Philip Efiong was a major-general in the Biafran army and second-in-command to Emeka Ojukwu, the leader of the breakaway republic during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970. He died in 2003, but his posthumous account of Biafra, “The caged bird sang no more: My Biafra odyssey, 1966-70”, published in 2016, is quite revealing about how the Biafran effort failed. It also provides useful lessons for the recent agitation for the “restoration” of Biafra.
Extracts from the book are reproduced below.
One school of thought maintains that when a single person, for whatever reason, is entrusted with the execution of the laws, management of the revenue, and command of the army within a state, that state ultimately emerges as a monarchy. However, the authority of so formidable a leader—or magistrate—will soon degenerate into despotism, unless public liberty is protected by intrepid and vigilant guardians within this setting. It has been said that a people do not lose a war of liberation but Biafra did, and these are some of the more crucial reasons why:
• Ojukwu had a completely superficial attitude towards the war. It was an experimental war game to him. His real objective was to see how far he could dare or taunt Gowon before negotiating for peace. All his officers and men were just pawns on his chessboard—hence the lack of proper planning and execution. It was, at best, a ploy to bring the contending parties to the conference table. It came as a surprise to him when Jack Gowon took the matter a bit more seriously.
• The external and internal failures of Biafra were due, entirely to Ojukwu’s policies, utterances and lack of positive directives to his provincial administrators, the Igbo leadership, and military commanders in the field. For instance, Ojukwu’s assertive claim, “No power in Black Africa can defeat Biafra”, was not only indulgent and self-deceptive, it was also a negative assault on the goodwill of Biafra’s potential friends and sympathisers. Such an outburst contained the seeds of expansionism and empire building which our early sally into the Mid-West (August 1967) served to exemplify to the outside world.
• The initial diplomatic blunder following the declaration of Biafran independence on 30 May 1967, during which an avalanche of spurious diplomatic recognitions interested in recognising the statehood of Biafra.
• There was no bold attempt to negotiate for military support on the basis of mutual economic understanding with any superior power. The understanding Biafra had with France was superficial and did not go far enough to have decisive military impact in Biafra’s favour.
• The choice of his (Ojukwu’s) late uncle, Mr C.C. Mojekwu, as de facto ambassador plenipotentiary probably did more harm than good since his diplomatic efforts were neither significant nor spectacular. Mr M.T. Mbu who was then external affairs commissioner was not used to make vital external contacts despite the diplomatic experience he had.
• On the home front, the fear, suspicion, tyranny, insecurity, and lack of tolerance that Ojukwu and his field agents displayed in the non-Igbo speaking areas of Biafra resulted in the withdrawal of support for the Biafran cause in those areas. They, the people of those areas now saw the federal troops as liberators, which was a serious political blunder as far as the Biafran dream was concerned.
• Very often, the Biafran head of state skimmed over essential issues like the supply of armaments, and concentrated more on the trappings and paraphernalia of office. I was awarded the Biafra Service Order and the Distinguished Service Order which had nothing more than nuisance value at the time. Others, like Madiebo, also received similar decorations. Such awards were completely unnecessary.
• There were no long-term strategic plans or clearly defined objectives, which meant that planning was largely ad-hoc and depended on the goodwill and support of the head of state. Without him, it was difficult for the field commanders to take meaningful initiatives, even in ordinary tactical manoeuvres. Very often, this was a deliberate policy to ensure that Biafra depended on him for its survival.. He was Biafra and Biafra was him. Adequate supplies of armaments were a major problem throughout the war.
• Throughout the crisis period and the war, Ojukwu had one basic problem that coloured most of his thinking and actions. It can, perhaps, best be described as a pre-occupation with ‘intellectual knick-knacks’. Far from helping him and the Biafran cause in the essentially belligerent state in which we found ourselves, his Oxford and public school background was a hindrance as it tended to intrude into his psyche and make him seek intellectual fulfilment in situations that required mature military appreciation. The result was that he tended to ignore, or treat with levity, the advice and suggestions of his military colleagues (who were mainly non-degree holders) and preferred, solutions proffered or favoured by the more ‘intellectually acceptable’ civilians with whom he surrounded himself. He also appeared to enjoy greater homogeneity with these civilians than his military colleagues. This is not to say that these gentlemen had nothing to offer—indeed, they offered quite a lot. But an essentially civilian caucus in a hot war situation tended to forget the essence of warfare and concentrate more on frivolities and the trimmings of sovereignty and power. This produced a downturn in priorities of a military nature.
• His military appreciation was amateurish. He favoured frontal assault by a mass of screaming militia. The people died.
• He indulged in debates and seminars while the collapse of Biafra was staring us in the face. No saboteurs could have been more effective.
• Politics also played a potent role in his assessment of situations. It seemed as though officers who could exhibit greater bravado than most, like our flamboyant Colonel Joe Achuzia and mercenary Rolf Steiner, got the Governor’s accolade for bravery.
• Finally, let it be said that it was not the fear of flying that caused the crash of the Biafran dream; it was the human blunders of its colourful but impetuous pilot.