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NIGERIAN CIVIL WAR: Lessons for a new Nigeria

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• Ojukwu and the Biafran Soldiers


Excerpts from his paper, ‘A HARVEST OF PARADOXES’ on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war

I want to crave your indulgence to begin with a seemingly unrelated issue.

War is a horrible experience. I have experienced it, watched it in movies and read about it in books. But not all wars involve guns and bombs. Some deploy only words, yet, they can be as devastating. Our country is embroiled in one right now…

For an experience like the civil war, from which we can learn much, so that this experience never occurs again, it is even more important that we speak in greater candor but that the nuances be heard right so good, rather than obfuscation, and further seeds of discord, be the outcome.

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With that said, I would like to pay tribute to the human spirit, which allows broken men and women to overcome the anguish of war and construct new lives, after. With the Nigerian civil war there were saints and sinners, and there were heroes and traitors. It is not possible to talk about the war without talking about the kind of emotion in Kakadu – the musical. I remember cries of pain and gratitude in Surulere, Lagos where I was when the war ended, as I got ready to return to school in Ibadan. People returning from war after fleeing Lagos nearly four years earlier realizing that their Yoruba neighbour had rented out their house and dutifully saved the rent paid, so that instead of £20 that was exchanged for what value they had in Biafra they had four years rent to begin again with. In next door Port Harcourt, people of Igbo stock declared properties abandoned.

Gratitude in all things to the creator and human solidarity which allowed foreigners from far, French Doctors like Bernard Kouchner, Global charities like CARITAS, and neighbours near and far who helped ameliorate miseries almost unprecedented in modern human experience.

Why does it matter to reflect on that experience and 50 years since?

I think this initiative has value because war is horrible and anything that enables people learn enough from its experience to make them seek not to repeat it, does humanity a great favour. Allied to this is that managing the cessation of hostility will determine how people heal and whether it is easy to capitalize on old wounds. Few doubt that the nature of the peace treaty that ended World War I paved the way for a Hitler to emerge and made a more terrible World War II to happen.

War creates its psychosis and that can affect culture in a way that people may not become immediately aware of, but this may affect fundamentally a people’s way. Why, for example, were Ndigbo typically considered modest, even stereotyped as stingy, before the war, and in the post-war era have become more voluble, extravagant and showy, with significant consequences for Emotional Intelligence. I have a host of theories on that but those will not be for today.

We also need to reflect to determine why war has brought scientific and allied material (commercial) progress to many societies but our scientific gains and innovation capacities remain stunted after a war in which giant scientific strides were made in the more challenged, in Biafra…

Revisiting Wars, such as this one can also help us find heroes that inspire us to do yesterday’s impossible. Like the pilots that flew in and out of Uli-Ihiala Air Strip with literally seconds of light at night, or the Missionary Doctors, citizens that hid friends or strangers in their roofs to save their lives. These visits to a place of memory can also tell us who we are, that we may know who we can become.


My experience is actually graphic and good material for a movie script. It started before the civil war proper. The riots in Northern Nigeria that became a pogrom followed the military coup of 1966.

On the last Sunday of May in 1966, I was on a train returning to Gusau in the deep North West. While I was traveling towards Gusau my family had gone to worship at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. Protesting Military Rule and calling for a break up of Nigeria the indigenous people there invaded the church in the middle of Holy Mass. With chants of Araba, Aware. Ba mu aso milikin soldier, they attached worshipers. My mother’s arm was broken in the attack.

When I arrived Gusau, the Train Station was deserted. As I got off the Train I could see my father’s Blue Peugeot 404 across the road on the street. Beside him was his double-barreled hunting gun. I thought it peculiar he was going hunting. Instead of entering the station he waved me over.

The story gets more bizarre from there. A week later we left from the Gusau Aerodrome on a chartered light Aircraft. The image of anxious and desperate people not as fortunate as us, chasing after the aircraft haunted me for years. My father worked for British Petroleum that airlifted us.

Those experiences resulted eventually in the outbreak of civil war. I was a student at Christ the Kings College in Onitsha when in July 1967 the shooting war began. A few months after, Nigeria Federal Forces advancing into Asaba capped a slaughter of Ibos that left a trail from Benin, Warri and across the Midwest, with cold blooded execution of thousands who had gathered to sing songs of welcome to the troops. I have a friend who survived by playing dead under weight of his father and brother who were cut down and lost their lives as the bullets rained down their lethal power and blood soaked the white celebration “oto gwu” they all wore. When darkness came he got up from under the bodies and made for the bush.

I had managed myself to cross from Onitsha, where I was in school, after discussions with my uncles on what was best. The oldest of my male cousins signed up with the Biafra Army. We never saw him alive again. I crossed the Niger by canoe in the cover of darkness. And never saw again the uncle I had discussed what I was best to do. On the other side, a few miles from the killing fields of Asaba, the people had fled the towns into the bush where nomadic life seemed safer. My Grandfather, a World War II veteran in his 70s saw no reason to do so.

An eye witness saw a teenage soldier use him for target practice, abandoning his corpse in the front porch of his small house.

I was “captured” coming out of the bush to cross the road. We were lined up, men to the left, women to right. This pre-execution routine in the Asaba massacre. Then something happened.

Another group of Federal soldiers caught up with the ones asking us “where are ze rest of ze rebels” before the execution of the men. I still recall I felt no fear, no horror, just resigned to fate. The newly arrived troops challenged our captor and a fight broke out between them. We ended up in the Refugee camp at St. Patricks College Asaba. A few weeks later I was reunited with my family in Lagos, and enrolled in school in Ibadan. So for half of the civil war I viewed it from a telescope from far away Ibadan and Lagos.

I get a big sense of deja vous when I hear people talk about the insurgency in the Northeast of Nigeria today, in Lagos, like a distant nuisance. That was how we came to see the rest of the civil war from Lagos. Take away Radio and TV reporting of it, mingled with the motivation military song, and the calls on General Gowon to (Go on with one Nigeria), Biafra was a far off foreign war, in Lagos.

Having had the privilege not too many had, of seeing it from inside Biafra, in the theatre from the other side, and far from the theatre, my memories of the war are typically broader than those of many of my contemporaries. In it must be rooted my passions surely. But I have never managed to fully understand why I have never felt any bitterness. Realizing that I canvased for an international system of justice without thinking of justice for the second-worst genocide of the 20th century, shook me, after the Rome statutes were passed.

But I could begin to rationalize it as I reflected years after. Having seen it from all sides, even so young in my teens. Through the course of my life’s journey, I have been routinely described as passionately Nigerian. Why and how is it possible that I don’t feel pain or anger of what I had experienced so personally.

It is perhaps because seeing things from all sides enabled me discover a shared humanity abused by the ambition of a few powerful people whose egos wasted million lives.

If for me the first of the harvest of paradoxes of the Nigerian civil war is my “failure” to be bitter the second has to be Nigeria’s inability to learn lessons from an unnecessary war from which we were all vanquished – both victor and defeated.

The slogan from this time, 50 years ago was “No victor no vanquished”. But that motto is a lie we were all greatly diminished, all vanquished by it and today act like we would like to be all vanquished again, not necessary from the territory called Biafra but from Nigeria writ large.

Nigeria’s inability to have learnt institutionalized lessons from the civil war is perhaps one of the greatest cases of leadership failure in modern human history. Even that is a paradox. The end of civil war was marked by some great leadership initiatives.

Yes, there may be reason to quarrel with £20 as the optimum value for what people brought from Biafra but the idea of No Victor Vanquished and the 3Rs of Reconciliation, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction propelled a momentum of healing unprecedented in conflict termination. Politically, the presence and role of Ukpabi Asika, in the Gowon team and the elections of 1997 set a remarkable pace.

I was fortunate as a young person to be named to a Presidential Advisory Role in the Shagari government. Being quite precocious I enjoyed ambushing President Shagari when he came out from his office, to smoke. With Abba Daboh, his Chief Press Secretary, we would chat him up on issues. That enabled me see a Nationalist that Press Reports seldom threw up.

It was no surprise that those who removed President Shagari brewed a poisoned chalice which so many years later has brought Nigeria more divided today than it was during a civil war thought to have been Genocidal.

Had Dr. Alex Ekwueme served as President of Nigeria in 1987, the ghost of the civil war would have been buried for good. But those who overthrew President Shagari have wittingly or and unwittingly continued to resurrect the ghost of Biafra, discussions in the North Central, issues of religious freedom or it lack, deepening poverty and so on, as a result of poor leadership.

These have cumulated in deep distrust in society. These distrusts have compounded the process of policy choices and deepened the challenge of economic development and the quality of life of the Nigerian people…

Once I arrived Lagos in 1968 all we were concerned with was James Brown’s records and partying. It was hard to tell who was Igbo, Yoruba or Kanuri for that matter. But today, even without a war going on a visit to social media unveils a flow of vitriol and hate speech that you wonder.

So why did we party across the so-called divides when a shooting war Was on and the youth of today are really shooting at each other in a time of peace and Democracy. And how did that affect how many   in my generation who suffered so much from the horrors of war never become so embittered and those who were born decades after the war hate so much on all sides, North vs West; North vs East; East vs West etc.

In my view, a huge failure of leadership is responsible.


I recalled being interviewed the two days after   the Coup of December 31, 1983, by the New York Times Correspondent Clifford May III. That interview reported in the New York Times of January 8, 1984 quoted me as saying that those who sacked Shagari Government may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Whereas in the Balkans hatreds from communal feuds can go for a thousand years with   vendettas and Civil Wars from one generation to another, many in Nigeria forget the horrors of the war because of the leadership of Gowon and Shagari teams. As I said earlier, had the coup of   1983 not disrupted the flow and Dr. Ekwueme had become President in 1987 the Ghost of Biafra would have been buried for good.

Post Shagari national leadership was in constant equivocation about the Nigerian experience and tried to bury memories rather than profit from lessons it threw up.

Let look at examples elsewhere. War often puts pressure on science to help facilitate waging war. This usually results in technology that is transformed into wealth creation. The Americans became a significant commercial power from the science of World War II by appropriating German Science and Scientists in addition to their own. In Biafra, PRODA, the project research and development Agency advanced innovation after war, we failed to convert.

Rwanda is speeding ahead on many fronts because it confronted its demons after the Genocide and built that remarkable memorial which recalls the horrors of the experience in vivid color, audio, video, and scripting, so that it can be visited after often enough to reinforce the clarion call of Never Again.  But leadership in Nigeria failed to do such and decades after continues to treat   the South East as occupied Territory.

It is leadership that points a way forward from such experiences. The absence of such leadership in contemporary Nigerian experience, compared to Paul Kagame in Rwanda has left us with so much animosity among young people.

To move forward we must begin to rethink the current form of   socio-political and economic organization in Nigeria. It is possible to think and act win-win and elevate the dignity of all. With a modus Vivendi that looks that way I have no doubt that Nigeria will ultimately live the dream of its founding fathers that current Nigeria offers.


The critical question is why does Nigeria wobble so badly in spite of experience that should be driving it forward and what can be done about it.  I think we can list the reasons to include:

  1. A mistaken view that Nigeria is about how   much more you can extract from the national   cake. A cake to eat, makes poor tomorrow, but producing makes rich always. Check out Spain’s experience in history for illustration.
  2. Merit matters. The Nigerian essence sadly has become about the democratization of mediocrity. Affirmative action that some are educationally backward has been abused for excessive cronyism that has devalued the Nigeria way and its institutions and made corruption the purpose of public life.
  3. The collapse of culture which has reduced human purpose to primitive accumulation of power and money often through criminal privatization of the commonwealth has hurt Nigeria badly. Public life must become about service and advanced of the Common Good.
  4. The loss of a sense for the principle of subsidiarity that government and Authority be decentralized so it is at levels closet to the people where they can feel it be able to hold it accountable.

A distant government in some far off place like Abuja; Alausa or Enugu creates a moral distance in the civic culture which Peter Ekeh captures well in his essay on the Two Public. It has made corruption endemic.

  1. The overburdening of people by an expensive and pompous state. Government needs to be cheaper, simpler, more ethical and more sensitive to extent circumstances.
  2. The thinking, learning, projecting, and planning state as an imperative of   this age.  We live in a time of the Fourth Industrial revolution but the government of Nigeria cannot seem to plan because of a mismatch   of talents, values, and purpose. So the country flounders.
  3. The Grand Norm must be rewritten and political party systems reformed.

    *From left: Major General Hassan Katsina , Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, Major General Aguiyi Ironsi, Col. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Major General David Ejoor


If the ghost of Biafra is not to return.  And it does not have to be from the South East. Some books titles are telling here.  Chido Onuma’s says we are all Biafrans now. Another tells us that in Biafra, Africa died. If the ghost of Biafra which can rise   from frustrated youth in the South West, Niger    Delta, and several parts of the North who were the first to call for the breakup of Nigeria in the   chants of Arab, Aware; is   not   to rise we have to urgently develop a work programme to tackle these several points.  May God help us as we try. The slogan that Nigeria must be one and indivisible is meaningless in contemporary logic. The Americans have enshrined the right to secede in their own constitution but few expect a move for secession that will succeed. That provision, however, pressures those in power to act to advance the good of all.

The principle of non- interference in the internal affairs of countries which took root in the Peace of Westphalia after 100years of religious wars in Europe in 1648 set the tone for the basic of this inviolable right to keep Nigeria one. But the   Genocides of the 20th century set the human community on a different course. Beginning with the universal declaration of human Right of the UN the right of self-determination began   to short the fore.

IPOB endangering lives of Ndigbo in diaspora – Biafra war Veteran

Political   Parties and leadership orientation must be such that   politicians know that if they do not act justly people will be justified to seek to leave   that Union. Just like divorce was unheard of a hundred years ago in the America family but is now the norm, self-determination is the rising norm in Nation States. Constitutions, Political Parties and Governance must reflect that.


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