Recounting The Nigerian Civil War: Really, There Was A Country

(By Nwachukwu Joshua)

I think the missing link in Nigerians problem is leadership. From independence I do not think we have had competent leaders, who were men/women of character or vision, rather we’ve had leaders who just wanted to keep the old cycle doing. This attitude has encouraged corruption, mediocrity, ineptness and ethnic chauvinism.

I REMEMBER vividly the euphoria when Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country – his personal history of Biafra – was released. The book was celebrated and welcomed not because it was the first book written on the civil war, quite the contrary. But many expected that Achebe being the father of modern African literature would certainly do justice to the subject matter.

   No sooner had the celebrations begun were we thrown into a conundrum. As expected its root cause was ethnic bigotry. This time it was between the Yorubas and the Ibos. It all started because in the book, Achebe accused Awolowo, the leader of the Yoruba kingdom of trying to exterminate or shrink the Ibo race since he saw them as a threat to the economic and political dominance of the Yorubas in Nigeria. He achieved this by supporting and defending the Federal Government agenda of starving the Biafran people during the 30 months old war, and also the banking policy which nullified the bank accounts which had been operated during the war by the Biafrans and gave a flat sum of20 pounds to each Igbo depositor regardless of the amount of deposit.

  With these assertions coming from a renowned figure, the Yorubas felt the onus to defend the integrity and dignity of their father and leader, the Late Awolowo by refuting the assertions or defending them while the Ibos reciprocated by defending Achebe. In this entire imbroglio, Achebe resorted to silence. All these intrigues and ethnic quacking rather than discredit the book, only aggravated my interest in reading the book which I considered a must read.

   When I read the book last Christmas season, I was captivated by a lot of things; a bit of Nigerian history, more on Achebe writing styles and syntax, the main actors in the Civil war, factors that necessitated the war, the position of the outside world and the reasons for their stance etc.

   But what I found most interesting and captivating which propelled me to write this article is the hidden treasure in Nigeria which most times goes unnoticed and unappreciated.

  Biafra, a land without enough resources—to the utmost bewilderment of Gowon, his cabinet and the outside world—managed to fight the civil war for 30 months, the reason for this, is what am going to tackle in this article.

   At this point it should not be understood that I am supporting the cause of Biafra or am campaigning for the division of Nigeria. If my reader has that idea, am sorry for the misunderstanding, rather I ‘am only trying to bring to light the great ingenious acts of brave Biafrans who also were Nigerians, who put their heads to the grindstone and produced some unprecedented innovations.

   During the war, Biafra had two airports:  One in Uli and a smaller one in Nnokwa. Uli airport was the major airport in Biafra for military and relief goods at the height of the war with more than 50 flights a night. Uli airport, originally part of a major highway, had been cut into the countryside in the middle of a tropical rainforest and operated mainly at night.

  The airport’s traffic control terminal, passenger facilities and hangars were constructed in such a manner that the entire runway and all of the planes on the ground could be heavily camouflaged with palm leaves and raffia fronds during the day, disguising it from Nigerian army aircraft reconnaissance missions and radar.

   When compared to present day Nigeria, one would realise that there is something wrong with the aviation sector. In the past 10 years, we’ve had numerous plane crashes which have claimed hundreds of lives. Flights have been delayed, many flights have been rescheduled because of light rain showers, planes could not land at night because they lacked lighting facilities, numerous power failures and the list of inefficiencies grows ad infinitum. But in the 70’s, in small Biafra planes were flying in and out at night with no known record of plane crashes.

   Secondly, during the war, due to the economic blockade enforced by Gowon, Biafra was cut from the outside world which made it difficult to get weapons and relief materials.

   Despite all odds, the Biafrans did not resign to the fate Gowon wanted them to resign to, instead, Biafran scientists from the research think tank RAP—the Biafran Research and Production unit—developed a great number of rockets, bombs, and telecommunications gadgets. One of the weapons worth mentioning is a bomb called “Ogbunigwe.” It is on record that this locally made bomb helped Biafra in the war. In the words of Chukwuemeka Ike “the ogbunigwe…. will receive special mention as Biafra’s greatest saviour”.

  Also Biafra made tanks which turned out to be steel-reinforced Range Rovers. By their third incarnation these armoured fighting vehicles, had rocket launchers.

   Debunking the myth that oil could only be refined outside Nigeria, during the civil war; Biafrans learnt how to refine oil and this kept their planes and vehicles moving and also provided power at the airport.

   But in current day Nigeria, in a time of relative calm our refineries are not working which makes us refine oil outside.

   Also, then the planes were flown by Nigerians. There is a story in the book perhaps apocryphal, “that a Biafran plane landed in another African country, and the pilot and all of the crew came out, and there was not a white man among them. The people of this other country—which is a stooge of France—couldn’t comprehend a plane being landed without any white people. They said, “Where is the pilot? Where are the white people?” They arrested the crew, presuming there had been a rebellion in the air!”

   In current day Nigeria, many planes, domestic and international have many foreign pilots; it’s not bad to have foreign pilots but what has happened to Nigerian pilots?

   I am recounting these stories to illustrate the quality of the people Nigeria had many years ago, which makes me, a member of the current generation wonder at the great quality of people Nigeria had and the prospects the future had for Nigeria, if only we had competent leaders.

   In all this am not diminishing the role of the citizenry in the political well to do of Nigeria, I think I am finally now a student of the Achebe School of thought which postulates that the problem of Nigeria is simply and squarely that of leadership.

   After the World War 1 and World War 2, it is on record that great achievements and advancements were made in medicine, aviation, science, transportation, security etc. But in the case of Nigeria everything was dumped even RAP, now we have no think tank.

   I think the missing link in Nigerians problem is leadership. From independence I do not think we have had competent leaders, who were men/women of character or vision, rather we’ve had leaders who just wanted to keep the old cycle doing. This attitude has encouraged corruption, mediocrity, ineptness and ethnic chauvinism.

   Something worth noting which came out in the book was the fact that Ojukwu surrounded himself with men who he thought fit for the job not minding their tribe or education pedigree. What interested me was his appointment of Brigadier Victor Banjo a Yoruba – despite grunting from the Ibos- as one of his close military confidants and advisers and also the leader of the Mid-West invasion because of his military experience.

    Also when Ojukwu wanted to form the National Guidance Committee, whose business was to write a kind of constitution for Biafra, there was a healthy competition for the post of the secretary between Prof. Ben Obumselu, an Oxford graduate like Ojukwu, and Prof. Emmanuel Obiechina, a PhD holder from Cambridge University. At the end, Prof. Obiechina was chosen as the scribe of the Committee, because he was thought better.

All these can only be achieved when the leader is competent and visionary.

   I am sure some quarters may comment that all these things were achieved because Ojukwu was in a time of necessity which many have christened the mother of invention.

    I do agree that being in a war helped trigger innovations but I also think that the war Ojukwu fought was against poverty, injustice, inept leadership, ethnicity, corruption, which is no different from the problems that are still in Nigeria, the only difference being that these problems have unfortunately gotten deeper roots and spread out afar.

   With all this I come to a conclusion that really, there was a country called Nigeria, there, meritocracy, ingenuity and handwork was venerated, but in this new Nigeria, our modus operandi and modus vivendi is now the doctrine of mediocrity, ethic bigotry, and corruption bazaar, ineptitude in the civil service, banality and debauchery.

Really, there was a country.

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