THE POGROM: Some Communities Practiced Cannibalism During The Civil War
BY ARMSTRONG BAKAM
Dr Andee Iheme, 65, is the Director of Information, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi. Iheme, who was conscripted into the Biafran Army at the age of 14, tells ARMSTRONG BAKAM about his experiences and how Nigeria failed to derive positives from the Nigerian Civil War, 50 years after it ended
You fought in the civil war at 14, how did it happen?
In 1968, the Biafran Army needed more soldiers because several fronts had been opened. If you recall, the first shot was fired in Cross River State, so Nsukka area was the main front but later Port Harcourt opened up and there was a need for more soldiers. So conscriptions started on the Biafran side and it was not a matter of age but of size because it got to a situation when once those conscripting people into the army came around the area where we were refugees, everyone ran away.
It was such that if you were caught, sometimes, you were taken straight to the front. You were taught how to shoot in the vehicle that took you to the front. I was just 14years old and my parents thought it was reasonable for me to join the force and see if I could get some training before going to the front. But I joined the military police and it got to a point where the royal battalions, military police, those in health, and others, were required to donate manpower to assist those at the front. So, in one way or the other, all the soldiers were ready for battle; some had to go to the front directly.
I didn’t go directly to the front but we worked directly behind the front. We took some of the shelling from the federal troops and sometimes, we were the ones who waged the advance for the ground troops to muster enough resistance. We were taken and trained after about two weeks in the normal military regiment parade. Then we went to a place in present Abia State called Umuopara. In Umuopara, the military police had a school where we were trained as policemen; I was 14 years old.
When I look at 14-year-old boys of today, I shed tears because I see myself in them and I can imagine what I went through at that age, fending for myself. There was no food in the Biafran Army, so we had to fend for ourselves. Sometimes, when you have a very good family upbringing, certain boundaries are built around you. Part of what my mum told me was that I must never steal but the funny part of it was that I bought from those who stole; for those who went to the farm and stole food, we were the market that was readily available for them. Since my mother told me that, I never went to anybody’s farm to steal.
What other experiences did you have during the war?
At 14, I needed to be looked after but I found myself in a situation where I was looking after other people in the camp because as a military policeman, we had to keep guard and protect our camps. I remember when I was keeping guard over the entire military headquarters. The adjutant of the camp would come in around 2am to check and I was the one on duty. There was a day I fell asleep while on duty and I knew the enormity of that offence. He wanted to take my rifle but we had devised ways of sleeping and still make it impossible for anyone to take our rifle away as evidence.
There is a way you can sling your rifle around your leg and put your legs on the magazine and hold it up. I was leaning on a tree, but the moment he touched my rifle, I woke up and shouted: “Who goes there?” He said I was sleeping and I denied because he couldn’t prove it. And because of that, I wasn’t court-martialled.
There was no food; what people used to do was to go into people’s farms and steal crops or for those at checkpoints, they could food from farmers returning home from their farms. It was such that for three days at times, you might not have food. Then the Biafran Army suddenly discovered that things like the lizard had enough protein, so it was good meat. Vultures virtually disappeared from Biafra. Cattle egrets popularly known as ‘Leke-Leke’ also completely disappeared. We discovered how to live on some herbs and leaves, some of which were poisonous. We knew how to get out the poisonous sap.
We learnt to eat the orange and leave out only the peel. We ate avocados with the seeds inside and all kinds of things like locusts and lizards to keep us alive. The first instinct in man is that of survival. In fact, some communities ate human beings; they would go to the front and harvest the dead and eat. We were going back to the days of cannibalism because man had to survive, so everything was possible. All you wanted was to stay alive. And so, nothing was sacred.
I remember when refugees from Awka got to my town in Ibuowerri, they started killing the fish in our river which we considered as sacred.
I bought the fish not knowing where it came from. Later, they were barred from touching the fish. I was ate water yam, which was considered as taboo in my community. I damned everything because I was hungry; I had stayed for days without food.
How were you trained?
We got training in basic military regimentation and all that for about two weeks, then we went to Umuopara in present Abia State to train as military policemen. We spent up to a month there.
Did you lose anyone close to you in the war?
Yes, I did. I lost so many people. I lost one Akandu; I believe he died in Calabar Sector. We never saw him, the parents never had closure. They kept on believing their son, Akandu, would return until they died.
I watched a lot of my cousins and nieces die of Kwashiorkor; that was the most painful part. I watched them twitch until they died, not one, not two, not three of them. My father’s house had a lot of wood, so we were able to get wood for coffins. Once anybody died in Ebu, they came to us to get woods to make coffins for them. I can remember one of my cousins who died, Ndidi Iheme, a young girl. I was so fond of her and I watched her twitch to death because of hunger, not of Kwashiorkor.
Was there a time you thought you would die too?
Yes, there were. One time, I thought I would die of hunger. I was hungry to the point that I thought I would die because there was no food. The other was when we were leaving our camp in Inyiogugu in Imo State where the military police headquarters was. We were leaving there in a hurry because we heard that federal troops had captured some communities on the outskirts of that town. We packed all our ledgers, pay books, receipts and all kinds of things into a waiting lorry. We didn’t know federal troops had taken over the town. So, we had to fire our way out; we fired several shots and they also did. The terrible thing was that guns were all over the place, so anybody could pick up a gun and use it. We fired our way out and that was how we escaped from Inyiogugu.
The last incident occurred when the war ended. We were in a place in Orlu when Biafra surrendered and we were going back home. I remember the prisoners of war on the Biafran side had got so thin; you can imagine a prisoner of war in a country where there was no food. So, when they were released after the war ended, one of the adjutants, a captain, gave us guns to carry out mercy killing. I remember they couldn’t even walk. I remember when they gave me a rifle, I refused to do it and all the others also refused to kill them.
So we left and were trekking home. About 40km to my hometown, a soldier called me at the park as we were walking home. At that point, if there was any suspicion that you were a soldier, you were shot on the spot by the federal troops. The soldier took me to a side of the bush and said: “Look, remove your socks; they are military socks.” I remember I got the socks from our store and they were actually grey socks meant for officers. I said, “Thank you very much”. I removed the socks and gave them to him. It was at that point I threw away my pistol because if I was found with a pistol, that would be the end. That was how we escaped and went home.
Looking back today, what do you think about the war?
I think the war could have been avoided but I think the authorities on both sides made it degenerate. Each side was trying to test their popularity and how powerful they were. But I think that even though we got to the brink, we could have negotiated and ensured there was no war. A lot of us didn’t know the consequences of war but now, we know better. Sincerely, as a kid, I thought I could watch the war from my window having been used to watching ‘cowboy’ (Western) movies on TV. I thought it was going to be something like that. I also thought it would be like the fight between Goliath and David. We thought Biafra would bring their strong men, Nigeria will bring their strong men and the two sides would fight. And that one side would win and that would be it. We didn’t know that in a war, there is no place to hide. When they drop bombs, they don’t ask for your credentials.
Was it worth it?
If Nigeria had learnt its lessons from it, maybe we would have described it as a necessary sacrifice we needed to make to be a greater nation. If we had harnessed all the inventions and creativity that emanated from both sides, especially from the Biafran side, we would have been the better for it by now. When World War II ended, what angered Russia and the allied forces was that the US got into Germany and took its great scientists to their country, gave them American citizenship, empowered them to invest and create wonderful things.
For example, Adolf Hitler challenged German scientists to build a car that would not need water to run, and that was how the Volkswagen Beetle was made. That is why the Beetle engine is behind because it has air coolant. But we lost all that; if only we had harnessed all the things that came out from Biafra, maybe we would have said those who died paid the supreme sacrifice for Nigeria to be great.
I believe the war could have been avoided. The Aburi Accord had a lot of promises for both countries. It was close to what we had before the war started when each region, to a reasonable extent, enjoyed autonomy. That would have solved the problem. The regions had their foreign offices where they negotiated their trade agreements and all kinds of things. Now we are talking about community policing and all that. We now have a bloated Federal Government which cannot deal with many issues. Look at what the states are doing now, they are beginning to hand over schools back to the missions and to the private people who owned them. They’ve done that in Anambra. Anambra was one of the worst performing states in West African Senior School Certificate Examinations but it is now one of the best.
What I’m saying is that the war could have been avoided but since we couldn’t avoid it, we should have been able to harness some of the inventions that it brought. A lot of things happened; my father was in charge of transport in Umuahia, the transport directorate of Biafra, and I know some of the things they did. Do you know they were using coconut water in place of brake fluid? My elder brother was a musician during the war; he was the road manager of the Hikers, the best group in Biafra, and my immediate elder brother was a vocalist for the Blossoms. Do you know they were using brakes for motorcycles as guitar strings? There were all kinds of innovations because necessity is the mother of invention. We’ve found ourselves now in a situation where people waste things. Then we didn’t have wardrobes full of dresses but we were clothed; we knew how to manage the little things we had.
What you are saying is essence is that Nigeria never harnessed the potential it should from the war…
Yes, we lost it and so because of that, the war has become a blot for us, but nations who have fought wars were able to make it the stepping stone they needed to move to the next level of nationhood. Having felt the pain of secession and disunity, that pain should have helped us to forge a nation and come together as one.
Is that too late to do?
No, it is not late but Nigeria has to negotiate it. If you consider the amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates, you would realise they were completely different entities. Let me give you a practical analogy, my wife is from the North and I am from the Soouth-East, but we found love and got married. She is of Yoruba extraction from Kogi State. We live in the North. We have learnt how to give and take. I’m beginning to like pepper in my food; we Igbo don’t eat as much pepper as Yoruba people but I’m beginning to like it. I now like a lot of oil in my soup; Igbo people don’t use it like that but Yoruba like it.
So in Nigeria, if we understand one another, we can renegotiate our being together because to me, being together is a practicable and favourable way to go. When the Super Eagles win, we don’t ask which local government the goal scorer comes from; the joy is shared by all. I have been married for 38 years and still counting. I am from the Biafran side and my wife is from the Nigerian side. If you give me another opportunity, I will go for a Kogi woman because I think they are the best. I can settle with the Igbo ladies later.
Do you think some of the things that led to the war are still there today?
They are there in a greater dimension. Nigeria lacks justice and equity. The suspicions are very much there. The Hausa suspect the Igbo; the Igbo suspect the Yoruba; the Yoruba suspect the Hausa; these suspicions are still there. There are templates we can copy from; how are they doing it in Kigali, how did they do it in South Africa? How has America come to become a nation even with the multiplicity of nationalities in it? It’s very clear that we missed the opportunity to use the Oputa Panel and National Conference to our advantage. The South Africans did it, and it was also done in Rwanda, so nothing stops Nigeria from picking from this template to see because our greatest problem is our inability to become a nation. Nigeria is still made up of enclaves and nationalities that command stronger loyalty than what we have for the nation. People will tell you that you are first an Igbo man before being a Nigerian and such things. Do you see the level of nationalism in Americans that make them weep when they win big for their country at the Olympics? Nigerians don’t have that kind of connection, empathy, and nationalism and it’s possible to build them.
What is your view about Nigeria today?
My view is that we are not leaving a future for the younger ones. What will make Nigerians stay in their country and work hard to make this place a better place is if the future looks bright. If there is a promise that tomorrow will be better than today, our youths will stay. But the picture they seeing, which the current generation of leaders are painting, is bleak. A youth who believes that tomorrow is likely to be worse than today will be ready to cross the Sahara Desert to Europe, instead of staying in this country.
What do you think about how Nigeria is being run?
Our leadership is a problem because everything comes from leadership. Show me a home where children respect elders, show me a place where children knock before they open doors, show me a place where children speak politely to elders, and I will show you a father who is in control of his home. By extension, it is the same thing in the country. The leadership is poor. Mustafa Atatürk changed the narrative of Turkey to the extent that he is so respected that no Turk is allowed to bear the name Atatürk today because of what that man did. In fact, the language they speak in Turkey is a completely new thing, a new contraption they set up to distinguish themselves from the Arab World which they say they are not.
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Look at Israel today, the brand of Hebrew they are speaking today was started in 1948. Look at a leader changed Singapore, a small seaport where ships just stopped over and continued their journey. So in Nigeria, the leadership is the problem. If you ask people who are polygamous, they will tell you the father is the one who decides the way children from different mothers relate with one another. If the father is partial, he will not have peace in his house but if he is evenhanded and there is an evident demonstration of equity in the way he treats his children, you will see peace there. They will be united because of the example their father has set.
Do you agree that the Igbo are being marginalised in today’s Nigeria?
Of course, they are. As an Igbo man, I have always believed that. In 2008, I was chosen to be the Registrar of my institution, but there was a massive demonstration. The demonstration wasn’t against my competence, it wasn’t against my capacity; it was against my tribe and religion. If you go to Imo State, the same sentiments will be expressed against a Hausa man. If you go to Yorubaland, the same sentiments will be expressed against an Igbo man and if you go to the Igboland, the same sentiments will be expressed against a Yoruba man.
When the war ended, I remember my father was given £20, that couldn’t send us back to school. That wasn’t enough for him to get to Lagos and start his job. I had to become a barber; I cut hair for people in a whole camp in Ebuowerri. I had a friend called Sergeant Adebowale, he was a wonderful guy. I saw how bushy his hair was and I told him I could cut his hair. He sat down and I gave him a haircut. His friend also came and I gave him a haircut free of charge. I asked him if I could charge the rest of his people and he said yes; that was how I set up a shop and became a barber for the whole camp. I would start from 6am till it was dark and I couldn’t see their hair again. That was how I raised enough money to let my father go to Lagos and for my siblings to go back to school. If we had got what the North-East internally displaced persons are getting today, how the government, NGOs, foreign countries, and other came together to assist and build houses for them, the Igbo would have been the better for it.
When I returned home after the war, I was the first person to arrive in my compound; my people were all over the place as refugees. I saw dead bodies, some of which I buried. I didn’t know who they were; they were in an advanced state of rot. No single house was standing except my father’s house which was decked and which the federal troops used as their armoury. That was why that was the only house that was standing. Nobody rebuilt all these houses for them, our schools were in a terrible shape; there were no teachers and no special programme for education.
Some of us are poor in mathematics today because when it was getting close to the time for school certificate examination, it was our literature teacher who happened to have done mathematics in his days, that helped us. This kind of treatment was a far cry from the 3Rs (Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation) programme Yakubu Gowon had announced. If you noticed, the East was the first to have a state university because they felt they were not properly accommodated in other universities. If you check, the Igbo have the largest number of private businessmen dealing in all kinds of thing because access to government work was limited to them. If you also check the number of people who have travelled abroad to do all kinds of things, you will find Igbo people in large numbers because when you feel you are being persecuted in a place, you look for other shores.
Do you regret fighting and being exposed to death at that young age?
Yes and no. My regret is that there was no point fighting your brother. Look at me now, I am married to a northerner as it were, would you say I am sleeping with an enemy? But she’s the love of my life and yet she comes from the other side. The regret is there. The war ended in 1970, and I came to the North in 1978 for the National Youth Service Corps programme and honestly, I met the best of northerners and they remain my best friends. I didn’t want to leave Kano. I came to Bauchi and met people like the late Mohammed Abdullahi, Kabiru Garba Aminu, Lawal Toro, Professor Sani Sambo, and Professor Muhammadu Abdulazeez. These are great people.
I met people like Professor Abdullahi Adamu, Professor Suleiman Elias Bogoro, who are wonderful northerners. So on that note, I regret it. And yes, because the civil war made me made-in-Nigeria for tough times. At the age of 14, I saw it all and there is no condition I cannot survive today because of what the civil war made me. It gave me a completely new perspective to life, I am not afraid of challenges. I have also transferred the perspective to my family. My children don’t say no; there is nothing that is impossible for them. It will interest you to know that in my family, we have a slogan: “The Ihemes don’t fail.”
What’s the way forward for Nigeria?
The way forward is for two brothers who are quarrelling to sit down and talk. Why is there a sudden increase in the cases of banditry? Why is there a sudden increase in kidnapping and insurgency cases? Once there is this kind of feeling in a family, you must talk. We must ask what is happening to us as a nation. I think we should look at the Oputa Panel discussions in a way that is agreeable to all Nigerians. The North did not believe in it and so most of the heads of state from the North didn’t attend it. How do we come together to talk? Before this country became one, we had several constitutional conferences where people went to talk and looked at what should be our constitution. With what is happening now, there is a need for that convocation of ideas from divergent places, cultures and all sides of the divide. There is need for us to talk and we must talk as a nation.