Odogwu's Den


by Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe,PhD, DD

I have explained this fact before on this Igbo platform and on many previous occasions. And if you were following the trend of the argument on this platform over who’s Biafra and who’s Igbo you shouldn’t have raised this question.

Now listen attentively and never again be deceived by false accounts of history.

As at the time Ojukwu declared the State of Biafra, there were four semi-independent Regions of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with the Lagos Capital Territory. Each of these Regions— Eastern under Col Ojukwu, Northern under Col Hasan Usman Katsina, Western under Col Adebayo, Midwest under Col David Ejoor, had their own separate Armed forces. While Lagos under Major Mobolaji Johnson had the Federal Garrison directly under the control of the Head of State Col Yakubu Gowon, Col Hillary Njoku was the head of Eastern Garrison at Enugu, Col Olusegun Obasanjo was head of the Western Garrison at Ibadan, Col John Akahan was head of the Northern Garrison at Jebba, while Col Conrad Nwawo was head of the Midwest Garrison at Benin.

When Col Ojukwu declared the State of Biafra on May 30, 1967 he did not include the Midwest Region and, of course he couldn’t have done so. When the Federal Government declared war against Biafra on July 6, 1967, the Midwest Region declared its neutrality and refused the Federal Government to use the State to attack Biafra or carry military equipment through the Region to Port Harcourt axis. This explains why the Federal Government only attacked Biafra through Port Harcourt, Nsukka and Ogoja axis, leaving Onitsha axis. So at the time the Federal Government declared war against Biafra, the people of Midwest Region— the present Edo and Delta States were not part of the civil war and as such couldn’t have been part of Biafra. Many Southeast Igbo were living in Edo and Delta States peaceful including Benin City during this early stage of the civil war.

However, the situation changed when, through a secret deal between Col Nwawo and Col Ojukwu, the Biafran forces were permitted with the connivance of Igbo officers of the Garrison to use the Midwest safe corridor to invade the Western Region which subsequently got stuck in Ore.

Before this invasion, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and many Western Regional leaders were not in support of the war against Biafra. It was after the invasion of Western Region that Chief Obafemi Awolowo declared total support for the war against Biafra in a speech he gave after the advancing Biafran forces landed at Ore.

Those Midwest Igbo officers who had reservations over this invasion were penciled down for elimination. For instance, Col Henry Igboba from my town Ibusa was arrested and locked up in Benin Prison by Col Banjo. He was subsequently abandoned by the retreating Biafran forces and later beheaded by the advancing Federal troops. The likes of Majors Samuel Ogbemudia and Alabi-Isama were fortunate to escape to the Federal side and subsequently decided to deny their Igbo identities in order to live.

So, the Igbo of Midwest Region breached their neutrality by not just allowing the the Biafran forces to pass through their territory but, first by joining forces with their Southeast Igbo brothers to attack and invade the Midwest and Western Region; second by overthrowing the Urhobo-born Military Governor of Midwest Region Col David Ejoor and the appointment by Col Ojukwu of an Igbo from my hometown Ibusa, Major Albert Okonkwo as Administrator of Midwest Region in place of Col Ejoor; and finally the declaration of Republic of Benin— the present Edo and Delta States as independent State, with Major Okonkwo as the Administrator. What it meant is that, as at August 1967 there were three independent countries in the present Nigeria.

The consequences were terrible on the part of Western Igbo. They immediately became part of the wider misconception that the goal of the entire Igbo ethnic group was to dominate other ethnic groups in Nigeria and subsequently became hated by their once friendly neighbors. Because Col Ojukwu’s action in appointing an Administrator for another Region was viewed as an act of imperialism driven by the urge for Igbo dominance.

So when the Federal troops entered Benin on August 8, 1967, the first action Col Murtala Mohammed urged the citizens to undertake was to “clean” Benin City and environs of all the enemies. This led to the attack and killing of all the Igbo in Benin City without discrimination. It also afforded Col Murtala Mohammed the license to kill the Western Igbo people on his way from Agbor to Asaba.

But before the Midwest episode Col Murtala Mohammed who earlier spearheaded both the Igbo pogrom in Northern Nigeria and the massacre of Igbo officers and soldiers had sworn vengeance on the Igbo for the January 15, 1966 coup led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna but popularized by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu.

It should also be recalled that at that time in question, the Igbo of Midwest Region had the largest number of senior army officers in Nigerian army of the Nigerian ethnic groups, all of them were erroneously claimed to have originated from Asaba, being the name of the Division. So the desire to punish Asaba was already there. For instance, most people saw Major Nzeogwu as a native of Asaba and not Okpanam.

Finally, during the Biafran retreat from Ore and subsequent advance of the Federal troops the only place the Biafran forces laid ambush and engaged in a pitched battle with the advancing Federal troops was at Okutugbo, a farm camp at the outskirts of Asaba which was indeed owned by Okpanam the hometown of Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu. The reason for the ambush was to enable the Biafran forces effect their retreat across the River Niger and subsequent destruction of the Niger Bridge. With the rage of the battle and believing that some of the Biafran forces were still in the town, the Federal troops started killing any man they saw.

The further consequence was that having collaborated with their Eastern brothers in the invasion of Ore and thereby declaring their support for Biafra, the Western Igbo Officers had no other option than to cross over to Biafra, fighting as both refugees and unofficial mercenaries.

The above briefly explains the reason why Asaba people were massacred in such a heinous manner. It was an error borne out of a misconception of group identity.

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