Nigerian Biafra War: A Debt That Must Be Paid

Specimen A: In the year 1861, civil war broke out in the country we all know today as the United States of America. The war originated from the attempted secession of the Southerners from the Union, a move which the Northerners perceived as a violation of the essence of the American republic and so, rejected. Ergo, war broke out between the Southern states which had formed themselves into the Confederate States of America and the Northern states which were called the Union. By the year 1865 when the war ended, casualties numbered over half a million on both sides.

Fast-forward to the year 1900, thirty-five years later, the United States had established itself as the world’s foremost industrial nation. Overall, the nation experienced a stunning explosion in the scale of industry and in the pace of production.[1]

Specimen B: May 30, 1967, civil war broke out in the country we all know today as Nigeria. The war was fueled by the attempt of the South-easterners to secede from the country Nigeria. The move was condemned by the Nigerian government as injurious to the country’s oneness and a catalyst for an extensive disintegration of the nascent republic. Ergo, war broke out between the South-easterners who called themselves the Republic of Biafra and the Nigerian government. By 1970 when the war ended, casualties numbered well over two million on both sides.

Fast-forward to the year 2013, forty-three years later, Nigeria is 40th on the list of 79 countries which have been marked as ‘hungry’.[2] On a daily basis, 29.6% of the over 150 million Nigerian population lives on less than N190 and 83.9% on less than a miserly N300.[3] Outside the shores, the nation maintains its 7th position on the list of oil-producing countries but also is one of the highest importers of refined petroleum.[4] Nigeria is also notorious for crime, corruption, nepotism and terrorism.

In analyzing specimens A and B illustrated above, similarities abound but a singular (major) difference exists viz one country built a bridge over all of the post-war debris, blood and craters while the other did not. While the United States, spurred on by memories of pain and loss from the war, promptly commenced an effective reconstruction agenda, Nigeria evolved a selective memory, a porous reverse-filter which retained the chaff and let all the seeds fall through.

Many people today, urged on by contemporary schools of thought, will preach a total annihilation of past experiences in favor of the present and hence, future - “throw away the burdens of the past so that you may herald the treasures of the now and future!” But the wisdom in that approach is yet to be seen. The past influences the present just as much, if not more, than the future does. Albert Einstein noted,
“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion”. 
With every passing second, the future becomes the present and the present, the past all within such short intervals of time that George Calin further posited thus,
“There’s no present. There’s only the immediate future and the recent past”.

Therein lies the secret of the richness of the American culture today. In the United States, children are taught about the civil war as early as the third grade, the Nigerian equivalent of Primary 3. They are taught to understand the institution of slavery prior to the Civil war and its principal role in the breakout of the war, explain the reason(s) for the states’ secession, and outline the course of the war among many other requirements. In an article published by Education news,
 “(teachers) uses props like milk-cartons for boats and blue marbles for cannonballs to illustrate battles…” and field trips are taken to any of the Civil war sites which have all been preserved. 
In Yale university, History 119 – The Civil war and Reconstruction Era, 1845 – 1877 is a course taught to freshmen twice a week for fifty minutes; it is also made available as an ‘Open Yale course’ on the internet for downloads by whoever is interested. It would be needless recounting the series of books, movies, documentaries, etc that are available with war accounts from both sides of the conflict. The US government went a step further by taking pains to preserve sites where some of the most eventful battles were fought and today, those sites are unique walk-through museums which also earn the country revenue.

This publication is not an effusive idolization of the US; if at this point you think it is then unfortunately but not for the first time, you have missed the point. Late Prof. Chinua Achebe’s There was a country is a book that was trailed by perhaps just as many harsh criticisms as it was by acclamations. One subject of one too many heated debates is the role played by the late Obafemi Awolowo in the starving of Biafrans, as alleged by Achebe. In arguing either side of this issue, Nigerians missed the point again. Achebe understood the relevance of written history in the building of any nation. As he noted in his introduction to the novel, “it is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grand-children, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra story, our story, my story”. Over time since the end of the war, the same has been done by others who played parts in this momentous conflict. Nigerians like Olusegun Obasanjo, Joe Achuzia, Wole Soyinka, Alexander Madiebo, David Ejoor, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and even foreigners such as Frederick Forsyth, Holger Ehling, Laurie Wiseberg among others belong to this class. Unfortunately though, these men and women will have wasted their energies if the Nigerians for whom these books have been written continue to approach them with the sole aim of finding ammunition for inter-ethnic attacks.

The point right now should not be who was most wronged or which group of people must apologize to the other. The point right now should be about learning the truth exactly as it happened because with the objective learning of this truth comes acceptance, then reconciliation and eventually, a reconstruction agenda. Regrettably, the possibility of acquiring this undiluted truth has progressively dimmed as the currents of time have swept away many artifacts, landmarks and symbols. But late is not the end and nearly is a word that is yet to kill a bird. The government needs to stop banning movies and books about the war just because they ‘threaten national unity and integration’. We must realize that the real threat to national unity and integration is a student writing his West African Secondary School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE) whose response to a question regarding the extent of his knowledge of the Nigerian Civil war is “ummm…I don’t really know much shaa but it was a very bad war”. The real threat to national unity and integration is the absence of ANY landmark in honor of the brave soldiers (Biafran and Nigerian) who fought gallantly and died in Uzuakoli, Calabar, Abagana and Owerri. The war museum that was barely scrapped together at Umuahia deteriorates everyday fiber by fiber and the ‘Old soldiers’ day’ celebrated yearly on the 15th of January has about as much influence on the Nigerian populace as does the ant on the hide of the elephant. These are the real threats to national unity and integration.

This reconstruction project is an all-encompassing one which must either be taken on wholeheartedly or not at all. The pervading bugs of white-elephant projects and ghost organizations must not be allowed near this sacred task. Historians worth their salt need to be engaged by the government in a fact-finding mission; every document or artifact belonging to those thirty months of conflict must be collected and preserved. The ‘Biafran pound’ frames, Nigerian army uniforms and Ogbunigwe at the National war museum in Umuahia need to be dusted off, shined and showcased in glass with renewed pride. Gen. Yakubu Gowon continuously appears in recent news pleading for the attainment of a peaceful Nigeria but he is yet to publish a documentation of his personal memories of the war, as principal an actor as he was in the affair! And every day, so many neglected old men and women die, enriching the soil of the graveyard with the precious stories that are our history. The documentation of such memories is not a nicety to be engaged in at one’s leisure, we must understand; such a task is a mandatory assignment placed upon the actor by the gnarled hands of history. It is a task of so much importance that I envisage the Creator stopping whoever fails at it from proceeding beyond heaven’s gates. Because separated from their history, a people cease to exist.

The climax of this reconstruction agenda would be attained when all of this knowledge and wealth of experiences have been collected together and are then fed to every Nigerian child. From as early as primary education, the Nigerian child should be fed information and facts about the war that played no less than a crucial role in the molding of the country he or she has been born into. The NYSC (which was indeed created as a healing balm for post-war Nigeria in 1973) could be employed as the culmination of these lessons. The information taught would include the facts of events leading up to the war starting with pre-colonial Nigeria to the coup and pogroms of 1966; the reason(s) for the break-out of the war; the primary and secondary actors of the conflict, the various roles they played and the significances thereof; a timeline chronicling all significant events that occurred during the war; post-war attempts at reconstruction, why and how such attempts failed and the relevance thereof to the country’s present situation.

As Rick Warren aptly notes in his book, The Purpose-driven Life,
“pain is the fuel of passion – it energizes us with an intensity to change that we don’t normally possess” 
So far, the pain of the Nigerian Civil war, excruciating as it was, has been lost to us all. It is our responsibility therefore, as a nation of people hungry for growth, to resurrect that pain or more aptly, the memories of that pain so that we can fully cash into the strength of its passion.
“…we fall. All casualties of the war, Because we cannot hear each other speak… Because whether we know or Do not know the extent of wrong on all sides We are characters now other than before…” -    J.P. Clark, The Casualties

Bibliography
  • [1] – Microsoft Encarta Premium 2009;
  • [2] – cumulative Global Hunger Index rankings for 1990, 1996, 2001 and 2012;
  • [3] – World Bank Reports 2010;
  • [4] – Petroleum Insights: OPEC’s Top Crude Oil Producers, 2011 – January, 2012 by David Rachovich;
  • [5] – The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren.

About Guest Blogger
This post was written by Chisom Ojukwu, a guest contributor. Chisom Ojukwu is a serving corps member of the Federation whose broken and thoroughly Nigerian heart continues to hope ferociously in a brighter future. If you'd like to guest post for Inspire Naija check out our Write for Inspire Naija for details about how YOU can share your tips with our community

3 comments

This is good inspiration
I hope it gets to the people that really need to hear this
Bravo

This article can start a revolution and I can only hope we see the day when the civil war is properly taught in nigerian primary and secondary schools, if anyone has noticed, walk into most schools and there is no history teacher in that most nigerian schools and those that claim to know what happened clearly argue blindly without proper facts or books available on the subject. This article if implemented can guide our educationists to reconstruct one important area in nigerian education. Docu-dramas too might aid such a reconstruction project. I consider this article honour in the memory of those who fell for a just cause during the war and those thought it fit for it to be documented in books. Much respect to them they where the ones really concerned about the preservation of nigeria.


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