Eziomume Solomon, Nnewi
As the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nigerian civil war was marked recently, traditional ruler of Neni, in Anaocha Local Government Area of Anambra State, Igwe Onwuamaeze Damian Ezeani, fondly called Igwe Ugonabo Neni, speaks on the war, life and condition of Ndigbo in present-day Nigeria, and other issues.
What were your recollections of the war and how did you survive it?
I can recall that, initially, the people of Biafra returned home from different parts of Nigeria because, they were being killed, men, women, children and even pregnant women. It was an obvious genocide against the then Biafran people. So, people had to come back from different parts of the country for their safety. It was not that they wanted to come back, they were forced to do so. While coming back, escaping to safety, many people still lost their lives, along with their relatives, many families were wiped out under different circumstances.
What led to the declaration of the Republic of Biafra was well documented. The agreement reached at Aburi in Ghana’s eastern region in January 1967 at a meeting attended by delegates of both the Federal Government of Nigeria (the Supreme Military Council) and the Eastern delegates, led by the Eastern Region’s Military Governor, then Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, failed. It had been billed to be the last chance of preventing all-out war and held between January 4 and 5, 1967. Given this, the people of the Eastern Region felt there was no alternative than to go out of the Nigerian federation for a safer environment. They prevailed on Ojukwu to take them out of Nigeria as a separate entity called Biafra. This was to enable them to properly defend themselves from the obvious attack by Nigerian soldiers. At the outset of the war, young men enthusiastically joined the Biafran army in their numbers to the extent that the soldiers outnumbered available weapons. I recall that many young men who wanted to join the Biafran army, were turned back, in fact, chased away. However, as the war progressed and war theatres kept increasing all over the new country, there was need to enlist more soldiers into the Biafran armed forces. There was shortage of men to defend the front; that was when the authorities started to enlist more young men. It got so bad, at some point, that soldiers moved from house to house, forcing young men to join the army. By then, they started what they called enlisting by quota system. They said that each community would bring a specific number of young men to join the army. As the war progressed, it was even difficult to train soldiers well before they were thrown into the fray at the war front.
How did the Biafran people survive the food challenges of the war?
Indeed, during the war, more people were killed by hunger than from the barrel of a gun on land, air or sea. Hunger affected mainly children, newborn babies and their mothers, especially those that were forced by the invading Nigerian troops to flee their homes and become refugees in other safer locations or communities. International organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, Caritas International and others came up with aid and donations, which helped many Biafran people to survive the war. They brought a lot of food alright but to distribute them out was big challenge because, at a stage in the war, Biafra was completely landlocked. It was terrible. At a point, mothers got so malnourished that they could not lactate, a child would be sucking its mother’s breast and no milk would come out, the mother already was thin as a skeleton! By then, kwashiorkor had set in. We never heard of the word kwashiorkor until during the war. It was because of the hunger that affected even soldiers that the Biafran side was unable to sustain the war. So, the war ended on January 12, 1970. I mean the shooting war because the war had been there even before Independence, and the war is still there till date. Nigeria/Biafra war did not start in 1967 and did not end in 1970. The war between the two groups had been there before 1967 and continued after 1970. If the war actually ended, our country, Nigeria, would not have been in this shape with wanton killing, kidnapping, herdsmen’s attacks, Boko Haram menace, murder of Christians and discrimination against South-East people in federal appointments. The war started long ago and the war has not ended yet.
What was it like living through the days and nights of constant aerial bombardment, gunshots and shelling?
It was a bitter experience for the people of Biafra at that time. It was something no one would ever like to remember or experience again. It was something no one would even want his enemy to witness. What took place during the war was calculated wickedness against Biafran people. What the federal troops meted to Biafran people was crime against humanity; and the entire world kept quiet, as if nothing was happening. Personally, I believe what happened to Biafran people was an international conspiracy. Those that belonged to the then Biafra are still being made to undergo similar experiences in the present-day Nigeria; that was why I said that the war has not ended.
How did the people relieve tension during the war?
Nobody was getting any relief during the war; rather, what happened was that people were being hardened because of the horrible experiences of the war. During the war, death was cheap. Personally, I got hardened; I said that, one day, it must be my turn to die. But for soldiers, they composed songs to boost their morale at the war front.
There were allegations that soldiers were brutal to civilians during the war. Did you witness any incident of torture, rape and so on?
Genocide was perpetrated on the Biafran people and the world looked away. I did not actually see soldiers from Biafra raping women; but I was aware they had girlfriends and women friends. Because, at a time in the war, you could give food to a woman and she would sleep with you. I was aware there were incidents of rape and torture at the side of the federal troops, but I wouldn’t know to what extent.
Fifty years since the war was declared over, do you think Nigerians have addressed the issues that led to the war?
Like I said earlier, the war neither started in July 1967 nor ended January 1970. The war continued in different ways and in different styles. Considering the killings and injustices meted to South-East people in Nigeria today, would one say that the war is over? Considering the obvious marginalisation, wanton killings, abductions and shooting in all nooks and crannies of the country, would you say that the war has ended? People are still killing their brothers. Every day, you hear of Boko Haram, herdsmen’s menace, and abductions. All these go to reinforce my belief that the war has not ended; until the country is able to enthrone equity, justice and equal rights.
Considering the situation of Igbo in Nigeria today, would you support IPOB and MASSOB in having a separate entity called Biafra?
The most painful thing about the war is that people are twisting history, as if the war was about Igbo people. Of course, that was what Nigerians want to tag it, but it was not true. It was Eastern Nigeria that wanted to secede. You are now saying IPOB, MASSOB and Igbo; it remains the same painful misinformation about the war.
On whether I support IPOB and MASSOB on their agitation, everywhere you go in Nigeria, you see marginalisation, inequality and bloodshed, and they are not limited to the Igbo; but people choose to deceive themselves. Even the people who think they are not marginalised are even more marginalised than Igbo people. So, who is free?