A former Biafran teenage soldier, has spoken out about his experiences during the civil war that tore Nigeria apart.
Chief Jasper Okoro
Forty-Eight years after the Nigeria-Biafra war ended, Chief Jasper Okoro, a veteran journalist, who was one of the youngest soldiers on the Biafra side has narrated his experiences, describing the war as that of resistance, vengeance and self-survival.
Biafra has continued to reecho; 48 years after; what does Biafra mean to you?
Taking a reflection of the hostilities that bedeviled the Nigerian state and the eventual emergence of Biafra in the later ‘60s, I remember with considerable thought Biafra as a country that was a home theatre of horror where scores of thousands of even civilian casualties were recorded. Biafra is a country that was. Biafra, named after the Bight at the shores of the Atlantic, in my mind, is one of the greatest nations in black Africa that was destined to be, but unfortunately could only survive for 30 months. Biafra resurrected indigenous scientists, inventors of sorts, military marshals and tacticians. Remarkably, the war of Nigeria-Biafra was a pitiable spectacle. The Ojukwu’s Biafran slogan was “To preserve Biafra, to maintain the freedom of the Midwest, and to liberate the West, a task that must be accomplished”. This was against Nigeria’s Gowon chant of “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done.” So, Biafra was a people fighting for self-survival and against annihilation at that time.
Do you still believe in the cause?
The Biafran cause is varied. As a cause against oppressive forces, yes; as a cause for equity, yes; but as a country in a country no. I say vehemently no because all through history, it is impossible for a country to claim sovereignty while it is within the full government of another. To me, those agitating in the name of MASSOB or IPOB should rather transform to Movement for the Actualization of a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction and proper restructuring of the country, to the advantage of the Igbo. Most of the principal actors of the two movements never knew about the Biafran war – even the events that led to it, how it was executed and how it ended. Those of us who participated as young officers of the Biafran Army would have a clearer belief of the Biafran cause. So, all these things we hear from young people today, to me, are mere noise. You can’t actualize Biafra by shouting; worshipping one man and closing down businesses in the name of sit-at-home for Biafra. I agree that Biafra is like a religion, but not the kind of agitation we’re seeing these days.
How were you enlisted into the army in view of your tender age?
It was indeed to me adventurous. I saw the Biafra-Nigeria war as a war of resistance, vengeance and self-survival and so I voluntarily opted to make that patriotic and heroic sacrifice by joining the army. In Biafra, the underaged were also recruited into the military service although my own case was, so to say, special; special in the sense that at the breakout of hostilities in the North in 1967; those of us in the secondary schools were ordered to go home and the educational institutions were shut. Then, I was at the St. Enda’s Secondary School, Inyimagu; now Iboko Boys in present day Ebonyi State. Back home at Afikpo, I joined trainees at Government College Afikpo where a certain expatriate groomed us in military tactics of sorts. At that time the war had broken out. Later, I joined the Special Home Brigade trained by Captain Dominic Nwobodo who later was the Green Eagles captain in the late 70s. This special brigade prepared us as Guerilla frontiers, but was not regarded as the regular military force. The day Afikpo town fell to the federal troops, I was far away at Apiapum in the Cross River area when I was detailed to accompany six wounded troops to Mater Misericordiae Hospital since I knew the place well. On reaching the Amasiri-Afikpo junction, one Brigadier Amadi ordered our vehicle to head to Nguzu-Edda where the Biafran Red Cross Society and the makeshift military aid station were relocated.
From information, my home, Afikpo was deserted and the town burnt-down. I decided to go on hunt of my parents, brothers and sisters so as to join them. My search took me to a refugee camp located at the St. Joseph’s Primary School, Uzoagba in Ikeduru, Owerri Division. In the camp, I was appointed to assist the camp warden, Mr Okere who worked with other Red Cross officials. Following an unruly behaviour of a certain soldier on pass to his village, the community elders, in concert with the camp warden, wrote a petition to that effect and I was sent to submit the petition to the nearest military base which was at Atta, Ikeduru. With an official bicycle of the camp, I proceeded to Atta, asking questions about the location, as I went along, until I finally located the Battalion Training Depot. Coincidentally, the Regimental Sergeant Major who I was directed to report the case to happened to be a paternal relative of mine, RSM Unya. In a tease, a Commissioned Officer whom I later identified as Lt. Oparaji was in his company and he asked if I could handle a weapon and I said yes and went further to prove that
I had had such training. Lt. Oparaji was so moved by such courage and patriotic zeal of mine, and after certain tests he assigned me to accompany him on the conversion of militias to the Regular Forces at the St. John Bosco’s Secondary School, Ishiagu in Afikpo Division. It was there I got officially enlisted and an authentic Biafran number assigned to me. Eventually, I undertook training at the 10 Battalion Training Depot, Atta.
How were you able to cope?
Although the training was hectic, I coped. However, I and some few teenagers of my cadre, were exempted from certain strenuous drills and obstacle tests and rope climbing, but we participated in road walk, weapons handling, etc. On two occasions, when international observers visited our training depot, those of us who were underaged were quickly dispatched to a remote hamlet where a certain spring was located. After our infantry training, those of us who were in the secondary school and who studied sciences were tested and a dozen of us that passed, out of the 58 number, including one of my kinsmen, Augustine Alu were sent to join other colleagues to train as army male nurses with the XXIV Medical Battalion at the Seventh Day Adventist School premises in Ihie, Mbawsi, Ngwa Division. We undertook a three-month crash programme in materia medica, elementary medicine and surgery, military hygiene, physiotherapy, etc. When Aba was threatened, we relocated to St. James’ Umudi and it was there we passed out successfully, although only a quarter of those initially registered scaled through. So, I not only coped with the training but I performed marvelously well.
What handicap did you have and were you able to contend them?
Our handicap and constraints were in the area of not having enough weapons; arms and ammunition. The federal troops had sophisticated machine guns both shot-range and long-range, bombers, fighters, buffers, ferrets of sorts and tankers, while we made do and challenged them with few arms including self-manufactured Ojukwu Bucket explosives, and weapons captured from them. One remarkable thing among the Biafran soldiers was the unity of purpose, the zeal and courage with which we fought. The war songs (too numerous), acted as mobilizing force that tended to push the troops to battle, thus making them forget some of the handicaps. Our indigenous scientists and inventors helped to manufacture various weapons while drugs were also provided for our troops. We were also able to capture lots of weapons, wears, consumables, food and drugs, which were ascertained safe before we used them. Also, we regularly had encouraging briefs from His Excellency’s Special Advisers like Akanu Ibiam, Michael Okpara and Dick Ihetu Tiger; the renowned boxer, to name a few.
Where was your last place of operation before the war ended?
I was at the Port Harcourt war zone; to be specific; our troops were deployed at the Apan Oke Ohia and Egbu-Etchei axis.
Although special attention and exclusive concentration was placed on the Port Harcourt sector because of the oil locations; we had constraints of adequate weaponry, which most times placed our troops more on defensive strategy against the enemy’s strong attacking pressure. For one who clearly knows the geographical locations well, it was an irony and unbelievable that we were right at Egbu Etche only to hear that Obasanjo’s 3rd Marine Commandos had captured Owerri. Select units of the Biafran Tigers, Dragons, and Scorpions of the Vengeance Brigade were drafted to the area. Eventually, we succeeded in regaining the town. However, our troops adopted a defensive strategy to create a corridor via Umuguma through which the former Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle’s Mariners, then under Col Obasanjo’s command made a night passage and escape, after which our troops re-engulfed Owerri. After their escape we made a lot of gains in terms of recovering items, which they abandoned. It was an amazing story of what we saw in Owerri sector, especially at the Control Post where, at the Assumpta Catholic Cathedral, our soldiers mounted the Biafran flag amidst jubilation. But not too long, Owerri was recaptured by the Nigerian troops under Obasanjo’s command, we got the signal of the end of the war.
How did you get the news?
One of my brigade officers, Captain Eni Oko and I were coming back from the Egbu Etche to Brigade headquarters, Obinze, right in the jungle the following day, we listened to the low tune of our transistor radio: “A Special Broadcast by the Head of State, Commander-in-Chief of the Republic of Biafra. The broadcast was preceded by the Biafran National Anthem with the ‘Be Still My Soul’ tune and after tracing some vital elements of the Biafran story, it ended up with; “We are now Nigerian citizens… and the Republic of Biafra ceases to exist”. The broadcast was continuously repeated and the voice of the presenter real. It was that of Major-Gen. Philip Effiong, the Chief-of-Staff, Supreme Headquarters of the Biafran Army and second-in-command to His Excellency, General Chukwuemeka Odu egwu Ojukwu. We wandered in the thick bush and in the morning hours, found ourselves at Oguta after crossing a canoe. It was at Mgbidi that we confronted federal troops who ordered us to be disarmed, clothed at a nearby Okirika shop and directed to where to feed before we traced our way back to Afikpo, our home town. From Oguta to Mgbidi we met a team of our kinsmen from the same war location and we aimed at returning as a team. Among them were Capt Ike Igbo, Lt. Ewa and Lt. Igu. But conflict resulting to assault meted on us by some of the federal soldiers made Captain Eni Oko and I decide not to enter any of the vehicles the Nigerian soldiers provided for us and we trekked from Mgbidi to Afikpo. It was, indeed, a long journey; which took us four days.
Being a journalist, have you thought of putting together your Biafran experience in book form?
Many, including the principal actors of the episode have laid in book publications, the events of Biafra. But the story is inexhaustible. I was scripting events as they occurred in my locations in pockets of diaries, but unfortunately, both the compilation and my cherished Parker pen were confiscated and destroyed when they disarmed us near Oguta Lake as we were heading home. If they knew or saw the contents, perhaps they could have preserved those memorable diaries. At that time, I was merely a High School student and 17 years old. Ironically, I never knew I would be a journalist.