…Community leader decries civil war saboteur stigma
…Says Nigerian, Biafran soldiers attacked Nsukka indigenes
…Recalls what Nzeogwu told Ojukwu
Fifty years after the bloody Nigeria/Biafra civil war, an Nsukka community leader who experienced bitter side of the, John Alumona speaks on the fate that befell the university town of Nsukka during the crisis.
He narrated his account of how the federal forces stepped into Biafran land through Nsukka axis which shares boundary with the North and how the war pitched Nsukka communities against military authorities on both sides. His vivid account to Emma Nnadozie is not only instructive but illuminating. Excerpts:
What are your recollections about the Nigeria/Biafra civil war?
“The Nigeria/ Biafran Civil war ended with no victor, no vanquished mantra but memories and scars of the civil war still hang on communities that were devastated by the ravages of the war. One of such towns is Nsukka. The popular Army barracks at Ogurugu road, Nsukka came into being through the then Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the then Governor of Eastern region who pulled away from the Nigerian army in 1967 to declare the defunct Biafran Republic. He formed his own army to secure the republic known as Biafra.
The Biafran army came down to Nsukka and told our people, the elders, that Nsukka was the boundary axis of Nigeria, also that Nsukka extraction were more or less northerners and the boundary that linked different states of the country. Immediately Ojukwu declared the Biafran Republic, he made himself a General but while in the Nigerian army, he was a Lieutenant Colonel. Soon after speaking to Nsukka people, he acquired Agu-Echara now known and called army barracks purely for the Biafra army.”
What happened after the acquisition?
“After the acquisition, nothing was paid because everybody was afraid of the army. The barracks was for the rank and file, officer’s quarters and the shooting range. Within the side of Echara axis is where there was a field and the rank and file quarters. Then Amenu, Edem axis bounded by Echara community lands was where the Biafra army had the officer’s quarters while the shooting range was at the axis of Ozzi Edem. The training and recruitment of the Biafran army was going on there normally in preparation for the onslaught of the civil war. Ojukwu was massively supported when he declared Biafran republic which had to go with military base in Nsukka.”
After the Biafran army settled there, what happened?
“As the Biafran army settled in Nsukka, Major General Yakubu Gowon countered the move by stating unequivocally that Nigeria must be one nation and that he never believed in the Republic of Biafra. Gowon galvanized the federal troops and engaged the secessionists. Ojukwu on his part, prepared for the war, assuring that nothing would happen. He vowed that the East would fight till the last man. Nsukka people suffered an untold hardship during the civil war. They were providing food for the Biafran soldiers with one common spirit; united we stand. Nsukka did everything possible to see that Biafran soldiers were not starved. The army barrack was built voluntarily, people were happy and each person contributed whatever he could afford in terms of manpower to see that the barrack was built. The barrack was ready and occupied by the Biafran army within three months.”
How the Federal troops came into Biafran territory
“When our people took food to the soldiers at the barracks, unknown to them that Nigerian army had taken over, they were arrested. The Nigerian army came into Nsukka through Okpuje, Okutu and Odoru-Igalla neighboring communities. It was Ifeajuna who asked the Nigerian army to follow that route which is the shortest entry point to Nsukka from the northern part of the country.
The only resistance was from the civilian populace at Okutu that dug gutters and trenches to prevent the men with machine gun. Biafran soldiers were moved out of Nsukka, There was no resistance or gun shots when they came in. The federal troops came and fell into ditches; they mobilized and swept the defenseless civilians at Okutu which were the first casualties recorded at Nsukka. At Okutu community then, the elderly ones were wiped out completely. The few surviving ones at Okutu scampered to neighboring Okpuje, Anuka etc.”
How did Biafran side react to the invasion of Nsukka?
“Ojukwu gnashed his teeth in disgust of total disappointment and said that the Nsukka people brought the Nigerian army, branded every Nsukka man a saboteur. He wickedly accused Nsukka people of not doing anything to repel the advancing force of the Nigerian army. He did not look inwards to know what was happening with the military he set up, and then branded every Nsukka man, a saboteur. Nsukka suffered immensely during the war.
Ojukwu did not think well when he engaged in the war. It was when the war got to Onitsha, that it dawned on him to set a probe to know exactly what was wrong with his men. It was at that probe that Ifeajuna was indicted, arrested, court marshaled but it was too late for the Biafran army. Even Ifeajuna told the people that his plans worked out and that he had no regrets for his action before he was shot.
Nsukka suffered because they did not know that the Nigerian army had surrounded the whole town. People thought that the federal troops would pass away for them to settle down but they ended up scampering to farmlands without food and water, then kawshiokor set in killing people in droves. Some of the Nsukka men that braved to come and take some food stuff were shot by soldiers who dug trenches at major entry points yet, Ojukwu and other Biafrans kept on maltreating our people even in battle fields, calling them saboteurs.
Many of our promising young men died as a result of this unwarranted stigma and not necessarily in the hands of the advancing Nigerian troops. Till date, the stigma still lingers as the Nsukka man is still branded contemptuously as Northern Igbos. But we don’t care because truth is constant. The Biafran Soldiers killed all known Nsukka peoples of Northern roots, so the whole Nsukka became target of attacks by soldiers, even those with tribal marks on their faces were killed, and branched saboteur so also Nsukka Serikis and Muslims. The Nigerian army came again and embarked on massive killings.
Are you saying that Ojukwu did not prepare for the war?
“Ojukwu thought he prepared for the war but it was very unfortunate that Chukwuma Nzeogwu died. Nzeogwu told Ojukwu inter alia; that it was too early to go into the war at the time but he could not listen and embarked on full scale war empty handed. As an infantry man, Nzeogwu told Ojukwu that war does not go by propaganda but Ojukwu believed that iroko trees, grasses and buildings would fight which was a pigmentation of the civil war. There was no weapon to engage in a full war but Ojukwu never agreed.”
What role did other Igbo elites, students play?
“Immediately the war was declared without weapons, students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, trooped en masse and joined the Biafran army bare-handed and were swept out at Opi junction. One scenario played out that time; they say Abiriba people would fight with machetes which never flowed as people were shot at the first move in an attempt to fight with machetes. It was a disaster; Igbo were deceived to go into that war.
The Aburi Accord was when the entire nation was in flames, not that the war was rooted on the failure of the accord. Both Gowon and Ojukwu interpreted the Aburi Accord differently to suit their desires. Both men were fighting over superiority. Ojukwu acquired Agu-Echara Nsukka, Amenu Edem and Ozzi Edem lands for his military purposes which the Nigerian army took over. As Gowon requisitioned the land, Nigerian army occupied the place till 1976. Gowon said since the war ended on no victor, no vanquished basis, “every other thing returns to its status quo.”
What were other vestiges of the war in Nsukka sector?
“The Nigerian army was asked to go back to their former barracks. If the army had continued to stay at Agu-Echara, it would amount to illegality. When the army left, the land remained unoccupied till when I became the chairman, Echara land committee in 2003. Then, I told my people that we had to go into dialogue with the Nigerian army and the government. The Nigerian army left after several years of occupation of the lands at Agu-Echara.
My people appointed me chairman of the land committee. A state cannot acquire barracks mostly when it is contentious. The land was contentious in the sense that federal government did not acquire the land, it was acquired illegally by an illegal government, and then we queried the Nigerian army to have handed over the land to Enugu state government since it was not acquired by the federal government. We instituted an action, sued the Nigerian army to court, first at the federal high court and later to Nsukka high court because they were agitating on jurisdiction.
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After going through our statements of claims and amended statements, the army came up with verdict that there was no need pursuing the matter. The army is an army of records. They agreed that they made mistake inter alia; by handing over the land to the state government, then decided that the land should go back to Echara, Amenu-Edem and Ozzi-Edem communities. The army asked our lawyers and theirs to go back to court and formalize the necessary papers and bring out the case in court.
We thank the Nigerian army for understanding and a straight record of the place was entered, and the land reclaimed. Echara community upon appointing the land committee, issued power of attorney to the committee and upon that, we presently stand. I pray and wish that Nigeria shall never see war again; because bullets, rockets, war machine know nobody. Let us pray for Oneness, love for one another and mutual respect for human dignity for the good of all in Nigeria Amen.