Bishop Obi Onubogu
Bishop Obi Onubogu was the aide-de-camp to the late leader of the breakaway Republic of Biafra, General Chukwuemeka Ojukwu. Fifty years after Biafra War ended, Onubogu, a former police officer who is currently the General Overseer of Rock Family Church, Nigeria, tells RAPHAEL EDE some of the things that happened in the last days of the civil war.
As one of those who witnessed the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, which ended in January 1970, how would you describe it?
I was a police officer and not a military man. I was sent to some special schools in England for training. I met the crisis in 1966 when I returned. I was with the police mobile force and was second-in-command in my unit. We were drafted to quell the riot in the West and my unit was posted to Obalende, Lagos. Soon after that, things fell apart. The Republic of Biafra was declared. I was serving at Central Police Station, Port Harcourt as a Station Officer when I was transferred to Biafran Government House. My involvement started from there as a police officer, but before the conflict, the authority saw the need to upgrade the training of the police force. We were given a crash course in handling the events that the authority suspected were about to happen. At the Biafran Government House, I was more or less a security officer and I did the job of aide-de-camp from time to time.
What was your personal experience during the war?
I was simply assigned to Biafra as the personal security detail for the Biafran Head of State. I worked with other officers from the army, air force, police and navy. Basically, all the arms of Biafran Forces were involved and so, I was there as a police officer in charge of security, along with some other people.
So, my personal experience simply has to do with securing the Head of State – we would go out in the morning and return late in the night. We also travelled with him. Whenever we went to inspect the military establishment or war zone, I sat in front of his car and gave instructions to the driver and so on. We also experienced air raids and helped to calm people down after such air raids. On such occasions, we went to inspect the extent of damage caused by the raids. We were also involved in bringing relief to those who had been displaced. We received guests at the Biafran Government House and conducted security checks.
Do you think the war was necessary or should have been avoided?
The war came as a result of many factors, and it depends on the angle from which you look at it. Igbo people said they were being brutally killed in the North. I remember I was in Enugu then, and I saw trainloads of wounded and dead people being brought into town. That touched many people and don’t forget that before then, there was a coup and there had been several allegations that Ndigbo were behind the coup. In short, it was tagged as ‘Igbo Coup’. There were northern leaders who were killed and some leaders in the South were spared; that obviously brought anger. Efforts were made to settle it but it didn’t work.
You worked closely with Ojukwu, tell us about the last days of the war, before he left the country. Was he moody?
You know Ikemba (Ojukwu) was a workaholic; he loved to work and was a general of the people of Biafra. He started work early in the morning and would not rest till the next day. And sometimes he stayed without food but he made himself comfortable with his cigarettes and coffee. He often had consultations with people. There were lots of consultations throughout the day – from the beginning to the end of the war. He had some time for relaxation, when he invited his friends over and they laughed.
There was a time towards the end of the war when we didn’t go home anymore; we stayed around him. We slept in the same building with him and ensured his guards and those on duty did the right things and so on. So, you could see that the situation was tense, not from him, but from the people that visited. I remember the last day we spent in his private place which was in his father’s compound in Nnewi; as security officers, we didn’t even know the exact situation but we saw a lot of people coming in and going out. We saw famous people, commanders, politicians, leaders, professors and contractors. They would come to see him and leave shortly after. Then, we began to feel that something serious was happening.
It was later in the night before we left that he disclosed to some of us that the situation was such that he had to leave. He requested that I come with him anyway and I gave him a condition. I said I would need to see my parents who were not far away and get their permission to go. And of course, I was engaged to his first cousin who became my wife. I asked for his permission to allow her go out with me if my parents permitted and of course it was granted. But the atmosphere seemed normal.
What were some of the things that happened that most people don’t know about but that you knew because of your closeness to Ojukwu?
He trusted me and I took care of him, personally. I packed his clothes, cameras and so on the night we left. The people around and the rest of the officers did not know what was happening. We were briefed that we would leave that night and that we would leave through Uga Airport (built by the Biafran government as airport but now an airstrip). You know, there were two operational airports in Biafra – Uga and Uli airports. So, I think at around 7:30pm that evening, we left with two or three cars. The rest stayed back and we drove to Uga. After a while, we were told that the plane would not come there as it had landed at Uli. So, we drove to Uli and saw the plane waiting. Some people who identified themselves as leaders and commanders were standing around. He came out and they saluted him. They shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, cracked jokes, but I couldn’t hear whey they were talking about. While they were discussing, I was putting some of his things in the aircraft.
The baggage we brought could not pass through the aircraft’s door and that created some problems. We had to offload and repack in smaller cases. Well, I don’t know whether people know that it was a cargo plane that came. It offloaded relief materials that night. There were no seats so everybody sat on the floor of the plane. But I looked inside the plane; I noticed that some soldiers were sitting while others were standing inside, armed. So, I approached them, they said to me: “Ahh! You guys are living us here to die; we are not leaving this plane. We are going to blow this plane and all of us will die here.” I explained to them that it was necessary for the head of state to leave and negotiate from outside so that lives would be saved. I said he was talking to commanders outside the plane to make sure that more lives were not lost and that our people were taken care of, but they would have none of that. They were arguing and making threats and the pilot came down to say we had to leave because it was becoming dangerous just to let the plane sit there. He said they could be attacked via air raid.
So I went back and approached those people. And you know, I was just acting on my intuition. I wasn’t a Christian or a religious person, but somehow I began to speak to them in a manner that made them listen to me. Eventually one of them said you, what will you give us? Are you just going to let us go like that? I said no, you can go to the store and take what you need for your people and your family – some food items and so on. That was the deal. They came down. I don’t think they really meant to cause any harm but they wanted something, which I was able to give.
Another interesting incident happened during the war. The Nigerian troops and Biafran troops in one sector were tired of fighting each other. Somehow, they became friends and decided to be meeting to have discussions, parties and so on. In fact, it was said they even dug a big hole and dumped the arms both sides were given there. One of them was heard saying General Yakubu Gowon (former Nigerian Head of State) was in his bunker in Lagos and Ojukwu was in his bunker in Umuahia and that they were told to kill one another and die; why should they do that?
So something happened Nigerian troops were invited to a party somewhere on the outskirts of Aba. They were supposed to go with food, cigarettes and other things that were very scarce in Biafra and they did and the Biafran troops provided the hall, music and girls to dance with. They had a great party as we were told but towards the end of their party, which ended around 4am, the Biafrans surprised the Nigerian soldiers. They took their arms and arrested them. They put them in two trucks and brought them to Umuahia.
I got to know about this because I was on duty at the Biafran Government House, Umuahia; I received them as they arrived at the gate. I received the report and we decided to line them up for the Biafran Head of State to inspect and give instruction on what to do with them. First, we went in to deliver the report and he said ‘it cannot be true’. He asked for the casualties on the Biafran side and the answer was no. Nobody was injured and they captured how many of these soldiers. He asked if there was any fight or exchange of gunfire, but the answer was no, then he said something was fishy about it. So he came out and inspected the parade. In fact, someone came out from the line and saluted specially and it was said that he was one of the persons that were close to him when he was in Kano.
He made a very touching speech; he said, “Commanders, you brought these men, you deceived them and brought them to me to slaughter in cold blood because you think I am a bloodthirsty man. Well, I am not going to do that; you should have killed them out there if you wanted to do that. I am not going to do that! You, take them and take care of them – their feeding, their needs till the end of the war.” Then, he left. In fact, with the way he spoke and stormed off, you would think he was shedding tears.
The incident says a lot about his character. That man did what he believed he owed his people – to take care of them. That was why notable Igbo men supported the war, even in the Diaspora. There were occasions that would make you understand that he was also a human being. One day, he couldn’t eat the food that was served in the dining area probably because it was a bad day. Reports came from the war zone. Then, he called and said, “Get the cook, I don’t want to see this, take it away.” He said he was not going to eat and when I asked why, he said the meal had no salt. So, I called the chief cook, who had served his father – he was about 85 years old. I think Uruala was his name. He knew the General (Ojukwu) when he was a little boy. The man was almost in tears. He said to me, “I started cooking before he was even five and now he says my cooking is not good and that my food has no salt in it, what am I going to do?” I told him to fix it. He brought the food back to the table and when the General tasted it, he looked at the cook and said, “The salt you put was not cooked (with the food); you added ‘raw’ salt.” Everybody didn’t know what to do.
He had a way of conducting himself. I remember also, sometime during one of the world press conferences, journalists from all over the world were there. He just came and started speaking to them in Igbo and everybody was looking at him. When he finished, he turned round and went to his office. When we got to his office, he said, “If they were in China, would they speak Igbo? They would have spoken Chinese. If they were in France, they would speak French, so why not Igbo?” So, we transcribed what he said and gave out to journalists. Those were times when we laughed. He was bold about certain things. He would send for the children of some of his relatives; they would play table tennis, and crack jokes and so on.
I was with him while he was in exile in Cote D’Ivoire. We visited government institutions and farms – we saw mango fields and major strides the country had made in agriculture. We visited special places, installations and buildings. But right in front of our house, there were three lakes filled with crocodiles but the middle lake was the favourite lake of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Cote d‘Ivoire. We played table tennis and long tennis a lot during our time in Cote D’Ivoire. They took so much care of us and they gave us nice foods and drinks. As ADC and security officer, I got two bottles of whiskey, four bottles of red wine and four bottles of white wine every week. There, we learnt to eat fish with white wine and when eating a meal with red meat, one should take red wine. We were served apples on the same days they were harvested in France. One day, Houphouët-Boigny came and was showing him the biggest crocodile in the lake. He called out and the huge crocodile surfaced. Then he joked and said the crocodile had come to pay its respect to a General. He said one or two things and the crocodile went in and came out again. Houphouët-Boigny fed the crocodile with chicken.
Was there any incident that made you think you might die?
There were two: one was the bombing of Owerri. We were camped on the outskirts of Owerri when the Nigerian troops bombed Owerri heavily and it was reported. I was told to inspect the extent of damages and report back. So, I drove out there and when the planes were dropping the bombs, people could see them from afar. At a location, they could count eight to 10 bombs that were dropped. Others went to other locations. When I got to the location, they told me out of the bombs that were dropped, only three exploded. It was a potentially dangerous place but I went there. The crowed was still milling around there. I saw a large bomb and stood on it to address the people. I said, “Your God is good, He has delivered you. Go back to your normal business.”
But that was foolish thing to do but I didn’t know. Now when I remember it, I knew God kept me alive for a day like this, to give an account or to make me a leader of God’s people, otherwise that was instant death. I stood on a bomb, made a speech for about 15 minutes. After I left, all the bombs exploded, including the one I stood on.
Another time, we were in a convoy and going to an elementary school near a bush close to somewhere we were staying. Suddenly, we had the sound of a jet flying overhead. Before we knew it, they have started strafing. So we jumped out. I jumped out first and opened the door for the Head of State (Ojukwu) and ran towards the holes. We call them bunkers but they are not bunkers, they are holes dug along the bush, just beyond grass verge of the busy roads. Those holes were supposed to shield us. A big one was near us and we went inside it. But as we went inside, we saw two big snakes with their fangs. It was either we went to the snakes or to go back out there and get struck by the bullets. We survived it.
People talk about suffering and deaths during the war, what did you see? How would you describe it?
The refugee problem was horrible. It was the most serious problem we had. People didn’t know where to run to and wherever they ran to, there was no water or food, and children were dying. When they changed their locations as soon as enemies attack, some would die on the roads. Some got to refugee camps hungry and starving. The food that came sometimes was not enough. I thank God for the Red Cross, World Council of Churches and churches in Biafra that did their best to cushion the effects. There was so much suffering but the spirit of our people helped to reduce suffering. Many people were accommodated by those who didn’t know them. Only those who were not accommodated went to the refugee camps.
After the war, then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, instituted a policy of three Rs - Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation as part of the measures to heal the wounds inflicted by the fratricidal war. But Igbo people still feel they are marginalised in Nigeria. Does it mean there was no full integration?
We were already in exile. All we heard were stories so I didn’t have any personal experience of the integration or otherwise. But I was told that many people were joyfully received and united with their friends and they began to look for their properties and other belongings. Some succeeded and some didn’t succeed. I was told also that the reception did not last long as hostilities returned. I was told that people (Igbo) couldn’t boldly seek jobs or what belonged to them. Don’t forget that even those who had money in banks could not access their money. So, the three Rs did not sufficiently work as expected.
What in your own views do you think were the immediate and remote causes of the civil war?
(Laughs). I laugh because I was brought up in a setting that was truly Nigerian. My best friends came from the North and we trained together as police officers. Some of them were the sons of emirs. We travelled abroad together and so on. What went wrong, I would blame on politics. Politicians had their agenda and they began to influence our people. The Igbo population in the North was large and their businesses were thriving. You know, Igbo people took the whole nation as their place. There was no part of the nation where you would not see Igbo people. They established small businesses all over the country and they thrived. Then politics came in. Could it be about religion, absolutely not! Could it be about political ambition to rule the nation no matter where you came from, probably yes. And so, every other incident that happened aggravated the whole thing. The coup was immediately regarded as Igbo Coup and hatred and animosity brewed. Ndigbo were killed in the North; some other people regarded as Ndigbo were killed too. They couldn’t tell those who were Igbo from those who were not.
I remember very well that when we returned from exile, I tried to locate one of my best friends from the North. He was the son of an emir and he said to me: “Obi, so you are back from Ivory Coast (now Cote D’Ivoire)”, I said yes and that I was in Enugu. He said he would like to see me. Later, he told me: “Obi, let me quite honest with you – if my people were subjected to the same treatment your people were subjected to, I would have done the same thing you did or even more.” He meant if his people were killed and harassed the way we were killed and harassed, he and his people would have done more than we did. So, what went wrong had to do with lack of trust, hatred, discrimination, jealousy, and sheer wickedness. That was what went wrong.
It has been argued that Nigeria’s problems, including the war began with the first military coup largely carried out by Igbo men, do you subscribe to that argument?
It was not carried out by Igbo men alone but Igbo people were involved; people from other tribes were involved also but it was tagged Igbo coup. It has been proved that it was not.
What do you think were the mistakes made that triggered the civil war?
Only God can keep us together. And it is also natural; for example, the North is largely populated by Muslims while the South-East or entire South is largely populated by Christians. There is a divide there and if it had been kept like that, it would have been nice. I think as a Christian leader, you would want to evangelise in the North, Muslims would want to convert people down here also. And we don’t have a general understanding that the nation has a freedom of worship enshrined in the constitution.
This January makes it 50 years after the war; do you think Nigerians learnt anything from the war?
Wise Nigerians learnt from the war. Nonchalant and foolish ones have not learnt anything and it is very dangerous. How I wish we all learnt lessons from the war because wars are deadly. The lesson to learn from war is that it will kill you. But on both sides, some people haven’t learnt anything. I have been saying it since 2014 that the answer to the issues and questions we have is in dialogue. We need to do three things to resolve the situation. One, dialogue; two, dialogue and three, dialogue. You must hear people out and know why they think the way they think.
I need to know why you are doing what you are doing to me. I need to know why I am marginalised. You need to know why I am angry that I am marginalised because I need to ask if we still belong to the same place. You can’t tell me what we have is yours and what I have should be yours.
Japan and Germany bounced back from World War II to become economic giants, what is wrong with Nigeria?
I don’t know about what is wrong with Nigeria. I can only say what is wrong with the East or Igboland.
What is wrong with Igboland?
Lack of development. Ndigbo should develop their land. Alaigbo (Land of the Igbo) is affected; we should develop it. We should bring part of what we have elsewhere to develop Alaigbo. We are too scattered doing this and that. Irrespective of what we have elsewhere, we should bring part of it back to our land and develop Alaigbo. Our people have the resources, manpower, strength, and drive, so we can do it. The competition will be there and that is good for us. Igboland can be turned into something special if we all decide to develop it.
Do you think the war shouldn’t have been fought and was a mistake?
No, the war was fought based on emotions. Things were imposed on people and our people acted in self defence. We didn’t take the war to anybody.
Do you know if Ojukwu regretted leading the war in the last days of the war or in his last days on earth?
I was there (with him) in the last days of his life on earth. He thought he was misunderstood. So many things he wanted for the betterment of the generality of Nigerians were not accepted. The war was forced on him. You could say he declared Biafra, yes, but there was nothing else to do; the people of Biafra asked him to give them their own land, their own space, which he did. In his last days, he was a peaceful man. I, Bishop Obi Onubogu, a man held by God, testify today that I led him to the Lord in every special way. He died a born-again child of God – a Catholic, yes, but a born-again child of God.
The South-West states initiated Operation Amotekun, which the FG has described as illegal, what do you think about that?
They were thinking of securing the lives of their people. Insecurity has become so terrible that any leader, whether governor, traditional ruler, or church leader is thinking of security. So, I think we should all come together and decide what form of security measure to apply together. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If it is good up North, it is good in South-West and it will be good in the South-East. All we want is security.
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