This interview with Philip Effiong, II, a Prof of Drama in Michigan State University, whose father, Lt. Col Philip Effiong, was the Second-in-command to then Head of State, defunct Republic of Biafra, Lt.Col Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, brings you face-to-face with many untold events of the Nigerian Civil War. From the position of a witness to history, Effiong corrects some long-held notions about key events during the civil war, with emphasis that the January 15, 1966, coup which some still regard as an Igbo coup wasn’t really the major reason for the massacre of the Igbo during and after the July 29, 1966, counter-coup. His revelations on how the Biafran first families left the break-away republic, his father’s escape from Kaduna, Ojukwu’s conversations with his father, and life as the privileged people in Biafra among others, speak to the futility of war.
Your dad was a Lt Col in the Nigerian Army when the second coup, otherwise known as counter-coup, took place on July 29, 1966. Where precisely was your family and how did your father survive since many officers of Eastern origin were killed?
We lived in a barrack called AN Barracks. It is here in Lagos. When the first coup took place, my father was reposted to the State House under Major General Aguiyi Ironsi, who was the Head of State. He was the Principal Staff Officer to Ironsi. As Principal Staff Officer, his roles were not defined like the Director of Ordinance, which was the position he held before being posted to work with Ironsi. He was trained as an ordinance officer. His posting to the State House almost cost him his life. When he was sent there he learned that the July 29, 1966 Coup was being planned and told his boss, Gen Ironsi. Instead of working with the intelligence, Ironsi brought my father before the Supreme Military Council and asked him to repeat what he told him. That experience was painful to my father and made him a marked man. As an Ibibio, no one could have easily marked my father but what Ironsi did made him a target. From that moment, the planners of the coup considered him a threat to their plans.
If Ironsi had succeeded in thwarting the coup based on the information my father provided, what could have been the fate of people like Gen Theophilus Danjuma, Gen Murtala Mohammed and then Governor of Northern Region, Gen Hassan Katsina among others, who took part in the coup? My father became a targeted man from that day. I am not here to insult anybody but exposing my father to danger for trying to save him was not the right thing for Ironsi to have done. He betrayed my father and posted him to Kaduna to be the acting Commander of the First Brigade. Kaduna was not a place my father wanted to go because he knew what was coming. The coup took place a month after my father was posted to Kaduna and we were in Lagos at the time.
How did he survive in Kaduna when the second coup took place?
He had to go into hiding in Kaduna. We are grateful to a lot people, who helped him to escape. The American Consulate in Kaduna, the Catholic Church and his Brigade Commander, Samuel Ogbemudia saved him from being killed like other officers from Eastern Nigeria. He escaped in disguise from Kaduna to Lagos and we had to leave the barrack. We left the barrack without taking anything along. When we left, the family of another military officer, Col Rudolf Trimnell, harboured us. Col Rudolf Trimnell was from Ukwuani, Igbo-speaking group in Delta State, like my mother but they are also classified as Igbo. He was in hiding but we stayed at the family compound of his wife at Spencer Street, Lagos. His wife is a Yoruba woman. They were gracious but the place was crowded. Food was not a problem but it was difficult feeding many people because the Trimnell children were six and we were seven. That was in addition to other relatives living with them. We didn’t know where my father was and my mother cried everyday thinking he had been killed. That was our situation when the first and second coups took place. Eventually, my father managed to escape to the east. I didn’t know how he made an arrangement for us to take a boat from Lagos to Port Harcourt. The boat that took us was a big boat which was captained by a white man. Till date, I get scared any time there is lightning because of the sounds of shelling I heard during the war. I also got scared any time I found aeroplane flying after the war because of the air raids we witnessed.
I was young and the things I can recall are the things that affected me. Virtually everything about the war affected me. That is why I can tell vivid sad stories of the things that happened during the war.
Some authors, and even eminent people, who gave first-hand information about the war like Frederick Forsyth, Alexander Madiebo, and Nnamdi Azikiwe among others, said Ojukwu literally ran a one-man government in Biafra. What type of working relationship did your dad have with him?
I am sure another opinion of Ojukwu from another person would sound differently. Many people say that. Officers found themselves in a very difficult situation during the crisis. My father joined the army in 1945 before many people joined. He was already an officer before some of them including Gen Yakubu Gowon joined the army. In the picture of Nigeria’s first military officers in 1951, they sat and stood according to their ranks. The highest rank was Major. There were about three Majors and the next in order of seniority were Captains and my father was one of those Captains. The remaining people were Lieutenants and Second Lieutenants. That was where Ojukwu and Gowon belonged. When my father found himself in Biafra, he had to submit himself to Ojukwu, who had been his junior and that is not easy in the military. At that time my father’s concern was not about himself but the welfare of the people. He was not the Second-in-command immediately he found himself in the Biafran Army. He was assigned to different positions. At some point, he headed the Biafran Militia before he was made the Deputy Head of State. The official designation was Chief of General Staff. Brigadier Njoku could have been given the position but he had a fallout with Ojukwu for the reasons we are talking about. Let me give Ojukwu some credits.
We can only imagine what it was like for him as the Governor of Eastern Region to suddenly have a refugee crisis on his hands. How old was he then? He was only 34 years old. They were quite young and did what they could. On that level, he handled the refugee crisis and created a safe passage for non-Igbo to leave the east. Though some people were angry and the house of the Mayor of Enugu, who was a northerner was burnt. When he went to Aburi, he did well by negotiating well. Unfortunately, the federal government revised it because they did not renege completely.
Are you saying the declaration of Biafra was not an immediate result of the failure of the Aburi Accord?
We have to remember that the creation of 12 states by Gowon was the immediate reason for the declaration of Biafra by Ojukwu. The implication of the creation of states was that Ojukwu no longer had the authority to govern the eastern region. The voiding of Ojukwu’s position was not reassuring for the Igbo because Ojukwu was the only one, who spoke for them until that point. The appointment of Ukpabi Asika, someone, who they didn’t know as the Governor of East Central State, was a clear message that their authority in the army was now being removed. That didn’t go down well with the people and they wanted to maintain what was left of their autonomy with this leader they trusted. That was a major reason Biafra was created. Biafra was blessed with respected statesmen like the late Chief Michael Opara, Sir Francis Akanu Ibiam, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe among others. The federal side didn’t have much like the eastern region but they had Awolowo, a well-respected man.
What did Gowon do? He immediately made him his deputy and listened to his wise counsel. On the side of Gowon, the creation of states was brilliant from military and political standpoints. I don’t believe it was Gowon’s original idea but it showed that he was listening to those, who were more experienced than him, probably, Awolowo. In Biafra, the opposite was happening because most of the eminent people were asking Ojukwu to listen to them. Their argument was that they were not getting a lot of cooperation from Gen Ojukwu. The people who complained were Dr. Opara, Dr. Azikiwe, among others. Azikiwe eventually left Biafra. Essentially, he didn’t only change sides but talked about his problems. Now, this is what he said not what I know. He said it was hard to get along with Ojukwu. He said he had made significant gains in trying to get support for Biafra for some African countries to get a peace deal, but added that Gen Ojukwu was always countering his proposals.
He said Ojukwu believed in a military solution while Biafra didn’t have the military might. The Secretary to the Biafran Government, a man from my place, Mr. N. Akpan, who was very close to Ojukwu also said the same thing in his book. In my father’s book, Nigeria and Biafra: My Story, he also said there were some problems getting Gen Ojukwu to see things differently. It is a common complain. The reason I told the Aburi story is to present a balanced picture because it is not all about condemnation like people tend to do. People look at Ojukwu’s faults and use them to speak completely against Biafra but it goes beyond his personality. My father once talked about how he told Ojukwu that Biafran forces needed to protect Ikot Ekpene which leads to the heart of Biafra. He said when he made the proposal, Ojukwu said maybe Biafra needed reinforcement to protect Nnewi, where he, Ojukwu, hailed from. Ojukwu thought my father made the statement because of the assumption that he was from Ikot Ekpene. We are not from Ikot Ekpene but Ibiono. My grandfather only settled in Ikot Ekpene which is Ananland while Ibiono is Ibibio. Some also said there were problems with the Igbo and minorities in Biafra. These minorities didn’t play minor roles in the war. Some problems arose because some had been given states. It contributed to the saboteur narrative in Biafra. Some non-Igbo were killed by Biafran forces for suspicions of being saboteurs.
Was it like the public execution of Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Col Victor Banjo on September 25, 1957?
Ifeajuna and Banjo were even assumed to have plotted a coup against Ojukwu. I am talking about innocent civilians, who were targeted and accused of being sympathetic to the federal troops. They were killed. My father’s younger brother, Etim, who fought for Biafra and rose to the rank of Sergeant, was almost killed. When Ikot Ekpene fell to the federal troops, they were trekking to Umuahia, along the way, a vigilante group stopped them. When Igbo was spoken to them, my father’s younger brother was not able to speak Igbo and they almost killed him. They were just fortunate enough to convince the vigilante members that he was my father’s younger brother. Some would argue that enough was not done in Biafra to consolidate the unity between the Igbo and non-Igbo. The person that suggested the name, Biafra, Chief Opigo was not an Igbo man but Ogoja. My father said he insisted that if the problem was not handled, it would be among the forces that would work against Biafra. Maybe Biafra would have fallen, but that also contributed to the loss of the war. However, I still want people to look at the leader of Biafra from a different angle and not to condemn him.
Would it be safe to say that what made your father’s escape from Kaduna and your family’s refuge at the home of the father of Col Trimnell’s wife was the absence of mistrust among Nigerians at the time?
I agree absolutely because many of the people, who helped my father at the time were not easterners. When he was hiding in Lagos also, a lot of people who helped him were Yoruba. The mistrust was not there but we have increasingly established boundaries among ourselves and it is causing problems. However, we managed to escape and ended up at Ikot Ekpene, which is my parents’ adopted home. Our real home is Ibiono. From there, we went to Enugu. I was there when the war started and when Enugu was shelled.
The January 1966 coup is widely belived to have been conceived by Major Ifeajuna and led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu. There were other majors like Timothy Onwuatuegwu, Chris Anuforo, Don Okafor, Humphrey Chukwuka, and Adewale Ademoyega. Some roles were played by some rustics like non-commissioned officers. Does the ethnic composition of the leading actors not justify the labeling of the coup as an Igbo coup?
I am not a fan of Nzeogwu, I am not a fan of Ifeajuna, and I am not a fan of Ademoyega, who were the three principal actors in the January 1966 coup. We talk of others like Nwobosi, and Onwuatuegwu. There are many others that people don’t talk about including Atom Kpera, who later became the military governor of Benue and Anambra states. There were also other non-commissioned officers, who people don’t talk about. The coup can’t be called an Igbo coup because most of the principle players were Igbo-speakers. There is no doubt about that and I am not exonerating them. Therefore, to hold the entire Igbo ethnic nationality responsible for the coup is wrong. We have to look at the real reasons Igbo were slaughtered in the second coup. It is not because of the first coup or the Decree 34 ,Unitarisation Decree, because a lot of people involved in the slaughter of the easterners didn’t even know the tenets of Decree 34 at the time. If that was the case, why did they kill for what they didn’t understand? When people lie about reasons for an atrocity like that, it only creates problems because people become angry and indignant.
Even people, who were not born at the time, are going to learn about what happened to their communities, families, businesses and homes and there are going to be reactions. That is why it is important to tell the truth. Some of my greatest heroes are not from my tribe. One of the things the Igbo people have done is that they have excelled tremendously in business and other areas. Before independence, they had excelled in education, sports, military and other sectors of the Nigerian society, They played leading roles everywhere even in the north where they were in the majority of the non-indigenes and were very aggressive commercially before independence. Unfortunately, independence brought rivalry and people became territorial. It was a situation that made the Igbo become very powerful and visible but it created problem because indepence had created new boundaries and rivalries. The prominence of the Igbo became a threat and there was a question of what to do with them.
If people are marked for attack or elimination flimsy reasons are always given. Long before the coup, then Premier of Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, who was very powerful spiritually and politically, in an interview, talked about the Igbo in the north. He complained that the Igbo always wanted to be the head and take charge. If he had said the Igbo in the north were committing crimes, I would have agreed with him but he was saying good things about the Igbo, which to him were reasons they were threats to them in the north. That made me realise that even before the pogroms of 1966, there were already plans to attack the Igbo. The first coup and Decree 34 presented themselves as opportunities to attack the Igbo.
Do you mean the Nzeogwu coup and the Decree 34 , Unitarisation Decree, were not the reasons they struck on July 29, 1966?
The reasons were that the Igbo were considered as economic and political threats. But the decree and first coup were used as reasons. That was just an excuse and not a justifiable reason. The decree gave many powers to the centre. Has it changed?
This question is germane to your concerns about the profiling of the coup as an Igbo coup. In your conversations with your dad, who was the Director of Ordinance when Nzeogwu carried out Operation Damisa , did he ever mention names of non-Igbo, who were involved in the coup whose names were never made public?
I know I have a list of those involved which is a product of research. The point is that there was a more diverse group of people, but the non-Igbo have been isolated and the focus has been on the Igbo. We should remember that Nzeogwu is from Okpanam—a town close to Asaba. We need to identify the fact that he was of Igbo background, but there were people I met from Igbo-speaking area of Delta who said they are not Igbo. Let us assume that everybody that participated in the coup were Igbo, it is still not enough to call it an Igbo coup. There have been coups in this country that have been affiliated to certain groups but no coup was ever profiled as northern or Hausa coup. There was never an Igbo coup and I hope there would never be. Saying that it is an Igbo coup implies that the Igbo came together, planned and executed the coup. For instance, the fact that Major Ademoyega was involved does not mean that Yoruba people planned the coup. He operated as an individual not as a representative of the Yoruba people.
It is obvious that war times are not interesting times. Was that the case for your family which was the number two family in Biafra after Ojukwu’s family?
There were privileges but we have to look at them within the context of Biafra. When planes came to bomb Biafra, they didn’t look for privileged people to bomb. Everybody was a target. At some point, we were homeless. When Umuahia fell, we were destitutes and were taken in by my father’s first ADC’s family. The father of the ADC kept us in his house. My father’s ADC, Hillary Iroegbulam was a young man then. He is still in New York. We stayed in his father’s house until Owerri was recaptured and we went to Owerri.
There was Ojukwu Bunker in Umuahia, which was said to have been the place Ojukwu stayed when Umuahia fell. Why didn’t your family take refuge there?
That is what people say but if there was a bunker, I never saw it and we didn’t have one. Maybe there was but when Umuahia fell, regardless of the bunker, Ojukwu had to leave Umuahia. There may truth in some but it is important to verify before believing. For instance, some said he left Biafra with his Mercedes-Benz. The truth is that we left Biafra on cargo planes. Which of the tiny cargo planes would have contained the Mercedes Benz?
When you people were boarding the “last flight in Biafra” at Uli Airstrip, did you leave with Ojukwu?
Towards the end of the war it was clear that Biafra was losing. This talk about Ojukwu leaving Biafra for peace deals was not the case. I am not here to insult anybody but to say the truth. Biafra had engaged in a few peace talks. That was the first time he was going for the purported peace talks with his entire family, including his mother. Everybody that was remotely connected to Ojukwu was flown out of Biafra. When it was clear that he was leaving, he told my father. At the time and my mother was pregnant with my younger sister, Philipa. My father told him that if that if he was leaving for him , my father, to stay back, he must take his wife ,my mother, and her children, which included my older brother, Charles, my younger brother, Francis, I and my cousin, who was staying with us.
Prior to this time, some countries were taking Biafrans out as refugees. About a year earlier, my oldest brother and my older sisters were taken out. My siblings were taken to Ireland but I was in Biafra until the last minute with my older brother Charles.
So what was the picture of the last flight from Biafra?
The flight took place before my father announced the surrender of the Biafran forces which ended the 30-month civil war. I remember what happened vividly because it was not planned for us to leave. My had gone to Ojukwu in Nnewi to make the request for us leave with them. Other people said my father threatened Ojukwu that he must include us among those leaving Biafra with him. The wife of a military officer, who was a colleague of my father, told me that my father had the conversation with his riffle drawn. The woman is old now and lives in Maryland but that was not true. Before our departure, we were in Owerri which had been recaptured by Biafrans and the recapture was a major victory for Biafra. There was a night my father was away and there were explosions. It was common to hear the gunshot sounds but the sounds of the explosion were so loud that we had to leave. My mother had a driver, Goddy. It was a special arrangement because the car belonged to Goddy. We left with the car but we didn’t have a destination. The car was very slow and eventually stopped. We stood at the roadside and saw a convoy of four vehicles coming. We knew it was someone of importance because convoys were used by Ojukwu, my father and Madiebo. We waved and the convoy stopped. My dad emerged from one of the cars. He took us to a place we slept that night before leaving for Nnewi the next day. Nnewi was one of the few places that were never captured by the Nigerian troops.
Was it a stroke of luck that Nnewi was never attacked?
Biafran forces really protected the town because it was a target of the federal troops. Biafran soldiers deserved credit for protecting Nnewi. They also protected the Uli Airstrip. Sometimes when the Airstrip was bombed, Biafran engineers fixed it within three days. Those people deserved credit for their ingenuity. The next day we left for Nnewi. At a point we were driving behind a lorry that was carrying bags of rice. Some of the bags were leaking and were streaking on the roads. People were packing them into their containers. It was a sad sight and showed how people starved in Biafra because I never starved in Biafra. When my mother, older brother, my younger brother, I and my cousin arrived at Ojukwu’s personal house in Nnewi, I was shocked. They took us into the house and I saw children playing with toys that I had never seen since the war started. I am talking of cars and aeroplanes running with batteries.
They gave me Bournvita that I had never drank since the war started and I drank it and felt as if I was in heaven. My brother and I were not comfortable there and they took us outside where we sat. At that point, they were making plans for us to leave with Ojukwu’s family. In that house all Ojukwu’s relatives were there, meaning that they had assembled. The plan was to evacuate them. It was at that point that my father made the request. We were there and his official car drove in at some point. It was so strange that he came and left without speaking to us. Apparently that was when they concluded the negotiations of our exit inside Ojukwu’s house. We didn’t know what was happening. In the night, they put us in a car and took us somewhere. As we were driving, we got to a place where some people with torch-light asked us to turn off our light. The place turned out to be the Airstrip. I saw cargo planes with two propellers with no seats inside. There was a ladder leaning on the aeroplane and people were climbing. I can recall Ojukwu’s mother who was an elderly woman, having problems while climbing the ladder. After struggling, she entered the plane, and they invited us to climb the ladder. We didn’t have any property with us. We flew the same plane with Ojukwu’s mother. We left two days before Ojukwu. We landed at Sao Tome. From there, people started going to different places, because there was really no plan.
You said your plane landed at Sao Tome but Ojukwu departed Biafra for Ivory Coast, How come?
We joined Ojukwu later in Ivory Coast but we first stayed in Sao Tome, after which we left for France and Portugal because there were no plans. These countries were sympathetic to Biafra. I had a Biafran passport but didn’t know what we were travelling with. We ended up in Bourke, Ivory Coast where his family was staying. Ojukwu was staying in Yamoussoukro where Felix Houphouët-Boigny hailed from. We visited him once but his family stayed in Bourke with us. We used to go to school in a refugee camp. I am grateful to Ivory Coast because if not for what it did, those children taken from Biafra would have died of Kwashiokor. Some of the children were able to trace their families while others didn’t return and integrated into the country. That is why I believe that there are descendants of Biafra in Ivory Coast. We stayed there until the war ended. Based on the instructions my mother gave my brother and I, we flew to Ireland where we stayed.
As of late 1968 and 1969, it was obvious that Biafra was losing the war. Now, in your conversations with your dad, did he ever say that the war was fought with the conviction that the war would end in favour of Biafra?
When Biafra started, it didn’t have resources in terms of trained soldiers and weapons of war. That was always source of concern but as a Biafran, my father and other Biafrans felt it was a just cause and they felt they had the right to defend themselves. Along the way, a number of them believed there would be some international interventions. I am not going to say that there wasn’t any belief because people thought they would be able to defend themselves. A number of people also didn’t imagine that Gowon would use maximum force against Biafrans. At the initial stage people volunteered to join the army but as at 1968, people were conscripted into the army. That showed that the morale was dropping.