From the desperate, dark days of a dying Biafra, to the ecstasy of his return from exile in the then Ivory Coast, OBINWA NNAJI, reminisces on another high point of the Chuwkwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu story
It is difficult to adequately capture the ecstasy which surrounded the return of General Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu to Nigeria, without first looking critically at events preceding his dramatic departure from Uli Airport in 1970 into exile in Ivory Coast, as it was then known.
The tail-end of 1969 was tortuous and posed the greatest challenge to a people who were heroically fighting with their â€˜bare handsâ€™, to put it metaphorically, having held out for over two years and 10 months.
To say Biafra was losing grounds with great rapidity, was to state the obvious. Faced with an onslaught never seen in the annals of wars and insurrections, where all the world powers viz â€“ Britain, United States, USSR and their allies – turned their arsenal on Biafra, it must have amazed military strategists in Sandhurst, Pentagon and Petersburg, how Biafrans could last the distance – â€œsheer will power and of course, the Eastern spirit not to say dieâ€.
Pounded on all fronts from air and ground; cut off by a heartless policy of â€˜economic blockadeâ€™ on the high sea with virtually all essential commodities not within the reach of the citizenry of Eastern Region, causing untold hardship, malnutrition and kwashiorkor for both old and young, the people simply plodded on.
With almost all the major cities fallen â€“ Nsukka, Obollo Eke, Abakaliki, Oji River, Awgu, Okigwe, Awka, Onitsha, Asaba, Gagem, Ogoja, Calabar, Ikot-Ekpene, Port Harcourt, Aba, even though there were skirmishes of fighting going on, it was a matter of time for other towns to cave in. When the war taunted Uzuakoli, it was only to be expected that the Biafran Operational Engine Room, the headquarters and Ministry of Defence, Umuahia would be threatened.
In spite of all these misfortunes, there was cheery news that Owerri, had been retaken by brave Biafran soldiers – but at a very high cost. There was a very touching scene when the remains of Captain Tony Asoluka of â€˜Sâ€™ Brigade killed by a Federal sniper was taken to his Owerri town for burial. The surviving mother made us all cry as she kept asking hysterically â€œwho will buy me my Lux soap again?â€
Orlu town, strategically situated in the heart of the Republic, as well as the seat of Biafran School of Infantry, the equivalent of Nigeria Defence Academy (NDA), where officers were being trained, was never conquered. Even though Federal troops occupied Onitsha they couldnâ€™t link up with Awka as Biafrans held the Nkpor to Abagana axis. Of course, the famous Abagana waterloo is a topic for another day.
Uli, Ihiala, Oguta and Uga Airport and its environs were in very safe hands. Yours sincerely was in the trenches at Umuakpu-Omanelu axis, which then was 64 miles to Port Harcourt on the Owerri-Port Harcourt main road. So hilarious were the boys fighting to get back Port-Harcourt when the unexpected and shocking news of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiweâ€™s defection to Nigeria rent the airwaves.
My transistor radio was tucked away, and when the disturbing news broke, my co-officers in the trenches yelled â€œThatâ€™s the end of the Warâ€. The defection of the first Nigerian President, Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, sometime in October 1969, dealt a severe blow to the morale of Biafran troops at the various war fronts.
Then in quick succession, in November and December, all the strongholds began collapsing. Umuahia was threatened and when it fell, it took its toll. Nobody waited to be drafted to defend the symbol of Biafra. All the warriors and commanders of note raced to join a rescue mission that was already too late in day.
Ojukwu and the Defence Headquarters had been evacuated amidst heavy fighting, shelling and bombardment by Nigerian troops from air and land. The Biafran Army Engineers had to break the bridge, the only link from Umuahia to Owerri.
If the Imo River Bridge â€˜4 Cornerâ€™ as it is called was left intact, then Biafra would have been overrun in few minutes of entering Umuahia. So they were all there â€“ the big names and top military brass â€“ Brigadier Tim Onwuatuegwu, Col. Joe â€˜Air Raidâ€™ Achuzie, Brigadier Wilson Odo, the Commandos and famous Strike Forces and Battalion Commanders physically involved in the fight to hold back the rampaging Federal troops keen to cross over the Imo River Bridge.
The surge to reach Owerri had begun in earnest from Aba. For us, 64 miles away at Omanelu after Mgbirichi and Umuagwo, and Umuakpu, it was a nightmare. Owerri that was our safe haven was being evacuated without a gunshot, and with Federal troops not in sight.
What to do? There was total confusion and the entire â€˜S Brigadeâ€™, â€˜Sâ€™ Division which had several Infantry and Engineering Battalions dug in at the trenches, had to quickly adopt â€˜Operation Open Corridorâ€™.
Owerri was no longer within reach and news came that Federal troops had taken it without firing a shot. With extended line formation and fire and movement, the entire troops retreated with great speed through the marshy terrain of Egbema, luckily ending up in Awo-mama, which became the rallying point for all fleeing Biafran troops.
The felicitations and joy for surviving the fierce war, knew no bounds as soldiers greeted fellow combatants with the soothing greeting â€˜Happy Survivalâ€™. It was January 8, 1970.
So came the departure at Uli Airport of General Ojukwu, widely said to be heading to Ivory Coast in furtherance of exploring some peace overtures, and the surrender by Major-General Phillip Effiong who stood in for him.
It was apparent we had come to the end of the road begun on July 6, 1967 with the first shot fired at Gagem Ogoja and Obollo Eke in Nsukka. The rest is history. So far 13 years, 1970 â€“ 1983, Ojukwu stayed away from the shores of Nigeria in exile in Yamoussokorou, Ivory Coast.
With the advent of Satellite Newspapers on Agbani Road, Enugu, in 1982, the crop of journalists so assembled had a burning zest to begin the campaign for a state pardon for Ojukwu. From all departments of the newspaper, the fireballs came from all cylinders.
We wrote strongly-worded editorials, analysis and features making the case for his return urgent. The News Department headed by Late Sly Alakwe and Alphonsus Ikediashi, his able deputy went the extra mile. Alphonsus Ikediashi stumbled upon an exclusive with a big story on the mother of Ojukwu presumed and rumoured dead years ago in Kano. With such sensational headlines â€œGive me my sonâ€, â€œBring my son backâ€ – a passionate appeal from a distressed mother to President Shehu Shagari, we hit Shagari on a very sore point.
The explosive interview caused a big stir to the extent that one of the most successful Ibo business tycoons, Chief Arthur Eze alias â€œArthur 1,000â€, made for Nnewi and gave a gift of a brand new Mercedez Benz to Ojukwuâ€™s mother. Satellite roared and soared. It was Ojukwuâ€™s motherâ€™s plea that perhaps touched the milk of human kindness in President Shagari, that he finally caved in and announced the â€˜Great Pardonâ€™.
The efforts of the journalists on the stable of satellite had paid off. Innocent Okoye now a Professor of Mass Communications, Nzekwe Ene, the arrogant intellectual who had a penchant for correcting any script in sight and more often ended up correcting himself; stylish Victor Jegede, Uche Ezechukwu, the prose master, Late Mike Azuide, Late Chike Akabaogu, Roy Eze, Chika Ezerioha-â€˜Chez Williamsâ€™, Sam Nkire, Emma Okocha, Danquah Oye, C-Don Adinuba, Godwin Nzeakah and, of course, the big boss Chris Ejimofor, to mention a few.
With the pardon granted, we at the Satellite landed on â€˜Cloud Nineâ€™. The Sunday Editor Innocent Okoye was on the next available flight out of Lagos to Abidjan. It turned out he was the only journalist from Nigeria to first land in the then Ivory Coast. We had compiled back to back copies of Satellite for the perusal of the General. We had sought for an exclusive interview. Yamoussoukorou had been besieged by sea of European journalists.
Trust Ojukwu, he refused to grant an interview to the battery of journalists and photographers that lay in wait. Owing to the copies of Satellite, Innocent had passed through one of his aides, Ojukwu chose to speak to Innocent via the intercom.
Not dejected, Innocent ended up getting scoops, tracing and filming the large expanse of Ojukwuâ€™s sand filling company and trucks owned by the Biafran leader while in exile.
The Sunday Editor was also the only Nigerian journalist at the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan when Ojukwu was re-issued with a Nigeria Passport. We made a feast of his exclusives from Abidjan.
Then came Ojukwuâ€™s return. The scenario that played out at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos was just childâ€™s play. From all over old Eastern Region, the crowd took over the major streets from Ogbete-Ogui-Abakaliki Road to Emene Airport. Bus loads from the northern parts of the country, formed a rainbow procession.
Traders from Aba, Onitsha and Igbos living in Ogbete Market paced and walked to the airport singing in Ibo Language â€œPapa Anata Oyoyoâ€, Daddy is back. Several committees had sprung up with bearing the legend of â€˜Onyije Nnoâ€™, translated â€˜Traveller Welcomeâ€™.
To be part of history, yours sincerely had driven just past the junction of Army Barracks by Abakpa junction. It was impossible to proceed further. With my wife and two little children sitting atop my car, we were about five kilometers from the airport. The road was literally over run by termites in the shape of human beings. We sat there when Ojukwu driven in a slide-open Mercedes Benz, waving heartily to the crowd sauntered past. The rival National Party of Nigeria (NPN), faithful who had thronged the airport did not allow Anambra Government officials of the ruling Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) to come even as close to the gates of the airport.
Dignitaries were molested and soaked and sprayed with water hoist. And so the General not knowing where he was heading to, perhaps seeing his seat of government, in Enugu State for the first time since it fell in 1967, was a prisoner to those who hijacked and herded him straight to Nnewi.
Disappointed at not seeing their hero, thus bringing a sour taste in the mouths of tens of thousands that had raced to Government House, Independence Layout, Enugu where an elaborate arrangement had been laid out by the sitting Governor, Chief Jim Ifeanyichukwu Nwobodo, who had cut short his overseas tour in Madrid, Spain where he was watching the World Cup to rush home, the people that had converged began to disperse one by one – raining abuses on those who disrupted the grandiose plan for their selfish aggrandizement.
Â· Obinwa Nnaji, former Editor of Daily Satellite Newspaper, was a one-time Lieutenant in the Biafran Army Engineers (BAE). He wrote from Enugu. The last in the three-part series â€˜What you donâ€™t know about Ojukwuâ€™ follows next Sunday.