Title: THERE WAS A TIME
Author: Nnamdi Ebo
Publisher: AfricAgenda Ltd, Abuja
Reviewer: Dr Chukwuma Osakwe
The 305 page book is a significant contribution to the relatively recent outpouring of literature on the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970. The burgeoning literature on the civil war is not within the scope of this review. But what is clearly evident is that for almost five decades after the war, emotions are still rife and passions charged on the events of the civil war.
Thus, this book is not for the casual reader or the selective reader who might decide to read some chapters and leave out the others. It is a book that must be read from the beginning to the end in order to have a far and balanced assessment of it. More so, a comprehensive reading would help bring to the fore the new vistas presented by the author with respect to the civil war.
The book is about the author’s recollection and reminiscences as a teenager during the civil war when he was between the ages of 11 and 14. For the curious mind, the question that readily comes to mind is how much can a teenager of that age bracket remember? They are recollections and reminiscences of what the author had seen, experienced, heard from conversations with friends and family members in their various interactions. To a great extent, it is the author’s teenage memoir. In another respect, it is a collection of oral history albeit in an unprofessional manner. But in its totality, the book is a new genre in the fast developing body of literature on the civil war.
Indeed, in a country with callous disregard for paper work and documentation, oral history has become a veritable source for documenting and reconstructing the events of the civil war. But oral history is not a full poof method. It has its advantages and disadvantages, benefits and limitations which is apparent in this book. For instance, in event and situations where atrocities were committed, pogrom and genocide took place, written documents are rare.
Oral history such as eyewitness accounts can help fill the gaps. Oral history may encourage the diversification of themes and subjects as this book has done for the civil war. Furthermore, it can help those who may not be able to express themselves in literary form contribute to the events of the time which, again, this book has done. Conversely, oral history when not properly managed is prone to exaggeration and may help perpetuate propaganda. In all likelihood, therefore, the reader of this book may have questions that the answers may not be readily available in this narrative. No book is perfect and that is the essence of scholarship.
When all is said, this book is broken into 14 chapters and thereafter has an epilogue, appendix and an author’s note. Prior to the chapter breakdown, the author presents a recollection note in what reads more like a prologue, a caveat about portrayals “exaggerated in some situations to suit real happenings and accompaniments,” and, finally, some statistical tit-bits on Biafra.
Chapter one is all about the author’s stay with his uncle, a lecturer and residing in the campus of the University of Nigeria. During the stay at that residence, the author eavesdrops on the uncle’s conversations with the wife and their guests and listened regularly to radio news items. While doing so, he comes to terms with the developing tension and crisis in the country, the coup and counter-coup, the ethnic and religious divide in the country and the politicians’ mismanagement if not bungling of the situation.
Chapter two concentrates on the continuing crisis, the massacre of Southerners in the North including stories of how dead bodies in various conditions were being shipped to Enugu in Southern Nigeria. Also, the chapter includes the prelude to the Aburi talks, the Aburi agreements, the various interpretations and the non-implementations of the agreements.
It is not clear why the author chose to reproduce the verbatim report of the Aburi talks instead of making it an appendix to the book. It might not be unconnected with the author’s avowed interest in politics and the law. On the other hand, it might be a deliberate design to compel the reader to go through the entire agreement.
Again, in chapter three, the author takes the reader through the crisis and the obvious drift to war. The bloodletting going on in the country is recollected. He portrays the fact that the violence was amongst Nigerians not just in the Northern part of the country.
Chapter four dwells on the early phase of the civil war, the fall of Garkem; the family departure from the university town; the deaths of Chukwuman Kaduna Nzeogwu and Christopher Okigbo; the international community and the recognition or the lack thereof of Biafra.
In chapter five, the author accounts for the Biafran Mid-West Regios invasion; the exploits of 2 Division, Nigerian Army commanded by Colonel Murtala Mohammed; the charge of treason and coup plotting on (Victor) Banjo, (Philip) Alale (Emmanuel) Ifeajuna and Agbam and their subsequent execution.
Chapter six is on the stalemate in course of the war. It includes the politics and implications on the appointment of Ukpabi Asika as the civilian administrator for East Central State, part of the 12 state structure created by the Nigerian government to break the perceived homogeneity of the Biafran Republic. Finally, the chapter concludes with the development of Improvised Explosive Devices, IED, by Biafran scientists and the Amansea Bridge and Abagana ambush.
With regard to chapter 7, the constant movement of the family from Nsukka to Enugu to Onitsha and Nnewi all in response to the shrinking enclave of the Biafran Republic is recounted and reminisced. In this chapter, the author does not miss out on the hardship, the starvation in Biafra, the operations of the Third Marine Commando Division under Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, the air blockade and the Biafran management of Uli air strip.
Arising from this, chapter eight describes life inside Biafra, the constant air raids, and the movement of the family to Umuoba near Aba. Gruesome sights of death and carnage of war are narrated including conscription of adults, teenagers and even children into the Biafran Army.
The dimming fortune of Biafra is recollected in chapter nine as well as the movement of the family to Okwudo. The teeming refugee problems are also made manifest in this chapter.
The principles of the Biafran revolution as expressed in the Ahiara Decaration take up chapter 10. Again, the verbatim declaration instead of being made an appendix to the book is made an integral part of the chapter. Nevertheless, the declaration would give the reader an insight into the minds that fashioned the Biafran experiment.
The Ahiara Declaration is further analysed in chapter 11. The author concludes that the declaration became a centripetal as well as a centrifugal force within the Biafran polity. The chapter also has recollections on the battles in Umuahia, Owerri, Oguta, Arochukwu, Afam power station, Ikot Ekpene to mention but a few. The change of command in the Third Marine Commando Division of the Nigerian Army from Colonel Adekunle to Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo is reminisced.
Chapter 12 is a continuation of life in Biafra, the author’s family movement to Akokwa, the air raids, a comparative study of Colonel Joe Achuzia of Biafra and Colonel Benjamin Adekunle of Nigeria, and the use of bunkers by refugees to seek cover from bombs.
Sunset in Biafra is the title of chapter 13. A lot of the author’s recollections are repeated. This chapter captures Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe speaking on ending the genocide in Nigeria.
Chapter 14 is sombrely titled: The Twilight Zone. In this chapter, the final military offensive by the Nigerian Army code named Operation Tailwind is narrated. The departure from Biafra of General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the surrender of Biafra by Major General Phillip Effiong to General Yakubu Gowon is also a part of this chapter.
The epilogue contains the billeting of the Nigerian troops after the war in the former Biafra and the return of refugees to their former places of residence with all the attendant challenges. The appendix to the book is on Biafran children as refugees in Ivory Coast, the abandoned property phenomenon and the change of Igbo names which the author designates as the ‘R’ by the Ikwerre’s of Port Harcourt in present day Rivers State of Nigeria. The author’s note contains collection of newspaper articles on the civil war written by the author.
All in all, the value of this book is that it deepens our understanding of the civil war and its effect on society. It brings to like the evils of war. The Nigerian/Biafran Civil War being a part of Nigerian history that cannot be forgotten, this book is another contribution to our knowledge on the growth and development of Nigeria. In this regard, this book is a recommended read.
*Osakwe, Department of History and International Studies, Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna (PhD).