The Story of Biafra, as told by one of Ojukwu’s Generals, Alexander Madiebo – The Question Marker
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The Story of Biafra, as told by one of Ojukwu’s Generals, Alexander Madiebo

“People of nowadays who fight for Biafra, they don’t really understand what they are fighting for”

Biafran soldiers seen here advancing towards the Nigerian army, 11th June 1968 .
 (Photo by Ron Burton/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Biafran soldiers seen here advancing towards the Nigerian army, 11th June 1968 .
(Photo by Ron Burton/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

As the train, laden with goods, wound to a stop five miles from the bridge, in the driver’s compartment, the man on the passenger’s seat promptly discarded the clothing he was putting on and quickly slipped into a spare fireman’s suit. Pushing the door open, the driver, Mr Ifezue, leapt out of the vehicle and the man on a fireman’s suit followed suit. Every act, every fleeting second, mattered.

Opening the tank cover, the passenger, assisted by the driver, was cautiously lowered into the icy water. Then the driver screwed back the cover and climbed down. Soon the train was rolling down towards the bridge where many soldiers of Eastern origin had been ruthlessly executed and their bloodied corpses fed to the river below. The bridge would later be christened the Red Bridge of Makurdi.

Crouching in the dark waters of the tank, the passenger noted how slowly the vehicle came to a halt. He was numb with fear. He could hear the movements of the patrolling soldiers on the sides of the train, but when he heard someone march on top of the water tank his heart sank to unimaginable depths. He knew that the worst nightmare of his life was about to come true—he was about to be found by the very soldiers he had eluded for more than a week. The chase was about to finally come to an end. Only some days ago, the Sergeant Major Chief Clerk, a private soldier, and an Education Instructor Sergeant he encountered at the Ayalagu railway station had set out for the Markurdi bridge, hoping to evade the Northern soldiers keeping watch and cross it in a bid to get to Enugu. Of the three that embarked on the ambitious quest, only the private soldier made it through; the two others were picked up by the soldiers on guard and gunned down, their lifeless bodies tossed into the river.

Now the passenger was at that same bridge, surrounded by a death squad. He stood no chance. No poorly armed person could survive an attack on all fronts. But in a couple of minutes, the engine of the train came alive and he was being carried across the deathtrap of a bridge, beyond the reach of the river which had become a graveyard for Eastern military officers.

While the Northern soldiers happily discharged their duties of fishing out and exterminating marked officers in the course of this particularly peerless bloody coup, they had no idea that one of the most wanted men on their list, the first Regimental Commander of the Nigeria Army Artillery Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Madiebo, had just eluded them, tucked in the water tank of a speeding goods train.

I discovered Madiebo’s classic account of the civil war in 2015, during my time at the University of Benin. My interest in the Biafran conflict had been there since I was a child, and texts on the war became cherished treasures. Like all modern wars, many books abound that explain it, that justify it, that condemn it. But opening the pages of The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War was an experience that stood on its own.

For three years, my search for the whereabouts of the General proved futile until I hit up Aloysius, an old classmate of mine, asking if he had read the book and knew anything about the location of its author. Almost blessedly, Aloysius responded with all the answers I needed. Leaping out of bed, I went on a search to locate General’s residence, which was only a town away.

Leaning on the guidance of Aloysius and the directions of two market women and half a dozen men in a beer parlour, I was able to locate the home of the author. The large house was German floored and there was an umbrella of silence over it. Walking over to the front door, I heard a voice speaking from the sitting room. And I froze. There was something about the voice, this mellowness, this quiet confidence, that told me that that was the General.

After I was greeted at the front door by an elderly woman with a smile that dissolves anxiety and a visible grace that emboldens, I was ushered into the sitting room.

Images played on the television screen in the room, although the volume had been either muted or decreased to a whisper. On the couch sat a young man who could be somewhere in his late twenties. Reclining on the chair, quite close to the door, was the grey-haired patriarch of the house. He was bespectacled, in a short-sleeved shirt and on trousers the colour of milk. Beside him was a walking stick. He watched me intently as I stepped in. There was something about his presence, an authority that wasn’t threatening, a wisdom that was as humbling as it was enticing. And in those seconds of encounter, I knew I had found the Golden Fleece I sought. I had finally met Retired General Alexander Madiebo.

After he flipped through the pages of the copy of his book which I came with, he said, “I want to see if it is pirated.” We spoke for half an hour and he recollected the challenges he had in publishing his book. “I had to be careful, else I’d be jailed indefinitely. I’m a defeated General.”

Then he granted my request to interview him about his memoir, civil war experience, and know his thoughts about the new radical Biafra agitation, championed by Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra.

When I headed for his home about a week later, I was with my partner, Aloysius Ogbonna, and all the questions for which I sought answers.

When Alexander Madiebo joined the Nigerian Army in May, 1954, the country was a colony of the British Empire. He had just finished from the Government College, Umuahia, where he had emerged as one of the most promising students. The college, located in the present Abia state, became a genius-making factory under the influence of the colonial teachers. It produced a large chunk of the country’s future leading economists, historians, poets, novelists, politicians, physicians and many high-powered figures.

While friends and acquaintances on graduation from the Government College were drawing up career choices, young Alexander had already made up his mind to enlist in the army, then known as The Nigeria Regiment, Royal West African Frontier Force.

“I just liked the army,” he told me, when I asked about his motivation for heading in the direction of the barracks. “I was in the Government College in Umuahia, influenced by Europeans a lot, and most were white teachers who had served in the Second World War. They encouraged the students to join the army. I was impressed, so I joined.” At that time, the army was a new profession and people regarded it as the last and most terrible choice.

For someone who had been judged to be one of the best graduates in his class in a highly respected colonial college, the idea of joining to army to many people, he recollected, was simply crazy. “People were coming and coming to pay their condolences to me,” he said, chuckling. “I wasn’t reckless; I thought it was a good opportunity to go abroad and go round the world.”

His dream of going beyond the shores of the country came true after joining the Army as an Officer Cadet. His military training was held at the Regular Officers’ Special Training School in Teshie, Gold Coast, present day Ghana. Afterwards, he proceeded to Europe where he studied at the Eaton Hall Officer Cadet School in Chester, England. The December of 1956 must have been a memorable one for the young Madiebo for that was the month he was commissioned into the Nigerian Army Artillery with the rank of a Second Lieutenant.

When I suggested that many young men in present times opt for the army as a last resort, he politely disagreed.

“Even with a First Class, you may not be able to get into the army. The military continues to be a dangerous profession, there is no doubt about it and, for me, I may have escaped death very narrowly about ten times or more; I have seen death inches away. The army is a good profession when you realize that you’re an adventurous type of person and you realize that the end could come anytime. To me, I knew it was dangerous, but I never expected a war.”

Watching him I wondered how many times in the course of his military career that he had been confronted with overwhelming odds that clearly gave the illusion that the end was upon him.

“I still recommend the army,” he said, “a soldier is well respected all over the world. No matter where you are, if you say you are a soldier people look at you with less suspicion.”

And it was with little or no suspicion that the natives of Kaduna saw him when he resumed duties at the 1 Field Battery, Artillery, located there. Like many of his comrades at the time of the country’s Independence on 1st October, 1960, Nigeria was a grand vision that was completely achievable, a project capable of redeeming the image of Africa and restoring the dignity of the black race. But the infant nation was not entirely without blemish.

“The problems of today were there, but they were not obvious. I was Zik’s ADC in 1960, I knew Zik very well. I was a captain then, and at Independence Zik became the first Nigerian Governor General; he was not a president. He took over from the white colonial leader. At Independence, Nigeria was a federation. The North, the West, the South—they had their own police commissioners and revenue collectors; everybody was operating separately, because the centre was not important as such. Zik felt that that was freedom, but now that freedom is lost. I’m sure that if he’s alive he will no longer be proud of Nigeria.”

At this point, our conversation was interrupted by the arrival of an impressionable elderly man. After introductions, he asks the guest if he would grant us some time to wrap up our chat. The guest obliges and heads for another room. This is not a rare occurrence, especially for a man of his standing and at a time when festivity was heavy in the air. The locals regard him with utter reverence and people trickle in and out of the residence to pay homage and discuss pertinent matters.

Picking up the conversation, he confessed that “Zik is much more experienced in politics than I’d ever be. I was the commander of the Biafran army, I didn’t like his defection. He made attempts to state his views in Biafra, but his views were not accepted. I won’t go into details about that, but Ojukwu rejected whatever views he had. Zik had his own political solution to the crisis, and everybody was saying that the best solution should be taken. But, as you would expect, his views bothered on a peaceful resolution. The war was in full swing, I mean, bombs dropping, and the authorities in Biafra thought that his views—not that they were bad—could not be accepted under the circumstances. What he did was that he decided to defect.”

The events leading to the most definitive moment of the country’s history were triggered by a coup led by a group of Majors who were dissatisfied with the manner the politicians were running the country. On the revolutionary night of January 15, 1966, marked politicians were assassinated and senior officers were gunned down. The front man of the coup plotters was a Major named Kaduna Nzeogwu.

“I knew Nzeogwu as an army officer. To say the sort of man he was could be misleading, but I think that most of the time one must realize he was more of a Northerner than an Igbo man. His name was Kaduna; it wasn’t a nickname. Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. He was born and bred in the North. He spoke Hausa better than majority of the Northerners. He was a good officer and thought that the politicians were not doing well. He believed in One Nigeria so thoroughly that you were safer as a Northerner with him than an Igbo man. Only a few times he came to my office; I am a senior officer to him anyway. He respected everybody. And during the war he never fought for Biafra at all. He fought against the North but not for Biafra. When the war started, he was in jail. Then he was released. He didn’t join the Biafran army; what he did was that he just formed a group of guerrillas and went to the war front, ambushed and attacked enemy patrols and movements. He worked independent of the Biafran army, and civilians, university graduates, joined his team. On one occasion, they laid an ambush, and the enemy, aware of it, surrounded and killed most of them.”

The report that got to Madiebo at the Army Headquarters was that Nzeogwu was wounded and that the enemy had taken him down to Nsukka where they identified him. At the time, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu was the most wanted person in Nigeria for killing the Sardauna, the premier, during the coup of January, 1966. There were different accounts of what happened to Nzeogwu, the captive. Some quarters proclaimed that he died at the rear. Others said he was taken from the rear to Kaduna, still alive, and that it was in the town that he was killed.

“Whether he died at Nsukka or in Kaduna, his corpse was brought to Kaduna and the people were celebrating a public funeral and everybody wanted to come and see who killed the Sardauna. But he never fought in Biafra one day under the Biafran army, that is the gospel truth. He was just fighting for One Nigeria. He fought Ironsi. He fought Gowon; he felt that Gowon wasn’t the rightful Head of State. He thought Gowon’s reign was a coup, too, so he was fighting it. He died fighting, not for Biafra; he just happened to be on the Biafran side.”

And though the news of Nzeogwu’s death spread across Nigeria like a tidal wave bore it, his demise was never officially acknowledged or announced by the Biafran government. “It just came and died like a rumour,” Madiebo noted. “Every Biafran officer knew that Nzeogwu had been killed, because they were all living together somewhere at Independence Layout, in Enugu. If you go out and you don’t come back, then something had happened to you, that was army life during the war. People knew he died but there was absolutely nothing official done about it. I did not get a confirmation from Ojukwu that Nzeogwu had died.”

Nzeogwu, however, wasn’t the only officer on the Biafran side to have a controversial end. His colleague and fellow January 15 coup-plotter, Captain Timothy Onwuatuegwu, who not also only found himself in Biafra after secession was declared but equally fought for it and eventually rose to the rank of a colonel, also died in uncertain circumstances.

“Whatever I tell you is what I heard. The report I had in the Ivory Coast, where I departed for forty-eight hours to the end of the war. According to Biafran intelligence in the Ivory Coast, Onwuatuegwu who incidentally went to the same school with me, Government College Umuahia, was a very good officer. In fact he did so well in Sandhurst and fought well in the war. When the war ended, he should have been taken away with Ojukwu and myself, I don’t know why he wasn’t. He had a friend who he went to Umuahia with, Caleb Nwankwo, who had come in from America. The arrangement was that he would wait for Onwuatuegwu in the Cameroun, because it was too dangerous for him to fly in again. He sent a message to Onwuatuegwu to come out and meet him at a designated place in the Cameroun, at the border, near Ogoja. So Onwuatuegwu took off where he had been staying at Nnewi for a day or two; soldiers had taken over the place. Along with his orderly, he took a vehicle loaded with wood and disguised as best as he could. When they got to a border town, they lodged in a hotel. Whether it was true or not, the orderly went out in the night and informed the Nigerian soldiers in the town that such and such person was in the hotel. They came and captured him and brought him down, by night, to the prison at Enugu. I think they consulted and they decided to kill him there. This is the version Army Headquarters got. When I came back from exile in December 1975, I sent for this fellow who was supposed to pick him up at the border and he confirmed the story. That was how he died—as far as I know.”

To Madiebo, Onwuatuegwu wasn’t just another officer. As an individual, the colonel was the officer closest to the Madiebo family and had the fortune of being the godfather of the General’s first son.

When I asked Madiebo if, in Ironsi’s shoes, he would have executed Nzeogwu and his accomplices, he abruptly said, “No. I would have tried them for indiscipline and jailed them, dismiss them from the army, never mind that when the Northerners do it they become heroes. A coup is a very serious offence that deserves death even. Nzeogwu was the first coup-plotter in Nigeria, the first in Black Africa even. What they deserved, the plotters, was to be tried outrightly for gross indiscipline and long-term imprisonment because it involved every tribe—Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Ijaw; there is no tribe that wasn’t part of the coup. Leaving them unpunished would draw anybody’s anger. It gave the impression that Ironsi was a party to it, but I don’t believe he was. There was a rumour in the army that there would be a coup, but nobody knew exactly what a coup was then. Everybody knew that a coup was coming—the politicians, the army, the police, everybody. But when the coup came it swept everybody off his feet.”

Madiebo believes that Aguiyi Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army, knew exactly what to do with the coup-plotters, but he did the simplest thing—nothing. “He put these people in jail, nobody tried them, it was like he was giving them a holiday. If they had been tried and sentenced to something, it would have been better to say that the punishment was too lenient instead of saying that nobody was punished for such in a coup, in which so many people were killed, including the Prime Minister. That was why the North decided to strike.”

On the night of June 18, 1966, Madiebo was secretly paid a visit by a cousin of the late Sardauna. It came close to being one of the most chilling meetings of his life. The cousin, with the help of carefully made notes, revealed that the Northern military government had decided to overthrow Ironsi’s government, and had it been just another coup, this relative, who Madiebo in his memoir simply described as Alhaji Suya, wouldn’t have come to leak the plan had this new batch of coup-plotters not decided to kill every Southerner in the North, especially the Igbo, irrespective of age, sex, religious belief or social status. When I enquired if the right moment to reveal the true identity of Alhaji Suya had come, Madiebo said, “I have forgotten his name. Frankly.”

The information provided by Alhaji Suya was enough to stop the coup, which was at the concluding stages, and save the country from a civil war. Madiebo promptly flew to Lagos to inform Ironsi of the danger brewing. As with the case of the January coup-plotters, Ironsi handled the developing situation poorly.  And when the countercoup came, the cost of lives that followed, which included General Ironsi’s, shook the soul of the young nation. It was in the course of fleeing from the boiling North that Madiebo boarded the goods train and eluded the death which soldiers he once commanded were now more than willing to serve him.

As an act of self-defense against possible extermination, the Military Governor of the Eastern region, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, after a meeting of the Advisory Committee of Chiefs and Elders at Enugu in May 1967, was mandated to declare Eastern Nigeria, a free sovereign and independent state. When Ojukwu declared that the free Eastern region should be known by the title of the Republic of Biafra, he had drawn the curtain for a war that would define a generation, a war whose ghost still hovers over Nigeria to this day.

However, despite the fact that secession had been thick in the air in Eastern Nigeria since the massive pogroms that saw the end of thousands of Igbo lives, Madiebo was uncertain the 30th of May, 1967, was “the earliest practicable date” for Biafra’s independence.

“We all know now that it was not, even though the Head of State, who had all the facts at the time thought it was,” he would write years later in retrospection. “Why was it so? Again the answer is simple. As a Military Governor in charge of a region of Nigeria, Ojukwu must have known that his appointment as a military ruler might be terminated by Lagos and another person appointed in his place. Such an action by Lagos would have greatly embarrassed Ojukwu in addition to introducing doubts in the minds of people about the justness of any attempts he would have made to continue in Office.”

Prior to Biafra’s advent, though he was the Military Governor of the Eastern region, a position accorded to him by General Ironsi after the failure of Nzeogwu’s coup, there were many top Army officers in the region whom Colonel Ojukwu had no authority over. On becoming the leader of Biafra, all that changed. Ojukwu became the most powerful figure in the breakaway nation.

However, about four months later, after the war had begun, Ojukwu’s government executed some officers, which included Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, who was the first ever Nigerian to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal. Ifeajuna, who had been a party to Nzeogwu’s coup, was executed for being part of an attempted coup to unseat Ojukwu.

On whether there was indeed an attempt by the Onitsha born Major Ifeajuna to kick Ojukwu out of power, Madiebo told me: “A coup is not a coup until people strike, but if you are planning and you are discovered then it is an attempted coup, which is as serious as the coup itself. Ifeajuna was attempting; he came to me and said that the British would like the war to end. I was at the war front, you know, the full fight was going on. The only condition would be that Ojukwu should step down, and I said, ‘If he steps down, who is going to take over from him?’ He said that I would take over. I said, no, why me? He said,  there’s nobody else. I said, you should tell Ojukwu that if he steps down that the war would end; have you told him that? He said, I haven’t told him.” When Madiebo inquired what would happen on the occasion Ojukwu refuses to step down, he was told that Ojukwu would be “forced” to.

“There you are, that’s a coup,” Madiebo remarked to me with a chuckle. “A person who forces the Head of State to step down or step aside, if it’s not a coup, I don’t know what is.”

Madiebo decided to leave the war front and go to Enugu to consult with the Army Commander at the time, Brigadier Hilary Njoku and also the Head of State because everybody would like the war to end.  

“He said that when I get to Enugu, I should go and see Banjo, who had returned from the the Midwest Operation. On my way to Enugu, I saw Sir Francis Ibiam in the State car with Ojukwu’s adviser, C.C Mojekwu. They were coming towards my headquarters, but I didn’t stop; I continued to Enugu because I didn’t know they were coming to see me. When I got to Enugu, before I could consult some officers, Sir Ibiam had returned to Enugu and phoned me to come to State House, not to Ojukwu’s headquarters; his own State House. I got there and—to cut the long story short—he said that some people were trying to cause confusion, do I believe in the war or not? Of course I believe in the war, that’s why I’m there in the bush. Eventually, he took me to see Ojukwu and there Ojukwu said that I should become the Army Commander.”

It was years later as Army Commander that Madiebo had full information that Ifeajuna had already finished the plan of a coup and that the coup-plotters had decided that it was either he took over from Ojukwu or they got rid of him.

“They felt that I would be in their way. The day I knew that they were trying to get at and overthrow Ojukwu was the day they were executed.”

One of the executed plotters of the aborted coup was Lieutenant Colonel Victor Banjo, a Yoruba officer who led the invasion into the Midwest, an event some historians argue to be the greatest offensive to be launched by Biafra throughout the war. However, Colonel Banjo’s legacy had created room for debate. The manner the operation was carried out left questions and doubts in the minds of top Biafran officers, and to this day his loyalty to the Biafran cause still remains the subject of controversy. Was Colonel Victor Banjo a betrayer of the Biafran people?

“If he wasn’t at the beginning, by the time of the operation he had turned,” Madiebo said. “You know, you can change your mind at any stage. Banjo probably went to that operation determined to reach the West and disorganize Gowon in Lagos. But he got to Benin and exposed himself to the British embassy and other embassies. They convinced him to drop the operation and he changed overnight.”

Some of the sudden “changes” by Colonel Banjo included unnecessary delays, broadcasting a speech from Benin which completely made Ojukwu livid, reorganizing troops which had not yet fired a shot and cutting Ojukwu out of his plans and ordering the “withdrawal from Benin when the advancing enemy was 15 miles away from the town.”

These strange, unauthorised changes made the failure of the operation unavoidable. “If I had gone to see him from Nkalagu he would have killed me,” Madiebo said.

Puzzled, I asked why.

“Oh yes. The aim of my visit to Enugu was to inform the government of what Ifeajuna had told me. I didn’t know I was about to expose their determination to overthrow Ojukwu, and they, the coup-plotters, didn’t want me to get to the Army headquarters, so they said I should see Banjo first. He was staying at the ECM Flats at Enugu, but I didn’t go there. So the answer is that he turned to be a saboteur, in my own view.”

As Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Colonel Victor Banjo faded from the scene, Colonel Alexander assumed the position of the Biafran Army Commander, establishing him as the third most powerful figure in the nation. His predecessor, Brigadier Hilary Njoku and the Head of State had a rather strained relationship from the outbreak of the war.

“Under Hilary, which is not his fault, the Biafran army lost from Nsukka to Enugu in two weeks. The force that attacked Biafra was far more than we ever dreamt of. Don’t forget that the whole Nigerian army was in the North and West and had only one battalion stationed in Eastern Nigeria. Out of that one battalion, about two-thirds were northerners that had gone home.

“So in the whole Nigerian army, not more than three hundred were in Biafra. When they attacked, all the people we had as soldiers were trained overnight at Enugu. They were not really soldiers, so it was easy for the enemy to capture from Nsukka to Enugu. Njoku lost grounds so much that he was confused, so probably because he disagreed with Ojukwu, probably because he had no solution to the problem, he was changed. In fact when I took over the army, within two weeks the army had disintegrated. But Nigeria didn’t exploit our collapse, and I had one week to reorganize the force at Akagbe. I reformed the army and we began to resist the enemy for the next years.”

When the Biafran resistance failed in January, 1970, General Alexander Madiebo was amongst the influential figures that Ojukwu took along on the desperate and definitive flight to Ivory Coast, where President Houphouet-Boigny, one of the few African leaders that officially recognized Biafra, granted them political asylum.

Ojukwu’s leadership of Biafra, has, over the years, been analysed, his weaknesses drawn out and his strengths lauded. However, Madiebo believes he is not in a position to pass the final verdict on the Head of State.

“He may have made his own mistakes as a human being, but he inherited a very difficult situation. Whether he handled it well or not, it would be unfair of me to say that he was a good leader or a bad one, because I may not have done better. Almost every officer that fought the war suffered from high blood pressure, hypertension; you are under a sort of pressure you can never imagine. The only thing I know is that Ojukwu ought to have been a bit more flexible. If you are passing through a channel and you knock your head against an obstacle, you look right or left and see whether there’s a better option, but if you keep walking until you break your head, you do not help the situation. So what one required in Biafra was flexibility, very important in military tactics. If you try something two-three-four times and it doesn’t work, try something else, you see?”

Madiebo also believes that mental flexibility is absent in the recent Biafra agitations of some groups in the Eastern states on the grounds of political, social and economic marginalisation.

“People of nowadays who fight for Biafra, they don’t really understand what they are fighting for. None of them was born then. All you hear are stories, some of them exaggerated, some of them false, some of them doctored. Biafra was formed to fight against Igbo marginalization which had gone to the stage that threatened the existence of Ndi Igbo. A war is not the simple answer to marginalisation. If you are being marginalised, try to get your right. Biafra also was approved by all the leaders of Eastern Nigerian. Ojukwu was mandated to declare Biafra because people were being killed. It took me eighteen days to travel from Kaduna to Enugu by foot, by train. There was a need to form a resistance. Biafra was a resistance against possible extinction of the Igbo. The present Biafra, I do not know of a single state, any Igbo state or outside, that has approved Biafra. I don’t know what it stands for. Nobody has consulted me; those who do, I tell them that I do not want to get involved. There is no state, or religion, or organization that is backing the present fight for Biafra. Where is their mandate? You see, the sort of impression one gets of all these is that MASSOB, IPOB, are nothing but cults. You know, my own definition of a cult is a group that worships something or somebody, even Christianity is a cult. All I want to say is that, that is not the solution to marginalization at the moment. They are not representing anybody that I know. I don’t know whose mandate they are executing. If it’s marginalisation, the West is talking about it, the South-South, there is marginalisation everywhere at varying degrees, so why don’t you join force with other marginalised people and solve their problem, because the present system is a bit too much for the Igbo. Biafra was not just meant to be a new country. Biafra existed for a purpose at the time, that purpose does not exist now. We are marginalised, that is a lower scale of injustice. When you see a real genocide, a pogrom—you can’t imagine what it is. Then all you have to do was form a resistance, and you can’t form a resistance as part of Nigeria. That was the need for Biafra.”

One of the most vibrant of the secessionist groups in Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, has found themselves in the news in recent times. There have been massive protests organized by the group and their Radio Biafra, initially run by Nnamdi Kanu from the United Kingdom until his arrest, had been the most potent instrument of propaganda seen in Nigeria in recent years. Nnamdi Kanu, after he was released on bail in 2017, mysteriously disappeared after the Nigerian army staged the Operation Python Dance which saw soldiers invading his residence in Abia state. His fate was unknown for over a year until he resurfaced in Jerusalem, Israel. Madiebo thinks that Kanu is a brave man.

“He is courageous, but he must realize that his Biafra is different from Ojukwu’s and my own Biafra. The aim of his Biafra is to put an end to Igbo marginalisation. I do not know what authority or group in Igboland that mandated him, or gave him the ofor as a chosen leader. He must also realise that Ojukwu’s Biafra is self-defence; the present Biafra, instead of being defensive, is offensive. He must realise that to rule the Igbo he must get their formal approval. You can’t rule a people by imposing yourself, and such a country it would bring won’t be a democracy, but a dictatorship. I think Nnamdi, being a leader who has already made his name, should modify his aim. Not fight for Biafra, fight against marginalisation. They are two different things. If you are going to fight against marginalisation, you need the cooperation of other people who are also fighting against marginalisation, and that means fighting against the present constitution. Marginalisation comes from the military constitution which we are still using today. What we’re using is just the 1999 decree of General Abdulsalami Abubakar. I have admiration for Nnamdi for being really courageous, but he must modify his aims and objectives.”

Madiebo kept a diary during the course of the war, a habit he still maintains till this day. His war-diary was the foundation of the book he later wrote about the Biafran struggle. Though the manuscript of what would be The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War had been ready by 1975 when he had been assured by the Gowon’s Military Government that it was safe for him to return to Nigeria, Madiebo’s book was deliberately not published by Fourth Dimension until 1980 when Alhaji Shehu Shagari was in charge of the country as a civilian leader. A memoir that unleashed scathing criticisms of the Nigerian army and the prosecution of the civil war was certain to earn a ban by the military authorities that had been in charge since the war

“Even though the book was published during Shagari’s civilian regime, there were people in the army that kicked against it,” Madiebo told me.

The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War was launched by Fourth Dimension in Enugu in November, 1980. The novelist Chinua Achebe, in an address on the occasion, stated that Madiebo’s account of the civil war “will maintain its superiority for generations and generations to come” because the General “confronts our recent history boldly and squarely. He is dispassionate in his analysis and quite merciless in exposing our hypocrisy, our ineptitude, our cruelty. In this process some cherished illusions are knocked on the head; some popular idols are sent tumbling down from their pedestals of deceit and chicanery; some reputations that were unfairly damaged by jealousy, spitefulness, ignorance, misunderstanding and mass hysteria are rehabilitated.” He described Madiebo as “an army General who writes like an angel” and further picked him out as “a fine example of effective prose, such as is becoming extremely rare these days.”

The publication of the book won Madiebo threats from some quarters in the coming months, but that didn’t dissuade him from granting interviews and publishing newspaper articles. He was politically active when Jim Ifeanyichukwu Nwobodo was governor of Anambra State during the Nigerian Second Republic in the 1980s. By 1996, Madiebo had “given up.”

“I am old now and I am not interested in party politics,” he told me. “Now they have come to look for me, but I tell them I am not an Igbo leader. How can I be? I have been back for over forty years and nobody has looked for me. I prefer to live a quiet life now that I am very old.” ✚

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