A certain part of Igboland has a proverb that says “The person that does not know where the rain began to beat him, the rain beat him well”. This simple proverb captures the fact that somebody who does not know the source of his or her problems will never be able to solve the problem.
Over the past one year or so, the agitation by the Indigenous People of Biafra(IPOB) has gone from beer parlour entertainment tale, to one of the most pressing challenges facing the present administration(that is of course if the present administration takes it seriously). Yet I was surprised a few months ago, when one of the leading lights of the Nigerian Social Media world, and a learned young man to boot stated that he has searched as hard as he could, but could not find any justification for the initial secession of Biafra in 1967.
It occurred to me immediately that we had either been lying to our children from certain parts of the country, or we simply have refused to teach History. I have a nagging feeling that the former is more of it.
It is therefore for the sake of that young man, and millions of others like him that I feel the need to do this work.
On January 15th, 1966, Nigeria was set on an irrecoverable path. It was the day that the famed “Five Majors” decided to seize power from the civilian government. While many initially lauded the Majors as revolutionaries who had come to redeem the country from the wanton corruption, nepotism, and gross violence that had taken over the nation under the watchful eyes of the civilian administration, this view was soon to change, as more facts about the coup became available.
First of all, majority of the ring leaders were born of Igbo parents(even though the ring leader, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was more Hausa in reality, and only Igbo by name and origin),and majority of those who lost their lives during the coup were mainly leaders from other ethnic groups, other than Igbo. The lives lost included those of the Sarduana of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh(Finance Minister), Lt. Col Shuwa Pam, Brig. Zakariya Maimalari , Chief Akintola, etc.
From several of the accounts available to me, it seems that only an Igbo office was killed. Somehow, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe had managed to leave the country (for medical check-up) prior to the coup, while Chief Michael Okpara, then Premier of the Eastern Region remained alive. There have been several accounts especially about why Chief Okpara survived. Almost all the accounts point to the fact that his survival was due to Aguiyi Ironsi’s brave intervention to quell the coup. Yet, one cannot deny the fact that those killed were mostly non-Igbos.
By May of 1966, the North was rearing at its leash, to tear Ironsi (then Military Head of State) and his people apart. But that was not the plan the leaders had in mind. The plan was being well orchestrated. Soon after, the “vengeance mission” began. By the end of 1966, about 200 Eastern soldiers (mostly Igbos) had been killed, including General Aguiyi Ironsi. There have been historical records of how the then Captain T. Y Danjuma led the team that murdered Ironsi and Fajuyi in Abeokuta. Other stories tell of the military drills called for in the wee hours of the morning, and how Igbo soldiers were selected and summarily executed. If the plan was to avenge the deaths of Alhajis Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Belewa, killing Ironsi and taking over power would have been enough. But the vengeance took the form of an ethnic cleansing when over 190 Eastern soldiers were singled out and killed. If the justification for the second coup was because the first one was an “Igbo coup”, then “justification” went into over-drive when over 190 Eastern soldiers were killed.
Soldiers of course knew from the day they signed up that they may die any day. The same could not be said of civilians. In a move totally with the support of government institution especially the military and police, about 30,000 Easterners (especially Igbos) were murdered in all parts of Nigeria except the East. The key word being chanted by the rioting Northerners then was “Araba”, a word which Alexander Madiebo in his book The Nigerian Revolution and The Biafran War explained, meant “secession”. It was obvious then that the North wanted to do away with Nigeria.
On their part, the Igbos knew that they could not be protected by the Federal Government, so they sought for ways to cross over to the East, where they believe they will be safe. There are several stories of many Igbos who arrived incomplete. Stories of many who lost their loved ones in the senseless massacre. Stories of how governmental institutions even stood by and watched the massacres.
By the third quarter of 1966, the Igbos were fully convinced that their lives were no longer safe in any part of Nigeria. So they returned in droves to the East, creating massive refugee problems. But what mattered the most was their safety. As the Igbos say; “onye nwere ndu nwere olile anya”(he who has life has hope). It was however obvious that their safety could no longer be guaranteed in other parts of the country. No, not after watching the Yorubas taunt them with “make una go, make garri (s)heap for Lagos”, and the Hausas slaughter them like malus.
For the young man or woman who still could not find the reason for the secession, here then is your answer; the secession was a consequence of the belief that the lives of the Igbos and other Easterners could no longer be safe in the larger Nigerian context. Gowon’s government had looked on, doing nothing about it, while they were being slaughtered. Biafra was just a stand to say “Let me be free and alive in my home”.
But it did not end there. A complete volte-face was done once Biafrans decided to stay on their own, away from where they were not wanted. The government then decided to march into their lands, and kill as many of them as they can!
Very instructive here is the view of the investigator for The International Committee in the Investigation of Crimes of Genocide Dr. Mensah of Ghana;
“Finally I am of the opinion that in many of the cases cited to me hatred of the Biafrans (mainly Igbos) and as wish to exterminate them was a foremost motivational factor“(his emphasis. See Chinua Achebe’s There Was a country: A Personal History of Biafra, pg., 230)
There are of course several other opinions like the one above, but Mensah’s view would suffice here.
The war raged on, with the full backing of the British, and about three million Easterners (mostly Igbos) were killed, most of them children. It is not in my place to state the many war crimes (most of which include the bombing of civilians and blockade of relief materials) carried out by the Federal Government of Nigeria with their foreign supporters that made this possible–there are books replete with them. What is evident is that from shouting “Araba”, a volte-face was done and a systematic extermination was put in place.
It is necessary to state that I have not for once stated that the Igbos are entirely free of blames in all of these. What I am doing here is to explain why Biafra matters, and possibly get us to do what we have not done for years– talk about it. In several posts, I have categorically stated that a one indivisible Nigeria is what I want (in fact what I will fight for), but to stem the uprising, so many issues would have to be addressed.
Now, the average Northerner or even Westerner can point at the pogroms and the murder of about 200 Eastern soldiers and get his or her catharsis. What does the Easterner have?
The young Igbo man, would have listened to, or read stories of his ancestors gruesomely massacred under government supervision (unlike the “victors” who chose to remain silent, these stories are still passed down from generation to generation in the East) . He has sought for answers as to why this happened, and nothing was done, and always comes up with nothing. Available historical recounts of the period only give him reasons to be incensed and desirous of an answer. He is also aware that since the war, no Igbo man has held the highest office in the country, while Northerners and Westerners have been interchangingly holding the position. Then he realises that when the South-South violently agitated for recognition, they were compensated with the Vice- Presidency, which ultimately led to Jonathan’s tenure as president. But for the Igbos, still nothing, as plans were made to transfer power back to the North. So he suddenly realises that his people are still the “vanquished”, and not the “victor”, and must pay the price, still.
But the Igbo problem does not end there. Shortly after President Goodluck Jonathan was voted out of office, a large swathe of Yorubas took to the Social Media, calling for the extermination of the Igbos for voting massively for Jonathan. According to those young people, the Igbos had done what they were designed to do– sell out and be tribalistic (they forgot that a lot of Igbos supported and voted for Buhari. My cousin has been President Buhari’s ardent supporter since 2003). The fact also, is that the Yorubas and Hausas massively voted for President Buhari and his Yoruba deputy. What the Hausas and Yorubas did was not “selling out” or being “tribalistic”, it was called being patriotic, according to them. It did not matter that they had made their choice and followed their own people, and the Igbos, for lack of where to hold to, “held to their knees”(Goodluck Jonathan).But it was the Igbos that had done wrong, for simply refusing to conform to their status as “servants” in Nigeria. The fact that a prominent Yoruba Oba had endorsed this point of view, is even all the more telling.
For the Igbos, it has always been about fighting to get their voices heard, amidst the betrayals of even their own brethren. For instance, the Ogoni people have for years had their own struggle. Woe betide anybody from the South-South or South-East who fails to show his or her support. But during the IPOB demonstrations, I have watched so many prominent Ogoni people call the struggle of the IPOB a “useless struggle”. I dare not call the Ogoni struggle a useless one. In fact, I have been a champion of the Ogoni clean-up.
What all these show is the fact that the Igbos find themselves alone. They have suffered years and years of abuse, denigration, and even exclusion. Somehow, they still persevere, channelling their energies to commerce.
Today however, Nigeria finds herself on the brink. There is a need to address the Igbo problem. There is an even urgent need to provide catharsis to the millions of Igbo youths who still search for answers. We cannot run away from the mistakes of the past, all we need to do is to address them, and find a resolution.
However anybody else sees it, the truth is, that the predicament of the Igbos demands urgent attention. That is why Biafra matters. For now though, we derive temporary hope in the Phyno-Olamide alliance, and hope we can build more of such alliances.
Oruh Tweets with @liliemmyz