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Civil War: ‘It was not a good story’

By Lawrence Njoku
18 January 2020   |   4:06 am
I was 19 years old and I served two years in the Biafran Army. I was 20 years when the war ended and at 21, I joined the Nigerian Army.


Civil war veteran, Stephen Ugwueje a retired Warrant Officer of the Nigerian Army, shares his experiences fighting the war with our Southeast Bureau Chief, LAWRENCE NJOKU.

You fought in the Nigeria/Biafra war? How old were you then?
I was 19 years old and I served two years in the Biafran Army. I was 20 years when the war ended and at 21, I joined the Nigerian Army. That was during the regime of then General Olusegun Obasanjo as head of state.

Where were you or what were you doing before the war?
I WAS a student at technical school in Onitsha.

Why did you join in the war?
I voluntarily joined the war to avoid anybody conscripting me. Again, I was moved by the situation of things, a situation where a Nigerian soldier will enter a place and begin to treat the people as if they were nothing and begin to behave anyhow he or she liked.

So, I felt there was need to join the war so as to prove that I was not a coward and that we could also fight.

Can you narrate some of the experiences you had during the war?
The experiences are voluminous. We suffered; there were no uniforms, we were just patching our uniforms. We used tarpaulin to do uniform.

There was no good food, excerpt the ones brought by the Caritas. We used Formula 2 to cook soup. We ate rats, frogs and ants and what have you. We were wearing whatever we see. It was hell on earth. It was not a good story.

There were no vehicles to move about; every journey was done by foot, no matter the distance. There was no place to lay one’s head. You woke up in the morning and heard machine guns and shelling here and there. People were running from one place to another; people were being killed like chickens.

It was not a good experience and nobody should wish to return to that period.

Were you just picked and given gun to fight?
I went for selection at Umudike, Umuahia. I am from Umuahia Ibeku in Abia State. So, after the training, we were sent out and I fought in many places before the war ended.

Where and where did you fight?     
From Umudike to Aba sector (Umuobiakwa) to Owerinta, from there to Orlu to Owerri and Emekuku. We were the people who broke the Caritas to carry food and stockfish. We were not afraid of the shelling that was going on. All we wanted was food and we braved it to enter the store and removed food items.

Force was the only thing we felt we needed to feed, because nobody will give you good food. We were not supposed to do what we did, but we were hungry and in war situation, you don’t look behind for any kind of compromise.

Where were you when the war ended?
When the war ended, I was at Amandigbo-Orlu, near the Uli Airport. We were there when Gen. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu flew out and handed over to Maj-Gen. Philip Effiong. He told Effiong to denounce secession and become one Nigeria, which he did. When this was done, it was a signal that the war had ended.

From that place, I trekked to my place in Umuahia, carrying my mat on the head. From there, I found my way to Aba. I could not stay in Umuahia because the Nigerian Army was still occupying our place, including the bunker. We didn’t have any place to stay.

My father built two rooms that we were managing before then, but it was not comfortable after the war, so I needed to move on. I met some friends and we trekked to Aba from Umuahia.

Trekking to Aba was an experience that was very painful. There were no vehicles to assist you and you were not sure that you could get to your destination. As we moved, we were seeing empty buildings whose occupiers may have either died or abandoned their buildings and ran away. So, we looked for any unoccupied building and passed the night there as we moved.

I was in Aba until they published the list of enlistment into the Army Corps of Engineers in the defunct Observer newspaper. It called for recruitment and I applied. We were taken to Port Harcourt, where they called the Bori Camp and from there, we were carried to Kanji Dam and then to Army Depot in Zaria, where we were trained for nine months.

After our training, we were posted to our duty posts. It was from here that I started survival and living normal life again. The disaster that the war brought gradually began to fizzle out.

Did you lose anything during the war?
I did not sustain any body injury, but I lost all my documents. My immediate family ran away from our house to the refugee camp at Olokoro for fear of their lives. It was also to enable them find something to eat, because there was hunger and starvation everywhere in the land. But in that camp, at least once or twice a day or week, the Red Cross could supply food to them.

My mother contracted kwashiorkor during the war. Her legs were swollen and I made arrangements there on how she could be taken care of. I met one military Police, who asked me to bring my family down, that his father was dead and his mother was alone.

So, I went to Umuahia to bring my family. My father, with his old bicycle with flat tyres, carried my younger brother behind and the rest of the family trekked to Aba, where the military Police gave them two rooms. They were there till the war ended.

There, they started speaking Ngwa dialect, because they had lived for over one year there before the war. So, before I could come back from the war, when they said the war had ended, the rest of my father had returned to Umuahia. I brought my younger brother into the army to avoid conscription by the Nigerian army.

So, for me, it was a very painful experience. It was something I may not want to repeat. Where do you start counting it? Is it the death, sickness, hunger, and troubles here and there? It was painful and should be better imagined than experienced. I thank God I am alive to tell this story.

If it is as painful as you would want us to believe, why did you voluntarily join the Nigerian Army?
I would not want them to catch me. If they caught you, they will treat you as somebody who was conscripted. I was voluntarily enlisted and was sent to training at Orlu. That was where we were trained for two weeks.

What other painful aspect of the war would you want to tell us?
I did not complete my vocational education at the school in Onitsha. I had all my plans shattered, because then, you could say what you wanted to become in life and work towards it. Things were not the way they are now, where you cannot easily programme yourself and work according to your programme.

Excerpt the fact that I was enlisted to the army after the war, it probably could have been difficult for me to survive and become what I am today.

Between the time the war ended and when you joined the army, how did you survive?
With my little experience in technical work, I joined the Nigeria Red Cross as an automobile electrician before they published recruitment into the Nigeria Army

Were you paid salary in the army immediately you joined after the war?
We were not paid salary; we were carried to Kanji Dam Engineering School. We were living under tent, as there no houses. We were 250 recruited from East Central State. At that time, the late Ukpabi Asika was the administrator.

I joined the army in 1970 and with the little money I made from the Nigerian Red Cross, I was surviving. But the truth is that Red Cross was not paying me cash; they will give us materials and food items. So, I will go and sell them and make money for myself.

These materials given to us every month end include Formula 2, stock fish and many others, and there was a ready market for the items. People will be waiting and buy them the moment I bring them.

I could only take away the little I could use and sell the others.

You said the war affected your plans, did that include marriage?
I did not marry immediately after the war and this is not because of the war; I was not ready, but I married in 1975. I was five years in the Nigeria Army before I got married at 27 to a woman of 20 years.

My parents actually refused on the ground that I was too small, but I told them that with the nature of my job, I could die anytime. It was based on this that they granted that I should marry.

My wife was then in commercial school. My parents wanted us to wait till she finished, but I refused and started doing things concerning her marriage little by little. I was in Kaduna and it was when she finished that she joined me.

I had my first child in 1976 and her name is Ijeoma. She is married now to a chartered accountant has four children and they reside in Jos.

Given your experiences during the war, would you like a repeat of it or would you support any call for war to settle contentions?
I will not support any call for war or encourage anybody who feels that war is a last resort. It is only those who did not pass through the civil war that can tell you they want war. That war should not be repeated for any reason.

I am retired, but not tired. I have worked as chief security officer at my present place for three and half years, some people there will tell you they want Biafra and I will always tell them that I don’t support Biafra. I suffered in Biafra and I don’t want history to repeat itself and they would say I am a saboteur.

I would tell them they are small boys and that some of them were not born during the war period. I became 73 years old on January 1, this year. If those calling for Biafra had the experience of the civil war, they would not be calling for Biafra. I totally disagree with them. Some of their agitations are uncalled for and I really don’t support them.

During the war, we fought with what they called Mac-4 gun with four bullets and when your bullet is exhausted, you devise a means of how you can survive until there was replacement. I was in Liberia during the Charles Taylor war and when I came back, I went sent to Jos and from there, I moved to 82 Division of the Nigeria Army and it was there that I retired.

So, I sincerely don’t support any forceful agitation or fighting. Let there be amicable resolution of the matter. You may need to know that we were not just fighting, but among us were several saboteurs that derailed every effort. That was why we did not succeed.

Before the end of the war also, the Nigeria Army brought some weapons that were really destructive against us and this made us to surrender, outside the air raid. So, we were not prepared for that war. We hadn’t enough weapons to prosecute it; we had only one armoured car.

Samson Emereuwa belonged to the Air Force, but he commanded us in Biafra and this was because there was no vacancy for air force and all of them diverted to army. We managed to prosecute the war for three years. They were from personal sacrifices, because we didn’t see food to eat.

When you carried some materials, you will use it and exchange for food. It was trade by batter, as there was no cash. If you came with your items, they assessed it and gave you food equivalent. So, we really suffered. You needed to see my mother’s legs due to kwashiorkor she contracted at the refugee camp. She could have died if I had not removed them from the camp.

There was no salt; we use the hibiscus flower as leaves. We really suffered. No vehicle, you trekked by matching.

We couldn’t win the war because we didn’t have weapons. The Nigerian soldiers were using sophisticated weapons. They could bomb for 10 hours. That is why I keep saying that the call for separation is uncalled for; I personally did not support it.

Those of us that suffered during the war will tell you so. Some lost their lives, others property and others, permanent injuries and many others. Some were blinded and some families were rendered homeless and useless. There was the abandoned property issue after the war.

We were blamed for the war and the declaration of abandoned property was not fair to us. Why should one’s property be declared abandoned because of war? Our money, no matter the amount, was qualified as 20 pounds.

They made things difficult for the Igbos. It was not a good story.