Essays / The Pontifical Papers

RECONSIDERING BIAFRA | by Ayo Sogunro

AYO SOGUNRO PRESEN

Opinions and Facts

Opinions are not lacking when it comes to the issue of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War. There are fictional and non-fictional books themed around it. Personal stories have been passed down. Articles written and papers presented. The Civil War has inspired poetry, produced movies, and it has led to even more disputes.

What seems lacking, however, are agreed facts. Despite the abundance of literature on Biafra, the issue is still as divisive in 2016 Nigeria, as it was in 1967. Yes, we know who shot whom and when. But we are yet to simplify these accounts into a logical narrative of cause and effect without expressing justification or blame.

This is, principally, because political decisions in this country have always been tied to the perspectives and personality of the Ogas at the top—and rarely to institutions or systems—and so it is very difficult to reach objective facts about the Civil War (or any other political issue) without seeming to pass value judgments—positive or negative—on the actors involved, some of whom still shape aspects of Nigeria’s politics today.

Consequently, it has been safer for successive federal and state governments to adopt a deliberate or subconscious policy of ignoring the causes and effects of the Civil War in official administration. The Civil War is rarely referenced and almost never discussed by government. It is treated like a nightmare whose vestigial memory is best ignored in view of the sunny day ahead.

Six Blind Men

The adverse effect of this attitude is that some fifty years later, there is still collective ignorance on the facts of the war.

It is, therefore, not surprising that, to a fair number of my Yoruba acquaintances, the Civil War was a “bad thing”, but no more socio-politically significant than a violent student protest in the ‘70s. To other non-Igbo Nigerians, generally, Biafra was mainly a nuisance affair that, like Boko Haram today, threatened the sovereignty of Nigeria and was justifiably dealt with by the Federal Government. Whereas, to a number of my Igbo acquaintances, the Civil War was simply the African version of the Holocaust.

These are all perceptions promoted by a wealth of opinions and a dearth of facts. None of these perceptions is absolutely correct, and none is absolutely false. Worse, because the direct consequences of the Civil War have been overtaken by events that have now become historical in their own right, the need for re-examination is undervalued. More importantly, since the days of the Civil War, all sections of the country have been jointly involved—in varying degrees—in a never-ending stream of almost equally lamentable economic and political misfortunes.

And so, a number of non-Igbo Nigerians are baffled by the current pro-Biafra agitations. They do not see any socio-economic justifications for a renewed agitation. Afterall, is Abeokuta any better developed than Aba? Has Awka been more marginalised by the Federal Government than Birnin-Kebbi? Are Igbo (and the miscellany of ethnicities of the South-East and South-South erroneously identified with the Igbo) generally poorer than the Hausa?

Nigerians measure individual success by material progress, and when they see the containers in Apapa Port, the shops in Alaba, the shareholdings of banks and high finance, they are satisfied that the Igbo have had their fair share of the national cake, and any purported underdevelopment in “Biafra” is the fault of the Igbo elite.

A Painful Memory

Nevertheless, the Biafran discontent as expressed today isn’t about building roads and bridges—at least, not literally—nor about access to business or finance, but about Nigeria steadfastly dismissing the humanitarian injustices done to the Igbo (and their neighbouring ethnicities) from the pre-War pogrom to the post-Civil War nonchalance. Biafra agitators want the Nigerian government to sit-up, and agree that: Yes, there was a country and everyone involved bungled it very stupidly. This may look like a little thing to ask, but the Nigerian government is notorious for not apologising.

This point may be difficult to grasp for the non-Igbo Nigerian, but it is a hurt and anger that is real to many people—and directed at the current concept of the Nigerian nation. They were hurt by Nigeria and nobody cared afterwards. This hurt—and its accompanying anger—is passed down with every generation of Nigerian Igbo. The descendants of the Biafrans, no matter how prosperous they seem now, are still rankled.

Yet, as an older acquaintance recently reminded me, others were hurt too. Significant individuals (like Wole Soyinka) were imprisoned by the Gowon administration. A power-high and paranoid Ojukwu ordered the execution of Emmanuel Ifeajuna (the first African international gold medallist), Victor Banjo, Phillip Alale and Sam Agbam in unclear circumstances. Ethnicities like the Efik, the Qua in Calabar were allegedly massacred by Ojukwu’s soldiers because he suspected they were saboteurs to the Biafra cause. There were also the Benin people and others who suffered loss of life or property simply for being ethnic minorities in a war involving major ethnicities.

The argument for reconsidering Biafra is not about justifying the reckless, and often criminal, decisions of the Nigerian and Biafran leaders, but it is about placing a value on Nigerian lives—whether “Biafran Nigerian” or “Nigerian Nigerian.” President Shagari may have pardoned Ojukwu, but when will the people pardon the actions of Gowon, Obasanjo, Murtala, and other actors?

Opportunists and Opportunities

Still, it is no wonder that a lot of people want to forget those days in a hurry. But the dead refuse to stay dead. And there are people like Nnamdi Kanu willing to profit from their ghosts.

We should not conflate arguments about reconsidering Biafra with the antics of folks like Kanu. These ones are hypocritical demagogues, playing on the sentiments of their audience for personal advancement. Yet, the sentiments they profit from are serious socio-psychological ones that a concerned government should create space to address. The rapidness with which Kanu built an audience, alone, is weighty enough to make a concerned government pause.

Yes, some people are merely annoyed that these issues have resurfaced under President Buhari’s administration and consider it to be a deliberate attempt to “make the country ungovernable” for the current President. Yes, I agree that Biafran sentiments were subdued under the former administration and, maybe, a misguided sense of ethnocentrism has resurfaced it. But, inconvenient timing is not enough justification to dismiss a social issue.

It Is Not Too Late

Human life is sacred, and Biafra requires some reconsideration—some national remembrance, some educational policy or official catharsis—from us, today’s citizens of the surviving entity Nigeria. Biafra requires our reconsideration of the administrative indecisions, malice, ignorance, vengeance, pride and foolishness on all sides that aggregated into the Civil War.

Reconsidering Biafra is not just for the protesters in Port Harcourt or the people broadcasting hate-speech on Radio Biafra. It is for the appreciation of the everyday Igbo women and men, as well as the other South-East and South-South ethnicities, for the surviving families of the victims of the Civil War, for all of them who still contribute to the economic and social success of Nigeria in different ways.

We keep getting upset that the Nigerian government is generally careless about the deaths of innocent civilians: the killings in Southern Kaduna, the ethnic clashes in the Middle-Belt, the victims of miscellaneous police murders, the Immigration recruitment stampede, Boko Haram victims, aviation crashes, and so on. But this official nonchalance was encouraged when we, the people, sanctioned the murders of the country’s first leaders, the ethnic “cleansing” in the North, and then—till date—we allowed the deaths of over two million Nigerians to be swept aside as collateral damage.

We have to start taking our right to life seriously. We have to recognise that this nonchalance to civilian death is a problem. And then, we may be healed from the burdensome memories of the Civil War.

I have been reliably informed that there are records of the events that shaped the Civil War in what is now the Office of the Secretary-General of the Federation, as well as the E “Special Branch” Department of the Nigerian Police—now known as the SSS. Hopefully, one day, the government in Abuja—as part of a healing process—will release enough of the letters, executive orders and other documents that decided the fate of millions and thus enable us to accurately document our history, and reach an objective and settled understanding of the guided and misguided events of 1966-1970.

But, for now, Abuja is unbothered about Biafra. Abuja is never bothered by anything. If something gets bothersome, Abuja simply sends in the Army.

That is Abuja’s M.O.


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8 thoughts on “RECONSIDERING BIAFRA | by Ayo Sogunro

  1. U have simply tried to air ur own views on this issue of Biafra and the recent agitations. But a sensitive issue like this requires the blatant truth to be said. U have an audience and most of them are young folks who belong to the internet age and know very little about the cause of the civil war, let alone the happenings during the war. Now they (ignorant folks) will be misguided by this write up. Ojukwu was a tyrant, someone who used the vulnerability of his people to his own advantage thereby leading to the death of over a million people! All he wanted was a nation to rule. Why did he abscond to cote de’ivoire when he knew his cause was a lost one. That was cowardice. Ojukwu is the devil here! Issues like this require undiluted truth irrespective of whom will feel hurt.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well written, it articulates a middle position better than the ‘No Victor, No Vanquished ‘ attempt by Govt. To deal with events pre and post the civil war.

    However, I am of the opinion that your reference to Kanu as an ‘opportunist’ takes us back to the same situation that led to ‘Kanu’ – it demeans the strength of feeling that accompanies the call for Biafra.

    Mistakes were made no doubt. Can we roll back the hands of time? No. All we have available, is the ability to look forward and attempt- as best as possible – to right the wrongs.

    Are the igbos justified to feel aggrieved? Yes. Anyone who doesn’t agree should consider ‘slavery’ or incarceration forcibly. The analogy might seem strong, but fundamental to this is the question: were the igbos ‘largely’ agreed to Biafra? If the answer is yes, then the analogy is apt.

    Can we fix this? I believe yes, but we must make deliberate, calculated, conscious empathetic effort to fix. We must jettison derogatory categorisation and discard ‘labels’ of any sort, we must identify, appreciate and accept every ‘feeling’ as valid.

    Fundamental to us fixing this without further blood shed is dialogue, not a ‘blanket’ statement aimed at covering or dismissing events and sweeping under the carpet.

    We must embrace these events as an extremely vital part of our history, apologies from both sides is essential for neutralising blame.

    A monument and National commemorative day as suggested is also in order.

    Above all, Equity and Justice going forward.

    Together we can be stronger. Let’s do IT.

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  3. Na wa o!! I am Ibo. I have read many books on the Civil war, (authored by both foreigners and Nigerians) yet, still find it hard to understand this war. So much is unknown to us and has been hidden, to the extent that d Nigerian Broadcasting corporation/ commission, tried to object and frustrate d release of the movie, “Half of a yellow sun”.
    However, what I know for sure, is that I can make sound judgements based on people’s character and precedence. How can somebody therefore say that Ojukwu was a tyrant or was power hungry?! Ojukwu was born in Zungeru, and had so much love for the north. Ojukwu schooled at Oxford and was one of the 1st Nigerian graduates to join the army! Ojukwu refused his father’s wealth and fame. Instead, he decided to pave a way for himself. Ojukwu was the one who tried to insist on following the laid down hierarchy and natural chain of military command, so that Ogundipe, and not Gowon, would take over the command of Nigeria. Was Ogundipe an Ibo man?? Or did Ojukwu want to take up power for himself?
    If he did not intervene the way he did, the pogroms could have continued. As far as I’m concerned, Ojukwu is the final Biafran truth!
    Nice write up, Ayo. This even raises again, the issue of the right to self determination, and just how far it can be pursued and actualized.

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    • I agree. It’s easy for people to say that Ojukwu was power hungry but he wouldn’t have had to intervene to save his people had the Nigerian government done what they were supposed to do. Their failure to do anything caused him to take action.

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  4. Solomon, Ojukwu was not a tyrant. As a soldier at war, he acted within the limits of a military government at war. Who started the war? Was it Ojukwu? I doubt whether you were around then or have read enough books on the history of the war. Perhaps you were just spouting the anti-Igbo propaganda your people have fed you over the years. Gowon broke the Aburi Accord because he was power-hungry, and that accord, if it had been implemented to the letter, would have prevented the war. A post-colonial pawn, Gowon went to war because the British, his masters, promised him help. Thus emboldened, he went to fight what everybody knew was an unjust war. When Gowon signed the Aburi Accord in Ghana, was he drunk? Did he not understand what he was signing? To turn around later to abdicate on an agreement you had signed earlier without coercion is not just a breach of faith but even fraudulent. When Ojukwu declared the secession of Biafra, it was because his peopel mandated him to do so, not because he was power-hungry. Every other thing he did afterwards was to sustain Biafra. Read history very well before you start writing nonsense.

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