A reporter recollects his childhood days in front of Radio Biafra, Ojukwu’s link with the outside world
By FIDEL BAM
The Nigerian crisis and the Biafra war (1966-1970). Just like yesterday.
Those were horrible days, days that one would not want to remember again. I mean days of headless bodies, decapitated limbs, naked torsos, blood-stained bags, torn sacks and tattered cartons containing what remained of the belongings of those lucky to survive the massacre in the North. They just kept arriving in quick successions in the East. South-bound trains were always full of bloody cargoes to be delivered at the doorstep of Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of Eastern Region, as gory mementos of a bloody saga. The newspapers did not shy away from publishing these gory pictures to the chagrin of whoever had the courage or misfortune to take a glimpse. Almost on a daily basis, the town crier would beat the gong for Ojukwu to address Easterners via radio wherever they were to pack their belongings and head home. At the same time he would advise settlers and strangers in the East to go to their respective homes because he could no longer guarantee their safety. That was the time brothers did not know brothers again and Nigerians became strangers, nay, expatriates in their own land. Everybody listened with rapt attention.
It was Ojukwu’s delivery of his messages and addresses that attracted many people on the “other side” to have sympathy and “undying love” for him. He was a good speaker, nay, an orator. He knew when to stress his syllables, when to pause, inhale and raise his pitch and when to lower it. He used this power of eloquence to capture the minds of his listeners, whether on the main street or in the diplomatic suite. ‘Uncle Bola’, a banker living in Inalende, Alawo (close to Abebi), Ibadan, was one of Ojukwu’s greatest fans in those days. His house was a sort of rendezvous for clandestinely listening to Radio Biafra every evening, clandestinely because if caught one might be accused of collaborating with the rebels, as the Biafrans were referred to then. But that did not deter Uncle Bola. He knew when the external service of Radio Biafra would start each day’s broadcast and what their programme schedule was. Before his arrival from his workplace in Bank Road, Dugbe, his younger brother, Supo, and I and other youths would have been waiting in front of his Grundig radio, the magic box that brought into the living room the voice of Okonkon Ndem or whoever was the Radio Biafra continuity announcer. And it was a herculean task trying every day to know the exact spot to pin down the somewhat elusive radio station. That was the era of analogue shortwave radio, no satellite digital receiver facility or other forms of precision tuning. Despite the daily hassle of finding Radio Biafra to hear the latest news from the other side, we all persevered because we believed so much in the eloquent Ojukwu and the big, big grammar he was belching out. We always had our notebooks and other writing materials to jot down new words like “massacre,” “genocide,” “pogrom,” “ambush” and “brinksmanship.”
One day we were too eager to hear the latest from “the owner of words,” as we used to call him, and we could not wait for the owner of the Grundig radio to arrive as we tried to tune the radio ourselves. We thought we could do it, after all we had been watching Uncle Bola do it for months. It was a disaster! For every tuning it was a strange radio station we ran into. “This is Radio Tirana transmitting from the People’s Republic of Albania.” No way. Next. “This is Radio Moscow.” Jesus! Where is Radio Biafra? We tried again and what did we get? “This is Radio Equatorial Guinea transmitting from Malabo.” Trouble! We fiddled with the dial again. “This is Radio Ghana transmitting from Accra.” O my God! We must be moving close. Then we tried to “fine tune” and what did we get? Radio Peking, China! Over the bar! That was it! Immediately we heard footsteps downstairs we just vamoosed. We knew what to expect from Uncle Bola after tampering with his “Radio Biafra.”
Thereafter we took solace in pulling resources together to buy Daily Times and New Nigerian newspapers for news reports about the war. We enjoyed the Times’ day-to-day coverage while New Nigerian supplied the photo album with the clearest war photographs any one could get from a newspaper in those days. Occasionally Radio Nigeria would dish out its own jingles to whip up national sentiments. “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done,” this was followed by some kind of gobbledegook in Hausa or what we later got to know as the lingua franca of the Nigerian Army. And there was “Go on with one Nigeria,” derived from GOWON, the name of the then head of state.
The lack of creativity in propaganda and the apparent lack of intellectual touch in the articulation of the federal cause deprived the government much sympathy at home and understanding abroad. Perhaps this explains why up till today Nigeria is still craving for the understanding of the international community whenever there’s need to articulate a government policy or when a new government comes to power.
One jingle, however, reechoes till today: “The soul of liberty is eternal vigilance.” It is a jingle worth exhuming and playing again in view of the Boko Haram menace, a seeming precursor of yet another political conflagration. To keep Nigeria one, from the look of things, has become a cliché for the new generation of ethnic nationalities. But, honestly, I don’t want to listen to another Radio Biafra without an Ojukwu. It’s like eating hamburger without the beef.