As we mark fifty years since the Nigeria Civil War ended in January 1970, I thought about a story I read when I was in Form Three, in a book of short stories titled The Act of Reading. It was about an old veteran of the American Civil War of 1861-65, who was walking on a southern American street three decades after that war ended. He came upon a young Southern American boy who was singing lustfully about “the glorious battlefields of the Civil War.”
He sang about the great battles of the war, top Generals of the Confederate States of America [the American Biafra], daring Confederate sailors who smuggled in vital supplies through the Federal blockade, as well as Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. The war veteran stopped, looked at the boy and said, “Wait a minute, brother! What was civil about that war?”
I have since been wondering, what was civil about the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70? In Kaduna in the 1990s, I interviewed the former photojournalist Ahmadu Danmahawayi, who was a non-com in the Army’s Fifth Battalion in Kano when the civil war started in 1967. He said around 4am one morning, the Sergeant Major blew the burgle, what soldiers call begla. Everyone was in bed but when they heard the begla, they all jumped out of bed and rushed to the parade ground. A soldier does not take time to dress up when the burgle is sounded, so majority of them arrived at the parade ground in shorts, some wrapped in blankets, others with towels around their waists, still others with their wives’ wrappers around them.
Danmahawayi said as soon as the men were assembled, a dozen large Army trucks emerged from the shadows and all of them were made to board the lorries. With their headlights on because it was still dark, the lorries drove straight out of Kano towards Kaduna. Everyone began asking everyone else where they were going, but no one had any idea because they were all awakened in the same manner. The journey continued straight to Makurdi, where they deboarded, were kitted and taken to the warfront at Nsukka.
The civil war was not civil even for men in the offices. Malam Adamu Ciroma once told a story about what happened in the early days of the war when a Biafran B-26 bomber dropped a bomb at Kaduna Airport. There was pandemonium in Kaduna that day because the plane flew at tree-top level for an hour, apparently searching for the airport. Kaduna city’s people all dived into gutters, as Civil Defence taught them to do. The warplane finally found the airport and dropped the bomb, which exploded and made a big crater on the runway.
Ciroma, who was editor of the Northern Region government-owned New Nigerian newspaper, received a call from General Hassan Usman Katsina, who instructed that the story should not be reported because “it will assist rebel propaganda.” Ciroma however said he must publish the story because everybody in Kaduna saw the plane. If the newspaper did not report it, he said, no one will ever believe what it says again. New Nigerian’s screaming headline the next day was, “Kaduna bombed.”
General Hassan was very angry but not long afterwards, the Federal Government under General Gowon procured MiG-17 warplanes from the old Soviet Union, which were flown by Egyptian pilots. These planes then bombed Biafran towns and the Biafran government complained to the OAU. During an angry confrontation at an OAU meeting in Addis Ababa, the Federal Government’s delegation said Biafra started it by bombing Kaduna. The Biafran delegation denied that they ever bombed Kaduna, so the leader of the Federal Government’s delegation flashed the copy of New Nigerian which reported the bombing. General Hassan happened to be in the delegation. As soon as he returned home, he phoned Adamu Ciroma and said, “Thank you very much for publishing that story!”
During my primary school days, I read an old 1960s edition of DRUM magazine which featured an interview with Lt. Colonel Theophilus Yakubu [TY] Danjuma. He told the story of the Federal capture of Enugu in 1967. TY’s brigade approached Enugu from Ninth Mile. Even though they had the city in their artillery sights, they heard the Radio Biafra newscaster announcing that “Our gallant troops captured Makurdi this morning and are on their way to Kaduna.” TY ordered his gunner to silence the station. They had an outdated map of Enugu, but a soldier who once lived there identified the radio station’s rough location on the map. TY listened on a radio set as the gunner fired a shell in the radio’s direction. The announcer paused mid-air, then continued with his “news.” The gunner adjusted his coordinates and fired again, and the radio went off air.
During my NYSC at Nnobi Girls Secondary School in Anambra State, I heard a moving story from Mike, an auxiliary teacher at the school. He told me that he volunteered and joined the Biafran Army when he was 13 years old. He found himself fighting in the battle for Nkpor Junction, near Onitsha. It was a divisional battle; he said when the Federal One Division bore down on Nkpor from the surrounding hills, their shouting alone unnerved the Biafran defenders. They then opened up with artillery fire. Mike said, “Every inch of the soil was hit by shells. We were lying in our trenches. People were dying left, right and centre. All the casualties were hit on the head; they just gasped and died.”
During a lull in the battle, food was passed around in the trenches but Mike was so shell-shocked he could not eat. His platoon commander then sent him to the rear to collect ammo. When he got there, the officer who was sharing ammunition asked him how old he was. When he said 13, the Biafran Army officer said, “This battle is not for your type.” He then assigned him to guard an ambulance that was conveying casualties to Nnewi General Hospital. That was how Mike survived the slaughter.
Three years ago when IPOB’s secessionist clamour was at its peak, many young IPOB members marching on South Eastern city streets created the impression that they wanted a return to Biafra because it was El Dorado, with streets paved in gold. I wondered whether any of them read the numerous books and novels written by people who witnessed the war first hand. Eddie Iroh’s trilogy and in particular, Toads of War is a good starting point. There was a lot of corruption in Biafra, not to mention hunger and starvation. Powerful men abused military and governmental power because the land was blockaded and every essential need was in short supply, especially salt. Hair plaiting thread was a status symbol for any young woman whose powerful boyfriend could get it smuggled in on the lone weekly flight into Uli Airport from Portugal.
My hometown was a thousand kilometres away from the warfront but one early morning in 1970, on our way to primary school, we saw a lot of commotion at the Charge Office. We soon learnt that a soldier from our town deserted the war front and ran back home. An Army Land Rover arrived in the night and military policemen with red berets dragged him out from under his mother’s bed. They took him to the Charge Office, put him in a cell overnight, flooded the cell with water [or so we were told at the time] and made him to lie down in it. The next day they drove away with him in the Land Rover while his relatives wailed. The civil war ended a week later.
There was nothing civil about the Nigeria Civil War.