The ordinary man in the east saw hell

We had a terrible civil war [in Nigeria] and purely built on mundane things like ‘oh, you are an Igbo man. You should not have this,’ or ‘you are a Hausa man. You are dominating this,’ or ‘you are this and that’ and so on. And this was being repeated in schools, in social gatherings and so on and so forth. Right? So it got to a crescendo. Then civil war. Civil strife and then civil war. You know? Then terrible things happened. You can’t, I, I can’t, when I see places like, which they are showing now. Somalia, Burundi, this and that and so on. It reminds me of Biafra because I was the first person [Nigerian police officer] to go to Biafra after the war ended.

Muhammad Adamu Gambo remembers the Nigerian Biafran War.
Photo by Chika Oduah

Yes, I was a police officer and I traveled from Enugu through Abakaliki Road to Port Harcourt, because you know that during Biafran war, Biafrans had no arms. They were fighting from a terribly disadvantaged situation.

The thing just became a big cesspool of uh…destruction of life and property.

But the fact that I was working in, I, I was sent. They said that the Biafrans were going to, going to surrender. So they wanted me and some of my colleagues, even some of my colleagues in Biafra. They were working together, for us to go and do certain things you know, to collect documents to do this to do that and so on, which we, we did. But I had to go there on fourteenth, and from there in Enugu I traveled right through to Port Harcourt. There was no any other place that was quite habitable. You imagine a place like Abuja or Onitsha or Enugu or Nsukka or Port Harcourt. People being asked to leave! Because federal troops were coming or the Biafrans were coming, or something like that. So it was very chaotic.

I saw virtually skeletons walking around

People who left Port Harcourt, right?. Trying to reach their homes in the east or something like that kept on going. They’re being kept in refugee camps and so on. Hunger and disease and so, you’ll see them like, like what you see now in Somalia and so on. Worse than this [what you see in Somalia] happened. For example on the morning we were going to Port Harcourt from Enugu. Through the old way, you know. I saw virtually skeletons walking around. Some and by the time we came back the following day, I looked and those just perished like this and they put shovels you know and pushing them [the corpses] aside for vehicles to pass.

It’s a very very very horrible thing to remember. So if, if you imagine the, the camp to Port Harcourt they say Port Harcourt people, around four o’clock in the evening for example, they told them to get prepared and leave because the Biafran army is doing some exercises. They are coming back after an hour or two. Some people were cooking. They just switched off the cooker and so on. They all moved out of the town. They never came back until after the end of the war.

When the war, when the war ended. ’70, 1970 it’s true. 70, sorry I’ve forgotten. So, at that time, the entire Eastern region was in a terrible situation; people who were travel by foot from Port Harcourt to Nsukka as a group, and they are not allowed into towns oh. They are kept in camps as refugees. A friend of mine was telling me the most horrible thing that ever happened to them because when they are in the refugees’ camp, if anything got lost in the village, they say yes it’s the refugees that have stolen they say and they follow them up and they beat them up and so on. So, that was it. At the end of the war it was chaotic! There was nowhere where you could really do anything for anybody. So those who had to die, died on the roadside and so on.

You see people like skeletons walking around

Hunger, disease, everything! When the leaders, the soldiers, the Biafran soldiers, leaders and so on, remain the only people standing on their feet, in the sense that they were not stricken by hunger and so on, diseases and so on because they are always in military camps and this thing.

But the ordinary man in the east saw hell, I’m sorry to- anything you saw in the television now happening in other parts of the world Somalia this and that and so on, worst of it happened here. So that was my journey to, to Port Harcourt and back to Enugu on the same route.

I was in Lagos [during the war], but I came from time to time to verify some of the claims of uh this thing, on human rights. From the Nigerian point of view, there was an operational guideline given in a booklet. No murder. No this, no that and people who had escaped the enclave of Biafra, were taken care of, fed and given accommodation and so but in Biafra, ahh! It was terrible. People didn’t know where to go to. You can imagine, people from Port Harcourt, you know, moving on foot, to get to what is the next town? Aba. From Aba right up to Onitsha. From Onitsha right back to Enugu and from Enugu right back to Abakaliki and so on. And linked up with – there are just people moving around, since they could access food and medicine you know, until when it became impossible for them to eat or to do anything and they are dying! Dying! You see people like skeletons walking around.

So that was the thing that I saw with my own eyes and we did the best we could to bring about understanding between Nigerians who left for Biafra and those who are still in government and it behooved the government to provide relief materials, food, medicines and so on and also to help to ship people from wherever they are found in a refugee camp back to their homes. And they are provided with everything: medicine, medical care and so on. Every local government or any regional government had made available to Biafra, to the Biafrans their medical facilities, their ambulances, their medicines, everything. Food! That was at the end of the war, right?

And they, they quickly got reabsorbed in the system and everybody found his way to go and do whatever he wanted to do and so on with the support of the federal government.

He [the Biafran at the end of the war] had, he had nothing. The Biafran currency was worthless. You see, it heaped up on both sides of the road. The 20 pounds that were made available to people [Biafrans] to start up was the maximum that could be made available to any citizen of Nigeria to revive. But it is being put negatively that oh yes after this thing they, they, reduced them, they have no money, no this no that and so on. It’s all part of the propaganda they, the Biafran people.

The Central Bank of Biafra was pillaged

So, but there is the, the three Rs program. Reconciliation, reconstruction and something else. Rehabilitation. And in that, you know, contracts were awarded to easterners. They were you know, their towns were rehabilitated, water works, hospitals and so on. So it didn’t take time. It didn’t. Roads were rebuilt. One national asset that got completely ruined was the railway system. When the Biafrans were leaving they took away all the coaches, all the engines, all, to Enugu and beyond. And so by the time the war ended there wasn’t a single this thing, uh, either locomotives or, or coaches or something like that. And they had also, um destroyed the lines that they used to, to make uh you know weapons or so. So there are a lot of more positive things. Like nobody would have mobilized like we did in Nigeria to save Biafrans. You know about 18 million people who are devastated to the bone, no nothing! Just to start, you know. And that is what, what had happened.

Muhammad Adamu Gambo. Photo by Chika Oduah

…The Central Bank of Biafra was pillaged and looted, you know and, and so on. So the Biafran currency was worthless. So federal government gave each Biafran, everybody- everybody 20 pounds to start with. 20 pounds then was a lot of money for market woman, for a family you know where the level of wages was about say 2 pounds a month or something like that.

But they always keep on revisiting this matter. If that was so how did they become so rich within five years or three years? How did they restore their economy? It was the federal government. All the bank managers, all the banks, all the Central Bank did was to facilitate for them. Factories were rehabilitated, and everybody who had something that he was doing, was helped to find his feet.

Tribal-more than that. It was not tribalism [that was the main cause of the war]. The issue of tribalism just came because the grand plan to seize power by Igbo officers, you know, and rule the country in the way they wanted. That was the main cause of it.1966 coup yes.

You woke up, you hear that all your leaders had been slaughtered

…The Igbos have suffered in the East more than they suffered anywhere in the country [during and before the war]. The ones that left their property in the north here, all came back and got back their house intact. The Hausa quarters in Onitsha was totally demolished. The area was, was reallocated to Igbos. The sabon gari [new town] in Kano the sabon gari in Zaria, the sabon gari in- all these places remained intact and Igbos when they came back from the war, they went to the provision office or local government office. There’s a book, you lived in- the house number so and so is your own in such a place. We were able to get to rents so much, this is it here, take it and so on, sign. So there was absolute humanity that reigned. You wouldn’t say so in Biafra. Biafra not only Igbos suffered you know. People who left, other tribes in, in the enclave of [Biafra] were also treated as enemies of Biafra. And a lot of them got executed and so on. Apart from those who became casualties as a result of the war- movement of troops and so on and so forth. So what is preoccupying the minds of people like me now is for reconciliation and for this type of time that we have put the war behind us. We want to see a new Nigeria where every Nigerian belongs to Nigeria and have every right.

…So all these things we should all agree to put behind us. It doesn’t help anybody to revisit- everybody suffered. The entire leadership of the north was decimated by 1966, right? Every leader in the east, some leaders in the west died, were killed, as a result of the coup. Some in the midwest were killed. Some here. Most of the leadership of Nigerians here were of northerners got killed. Not only themselves, including the military officers who are Northerners.

Yes [I remember the day the Sardauna of Sokoto Ahmadu Bello was killed]. January fifteenth 1966. I mean, it was a grim situation. You can imagine you went to bed, everything was intact and so on. You woke up, you hear that all your leaders had been slaughtered, all your officers had been slaughtered and so on. Even then everybody treaded on the path of caution in case it is not true. It took the Northerners six months or something like that, to organize the counter coup and so on- not themselves! The junior military officers whose senior people were decimated by Biafrans rose up and their officers could not control them- the Northern officers could not control them. And they killed so many of their Eastern officers. The entire country, you know, became one retaliating to what the Biafrans did. The, the Yorubas, the Binis, the Hausa, the Hausa Fulani, the middle belters and so on. Everybody rose in arms against the Igbos and so many of them got killed. So there’s no question about that.

*Muhammadu Adamu Gambo granted this interview to Chika Oduah from his home in Abuja, Nigeria.

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