Beyond Biafran Secessionist Movement And Counter-Reactions: Time For Frank Talk (Part 1)

There are times in the life of a people when the gloves come off and frank talk must take the space in national discourse. If my memory serves me well, it was the renowned Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, who declared that a people are diminished by their history which they fail to face. The pro-secession agitation spearheaded by pro-Biafran groups like the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the reactions by the pan-Northern umbrella group, Arewa Consultative Forum, offers the opportunity for all Nigerians who want Nigeria to go forward to talk frankly and face an ugly aspect of the country’s evolution.

First, no matter how much history has been debased in Nigeria and by Nigerians, certain things happened between 1966 and 1970. The people who constitute the South-Eastern and South-Southern components of Nigeria were at the receiving end of those events; namely, the July 1966 coup; the systematic massacres of May, July, and September/October 1966 and the civil war from July 6 1967 to January 15 1970.

There are undoubtedly diverse interpretations of these events, especially the fact that these people formally sought an entity apart from Nigeria. I dare submit the following perspectives borne from my years of study and reflection about how the world stopped turning in Nigeria from 1966 to 1970 and the implications for the country today.

Quite a large number of post civil war Nigerians from areas outside the former Biafra are ignorant of what happened within this period. They have an unsympathetic mindset towards the fears, pains and worries of their Eastern and South-Southern compatriots. Some even declare openly that they are crushed rebels. Since the war ended the history of its time is actively suppressed by powers-that-be in Nigeria. Attempts to bring discussions of 1966 to 1970 to the front burner are regarded as a bid to start a secessionist movement all over again; stoke feelings of hatred between different ethnic groups; or even start another war. Many Nigerians will recollect the unnecessary brouhaha that enveloped the cinematic adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ a couple of years ago just because the book’s subject revolved around the civil war. Forget the fact that it was fiction.

Post civil war Nigerians from the former Biafran enclave are no better, knowledge-wise. Inasmuch as I absolutely support the average Igbo’s lionization of Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, because I believe his cause within that period was right and since his death, positions and utterances by many prominent Nigerian actors in the drama of 1966 to 1970 have vindicated him, the fact remains that this is the limit of what many post civil war Nigerians from the former Biafra know about those troubled times. Few of them have interrogated the whys, where, what, when and how of these events that so deeply affect them and their place in Nigeria. Subsequently, they abide with a romanticized picture of Biafra, as if this unreal picture will solve the very real problems of Eastern and South-Southern Nigerians. To add salt to injury, some groups of mostly Igbo Nigerians, both living and outside the country, capitalize on this situation as well as the unjust treatment of Nigerians from the former Biafran area by the Nigerian state, and the growing dissatisfaction of post war Nigerians with the country’s political and economic systems to give birth to their apparent pro-Biafra movement. In my opinion, MASSOB and similar groups, despite draping themselves with the cloak of demand for Biafra, are founded on their quest for power and relevance among their people. They seek their own version of Biafra, not because they love their people so much or truly key in to the aspirations of Odumegwu-Ojukwu, but because they seek thrones. Nigeria’s continued maltreatment of citizens of the former Biafran enclave and the paucity of objective knowledge of the tragedies of 1966 to 1970 gives these groups undue leverage.

Many of the living key participants in these tragedies, especially on the victor’s side, continue to act as if the war to keep Nigeria one was not based on plain and great evil. To a great extent, these gentlemen still determine the fate of Nigeria. Subsequently they have percolated this mindset down to the populace, especially on the victorious side. But history is an unforgiving dispenser of truth. These views from late Nigerian war hero, Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle, and Senator John Shagaya, a retired Colonel who played an active role in the July 1966 coup as well as the civil war on the Nigerian side are noteworthy. In a 2001 interview with ‘The Punch’ newspaper, Adekunle declared: ‘We fought for oil, not Nigeria’s unity.’ According to Shagaya: ‘Many of the young officers who fought the civil war did not understand why they were fighting, especially on the federal side. They were made to believe they were quashing a rebellion. And they fought with that impression.’

One would have expected this group of Nigerians to emerge from the civil war true statesmen. They have managed Nigeria’s affairs since 1970; the only exceptions are Presidents Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. I admit that Eastern and South-Southern Nigerians have not been totally excluded from post war Nigeria’s systems. They produced a Vice-President under a democratic system and Ojukwu contested for both Senatorial and Presidential positions. But official policies, group actions and the skewered dynamics of Nigeria have ensured that, despite all the declarations of a pan-Nigerian brotherhood, there are ceilings for ex-Biafran citizens in Nigeria.

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

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Articles by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema