most strategic actions by Ukpabi Asika in 1970 was to bring into his government, the active forces involved in the Biafran resistance, like Dr. Ukwu I.Ukwu, who became the Commissioner for Education in East Central state, until the end of that regime in 1975. He returned to academic life thereafter. Married to Comfort, one of the first graduates of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s History department, and former Director of the National Museum in Enugu, the Ukwus were a redoubtable cultural presence in the old Eastern capital. It is a remarkable lack of foresight that the organizers of the Ahiajioku Lectures did not invite Professor Ukwu I.Ukwu to give that lecture, or that the Nigerian National Order of Merit put its own claim of merit to question by not honoring a man like Ukwu I. Ukwu, who was formidable, and one of the most distinguished contributors to Nigerian and African social thought in the late modern era. I salute his spirit.


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