Eating Lizards And Grass Kept Me Alive As A Soldier In Biafran Army – Iheme

Andee Iheme image via Punch

Dr Andee Iheme is the Director of Information, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi State, and a former head of the National Open University of Nigeria, Calabar Centre, Cross River State. He shared some of the remarkable experiences of his life with Armstrong Bakam
How would you describe your childhood?
I will consider myself very privileged in the sense that my father was among the first people who went to India from my community in Ebu, Owerri North Local Government of Imo State.

Ebu is very significant in many ways; one, after Onitsha, Ebu was the second place the Anglican Mission came. Ebu was the first place the Igbo translation of the Bible was done. My father was one of the first persons who went to England in 1958.

When he came back, he was transferred to the sea port at Port Harcourt, Rivers State. That was where I started my primary school education, I attended a township school. It was there I met quite a number of my old friends, some of whom are still alive today and still in Port Harcourt.

From there, we went to Lagos and the war started, so we came back to Port Harcourt. My father was later sent to Warri, Delta State, and it was over there that he was retired during the late General Sani Abacha-led regime. By then, he had reached the position of a port manager.

So, I am privileged to have come from my family as my father was a high ranking civil servant who was trained by the British. My mother was privileged to have been one of the first people in the area of hairdressing and cosmetology. She was concerned with how we dressed because she was a beautician who knew how to combine colours. In fact, my hair was used to test new creams by her.

So, my childhood was privileged. Our house was like a bus stop for every Owerri man who came to look for work. At a point in my father’s house, we were 21 even though my parents only had seven kids.

That has also become my experience in Bauchi where I am based. At a time in my house, we were 21, we had children who we didn’t know their parents who regarded us as their father and mother. It was wonderful because they came from different tribes.

You have lived in the North for over 40 years even though you are from the South, how would you describe that experience?

I had a sister who was working with the National Youth Service Corps. When I finished from university in 1978, she asked me if I was going to choose a place of my choice for my service year but I said I would leave it to fate. The way God works, when the posting in my university came out, the names of three of us were left out and the school complained. NYSC now posted us and after the orientation, I was dispatched to the Daily Times. I preferred to serve with the Daily Times but when I got there, they were not ready to give us accommodation, so three of us went to the police office at Obalende, Lagos. They wrote down Kano, Benin and Ibadan and we were asked to choose what we wanted because the police didn’t have professional PROs in those places, and they wanted us to go there and assist. I was the first person who had the list, so I chose Kano.

Kano was a very exciting environment; it was different from where I was coming from, even though I had visited the North before as a kid. Kano was an eye-opener; the dressing, food and orientation of the people were different. In fact, when I first saw primary school kids returning home from school in their white uniforms with shirts and caps, they looked like prisoners to me and somebody said no, that is their uniform.

I arrived in Kano on a Thursday and went to the market the next day to buy food items and I didn’t believe what I saw: people were moving en masse towards one direction and I said God, have I walked into a problem? But someone said it was Friday and that they were going to the mosque, so I relaxed.

The Hausa language was a bit of a problem, so I couldn’t communicate very well with people but I found Hausa people very nice. They loved me so much, they were extremely good. With this experience, I made up my mind to settle in the North.

Later, when we went for interview at the Nigerian Television Authority in Maiduguri, I was asked to choose between Bauchi and Yola to work as an editor in 1979, while I was still serving. I chose Maiduguri because I liked the trees but Bauchi needed me the most and I was transferred to Bauchi.

I had several job offers then, I had a job offer in Lagos and another in Enugu. I had about four job offers but I chose to stay in the North. A lot of people were a bit concerned because 1979 was just nine years after the civil war and there were still that feeling that the North was not too conducive for an Igbo man but I felt I should be there.

I moved to the North and had a great experience with the NTA. In fact, that was where I met my wife and so many wonderful people. We met immediately after her NYSC in 1979 and got married in 1982. Ever since then, I have been around and have no regrets.

The atmosphere in the North was conducive to bring up the children; the extraneous influences that could corrupt children were very few.

But one of the saddest moments of my life was the 1991 crisis. It shook me to my foundation and affected my Pan-Nigerian belief and disposition.

The second thing that really hit me hard was when I was going to be made the registrar of a university in 2008. I wept that period. We were 12 who were interviewed and I came out on top but when I got to the office the next day, people were still congratulating me; only for me to get a phone call that I should leave my office. The call came from the chairman of the security department. I asked why I should leave, but he hung up. Then I started hearing chants from the direction of the mosque. The man called me again and said ‘Andee, you must leave, it’s for your safety’.

So, I entered my car and left. The students and some staff members marched from the mosque to the Senate building to disrupt the Council meeting where the appointment was to be confirmed. They said they would rather die than see me be made registrar of the university because I am from the South and a Christian. So, on the basis of that, I was denied that position.

Being denied the position was not the issue for me; the problem was that I had spent many years living in the North. I moved there when I was 24 years old, the better part of my life has been spent there.

In 2005, when Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (now President) came to Bauchi, I was the first person to produce a complete booklet that captured the visit. There were activities till 10:00pm and by 9:00am the next morning, a complete booklet of the activities with photographs and analysis had been done. I did that; I slept at the printing press. I did all these things because I thought I had found a home in the North.

The petitions I later saw, which were written against me, were written by sheiks, Muslim corps members’ association; people that didn’t know me or have any personal relationship with. They hated me based on factors I had no control over. I didn’t choose be an Igbo man, I was born into Christianity. So, when these things happened, I withdrew into my shell and felt very bad, but time is a great healer.

Bauchi is the only place in the world where I have my property. My children have all gone out and during their leave, when they say they are coming home, it is Bauchi they mean. I love this place, it’s just that the current insecurity has made the North very unattractive but I still consider here as more secure than other parts of the country.

My first daughter is married to an Englishman. When they came to Nigeria some time ago, Bauchi was the only safe place where I thought I could host them, I couldn’t go elsewhere. That is how much I consider the place to be home.

Can you share some of your fondest childhood memories?

One was when my parents came back from England in 1948, I was about four years old then and still remember what happened.

Members of our community once made uniforms to welcome my parents from England. I also remember that they used rice as confetti; it was thrown at the car they were in. It was wonderful.

The second thing was when the war ended; I joined the Biafran Army at the age of 14. It was a horrible experience for me at that age. Look at the kids who are 14 years old now and imagine them carrying arms; I was a soldier at that age carrying arms. When the civil war ended and I came back home, my town was deserted. I saw a few dead bodies, there was nothing to eat. I managed to survive until people started coming in.

My father needed to go back to Lagos and we needed to go back to school but there was no money. Do you remember the policy of £20 to every Biafran, it affected us. I had a friend, Sergeant Adebowale, may God bless him wherever he is. I said your hair is looking very rough after all the fighting in the bush and all that, I could cut it for you. So, I gave him a very good haircut using a pair of scissors. I also cut his friend’s hair. I asked if I could start charging money and he said yes.

I started cutting hair and worked from 6:00am till there was no more person to attend to. When I returned home after the first day, I crashed on my mother’s bed. I was almost lifeless. My mother removed my trousers and saw plenty money, she was quite shocked. I later raised money to open a small shop to service the needs of soldiers in our community. My father was able to return to Lagos from the profit I made. He later got an appointment and sent us all to school.

Who among your parents was your favourite and why?
I didn’t have any. Both parents were excellent examples of what a married life should be. I have been copying them. My parents had a habit, which I have adopted. Every evening, when my mother had closed from her shop and my father was back home, they would sit together in the parlour and share a bottle of beer. My mother would put her legs in hot salt water to relax after standing for so long. When they retired and went back home, every evening, they sat in the balcony and had tea. They taught us to have siesta which I still do today. Even if I close from work at 6:00pm, I still sleep from 6:00pm to 7:00pm before going to the parlour.

They taught us to take tea with biscuits by 4:00pm. They were not particularly religious people but they were extremely moral such that my brother didn’t impregnate any lady and my only sister didn’t get pregnant as young girl. The rules in my father’s house were enormous. I have applied the same rules in my house and they are working.

So, my parents were an excellent example of marriage. My father lived up to 100 years and my mother, despite working from morning till night, served my father his food personally; she never joked with that. They were very hard-working and caring. They trained us well and we are all graduates. We were never driven away from school because they could not pay our school fees. My mother had more money than my father because of her business and she never withheld anything from him.

Were you a ladies’ man as a young man?

Well, both men and women liked me, especially because of my profession. I used to anchor a lot of programmes. There was no weekend I didn’t anchor a wedding in those days. I also anchored government functions. People admired me for being a television personality. I was available to everybody who wanted me. I won’t say I was a ladies’ person, I was a people’s person.

What were some of your hobbies while growing up?

I played a lot of table tennis, of course. Being a kid in Lagos, you were bound to play that a lot because it was the most popular sport for children at the time.

We read a lot of comics, James Hadley Chase and Nick Carter. These helped to improve our language. I watched a lot of films. My father was privileged; we were the first to buy television on our street in Lagos in the 1960s. People around our house used to come to watch TV in our house. We watched a lot of cartoons as kids. We also belonged to a book club; where we read and shared ideas a lot. These are things that don’t happen now. I loved to participate in debates; I represented my school in a lot of debates.

What are some of the toughest moments you have faced in life?
The civil war is the first. As a 14-year-old, I was a soldier in the Biafran Army. It was tough, some of my colleagues were killed in action while others were maimed. We ate lizards, vultures, and grasses to survive at the time. I drank water from rainwater collected on the ground. I would not bathe for four days.

The second was during the period the date for school certification examination was moved from November to June; that was in 1973. Six months were cut off from our curriculum. The war had just ended, we didn’t have teachers, we were just on our own and that accounted for the weak foundation I had in Mathematics.

After we took the West African Examination Council examination in 1973, all the exams taken in Eastern Nigeria were cancelled, so we had to retake the examination in 1974. That was another sad period. Many people decided not to go back to school anymore.

Then, another sad one was the riot of 1991 in Bauchi State and then the 2008 issue concerning how I couldn’t become the registrar of the university.

Do you have any regrets in life?

Yes, I do. My parents didn’t enjoy me the way I would have loved them to because they gave us everything. I would have loved them to live longer than they did too enjoy us a bit.

My only sister is bedridden now and I wish I had the money to send her abroad for good quality treatment. She retired as a director in civil service in Imo. She fell as a young girl and it didn’t manifest until her old age. My brothers and I wanted to send her to India but she was afraid because the patient whose bed was next to hers went to India for treatment and didn’t survive. I wish I had good money to send her to a place like the United States for good medical attention.

You are an Igbo man married to a Yoruba woman, how has that experience been so far?
I worked with the NTA and left under circumstances that were not really very good because I didn’t leave as a happy person. I resigned and left in anger even though I had no other job at the time.

When I got a job with the Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi, we were watching TV one day with a lot of young men in our guest house, and then, we saw a lady reading the news. She was stunningly beautiful. None of us were married then.

The next day, we all went in search of the lady and came back to explain our findings. I was later able to find her and discover that her name was Moji. On the day she visited me at the place we lived, it was a big deal.

She was different from other girls in many ways. She would not spend the night in my house or enter my room whenever she visited. If I suggested that we eat outside, she’d say no and insist on cooking the food herself because it was cheaper. I found out she was different from all the girls I been meeting.

I informed her sister that I wanted to marry her (Moji). We became friends and started discussing professionally. My parents had gotten tired of me staying in the North at the time and so sent someone with a car to bring me back home.

But when the man came and we went out that evening with Moji and he interacted with her, the man didn’t tell me his mission, he went back and told my mother that he had seen the reason why I would never come back. They asked him and he told them that I had found a girl.

So, my parents said I should bring her home. In 1981, Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi were among the federal institutions that gave car loans. I bought a brand new Peugeot 504 and as a young man, we were among the first in our generation of civil servants that bought brand new cars.

When I was taking Moji to my parents, I also had a brand new car. An Anglican priest once wondered how I was marrying a Yoruba woman was going to work. But today, we thank God that we have been married for 37 years and still counting.

What sort of challenges did you encounter during your courtship?
There were challenges especially due to the fact that we were coming from different cultures. She’s a northerner who grew up and schooled in Jos; she had her first degree in Zaria. When I took her to the East, it was the first time she would be there. There was bound to be culture shock. The foods I was brought up with are different. I don’t eat pounded yam, I don’t take tea, I don’t take semolina, and I only eat eba. She doesn’t eat eba, she eats pounded yam.

Then of course, her circle of friends, they were shocked when she told them that she was marrying an Igbo man. Those who arrived a day before our wedding came to look at me and started laughing. I asked them what was funny, one of them was bold enough to tell me that they expected to see one Igbo boy with a wrapper and singlet, they were rather disappointed.

Then, there was the question of in-laws; I had to learn to prostrate before them to show respect. If you don’t do that, you’re considered not to be a good son-in-law. She also had to learn how to deal with my Igbo parents because a lot of Igbo men are attached to their mothers who seem to have a lot of influence on them.

But thank God for my parents, they were quite enlightened.

Can your relive what your wedding day was like?

My roommate, Ike Obijofor, was my best man. He’s an engineer. I gave him my ring and told him to put it in his pocket, so that anytime the priest asked for it, he would give it to him. I told him, now that I am marrying before you, I know you are very envious of me, so don’t misplace it. We were just joking.

Do you know that while in church when the priest asked for the ring, I turned and asked my friend for it but he had misplaced it. Luckily, my younger brother, who was driving the car was the one who saw it in the back seat and quickly brought it to church.

Something also happened when they were setting up the cake at Bauchi Club. We had had Bachelor’s night on Friday before the wedding and all my friends had been drunk. I wasn’t into too much drinking, but they poured a lot of beer on me. The reception was to start at about 1:00pm after the church service but after we came back from church, something told me to go and check the hall. When I got to there, it was empty, all the people who were supposed to do everything, were still sleeping.

So, I started arranging the chairs and then some of them began to walk into the hall one after the other. They came and started fixing the cake, which was brought from Kaduna. While they were setting up the cake with the fountain, the thing collapsed. I looked at the cake and saw that everything was intact, so I told them I didn’t want the water fountain again. I told them to just put the cake on the table. It was a big scare but everything went well at the end.

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