Biafra 50 years on: Remembering, regretting, repeating history?
Half a century on from the 30 May declaration of independence from Nigeria, calls for secession are growing again.
As he casts his mind back to 50 years ago, a look of vacant sadness crosses Christopher Ejiofor’s face. Today, the still-muscular 71-year-old is a traditional chief in Enugu state. But back in 1967, he had freshly graduated from studying aeronautics engineering in the UK.
Unbeknownst to the young man at the time though, events were to rapidly overtake any aspirations he had to build a new career.
The early years of independence, gained in 1960, were hugely tumultuous for Nigeria. The new country contained within it a vast diversity of peoples, and tensions arose along regional, ethnic and religious lines.
Tussles over power escalated in January 1966 when a coup d’état led to the murder of several northern political leaders, including the Prime Minister and the Premier of the northern region. A few months later in July, northern army units orchestrated a counter-coup which led to the death of the military head-of-state General Aguiyi Ironsi.
Distrust and animosity between different groups around the country intensified. In September 1966, over 30,000 Igbos – who originate from the south-east of Nigeria – were killed in the north. Retaliatory attacks in the south led to the deaths of many northerners.
“There was sadness in the heart of every single Igbo family,” says Ejiofor. “Nobody in eastern Nigeria had not lost somebody.”
As protests led to further bloodshed and inter-communal violence escalated, dialogue was called. Hosted by Ghana, Nigeria’s regional leaders and delegates from the federal government met in January 1967. In the meeting, easterners called for greater control over their own resources – which includes vast oil reserves – and the so-called Aburi Accord was struck.
In the following months, however, the agreement broke down.
“Confederation was the last hope of the Igbo man,” says Ejiofor. “We already suffered a lot. There was no healing for the easterners.”
On 30 May 1967, the Eastern Region declared independence as the Republic of Biafra.
“When the declaration was made, we were all glorifying God. There was jubilation in the entire south-eastern region,” Ejiofor recalls.
“No one envisaged what followed.”
What followed was a brutal and devastating civil war as federal forces and Biafrans engaged in bloody battle. Ejiofor was appointed Aide-de-camp to the leader of the secessionist struggle, Odumegwu Ojukwu. He was only 21.
There were offensives and counter-offensives, but from 1968, the Nigerian government embarked on strategy to blockage the region. Medical and food supplies were cut off, leading to a humanitarian crisis. In the severe famine that ensued, some estimate that two to three million people starved to death – mainly women and children.
“When I close my eyes, I hear the voices of dead children and their bones, and the sadness of the faces of refugee mothers,” says Ejiofor.
In January 1970, the embattled Biafrans surrendered and renounced the call for secession.
In the three decades following the end of the conflict, the demands for independence went silent. But the grievances of the region did not go away. There has never been justice for the millions who died in the war and famine, an atrocity that many see as genocide. And many easterners have continued to argue that the region is marginalised in the federal allocation of resources and appointment of national leaders.
According Victor Ukaogu, professor of history at the University of Nigeria, the problems that led to the war were never resolved.
“This is the only country that has had a civil war and not a lesson was learnt from that war,” he says. “If you study thoroughly the history of the civil war, some people may actually go to [the International Court of Justice in] The Hague to face trial for war crimes. Definite genocide took place.”
In 1999, a few months after Nigeria’s return to multi-party democracy, a new group emerged reviving calls for Biafran independence. It was named the Movement for the Actualisation of Independent State of Biafra (MASSOB) and was established by Ralph Uwazuruike, an India-trained lawyer who sought the resurgence of Biafra non-violently.
The group introduced a Biafra currency and passport. Activists also ended up clashing with government forces on a few occasions, leading to the deaths of some members. In 2005, the government arrested Uwazuruike on treason charges, but released him in 2007. MASSOB declined in influence.
In 2014, another secessionist group, known as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), took up the struggle. Founded by Nnamdi Kanu in the UK, it also adopted a stance of non-violence and has acquired significant support among many people in south-east and south-south states.
IPOB has been able to spread its message in large part thanks to Radio Biafra, which was established by Kanu in 2009 and broadcasts to Nigeria from London. The station can be streamed live from many countries. Across the south east of Nigeria, farmers, traders, drivers, teachers and students gather to listen to and discuss its shows.
This has helped drive the issue of independence back up the agenda, especially among younger people.
“The youths are frustrated by the insincerity of the Nigerian nation,” says Daniel Okeibe, an undergraduate at the University of Nigeria and member of IPOB. “Many youth don’t have confidence in Nigeria again.”
IPOB has also organised large demonstrations, some of which have been confronted by police. At last year’s 30 May celebrations marking the anniversary of the independence declaration, over 60 members of the group were killed according to Amnesty International. The body says that between August 2015 and August 2016, “security forces have killed at least 150 members and supporters of the pro-Biafra organization IPOB and injured hundreds during non-violent meetings”.
In October 2015, Kanu was arrested on charges of treason after flying to Lagos. Human rights groups and politicians called for his release, but he was held without bail despite multiple court judgements granting him bail. It was only in April 2017 that Kalu regained his freedom.
Stay at home
As the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafran independence approaches on the 30 May, some see echoes of the dynamics half a century ago.
A senior government official in south-eastern Nigeria told African Arguments, “secession cannot work in Nigeria” and insisted that the country can only be “one entity through fiscal federalism”. The government also insists that the problems facing the south east are not unique to that region. Yet the arguments for independence made in 1967 as well as feelings that the federal government isn’t heeding popular grievances are growing once again.
Many observers, such as public policy expert Aye Dee, criticise the government’s strategy of clamping down on pro-Biafra protests and imprisoning Kanu rather than addressing their complaints.
Retired headmaster Paul Ukachukwu , who lived through the civil war, suggests that the government is failing to listen. “An Igbo man has no place in Nigeria since the northerners having tasted power are not willing to permit any other region to have equitable political power,” he says. “No one would ask for another nation once they begin to experience fairness.”
To express their support for Biafra and to commemorate those who died in the 1967-1970 civil war as well as during protests since then, IPOB has declared 30 May a lock down. It has called on those in the south east of Nigeria as well as supporters of Biafra around the world to remain in their homes for the day.
Amongst the many who will be doing so and reflecting on the experiences of the war will be Ejiofor. He remembers the death and destruction all too clearly, but also laments the similarities in the situation today, fifty years later.
“The same mistakes that brought the war continued with us even after the war, and now,” he says, regret hanging on his lips.
Correction [27/05]: Ejiofor’s role in the war has been corrected to “Aide-de-camp”.
The Biafra struggle non-violently is a legitimate one. The whole world have been sensitized by this agitation.
But what one should remember is that if you have any agitation or discontent against the Nigerian state, you are a Biafran generally.
This is a credible metaphore.
It’s time for Nigeria, Britain and International Community to free the Biafran people, a people group of nearly 70 million with Judeo-Christian values; to be freed from domination, subjugation, oppression, marginalization and islamization. Since the amalgamation of the variant ethnic tribes to form Nigeria in 1914, Biafrans and Christians have been massacred in their numbers by the dominant Hausa-Fulani Sunni Muslims and Yoruba Muslims and quasi-Christians. The 1967-70 civil war claimed 3.5 million Biafran people. The Biafran people must be liberated for them to rebuild their war-torn region for their children and future generation. The Biafran people have suffered and died enough in Nigeria. The global community must intervene to free Biafran people before another civil war breaks out in Africa’s most populous nation. If this is not done peacefully, the entire Africa and the world will suffer heavily for the consequences of any eventual civil war in Nigeria. It’s time to let Biafra be!
Kele, thank you very much for your well articulated message to the world regarding the Biafran quest
Biafra is a time bomb that shall soon explode. Amalgamation of 1914 was done without the consent of all the parties involved. From 1960 till date, we had never gotten a national leader that did unite the whole country. Each leader had ruled with ethnic and religious agenda. The country is like oil and water. We share different values, cultures and religion. We are like strange bed fellows. Wont it be rather unfortunate if UN should start having humanitarian crisis tomorrow in Nigeria than acting fast now!!!
Biafran is a Republic and must be respected by the international community , and we must not forget that Bokoharam is seeking for Arewa states which is a sharia republic while the Yorubas are seeking for Oduduwa republic, please kindly respect this facts otherwise there will be no peace in the world, remeber that a Yoruba boy from oduduwa republic tried to blow up America ??? don’t forget …. The world leaders should be bold to let the Biafran have their indipendence , so that the world will have peace in the world because the Biafrans are peaceful people, so let them go, Nigeria kindly let our people go……….
No mention in the article whatsoever that the reason Nnamdi Kanu, leader of IPOB was arrested and charged with treason was because he openly solicited for weapons to fight Nigerians and kill civilians. This is on YouTube. https://youtu.be/1XU2JtlUF6M
He did this in the US. If anyone does this in any civilised Western or Eastern nation, they will be charged with treason and locked away. But somehow Nnamdi Kanu is being rebranded as a liberation hero because his venom is against northerners
Kanu has encouraged his supporters to go and kill Hausas and Yorubas, who are ‘animals’ in a ‘zoo’ several times in his broadcast. There seems to be a special current of hatred against Hausas and northerners. It’s history repeating itself because the same vicious hatred preceded the coup of 1966 when Igbo soldiers murdered northern political leaders. This is what led to the events that led to the Civil War. Just like the murder of archduke Ferdinand in 1914 sparked the First World War. Kanu and his many supporters are doing the same thing again. This hate speech, dehumanisation of other Nigerians and incitement is usually a precursor to genocide. This is how the Hutus spread hate speech for months, calling Tutsis cockroaches before the genocide in Rwanda.
Igbo cry marginalisation all the time, but they are all over Nigeria, in every region, where they are allowed to own land, property,shops in markets, thriving businesses etc., from Lagos to Kano, Maiduguri to Ibadan. By contrast, other Nigerians find the South Eastern Igbo states very inhospitable. Onitscha and Aba markets in the East are 90% dominated by Igbos in a diverse country like Nigeria, other ethnic groups are not allowed to run enterprises or schools or restaurants in the Igbo states. Balogun market in Lagos by contrast is very diverse. Not to mention the ethnocentricism and superiority complex, wanting to dominate and control everyone and everything.
Fascinating revisionism and distortion of facts. Always the first to play the victim card, refusing to look inward and treat other Nigerians with respect.
Thank you much brother Biafra for Life
The basic problem of Nigeria is unfortunately universal, namely, that the oppressed is always crying for justice while the oppressor is always denying any wrongdoing at best or blaming the victim , at worst . In Nigeria, the oppressor pretends not to know what he’s doing. That is why there is no commitment to addressing this problem. Nigeria is better off staying together, but there has to be equity and justice for all. Certainly this is not asking too much. And in case we remain obstinate, Northern Sudan was similarly obstinate, and after decades of bloodshed, South Sudan achieved independence, dealing a blow to what was Africa’s biggest country. Let’s hope that Nigeria will be spared the ordeal, and that reason will prevail.
champ, good you have admitted that there was genocide. The coup was in 1966. After 1966 there was 9 other coup detat and all the 9 coups was carried out by northerners against the Nigerian govt . The question for you is was it the Igbos that carried out those coups? The answer is no. It was the hausa -fulani that carried out those coups and the world did not not call them northern coup but the one by Nzeogu was called an Igbo coup against Northern leaders that shows bias-ism in your writing, Gowon Mutala Muhammed, Bukasuka Dimka, Mohammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Mamman Vatsa, Gideon Okah, and Sani Abacha all planned coup between 1967 and 1994 and they were all northerners and nobody call these coups northern coup. The only one led by Igbo man you called an Igbo coup. Your brothers plotted more coups and killed more people. So Stop bringing the issue of i966 coup as the reason for the war your people staged more coups after that. The problem is you people don’t seem to love who progresses around you because you refuse to work . Every average Nigerian big man is an opportunist who reaps where he did not sow and that was what triggered off the 1966 coup. currently the Bokoharam is still a national menace which the north sponsored to use it as an excuse to topple Jonathan government.During Obasanjos regime 1999 the reason for the agitation for Biafra by MASSOB was attempt by OBJ to scuttle the business of the East. Notice that there was no agitation for Biafra when Jonathn came to power because he provided a fair play ground for all and that was when Nigeria emerged the Largest economy in Africa and fastest growing economy in the world just within 5 years. When the Buhari ministration came the brought out the civil policy of destroying the east. Guided by some selfish from the western part of the country they decided to truncate the business of the east with some fiscal policies that has now made administration to fail.(Nigeria today is one of the worst economy in the world) in less than two years after the Jonathan administration. This is what has triggered off this very IPOB/ Biafran protest. Good cannot come out of evil each time the west or north comes to power its poverty and suffering. Was Nzeogu the reason for Fulani herdsmen killing thousands of Nigerians because their brother is in power yet non of them has been arrested and you are killing innocent IPOB carrying out peaceful protest. South south and South east holds the key to progress. They own the resources and they are in charge of the business of the country and they produced the best president. If you say Jonathan was not then you will die of hunger before your brother leaves office because currently many people are already committing suicide because of hunger and we are still having 2 years to go.
[…] [Biafra 50 years on: Remembering, regretting, repeating history?] […]
Champ, the problem with some of you haters is irredeemable wickedness. You have quoted what you called Igbo soldier’s coup and what qualified it so is because it was led by an Igbo soldier. And by your standard of justice, that justifies the genocide, massacres, intimidation, injustice, killings and marginalization (both administrative and political) unrelentingly visited on them ever since. As pointed out, by another contributor, nine(9) other coups subsequently were carried out in this country, some successful and some not so led by other tribes like Hausa, Fulani etc, but your sense justice failed you to justify that genocide and massacres be unleashed on the ethnic group that the leader of the coup belongs. On Igbo investment acquisition within and outside Igbo land, these private activities were never on a platter of gold or allocation. They were results of painstaking effort under very demanding business conditions far above the dictates of market forces, yet those that can afford were not deterred but endured and paid the premium prices to acquire as most Igbo experience attest. And upon development of these investment, people of your mindset will be unreasonably jealous to the point of threatening lifes. When you make an ignorant statement that other ethnic groups are not allowed to run enterprises or schools or restaurants in the Igbo states shows you know next to nothing about Igbo states and you have never been there. Though of a fact there many non Igbos comfortably residing and doing their business in Igbo states and acquisition is determined by market forces. Champ, I believe by your mindset measured by your write-up you are one of those who deride that Igbos love money, so did you go there to buy say land and offered the right price but the same “Igbo money loving landlord” rather denied selling to you but sold rather to a fellow Igbo who offered less? What a contradiction just to stereotype a group. Please fellow countrymen purge yourself of inherited wickedness and hatred and try to grow up. If you felt Igbos insult your tribe just talk only about yours don’t bring in other tribes as a gang up in the normal age long treacherous methodology. Every tribe can speak for themselves. Thousands of Yorubas on a daily basis insult the Hausa- Fulani and Igbos and vice versa for most tribes in Nigeria. It has never been one tribe verses others. So many Yorubas of note have written insulting the Hausa Fulani on daily basis, just as the Hausa Fulanis do, and Igbos have never treacherously writing that Yorubas are insulting Hausa – Fulanis in order to curry their favour or political alignment as you are doing .
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