By Vincent Ujumadu
The Nigerian Civil War, popularly known as the Nigeria-Biafra war, lasted from 6th July, 1967 – 15th January 1970. It was a war fought to counter the secession of Biafra, an area dominated by the Igbo. Many people believed that the war became inevitable because the Igbo people felt they could no longer coexist with the Northern-dominated federal government. The conflict resulted from long period of alleged political, economic, ethnic, cultural and religious deprivations, which preceded Britain’s formal decolonization of Nigeria from 1960 to 1963. Before the full blown war, there had been a military coup in 1966, a counter-coup and persecution of Igbo living in Northern Nigeria, forcing them to return home. Even on their way home, many of them were killed in disturbing circumstances.
Although some people were of the opinions that corruption among the civilian ruling class pushed the military to organize the coup, there were opinions too that the control of oil production in the Niger Delta was also a major factor.
No sooner did the war begin than the Federal military government of Nigeria led by Yakubu Gowon surrounded the territory known as Biafra and captured the oil –rich coastal areas. The blockade imposed during the war led to severe famine such that within the two and half years the war lasted, there were over100,000 overall military casualties, while nearly two million civilians died from starvation, which was a deliberate policy adopted by Nigeria to bring the people on the Biafra side to their knees.
In fact, the famine experienced by the war affected areas entered world awareness in mid1968, when images of malnourished and starving children suddenly saturated the mass media of Western countries and the plight of the starving Biafrans became something to celebrate for in foreign countries, enabling a significant rise in the funding and prominence of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). There was so much influence of the western powers’ involvement in the war, with Britain and the then Soviet Union backing Nigeria, while France and few other countries supported Biafra.
The sudden end of the war in 1970 was a big relief to both sides that fought it and the entire world was elated when the then Nigerian military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon said there was no victor, no vanquished. His government also introduced the popular three ‘Rs’, which stood for Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. This year marks 50 years of the commencement of that war and the question remains whether Gowon’s three Rs were fully implemented.
Another nagging issue was whether the reasons for the war had been addressed in the present –day Nigeria. To many, the ongoing agitations in the country should not have arisen if there was genuine and proper implementation of the three Rs announced by General Gowon. For instance, the effects of the war could still be seen in many parts of Igbo land and most Igbo believe that the area had not been fully reintegrated. Most Biafra agitators say the region is overlooked in the provision of infrastructure such as roads, water, electricity, medical care, education, as well as senior political posts. There was criticism recently from the southeast of Buhari’s appointments.
There was also the frequent descending on the Igbo indigenes residing in other parts of the country whenever there was a misunderstanding, even if Igbo was not directly involved.
These were actually what led Chief Ralph Uwazurike, an Indian trained lawyer, to reenact the spirit of Biafra with the formation of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB in 1999. Over the years, Uwazurike’s MASSOB existed as a pressure group to force Nigerian leaders to correct the observable imbalances in the handling of issues affecting the Igbo. It was perhaps when this failed that MASSOB pushed fully for the actualization of the Republic of Biafra.
“We are no longer interested in Nigeria. No tribe in Nigeria has the interest of the Igbo at heart, hence our sustained campaign for our own separate republic,” one of the agitators said.
Irked by the growing popularity of the agitation, the Nigerian government began clampdowns on the various groups. Uwazuruike was arrested on several occasions on charges of unlawful gathering and disturbance of public peace. His longest spell in detention was in 2005 when he was arrested in his Okwe hometown in Imo State by the Nigerian Police and remained in prison detention for two years after a protracted bail hearing at the Federal High Court, Abuja. Justice Binta Nyako, who presided, eventually granted him three-month bail to enable him to bury his mother who had died during his incarceration.
However, activities of Uwazurike’s MASSOB later slowed down, which perhaps led to the formation of two other groups, the Biafra Zionist Movement, BZM, led by one Onwuka and the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, led by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu. Kanu, the IPOB leader was also arrested. His arrest and detention for nearly two years had even emboldened the Biafra agitators who believe that since Nigerian government was not prepared to address the alleged imbalances in the distribution of nation’s common wealth, the only option was to be allowed to leave Nigeria.
The current MASSOB leader, Uchenna Madu, who took over when the MASSOB members felt Uwazurike had been compromised, said Igbo have been unfairly treated and even punished because of the civil war. “Our grandfathers and fathers adopted the ideology of Biafra. We believe in their vision and we have continued to build on the foundation laid by our parents. We are being denied our fundamental rights of being Biafrans. We wanted to contribute to the development of Nigeria, but since the Nigerian state is paying us back with hatred, we want a state of our own,” Madu said.
The Nigerian presidency said it is now reaching out to the south-eastern leaders in order to analyze some of the grievances voiced by the protesters. But the Nigerian government has consistently maintained that it is completely opposed to any kind of support to Biafran secession, but nevertheless agrees that it would liaise with south-eastern governors to jointly carry out a political initiative to resolve areas of the conflict.
The people of Igbo extraction also argue that the unrest among the Igbo is a longstanding issue in Nigeria. Indeed, the various sectors of the Igbo people feel the Nigerian government has for decades marginalized them by systematically favouring the other major ethnic groups in the country, especially the Hausa and the Fulani in the north, and the Yoruba in the west.
An Igbo former military officer, who fought for Biafra, said the sense of injustice had been passed down generations. “The children who were born after the war ask their parents why the five states in the region are underdeveloped. Their parents tell them of the pogrom and devastation that took place during the war and these children, who are now adults, feel bitter and demand to go their separate way,” he said.
“It cannot be said that the complaints of the boys are completely outside the truth, but the differences could be solved through dialogue and without resort to secession,” one of the South East governors was quoted as saying recently
On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Nigeria Civil war, some Igbo scholars are gearing up for international conferences on the pogrom. For instance, there is one conference billed to be held at Dominican University, Chicago, USA, to address the history and memory of the war; the status of academic research on the Igbo genocide; impact of the war on children; an integrated international human rights response; international criminal law perspective; and role of civil society, community and international organizations.
The conference is jointly being coordinated by Professor Nkuzi Nnam, Director, Black World Studies, Dominican University, Chicago and Professor Chima Korieh, Director, Biafra War Oral History Project.
However, the issue at hand is the May 30, 3017 planned anniversary of the war in remembrance of those who lost their lives. Fears are already been entertained on what is likely to happen on that day as there were feelers that Nigerian security operatives may not be favourably disposed to allow uninhibited celebration, especially as both MASSOB and IPOB had called for peaceful protests and a sit-at –home on that day. But the planners of the remembrance ceremony appear not to be deterred as mobilization is in top gear, both locally and internationally.