53 years ago today, the military governor of the Eastern Region of Nigeria, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, declared the region as the independent Republic of Biafra. Most of the existing history will tell you that he took this action unilaterally, but that is incorrect. Four days earlier, a consultative assembly made up of people in the 11 provinces of the Eastern region had by a majority voted to break away from Nigeria following the Federal Military Government’s reneging on the Aburi Accord of 5 January 1967, and the creation of three states out of the Eastern Region on 5 May 1967.
Following the failure of Biafra to secure the support of Ahidjo’s Cameroon, and the split of the majority of the Eastern minorities from the rest of the East by the brilliant tactical move of state creation, the fate of Biafra was sealed. These two events happened even before a shot was fired.
Biafra was a short-lived republic, eventually dying on 15 January 1970, and being reabsorbed into Nigeria after a violent war which lasted for 30 months and claimed anywhere between a million and 3 million lives. On the African continent, only the Second Congo War which lasted from 1998 t0 2003 claimed more lives. In terms of geographic spread, the Biafra War, especially as a result of the Biafran invasion of the Midwest region, affected only the the old Southern Protectorate (today’s South-East and South-South geopolitical zones). There was a Biafran bombing raid on Lagos on 2 July 1967 which killed 4 people, and another on 7 October 1967 where the plane was shot down before dropping its payload. There was also a massacre of 30 Hausa civilians by Biafran troops at Okene on 13 August 1967, but these three incidents were the summary of the war outside of the SE/SS.
The bulk of proper military action was fought between June 1967 and March 1968, and then in the last three months of 1969. The vast majority of that badly fought war was a blockade which led to what is till today the worst case of deliberately imposed mass starvation in Africa, costing 2 million lives. Yes, the bulk of the people who died in Biafra were not killed by bullets but starved to death.
Eventually, the young country tottered and collapsed, and was reabsorbed into Nigeria. To the eternal credit of the Nigerian leader of the time, Yakubu Gowon, the mass killings that Biafrans had feared did not happen, and while until today the Igbo people are treated with mistrust in Nigeria and have never been fully reintegrated, Mr Gowon’s example of reconciliation and forgiveness is a beacon. The actions of his subordinates and successors is another matter.
So, why do we still have cries for Biafra today, despite the fact that the geopolitical factors that doomed that republic (no support from Cameroon to the East, and no support from the ethnic minorities of the old Eastern region) still exist?
We still have these cries because Nigeria has failed to win the argument. Nigeria has failed to dispassionately study the problems and missteps that led to secession in 1967 with a view to not repeating them. Nigeria has failed to acknowledge that there was a major historical wrong in which an entire ethnic group was punished for the perceived sins of some of its sons. Nigeria has failed to bring justice for the grand theft that was the £20 settlement and the abandoned properties fiasco. These issues have let a wound to fester. But, from my perspective, and Nigeria keeps repeating this, Nigeria has refused to let justice prevail. This lack of bringing people to book has become a Nigerian habit that has permeated all conflicts around the country. We “settle” among the big men who have either committed, or financed great crime, and the little man is left broken and bitter, to pass on this bitterness to his children.
That, is the story of Nigeria. That is the story of Biafra. Many would say Ozoemena, Igbo for “may it not happen again”, but as long as Nigeria refuses to acknowledge, even if just for the records, mass killings in Kano, Asaba, Onitsha, Ugep, Umuechem, Bakolori, Bauchi, Zango Kataf, Odi, Kaduna, Jos, Yelwa, Shendam, Maiduguri, Ogaminana, Potiskum, Wudil, Damaturu, Madalla, Okene, Bama, Zaria, Baga, Mamudo, Buni Yadi, Gwoza, Aba, Kajuru, and put a permanent black stain on the names of the perpetrators of these mass killings, we will always have the bitterness that will lead to more people wanting out.
Let Biafra day provide an opportunity for Nigerians everywhere to seek for justice for all Nigerians. As long as we live in a country built on injustice, to quote Chido Onumah, we are all Biafrans. While I say may it not happen again, I also say that the foundation of lasting peace is justice.