Archive for the ‘Nigerian civil war’ Category

Dark days behind enemy line

February 26, 2008

First published in The Nation, Lagos

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Title: 888 Days in Biafra

Author: Samuel U. Umweni

Publishers: iUniverse

Date of Publication: 2007

No. of Pages: 220

Price: $24.95

Prison of any form is not a desirable residence. In war time, however, the terrible turns petrifying.

Sam Umweni was heading the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Benin City when the Biafran forces overran the city in August 1967. In the confusion that ensued, he, like many top officials, went into hiding. Words of assurance from the occupational forces brought him out. Thereafter, he and some others responded to a summon to meet with the new authorities. That was on August 12, 1967. As it turned out, the “meeting” lasted till January 12, 1970.

888 Days in Biafra is Unweni’s memoir on his experience during the Nigerian Civil War that lasted from 1967 to 1970. Opening with Acknowledgement, Foreword written by Pius Oleghe in 1976 and a Prologue, the book is divided into eleven chapters. The closing part contains Epilogue, Appendix and Index. It is also spiced with photographs seasons in Umweni’s life surrounding the period and those of his “souvenirs”, mementos of his prison experience.

In the Acknowledgement, Umweni paid tribute to God and people who were helpful to him during his incarceration while Prologue gives a brief biographical sketch of the author.

The book opens with historical background of the crisis that rocked Nigeria and the events leading to the Civil War. One of the first major encounters of the war was the invasion of the then Midwest Region by forces of the secessionist Republic of Biafra. This was despite the Region’s declared neutrality in the crisis, a situation made possible by the semi autonomy the federating regions enjoyed in Nigeria then.

The declared intention of the invaders was the “liberation” of Midwest Region. Thereafter they would move on to “liberate” the Western Region and throw Head of State Yakubu Gowon out of Lagos.

With a pseudo-government put in place, a meeting of the Midwest Executive Council was summoned by Colonel Victor Banjo who headed the “liberation army” at the State House in Benin City. Being personally invited albeit amidst threat of his immediate family paying the price of his not showing up, Samuel Umweni was one of those who responded. Others who were to form the quartet that would cross the Niger in Republic of Biafra that fateful day included Mid West Region Commissioner of Police Joseph Adeola, Olu Akpata and Joseph Imokhuede. It is noteworthy that these three were Edo speaking – like Umweni himself – members of the Council who showed up for the meeting. Samuel Umweni remains convinced that he was betrayed by his Ika Ibo assistant.

The four were informed that they were to have a meeting with top officials of Biafran government in Enugu and were driven across the Niger that night.

Initially there were pretences. Top officials including rebel leader Odumegwu Ojukwu either visited them at their hotel or received them. The was permanently put on hold until the fall of Enugu after federal troops had chased the invaders out of Midwest Region. When they were evacuated along to Awgu, the courtesy began to dissipate. Eventually the pretence ended. They were separated and sent to different prisons. Umweni ended at Okigwe Prison.

As the war progressed and towns had to be evacuated due to pressure of federal troops, they were moved and brought together at Umuahia Prison. The author also served term at Ntueke Detention Centre which he describes as “the gates of hell.” It remained his home until the end of the war.

In war time, things are bad enough. It was horrible in Biafra. What with the federal blockade and the reality of the fact that the Igbo who spearheaded the rebellion are a landlocked people.

Right from the beginning, the crises that followed the first military coup in Nigeria and led to the Civil War had their roots in tribalism. With the declaration of the Republic Biafra, the multi-dimensional nature of the national question came to the fore. The Ika Ibo, seeing themselves as part of Igboland collaborated with Biafra. The illusion soon evaporated as the real Igbo began to manifest arrogant discrimination against all non-Igbo in the republic. The Onitsha Ibo who had always regarded themselves as not being fully Igbo suffered as well as other minority tribes of what is now referred to as South South.

As Biafra lost battles especially on these fronts, people from the areas were herded to the prisons, detention centres, firing squad and the gallows in droves.

Isolated, Biafra suffered all sorts of lack. This situation grew continuously worse as the war progressed. Commodities like salt virtually disappeared. Whatever aid agencies like International Council of the Red Cross and Catholic mission brought were fought over, stolen and rationed out in merger proportions. “Sabo” meaning saboteurs, as Umweni and his co-travellers were tagged suffered worse than the ordinary citizen.

Facing the antagonism of gaolers both the humane and outrightly demonic, forging friendship and alliances with people like Professor Chike Obi and Senator/Justice Daniel Ibekwe who were fellow detainees and other facets of prison life are documented in 888 Days in Biafra. The degradation, deprivation, filth and deaths of inmates that progressed with the war in figure and different attitudes of different prison officials are all there.

In presenting his memoir, Samuel Umweni with the wisdom years bestow on he who has been fired in the kiln of affliction speaks rather than write. One gets the feeling of a man telling his story at the informal gathering of say contemporaries.

Beautifully packaged, 888 Days in Biafra reflects how publishing has grown in Nigeria although in the United States of America. However there are errors like capitalisation of words unnecessarily and misspelling which more careful editing could have eliminated. These slips are however covered by the flow of the story.

The author did not attempt to be an erudite analyst. He rather presents his experiences during the war as he perceives them. Things like discrimination against Protestants by mostly Catholic Igbo that someone who was not there would not have imagined were painted vividly. Although he mentioned his wife’s betrayal in the course of his incarceration, the reader’s curiosity goes unquenched as he closes the story at the point where he finally returned to Benin City when he regained freedom.

In the Appendix, Umweni presents brief information about 57 major characters in the story. The Index section too becomes helpful for the researcher. But one wonders why the chapters have titles but these titles are not written in the contents. You simply have chapter numbers.

Coming 37 years after the end of the Civil War, 888 Days in Biafra, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, is a reminder that that period of our history cannot just be swept under the carpet. Like Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died that tells the Nobel Laureate’s experience in federal custody during the same Civil War, this documentation of a man’s experience tells us we must join Ellie Weisel in his “we must not forget” philosophy. Maybe then we can resolutely say, NEVER AGAIN!

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