By HENRY A. ONWUBIKO Saturday March 10, 2012
Photo: Sun News Publishing
I finally saw Ojukwu by the Uli airstrip at the tail-end of the war. By then he was already an unfathomable enigma to my pre-teen mind. The vast propaganda of Okokondem and Radio Biafra had turned him into a deity adorned with songs of chivalry and valour. Even the dissonant voices of Ifeajuna and Njoku were drowned with shrieks of saboteurs and the unparalleled popular aura of Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu subdued under this reverberating cacophony. Who dared asked of the financial state of the Eastern Region or the end results of its revenue and crude oil earning under the bayonet and the monomania of power?
An abrupt strong wing had rushed from the spinning propellers of an aeroplane at the strip. It came like a hurricane and scattered the gaunt pantomimic human cargo of our crummy lorry to the ground. Suddenly, there he stood in the twilight with the fading starlight poorly reflecting his famous bearded figure. The sounds of frogs and crickets ubiquitously permeated the pregnant darkness. Small, I crawled around the myriad appendages inside the lorry to get a better view of this man. I was recruited as a boy interpreter by the French Red Cross and the American mobile clinic. The heat from the broken exhaust of the mammy-wagon roasted our naked bottoms in the long wait but was no distraction to catch a glimpse of the phantasmagoric figure of the peoples’ General. His hands were clutched to his back, a pose he maintained throughout the duration of the war that caused my poor grandmother to wonder, in deep sympathy, whether he ever slept at all. Here was a man who used his father’s vast wealth to wage a war for our survival, we should be grateful, echoing Okokondem, her mouth tightening with wrinkles.
Dear Mama-Ojiugo, she never lived to the end of the war. His beard, which covered much of the face, was joined to a prominent baldhead. He was a step ahead of his aides who carried his other personal effects. A white man who led them to the steps of the super constellation plane used his left palm to dim his torchlight from unforeseen enemy planes. The plane jerked as more of its engines unleashed a torrent of wind from its propellers. The wet planks that formed the skeleton of the lorry creaked and swayed backward with more children blown to their death. A stampede of people later rushed the moving plane to catch a seat but the General was now air-borne.
Soon the odour of Formula-2 corn powder, stockfish and dry milk returned to us with our diminishing anxiety. The early morning dew descended on our bodies as balm to the broken blisters from our cooked brown bodies. With dashed hope, our over-loaded lorry, with its Gabon-bound human cargo returned back to the half-walled refugee camp in Awonmamma town – a former secondary school that was converted to a refugee camp and French Red Cross Hospital. There, we hovered and dodged the anticipating vultures that followed our exhausted and emaciated bodies with magnetic attraction while we counted the numerous indiscriminate shells from Nigerian artilleries.
There, in Awonmamma, we later linked up with millions of other children, mothers and fathers, scattered in different parts of the land, abandoned to forge a new life. The fleeing and gaunt Biafran soldiers who caution demanded to throw away their uniforms or face certain death were among the heroes in our refugee camp. Others included the men and women who created the mobile refineries trans-located from Umudike to Ekwereazu, and from village to village as the people fled and struggled for survival. These people serve as an inspiring contrast to present-day unitary Nigeria, which lacks the indigenous capability to create its own refinery and shamelessly imports petrol and kerosene at high living costs to its citizens, despite a bogus fuel subsidy. This unsavoury business is carried out by a coterie of indigenous comprador agents in league with foreign multinational oil agents.
Also, at the Awonmamma field were foreigners – members of the International Red Cross Aid to Biafran Children linked to the American Mobile Clinic and other Relief agencies. They clustered together and took solace in their collective security, sure that they belonged to great nations to protect them from the conquering Nigerian soldiers. They had no fear even when the now silent artilleries were replaced by shouts of one Nigeria by jubilating soldiers on bicycles.
Yet another set of heroes were those black men and women who conquered the deadly total blockade on Biafra by unleashing their creative energies and reverting it into a renaissance. They set up pharmaceutical industries that manufactured drugs from anti-malarial to anti-biotic which rivaled even Chloroquine and Penicillin. They set up food industries, such as the mechanisation of garri processing. They invented a salt manufacturing plant at Uzuakoli. They fabricated parts for vehicles, aeroplanes and speedboats to sustain all the equipment used throughout the duration of the war. Frederick Forsyth, a European reporter covering the war, reported the invention of the Mass Destroyer or Ogbunigwe, which had a maximum killing range of 200 meters. These heroes show that Nigerians have the capacity to develop their own technology and that under an unfettered true federation of regions with respected cultural affinities and focused patriotic leadership, which discriminates against neocolonial foreign multinational firms as in Biafra, the people’s creative potentials can be maximized and directed to build a great nation.
The last and most important of our heroes are the mothers who shielded their children from bombs, bullets and hunger for three years at the other side of Ojukwu’s Bunker. Outside the bunker there were no concrete fortresses to block the shells and cannon fire from MIGs, jetfighters and bombers. There were no concrete barricade to stop the incessant pounding by armoured cars, shelling machines and heavy artilleries. These mothers moved with their children trekking from town to town, village to village and slept wherever the night caught them. They buried their children or were buried whenever bullets or hunger stopped them. With their husbands at the war front the burden of the survival of the family lay squarely on their shoulders. Kwashiorkor, with its edema, scabies, dehydrate and wrinkled breast was their avatar.
Inside the bunker were imported cigarette, beer and canned meat. Inside this fortress, weddings were conducted with officiating priests and invited foreign guests. The past, William Faulkner reminds us is not past. The Biafran big man of today – governors, senators, members of government business and moneybags – have transmuted the Ojukwu Bunker of yesterday to present-day Nigeria. The monopolisation of resources that belong to the entire people by a small myopic minority continues. They promise the people that he who worships the king shall get to be king.
But at the other side of Ojukwu’s Bunker, lizards and rodents, which served as steak during the war, have remained today’s meat for the people. The women still head most families as their husbands wander through distant cities in the futile search for jobs. The gaunt soldiers of yesterday’s war who served above the bunker as cannon fodder are now today’s political fodder used by our “big men” to get their share of the national cake in the new Nigerian dispensation. MASSOB, their unkempt and tattered rattle-boy has become an embarrassing inquisitor to pick the breadcrumbs from their feasts, parties, births, marriages, and funerals. Thus, inside the bunker there always been an abundance of salt while on the other side of Ojukwu’s Bunker, not a grain could be found.
• This article is for Noel, and the other 300 children killed in the April 1968 air raid in St. Stephen’s School Umuahia, in the present Abia State.
• Onwubiko writes from Okaiuga-Nkwoegwum in Umuahia, Abia State
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