It was night… but more like early morning for me at least.
Even though the skies were dark and littered with a million or what seemed to be a million stars, daybreak still creeped at its edges…threatening to burst out in a brilliant shimmershine dance and disrupt the darkness any moment from now.
Some might have said it was night because it was quiet. Days in Onitsha were often full of yelling, training and fighting and some more fighting..so if it was this quiet, it must have been night. But I knew the calm was deceptive. It was as if the night was keeping secrets from us – keeping tales of some excitement..some danger… some horror that daybreak would bring once it finally burst out. So, I couldn’t trust the night. I just couldn’t when all I felt was this kind of anticipation. The kind that any militant would be weary of.
The moon on the other hand, was up and unusually bright tonight. It looked full, engorged with all the pulsating brightness it seemed to have absorbed from the sun and to spill back on us. It had enveloped our camp like it was staring straight at us. As if daring us to look back at it.
The moonlight had created an unwelcome brightness that attempted to seize the few hours of sleep many other Biafran militia were desperately trying to hold on to. The receding snores and deep breathing that surrounded me communicated that at least, some of my colleagues had been successful in warding it off.
“Lucky people” I muttered as I lay restless on the lumpy piece of cloth (sack) I called a bed, staring back at the peeping moonlight. My mind raced with thoughts of my family, my life and how the past few months had completely turned my world upside down…
It had been almost a year since Igbos had been killed (massacred) if we were to be brutally honest in Northern Nigeria as a retaliation for “taking over commerce” and for supposedly being the orchestrators of a coup where the premier of Northern Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello and Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Tafewa Balewa were assassinated. These brutish killings were led by mostly Nigerian soldiers of Hausa descent and had led to many Igbos escaping en masse to the Eastern province for protection. This incident as well as many other instances of discrimination in the past caused the Eastern Premier Colonel Ojukwu to declare the province an independent state – Biafra.
Even though, Igbos were not the only ethnic group in the Eastern states, we were the majority and being Biafrans finally gave us the chance to rule and govern ourselves.
I remember the day I heard the proclamation blaring out over our transistor radio. I feel like I could still reach out and touch that ephemeral mist that was that very moment, filled with so many swirling emotions. I was crouching by my grandmother preparing some uha soup with fufu when the broadcast was made. Immediately, my grandmother leapt up excitedly and broke into dancing. She reached out, grabbed my hands and we started singing and twirling in circles. We rushed out into the streets and soon we were joined by many others who were delirious with happiness, dancing in the streets.
What a beautiful day that was.
Or was it?
Well at first, everything seemed normal, even almost surreally perfect. We already had our own doctors, teachers and many other educated people in our Biafra. Then we began operating our own airlines and the atmosphere in the country was serene and energized. Biafrans were not sad or hungry, we were energetic, full of life and productive. Yes! Life sure did feel grand at that moment…
Then our woes started. The Nigerian government refused to accept our secession and labelled us rebels. In the beginning we didn’t quite understand why this was so, but under all the rhetoric and talk, it finally hit us… we had oil.
Oil that was really important to not only Nigeria but our colonial masters and their allies. The Nigerian government under General Gowon blockaded us off from the outside world and cut short our food supplies in attempts to starve us out.
Our own kinsmen.
Just a month ago, I lost my grandmother in an attack on Onitsha and escaped death’s haunting fingers narrowly as our Biafran soldiers fought to hold off the advancing Nigerian army. Even though the Biafran soldiers had succeeded, she was already dead. My nne nne.
My nne nne was all that I had and I had lost her.
I had nothing else. No one else. I felt numb. I wanted justice for the blood. I wanted revenge for not only my nne nne but all the many other innocents that lost their lives during that invasion. I wanted to fight back. So I joined the Biafran militia. Yes! I, an Igbo woman, a mpako nwaanyị.
Onitsha was a Biafran stronghold and I wanted to help protect it… and show Gowon what Biafrans were truly made of.
Trying to fight away the bout of tears that was welling up my chest,threatening to overwhelm me. Tears cascaded down my cheek as I recalled seeing my grandmother’s lifeless body, her still hands… her empty, lifeless eyes. I closed my eyes and willed myself to sleep, trying to rid myself of the painful memories.
I had closed my eyes for what seemed only like a few minutes when I was jolted awake by loud noises in the camp outside. The din was everywhere! It was already bright outside with birds chirping and many people scrambling about and yelling inaudibly.
Suddenly, a rush of adrenaline surged through me and I leapt off my cloth bed, pulled on some slacks, boots and t-shirt and rushed outside to see what was going on. I half-expected to be met with armed soldiers, flying bullets, carnage and people screaming, running for their lives. However, the scene I beheld was much different. There was this aura of excitement and anticipation! Excitement in the middle of a war!?
Still trying to grasp what was happening, I tapped on the shoulder of one of the passing men and asked “What’s going on? Are we under attack ?”
He stared back at me in surprise and replied “Ah ah madam, wey attack una dey talk about? Where una dey? Na Zik wey dey come here o! Zik dey come wonna camp inside!” and with that he smiled and sped off.
I stood rooted at where he left me still unable to process what i had just heard.
Struggling to compose myself, I mentally willed my boots to follow in his direction. It seemed everyone was heading towards the town square. I broke into a fast run, darting in front of a lot of other people and nearly tripping over my half laced boots till I reached the town square.
Looking around me, I realised that it was not only the militia and soldiers that had rushed here but also women, children, chiefs and other locals of Onitsha.
I wasn’t surprised that everybody was here, clamouring to see Zik.
After all Dr. Zik was our first president of Nigeria and a major pillar of Nigeria. Plus, He was an Igbo, also from Onitsha. Despite his academic successes in Lincoln University, his prolific and controversial career as editor for the African Morning Post and later owner of the Zik Group of Newspapers, his political career with NCNC and the creation of the Zikist Movement which was almost cult-like, Dr. Zik had remained a humble and committed nationalist.
He was even said to have influenced the nationalist journey of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. And this amazing man was coming here today.
The thought alone was unreal but when I heard a round of cheers at the entrance of the town square, I knew he was here. I followed the cheers to see him walking towards the crowd, dressed in a white Isiagu with black trousers and his head covered with a monochrome kufi. Zik was surrounded by a throng of soldiers that were trying desperately to push away the clamouring crowd, also reaching out to touch Dr. Zik.
I stood entranced by his composure, his constant smile and his profuse willingness to reach out into the crowd and shake hands. Yes! This was the amazing Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe.
He reached the centre of the square and suddenly the crowd fell silent. Dr. Zik, scanned the crowd with an sweeping gaze and with that his lips split into a slight smile.
Then, he said “Hello, people of my beloved Onitsha, ekene m unu… I greet you”
The crowd responded in unison with “Nnộ Dr. Zik”
Then Dr. Zik continued
I am humbled to be among you today. You this amazing group of Igbos. I admire the bravery you showed during the last invasion and applaud you for your resilience and commitment to Biafra. As many of you know,
He pointed to the soldiers around,
I have been outside Nigeria seeking recognition for Biafra from foreign countries. So far I have been able to garner support from Gabon, Zambia and Haiti.. I believe this recognition is important in our next crucial step, dialogue. This dialogue is the only thing that can truly provide the freedom that Biafra is desperately seeking. I know what I am going to say next might not sit well with most of you, but it must be said because it is the truth…
I understand Biafra’s concerns. I understand the plight of the Igbos. Even I had to escape to Onitsha at the start of the war to avoid numerous attempts on my life. I too, have lost so many dear ones. Many of my relatives and friends.
But my brothers and sisters, War will not liberate Biafra.
He sighed deeply and continued
Is freedom really all this carnage? I understand the underlying loss of trust we are experiencing with our fellow Nigerians and the Nigerian government but we cannot just cut ourselves off because of these grievances.
We are first and foremost Nigerians, before Biafrans. We got our independence together as a federation and committed ourselves to that federation.
Do you really believe that secession will garner better treatment for Igbos? Yes it might make them take us more seriously. And yes, it has shown that we are a force to be reckoned with, but does that mean the other party will stop? No, They are starving us out of our own utopia. We are thriving on virtually nothing. How is that sustainable? Tell me!
With that the crowd began to jeer and shout. Many people began hurling out insults frenetically. Many others were angry and arguing amongst each other. Others walked away from the square in disgust while chanting the refrains of war songs.
It was a charged atmosphere that seemed to crackle.
However, a few others were deep in thought. Quiet.. and staring at Dr. Zik, like he was the strangest thing to walk the earth.
I was one of those who just stared. Not because I agreed with him but I was confused. Had even Nnamdi Azikiwe lost faith in Biafra? Are we really fighting an endless war? But again, what had nationalism done for Igbos in the past 8 years?
Had nationalism protected my Nne nne from being slaughtered? Had nationalism protected my family who lost their lives in the Igbo killings up North?
No! Nationalism had failed me both times.
I was angry. Yes! I was angry at Dr. Zik. How dare he!?
How dare he imply that I was fighting for nothing! That I had lost the best years of my life for nothing! Did he really expect me to walk back into the arms of a country that betrayed us, that massacred us, that starved us and say hey, forget everything, lets be one again.
And for what reason? PEACE.
Will peace bring back my grandmother? Will peace wash away all the blood they spilled? Will peace make me forget? All peace will do is make me pretend.
Damn PEACE! YES! DAMN IT ALL.
Just when I had decided that I had heard enough from Dr. Zik and had turned to walk back to my hut, he added in a strained and somewhat frustrated voice,
I once said during our independence that my stiffest assignment had ended and my major life’s work was done… At that point in time, I had believed that my country was truly free and with that I thought I could rest, but my fellow Biafrans, Is this truly freedom? Surely freedom can’t be bloodshed.
My brothers and sisters, it is better to disintegrate in peace than in pieces.. my people is this what you call peace?
Peace can’t be seeing many young children slowly suffering and dying of starvation. I have been to other towns in Biafra and the suffering is heart-wrenching. I can’t rest with all this happening. No I surely cannot. I cannot just sit back and watch my people perish all because we felt undervalued by the national government. There must be another way…
This truly cannot be the end…
– His strained voice trailing off.
He turned away to shield a lonely tear that streaked across the expanse of his left cheek.
No one said anything.
We were all in shock at the tiredness and raw emotion in his voice. Zik was actually tearing up.
This great leader of Nigeria… This great messenger of nationalism.. This great pillar of the Igbos was here in Onitsha, standing in the crowd and breaking down.
No one could process this shock. No one dared to speak.
But how could we speak? How could I speak? Any word that even attempted to come out of my lips froze in my mouth out of fear… out of the fear of saying the wrong thing.
So I just stared at him… stuck between reaching out to comfort him and giving him space to experience his pain.
The soldiers however, taking a cue from the situation unfolding and the mixed emotions the crowd was experiencing rushed towards Zik and escorted him away from the square into a rugged 4 wheel parked nearby.
But we still followed them in silent unison and with eyes fastened on only Zik.
Desperately trying not to be separated from him, no matter the cost.
Soon the only thing that stood between Zik and us was the glass window of the 4 wheeler he was seated in.
This made the soldiers nervous.
Why? You see, with a loud and angry crowd, their voices and expressions cry out for a fight. They are almost always predictable. But a silent crowd never reveal with their eyes or voices what they really want. Their eyes never reveal what their voices refuse to say. So you can never be sure if the silence is just deep thought or deadly. That, is what makes you nervous.
So even though they were somewhat protected by the 4 wheeler, the soldiers were still anxious with uncertainty. This uncertainty turned to haste…which turned to sloppiness.
The driver rushed to start the car but the keys slipped from his fingers. Hastily he bent down to search for the keys… and after what seemed like too long, he finally found it.
He tried to start the car… it didn’t respond. He tried again.. No response. Nervously he turned to stare at the crowd whose palms were now flat on the glass window.
His eyes then fixed on me. For what must have been a few seconds, our eyes locked. His full of fear and anxiety… mine, empty. The emptiness must have scared him because right then he turned his head sharply to the wheel and turned the key as hard as he could.. as if willing the car to start with his strength.
After three other false starts, the engine sputtered noisily to life. Then they revved off into the bush road, with Zik’s head still bent down in the back seat.
I stared at the trail of dust that followed the vehicle, stuck at where I was with the words Dr. Zik had just voiced still ringing loudly in my ears.
Though I couldn’t ever understand how, I never truly forgot what he said.
Even though I never once voiced it out and even if I never would have accepted it then..
I knew that on that day…
Zik had been right.
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