Letters and Notes from My Peace Corps Experience in Biafra
(October 8, 1966 through July 20, 1967)
Jonathan B. Seale, Nigeria XXIV (1966-1967)
In the spring of 1966 I was accepted into the Peace Corps to serve two years in Nigeria. Training to be part of community and rural development teams took place over the summer at the University of California, San Diego, in La Jolla. After training and a brief visit home, the 85 newly minted Peace Corps Volunteers of Nigeria XXIV were flown to Lagos, Nigeria, on October 6th for the start of in-country orientation. From Lagos, PCVs moved out to the four regions of the host country.
Those of us stationed in the Eastern Region flew to Enugu for two weeks of additional training and final details of our posting which in my case was in Port Harcourt. Although there were Volunteers from other groups in Port Harcourt, I was the first one assigned to the newly formed Works Unit of the Division of Community Development, Ministry of Rural Development. The government provided me housing close to my office in Port Harcourt.
For the next nine months I developed projects with a team of Host Country Nationals trained as community development specialists from my Division. By the end of May, 1967, my construction crew completed a 35’ bridge/ culvert on the Ibubu/Onne Road that allowed farmers easier access during the rainy season to markets in Port Harcourt. Planning was also underway for a fish pond project in Ogu, Yenegoa, as well as the Yaako Communal Farm Access road in Bori, Ogoni, when we were evacuated. On July 20, 1967, Eastern Region PCVs and other expatriates were taken by freighter from Port Harcourt to Accra, Ghana.
Following are direct quotes of observations I made in my small corner of Biafra, taken chiefly from letters sent home to my parents, George and Nancy Seale and brothers Nat and Tim and sister Becky all of Worcester, MA. There were a total of ten letters from Nigeria in which Biafra was discussed and an additional letter from Accra, Ghana, describing the evacuation from Port Harcourt. In addition, there are descriptions and excerpts from letters to several government officials, an appointment calendar, a job log and a short journal I started on arriving in Lagos.
These letters describe early times for the Republic of Biafra and I am struck by the sense of normalcy in my life and those with whom I lived and worked over this period. On many levels this was a tribute to the pride and confidence the Ibo people had in their new country and their cause.
When the massacres and mutilations of Ibos in the Northern Regions began I recall a visceral hatred directed toward the perpetrators by my co-workers. I was shown a pamphlet that was circulated with gruesome photos of the victims.
The only liberty I have taken with the material is to choose what is germane to Biafra. Personal matters pertaining to my friends and family have been excluded.
I make no apologies for the naivety of some comments nor any awkwardness of expression. I was a 23 year old writing home to his family.
(Italics are employed to denote source or explain contexts and some references.)
(Entry in appointment calendar) January 31, 1967. To Yaako Community Farm Access Road project, Bori, Ogoni.
(Letter) January 11, 1967. To Secretary, Eleme County Council, Ogoni Division, Port Harcourt Province, (on the proposed bridge/culvert for the Ibubu/Onne Road).
(Letter) February 24, 1967. To Chief Victor Abasi, Community Officer, Ogu, Yenegoa, (describing the next steps for the Ogu National Fish Pond project and a planned visit in March 1967).
(Letter to home) Port Harcourt. March 1, 1967. “Due to the atrocities committed against thousands of Ibos over the past year, Lt. Col. Ojukwu (military leader of Biafra) recommended that there was to be no public celebration. Christmas and the holiday season were to be spent in quiet meditation and deep reflection…” (summary of the past holiday season)
(Letter to home) Port Harcourt. March 26, 1967.
“Politically, things are just about primed to explode over here, as a matter of fact, the date for the conflagration is set for March 31. Apparently, the conciliatory conference in Ghana in January was only a token move by Gowon (military leader of Nigeria) and his allies. This meeting held in Aburi was a hashing out of all the problems both the East, and the remainder of the country feel are obstacles to a re-unification of Nigeria. To everyone’s detriment, the Aburi agreements were not implemented as stated, resulting in the East decision to implement them unilaterally. The accompanying rattling of sabers by Lt. Col. Ojukwu, has prompted Gowon to declare that force will be used as a last measure to maintain Nigeria as a national entity. Counter posed under this headline was Ojukwu’s declaration to match force with force, hinting possible secession if force, either as a blockade or outright attack, are employed.
Well, Gowon just purchased 2 jets and has naval supremacy with Nigerian Commander Wey’s small, but modern fleet. Ojukwu has excited the people to the point where everyone is wearing “Easterners Get Ready” badges and practicing thrice weekly in the special home forces which number in the tens of thousands of men and women. Trenches are being dug, pill boxes erected, arms purchased and food stockpiled.
In everyday life, the build-up is noticeable in a large decline of shipping, and a tightening up of road blocks. Expatriates have been departing slowly, and even PC people have been reminded of standard evacuation procedures. It’s sort of common small talk to discuss the crisis, but many old timers feel it will blow over, as apparently many of them do.
As far as I’m concerned it’s no sweat and certainly no need for consternation on the part of any of you.”
(Entry in appointment calendar) May 8, 1967. To Ogoni (to survey potential project).
(Entry in appointment calendar) May 13, 1967. To Calabar (to survey potential project)t.
(Letter) June 6, 1967. To the Minister of Rural Development (describing the results of three visits on January 27th, March 2nd and April 29th to Ogu and the progress of the Ogu National Fish Pond project).
(Letter to home) Lagos, Nigeria. June 7, 1967.
“It’s not as bad as it seems in the newspapers. An English woman who is a good friend is being evacuated probably in the next 2 or 3 days so she volunteered to carry out any letters I might want sent. I’m only sending this one, however, in hopes that you will answer any questions concerning my well-being that others back home might have. Things are going quite NORMALLY, but I’m somewhat rattled at seeing so many evacuees leave by plane every day.
On the first day of the Republic of Biafra (5/31/67) we completed our bridge/culvert. Despite little transport, a dwindling crew and less equipment, the crew and I constructed an 80 ton bridge/culvert. Really. I hope I can get my slides out of here so I can show you—the damn thing’s beautiful.
Understandably, the news was predominantly of a political nature, somewhat astonishing because not much has been happening here.
Ojukwu has moved the East towards secession for four months. This was corroborated by the heightened vociferousness and bellicose statements made against Gown during series of mass rallies, conducted at a time when Gowon was lifting the blockade in a reconciliatory gesture. The consultative assembly of the East was called, and rubber-stamped Ojukwu’s plan for a new state. Flag, currency, stamps, official uniforms, and a raft of edicts were then immediately brought forth, pointing to the months of preparation that culminated in secession.
Presently, 200 expatriate women and children have been evacuated, with more leaving in the next few days. Despite persistent boasts of protection and continued normalcy by Ojukwu they are still moving out. Regardless of statements to the contrary, the people leaving now are doing so in anticipation of hardship from skyrocketing prices, due to an effective blockage and the possible anarchy this may create. Although prices have risen slightly, there is no threat to safety or personal possessions, no threat or hardship of any magnitude at all. If Gowon attacks, things might become tense. To ease the “Nervous Nellies”, however, Ojukwu has sent Land Rovers cruising through the streets mounted with 50 caliber machine guns. These, and the planes which occasionally buzz over serve to remind everyone of the presence and preparedness of the Biafran Army.
If we are evacuated, it will first be to Lagos, and then to Malta (pure rumor) in the Mediterranean for reassignment to new posts. Tell our friends I’m fine. (Last letter I received was yours from Jordan, Mom.) Hope God continues to watch over you, as I have become aware that he is doing for me. Bless you all, Dad, Mom, Than, Tim, Becky.”
(Entry in appointment calendar) June 13, 1967. To Yenegoa (to survey project).
(Entry in appointment calendar) June 30, 1967. Move D4 (Caterpillar bulldozer) to farm road.
(Letter to home) Port Harcourt. June 30, 1967.
“Oh yes, before I forget, it is also a big day today because Lt. Col. Ojwkwu has made a speech announcing that the ZERO HOUR for the Republic of Biafra has arrived. My English Volunteer flat mate and myself had just returned from a two hour tour of Shell Oil installation to see if the rumors of Army take over were true (which of course they weren’t) when a very solemn and serious voice over our neighbor’s radio arrested our progress up the stairs to our flat. In a voice which I will remember as long as you recall Roosevelt in the early 1940’s, and my roommate’s parents remember Churchill in 1939, Ojukwu declared that the time of confrontation had come. To show other nations Biafran stability and territorial sovereignty, to prove once and for all the invalidity of Gowon’s stated threat of destroying the Republic of Biafra, and to avenge for the slaughter of kith and kin in the North, Biafra is going to war, if war is brought to its land. Not a war of defense, but a war on all fronts: On the border, on the high seas, in the air over Lagos, and Kaduna, and Ibadan and Enugu. With God as the witness to the justification for their struggle.
…my arrival and duration here in Eastern Nigeria (Biafra) turned out to be synchronized with the build-up and preparation for secession which culminated with the events on May 30th when a new state was declared which must now undergo a trial by firepower.
…I am on a first name basis with the Commanding Officer of Port Harcourt’s barracks, but soon the effect of my fraternizing with the officers is going to wear off. Thursday, 6/22) I went way in the bush, only to find myself plunked right in the midst of a massive troop movement involving 500-600 men...
My one construction venture has turned out to be a success. When the opening ceremony comes off next month, Peace Corps is going to generate some publicity around the theme of PC sticking it out.”
(Letter to home) Accra, Ghana. July 25, 1967.
“Initially after the evacuation of wives and children from June 4 to 7, every expatriate, especially Peace Corps, endeavored to last out the Civil War in Biafra. This attempt was short-lived. The blockade beginning on May 30 had cut off all raw materials and spare parts, and other goods necessary for business and trade. (Physical threats were still a remote consideration in regards to a possible evacuation.) Soon, road blocks manned by Biafran men and women sprang up like desert flowers after a rain. Besides representing a sizeable obstacle to travel, they were sometimes very, very frightening, leaving an emotional residue of anxiety which resulted usually in a bad case of the jitters after 5 or 6 more.
Rumors became more and more outrageous, something which usually doesn’t detract from their effectiveness. With a country-wide fear of bombing raids and sabotage, things just became too sticky to remain. So, we left. Wednesday, July 12, we moved to Aba, to return to Port on Sunday. As PCV’s moved into the Presidential Hotel, other expats from all over Biafra began to arrive. Finally, 600 evacuees boarded the Italian m.v. Isonzo, and headed for Lagos on Thursday, July 20. It was a real “Exodus” (a recent popular movie) type of evacuation, with people spread over every possible inch of the freighter. (Time-Life is doing a story on Biafra/Nigeria, so I am cutting off my descriptions.)
After Lagos, we have moved to Accra, from there onto Malawi, via Nairobi. I hated pulling out on my Biafran friends—someday I hope to return.
I will write as soon as I reach Nairobi.”