MY REMINISCENCES ON BIAFRA AT FIFTY

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My literary Icon and Motivator Chinua Achebe, had written that ‘he that forgets where the rain started to beat him, will also not remember where his body was dried’.

On the 30th day of May, 1967 the Military Governor of the defunct Eastern Region of Nigeria;Lt Col Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, had, in consultation with ‘Elders Consultative Assembly’ of the Region, declared the Region a Federal Republic of Biafra.

By that declaration, the government and people of the former Eastern Region had formally expressed their intent, voluntary or circumstantial, to secede from the Nigerian Federation.

That declaration would eventually culminate in a thirty-month fratricidal war in which the region lost more than two million of her people to death through aerial bombardments, assault rifles, starvation and out-break and spread of diseases in the near total absence of medical facilities.

The carnage witnessed or experienced during the 30-month war remains the most debilitating in the history of wars in Mother Africa.

Today is 30th May, 2017 and marks exactly fifty years of the declaration of short-lived Federal Republic of Biafra.

As I write this piece, I am at Aba, the hitherto heartthrob of the Biafran struggle.

My debonair wife, Lady Anthonia Ubani, had wanted to make a call on her hand phone but realized that her recharge card had been exhausted.

She, therefore, asked her relation, Ndidi who came to our family when she had only completed Elementary One but is now on the verge of completing her Her National Diploma, to walk across a road near us and buy her recharge card.

To and fro that engagement should not have taken Ndidi more than fifteen minutes. Curiously, Ndidi spent more than thirty minutes before coming back.

On return, she did not have any recharge card to hand over to my wife. She rather told my wife, to my hearing, that the shops close to our residence were locked. According to her, she had to walk a further distance only to discover that every shop was under lock and key.

The reason was obvious and it automatically dawned on me, ‘Today Is Biafra Day’. Both economic and social life in the length and breath of Igbo land will be grounded to a halt today in remembrance of the millions that lost their lives in the course of defending themselves against genocide.

History is a vital, if not one of the most vital aspects of man’s existence. It tells us of our past. It is only history that can tell us who we are and where we are coming from.

Any government or society that is sincere will always encourage the study of history in her schools. Even the family tells her members who they are and their journey so far through the effectiveness of oral history.

When a society has something to hide, it tries to suppress the natural urge in her members to know their history.

For a dynamic society, knowledge of history enables her members to appreciate, even in a critical manner, the attainments of their predecessors, their strengths and weaknesses. It offers them the opportunity to know why and how previous relationships went sour and what should have been done to maintain cordiality in human relationship.

It is quite inexplicable and most untoward that the Nigerian government had barred the study of history in Nigerian Secondary Schools! The question will continue to be asked, what does the government think it can succeed in hiding from the citizens?

Fifty years of experience in an aspect of nation-building should be considered quite enough to have provided enduring guide into nationhood. The questions must, therefore, be asked, what lessons has Nigeria learnt from the Nigeria/Biafra war? Can the banning of the study of history in Nigeria force amnesia on her people and their past? These questions could be rhetorical.

Knowing that history can not be suppressed, it would be necessary we remind ourselves some of the factors that gave rise to the war:

Political disagreement between Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his erstwhile ally, Chief Samuel Akintola had given rise to serious breakdown of law and order in defunct Western Region of Nigeria.

Life in the region had become meaningless as people were mercilessly killed and butchered.

The Hausa/Fulani oligarchy had fuelled the dangerous destabilization of the West by aligning with Samuel Akintola as Premier of Western Region. The conspiracy led to the imprisonment of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in Calabar.

While the West was on fire, the Nigerian Federal Government led by Prime-Minister Sir Abubarkar Tafawa Balewa was going on as if nothing was happening in the country. Yet, hundreds of citizens were losing their precious lives every day.

It was in reaction to that spate of recklessness and impunity that a crop of young military officers, led by Major Patrick Chukwuma Nzeogwu, decided to wipe out the political leadership of the era and restore normalcy.

They struck in the wee hours of January 15 1966. In Kaduna, the powerful Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello(Sarduana of Sokoto) was killed while Sir Balewa and Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotiebo, lost their lives in Lagos. At Ibadan, Chief Akintola was killed.

Incidentally and unacceptably, in the Eastern Region where powerful Dr Michael I Okpara held swear as Premier, no killing took place. The Soldiers who had gone to kill Okpara met him in the company of visiting Arch Bishop Marcos of Cyprus. They, therefore, naively became reluctant to hit at their target.

At independence on 1st October, 1960, Nigeria had three regions; East, North and West.

The country, however, became four regions by 1963 Republican Constitution which created the Mid-Western Region.

The Premier of Mid-Western Region was Chief Dennis Osadebe. Osadebe was an Igbo(Ika Ibo). He was not killed by the coupists.

Meanwhile, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, President of Nigeria who was known to have always boasted to be above human destruction, was out of the country on medical grounds and, so, he could not have been killed.

The January 1966 coup, despite its bloody nature failed as it could not achieve its main objective which was to take over power from the then civilian government, release Chief Awolowo from prison and install him as the Head of the Nigerian Government.

Rather, Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi, the most senior officer in the Nigerian Army and an Igbo, took over the reins of government.

He appointed Military Governors for the four regions, including Lagos.

Col Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, who was a Batalion Commander in Kano and who never supported the coup and had even threatened to deploy his officers and soldiers against the mutineers if they ever attempted coming to Kano, was appointed Military Governor of Eastern Region by Gen Ironsi.

When Northern politicians, civil servants and soldiers took a count of the killings, they found out that the casualties were mainly northerners. They concluded it was an Igbo-led coup against the Northern establishment.

This realization gave rise to a counter coup on July 29th, 1966 during which Major-Gen Ironsi, who was at Ibadan on a tour of the Western Region and was being hosted by the Military Governor of the region, Col Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, was arrested, brutally beaten and allegedly tied to an Army Land Rover which drove for a long distance while his body dragged along the road before he died.

Mention must be made of the uncommon patriotism, espirit de corps and hospitality of Col Fajuyi who preferred losing his life to living in complacency while his guest was taken away without any resistance. May his soul continue to find peace in God’s vicinity.

With the killing of Aguiyi Ironsi, Lt Col Yakubu Gowon, a modest Christian of northern minority extraction, took over government as Military Head of State.

Having done this, Northern soldiers broke loose and started killing officers and Soldiers of Eastern Nigeria extraction in Lagos and every part of the North.

As if that was not enough revenge, both soldiers and civilians of Northern establishment embarked on pogrom. The killing of the Easterners in both Lagos and more especially in Northern Nigeria was horrendous.

It was because of the unprecedented genocide directed against the Easterners that opinion leaders in the region urged Ojukwu to declare for the Republic of Biafra since their safety was no longer guaranteed in Nigeria.

The people of the North had threatened to secede from Nigeria after July 22 1953 when Chief Anthony Eromosele Enahoro had, on the floor of the Nigerian Parliament in Lagos, moved a motion that Nigeria should be self-governed in 1956. Enahoro was of the Action Group.

The well articulated motion for self-government, which was supported by Members of Action Group, National Council of Nigerian Citizens and Northern Elements Progressive Union, was unjustifiably opposed by majority of Northerners on the platform of Northern Peoples’ Congress.

The anger that opposition spontaneously generated amongst the Lagos intelligentsia led to the booing of Northerners within the premises of the Parliament.

The North threatened to pull out of the emerging Nigerian Federation due to the public disgrace it attracted to itself. It was because of that reason that Sir Ahmadu Bello who, by the Parliamentary system of government then, should have been the Prime-Minister since his Party, Northern Peoples’ Congress had the highest number of seats in Parliament, refused to come to Lagos. He rather asked one of his trusted subordinates, Sir Abubarkar Tafawa Balewa, to be the Prime-Minister while he consolidated in the North.

After killing Gen Ironsi and embarking on pogrom against the people of Eastern Region, the North again threatened to secede from Nigeria.

Two reasons, however, discouraged them from going ahead with their threat. The first was the counsel of the British Government which made them to realize that, in the nearest future, Nigeria’s economy would be driven by Oil and gas which was thickly deposited in the Eastern part of the country.

The second factor was the delegation of leaders of the minorities of Eastern Region who, led by the then immediate past Chief Judge of Eastern Region; Nabo Graham Douglas, had petitioned to Gen Yakubu Gowon of their palpable discomfort in being part of the Biafran Republic.

For those two reasons, the Government of Nigeria, under General Yakubu Gowon, decided to fight what it termed a war to keep Nigeria one.

A war Nigeria had boasted would end in less than thirty days ended up lasting almost three years. This was mainly due to the determination of Biafrans to defend themselves against what they knew would amount to ethnic cleansing by the rampaging government of Nigeria.

Another major reason why the war lasted beyond the imagination of the Nigerian government was the rare ingenuity of the Biafrans. Despite being barricaded in all geographical fronts, making it impossible for them to receive external aids in terms of food and military equipment, their engineers, scientists and technicians were very inventive. They seamlessly manufactured their own arms and ammunition.

Even at that, the sufferings were unbearable. Hunger and malnutrition were responsible for more than fifty percent of those who died during the war.

Let me use this opportunity to, for the umpteenth time, appreciate my late parents, Chief Emmanuel Wigwe Ubani and Chief(Mrs) Mary Wugo Josephine Ubani, for working very assiduously in the most hazardous war climate to make sure none of their children was malnourished as to suffer from kwasiokor.

Chief Obafemi Awolowo was released by Col Ojukwu from the Calabar Prison. Arrangements were made and had him flown back to the West.

Ironically, the Man whose crisis with Akintola led to the Wild West and eventual intervention by the Military, on return to the West, joined the Government of Gen Gowon to prosecute the war against the Igbo.

Awolowo became Minister of Finance and Vice Chairman of Gowon’s Supreme Military Council. He advised the Nigerian Government to use maximum economic blockade to ruthlessly deal with Biafrans.

At the end of the thirty-month war, Awolowo, as Minister of Finance, influenced the obnoxious policy of twenty pounds in return for whatever amount the Igbo had in his bank account before the outbreak of the war. Even if one had one million pounds, one was only entitled to twenty pounds.

As soon as that policy was implemented, Awolowo advised the Government of Gowon to introduce and implement Indigenization Policy. By this policy, Nigerians were encouraged to buy shares from major companies in the country. The Igbo could not participate in that national economic policy thrust.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government had given tacit support to Diete Spiff’s military administration of Rivers State to declare all property owned by the Igbo as Abandoned Property.

The Igbo came back to Nigeria completely devastated and pauperised.

Even though General Yakubu Gowon had declared a picture of No Victor, No Vanquished at the end of the war, with his three Rs of Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, the Igbo have continued to be at the receiving end in Nigeria. They remain the most hated in Nigeria. Yet, they are unarguably the most adventurous and enterprising.

For those of us who experienced the Nigeria/Biafra war in its crudest and most turbulent expressions, the truth is that none of us will wish to encounter that horror a second time. Any body that wishes any of my children, relations, friends or even any body that thinks I am his enemy to have a similar experience, in my mind, must be a sadist of the worst category.

Contemporary Nigeria is being systematically and steadily threatened by three cancerous factors; (1) Islamic fundamentalism, (2)Born-to-rule mentality of the Hausa/Fulani and(3) Government Sponsored/Ignored Terrorist Fulani Herdsmen.

The above three threats have eroded the corporate stability of Nigeria to a very precariously dangerous degree.

The menace is no longer restricted to the Igbo. All the ethnic nationalities that joined forces with the Hausa/Fulani hoping to annihilate the Igbo are equally not finding it easy with the Hausa/Fulani today.

The solution will not be found in arms or confrontation. The solution can only be found in mutual understanding, sincere appreciation of our realities and determined resolve to tell ourselves the truth.

Our Federalism is in sharp contrast to the principles that drive a federation. Federalism encourages the federating units to develop at their own competitive pace. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s brand of federalism only motivates indolence and stagnation.

As a matter of fact, if the stability and growth of Nigeria must make meaning in both national and global context, it would mean that Nigeria must be restructured. Whoever that thinks otherwise is only forcing the country to relax on explosive cake of gun powder.

Sir Don Ubani is a former Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Abia State.

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