Magnus Eze, Enugu
Prof Philip Effiong (Jr.), son of the late General Philip Effiong, second-in-command of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in the defunct Biafra has given an insight into that dark side of the nation’s history. The Professor of Theatre at the Michigan State University, USA, was in Nigeria recently as guest lecturer at Centre for Memories, Enugu. He spoke to Sunday Sun on his war experience, his father’s relationship with Ojukwu; why he did not abandon Biafra, post-war healing and other issues. Excerpts:
Prof, may we know why you’re in Enugu?
I am in Enugu to give a talk on behalf of the Centre for Memories and the title of my talk was “Post-Biafra healing: Reclaiming our shared ties”. It focused on the need to restore our ancient or pre-colonial ties; the need to reclaim them. My talk focused that we’re increasingly fragmenting ourselves; completely becoming territorial. This started in colonial times because colonialism introduced new boundaries that we didn’t have before. Before then, our boundaries were flexible and we interacted more with one another, but colonialism introduced artificial boundaries and within those countries, new boundaries; not just geographical boundaries, but religious boundaries, economic boundaries and in some countries, racial boundaries and these boundaries continue to keep us apart. My point was that if we from this area that used to be the Eastern region with all our cultural similarities can’t get together, how can we talk of getting together with other people or fighting our enemies? We need to talk about coming together the way we used to be and this is exemplified in the 1929 women revolution, which involved the whole women of Eastern Region. My grandmother participated in that revolution and you have monuments built for women in respect of that revolution in places like Ikot-Abasi; it may have started around Aba, but at the end, all the women found the need to bond together. We don’t have that anymore. You can’t ask people in the Eastern Region now to come together and deal with a crisis because we have increasingly segregated and fragmented ourselves. That’s the gist of my presentation.
How did it end?
I ended by making some suggestions. I suggested that one; we need to have a good educational system that has a strong component. This will help us to focus on ourselves; of who we are, the richness and values, and also on the richness of those around us. We spent much time looking for faults amongst ourselves. You go on social media, you find talking about those Ibibio people; those Igbo people, those Ikwere people, Calabar and all that. It’s always accusations; we don’t talk about ourselves in a noble fashion. We don’t celebrate ourselves. Strong civic components in our educational system will help us do that and we restore the values of our system that never worked like the NYSC. Even though it has not worked; it’s been corrupted over the years. We can take some of those values and reapply them in this region. We can also focus on who our real enemies are; we make enemies of ourselves. Because we do that, we don’t focus on our real enemies and they take advantage of our disunity. Also, we need to focus on the fact that nothing is impossible because if you talk to people about the possibilities of achieving these things; a lot of them we say, you know that we have states, local governments, but it doesn’t matter. Someone like Julius Nyerere in Tanzania was able to quash ethnic identity; nobody talks about ethnic identity there, yet they have up to 100 ethnic groups in Tanzania. So, if it could be done in Tanzania, why can’t we do it amongst ourselves? We also need to stop addressing problems with different voices. We speak with different voices while addressing problems in this country; we need to speak with one voice. And many people speak when the problem concerns them; when their communities or ethnic groups are threatened. That further creates divisions. If you talk to a lot of people here about what happened in Benue; they will say, well, it happened to easterners, what did Benue people do? So, we have to be more cognisant of what happened to our neighbours; if we are there for them in period of crisis, they will be there for us when there is crisis.
For the people in the old Eastern Region, don’t you think that the civil war further polarised them?
Absolutely; the war polarised us, but polarisation was also used as a tool during the civil war. Before the civil war started; 12 states were created, those states were not created with our permission. They were created by the federal side because they wanted to divide us and they successfully did so. When they created states in the former Eastern Region, it immediately isolated the Igbo from the other groups; other groups no longer increasingly see the Igbo as brothers and sisters, but as enemies because everybody now had their own domains; space, with our different territories, we tend to keep other people out instead of inviting other people in. so, it worked as a tool. It was a strategy on the part of the Federal Government. So, they exploited division and were able to fragment us.
When certain persons crossed over to the other side, Gen. Philip Effiong didn’t change side. What gave rise to his action?
Actually, he wasn’t here (on the side of Biafra) because of state or ethnicity; he was here because people were being treated in the most unjust fashion; people had been brutalised; killed and their lives and property destroyed and they were chased away from different parts of the North, including himself and his family. So, he felt obligated to protect the people against these injustices. If his goal was just to celebrate the creation of state, maybe he would have gone to the South Eastern State and try to find a home there, but he was there on principle. And what was the principle? The principle was to protect people that were being attacked, especially innocent civilians – men, women and children. That’s why he stayed until the end in the Biafra cause, which he believed in and which I also believe in.
Having been about six years old when the war started in 1967; could it be said that you were witness to history or your father told you about his experiences?
I was witness to history and also experienced the history. I have vivid memories of the war even though I was so young, but the impact of the war on me as a human being on my mind makes it impossible for me to forget what happened. It was a horrible experience; we moved from place to place several times; we lost a lot of property, I ran away from the bombs. I was privileged because of the position of my father, but in spite of the privilege, my father’s home was destroyed, my grandfather was killed, my cousin was killed; my aunt was killed. So, when I recall, I feel the pain. One of the things people need to understand is that wars don’t end because there’s a ceasefire. People forget that there is post war; so, the war may have lasted two and half years, for us, it lasted many more years and in some ways it still does because my parents were denied a means of livelihood. My father was a professional soldier; he was not a doctor; lawyer, engineer or an accountant in the army. So, when you took that from him; at the end of the war, he was completely dismissed without any benefit; he had to spend the rest of his days hustling and sometimes he was able to get something, sometimes nothing. And so was my mother; she was trying to do anything possible for us to have a living-sewing cloths, selling drinks, and in the end, they managed to feed and give us education, but it was a tough struggle, especially since my parents had worked hard to be where they were, to lose all of that was very disturbing and painful and it’s still there today.
You mean no restitution yet?
No restitution. And at some point during the war, we didn’t have a home, someone accommodated us. It might sound strange to some people; I mean if this was happing to the second-in-command’s family, imagine what had happened to some people. When my dad died, I heard my mother was given something, but that was meaningless to me because first of all, whatever they gave her I knew was not sufficient. Of what use is it giving restitution after my dad died. My dad had served in the army since 1945, so, I think he deserved his restitution when he was alive.
If you’re to talk about your father; what kind of man was he?
I’ve looked at history; I have done my research, there are many things we don’t like about our leaders today; a lot of them are thieves, a lot of them have rigged elections, a lot of them mismanaged resources, abused power, there was none of these that my dad did. First of all, I see him as a person of integrity. I also remember him telling us to always stand up for the truth. The truth will come with repercussions, but you have to stand up for what is right. And you also have to focus heavily on education. He said you must prepare your mind to be useful in the society. He also taught us to think differently, just because society says things should go a certain way, you need to rethink it; you need have a critical mind, so that there is room to change things and transform things, so that there will be improvement. So, I appreciate the lessons that I got from him. Someone might say that I am saying good things about him because he’s my father, but I don’t say good things about all my relatives.
Are there any close shaves with death or those particular things you could remember about the war?
I was here in Enugu when Enugu was shelled; I still remember the sound of the shelling, landing in Enugu. That day, we all ran away; entered a vehicle and ran to Ikot-Ekpene and that was our story during the war-running from place to place. Many times when you run, you leave most things behind, so we lost a lot of things. I remember when we were homeless after Umuahia fell and my father’s ADC’s father who was a successful businessman took us in his house and gave us space and there were refugee camps around there in Ifakala. We used to play with the kids around. My father’s ADC was Hilary Iroegbulam; he’s still in New York now. His father gave us a place; when we lived there, I really saw things that till this day continue to really shock me. We used to play with the local kids sometimes you go to the refugee camp; you see all these children their colour had changed, their hairs falling off, their stomach so distended, their legs are tiny; many times they were deaths and when we hear that a refugee child dies, we run to go and see the mother crying. They’ll just dig a small grave and bury the child there; you know I became desensitized to death. So, Ifakala had a very profound effect on me. So, when Owerri fell, we moved to Owerri – me and my brothers – sometimes we go inside the bush looking for corpses just to see and many times we see bones with the flesh rotted away; and the uniform was hanging on the skeleton, so, a lot of those things very disturbing and for a long time, I became desensitized to death and violence.
What was the relationship between Gen. Philip Effiong and his boss; Ojukwu?
My dad was seen as a soldier statesman; he was very loving and kind. As the war raged on, increasingly the laughter I saw in him was increasingly lost and after the war when he had to struggle just to survive; he wasn’t the happy person that he was after the war. It strained his relationship with the family; he was still a kind man, but he was also going through a lot of pain, otherwise, I always knew him to be a soldier and gentleman. I think that’s how he carried himself and yes; I’m his son but that’s also the kind of information I get from a lot of people. As far as Gen. Ojukwu, he was our head of state and that’s how we saw him, as a head of state, as the person in charge; as the person that had dared to speak out on our behalf when nobody else would. I remember visiting my dad once in Umuahia when we were there; he was also in Umuahia, I remember looking at him with lot of fascination because to me as a child, he was a giant of a man. So, they had a professional relationship; they were not personal friends, my father had been in the Army before him, he joined later, but due to circumstances he became governor and when my dad returned to the East, he had to submit to his authority. As it should be expected; sometimes they were not in agreement with the policy to adopt, which was normal. It happens in every government; it happens in Nigeria right now, it happens in the US, it happens everywhere. And during that war, those were desperate times; there was no easy solution to the problems. So, people would disagree even in families, we disagree with brothers and sisters, we disagree with our parents sometimes, but just because we disagree doesn’t mean that we abandon the values of the family or the meaning of the family to us or the fact that the family is a source of nourishment and nurturing. It still serves that such role even when we disagree and that was the case with Biafra. Even when there was disagreement, the fact was that we were in agreement to the fact that we had to fight to defend ourselves against a vicious enemy; it was about self-determination, it was about protection regardless of where they may have been disagreements. So, the core value of what Biafra represented was never lost.
Looking back, would you say the war was necessary; couldn’t it have been avoided?
Perhaps, but we didn’t fire the first shot; if we weren’t attacked, there won’t be any war. We had done very well when the first peace talk was in Aburi, Ghana and we went and everybody had the opportunity to express themselves and say what they wanted and there was an agreement and we went back and the federal side decided to revise and review some of those agreements. So, we didn’t do that, and the federal side went on to create states and certainly made Ojukwu a nonentity at that point whereas Ojukwu was the person who had stood up for the people and who the people trusted. So, the creation of states was not reassuring and not abiding by the Aburi agreement, but still, we didn’t fire the first shot and when you’re attacked, do you just stand there and be slaughtered? No, you’ll defend yourself. So, the war could have been avoided, but I have no regret that we stood up to defend ourselves. I think that’s a natural response and remember that a lot people in what used to be Biafra had already been chased away from parts of the country, especially the North; after chasing them away, they really felt infuriated that they were now coming to their homelands to attack them, so, human beings will defend themselves which was what they did.
The drumbeats of war are on again. Don’t you think we are about making the same mistakes again?
The problems we encountered in the past were never addressed. In the past, what had happened was that people had used violence to get what they want; which was the control of the resources in the Southeastern region, they used violence and got away with it, so, why are we surprised that people today are using violence to get what they want? They believe that they too will get away with it, so, because the event of the past was never truly addressed, I don’t think people should be surprised about what’s happening and today it’s just continuation and just assuming a different shape and form. We didn’t learn anything and the message of the war was that if you can use violence to get what you want, then it’s okay; that’s what’s happening today. Today, the only problem I have was that many people who are complaining about the attacks from Fulani herdsmen; their communities, their people were involved in attacking us or in supporting the attacks against us. So, they come across to me as hypocrites meaning that they really don’t have any value for human lives except their own lives and they’re only complaining now because theirs is problem of violence, but because they are being threatened by the violence.
Did your family go on exile like the Ojukwus and families of many officers on the Biafra side?
We never went to exile; that’s not true, my father couldn’t even travel; if anybody had said that, that’s absolutely false. I know that towards the end of the war; about three days before the war ended, Ojukwu family was leaving, then my younger brother and myself as well as my cousin were here and my mother who was with a child and my dad told Ojukwu that if he must leave; that he should take us. That was three days to the end of the war; so, I saw the war to the end and my dad never went anywhere. We all left on that plane; a cargo plane and his family, all his relatives, including his mother. We went to different places; there was no real plan, at some point we were in Sao Tome, we were in Lisbon, we spent some time in Ivory Coast. We went to school in one of the refugee camps that the Ivorian government had set up for Biafran children; we spent some time there and you know some Biafran refugees were sent even further, some went to Gabon, some went to Ireland. At a point, myself and my brother were sent to Ireland even though we were young; we took instructions and we flew by ourselves on that plane to Ireland from Ivory Coast. We spent about five months there; we stayed with a family and then we came back. So, there was no real exile. The person that went on exile was General Ojukwu.
Do you have relationship with Ojukwu’s children?
No, I don’t, not for any bad reasons; I just haven’t connected with them. I’ve connected with Brig. Eze’s children, Major Gen. Madiebo’s children; the opportunity hasn’t presented itself. I don’t have any animosity against anyone, there’s no reason I should.
Are there those things about your father and Biafra that he told you that people don’t know?
Most of the things he told me are in his book. I think he mentioned everything, he even mentioned when they thought he had abandoned Biafra; I think it’s in his book. At some point they thought he had abandoned Biafra.
So, what were his lowest moments during the war?
I don’t know if he had a lowest point; there was sadness all through that war; he was disturbed all through the war, it’s a war, people were dying; people were blown to pieces, there was a lot of bitterness, but I don’t know when the lowest point was. I can’t say.
Who were your father’s friends that are still alive?
I knew my dad’s friends before and during the war. I can’t say Gowon was his friend; most of his mates are dead, Wellington Bassey may have been his friend, his friend Col Trimmel is past; some were killed during the first coup, Brig. Mai Malari, Ogbemudia even though he was his Brigade Major in the First Brigade. I can say that he was his friend because Major Ogbemudia helped him escape from Kaduna. Most of the people I would say are his friends are late.
If the scenario of 1967 is recreated; will Prof Philip Effiong (Jr) fight for Biafra?
Absolutely, because as a trained soldier, and there were attempts on my life for no justifiable reason and those who tried to kill me now chase me down to my home not just to kill me but to kill my people, of course, I’ll stand up to defend them. Maybe I’ll lose my life, but that’s the right thing to do.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I’m happy we’re discussing this experience. I’m happy this is an important narrative today; there were attempts to suppress it because nobody wanted to acknowledge the war crimes committed against Biafrans, nobody wanted to acknowledge the creativity, the strength and the determination; the inventions and diligence of Biafrans. Nobody wanted to acknowledge that, they tried to suppress the story. I’m glad it’s all coming up now so that we can honour those who sacrificed so much to ensure that the rest of us be given some kind of hope to live on and to succeed.