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My father and the Biafran war story



By Patrick Egwu…. 

I grew up in the slums of Northern and South Eastern Nigeria reading books about the Biafran War (July 6, 1967 – January 15, 1970) and how more than 2 million people died of starvation and diseases. My hunger to know more grew. It was indescribable – a burning desire I couldn’t explain. Frederick Forsyth’s “The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend” shaped my worldview about the war – the victims, major players and the negotiators. Then I read “The Untold Story of the Nigeria-Biafra = War” by Luke Aneke and other writers’ account of the war. Fifty-two years on, I’m still on the journey to know more.

Biafra was a secessionist state in West Africa which existed from May 30 1967 to 15 January 1970. It is made up of states in South Eastern and South-South Nigeria – areas majorly dominated by native Igbo speakers. Igbo is one of the ethnic groups among Nigeria’s 250.

First, I grew up learning from my mom that my dad, Patrick Egwu Snr. (of Blessed Memory) fought in the war – on the side of the Biafrans. We’re Igbos. So it was no surprise. I’d seen old pictures of him at the battlefield – fully kitted in his military uniforms, heavy boots and clutching an AK-47 in a battle-ready position. He was a Staff Sergeant. Sadly, I’d never got the opportunity to ask him more about the war before he was extra-judicially killed in 1995 by Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s former military dictator. To know more, I’d travel across states in South Eastern Nigeria – searching for Biafra war veterans to hear their stories – how the war went down. They were part of the key actors during the war, so their stories mean a whole lot.

My father was 22 years when he’d volunteer to join the Biafran army at the beginning of the war in 1967. He fought throughout the war and saw fierce battles. He would have been 75 this year. He was a Biafran and so am I. For three years, through aerial bombardment from Nigerian forces, he fought alongside his Igbo brothers and comrades with his blood – holding their
territory from falling to enemy lines and at the same time, forming resistance to Nigerian military offensive who were strongly supported by Western allies – Britain, USA, Soviet Union and Israel through mercenaries and military intelligence.

As a young writer, I wanted to document more about the war – to hear first-hand accounts from those who first hit the battlefield at the start of hostilities between the two sides. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana’s reflection comes in here. I would go to rehabilitation camps set up for disabled Biafran soldiers who fought in the war – holding clutches, amputees suffering from PTSD and waiting for one day – when they will die. I wanted to hear their stories and how they survived during the three-year bloody war. I wanted to document their stories that were told that unfortunately, the millennials know nothing about. To them, it doesn’t matter again. “It’s our past,” they say. They forget that the future is void without the past.

Back in May 30, 1967, Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the leader of the secessionist Biafra had declared the republic of Biafra an independent state from Nigeria. He cited the pogrom of 1966 when more than 30,000 Igbos were brutally massacred unprovoked, by their Hausa hosts in Northern Nigeria because of their ethnic group. It was a bloody episode in the history of Nigeria. And so was the war too – a dark episode it is called. The federal government headed by Gen Yakubu Gowon – a 35-year-old young military ruler had disagreed with the declaration by Col. Ojukwu. They must remain in Nigeria he said despite the atrocities and genocide committed against the Igbo tribe. He called it “One Nigeria” – to show that all Nigerians are one and must remain same. On the other hand, the Igbos wanted to be free – to exist as a people on their own and rule themselves, independent of external influences. This sought-after freedom led to war – one which claimed the lives of millions – men, women and children clutched in their mother’s arms.

For my father, his colleague and friend during the war, Romanus Nna had told me about his exploits in the battlefield. He told me of my father’s role during the popular ambush at the Abagana sector during the war. The young Biafran soldiers had laid an ambush for the Nigerian soldiers at an area called Abagana in Onitsha, Anambra state, South East Nigeria. And with an ambush that raged for hours, the Biafran soldiers killed the federal troops except for a few who escaped with their hearts in their hands. At that time, it was the best part of the war for the rebels – as the Biafran soldiers were called. They had recorded a great success that appeared on the front pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and reported by the BBC and CBS war correspondents.

“How did it happen?” I had asked Nna, now about 67 years old. He had joined the war as a child soldier. “It was the beginning of our fame during the war,” he told me with a grin from the balcony of his home. “Everybody who was part of the ambush was regarded as a hero and respected by other soldiers.” Indeed, the ambush was successful and it got the federal troops withdrawing to their bases for weeks, regrouping later to launch another major offensive against the rebels.

The Abagaba ambush as it is now popularly called, was one of the biggest fight for the Biafran soldiers. They won a major victory. On March 31, 1968, a group of Biafran young soldiers led by Major Jonathan Uchendu ambushed and destroyed a 106-military convoy of the federal troops led by Gen Murtala Mohammed with locally handmade bomb popularly called “Ogbunigwe” or “Ojukwu bucket bomb” – so called after Col Ojukwu who declared the republic of Biafra. The convoy was transporting about 6000 infantries, all battle ready with AK-47, hand grenades and rocket launchers. The convoy was along the road from downtown Abagana where the Biafran commander, Major Uchendu lay in ambush with his ragtag well-trained, disciplined platoon – waiting with the tick-tock of his wrist watch.

When the vehicles of the federal troops approached, the Ogbunigwe rocket missiles made by Biafran soldiers were launched at a tanker truck carrying gasoline which caused an enormous explosion and inferno that tossed armored cars like toys. Three hundred and fifty tons of equipment were destroyed or captured by Biafran forces. Few federal troops survived the inferno including Gen Muhammed out of the 6000 Nigerian troops.

This successful ambush at Abagana gave both Biafran soldiers and civilians hope in the war and halted the Nigerian advance into Biafran territories. The humiliating Abagana defeat to Nigerian soldiers prompted Gen Gowon to remove Gen. Mohammed as the General Commanding Officer of the Onitsha sector where the ambush took place.

Before the ambush, on October 4, 1967, Nigerian army 2nd Division began bombarding Onitsha and continued the assault for eight days before a 10 boat armada crossed the River Niger into the city. This started the “First Battle of Onitsha.” The occupying and pilfering Nigerian troops concentrated on looting and burning the Onitsha market – the largest in West Africa then, to the ground. The Biafran 11th and 18th Battalions under Maj. Joseph Achuzie and Col. Assam Nsudoh formed a pincer and attacked Onitsha from two directions, capturing and killing several Nigerian soldiers.

In December 1967, the Nigerian 2nd Division and 6th Battalion had crossed the River Niger at Idah and started making their way to Onitsha. Having captured the city, the Nigerian forces now made steps to link up the 1st Division at Enugu with the 2nd convoy supported by armored cars on 31 March 1968.

In the beginning of the battle, Gen. Muhammed's men were forced to retreat across the River Niger. Gen. Muhammad then had to march to Abagana and cross the river there and marched back to Onitsha. It took the federal troops two months to reach Onitsha and when they did on January 12, 1968, the city fell within 24 hours.

The ambush, ultimately started the “Second Battle of Onitsha” after Marc Goosens’ invaded the city with 4,500 Biafran soldiers only hours after the ambush. Although Goosens' men held Onitsha for 8 months, the city was later retaken by Benjamin Adekunle after the death of Goosens on November 3, 1968.

Most importantly, Nna had told me how my father once saved his life in the battlefield. They were deployed at the same sector. It was a hot afternoon in mid-February 1969. They were camping in a forest when they were hit by a grenade from the federal troops. In the midst of the pandemonium, a shrapnel had pierced Nna’s loins. He was down.

“He pulled me out from the rubble to safety before calling for help,” he told me.

“What happened afterwards? Did help come?’” I queried. “Yes, it did,” he said, taking a deep breath in reminisces of the war times.

In late 2017, I started writing a book about my father’s lifetime especially during the Biafra war periods. I had interviewed more than a dozen of his friends, relatives and colleagues who fought the war together with him. Their stories matter. With the book, I intend to chronicle his life, death and of course, the Biafran war and present struggle. When published, I will have it distributed to schools in Nigeria so students could read and learn more about the war.

After the war, the Nigerian government banned the teaching of history or anything associated with the war as a subject in schools in the country. This action was taken intentionally so the younger generation won’t know their history or their past and how it can reshape their future. Their argument – it will re-echo the sounds of the war and perhaps, ignite or renew secession
struggles among the people – Igbos – who most suffered the in the war.

Unfortunately, this didn’t help as a young generation of Biafra supporters and activists have sprang up in Nigeria – demanding the restoration of an independent Biafran state. Mostly young, they have deployed the social media – Twitter, Facebook and Internet radio popularly called Radio Biafra founded in London, to awaken the consciousness of the people.

In the middle of the struggle stands Nnamdi Kanu – a young London-educated Biafran activist who founded the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) – an organization calling for the a free Biafran state.

“I love Biafra more than my wife,” Kanu had told me two years ago when I visited him for an interview with my colleagues: Nigerian-American Chika Oduah and Linus Unah. Few writers have had the opportunity to speak with him. It was an honour. He had just been granted bail after spending almost two years in prison when he was arrested in 2015 for treasonable offenses. The federal government had argued that his speeches via Radio Biafra in London, constituted hate speeches and so is guilty of committing treasonable offenses against the government. Many Biafrans, pro-Biafra groups and activists argued that the charges were trumped up – just to shut him up. However, despite his time in prison, he looks undeterred. Instead of shutting him up, the agitation grew louder with hundreds of thousands of followers who embarked on large scale protests in Nigeria for his release when he was arrested. Pocket of protests by pro-Biafrans also held during sessions at the United Nations headquarters in New York and other gatherings at the European Union and African Union to call their attention to human rights abuses the group is facing from security forces in Nigeria.

Each year on May 30, Biafra supporters and pro-Biafra groups in Nigeria and all over the world celebrate the anniversary of Biafra in memory of those killed during the war and those killed by Nigeria’s security forces in their renewed agitation. In 2016, more than 150 armless protesters were killed by Nigeria’s security forces while celebrating the anniversary of Biafra. Amnesty International strongly condemned Nigeria’s government for the massacre. Aside this, other killings, arrests and torture of Biafra supporters have taken place in different parts of Nigeria over the years by security agents.

In 2017, the federal government launched an offensive military operation in South Eastern Nigeria code-named “Operation Python Dance II”. The reason for this was to quell the growing agitation by members of IPOB and other pro-Biafra groups. More than 20 peaceful protesters were killed during the operation. In the end, IPOB was proscribed as a terrorist organization. Still, many Nigerians and activists say the group does not qualify to be tagged a terrorist organization as it doesn’t carry arms or attack fellow citizens.

In the midst of each celebration every year, I am always somber – a state of solitude in a sense. First, I remember my father who fought in the war. Then I remember his colleagues and others

who were killed at the battlefield. Then I imagine the sufferings at that time – of young mothers and their malnourished children – no food, no clean water, no medicine, no aid and in harsh reality, no hope for tomorrow. These thoughts bring down shivers down my spine – feelings of despair and sorrow. I become downcast.

My stories by speaking with victims will bring back living memories. My knowledge of the war has changed everything. In the middle of it, my father and his act of valor at the battlefield stand.

His memory and role during the three-year battle for survival lives on. My mother, in her mood, speaks of her husband and the type of man he was – the beautiful memory they once had.

“He fought for what he believed in,” she would say. “He believed in true freedom – of his people and their land.”

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