Nigeria Civil War: The Eleme Experience
(The Impact of Nigeria Civil War on Eleme)
By Samuel O. Onungwe
Although the Nigeria Civil War began formally on 6th July 1967, the war had commenced in May of same year as the Nigeria Navy which has the constitutional mandate to protect the territorial integrity of Nigeria was drafted to Bonny to execute an economic blockade against Biafra on the Atlantic coast long before 3rd of July 1967 when the Supreme Military Council ordered the military action against Biafra which took effect on 6th of July 1967.
Therefore the federal troops which were a combination of the navy and army arrived at Bonny sometime in April 1967 in the Nigeria Naval Ship, NNS Nigeria and later arrived again on 5th January 1968 in NNS Obuma. The purpose was to launch an attack to capture Port Harcourt which was part of the Eastern region using their assault ship named Stone Free Gate.
They had wanted to capture Port Harcourt through the sea but it was precarious thus they made a reversal. Chukwuma et al. (2015) had reported the details of the attacks by the Biafran forces.
“Just after NNS Nigeria had brought supplies from Lagos, the Biafrans engaged the naval ships with their home made gunboats and sank NNS Sapele commanded by Lt. Sereki who eventually became the most senior naval casualty in the war. The battle was so frustrating that not even his body or any member of his crew was recovered. The ship was sunk. One of greatest challenges of the Nigerian navy during the war was the activities of BAF (Biafran Air Force) whose B52 bomber and helicopters constituted a menace to the ships of the Nigerian navy especially the flag ship that could not enter into smaller channels because of its size and therefore at the initial stage (although it later did in some places) was stationed on the open sea where it posed easy target for the Biafran air force.”
However, they succeeded in capturing Onne through the Mmu Ngololo or Ngololo River in that April of 1968. Unfortunately for them, it took the Biafran soldiers a two-day reprisal to dislodge them from Onne. The Biafran troops had expelled them using the dreaded Ogbunigwe and shore battery. The shore battery was used offshore as it was submerged into sea and at the activation of its cable network; it created spikes of waves which caused vessels to capsize. Similarly, Ogbunigwe was laid at a long stretch along the road, and at its ignition, would explode, causing cataclysmic damage to the enemy troops.
Before long, Bane the hometown of the martyred environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Bori, the traditional headquarters of Ogoni were invaded and captured through the Bori – Port Harcourt road which traverses Eleme, Elelenwo and Rumukurushi. Thus the federal troops in this strange land were comfortable with attacking using well established routes unlike the regional troops who were sons of the soil and understood how best to navigate the waterways and the terrestrial horizon.
The second defeat of the Nigerian soldiers by the Biafran soldiers during the civil war was at the Onne, the present site of the Nigeria Naval College and Federal Lighter Terminal. Ngololo River had been identified as a deep sea shipping canal far earlier than 1900. In fact, because of that river, which was on the Bonny estuary, the original city was designed to be sited at Eleme although this plan was later ignored. Decades later there was the need to establish Nigeria Naval College at Onne and on the 25th September 1981; NNC Onura Onne was inaugurated for the training of cadets alongside Nigeria Defence Academy, NDA. This natural harbour was also developed into a seaport in about the same time consisting of federal lighter and federal ocean terminals in 1986. Within this area of Onne, the Onne Oil and Gas Free Zone Authority, was inaugurated in 1996, designed to enhance oil and gas operations.
After the initial defeat at Onne, the federal troops went back and recouped only to return this time, through the road. From the conquered neighbouring Ogoni community they fired missiles into Eleme and on the 7th May 1968, there was an aerial bombing of Eleme. Five chain bombs or cluster hydrogen bombs were launched into two Eleme communities, Ogale and Aleto. Two were detonated at Ogale with three at Aleto and these were done along the road.
The bombs at Ogale detonated at Aluebo and destroyed part of Ɛmԑrԑ Moses Oluka Ochen’s residence and opposite HRH Ɛmԑrԑ W. Gbute Ngegwe’s Palace particularly, Mazi Okpara Hotel which was sold after the civil war to a group of people as an abandoned property called DONOS, and its name was changed to DONOS Hotel. The word DONOS was an acronym for Dickson-Osaro Nete, Oluka-Ejire, Ngofa-Nyimejira, Osarollor and Sunday-Osaro (Ebubu). The spots where the bombs detonated at Aleto were the old Isiogu compound close to Echieta Nchia, Mbie Nwoketie Ollorte compound, and Isaac Osaroluji compound behind State School, Aleto.
Interestingly, at Ollorte and Moses Ochen (Aluebo) residence, the bombs detonated in shrines but no harm was done to the shrines. However, horrendous cavities were created in their surroundings and at other locations where the bombs blew up. The priestess at Ogale (who was also a traditional birth attendant) was Njiran Obe Ekaan-Ejor of Adama.
The Journey out of Home and Eleme
Sequel to this invasion on the 7th May 1968, Eleme people decided to move to farm hamlets the next day for safety to avoid any possible attack by federal troops. The idea was to temporarily settle at such hamlets known as O’pe Oka but that became an unfulfilled dream as they kept moving out of Eleme as the attacks became intense. This journey was by foot with an adult carrying a child at his back. Grown up children could assist their parents to carry their younger ones or simply walk on their own in the company of their parents. Chimamanda once said that a certain wealthy Igbo man carried his symbolic Chi due to its cultural and spiritual essence when there was a need to run for his safety during that war however, the Eleme people left all they had at home except their families for they had departed unprepared only to later become refugees. The aged and weak men and women, who could not carry on with the indefinite journey, prayed for their loved ones in their hearts but chose to stay back. They would prefer to die in their ancestral land than to embark on an adventure whose end could only be imagined.
Onne people had earlier vacated their homes and community into Nchia communities where they had relatives, with some settling at Internally Displaced Placed, IDP camps in the various schools within Nchia and returned in June/July 1968 to their homes and community after its invasion in April. Conversely, this return was short-lived as in August 1968; the whole of Eleme was dispersed into the other towns of the Eastern region such as Kom Kom – Oyigbo, Igbo Etche, Atale through Eneka to Igwuruta Ali. Other places were Ozuzu, Okehe, Owerri and Umuahia. Those who went to Afam and Kom Kom later moved to Obehe and next, they moved to Aba, Ngwa land.
Fighting for Survival
Thus Eleme people were cut off from their ancestral land, homes, farm and businesses, and during the whole period, their children would have no access to education and their hallowed places of worship. The common prayer then was that the war should come to an end so they could return to their hometown. Now and then, the Biafra soldiers would visit the refugee camps to conscript males whom they considered of age into the army. Some of these would later lose their lives at the warfront. At the battle field, they fought wars without proper training and improvised weapons while the Nigerian forces were more armed. For instance, the Nigerian soldier had an AK47 assault rifle while the Biafran soldier used Mark 3 cock and fire gun. Like the case of David and Goliath, the Biafran soldier had but five bullets to face a man with an arguably unlimited number of bullets. Thus the Biafran soldiers at some points had to devise means to conquer their enemies. One of such means was the training of children of less than or about ten years of age, as spies. They would monitor Nigerian soldiers from a distance and when they got closer to them exhibit tendencies of suffering or sickness until they had closely noted the hideout or booths of the Nigeria soldiers. At times, they would offer to assist the Nigeria soldiers to carry a few of their items but the main aim was to spy on them. Having been armed with this information, they become informants to the Biafran soldiers in hope that someday they conquer their enemies and have their dream country built on justice, fairness and equity. Their dream was a country where their future was secure and where leaders of tomorrow would not be deprived at their time by older generations.
In some cases, in a bid to evade being conscripted into the military, some Eleme men would hide and sometimes act as if they mentally disabled persons, only temporarily until the recruiters had left their vicinity. At other occasions some feigned to be severely, physically challenged and that served as an excuse. These appeared so real as if they were either true or well rehearsed. Despite these, there were times when the factional HRM Ɛmԑrԑ Johnson E. Nkpornwi of Onne and Ɛmԑrԑ John Black of Egbalor – Ebubu and few others, truncated but did not thwart the conscription of Eleme youth into the army.
However, some youth who were passionate about the secessionist cause, volunteered and enlisted into the Biafran army. Their motivation stemmed from anger having witnessed the unabated massacre of their fellow easterners at the hands of the northerners. The single females considered of age occasionally were like ripe fruits to birds in the eyes of some of the soldiers. To curtail this, many ladies accepted marriage proposals to men who were eager to settle down to at least have children before anything went wrong. But for the situation of war and some form of security married women enjoyed, some would never venture into marriage unprepared. Eventually, these were exposed to famine, hunger and deprivations, malnutrition and in extreme cases infant mortality. There was high dependence on relief materials which were shared in the various camps located within schools and churches but these were largely inadequate.
How they Fed
The refugees at the various churches and schools depended on relief materials which were supplied by the World Council of Churches, WCC and the Red Cross Society and other Non-Governmental Organisation, NGOs. The Red Cross Society was in charge of welfare as it handled healthcare and care. The natives of the host communities also made relief materials available to the Eleme refugees at various times. They also allowed Eleme people to bury their deceased in their burial grounds. One of those who were buried in such ways was Mr. Augustus Isiogu who had earlier instructed his family to bury him at the place of refuge and should not exhume and transfer his corpse if he died at the camp but granted consent that his burial rites be observed at home upon their return. When relief materials were in short supply or not available, Eleme people would engage in domestic and farm work in the host community. These services were rewarded with food items and Biafran Pounds which had higher value than the Nigerian Naira.
The camps were structured in a way that there was a camp leader and welfare officer. At St. Benedict Catholic Church camp Ahiaba Ngwa, Abia State, some Eleme refugees were camped there and the leader was Ɛmԑrԑ N. A. Ngofa, the father of Amb. Oji Nyimenuate Ngofa while HRH Ɛmԑrԑ Barr. Dr. J. D. Osaronu was the welfare officer. This structure was spread across the present Abia and Imo States during that war period. The mode of communication was the movement of various refugees looking for their relatives from one camp to another and thereby passing out vital information concerning the happenings in other camps. By this, those wounded from Eleme extraction were linked to their various families through the movement of people from one camp to another, military formation and hospitals. Chinwi Isiogu, Joshua Diabia and Alale Ngofa were some of the children who moved across military formations and hospitals to search for their people and convey messages to their families. These families later visited their wounded members and those provided some morale and spiritual support. Spiritual support because at that time Eleme people were largely Christians who offered prayers and Biblical admonitions and that fastened their recovery.
First Eleme Returnees
After this first porch or sleep out and movement of refugees into the Igbo land, there was an appeal within two-three months of movement into the Igboland, there was an appeal by the military at Port Harcourt Province Command, that Rivers people should return home as they assured them of safety. That assurance of safety by the Military High Command motivated several Eleme people to have a u-turn. Some of the persons who returned include Ɛmԑrԑ Moses Ngofa, Ɛmԑrԑngwe O. O. Ngofa, and some other indigenes of Aleto while at Ogale Ɛmԑrԑ Benson Ogboru Obe, Ɛmԑrԑ Gabriel Obari Osaro Onungwe. Another reason for heeding to the call to return home was tactical maneuvering of the federal troops not to shoot at the civilians so that allayed their fears and appealed their sensibility.
Another reason the Eleme people moved out of their land and were reluctant to return even at the persuasion of the federal troops to return was due to the perennial hostilities between them and their neighbours who were believed to be more in the federal military for the fear of abetting and aiding unnecessary attacks on them. These people had shown an insatiable quest for Eleme inheritance such that notably persons among them claimed that Eleme territory belonged to them yet could not stop massive looting of abandoned properties in the land. This action taken by these non Eleme people got to the point in which some military chiefs who had their camps in schools such as Ascension High School, Ogale and State School, Aleto were prompted to question their actions as they asked them why they would vandalise buildings and loot valuables from homes if they were the true owners as they had claimed. These non Eleme people were so barbaric that they unleashed mayhem on an Eleme indigene that was identified to be insane to the extent that she was reported to have recovered her lost sanity and escaped for her safety. Alas, at the return of Eleme people, Ngofa (2006) noted that the infrastructures which were hitherto a joint asset had been renamed after themselves by their Eleme neighbours. Despite several petitions to protest and demand for a reversal, nothing has changed till date.
In the heat of the war, an eloquent Anglican interpreter at the Holy Trinity Church, Nchia, and legendary broadcaster in Eleme language, Mr. David Onungwe Isiogu worked with the Radio Biafra, Enugu at the premises of St. Joseph Secondary School, Obodo Okwu Omueme, very close to Osina in Imo State. Mr. David would make a weekly broadcast in Eleme language assuring the people of Eleme who had returned home that those who were still refugees were alive and safe at the various camps in the Igbo land and would certainly return home at the dawn of peace. Omaka (2017) had observed that Radio Biafra was a useful tool that buoyed up morale of the people as it did not only sustain the support and loyalty of Biafrans but also created a community spirit that bolstered Biafrans’ confidence in the war.
Impact on Marriage and Rites
During that war, Meshack O. Onungwe of Alueken, Ogale escaped from Ogale through Oka Nwen Mmu and joined his in-laws at O’pe Aluebo, Agbonchia and together they moved to Etche where they secured a place of refuge at Teacher Thompson Nwankwola’s compound. Meshack having fulfilled the traditional rites of his betrothed bride, Joy A. Mube of Ogologbaa and could not ascertain the end of the war, with the consent of their families and the approval of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Mba Etche were joined in holy matrimony on 20th July 1968 by Pastor Orokowu from Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni LGA in the presence of relatives, friends and well wishers particularly Mr. Amadi Nnanta, Ɛmԑrԑ -owa Katenya Mube I-o-ro, Sir Dickson Abee Mube, Ɛmԑrԑ Gomba Awukwa Okpabi, Elder Walter Dee Olaka, Elder Michael Chu, Elder Isaiah Osaroedey, Deacon Raphael Chujor and their families. Pastor S. J. Okochi and his family who found refuge at his son Mr. Ikechi’s compound arrived at the ceremony to rejoice with the couple. The event of the war truncated some of the festivities that trail marriage in Eleme for instance, the rather than the couple to stay longer with the family of the bridegroom to until the traditional owen mbari was done, they would have to live the next day to the place the residence of the bridegroom. Thus the expected oka I’a owa (new wife farming ceremony) was not observed.
There were other refugees who formally took wives during the war and that served as a transitory relief during that crisis. Eventually, many of these couples were later blessed with children during the war and afterwards. There was a case where some Eleme people picked up wandering children who must have been made orphans because of the warring occasion. These precious ones were adopted and were later carried along with their new found parent to Eleme land. They would forever be known as Eleme indigenes and share in the inheritance of their new found. In no occasion should they be discriminated against or made to under that they were not biological children of these parents. They would henceforth bear Eleme names and eternally carry the identity of Nyime Eta Eleme. However, the tragicomedy described above did not apply to every child that suffered one loss or the other. In fact, there was a certain child, who had lost his father but his picture. He would live with a poor relative in his paternal home because his mother who was a stranger abandoned him and fled to her own village. This little boy was only enrolled in school but could not attend more than a few days in a term. He was required to support his uncle and wife in their farming business. He would be asked to travel miles away from home into the stream, he would have to wash fermented cassava and process it into nja ojakpo or fufu to be sent to his older cousins at school. This was how he ended up a poor illiterate without realizing his full potential in life.
In all, it was a thirty-month non-stop war in the continent of Africa and the loss of Eleme youth and lives from the various Eleme communities have not been accounted for. Indeed, everything attributive to warfare was not lacking in it.
Impact on Traditional Rulership
The massive movement of Eleme people to strange lands and their early returnees left the people who were at home without constituted traditional rulers. This vacuum would need to be filled with capable men among the returnees. The preferred were the educated among them. At Ogale, Ɛmԑrԑ Benson O. Obe was asked to temporary oversee the affairs of the land until the return of the Ͻnԑ Ɛԑ Ɛta, HRH Ɛmԑrԑ W. Gbute Ngegwe. Similarly, at Aleto, the Ͻnԑ Ɛԑ Ɛta Aleto, HRH I. S. Oluka had also relocated out of the community thus; the former traditional ruler of the community who was one of the earliest returnees was reinstated. This was how HRH Ɛmԑrԑ Moses Ngofa returned as a traditional ruler even when he had stepped aside before the war due to intra communal rift.
This temporary structure, would later pose a threat to the highly revered traditional rulership institution as at the return of the properly constituted rulers it introduced factions in the land which hitherto were nowhere to be found. For instance, Ɛmԑrԑ Benson O. Obe was unwilling to hand over power to HRH Ɛmԑrԑ W. Gbute Ngegwe even though they were blood relatives. At Aleto, it resulted also in some form of factional rulership with the early returnees loyal to HRH Ɛmԑrԑ Moses Ngofa while those largely of the late returnees voluntarily submitted to the rulership of HRH Ɛmԑrԑ I. S. Oluka as Ͻnԑ Ɛԑ Ɛta Aleto. The consequence of this was an enduring acrimony and animosity in the land.
Broken Hearts and Unfulfilled Dreams
After the no victor no vanquished message by General Gowon, the return of survivors and the promise of reintegration, reconstruction and reconciliation whose implementation remains debatable, the people of Eleme gradually returned home. Oluka Obo and his father Obo Alale who were both employees of an oil servicing company having critically appraised the security conditions in the land, encouraged their children and wives to move out while they stayed behind to defend and secure the land. Regretfully, at the return of their families, these courageous men could not be found alive. They have been covered at the front yard under an eroding mould of earth that were each decorated with a flourishing hibiscus flower and a queen of the night plant. The fragrance from the plant would comfort the broken hearts as it brings back cherished memories and the vegetables of the hibiscus would serve as medicine when eaten as food. These men were a few of the Eleme heroes. Indeed, the families have lost their bread winners and would suffer stern consequences in a society that would at that time deprive widows of farmland as custom demanded. The same was the fate of Christian Wuwu Teetito and his father Mba Teeh at Alumba Agbeta in Ebubu who had worked with the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria. These courageous men had passed as victims of the horrendous attacks that ensued in the land and before the return of their families.
(Eleme of today, shares this inheritance with male and female alike irrespective of their status. Typical of this is in the sharing of the Indorama EPCL host communities’ quarterly dividends at Agbonchia, Akpakpan, Aleto, Okerewa and Njuru in which every member of the communities and clans were enlisted and benefitted including women who have been properly engaged for marriage up to ofembo stage. This was also the case at Ejamah clan of Ebubu after the court ruled in their favour in an oil spill case between them and the SPDC in 2021.)
There was a particular family who lost much of their older men in the war. Thus at the return of the family survivors, some of their neighbours at the various farmlands in their community would lavishly encroach into their portion. These land grabbers would plant fresh live sticks to create a new boundary at their will and ensure the original ones were dug out so it would not regenerate. Even when older women in the families protest because they sometimes know the boundaries more than the men, the land grabbers would not be deterred since the women may not have the authority to contest the matter to a logical conclusion on behalf of their husbands’ families. This took a toll on families largely made up of Christians who would never step foot to consult deities or invoke their spirits to intervene for them. Thus some families that had much land later had less and those who had even less saw their land shrink further like a plot of land beside a sand dredging site. In later years, pupils and students would sing:
♫Ojukwu wanted to separate Nigeria
Gowon says Nigeria must be one
We are fighting together with Gowon, to keep Nigeria one.
Ojukwu and Gowon, Ojukwu and Gowon,
When shall I reach my home?
When shall I reach my native land?
I will never forget my home.
51 years after this war, the unity of Nigeria like a forced marriage seems to be cosmetic and arguably, more physical than emotional as the issues that led to the war such as injustice, fairness and equity remain unresolved. Otherwise why are there more separatist groups now than they were then? Why is insecurity worsening despite ‘the technical defeat’ of Boko Haram by President Mohammed Buhari? Why has it been difficult to adopt fiscal federalism? What is the rationale behind sharing resources by population instead of contribution? Why are the herdsmen and the bandits not treated equally like the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB? Why was Ken Saro-wiwa killed if what he stood for could be confirmed by the United Nations Environmental Programme and accepted by the Federal Government of Nigeria? The look of things had prompted Nigeria musician Eedris Abdulkareem to exclaim: Nigeria jagajaga everything scatter, poor man dey suffer suffer gun shot in the air but the author is rather inclined to go by the musical legend, Sunny Okosun to say: Which Way Nigeria?
Feel free to make useful contributions to improve on this story. You can mention those who returned earlier and who died during the war. Thanks.
Special gratitude to MR. CHINWI ISIOGU OF ALETO, ELEME, Emere Nkpornwi of Onne, a veteran soldier and Elder Jerry Olaka