By Rev. Fr. Prof. Nicholas Ibeawuchi Omenka
The Unhealed scars of the Nigeria-Biafra war: 50 years on
January 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nigerian civil war. This event was commemorated in major cities around the world by people who still remember the Biafran tragedy which devastated their consciences.They remember the dying and dead “Biafran Babies” and the concerted efforts they made to save them. In Berlin, the German capital, responses from carefully crafted questionnaires depicting the memories of the war were partly televised and partly released in various news media. In London, the people were reminded in their popular daily, the Guardian, of “Britain’s shameful role in the Biafran war” written by Frederick Forsyth, the BBC correspondent who was sent to Nigeria to coverup their country’s covert operations on behalf of the Federal Forces and who ended up telling the world the real truth. Not surprisingly, the event was marked with a stone-cold silence in Nigeria, the epicentre of the tragedy. This was in line with information suppression which Chinua Achebe has described as “a preferred official policy.”As Hugh McCullum reminds us, “Biafra is a history which Nigeria will never successfully rewrite, nor the silence of the world erase”http://www.biafraland.com/Relief%Heroes.htm.
History and memory are essential ingredients in national cohesion and any nation that deliberately suppresses them does so to its peril. There is an important nexus between truth and reconciliation. The commission that goes by that name in South Africa will forever remain a model for all nations of the world.Guilt admission and a complete and unfalsified exposure of the truth not only opens the way for a lasting national reconciliation, but also brings about a psychological liberation to individual minds. It is generally known that horrendous acts of unimaginable proportions took place during the Nigeria/Biafra War. The scars of that war are still written boldly in the minds and hearts of individuals, communities and tribes, and while there is a general talk of national reconciliation after decades of political crisis, the scars of the civil war seem to have been relegated to the background.
We have in our society citizens who have suffered, and are still suffering, many wrongs as a result of the civil war. Fifty years after the end of the war, the path of the marginalization of the Igbo has continued to be carefully charted and sustained. A truly united Nigeria cannot become a reality under this atmosphere. Ethnic hatred and rivalry have remained the greatest danger to the survival of Nigeria as a nation, just as was the case during the war. The church leaders belonged to various tribal loyalties and sympathies, and their failure to arrive at a consensus on some controversial issues of the war can safely be ascribed to the tribal forces and emotions that pervaded the Nigerian civil war. This, more than the physical obstacles caused by the armed conflict, was largely responsible for the lack of communication between the church leaders on both sides of the war. Consequently, they could not, on their own, come out with a joint statement on an aspect of the war which had shocked the conscience of the world, namely, the mass killings of innocent civilians and wanton destruction of property in the former Eastern Nigeria. After the recent bizarre ruling of the Supreme Court that ousted the duly elected Governor of Imo State, Nigerians of all political and ethnic persuasions took to the streets in protest. A similar reaction is trending in Lebanon and Iraq and should be encouraged here in Nigeria.
It stands out as remarkable that given the nature of the Nigeria/Biafra conflict, the much-anticipated large scale “genocide” did not materialise at the end of the war, thanks largely to the pre-emptive outcry of the Christian world led by the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI.While we celebrate that victory, we must admit, openly and privately and in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, that crimes against humanity took place in our country Nigeria.
Remarkably, the only persons or group of persons that faced a tribunal at the end of a war that was as brutal as the Nigeria-Biafra conflict were the foreign missionaries, most of them Irish.They were captured, tried, imprisoned and deported to Europe in the middle of a bitter cold winter without the chance of taking even warm clothing.In the words of Fr. Tony Byrne, the Nigerian nation used the missionaries as scapegoats in order “to bind its wounds, quieten the hawks and reunite its people.”They had to be sacrificed in order-to appease the gods of Nigerian unity and to facilitate the Africanization of the Nigerian church. Accordingly, there was no official protest or popular outcry from either church or state against their deportation. The only authoritative voice against their imprisonment and expulsion came from an Anglican Bishop, the Rt. Rev. G. E. Cochin, one-time Anglican Bishop of Owerri. The foreign missionaries that worked in Biafra ought to be associated with fame, honour and dignity not just for their achievements in the enclave, but most importantly because of what they gave to the whole world and to our century. They formed the Joint Church Aid, the most dynamic ecumenical movement of the twentieth century, and when they could no longer function in Nigeria, the die-hards among them quickly got over the deportation shock and immediately put their experiences and expertise at the disposal of the world. Some moved into development programming, while others founded new NGOs like Concern and were ancillary to the formation of Médcins Sans Frontieres, both of which have become world renowned. Put differently, Nigeria’s loss has become “everyone else’s gain.”
However, the majority of the deported missionaries were dislocated for life. They had volunteered for life for the missions and had come to live in perfect union with the people they served and loved. The circumstance surrounding their deportation have led to many broken hearts and lives of despondency among them. The Nigerian nation has a moral obligation to acknowledge the sacrifices and sufferings of the former missionaries. Now that they are no longer a threat to anybody, the church should plead for a general amnesty and official rehabilitation for the deported missionaries, dead or alive.
The Nigerian Military Government under General Gowon won the praise and admiration of the world by the way it showed a rare magnanimity in victory. Fifty years on, the optimism generated by the promise of reconciliation,rehabilitation and reconstruction has remained a mere sham. Recently, I gave an interview to a German female researcher on the Biafran War and in her publication in the German newsprint media, Die KatholischeNachrichtenagentur (KNA), she stated, accurately, that marginalization was a reoccurring topic in Enugu and other South-Eastern states. She concluded, however, that statistics and observation tell a different story in the areas of education, poverty alleviation and gender equality, areas where the Igbo region is far better than the impoverished North. The foreigner who resides in the North may be pardoned for being unaware that the disparity she noted between the North and the East predate the civil war. She did not take into account the entrepreneurship and self-help spirit of the Igbo. The region that started life anew with only £20 for everybody who had a pre-war bank account knew how to amass wealth with it in a record time. Unlike in Germany after the Second World War where the Marshall Plan put in place by the United States of America facilitated the famed economic miracle,the former Eastern Region recovered on its own after the initial rehabilitation and reconstruction aid embarked upon primarily by German Caritas and Misereor. She could not have known that the region does not enjoy any federal economic presence, does not get federal scholarships, is rarely considered in federal appointments. The railway line in Nigeria made its debut in the Eastern Region as a result of coal. She may not know that the region has been bypassed in the rail line modernization project and that its roads are the worst in the federation. These and many more are the kind of marginalization that are not immediately visible to a casual observer.
A former President of Nigeria declared openly that a defeated people should take 200 years to rise up again. He set the stage which his successors have followed judiciously by going after the businesses of successful Igbo entrepreneurs and by making sure that no Igbo man becomes the President of Nigeria. The old scars of abandoned property and non-payment of pensions and gratuities to Igbo pre-war workers have remained unresolved 50 years after the war. The Time has come for the Nigerian society to see that the noble “tasks of peace”promised by church and state at the end of the civil war fully implemented. The principle of “no victor no vanquished” will remain a farce as long as the legitimate grievances of the Igbo, or of any other group, are not addressed. The German government set aside $5billion as compensation to Nazi slave labourers. If a government can work out such a rehabilitation scheme for foreigners more than seventy years after the crime was committed, and if more than 54,000 bank accounts of Nazi victims have been identified in Swiss banks and are being processed for repatriation to the survivors of the holocaust and their descendants, then it becomes all the more inconceivable that the Nigerian government should continue to regard properties or assets belonging to Nigerians as “abandoned” or “frozen.”
The Nigerian Civil War will remain for a long time to come the darkest episode in our national history. The bitter memories it still elicits stand in the way of open discussion and dialogue. As a result, the call for true national reconciliation also continues to be postponed. Many groups in Nigeria have seen in the Igbo eclipse their own opportunity to rise and shine. The postponement of an equitable integration may seem to serve their interest. But recent developments in Nigeria have shown that unhealed scars can, and do, lead to violent reactions. Fifty years is enough time to wait before addressing the grievances nursed by the victims of the civil war. Groups like the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Niger Delta militants before them may have objectives that seem visionary, their formation underscores the general feeling of frustration that exists among those who now regard themselves as truly vanquished. The failure to heal the war scars will amount to postponing the inevitable—continued clamour for autonomy.