Nigeria: Another look at Biafran Spirit and ingenuity during Border Closure
By Emeka OBASI
Motor Park economists say we are approaching El Dorado as Nigeria’s land borders remain shut. I know nothing about paper economics since most practitioners say different things each returning day.
Some big guns in Abuja think this new development will boost local production. There is just no way to run away from Biafra because the present situation takes many back to the Civil War years. Biafra’s land, sea and air borders were blockaded by Nigeria, supported by Russian fighter jets manned by Egyptian pilots. World powers, except of course, the United States and France looked elsewhere as atrocity reigned.
The Biafrans did not go to bed, they put on their thinking cap. That is exactly what I want Nigerians to do. It is not enough to announce that local farmers are smiling to the banks. I expect government to factor other things that go beyond producing rice in Abakaliki. What does it take to move the product beyond Ebonyi State?
Beyond politics, we know that Lagos is the most populous state in the country. A good rice farmer in Abakaliki would, of course, love to take advantage of the huge market.
After escaping pot holes in Enugu, Anambra and Delta states, danger stares him in the face. The Ijebu Ode-Sagamu axis is a nightmare. Moving on the Sagamu-Lagos highway is the height of gridlock and that coupled with fear of bandits and herdsmen from Ofosu to Ore. Ours is a country of consumers. We import almost everything. Nigeria does not plan at all. We cannot even produce tissue paper to wipe our dirty bum after feeding fat on foreign goods. As a kid, I began to recite ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’
That was a common jingle in Biafra. With borders militarized, the people looked inwards. Biafra became a mass of industry. Everyone was involved even in the midst of starvation. Medical equipment was scarce but there was a way out and it was home grown. Professor Theodore Okeahialam, who was part of it all paints a humble picture of the feat achieved. Okeahialam said “That was a period of exciting Igbo scientific innovation just like the use of coconut water as intravenous fluid by doctors to treat wounded soldiers as emergencies.” According to the professor of Paediatrics, that leap by Biafran doctors did not go unnoticed by the globe. “It later proved to be scientifically sound and was reviewed in international medical journals later.”
Radio Biafra had many prominent names. People like Chinua Achebe, Uche Chukwumerije and Cyprian Ekwensi made contributions. At the time the war ended in January 1970, it was headed by Sam Nwaneri. Okokon Ndem’s voice was sharper than an AK -47 bullet. The way he made announcements, many Biafrans believed their troops were just miles short of capturing Gen. Yakubu Gowon alive. It was believed that Radio Biafra operated from Enugu which had fallen into federal hands as early as 1967. Many wondered how Gen. Emeka Ojukwu held on to that miracle. However, the man who made Radio Biafra stay on, was Heron Okeahialam, an Electrical/Electronics engineer, trained in the United Kingdom. While he moved the station from one secret location to another, bullets and fighter bombers were unable to detect it. Prof. Okeahialam is his elder brother. Prof. Okeahialam said: “Heron converted Radio Biafra from medium to short wave, for wider coverage.” It was indeed a mobile station.
It moved from Enugu to Umuahia and by the end of the war was operating from Obodoukwu Urualla in today’s Ideato area of Imo State. “At one time,” Prof. Okeahialam added, “the transmitter was in Otulu during the war and a long palm tree was used to mount the aerial.” Col. Olu Obasanjo who received the instrument of surrender as General Officer Commanding, Third Marine Commando Division of the Nigeria Army could not but marvel at what was Radio Biafra. Locating it was like a wild goose chase. Accompanied by battle tested troops, Obasanjo waltzed through rough terrain in his official Mercedes Benz car, NA 116, until mission was accomplished.
He said “The station was well camouflaged from both ground and air by trees and palm fronds which were changed regularly. It was a perfect job.” Trust Obasanjo, he came battle ready and was after Okokon Ndem. The broadcaster outsmarted him by disappearing into the undergrowth. An enraged OBJ threatened to flog Ikoneto demons out of the man. When Okokon Ndem eventually surfaced, the soldiers who would have been ordered to cane him were carried away.
They hailed and took photographs with the non-Igbo Biafran. Accompanying Obasanjo was another non-Igbo, Gen. Philip Asuquo Effiong, president of Biafra in the absence of Gen. Emeka Ojukwu who was flown out in his Grey Ghost by Captain Frank Osakwe. Obasanjo asked some of the Radio Biafra workers to accompany him to Lagos where they would be reabsorbed by Radio Nigeria. Okeahialam declined.
In 1976, he could not say no to Imo State governor, Lt. Commander Ndubuisi Kanu. Kanu saddled Okeahialam with the responsibility of setting up the Imo Broadcasting Service [IBS]. Okeahialam attended St. Joseph’s College, Sasse, Cameroon before proceeding to Professional Technical College, Southampton. He bagged a higher degree from the University of Cyracuse. The engineer also lived up to his initials of H.O.D. when appointed H.O.D. Electrical/Electronics Engineering department, IMT Enugu. Biafran scientists did great things. They made beer from cassava. Engine oil came out of coconut.
They manufactured ‘Ogbunigwe’ rockets and built Red devil armoured cars. There were refineries. Airports sprang up in Uli, Uga and Obilagu. Among the scientists were Gordian Ezekwem, Col. Ejike Ebenezer Aghanya, Willy Achukwu,Frank Ndili, Felix Oragwu, Ezekiel Izuogu, Sam Orji, Frank Mbanefo, Benjamin Nwosu and Roy Umenyi. They belonged to the Research And Production Unit [RAP].
In all this, there is a lesson for Nigeria. Biafrans were pushed to the wall by Nigeria. They reacted by looking inwards.
Today, Nigeria’s land borders are closed. Nigerians should wake up from slumber and do something. No serious government ever toed the path of discrimination. You cannot throw away merit and expect development. It would be a national shame if Nigerians miss this opportunity.
*Obasi, Veteran journalist and publisher of Business Hallmark Newspapers, wrote in from Lagos