“Healing will come with justice, but Nigeria isn’t ready”: the Biafra War, 50 years on

“Healing will come with justice, but Nigeria isn't ready”: the Biafra War, 50 years on

The hat worn by Major General Philip Efiong, the vice president of the short-lived Republic of Biafra, was on display during the Legacies of Biafra conference held in London from 21 April to 22 April 2017.

(Osita Nwegbu)

Fanned by the embers of sectionalism, tribalism, corruption, misrule and mistrust, the Biafran War changed Nigeria irreversibly. It was the first civil war in post-independence Africa, one of the world’s first televised conflicts and with the estimated number of fatalities ranging from 500,000 to two million people – mainly from the famine that followed Nigeria’s land and sea blockade of the former Eastern Region – it was also one of the deadliest.

When war broke out on 6 July 1967, it was the result of years of escalating ethnic tensions, primarily between the Hausa and the Igbo, two of Nigeria’s three main ethnic groups (the third being the Yoruba).

The year before the war, a deadly coup and counter-coup resulted in the violent deaths of scores of Nigeria’s top political and military leaders, including the country’s first prime minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nigeria’s first military president. General Yakubu Gowon succeeded Aguiyi-Ironsi as head of state in July 1966; within a year he had launched operations to retake the secessionist Republic of Biafra. It was said to be a war of “unification and reintegration”, however, five decades later, this goal has proven elusive.

“I don’t think we learnt the lessons we were supposed to learn about the war,” says Philip Effiong II, the son of Major General Philip Efiong*, who served as vice-president to General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the first president of the short-lived Biafra nation (30 May 1967 - 15 January 1970). Major General Efiong also served as the leader of Biafra in the four days before it surrendered to Nigeria after Ojukwu fled to Côte d’Ivoire.

Effiong II spoke to Equal Times at Legacies of Biafra: Reflections On The Nigeria-Biafra War 50 Years On, a conference held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London from 21 April to 22 April to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of Biafra and the subsequent Nigerian Civil War.

“The war was a result of so many things including, ethnic conflict, intolerance, abuse of power and a lack of respect for the democratic process. A lot of these problems still exist,” says Effiong II.

A stark illustration of this can be found in the recent resurgence of the Biafran secessionist movement, and the response to it. For example, on 30 May 2017, a sit-at-home protest called to mark Biafra’s 50th anniversary by pro-secession Igbo groups was widely observed across south-eastern Nigeria. A few days later on 6 June, a coalition of Hausa youth organisations from northern Nigeria called on all Igbo-speaking people to leave the north of the country by 1 October 2017.

The declaration was eerily reminiscent of the anti-Igbo violence in northern Nigeria that preceded the founding of Biafra. Tens of thousands of Igbos living in the north were killed between May and October 1966, while hundreds of thousands of Igbos were forced to flee to the safety of the east. While the current Nigerian government quickly condemned the recent threat as “hate speech”, another youth coalition from the oil-rich Niger Delta region consequently issued a similar ultimatum to Hausas.

Unresolved trauma

This still-unfolding situation perfectly illustrates why the organisers of the conference decided to make the unresolved trauma of Biafra one of the central themes of their two-day conference.

“It was important for us to provide a space for conversation and reflection with the intention of creating a productive space for mutual understanding amongst Nigerians and those in the international community. [The] themes of trauma, identity and belonging allow for a more personal view of the war, and humanises those who were affected by the conflict,” explains Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo, one of the organisers of the Legacies of Biafra conference.

Akachi Ezeigbo, a writer, critic and professor at Federal University, Ndufu-Alike Ikwo in Nigeria’s Ebonyi State, was one of the speakers at the conference. As a teenager living in Biafra during the war, she says she will never forget the hardship and widespread hunger that produced the images of malnourished children that prompted a global humanitarian outcry, and even resulted in the birth of the humanitarian agency, Médecins Sans Frontières. “There was nothing to eat. We were eating cassava peels in my house. I even ate lizard during the war and used hibiscus and cassava leaves to make soup to survive.”

The suffering caused by the war is something that Effiong II understands only too well. His father’s memoir, The Caged Bird Sang No More: My Biafra Odyssey, 1966-1970, serves as a comprehensive account of the war from a key player. Effiong II, himself a writer and an associate professor of English at Michigan State University in the United States, says the war devastated his family.

“My father built a military career that started in 1945 and when he lost all of that, he lost everything. The whole family suffered.” Like the Efiongs, many Igbo families lost their savings, property and livelihoods during the war. Despite General Gowon declaration in 1970 that there would be “no victor, no vanquish,” Biafran bank accounts were confiscated at the end of the war and account holders, regardless of how much money they had previously, were only given £20 each in compensation.

The official policy of “reconstruction, rehabilitation and reintegration” is also widely disputed by many Igbos today. No one was ever held responsible for the pogroms that preceded the war and there have been no apologies. There was no Truth and Reconciliation-type mechanism to process the brutality of the war; there isn’t even a national museum or monument. In addition, Igbos talk about being both economically and politically marginalised in modern Nigeria. Eziegbo says young Igbos are still dealing with “injustice, marginalisation and exclusion.”

The war still weighs heavy on the Nigerian psyche, even for those who were born years after it ended. One of the few outlets where Igbos feel their voices will be heard is in literature. “The Nigeria-Biafra War is one of the few conflicts in which those who lost the war [the Igbos] have dominated the writing about the war,” says Mbanefo, referring to the works of internationally acclaimed writers such as Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the poet Christopher Okigbo.

“This constant return to the writing of the war narrative indicates there are issues that remain unresolved, and more specifically, that trauma is carried, not solely by individuals but by communities. This trauma is inter-ethnic and inter-generational and is visible in recent separatist movements within Nigeria,” says Mbanefo, referring to groups such as the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB).

“Nigeria is playing with fire”

Unoma Azuah, a writer and LGBTQI rights activist who teaches writing at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, is the daughter of a Nigerian soldier and an Igbo civilian. For her, the trauma is both personal and political. She says the war left Igbos with “a level of humiliation and a deep wound in our psyche” that is still unresolved. Azuah warns that “Nigeria is playing with fire” with regards to its current attitude to ethnicity and politics. While it is worth noting that with an estimated 86 million Nigerians (out of a total population of 182 million people) living on less than US$1.90, the majority of Nigerians are to some extent or another marginalised. But at a federal level, this takes a particular shape. “Some regions of the country feel entitled to a broad range of things,” she says, referring to widely held views that northerners dominate the higher echelons of Nigeria’s political structures.

Azuah says that “ethnic favouritism” can be found in every sphere of public life from ordinary jobs to senior leadership positions. As a result, “the resurgence of movements like MASSOB and IPOB is not surprising,” she says. “There’s only so much a marginalised group can take.”

Today, poverty, underdevelopment and rampant corruption are an integral part of the Nigerian national fabric. These factors have been blamed for the rise of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram in north-east Nigeria, where a seven year insurgency has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and led to the displacement of more than 2.6 million people.

Development specialist Chinwe Madubuike did not experience the trauma of Biafra directly, but through her work for the Bring Back Our Girls movement and her humanitarian work at internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in the north-east of Nigeria, she can see the parallels in both conflicts.

“Participating in Bring Back Our Girls has been very traumatic because you become a double minority, talking about something that’s a closeted topic. There you are, the child of Igbo parents doing something that’s ‘anti-Igbo’ because you are helping people in the north,” she says.

Madubuike admits that while she has lost friends and suffered professional fall-out because of her work in the north of the country, the backlash forced her to take a closer look at the lingering impact of Biafra. “I was conflicted as to why people who had survived Biafra weren’t more empathetic to victims of the [Boko Haram] insurgency, but I understand. It’s because they didn’t go through their own healing. There was no justice.”

For true reconciliation to take place, most of the attendees at the conference said there needs to be courage and vision from all sides. “We have to retrace our steps to find the paths where we miss-stepped, and then thread better for future paths,” says Azuah. However, Madubuike is sceptical that this will happen. “Healing will come with justice but I don’t think Nigeria is ready to set up or uphold structures for that justice to happen.”

Ezeigbo says that poor leadership presents the greatest challenge to true reconciliation. “We really haven’t had leaders who think ‘Nigerian’. Leaders who want to put Nigeria first and bring everybody together without exclusion.” What Nigeria needs, Ezeigbo says, are politicians of the right calibre. “But how do we get them? We are the ones who vote these people into power. That’s the problem.”

*Editor’s note: Philip Effiong uses two ‘f’s in the spelling of his name while the rest of his family uses one ‘f’.