KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
THE NIGERIA-BIAFRA WAR: MY MEMOIRS by Patrick Anwunah
A review by
@kwenu.com, Saturday, April 8, 2007
I am convinced now, more than ever before, that history needs all the personal stories that relate to significant dramas, national or local. Especially by the active participants! And especially relating to the Biafra-Nigeria civil war of 1967-1970!
I was not a participant, not to talk of an active participant. I was comfortably several thousand miles away from the physical horrors of Biafra, in the serene and tranquil environment of Switzerland. But I had my own story, which I told in the form of a work of fiction. Naturally my contribution was, to say the least, superficial.
Ideejuogwugwu, Colonel Patrick Anwunah’s memoirs of his experiences in that fratricidal war, including snippets of his life before the hostilities erupted, and his reflections at the end of his book, make absorbing reading. My interest was particularly piqued by the circumstances of his enrolment in the West African Frontier Force, the Nigerian segment of which was then, or perhaps a little later, called the Queen’s Own Nigeria Regiment. Our army belonged to Her Majesty! Anwunah’s story of his enlistment in the army is thrilling. Curiosity, nothing more, made him and his classmate Alexander Madiebo take trips, first to Enugu, then – with Yakubu Gowon and a few other High School youths – to Lagos, and finally to Accra, Gold Coast. It was there, in Accra, that – out of the blue – young Patrick Anwunah and his group were informed by one Sergeant Major Chambers that they “had now been accepted into the army for training as officers.” He had not applied to join the army. It is the kind of story that puts one in mind of the ancient wisdom that there is a divinity that shapes our lives, no matter what we do. Our religion teaches us not to complain too much “about where we are. God put us there!
I thank Patrick Anwunah’s children for pushing him into telling his story. He admits, in the preface, that his eldest daughter, Ifeoma (a physician) gave the final push when she bought him some writing materials in September 1999.
So, Patrick, I want to ask you this question: “Are you telling me that if your children had not bought you writing materials, you would have denied the world this marvelous story from the heart of Biafra, about Biafra?” If I seem to be shouting this question at you, please pardon me. It merely reflects my strong feelings about what a tragedy that would have been.
Your story, Patrick, truly belongs in the category of "unputdownables! I made the mistake of starting to read the book late one evening, I believe around 10 p.m. When next I looked up, the time was 3 a.m., well past the doctor-recommended hour for a septuagenarian like me to be in bed. If I were not an abominably slow reader, I might have read the book through in the course of the following day or so.
The story is refreshingly told. It is stimulating. Anwunah shoots straight, as a soldier should. I have not read many stories that were more straightforwardly told; an approach particularly suited to the seriousness of the subject matter. He gives us his candid opinions on the series of the coups d’état of 1966, beginning with the so-called "Nzeogwu's Coup" of January 15 during which, notably, the Prime Minister Sir Tafawa Balewa, the Sardauna of Sokoto Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief S. L. A. Akintola, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, and a number of top military officers were assassinated; the even more bloody countercoup of July 29 that toppled General Aguiyi-Ironsi; and the pogroms against the Igbo and other Eastern Nigerian Christians that ultimately precipitated the civil war of 1967-1970. He tells us that “the Nigerian story of [Biafra’s] surrender is not correct or accurate. The Biafran delegation did not go to Lagos to surrender… but for conflict settlement and reconciliation…” He speaks with authority about this because he was a member of the Biafran Delegation that went to Lagos to negotiate the end of the war.
The author was a Major, and General Staff Officer, Grade 1 in the Nigerian Army, and later, a Lieutenant-Colonel, Principal Staff Officer and Chief of Logistics in the Biafran Army. He gives credit where he believes credit should be given. He even has some kind words for President Olusegun Obasanjo, whom he credits with “several successes which only a discerning eye will appreciate." (An aside: I might well be one of the undiscerning eyes!) Anwunah continues: “[Obasanjo] has restored international confidence, accommodated the politicians, rationalized the public/civil service, and stabilized the armed forces.” Perhaps indeed he has! To enhance true reconciliation and reintegration, the author suggests that Biafran heroes (civilian and military) “should be recognized and honored for their courage in the defence of the Easterners,” and he includes among these, General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, and General Alexander Madiebo. He acknowledges General Odumegwu-Ojukwu as the Moses of Biafra, but stresses that “Igbo leadership must now go to younger people who are ready and willing.” But let it not be supposed that he has given a clean slate to General Odumegwu-Ojukwu. He criticizes Odumegwu-Ojukwu for the “unfortunate and undignified hotel-house arrest of the Shell Petroleum CEO at Enugu,” before the war started. The author thinks Biafra paid dearly for that humiliation of the Shell CEO. He has a lot of praise for Radio Biafra, whose outstanding mouthpiece, Oko Okon Ndem, he describes as "the Lion of the Air," and for whom Anwunah recommends a place of honor in a Biafran Museum, if one is ever erected.
Anwunah thinks that General Gowon’s declarations at the end of the war (about reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation) were genuine, but that his good intentions were thwarted by the machinations of various ministries and government departments. He cites, among the most pernicious examples of this sabotage, the 20 (twenty) Nigerian pounds “flat rate banking balance for Biafrans” without regard to their actual balances in the banks.
The author reflects on the true meaning of Biafra: the insistence of a people on the recognition of their right to self-determination. General Gowon declared that the “Rising Sun of Biafra is set for ever,” but Anwunah disagrees. Says he: “The spirit of Biafra is still alive, although its corpse was buried years ago.” He sees that spirit in the major flowering of the Diaspora Igbo in many fields, notably in science, engineering, nuclear physics and medicine. He saw that spirit, at first hand, in the marvelous display of the Biafran scientific and technological genius during the conflict when, with Biafra’s back to the wall, her scientists produced - from scratch – different types of guns, bombs, mini-fuel refineries (at Uzuakoli and Amandugba, now in Imo State), hand grenades and landmines, the most notable of which was the mass-killer popularly known as "ogbunigwe." They produced gin, whiskey and brandy, and even brewed beer, using local corn in lieu of imported material.
I have two questions of a personal nature (one of which is a gripe, and the other a question of ego) for the author:
The Gripe: In his description of his and my alma mater, the Government College, Umuahia (arguably the best high school of that time in all of Africa) he writes about the playing fields for soccer, hockey and athletics, but fails to mention the equally important field for my game of cricket. Then, when he writes about Namseh Eno, whom he describes as “versatile” in sports, he mentions his prowess in hockey, but not in cricket! I would like to gently remind the author that Namseh was the outstanding cricketer of Government College, Umuahia, in my and Anwunah’s time, and since. So what does he have against my favorite game? “The question is mine; the answer is his!” -- if I may adapt a line from this marvelous book (page 266).
The Ego question: In his discussion about the cultural similarities, and therefore a possible link, between the Igbo people and the Hebrews, he says that “a retired United Nations Librarian gave me six or seven similarities.” If I assume that he is referring to a NIGERIAN, I am – as far as I know – the only retired U.N. Librarian of Nigerian nationality. And the subject of our possible link with the Jews is one of my favorite topics of conversation. Is this ‘U.N. librarian’ a possible reference to me?
An important section of the book (towards the end) is devoted to thoughtful suggestions about securing the future of our country, a country that has the capacity for true greatness. But only if we can turn more seriously to God and walk the straight and narrow path! What we require, he suggests, are “patience, humility and spiritual reorientation”.
Finally, for me, one statement encapsulates the author’s reflections on the history of the conflict. On page 281, he states: “The war is over, but the war is still going on."
Thank you, Ideejuogwugwu Colonel Patrick Anwunah, for an absorbing story.
March 23, 2007
The review was presented at the book launch in Houston, TX on Friday, March 30, 2007
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