Biafra On My Mind

With the formal declaration by Lieutenant-Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria, on Tuesday, May 30 1967, Biafra entered the world. There are scholars who claim that it was not Biafra’s first entry into the world. Maps of pre-colonial Africa from the James Ford Bell library, University of Minnesota which are quoted in Emefiana Ezeani’s book ‘In Biafra Africa Died’ indicate that there was an ancient kingdom called Biafra located along the Gulf of Guinea.

But that is not the point of this article. The subsequent civil war and Biafra’s defeat and reintegration into Nigeria define Nigeria’s history. No matter how much history has been swept under the carpet by most Nigerians who behave as if Biafra never was, the fundamentals of our existence will continue to stare us in the face. The ghost will never go away.

On the forty-eighth anniversary of the declaration of Biafra, I want to raise some rather troublesome issues about Biafra that might be worthy of reflection:

First, why does the Nigerian Establishment play the ostrich whenever the word Biafra hits their collective eardrums? True, many of the brains and executors of the circumstances that led to the declaration of Biafra and the subsequent war still call the shots in Nigeria. But a larger number in that group have passed away. Time, age and post-war reflection on those dark days should have made them amendable to the realities of living with the side they defeated on the battlefield, but could not vanquish on the celestial terrain of truth and morality. Nearly fifty years on, three approaches, in my opinion, define the Nigerian attitude towards the Biafran story: silence; revisionism; and exaggeration.

Also, it is a fact that historically speaking, fifty years is a drop of water in the ocean of time. Conflicts far older than the Nigeria-Biafra war still rankle elsewhere. But what stands our civil war out is the manner of its conclusion. It ended on the terms of brotherhood, equality and freedom of all partners in the Nigerian project. Go and read General Yakubu Gowon’s speech on January 15, 1970. But if this fact is not fiction, why is hatred for the Igbo, the dominant population of Biafra, so ingrained in Nigeria? Although Igbo phobia might not be official policy of successive Nigerian governments since 1970, why must the Igbo be the butt of any political or religious dynamic in Nigeria? The recent elections are a case study.

The revered Oba of Lagos threatened measures Hutu extremists of 1994 would have applauded if the Igbo in his domain took their democratic destiny into their hands. Even as President Buhari settles into power, there are significant forces who declare that because most Igbo and South-South minorities backed former President Jonathan, they should be given less than equal status in Nigeria and they should crawl on their bellies for crumbs from the victor’s tables. In the wake of the announcement of the presidential election results I got a tweet calling for the wholesale killing of the Igbo because, according to the tweeter, they are the problem of Nigeria. It reminded me of the May-October 1966 pogroms.

Nigeria’s educational system says pretty little about Biafra and the harrowing days of January 1966-January 1970. The primary cause is the national malaise of amnesia of Nigeria’s ugly warts which transforms into the falsification of the past; the non-keeping of records; and the semi-abolition of history from the curriculum. When the stories of this period are told in fiction and film, they are set upon by the cudgels of those who want us to forget our identity. But now Nigeria needs offerings beyond the likes of Chimamanda Adichie’s novel ‘Half Of A Yellow Sun.’

We need balanced historical studies; we need our children knowing what Nzeogwu and his colleagues did on January 15 1966 and the implications of their adventure; we must teach the facts about the Aburi Conference in Government, History, Civics and related classes at secondary school level. The National War Museum at Umuahia may soon go the way of the B-26 plane that marked the birth of the Biafran air force if Nigeria continues her onslaught on her past. Today, in spite of well documented evidence, there are Nigerian intellectuals who, like an Iranian president who called the Holocaust a figment of Jewish imagination, claim the Igbo exaggerate the May-October massacres. What does mean for millions of Nigerian youths whom are being deprived of the truth about their past?

Biafra was no Utopia. It was full of contradictions from day one. Ojukwu, by all standards was a charismatic leader, but he made colossal mistakes. Some of his antagonists think his biggest mistake was not submitting to the Gowon regime and surrendering. But one only needs to go back to records about that period to realize that the people of the East, especially the Igbo, had had enough of Nigeria and in Frederick Forsyth’s book ‘Emeka,’ Ojukwu summed up the matter in these words: ‘You cannot abandon, betray, or sell a people who put their trust in you and remain an honourable man.’

Biafra’s technological feats such as local refining of petroleum; weapons manufacture, including rockets and generation of electricity in a war zone, all without foreign input, have been thrown into the dustbin because it comes from the defeated enemy. But after World War 2, the victorious Allies partnered with first-class German scientists and intelligence agencies. Germany was their enemy during the war. But in our case, every trace of Biafra must be erased. That I, a post-war Igbo, am writing this show how successful the efforts have been. That there are people outside the Nigerian shores who remember Biafra indicate their rate of success.

In today’s hypertech world, xenophobia and prejudice travels faster than the speed of light. The challenge of Biafra to Nigeria and the rest of Africa is the fact that no people should be deprived of their humanity. The events of 1966 nearly obliterated the humanity of Eastern Nigerians, thus compelling them to choose Biafra.

For the Igbo and all other groups that made up Biafra, this commemoration is for reflection. We fought for our destiny together, though some of us, including Igbo, did not believe Biafra was the way to go. We lost but we earned the world’s respect and we survived. Now we must learn to speak with one voice. To the pit of the dinosaurs we must consign the Igbo-minorities antagonism and dichotomy. It was fostered on us by the British colonial masters as a divide-and-rule strategy. Our independence-era politicians only worsened the matter and it festered in Biafra. But now, against the background of the March elections, the Igbo and South-South groups must cement our brotherhood.

We need each other in post 2015 Nigeria. I refuse to associate with MASSOB and other fringe groups and individuals who give the impression of defending the Biafran cause. What have they concretely contributed to the Igbo’s well being? Ojukwu put his colossal wealth at Biafra’s disposal. Ojukwu never insulted Wole Soyinka who nearly died in a Nigerian prison for visiting Biafra at the height of the war to seek peace. Read pages 191-194 of ‘Because I am involved’ by Ojukwu. He would never have claimed Idomaland as part of Biafra. These propagandists of something other than Biafra are doing this.

No true descendant of Biafra must apologize for the declaration of Biafra or the civil war. Those post-war generations of the Igbo and South-South who are being brainwashed into rejecting their antecedents must understand that today’s reality is often rooted in yesterday’s facts. We will take our place in a Nigeria for which millions on both sides died; a Nigeria that reflects those ideals even Biafra’s enemies subscribe to: justice; freedom, and equality.

Henry C. Onyema is a Lagos- based writer. Email: [email protected]

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Articles by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema