Biafra—a failed attempt by the people of Eastern Nigeria to secede from a Nigeria that had mortally wronged them—was a very ill-wind that blew everyone badly, and has been an indictment to the Nigerian nationhood ever since.
Careless, easy-going and tolerant, in almost every way—politically, culturally, socially—Nigeria, a naturally big and mean West African chaos of a country with as many languages as there are tribes, had it all and was prepared for everything but Biafra. Biafra came without as much as a dollop of mercy.
In a little less than three years, it stripped Nigeria of its jaunty fillip, rendering her south eastern reaches an earthly verisimilitude of hell. That scourge came impudently spewing death and destruction and left a harrowing swath of bestial mayhem, woe and misery. We are yet to recover.
In truth, you must be sixty and above to have an inkling of what Biafra—the cause of such widespread weeping and lamentation—was all about. Let me refresh your memory if you are younger than sixty. It began January 15, 1966, barely six years after Nigeria’s heady independence from Britain’s colonial administration. At this time, regional political actors played to the sentiments and suspicions of their constituencies by using the fear of domination of one region by another as a boogeyman to garner votes. A group of army majors, in a protest of the unpopularity of the government, came claiming the politicians were not doing it right; and touted their dream of turning the woe-begotten Nigerian nation into a prosperous, peaceful democracy.
In truth, you must be sixty and above to have an inkling of what Biafra—the cause of such widespread weeping and lamentation—was all about.
They decided to kill all the politicians as an answer to their purported belief that Nigeria was adrift and tottering at the brink of perdition. Uncannily, the coup makers, who had an Igbo speaker as their de-facto leader, killed all the name-brand Hausa-Fulani politicians. Somehow, they conveniently did not kill any Igbo politician of note, unwittingly giving their move a biased ethnic tinge. This faux-pas understandably angered the rest of the country enough to generate an Igbo-phobia and hate of murderous proportion. That was when the Igbo retaliatory massacres began. Within days, it had metamorphosed into a nightmare without end as thousands of people of Igbo extraction, and other kindredly-vulnerable people of eastern Nigeria were variously maimed, decapitated, or slaughtered.
All over Nigeria, no Igbo person was safe outside the eastern region.
And so, following the pogroms, secession from Nigeria, and the war that followed became inevitable. The Governor of Eastern region—Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu—declared the region an independent republic country of Biafra, since the Igbo, scattered all over Nigeria in their characteristic jealousy-inducing, aggressive individualism and daring spirit, could no longer live safely in other parts of Nigeria. At the urging of the British, who never did trust the Igbo for spearheading the clamor for Nigeria’s independence, the Nigerian Army invaded the Igbo Biafra country. Led by Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon – the army chief of staff who promoted himself General after the coup and became commander-in-chief – the Nigerian army attacked. The war—the darkest chapter in Nigeria’s checkered history—was on.
As a P.S., the Biafra war which resulted in the decimation of the Igbo tribe evolved into a triangular big-power contest between Britain, France, and the Soviet Union according to newly released British secret papers.
The Igbo people had scared the crap out of watchers as they made moves that proved they could pull off the secession. Ojukwu who had thought Biafra could survive with the revenues accruing from the oilfields in their territory did not reckon with those who had stakes in the area. There was Britain, the former colonial power scared they could lose their oil holdings. Then, there was the late-comer Soviet Union which saw a chance to get a footing in the African exploitation exercise. And, of course, there was France looking to increase her influence in an area in which their colonial expedition only netted small fry countries with nothing to exploit.
According to newly-released intelligence reports, the world looked elsewhere as Britain and the Soviet Union unashamedly sent arms to boost the Federal military government, under General Yakubu Gowon. France, on the other hand, was a little subtle in her dealings, publicly denying its involvement in arming the Biafrans, but sneakily making very large weapons shipments through the neighboring Ivory Coast and Gabon with the sole objective being “the break-up of Nigeria which threatens, by its size and potential, to overshadow France’s client Francophone states in West Africa.”
Between the three countries, and outnumbered, ill-armed, and starving by the numbers, Biafra became a pun.
Biafra, like all wars, brought out the beast in Nigerians and Biafrans alike. For example soon after the Abagana mayhem, where a single well-placed Biafran bullet hit a petrol tanker in a convoy of Federal Nigerian troops causing an explosion that killed so many, the Federal Nigerian high command’s reaction was decisively swift and brutal. The order was simple and terse, and echoed by Brigadier General Benjamin Adekunle who led the advancing Nigeria Army’s Third Marine Commando division: “Crush this rebellion once and for all. Do not take prisoners. Shoot anything that moves, including those not moving.”
A column of Biafran civilians, in a bumper-to-bumper formation—women, children, and old men—was clogging the few highways leading out of Abagana. Nigeria Air force’s Russian-supplied Ilyushin 28s and British-supplied MiGs-17s fighters hovered overhead. Manned by British mercenary pilots who had acquired the odious reputation for not fighting fair by conveniently avoiding military targets to strafe hospitals and sick bays, and bomb refugee camps, and drop napalm bombs on fleeing civilians and on open air church services, the fighters came in low, flying at tree top levels firing their machine guns indiscriminately into the columns of civilians. Wrecked Biafran civilian vehicles blocked the roads creating choke point traffic jams that slowed the movement of the civilians. The Nigeria Air force bombers circling above dive-bombed the massive traffic jams, toggling their heavy bomb loads into the trapped masses of helpless Biafran civilians. The napalm bombs had the nasty habit of throwing slow-burning, jellied petrol over victims that could not be extinguished until the blackened victim burnt to death on fire soaked earth. The refugees died horribly.
On the ground level, elements of the Nigeria Army armored division rolled close to the scene of the bombing, leveled their gun turrets at the wounded, dying, and dead civilians and hosed them down with 50 caliber bullets that can dissolve a man’s head at a thousand yards. It was a wholesale massacre that turned women, children, old men, goats, pigs, chickens, dogs, and cats into corned beef. The civilians were dying in the thousands turning the Abagana exit road into a highway of death. As victims of the onslaught lay screaming with their hideously mutilated limbs and heart-breaking injuries that could horrify surgeons, petrified old men, panic-stricken women and distressed children milled around in a dazed confusion. They suffered terribly and died horribly.
Down the road from the scene of wanton civilian slaughter, a sapper corporal of the Biafran Organization of Freedom Fighters (BOFF) had wired a small bridge, with a Biafran-made explosive device known as the Ojukwu bucket, so as to blow it when the Nigerian armored column rolled by. This was with a view to delaying the Federal Nigeria armored division advance and giving the next town the opportunity of escaping the wanton slaughter that was sure to come. He stood horrified as an endless flow of Biafran refugees: a press of old men, and elderly women, mothers with small babies, families fleeing together—they came in their thousands streaming over the bridge and could not be made to stop. Then the Nigeria Air Force fighters came in low, their wing guns blazing as they strafed the fleeing column. Soon after, the Nigerian army armored division advanced on the bridge, and not wanting to be delayed, started firing their cupola-mounted coaxial machine guns into the packed crowd, mowing people down by the numbers, spewing severed limbs, exploded heads, and trailing human entrails all over the bridge.
The BOFF corporal had but a second to make up his mind. Wait for the civilians to clear the bridge, the Nigerian armored column will cross the bridge to continue the slaughter in the next town. Kill a few to save many, was what he could come up with. He touched his face, his two shoulders, and his chest in a silent prayer, and twisted the charging handle immediately. The explosive charges popped in rapid succession dropping the bridge structure, still jam-packed with screaming people, into the murky river below with an impressive splash that was at once spectacular and horrific.
With that much carnage, and following the blockade imposed on Biafra by the Nigerian Federal Military government, Biafra’s secession attempt collapsed in January1970. Finally, after an estimated one to three million—mostly Igbo people—had been shot or starved to death, Ojukwu went into exile “in search of peace” as Biafra surrendered. The Igbo went back into the Nigerian fold crossly silent.
For those clamoring for Biafra, I have something painful to tell you. If by some remote possibility you are handed Biafra, the very same Igbo leaders who are raping the core Igbo states from behind without letup are going to be the Biafran leaders.
It is therefore hard to reconcile those images of famished, malnourished children, bloating and sometimes decapitated corpses lying around, and the utter despondence of what was Biafra with the ill-advised clamor of the clueless group purporting to invoke the ghost of Biafra because people of Igbo extraction were being marginalized.
Someone did not know much about Biafra.
You see, what the Give-us-Biafra group has most tellingly deceived itself into believing is that if the small Igbo-speaking area of Nigeria is carved out as an independent country thereby bringing the government closer to them, things will change for the Igbo man. Not so, bro. If, in the unlikely event that happens, it will simply metamorphose into a nightmare without end, for the Biafrans will need a passport to go to Abuja, Lagos, or even Ikot Ekpene next door. The Igbo, sojourning dare-devils as it were, could not be confined in a space that little. Those traders in far flung areas of Nigeria will feel the full jolt of the hair-raising fallout of such a gaffe.
For those clamoring for Biafra, I have something painful to tell you. If by some remote possibility you are handed Biafra, the very same Igbo leaders who are raping the core Igbo states from behind without letup are going to be the Biafran leaders. The Igbo leaders are the problem—the same representatives in government who should speak for the Igbo. They have Igbo governors who have collected state allocations and pocketed them. The Igbo people know those Igbo ministers, governors, local government chairmen, senators, legislators; they know their country mansions, the new hotels they have built with money belonging to all of us. Those are the people that ought to be confronted. Every month, we read in the papers how much money the state collected from the federal purse. We wait for things to begin to happen; they don’t. We are angry. We want Biafra. We want an Igbo President. We want our villages to become states. We forget that even an Igbo president is not responsible for fixing the road in our villages, or providing us with drinking water. This is the job of your Igbo governors—the prime culprits responsible for your angst—who has been pocketing your collective money.
If the Igbo man is suffering in a Nigeria that has ‘marginalized’ him, what are the Igbo representatives in government doing about it? The ‘little’ money coming in from the Federal government is being diverted with impunity by the same leaders. I would rather the Biafra agitators agitate for those leaders to produce the money for the advancement of the Igbo man. If you cannot make your Igbo leaders accountable; even if you are handed Biafra, the same leaders will show up to take that money, too.
Dr. Dr Emeaba Emeaba is the publisher of Houston-based Drum Magazine.