by Patrick Egwu Ejike
Just a few meters away from the resettlement camp of the disabled Biafran war veterans in Okwe, Onuimo LGA, is the popular “Freedom House”, the gigantic mansion of Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, the leader of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), who had been at the forefront for the restoration of the state of Biafra, though amidst a litany of controversies. While alighting from a motorcycle popularly known as “okada” in local parlance which had picked me up from the Afor-Umuna junction to Okwe, the village where the camp is situated, four young boys started heading towards my direction. Two on a motorcycle while the others were on foot. The young men, all in their late 20s, wore gloomy looks, more like radicals with their reddish eyes which on a closer observation, will confirm that they had had a romance with hard drugs and drinks – Indian hemp (marijuana) and some “keep me high” drinks. It was obvious; it was in their breath as they spoke. It was enough evidence.
A signpost of Okwe, Onuimo LGA headquarters, Imo state
“Kedu onye ibu”? (Which means who are you in Igbo language), one of them I later understood his name to be Jango asked with a furious look. Almost immediately, the other whose name I later learned to be Bullet followed suit “Who you be”? (Meaning who are you in pidgin language). The motorcyclist had left the scene when all these were happening after I had given him the agreed charged fee. Nobody was in sight. It was a quiet road, with bushes in both directions. Houses were scanty around the area, while old women and young mothers were seen clutching their babies at their backs heading to the market. Nobody cared to know what our conversation was about. What can they even do after all? Nothing! “Where are you going to?” the third person whose name I never got to know asked.
Meanwhile, all these questions came before I could say Jack Robinson. “Let’s take him to the commander,” the fourth person, who was riding the motorcycle taxi, said.
“I came to see the veterans,” I said in a rather calm tone. “Who told you they are here?” “Who gave you the permission?” Did you come to see us?” he asked, exposing his wrinkled face to the sun which was beginning to get hotter.
At this point, I kept mute and decided to allow the scene play out. I had my ID but didn’t bring it out from my breast pocket. For one, I needed to see who this commander was. I needed to see his face and perhaps speak with him before I proceed with my main business of interviewing the disabled veterans. Now, the opportunity came, and I grabbed it, with both hands. The fourth person, who had said “let’s take him to commander” at this point, brought out his walkie-talkie, an old walkie, with a rubber band tied at both ends to hold it firm, which was perfectly fixed on his waist.
I saw no guns, but at least I saw a shiny dagger on his waist. I became nervous, apprehensive. “Commander sir, we have a stranger here, over!” he said as he radioed the commander. I didn’t quite hear the response of the commander from the other end. After some few conversations with the commander which lasted about 30-45 seconds, he ended the call and said, “Oya, let’s go”. While the two whose names I never knew were on the motorcycle they came with, Jango, Bullet and I headed to the camp where the commander was. They were leading the way, though flanking me at the same time. They never uttered a word while we were going. Neither did I.
After a two-minute trek, we finally arrived the camp of the commander. The camp was mainly makeshifts – about three of them – situated very close to Uwazuruike’s compound. Biafran red, black and green coloured flag with the yellow sign of the rising sun was seen hoisted on a tall stick and used for decoration at different parts of the camp.
About seven to ten other young men were all there with the commander when we arrived. Their faces were mean. While others were smoking marijuana, some were busy taking a fast gaze at us, me particularly – the new stranger. The commander – huge, dark, heavily built, about 6ft tall, looked at me from head to toe.
“Good afternoon sir,” I said fixing my gaze on him. He reluctantly acknowledged my greetings. In front of him was a small black bag which had some greenish, leaf-like materials, a lighter, a matchbox and some white wrapped pieces of paper. I suspected marijuana, I was right after all. A bottle of whisky, with half of its contents, was lying calmly on the bare ground. His countenance was daring, unfriendly and hostile to say the least.
“Have you searched his bag,” he finally said after some seconds of silence.
“No sir,” Bullet replied.
“You are a stupid man, what are you waiting for?” he said scornfully almost standing from the plastic seat he was seating on. When all these were going on, I was calm, because I knew I wasn’t a spy neither was I a rebel, like one who was caught trying to desert the tense battlefield. I didn’t shiver, I didn’t move. As Bullet collected my bag-pack from me, he unzipped it, only to find, not knives, guns, grenade or C4 but my personal stuff well arranged – polo, toothbrush, credit cards, paste, cream, perfume and my King James Version of the bible.
One of them sighed. I thought to myself that they must have been disappointed to see no incriminating stuff inside. The result or reaction would have been terrible – arrest, lynching, you name it.
“So what are you doing here,” the commander asked as he gestured to Bullet to re-pack my stuff in my bag. Now, I needed to explain to him. I think I have achieved my short, unplanned mission of meeting the commander of the region. After telling him I had come all the way from Enugu to visit the disabled Biafra war veterans and also speak with them on the May 30 anniversary of Biafra. He was now relaxed, brightened his countenance and told me that what his boys did was the normal vetting process for any “strange face” seen in the community or making a move towards the camp of the disabled veterans.
“We need to secure them and secure you too. You don’t know who is who in Nigeria now. You can go ahead,” he said.
“Thank you,” I muttered, and left the commander’s camp with my backpack. He ordered Jango and Bullet to escort me back to the veterans’ camp, somewhat like bodyguarding or paramilitary excursion and come back afterwards.
The commander and his boys, I later learned from the disabled veterans, are members of MASSOB who were drafted to the community on the orders of Uwazuruike to protect them from any attack or external aggression in the community.
They were doing their job after all.