My Biafra war story 50 years on
By Onochie Anibeze
Professor Pat Utomi describes the genocide as only second to the holocaust. And this happened on our shores. As JP Clark aptly put it in his poem, The casualties, the casualties were not only those who died. Many of us were. Millions were killed. Pregnant women were decapitated. Innocent civilians mowed down. I am one of those John Pepper Clark wrote about in his poem.
On Monday, it will be 50 years since the Nigerian civil war ended.
In many other climes, there would be stupendous national events to mark it. Public and private institutions would almost be competing with programmes to mark it. The government would play key roles and the media would be awash with these events most of which will centre on the causes of the war, how it was fought, how it ended and most importantly the lessons from it. This could largely guide against another war, teach history to the young ones and possibly guide our thoughts.
But unfortunately, there were no signs, as at Thursday evening, that government was planning anything to commemorate the end of the civil war, a war that claimed millions of lives, a war that made headline news all over the world, a war that retold our history. BAD.
However, it is interesting that Nzuko Umuna and Ndigbo Lagos, two Igbo groups, in collaboration with some Civil Society Organisations, are organising a conference tagged NEVER AGAIN to mark NIGERIAN CIVIL WAR: 50 YEARS AFTER.
NEVER AGAIN as a title, as a theme attracted me. It made me remember the piece I dedicated to my father, Sylvester Chidobu Anibeze in 2008 to mark his remembrance. He was killed during the pogrom in the north. I was only six years then. That instantly made me a victim. Nigeria could not manage the crisis in the north that led to massive killings. The result was a three-year bloody war.
As part of my contribution to the NEVER AGAIN Conference and the few activities to mark 50 years of the end of the war, I present below the piece I wrote then. It was an account of a toddler as told in his adulthood. I deliberately did not seek input from more informed siblings in my elder brothers, Moses and Professor Chike Anibeze. I wanted it as innocent as possible. It delighted me that Chike commended my recollection and scored it high.
It pains that election malpractices, nepotism, corruption, tribalism and other vices that led to the war are even more pronounced today. It pains that the Igbo who bore the brunt of the war have not recovered from the humiliation. The war-battered them so much that most withdrew from the national course, struggling for family survival and caring less about national politics.
Yes, many have been playing some political games but the truth is that the majority lost interest in the politics of the nation. Today, those who truly advance their course are very few. This informs the leadership problem Igbo have today. The civil war is largely responsible.
It would take generations to repair the damage. Unfortunately, the circumstances of today are not healing the wounds. But this is a story for another day. On Monday, January 13, marks 50 years the war ended. There will be prayers in some churches tomorrow. In Lagos, many will gather at the Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Phase 1, Lekki to pray for the souls of the departed. On Monday, Professor Pat Utomi and Professor Wole Soyinka are billed to deliver keynote speeches at the Muson Centre. President Olusegun Obasanjo is expected as Special Guest of Honour.
Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, the Ooni of Ife, Alhaji Mohammed Sa’ad Abubakar 111, Sultan of Sokoto, His Royal Highness, Mohammadu Sanusi 11, Emir of Kano, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe, the Obi of Onitsha, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe RTD, are among the dignitaries expected in the occasion that Professor Anya O Anya will chair.
Yes, many fear that Nigeria could be drifting towards anarchy, many fear that democracy is dying, many say that Nigeria has never been as divided as it is now. While many will agree and some disagree, NEVER AGAIN should we fight another war. It is better to part peacefully than to do so violently. NEVER AGAIN should we fight again? Let’s stop the killings, let’s stop nepotism, let true democracy reign in our land. Nobody who experiences war looks forward to another one. Please, read my Biafran war story as first told in 2008 and titled WHERE IS MY FATHER?
Shortly before the Nigerian civil war ended, I found myself admiring a Madison Gun a soldier dropped beside me in my mother’s restaurant. He was eating there at Nkwo-Agana in Olo in Enugu State. I was always there to wash plates and assist in any way that I could.
Nkwo-Agana was one of our last points in the race to survive the war. Before then, we had traversed many places in the east, running for our dear lives. The war between Biafra and Nigeria was on and Biafra was always on the defensive as the war was mostly fought in their territory. The Federal troops had been ordered to massacre the secessionists and ensure Biafra never existed. In carrying out this order, their guns felled many including civilians. It was a war without discipline. Everybody was a target. We kept on running for safety. Moses is our elder brother, the firstborn of my parents. I did not know where he was. The next, Thomas, I remember seeing from time to time until he was conscripted to join the army.
Joining the army meant 70 per cent chance of meeting death. Many were trained for a day or two and the next day they were sent to the battlefront. I was a kid but I knew because I was later to live in an army camp near a war front. I will return to this shortly. How could Thomas join the army at 16 or thereabout? That was a sure death certificate. It was not what our mother, Cordelia Ogbonne Anibeze, could stand again.
In 1966, our father, Sylvester Chidobu Anibeze, brought his entire family to the East for a three-month vacation. He worked in Nigeria Railways then. That decision turned out to be our saving grace today. God influenced it.
But the great man did not live to see his family grow. Shortly after our arrival in Enugu, the pogrom started. He returned to Kano to sort out a few things. For days, months and years we waited for him to return. There were stories of some victims returning a year or two after and telling stories of how they survived in the forests. We were hopeful that he would be one of them. 42 years on, Sylvester Chidobu Anibeze, the great man never made it back. We never saw him again.
It fell on our mother to father us too. She was ready to face any difficulty but not to battle another death in our family. She would not stand Thomas joining the army. Off, she went in search of her son. She armed herself with her rosary. She prayed, embarked on the journey by foot and canoe. She finally found him in a military camp, begged, explained his age and told them her story.
God heard her prayers and they released Thomas to her. Charlie and Chike were always together, like two central defenders in a football team. They were once close to death. There had been a stampede following heavy shooting and explosions in town. It was usual for them. And the common thing was to run into bunkers as we usually did at Umuahia, another town we had run to at the time.
Anytime a town fell to the enemies, people moved to another place. I remember the trip to Umuahia was on foot. I can’t remember from which town. It was probably Okigwe. But here, we were at Nkwo-Agana and the shooting was so heavy that moments after, the town was deserted.
The Federal troops had taken over the place. Charlie and Chike had run into the bush while thousands had to flee the town. My brothers thought the attack was from air raids. There were occasions jets bombarded towns, releasing bombs that felled many. As I said, the practice in some cases, was to wake up in the morning and resign into the bunkers to avoid bullets or bombs from air raids. But the bunkers could not take all. And they were not everywhere. Charlie and Chike escaped into the bush to return later.
They did not know the town had fallen and everybody had gone except the bodies scattered here and there. When, late in the evening, they stepped out and tried to walk down the road, they could have walked into death if not for their alertness and survival instincts that the war made all to develop.
The town was dead and they wondered why people were not out after the supposed air raid. But to their greatest shock, they sighted a massive troop of Nigerian soldiers near the market place. If any of the soldiers sighted them or suspected any movement around them, directing bullets to that area would have been the simplest reaction. Like lightening, they dashed back into the bush and started a journey that they did not know their direction. They just ran, walked, ran all night, not really knowing where they were headed.
Luckily, they hit a road, saw a bicycle probably abandoned by a fleeing person who probably couldn’t ride a bicycle on the terrain. The road was bumpy and winding. Running on foot could be faster. My mother and Vivian, our parents’ last born had escaped in time to another town. Nobody knew where Thomas and Moses were. When a city fell, people escaped to different directions, some died and it took some time to trace their families again.
What about myself? The man who had come to eat in my mother’s restaurant and whose gun I admired had taken me away to live with him. While he ate that day, I tried to lift the gun. He laughed and asked if I could shoot a gun. I said yes if taught how to do so. “Would you like to stay with me and experience military life?”, he asked. I jumped at the offer. But I heard my mother shout to cow me out of such an idea. I burst into tears and cried so loud that she said I could go if that was what I wanted. The next day the man came and I was off to a camp I can’t recollect now. But it was near a war front as gunshots and heavy artillery explosions remained sporadic and sometimes consistent. From time to time, soldiers were taken from our camp to the war front. If 100 soldiers, for example, went to war, only about 30 returned. Those who have not experienced war should never long for it.
This is my warning to Nigeria. Any time Sunday (the name of my army guardian) was listed among those to go to the battlefront, I cried. He would always pat me at the back and say “don’t cry, just pray for me. I’ll be back. I really experienced military life. I did not know the rank of my guardian but he was a senior officer, going by the treatment he received. My job was simply to collect his food and wash the plates after a meal. I collected food from senior officers table in the dining hall, so I knew he was a senior officer. I saw soldiers court-martialed, I saw Biafran army engineers work on explosives like Ogbunigwe, the Biafran made bomb. They were stored in the bunkers.
When rains wet-ted them they were usually opened. Inside were pieces of metals, nails, sharp objects and something that appeared like sand but which I later, in life realised was gunpowder. Ogbunigwe (meaning massive destroyer or killer) was ignited simply by drawing the cable from the explosive to make contact with that from an arranged pack of batteries.
It was usually planted in strategic places where enemies were expected to pass through. Those who fought the way on the side of the federal government would be in a better position to describe how destructive Ogbunigwe was. It is unfortunate that Nigeria failed to sustain and develop that potential after the war. This is a different story.
One day, Sunday went to the war front. It was the last time I saw him. He probably died in the front or escaped from the army as things were really getting tougher for the Biafrans towards the end of the war. They lacked a supply of arms and ammunition. But he couldn’t have done so, knowing how brave he was and knowing that he could have taken me back to my mother before that. We retreated to a smaller unit when the federal troops closed in.
The Biafran troops dispersed from that unit overtook the area the federal troops came from and launched a heavy attack on a night myself and two other kids in the camp were kept not too far away from the battleground. I didn’t know what life meant then. It is when I reflect back now that I realise how close to death I was. Biafran troops recovered Nkwo-Agana and Thomas came to take me away from the military. Unfortunately, he did not see Sunday to thank him for keeping me while he lived.
This is partly my war story. Everybody then had his. I am telling this story today in honour and in memory of my father whose Remembrance/burial we are marking tomorrow. Today, I dedicate my column to the man who could have probably charted a different course for us all if he lived. But only God knows what it could have been like.
We thank God for His Mercies. We thank God for our mother who suffered, toiled, did everything humanly possible to train us. Cordelia Ogbonna Anibeze is the greatest human I have known in life. It is now that I look back and I wonder how she coped with six children during and after the war. It was not easy after the war, either.
We had to go to school. There is a notion that children brought up by single mothers lack discipline and are exposed to wayward life. My mother tried to prove this school of thought wrong and probably overdid things. She was a strict disciplinarian and one can write a book on her various canes and styles of applying them. Domestic work was general and today. I’m better for it for no woman can dazzle me with cooking.
The spirit of Sylvester Chidobu Anibeze has been praying for us and God has never looked back in guiding us. We have never known any death in our immediate family since he left. We give glory to God for His mercies. We remain great testimonies of God’s wonders. This is not only about my father. It is also about celebrating God’s work through our mother who unlike many parents in my time of growing up, was not against any of her children taking to sports.
She supported me while I tried to be a professional footballer. She only reminded me that the benefits of sportsmen were usually prizes like towels, buckets, trophies and in some cases little money even in their fame and stardom. I succeeded in convincing her that times had changed and she allowed me some limited freedom. But early injury nailed that talent in me.
However, I’m still in the business of sports through sports journalism. That is the sports angle to my story as we welcome guests to our event tomorrow in Agu-Obu Owa in Eazeagu Local Government Area of Enugu State. Come join the Anibezes pay respect to their father who jumped out from the train when they stopped them and were singling out Igbos and slashing their throats. Nobody knows if they got him then or he escaped into the forests and ceased to live after days and weeks of wandering in the bush.
We are among those whose Nigerian story is a sad commentary but who have remained undaunted in the course of Nigeria. We give thanks to God for our mother and our lives. We know that Sylvester Chidobu Anibeze is resting in the BOSOM OF THE LORD.