By From Magnus Eze, Enugu
Christopher Ejiofor was one of the pioneers of the Nigerian Army; referring to those enlisted in 1960, immediately after independence. His service number was within the first 50; a Lance Corporal before the civil war; he later became a Captain in the Biafran Army and served as Aide-De-Camp (ADC) to the Biafra leader, the late Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Now, traditional ruler of Oyofo-Oghe in Ezeagu Local Government Area of Enugu State; Ejiofor, who turned 73 last December, in this exclusive interview, speaks about life in Biafra; the Ojukwu he knew, the late Debe Ojukwu and the 1966 pogrom, among others. Excerpts:
Looking back; what would you say about Nigeria today?
Honestly, I’m a bit sad for Nigeria; sad because I joined the Nigerian Army in 1960 immediately after the colonial rule. They started numbering us from Nigerian military forces number one and I happened to be within the first 50 people of that numbering. Our vision for Nigeria was one which we inherited from the White; they wanted Nigeria to be an intellectually based well-developed country that people will interact with what they have from different regions. That vision has totally died and what we have today in Nigeria is not a Nigeria; it’s a partisan, split country that has no sense of leadership in the right direction to be coherent as it was from the beginning. I feel sad of my people of the former Eastern Nigeria in particular; being a former soldier of the Nigerian Army, I felt betrayed by my comrades who tried to kill me after the second coup of 1966; while I did nothing wrong; I didn’t take part in the first coup. All the comrades of Igbo or Eastern Nigeria origin were being killed by their comrades who slept with them the night before. And that pain is so deep. A lot of people talk about Nigeria and what the Igbo have done; I think that second coup; the pogrom-it wasn’t a coup actually, it was a plot to wipe out the Igbo from the rulership of Nigeria. Of course, they succeeded because today; if you look at the structure of the Nigerian Army, you will hardly have any person from the Eastern Nigeria or many who are at the top level. And the brains that had been trained by the British are also lost; so what do you have; you have people who are sitting in positions of authority with little or no knowledge and leading the country in a direction that leads nowhere.
So, our problem actually started with the July, 1966 military coup?
If that coup was to topple people in the leadership structure and left every other thing as it was, there could have been hope for us to pick up the pieces from what had been lost. But when that command came from Muritala Mohammed to us that everybody must go back to his regional capital of origin; meaning if you’re northerner, go back to Kaduna; if you’re easterner, go back to Enugu and westerner to Ibadan. That was when Nigeria ceased to be one nation and I think that was where our problem started. People blame Biafra; but I think it wasn’t Biafra’s fault that we had a nation that fell apart and fought war within itself. It had nothing to do with Biafra; the blame must go to the people who caused the second coup; they killed us and drove us out from where we were. All the promotions that we had were not implemented; nobody promoted us from that day onwards. The promotion I had on retirement was what I had when I came back from England in 1965.
Is it true that the Aburi Accord would have solved all these issues?
Yes, they had the Aburi conference; and the governors from the East, North, West and Mid-West as well as Gowon himself who was head of state; they all came to agreement on what they wanted to happen in Nigeria. They took it back to base and the colonial masters in those days said no, ‘we don’t like this; this will not take us to where we want to be! And that’s what really happened. We lost that Aburi and because we lost it; there was no more basis for the Igbo to feel confident to be part of the structure; the wound was so deep within our heart and we lost so much. For me; my promotion to go back to England to study was jettisoned; I had passed exams to go back in August 1966; many of us lost our positions of authority, so what do you do? You stay in a place where you’ve been shifted from the place you were? I was under Muritala Mohammed as my commanding officer; and I had lost all that. So, where do you go from there? The Aburi Conference was the hope for us to be united as one people; and continue from where we were and that was lost completely. A lot of people will blame Ojukwu that he started war; Ojukwu never started war. The people of the second coup of 1966 pushed us into war and we became Biafra.
People say that Ojukwu was ambitious. Is it safe to say that his ambition led to the war?
Everybody is entitled to his own opinion. If you go to a soccer field; spectators would be screaming, oh no, it should have been played that way. But when you are actually playing the game yourself; you’ll see how difficult it is for you to pass the ball to the next person because you are being tackled. Yes, Ojukwu was intellectual; maybe among his peers, he was far more educated than the rest of them. He was intellectually up there; he went to one of the best universities; Oxford and the rest-he articulated far better than the rest of them. And that wasn’t the issue; the issue was that he told the Igbo and the easterners to go back to the North that the coup; the massacres of May, June and July had ended. And when they went back, the massacres were at the maximum and people started pointing fingers at Ojukwu that he killed his people. Now, what will you do if you were Ojukwu? He had to listen to what the people had to say because he had no more cards to play with; Aburi would have been his card, but he had no Aburi. What does he do; allow himself to be subjugated by a constitution that was forged overnight with the other regions? Twelve states were created and this was not approved by the West, North and the South, it was a creation of pure military dictatorship. Would you accept that? You wouldn’t. So, it wasn’t intellectual ambition on the part of Ojukwu; it was the practicality of the situation, he had no choice and his back was against the wall.
Is it correct to say that Africa died in Biafra?
Yes; Africa died in Biafra because out of desperation, with nothing, we created possibilities. We had rocket launchers; we built vehicles, we kept our industries going; kept our refineries working. We just carried on; people would have thought that within two months Biafra would perish. But it wasn’t so. Biafra was a rebirth of Africa to show that Africa can survive without the hand-outs of the western nations and the Africans themselves were not able to come to the rescue of Nigeria; the rest of Africa died.
Were there occasions that Ojukwu raged at you with his eye-balls bulging?
(Long laughter) Well, to be honest with you, I think because I was educated in the United Kingdom, and he chose me because he himself had been there, I knew what he would like; his dislikes and, of course, we avoided doing those things. If you have somebody that has got a problem with certain ways; of course, you would find a way to avoid it. And I never had such encounter with him. He had about four Aide-De-Camps; navy, air force, police and army and I was the only one that he didn’t sack. So, you can see that if I had done something that made his eye ball bulge; he wouldn’t have tolerated me to be there any longer. But I must say something; if anybody wrote anything against me that I did something wrong against the state; Ojukwu sent officers to investigate and give him report before he took action. But I didn’t have such encounter.
You have always held thanksgiving this period of the year. What is it all about?
This year in particular is the 49th anniversary of my escape from Biafra. I didn’t come out with Ojukwu on the flight from Biafra because I didn’t think it was necessary. I conveyed my people to Umunze to put them safely before I would return to General Effiong and continue with my service. Unfortunately, Biafrans captured us at Ajalli; and they were angry that Ojukwu had left. They tried to put me under permanent detention for no wrong doing. That detention was very brutal because I was injured; put in a pit and was supposedly put under permanent detention. Fortunately, somebody saw them taking me to the guardroom and reported to another officer who came to visit me and subsequently secured my release. Eventually, I found myself to Umunze and I was reminded that if Biafrans could do this to me; what would the Nigerians do to me; so I had to find my way out of Biafra to find refuge for all the young people with me, to look for a new future. And in the process, we were attacked at Uga Airport by Biafrans who were carrying machine guns. They shot at the plane taking us out; somebody was injured, but the pilot took off. Luckily, we didn’t crash and it was a miracle for me. We landed at Sao Tome, when the pressmen saw the plane, it was riddled with bullets. For me, it was a miracle and I always thank God for that escape. From Sao Tome, the relief organisations took us to Gabon.
What was life in exile like?
It was very difficult because it was from grace to downfall. One minute, I was ADC to head of state; an officer, had everything going for me; next minute, I was nobody. I had lost everything, started life afresh. Unfortunately, I must say this is the sad part of my life; I was not taken care of by Ojukwu. He abandoned me in Gabon and the Church picked me up. Through the Church, I was able to further my studies abroad and eventually became an aeronautic engineer. That was the worst part of my life; starting life from zero.
What do you think is the way out of the quagmire that Nigeria is in today?
I think the people of the North really have to understand that they did evil to us. A lot of people thought that we did evil to the North, but it’s the other way round; when you took revenge in July 29, 1966 and then decided to wipe out a people. That’s the evil that Nigeria did; they were actually the people who took away all that we had. As I told you; I was supposed to be promoted to a commissioned officer from Britain because I did so well and I ended up as a Lance Corporal in the Nigerian Army; in which my mates were laughing at me. If you read my dossier; I was the best student in England then, and all my comrades there were all commissioned in the British Army and in Nigeria my country, I was not promoted. I had to actually force Muritala Mohammed to promote me. I had to write to him before he gave me the rank of Lance Corporal in 1965 when I came back from the United Kingdom. Basically, Nigeria today is a nation that needs to repent from where it is. Today, the easterner has nothing; we have no position of authority or control of anything in Nigeria. The nation should be restructured so some power will be given to those that have nothing in Nigeria. If we really want to be a genuine one nation as we were; reconstitute the place; there’s no constitution at the moment; what we have was imposed by the military, and wasn’t signed by the people. Let everything be reconstituted and give people self-independence as a united country.
What is your reaction to the renewed agitation for Biafra?
The youngsters who are doing this obviously don’t have war experience. They are just angry; in fact, they were born abroad, they get back home, they can’t get job; no future for them. Everything seems not to be working; no electricity, the roads are bad; in fact, Nigeria is far more backward now than it was 50 years ago. So, you can’t blame them because they are raised in the West and many of them have actually travelled out and they know what it means to have a good system. They say; we don’t like what we have and they feel that having self-independence and being self-governing peacefully will lead to reorganise and do things better. But of course, if there are means of doing it that you take everybody along so that you are not in isolation and the people who are ruling should be part of such discussion; not just youngsters. If they do that, maybe that will work something better. Ohanaeze is asking for restructuring; actually, that’s not what the youngsters want. They want self-government, that’s why they’re calling for referendum. Personally for me, I know that if you trade in a bigger market that it’s far more advantageous than being in one isolated small market.
Are you not bothered that nobody has been punished for the civil war carnage?
The trigger of that war was started by Nigeria and it was Nigeria which should be accountable for the massacres, uproars and everything they did to kill people and invade a nation with no arms-Biafra had no arms. It was pure massacre. Just imagine what happened in Asaba were hundreds of men were lined up and killed in cold blood. People who wanted to welcome the federal troops. That was a pogrom that nobody in Nigeria has even taken to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Nigeria has enough to answer for. We hear about the United Nations; the Amnesty International and all these human rights groups and they can’t pick up the perpetrators. They are waiting until they will all die and they will bring it up that there were injustices in Nigeria 50 years ago; but nobody to hold responsible since they’ve all died. Do you know that the pogrom by Adolf Hitler against the Jews; that a lot of people have been jailed for it. In Europe today; they are still looking for them. All the people who were supposed to ask questions about the destruction in Biafra have all been paid by the Moslem brotherhood.
What did Ojukwu tell you the last time you saw him?
I visited him in 2008 to invite him to my coronation; unfortunately, he didn’t come. He wanted to come, but his health wasn’t at its best. When we met; I told him that I was an Igwe (monarch); he stood up and saluted me. He was very proud of me and wanted us to be in friendly relationship. He said he would come for my coronation if his health was better. Really, there was nothing else other than being friendly; remembering good times and how we survived the war together. You see; people sometimes misplace the view saying that Ojukwu ran away from Biafra; that’s not the truth. He never ran away from Biafra; he was commanded by the army; the military gave the command that he had to leave and go and find peace; otherwise, if he had stayed in Biafra when the federal troops came in, many innocent lives would have been wasted. I didn’t go with him, though I was his ADC and many other people didn’t go with him. If he was running away; he would have told all of us to go with him.
What’s your relationship with Ojukwu’s family now?
I am sorry to hear about the death of his first son; Debe. I saw his first son in Biafra; he used to come to the State House and visit us. He looked very much like his dad in those days and I never knew that he wasn’t from his wives; that he was a child got before wedlock. But anybody just seeing his face would know that’s Ojukwu’s son. If I hear that he wasn’t given full rights as Nnewi son, I think that’s disgraceful because in my place Oghe; when a child is born and the man accepts that child; he becomes a legitimate son of his father. He was with his dad during the Biafran war and I met him at Umuahia a few times when bombs were being thrown and people were killed anyhow. He wasn’t an opportunist at all, so, people should not mistreat him anyhow. He should be given a befitting burial and accepted as the son of Ojukwu.
If the opportunity presents itself again; will you repeat the role you played?
As I said before, my life is determined by God. I have never given myself roles. When I was chosen as ADC to Ojukwu; it was my providential choice. I made a wish to myself that I wished I met Ojukwu so that I can try and relay to him the message God had sent me to give him during the war. And God granted me that wish and made way for me to go and do that. I only wished that Ojukwu was more spiritual than he was because he never got the message in the end.
So, what was that message from God?
God gave me a message to him to be like a Christian king; like King David, to try and change and let the people of Biafra through their priests and bishops, organise themselves in prayers and ask for God’s intervention to change the fate so that rather than going the long journey; we could go through the shortcut and get to the Promised Land quicker. And that message never got to him.
Meaning that you didn’t pass the message to him?
No! I sent him an introduction waiting for him to invite me so that we have full discussion. He got the introduction and laughed and said: ‘This man from the seminary is my new ADC’ and he never invited me any longer to discuss it. I was his ADC, but the rule was that you can’t just go and say to him, I want to see you. I have to pass the letter through his Chief Security Officer who passed it to him; and I would have to wait like a very other person for us to go through it. That’s the protocol when he was the Head of State.