Biafra’s “invasion” of Gombe

Biafra’s “invasion” of Gombe

When I think of Nigeria’s civil war, one memory always stands out: Biafra’s “invasion” of Gombe.


We had been in Gombe over a year. The day unfolded routinely. Classes ended at 12:30. Cindy and I rode home on our little Honda 50. Our cook prepared a lunch of fresh fruit salad and crackers with orange squash to drink. After eating we retired to our living room to read and nap.


It was the hottest part of the day. Full from lunch, classes complete, we both slept for nearly two hours. After my nap I hurried back to school for games. Cindy stayed home to study Hausa before visiting Alhaji Bello’s wives in their compound near the Emir’s palace. In the evening we had a dinner of tuwo and miyan kaza followed by listening to BBC news and Radio Nigeria, correcting papers, lesson planning and some reading before bed.


Imagine how stunned we were to hear Radio Biafra was reporting that Biafran troops had invaded Gombe that day.


There were no signs of occupying troops as we went about our business. Did they come while we napped? No gunfire had awakened us; then again there were no Federal troops nearby to put up a fight. Perhaps the Biafran forces just walked in like Sandberg’s fog “on little cat’s feet” and then faded away as quietly as they had come.


Afterwards the PCV’s in town joked about the invasion of Gombe among ourselves, but like most other aspects of the civil war, we didn’t discuss it with our Nigerian colleagues and friends.


This was as close as we came to direct involvement in the war; Gombe had merely been an item in the propaganda battles.




From the time John F. Kennedy announced it, Cindy and I were captivated by the idea of Peace Corps service. We served together from September, 1966, to August, 1968, as teachers at Gombe Teachers’ College. Cindy taught English literature and composition to fourth and fifth year students and supervised their student teaching. I taught math to the lower school students and coached.


We were young, naïve, recently married, untraveled, BA generalists, not unlike many who served in the Peace Corps in the sixties. Our training at Boston University was rigorous, but very academic, except for student teaching and a couple of weeks of community service in the Roxbury-Dorchester area of Boston. More enthusiastic than prepared we were packed off to Nigeria.





We had heard of the Ironsi coup before our training began. During our training the June massacre of Igbos and other easterners took place and the second coup overthrowing the Ironsi government followed. Despite the political turmoil and rioting there was no suggestion our program might be cancelled.


We knew that we were going to a country ruled by a military government to teach in towns where riots had likely occurred. As if to punctuate these facts our arrival in Lagos was eerie. Our landing seemed normal until the plane stopped abruptly on the runway. The airport was totally dark. We descended stairs to the tarmac and were directed into buses with armed military personnel front and back. Armed soldiers stood watch while we cleared customs and were loaded onto buses for the trip to Lagos University. No one else was in the airport.


A day in Lagos, a memorable flight to Kaduna for a couple days of orientation, then a ride to Gombe was arranged. We spent a night with PCV’s in Bauchi, where we were told tales of the slaughter of Igbos there in June. Finally we were dropped off at the Rest House in Gombe. Suddenly we were on our own with nine weeks worth of Hausa dialogues in our heads and a promise that the lone PCV in Gombe would get us to our school. We had arrived!


We ate dinner in the Rest House dining room on our own and our PCV greeter stopped in to meet us later in the evening. Next day he took us to the Teachers’ College where our teaching assignments, a house and our cook/housekeeper were ready for us.


Gombe is the seat of a traditional Hausa emirate founded in 1804 by a follower of Usuman dan Fodio, but it is not one of the Hausa Bakwai. It was generally considered a “bush” assignment.


After about six months living in school housing we moved to a compound in the quarter of town nearest the College. It was located on the main road from the center of town to the government schools west of town.


Our compound was a gathering place for our immediate neighbors. We shared the water spigot in our courtyard with them. They would come in during the hours when our quarter received its water allocation, rather than stand in the long line at the public spigot down the street. A malama sold Quranic verses to those in need of healing words, and an elder woman of the quarter sold bean cakes outside in the shade of our wall. Our zaure was a popular place for children and others to gather in the heat of the day to talk and nap. Also, our students often visited us as they passed by on their way to visit the town and its market on Fridays.


Our life was rather idyllic in Gombe. We taught our classes at the College in the morning before the heat of the day set in. In the late afternoon when it began to cool off I coached at the College and Cindy studied Hausa and visited her women friends. They were upper class based on wealth and family connections, but without formal (British) education, and spoke no English. Our neighbors, mostly lower class, were very friendly and helpful. We employed a cook/housekeeper who did our food shopping, although we frequented the afternoon markets.


As a result of the June uprisings throughout the North against “Easterners,” there were no longer any Igbos in Gombe when we arrived. Consequently the horrors of the September massacres were not closely visited on us. We heard of them by word of mouth, since we did not have a radio until some time later and newspapers only reached us infrequently.


We lived in a time warp. We got news of the outside world second or third hand from Sunday chats with ex-pats at “The Club.” Gombe had a contingent of British engineers who were working on the Bauchi-Yola highway project and several Anglo teachers at the two government schools plus British managers at the local cotton ginnery.


We bought ourselves a radio for Christmas and became regular listeners of BBC World News. In June, 1967, when Biafra declared independence and Gowon ordered in the troops to prevent secession we learned about it from the BBC.


The civil war altered our life some. Gombe instituted a blackout to prevent it becoming a target of a nighttime air raid. We registered and carried alien identification cards when traveling; once while hitchhiking near Kaduna during a holiday in 1968 we were waved away from our spot on the road near an army base by an armed soldier; we were stopped at a highway checkpoint on the way to our termination conference; and there were a group of mercenaries staying in one of the buildings near our rooms at the Hamdala Hotel during our termination conference.


My two experiences with rail travel were also affected by the war. As games master at Gombe TC I traveled with our teams to several places in the northeastern part of Nigeria. Sometimes we traveled in the school lorry, other times we took the train.


The coups, the massacres and later the civil war created havoc with the railroads, we were told. The massacres in particular had a very large, negative impact on the civil service and infrastructure in the North. Train schedules were hit and miss at best and the make-up of the trains themselves was unpredictable.


We rode a train to Maiduguri for a football tournament game. When we arrived at the station to board we discovered the train had no passenger cars. Not to worry, there were empty cattle cars and we loaded ourselves into one. It was relatively clean and we made ourselves as comfortable as possible on the floor along with the other passengers.


Train travel lacked the wild careening, loud horn honking and sudden brake applications of mammy wagons and lorries on the roads, but it was slow. Based on my experience, train arrivals were usually late at night at empty stations with no available means of communication.


We arrived in Maiduguri, around 11 pm with no one waiting to greet us. We slept on the concrete floor or the hard wooden benches in the lobby. Next morning we were able to send a messenger to the school and they sent a lorry to collect us.


I wondered, was this experience a consequence of the troubled times? Or did it have more to do with cultural differences with respect to the importance of clock dominated schedules and using the available cars rather than hauling them empty? I never found out.


My other train trip was to Toro near Jos with our track and field team. This time we were traveling in a passenger car. The kids, their belongings, and our team equipment were spread out on seats, under seats and in the aisle. Soon the clickety clack of the wheels put everyone to sleep. The trip itself was uneventful. Except that upon arrival in Toro our 12 pound shot was missing. After a fruitless search, enquiries among other passengers revealed what had happened. A conductor, unfamiliar with our sport and its equipment needs, had spotted the shot on the floor at the back of our car and mistook it for an explosive device. He threw it out into the bush.


Was I upset? Yes. We had so little equipment to begin with and acquiring more was not easy in remote Gombe. Laughable? Although it may have seemed so to me, the conductor’s action was clearly a consequence of heightened fears caused by the war and unrest.


We arrived back in Gombe well after dark. The station was closed and locked. No lorry awaited us. We could walk to the school on the roads, about four miles, or we could strike out on a direct course across a grassy expanse, about a mile. As a stranger in a strange land, I’m thinking that the grass is teeming with snakes, scorpions or worse, so I opt for the road. Not the students. They’re thinking their beds await them and one mile is a lot less than four. To allay my fears they assured me that the noise of our large group tramping through the grass would scare the snakes away. I guess they were right. We arrived home safely and a good deal sooner than if we had followed my counsel.




It is funny how memory works after 40 years. I started writing about one event, and as I wrote, other memories were triggered. Recently I was telling Cindy how the shot put incident had come back to me from out of the blue. Then she related two incidents which stood out for her. The first I remembered clearly, while the other I could not recall at all.


She remembered we were returning home from the Club at dusk on our little Honda 50. As we approached the main downtown roundabout near the market and lorry park we saw a large, excited crowd in the street blocking our way.


Aware that Gombe had had riots and killings before we arrived there, the turmoil instantly raised our anxiety level. Unable to see clearly or understand what the shouting was about, I suddenly turned right. With Cindy hanging on for dear life I accelerated and then a short way down the street made an abrupt left turn onto a narrow wooden plank across a large eroded drainage ditch and into an alley. The alley was little more than a rutted walkway between compounds and the only light was the bouncing beam of our headlamp. She clamped herself to my back and we moved as one. Eventually the alley got us to the neighborhood of the Emir’s palace and beyond the crowd.


Next day we learned we hadn’t witnessed a riot at all. A bull had escaped from the abattoir, near the market, and the large crowd of people were variously trying to get out of its way or trying to capture it.


The second incident, not nearly as dramatic for us, related to the nightly blackout.


We had a floodlight in our courtyard, but rarely used it because it attracted so many bugs. But one hot afternoon we went to the Club for a gin and tonic. (In deference to our Muslim neighbors we did not drink or keep alcoholic beverages in our compound.) When we left we inadvertently left the light on. Upon returning home, we were horrified to see that the one light in the entire quarter came from our house. If it had been anyone else who had been so careless about the safety of the neighborhood, they would have been severely chastised. But our neighbors were much too polite to their resident Batures (Europeans) to say anything at all.




So the war in Nigeria did not impact our lives dramatically. In Gombe we taught our students and went about our day to day existence as if nothing had changed at all. Markets were held on Tuesdays and Fridays. Guinea corn, cotton and ground nuts were planted, cultivated and harvested. The Fulani moved their cattle along their age old routes between the Gongola and the Benue rivers. A new larger mosque gradually took shape across the plaza from the Emir’s palace. Construction on the Bauchi-Yola highway continued undisturbed.


The sabon gari which had been home to many Igbos was still home to non-Muslim northerners. Imported goods, such as Shelltox, Uncle Ben’s Rice, and Heinz catsup were still available at a little canteen there and the Indian movie house still operated. Post office hours were reduced and the trains didn’t run as regularly as they once had, but this had little impact on most lives in Gombe.


In many ways our life there was more disconnected from the war in Biafra than life in America was from the war in Vietnam. In America film footage from ‘Nam filled the six o’clock news, while in Gombe we had to seek out news of the Biafran war.


In Gombe, the people believed they were on the “right” side of the war, the federal side. We concurred with our friends and neighbors. General Gowon had used Lincolnesque rhetoric to oppose Biafran secession. He portrayed himself as the unifier and Nigeria as a sovereign entity not to be dissolved. His plan called for twelve roughly equal sized states to replace the four largely ethnically determined regions that had suited British colonial rule. In retrospect we can see that logic, truth and reality were twisted and convoluted to support his position. Historic tribal differences, hundreds of languages, religious differences and arbitrary boundaries designed to satisfy nineteenth century European political dynamics were ignored. Control of potential oil revenues, sources of international aid and the Cold War drove decisions in Lagos.


For people in Gombe, our Hausa tutor explained to us, the view was simpler. The Igbos in the person of General Ironsi and his cohorts killed the legitimate government leaders, Tafawa Balewa and the Sardauna, who were Muslim. Jihad was called for and carried out in stages: the June killings, July’s counter coup resulting in Ironsi’s death, the September pogrom focused in Kano and finally the war to prevent secession. It was the will of Allah.


We didn’t live in war-torn Biafra. Our homes and schools weren’t bombed and burned. Our friends and students weren’t starved or conscripted to fight. We didn’t have to be evacuated under cover of night from our post.


We know war is never simple. War is always cruel. War brings out the worst in people: soldiers who fight the battles commit atrocities, generals order artillery and air strikes with their inevitable “collateral damage,” presidents cloak economic and racist motivations in the mantle of freedom and democracy, clergy of whatever ilk invoke God and blame evil doers.


Our “bush” assignment made it easy for us to ignore these elements of war. We focused instead on the first teaching job of our lives, the lesson plans, the tests, curriculum development, sports team-building. The life we made there for ourselves is hard to differentiate from what it might have been had there been no war at all.


Joel Wingard

RPCV, Nigeria 22