Dr. Vincent Nnanna fondly called Jonny Bassey in the Biafran Army, is a UN Ambassador for Peace and the BBC Correspondent in Republic of Benin. He is an Investigative Journalist trained by the World Bank Institute and also the Dean of Faculty of Management and Social Sciences, Hill-City University, Cotonou in Republic of Benin.
He is a member of Nigerian Guild of Investigative Journalists (NGIJ) and a member of Journalism for Human Rights (JHR).
Nnanna, who is a member of the Amnesty International hails from Ohafia in Abia State, Nigeria. He was enlisted into the Biafran Army at the age of 10. Getting him to speak on the war was not an easy task as he subjected the interviewer to series of interrogations and some level of background checks before agreeing to speak.
In this interview with James Ezema, the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of StreetReporters.ng and AbujaBizReports.com, Dr. Nnanna recounts his experience as a child soldier and his thoughts during the three and half years civil armed confrontations between the Nigerian and Biafran armed forces.
If you can recall your Biafran War experience, what was it like in eastern Nigeria during the civil war?
Memories of the Nigeria-Biafra war plays back from my mind like every child’s encounter with his favorite play object. When I think about play objects I am not unmindful of the fact that some African children’s first play objects were the skull of their compatriots. And countries that readily come to my mind are the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda to mention just a few. I was about ten years of age when the civil war in Nigeria was gathering momentum. I was living in Calabar, now in Cross River State of Nigeria.
The first echoes of war we heard was the sudden arrival of my uncle’s colleagues who were forced to flee from the Kano airport where they had been working for years to come and join my uncle at the Calabar Airport. At least two of those men had to temporarily stay at our residence awaiting when they could be allotted an official apartment at what was known as P&T quarters along the airport road.
They always told us of the pogrom cum genocide perpetrated against all Igbo people anywhere they’d be found in the North. It was for fear of their own safety that those men had to evacuate their families from the North, send them to their hometowns and proceeded to Calabar to seek to maintain their employment status.
The uncertainties of our own safety began to dawn on us when unbeknownst to us there had been nocturnal consultations among the Efiks and the Ibibios that the Igbos whose ‘brothers’ to wit, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Aguiyi Ironsi and Nzeogwu: were perceived to be the ‘trouble makers’, should quit their land to go and join their army brothers aforementioned.
It was at that time that the former coined a popular slogan: ‘Unege eye nyong.’ meaning Igbos must leave. As the agitation grew louder and gained popularity, hostilities began to be perpetrated against the Igbos. Ultimately, Igbos gradually began to evacuate out of a land they had helped in beautifying to the extent it got and still bears the name: Canaan-land.
They were only two entrances into and out of Calabar. The first was a three-hour ferry by pontoon managed by Elder Dempster Agencies which ferried between Calabar and Oron. Thereafter commuters would board a 3-ton lorry from Oron to Aba or Umuahia through Uyo and Ikot Ekpene within the Ibibios and Anang areas respectively.
The other was a motorable road which ran through Ikot Okpora to terminate at the Ikot Okpora River where a ferry boat would cross both vehicles and passengers to the other side on a five-minute sail. We had opted for the Ikot Okpora route because it led to Ohafia through Arochukwu.
Because of the intensifying hostilities against the Igbos, most families including my uncle were not able to carry our household furniture with us. Howbeit we hurried away on the self-deceit that it won’t be long before we would return to repossess our possessions.
We had barely alighted from the ferry when we were treated to canon strikes from Nigerian fighter jets forcing us to further abandon the little possessions we had taken with us and start a trek that would take us two days through swamps and forests before we would arrive at Arochukwu town.
That was when it dawned on we returnees from the North and South-South that indeed rumours of war had metamorphosed into real war.
At this point that it became obvious the rumour of war has become a reality, and your safety at stake, how were you able to escape the strikes to safety at your age then? Were you guided by an older relative or were you abandoned to take care of yourself?
I once watched a baby elephant being unable to emerge out of a shallow river because it lacked the skill to climb the cliff. It was a trial and error situation as it would always fall back into the water with every failed attempt. Then a mature elephant approached and realising the dilemma of the baby, went into the river and with its trunk propped the younger one from behind up the cliff and finally out of the water. As for humans, I can say that in the face of danger, the survival instinct in us is automatically triggered off. At first, we (especially the inexperienced younger ones) would engage in a trial and error attempts centered around deliberation and fortune until either empirical experience will educate us or some elderly people will guide us through and out of harm’s ways.
The latter was my ordeal hence I would expose myself to the very dangers we were supposed to be escaping from through my curiosity to understand how a piece of heavy object emerging from a passing aircraft could suddenly explode upon touching ground and damage trees and even maim or kill persons on its track.
I was not alone in this situation. Other children in our team wanted to satisfy their curiosity and would stand erect and watch the beasts fly over our head as if it could almost be reached by a pebble from a lad’s catapult.
This happened many times until after seeing the damages wrought from the canon fires, we slowly began to understand and obey the continuous shout from the elderly people that we should not walk in the open and should always dive for cover whenever we hear the approaching fighter/bombers.
Up until that point in time, the only thing I knew about airplanes was that it carried only the bourgeoisie. The other notion among my peers was that occasionally those extremely rich people could stretch out their hands from the aeroplane window and drop some bags of money to poor children like us.
We would sing songs with the lyrics of; ‘rich travelers, throw down bags of money to bless us.’
Even though my uncle worked with the Nigerian Airport Authority and I had visited the airport a number of times, my belief in the children’s fantasising was not altered.
Unfortunately, and disappointingly coming face to face with a ferocious and menacing aeroplane that sought to kill and destroy lives and property only heightened my curiosity as to and suspicion as to whether we had earlier been misinformed about those bourgeoisie that flew in the aeroplanes and their presumed disposition to throw down money instead of bombs.
It sounds like a fiction, a dream that never came true but it actually happened according to your account. When it comes to rules of engagement, what was the fate of noncombatant women and children during the hostilities?
I was utterly shocked and downcast when I was greeted this morning with what I believe is your honest appraisal of my story as fiction. As you can see from my profile, I have antecedents of factual positive journalistic career. How could I, for all the world can give, try to give out my heritage for a mess of porridge?
However, I wish you could be patient to hear me out. Not one jot of my account is a figment of my imagination.
As we progress, I will mention people and verifiable landmarks to buttress my claims. Reminds me of Nigeria today; survival of the fittest! Typical animal kingdom!!
It was said that the then Biafran land was cut off from reliable food supplies. How were you able to survive and what were you and other survivors eating?
Concerning economic blockage, I as a child being fed and clothed by my parents, I did not feel the impact so much as the adults who would go the extra mile to fend for their dependants.
For me, the euphoria of reuniting with my lovely mom and caring dad had beclouded my sense of inadequate provisions. We were happy to eat whatever was being provided by our parents nonetheless with systematic downward adjustments.
My people are peasant farmers in the main and the outbreak of war did not affect my people’s farming and inter-communal trading activities. However I remember that members of the Charity Organization, CARITAS INTERNATIONAL under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church did occasionally fly in salted fish, egg yolk, some vitamin enriched cereals which were distributed to communities at random.
One of the most visible evidence of the war was that most people were not able to change clothing as often as necessary because textile was one of embargoed essential items. Rickety vehicles and bicycles were a welcome presence. People grew beard and wore bushy hair not by choice.
I did not think about it then but when I reflect on the swiftness of that exodus from Calabar to Igbo-land, it can only be explained that the spirit was that we were escaping from pronounced hostilities and moving to the warm embrace of our own kith and kin. A journey from a state of despondency and despair onto hope and expectations
The pangs of hunger would be felt later by the people of Ohafia only when most neighboring towns had been overrun by the advancing federal troops. Influx of refugees became overbearing.
With several mouths to feed, food that was more than sufficient for us would be scrambled between us and the refugees. Soon there would be scarcity; even though most of the refugees were willing to join us to farm, they were not as strong – having already been badly malnourished due to long months of poor feeding prior to migrating into our hitherto peaceful territory.
Majority of them had arrived by foot from as far as Afikpo in the present Ebonyi State. Others had arrived from surrounding towns as nearby as Eda and Arochukwu. Their sorry appearance was our first time of hearing of a health condition to be known as kwashiorkor.
Talking about health condition during the war, how was access to healthcare facilities and availability of medicine looked like?
When the federal troops were heartily welcomed into Calabar by the Efik community, the troops first occupied the Calabar International Airport, which served as their supply base.
Their rapid advancement toward Igbo land was so swift that the Biafran soldiers of (I think it was the 14th Brigade), who were camped at the Dunlop Rubber Estate had to flee to as far as Ohafia where they eventually established their Training Depot at the former Ohafia High School premises (now known as Federal Government College), with only 7th and 8th Battalions on ground. The 9th Battalion would continue to peripherally or tactically they called it, try to slow down the advancement of the federal troops towards this axis.
An emergency casualties’ evacuation center would be established at the St. Paul Catholic Church premises, Ututu Arochukwu while the Akahaba Joint Hospital at Abiriba was taken over by the Biafran Army for secondary and major surgical procedures.
How did you get involved in the Biafran Army?
On my involvement in the Biafran Army, the soldiers camping at the 7th and 8th Battalion training depot would embark on their road work past our house which stood on the Ohafia-Arochukwu Highway; from Ebem to Amekpu, a distance of about 8 kilometers.
Each time I heard their approach with the shout of ‘hope-high, hope-high’, I would abandon whatever I was doing and would stand to attention with my tiny palm over my forehead as in a military salute to the amusement of the passing soldiers and the admiration of the people of my neighborhood.
One day my mentor had taken me to the Administrative block hence I was already familiar with the soldiers. A young lady was typing some document rather slowly to my liking. I stood beside her table and realised that she was not as good as I was with keyboard. I went over to my mentor who was having a discussion with the Chief Clerk. I announced to him that I could type faster than that lady.
That confession would bring an abrupt end to their discussion as both men needed to get it right that I was not joking. I narrated to them how my father who was a Sunday School teacher had an oldish portable machine with which he typed his Bible lessons for the week.
I told how he had not only let me practice on his typewriter but had also taught me how to write Pitman’s system of shorthand since I was eight years old.
The Chief Clerk and my mentor could not wait to test this child prodigy. They would ask the lady typist to fetch me a writing pad and a pen. I told them I was more comfortable writing with pencil because it was easier to distinguish between heavy and light stroke and curves with a pencil than with pen.
There were nothing like biro at that time. The Chief Clerk would dictate a few sentences in a slightly slow manner that would require writing in long hand. When he noticed that I was working with ease, he somehow increased his speed of speech and was amazed that I was equal to the task.
My mentor who was initially apprehensive that I could somehow goof and bring our romance to a sad ending and had been leaning backwards to stealthily peep onto my notepad, realising that I did not express any anxiety whatsoever, suddenly inclined forward beaming with a smile that was unmistakably some expression of conquest.
After the dictation, the typist was asked to temporarily vacate her seat for me to carry out some task. While I was working on the text, tongues wagged around that a new kid was in the block. Before I knew it, I was literally enveloped by soldiers who had come around to satisfy their curiosity.
The equally excited Chief Clerk was unable to contend with the situation (or the scene occasioned by my performance). I was nonetheless elated that what I had been practicing within the confines of my father’s study had metamorphosed into an uncomfortable inferno.
After that day, my mentor would be instructed to agree with my parents that I should come over to help out with their numerous typing jobs. Moreover I had this shorthand experience which the lady did not have. Each time I came around, I was greeted with the same euphoria as on the first day.
At the end of the day, they would reward me with a rich bowl of army ration which was always more than enough for me and my siblings. Mom sometimes had to eat out of the food and we were ever grateful. Automatically I had to be exempted from every household chores and my siblings never complained.
As I had mentioned previously, the army had established an emergency primary sick bay at St. Paul Ututu and a full-fledged hospital occupied the hitherto Akahaba Joint Hospital at Abiriba.
Two surgeons were in charge of these places. The senior surgeon was Major (Dr.) David C. Nwafor. His second was Major Nya. With the increasing number of casualties arriving from the Calabar sector, another two medical doctors would join the team. One was Capt. (Dr.) Isaghadighi. I can’t remember the name of the other who was an Igbo man.
They were all fine gentlemen and the crème de la crème in the profession. The two senior surgeons would be invited from time to time to conduct medical examination on new recruits to ascertain their fitness or otherwise for military service.
They would arrive one morning to behold a little lad with feeble fingers perched on the chair like a small bird but performing some feat most of them had never seen nor could imagine.
They took a cursory look at me and went about their business of the day probably imagining that one of the soldiers’ child had been allowed to play with the office typewriter.
By the time they were through with their routine, they would return to the Chief Clerk’s office to probably submit their verdict on the recruits who were anxiously waiting by the verandah.
A twist of fate
I suppose fate playing out a script prompted them to ask the Chief Clerk what the heck the little rat was doing with the only official typewriter.
The Chief Clerk could be heard laughing out loud and trying to correct their impression of the little rat. Seconds would tick away before I heard the shout of “Little Johnny” as I was invited into the office of my boss.
When I walked into that office, I came to a brisk soldierly attention and threw an impressive salute to the trio. My boss gave a nod of satisfaction as I was ushered into a chair previously arranged to sort of give my interviewers some advantage of viewing me at an angle of 90° (ninety degrees).
Unknown to me, it had been agreed that if I proved to be as good as the Chief Clerk had claimed, the doctors would take me with them as my shorthand technique would be of immense advantage since they often have to write urgent letters referring critical cases to the 24th Battalion (medical) headquarters located at Nsu or further on to Ivory Coast and Gabon as the case required.
In addition having witnessed me striking with ease on the typewriter keys, the Chief Clerk would show them some of the manuscripts I had scribbled in shorthand. My mentor would later be invited over to take me home and announce to my parents that the army was going to keep me longer than expected and to reassure them that I would not be taken to the war front.
The routine medical exam was carried out on me. The civilian tailor Mr. Ndukwe was instructed to measure and sew two pairs of army uniforms for me. It was at that point in time that I became a Biafran soldier overnight.
In the space of a week, the doctors returned to pick me up. My kit was ready and looked smart in my soldier’s gear. I was quartered with one Staff-sergeant Nicholas Nwobodo. Our apartment was the bungalow that housed the former principal of Enuda High School, some distance away from the hospital.
He was from Akam Oghe and treated me as a kid brother. I remember him telling about the late musician Celestine Ukwu and saying that they were from the same place.
He was the Chief Clerk at the medical detachment located at Akahaba Joint Hospital. He was fond of me and took me wherever he went but the surgeons worked more with me because of my shorthand qualification.
During the course of time my doctors traveled with me to the 24th Battalion Medical Corps Headquarters at Nsu where I was formally documented, issued army number and pay-rolled. Thenceforth, I would be addressed and known as Lance-Corporal John Bassey.
When Abiriba came under threat with the federal troops said to be advancing from the Afikpo-Eda axis, our hospital had to be consolidated and expanded at St. Paul, Ututu. Air strikes became more frequent at Ututu.
On two occasions, a Reverend Father standing in front of the St. Paul Cathedral was nearly hit. On the same day when we thought everything was over, another raid was to happen which shattered the louvers of the hall we had converted to a standard operating theatre.
Two notable nurses, who were attached to the hospital, were the daughter of Sir Alex Onyeador who would become the wife of the Biafran Leader Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. The last I heard of her was when she was said to have accompanied some of the critical patients we had to fly to Ivory Coast for intensive care.
The other was Miss Anyameluna – pretty nurse from Onitsha whom it was rumoured that she had contested for Miss Nigeria. This second person left a sour taste in my mouth because I had threatened to shoot her with a Baretta shotgun when I was on sentry duty and she had under-rated me because of my little stature and tried to force her way through the exit entrance to the hospital compound.
The Drill in Muddy Waters
She eventually had her way and had reported me to the male Staff Nurse Sergeant Emeaba who hails from Umuahia and he promptly personally drilled me that night and made me roll in muddy water. After that disgraceful punishment, the joy of being a once admired soldier-boy disappeared.
The Curiosity and the war with machete
Sometimes I would mimic the soldiers by marching along fearlessly but on the other side of the road until I felt tired and would walk back home. One fateful day, one of the parade commanders who usually walked outside the ranks, broke the ranks and walked toward me. I thought he was coming to arrest me and I would run for dear life to hide behind the protective arms of my mother.
His wide smile however reassured us that he meant no harm. He simply wanted to strike a friendship that would alter the paradigm of my destiny. He would squat down to adjust to my tiny size and asked my name. After a brief tête-à-tête he promised to return later in the day to take me to his apartment in the camp.
Ohafia was crucial to the Biafran Army for several reasons. Ohafia supplied the first able-bodied young men who had volunteered to fight the war with machete. Those unfortunate fellows did not understand the difference between the clannish conflicts at which they had recorded unequaled successes and modern combat involving the use of guns and long-range missiles.
They were dexterous in face-to-face combats and would employ their native expertise in ambushing to the disadvantage of the Nigerian soldiers. Records have it that though they were killed in their numbers at the Nsukka and Ehamufu war fronts, they left the Nigerian soldiers wondering how common machete-carrying civilians were able to withstand their superior fire power.
That experience would pay off later because each time the Nigerian troops were ordered to invade Ohafia, uneasiness would envelope their ranks and file with the remembrance that it was the very heart of those formidable ambush experts.
Again, because of their pre-colonial intertribal war experiences, they had developed several escape routes that gave their escapes some mysterious connotation.
To buttress the fears of the Nigerian soldiers, the very first platoon of reconnaissance team that had ventured to sneak into Ohafia via one insignificant Cross River town known as Erei farm settlement were eaten up by soldier ants.
The only evidence of their presence was their skeletons and their rifles. Thereafter, the Nigerian army would think less of entering Ohafia. For that reason, the federal troops would only safely be seen in Ohafia after the declaration of cessation of hostilities and pronouncement of surrender by General Effiong.
Back to my involvement in the Biafran Army, not long after that encounter with my mentor, he returned to invite me over as promised. My joy knew no bounds as I would be seen walking shoulder-to-shoulder with a man my peers would be afraid to even shake his hand.
He had assured my mother of my safety and my mother knew that I would rather elope with my soldier friend than be persuaded out of that opportunity.
All said, I would spend the night at my mentor’s apartment with his colleagues coming around to commend me for the usual spectacle I had provided them every morning they were to march past our house by the highway.
Little did I know that they already had pet-named me ‘Little Johnny.’ Everywhere I curiously ventured into within the Training depot, the name ‘Little Johnny’ would be repeated until it dawned on me that that was going to be my new name as far as the Biafran Army was concerned.
Inadvertently, one of the soldiers came to my mentor’s apartment and during the course of their discussions asked me my full name to which I replied, “John Bassey” borrowing my uncle’s name for my surname. I didn’t require any effort to remember those two names.
How did you feel when you got the news that the war has finally ended?
Sad, disappointed and angry. Not that I enjoyed the war or the deaths, destructions and hardships it brought upon our people. But in the absence of any other meaningful preoccupations, I was enjoying the glamour of being the youngest Regular child soldier.
There were a few other young children though, but those were the reckie chaps who were being employed to infiltrate the camps of the enemies with the purpose of gathering intelligence and sometimes wreaking havoc on the enemy.
I was expecting to be promoted to the next rank of full Corporal in a couple of weeks to come. I was working really hard to earn that promotion but suddenly something that I could not comprehend pops up to shatter my dreams.
I failed to immediately see the greatest good of that abrupt ending of the war to the greatest majority of the suffering masses. Even after the initial emotions of grief had subsided, we had to face the reality of an uncertain future lying ahead since there were no contingency arrangements put in place for our rehabilitation, debriefing, reintegration into the social community or (re)absorption into the military service.
We were only ordered to pull our uniforms, drop off whatever arms and ammunitions in our possessions and to find our way to our respective homes. Thus we were turned into a nation of mad-looking young men and women milling around on different directions. Some people had to ask questions about the direction to their hometowns. Mine was a two-day trek on barefoot along unfamiliar bushy tracks and swamps. But going home was not an option. That was why there was mixed feelings amongst us.
With that level of mixed feelings about the end of the war, without any form of rehabilitation or debriefing, how were you able to face the future without living a violent life into your adulthood? Or how did you overcome?
Despite all odds, I would be received into the ever-loving arms of my mother. She was very supportive in all respects. My father had been a veteran of the 2nd World War. He was not unmindful of the psychological effects the war had had on me, moreover a boy of my age whose childhood had been stolen. My both parents were very understanding and supportive. They helped me pick up my life from where I had missed almost all sense of decorum.
Fortunately for me, I had served in an environment that commanded the greatest respect for human dignity. As such the usual rough and rebellious life for which soldiers are commonly identified with, did not affect me even in the slightest measure.
As one who have been in the front, some South easterners have been agitating for a sovereign state of Biafra. What is your take on the fresh agitation?
There is nothing wrong about any aggrieved ethnic group seeking redress in a court of competent jurisdiction.
Agitation for recognition as a sovereign State is a legal process and should not be swept under the carpet. But the way and manner the current Biafran homogeny are going about the demand smacks of ignorance, lack of sense of direction; and the senseless loss of lives leaves much to be desired.
In view of the needless loss of lives and property due to clashes between the armed forces of the Nigerian state and some of the agitators, do you have any advice for both the government of Nigeria and the current agitators for a sovereign state of Biafra?
No sane spouse, all things being equal (ceteris paribus), would want to suddenly back out from the cohabitation. In every case in court asking for dissolution of the marriage, either of the parties involved must have endured more than any other person can imagine except one who had had a similar experience.
But once the aggrieved party has cried out, “wolf”, it behooves the counterpart to make adjustments if he or she is truly interested in the continued mutual cohabitation.
In the case of Biafran agitators, their cries is bordering on marginalization evidenced by apparent absence of federal government infrastructure, inequity in the disbursement of revenue accruing to oil-producing states, non-inclusion in federal government offices; the armed forces and parastatals.
In the light of the above, one can only imagine that the romance between the two had long since expired.
It will only amount to postponing the evil day for anybody to continue to want to keep a patient in the maternity ward whose pregnancy is only a hoax.
Let the federal government do the needful or grant the Biafrans self-autonomy.