SURVIVING IN BIAFRA – Alfred Obiora Uzokwe’s account



In Lagos Nigeria, 1966

It irks me to the bone every time I hear people suggest that the Biafran experience should not be discussed because it reopens old wounds. When I hear such ill-informed advice, I usually respond with the age-old saying that those who shy away from history are doomed to repeat it.

On the 7th of December 2001, America commemorated the 60th anniversary of the bombing of the Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. As painful as that experience was, America still chose to remember it, why? They used the occasion to honor those who lost their lives in the defense of this great country, America. Also, remembrance of what happened on that fateful day, helps ensure that measures are put in place to avoid a repeat. This is the hallmark of an advanced and civilized society; you forgive, but do not forget.

The Biafran war, which took the lives of more than one million innocent people, should not be an exception. The men, women and children who lost their lives as a result of that conflict, must not be forgotten. The harrowing experience of those who survived the war, must not be forgotten; the experience must be kept in the forefront of our national discourse, to serve as a constant reminder of the catastrophic results of the war and in a way, help prevent a repeat of events that led to that tragic episode in Nigeria’s history.

This is the first part of a multi part series I wrote about the war; it is the story of survival in Biafra. We have read several books authored by men who prosecuted the war or witnessed the events directly as they unfolded. They saw the war through the eyes of adults; some authors like Col. J.O.G Achuzia talked about their heroics while others like General Madiebo pointed out things they felt were inimical to the effective prosecution of the war. Other authors like Frederick Forsythe characterized Biafra as an entity that would have risen to become a great nation.

My account on Biafra is however not about heroic feats because I neither witnessed nor performed any. I was just 7 when the war commenced and by the time it officially ended in 1970, I was a 10-year old boy. This is very significant though because it means that more than 3 years of my childhood, were spent in Biafra, under siege by the Federal troops. My account therefore is about survival in Biafra seen through the eyes of a kid; hopefully it will provide an insight into what other kids felt which no one has ever reported or bothered to try. Here we go:

In 1966, as a six-year-old living in Lagos, I was aware of some of the political rumblings in the north, yet I saw life as normal because in my mind, political upheavals were part of normal occurrences in life.

I loved Lagos then for several reasons, for one, we had access to the “silima”(cinema) shows they always had in the grounds of Yaba College of Technology – my father was then the Social Welfare Officer for the College and we lived inside the college compound. I also had a lot of friends to play with in Lagos and most importantly, I loved the conveniences in Lagos like electricity, which I did not see when we visited my hometown earlier. During that visit to Nnewi, it bothered me that once darkness fell, everywhere turned pitch black with an eerie silence enveloping the village like something of a vice. For lighting during that visit, we used what we called “tili lamp” or “gas lamp” which was always turned off after 9:00PM and in the event that one had to get up at night, as a kid, it was always frightening.

The many ghost stories about Lagos however scared me somewhat: my sister told us the story of Bisi, a girl that died in Lagos, but several months later, she was spotted at the bus stop around Obalende by someone who knew her. Of course like any other lad of my age, I believed those stories. There were also stories of abductors or “ndi nto” as they were called in Ibo. They were said to be in every part of Lagos looking for little kids to abduct and sell to people with diabolical disposition who mummified them and used them as moneymaking objects! For that reason, venturing out of the house alone, was always a no no. In our house, kids had instructions not to talk to or follow strangers and always go out in groups.

This was the time of General Ironsi; it seemed like he was always in the news then. Radio broadcasts would go like this: ” the head of state and supreme commander in chief of the Nigerian armed forces, Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi…”. I always wondered why the General had so many names and it intrigued me even more, that broadcasters seemed compelled to always call out all his names during newscasts. All these added to the enigmatic disposition that was always associated with the name of the Supreme Commander.

Story went around amongst the kids that the General was invincible; there was this famous photograph of him as he was leaving the peacekeeping mission in Congo, waving goodbye with one hand and clutching a small crocodile replica in the other hand. I believe he was standing on the step of an aircraft. Legend had it that the crocodile was alive; it was credited to have saved his life during the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. We were told that the crocodile made him invincible and therefore no amount of bullets could harm him. It is worthy of mention here that the name crocodile translates into “Aguiyi” in Ibo dialect; it is therefore conceivable that the General just had the crocodile replica as a symbol that depicted his middle name. Given all these stories about Ironsi’s invincibility, we were shocked beyond belief therefore, when it was reported that he had been killed!

As the situation in the country continued to deteriorate both as a result of Ironsi’s murder and the uprisings in the North, I could no longer go to school on a daily basis. I was in kindergarten at the Ladi-Lak Institute, Yaba Lagos. Pa-Bukola (as we called him) – a friend of my dad who used to bring Bukola and I back from school, no longer showed up. We later concluded that as tension heightened between the Ibos and Hausas and as hostilities against the Ibos grew, he decided to keep away to avoid being branded an Ibo lover and therefore penalized. This was also true of my father’s army buddy; we called him “Sajin mejor” – I believe he was a Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) in the Nigerian Army. He was a tall, dark and heavily accented Hausa man who I thought was very pleasant by all standards. During Christmas celebrations, my father would send gifts to him and during Moslem holidays when Moslems broke their fast, he always reciprocated. As the pogroms and genocide in the north continued to gather momentum and as stories of clandestine and nocturnal abduction of Ibos in Lagos and environs started, my father got wind of the fact that “sajin mejor” had suddenly become a turn coat and wanted to make him an abduction statistic! At first, my father could not believe this and simply attributed it to the handiwork of rumormongers and people of their ilk. Later on, evidence got even stronger that “sajin mejor” was ready to implement his evil plan but my father still elected to do nothing until my mother and my maternal cousin – Edith interceded and nightly hiding places for my father where established. He started alternating sleeping in his office with sleeping in my cousin’s place at Ebute Metta!

One night, according to what we were told later, sometime before midnight, three stern-looking men came to our house and demanded to see my father. They got angry with my mother when she told them my father was away. Even though these men never came back to our house, this singular incident strengthened our resolve that my father should continue to sleep in his office at night and this continued for the duration of our stay in Lagos. I found all these developments incredulous; sajin mejor was my father’s friend I thought, why would he want his blood spilled, I wondered? Whether “sajin mejor” was guilty or not, his subsequent actions portrayed the actions of a guilty man because as those events unfolded, he never showed up in our house again. That was sad.
All kinds of rumors pervaded the nation about the manner in which Ironsi died; some said he was confronted by some soldiers at the state house Ibadan and shot. Others said he was tied to the back of a jeep, dragged along until his body decapitated. Whatever the real story, these were stories kids told one another. The issues were always discussed in hushed tones by adults and I do know that the period in question must have been filled with bad news because every time my father read the newspaper, one could see sad expressions written all over his face.
Anyhow, I never realized the gravity and implications of what was unfolding in Nigeria in those tumultuous days of 1966. I had accepted the fact that I could not immediately go back to my school every weekday because of safety concerns but I was unprepared for what happened the next time we went to Sunday school. Sunday school was always fun, a lot of other Ibo children attended that church; after Sunday school, we would play for a while before heading back to our different homes. It was enjoyable.

There was something ominous about that particular Sunday; as I walked into the church premises with my siblings, the usual hustle bustle of activities was absent, the little girls that would normally be playing “oga” and “suwe” were no where to be found. Even inside the church, only a handful of children were present. At the end of the Sunday school class, the Sunday school teacher explained to us that many families had either gone back to the East, or were in hiding because of the uncertainties engendered by the pogroms in the north. He also cited the increase in harassment of Ibos in Lagos and outlying areas as another reason for the mass exodus. . He noted that many Ibos were also leaving the north in droves and returning to the East. Then as if he had not elicited the desired reaction from us, in a slow but deliberate tone he somberly added, ” many more of the families in Lagos would probably be leaving for the East before the next Sunday school class”

We narrated what transpired in the church to my mother when we got back home and for the first time, she expressed apprehension about our continued stay in Lagos and stated that she had told our father to resign from Yaba College so we would all go back to Nnewi. She stated that some of our family friends and neighbors had already left or were getting ready to leave; the Ngwubes, the Ikems, and the Unegbus. Even Mr. Igwilo – the college grounds keeper (students called him Kekere) from Oraifite, near Nnewi had either left or was getting ready to. That did it for me! I could not go to school regularly any more for safety reasons, Sunday school was no longer going to be fun because most kids would have left Lagos by the next Sunday and now I had no friends left to play with. I knew I could never enjoy Lagos again, not with the Ikem family – Irene, Nwamu, “Boy”(as we called him) and Jenny gone. From then on, sheer misery set in. I was ready to go back to Nnewi, which I had only visited once but figured that I would at least have relatives there to play with.

To compound an already terrible situation, for safety reasons, our movement was restricted to just walking around our house in response to increased rumors of abductions of Ibos we were hearing. Infact there was a story then that there were some Ibos who pretended to be Yorubas when unknown persons accosted them. To verify their true identity, they were asked to pronounce “Obalende.” The story had it that a true Yoruba would say “OBALENDE” but an Ibo would for some reason pronounce it as “OBALANDE”. Note the emphasis on the “A” between the letter “L” and “N”. It was said that when the Ibos failed to pronounce Obalende properly, they were taken away.

The whole atmosphere at that time was replete with fear; it was even made worse when my father was told point blank that his safety could no longer be guaranteed at the Yaba College of Technology. This became a double whammy; he no longer slept in the house at night because of “sajin mejor” and now his safety could no longer be guaranteed. Life became exceedingly unbearable. We wanted to go back to Nnewi but my father was the obdurate type, he seemed to believe that we could wait things out in Lagos and soon things would return to normalcy- a decision he later regretted! We were literally begging him to send us to Nnewi, to send us out of harm’s way.

Part II

My family goes home to Nnewi

My father finally gave in to our incessant requests to take us back to Nnewi when the gory details of the pogroms in the north became overwhelming; our departure date was set and we were instructed to “tell no one about it”. I had only visited Nnewi once, and even though I preferred staying in Lagos at that time, I still liked Nnewi because my grand mother and aunts pampered us a lot during the Christmas we visited. I saw Nnewi as peaceful, bucolic and quaint with trees ubiquitously scattered all over the place and birds chirping incessantly. I also remembered the Christmas masquerades called “opiakamkpala”, “ikedinodogwu” and others; all these memories became compelling reasons for me to want to go back. The kid I was, it never occurred to me that circumstances surrounding this second return were quite different and so would everything else be.

That morning, we must have been woken up before 4:30am because it was still dark. To our surprise, the Lorry (gwongworo) that was to finally take us home was already loaded with some of our belongings. I still marvel at how this feat was accomplished while we slept but I never asked.

The journey to Nnewi was rough; my mother stayed in the front with the driver and Nnamdi – my younger brother. The rest of us stayed in the back for a journey that seemed to last all day. As the sun came up, it was even more miserable. Some parts of the road from Lagos to Onitsha were dusty but no one seemed to care. My dad did not go with us; the explanation was that he was going to wait a little longer to see if things would get better, if not, he would come back to the East with the rest of our belongings. I wondered in my mind why he was testing his fate; having found out that his safety could no longer be guaranteed in Lagos, one would think that he would be the first to head home. Of course that was not my father; he believed strictly in Julius Caesar’s assertion that “cowards die many times before their deaths.” At near 6 ft and about 225 pounds, I saw him as a giant of a man; I felt that he could deflect danger just by being around us. In a way, that is the opinion most children have of their fathers.

We made it safely to Nnewi and I imagine that we got there sometime after 7:00PM. It was beginning to get dark, and the sound of silence was beginning to descend on Nnewi and as expected, my grandmother and aunts welcomed us very well. Frankly at the time, I thought the stay was going to last for just a couple of months and things would get back to normal and we would return to Lagos. Little did I know that a 30-month stay that would drastically change my life and the lives of many and alter the course of our collective destiny had just begun in a place called BIAFRA.

My father later returned to Nnewi when the situation had deteriorated badly; because he had to leave in a hurry, all our belongings we had so much anticipated their return, were left in our house in Lagos. He only came back with his car and a few belongings. To this day, we do not know what became of the rest of our property!

My siblings and I were quickly enrolled at St. Mary’s School Uruagu Nnewi. At this time, some of the changes that would later become all too familiar, began to occur: I was no longer taken to school in my fathers opel cadet, instead, we had to walk all the way to and from school. The distance was not far, but the change gave me a glimpse of what was in store for the future and I did not like it one bit!

I noticed that kids in Nnewi seemed more self-reliant than most of us that just returned from the townships – “ndi ofia”, as returnees were called. During recess in school, you would see kids making all types of arts and crafts – baskets, broom and “akpala”. I enjoyed watching them do it but the only part of the schoolwork I never really cared for was cutting the grass in the schoolyard. It bothered me that kids in Nnewi did not seem to care about what was happening in the nation; they went about their businesses as though nothing was really happening. That was a far cry from what happened when we were in Lagos, I thought. We always listened to adults talk about the disturbances and then discussed it amongst ourselves.

Anyway, I began to get the hang of things and started making friends; more children seemed to be joining the school practically on a weekly basis. Apparently, more Ibos were returning from places like Kano, Kaduna and Lagos and parents wasted no time in enrolling their kids in school right away.

One day (I assume it was in May of 1967) at the St. Mary’s School, news started circulating that the eastern region had seceded! Suddenly, there was a gathering of many people in the school yard, some were carrying cut down branches of leaves, others had palm fronds and spontaneously, a demonstration in support of the secession started. There was commotion! The chanting of war songs filled the air; some people had pictures of Ojukwu while singing the song “Republic Biafra, republic Biafra, republic Biafra, and welcome Biafra”. Some people pronounced the name of the new nation as BAYAFRA; while others continued to sing other songs like:

Ojukwu nye anyi egbe
Iwe, iwe dianyi n’obi……

which means:

Ojukwu give us guns
There is anger, anger in our hearts…..

They sang other songs like:
We shall not, we shall never move,
Just like a tree that’s planted by the water
We shall not be moved.
Ojukwu is behind us, we shall never move,
God is behind us, we shall never move…”

The crowd was growing by the minute and suddenly they made a spontaneous decision to go to Odumegwu Ojukwu’s residence to show solidarity. Ojukwu’s village called Umudim is probably a couple of miles from my own village called Uruagu. I knew that my parents would flip out if I followed the demonstrators, so, as soon as they left, I quickly picked up my belongings, joined the rest of the kids and headed home. School dismissed unceremoniously on that day and officially, the Biafra war had begun!

I still remember the events of that day in 1967 as though they just occurred yesterday! I will however confess that the thought of the fact that many of those young men who participated in that demonstration perished in the Biafran war still sends a cold chill through my spine! They were full of energy; they started with hope, with enthusiasm and with the feeling that since the Ibos had been wronged by the North, debased, trampled upon and were on the brink of total annihilation, the Eastern region had no other choice than to defend herself. Some were university undergraduates who had returned to Nnewi as a result of the pogroms, others were graduates, some were businessmen, fathers, uncles, cousins and more. They perished in a war that could probably have been averted. I still get teary-eyed when I remember those young men; my heart goes out to the families who lost these brave men, men who gave their lives so that others would live. God bless their families and give their souls eternal repose.

After the declaration of Biafra, civil defense and combing activities started picking up steam in Nnewi and in my clan of Okpunoeze, the town crier whose responsibility it was to disseminate information to all about activities related to the war was very busy. He normally started to make his round just after dark when the sound of cassava-pounding mortars had abated. He would sound his small metal gong called ogene three times and then say something like: “anakpo oku n’Iba, na six o clock nke ututu echi, onye abiaghi ya, oranra ego ise.” meaning: a meeting has been summoned in the village square called “Iba”, at six o’clock tomorrow morning, absentees would pay a penalty of five shillings. At the time, I always wondered why the town crier was not afraid to be wandering around in the dark, what if he runs into ghosts, I wondered? I also wondered why he said everything else in Ibo but then said six o’clock in English, don’t we have a way in Ibo of saying six o’clock, I wondered?

Anyway, it took a while before the kids started finding out what the frequent meetings at Iba were about. Iba is a form of village square in Okpunoeze Uruagu Nnewi. It was the primary gathering location for elders even before the war was declared. After the declaration, it was being used as a place for strategizing on what part my village people would play. Able-bodied men always attended the meetings and every time they returned, you will hear more talks about the progress of what was happening in Biafra. They were gearing up for the war. Some carved mock guns out of sticks and carried them around. One rumor that seemed to permeate every facet of Nnewi at the time was that traitors could be in our midst and so there was the need to find them and flush them out of Biafra. At this time, an activity that was referred as “combing” was instituted. Men with machetes, mock guns, double barrel guns and the likes organized and headed into adjacent bushes looking for the enemy or traitors. I never knew if those combing activities yielded any tangible results but I know that it made some of us feel a little safer; our men were taking necessary steps to keep us out of harm’s way, we thought; it was refreshing.

As a result of his passion for the Biafran cause, my eldest brother Fidelis Uzokwe who was at the Merchants of Light Secondary School, Oba, returned to Nnewi and announced his intention to join the war. We were all apprehensive about this because at age 17, we were of the opinion that he was too young to go to war, an opinion he rejected out right! He saw the pogroms and genocide in the North as abominable crimes that must be avenged. He always spoke movingly about the case of the pregnant Ibo woman who was said to have been disemboweled in the North at the height of hostilities and her unborn child removed and killed along with her. He did not see any compromise with people who were barbaric and sadistic enough to cause such suffering on humankind. Every time my father tried to dissuade him from joining the army, in his usual ebullient disposition, Fidelis would tell my dad that he would oblige on one condition; the condition that my father who was 47 years at the time, would go to war in his place.

Fide (as we called him) finally won the argument and joined the Biafra militia for initial training. At this time, enlistment of new recruits was going on. I believe there was a training depot in Nkwo Nnewi and young men quickly started enlisting. Most days, Fidelis would come back and start practicing some of the parade techniques they were taught including how to move guns, how to dive for cover and so on. He had a wooden gun with which he practiced and we were all very proud of him. Before long, he joined the regular army at the same time that some of his buddies like Alphonso Agbodike, Joseph Agbasi (of the blessed memory) and others, were enlisting. As the war progressed, Fide later made it into the Biafran Commando, Ahoda strike force and the next time he showed up at home, he was in full military regalia, with a gun he called “setima” to match. Young Fide had seen action in the war front and had become a second lieutenant!

As Fidelis and other young men went off to war, we were full of hope that Biafra would prevail. We were so enamored by what we heard that the commandos could do that we always spent time singing some commando songs we learned.

The insignia on the Biafran commando uniform depicting a human skull, earned them the name “isi okpukpu commando” (skull-headed commandoes). They were said to be so tough that they were only drafted to the toughest battlefields; we looked at them in awe and that continued to beef up our confidence that Biafra would prevail. The kids played war games depicting Biafra as the winner; my maternal cousin- Charles, my brother Nnamdi and I would hide under tables and play war games. Charles would play the role of Ojukwu, I would be Achuzia, Nnamdi would play Achuzia nta and my paternal cousin Emeka would play Col. Chude Sokei or so.

As the war progressed, optimism about Biafra’s survival started dissipating as some families started getting news of the killing of their sons in action. It began to dawn on us that the war was not some kind of game, it was real and men were dying. Many a time, you would suddenly hear a loud wail from a nearby family and further inquiry would reveal that their beloved son had been reportedly killed in action. The sight of mothers crying and mourning their sons was always very heart breaking for me because my teenage brother was in the army and I could not imagine what would become of my own mother, if Fidelis were killed. Little did I know that much more calamity would befall us in that respect later on. Even mothers who had no sons of army age, lost their children too; kwashiorkor (a disease that struck the undernourished) took its toll and killed very many children because food was scarce.

As Biafra started loosing a lot of grounds in the war front, many families started getting displaced and mounting cases of refugees became the order of the day. This turn of events was followed by the influx of refugees into Nnewi and environs. St. Mary’s school compound was quickly converted into a refugee settlement and schooling was conducted in private homes.

Asaba Massacre hits home

When the Biafra war first started, I doubt that it occurred to many that hunger was going to be a major factor; at least not in Nnewi. There was subsistence farming in Nnewi; families planted yam, cocoa yam, cassava, maize and others. Infact, most people produced enough food to feed their families and even sell the excess in Nkwo Nnewi market. However, as the war progressed and as refugees, who were displaced from various parts of Biafra arrived in Nnewi, to seek sanctuary from the atrocious havoc federal troops were visiting on civilians, the subsistence farming was no longer good enough to sustain the teeming population of Nnewi.
The war refugees and even some Nnewi indigenes started at this time to look for other means of subsistence. Snail or “ejula” which used to be found in abundance in Nnewi and freely roamed the bushes when we first returned to Nnewi from Lagos suddenly started turning into endangered species! Snail became scarce because they were now being sought after as a major food source by all sundry; even people who never tasted it before then, developed a liking for it albeit reluctantly. It dawned on me that things had deteriorated badly when some of the kids started picking up, roasting and eating the small-sized snail we called “mpiolo”. The only use we had for that size of snail before things got real bad, was for the shell; we used the shell to carve conical shaped objects we called “koso”. The kids played with koso by positioning the tapered end on the ground and spinning it around to see who spun it faster. War exigency and absolute necessity had however turned mpiolo into an edible delicacy which was now fiercely sought after chiefly because the big-sized snail had all but disappeared in the face of mounting desire for it.
I do not know what Biafra and Biafrans would have done without CARITAS? CARITAS was a relief agency that brought foodstuff to Biafra to help the starving masses. They supplied cornmeal, stadit milk, stockfish, egg yolk, rice Gabon and the likes. Infact in appreciation of their generosity, there was a song people sang in their name which went thus ” CARITAS, si anyi, taba okporoko, kwashiorkor g’ana” meaning, CARITAS, asked us to eat stockfish, kwashiorkor will stop. The relief food items were however very limited in quantity and the fact that officials given the responsibility of distributing it to the hungry masses did not do so equitably, exacerbated an already bad situation. The officials sometimes kept some of the relief items to themselves and their families while some people went hungry. I always felt bad at the sight of refugees at the St. Mary’s School compound, struggling to get food from the distribution center in an adjacent building. I abhorred the fact that people who were already hungry and had lost strength, had to fight to get relief food. It became survival of the fittest; those who were strong enough to shove others out of the way, got more rations and those who had become exceedingly weak because of hunger, could not get enough food. I would have liked to register my displeasure against some priests and government functionaries in Biafra who turned the relief food into their personal property. They fed themselves fat while the less privileged and refugees starved! They failed to attend adequately to the primary people for which the food was provided by CARITAS. That was very troubling and sad, that was not compassionate, that did not show any priestly disposition neither did it show any patriotic fervor and was not good in the eyes of God and man. I hope that their collective conscience has over time bugged them enough that they have atoned in one way or the other for their sins. They should know that they erred indeed and may have inadvertently contributed to the demise of scores of children in Biafra who died of starvation. I however forgive them because a lot of people erred inadvertently during that war; I only hope that the good Lord would bestow peace and tranquillity on the troubled nation of Nigeria today to preclude any acts that would ever bring about a repeat of that conflict. We have paid our dues, Nigeria must now move forward. Forward ever, backwards, never!
Hunger notwithstanding, we did everything normal kids did, we went to scout, recited the Biafran anthem- “Land of the risen sun we love and cherish….”. We went to choir, but as weeks turned into months and months into years, a strange phenomenon started manifesting itself mainly in kids. Some kids started developing bloated bellies, bloated feet and lighter skin color! The transmogrifying effect of this strange phenomenon on people was drastic. At first, some kids (including me) found this amusing because we did not understand the full implications of what was happening. We would often play with the kids afflicted with this ailment and jokingly call them “afo mmili ukwa” another way of saying that someone is a gourmand or big bellied. We never knew that the kids were gradually being condemned to untimely death because of a war they did not cause. We started getting our rude awakening when some of the kids actually started dying! A kid you played with in school would suddenly and progressively start changing in color like someone afflicted with jaundice or so, then the cheeks would start puffing out followed by the feet and legs. The end point is that the kid slows down from weakness and eventually gives up the ghost. I particularly remember Augustine; (may be this incident will still be remembered by some of my classmates then like Nwakaego Nzekwu, Joy Odunukwe, Chukwudi Ngwube, Georgina Obiazi, Anaemenam and others). We used as our class the “Ozobi” or meeting place of Mr. Michael Mbonu in Umumeagbu, Uruagu, Nnewi. Augustine had gradually developed puffy cheeks and bloated legs and even though he used to be slightly dark-colored in complexion, his color started changing. Admittedly, he was a naturally quiet boy, but as this ailment progressed, he no longer participated actively in our childish shenanigans during break time; he would just sit by himself away from others. The previous day at school, he had been so quiet that I could almost tell that he was not feeling any better at all although I never asked. That day, he did not participate in any recreational activities and later on, he regurgitated some of what he had eaten and we all stood around as our teacher (who was later conscripted into the army as I would recount later in another chapter) tried to help him. When we all arrived in class the next day, Augustine was not on his chair; minutes later, our teacher ambled in somberly and never said anything nor comment about Augustine’s absence. In hushed tones however, we got news that Augustine was dead! I am not exactly sure who broke the news but Augustine’s relative who was also in my class was absent that day. That was heart breaking; to think that someone we all played with not too long before was gone forever, was unfathomable. After school that day, I deliberately went by Augustine’s house to verify things for myself even though I could have used a short cut to get to my house faster. As I got to the front of the his house, lo and behold, there were many people going in and out and I knew then that the news was true. I cursed those that started that war and prayed God to punish them duly; I was powerless to do anything, but all I could do was go home sad that day and cry. Augustine was no more, but this was not a peculiar episode, it was repeating in many places in Nnewi and Biafra; it was the price of war, a war that was fought so unconventionally that innocent civilians, women and children were denied food!
At my mother’s maternity home where babies were still being delivered almost on a daily basis and women attended antenatal and post-natal clinic, she always lectured the women every Monday on what type of food they should give to their kids to avoid kwashiorkor. You could tell by looking at some of the kids with yellowish colored cheeks and puffy feet that the dreaded disease had come. You could see the pain on the faces of the women carrying such kids. Essentially, the kids were being condemned to eternal damnation because food was scarce. A refugee family from Onitsha that lived close to our house captured the totality of what the Biafran war and hunger turned people into. We used to go there to play with the rest of the kids and it was always a sight to behold every time they got ready to eat; father, mother and kids would be struggling to get their fair share. Their father was already teetering on the edge of kwashiorkor so he always struggled with the kids to get his own share and never worried about whether the kids were getting enough to eat themselves. Again, it was survival of the fittest! As a result, the kids had no respect for him; they called him all kinds of derogatory names like “agudo”. It was always a painful sight to behold and I always wondered why they felt compelled to all eat from the same plate? I do not know what became of that family after the war, but that man was a very fine pianist; he always came to our house to play our organ and I would sit on the floor listening to his beautiful rendition of the Biafran national anthem.
God bless those nations that recognized Biafra and helped out- Gabon, Ivory Coast, Zambia, Haiti and others. I knew their names by heart because every morning when we prayed, my father would always ask God to be with them and give them the fortitude to continue to stand with the truth even when it was not fashionable to do so. He always lambasted Egypt, Ian Smith and his Rhodesia, Russia and other nations he referred to as “ndi alakuba”. We memorized a psalm we read every morning and night ….”Chineke, buso ndi n’ebuso anyi ogu, ogu, buso ndi n’ebuso anyi agha agha…”-meaning, “God fight those that fight us….” I thanked the nations that supported Biafra because nations like Gabon took it upon themselves to airlift starving Biafran children to Gabon to feed them, clothe them and give them succor. Even those on the brink of death, slowed down by kwashiorkor, came back from Gabon at the end of the war looking hale and hearty. I recall that then, I used to think that Gabon was “obodo oyibo” and I envied those starving children that were being sent over there! Those were the thoughts of an eight or nine year old who was not quite in tune with the gravity of the holocaust in Biafra. Meanwhile, our heroes were dying in the war front!
As I stepped into our compound with my little brother Nnamdi (we had just come back from boys’ scout), there were several people gathered in our house inside the parlor. When we came closer, we could hear someone sobbing and the people were trying to console her; it was my mother! I was alarmed! I do not know about anybody else, but as a kid, anytime my mother looked sad for any reason, I felt terrible. This time, she was not just looking sad, she was crying uncontrollably and reeling on the floor; my heart was breaking! Not too long before the war started, she had gone through that type of grief in Lagos when her brother – Mr. Lloyd Gwam- the Nigerian Director of National Archives, suddenly died in Ibadan. This was sometime in 1965 or 1966. That day, I was sure that my mother was going to die also; it was very painful to watch her rolling on the floor and crying uncontrollably. So when I saw the people in our house trying to console her this time around, I thought to myself that my brother and hero -Fidelis had been killed. At the verandah stood Ezengozi (my maternal uncle), he was not crying but he was just gazing into the compound without saying a word to anybody. I went up to him first and asked what the problem was since I could not immediately get access to my mother; Ezengozi did not say a word. After trying for several more times and getting nowhere, I proceeded to ask others. I then heard that my mother’s father and several other relatives had been summarily shot in Asaba by federal troops. At first, it was like a nightmare and I was hoping to wake up; word cannot describe what I felt; not too long before that, my mother had said that her first priority after the war would be to go to Asaba and reunite with her father and others. I hated Yakubu Gowon, I hated Danjuma and I hated the so-called black scorpion – Brigadier Adekunle who I later met in person in 1982. I hated these men not because of anything I know they did in particular, but because those were the names we always heard of as the core people driving the war and causing the killing of Biafrans. As a young Christian boy, I wondered why God would let such calamity befall my mother; I felt that all the prayers we offered to God every morning amounted to nothing since he would not protect us from the evil fangs of the enemy. I was feeling bad without even hearing the full story!
It turned out that even though we were just hearing the story then, it actually happened a while back . According to story, when the Federal troops entered Asaba, they rounded up as many natives as they could, accused them of collusion with Biafra and then lined them up and started shooting! Story further had it that some men were shot right in front of their wives and then the women were made to bury their husbands. It was gruesome! The following were the people my mother lost in that massacre: her father – G.W. Gwam also called insurmountable, her uncle called Gwam nta, her brother Gibson Gwam and very many relatives were lost in this mayhem also. That was too much to bear in one swoop. I pitied my father because he had his hands full; his prayer that night was the most passionate I have ever heard someone offer, his prayer was full of questions to God, why, why, why Lord? Why have you forsaken your children, Lord why? He blamed Britain in his prayers for aiding and abetting the federal troops, he blamed Czechoslovakia, he blamed Egypt, and he blamed all those supporting the federal troops and causing this suffering. I had never seen my father that emotional before then. Before that time, I saw him as a pillar of strength but on this day, I saw the other side of a man who was working hard to guard against loosing it, it was also very painful to me, I simply hated that war, hated Gowon and abhorred his lieutenants.


I heard so much about Brigadier Adekunle during the war; my understanding then was that he was a tough, no nonsense army commander who was so brave that he ate bravado as lunch and washed it down with ruthlessness! For that reason, I conjured up an image of him as probably six feet tall and very charismatic. I surmised that those qualities caused people to fear him and respect his commands during the war. This image quickly evaporated when I met the Brigadier in 1982. I had just returned from the United States where I, along with my friend and roommate at the University of Nigeria – Mike Ukoha (Micky Jagger) had gone to prepare our final year thesis projects. Because of flight arrangements, we had to have a layover in Lagos before heading back to Enugu to commence classes. This must have been sometime in October or November of 1982. My sister who returned with her family from the States that very period, stated that Micky and I could stay in the house of her friend- Betty, for the night to resume our journey the next day. Miky and I were given the address so we went and luckily, Betty was on hand to receive us; our baggage was taken to one of the rooms.
Micky and I went to Surulere to see a friend of mine but by the time we came back, our boxes which had hitherto been sent up to the room upstairs, were now stacked against one another in the foyer. As we stood looking around and wondering what happened, a slim built man of no more than about 5 ft 7inches, alighted from the stairs followed by Betty. He had a very stern look on his face; even when we said good evening, he did not respond so I stepped back. Then I heard Betty saying something to him in Yoruba dialect which I did not quite grasp, but I understood the part about “Brigadier, aburo Ije ni” which I translated as “Brigadier, this is Ije’s junior brother”. Ije is my sister and Betty’s friend. It seemed as though that statement made the magic because right after that, his countenance softened and he invited Miky and I to his study. As we were going upstairs in that gigantic mansion, in one of his living rooms hung a color picture of him in ceremonial military regalia; there was also a picture of a black scorpion hanging on the wall. In his study, he formally introduced himself as Brigadier Adekunle. In my exuberance I asked him: “are you the Adekunle of the Nigerian War?” It was as if a bomb had exploded; he thundered back in response, “Yes, I am, what did they tell you I did?” I spent the next 20 minutes or so trying to tell him that no one said anything but that I heard a lot about him during the war as a little boy. Again he turned the tables on me aggressively asking what I heard about him. Again it took a lot of rhetorical gerrymandering on my part before he finally gave me a break. Apparently, Micky had never even heard of him before and Micky is about two years older than myself! The next I knew, he hurried downstairs, and came up with two plates of porridge and spoons; he gave Micky and I a plate each. After the obvious badgering we had just received, I was not sure if the food was given to us in good faith, I wanted to say no thanks but I knew that was going to spark another round of questioning from him, so I subdued my feelings and ate slowly meanwhile wondering silently if that was our proverbial last supper!
During subsequent visits to his house in the company of my sister to see Betty, we met his other wife, Jumoke. In these instances, he seemed very pleasant even making jokes. You could still sense the aura of authority around him, he was even called Brigadier in his own house and he definitely issued orders like a Brigadier he was.
The only thing that surprised me about Adekunle was that he was not tall neither can he be described as charismatic; I kept wondering to my self how he managed to effect all the bravery and commanding personality we heard about during the war. This is the same thought I had about Col. JOG Achuzia when I understood that he was just about 5″ 6 inches tall and yet was able to effect all the heroics that were attributed to him during the Biafran War……