The Biafran war had its long root of political and ethnic division. This phase stands as one of the darkest and dimmest in the history of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The conflict lasted for three years as the Republic Of Biafra led under the leadership of Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu sought to withstand the Nigerian government of General Yakubu Gowon. Over 2 million citizens especially children died from death by malnourishment. More than half a million also had to flee the Eastern region. To understand the root cause of the war is to briefly go into broader details to see how it all started.
I often describe the disunity and the disproportioned outlook among the Nigerians as one of the sole results and problems that colonialism brought in. In 1914, British High Commissioner Frederick Lugard formated the amalgamation of Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria. This move delegated huge chunk of powers which gave dominion to the northern elites. It was widely perceived that the northern elites were prime subordinates to British interests. During the Independence of Nigeria in 1960, the three largest ethnic groups were the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. Thus, the Nigerian state was divided into three geopolitical regions with the Northern region being the largest. This was never the intention of the igbos but due to their quest for Independence, they had to agree to such controversial bargain with the Northerners. This paved the way for what would be the long history of divide and ethnic nationalism among the Nigerians.
Well, for the Northern part, they were mostly illiterates and believed outrightly in Islamic education and maintenance of its olden ways. Many believe that they always saw the igbos as a threat to their jobs and livelihoods since the igbos were far more industrious and adventurous in making ends meet. Therefore, the Northerners were far more ambitious to protect their jobs and interests especially around the Northern part of the country. Thus, the Northernization Policy was introduced by the Premier of the Northern Region Sir Ahmadu Bello. This controversial policy was to promote the ideology of “a northerner first”. Consequently, the enactment of this policy saw an increase of attacks and regionalism on the igbos residing in the north.
You see, the Nigerian political history has seen a countless number of coups and countercoups. I would say it has been series of political instabilities and leadership uncertainties. Evidently, On 29th July 1966, General Yakubu Gowon led a countercoup against a Southerner General Aguiyi Ironsi. Ironsi together with his allies were killed and Gowon assumed office as military head of state. This did not end there as the Igbos were also subjects of targets and approximately 8,000 to 30,000 Southeasterners were mobbed and their properties destroyed as well. Whether it was done out of a show of dominance by the Northerners or was a mere scheme of retaliation against the igbos, is not for me to say. It was at this point that Colonel Ojukwu called for the return of all Igbo and southern indigenes to come back home to their motherland. Thus, the Biafran project was at the fold.
Colonel Ojukwu in consultation with the Igbo tribesmen, elders and influential people in the society proposed the idea of a breakaway nation from Nigeria with its own monuments and governmental structures. But, the widespread news of possible secession of the South was increasingly widespread. This raised worries and speculation within the public sphere and subregion. As a result, a two day meeting at the place of Aburi, Ghana was chose as the meeting place for discussions between Colonel Ojukwu and General Gowon. Surprisingly, Ojukwu took this meeting very serious and laid out sets of demands which included among others; a greater political autonomy, restructuring the military to recruit Southeasterners with better facilities and commensurable salaries and control of the Southeastern oil revenue deposits. Gowon to the surprise of many agreed to the demands and it was sealed of with a friendly handshake and an accomodating ambiance.
But judging by the reality at home, Gowon never planned on succumbing to the demands of Ojukwu. This was the final push and it was time for action to be taken. Therefore on the 30th May 1967, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu announced the secession of the eastern region and the establishment of the republic of Biafra. The streets were all packed with cheerful jubilation sensing the rise of a new dawn. Ojukwu ordered for skilled penmen and artists to create its national symbol with its anthem preaching nationalism and patriotism. They also assembled a currency which could be used as monetary exchange within the region. Universities were erected as well as different monuments. Nevertheless, Yakubu Gowon was determined to prevent any form of breakaway from the federal republic.
As it seemed, the war was imminent and Ojukwu was confident of withstanding any foreign aggression. He was prepared for war and any casualty as he described was “the price for freedom”. So on July 6th 1967, the Biafran war started when Nigerian troops advanced into two columns in Biafra. Despite the war in some parts, life was normal in the cities and it was business as usual. This normalcy was however short-lived as the scars were starting to be visible. The Gowon administration introduced economic blockade of goods and foreign aid from entering Biafran towns and cities. The war meant more men and military recruitments and so, young boys and men were recruited into the military to supplement the effort of the Biafran army. Thus, the women were left to man the affairs and running of the Biafran Republic. Gowon was for sure surprised that the war lasted for a long while owing to the fact that they had the greatest arsenal. It was also speculated that they received British military assistance – a move which was widely criticized. The result of the economic blockade caused a huge amount of protein deficiency and inadequate dietary needs. Young infants and children were the most affected and were left to starve due to shortage of nutrition. Thus the headline “starving children of Biafra” was a topic of great discontent and emotion. Protests were held across the globe with people blaming Gowon for the casualties and Ojukwu for not surrendering a to war which he knew he never would have won.
On the 14th January 1970, Biafra surrendered to Nigeria with Philip Effiong who was the vice president of Ojukwu leading the forefront for peaceful negotiations and a lasting solution to this problem. The Gowon administration eventually won the war with Ojukwu fleeing out of the country. In present day, the Biafran dream is still alive with the Independent People Of Biafra (IPOB) under the leadership of Nnamdi Kanu. It has been a controversial discussion till date with people believing that Nigeria should be divided.
Do you believe that the Colonial Setup of the British have helped in consolidating peace and equal space in Nigeria? Given that we still hope of having a United Continent, Do you think that our colonial boundaries and limitations would make that work? Feel free to drop in your comments.