Reveals how rebel leader, Effiong’s families left Biafra
• ‘Ojukwu never stayed in bunker when Umuahia fell’
• Says January 1966 coup, not an Igbo coup
BY CHARLES KUMOLU, Deputy Editor This interview with Philip Effiong, II, a Prof of Drama in Michigan State University,
whose father, Lt. Col Philip Effiong, was the Second-in-command to then Head of State, defunct Republic of Biafra, Lt.Col Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, brings you face-to-face with many untold events of the Nigerian Civil War. From the position of a witness to history, Effiong corrects some long-held notions about key events during the civil war, with emphasis that the January 15, 1966, coup which some still regard as an Igbo coup wasn’t really the major reason for the massacre of the Igbo during and after the July 29, 1966, counter-coup. His revelations on how the Biafran first families left the break-away republic, his father’s escape from Kaduna, Ojukwu’s conversations with his father, and life as the privileged people in Biafra among others, speak to the futility of war.
Your dad was a Lt Col in the Nigerian Army when the second coup, otherwise known as counter-coup, took place on July 29, 1966. Where precisely was your family and how did your father survive since many officers of Eastern origin were killed
We lived in a barrack called AN Barracks. It is here in Lagos. When the first coup took place, my father was reposted to the State House under Major General Aguiyi Ironsi, who was the Head of State. He was the Principal Staff Officer to Ironsi. As Principal Staff Officer, his roles were not defined like the Director of Ordinance, which was the position he held before being posted to work with Ironsi. He was trained as an ordinance officer. His posting to the State House almost cost him his life. When he was sent there he learned that the July 29, 1966 Coup was being planned and told his boss, Gen Ironsi. Instead of working with the intelligence, Ironsi brought my father before the Supreme Military Council and asked him to repeat what he told him. That experience was painful to my father and made him a marked man. As an Ibibio, no one could have easily marked my father but what Ironsi did made him a target. From that moment, the planners of the coup considered him a threat to their plans.
If Ironsi had succeeded in thwarting the coup based on the information my father provided, what could have been the fate of people like Gen Theophilus Danjuma, Gen Murtala Mohammed and then Governor of Northern Region, Gen Hassan Katsina among others, who took part in the coup? My father became a targeted man from that day. I am not here to insult anybody but exposing my father to danger for trying to save him was not the right thing for Ironsi to have done. He betrayed my father and posted him to Kaduna to be the acting Commander of the First Brigade. Kaduna was not a place my father wanted to go because he knew what was coming. The coup took place a month after my father was posted to Kaduna and we were in Lagos at the time.
How did he survive in Kaduna when the second coup took place?
He had to go into hiding in Kaduna. We are grateful to a lot people, who helped him to escape. The American Consulate in Kaduna, the Catholic Church and his Brigade Commander, Samuel Ogbemudia saved him from being killed like other officers from Eastern Nigeria. He escaped in disguise from Kaduna to Lagos and we had to leave the barrack. We left the barrack without taking anything along. When we left, the family of another military officer, Col Rudolf Trimnell, harboured us. Col Rudolf Trimnell was from Ukwuani, Igbo-speaking group in Delta State, like my mother but they are also classified as Igbo. He was in hiding but we stayed at the family compound of his wife at Spencer Street, Lagos. His wife is a Yoruba woman. They were gracious but the place was crowded. Food was not a problem but it was difficult feeding many people because the Trimnell children were six and we were seven. That was in addition to other relatives living with them. We didn’t know where my father was and my mother cried everyday thinking he had been killed. That was our situation when the first and second coups took place. Eventually, my father managed to escape to the east. I didn’t know how he made an arrangement for us to take a boat from Lagos to Port Harcourt. The boat that took us was a big boat which was captained by a white man. Till date, I get scared any time there is lightning because of the sounds of shelling I heard during the war. I also got scared any time I found aeroplane flying after the war because of the air raids we witnessed. I was young and the things I can recall are the things that affected me. Virtually everything about the war affected me. That is why I can tell vivid sad stories of the things that happened during the war.
Some authors, and even eminent people, who gave first-hand information about the war like Frederick Forsyth, Alexander Madiebo, and Nnamdi Azikiwe among others, said Ojukwu literally ran a one-man government in Biafra. What type of working relationship did your dad have with him?
I am sure another opinion of Ojukwu from another person would sound differently. Many people say that. Officers found themselves in a very difficult situation during the crisis. My father joined the army in 1945 before many people joined. He was already an officer before some of them including Gen Yakubu Gowon joined the army. In the picture of Nigeria’s first military officers in 1951, they sat and stood according to their ranks. The highest rank was Major. There were about three Majors and the next in order of seniority were Captains and my father was one of those Captains. The remaining people were Lieutenants and Second Lieutenants. That was where Ojukwu and Gowon belonged. When my father found himself in Biafra, he had to submit himself to Ojukwu, who had been his junior and that is not easy in the military. At that time my father’s concern was not about himself but the welfare of the people. He was not the Second-in-command immediately he found himself in the Biafran Army. He was assigned to different positions. At some point, he headed the Biafran Militia before he was made the Deputy Head of State. The official designation was Chief of General Staff. Brigadier Njoku could have been given the position but he had a fallout with Ojukwu for the reasons we are talking about. Let me give Ojukwu some credits. We can only imagine what it was like for him as the Governor of Eastern Region to suddenly have a refugee crisis on his hands. How old was he then? He was only 34 years old. They were quite young and did what they could. On that level, he handled the refugee crisis and created a safe passage for non-Igbo to leave the east. Though some people were angry and the house of the Mayor of Enugu, who was a northerner was burnt. When he went to Aburi, he did well by negotiating well. Unfortunately, the federal government revised it because they did not renege completely.
Are you saying the declaration of Biafra was not an immediate result of the failure of the Aburi Accord/
We have to remember that the creation of 12 states by Gowon was the immediate reason for the declaration of Biafra by Ojukwu. The implication of the creation of states was that Ojukwu no longer had the authority to govern the eastern region. The voiding of Ojukwu’s position was not reassuring for the Igbo because Ojukwu was the only one, who spoke for them until that point. The appointment of Ukpabi Asika, someone, who they didn’t know as the Governor of East Central State, was a clear message that their authority in the army was now being removed. That didn’t go down well with the people and they wanted to maintain what was left of their autonomy with this leader they trusted. That was a major reason Biafra was created. Biafra was blessed with respected statesmen like the late Chief Michael Opara, Sir Francis Akanu Ibiam, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe among others. The federal side didn’t have much like the eastern region but they had Awolowo, a well-respected man. What did Gowon do? He immediately made him his deputy and listened to his wise counsel. On the side of Gowon, the creation of states was brilliant from military and political standpoints. I don’t believe it was Gowon’s original idea but it showed that he was listening to those, who were more experienced than him, probably, Awolowo. In Biafra, the opposite was happening because most of the eminent people were asking Ojukwu to listen to them. Their argument was that they were not getting a lot of cooperation from Gen Ojukwu. The people who complained were Dr. Opara, Dr. Azikiwe, among others. Azikiwe eventually left Biafra. Essentially, he didn’t only change sides but talked about his problems. Now, this is what he said not what I know. He said it was hard to get along with Ojukwu. He said he had made significant gains in trying to get support for Biafra for some African countries to get a peace deal, but added that Gen Ojukwu was always countering his proposals.
He said Ojukwu believed in a military solution while Biafra didn’t have the military might. The Secretary to the Biafran Government, a man from my place, Mr. N. Akpan, who was very close to Ojukwu also said the same thing in his book. In my father’s book, Nigeria and Biafra: My Story, he also said there were some problems getting Gen Ojukwu to see things differently. It is a common complain. The reason I told the Aburi story is to present a balanced picture because it is not all about condemnation like people tend to do. People look at Ojukwu’s faults and use them to speak completely against Biafra but it goes beyond his personality. My father once talked about how he told Ojukwu that Biafran forces needed to protect Ikot Ekpene which leads to the heart of Biafra. He said when he made the proposal, Ojukwu said maybe Biafra needed reinforcement to protect Nnewi, where he, Ojukwu, hailed from. Ojukwu thought my father made the statement because of the assumption that he was from Ikot Ekpene. We are not from Ikot Ekpene but Ibiono. My grandfather only settled in Ikot Ekpene which is Ananland while Ibiono is Ibibio. Some also said there were problems with the Igbo and minorities in Biafra. These minorities didn’t play minor roles in the war. Some problems arose because some had been given states. It contributed to the saboteur narrative in Biafra. Some non-Igbo were killed by Biafran forces for suspicions of being saboteurs.