The Biafran War Veterans
Two years ago, the Nigerian government guaranteed to reimburse veterans of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. On the side of Biafra, the ex-war experienced persons pleaded with the Federal Government on 14th May, 2012, to honour the assurance of the N1.5 billion it said was going to be given to them.
It was in the month of May, 1967 that the Eastern House of Parliament, known as Eastern Nigeria, mandated then Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu to declare Biafra. Thereafter, Nigeria started a war against Biafra in 1967, which came to an end in 1970. Forty two years after, with the Biafran leader, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, dying on 26th November, 2011, at a London hospital, the ex-Biafran war veterans have seen the bad side of life with many of them residing in pains occasioned by abject poverty, sicknesses and wounds sustained during the war, which lasted for a period of thirty months.
The Nigerian government gave Ojukwu a glowing burial signaling that the Nigeria-Biafra cold war, which was still lingering, has come to an abrupt end. But with the Commander of the Biafran War Veterans, Ogbaru Division, Col. Bernard Ndu (retd), appealing to the wife of the late Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Bianca, to assist them with the release of the voted funds, shows that there are more that meet the eyes than the befitting burial accorded Ojukwu in his ancestral home town of Nnewi.
The plea was coming after Bianca, others were to commission Biafran war veterans' home on July 9, this year, in Okwe, Imo State. The leader of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), Chief Ralph Uwazuruike said that the multi-million naira house was built to provide somewhere-to-stay for the Biafran living war victims, who dearly need rehabilitation. The building consists of 20 flats for over 120 inmates.
In the words of Uwazuruike: “The aim of the project is to serve as a formidable abode for our heroes who unfortunately found themselves in this predicament in the spirit of undying Ndigbo. We built the home for them to rehabilitate and take care of their health. We also pay them salaries every month, so all these and more are being done to chart a new course for Ndigbo and for Igbo integration.”
Ndigbo are majority of the Biafrans in Nigeria and they have been called upon by certain individuals and groups to maintain that every Igbo restores the values and identity of Ndigbo. The moguls among them have been advised to invest in any part of ala-Igbo. New consciousness among Ndigbo for economic integration has been the bedrock that was also addressed that would take Ndigbo to the acme of their aspiration in the Nigerian state.
A notable Igbo son, who is a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Dr. Andy Uba, reportedly in January 2010, donated the sum of Two million naira to the Biafran war veterans. Dr. Uba donated the money during an impromptu visit to the camp of the wounded Biafran soldiers. He was then the gubernatorial candidate of the Labour Party (LP) in the February 6 governorship election in Anambra State. He did not only donate the said amount, but he dinned and wined with the war veterans. He also donated domestic item. This was to make sure that they were comfortable.
The Biafran war veterans are very kind and respectful and appreciative. They thank the source of any donation made to them. Mr. Collins Akpo, who's President of the war veterans as at the time Uba visited them, thanked Uba for his kind gesture. The veterans would pray for any person who came to their rescue that would impact positively on their lives. The money that Uba gave to them was believed would go a long way to settle some of their critical needs, while they had piled-up needs begging to be settled.
While many observers thought that the sojourn of Uba was politically motivated because he was contesting for the Anambra gubernatorial elections, many said that it was not. Mr. Ebere Ezechukwu was a member of Anambra State House of Assembly, representing Aguata Constituency, who made possible the visit. He said that Uba's benevolence act was to make obvious humility and understanding that Uba was a friend to the less privileged in the society. Over 24 of the veterans were studying under Uba's scholarship at various universities in the country. 18 of them received wheelchairs from Uba and many were empowered with small scale businesses.
Oji River was the home of the Biafran veterans along the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway. They have lived at the location since July 11, 1975. They took here as an abode after they were forcefully chased out from GTC (now IMT Enugu), where they lived in a dormitory alongside with leprosy victims. This was done by the then Mazi Ukpabi Asika-led government. This makes the Civil War to always take the centre stage in the Nigerian discourse, because it affected the Igbo most and changed their development enduringly.
While many Igbo sons and daughters have owned business empires since after the war, it's very surprising how even the successive state governments in the five South-East states have left these veterans to their fate to becoming roadside beggars. These are elders not less than 65years of age. Many of them were not married before the outbreak of the war, so they have no wives and children to repose on that would take care of them after the war. Many are crippled from the waist down, suffering effects of the numerous bullet wounds they incurred during the war. Some who had wives and children are no longer the breadwinners of their household, so they resorted to stay at Oji River.
As the Biafran war veterans' arrived to Oji River after the war, they were promised of being relocated to the Emperor Haile Selasie Orthopedic Center. As a group, the Biafran War Veterans special visit to many of the Ndigbo and governors have never recorded any success as these people they visited didn't take them seriously. Those they visited for help didn't realize that these veterans sustained the bullet injuries at many sectors defending Biafrans. Some of them were traders and farmers and scholars living in different parts of the country before the outbreak of the war. Some of them voluntarily joined the Biafran Army, unlike some who were coerced, after having witnessed the lifeless bodies of Ndigbo being conveyed in Lorries to the Biafran Republic killed by the Hausas and Fulanis in the Northern part of the country in the 1966 pogrom.
Except for MASSOB which came to the fore after 40 years the Nigerian-Biafran War theoretically ended, speaking or discussing about Biafra on the media or anywhere in Nigeria was regarded as a taboo by the Nigerian Government and anybody or group found in such discussion stood risking a jail term. This was the fate of Uwazuruike. He was arrested many times and was molested many times by the Nigerian Government and was many times released on strict conditions. Seeing how the ex-Biafran war veterans were languishing at the Oji River camp in Enugu State, MASSOB started to rehabilitate them, even though that many believe that Uwazuruike has sold out.
At the hometown of Uwazuruike – Okwe, Onuimo Local Government Area (LGA), Imo State, MASSOB at its inception built 20 units of two-bedroom flats in an over 5,000 acres of land, which is directly opposite the Freedom House (Biafra House) in Okwe. On January 14, this year, the movement from Oji River to Okwe started and the ex-Biafran soldiers were highly enlivened. The lands for this edifice was not donated, MASSOB bought them and properly compensated the owners. But why three families chose to go to court over this was yet to be known.
The efforts of MASSOB to rehabilitate the Biafran war veterans were not unnoticed. The Millennium Merchants and Importers Association (MMIA) pledged their unflinching support for the group in its ongoing struggle to actualise its much desired Biafran Republic. MMIA was a cross-section of traders in Onitsha, Anambra State. MMIA also donated unspecified amount of money to the veterans, during a visit to the Biafran war disabled veterans' camp at Okwe, the headquarters of MASSOB.
The Anambra State Governor, Peter Obi, at a requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Ojukwu, at Holy Ghost Catholic Cathedral Arena, Enugu, on 29thFebruary, 2012, gave unspecified money donations to the veterans. Monsignor Obiora Ike was the officiating priest who announced the donation on behalf of the governor. Obi assured the veterans that each of them would go home with a handsome amount. Other donation of vests and caps with Ojukwu's name and picture was donated to the war veterans. The veterans however re-enacted their war memories with pumps at the event. Pro-Biafran countries such as Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Zambia were also at Enugu on Wednesday for Thursday 1st March funeral activities and Friday's interment programme for the late Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who was chiefly called Ikemba Nnewi.
Rendition of gospel hymns and Biafra war songs by the veterans followed Obi's donation. The Administrator of the Holy Ghost Catholic Cathedral, Rev. John Nwafor, in his sermon, hinged his point on the need for “unity in diversity”. He said: "Unless Nigeria embraced true federalism with a weak centre, which Ojukwu proposed many years ago, the country would know no peace.” Many Nigerians who attended the mass said that they wanted Nigeria to remain one.
The promises as expressed show that there is an end to every problem, as it were recalled that on August 5, 2009, the Biafran war veterans were wailing that they fought for nothing. They were dying in their numbers and were buried at the Oji River and had no one to remember them or even ask of their welfare. They were retrieving their battered fates. They were living in a three long bungalow buildings which had no fence and gate, a metaphor that suggested that the Civil War was not yet over. They were living among reptiles and dangerous animals. Their residence at Oji River was a symbol of a haven with un-mowed grasses with dreadful long logs of fallen trees. They converted one of the three buildings used to be a kitchen to a mini craft industry. The factory was rather dead than being functional. A group called World Igbo Congress visited Oji Rivers in the year 2000, and there was a promise to establish a small factory for the veterans to keep them busy. The major point of doing so was to generate revenue for them. But regrettably, a businessman brought in some outdated machines and disappeared ever since, which made the factory to be dormant.
The ex-Biafran war veterans were living inside rooms, which ceilings were decrepit and were ornamented by shadowy cobwebs. The zincs were leaking. The veterans used basin to collect the rains so that they do not flood their rooms. The toilet and bathroom they were using in the camp were unmentionable and indescribable. They were hoping in that year that they were relocated to have a new lease of life, and they have gotten it.
Many admirers of these ex-Biafran War Veterans are hoping that they are paid the N1.5 billion the Federal Government said it was going to give to them, so that the spirit of the late Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu it gave a lustrous burial on March 2 this year would Rest In Perfect Peace, while they continue to watch MASSOB on its expedition to attain a Biafran Republic.
Odimegwu Onwumere, Poet/Author and Media Consultant, writes from Rivers State. (+2348032552855). Email: [email protected]