In this retro series, Legit.ng looks at the critical period during the Biafra war and the role Philip Effiong played.
Odumegwu Ojukwu’s name is almost synonymous with Biafra as he took the huge decision of declaring an independent eastern region which led to the infamous civil war. While Ojukwu has been hailed as a Biafra hero who has earned the respect of Igbo people, Philip Effiong who has not received the same recognition took an equally important decision for the sake of Biafra.
The Biafra war which began On July 6 1967 was a result of the failed Aburi accord which was supposed to ease the growing tension between the eastern region and rest of the country. An Igbo pogrom had started following the first coup in January 1966 and the counter coup that occurred six months later escalated the killing of Igbos in the north.
Ojukwu who was then the military governor of the eastern region took the bold step of declaring an independent Biafra region as a result of what he perceived as ill treatment against his people.
In his declaration on May 30, Ojukwu said: "Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic, now, therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra."
The war began a week later.
At first, the mid-western region fell to Biafra troops but this was taken over by Nigerian forces led by Colonel Murtala Mohammed. From then, the war became bloodier.
The Nigerian army launched an offensive and after several attempts, the Biafra capital of Enugu was captured in October but was moved to Umuaiha. In December 1969 after two years, it fell to Nigerian troops and was again moved to Owerri.
Between January 7 to 12 in 1970, Operation tailwind led by General Olusegun Obasanjo broke the Biafra stronghold of Owerri and Uli. On January 9, Ojukwu boarded his private jet and fled to Ivory Coast. The mantle of leadership thus fell to Phillip Effiong.
Effiong had served as chief of general staff of Biafra and also doubled as Ojukwu’s deputy. After Ojukwu’s exit, it was up to him to direct the ship of Biafra.
By the time Effiong took over, the war had become defensive on the Biafra side as the Nigerian troops had used both military offensive and starvation to weaken the secessionists. The figure of those that died on the Biafra side especially due to starvation was put at 2 million
There has been speculation that before Ojukwu’s departure, he had already discussed with Effiong the steps to take. Other reports suggested that Effiong was given the position to take whatever action he felt was necessary since Ojukwu had fled.
On January 12, Effiong swallowed his pride and ego (if there was any) and gave a broadcast that the war had ended.
Fellow Countrymen, As you know, I was asked to be the officer administering the government of this Republic on the 10th of January, 1970. Since then, I know that some of you have been waiting to hear a statement from me. I have had extensive consultations with the leaders of the community, both military and civil, and I am now encouraged and hasten to make this statement to you by the mandate of the armed forces and the people of this country. I have assumed the leadership of the government.
Throughout history, injured people have had to resort to arms in their self-defense where peaceful negotiations fail. We are no exception. We took up arms because of the sense of insecurity generated in our people by the events of 1966. We have fought in defense of that cause. I take this opportunity to congratulate officers and men of our armed forces for their gallantry and bravery which had for them the admiration of the whole world. I thank the civil population for their steadfastness and courage in the face of overwhelming odds and starvation. I am convinced now that a stop must be put to the bloodshed which is going on as a result of war. I am also convinced that the suffering of our people must be brought to an immediate end. Our people are now disillusioned and those elements of the old government regime who have made negotiations and reconciliation impossible have voluntarily removed themselves from our midst.
I have therefore instructed an orderly disengagement of troops. I am dispatching emissaries to make contact with Nigeria’s field commanders in places like Onitsha, Owerri, Awka, Enugu and Calabar with a view to arranging armistice. I urge General Gowon, in the name of humanity, to order his troops to pause while an armistice is negotiated in order to avoid the mass suffering caused by the movement of population. We have always believed that our differences with Nigeria should be settled by peaceful negotiations. A delegation of our people is therefore ready to meet representatives of Nigeria federal government anywhere to negotiate a peaceful settlement on the basis of OAU resolutions.
The delegation will consist of the Chief Justice, Sir Louis Mbanefo as leader, Professor Eni Njoku, Mr. J. I. Emembolu, Chief A. E. Bassey and Mr. E. Aguma. The delegation will have full authority to negotiate on our behalf .I have appointed a council to advise me on the government of the country. It consists of the Chief Justice, Sir Louis Mbanefo, Brigadier P. C. Amadi (Army), Brigadier C. A. Nwawo (Army), Captain W. A. Anuku (Navy), Wing Commander J. I. Ezeilo (Air Force), Inspector-General of Police, Chief P. I. Okeke, Mr. J. I Emembolu (Attorney-General), Professor Eni Njoku, Dr. I. Eke, Chief A. E. Udofia, Chief Frank Opigo and Chief J. M. Echeruo. Any question of government in exile is repudiated by our people.
Civilian population are hereby advised to remain calm and cooperate with the armed forces and the police in the maintenance of law and order. They should remain in their homes and stop mass movements which have increased suffering and loss of lives.
On behalf of our people, I thank those foreign governments and friends who have steadfastly given us support in our cause. We shall continue to count on their continued help and counsel. I also thank His Holiness the Pope, the Joint Church Aid and other relief organizations, for the help they have given for the relief of suffering and starvation. I appeal to all governments to give urgent help for relief and to prevail on the Federal Military Government to order their troops to stop all military operations.
On January 15, Effiong officially surrendered to Gowon at Dodan Barracks in Lagos where he also officially declared the Republic of Biafra cease to exist.
“I, Major-General Phillip Efiong, Officer Administering the Government of the Republic of Biafra, now wish to make the following declaration:
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“That we affirm that we are loyal Nigerian citizens and accept the authority of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria.
“That we accept the existing administrative and political structure of the Federation of Nigeria. That any future constitutional arrangement will be worked out by representatives of the people of Nigeria.
“That the Republic of Biafra hereby ceases to exist”
Although Ojukwu returned to Nigeria 13 years later to a hero’s welcome after he was pardoned by President Shehu Shagari in 1982, he has faced criticism for initiating a war that the region would likely lose. They were not only outnumbered but also outgunned and had to rely on Nigeria for food.
Ojukwu was also criticised for the execution of Col. Victor Banjo (later Brig), Major. Emmanuel Ifeajuna (later Col.), Major Philip Alale and Mr. Samuel Agbam who were tried and convicted by a military tribunal after they tried to broker peace with the Nigerian side. There were reports that Ojukwu felt they were trying to overthrow him and thus ordered their execution.
It is fair to assume that the task of looking at Gowon and declaring that they had surrendered must have been an unforgettable period in Effiong's life. Although Gowon was his superior, it still required more than military strength to make the declaration. It is almost impossible seeing Ojukwu doing the same in spite of his role in the war.
In an interview with 1996, Effiong said about the war and the decision he took.
“I have no regrets whatsoever of my involvement in Biafra or the role I played. The war deprived me of my property, dignity, my name. Yet, I saved so many souls on both sides and by this, I mean Biafra and Nigeria. . . .
“I felt that I played a role which has kept this country united till today. . . .
“At the end of it all when I saw they (Biafran soldiers) could no longer continue and Ojukwu had fled, I did what was ideal after wide consultation .”
Nnaemeka L. Aneke wrote of Effiong: "General Efiong’s handling of Biafra’s surrender is one of the most tactical and devoted maneuvers ever seen on the Nigerian scene. Those who do not appreciate the depth of it may not have appreciated what was at stake as Biafra capitulated.”