By Jacob Ajom
I was too young, too timid and ill-informed to know the time, date, month or year. Like many other kids in our village, I was just a timid African child growing up in a remote Boki village, Arangha, in Isobendeghe, far flung from the theatre of war.
My village is in Boki Local Government Area of present Cross River State. Boki was a people balkanised between Ogoja, Ikom and Obudu – all in Ogoja Province with Ikom holding the larger portion of Boki. We had Boje, where present day Boki Local Government headquarters is located as the administrative headquarters of Boje Touring Area.
The Admin Officer then reported to the Divisional Officer in Ikom. That is just by the way as I knew nothing about the administrative structure. All I can remember is that there was a war between Nigeria and Biafra. The two most popular figures then were Gowon and Ojukwu. Both of them young army officiers in their prime.
The war was so politicised and tribalised that all I knew then was that it was a war between Hausa (Nigeria) and Igbo (Biafra). All the other tribes involved in the conflict were either sympathisers to or followers of the two major actors. While Gowon represented the Hausas (federal), Ojiukwu represented Biafra (the secessionists).
Before then, Nigeria had been one. As a child, I remember seeing pictures of politicians in almanacs. It was a period I grew so attached to almanacs. I had special likeness for almanacs as faces of great men like Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sar’duana of Sokoto, Sir Tafawa Balewa, Aminu Kano, Chief Michael Okpara, Chief Osadebe, Chief Matthew Tawo Mbu (The Star of Ogoja), Michael Ogon, among others tickled me. I didn’t care about their offices, I would just stare at the pictures hung on the wall. It was also very fashionable to have almanacs in your room or parlour.
Suddenly we haeard a war had broken out. Incidentally, the first gun shot was fired at Gakem, a border town between Cross River in Ogoja axis and Benue (Vandykia axis). We heard stories of how the Igbos were killing the hausas in one breath and in another breath stories would come of how the Igbo territories were falling to the hausa forces. From our remote community, the only means of getting information was through the good, old transistor radio. I can’t remember if I had seen a newspaper as radio was the only means of information from the outside world. Even the radio was scarce as only a few homes could boast radio sets. Most often, information from the radio was distorted as listeners were either half educated or not educated at all.
And so the story of the war was received from different perspectives. The Biafran radio, piloted by the irrepressible Okoko Ndem kept the airwaves busy with first class propaganda – of how federal troops were being decimated by the Bifran soldiers; how Bifra was advancing to the west and so forth. The Nigerian radio was also pouring out its own messages of how they were crushing the rebels and were ready to take over the entire eastern Nigeria from the grips of the rebels.
It must be noted that, apart from the core Igbo-speaking territory of eastern Nigeria, the minorities were torn between supporting the Biafran cause and the federal troops. This division cascaded down to the local communities. We had a certain King in Isobendeghe. He was Otu Felix Osor Bobua, simply called Otu Osor. Surprisingly, Otu Osor was so enlightened that he commanded a lot of reverence from his subjects. His word was law and he carried himself with such aura that he ruled with an iron fist. He was a member of the Eastern House of Chiefs and brought home all the stories about the Biafran agenda. He was clearly a sympathiser of the Biafran cause and wanted his subjects to belong to Biafra. Through his influence Isobendeghe became a theatre of the absurd. Biafran troops would come on patrol and once they left a day or two after, federal troops would arrive. Yet we were on the fringes of the real battle fronts.
In one of the community meetings, Otu Osor decreed that all the Isobendeghe villages must contribute money to be forwarded to Biafra. There were some discordant tunes among his chiefs as some villages, like Arangha, my village refused to forward their contribution for the ‘common’ cause. Otu Osor brought in Biafran soldiers and went round the villages and picked some opinion leaders and took them away. As much as I can remember, some of the Arangha village leaders taken away included Mr Jerome Obon(my father), Papa Daniel Okure, Papa Joseph Ogar Owan and Papa George Obim, all are now late. There were others from other Isobendeghe villages that were arrested and taken to Ikom prison. Some were released within days of their arrest but my father and Pa Joseph Owan were detained until the Arangha community contributed 55 pounds and sent to Ikom before they were released.
My father’s arrest could not have been possible if it were today. He was not at home when the Biafran troops got to the village. As a hunter and farmer, my man was to stay a whole week in the bush hut from where he would go for his daily affairs. When the soldiers came and asked after him, the community had to detail two men, like palace guards we watch in Nollywood movies, to the bush to go fetch him. He was brought home within hours and taken away. That was the power of the gun and the timidity of the people then. I doubt if it could have been possible if the same scenario repeats itself today.
The situation in Isobendeghe was intriguing. Each time someone from another community brought news of invading soldiers, the locals ran into the bush. In the course of one of such escapes to the bush, we got to a small river which had overflown its banks because of a heavy downpour the previous night. A tree trunk that crossed the river was the only bridge available to the fleeing villagers. One woman who had just put to bed a few days earlier got to the river. While crossing the ‘bridge’, she fell inside the water with her baby strapped to her body in a sling. She and her baby were eventually rescued before they could get drowned.
The war eventually took its toll on Isobendeghe community, when the Biafran soldiers, with the consent of the notorious Otu Osor raided Alike and Awong Villages and took away about 12 young men, I guess for conscription. One of the men taken away was from Arangha, Thomas Abang who owned a shop at Alike.
He was taken from under the bed where he was hiding and taken away. Incidentally, there was a Civil Defence Corps in Isobendeghe, which belonged to the federal government. We were told they pursued the vehicle that conveyed the arrested youths and the Biafran troops.
The story was that the Civil Defence personnel threw a hand grenade at the moving vehicle which exploded in a big ball of fire and the vehicle and the Biafran soldiers all perished there. But all that was discovered to be fake news as the Bifran troops successfully carried out their mission and left unharmed. Till date, the conscripted youths never returned.
It caused so much row in the community. Otu Osor went into exile at Ntamante, another Boki Community and lived there till long after the civil war. He made frantic efforts to reconcile with the Isobendeghe people. Although he returned to his birth place, his full reintegration was never achieved. Families of those who lost their loved ones never forgave him. He was isolated and stigmatised and eventually, he died in sorrow.
On the lighter mood, the civil war brought to our consciousness the joy of military adventurism. Children in each of the villages organised themselves into militia groups. We had complete commands with leaders, some of who eventually became soldiers.
One of them is retired and lives there in the village. He is Chief Cletus Agbor(Old Soldier). We would dress in leaves, using well carved calabash as helmets. We carved guns out of wood in which we inserted improvised iron pipes. We also used bamboo and limestone as artillery. Innocently, we would “wage war” against neighbouring villages.
We played war games until the elders banned the passtime, which they claimed was not good enough for the times. It was a comic escape from the reality on ground. For the youth, it was an adventure as we mimicked the real battles where millions of lives were lost.
The civil war also saw the first batch of Isobendeghe sons being recruited into the Nigerian army. In my village, Arangha the first set of youths who furthered their fancy for the new exciting, but dangerous profession, the army included Daniel Owan, John Ogar (now the clan head of Isobendeghe), his younger brother Fidelis Ogar, Demort Eban Besong, Robert Odu, Cletus Agbor(now a chief), Ignatius Nyiam, among others.
Those were from my village, Arangha. There were more from the other villages also thet I did not know. Some of them jumped ship and returned prematurely. Others lasted till the end of the war. Today, some are dead. Only a few of them are still alive.
While the war lasted, each time any of them came home it was a huge party in the community. On one of such occasions, a holidaying soldier named Dakim Danyia, a sergeant then was partying. He was a very good singer but drinks had the better of him.
With his rifle in his hand, he was singing and dancing on the street among the villagers. He attempted to fire the rifle into the sky when suddenly, in a flash, the hand failed him and the rifle faced downwards. He pulled the trigger and fired into his right leg. The crowd scattered in fear as the soldier, who was in his full military regalia fell flat in the pool of his own blood. Heavy commotion ensued as many thought he had killed himself.
DD was rushed to a hospital in Ikom. Eventually, he was amputated and ended up in crutches. He retired and later died with one leg.
The war created a lot of social dislocation as some Isobendeghe men and women who were either working or living far away from home were trapped. Those who managed to return were celebrated. Each returnee brought home tales of woe. Tales of hunger, fear and long treks, etc. The return of one raises hope that others too would come home safely.
One Mr Oliver Obi Tangban, OOT, was a teacher who was based in Abakalike, which was one of the heavily affected centres of the war. He had with him his family and dependants. On the night they returned, the entire community stayed awake till the next day.
It was an experience no one want to pass through anylonger. War is an evil wind that blows no one any good. Nigeria.