Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Powering Biafra, One Key Actor

Presented at 6th Annual International Igbo Conference: Legacies of Biafra Reflections on the Nigeria-Biafra War 50 Years On, April 21-22, 2017. (This is the longer version. When I saw the timetable for the panel where I presented, I shortened it by 500 words or so.)

The dream of Biafra was built on the hard work of many individuals. The war heroes and political leaders are known; their stories have been written. The technical people who worked behind the scenes are not known. One of those key actors was my husband, Clement Onyemelukwe. This is primarily his story.

Like so many people in Biafra, my husband Clem and I were both changed by the experience. For me, my year of immersion in his village brought me closer to his extended family, improved my Igbo-speaking ability, and gave me deep knowledge of his people’s customs. For him, the two and a half years of struggle to maintain the dream of independence deepened his resiliency and brought him to the belief that determined people could accomplish feats that seemed impossible. He also became convinced of the importance of relying on local resources and local people to achieve success.

When we married in 1964 Clement Onyemelukwe or Clem as I call him, was Chief Electrical Engineer of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, ECN. He had returned to Nigeria from the United Kingdom in 1961 as Deputy and advanced to the Chief Electrical Engineer position in 1962, at the age of 30.

At the beginning of 1967 we knew the political situation was fraught. And we knew that a few Igbo people, colleagues and acquaintances, no longer felt safe in Lagos.  But like many other Igbos comfortable in their positions in the capital we had not thought seriously about going to the East. We soothed his worried parents in Onitsha each time they called.

But in May 1967 two events changed the situation. First my friend Carol’s husband fled to the East while she took their children to Ghana. Her departure made me begin to seriously question the wisdom of remaining in Lagos. Second, Pius Okigbo, retired Economic Adviser to the Federal Government, had returned to the East to be Ojukwu’s right-hand man. He called Clem to tell him he was needed urgently in the Eastern Region. Though secession wasn’t directly mentioned, it was clear this was part of the preparation for an independent country.

Departure for Enugu

Clem still hesitated, but I insisted. We left for Enugu a week later. The Eastern Region government had already established the Statutory Bodies Council to monitor and control all public corporations in the region. Clem was made the Chairman of the Fuel and Energy Committee of that Council, responsible for the Electricity and Coal Corporations.

Clem had his B.Sc. degree in Electrical Engineering from Leeds University. Mechanical engineering was part of his degree course. He had memberships in The British Institute of Fuel and The British Institute of Management, both achieved through training and examinations. He had experience in power stations in UK’s Central Electricity Generating Board, CEGB. He was probably the best qualified engineer in Nigeria, not only in the East.

As Chairman of the Fuel and Energy Committee he dove immediately into the management of the two Corporations even before Biafra declared its independence.

Coal Corporation

For the Coal Corporation he mapped out a long-term plan. The nearby Oji Power Station was utilizing coal for power generation. But he believed there were other possibilities for using this valuable resource. And the oil supply faced the threat of incursion into Port Harcourt and the Shell refinery by the Nigerian military. Could coal become a substitute for oil if necessary?

He did more than technical work however. I found among old papers “The Outline of Series of Lectures to be Delivered to Members of Top Management and Senior Staff of the Marketing Department of the Biafran Coal Corporation in September 1967.” He recalls that he delivered the first two while the Coal Corporation was still in Enugu. Then conditions changed.

Additional Uses for Coal

Out of the long-term plan came the decision to use coal to produce solid domestic fuel and coal tar. The coal mines in Enugu held about 2 billion metric tons. He applied the typical Biafran approach, not to order plant and machinery from overseas but to weld the basic equipment for the distillation of the coal on the spot.

By the time Biafra was forced out of Enugu in October of 1967, the Corporation had started producing and selling tar and briquettes. The briquettes could replace wood for cooking, an advantage in the densely populated Biafra. The coal tar was essential because the oil supply was threatened.

I also found the “Draft Biafra Coal Corporation Annual Report for The Year 1968-69.” I have supplemented Clem’s memory with details from that report. When Enugu fell, the headquarters of the coal corporation was moved to Aba. Some stored coal was lost. But that move also proved temporary. In August 1968, Aba was evacuated and Orlu became the new capital. Again some of the coal that had been shifted to Aba was lost. During these major changes, he kept up the morale of Coal Corporation staff with frequent meetings where he showed staff the importance of their work for the Republic of Biafra.

Supply Cannot Meet Demand

The Coal Corporation under his direction had started mining coal at Orlu. But the supply was insufficient and transportation constraints made getting the coal to customers difficult. The report listed the principal customers of the time as the railways, the refinery at Uzuakoli, the salt Industry at Afikpo, and the Food Production Directorate.

Using Local Manufacture

The report also talked about coal burning appliances, saying, “Most of the imported coal burning appliances stocked at Aba showroom were sold out. The remaining were evacuated to Orlu where orders were received for them as soon as [coal] became available.”

Clem was determined to make use of local skilled people and available materials. The report says, “Local metal beaters were given small contracts to manufacture coal burning stoves to meet increasing demands for these appliances while arrangements were being made for the fabrication of the stoves to be taken over completely by the Craftsmen of the [Coal] Corporation.”

The attitude that anything necessary could be done by Biafrans permeated Clem’s thinking and that of other Biafran civilian leaders. They felt up to the challenge. Their results were remarkable.

Under Clem’s direction the Corporation “embarked on a large scale farming operation . . . in compliance with Government’s call for increased food production,” I read in the same report.

Electricity Generation and Distribution

While Clem was undertaking the planning and implementation at The Coal Corporation, he was also responsible for the power that kept Biafra alive.

At the start of the war there was an electricity grid with Onitsha, Oji, and Afam the main power plants. Oji was run with the Coal Corporation’s output, while Afam depended on gas. Soon after the war commenced, Clem established small-scale workshops in Enugu to supply machinery and equipment that could no longer be imported. When Enugu was about to fall, he oversaw the move of workshops to safe locations.

Oji was lost with the fall of Enugu in early October 1967. Onitsha fell to the Nigerian military the next month, and Afam became the only major source for electric power. The Afam Power Station ran on gas that came from Port Harcourt. Clem went occasionally to the main metering control center where the gas going into Afam Power Station was measured. Clem says, “When I was there I had felt powerful and in command of the situation. I liked the hissing sound of the gas entering the power plant.”

He was aware that the gas supply was under threat. In his role as Chairman of the Fuel and Energy Committee he was kept regularly informed of the military situation, so he knew the Nigerian military was getting closer and closer to the source of the gas supply.

One day disaster struck.

He says, “I took several subordinates with me to the metering control center to await with trepidation the outcome of Nigeria’s military advance. I no longer wondered if we would lose the critical gas supply but when. For a couple of hours the hissing of the incoming gas continued,” he says. “I thought we might survive this threat. Then suddenly the sound stopped. We all knew no more gas would enter Afam Power Station.”

“I felt personally devastated and isolated. The weight of the responsibility for providing power for the country was almost too much to bear.”

It took them an hour to drive back to their headquarters. He sat in stunned silence. His subordinates were watching him, judging his reaction. They dared not ask what he planned to do. He had overseen the installation of new diesel generation in the preceding months. Now these would be the only source of power.

There were major challenges but there was also deep satisfaction. Clem says, “In Biafra I was able to use my experience as Efficiency Engineer in UK to introduce energy efficiency measures which I had long wished were done in ECN.”

Petroleum Management Board

In addition to responsibility for electricity and coal, Clem was appointed a member of the Biafra Petroleum Board, another arm of the fuel and energy leadership in Biafra. The Petroleum Board had been created with Professor Njoku as Chairman to take over the Shell assets and operations after Biafra’s declaration of independence. In July 1968 the Nigerian military took Port Harcourt. So the Petroleum Management Board shifted with the rest of Biafra’s government operations to Aba, then Orlu. But they no longer had a supply of oil or the refineries.

Clem believed that they could overcome even this challenge. With a lot of encouragement and support he and others on the board encouraged two men, Umenyi and Ordor, to start the first crude refining of oil. Clem was fully involved in their operations; his fuel technology training and experience were put to good use. They started mini-refineries which later became part of the Research and Production Organisation of Biafra, or RAP. Finally Biafra had a smooth supply of petrol for the remainder of the war, surprising the Nigerians.

Biafra Airports Board

His third major appointment was as Executive Chairman of the Biafra Airports Board, in charge of all civilian and military airport activities. The Board, advisory to him, was made up of the head of the Air Force, Permanent Secretaries of Works, Lands, Communications and Security, and four other well-known independent personalities. But the ultimate decisions were his. He with the advisory board was responsible for building, operating, and maintaining all of Biafra’s airports, including security and flight controls. At the time when Biafra’s only access to the outside world was by air, this post was of critical importance.

The Head of Operations for the Board was the Chief of the Biafra Air Force. It meant that the Chief of Air Force was reporting both to Clem and to the Armed Forces Chief of Staff. A senior Air force officer was stationed in Clem’s office so that he could summon the Air Force Chief when his presence was urgently needed. Sometimes this caused conflict when the Chief of Air Force was torn between responding to Clem and to his Armed Forces Chief of Staff. For Clem, the experience of having people in military uniform reporting to him was strange.

Two people on his staff at the Airports Board later featured in Nigerian politics: Onyeabo Obi, Clem’s personal assistant, who became a senator representing Anambra West/Onitsha during the Nigerian second republic, and Alex Ekwueme, his Head of Planning, who was Nigeria’s Vice President under Shagari.

Facing Pressures

One of Clem’s challenges was to preserve space on flights to bring in military supplies and other war-time essentials. He faced pressure from influential people whose wives wanted to import clothing and jewelry to resell. This was hard to resist, but he had to, for the sake of the country.

A different pressure was the war activity. One afternoon he arrived in Umuahia for Power and Energy responsibilities, coming from Orlu where the Airports Board was headquartered. He was lying in bed in his hotel room, resting from the journey from Orlu, when he heard the boom of air raids by the Nigerian Air Force. Before he could register what was happening, a piece of shrapnel plunged through the ceiling and landed a foot away from his head. He still shudders as he tells this story.

Operations and Logistics

Much of the airport operation was undertaken under the cover of darkness because of the threat of air attack. The air traffic operators were skilled in synchronizing flight arrivals and departures with the lighting system of the airport and runway. They perfected the repair of bomb potholes and craters, and were skilled at establishing normal airport tarmac operations in minutes.

The Board operated two main airports in Uli and Uga and five hidden mini-air strips for small planes. The Airports Board of Biafra set up hundreds of make-shift shelters as staff residences in an open military-type of camp in Urualla so that staff were available at all hours.

In September of 1968 we decided that I should leave Biafra with our two children to stay with my parents in Madeira, the Portuguese island off the coast of Africa. Clem drove us to Uli Airport for our departure. We walked to the plane in darkness. The runway lights came on just long enough for the plane to get airborne.

Among the papers I found was a report for the “National Airports Board Urualla Airports Operations: Landing Report (May to August) 1969, from the Statistics Section.” It shows the number of landings per month, with daily averages, and broken down by agencies. I found the list of landings for June, 1969, fascinating.

  • C.C. World Council of Churches 52
  • Caritas 41
  • State 67
  • R.C. French Red Cross 28
  • C.R.C. International Committee of the Red Cross 40
  • Joint WCC/Caritas 22

There is also a breakdown by routes with the largest number of flights coming from Sao Tome, followed by Libreville, then Cotonou. Santa Isabel, Lisbon, Abidjan each had very few.

The reports, both the draft for Coal Corporation and the summary of Landings for the Airports Board, were produced on very wide lined foolscap, but used sideways for typing the reports. It must have been paper originally intended for large accounting books. Each report was stapled together. Little was thrown away in Biafra.

Anti-Aircraft Equipment

In early 1969 Clem was approached by a secret agent from the U.S. He said he could smuggle in an anti-aircraft gun. Clem approved and provided the security measures to bring it into Biafra. He kept the arrangements secret. The equipment arrived. He planned to have his best scientists study, replicate, and reproduce it in quantities. But he permitted the Air Force to take it. Their efforts to dismantle and replicate failed. Clem was deeply upset at this loss. Suppose his staff had been able to copy the gun and make several. Would that have changed the outcome of the war? He had experienced regret with the loss of gas at Afam months earlier. Then he had no power to control the outcome. This time, he was responsible for the decision and experienced a different and deeper regret.

Panel on Post-War Reconstruction

Clem was surprised to get a fourth appointment, this time as the Chairman of the Panel on Post-War Reconstruction, charged with mapping out a post-war strategy.

He divided the panel’s work into six broad areas: Education, Agriculture, Medicine, Industry, Public Service, and Infrastructure. The groups on Education, Agriculture, and Medicine were headed by well-known professors. I believe this may have been his favorite appointment in Biafra. It certainly provided background for his third book, Economic Underdevelopment: An Inside View,[1] published after the war.

Education was headed by Professor Ukeje, Professor of Education. Agriculture was given to Agriculture Professor Pius Okigbo, who was the Deputy Director of IITA just before the civil war started. For Medicine he had Professor Onuaguluchi. Industry was under Mr. Kalu, a major industrialist with factories in Aba, and Mr. Chris Efobi, a capable public servant. He decided to take care of Infrastructure himself. The Secretary to the panel was a senior permanent secretary Owelle Chikelu who later became a very senior Federal permanent secretary and public servant.

Method of Operation

The Reconstruction Panel got off to a great start. They decided the panel should work in the open to enable members of the public to contribute to the discussion. They took their work to the community. Each group held monthly sessions in different parts of Biafra. The whole panel held a closed session every month. The panel became very popular and the public sessions drew large crowds.

But within months Clem saw the end looming. As Chair of the Airports Board, he correlated the diminished number of arms being imported with the loss of territory a day or so later. The panel’s work wound down. Clem has regretted that he lost the chance to bring to bear all facets of his experience and qualifications in economics, organization, industry and infrastructure to a new country.

Clem is not only an engineer but also an economist with a B.Sc. Econ from the University of London. He believes that the trouble with development in Nigeria is that the ordinary economist knows economics but lacks knowledge of the technical assumptions on which economics is based. The engineer on the other hand has the technical knowledge but lacks the economics understanding. He posits that he may have been given the post as Chairman of the Panel on Reconstruction in Biafra because he was both. The panel with its mix of know-how and practice could have been a landmark in strategic planning, he says.

The End Comes

They were however not given the chance. As the war ended Clem went back to his town, Nanka, which was still free of conflict. It is surrounded by a major erosion site which made it difficult for Nigerian troops to enter. His plan was to find a hiding place within the ravines. He imagined that the Nigerian troops might be coming to look for Biafran leaders like him. He pictured the possibility of imprisonment or execution.

Then Gowon declared “No victor, no vanquished.” Clem returned to Lagos within weeks of Biafra’s surrender and in a few months was back at ECN. He was able to put his work on reconstruction to use with his former employer. But the anticipated joy of reconstructing a victorious Biafra was lost.

The three years of civil war were an amazing and fruitful time for dedicated struggle, lessons in managing with limited resources, and gaining experience in an unusual high-stress atmosphere. Clem remains convinced that the capable people of Biafra with their ingenious methods of attaching problems could have created an economic success.

He was an unsung key actor in the effort for an independent Biafra.

Catherine Onyemelukwe, April 2017

[1] Longmans UK 124pp 1974