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Emmanuel Nwobosi (1938 – 2020): Warrior, folk hero


WHILE searching for a befitting valedictory line to the late elder statesman, Pa. Emmanuel  Nwora Nwobosi, I found this text by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono: “There are two kinds of heroes; heroes who shine in the face of great adversity, who perform an amazing feat in a difficult situation; and heroes who live among us, who do their work unceremoniously, unnoticed by many of us, but who make a difference in the lives of others.”


  The lines would not serve succinctly but they fit the great man who died only 10 days ago as an octogenarian after etching his name in history as a brave soldier, patriotic Nigerian and outstanding son of Igbo land. The Obosi, Idemili North, Anambra State-born vet was a newsman’s delight to meet and a legend to research even when one asked his peers or foes.


He left such enduring impression in me during the periods I shared with him as a newsman and his subject that the first expression I made when I learnt of his death was: “Oh, why did he opt to miss the book so narrowly?”


Twelve days before his death on Tuesday, November 24, I filed the manuscript of my book in which my encounter with him constituted a conspicuous chapter to its publisher. He died while the work was rolling in the hot blocks of the printer’s machines. But sad as I felt, and still feel, I have no doubt that he served his due turn in a rich and historic lifetime. He died, a legend, at 82.


Anambra State’s Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, C. Don Adinuba mourned him as a courageous pearl and “an embodiment of principle, loyalty, self-denial and service.” 


News of his death drew such sombre solemnity across Igbo land and the entire Nigeria country. His departure marks an absence of a natural soldier with sound mind articulation and bravery. Even as an old man, he would look his young interviewer straight in his eyes and exude fire. He equally, had facts in memory despite age.   


Chief Adinuba described him aptly as “a man blessed with the courage of his convictions.” He explained that “Nwobosi joined the Nigerian Army with the youthful determination to defend his country, and when he felt it had become necessary for him and a few of his colleagues to intervene in the political …bid to create a better nation, he didn’t hesitate even at the risk of his life.”


The commissioner added that the octogenarian “held his head high and was unbowed,” all through his military and post-military life.


“Despite suffering a mortar injury that affected his spinal cord during the Nigerian Civil War, he remained loyal to the Biafran leader, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu- Ojukwu to the end.


“Apart from serving the Biafran leader as chief of staff, he followed him, at the end of the war, to Ivory Coast in exile and remained with him up to the second Ojukwu gave up the ghost on November 26, 2011.”


Anambra State Governor, Willie Obiano, held Nwobosi in such high esteem that he immediately paid the Nwobosi family a condolence visit in their Obosi home immediately he heard of  the veteran soldier’s death.


Dr. Obiano recalled how Nwobosi worked closely and resourcefully with him during the novel ‘Ozoemezina’ mass funeral and honour for departed heroes of the Nigeria versus Biafra war hosted by him (the governor) in 2015 at Dr Alex Ekwueme Square, Awka, the capital of Anambra State. The ‘Ozoemezina’ which feted not only the fallen heroes who hailed from Anambra but those from other parts of Igbo land was a landmark event which Obiano achieved against formidable odds with the dogged support of such vets as Nwobosi, Ben Gbulie, Chris Achuzia, Emmanuel Udeaja, Pita Ejiofor among others.


I was lucky to hold one of my encounters with Nwobosi during the historic event. That interactive session which I held with my colleagues, Nnamdi Chukwujindu and Rose Oranye in January 2015, was published in this newspaper, National Light, under the title, ‘Gowon Declared the War Not Ojukwu – Nwobosi’


The encounter brought an incisive dimension to an investigative report I had been engaged in since 2008. It intellectually broadened the scope of my search.


Interacting with the former Nigeria Army officer and one of the executors of the first coup d’ etat beamed a flashlight into how the  Biafra during the Nigeria civil war was fought. He dismissed many myths about the 1967 – 1970 war and events around it such as the often misreported Kaduna Nzeogwu-led coup as well as the stigmatisation and vilification of Igbo because of the conflict.


But, in retrospect, what irks me more now is how the natural soldier paid the huge price of living with pains from youth to old age because of his strong belief in his homeland.


I remember asking him to tell us what really led to soldiers’ foray into Nigeria’s politics; what he could recall about the Nigeria civil war. He came frank and fresh, hinting that even the soldiers themselves cannot tell why they delved into politics which was strange to their call. His comment:


“If you don’t mind, I’ll like to go back a little bit to the January 1966 coup. It all started when we were in the Nigeria Army. Of course, after our training we had our lofty ideas about our country, Nigeria and how things were supposed to shape up. Unfortunately, when we were following events at a time, things were going haywire. Most of my service period was in the North and I had the advantage of growing up in the North: Kaduna, Kano, with Gusau and so on; the advantage of the language.


“So things were not going the right way. We were not very enticed about the whole thing and instead of getting any better, they were growing from bad to worse. It got to a stage, some of the officers started meeting privately, talking about the things that were going wrong. In any army, it’s an offence to start plotting to overthrow the government but we had to do it to get things going. So, a few of us started talking. You start from the known, that is, from your friends, your colleagues. When I say colleagues, those who were on the same course with you and then in our own case, there were some of us who went to school at St. John’s College, Kaduna and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was one of us. Major Chris Anuforo was one of us and we started talking and expanding the circle. Of course, those who were in Kaduna in the North, then those in the South were doing their own thing.  You know things were really bad and I give you an example, in the North for instance, Saduana of Sokoto held sway in all political activities. There is nothing wrong about it but Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was the Prime Minister of the country and he was a Lieutenant of Saduana of Sokoto and Abubakar could not take any decision as the Prime Minister of the whole country without getting approval from the Saduana who was the regional Premier and sometimes, things could get muddy because Abubakar Tafawa Balewa held discussions with foreign embassies, foreign leaders and take a decision or agree on something. So, at night he calls Saduana and if Saduana says no, forget it. There’s no argument about it and this thing became an open secret that the federal government was being run from Kaduna and nobody liked it. That was one. Sometimes, I was posted to Abeokuta at the Artillery unit. We started the Nigerian Artillery. I was posted to Abeokuta to set up a unit and command it and I did that. And while we were there, they had just concluded an election in Abeokuta and that election was inconclusive in some areas and there were some places where the ballot boxes were not even opened not to talk of counting them. They left them where they did the election. Imagine from Abeokuta to Lagos, at that time, the roads were not as good as they are today.


“They asked our soldiers go there to guard the boxes in the rooms there. I suggested to them and said no. Since we had to travel all that distance, we can make changes. Why don’t we move the boxes to our barracks, keep them in safe custody until you people are ready to decide what to do with them. But remember, this was not part of our duty; so I did not even comment on it because in the Western house, somebody was already declared winner and was serving there and the boxes had not been opened. You talk about rigging today? That was real rigging. And the thing became too much for us. We were watching all these, we could not do anything to politicians, and we could not make any public statement.


“So, we started saying no, enough was enough. And somebody had to do something. And that was when we started planning and went ahead to do the January 15th coup.       


“That was the first military coup as far as we know in Africa. Now this thing happened, the British Government was taken aback because they were in control of the Nigerian government and they thought that everything that happened in Nigeria they would know before it happened. If it is something they did not sanction, they will stop it, unless the one they approved of, it would happen. So, it was so well planned that the British government was not aware that this thing was happening and they got so angry, so angry that they recalled their intelligence officers from the embassy back to Britain because they were incompetent, they thought.


“So that was it. This thing happened; the coup in Kaduna in 1966 in the North was under Chukwuma Nzeogwu. He succeeded. The one in the West that was the one I commanded. They worked very well. I was the leader in the West. It worked.”


One of the surprises he served in the interaction was that they had no plan for war when the civil war came upon them, and that from outset he had a crippling injury but still stayed on the cause bravely throughout the war and until he died.


“We did not prepare for war,” he said explaining that most of them, Biafra soldiers were in prison when the conflict began on disguise as a police action.


“Most of the soldiers who came out (from prison) did not have arms. No arms, no ammunition. And if you remember, at that time, there was only one infantry battalion in the whole of East and when Ojukwu sent the Hausa soldiers back, he sent them back with their arms so that they defend themselves. We were not happy but he did what he needed to do. So, we were waiting and trying everything to arm ourselves. …So, we were unprepared when Gowon declared war against Biafra… When Gowon was celebrating his 80th birthday, he said that Ojukwu declared war on Nigeria, that Ojukwu caused the war. I saw this thing and waited for two weeks, nobody replied this thing; so The New Telegraph person came and I said let’s talk about it and I told Gowon: ‘you lied.’ And some people who saw it know that I am not used to talking to the press… He declared war on Biafra. He said, it was a police action. He did all those and now came back to accuse Ojukwu of declaring war on Nigeria; he accused Ojukwu of being selfish and ambitious and nobody replied it which meant that he was saying the truth,” he explained.


A shell drop broke Nwobosi’s back during the war at Nsukka front. He bore it gallantly through the war, went into exile, returned in 1984, and at old age he “couldn’t lie down.” In 2008, he had a spine surgery in India.


“After sometime, there was a relapse and the pain became so bad and I had to go back.


“I came back, I needed some rehabilitation; I went to Canada and spent one year and got the needed treatment. So, I feel a lot better. That is the story about the spinal injury,” he disclosed.


Nwobosi, bearer of ‘Ogene Obosi’ title “was indeed, a treasure” as Adinuba observed.


Indeed, he lived, a true warrior and folk hero of the Igbo nation’s causes. Till he died, his deep stab marks of battles fought, won or lost, were clear for all to see.

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