Seven years after Nigeria won independence from British rule in 1960, the country descended into a two-and-a-half-year civil war during which between 500,000 and three million people died, mostly from starvation. In the words of Ọbáfẹmi Awólọ́wọ́, then the federal minister of finance, ‘all is fair, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight us harder.’ Unfortunately for the would-be Republic of Biafra in the south-east, the world was wedded to the status quo of colonial boundaries. According to the UN’s Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, ‘any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,’ though this contradicts its own Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: ‘All peoples shall have the right of self-determination.’
Both the United States and the Soviet Union supported Nigeria’s federal government, but elsewhere around the world people sympathised with the underdog in one of the first armed conflicts to be widely televised. Don McCullin’s photograph of an albino boy in a refugee camp was among the most iconic images of the century. ‘To be a starving Biafran orphan was to be in a most pitiable situation,’ McCullin said at the time, ‘but to be a starving albino Biafran was to be in a position beyond description. Dying of starvation, he was still among his peers an object of ostracism, ridicule and insult.’ Life magazine ran a cover on 12 July 1968 with the strapline ‘Starving Children of Biafra War’ (at least one copy is available on eBay for $14.95: ‘Great for framing’). At a rally in New York the same year, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum compared the Biafrans’ plight to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. John Lennon returned his MBE as a protest against the UK’s support of the federal government. Martin Amis, then a university student, was shocked to encounter ‘an incredible reactionary … who supports Nigeria against Biafra’; the same person, it turned out, supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Even the British understood that there was nothing organic about Nigeria, the country they had fashioned in 1914 for the purpose of plunder. A century later, it is home to more Muslims and more Christians (in roughly equal numbers) than any other state in Africa: the largely Muslim Hausa-Fulani in the north, the largely Christian Igbo in the south-east, and the Yorùbá in the south-west, who swing both ways. These three ethnic groups, out of 250-plus, comprise about two-thirds of the total population, rendering the rest ‘minorities’ – doubly marginalised if, like the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta, they live in an area with oil reserves yet see none of the money that pays Nigeria’s bills.
The British determined early on to rule indirectly through the Hausa-Fulani, the largest ethnic group, who Frederick Lugard, the first governor-general, argued ‘must be our puppets and adopt our methods and rules’. But the British also understood the disparities between the groups – all separately threatened to secede – and established three, semi-autonomous regions with a weak centre. The Hausa-Fulani in the north were apprehensive of independence, having fallen far behind the south in literacy rates. They were unable to staff their own civil service: many positions were filled by educated Igbo personnel. And although they dominated the lower ranks of the country’s armed forces, few qualified for the officer class, which was also filled by southerners, notably the group of army majors who spearheaded Nigeria’s first military coup, in January 1966.
According to Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, the leading putschist, the aim was to rid the country of ‘political profiteers, swindlers, the men in high and low places who seek bribes and demand 10 per cent, those who seek to keep the country divided permanently so they can remain in office as ministers and VIPs of waste’. But the optics were dreadful: almost all the plotters were Igbo and almost all their victims were Hausa-Fulani, including Sir Ahmadu Bello, premier of the Northern Region, who was killed in his bedroom along with his senior wife and his bodyguard. The coup was rapidly quashed by troops led by Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi, also Igbo. Six months later, in July 1966, Ironsi was overthrown in a counter-coup by northern officers, after he promulgated a unification decree which sought to abolish Nigeria’s loose federal structure and turn the regions into provinces to be ruled from the centre. It didn’t help that Ironsi had failed to bring the original plotters to trial, preferring to let them languish in prison; he was also perceived to have accelerated the promotion of Igbo officers. To northerners, already alarmed by the numbers of Igbo in their midst, not just civil servants and teachers but also a large contingent of traders, it seemed that Ironsi was trying to ‘officialise’ Igbo domination of the Northern Region.
Anti-Igbo riots began in Kano in May 1966, while Ironsi was still at the helm, and quickly spread to other northern cities. In all, several hundred Igbo were killed, some of whom hardly helped their cause by publicly displaying a famous picture from Drum magazine of a prostrate Bello, the committed Muslim, under the boot of the triumphant Nzeogwu with the caption: ‘I will not in future mix religion with politics.’ Significantly, northern soldiers refused to intervene when the police failed to restrain the rioters, a stance they repeated in the pogroms of September and October, which resulted in about ten thousand Igbo dead. That was the signal for Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Igbo military governor of the Eastern Region, to issue a call for his people to return ‘home’ – effectively in preparation for secession.
Ojukwu was smarting over the fact that the architects of the July counter-coup had installed his junior, Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon, as the more acceptable face of power. In a radio broadcast, Gowon, a member of the Christian minority in the Northern Region, declared himself ‘very unhappy’ about easterners being ‘killed and molested’ in the north, where matters had gone ‘beyond reason to the point of recklessness’. He also boasted that ‘God, in his power, has entrusted the responsibility of this great country … to the hands of another northerner.’ But Ojukwu refused to acknowledge Gowon’s authority – both men were in their early thirties – and as the prospect of war grew more likely, each misunderstood what the other was alleged to have agreed at last-ditch peace talks in neighbouring Ghana.
In the negotiations that led to the Aburi Accord of January 1967, Ojukwu proposed a ‘drawing apart’ of the regions because ‘the separation of forces, the separation of the population is, in all sincerity, necessary in order to avoid further friction and further killings.’ He proposed that the Federal Military Government should implement only decisions which had been unanimously agreed by the regional heads, except on matters which affected the state as a whole. He also wanted an end to the regional quota system in the military, which favoured northerners. The chain-smoking, Oxford-educated son of Nigeria’s first billionaire, Ojukwu had turned up in Aburi with a barrage of experts. His proposals won out – without, it seems, the other parties being aware of quite how much they had conceded. After returning to Nigeria, Gowon was told by civil servants that he had effectively ‘legalised’ regionalism, which ‘would make the centre very weak’ and ultimately result in disintegration.
The Aburi Accord was followed by a stalemate, which persisted for four months as Ojukwu opted for unilateral implementation of the agreement – or his interpretation of it – by seizing all federal revenue in ‘his’ part of the country. On 27 May 1967 Gowon declared a state of emergency over the entire country, assuming ‘full powers for the short period necessary to carry out the measures which are now urgently required’. He also announced the creation of twelve states to replace the regions. The Eastern Region was broken into three, making the Igbo a majority in only one of them. Three days later a furious Ojukwu proclaimed that ‘the territory and region known as Eastern Nigeria, together with her continental shelves and territorial waters, shall henceforth be an independent sovereign state of the name and title, the Republic of Biafra.’ The contours of the new state included the oil-producing areas inhabited by the Ogoni and other minorities, though they would be looted to the tune of $20 trillion by central government and oil companies for forty years or more. Gowon’s response to Ojukwu’s declaration was to announce a ‘police action’, which quickly descended into civil war, followed by Biafra’s eventual defeat in January 1970.
The novelist and critic Emmanuel Iduma’s ‘reckoning with silence, inheritance and history’, I Am Still with You, tells the story of his return in 2019 to Nigeria from New York, where he was teaching at the School of Visual Arts. His mission was to ‘know, without equivocation, what kind of country I was returning to, what kind of investigations it required of me’. Himself Igbo, he was born long after the end of the war and never lived in the east, ‘only visiting when prompted by an occasion in the family’. He is especially interested in learning the fate of his father’s older brother, after whom he was named. His uncle Emmanuel was killed fighting on the Biafran side. It turns out that very little can be discovered about him, except that he was brave (he refused to retreat along with his comrades) and was a champion wrestler. Iduma can’t even be sure of his uncle’s skin tone. One person he speaks to describes him as ‘ebony black’, another as ‘fair in complexion’; but everyone agrees he was ‘exceptionally handsome’. Nobody knows where he was buried: he was just one of the hundreds of thousands of nobodies killed for a cause they barely grasped.
The man who started it all escaped any such fate. For Iduma, Ojukwu is a problematic figure. ‘No other figure in modern Igbo history,’ he writes, ‘has commanded the same level of hero worship that he has.’ Ojukwu’s ‘good fortune lay in his ability to recognise which moment would be interpreted as historic, and when to seize it’. In other words, he was an opportunist – as illustrated by the fact that he fled to Côte d’Ivoire just before Nigerian federal troops overran Biafra, despite his earlier promise to die on the battlefield. ‘Whilst I live,’ Ojukwu said in self-extenuation, ‘Biafra lives. If I am no more, it would only be a matter of time for the noble concept to be swept into oblivion.’ Philip Effiong, the deputy he handed over to, wasn’t fooled. ‘Those elements of the old government regime who have made negotiation and reconciliation impossible have removed themselves from our midst,’ he said in 1970, at the end of the war. For Iduma, looking back on the war and its aftermath,
I realised that what I felt, when I placed Ojukwu alongside my uncle, was envy: here was a man who survived the war, returned from exile with pomp, married an ex-beauty queen, and was given a burial with full military honours after he died … I could sketch out his life with detail, even quote his words. As for the life of the other man, who mattered more to me, his words seem to have slipped, irretrievably, into the past.
There are many things in Iduma’s book I am uncomfortable with. In the course of his wanderings he takes the opportunity to visit places associated with Ojukwu. In the town of Ahiara, where, almost two years into the war, ‘Ojukwu had belted out a grandiose manifesto that failed to turn the tides of the war,’ he feels ‘a small victory in my attempt to be suffused with the war’s afterglow’. Later, he stops at a ‘tumbledown bungalow’ where Ojukwu once stayed and feels ‘the frenzy of a climax, as though the weathered monument made all my research worthwhile’. He also visits the town of Uli, where a makeshift runway was used by relief flights that kept Biafra going long after it should have fallen. That night, he has a dream. It is after midnight and he is running for cover in a ‘vast clearing’. He can’t see his pursuers but he knows they are after him. He makes for a grass-covered bunker and enters it: ‘There is an aquamarine glow in the entire house, as if, by some puzzling logic, the moon can illuminate a subterranean space.’ The bunker is ‘dense with slumbering soldiers’ but Iduma is sure the enemy saw him enter. Then he wakes up and proceeds to parse the dream:
This was the closest I’d come to the trenches of warfare, the climax of my engagement with the trauma handed down to me. If the dream was a climactic point in my journey, perhaps I had stumbled on a clue to dealing with the events of the past: visit the places where the violence unfolded, and you might access an unmediated narrative of what occurred there.
Here Iduma is less interested in the ‘trauma’ of a war he never witnessed than in the delicacy of his own sensibilities, conveyed in a prose that strains for effect without saying anything very useful.
Following the end of military rule in 1999, memorial visits to Biafra have been on the rise, thanks in large part to the Indigenous People of Biafra, a movement led by the megalomaniac separatist Nnamdi Kanu, who associates the fate of Biafra with the Holocaust, encourages his followers to bow before him and defends the existence of an ‘armed wing’ of IPOB in the name of a new Biafran secession. Kanu’s exalted vision of himself has been greatly enhanced by his treatment at the hands of the authorities in Abuja. He was kidnapped in Kenya in 2021 by Nigerian security forces and is still in detention, even though the charges against him have been dismissed in court. ‘It has been easier for Igbos to be united … around a collective animus based on shared trauma,’ Iduma writes, ‘than on a political platform or strategy for taking hold of national leadership.’ This, he thinks, will remain the case for ‘as long as Igbos feel the vanquishment of the war is yet to be acknowledged and atoned for’. Elsewhere, he writes that ‘to be Igbo in Nigeria is to be a victim. The war was over, yet the enemy remains an enemy.’
This is a misreading of what is happening in Nigeria today. It’s true that Ojukwu miscalculated: he imagined that the Yorùbá would remain neutral, or seize the opportunity to secede at the outbreak of the war, but in the end they went with the north: both groups distrusted what they believed to be the wider Igbo agenda. These misgivings persisted. February’s presidential election, however, shows that things may have changed. The official victor, Bọ́ lá Ahmed Tinúbú, is widely believed to have stolen the election despite the findings of the Independent National Electoral Commission, which declared the vote free and fair. Many insist that the real winner was Peter Obi, an Igbo, who came third in the official count. Significantly, Obi, as even that count acknowledges, won a majority in Lagos State, which is majority Yorùbá. Young voters in particular chose him over Tinúbú, their own ‘son’, who has long presided over Lagos politics and claims to be seventy but is at least ten years older. Today, 230 million people live in Nigeria. Ninety per cent of them weren’t yet born when the civil war ended. Collective animus doesn’t hold the sway it once did.
History was expunged from the national school curriculum more than a decade ago because, it was claimed, there was no interest in it. But even while it was still being taught, the Biafra conflict was limited to two pages of a textbook at senior secondary level. Evidently, the political establishment continues to fear that knowledge of their history might further empower young people, who are more interested in good governance than in the ethnic politics of elderly men reluctant to concede power. Voting against the candidate from one’s own region was almost unthinkable just four years ago. ‘Young shall grow’ is a well-worn saying here in Nigeria – and grown they have.
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