12 October 2009

Nigeria: Makurdi - 39 Years After, Civil War Explosives Found

The effect of the Nigerian Civil War, which is popularly called the Biafran War because of the effort to create the Republic of Biafra from the then Eastern Region of Nigeria, left a sober mood that still hangs around Makurdi, the Benue State capital. Same is the situation in many parts of the state where the war left powerful memories. Apart from the presence of a large number of men - now in their seventies and eighties, who fought the war as federal troops, there also abound several war-era-features that still shock anyday, 39 years after. The then Benue area, which is till today, the gateway to the Eastern Nigeria, was the location where the federal troops fired the first shots of the war.

First, these Civil War veterans whose numbers have depleted drastically because of death - mostly from the effects of lack and old age, are a personification of the ugliness of war, and by extension, a good reason to avoid this man-made calamity. Called Tsofon Soja in Hausa, which means old soldier, the lives of these veterans are simply a representation of a segment of the country which sacrificed its comfort and risked life or limbs, for a great purpose. They are usually found among the dregs, eking a living from alms, since the pensions hardly come. In their old age, these men are a permanent feature at drinking spots, ordering for more drinks and cigarettes, and paying nothing. They often get beaten and humiliated for the usual lack of money to settle the bills at bars. In Makurdi and many other places within the state, many of the Biafran War veterans are carefully avoided: apart from the undying habit among them of taking petty credits with no plan of paying. Many go about with limbs torn by bullets or landmines, or ears deafened by bombardment from mortars. They attract the pity of all, but not sellers of liquor.

There is also the Makurdi Railway Bridge which has now come to be known as Old Bridge because of the presence of a second bridge which was constructed in the late 70s. The Makurdi Old Bridge, a provision of the colonial government in 1932, is a landed feature that reminds one of the war era when many residents witnessed sporadic shooting on it, by federal troops. At the beginning of the war, many Easterners who lived in the North began to leave in droves for home, on heavily loaded lorries - mostly the Ford type which is commonly known as Agbegi-Lodo, Now, Makurdi happened to be the only available and quick route to the East, through the railway bridge across the River Benue. It is said that on getting to the bridge, federal troops who were stationed there in an ambush, would flag down the Lorries and massacre the fleeing passengers. The bridge witnessed a bloodbath, so residents who were there at that time said.

The Tactical Air Command (TAC) of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) is another landed feature which draws up memories of the war days. It was established by the colonial administration as an airstrip which was later taken over by the military during the civil war. It later became a joint-user airport, with the Tactical Air Command occupying the larger part of it, more so that the civil part of it became dormant when flight operations ceased around 1998. Now, the civil airport is restored, but it runs skeletal services only. Residents say the base played host to several troops, as it was a transit point for many of them.

Till this day, communities around the Air Force Base live in fear, with military activities reminding them of explosives, including landmines, which were buried around the military zone to keep enemy troops off the area during the war. The explosives were not dug out after the war, and 39 years later, the danger these unexploded ordinances have continued to pose on communities, is colossal. This threat which is also experienced in many parts of the country where the war was fought, has attracted the concern of authorities.

The presence of these explosives for decades now, has hindered free usage of land by communities. The team of Humanitarian De-miners from the Ministry of Defence which visited the state recently to recover the unexploded ordinances, discovered areas where the landmines and other explosives still litter the land abound. But the team of de-miners which was led by the Chief Consultant to the Defence Ministry on Humanitarian De-mining, Dr. Jack Bala Yakubu, made more discoveries and recovery around communities in Makurdi. These are communities around Ugondo District which hosts the Tactical Air Command.

The team also received a report from the authorities of St. Mary's Science Primary School in the North-Bank section of Makurdi. An official of the school, Sylvanus Kwatsegh said the school had hosted large numbers of troops during the war. This is just as Governor Gabriel Suswam, who first received the Dr. Yakubu led team in Makurdi, reported complaints about the presence of explosives in communities in Ado and Ogbadibo, which share common boundaries with Eastern Nigeria. These reports kept pouring in from different areas: Aliede in Gwer-East local government area, Gboko, Kastina-Ala and son on.

The Chief Consultant was accompanied by the Chief Operations Officer, Col. Moses Oyegha, the Resource Person, Mr. Thomson Obla and the team's spokesman, Dr. Emeka Uhegbu as well as Chief Legal Adviser, Medina Aliyu. Field men were in truckloads, bearing various forms of gadgets including scanners, and other implements. The exercise is in accordance with the Mines Ban Treaty also known as the Ottawa Convention.

The District Head of Ugondo, Chief Steven Apkegher had to plead with Dr. Yakubu to make a provision for the relocation of his people, to stave off any danger in the course of digging out the bombs. Apkegher said that children are kept from playing in the open, for fear of any explosion, as he recalled a recent incident where a teenager unearthed a bomb while working on the farm, and began to play with it until it exploded and killed him. The chief also recalled an incident in 1985 when a bush fire exploded a couple of bombs, killing villagers and destroying properties. Stories of such explosions have become part of communities around the military base.

"Our children can't play, we can't farm, we have been living in fear", the chief said.

The exercise around these communities alone, led to the successful scanning and recovery of various categories and capacities of explosives, all estimated to weigh about 400kgs. The team's spokesman, Dr. Emeka Uhegbu who spoke to Daily Trust on the success of the exercise, gave as six un-exploded mortars each weighing 81ml and three bombs - one weighing 250kgs, another 75kgs and a third over 75kgs.

"The one weighing 250kgs is capable of destroying a large section of Makurdi", said Dr. Uhegbu, as he added that "we have already dispatched them to our headquarters in Owerri, for onward delivery to Enugu for the blast-off."

The team of de-Miners, also visited, scanned and recovered bombs in other parts of Makurdi, just as they made several visits to Katsina-Ala, Gboko and Aliede.

At St. Mary's Science Primary School reported to have sat on a stockpile of explosives for decades, the exploding number of pupils and their teachers yelled in jubilation upon sighting Dr. Yakubu and his truckload of scanners, drive into the large premises.

Mr. Kwatsegh, an official of the school told the team "you know soldiers were using this place (camping) around 1967. Then I was a kid, but I remember very well that they used to stay there", pointing at a collapsed building. The team headed for scanning behind a fallen building which was used as a classroom before it was abandoned, for fear that it was sitting on a stockpile of bombs left over by the troops.

Dr. Yakubu led his men to the collapsed building where scanning and recovery commenced, extending to neighbouring plots. He urged residents and natives of communities believed to be sitting on landmines, not to panic upon seeing the team with scanning equipment. He said due to the large size of bombs buried in the state, the team brought in a trolley to convey any recovery from the bush into the waiting trucks.

People were amazed at the number of strange objects dug out from the affected areas within Makurdi and environs.

Dr. Yakubu had said on arrival that as the gateway into the then Eastern Region, and as the spot where federal troops fired the first shot, Benue is strategic in the de-mining exercise. "The place of Benue in Humanitarian De-mining is great". He said many explosives were buried there during the war.

According to him 417 explosives were already recovered from the old Eastern Region of the country, naming two of them as "conventional mines", about 39 of them as Ogbunigwe, and various other brands of locally manufactured explosives. The fear of Ogbunigwe has kept farmers around the military air base from filling their land.

"We are still analyzing them (explosives recovered from East). They are long range launchers and are available at our headquarters at Owerri", he said.

He also named the recovery of other military hardware used during the war, including three tanks - a Saladin belonging to federal troops and two tanks simply code-named "Corporal Nwafor". The three, according to him were called "Red Devils".

He said the exercise which was commissioned by the federal government on March 6, this year, has three Area Mine Centres in Enugu, Uyo and Owerri, under which the exercise in Benue falls. He said the cries about the presence of explosives used during the war, have reached the authorities, as he promised that "our task here is to make the land safe for use".

But mounting demands for compensation on land being cleared of the explosives, continued to pose a threat to the UN backed exercise, as communities in Benue State also hindered the work of the Humanitarian De-miners.

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