Agu Imo has been a friend and elder brother for almost two decades now, so when he called about two weeks ago to say there is an old man he wanted me to meet, he knew I couldn’t say no to his request.
When he mentioned the name, Rev. Moses Iloh, I was even more enthusiastic since the man remains one of the most respected Christian leaders in Nigeria today. But what Imo said next shocked me: “I want you to meet Rev Iloh because he is now 83 and he is someone with whom I am close and he has some interesting perspectives to share about our country. He is not getting younger and I don’t want him to die without telling his story and, for me, you are the only person who can do justice to his account. You know of course that Rev. Iloh was the head of Red Cross in Biafra…”
At that point, my enthusiasm wavered a bit. Biafra? That is one topic I told myself I would avoid and for good reasons. Ever since Professor Chinua Achebe published his memoir, “There Was a Country”, I have watched as several Igbo and Yoruba commentators tore at one another on the Internet. Abuses, curses, threats and all manner of hate mongering were deployed on a daily basis. It all started with Achebe’s characterization of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, which was then misinterpreted to be an assault on the Yoruba people regardless of the fact that Achebe’s own daughter is married to a Yorubaman.
Thanks to Mr Abba Kyari who regularly indulges me with gifts of new books, I was one of the first Nigerians to read Achebe’s book and I was disappointed by the undisguised bitterness the revered writer displayed in his clearly one-sided and Igbo-centric account of the civil war. But I was even more disappointed with some of the Yoruba respondents, who perhaps did not even read the book before publishing their diatribes against Achebe. Since elementary science teaches that actions and reactions are equal and opposite, it was no surprise that their Igbo counterparts would also jump into the fray. Even though the Biafran war was not fought between the Igbos and Yorubas, that is the impression any reader would get on the internet. For that reason, I have since told myself that I would not get caught in the virtual crossfire of a war that was fought, won and lost at a time I was not even old enough to be enrolled in primary school!
Having apparently noticed my hesitation, Imo added, “There is no problem Segun if you are too busy to meet the man…”
Of course I instantly said I would. What would be my excuse? If an Igbo man was trusting enough to believe that a Yoruba man was the one he could consider telling a Biafran story, I felt that I could not possibly disappoint him so I met Rev Iloh last Friday. And after spending just two hours with the old man, I am already seeing the prospect of a first biographical work, which could explore the human drama of the Biafran tragedy.
Born in Ropp, a mining village in Barkin Ladi Local Government in the present Plateau State on February 13, 1930 to Igbo parents from present day Imo State, the first language spoken by Iloh was Hausa, followed by English and then Igbo. The account of his early life, including his adoption by some American missionary at age 10, was not only interesting, but laid the foundation for the faith that would later define him. But I want to begin the story from his days as the president of the Jos-based Nigerian-African Miners Workers Union when, because a white man called one of the workers “monkey”, Iloh led a strike action; asking the British Queen not to come to Nigeria on an already scheduled visit in 1958. But as it would turn out, the same Iloh was chosen to lower the British Red Cross flag at Nigeria’s independence parade in 1960.
However, back in 1958, the white establishment at the Amalgamated Tins Company of Nigeria, which he worked for, believed Iloh was too dangerous for their operations and decided to offer him a very juicy appointment that technically promoted him into redundancy. He was posted to Lagos to head Inter Cotra, a shipping company. They added as sweetener an official residence on Ikorodu Road, a cook, a steward and a chauffeur-driven car. When the offer was made, Iloh said he initially declined because he knew the idea was simply to get rid of him. But his union members saw it differently. “Many of them said they were happy for me. ‘Take it, you have worked hard enough, go and enjoy’ was the consensus of the workers”. In Lagos, Iloh had an office in Apapa with a full complement of staff, all doing nothing! The British certainly knew how to neutralize their enemies, and at the same time make a bribe seem both innocent and desirable!
Every morning Iloh would be driven to Apapa like the big man he had become but in reality the post was a sinecure. The only fulfillment Iloh found was his volunteer job at the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) that he had joined right from his days as a Mine worker in Jos. Working with the then National President, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, who was Chief Justice of the Federation and Justice Joseph Adetunji Adefarasin, the Chief Judge of Lagos, who headed the state chapter, Iloh took the Red Cross as his primary assignment. Eventually, he was invited to join the organization as a full-time staff, with a pay that was half what he was collecting from the mines job. He accepted.
In Lagos, Iloh followed all the uneasy developments of the post-independence Nigeria but after the July to September 1966 pogrom in the North that claimed the lives of several Igbo people, he decided to go back to Jos. He was shocked by the devastation of his kinsmen, many of whom had lived all their lives in the North. But no killing affected him more than that of a childhood friend called “Boy Joe”, who was with them in the union. At a special meeting of the mine workers held at his instance, Iloh asked them why even “Boy Joe” had to die before he added: “You mean if I was here you people would have killed me too?!”
When Iloh returned to Lagos, he decided he would be of more use in the East as a Red Cross man. He saw war coming and he knew there was no preparation for relief measures in the East. He first went to meet Justice Adetokunbo Ademola to explain that he would want to go to Biafra, but the idea was not well received. He also discussed with Justice Adefarasin who also felt unpersuaded by the idea. Eventually, Iloh found favour with the National Secretary, Alhaji Saidu Mohammed, who now convinced the others. Iloh said his exposure at the Red Cross had made him to sense that Igbo people were unprepared for the calamity that was coming and he felt he could be of help. As he explained: “eventually both the Chief Justice and Justice Adefarasin allowed me to go to Biafra if I could get there.”
Even before the federal government of Nigeria launched what it described as a “police action” against Biafra in July 1967, it had become practically impossible for any Igbo man to cross River Niger from the Asaba end to Onitsha at the other side. Fortunately for Iloh, on getting to the Bridge where they were sending people back, he saw from distance one policeman by name Pius Efosa. “It was divine intervention because Efosa used to be my typist in Jos. He saluted me and was able to arrange my passage to the other side. The moment I crossed over into Onitsha, I went straight to the Enugu Red Cross office where as a national officer I took charge immediately. I knew the suffering that was coming as people were arriving Biafra, especially from the North with nothing. I knew we were going to witness tragedy but at that time, I had no inkling of the unprecedented human sufferings and harvest of deaths that was coming.”
Iloh said he began his assignment with people who had no experience in disaster management or relief efforts. But the first challenge was persuading the political operators that Red Cross is a neutral organization whose first responsibility is to the poor and displaced. Some of the Biafran top people wanted to hijack some of the Red Cross relief materials for themselves. This was a constant source of friction and it took the intervention of Ojukwu for Iloh not to end up at the gallows, following an executive session in which his role was a subject of deliberation.
Aside the economic blockage by Nigeria, which came with devastating consequences, the Federal Government on June 30, 1969, banned night flights of food aid to Biafra. By taking effective charge on both sides, the Nigerian authorities stopped the Red Cross from coordinating relief materials to civilians. “The Nigerian troops did not play by fair rules or any rule at all. Even in our office, I mean Red Cross where we were distributing materials, Nigerian planes would fly low and begin to rain bombs on the people. I am talking of civilian targets, not soldiers. And then with Awolowo’s policy, come and see hunger in a manner I pray mankind never experiences again.”
With poverty, hunger and disease ravaging the land, Iloh told moving stories of desperation and deprivation and how practically everyone in Biafra became a refugee as they ran away from bombs from Federal troops. He also narrated how malnourished Biafran children had to be taken to countries like Gabon, Ivory Coast and Guinea and how many in the process got lost and how many died. “There were days we would bury up to about 200 children, all in one grave. You give a Biafran child milk and it comes straight down through his anus. Children were the worst hit during the war with many ravaged by disease and hunger.” Iloh, however, had kind words for the late Gabonese dictator, Omar Bongo, who died in 2009 as Africa’s longest ruler after 41 years in office. “When Omar Bongo died, I believe the Igbo people did themselves a disservice by not sending emissaries to pay respect. That man built hospitals for Biafran children, put many in school and generally helped us,” Iloh said.
Because of the blockade, food could only come by air so Iloh had to travel to several countries to solicit for food and drugs for the Red Cross. The cargo planes were usually provided by France, the only European power that declared its support for Biafra. Because of the series of bombings by the Federal troops, they usually flew into Biafra by night. Iloh recalled a particular trip where the Red Cross flight from Lisbon had been forced to land in Cameroun whose authorities insisted on searching the plane on the suspicion that there were some people inside. But the French pilot insisted that he would not allow the plane to be searched and that the Cameroonian authorities would have to accept his word that he was only carrying Red Cross relief materials. Meanwhile, inside was Iloh and the wife of the late Dr Pius Okigbo. With the two personages hidden under the seats of the plane, the argument went on for two hours that night but eventually the plane was let off. “Those two hours were like eternity but thank God that the French pilot stood his grounds otherwise the outcome might have been different,” said Iloh.
By the end of 1969, it was clear Biafra was at a dead end and Ojukwu sent words to the senior people to leave. He personally called Iloh that he should get out. But at that point Iloh’s wife was pregnant so he had to stay and after the surrender, he was captured at Abba in Orlu district of Imo state by Federal troops when one Igbo officer identified and pointed him out as “Ojukwu’s friend” while he was driving his wife to the hospital. The drama that would follow was as tragic as it was humiliating; but at least Iloh succeeded in getting his wife out of harm’s way before he was asked by the men who directed him at gunpoint to drive them to “Kampalla”.
The war was over but having been captured like many other top Igbo people, even though his own case was peculiar as an internationally recognized Red Cross official, Iloh was matched to “Kampalla” by Nigerian soldiers. Kampalla turned out to be a military post in Port Harcourt. “I met important people in Biafra. Respected professionals, engineers who were being marched into a room. As they were walking in, one of them, without looking in my direction said in Igbo: ‘Whatever you will do to help yourself please do, but don’t let them take you to where they are now taking us because those who went before us never returned and we know they are also taking us in simply to kill us’.”
At that moment for Iloh, there was a divine intervention. “There was this tall lanky officer among my captors whose name was Dogonyaro, at least that was what I heard the officers calling him. As he came aggressively, I addressed him in what he would know was perfect Hausa, that he should allow me to go outside to talk with the man in the Red Cross vehicle that was parked within range. I guess the language I spoke threw him off guard because his demeanour changed immediately and from that moment, he became my guardian angel. After asking me a few questions, he allowed me to go and meet the Red Cross driver but warned that if I tried to escape, he would just shoot me dead. I assured him that I would not do that because I believed God had used him to protect me and I would not betray that. When I got there, I told the man to help get a message to Sir Adetokunbo Ademola and Justice Adefarasin that I had been captured.”
Within 24 hours, Iloh’s name was being announced on the radio and International Red Cross had waded in, demanding his release.That became the saving grace for Iloh who was eventually taken before a military court martial to explain why he deserted his job as a Red Cross official in Nigeria to cross over to Biafra. He replied that he took permission before he went to Biafra and at the end of his brief trial, he was discharged.
With the war over, Iloh thought he could resume his life but then one morning, he heard on the radio that the Administrator of Eastern Nigeria, Mr Ukpabi Asika, had made an edict that Moses Iloh should never be given any appointment in Eastern Nigeria and that government officials should have nothing to do with him. “Ukpabi Asika pronounced me a dangerous man. This was a man whose two children were brought to me during the war and God used me to save them. Ukpabi Asika, a man whose name was poison in Biafra,” Iloh said with a contempt that he could not disguise.
But Iloh’s problem had just begun as he would recollect: “One morning, I was driving the small car given to me by the Red Cross on the street of Enugu when I was blocked by several police men who were in a convoy. As I argued with them, I saw the then Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria, Justice Godfrey Ubaka Agbakoba, father of this young man, Olisa Agbakoba. This was a man I had known and respected from his days as a lawyer in Jos. He told me bluntly: ‘Iloh, I have orders to take this car from you from the administrator.’ As I tried to argue with him, his police orderlies bundled me out of my car and drove away, leaving me stranded on the street of Enugu. And this was not even a government car.”
If Iloh thought that was the end of his ordeal, a worse fate was awaiting him in Lagos. “I returned to Lagos where I thought I would begin life anew. The white men who ran the Mines in Jos were fair-minded people because they paid all my gratuities and the Red Cross also paid in some money for me. I had been operating an account with the First Bank since 1951 and during the war, I managed to get some money from it. But the day I arrived Lagos and went to the bank, my manager told me that because of a policy from Awolowo, I was only entitled to 20 pounds! I was dazed…”
For a septuagenarian father of five (and grandfather to five) who has undergone considerable transformation, from a unionist to charity worker, to a successful industrialist and then a Clergy man, Iloh looks very good for his age. Perhaps it is just as well for the accomplished sportsman who played football with the likes of Thunder Balogun and was for a long period President of the Nigerian Cycling Federation. Even though he now lives a Spartan lifestyle at his Ikeja, Lagos residence, spending most of his time in Christian counseling, Iloh is an intellectually sharp and witty old man who, despite varied life experiences has no hint of bitterness. However, from my exploratory talk with him, I can draw some conclusions.
One, there was no doubt that the Federal troops crossed the line in the conduct of their military operations during the war and contributed to the death of several civilians. It may not be up to the scale being touted but the indiscriminate bombings and the economic blockade accounted for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people on the Biafran side. What is important here is that one needless death of a fellow human being is one death too many. Crucially, Rev Iloh’s account has been corroborated by Bernard Kouchner, the French doctor who volunteered with the International Red Cross and came to Biafra. It was his experience with the Red Cross, attending to war casualties in Biafra, that led him to join others in 1971 to establish ‘Medecins Sans Frontiers’ (Doctors Without Borders).
Two, as a nation we have not exorcised the ghost of Biafra because the scars seem very deep and the old generation of Igbo are passing on the story of the tragedy to the coming ones. And the more the Nigerian Project fails to work, the more the nostalgia about a “Biafran Eldorado” that existed only within the realm of imagination. This is particularly significant when there remains a perceived feeling of continued marginalization of the Igbos in Nigeria which is not entirely without foundation.
Three, the Igbos, not just Professor Achebe and Rev Iloh, strongly believe that Chief Awolowo dealt them a fatal blow that ensured they not only lost the war but several of their people suffered an even bigger personal loss after the war with the federal government 20 Pounds policy which Chief Awolowo initiated and implemented.
Four, even from my little interactions with Iloh, it was very evident that the Red Cross he led was not completely neutral but then in his position, would I be? Of course I have several questions for him and we will explore all of them in details in the weeks ahead, but one thing I found fascinating was his reverence for Ojukwu. He rarely called him by name for most of the period of our encounter, it was “His Excellency”. To him, Ojukwu was a great man. “The Igbos have a lot to thank Ojukwu for”, he would say as he recounted heroic stories about the late Biafran leader who, he argued, sacrificed everything, including personal comfort and family wealth for his people.
Five, there were also tell-tale signs of corruption even within Biafra. Recounting the experience of the last days (when it was evident that the Biafran Titanic was sinking and people were bailing out), Rev Iloh told of one particular night when many of the big shots were struggling to enter a plane at Uli airport. “I will never forget that night because as these senior officials were struggling to enter the plane, the briefcase of one Biafran Permanent Secretary opened and bales of Dollar notes began to fly all over the place.”
Six, Iloh and most members of his generation do not believe Yorubas did anything against them in the course of the war and do not hold Yoruba people responsible for what most of them consider a betrayal by Awolowo. They may not say so directly but the tales most tell of the way they were helped by one Yoruba friend or another when they returned to Lagos is quite revealing. That of Rev Iloh was not different. Besides the fact that he met his property intact and the help he received from friends like the late Ambassador Segun Olusola, Rev Iloh recalled how he became a rich man almost overnight. “When the federal government came up with the indigenization policy, there was this company that was involved in installation of underground tanks for petroleum companies. I wanted to buy it but knew I could never raise the kind of money it was going for so I called a friend of mine, Dapo Gbalajobi and told him my predicament. He said he knew one Union Bank manager and would take me to him so the man could help. He took me to the bank and introduced me to the man who I was meeting for the first time. I was given forms to open an account, paid in some deposit and was subsequently given the money to buy the company. I had never met the bank manager before, he didn’t know me but just accepted me on the recommendation of Dapo Gbalajobi. With that I eventually became a very wealthy man with several engineers working for me and I had offices in several capital cities across the country.”
Of course on account of his Christian faith, Rev Iloh has since given up the company and his wealth in a remarkable way that is a compelling story on its own.
While my exploratory discussion with Rev Iloh has helped me to put in perspective Achebe’s book, there are several angles to the Biafran tragedy that I believe have not been explored and I intend to stretch him along that line in the weeks and months ahead. The lesson of it all, however, is that those who talk glibly about wars don’t know what they are talking about. Yes, Nigeria is not working and there are sufficient grounds to question some of the assumptions on which our nationhood is predicated. But to beat war drums at the least provocation is a sign that we have not come to terms with our past and the price so many people paid; indeed that we have not learnt the lessons of this tragic episode in our history, or that we have forgotten what lessons we learnt. That would be an even greater tragedy for our nation.
• This piece was first published in THISDAY in January 2013