The genocidal Biafran war still haunts Nigeria
by Chinua Achebe
The persecution of the Igbos didn’t end with the Biafran conflict. Until the nation faces up to this, its mediocrity will continue-
Almost 30 years before Rwanda, before Darfur, more than 2 million people – mothers, children, babies, civilians – lost their lives as a result of the blatantly callous and unnecessary policies enacted by the leaders of the federal government of Nigeria. As a writer I believe that it is fundamentally important, indeed essential to our humanity, to ask the hard questions, in order to better understand ourselves and our neighbours. Where there is justification for further investigation, justice should be served.
In the case of the Nigeria-Biafra war there is precious little relevant literature that helps answer these questions. Did the federal government of Nigeria engage in the genocide of its Igbo citizens – who set up the republic of Biafra in 1967 – through punitive policies, the most notorious being “starvation as a legitimate weapon of war”? Is the information blockade around the war a case of calculated historical suppression? Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, more than 40 years after its end? Are we perpetually doomed to repeat the errors of the past because we are too stubborn to learn from them?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group …”. The UN general assembly defined it in 1946 as “… a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups”. Throughout the conflict the Biafrans consistently charged that the Nigerians had a design to exterminate the Igbo people from the face of the earth. This calculation, the Biafrans insisted, was predicated on a holy jihad proclaimed by mainly Islamic extremists in the Nigerian army and supported by the policies of economic blockade that prevented shipments of humanitarian aid, food and supplies to the needy in Biafra.
Supporters of the federal government position maintain that a war was being waged and the premise of all wars is for one side to emerge as the victor. Overly ambitious actors may have “taken actions unbecoming of international conventions of human rights, but these things happen everywhere”. This same group often cites findings, from organisations (sanctioned by the federal government) that sent observers during the crisis, that there “was no clear intent on behalf of the Nigerian troops to wipe out the Igbo people … pointing out that over 30,000 Igbos still lived in Lagos, and half a million in the mid-west”.
But if the diabolical disregard for human life seen during the war was not due to the northern military elite’s jihadist or genocidal obsession, then why were there more small arms used on Biafran soil than during the entire second world war? Why were there 100,000 casualties on the much larger Nigerian side compared with more than 2 million – mainly children – Biafrans killed?
It is important to point out that most Nigerians were against the war and abhorred the senseless violence that ensued. The wartime cabinet of General Gowon, the military ruler, it should also be remembered, was full of intellectuals like Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others who came up with a boatload of infamous and regrettable policies. A statement credited to Awolowo and echoed by his cohorts is the most callous and unfortunate: 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 harder.
It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose – the Nigeria-Biafra war – his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.
The bloated bellies of these Biafran children, pictured in 1968, show the effects of starvation in the three-year conflict. Photograph: AP Photo/Church World Service/AP
The federal government’s actions soon after the war could be seen not as conciliatory but as outright hostile. After the conflict ended, the same hardliners in the Nigerian government cast Igbos in the role of treasonable felons and wreckers of the nation – and got the regime to adopt a banking policy that nullified any bank account operated during the war by the Biafrans. A flat sum of 20 Nigerian pounds was approved for each Igbo depositor, regardless of the amount of deposit. If there was ever a measure put in place to stunt, or even obliterate, the economy of a people, this was it.
After that outrageous charade, Nigeria’s leaders sought to devastate the resilient and emerging eastern commercial sector even further by banning the import of secondhand clothing and stockfish – two trade items that they knew the burgeoning market towns of Onitsha, Aba and Nnewi needed to re-emerge. Their fear was that these communities, fully reconstituted, would then serve as the economic engines for the reconstruction of the entire Eastern Region.
There are many international observers who believe that Gowon’s actions after the war were magnanimous and laudable. There are tons of treatises that talk about how the Igbo were wonderfully integrated into Nigeria. Well, I have news for them: The Igbos were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness.
Borrowing from the Marshall plan for Europe after the second world war, the federal government launched an elaborate scheme highlighted by three Rs – for reconstruction, rehabilitation, and reconciliation. The only difference is that, while the Americans actually carried out all three prongs of the strategy, Nigeria’s federal government did not.
What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entire travesty is the fact that mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war – ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery. Nations enshrine mediocrity as their modus operandi, and create the fertile ground for the rise of tyrants and other base elements of the society, by silently assenting to the dismantling of systems of excellence because they do not immediately benefit one specific ethnic, racial, political, or special-interest group. That, in my humble opinion, is precisely where Nigeria finds itself today. – First published in Guardian.co.uk
Chinua Achebe’s memoir about the Biafran war, There Was a Country, has just been published