May it never happen again.
This was originally written in April 2016.
I have just read There Was A Country.
I should have read Chinua Achebe’s book a while ago. I am always late to classics. I had this copy since; it was one of the seven hardcovers I stole from my Uncle’s library in January. I should have read it then but school resumed. Achebe lost the unfair battle with Sagay and Malemi. To law students, reading stops being a hobby. It becomes a gruesome chore. You want to remember; you only want to remember.
However, here we are. In the 9 hours that stretched from last night to this morning, there has been a revelation of some sort. I believe that I have been delivered from the many misconceptions that still plague various accounts of the Nigerian civil war.
What do I know?
Until I encountered the eccentric Professor A.A. Idowu in that Constitutional Law lecture, I had never met anyone in overt support of the Biafran end of the Nigerian Civil War. And I may be jumping into conclusions. It may be the case that Baba Idowu’s position is only an expression of his ecstatic infatuation with Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu and that lengthy Biafran declaration. What do I know?
What do I know, really? The Biafran War was never taught to me at any point. I have no education of this peculiar aspect of Nigeria’s history. And it is important to note that I learned other things — the British wars of the 19th century, the French Revolution, the Roman conquest of Egypt, the Sudanese wars and so on. I can trace German history from the travails of Otto Von Bismarck to the explosion (and implosion) of Adolf Hitler. Italy v. Ethiopia (my favorite), America v. Britain, Axis v. Allied, Warsaw Pact v. NATO, U.S.A. v. Vietnam are a few of the world’s conflicts I can narrate from start to finish.
The irony is glaring then. I knew disgracefully little about a war that was fought only 50 years ago in my very country. Why?
Earlier in the year, some controversy surfaced. It concerned the creation of one Biafra radio station. The act was labeled as “treasonable felony” by many. Secessionist talks are not new in Nigeria. But the proponents of this radio station had not declared an intention to secede, they only wanted a radio station. It seemed trivial to me, but it bothered so many Nigerians. Too many. I became curious and began digging. What exactly is the Biafran story?
In February, I watched this captivating documentary about the history of Nigeria. I thought it was brilliant, eye-opening. But also sickening. I realized that the problems we have now have always been there. This change that we seek would be no small feat. I fear that it is beyond the deficient jurisdiction of some 74-year-old tourist.
Yes, I did not learn anything considerable about the Biafran situation of the 1960s. At least, I don’t remember doing so. But if I ever asked, someone must have painted this insidiously misleading image of the Biafran people as an ungrateful, unruly child. Because this image had been subtly entrenched in my head like a mural painting in some ancient cave.
The beam of light is Achebe’s book of course. It is true that Chinua Achebe was Igbo, in fact and in deed. So, a lot of my stupendous colleagues may pass this off as some attempt to can spilled milk. Or as fiction, laced with bias, propaganda. I do not care. I will stand on this side, until I read something persuasively contrary.
So, here I am viewing the civil war from another perspective. The Biafran people were not fighting to protect the oil in Oloibiri. Or for the innumerably dubious reasons some have suggested. Instead, they were resisting glooming nepotism and looming genocide. There existed at the time, simply put, a great and shameless envy of industrious, ubiquitous easterners who apparently sought to dominate every budding aspect of the new Nigeria. Celebrated nationalist, Ahmadu Bello, confirmed this sentiment in one infamous interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The Saraudana was wondrously wary of the Igbo’s curious desire to excel, dominate. To be clear, he explained this to the British correspondent, himself, on camera.
While the great Ahmadu Bello negotiated national independence with Britain, he nurtured distrust for his brothers in the east. He shared these strong sentiments with many other “nationalists”. It therefore seems like they waited for match to strike box — one that would light the fire of annihilation. And oh, didn’t it appear in 1967?
Till date, the 1966 coup is grossly misunderstood. It was perceived as an audacious move by the Igbos to monopolize state affairs. In reality, it was not ethnic, but military. It seemed to the powerful, emboldened military that the government of Sir Tafewa Balewa had failed. The euphoria that surrounded independence was fading.
How many Nigerians know that the coup of January 1966 actually failed? Do you know that Aguyi Ironsi was equally marked for assasination? He managed to mount a resistance against the onslaught in Lagos. Ironsi was a Major-General, the highest ranking military office at the time. Who else would assume power? Who else would calm emergencies? What were the viable alternatives? Nnamdi Azikiwe was missing, Tafewa Balewa and Ahmadu Bello were dead. Obafemi Awolowo was in jail, not thrown in by the military, but convicted by a competent court, after due process, for treasonable felony!
The Civil War.
Once, my SS3 Government teacher spoke in assorted adoration of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, like every naïve Yoruba person. He vehemently asserted the hyperbole-clad belief that this “nationalist” was responsible for the end of the war. I remember my teacher narrating ecstatically — Awo thought it silly that the Nigerian government still let food supply reach the east. He suggested that all routes into the territory be sealed off so the Igbos would starve. It seemed heroic at the time. Many a mad things seem heroic during war. I am afraid that it still does to many recounting Yorubas. But it was cruel, wasn’t it?
The effect of Gowon’s adherence to this Ahithophel-esque counsel was devastating. Thousands of Igbos died, not from descending Soviet bombs, or quick-fire guns (from troops that Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo and fellow blood-thirsty eggheads gallantly led) but from the hunger. Kwashiorkor struck. Children simply starved to death in the streets. Vultures perched on poles, waiting for feeble hearts to stop beating so they would descend for plunder.
There was no significant aid or backing for Biafra. U. Thant of the United Nations was mute; Harold Wilson of Britain gambled. Richard Nixon of the U.S.A. was err… well, we know about that one, don’t we? During the Civil War, there was no international humanitarian law either. The Nigerian government won by all means. I eagerly reminded Dr. Oyelade of that in my last Human Rights exam.
Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu was not the best of leaders. Initially, the Biafran cause was justified, promising, in the eyes of the right-minded. But the 33-year-old’s refusal to make compromises would ultimately result in the great fall of 1970. His childish rivalry with Yakubu Gowon and his distrust for certain prominent figures in the east caused damage in no small way. Some say that the once charismatic leader betrayed the faith of 20 million people when he eventually fled to Ivory Coast.
The truth must be told however. Whatever shortcomings Ojukwu may have had cannot justify the actions of the Nigerian nation at the time. I chose to say little about this part because apparently, nothing will be done about this. I did not set out to recount all the events. The Civil War is well behind us. Isn’t it? No serious-minded person would start a campaign for apologies and reparations. Would they?
I seek to ask a few questions instead. Why is the Nigerian Civil War not part of the school syllabus? Why is it never spoken of by official agents? Why are the many unoffical accounts loaded with bias? What is this silence, erasure? What is this never-ending awkwardness, dread?
I grew up in Port-Harcourt, Rivers state. Port Harcourt is in the South-South but it is home to a number of Igbo-speaking Nigerians. Now, I am not one to advance hasty generalizations or ethnic stereotypes but I believe the following to be predominantly true.
Igbo people are industrious and independent. They seem determined to succeed wherever they find themselves and they adapt to new circumstances with amazing ease.
I believe that Biafra would have survived, flourished. 20 months after Ojukwu’s declaration, there was a state capital, a central bank, a currency, an anthem, a constitution in the making. The Biafrans flew their own fighter jets (a remarkable feat at the time). Biafrans knew how to refine crude oil as at 1968. In 2016, Nigeria still struggles with the know-how and logistics. In 1969, there was a recognized and valued Biafran pound. In the 1970s, dubious decrees were passed by a vengeful federal government. A currency, and the property of an entire region was summarily confiscated. All Igbos were given a paltry 20 pounds.
Decades later, they returned to prosperity. Today, the “national” naira has fallen to newly-discovered depths. No one cares about the exchange rate anymore.
Through pre-colonialist Nigeria, the Igbo was “programmed” to dominate education and commerce. Why not? These were the important things. Historically, the Igbo ways were devoid of religious excesses (as in the north) and the compulsive regard for hierarchy (as in the west). This is why the colonialists had challenges in the region. Igbo villages were largely republican. There was no Igwe — yes, Nollywood is horribly wrong! Igbos only recognized a center when it worked for them. And they retained their rights to represent themselves. The Igbo man was an open-minded individual who believed he would achieve as much as he worked. He was an individual and he believed in self-determination. These result in drive. And today, do you see Igbo beggars?
I am not sure what I have achieved here. Perhaps my write-up is clad with erroneous inferences. Perhaps you see it as a haphazard, cringe-worthy assortment of emotive deductions. Or propaganda. Very well then. Go on and clap for your very discerning self.
Perhaps it is a prompter. Perhaps I want you to do your own expedition into this Biafra story. Perhaps you should read There Was A Country too. Or maybe surf that omniscient piece of technology called the internet? Perhaps your perspective will undergo refinement like mine did.