James Ojo Adakole
Many years after the Nigerian civil war, Biafran soldiers who survived the war are still in a bitter state due to neglect by the government. Visits to camps of the disabled Biafran war veterans in Enugu and Imo states, would fill you with empathy as you observe their struggles to eke out a living.
One typical example is 70-year-old Alphonsus Nneke Chukwu. From a distance, everything about him suggests that he had been to the warfront before. He staggered out of his apartment at the Disabled Biafran war Veterans Camp, Umunna, Onuimo, Imo State, to talk with Sunday Sun.
Tall, lanky but full of energy, Chukwu is the chairman of the camp. A careful scrutiny shows the brutality of war: a paralyzed left hand, unbalanced posture and various scars all over his body.
“Young man, what did you say is your mission,” he bellowed in a quavering, yet resolute voice. After Sunday Sun reporter explained his mission, he thrust his right-arm into the air and then flashed a grin.
“What you just asked me is not so easy as you think,” he said, this time, his voice soaked with emotion.
“I fought the Biafra war in a big way. We entered the war in a big way and fought in a serious manner because of the invasion. The war was caused by the cruelty of the northerners against the Igbo. They murdered Igbo and did all sorts of evil to them, which the world was supposed to intervene at that time, but they couldn’t. Why they did that, we don’t know even till now.
“I was in Lagos with my brother, a business tycoon. Then we came back and heard the news that they had captured our land. They (the northerners) did a lot of rubbish and we had to fight back and we entered the war according to the directive of our now late leader, Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu.”
Alphonsus said: “Some of us that were disabled and amputated entered like that and fought. During the war, a blind man beside me pleaded with me to take him to the warfront to fight. So, we fought the war in a big way no matter how. But our people don’t see it that way, they are seeing it differently and that’s not how they are to think. So, even if we remain three or four, we would still continue fighting. Even after death we will continue fighting, the grass and the sand will keep fighting, we would not stop until God grants our desire.
“What we are saying is that the real Igbo mark this, to remember that we are still together, move ahead but still as far as the war deprived the Igbo of their rights, let me tell you the American war lasted not up to a year due to the fact that the European knew their rights, and granted them independence, the same with Cuba, but look, Biafra things are always different.”
‘We fought Biafra war without food, uniforms and arms’ – Oliwe, Biafran war veteran
Like every child, Emeka Oliwe, 65, had dreams while growing up: to go to school, graduate, get a job and enjoy the luxuries that come with life. But unknown to him, fate had other plans.
He was barely in elementary six, at the age of 14, when the civil war broke out. And he had no other plans than to join the army to fight the war.
“I joined as a child solider, I was barely 14 then,” he said, opening chapters into how he joined the Biafran army.
“I was still in the primary school at Otukpo, Benue State, in the North Central part of the country in those days. Then primary school education ran into seven streams so I was in stream six hoping to finish the seventh stream the following year before the war interrupted my education, so I joined as a child soldier.
“I am the wooden surgeon of ex-Biafra so to say. Well, the experience we had was thoroughly horrible and horrifying, and that was because Biafra fought that war, ill prepared. I say so because Nigeria attacked without notice and Biafra had to fight back without prior preparations. Therefore, those of us who enlisted into the Biafran army, had virtually no training, we virtually fought without arms, without food and without uniforms. It was horrible and even those of us who were wounded, like myself who had spinal cord injury, we almost went without any medical treatment; the most we got in Biafra could be described as first aid, it was thoroughly horrible.”
‘I’ve no regret fighting the war’
The thought of being condemned to a wheelchair for the rest of one’s life may not sound pleasing to many, but not for Oliwe, whose backbone was shattered by bullets that broke the spinal cord in the process.
Despite the injury that made him bound to a wheelchair, Oliwe’s attitude to the war is this: “I have no regrets whatsoever for fighting in the Nigeria-Biafra war.” He rolled his wheel chair close to the concrete corridor of his residence, fetched a red cloth, wove it around his head and adjusted back to his earlier position.
After a while, he resumed talking: “I don’t have any regret fighting Biafra war because Biafra could be said to have scored almost 150 out of 200 per cent. Biafra fought for two reasons: One, to prevent the extermination of the Igbo race and two, to establish the Biafra Republic. Over these two targets, Biafra achieved remarkable success so I don’t have any regrets. If we hadn’t fought the war maybe there would be no Igbo race by now because the intention of the Fulani-Hausa people was to eliminate all the Igbo except those that were five years of age and below. It was only fighting back that prevented that. As for establishing the independent Republic of Biafra, it is still an ongoing process so that’s why it’s not yet 200 per cent.”
‘Nigeria failed woefully during the war’
Oliwe said that Nigeria had two targets in mind for fighting the war. The first reason was to exterminate the Igbo race. He said that the Nigerian side failed woefully because the Igbo race is still solidly around. The second reason was the federal side wanted to keep Nigeria one. After wasting all those billions of resources and human lives to keep Nigeria one, Nigeria is now more divided than ever. Nigeria is now less united than before the war started. There is actually chaos everywhere today, not only those agitating for Biafra. So, in terms of building anything they failed woefully while they also failed in exterminating the Igbo race, they failed woefully.”
On the significant of marking Biafra Remembrance Day, he said: “The memory it awakens in me is that of a Bible project that is yet to be actualized. The significance of the day is that it reminds the world that that little baby is still crying and it should be listened to, it’s problems should be stopped so that it would stop crying. The Remembrance Day thing is to conscientize the world. The world has lost its conscience so the Biafran day celebration makes the world to remember a project that’s left unfinished and also make the world to be alive to its responsibilities because without Biafra, the whole world is incomplete.”
For Oliwe, achieving the independent state of Biafra is a fight to finish. “I think we are prepared in the sense that we are not going into it militarily, we are not praying for war, but then if we are pushed into it again, we can go back. We are prepared politically and diplomatically. At round table conferences, Biafra is making consultations. Everything lies in the he hands of God, he has a final say. Whoever is currently agitating for Biafra is not making a mistake. I would call it a noble project. Therefore, I would encourage them to hold fast to it because Biafra is not only the solution for the Igbo race, it’s not only the solution for Nigeria, it’s not only the solution for Africa, but also the solution to world problem.
“The Biafran project is a noble project, it would save the Igbo race, it would save Nigeria, it would save Africa and the whole world. I am saying that emphatically. Therefore, whoever is agitating for it has my kudos. I would only urge them to go about it decently.”
Going to battle again is not a good choice – Okoelu, Biafran war veteran
At 19, Ambrose Okoeluu, now 67, had already joined the Biafran army. It was in the cool of the evening. He wedged on his wheel chair, flanked by his wife and daughter of about six years old. He was one of the very few who survived the war, but with serious injuries. Aside getting his two legs paralysed, he suffers hearing impairment, often struggling to hear what people speak to him.
Like many of his colleagues who fought the war, he was not prepared beforehand. He said: “The war came suddenly and we started fighting it. We started struggling for our lives, that was why we were drafted into the army, we never knew anything about war, it came suddenly and we had to enter it and fight for our own from 1966 to 1970 so that was how we fought the war and we had no arms.
“During the war time, I was injured when a Bazooka- a locally produced grenade exploded near me. I stood there for more than 30 minutes before I could hear anything so when I’m talking to people they have to raise their voices so that I can hear them properly.”
Having witnessed the bloody massacre that occurred during the war, the idea of Biafra agitators engaging Nigeria in another war is not the best.
His words: “Going to battle again is not a good choice because fighting the war we could see how hard it is. Going to fight war now won’t even be possible because the population this time is more than that one. It would be good to follow it in a non-violent manner, if Nigeria would allow us go. We don’t want to fight again.”
Advising the present generation agitating for Biafra, he said: “My advice to youths agitating for Biafra is if Nigeria wants us to stay, instead of killing people, let us stay at home because this world is not our home.”
“I never knew I would survive when they shot me through the artery, Akpo, 64
On a sweltering afternoon, in 1966, Lawrence Akpo, 64, sauntered through the blood of his fellow Igbo kindred, butchered to death at Lafia, which is now the capital of Nassarawa State the rampaging Hausa-Fulani attackers. He was just 16 years at the time, and had barely known what war was all about. He was one of those who scampered for safety to avoid the impending massacre.
But after a while, he mustered courage and joined the Biafran army to fight in the war.
“Before the war broke out, I was staying in the northern part of the country, Lafia in Nassarawa State precisely. To my dismay, the northerners started killing the Igbo like what is happening now, so we started running back in 1966 when the war started, we didn’t fight back in the North,” he said, and then paused, looking forlorn. Then he let out a heavy sigh.
And continued: “After that, the northerners came back here and fought us in our own land. I joined the army in 1967 in Enugu at the age of 16.
“When the war started, there was nothing to defend ourselves with; we just had to make do with machetes, sticks and even iron rods, but our enemies came fully prepared, but as God would help us, when we captured or killed any of the Nigerian soldiers, we took their guns and used them to fight the rest of our enemies. The war started at Nsukka early August 1967 when they came to Nsukka to fight and used their planes to bomb Enugu. Later we got recognition from countries like Gabon, Ivory Coast and others who came to our aid by supplying us weapons. I got injured on April 13, 1969 at Umuahia, Abia State. I was shot in the chest, at the right-hand side through the artery. I never knew I would survive. My rank during the war was Brigadier.”
Struggling for survival
Tucked at the outskirt of Oji River, a two-hour drive from Enugu State, formerly the capital of the defunct Eastern Region, is the Disabled Biafran war Veterans Camp – a haven for injured Biafran soldiers who fought during the civil war. When Sunday Sun visited the area, it was nothing to write home about – defaced walls, bushy environment and dearth of basic amenities were its lot.
Ironically the occupants were as pathetic as the building itself. When they deserted the warfront, they never envisaged spending the rest of their lives at such unpalatable place. Most of them live at the mercy of hunger, poverty and fear of outbreak of disease.
“Most of those living here often go to cities to beg for alms, to take care of themselves and their family,” a source at the camp, who preferred anonymity said.
“After the war, we were first hosted at Institute of Management Technology, IMT, in Enugu in 1985. Later, they brought us down to Oji River, but at a point it seemed like East Central State got tired of looking after us and that forced us to resort to street-begging as a means of livelihood. Then in 2011, Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, the leader of Biafra Independent Movement and founder of the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) had enough of the eye-sore of seeing us engaging in street-begging, so he was challenged and he set up this place for us where he would be taking care of us. As soon as this place became ready he brought us over here. That was how it came by,” Oliwe said explaining how the camp came into existence. “We don’t have a good accommodation in this place,” he added. The sight of Mr. Ambrose sitting in a wheelchair in front of his apartment at the Onuimo camp for the disabled veterans evokes pity. Since he lost his two legs to the war, catering for his family has been an uphill task.
“After intervention from the Organization of African Union, OAU, now known as African Union, the war came to a stop and after the war, the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon announced the policy of “no victor, no vanquished,” and we came back to one Nigeria. Since then, we have been waiting for Nigeria to settle us, but we haven’t seen anything. We are still struggling to regain Biafra so that we would enjoy our labour.
“As you can see, I am sitting on a wheel chair. I take it as what I got and I thank God that I’m not dead. If I’m well catered for, I’ll not be bothered if I see what I’ll eat and feed my family, what else would I be looking for? As I’m on the wheel chair now I can’t do anything. My only joy now is seeing my wife and children.
“As we are here now, we ought to be catered for as wounded soldiers, but after many years, we’ve been neglected here. If war veterans are settled to see that we are one Nigeria, no problem” he said.
For Alphonsus, many years after the civil war, Biafran veterans are still in pain, due to neglect by the government. “People help us, clothe us and feed us. We are in so much pain and agony, but we are coping. Anything the government can do to help us, we would be happy to accept. If you visit our camp at Oji River, you would see the condition of people there and what they are going through” he said.
“Even without Nnamdi Kanu, Biafra struggle will continue”
To many, the disappearance of Nnamdi Kanu, signals the end of the Biafra agitation. But Oliwe dismissed the claims, maintaining that such claims are baseless.
“The emergence of Nnamdi Kanu was not a surprise. All hands were on deck for a Biafra project to be actualized, therefore, Nnamdi Kanu came on stage to do the little he could do. Now that he is no longer on stage that can never be the end of the Biafran project. I mean if the Biafran project can be stronger now that the people’s General, Ikemba Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu is no more, how then can it stop without Nnamdi Kanu? It must continue. As I said earlier, the ultimate lies in the hands of God not in the hands of Nnamdi Kanu.”