Biafra Revisited: civil war leader Ojukwu dies – By Richard Dowden
There was one astounding moment at Chinua Achebe’s Colloquium at Brown University in the US last year when three of the most influential men in the Biafran War came together on the platform – Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Oxford educated Biafran rebel leader, Professor Achebe himself, the most articulate proponent of the Biafran cause, and Wole Soyinka who flew into Biafra to act as a peacemaker and as a result was thrown into jail by the Nigerian President, General Yakubu Gowon. Only Gowon was missing.
Just to see the three old men together was extraordinary – the slow-spoken, reflective Achebe in his beret, Soyinka with his shock of snowy hair and white beard speaking bluntly then enigmatically, and Ojukwu, a giant of a man in a huge black coat but now blind, led around by an assistant. He said very little but I wanted to ask a simple question, so when the session ended I managed to stop him for a moment and ask if he had any regrets about the war. He paused but did not turn his head. “History does not repeat itself,” he growled. “But if it did, I would do exactly the same again. Excuse me.” He moved on.
He died in London last Saturday and his death may trigger a re-assessment of that terrible war. In so many ways the Biafran conflict defined war in Africa for the rest of the century. It challenged the universal agreement among the newly independent African states to accept the colonial borders. The Ibos attempted to leave Nigeria and create their own state, (although they would have taken with them several other ethnic groups, like the Ibibios, the Annanga and the Ogojas, who were not consulted). This tribally based rebellion was to be replicated throughout the continent in following years. The war divided Africa, with Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania supporting the Biafran cause and other countries backing Nigeria. A divided African Union prevented it acting as a peacemaker, and from then on the AU played almost no role in ending wars in Africa.
Biafra was also about resources – oil in this case, which supercharged the conflict and ensured that outsiders like Britain took sides and supplied weapons. While not causing Africa’s subsequent wars, oil, diamonds, coltan and other valuable resources have exacerbated and prolonged conflicts. It did not however divide the world along Cold War lines. The Soviet Union also supplied weapons while the US took a neutral stance imposing its own arms embargo on both sides.
But perhaps Biafra’s greatest impact was its image. The last time the world had seen masses of starving people was at the end of the Second World War. The “˜Biafran baby’ – a starving child with huge sad eyes, stick-like limbs and bloated stomach – became a defining image of Africa for the next half century as wars broke out in almost half the continent’s states.
Aid agencies, which had had few emergencies since the end of World War II, found a new role in Biafra and there confronted all the problems they were to face elsewhere in Africa in the coming decades. A whole generation of aid workers were forged in the Biafran fire. The biggest problem for the aid agencies was that they knew some of the food and medical supplies were being taken by the combatants, thereby prolonging the war. The aid air bridge was also used by arms suppliers and one aid plane was shot down by the Nigerians. The Nigerian government tried to starve out the rebels. Chief Awolowo, then a minister, said in 1968 “all is fair in war and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight us harder.”
On January 12th 1970 the war ended with the collapse of Biafra and the flight of Ojukwu (although he said he would die rather than run away). General Yakubu Gowon declared that there would be no victors and no vanquished and there appears to have been no retribution once the fighting stopped. But there was no peace building or reconciliation either. Nigeria returned to peace, Ojukwu returned to Nigeria and was given an official pardon. But many Ibos feel they have been excluded from high office ever since and there has been little discussion of the war or its effects. The history of the war and its causes is not taught in schools and until Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun there was no written memory of what happened.
Perhaps with the death of Ojukwu that will change.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: altered states, ordinary miracles