Obiefuna Amuzie , hails from Ogbunike in Oyi local government of Anambra state. He retired as a maintenance engineer in 2010 at the Anambra State Ministry of Information. He is a surviving Biafran combatant, who joined the Biafran Army by conviction, not conscription. This was the source of the invaluable morale that made him one of the many fearless young soldiers that ran things at the war front. In this blistering war tale of an interview with CHINELO NWANGENE and CHIDEX ONYEMAH , he shares his experience.
Looking back through the lens of time, can you recall exactly when and where you were and how you found out that there had been an outbreak of war between the federal government and Biafra?
I was schooling in Umuahia, present Abia state capital, when the civil war started. Earlier, however, we had been following political developments in the country since the January 15, 1966 coup d’état which led to the collapse of the First Republic. The events that followed the bloody coup were very significant and, even as young as we were then, we followed everything with keen interest. It was significant in the sense that the northern segment of the Nigerian leadership had never forgiven the Igbo for that coup which they believed was an Igbo affair.
Despite the fact that it was plotted and executed by soldiers from different ethnic groups in Nigeria, the general interpretation in the north remained that it was an Igbo coup. This was notwithstanding the fact that some Igbo military officers also helped to foil it.
All explanations in the face of evidence, including the effort by Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, who took over power, based on his seniority in the army at that time, to introduce policies to de-escalate the tension did only very little to convince them that there was never an agenda by the Igbo nation to take over the federal government and lord things over the rest of the country at that time. Of course, they plotted a revenge coup which led to the killing of Ironsi and Lieutenant Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, then military governor of Western Region, in the process, toppling of his federal regime. From the moment that counter coup took place on July 29, 1966, many people started perceiving the aroma of war. From the list of grievances presented by the northern soldiers who dethroned that Ironsi regime, it was obvious that the Igbo had been considered their major threat and, therefore, marked for elimination in Nigeria. Even before the counter coup, the killing of Igbo people living and working in the north was already in top gear. Between May and October 1966, over 10,000 Igbo nationals and 30,000 easterners were reported to have been killed in the north.
Although I was rather too young to fully take in and appreciate the import of these events, I can remember that the stories of the massacre that filtered into the region on daily basis forced many to begin to call for secession of the region from Nigeria. Of course, the refusal by the Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon-led federal military government to implement the agreement reached by that government with the governor of the Eastern region, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu at Aburi, Ghana heightened the tension. The renegation by the federal on that Aburi Accord was a major factor in the sequence of events that led to the secession of the Eastern Region and the declaration of the Republic of Biafra which, ultimately, led to the civil war.
With the way easterners, particularly the Igbo, were impudently killed in the north (with the federal government and the rest of the country just looking on, coupled with the declaration of war against Biafra by the Gowon federal administration, I had no difficulty deciding to find relevance in the resultant drive for self-preservation. I, therefore, joined the Biafran army and was deployed to serve in the Calabar sector.
Can you recall your initial reaction to the hostilities and how you eventually ended up on the war front?
I had already been forced by events in Nigeria, events by Nigeria, I should say, to warm up for involvement in the urgent self-preservation need we found ourselves in before the war was finally, formally declared. Most young men across Biafra voluntarily joined the army in their desperation to help save their new nation.
As an 18-year-old man and newly recruited soldier, hardly exposed to the rudiments of war, I fought fearlessly and was very aggressive and offensive on the Nigerian soldiers. Young people of that age are often ruthless because they haven’t been exposed to much of life.
Given my lack of formal military training, I was a novice on the techniques of fighting a war but this did not stop me from engaging in daring acts at the war fronts. My policy then was to avenge all Biafran deaths and that was why my colleagues gave me a nickname – Ogbunigwe. Whenever I went to our mammy market to eat or drink, people often paid my bills just because they liked my bravery in the war front. The injury that led to the amputation of one of my legs is just a stamp from God to unveil my hostility to the Nigerian soldier. However, surviving the war was just by God’s grace.
Where exactly did you taste your first frontline battle and how did you survive?
I fought at St Patrick Secondary School, Calabar, at Calabar airport, Creek town in Calabar and so many other places even in present-day Akwa-Ibom state. Those of us that fought in that sector witnessed fierce fighting and my survival of all those battles was just by God’s grace.
There were some battles we fought which I never imagined surviving, given the sheer number of bullets that flew around us. At the end of the day, I noticed that I didn’t sustain any injury and that was why I view my survival as a divine act.
Can you recall some of the most daring and deadly battles you fought and where?
The deadliest battles were the one that led to the injury that led to the amputation of my leg. However, the first injury I sustained during the war was at Ikot-Ekpene-Itu road on December 20, 1968. The injury was caused by a rocket, an ammunition used like a bomb. On that fateful day, this ammunition blew and the shrapnel and pellets scattered on my body, giving me a very severe wound.
The second injury led to the amputation of my leg. I had gone to see my fellow soldiers at the jungle. I was already injured by then. My aim was to get foodstuffs from them because those at the front line were always better supplied with food. On getting there, my boys told me that they were on “stand to,” which means that the enemy had already informed them of a battle which was to commence the next morning. My boys insisted I waited to fight with them regardless of my injury. I had to wait to fight without any of my guns.
So, this last injury was caused by close range shot which led to the bullet scattered inside my bones. It became very difficult for the medical department to dislodge the bullets at that time. We, therefore, ended up cutting the injured leg off. One thing about fighting wars is that when you sustain an injury, it’s really painful but when you recount the way you survived the battle, you feel grateful.
Can you recall some of the comrades you lost on the frontline and how they fell?
They were many of them that did not survive the war and it was very devastating because they fought ever so bravely. The most saddening, in my thinking, was the death of Pius Asomba. He was the soldier that volunteered to take me from Ikot-Ekpene to Umuahia when I sustained my first injury, against all risks on the road. He was from Okija. Another one was Mike Okoronkwo from Arochukwu. Okoronkwo was a very brave soldier who was fearless at the war front but his life was cut short during the war. Another was one Ndukwe, from Abiriba. Unfortunately, I can’t recall his first name any more but I remember them as well as many other close soldiers whom we fought together but did not survive the war. One thing about the war was that it was almost impossible to know who a brave soldier was except at the battle field. There were so many soldiers that were lost at the forefront who gave their all to save Biafra from defeat. It was a supreme sacrifice that only some of us who witnessed those deadly confrontations with the Nigerian soldiers appreciate best.
What were some of the challenges and setbacks which you personally encountered while fighting for the new nation?
I will say that the Calabar sector where I served didn’t face the kind of logistic challenge that others had. We had food in surplus all through the period one Johnny, an Israeli, commanded our sector. There was very special treatment given to our sector by the Biafra military hierarchy because of the love they had for us.
The head of state, General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu usually visited our sector twice a week, unlike other sectors. I will say that we had close contact with the Biafran leader. Even when I was being treated, Ojukwu personally came to the health centre where I was admitted to visit and encourage me that the war was going to end soon.
Apart from that, we had this Israeli soldier, named Johnny, as our commanding officer and three mercenaries that operated two helicopters deployed in our sector. We had everything we needed. As a matter of fact, when we were with Johnny, the Nigerian soldiers didn’t find it funny because we often annihilated them.
However, that did not take away the fact that the Biafran army as a whole lacked the kind of sophisticated weapons, logistics and technical support that Nigerian army had.
Unlike the Nigerian army, the Biafra army, with numerical strength of about 30,000 at the height of the war, had no official support from other nations. Although arms were acquired through other means, it was never enough and this forced Biafra to venture into manufacture of its own weapons locally. Despite this shortcoming, the Biafran soldiers matched and dealt with the Nigerian soldiers, losing the war, not on the war front, but a number of other factors. As far as strategy and war tactics were concerned, the Biafran army was superior to their opposing Nigerians in spite of the Nigerians’ ready stock of weapons, air and naval supports.
Aside solders, can you recall any of your close family members that died during the war?
Incidentally, nobody from my family died during the war. That was another indication that God was really behind us. However, there was a man in my kindred that died in Ihiala as a result of a bomb explosion after the war. There was a pit where a bomb had been buried but which nobody knew about. He and four other persons, unfortunately unknowingly, stepped into the pit and they were killed by the ensuing explosion.
What was your greatest motivation during the war?
My greatest motivation then was vengeance for the innumerable compatriots killed in Nigeria right under the watch of the Nigerian federal government. The fact that I had the opportunity of being at the war front fighting and killing the enemy soldiers was some fulfilment to me. There was a kind of satisfaction that we used to have at that time whenever we neutralised our opponents. We killed so many Nigerian soldiers in my sector and that was my only motivation then. Besides that, nothing else gave us joy at that time, more so given that there was death and destructions everywhere.
There were allegations that both Nigerian and Biafran soldiers were brutal to civilians on the Biafra side at the height of the war. Did you witness any of such incidents of torture, rape and so on?
Our [Calabar] sector was a very disciplined one. We were headed by a white man so there was no room for indiscipline. Even General Ojukwu was always commending us for our performance and discipline on and off the battle field. None of us had time for such things. We were concentrated on fighting and neutralising the enemy. If there was any form of brutality I witnessed, it would be that by the civilians against the soldiers. I was disappointed the day I discovered that a native that I often thought to be friendly to our soldiers was rather wicked to them. It happened that I once went to the area and found Biafran army kits in this man’s house. I quickly conducted a search around the house only to find the remains of some Biafran soldiers roasted to be eaten or sold by this man. It was terrible that they could mete out such evil to our soldiers, even when we were fighting in their own interest.
Can you recall where you were and how you felt when the news broke that the war had ended?
I was at Obodo Ukwu in Orlu, Imo state. The fact was that, after losing one of my legs due to amputation, I was freed from fighting. I, therefore, stayed at Obodo Ukwu for the necessary post-surgery convalescence and recovery. To be honest with you, I was very surprised when I received the news.
Incidentally, I was with my friend who also had the same kind of injury and so, immediately the news broke, he suggested that we should both fall into a well and die. Although I did not accept his suggestion, I was not happy that the war ended. We never wanted to belong to Nigeria again. The national unity they were preaching looked very impossible and lacking in genuineness, to us. Incidentally, 50 years after the civil war ended, that very Nigerian unity remains a mirage. The country is still struggling to remain intact and none of the promises that gave birth to the nation in 1960 has been realised.
What was your rank in the Biafran army when the war ended and how did the Nigerian government treat people like you thereafter?
I was an infantry lieutenant. The treatment we received from the Nigerian government after the war was not good at all. We were treated as outcasts. [Ethiopian Emperor] Haile Selassie, who was the first chairman of the OAU also connived with the Nigerian army to get favour from other countries, a move that denied Biafra the assistance of those countries. So many countries, both African and European, worked against Biafra. If Biafra had half of the international support Nigeria had then, the war would not have ended that way. That is why I often see people who are not interested in Biafran matters as being stupid.
Almost 50 years after the war, do you think the Nigerian government has addressed the issues that led to it?
The answer is no. Nigerian government still treats the Igbo as slaves. It’s as if the civil war has not even ended for them because there has been no meaningful effort to give us a sense of belonging in Nigeria. They are still being punished for the first military coup which, evidently, was never an Igbo agenda in the first place, as they believe. As far as I’m concerned, it is better to die a Biafra martyr than living like a second-class citizen in Nigeria. Do you know that, after the war, our names were written and collated by the Nigerian government on the basis that all Biafran combatants would be paid but, at the end of the day, these names were torn and thrown away. And we were forgotten. It is clear that we cannot stay in this country together.
As someone who lived through such a terrible period, would you subscribe to the current clamour for secession from Nigeria as Biafra state?
I will give more than 100 percent support for secession, especially of the South East, to form an independent Biafra state. There is nothing good that will come out of this present Nigeria. It’s laughable that many Igbo people are deceiving themselves with this 2023 presidency project as if that would make up for the over 50 years of subjugation of the Igbo. The signs are already there that Nigeria is not making any headway but the selfish leaders would not allow us to go our separate ways. And the reason for that is obvious. We lack good leaders. Those there now are only interested in their selfish agenda.
That is why I see Yakubu Gowon as a coward. Despite the fact that he was the Nigerian head of state who declared the so-called police action against Biafra, he never fought a single battle despite being a military officer; unlike Ojukwu who was at the forefront of several battles.
I strongly believe that the Igbo are better off pursuing Biafra than securing Nigerian presidency because it is a useless position that would not change the lot of Ndigbo.
The structure of Nigeria is flawed and those taking advantage of that would never give up easily. That is why I will support any efforts to secure Biafra. If the only way to achieve Biafra will be war, it is worth giving it another shot. It is true that war is an ill-wind that blows nobody good as many souls will be lost but if another war will save us from this mess called Nigeria, we can’t help but to go for it.