True Life Story: THE 1967 NIGERIA-BIAFRA WAR EXODUS
“ Joe de abukide takikwojawa” he sang and danced in all his elegance. He was the tallest man I saw growing up, he was the first ‘journalist’ I met and ‘interviewed’. He was in love with current affairs, he was up to date with the news. He was a good story teller. He was an entertainer and more than two decades after his death, he is widely quoted around his community. He was well admired, he was the quintessential man of integrity that was as compassionate as he was firm. He was my father….
The opening sentence here is in the local language of his host community, he sang it often and danced in that his elegant form, he belonged to different village dance groups like the Ogene group, a group whose music was almost elitist at the time, they only sang at notable and remarkable ceremonies and at funerals of important chiefs and kings.
So growing up, he always sang this particular song and danced at times he felt depressed. Of course, we had that father/daughter bond, so I asked him the meaning …then he tells me;
“I’m still the same Joseph that I was before the war” He smiled and sat down.
“That song, Nne nwa m, was sang by the men and women I lived with in the North before the war. They sought me out after the war and and they all came here to visit and sang that song and danced. They were happy I survived and I’m still the old Joseph they knew” The song means, Joseph is still the Joseph that we knew before the war. What they did not know was that the song they sang was an elixir for a former wealthy man who the war stripped naked materially, but he was happy to have survived with his family and some dependants , but many did not…
He had businesses and houses in the North, at the beginning of the war, he was scared for his family, apprentices and the larger Igbo community. He was an ardent BBC fan and so followed the pre-war news about the coups and countercoups and the attendant pogrom in the North. He called the Igbo community to urge them to get ready to leave because he was following the news and knew they were not going to be safe. His hosts at the time gave him assurances that they would protect him but he wondered, what of my people, what of those who depended on me for survival? He made arrangements to take as many people as he could back home amidst protests from his amiable hosts.
“I have investments here, I have houses, I have many debtors so I will always come back after the war. I have lived here since adulthood, most of my investments are here and not in my ancestral home. I will surely return but let me secure as many lives as I can first” He told them.
The prognosis of events he was hearing on radio was not heartwarming. He was particularly disturbed by the radio speeches of an Emeka Ojukwu, the son of his business partner at the time, Sir Louis Ojukwu. For my father, it was an emotional but a survivalist decision to head East before danger enveloped him and the people he cared about.
So in August 1967, he hired a big truck to take as many people as it could accommodate home. So when Joe, as he was addressed made the trip out, the other nay-sayers knew that really, danger loomed…he continued to make arrangements for those willing to get back home…many left on his prompting.
But even the home was soon invaded…one of his houses demolished and his vintage Stone House building turned into Nigeria Soldiers Senior Officers House…it was stripped bare of all furniture and ornaments acquired over the years.
So he told me the war was a cocktail of humanity and the individual idiosyncrasies, he saw love, kindness, compassion, wickedness, sadism, narcissism and all sorts…In war and peace, humanity thrives, he told stories of resilience, of perseverance, gratitude and friendship across Nigeria.
Some Igbos betrayed their kinsmen for filthy lucre – the notorious saboteurs who always ended badly despite their acquisitions, some accused others of greed, but yet, those who sang for him and encouraged him were not necessarily from the East. They were Northerners who took him in as family. The contradictions of a nation caught in the throes of political intrigues across ethnic and religious lines and the grass that suffer when many, not two elephants fight…
The story of Nigeria-Biafra war is as diverse, intriguing, heart wrenching and devastating as every war story…but the essence of history is to look back and learn from mistakes of the past…we must document our tiny pieces for humanity…
In memory of all the dead, the maimed and the dispossessed, we must raise our voices. In Igbo language, there are names like Ozoemena – let evil not be repeated, Agha Egbune – let war not consume, Osondu – the race for life etc. All these are snippets of oral and enduring history we must document and preserve.
The war has been described as a rain that fell on all roofs, we would all contribute our stories for prosperity…
The coming days will have other stories…