By Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
In the aftermath of the release of Chinua Achebe’s book titled There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra and his article published in the Guardian on 2 October 2012, there have been many debates about the Biafra war. Some have accused Achebe of stirring up old wounds by resurrecting the “B” question, while others are appalled at his comment about Awolowo’s policies, which Achebe claims resulted in the starvation of millions of people. Some have suggested that rather than heap the blame on Nigerian officials, Achebe should have heaped the blame on the Biafran leaders who embarked on a war knowing that their army was ill equipped to take on the Nigerian forces. The debate has also taken a tribal dimension with many Igbo’s rallying behind Professor Achebe, while many Yoruba’s have taken to the opposite side by expressing their displeasure at Achebe, while defending Awolowo’s legacy.
Regardless of what Achebe said or did not say, it does not deny the fact that his article in the Guardian and his new book are timely. For a very long time, the Biafra question keeps on coming up again and again. On one hand, the Igbo’s feel aggrieved by what they experienced during the war, while on the other hand, the rest of the country feel that the Biafra war occurred long ago and that the Igbo’s should get over it and move on.
Unfortunately, the current debate triggered by Achebe’s article and book has resulted in many of us focusing on the principal players in the war, rather than focusing on the underlying issue at hand: i.e. the genocide that took place during the three year war. One problem with focusing on the principal actors such as Yakubu Gowon, Obafemi Awolowo, Chinua Achebe, Emeka Ojukwu, Olusegun Obasanjo, Brigadier Adekunle, Murtala Mohammed etc is that none of these actors were significantly impacted by the war. They and most of their family all came out of the war, intact, healthy and alive. However, what we need to revisit as a nation is the tragic story of the millions of people (majority children) who died as a result of man’s cruelty to man.
I believe that the Igbo’s have a genuine case to feel aggrieved by what has happened. I also believe that our country Nigeria cannot move forward as long as the scar of the atrocities and injustices committed during the Biafra war is swept under the carpet. I also believe that Nigeria cannot become a first class nation as long as it has second-class Igbo citizens who can’t live where they want to or aspire to the highest position in the land.
On a personal level, having been born after the Biafra war and being a Yoruba man, I had a different perspective of the war, however in my interaction with some of my Igbo friends, I somehow got to understand the war from the two perspectives. At the time, I did not know or reflect on the scale of the genocide that took place during the war. This changed when I visited the Imperial War Museum in London and I saw footages of the war (which I never got to see in Nigeria) and explored the genocide section of the museum. I also learnt later that Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the humanitarian medical aid organization, which provides medical aid to war victims, was formed in response to the atrocities committed during the Biafra war.
Some argue that the Biafra war was like any war and it is normal to expect casualties. That argument is true, but it is irrelevant to the case of Biafra. During the Biafra war, there was a deliberate attempt to end the war by causing untold sufferings to civilians comprising mainly women and children, which is a breach of the Geneva Convention. Starvation became a key strategy in bringing about an end to the war. Some argue: “it was the fault of the Igbo’s because they entered a war that they were not prepared to fight”- However, this line of reasoning is flawed because it is like saying that a person deserves to be robbed because he used a lock that can be easily broken.
Some argue that the Igbo’s deserve the treatment they got because they ill-treated the ethnic minorities in the Eastern part of Nigeria. Once again, this argument is irrelevant. Two wrongs don’t make a right, neither should it be a justification for supporting and also denying genocide. Some also argue that the policy of the use of starvation as a weapon during the Biafra war is just a myth. This logic is also flawed. After all how can one say starvation was not used as a weapon of war when politicians on the Nigerian side made vitriolic statements like: “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;” or “Mass starvation is a legitimate aspect of war” or “I want to see no Red Cross, no Caritas, no World Council of Churches, no Pope, no missionary and no UN delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo from having even one piece to eat before their capitulation. We shoot at everything that moves and when our troops march into the centre of Ibo territory, we shoot at everything even at things that do not move.”
When starvation becomes a key tool for winning a war– a policy which leads to millions of people (majority of children) dying of starvation, then those behind such cruel, inhumane and satanic policies should have been dragged to the courts for war crimes.
According to Genocide Watch, the anti-genocide organization, there are eight stages of genocide. The first seven stages include: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation and extermination. In the case of Biafra, all these seven stages were completed, however in today’s Nigeria, the final stage of the Biafran genocide has been completed i.e. DENIAL. Unfortunately, as time has passed by, the denial of the genocide that took place during the war is in full force. Per Genocide Watch: “DENIAL is the eighth stage that always follows a genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres….The perpetrators of genocide dig up the mass graves, burn the bodies, try to cover up the evidence and intimidate the witnesses. They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims.” It appears that there has been a deliberate attempt to cover up and deny the events leading to, during and after the Biafra war. During my primary school days, I was taught about Mungo Park, David Livingstone and Lord Lugard, however I can’t recollect any in depth teaching on the Biafra war apart from seeing the phrase: “1967-1970: Civil War in Nigeria” in some history books. In addition, Gowon’s “no victor, no vanquished” approach simply reinforced the denial of the genocides committed during the war.
I know that the issue of Biafra is an emotive issue, but it is important that we understand what actually took place, look at all sides of the argument and then we can start the healing process. I have argued sometime ago for reparations to be paid to the Igbo’s – even though I am conscious that no amount of compensation can compensate for the past crimes.
Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher once said: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Until we sit down and address the Biafra question, we are doomed to repeat it again.
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA, firstname.lastname@example.org
To help us understand the issue at hand, I suggest you watch this seven-part video (link below) and arrive at your own conclusion.