Obi Udezue Onubogu was a young police officer when hostilities broke out leading to the declaration of Republic of Biafra by the then Governor of Eastern region, Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. He became security officer to the defunct Biafra head of state until the few days to the end of the war when he joined Ojukwu in the flight to exile in Ivory Coast.
Now Archbishop at the Rock Family Church, Rock Cathedral, Enugu, Onubogu, who recently turned 80, in this detailed interview in Enugu, speaks on the war, life in exile, most trying moments, his relationship with Ojukwu and how to avoid another civil war.
What was it like when you heard that the war had ended?
You know my position was a very special position; I was the security officer and working with the ADCs, police, army, naval ADCs. We were the closely packaged people around the head of state. Around that time, a lot of meetings were going on. We were at Nnewi having withdrawn from Umuahia, from Etiti, from those places we used as camps and gone home to his private house. We had lived in elementary schools towards the ending of the war but at this time we moved to Nnewi, a busy commercial town of Biafra and because of the war, it did shrink the land so to say, a crowd of people gathered around Nnewi. So, people were coming in and consulting; military officers, politician were coming in, groups of people were coming in and we were bothered with security; just security. And many of us didn’t know what the situation as regards the war at that time was.
I happened to be one of the privileged people that got to know eventually at the last minute. So, it wasn’t a general thing, many people didn’t know that the fronts had broken down and the end war fast approaching. It wasn’t announced but what happened to us was that we were told that we had to leave. I was called in as a security officer and told that the end was in sight and that we had to leave and next sentence, which the Biafra Head of State said directly to me was, ‘will you come with me?’
I was shocked because I immediately thought about my parents, my siblings. I knew where they were hiding but how could I leave my parents being the first son? So, I said to him yes, I would come with you to go on with what I believed I was raised to do, but I had to go and know what was happening to my family and parents; my father was just about 10 km away from Nnewi. And he said ok; besides, I was already engaged to his first cousin. I told him that I will come on two conditions: I’ll let my father know what was happening and the decision I was taking and ask for his permission; that’s if he says no, I’ll try to prevail on him to let me go. Number two condition I said was that I have someone I’m engaged to; could she come with me if I decide to come with you? Then he had a big laugh and said to me ‘Who’re you engaged to, are you not engaged to my cousin, do you think you have more control over her than me? Alright, go and see your parents and come back.’
So, I rushed and saw my father; my mother was in another location. My father said “Wow! It’s better that you go, at least we’ll be sure of one survivor. We don’t know what will befall us in this place.’ He tried to know more, and I said I can’t tell you more other than things are really bad; we want to remove ourselves; the leader wants to remove himself so that he won’t cause destruction of our people, that if the Nigerian authority hear that he’s no more there, they’ll not come to Nnewi to try to say they’re looking for him. My dad said Ok and good, he didn’t pray for me as such but he just released me to go. I quickly came back to the base and then I told the head of state that my father had released me and he said ok; action, let’s get things done. I went into action again, briefed my fiancée and took instruction and began to pack his very sensitive materials, his personal property, even down to his camera and things like his essential private documents. We packed all that and it was about 6:30 in the evening and more commanders began to arrive and it happened around this period that we knew that something serious had really happened. We were not in the meeting. We were out there receiving and ushering them in; it was no more go see him, come out and another person would go in. This time, they were all staying together. Of course, there were little talks and gossips around us the security people. The thing went out that the end of the struggle was very close and so we packed up and at about one hour later, by 8:00 pm, it was dark already, the signal came that we had to pack up. Most of the escorts, they didn’t know what was happening, even the domestic staff. We packed up and headed to Uga; you know that there were two airstrips in Biafra, in Uga and Uli. Uga wasn’t very far, maybe about 30 minutes or so. On the road, we saw people moving; some moving in the opposite direction, there wasn’t really an organized movement; you’d be wondering what are these people doing, where are they going? Some were going forward, some were going backward and so on. But we got to Uga and parked and stayed for nearly 10 minutes and then we received another signal that location for the landing of the plane had been changed. We were called to return back to Uli. Uli was again like coming back to Nnewi. We did that and when we got there; it was quite interesting; the plane was already there and field commanders, about five of them were there when we arrived.
So, they immediately took the General to one corner and they were in deep conversation. We also tried to load what we packed. Some of the striking things that happened were that we found out the box we packed was too wide to enter through the aircraft. So, we had to open the box and physically bring the items out one by one into smaller containers inside. They were still talking and it turned out that the guards around already had a wind of the actual situation. I think I mentioned that in my book; some of them had entered the aircraft and sat at the rear with their guns. We were packing; they left us and one of the attendants came to tell me and the rest of the security that armed men were seated in the aircraft and it was dangerous; do you know their mission, you don’t know who they were, no identification. I went there and called them; they knew me by name, they called me Obi; what are you people doing, do you think you can run away and leave us in this place? We’re going to blow this aircraft here as soon as all of you enter and we’ll all die here. So, I told them not to do that; I said who’s the target, is it me or the head of state? Hasn’t he sacrificed enough for you; what is the meaning of this; I began to speak to them in Igbo. I told them that nobody was running away, that the head of state was going to broker peace and dialogue not for him to remain for everybody to be killed. Then, we talked and talked and talked and they were adamant. Someone said to me, go and report them to the General, but I said no, I wouldn’t report to avoid escalating the situation. Eventually, I said to them: “Tell me what I’ll do for you; what you want, I’ll do. Ask me.” They said, “you know when you fly out, we would start suffering. So, we need money and food to sustain ourselves.” I told them that I couldn’t give money because we hadn’t money, “but if it was food, we’ll give you the food store––stockfish, milk, garri and others, all in abundance there.” That I would just give them note and they would have enough. They said, ‘Obi, you know we know you; if it doesn’t work we won’t be happy.” I said no problem. We signed the thing and they left. I came back and announced that we were ready, the aircraft was ready for boarding. We came up, very few people, himself, his wife Njideka, and few officers; myself, my wife to be and one or two assistants. No seat in the aircraft; everybody sat on the floor, the door closed, we taxied and we took-off. We flew to Abidjan. We flew through Lagos; when we were flying over Lagos, the pilot announced that we were flying over the city and that everything was ok.
So, where did the flight come from?
It was a regular flight that brought relief materials; a regular flight that carried luggage, stockfish, food and stuff, it’s a cargo flight but we went to Abidjan. We were met at the airport and given VIP treatment; cars quickly took us to a special area called Kokodi, it’s like Victoria Island of Lagos, that’s where we were. That’s our first leg of movement.
What was life in exile like?
That place we landed was the capital city; we didn’t see it. It was huge, it had buildings, tall skyscrapers and had the presence of white people that live there; you see them in the streets, you see them on motorbikes but a few days later; we moved to the so-called village of the President of Ivory Coast, Houphouet-Boigny in Yamoussoukro and we were given three villas; they called them villas, huge building. Our leader stayed in one; one was a general place, and another was a small place where three of us lived. Asking about what life in exile was, I had never been on exile; I never lived outside Nigeria except visiting UK, US in the early days of my life. But this time, to be in a foreign country where you didn’t understand the language, everybody was foreign to you, it was something else. They treated us so well that we got bored receiving good things from them; the bedding was good, all air-conditioned; meals came from the kitchen of the president. We had kitchen but we never cooked; every meal from breakfast to dinner was ferried over from the presidential palace opposite our villa to us. Breakfast was brought set, lunch was brought set and dinner was every day with extra things. Each one of us was entitled to two bottles of whisky a week; four bottles of champagne a week and four bottles of red wine and four bottles of white wine. They taught us that when you’re eating fish, you drank white wine but if you’re eating meat, you eat that with red wine. So, we were learning new culture; we were learning to speak French we picked on the street. Then I learnt French through international method of learning foreign languages by repetition; get the cassette playing every 24hours as long as I’m awake.
After a while, I was able to go to town––I was the first among us to be able to communicate with the people––go to market, pick a taxi and all that. The food was so good that all we suffered there was constipation; before you could need another set of food, it’s arrived, apples a few hours from France, apple harvested the same day and flown down to us, the same day grapes and such fruits.
So, you settled down and started receiving visitors?
It wasn’t that early. We settled down. Some people came early; people that came to express their regrets about what happened from Nigeria, old friends of Ikemba, I didn’t know them. I met them at airport and brought them a long way from the airport to Yamoussoukro, but how they greeted themselves, they were from the north, all of them old friends. And other people came; Ndigbo from Gabon, London, New York, they came to know how he was taken care of and that was it. Personally, my relatives were calling; they wanted to know if they’d come, I said no. We just talked on the phone and life was ordered by quietness; a time of reflection, discussion and spiced with games, playing table tennis and lawn tennis with the locals and some French people who were working in construction firms there.
It was a long period in Ivory Coast. What other things did you do?
Yes, I got married, wedded my wife in Ivory Coast. It’s a unique wedding; no guests, nobody; only two of us. I dressed her, I combed her hair; I styled her hair. I still have the pictures. We went to the registry and we came back to the house. The president had sent food thinking that people were coming. Nobody came. We ate and returned the rest. Of course, we had relatives in close-by town called Boaki and they later came. But as time went on, there was need for us to be engaged in something. We’re Igbo, you know Igbo people, they struggle. I felt that we couldn’t be receiving food and drinks; we must be doing something to earn money. So I told Ikemba, and he floated a transport company; it’s not very well known by our people but since his father was in that thing, it came up to him. They registered a company called Le Phoenix Africaine and I became the Acting General Manager. We had four trailers to start with and we were hauling cements from Abidjan to up north, the construction firms where they were building housing estates. We were doing that until a British man was employed to be the General Manager. We built locally constructed quarries where we produced granites and washed gravels and sold. It expanded; I think we made money and he took loans to increase the fleet. My duties essentially were of general purpose, running round and taking care of security, visited Abidjan and collected mails; interacted with government officials and see to their wellbeing. Already, in front of our house was about three large lakes and these lakes contained very large and wild crocodiles and one of the pastimes of Houphouet-Boigny was to invite a head of state to the bank of one of the large lakes and call out one of the biggest crocodiles to come and they would obey him. He normally joked and said; ‘Greet a great man from the nation of Biafra’ and the crocodiles would rise from the water; we’d witness how they were feeding the crocodiles with live chickens. It was spectacular. You wouldn’t see anything until you throw the live chicken up across the lake and the crocodiles would rise by force.
As one who was around Ojukwu, what actually happened about the Aburi Accord?
No, I can’t tell you much, I was just observing. I didn’t go to the intellectual exercise. That day, I was just a security man standing and securing. I know that at Aburi, a lot of people were involved, they were there, it was a large crowd and that was it for me.
Was there anything private that Ojukwu told you?
Of course, when he was in very good mood or sad mood, he said certain things, which were unique. For example, he said that one day our people will understand what sacrifices he made for them. There were certain things that he personally decided to do for our people even for which people did not fully appreciate.
The number one of course, that he spent his family money. I don’t know how many millions of pounds but when I was discussing with one foreigner, he said to me, even if he spent 10 million pounds, that it’s nothing in war. Then I said to him, it’s not up to 10 million but it’s a huge amount of money for an African businessman. He spent a fortune and that fortune belonged to the family. One of the things that he often said when we had a unique time of staying together, is that “problems have solution time; don’t force the solution on any problem.”
He wasn’t speaking as a Christian but he was speaking some very basic things. He said, “I’ve a zip on the left side of my chest––you have it too. When you’ve a problem confronting you, if you don’t have any answer, zip down, throw it there and zip up; face whatever is next. If whatever is next is also a problem you can’t solve, get it into that pocket, put it there and go on with the one you can solve. One day, you’ll have an idea.” That’s what he called it, how to solve those problems––you zip down and bring them out.
Were there occasions that he talked about betrayals and things like that?
No, he never talked about such things; he may have talked to the generals or those who were very close to him but for us, our own was just on a lighter mood. For example, if he wanted to amuse us, he cracked very big jokes without smiles but if you think of it, you’d laugh and laugh. He was greeting a commander once; they finished talking in the office and he came out––at least outside his office, there might usually be about 10 people, security officers––he came out, you know he was a man that liked to attract attention at what he does (he can get attention by what he says, that’s why people like Babangida called him a wordsmith; he can manoeuvre English words, and that came from Oxford that he attended) so, he was speaking to this man for us to hear. He said: “I’ve told you what you have to do in this circumstance, there’s nothing we can do from here. And I hope you remember what I told you.” And he was saying for us all to hear. He said, “For this, you’ll either beg, borrow or steal, but have the job done.” The man saluted him and he left. So, that’s a principle which he passed unto us––when it’s so hard you can’t get help from where you’re expecting, from authorities, you beg, borrow or steal, but have the job done.
On your own side, do you have any regrets about the war?
No! In fact, now I call myself, a man of destiny and the subtitle of my book is ‘A man helped by God’. I could have died during the war. God kept me alive, no regrets whatsoever. In fact, I had a very good friend, he’s dead now, he’s from the north, I think he’s from Sokoto, because we attended Police Training College together. He was my friend, he was the son of an emir.
When I came back and I contacted him, he said, “Obi, if any people did to my people what was done to your people, I’d do exactly what your people did and even more.” That’s the word he used in welcoming me and I looked at it, I have no regrets. I served my people honestly. I was on duty in my post and my transfer came as a police officer to report at the Biafra Government House; I reported there and the war broke out. I couldn’t desert; I stayed there. I was there for three years of the war and I continued and served in exile and I love the ideals of Biafra; to build a society where everybody has a right to belong, nobody is marginalized; to build a society where there is respect for the views of the people.
Fifty years after the war, have Nigerians learnt any lessons?
Yes, we should have learnt some lessons; don’t neglect the components of your being, every ethnic nationality belongs somewhere and they generally form a unit. It’s like an arm or head or leg, if you severe it, if you crush it yourself, you’ll lose that leg; and you’ll be one legged, you’ll not be complete. I think that this nation would have learnt a lesson on how to treat every component part of Nigeria. I don’t think we’ve a learnt a lesson; I don’t think so because if we had, then the healing will come faster. The healing is so slow because the policy of ‘No victor, no vanquished’ was not implemented. It looked as if there’s victor and people are defeated, they’ve no right to participation, they lost some rights, they lost their property, influence. Have we learnt a lesson? Yes, war does not do anybody any good; it’s painful. What you lost, you can’t easily recover. If you lost a house, you can’t easily recover, but if you lost a limb, son, or wife, you can’t recover. War is very expensive.
What’s your most striking war experience, positive or negative?
One of the issues I remember very well which was issue of rare incidence, it taught me a big lesson. What happened was that there was a compromise between the Nigerian and Biafra troops; they decided to be friends and avoid killing each other. Their reason was that Ojukwu and Gowon were in bunkers, quite safe and they were out there fighting, trying to kill one another. Why should they be killing themselves? That was what we learnt later. So, they dug a massive hole, vowed, made a pledge that any arms supplied, they’d bury them there and get on with their friendship. It was sealed with parties. They came over to the Biafra side to party and our people went to their side to party and our people supplied dancers, women, they supplied drinks and cigarettes and everything during the party. So, in one of the parties, our people suddenly took gun and arrested them; they said they were up to about 200. They rented trucks and brought them to Umuahia and put them on parade. It was one of the rare incidences, which I remember, and it really struck me. They brought them to receive orders to execute them that they were war prisoners. When we received them and lined them up, we went to tell the Biafra leader and he said it’s impossible. He said “I’d investigate this, this is impossible. I’m a commander. As a military officer, I know that there’s something in this.” And he prepared and came and inspected the guard of honour. He went there but his fist was so tensed; after that he came out and began to cry.
“You thought I’m so bloodthirsty; you didn’t execute them; you never executed them at the front, you brought them here for me to execute. Now take them away from here; camp them in your base and make sure you feed them till the end of the war.” That was highly emotional. Some of the people that were there can’t remember. They would all have thought he would have said “take them away and execute them” but he wouldn’t do that. But the fact is that Nigerian soldiers, authorities and commanders, would not believe that he did it, because some of them were ruthless in their actions against our people.