“If we had achieved a Biafran state, we would have been better than today. Our economy would have been stronger because our people are industrious. But there can never be war again.”
by Patrick Egwu & Ifesinachi Ayogu
ENUGU, Nigeria – Anthony Ihuoma was 22 years old when the Biafra war started on July 6, 1967. Now at 76, he still remembers the brutal and traumatic events of the war – the beginning of hostilities, starvation, displacements, young mothers, clinging onto their babies and running to safety, and the lives lost.
“I still remember everything and it troubles me a lot when I think about them,” he said. “The killing and profiling of Igbo across the country and describing the coup as an ‘Igbo Coup’ was one of the major causes of the war,” he said, referring to the 1966 military coup.
In the wake of the war, Ihuoma left his family in Imo state, Southeast Nigeria and his job as a delivery clerk in Lagos. He joined the war as a sergeant and fought on the Biafran side. As a battalion armorer, he saw combat on the frontlines in Ikot-Ekpene, a city in southern Nigeria.
This year marks the 54th anniversary of the war where an estimated 3 million people, mostly women and children from the defunct Biafra regions, were killed.
On May 30, Lt. Col Odumegwu Ojukwu, a 34-year-old Igbo who had studied history at Oxford, announced the founding of the independent Republic of Biafra. When negotiations over reunification which was held in Accra, Ghana broke down, the federal government launched a military operation to crush what they called a “rebellion.”
“Look at how we are treated today; treated like second-class citizens,” he said of the Southeast region where the war started. “The Igbos excelled in all facets of life before the war, but look at where we are today. Our position in Nigeria today is not who we were before the war. We lost everything due to the war.”
During the war, one single event would change Ihuoma’s life forever. Just a year into the war, his younger brother, Cyriacus Ihuoma was killed at the frontlines.
“I felt alone,” an emotional Ihuoma said. “I regret his death because I told him not to join the war when I was leaving home. Our family could have achieved more if he was here with me. But he later joined and was killed. He was everything to me.”
At 19, Ababa Ezeonu joined the war. He was shot at his right arm on the battlefield and the bullet pierced through his back.
Ezeonu who said he served in the Biafran Army Special Unit of Marine Commandos as Lieutenant, currently lives with the scars of the incident and describes the events of the war as “genocide” against his people [Igbos], “so many of us joined the war without being conscripted.”
“I do not consider it [scar] as a loss,” he told YNaija. “It was a sacrifice and service and I didn’t serve Nigeria, so I didn’t expect any compensation [or sympathy] from them.”
After the war, Ezeonu (now 72), went back to school to complete his secondary education and joined the civil service before proceeding to the United States for further studies.
Cyprian Ezema, 87, had just returned from his deployment in the Republic of the Congo in 1962 under the United Nations mandate. He was in Congo for nine months and so, when the Biafra War started some four years later, he joined in as a sergeant and was deployed to the southern flank of Nsukka, which borders Kogi state and later toured Okigwe and Calabar until the later part of the war.
“We were the ones that formed the Biafran army,” he recalled. “We still remember everything like it was yesterday but war is not something you talk about with joy because a lot of people died.”
Despite the carnage and casualties, those who fought in the war from the Southeast region told YNaija they have no regrets fighting to defend their people and land. They said it was an honour to have joined “a cause for freedom.”
“We didn’t start the war; the war started because of how the Igbos were treated after the coup,” Ihuoma said. “If we had enough equipment, the war would have not lasted up to six months and we would have won.”
The events leading to the war have often been debated with diverse arguments as to if it was necessary and if the leaders on both sides were right to lead their people to a three-year bloody war. But the veterans said the war was necessary because it was a “battle of their lives for freedom.”
“We did the right thing to defend our people at the time because we were invaded,” said Sylvester Egbunna, one of the Biafran war veterans. “Our people were being killed from all parts of the country especially in the north, so we had to stand up and fight.”
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Egbunna, who survived battle injuries during the war and later had his leg amputated, joined the war when he was 20 and led a rag-tag platoon of 25 to ambush the advancing federal troops in 1968. Now 74, he and other veterans live at a rehabilitation camp in Oji River, Enugu set up after the war.
Ihuoma said it was wrong to blame Ojukwu for the war. “I don’t blame him because he rose to defend his people and got the people’s mandate to do so. I blame him [Nnamdi Azikiwe] because I don’t know if he was a Fulani man and claiming to be an Igbo man because he sabotaged us.”
The veterans, however, regretted that their quest for an independent state was not achieved. “If we had achieved a Biafran state, we would have been better than today. Our economy would have been stronger because our people are industrious,” Ezema said. “But there can never be war again.”
Ihuoma was in the forests and swamps of Calabar for deployment when the war officially ended on January 15, 1970. After that, he took up a job at the Lagos Office of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka before being transferred to the university’s main location in the agrarian community of Nsukka in 1983. He retired in 2004 and currently lives with his wife in the rustic university city.
Ihuoma currently lives with the bitter memories of the war. Most evenings, he spends time listening to radio, reading his books or reminiscing about the war with his old-time friends.
“I don’t want to see another war, because I lost everything,” he said. “Nigeria from the beginning did not recognize those soldiers who fought for Biafra and they were stigmatising us. It is very difficult to reconcile.”
There was never full forgiveness, he told YNaija.
Watch out for the concluding series on Monday, 31st May 2021