Fifty-one years ago, the federal government of Nigeria engaged in a three-year-long bloody civil war with the secessionist Republic of Biafra. Many factors have been cited as being the cause of the Nigeria-Biafra War, which raged from 6 July 1967 to 15 January 1970. More than 3 million people, mostly women and children on the Biafran side, were killed.
When Christopher Chukwuemeka Ejiofor was 16, the Nigerian government sent him to England to study. On his return, he was to help develop the emerging nation. At 21, he voluntarily joined the Nigerian army as an officer, but he defected to join the Biafran army when the declaration of the Republic of Biafra was made in 1967. One year into the civil war, he was made the Aide-de-Camp (ADC) or military adviser to Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the leader of the secessionist republic during the war. In the build-up to the war, Ejiofor’s father died of a stroke when he returned from the northern part of the country after losing everything he had worked for in the pogroms and massacres of Igbo people in the North in 1966.
Immediately after the war in 1970, Ejiofor was imprisoned, but later released. He subsequently developed psychological and emotional problems and, according to him, “lost his memory for almost three years”. He then moved to England with his wife, Christine, on self-imposed exile. He did not return to war-torn Nigeria for five years. In England, he was treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and rehabilitated by foreign missionaries.
In 2009, he left his job as a safety inspector at East Midlands Airport in England (which he started doing after completing an engineering degree at Bristol University) to be crowned king or traditional ruler in his local community in the southeast of Nigeria after he was unanimously elected. Currently, he rules over 100 000 subjects in his Oyofo-Oghe kingdom in the Ezeagu local government area of Enugu state.
He is also the author of the book Biafra’s Struggle for Survival, his personal account of the war.
In this exclusive interview with This is Africa, Christopher Ejiofor, now 73, recalls the bitter memories of the war and how they lost everything. He also talks about how the British colonial set-up caused the war and the current agitation by the Indigenous Republic of Biafra (IPOB).
TIA: On 30 May, Biafrans all over the world will commemorate the 51st anniversary of the declaration of Biafra with a stay-at-home protest. You were there when the war started and you saw it through to the end. Could you paint a brief picture of what actually happened during the war?
Christopher Chukwuemeka Ejiofor: The background to the declaration of Biafra was that Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu was the governor of the Eastern region, Adebayo was the governor of the West, Colonel Hassan Kastina was the governor of the North and Gowon was the actual republican president of Nigeria. They attended a conference at Aburi, Ghana, in January 1967. At the conference, they were trying to find a solution to the crisis in Nigeria; to stop people from killing each other, so that we could work together as a united body, not separately. What they settled on was a confederation of the three regions and the federal government, so that all the regions would be autonomous, with the federal capital still in charge but not with the most power, as it has now. The regions were meant to have central powers to activate and deal with most of their resources and then the central government would coordinate the three regions together. This conference was very much in the spotlight: The international press attended, including the Voice of America, BBC and other big media corporations. At the end of the day, a confederation was agreed on. Somehow, somewhere between January and May, that confederation was derailed. This meant that somebody had advised Gowon that a confederation might not be the proper or right thing for Nigeria and usually that comes from foreign powers. Gowon decided that he was going to push that (confederation) aside. But for us in the East, it was the last hope. We had suffered a lot and our people were jobless.
There were no jobs; there was nothing, and people wanted to get back to something. Instead Gowon wanted to create 12 states that would still be under the federal government’s control. That was not acceptable to us because it meant that the states would divide everybody and there would be no healing for the people of the East. Under the confederation, there would have been some room to try and compensate the Easterners for the losses and injuries they suffered. Under the federal state, no such compensation would happen. So the people of the East were not happy. There was this drifting apart between the East and the federal government and Ojukwu tried to get the East and the West together. He hoped that the two could link together with equal independent autonomy, because then there would be no war. So, on 30 May1967, before the declaration, all the chiefs and rulers of Eastern Nigeria gathered together at the Consultative House of Assembly in Enugu. They all agreed that we needed to declare Biafra. They gave the mandate to Ojukwu to declare Biafra. It was never a declaration that Ojukwu did on his own accord. It was agreed on by all the chiefs who were the leaders of all the sections in Eastern Nigeria, including Calabar, Port Harcourt, Ogoja – every part of Eastern Nigeria, and not just the Igbos. They gave their mandate and, on 30 May 1967, Biafra was declared. There was great jubilation in the East and we were thanking and exhorting God. We were hoping that Western Nigeria would do the same, then there would have been no war.
TIA: According to reports, about 3 million Biafrans were killed in the Biafran War. Can you paint that picture for us?
Christopher Chukwuemeka Ejiofor: As of 1967, there had been sadness in the heart of every single Igbo family. Nobody in the Eastern region had not lost somebody because we were mainly Christians and the Northerners targeted Christians in their massacres. So, whether you were Igbo, Ogoja, Clabar or South-South, it did not matter. All of them were killed. The pogrom had brought so much death. Thousands had already been massacred. When we declared independence, no one thought that this would happen again. No one thought it would turn into a war that would last for three years. Just imagine, the Biafran army didn’t have weapons, warships, a standing air force or navy. Unfortunately for Biafra, we didn’t get recognition from the world powers. People like America or Britain, who were like our godfather – if one of them had sponsored Biafra, there would have been no problem. As you can imagine, those who fled Northern and Western Nigeria [in the pogrom] and left their businesses and property behind, come back here jobless. Can you imagine that? They had no food, nothing. They couldn’t get a job – and then the war started. My father was one such victim. He died of a stroke because he had lost everything in the pogrom in the North. Countless people died from the heartache of loss and not having anything to do. You talk about the war itself, the killing of people, and now women and the children are the most vulnerable, because when a city was overthrown, women and children had to move to a place where there was safety. Along the way, many died from starvation and lack of resources. These are natural deaths that I am talking about, not to mention the air raids, which killed many people. They would target crowded market places and drop bombs on them, to demoralise the people. Now, when towns and cities were being captured by Nigerians, they don’t spare men. They spared no one. At the height of the war, when Biafra had lost major cities, where would people get food from? People were dying of starvation. The worst part were the children who died of malnutrition. Now we are talking about 3 million as an under-estimation. Nobody has the actual statistics. We were burying people in mass graves. You are talking about every city, losing thousands of people every day. Children were camped in refugee camps. I personally used to go to camps near Umuahia and every day people were dying there. I took many of the worst cases to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Umuahia. When I return the next day to see my clients, they are dead.
The British army told the Nigerian navy to blockade Port Harcourt so that people could not escape. We were marooned.
I don’t know how to describe it all fully but you can see that I am painting a picture of the tragedy of the combination of loss of lives, earnings, homes, food. In fact, we were marooned. The British army told the Nigerian navy to blockade Port Harcourt so that people could not escape. If you look at Britain during World War II, they would make an escape route and send a warship to take away those who were sick and wounded to safer countries, where they would be till the war ended. But there was nothing like that for us.
TIA: After the war, the federal government introduced the three Rs: Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. How honest was the Nigerian government after the war in addressing the losses in the South-Eastern and South-South regions?
Christopher Chukwuemeka Ejiofor: It was only Eastern Nigeria that suffered, no other region suffered. Easterners were running the airways, the army, corporations and all the civil service positions. After the war, nobody came back to anything because our positions had been given to people whom they (Northerners) didn’t see as threats. Would you sack that person to give me back my job? Even if that was put in writing, it wasn’t put into practice. In other words, it was just a theoretical statement made to deceive people and make them think that they were “reconstructing”. Personally I was in the UK and when I visited my home after the war, we had no running water. All our running water infrastructure was totally dilapidated. Before the war, the Americans had come and helped to put in a water system that was useable, but after the war, none of that helped. I had to raise money in the UK through my parish for a borehole to be sunk at my place. So you tell me what the people who were supposedly reconstructing and rehabilitating did? Even as we speak, most of the roads and infrastructure in the Eastern region are dilapidated. We are still suffering from the lack of power, even though, before the war, we had a more consistent power supply than we have now. So what has gone wrong? The Nkalagu cement industry doesn’t work; the coal mine doesn’t work, even though we still have large coal deposits in Enugu – but nobody is talking about it. Our mineral resources are still there and nobody is talking about them. So I cannot say that there was a reconstruction programme and it was genuinely carried out. It may have been there on paper, in theory, but practically it was a political gimmick.
TIA: Why do you think the events around the war are hardly talked about, especially in schools in Nigeria? Most of the young people who are spearheading the current movement for Biafra know nothing about the war. How do we close this knowledge gap – because it is very necessary?
Christopher Chukwuemeka Ejiofor: Earlier, I said that there was an upside-down system that was introduced into Nigeria. Education was relegated to the background and a lot of people used malpractice to get qualification. I wrote a book about Biafra, titled Biafra’s Struggle for Survival. It was my hope that this book would be introduced into schools because this was my own personal experience of the war. When I published the book, I went to the mission to try and get them to include it as part of their school curriculum, but it was not successful. I went to Anambra, Imo and other states for the same purpose, but nobody was interested. So I think we are still suffering from that political downfall. We have not come to our senses yet and realised that we need to reverse the upside-down way of doing things that was forced on us. We have shifted our emphasis from this wider, broad-based knowledge to making money. Everybody wants to be a millionaire, build big houses, be a lawyer, politician, and when you have become one of these, then you have made it. These days, the emphasis is on how to make it. If I don’t make it, my mates will laugh at me. Our educational values have been lost. We must bring that back. I came back here to try and educate my people to follow the right pattern and achieve what they want. We need people who have that consciousness and who will bring back those values. They need to sacrifice the comfort of big cities to come home and teach people.
TIA: Do you think Biafra will achieve independence without another painful war?
Christopher Chukwuemeka Ejiofor: Yes, that is my hope and belief. For me, my vision for Biafra is for the Easterners to look inward and develop all our cities. We know we have factories in Aba. Other cities should have its industrial development to be serving the masses of not only Nigeria, but Ghana too. That is not creating a Biafra but economic power. You need economic power to be able to set up a state. You cannot set up a state like we had in Biafra then when we have nothing to base ourselves on. But if our people decided right now that rather than investing everything up there in Abuja, Lagos, let us take one third, say 30%, of what we are investing outside and bring it back to our homeland and develop all the states of our region, then you will find people coming from different countries of the world to trade with us. And that is what I know politicians will not allow to happen if you put it at the federal level. It should be done by the Southerners themselves, and it should be an in-house discussion. In fact, we have neglected our home – and that is what Ojukwu used to say to Igbos: that they should be ashamed of themselves that they have neglected their homeland while they live in big cities. Why do we not emulate people like Innoson Motors, who is building car factories here? Why can’t we get our Nkalagu cement factory running again? Why can’t we get our Coal Corporation and railway running again? They use to talk about power, but we used to have the Oji power station – but what happened? Do you know that during the Biafran war, students abroad bought airplanes for Biafra? We had our own airline then. So these are the things we should look at ourselves. We should be saying, let us develop our economy in the East. Let us have our own airlines, shipping industry. Let us concentrate and get Onitsha to have a harbour developed properly. If we had these things, nobody would want to fight us because we would have economic structure and power.
The major thing that killed Biafrans during the war was that we thought we were Christians, and so American-Christians, Italian-Christians would recognise us and help us. That never happened.
The major thing that killed Biafrans during the war was that we thought we were Christians, and so American-Christians, Italian-Christians would recognise us and help us. That never happened because all they were interested in were business resources. But Muslim people, because of their religion, had ties with Saudi Arabia and all the North African countries and they supported them during the war. It was through those countries that Russia came to support Nigeria. The Igbos should not be naïve but politically sensitive and know that we need to have our independence first before we have the power to negotiate.
TIA: Do you think that some of the factors that led to the Nigerian civil war are still present today?
Christopher Chukwuemeka Ejiofor: The Nigerian-Biafra civil war should never have had happened, in my opinion. Because of our naivety, we embarked on a war that should never have happened. However, the factors that led to the war are the colonial set-up that came to take over Nigeria and when they came, they brought with them education. Eastern and Southern Nigeria embraced education. Northern Nigeria was mostly Moslems and they did not embrace Western education as much as the Southerners did. They maintained their Islamic systems. What happened in the end was that the Southerners were the ones who got the qualifications required by the British to run railways, airports, sea ports, printing corporations and so on. You only got these people from the South. So, if you go to the North, most of the people running corporations were from the South. After Nigeria became independent, the Northerners realised that these people had taken over everything they had. So they created a system where they started eliminating the Southerners from the North – they introduced a system called the Northernisation policy. My father was a victim of that policy. He used to work in a printing corporation.
What happened was that in the 1950s, all the Igbos were made redundant; they were all kicked out, to be replaced by Northerners. Lots of people were kicked out and being replaced by people who were not qualified. If you go the army, the air force, the same thing was there too because the Southerners occupied top positions. And it was the British who gave them those positions. We didn’t give it to ourselves! In protest, the Northerners created the quota system, which meant that 50% must come from the North, 25% from the West and 25% from the East. That injustice meant that many people were not picked or selected based on qualification or merit. After the first coup, General Aguiyi Ironsi, who happened to be from the South, tried to amend this system through Decree 34, so that you got promotion based on your qualification or merit. But the Northerners kicked against it, hence the coup that killed him. Then there was a counter-coup that overturned the whole system and everything became upside down. The merit system was lost. Nigeria collapsed because there was no education anymore. People buy their qualification and use malpractice to get their qualifications. This started in the North of Nigeria, before independence, when they were trying to catch up with the Southerners. If you were a teacher teaching in the North, if the Hausa children write your exams, you dare not fail them. You must pass them to move to the next level. So, for me, I think that the situation that would create grievance in the hearts of our people is still there. Most young people qualify with their degrees and they cannot get a job. How can you feel happy living in a country like that? I am not saying that we should break away because of that, but those things should be addressed.