his article is not intended to be propaganda or to be used for any agenda or to reignite the war or tribal debates but to recognize true heroics. That there was a civil war in Nigeria is a fact but in any story there are usually about 8 million underlying stories, so to speak. We know and or read about the feats that were achieved by the Biafrans during the 30 month war, a war that cost so many lives and more that such should never happen again.
We know or have read of the gallantry with which the Biafrans fought. At the beginning of the war, at the very first battles around Ogoja, the Biafrans were so victorious initially that according to the New York Times "the first Nigerian battalion was almost completely wiped out". The Nigerian forces that went as far as OboloAfor were easily repelled according to accounts of the British high Commissioner. The CIA did in fact think that Biafra was going to win the war. Even taking over the Midwest was itself a major feat but to some, a miscalculation with grave consequences. We know the story of Abagana sector under Major Uchendu and his troops who ambushed and also nearly took out MurtalaMuhammed and his entire brigade. This was probably Biafra's greatest battle victory. We remember the boys that defended Nnewi, Aba, Umuahia and Owerri theatres and sometimes retook some of them from the Nigerian forcesbefore they finally fell. Everyone knows about the home- made weapons that were used, especially the famous IED, ogbunigwe. They converted regular planes to bombers and they modified tanks. We know that Biafrans built and operated their own functional refineries. These were all due to the ingenuity of the Biafran scientists and engineers. One of those wonders was the famous Uli airport which was handling about 50 planes a night at the peak of the war according to some reports. That made it the busiest airport in sub Saharan Africa at the time, even busier than some international airports in Africa today,and this was during a war situation. At the end of the war, even Lt. Col Obasanjo marveled at the feat. There was a smaller secondary airport at Uga.
How were the Biafrans able to build and manage such a thing as Uli airport under those conditions? Necessity is the mother of invention as they say or maybe there was more to it. During the war, Biafrans put in the best they had to the war effort probably because they saw it as a war of survival.Though we often hear more about the soldiers but everyone gave their expertise towards the effort, something they believed in, some were soldiers, and others were doctors, nurses, traders (smugglers), scientists, engineers, and so on and most of them were under forty years old at the time.One of them was was Peter Okoye, to put name to one of those - till now anonymous peoplethat built and maintained the Uli airport, Peter Okoye was the chief engineer in charge of that airport, maintaining and keeping it operational, day and night, making it possible to handle those '50 flights a night'.
Who was Peter Okoye? Peter Okoye a very humble but no nonsense kind of guy who would always stand for the truth. He was the first indigenous civil engineer at Shell in the 50's. He was in charge of developing much of the creek villages and settlements in today's Rivers and Bayelsa states. He was in charge of making a town called Yanagoa out of a small village with no main road. He supervised for Shell the development of the major roads in that area. He quit Shell in 1963/1964 and joined the government of the Eastern Nigeria as a chief Engineer in the ministry of works. He quit Shell because of the corruption that was going on between Shell and the Nigerians at the time when he couldn't take it anymore. He was that kind of man and I am not sure they make such anymore. When the war broke out, as a chief Engineer in the then Ojukwu's government, he had to contribute to the effort the best way he could like most other people. He was in charge of building that make shift air strip at Uli after Enugu fell. It wasn't just building the dirt roads but maintaining it in order to keep it operational with the day in day out bombing.
In May 1968, after the fall of Port Harcourt to the Nigerian troops, the war was halted for peace talks while both sides held on to their positions, a lull that could be described as an 'August break' in a tropical rainy season. Some including America's Kissinger called it a stalemate,a stalemate that lasted until the last of the peace talks. The peace efforts were in London - May 1968, Uganda - May 1968, Niger - July 1968, Ethiopia - August 1968 and Liberia - April 1969, the last one was not really a peace talk but mainly on how to bring in reliefs and the two sides still did not agree. With almost each peace talk came recognition of Biafra by some country or another. One place that did not enjoy this lull was Uli airport which was still being bombed by those Egyptian pilots. With the fall of Port Harcourt, access to the sea was now completely cut off and there was no other way to bring in reliefs except through Uli airport. It was described as the Biafra's lifeline. Along with the relief by the church flying into Uli airport, arms were also being smuggled from France through Lisbon, Fernando Poand even Angola according to intelligence reports, mostly in the dark of the night to avoid being shot down by Nigeria. At this point, pictures of hungry children with Kwashiorkor were going around the world showing the suffering of the people of Biafra. Pressure was now mounting on the government of Britain to do something to stop the suffering and in turn, Prime Minister Wilson was putting pressure on Gowon. Gowon feared that with the recognition of Biafra by some countries, that France and or Portugal could be next. He then ordered the final offensive or final push to end the war. After the Ethiopian talks in August 1968, recognizing that the war could not end diplomatically, it resumed, even more ferocious than ever. Biafrans were now well dug in to defend the little enclave that was left, armed and buoyed with military supplies smuggled in through the ever so busy Uli airport. The stalemate continued till it was finally broken with the fall of Aba, starting the domino effect of falls till the end. Of course some places like Owerri area would exchange hands till it was finally over.
After the collapse of the peace talks in August of 1968 and the realization that Uli airport was so busy being used for arms delivery, it was bombed almost on daily bases. After each sortie every day, Peter Okoye and his engineers would make sure that the airport was fixed, the runway (or dirt roads) leveled and fixed, undetonated ordinances would be detonated so that those '50 planes a day' would land and take off safely. It was said that all the efforts of the Nigerian air force to put the airstrip out of action failed because the airport was usually restored back in about three hours.
On Sunday morning, August 25th1968 after the busy Saturday night attacks on the airport that put craters on the runway, the Chief Engineer as he was known, after the Sunday morning mass, dropped off his pregnant wife and 5 little kids and off to duty he went, fixing the runway and detonating unexploded bombs as usual, one of the mortar bombs that they did not see, buried in the soil just exploded, killing the Chief and three of his engineers.This was an incident heard all over that whole area. It was one of the huge losses to Biafra but more so to their families.
Peter Okoye was a guy who 45 years later, a mention of his name and people that knew him would still look down,hiss and shake their heads in sorrow and say "what a loss". Some people still remembered the man who with his wife was a couple to behold in Port Harcourt and Enugu in those days. He was a guys who was as confortable in London, Amsterdam, Paris or any European city as he was in his village or anywhere in the then Eastern Nigeria. He is remembered for his humility, honor, integrity, honesty and simple goodness. He is still missed very much by everyone that knew him. He was a man who everyone would have liked to be related to and he was a treasure to those that knew him. A man that was always there for his family and his people for whom he would pay the ultimate price. Peter Okoye might be unsung but he will never be forgotten.
As a note, those that did not learn anything from the war and are leading their people down that road again should realize that the heroes, those that would put their lives down for what they reasonably and truly believed in, the people that came home after their educations abroad to liberate and build their country, and then later to liberate their people with all they had from annihilation are not there any longer and neither are the circumstances. The people pushing this thing now are not really thinking about what is good for their people and neither would they put their lives on the line for it. The consequence would be very dire and catastrophic.