I was about nine years old in May 1967 when Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu pronounced what is today known as the South-east together with a good chunk of the present South-south of Nigeria as the Independent Republic of Biafra. Those were heady days.
While Nigerians considered Ojukwu just a Lieutenant Colonel in the Nigerian Army, to us, he was the General of the People’s Army, a deity of some sort who did no wrong. Ojukwu was all-knowing. After all, he had been to Oxford, one of the best universities in the world.
His father was the great Louis Phillip Odumegwu Ojukwu, the richest Igbo man in the world with massive property across Nigeria. He was also one of the most senior Igbo military officers; who argues with a man with such education, money and military might?
Despite all the grammar spoken in different cities across Africa to stop a dangerously fast-moving train, less than two months later, the civil war began and the big guns began to boom everywhere and the riffles began to rattle.
I was in primary school but it all ended very fast. There was no longer any school. The primary school in Ogada Atta, my village, was converted to the headquarters of RAP (Research and Production) which manufactured the locally made bombs known as Ogbunigwe (killer of multitudes) and the Biafran ‘Sure Battery’.
My brothers and sisters in Nollywood have shot some movies trying to recreate the dire situation in Biafra. I can tell you that none of them has in any way truly captured the incredible suffering, deprivation and anguish that I witnessed under the relentless bombardment, air raid and economic blockade.
Please try eating without salt for one month and tell me what it tastes like. In Biafra, there was no salt, no sugar, no bread, no soft drink, no beer, no drugs and no food for much of the 30 months the war lasted.
The only thing that looked like food to more than 80 per cent of the population was the three spoons of cornmeal that looked like ‘poo-poo’ put in your plastic plate twice a week at a ‘Feeding Center’ after you had stayed on the line in the sun for hours.
Of course, some people collapsed and died on the line while waiting for the ‘Food’ that no sane person will recommend for his dog. The dead were simply taken off the line and buried in shallow and unmarked graves and the struggle with death continued.
If death did not come by way of starvation or disease, it came through the bullets of a Russian made Mig fighter jet endlessly flying above and terrorising innocent people who had no hand in any coup or insurrection.
If you fell ill in Biafra, you died, pure and simple. There were no drugs to deal with anything. Unfortunately, there were many reasons to fall sick. As the war went on and Biafra lost a lot of territories, many people fled to strange places living under very unsanitary conditions with no food and no drug and no work.
Strange leaves were attacked for food. Rats, rabbits, lizards and snakes were chased after with frenzy in search of badly needed protein. The picture of the average Biafran child was that of a big head, big tummy, tiny neck, very tiny limbs, sunken eyes and pale colour – kwashiorkor.
In the midst of that, there were Biafrans who made a ‘killing’ hijacking and selling relief materials sent by charity organisations like Red Cross and Caritas to soften the blow. Of course, the must-have companion in Biafra was a short-wave radio to listen to Radio Biafra and BBC.
There was no electricity and no new batteries. All kinds of imaginative ways had to be developed to make batteries last forever in Biafra. Radio Biafra (the original one, not the IPOB one) must have been the first real ‘mobile’ in history. It kept telling you that it was broadcasting from Enugu despite the fact that everyone knew that the station was constantly on the move since Enugu had long been lost to Nigerians.
The propaganda was infectious and there was no one better at it than the great Okoko Ndem. On Radio Biafra, everything Biafra was good and everything Nigeria was evil and the ‘gallant’ Biafran soldiers with their bare hands were slaughtering the ‘Vandals’ despite the sophisticated equipment supplied to the ‘Vandals’ by the ‘neo-colonialist’ Britain.
At 10, I had memorised and imbibed the Biafran National Anthem, “Land of the rising sun, we love and cherish; Beloved home, land of our brave heroes; We must defend our lives or we shall perish; We shall protect our hearts from all our foes; But if the price is death for all we hold dear, Then let us die without a shred of fear”.
There was no doubt in my mind that our cause was right and our method unquestionable. I did not see how we could lose the war. I sought to join the Biafran Boys Company, the youth arm of the military that undertook surveillance work behind enemy lines. I was devastated when I was rejected. I was told I was too young.
And then came January of 1970 and my village was overrun and one week later, the war was over. The General of the Peoples’ Army had flown out ‘in search of peace’. Incredibly, we lost. It did not make sense to me.
When the Ikemba returned to Nigeria under the NPN inspired amnesty, ran for a senatorial election in Anambra and lost, things became a little clearer to me. Eventually, I met my hero, the General of the Peoples’ Army in his Queens Drive Home in Lagos and we established a relationship that I treasured.
He was my guest at a number of events. Anytime I had the opportunity, we discussed this and that. While we agreed on a lot, we also disagreed on a lot. It became clear to me that as incredibly charismatic as Eze Ndigbo, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, was, he was not divinity but a man subject to emotions and mistakes.
I have asked myself since then whether the Biafran adventure could have been undertaken in a different way. As I see the anger and frustration of the moment and listen to the arguments back and forth, I ask myself whether we are prepared to make the same huge mistake twice in a generation.
Just look at Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, ISIS, Boko Haram and all the movements that the world is battling with and you see how easy it is these days to start an unquenchable fire with a ‘Radio Biafra’ or ‘WhatsApp’ platform with thousands of unemployed, hungry and desperate young people with little hope. This is the real challenge of our times.
Please, if I am not seen carrying a placard and flexing my muscles everywhere for a Sovereign State of Biafra, I beg that you understand. I am not a coward. I remain a very proud Igbo man committed to a great future for the Igbo but I have already seen Biafra, lived Biafra and been bathed in Biafra and it is not funny.
Tony Okoroji is a Nigerian musician, author, intellectual property activist and former President of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN) who writes from Lagos.