Igbos were saved

Dr. Bulama Mali Gubio remembers the Nigerian-Biafran War. Photo by Chika Oduah

I am Dr. Bulama Mali Gubio. I was born in Kararam village of Magumeri Local Government Area of Borno State in July 1952. But in my infancy, my parents moved to Gubio because of their business and I grew up there and that is why I am called Bulama Mali Gubio. Gubio is now my home town. I went to primary school in Gubio and then I attended my secondary school in Yola, GSS Yola and King’s College Lagos and then I attended Advanced Teacher’s College, ABU Zaria. I went to ABU [Ahmadu Bello University] Zaria for my degree.

For my Master’s degree I went to Bayero University Kano and finished in 1983. I started my PhD in Northwest University Illinois but we were brought back home because that time the government declared that those who have their courses in Nigeria should all return home. But all the same, I was awarded a Master Philosophy by the University and much later I got my PhD in Carolina University. I also attended the National Institute Kuru and I attended many administrative courses in Badagry, Lagos and University of Port Harcourt. I joined the civil service of Borno State.

the Biafrans were not prepared for the war

Well, when the Nigerian Civil War broke out, I was in class 7. That is my final year in primary school. On the thirtieth of May 1966 – 1967, there was a problem in Nigeria. There was shuttles between the military actors. What happened was that there was a military coup and many of our leaders in the North had been killed and some leaders in the South were also bothered. Those who carried out the coup were largely Igbo origin. They were young soldiers, ranks of majors and captains. In the North, the people felt that it was one-sided and it was a tribal war. It was tribal and it was one-sided and there were shuttles of diplomacy to settle the issue. Unfortunately at that time, we had regions.

We had four regions; the Northern region, Eastern region, Western region, and Mid-Western region. The governor of the-then Eastern region who was a Colonel refused to accept the leadership of Lt. Colonel from northern Nigeria. That was Yakubu Gowon and there was a shuttle of diplomacy in Ghana, Nigeria, Aburi and all these for about a week. And when it was apparent that they were not going to have a diplomatic settlement, the then Head of State General Yakubu Gowon declared a war to put down the uprising in eastern Nigeria precisely on the sixth of June, 1967. At that time, the Biafrans, they were called, were not prepared for the war.

Even the federal government of Nigeria was not actually prepared for a war

Their leader wanted them to secede and therefore they had to fight. Even the federal government of Nigeria was not actually prepared for a war. They went into a massive recruitment of soldiers. I was about to be conscripted. That time I was about 15 or 16 and I was adviced to – when I was asked to tell my age, I said 10 because my people didn’t want me to be conscripted into the fighting force. So that was how I escaped.

But then there was massive recruitment into the Nigerian Armed Forces and the Civil War raged for 30 months. I would not tell you much about the Civil War because it is a long history. But what happened was that there was a lot of distrust between Nigerians particularly southern Nigeria and northern Nigeria.

the Shehu of Borno ordered that no Igbo should be touched

Northern Nigeria is a very big portion of Nigeria. It comprises of more than two thirds of the land mass of Nigeria and its population, almost doubles that of southern Nigeria. Although southern Nigeria was divided into three, the eastern Nigeria, that southeast there and the middle belt there and then southern-western Nigeria that is the Yoruba land. All of them put together were called southern Nigeria. And all the three put together were not as big or as populated or as strong as northern Nigeria. And they felt threatened, therefore they wanted to have their own nation. But it happened that most of the Igbos were spread throughout the country. They were doing their business and they were engaged in teaching, commanders. And people felt that when their soldiers killed our leaders, they should hit back at them and in most parts of northern Nigeria many of the Igbos were massacred. But here in my own area in Borno state, the leadership of the state, the leadership of the kingdom, the Shehu of Borno, Shehu Sanda Shehu Kyarimi ordered that no Igbo should be touched. In fact, Borno was the only place where Igbos were saved by the population.

Dr. Bulama Mali Gubio. Photo by Chika Oduah

They were protected, all traditional rulers, our district heads, village heads, ward heads, community leaders were directed by the Shehu then to ensure that no Igbo was harmed. Their properties were protected. Of course in one or two places some Igbos were – particularly the football captain; he was called Gringory. The Borno football captain was an Igbo man called Gringory and he was actually killed around the market by some irate youth.

Other than that, we hardly heard of Igbos being massacred or being killed in Borno state.

Most of them converged in the palaces, in homes of well-to-do people and in schools, waiting to be transported to their homelands. And the Shehu protected them. The people protected them until when it was feasible for them to be transported back to the eastern Nigeria and most of them went after the war.

They came back and they met their properties intact. It is only in Borno that Igbos came back after the Civil War to reclaim their properties without any problem.

In that time, our people were panicked because you find aircrafts flying throughout the day, day and night and people have evacuated their villages, their towns. Most of us used to take refuge in forests, in the bush. For example, in my own case, we were in Gubio and we had to evacuate ourselves to outskirts of the town in a place called Balkura. It is a pond, a water pond. You will dig some kind of grave and sleep inside because there was the fear that in the night the aircraft will bombard the towns and cities particularly Maiduguri and all the major cities.

But certainly, northern Nigeria was not a theater of the war.

It was only misinformation, panic and some kind of apprehension that made the people to fear. Other than that most of the fighting took place in the bushes, in the forests, in the mangroves and in the marshes.

In eastern nigeria, from Makurdi up to the Niger Delta, became the theater of war and for thirty months the war raged on but some of the Igbos curiously remained here in Maiduguri throughout the thirty months of the war. If you can get some of them, they would tell you that they did not feel the impact of the war because they were at home in Maiduguri and in some other towns in Borno.

So precisely, the war ended after 30 months and it was a very horrific war. Very unfortunate war, we lost over three million lives. We lost a lot of properties and then Nigeria lost its democracy because we had only six years of democracy when the first coup took place.

starvation was employed as a measure to end the war

I think – at that time the conscription into the Nigerian Army was just simple. They will just come and round up young men. Then they will just write your name, put you in the tracks, take you to Kaduna and then that day commitment starts. They train you for three months and then you go to the war front. In fact, at the end of the Nigerian Civil War, the population of the Nigerian military was so large. Even at that time we are talking about 350,000 soldiers who were conscripted into the Nigerian Armed Forces to fight the Civil War. Even then the Civil War was not actually won through warfare. It was not won through weapons but it was won through some other means. In the modern world, whenever there is a crisis, both sides will have their supporters.

The Biafrans were supported by countries like France and Nigeria was supported by Russia and other countries. But then it was apparent to our leaders that force would not conclude the war so what happened was that the issue of food, starvation was employed as a measure to end the war.

Most of the food Nigeria eats are produced in northern Nigeria and particularly animals, cattle, sheep, fish and grains were largely produced in northern Nigeria. The eastern part of the country produces tubers; largely yams, banana, coco yams, potatoes and things like that. In some places they produce rice. But it was not easy for the to cultivate their land because they were constantly attacked by the Nigerian Armed Forces. So they could not produce food and food was not going to the east from northern Nigeria. So due to starvation, most of their children, women and the old and the aged died.

my height also helped to prevent me from joining the army

There were military men using those long tracks. There were some black tracks, long military tracks going from place to place picking young men and asking them questions. We were picked, about thirty of us in the Gubio Primary School and I think they took away about nine out of thirty. They will ask you your age and then they will see your height. They will measure you and then they write your name; if you are qualified. I was asked; I said I was 10 years old, they said go, go, you are small. So that was how I was left unhooked. But actually I was about 15. I told them I was 10 so I was asked to – because in those days, going to primary school, you had to be at least 7, 8 or even 10. And I was able to go to primary school at the age of almost 9 or 10 so when you consider that, you are in Class 6 or Class 7 then you find out you are about 15 or 16 years of age.

Dr. Bulama Mali Gubio. Photo by Chika Oduah

But my height also helped to prevent me from joining the army because I was short and then I told them I was 10.

Then there was one Dina. He was the first to be conscripted. He was in Class 7, fair complexion, he was tall and huge and he was the first to be conscripted in our class. And then some others about nine of them were taken away and we did not see them until after the civil war. I think four of them did not come back. Five of them survived, two crippled and three of them are, Dina himself is still here in Maiduguri and he is now retired. That is how the recruitment went in my own area. But they went from town to town.

At that time we had 22 district areas. All the 22 district areas, soldiers went there to recruit. But mostly the recruitment took place around the border area of Gambaru, Gala, Siga, Gala Bulge, where General Mohammed Shuwa, that is his hometown and he recruited so many from that area. In fact, even some Chadians were recruited into the Nigerian Army and they remained as Nigerians even after the civil war. We even had senior military officers who are of Chad origin, or of Cameroonian origin after the Civil War but at that time Nigerians were not curious about where you come from or you are a ethnicity or religion. All they wanted was the survival of Nigeria and how Nigeria was going to be saved from destruction. Whoever was ready to join the military at that time was recruited and they did a wonderful job. The most pleasing thing after the Civil War is the way we reconciled.


*This interview was conducted in Dr. Gubio’s home in Borno State, Nigeria


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