Yes, my name is Gordon J. E. Nwosu, Gordon J. Enyogu Nwosu. I live in New Rochelle, New York. I am retired from teaching mathematics. I was born July 1947 in Umuoba, near Aba in Abia state.
My father was a business man, specifically he was a produce merchant for a Turkish goods company.
I was still in school [in 1967]. I was a high school student at Baptist High School, Port Harcourt. When the tragedy broke out, if you want, it turned out that I was also the health prefect of the school.
…war of words between both sides
So with the returnees, many of them wounded, coming back to the eastern provinces, if you will, Eastern Nigeria. There came a need to house some of these people. Many of them with open wounds. Lo and behold, knowing that I was headed to medical school and the fact that I’d been planning this all my life, so it naturally came to me to begin to treat with some of my colleagues- their wounds, bandage their wounds, clean out their wounds, and essentially begin to learn what it means to work within a hospital environment. So that was that.
So when the war broke out, the war broke out actually on July sixth, I believe, in 1967. We heard war had broken out in Nsukka, Nigeria. So we didn’t know much about it. All we know is that there had been war of words between both sides. Our general, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, and of course the head of the other side, General Yakubu Gowon.
I had- that was my seventh year in high school, and of course once the war had broken out, we were dismissed to go back and never return until the war ended. So between 1967 and 1970, the war took place.
Actually, it was in 1966 [when I was treating wounds for some of the returnees.] It was when the pogrom just took place. So, leading from 1966 to ’67, it was a continuing effort on our side until the government itself found itself able to cope with the influx of the wounded. So there was no need any longer for our services. We were only students trying to help in whatever ways we could.
Well, a commonality was that many of them [the returnees] wore just only their singlet and their underwear- undershirts- because they had to leave forth with their lives.
Their limbs removed…
They had a choice to stay or be killed. As a matter of fact, a lot of them were decapitated. Their limbs removed, a lot of them, especially in a place from we learnt later on called Otukpo, the link, the last one between Enugu and the North. Otukpo. They were ambushed, removed from the trains. Many of them were butchered. A lot of them were decapitated. So this is what happened, so a common thread running through all those who were able to make it alive was that they looked haggard. They looked wounded, frightened, terrified, anxious, could not understand what was going on, really.
There were some people who would say bamboozled by the whole thing. I mean, we needed to stabilize them before thinking of anything else.
Now, I am using the word stabilize because this is what usually happens in a medical emergency. Okay, today, a patient, quote, unquote a victim, anxiety, has to be stabilized so that the person can be a little bit more conscious and articulate in responding to questions that maybe posed by maybe law enforcement agencies or care providers.
Essentially, being a teenager, many of us didn’t know any better than we did know, in fact. It was- we used to reassure that all should be worthy of home. There is nothing to worry about that. Let’s take the first step, then tomorrow we will take care of itself. Just let us take the first step today. Tomorrow we will take care of itself. Remember who you are.
You went out to give, quote on quote, a visitor, in what you thought was part of your land. They rejected you.
Since they rejected you, where do you run to?
Igbo people say, onye ajulu aju adi aju onwe ya. If you are rejected or you feel rejected, in spite of your other choice someone else, do you turn around and reject yourself? No, you do not internalize the rejection. You simply re-articulate it, and make sense out of it, and build on it, so it was on that basis that we interacted with these people to bring them hope and to keep them a little more stabilized.
…Since we provided care on a continuing basis, so this really took place on a regular basis as well. Because as I have mentioned a few seconds ago, it was a common threat that ran through. They looked confused, they looked haggard, disheveled, because they had no time to prepare themselves. They just had to flee with their lives and then we found ourselves taking care of them.
Many of them only wore, what do you call, the wrapper, around them, and of course the singlet or undershirt. That was it.
This was initially- if my memory serves me right- although, it’s not going to be very in fact, um, this was in 1966. It was a matter of a few months. Not too long. Maybe, at the most, two, three months, yes. Because we were not a hospital. We were not a medical institution. We were just an ad-hoc arrangement pressed into service under the circumstances, so we took care of what we had to do within a very short period of time.
I cannot recall [any particular patient.] I cannot remember. Remember this was almost 51 years ago. 52 years ago.
Memory decays, although not all of them. I still have some childhood memories.
[We weren’t seeing any children.] Just adults. Actually, they were housed in our day school dining hall. That I remember very well. In my school, of my school. The day students had their own dining hall as distinct from the regular dining hall of students like me who are boarders so the day school dining hall was pressed into service, if you will, a field hospital or field clinic to take care of these people.
Decapitated is decapitated. There is no head.
And of course all they had is a torso so we didn’t get those, but those who came had lacerations on the body. Some of them had wounds that had to be treated so we were instructed by people who were supervising- our seniors, those who were helping us- the instruction was to use hot water with Izal. Izal is a chemical, it’s one of these carbolic acid base or derivatives if you will. Izal product used as a disinfectant. Disinfect with hot water and then use a clean cloth to massage the wounds, clean it up, and in case there is bacterial infection, it would kill all of those things before doctors will take over and them treat them.
Looking back now, maybe the doctors prescribed antibiotics, I have no idea. All I know is that we had to massage the wounds, clean out the wounds to keep infections at bay. Usually we used Dettol and or Izal to disinfect, mix with the water, and then, disinfect the wound, clean it up, before medication could be administered.
In retrospect, I believe, I don’t remember thinking ahead. I couldn’t make sense out of it but the one thing that stood out for me was a cartoon in one of the issues of Daily Times. The Daily Times, actually it was the Sunday times, the Sunday issue of Daily Times.
There was this cartoon by the cartoonist- I have forgotten his name, whether it’s Sad Sam or something, I don’t know. Three people were climbing a coconut tree. One of them had reached out, plucked the coconut, held it in his hand, and then gave it to the person right beneath him. So that person was handing it down to the third person beneath the second person and as he was handing it off, the coconut fell to the ground. The coconut fell to the ground and then of course beneath the cartoon is a caption, “Before the curtain falls.” As you can see, it was an expression of the situation that we were facing. The Igbo man was plucking freedom from Nigeria, the coconut, handing it to the Yoruba man, who was handing it off to the Hausa man. Unfortunately, he mangled it. It fell to the ground.
So that came to mind, that came to my mind when all those things were happening because we didn’t know what was going on.
I was a teenager. There was fear all over the place. Fear about the unknown. That was the much I could think of. I didn’t know. I couldn’t even envisage any shooting war. Not even close! This was in 1966. We thought that things could be ironed out, it could be worked out.
Uh, everybody was resigned. Really, everybody seemed resigned. Nobody was thinking of a physical, shooting war. It was- it was not even thinkable. Not because we couldn’t, as you mentioned events broke, we couldn’t stand our ground or whatever.
It’s just that it didn’t seem to be in our psyche, or quote unquote as we casually say this as DNA, if you will, social DNA to go to war over disagreements like that. Things could still be settled. After all there had been constitutional conferences before. Maybe this is one of those times too, where we would just continue getting together to hash out their difference. So I had no way of knowing what they were thinking individually because they never shared.
…there was crisis brewing
No, not at all [my parents didn’t talk about it]. If talked about it was in general. As a matter of fact, my father was still trading. He was still trading, purchasing goods, oil, kernel, and at one point, actually, I was saying to myself, what is he doing? But I dared not question what he was doing.
Otherwise, of course, I knew what was coming. This makes me completely- almost in a violent way- I said, but the goods are not being shipped to Port Harcourt, okay, because the ships are not moving. There is crisis. Why is he spending all this money, paying these people, purchasing coconut- I’m sorry- purchasing kernels and palm oil?
I could not understand. That was in March.
And nobody said anything It was as if there was normalcy. Even though there was crisis brewing. This is true. There seemed to be a disconnect.
Maybe underlying all this was their belief that this is temporary. It too shall pass. Many people thought that was it, but there was no discussion.
My mother was in the village like all villagers, with fellow villagers. They were carrying on their normal business but lamenting the fact that there was a crisis and that was the most anyone could think. Nobody could proffer any solutions because they were not in a position to. That was the nature of our existence. Everything was always left to the politicians, to the rulers, to take care of while people went about with their normal business.
This [declaration of Biafra] was in May of – May thirtieth, 1967. I was in the place where I was born in Umuoba. My father, remember, as I just said, kept on purchasing palm kernel and oil, while this was going on during the morning hours, Radio Biafra came on, because the Biafran national anthem was rendered, and the head of state came on live and then declared this, the state of Biafra, and then that was it. I heard it on the radio.
I was standing in front of the house. My uncle was my father’s headman as we said, the head purchaser. I was standing in front, listening to radio, which was always on. I remember that perfectly because I was back from school. If I remember correctly, it may have been on a Wednesday, I am not sure.
May 30, 1967. The Republic of Biafra was declared.
[My first reaction was] joy. Oh yes! Jubilation everywhere! We are now free! We are now free! We are now free! Yes! There was jubilation but we didn’t know. We could not foresee the dangers, but it was important to know that we felt free from the shackles of that contraption called Nigeria.
I felt relieved, I felt joy. I felt proud, really. Sure, I have vocalized for many, but it was universally accepted as such. It was universally believed. Yes, we’ll show them- we’ll show them and thereafter we were monitoring the progress of the work because not long after that, the first shells were fired at Nsukka. Yes, once Biafra was declared, boom! Within a week or so, thereabout we began to hear a voice about incursion into Nsukka.
[On that May 30th] I sure had friends, teenagers like me. We used to gather, play records. Play music. Cardinal Rex Lawson, Celestine Ukwu and The Beatles. That was The Beatles era and we used to get together, hangout and yes, we used to talk about it. We showed jubilation, which was common among us.
We were very joyful that we were free.
[Immediately after the declaration of Biafra] I bumped my fist in the air. Essentially. ‘Yeah, yeah, we are free.’ I did that. I remember vividly. My uncle was busy cashing out, cashing out these traders. They didn’t- I was the one actually who was vocalizing this and ‘We are free.’ And from time to time you could hear shouts of other people too.
‘Yay, we are free, now. We are free’. So, little did we know, as we say in Igbo, ‘oji oso agbakwulu ogu amaghi na ogu bu ol.’ Those who do not hesitate to pick up the cudgel and go to war never realize that sometimes, you don’t come back from war. You lose your life. So this was a running sentiment from sages and this is all about. But did we care? We didn’t care until came time for conscription. It was necessitated.
You see in our own part of the world at the time and even till today, these are not things that go on between parents and children, usually. That’s the way things were and it was that way. [Parents and children did not discuss serious matters like politics or current affairs, so my parents did not talk with me about the Biafra that had just been declared].
Mothers, not really. They just went with the flow. Parents went with the flow. As I’ve mentioned, they had no connections to politicians. Politicians were supposed to ‘run our lives,’ show us the way. Whatever they do must be right. That was it. So they never really expressed any sentiment one way or the other. All they did was read the newspaper because my father read all the newspapers religiously. But of course, he kept it all to himself. Never discussed- and I will sneak in and then read these things- the Eastern Nigerian Star, the Eastern Nigeria Garden, published in Port Harcourt.
The Star was published in Aba; The Garden in Port Harcourt; The Eastern Nigerian Outlook in Enugu, then the Daily Times. And once in a while, the Morning Post published, I believe, in Ibadan and owned by the late [Chief Samuel Ládòkè] Akintola.
That was it. But those things- those discussions took place among adults. We were babies to them so we didn’t know anything.
It seem- it was routine, really. [Life] was routine. There didn’t seem to be any visible disruption- the way we thought, the way we did things. No. All we- we just- listened to radio for the news of the war report. That is, there is the war report usually preceding the uh- the evening editorial by Okokon Ndem, ‘This We Believe’, things like that.
So a lot of psychological input, okay? To keep people- in case people were beginning to falter one way or the other, to keep their spirits alive by way of This We Believe. It was an editorial at the end of each news report and of course Okokon Ndem would come in and give the war- what- do you remember what it was called? Okay. War—let’s just call it an essay. An essay- it was really, really words of encouragement. Okokon Ndem, very famous.
I didn’t wanna die
I didn’t have the courage [to join the war]. No I didn’t have- I have a friend, Mathew next door, okay? He was itching to go and fight. I didn’t have the courage.
I didn’t wanna lose going to school, being a student and ascending and soaring to heights I didn’t wanna die. This- I knew that I just didn’t want to join the army. But I joined the army indirectly because, when I became a member of Research and Production, in fact, I contributed a whole lot more than I had even anticipated by joining the science group.
Quite well from what I can remember, really, the war did not disrupt anything other than the fact that we could not- there was no need to travel outside Eastern Nigeria. It was ill- of course- ill-advised. What were you going to do outside Eastern Nigeria? For example, we were- we lived in self-contained communities.
We farmed, we produced our vegetables, whatever we needed to eat. We didn’t have to purchase unless we, we needed something else that we didn’t have. So I could not discern or feel any disruption in any way whatsoever.
That was a different story, [my schooling]. Everybody felt it so that was a constant. That was now outside the equation. Since it’s held constant, we cannot manipulate it. The other things- the things that we can manipulate, of course, feelings and other things besides not going to school- not being in school formally.
So, but everybody felt- had the same experience so that was taken care of, it was factored out. In terms of movement, transportation, yes, at some point, it became a little bit hard for you to drive your own vehicle because fuel- the provision of fuel, if you would, fuel, petrol- petrol, we call it. Petrol, somehow the scarcity began to show. The scarcity began to show forcing you to modify your behavior or rather, driving habit or even planning travel outside your immediate environment. Okay? So that was one of the effects, negative effects that fuel suddenly became scarce.
Personally, I had no car other than the family car. So all I did was run errands, I used to, my dad used to send me to Aba to go and purchase fuel- five gallon fuel. And- and I went. I used to go to Aba to do such because the local sell station usually didn’t have much and even the- the one that they had, saw the prices jumped up that’s basic economics- when supply is limited, the demand is high, the price goes up and vice versa- when the demand is low, supply is high, price goes down to liquidate your inventory. So this is what happened. Fuel scarcity began to bite. So a lot of vehicles were parked.
In our case, my father, we had two trucks. The Biafran Government commandeered one of these trucks. Eventually, the second one was commandeered for the movement of troops, but we had two cars. One car I drove- our driver and I drove one car, a Mercedes Benz to my village in Umuahia, Umukabia. Parked it there then, came back. And then we had a
Volksvo, I think, yes, Volksvo, it was left. So the Volksvo eventually, when we finally left in August 1968 was when my father and I left our house in Umuoba, that- that evening too- Aba had fallen. So that evening, we drove in the lorry that was left, that was when we left for Umuahia. Slept near Queen Elizabeth Hospital because it was too dark to continue driving, then the following morning we sailed into my village.
That was the last time my father left the village until he passed away.
Uh, there was no threat. It wasn’t threatening. We just slept in the cab of the lorry- we call them lorry. Stayed there just dozed off if you will, and still on- still at alert and, at the first light of the morning, we drove to the village. It was comfortable, but for the buzzing of mosquitoes, the wheezing around of mosquitoes as expected, nothing more. So that was it and nothing disruptive, nothing fearful, fear-generating.
By this time, Umuahia was okay. Umuahia hadn’t fallen. Umuahia was stable. Remember Enugu fell rapidly because of a host of reasons I need not go into. Enugu fell rapidly. So Umuahia was by default, being the centre of the land, somehow they made the decision to make Umuahia the capital of Biafra for the next — until everything came to a halt. But while Umuahia was there, there was tremendous education around- all formations to protect
Umuahia the seat of government so which was natural and uh, but life went on as usual, but in a limited way, still mindful of potential air raids from the other side, anytime, which really did happen many times in Umuahia. Lots of times and at some point, I nearly lost my life when I was in Umudike, Government College. Sorry we’ll probably get to that, I don’t know.
Okay. It was one of this- because I was working in Research and Production, when I was in that, I worked with many people who are now gone. But the most immediate people with whom I worked, Victor Alozie, Abana, Gabe Echezie, Christian Agumwamba.
Okay. I worked with them and ehm, who else? Ejebe. I’ve mentioned Ejiebe, Abana. Ehh Oka. Quite a few names, it’s just their first names that uh, that elude me. Memory decays.
So one of those days, number one I started working on reconditioning and producing flashlight batteries with this group that I just mentioned. We cannibalized old disused batteries. Removed the innard- it’s called the carbon innard, the core. Removed it, cleaned it out, made our concoction with calcium chloride, zinc chloride and starch as a binder. Then we introduced it around that carbon core. Alright? And then covered everything up with aluminum. And then of course created the two poles. Bingo. We have a new flashlight battery. This is how we played our radios in the village. We did all this in Biafra. See. Then from there I was seconded to join a fellow named, Kalu. His first name I’ve forgotten. He, myself, Prof Chijoke’s younger brother or half-brother, Victor Alozie and me. Four of us were seconded to begin to work on the design of a mini-refinery.
A refining contraction, if you will. So we tried different designs, different gauges. Finally we settled on quarter range pipe. We spun it into- bent it into coils to be able to prolong the exposure of oil running through the coil to heat. The longer exposed, the more thorough the heating took place so that what came out at the other end was not only- it was not only the vapor itself- well the vapor itself, the gas itself, methane and all that stuff, but also it was easier to cool it. And it was cooled with cold water. We did that successfully.
Lord! Canon fire
So one of these days, while we were just about to close, we heard rumblings, an airplane approaching. Little did we know that we were the target! See, we housed our mini-refinery under a mango tree. I don’t know if a smoke that billowed sent out signals or whatever. There may have been some sabotage. But anyway, this thing came and fired its cannon. Luckily for us and for me, we already had bunkers. Soon as this thing came very close, really close to physics department- there was a physics building by that Government College Umudike where they fired this cannon. As we ran for shelter, I just dove headfirst. The cannon fired almost simultaneously. It was so loud I thought my head was blown off. Took my feet up. PSH!
Smashed them on the ground.
Yes. Right there, the bunker was right behind the physics- physics building. I just- I dove behind it. So I stayed there panting, I was panting, I was panting, panting for quite a few minutes until the noise had subsided. Then finally, I listened and listened and listened for commotions then finally, I got out. Luckily for us, it was a miss in general. The fighter pilot missed, missed but destroyed some buildings across the street, Umudike Road, and that was that.
It was not possible. All we heard was a sound. We knew what the sound was. It was a pre, ehm, it was a forewarning that there was going to be an air raid. Once we heard whrrrr muffled sounds, whrrrrr we knew, I mean….shortly thereafter, boom! It happened. GBOOM! And this thing was so deafening, Lord! Canon fire. It was incredible. So luckily, none of- nobody was lost.
…we embraced each other
Nobody. I stayed there till almost six pm before heading back to my village. And I was headed up the hill, there was my mother. They had heard about the assault. They didn’t know- you know how it is, people extrapolate their fears to other areas that did not even, when you think about it, didn’t make sense. So being her first child, she was very worried. She thought that I had been killed, so she tied her wrapper on her waist, took off by foot to come and look for me. The distance of almost ten miles away. So as I was ascending the hill on my bicycle, there she was. So (laughs), my God, we embraced each other. That was it. That is what happened.
Not long after that, Umuahia became threatened. We had to evacuate. We evacuated to a place in Orlu, a place called Eziachi.
We evacuated to Eziachi. Whatever we could evacuate all the necessary equipment and tools, the whole electronics group- because I belonged to the electronics group.
The whole electronics group it was associated with refining ahh, what do you say- refining responsibilities. We moved to Eziachi. I, Professor Chijoke, Professor Kalu Okoronkwo who used to be the general manager of PMBS. So we all evacuated. Everybody.
So when we went to Eziachi, we recreated, in fact, we built a larger quote unquote refinery. More sophisticated than the one we tried- came up with, experimenting in Umuahia. So there was ample supply of petrol, kerosene. Yes.
What we almost couldn’t do before we were brutally brought to a halt. We came in here. We were even able to sell to other people what we produced. [We were producing a lot.]
We were producing more than enough for the unit and extra enough for us- for me to be able to take home five gallons, five gallons of kerosene which was far more important. Kerosene every single day if I chose to, but I didn’t need that much.
Barrels? We didn’t count in terms of barrels. We measured things in gallons. We had the imperial gallon than the US gallon. The imperial is a lot of it more in volume than the US gallon. Yes, we used the imperial gallon which is what we used in measuring and containing these liquids. Once in a while we took out gasoline itself and sell on the black market. People were always looking for fuel, so it was a hot commodity to drive your vehicles all over. It was hot. We produced quite an ample supply of these things in Eziachi near Orlu, between Nkwerre and Orlu or Ihioma. That- that place called Eziachi.
I joined the Research and Production after an interview. I was interviewed.
…I came to join the rank
Someone recommended me to Professor Mark O. Chijoke, Professor Kanu Okoronkwo and Professor Chimeri Ikogwu. No- yes, Professor Chimeri Ikogwu, now late. Yes. Three of them interviewed me at Government College, Umuahia. Alright?
And being a very, very well schooled science student. I love science very much till today. So they shot out these questions- basic questions about this, about chemistry, physics and apparently I came out in flying colors. They said, ‘Okay you have a job. Join us as a research assistant.’ That’s how I came to join the rank. So immediately, I was seconded to, I was deployed with the electronics group. The electronics group was part that came up, fashioned the electronic components for the Obunigwe and the associated weapons. Okay? These were led by Gabe Ejiebe- Echebe. No, Ejebe, please. Gabe Ejiebe, Abana. Lots of these other people whose names I’ve forgotten.
My contribution was I started out with, to reproduce, produce more out of disused batteries, as I’ve already, I’ve already mentioned that. Cannibalize this, remove its central core and then of course reconstitute with the necessary chemicals – calcium chloride, zinc chloride, alright? And of course starch- corn starch preferably because impurities tend to create short circuits in these things- within the cell itself, so you have to be very careful with water, we used distilled water to- to fashion the starch itself- corn starch preferably, not cassava. Corn starch. We used it and then as a binder for these chemicals. Calcium chloride, zinc chloride and I believe also, sometimes ammonium chloride. As long as it had a chloride, that was very, very important.
So we kept on doing that. Producing batteries with which people could run their transistor radios. Since these things were no longer being imported and the ones that were available were already dead. So we picked up all these stuff, removed the backings, extracted the core, reconstituted, put it back. Bingo! We have a new battery.
Having done this for quite a while, there came a need due to the scarcity of gasoline that some of these units like ours, the electronics group headed by Professor Mark Chijoke, might- we might start exploring ways of producing fuel at least for transportation. That was how I was taken away from electronics group to Victor Alozie and Professor Chijoke’s brother and Kalu, four of us, to begin to work on producing our own. So, Kalu apparently, he worked at, he worked at a refinery in Port Harcourt. So he brought over some of the literature. So were going to use some the designs. Just very basic things that we could fabricate and that was how we came up with ordinary design with the fractionating- not even a fractionating column, just a cooling, if you would, helix, in a helical form, we spun it into a helical form to hold the crude oil long enough for it to be heated and then discharged what we needed which was the gas itself, producing gasoline. Fractionating wise, gasoline would come out first followed by diesel and then of course, kerosene.
Was I paid? Yeah, thinking about it, yes. I think, yes. I think we were paid monthly. Was it 15 or 25 naira- sorry 25 Biafran pounds. I think, yes we were paid. I learned a lot and ehhh, I learned a lot. Believe me, it fired my imagination so much that I went home, I began to uhmm- I began to experiment with urine. If I didn’t have ammonium chloride, what would I use? So I began to collect urine. Because urine contains ammonium.
Alright? Urea. Urea is chemical form of, it’s part of ammonium.
So it fired my imagination, right there. So ammonium chloride is used in conjunction with zinc chloride, so and that’s why whenever you open up the battery- if you smell it- the vehicle smells of urea which happens to be ammonia. So this brought me to- back to nature. We didn’t have ammonium chloride in the house, but at least we had urea. So I began to collect urine to use it with starch, as I mentioned, corn starch and sodium chloride, ordinary salt. See that, that’s what it means to be Igbo. You think outside the box. I was doing that as a teenager based on what I was already learning in Biafra- on behalf of Biafra at Umudike.
See, so those were some of the things that happened and I really felt very proud. Until the war was truncated on January sixteenth- we just heard the news- yeah January sixteenth or thereabout.
[I was going to the research facility everyday. I saw some of the Biafran leaders.]
Once in a while they would come especially if they needed their batteries, if their car batteries were down. Of course, if they felt stranded, they would want to come and see if there were ones available that they could swap to be able to go on with what they were doing. Yes, all these military officers, once in a while they show up at the lab- physics lab because we had the batteries. We reconditioned everything. All the moving batteries, we took out those that were gonna go dead, because of the sulfation that goes on at the nodes. Sulfate deposit. Lead sulfate is deposited as salt. So they will take the- Abana and Paul Aka and Christian, this was their area. I never dealt with that. Mine was the flashlight batteries. They will remove the top, take away the sulfation, clean it out, re-insert it and then of course, recharge it with dilute sulphuric acid. Okay? Bingo! Then reseal it. We have a brand new battery. That’s Biafra for you.
[These were not militarized vehicles. They were civilian vehicles] because they were constricted. They were taken over. Commandeered, if you want. Well, sometimes military vehicles. But they wouldn’t show up in military vehicles. They would show up in private cars. For example, Professor- all these heads- ehm, Professor Chijoke, his driver was- we used to call him.
‘More days’ that was his- ‘More days.’ His car was a commandeered car. Professor Njoku Obi commandeered cars. All these heads of directorates, their cars were commandeered. They were not personal cars. They were commandeered from individuals who willingly gave these things. My family, they never paid us a single penny, but they commandeered our two trucks.
Well in some cases, scraps. So you had to cannibalize those that were almost in disused ahh, to be able to resuscitate ones that you could use.
I was there when [my father’s two lorries were commandeered by the Biafran Army.] Paradoxically you might think that there was sadness. Why sad? No it was a war effort. War effort. We were more than happy to let go. It’s just that, wealth- part of the wealth supposedly had left, but, hey, you do not have wealth in death. If we were all to be slaughtered here because we were hanging on to these vehicle.
It was random really. There was no targeting as it were of whoever had what. Wherever your vehicle was seen in and it was functional, they made a request and then go through the process. As a matter of fact the last vehicle, Captain, I’ve forgotten his name, happens to be from this village in which my mother was born. That Captain, he came to our- our house in Umukabia.
They saw the vehicle there, so he came and told my father that there is a need for them to have it for the movement of troops and eh, it was very cordial. He explained himself and then we gave them the papers, they signed over, gave us a receipt that they took our vehicle and then, they held it until the end of the war. Eventually, it was returned. But they left the Mercedes Benz alone. It was parked right there by, by the house in the village and nobody touched it.
Government college, it was high school. It’s over there they call them colleges. Here you call it, it’s a university. Over there a college as you can see is a high school… it’s a high school, really. Government College Umuahia was a high school. In all through- throughout the war in 196- later part of 1967, I was there until through ‘69 until we moved to Eziachi, of course. Some people moved to Mbaise. Some moved to other areas, but I know of me, particularly my group. We move- in fact we were quartered in one of the high schools, I think Saint Nicholas High School. We made it, yeah, we lived in a high school, provided beds and all that and then, because Umuahia had fallen to the Nigerian people, so – that was, but throughout this period I was always going to work at Government College, Umuahia.
…The military. We had refineries that served the military all the way. We had one at Uzuakoli. Uzuakoli [a town in Abia State]. By the way, these refineries went from small scale because they were scaled from small contractions, if you will to larger, larger assemblies that actually supplied, you know, provided ample supply for military use. It happened.
[The one in Eziachi was] for military as well as civilian use. Yes, it was military and civilian use. They came and bombed it. I couldn’t believe it. Who could have given them information about this place? Wow, things are really- strange things really did happen. How they could have come to Eziachi? We were still pondering this.
…they were following a trail of a smoke
How could they have come to this place? Not that the place was, if you will, shouting, “Look at me.” It was highly camouflaged, thoroughly camouflaged, that not withstanding, they still came looking for it to bomb it. And they tried, but they didn’t succeed. The bombs fell elsewhere. I will not enter that story.
They came looking for it. Very obvious, it’s self-explanatory. They came looking for, maybe they were trailing, they were following a trail of a smoke. I don’t know. It may have been, but they certainly came. That was the first time that area of Biafra had experienced any air raid. That was the first time. They had never experienced anything like that. But they came, looking for…they actually, for it to be the Nigerian people. The Air Force people. They came looking for it and they threw their bombs, but they missed their target and eh, so, we breathed a sigh of relief, too, and this went on until the war- we went ‘oh the war is over now,’ January of eh, 20, no, January of 1976? 1970. Yes.
Ahh, not really [I never saw Chukumegwu Ojukwu] I saw him driving past, but not face to face. Even General Effiong, I never met him. I saw him drive past.
Ahh driving on, maybe along Umudike road or even in the city of Umuahia once in a while. He never, he did not show up too regularly for obvious reasons. For security reasons, even Effiong himself, General Effiong, they never showed up too regularly, but nonetheless they had to leave to go from place to place.
If were luck enough and opportune to see them pass, it was always an excitement to see our Head of State. Okay. Really, tremendous emotional uplift seeing each of these men, anytime. We felt there was something to hang on to.
Whenever I saw [the Head of State] I felt uplifted. Really, uplifted. Psychically, emotionally. I felt there was something, we have something fighting for because he was very eloquent in speeches. So I internalize his speeches, the import, the spirit and import of his speeches, I internalize and whenever I saw him, which was a rare privilege, whenever I saw him driving past, my oh my! That was something. You knew that, yeah we are really fighting for something.
Oh my God, we’re at war
He rarely rode in convoys. For, once again, obvious reasons because there has always been, there had always been sabotage everywhere. We talk about saboteurs. For example, there was a time I wasn’t there the story of him being bombed at Madonna High School. How did they know that he was in Madonna High School? They came determined to destroy him for good. Yes, in fact there was an account that I was reading that gave vivid details as to what was happening during that assault on him. So you see, there were saboteurs everywhere.
We could not plug all the holes, it was not possible given the circumstances, it was not possible to plog any and all holes regarding possible eventual infiltration by the enemy. It was just not possible.
That [the building where the bomb making was going on] was in the other section of what we call the mechanical section. The mechanical section because you have the Government College is there, then next to Government College in that village of Umudike is and was what we call the agric department, of agriculture. So that was where Fredrick Achukwu and his group set up their fabrication plant for everything to deal with the war, the armored vehicles, everything, Ogbunigwe, shrap- I’m sorry, the grenades, everything was being fashioned over there. That’s the mechanical section.
We were next door. Ahh. It was mind blowing, quote unquote, that a black man really had this acumen. It was mind blowing, in fact, I have some pictures that eventually I came across. You should look it up sometime.
…The Red Devils
You’ll see pictures of different kinds of armored vehicles that tended to emulate Saladins. Okay? Rather than rotate because of the mechanics involved, instead holds to a puncture so that soldiers could shoot simultaneously, simulating rotation as though this thing was swiveling or rotating on a platform. Just marvelous. It made me proud. I was very proud. I was very proud to be a Biafran, very proud and I did my best to contribute to the war effort. I was very proud.
…a man who was known as a mercenary
…I saw physical structures being constructed. They called- they were eventually painted and called The Red Devils. The red devils, those were the armored vehicles. They were being fabricated and constructed in Umuahia. They were painted as The Red Devils- armored vehicles. Some are called Genocide and I think the third one- or the fourth- the two that I remember very vividly, Red Devils and armored- and the Genocide. They were constructed to withstand bullets and then when you saw them, because we are not- we were not, you know, used to seeing armored vehicles so when you saw one, not only was it rare, but profoundly, it conjured up emotions or mostly emotions of ahh, invincibility, if you will. Yeah. This reminds me of one other- one other feeling.
There used to be a man who was known as a mercenary. His name was Rob Steiner in Biafra. Whenever, whenever the affairs- outcomes in any war sector were not being favorable, and we heard, happened to hear that Rob Steiner and his men had been sent, wow! Plunging emotions suddenly grows because we expected victory. So whenever I saw these armored vehicles and what was going on which people didn’t see, that were shipped in the middle of the night away to war fronts, war zones, I mean my God, euphoria just went through the roof. The feeling of euphoria and almost invincibility. We have victory. It’s coming. For me personally, that was what happened. I poured in everything I could bring to the table to do what was expected of me.
…you never knew if there will be tomorrow
Uhh let’s see. I don’t recall having any intimate conversations about these things. Because it seemed like we had less than 24 hours in any given day. There seemed to be no time for any frivolous- anything discussed other than whether we will live tomorrow or not. Anything other than that really, it just didn’t come up. Somehow it may sound strange, but we never really sat down to have beer, to relax as it were kind of to talk about it. No, we did what came up, we responded to whatever came up and that’s it. You did what you had to do on a day to day basis, because you never know- you never knew if there will be tomorrow.
So as we saw these things being produced they were just run-of-the-mill. They were part of what we were there to do. Really. Until once again, there’s a puncture to the whole psychological environment by the roar of a plane. whroooo whroooo whroooo
Oh my God, we’re at war. Suddenly. Then you hear these guns being shot into the air. But the short guns were ineffective anyway. You knew that. They were just blowing smoke in the air, they didn’t do anything. So we never really had any occasion to sit by and, around beer or palm wine to discuss things in general. We lived on a day to day basis. We lived on a day to day basis.
…I saw it [what was being built] I saw them and that was it. You just- jisienuike. You encourage them, you know. Jisienuike. You already knew what they were doing. You knew what they were doing. You knew what their effort was all about. Nne jisienuike. Eh heh, nna. Chai! Unu di ike, oh. Nne jisienike. In other words ‘keeping on keeping on’ ‘more greases to your elbow’. You already knew. It was a thing of pride. So you expressed your pride in those words. Jisienuike. God is alive. Our God is alive and so on. So that really was what was going on.
The first time we had a breakthrough [that was a highlight that I remember]. You see we had tried different gauges of this piping. The three quarter range pipe. We had to twist it that it took a little bit of dexterity as well as almost expertise to put it together looking through the drawings. We looked through the drawings in the textbook, if you will, a manual. And then we come back and then try something else.
So one of those days, initially, we tried everything. No success, so we finally put together what we had. We built a mud, mud hearth called it a hearth. H-E-A-R-T-H. A hearth to heat- for heating and then heating the pipe itself that will have been twisted into a cord with the input-output already set. Then of course with a cooling towel, if you will, we’ll call it for lack of a better word, we’ll call it a cooling towel. So we put it there and then we put in a bucket to receive whatever distillate we, we could have. We were not sure. So we put it there and we went home. We came back the next day.
Oh my God!
The place was not only- the bucket was not only totally- I think it was a 5 gram bucket. Not only was it filled; it overflowed and flooded the whole place. We said, ‘wow!’
You know, pumping fist in the air. ‘Woohoo! We did it! We did it! We did it!
From that day we never lacked fuel for cars. We never lacked diesel; we never lacked kerosene. Very vivid in my memory, I’ll never forget it. This was…in Government College, underneath the mango tree. That was very vivid in me.
I can still remember it [the mango tree], because it was still heavy from sight. Not many people knew it because it was for the staff, teachers. Not for students. So that was very vivid. When we- oh boy! It was- ahh- it was something else, a joy! It was wonderful.
Umuahia had fallen
So our- in fact, people used to come to us in electronics group to see if we could, at least, share some of our proceeds with them. Especially microbiology because microbiology was next door to us. In the physics building, electronics this side then the middle room if you will, store room and then microbiology. That’s my Professor Njokwu Obi, Professor Steve Emejoliwe and ehm, Nwariaku, Professor Nwariaku. And even some other people whose names I’ve forgotten. They ran the microbiology producing all kinds of things in our area.
Alright, so following from the last statement so that was a moment I would never forget. It was breakthrough moment for us. So we used that design when we finally or eventually moved to Eziachi. Umuahia had fallen.
We adopted it and scaled it and oh my God!
We had, we had quite an ample supply. Just all we needed were just the crude. Egbema was producing crude so crude didn’t seem to be of any problem.
When it came to relief materials. Um, yes, I was lucky that along tho- during those days, my home in Umukabia had been used as a warehouse by the WCC, one of the warehouses- World Council of Churches by the way, WCC.
Stockfish- they used our house to load up stockfish for the local population for distribution- eventual distribution.
[Our house was selected] because it was very large. We had ample rooms, more than enough to spare. We had a lot of storage. My father was, if you will, a very prominent chief in the village, as well. It didn’t hurt and he had tremendous credibility because he was, quote unquote, you could say he was a local banker. Whoever need- had financial difficulties always came to my father for relief. He lent out a lot of money, which till today remains unpaid. Haven’t been paid- can never be collected. So he had tremendous credibility. Ahh he didn’t ask- he never owed anybody anything. So he was very upright, so it was a no-brainer to use our home- part of our home to store the materials. So relief supplies, um, weren’t a problem at all.
I could purchase what I needed because I was paid. Remember I mentioned that we were paid a stipend. Oh it was- it was not something to write home about, but nonetheless it helped to, kind of lubricate life and pay for few things here and there so, things that we needed to eat- tomatoes were produced locally, in fact, I even have my own small garden. I had my own garden. My sister- my elder sister showed me how to cultivate um onions. So I did a lot of cultivating, a lot of gardening and vegetables, I love vegetables- water leave and kinds of things. So relieve materials were well- really tangential, in the sense that we had more than enough. We didn’t ask for much, but what we had were just enough and of course, what I just said when the relief were distributed, we had a share of the distribution. So which was good, too. We had corned beef, we had stockfish, anything else we didn’t need. For example, cornmeal. We didn’t need the cornmeal. We had yams, cassava. We didn’t need the cornmeal.
We [my family] were really much, much better off. Very better off. My father was a wealthy man, but all he got or supposed to have got [in the post-war recovery and reconciliation deal from the Nigerian government] was 20 pounds from Awolowo, but did he get the 20 pounds? No. It never materialized.
We lost it all
Remember I said to you that even when war started, even when Port Harcourt had fallen to the Nigerian side, my father was still transacting business. Even though the bulk oil plant called BOP in Port Harcourt was closed, was not accepting oil for processing or kernel, he was still purchasing, paying. The cash that we had, he was paying to these traders or these produce merchants. I couldn’t understand it. See?
So we didn’t have any problem with material things, no, we never did.
The only thing that we still regret till tomorrow, but for psychological reasons we let regret go back, we don’t need regret, it’s a weigh-down on us- so it’s that we didn’t receive any compensation like anybody else those who tried to collect 20 pounds for everything.
Yes. We lost it all.
…we managed to keep body and soul together
On March- no on May, I believe May 11, 1967, my dad and I went to ACB bank in Umuahia to make a cash deposit. ‘67, remember? There was crisis in Nigeria. My dad and I- I followed him- I accompanied him to the bank to make a substantial deposit of cash into African Continental Bank. Did that money come back to us? No. Did we get 20 pounds? No. So I’m just beginning to give you an idea as to the massive level the scale of our loss.
In spite of all these, we managed to keep body and soul together. So, relief wasn’t an issue with us at all. We never saw a need to go to relief centers. We produced whatever we needed. Those we couldn’t, we purchased or went even hunting. I remember going hunting with a cousin of mine, we were looking for birds to hunt with my air rifle. We captured one.
Oh yes, face to face. They [people worse off than us] surrounded us everywhere. Yes. Especially people who came back to the village from the other parts of Nigeria. Many of them who came dispossessed- completely dispossessed. They just heard that there was- there were killings and murders going on. Wherever they were, they fled. They didn’t know where their wives and children were. They fled. Came back however- in whatever way they could come back to the east. They came, wearing nothing- just the shirt on their back as the saying goes, and the shoes on their feet.
So such people naturally, you could see they have left everything, material things, banks, accounts, whatever, they came back destitute. But we managed to rally among ourselves because of this thing called extended family system.
You wouldn’t let your own starve.
My dad- I remember vividly, one man- my father was an apprentice night watchman to this man in Umuoba. My father started life as a petty trader. Along the way, he grew to become a night watchman. My dad used to trek miles and miles- they used to do it overnight, trading on fish, dried fish and stockfish and all that stuff. Stories that he used to tell us. So along the way, he found his way to a place called Umuoba where I was eventually born. He became a night watchman, security, guards as we call it here [in the United States]. But a night watchman only worked at night with a bush lamp hanging from somewhere to guard a place. Now you can figure how safe that could have been.
So one of the men whose premises- warehouse, UAC, United African Company, that he guarded, one of the men is called Sylvanus..Sylvanus. Because he was a trading commercial person for the UAC. Because he always transacted money with people- people who came to serve him goods, they call him ‘Ogbonogwu’, means ‘Chief of Money’. The people from Ibibio land, Efik, Ibibio land for short, they would transport their oil and kernel to him on the back of their bicycles. So he was so rich to them, they called him ‘Ogbonogwu.’
Now, along the way, my father eventually found himself purchasing a license to become a produce merchant. That’s how he- he went and he got a franchise with Turkish merchants. My father was one of the franchises- in fact, the major franchise. So from there he grew. In his own way he was very parsimonious and he didn’t spend foolishly because as the saying goes, a fool and his money are easily parted.
So he grew and grew and grew, next thing you know, he became a wealthy man. This other guy, by the way, two of them met, somehow along the way something went wrong. Eventually, he found himself in- into bankruptcy. When you’re bankrupt, you usually have liabilities- all liabilities, that’s why you go bankrupt.
So, he was being liquidated and he came to my father, perhaps in Umuoba. My father didn’t hesitate. For some reason, there was no accountant; there was no lawyer. During the war, one day, we were in the village, his- because he married how many wives- one, two- he married two wives. His head wife, the first wife, someday, we saw a lady being brought on a bicycle, she came to our home. Why did she come? Because hunger. It was biting so much that the husband, apparently she and her husband had had a conversation. ‘Maybe you can go to JD’- that’s what my father was called, ‘JD to see if he can oblige us with a few pounds so that he- at least we can eat.’
Even then when I was a teenager, it hit me- the significance of that hit me. A teenager and I said- reasoned to myself. For this woman, I mean, this woman, her name starts with a J. This woman was respected, revered, almost feared. For her, to come down, as it were, to almost grovel for a hand out.
I said ‘My God! What a world in which we live. Things are really, really bad.’
So you see, I’m saying this to abort an appointment to what you asked about, ‘What about the other people who are destitute among us?’ Yes. Not only did we take care as much as we could whenever asked to by those around us, we are all you know extended family system.
This man came from Aba side, braved all the bullets, braved everything, found, and for the first time in their life, they found my father’s- they came to visit him in the village. It made me very consciously proud of who we are- my father. Very proud, that his once boss, has now- he has now come to him to plead for assistance.
Sylvanus is his name… It made me very proud. ‘Till tomorrow. In fact this is what has sustained me because I haven’t had, personally- I haven’t had a rosy- rosy sojourn in America. I came by way of Canada. Okay? And then- but I always remember who I am. I always remember that. That has sustained me in spite of all the vicissitudes of life. I’ve always kept my head high and this is what I pass on- not onto my children, but also to my brothers. I always remind them. When I go home, I have meetings with my brothers…I remind them, ‘Remember who you are.’ Igbo people say afuta nga ana ahu nmo, isi efue.
Whenever you, in your traverses, you come across a place where there is a history of the appearance of ghosts, you tend to get goose bumps. This sums up how my family is. That’s why we are always very proud of our origin. We are not very, well, because of things in Nigeria, we can’t do much. Even if we are to pump in gazillions from here to Nigeria, it will be swallowed up…
They [my parents during the war] were okay. We were all okay. We were all okay.
Actually, a cousin of mine was a soldier. He went into the army, yes. He came out, well I shouldn’t say unscathed, He came out but with what we call a shell shocked syndrome and right now he’s okay, after all those years. It takes time for the negative effects to wear off. It was a psychological problem for all the people who had been exposed to shelling. The shock from shelling.
He joined, let’s see. Samuel, was he conscripted? No. He was conscripted, he didn’t join. He was conscripted.
I have roughly seven brothers. One of whom is no longer living and I have extended family. If I were to count them, we will number up to 15. Only one cousin was conscripted.
I don’t think so [that my brothers were able to avoid conscription because my people knew who my father was]. In fact, they were very young, anyway. They very young boys. They had hardly even gotten into high school.
I was the oldest. I was the only one in high school. I probably would have been conscripted eventually anyway but it never came to that. Because along the way, I applied to RAP [Research & Production] because I really wanted to work in that area of war effort so we’ve already told you the story of how I got in on that
I was subjected to interviews. It wasn’t a matter of here, walk in, we know him. No. They interviewed me. Picked my brains and said okay, come on board. So, and I was very ecstatic. I was very enthusiastic. It was really beautiful. And right now, in fact, I’ve been toying with the idea RAP reunion. RAP Alumni reunion.
Yes. I have made preparations for that. Let me just say I am making preparations for that. Because there are many people like me who are still alive in this our world, who were in Research and Production, although I may state the fact that the people with whom I would have liked to interact just once more, Prof. Eugene Arene.
He was killed.
I can’t remember, I can’t recall if there was any at all [other bombings besides the one I mentioned earlier that happened in Ezeachi] that ever happened but Umuahia has- I mentioned, Umuahia was always under constant attack. Eventually, people evacuated Umuahia and the rest, as I said, is history. So they evacuated.
Uzuakoli was attacked, all these areas were attacked. Wherever there was a refinery, there as attack, by Nigerians. So somebody was giving them information. See, Madonna High School, there was attack. That was the Biafra headquarters after Umuahia had fallen. So there were saboteurs everywhere.
I was still attending church. Methodist Church, Umukabia. I can’t recall whether anything really, other than to pray for the war effort [in church]- that we succeed. When people are fighting unjust—injustice, they are always on the right side of history when you’re fighting injustice. So if I recall vividly, some of the sermons, that was always the theme – to pray for those who are giving their lives for the sake of justice. What is right against the forces of darkness are trying to enslave us.
…Sure, some people [fellow church members] lost their lives due to quote unquote especially children – kwashiorkor. Some people lost their lives due to medical conditions.
I didn’t go to church too regularly but because the church building itself at the time, the main building was still under construction so we had a makeshift, smaller building that was next to it. So I didn’t really notice any particular population decrease. You understand. I didn’t take any mental note but just now that you’re mentioning it I can look back and say oh, that would be confabulation, which of course is not right. I can’t remember thinking about it but any decrease in population.
Oh maybe once a month I would [go to church], maybe once a month. It didn’t happen regularly. Maybe once a month or so. For some reason I didn’t go because either I traveled, I was sent or I was sent on an errand by my father…for example even growing up, I remember my dad used to be a huge entertainer. He would send me to the marketplace to fetch wine. Palm wine. Right? Go to so-so-and-so person, ask him to purchase this, this and give to you, while the church was about to begin. OK, I was a kid; I loved going to church because it did something to my spirit. Any time I was in church, I was a different person. It tended to levitate me spiritually whenever I was in church as a kid. Yes, so I’ve always been a church person. Well, Christian really.
[There was never a time I can recall being in church and hearing military aircraft hovering above.]
We were at Eziachi. In fact, I was in a place called Ihembosi, [when Biafra announced a surrender].
Yeah. Owerri had fallen. Umuahia of course, had already fallen, right?
So Nigerian troops were moving towards Orlu and all so we had to pack our things from Eziachi, trek wherever we could, just as far as we could towards Nnewi along where we stopped over at the village is called Ihembosi and ask for accommodation.
We were obliged, willing, that’s right. No charge. No charge. So we stayed there. That was where we heard for the next week or so, within the next week, thereafter, that the war had ended and there was a surrender agreement with Philip Effiong and it happens to be Obuka, Obuka was accompanying him. Lt. Col. Obuka. They were together when the surrender took place. And so Ihembosi, we trekked to the place and we trekked back when we were reading to go.
We started early in the morning around maybe eight am, or seven am and by the time we reached Eziachi, it was already six pm. We went on foot, taking with us our belongings.
*Dr. Nwosu granted this interview to Chika Oduah from his home in New York, USA.