Ogbete Coal Mine
Digging was continuing in spite of flooding in many chambers. Sweltering temperatures and cramped, claustrophobic conditions, meant the miners could hardly breathe, yet the work had to be done. Ogbete, the most productive coal mine in the whole of Nigeria, had scaled down production because of the civil war. Deep in its shafts Uzo and Clement, wearing lanterned safety helmets, chipped doggedly away with pick axes at Ogbetes walls, releasing the low sulphur coal that was in high demand. Behind them, their work-mates utilised high pressure water hoses, forcing the walls to crack even further. As long time friends and co workers, Uzo was known for his wit, while Clement was identified with an old Swiss Army knife hung round his neck. Many a time, he carved his name on tunnel walls and shafts everywhere he went.
Stopping for frequent breaks, the crew fended off dehydration with regular slugs of water and lightening their fatigue with chewing kola nuts. After the third break in an hour and led by Uzo, they entered a new tunnel, singing traditional songs of encouragement with Clement quickly catching up as they as they harmonised alternate blows with pick axes. Then abruptly Clement, gestured to Uzo.
‘Lema Kwa’ Clement said asking his partner to desist.
‘Gini?’ Uzo queried
‘Ngozi, my child, please, it is not so far. Stay with us..please..please..God help us..God help us’
‘What your father says is true. We will soon be at a hospital for help. You will be well and so strong so when we come back to the village, you will help us on the farm now that your father’s work at the mine has ended’
Ten year old Ngozi Okeke was being pushed along in a wheelbarrow, by her father Clement, followed by mum Chinyere and sister, Chidi. The mine, which had now closed due to flooding, left the Okeke family destitute. The very ill Ngozi and the family kept a dignified demeanour in spite of the hardship. A first aid worker had diagnosed Ngozi’s rumbling appendix and suggested that the family seek medical aid in Uli.
From the town of Ozara, the Okeke family were part of a large group of over 500 refugees on foot, seeking shelter at relief centres from the battles around that area.
Aba and Owerri had fallen into the hands of Federal troops and a rearguard battle was being fought by the Colonel Asoya led 60 Brigade, resulting in major casualties.
Someone had a transistor radio somewhere behind the family, and from it boomed the distinct voice of Major General Emeka Ojukwu “We shall all have to return to our provinces and villages. We shall turn out and harass the enemy at every turn and chase him out of our land.”
State House Bunker, Umuahia
Colonel Ojukwu blew out cigarette smoke and sipped on glass of brandy as he sat behind a huge desk.
‘Your Excellency, here is a list of equipment my team have collated that we need to repel Federal troops’ said Father James Malloy, a Roman Catholic priest, who also doubled up as one of Biafra’s Directors of Intelligence. A very short balding man, Father Malloy had come to Nigeria in the 1950s as a member of the Holy Saints Brotherhood.
Ojukwu took the document and stared at it for some minutes. None of the other three persons in the room said a word, as the leader perused the papers. Also in attendance at Biafran Headquarters was an American, David Wilkes. Wilkes was a public relations man who also helped raise funds for the new country and George Okafor, Ojukwu’s special adviser.
‘This is a long list, planes, munitions, armed speed boats, radio communications equipment. What are the radios for?’ the head of state asked.
Father Malloy answered ‘We still have spies in Lagos, Kano and Benin who feed us information on Federal troop movements. We need to know this to plan strategy, as your Excellency knows’
‘It’s all very well and good to have a list but it has to be paid for’ said David Wilkes.
Biafra was in not only in military dire straights, but financially as well. Ojukwu needed mercenaries to lead his army, especially for the hit and run tactics his army were reduced to. Other requirements were for ammunition, especially bullets for 500 seized German G3 7.62 rifles that could come in handy. Along with 81 and 82 mm Mortars, it would all be needed to stave off the final push, that many felt was not far away.
Sitting in Sao Tome, were eight 1950’s era Harvard T6G propeller trainer planes which could also be used for light bombing duties but which would only be released with a final payment of £130,000. The Biafran Air Force up to now, had punched above its weight with the Mincoins flown and led by Count Von Rosen but with these proposed planes, it could hit targets within a 600 mile range.
‘We don’t have the funds for all these equipment. As it is, we are lucky that the Aid agencies are flying in food through the blockade to feed our people and even that is not enough’ The leader replied.
Father Malloy coughed ‘Excellency, an opportunity has come our way, which I would have appraised you of earlier but needed to wait till it was in fruition.’
‘What is this about?’ Ojukwu quizzed
‘May I be allowed to bring in Engineer Okechukwu Obi?’
‘This logistics meeting is too important to be bringing in some sycophantic civil servant’
‘No, no, please indulge me, Excellency’
‘Ok but no more than five minutes and if it turns out to be nonsense, I will not be happy, Father James’
As Father Malloy opened the door of the bunker, the noise of artillery fire not far away, was in the air. Bodyguards stood to attention, as Malloy brought in a scared looking man in his late 30s.
‘Excellency, may I present Biafra’s deputy minister of mines’
‘Your Excellency sir, Biafra Forever, Nigeria Never’ shouted Obi more out of nervousness than with zeal.
Ojukwu grunted, saying ‘What is it you have in mind?’
‘Sir, as you know, we have been mining coal for our electricity plants all over the country, the excess, we cannot sell due to the stupid blockade.’
‘Yes, yes, yes, I know all these’ Ojukwu replied impatiently
‘Nine months ago, when the miners started a new tunnel at Ogbete, they started to find small bits of shiny stones.’
‘Yes, Excellency. Gold’
Skies above Fernando Po
Kurt Reiger cupped his hands over his cigarette end in a bid not to expose the lit end for anyone outside the plane to see. Kurt and his crew of co pilot Marvin Shanks, Flight Engineer Shane O’ Hennessey had just taken off from the island of Sao Tome, heading northwards with all it’s navigation lights off. In the dark, the Super Constellation cargo plane was levelled at 6000 feet for the duration of the flight.
Kurt said ‘Shane, can you please make sure our exhausts can’t be seen please’
That one replied ‘I always do my best but you know those damm Russian have trawlers in the Guld Of Guinea, listening and watching out for us. I would love it if this was a bomber, so we could blow some of them up’.
The American trio were contracted to fly humanitarian goods into Biafra by an American charity ‘For Biafra’. These risky flights always made in total darkness, as Nigerian jets often patrolled this area, indeed one of their fellow crews had been shot down the previous year. Their destination often, was Uli Ihiala, otherwise known as Annabelle by the crews flying into the place. Not much more than a widened road at seventy five feet and a length of over five thousand feet, it was now the lifeline for Biafrans, Port Harcourt Airport been captured by Federal troops.
The Russian trawlers that Shane had referred to, patrolled the Bight and alerted Federal jets if planes were enroute Uli.
‘This is our second flight of the night, isn’t it?’ Asked Marvin ‘I’ve lost all sense of time today. Man, I’m tired’
‘Would you prefer to be flying in Vietnam? Our military isn’t doing too well there. The air force is taking a pounding over Saigon and Hanoi. Sorry, Shane’ who’s brother had died two weeks earlier serving in the US military.
Suddenly, the number one engine of the Constellation shot out exhaust flames.
Kurt shouted ‘Damn, Shane. We don’t need that kind of illumination, man’
‘Doing my best’ the reply came, as he adjusted mixtures of the engine.
The plane droned on in the moonless night.
‘Doctor, please help us. My daughter has been in pain for almost one week now and the first aid man told us you can help. This is not help’ said Clement as Ngozi was being examined by another first aid orderly. The orderly who preferred being addressed as ‘Doctor’, answered ‘We have no medicines and cannot operate in a bush such as this. All I can give her is Aspirin and only one tablet, which is what each person can get’.
Ngozi’s mum added ‘I cannot fit to watch my daughter die. What would you do if she was your own, chief doctor?
In a medical tent lit by hurricane lanterns, the ‘doctor’ looked at the parents and said ‘She needs urgent attention to remove her appendix. If not, she will not last three days.’
Clement and his wife screamed at this but were shushed by the orderly. ‘There may be a way. There are always aeroplanes which land not far from here, on the Mgbidi – Uli road. Every day, many of them come and at times, when they are leaving, they take children who are ill or starving. Maybe, the white men can take your child with other children and she can have treatment in Gabon or wherever. Don’t tell anyone outside of this tent, as many people will want to rush the planes.’
‘Chukwu will help us and we will go there now even in this darkness. Thank you, Doctor’ Clement replied, gathering his desperately ill daughter in his arms.
Once again, they joined refugees, who all seemed to be heading to the air strip.
State House Bunker, Umuahia
‘Gold, are you sure? Be careful not to come here with some nonsense about Fool’s Gold’ Ojukwu inquired, referring to Iron Pyrite, named Fools Gold, due to its similar look to gold. Found often found in coal beds, it is numerous around such mines in the East of Nigeria.
Father Malloy chimed in ‘I had assayers check it, Excellency. It’s real gold’
‘How long has this been going on and why haven’t I been informed?’
‘We had to impose the tightest security. Only 10 men know about it including the mines director here and myself. We have been melting it into bars over the past few months’
‘What is the quantity you have?’ Ojukwu asked now out of his chair
‘Yes, how much’? David Wilkes added
‘Half a tonne, Excellency. Enough to fill half a land rover’
Skies above Gulf of Guinea
The Constellation dropped further down to 2000 feet as it made landfall over Biafra in darkness. In total radio silence, the crew tightened their seat belts, with the autopilot off as Kurt would hand fly it into Uli. They had picked up Uli’s radio beacon which came on intermittently.
Marvin, monitoring the radio but making sure not to transmit said ‘It looks good so far, not a lot of chatter on the radio transmitter.’
Kurt grunted in reply, puffing ever harder on his always present cigarette, a sign of nervousness. Adding to the tension, was the darkness affecting depth perception and in another 15 minutes, the Constellation was down to 1500 feet, parallel to Uli’s radio beacon, where it joined the circuit.
Kurt ‘Flaps 20, Marvin’
From the back Shane said ‘Speed should be 165 knots here’
‘It is now’ said Kurt throttling back and starting the stop clock.
Timing was all important in these pitch dark landings. The plane had to fly on a course for a precise number of minutes, then change. Get it wrong and the plane could fly into the ground or surrounding hills, as the runway lights would not be lit until the plane was just above the runway.
Forty seconds later, for the first time since take off, their radio switched to transmit.
‘Big Boy 4, Lights on please’ Kurt said. As if by magic, two lines of runway lights made up of vehicle headlights came on for the last 500 feet of flight. As the big aircraft touched down on the improvised strip, the lights went out again. The crew and people on the ground held their breath until the plane came to a halt on the aluminium planking which served as an unloading bay.
State House Bunker
‘Half a Landrover?. Half a tonne? We have that amount of gold in Biafra?’ Ojukwu asked in astonishment
Okechukwu Obi nodded eagerly ‘Yes, Excellency, all melted into bars and ready for the Central Bank of Biafra’
‘How much is that worth at today’s prices?’
Father Malloy pulled out a note book from his cassock ‘At today’s price of $41 a troy ounce, its worth $656,000. Enough for the equipment our military needs and more to take the fight to the Nigerians. The Russians and British won’t sell us any equipment but there are many sellers out there, that will sit up and take notice of this gold wealth.’
‘Let me think, Malloy. This is really big news and we must not rush into any decisions in spite of our troubles and pressures’
‘That is true, Excellency. We will leave you to think of how best to utilise this windfall’
‘Before you go, mister engineer. Where is this gold now? Are there more reserves of gold underground?’
‘Father Malloy instructed me to bring the gold with me and it is outside guarded by our brave soldiers. Regarding the reserves, I’m not sure sir, as the mines are now totally flooded, so a proper survey cannot be done.’
‘Go and wait outside. I will send for you soon. Thank you for your efforts and honesty.
I thank you and Biafra thanks you.’
Turning to Father Malloy, ‘Bring in the gold. I want to see what a half tonne of gold looks like.
‘Please, soldier, can I speak to the white pilots? A chom ki nyem aka. I need your help .It is about my daughter, you see she is very sick and needs proper treatment. I have some money I can give you to let me talk to them, so maybe they can take her abroad for operation’ Clement said.
The soldier, wearing fatigues with a Rising Sun patch on his shoulder replied wearily ‘My brother, biko. That is all these people want to do. Look around you, there are over 2000 refugees who want to enter aeroplane. It’s not possible, keep your money. There is nothing here for you today, maybe tomorrow. Go and ask those nuns and Reverend Fathers over there’ pointing to a tent with a Red Cross sign on it.