Col. Conrad Nwawo: Another Piece Of History Dies (part One)

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I got to Col. Conrad Nwawo (he was Brigadier-General in the Biafran Army) very late; just for about the last four or five years of his 94 years long journey on this God's earth. I wish I had started visiting him much, much earlier. 6 pm Saturday February 27, 2016, the Ochi Aya (War Commander) had closed his eyes for the last time in his Onicha-Olona hometown. He was a Brigadier-General who tormented the Federal troops and even late in his life, remembered his exploits with a smile: “Sometimes, when I go through the (Niger) bridge now, and on the left, I remember things when I see the river. I also remember Abagana and the incidents leading to it and all of that. I remember Achuzia and Madiebo when we deployed at Abagana”. He headed the dreaded Biafran Strike Force Command. He remised: “The courage was because I was the Commander and a Commander is a courageous man anytime. I had a strike force at Umuahia and we were caught off. Then, we got there and bulldozed with my group across the Federal forces. When we had succeeded in clearing them, and we were coming back across a river, I told my men that I would not step into the river or walk across it.

I told them to lift me over and above the river which they did, of course. The idea was that I wanted to see the picture of that particular portion so about 10 men had to carry me over the river. That was an incident that has remained memorable. It was an experience for about two days in the bush with the Federal forces before we cleared them”.

By the time I knocked on his door, at his Onicha-Olona, Aniocha LGA, Delta State, the man had been wracked by illness and ill-fortune. Time had treated him badly, terribly really. Then a journalist had also come in and misrepresented him. The lady journalist, as Nwawo told me, introduced herself as the daughter of so and so, a primary school teacher who had worked in Onicha-Olona. Nwawo remembered the name and so welcomed her. In the course of their discussion, Nwawo mentioned the fact that he went to Kaduna to bring the late Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeowgu to Lagos, after the January 1966 coup d' etat.

The paper blazoned it on the front page that Nwawo recounted how he “lured” Nzeowgo to Lagos. He hated that word, “lured”. So unknown to me that he was still smarting from a wrong rendition of his words in a newspaper, by a lady who never introduced herself as a journalist, and who never told him that she was conducting an interview, I walked into his house and after the formalities introduced myself as a journalist. The man simply clammed up.

I refused to push him. I talked about every other thing under the earth except the civil war and the very reason that brought me to his home; why he was the one the military chose to go and talk Nzeogwu into handing over the Northern Region to the late Gen. Johnson Umunnakwe Agwuiyi-Ironi's command, instead of marching down on Lagos as he had threatened, and because of which somebody like the late Major Wale Ademoyega, who wrote “Why We Struck” to explain the motives of the Majors that pulled off that first coup, had travelled to Kaduna.

It was during my subsequent visits, and always with Mr. Tony Ayaegbunam who was a Legislative Aide to Hon. Ndudi Elumelu then, who also comes from Onicha-Olona, that Nwawo began to trust me and began to really open up. He said he was Nzeogwu's mentor, who actually inspired the man into the Army. He mentioned the two books he gave to a young Nzeogwu that helped shaped his patriotic Nigerian, Africanist and Pan-African worldview. Sorry I have forgotten the books as I was taken notes so as not to alarm the man, who for a while accused me of being a spy.

Yes, he was in London as Military Attaché to the Nigerian High Commission when the Five Majors struck. There was a stalemate as Aguiyi –Ironsi controlled Southern Nigeria from Lagos and Nzeogwu controlled Northern Region from Kaduna. So the military High Command sent for Nwawo as the man that could make Nzeowgu have a re-think. He told me he did not lure Nzeowgu to Lagos, but brought him for a negotiation.

Why did he undertake that role?
His reply: “I didn't want that brave and intelligent and highly patriotic young man to be wasted. I just had to intervene”.

I stopped there and reflected a bit on what he had just said? What if his intervention, especially the agreement he could have reached with Aguiyi-Ironsi, to get Nzeowgu not to march down on Lagos, but to agree to a discussion that would place the entire country under the Military High Command, made Aguiyi-Ironsi not to be in a hurry to try those Majors? Even the Military Governor Nzeogwu had appointed for the Northern Region, was retained by Aguiyi-Ironsi. And the misunderstanding of why Nzeowgu and coy were not tried and punished severely was one major reason why the counter-coup and the civil war occurred.

Did he know of the January 1966 coup beforehand?
Nwawo's answer: “Amahadam, amanam. Ogwanam at all”. (That was Igbo for I did not know. He never told me at all). A vigourous shake of his head followed the answer. A full minute later, he was still shaking his head, as though those events of 1966 had just taken place in 2011 or 2012 when we had that discussion. It was obvious he still felt the pain of the outcome of those unfortunate events.

One day I ventured to ask him if he had any regrets for fighting on the Biafran side. He looked me straight in the eyes and intoned: I have no regrets whatsoever. “Oge ozo, wa cho ilutinye nmadu aka na anya, wa ge elo iolo shinne”, (Igbo for when next they want to poke their fingers into some other peoples' eyes, they will have to really ruminate over it). I didn't have to ask who they referred to.

I failed on one great point; the moment Nwawo told me that he had written but not published his memoirs on the civil war; I stopped asking questions and started asking for that manuscript so that it could be published.

Written by Tony Eluemunor.

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