Before the war ended

An excerpt from Allison Chimaeze Eñeogwe’s autobiography, Perseverance: Arise and Shine

Perseverance Cover

From my radio, I knew by late 1969 that Nigerian troops began an unprecedented move towards the Aba axis. Aba-Ngwa people are as farmers and producing the best garri throughout Nigeria. This movement of the federal troops seemed to be total as they were combing from village to village. The majority of Ngwa people who had no money to feed themselves if they fled from their homes decided to take on the greater evil – mass surrender. The information from the radio revealed that those who surrendered were treated fairly. All they had to do was to hide in the bush or anywhere and await the retreat of the Biafran army. Then, when the Nigerian army advanced towards them, the people came out with white handkerchiefs in their hands, shouted “One Nigeria” and were safe from harm. 

I went to Amepku Uratta, got my father with his wives and brought them to Umukalu Ntigha, Brother Levi’s village. By this time, he had also left Eziala Mbawsi – his in-law’s place – and moved to his village. 

Other refugees living with us were moving northwards towards Umuahia, but my wife was very sick and I knew that if we went further, she was going to die. Going further meant getting to Mbaise area or Okigwe. In such a place, where were we going to get food? So, I called my father and told him that we were going to surrender now. I told him what I had been hearing from the radio, the modality of surrender and how those that surrendered were treated.

This time around, my father was afraid. “Do you mean that after we have managed all these days to escape death from Nigerian soldiers you want us to surrender now so that they will kill us?” he asked. 

“No,” I replied. “The war has been going on for a long time and everybody is tired now. Most of the soldiers are now interested in whatever will end the war than what will protract it.” 

“Chimaeze, if you say we should surrender, let us surrender. If they kill us today, I have lived longer than you and I have eaten more food than you. I will abide by your suggestion.” 

Having gotten the approval of my father, I called everybody in Levi Okeogu’s compound – his elders, himself and all other refugees. I told them of the decision we had to take that very day, in view of the fact that federal troops were at our doorsteps. I had to be careful about making this thing open because I was afraid that someone might decide to report me to pockets of Biafran soldiers that were around the area who would not waste time in coming to execute me as a saboteur.

Since we were within shelling range of artillery guns, we could hear the booming sounds of all sorts of weapons, both small and large. Earlier, Levi had taken me to the bush with his brothers to map out our strategy. Thus, by 2 p.m. on 24th December 1969, we moved into the bush between Umukalu and Osusu Village and laid down flat in the bush. At about 4 p.m., we heard the marching song of the Nigerian army in Hausa, and I gave the order to shout, “One Nigeria” and rise up with handkerchiefs and move towards Osusu road and let the soldiers see that we were not armed. 

Earlier in the day, we had buried my father’s double-barrel gun and other guns in the compound of the Okeogus, which we did not recover. I had to buy new guns for my father after the war. 

As the Nigerian soldiers saw us moving in that convoy – male, female, boys, old and young – they were astonished. Some of them even knelt down and prayed to God and thanked him while others said, “So the war is ending?” Immediately, I came out from the bush with my wife and my two little children, my mother, my father and his entourage behind me. I was wearing a white long-sleeved shirt with white trousers. The soldiers shouted: “Welcome, my men. Food dey, water dey.” They instructed us to head to Okpuala-Ngwa hospital, where Isiala-Ngwa North Local Government Headquarters is located today. 

Not long after the first detachment of troops passed, another detachment came by. I was wearing my wife’s wristwatch – a Buler Swiss watch – the one I had bought for her for our wedding. One soldier approached me and quickly removed the wristwatch from my wrist and it fell. Immediately, two of his colleagues picked up the watch from the ground and said, “Sorry, teacher.” One blew the sand off the wristwatch and put it back on my wrist. “We are sorry, teacher,” they repeated.

According to these kind soldiers, they had been in the bush for three years now praying that the war would end. Now that the people were coming out to surrender, their greedy colleague wanted to treat them badly. One of them warned the offender that if he engaged in such misconduct again, he would kill him. His partner nodded in confirmation of the threat.

They ordered the soldier to apologise to me, and he said, “Sorry, teacher.” I am sure it was the way I was dressed that earned me the name, “Teacher”. 

We marched to Okpuala-Ngwa hospital where thousands were already gathered, loosely surrounded by some Nigerian soldiers. Immediately I settled down, a soldier came towards me and saw my radio – it was a Philips. The soldier told me that as soldiers, they took anything they desired from any refugee – radios and other valuables – but he had vowed that he would never take anything from the owner simply because the situation permitted it. So, he humbly requested to buy my radio. I told him that it was alright but that, since it was getting late, he should come over the next morning so we could talk about it. 

The following day, the soldier came as arranged. He was not alone. The night before, I had made enquiries in the camp and I was told that I was fortunate I passed through the front and came in here with a radio. I was advised to quickly do away with the radio before I was accused of using it to communicate with Biafra soldiers. Throughout that night, I was afraid that what I had been warned about may occur. 

I asked the soldier how much he would pay for my radio. The other soldier opened his bag and brought out a new radio exactly like mine. He was just there to advise on a fair price. “Talk truth for God, how much did you buy this radio?” my “customer” asked him. The soldier replied that he had just returned back from “pass” to Ibadan and that “truth for God”, he had bought his radio for 15 pounds. 

I didn’t argue with him over this position and the buyer said he would pay me 15 pounds. I had been expecting to get five pounds at most. The soldiers left and in less than ten minutes, the buyer returned and gave me 15 pounds of Nigerian currency. That was when I discovered that Nigeria had redesigned the currency during the war. The money felt like a thousand pounds and marked the beginning of my financial recovery. 

The Biafran currency was, however, still a legal tender among us in the camp. 

We stayed in the camp until 31st December 1969, when they told us to go back to our different homes in the areas that had been liberated by Nigerian soldiers. So, on 1st January 1970, we started our journey back to Egbede.

 

PERSEVERANCE: Arise and Shine is about an “Iron Man of Action” who rose from being an apprentice electrician to a top industrialist.

At 18, young Mazi Allison Chimaeze Eñeogwe dropped out of school for lack of funds and moved to Port Harcourt where he became an electrician. His uncommon ingenuity made him stand out, and he rose fast in his chosen career, which was truncated by the civil war in 1966, during which he had to cross enemy lines for trade. Once the war was over, he settled in Aba and got involved in different industrial ventures. His faith as a Jehovah’s Witness always put him in good stead before people, and his sense of humour has seen him through many dark days.

PERSEVERANCE: Arise and Shine chronicles this proud Ngwa man’s challenges – sell-outs, fraud, kidnap attempts, false detention and a two- year self-imposed exile – and how he has come out of it all still holding his head high.

 

Available on Kindle HERE.

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Achebe’s Memoir: There Were Lots of Reviews

UK edition cover

by Amatesiro Dore

“I met Chinua Achebe for the first time when I was in high school, but I knew him through his works long before that. “Uncle,” as my siblings and I were told to call him, came to our house in Washington, D.C., for a tea time reception my mother had organized. She had just co-written a biography of him for children, inspired in part by my lament that there were few books about the lives of famous Africans.”  Uzodinma Iweala.

My mother wrote nothing on Achebe, she hasn’t read Things Fall Apart, but she paid for my copy. I was reading the Financial Times and I saw a 1968 picture of Biafran soldiers standing on a tugboat. I gazed and noticed it was a portrait of an armed soldier sitting on a concrete platform, he wore no uniform and his face was very easily identifiable. In the background, men in mufti, about thirty of them, posed on two tugboats on the river, only two guns were visible. I took away the memory of that picture from William Wallis’s review of Chinua Achebe’s memoir in the FT. I wondered if the armed and unnamed soldier died during that conflict or if he survived the war, and if his heirs were alive.

In Nigeria, it has become an intellectual fad to write a review of Achebe’s Biafran memoir; even by people who haven’t actually read the book. I promise not to write one. I have read too many. But I have gathered some interesting reviews of Achebe’s book and I have quoted them for your reading pleasure.

“There is an eclectic range of insights and fascinating anecdotes buried in there, but this is not a book that will add much to the understanding of the war, nor one that will go down among Achebe’s great works.” William Wallis.

“But many have waited and hoped for a memoir, for his personal take on a contested history. Now at last he has written it. Although it is subtitled ‘A Personal History of Biafra’, There Was A Country is striking for not being very personal in its account of the war. Instead it is a Nigerian nationalist lament for the failure of the giant that never was; Achebe is mourning Nigeria’s failures, the greatest and most devastating of which was Biafra.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I read Noo Saro Wiwa’s review in The Guardian. Her father wrote On the Darkling Plain, a Niger Delta narrative of the Nigerian Civil War.

“No writer is better placed than Chinua Achebe to tell the story of the Nigerian Biafran war from a cultural and political perspective. Yet, apart from an interview with Transition magazine in 1968 and a book of Biafran poems, Nigeria’s most eminent novelist has kept a literary silence about the civil war in which he played a prominent role – until now.”

Tolu Ogunlesi wrote an acclaimed review of Achebe’s memoir. Yes, some reviews were acclaimed.

One question immediately arises but remains unanswered: Why did it take Achebe 42 years to write this book? In the six years immediately preceding the war, he produced three novels, but only one in the forty-two years following. During the war poetry only, and after it, for the most part, only essays.”

Ike Anya also wrote for African Arguments.

“The book could benefit from a closer proofreading and fact-checking process by an informed editor. Irritating errors crop up like “maul over” for “mull over” “deferral” for “federal”, “Iwe Ihorin” for “Iwe Irohin” and St Elizabeth’s Hospital for Queen Elizabeth Hospital, but these do not detract from Achebe’s attempt to present, from his perspective, an account of those dark days. As he says in the book, “My aim is not to provide all the answers but to raise questions and perhaps to cause a few headaches”. It is clear that this is his book, his view and his own particular nostalgic ramble. Ultimately, it is important that he has shared it, warts, unevenness and all. In doing so, Achebe has helped bring the contents of my parents’ brown satchel back into the open.”

Chika Unigwe wrote for The New Statesman.

“Chinua Achebe’s first book in three years richly rewards his admirers’ patience. It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others. There Was a Country is a candid, intimate interrogation of Nigeria.”

In summary, I hope you agree, whatever your misgivings about the book, that there indeed, was a country.

P.S

You can buy copies of There Was a Country by Chinua Achebe from Farafina Books by sending an email to orders@kachifo.com, visit our store at 253 Herbert Macaulay Way, Alagomeji Yaba or call us on 08077364217.

Prices are as follows:

Hardback: N4000

Paperback: N2000