Ben Okafor remembers the Biafran war

It is 45 years since Biafra in south-eastern Nigeria declared independence, sparking a bloody civil war that lasted two and a half years and left more than a million people dead. Ben Okafor was just 12 years old when it began and told the BBC’s Witness programme what happened.

“When the declaration of independence was made, everybody surrounded the radiogram at home, all the streets were emptied. People just went to the nearest radio and stood there listening until the broadcast was over.

There was a massive explosion of joyful noises. There were dances in the streets. We were all celebrating, but my father was cautiously happy – that was the kind of person that he was. He wasn’t sure that it would not lead to a war.

Everybody hoped that that was going to be the end of the oppression, that we were now an independent nation, so to say – no longer part of Nigeria – and that the troubles were over, that the rest of Nigeria would just accept that and move on.

But, six days later, the war began.

I was in my first year of secondary school and we had compulsory holidays, everything had stopped because the Nigerian air force started bombing indiscriminately.

It was unbelievably terrifying with buildings crumbling and limbs everywhere. Cars on fire. Schools, hospitals, being bombed. And shortly after that the Nigerian troops entered my city.

“Start Quote

It was unbelievably terrifying with buildings crumbling and limbs everywhere. Cars on fire. Schools, hospitals being bombed”

Ben Okafor

My father wasn’t at home that day. He was working as an adviser to the new Biafran government. It fell to my older brother to get the family out of the city.

He didn’t have a driver’s licence. He said: ‘OK, everybody in the car,’ and I said to him: ‘Who’s going to drive?’ And he said: ‘I am going to drive’. So we all piled into this car and took off.

There were hundreds and thousands of cars on the roads. I was quite small and, to be honest, quite scared to see women throwing away their high-heeled shoes and tearing their pencil skirts just so as to be able to run, and some of them being caught by shrapnel. Cars were ramming into each other. My brother just kept his cool and carried on driving.

We went to my father’s ancestral village, Ogbunike, north-east of Onitsha.

A naked child squats on a pavement
Many Biafran children starved during the civil war

A really significant thing happened to me there. There was an air raid, and I was sitting in the courtyard with my father. He grabbed me by the hand and ran with me. And we ran into the forest, and these jets were strafing the place with bullets.

I looked in my father’s face and I saw fear. And this was something I had never associated with him, ever, in my life, fear. Basically, this turned everything over, and I thought: ‘No, I don’t really want to hang around to watch this. So I decided to enlist in the army.

Ben Okafor

  • Born in Enugu, eastern Nigeria, one of eight children
  • Fights in Biafran War as a 13-year-old
  • Moves to the UK in 1979
  • Becomes reggae musician and campaigner against child soldiers

With no support from the outside world, the Biafran government was under-resourced, and the army was using children, known as the Boys’ Company, as spies behind federal government lines to gather intelligence.

I began to train with the Boys’ Company, but didn’t tell my parents. I told my family only when my platoon was due to go on its first mission the next day.

My mother was basically beside herself, so the next morning as I was preparing to leave, my older brother came to me and said: ‘Look, you can’t leave mum like this,’ and that was when I went back and started to console her, and tell that I would be back, and that everything would be OK.

Then I looked at the clock and realised that I was getting really really late for my rendezvous. I ran as fast as I could but it was too late, the platoon had gone without me.

Biafran War 1967-1970

  • 1960: Nigeria gains independence from the UK
  • 1967: South-eastern portion of Nigeria secedes as Republic of Biafra on 30 May
  • Biafra dominated by Igbo ethnic group and the location of much of Nigeria’s oil
  • Nigerian army blockades Biafra and more than a million people die through famine, disease and fighting
  • 1970: Biafran government surrenders

A few hours later, we heard on the radio that they had been caught. Someone in the government had switched sides and given the Nigerians information about the Boys’ Company.

The boys had their eyes dug out and were sent back to Biafra. The boys were all about my age – 12 or 13 – and even the captain was only 15.

At that time, there was so much pain and fear. The soldiers would arrive in a village and kill everybody – men, women and children, and sometimes their cattle. And everybody had to do something for the war effort. Everyone.

The Nigerian government had already imposed a complete blockade. This meant that food, medical supplies, clothing, and everything needed for survival, could not get through to the Biafran people.

A few individuals and organizations (mainly from mainland Europe) risked their lives to bring food supplies to Biafran refugees, but it was not enough to prevent widespread starvation.

My sister and I were lucky to find work – in a refugee camp.

My job was to ride a baker’s bike to a nearby town where the Red Cross had their depot, collect food and take it back to my refugee camp.

People basically lived off the land. They hunted.

You learned to eat all kinds of leaves that you would not normally look at, and hope to survive.

Many did not. I saw them every day that I worked in that refugee camp. Every day. Sometimes you’d see them, and know they would be dead by the next day.”

Ben Okafor spoke to Witness on the BBC World Service.