By Emeka Obasi
We cannot delete our past especially now that insecurity is threatening the polity. About this time 51 years ago, Nigeria was in turmoil. What started as police action became a full blown war when Lt. Gado Nasko powered the first artillery shots that signaled the beginning of the civil war.
Many compatriots need to be reminded that war does not always solve problems. It is also dangerous for a nation to go through civil war twice. Those who pray for another crisis,may not survive it. Part of President Muhammadu Buhari‘s duty is to steer us away from crisis.
Nasko did not look like one that would begin the battle. At the Provincial Secondary School, Bida, some of his mates like Ibrahim Babangida, Abdusalam Abubakar, Sani Bello and Garba Duba felt he was too religious to be a soldier. They thought he would end up in the mosque probably as an Imam.
Nasko’s artillery fire came at exactly 5.30 am on July 6, 1967. The Nigerians attacked Biafra through Garkem, a town that lies 30 miles from Ogoja. Funny enough, Nasko’s former boss, Lt. Col Alex Madiebo,was on the Biafran side and was setting up his new 51 Brigade.
It was when Madiebo visited Garkem under Maj. Patrick Amadi’s First Battalion that the war began. Capt. Chris Udeh, who commanded the Company tasked with the defence of Garkem was indisposed. His second-in-command, Captain Juventus Ojukwu, was also sick. Both were on admission in Ogoja.
Only two Biafran Second Lieutenants were on ground to lead troops in Garkem. What they thought was thunder storm was indeed, artillery fire. Madiebo knew it because he was the first Commander of the Artillery Corps.
Stories from combatants are enough to teach all, eternal lessons which should guide this country’s future. I saw the war as boy living in Biafra. The Army Headquarters was once domiciled in my home town. I have also interacted with combatants. I know a lot of stories which I want to share.
The Biafrans had names for different assault weapons. Mark Four was known as ‘Igbo Kwenu.’ Cetme was called ‘Adamu.’ There was Madison, I think, AK-47, which became ’Guitar Boy.’
Biafra knew the sound of Nigerian gunfire. The rat-tat-tat became ‘kwarapu, kwarapu,’ which meant pack and go. It signaled that Federal soldiers were coming in full force. If the sound ‘unu dum[all of you ] followed it meant that an enemy bomber was operating from the air, killing civilians in hundreds.
Food was a big problem especially for the Biafrans. Richard Afam Magana[Nwa lawyer] who joined the Biafrans in 1968 and fought from Port Harcourt to Owerri and Okigwe under such officers like Maj. Ozoemena Igweze and Capts I.I. Akpunonu and A.C.M. Ewuzie was frank.
He said, ”Anytime we told our Commanding officer we were hungry, his answer was that we had weapons and knew what to do. We would raid Nigerian positions early in the morning especially around Umuguma and would get enough food to feed ourselves and thousands of hungry Biafran civilians. In the evening, we would go back to our trenches, to the amazement of Nigerian troops.”
I had a kinsman, John Hezekiah Onyirioha. He told us a scary story. During one hot battle, some Biafran soldiers ran into serious trouble. Their position was taken over by Nigerians while they hid in a bunker. For weeks, their only source of food was a strange lion.
Every morning, the animal would bring food to the mouth of the bunker in the bush. The day the lion did not turn up, one of the soldiers climbed out only to discover that there were no Nigerians anymore. The man survived the war but was barely able to hear. At times, left in a world of his own, he would simulate battles. Dejected, John Hezekiah, died in penury in the 1980s.
Lt. Col. Godwin Alabi-Isama of the Third Marine Commandos was so hungry, he ate human flesh in Obubra. The locals took him to a quasi freezer where they put Biafrans as meat. Another Marine Commando commander, E.A. Utuk, told Alabi Isama how after soaking garri with his urine in Owerri, the heavens opened up.
Major Magnus Ebubedike told me his story.” I was promoted to the rank of Major in the Biafra Army in December 1969. The war ended in January 1970. I joined Nigeria Air Force as a cadet pilot in October 1970. I quit under family pressure to go to the university. Martin Luther[who died after the Gideon Orkar Coup] was my best friend.”
The war tore families apart. Amadi who later rose to command a division and was promoted Brigadier, was married to Irene, daughter of Mr. Lawrence Amadi, from Owerri. Her sister, Angelina, was the wife of Lt. Col Ignatius Obeya, a Nigerian Third Marine Commando officer, in charge of Port Harcourt Garrison.
GOC of the Third Marine Commandos, Col. Olu Obasanjo, would also choose, Evelyn, one of the Amadi sisters. Their brother, Ambrose, was a Biafra Air Force Officer. He died in a motorbike crash in November 1969.
Talk of Friendly Fire. Maj. Mike Mbonu Ezeteoha, old Boy of Government Secondary School, Afikpo and Best graduating student, Geology, Pioneer of the Universty of Nigeria Nsukka died of friendly fire on New Year Day, 1970. Two weeks later, the war was over. His cousin, Herbert Obi Eze,survived, went back to the Nigeria Army and became Governor of Enugu State in 1990 as a colonel. David Mark and Tunde Ogbeha were Eze’s mates.
One of my cousins had as souvenir, the finger of a soldier he killed in battle. He kept it in his wallet and showed us anytime he returned from battle. We played with live bullets, kids. My younger brother had one lodged in his leg. He survived and would later join the Nigerian Navy.
These are things that we should not witness again. My father told us:’Warsaw saw war, war no more.’