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24 September 2014

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You are in: Manchester > People > Your stories > The teenage lieutenant

Ben Okafor

Ben Okafor

The teenage lieutenant

From 1967 to 1970, a civil war raged between Nigeria's government and the newly formed Republic of Biafra. The conflict was bloody and its consequences dire. Four decades on, its reality is being told by a man who served as a Biafran child soldier.

As a young teenager, Ben Okafor spent time in the Biafra army, though his war began with the same displacement as many other Africans have felt in recent years, as he told BBC Radio Manchester’s Heather Stott.

"My home city fell very soon after the beginning of the war and we became refugees. Everywhere you looked there was starvation; death everywhere basically."

A child leader

With so much horror around him, it is little surprise that he decided he had to try and do something about it. His decision to become a soldier at such a young age may seem a shocking one, but his life in the army was quite different from what people may think.

Biafran army patrol

Biafran army patrol

When asked who forced him to do it, his reply is that no-one is to blame and that “it’s the kind of thing that happens in desperate situations.

"It’s not who did it to me. I was adventurous; I was exploring everything when I was that age.

"To see that war, to see the fear that it instilled in everyone around me. How it affected my dad, that I saw fear in his eyes, something I’d never noticed before. And my brother got shot. I thought, ‘I’m not going to take this,’ and I was off. I was going to join the army.

"I was trained as an intelligence officer. I wasn’t allowed to carry guns. My job was to go into the battlefield, make myself vulnerable to the enemy and then listen to their instructions.

Biafran army soldiers and captives after the war

Biafran army soldiers and captives after the war

"I wasn’t treated badly by other soldiers and it wasn’t a hard thing, in that no-one was forcing me to do anything. I was a second lieutenant in the army at the age of 13. Adult soldiers, who were junior to me in rank, took instructions from me, because that is army regulations. It was simple."

It may have seemed straight-forward, but that is the teenage bravado speaking. Ben still remembers clearly the day-to-day dread that he experienced.

"The fear of losing one’s life and to think about what happened to my platoon is something that gets me every so often. The fear that I felt was complex; it was fear informed by my love of my family, because I didn’t want them to lose me."

The pen is mightier…

The journey from child soldier to playwright has been a winding one for Ben. After his army service, he was a successful musician in Nigeria, but he first came to the UK to study theology. However, he found that was the wrong path for him and discovered his guitar again.

"To see that war, to see the fear that it instilled in everyone around me... I thought, 'I’m not going to take this,' and I was off."

Ben on why he became a child soldier

From there, it was his friendship with writer and director Justin Butcher that made him take the creative leap to writing the play.

"Justin and I have talked about this over and over, we have been friends for yonks, and one day he said ‘we really need to do something with this’. So we started writing stuff down. He’d come to my flat, put on the tape recorder and we’d talk. We’ve been doing this for about 12 years!"

That decade’s work has come together as Child of Biafra, a play that tells Ben’s harrowing, bizarre and comic story of three years of brutal war and famine. It is a powerful piece, though it will never quite touch the reality of Ben’s experience. Even after all the years that have passed, when he speaks of his home country, there is an understandable bitterness.

Ben Okafor

Ben with his guitarist

"To us, when this thing was starting, the word ‘Biafra’ was gold, it was hope, promise, survival, all that stuff.

"It’s extremely hard to think not just about me but about the effect of the war on my family and the people I knew; how it turned everyone’s life upside down. Nigeria was destined for something great, but that’s all finished."

Yet, for all his disappointment at what happened, there is a chance that creative talents such as his will not only tell the story of Nigeria and Biafra’s past but also offer optimism for the area’s future. It may have been renamed, but maybe one day, Biafra can mean hope again.

Child of Biafra is at the Contact Theatre from Thurs 19 to Sat 21 July. Tickets are £10.

Ben Okafor takes part in a discussion about Biafra as part of the University of Manchester's War In Our World, after the show on Thurs 19 July.

War In Our World runs during the day from 19 to 21 July at the Manchester Conference Centre.

last updated: 11/04/2008 at 09:28
created: 17/07/2007

You are in: Manchester > People > Your stories > The teenage lieutenant

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