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Biafra: Ending the silence

Katrin Gänsler db
July 5, 2017

For decades, no mention was made in Nigeria of the Biafran War that began 50 years ago, on July 6, 1967. Today, that civil war and its consequences are at the center of a fierce debate.

Demonstration für politischen Aktivisten Nwannekaenyi Nnamdi Kenny Okwu Kanu
Image: picture alliance/NurPhoto

In newspapers and on social media, Nigerians are currently discussing a possible split of the huge country more hotly than ever before.

 50 years after the two and a half-year Biafran civil war began, the idea of a state of Biafra - which is what the secessionist region called itself back then - has resurged. Apart from debates and propaganda, including racist agitation, that also means that the country must deal with its past, and most of all with this civil war.

Up to 2.5 million people died in a civil war that was hushed up for decades after it ended in January 1970.

 "Biafra was never really on our curriculum at school," said Roy Udeh Ubaka, 23, from Enugu in southeastern Nigeria.

He first heard about it in his social studies course. He added that even then, the "chapter was very short, and Biafra was mentioned only on two or three pages."

Roy Udeh-Ubaka
Roy Udeh-Ubaka learned about the war from his parentsImage: DW/K. Gänsler

No information about the civil war

It was his father who told him about the Biafran War, Udeh-Ubaka says. "He was a child soldier, and recounted his personal experiences." The young biochemistry student grew up with private recollections of the war rather than reappraised, verifiable facts. In Nigeria, that is true for an entire generation.

For Paddy Kemdi Njoku, former chairman of the country's National Examination Council (NECO), this is one reason why Nigeria is struggling to come to terms with its past. How can you come to terms with something that no one ever talks about?

"Nigerian history from independence to the present should be taught to every child, not just singling out the Biafran War," Njoku said, urging educating children about "how we got independence, for how long we managed our independence, then the military coup and the civil war."

"If history was being taught, we probably wouldn't exactly where we are today," Njoku said.

No Victor, No Vanquished

But ignoring and hushing up history was part of the strategy adopted in January 1970: No Victor, No Vanquished was the motto back then.

Nigeria commemorating the Biafran war - Unity Fountain
A memorial like the Unity Fountain in Abuja could commemorate all victims of the Biafran War Image: DW/K. Gänsler

In fact, there were few arrests or trials, and possible war crimes were not accounted for. Instead, the government aimed at reintegrating the southeast, mainly populated by the Igbo. Rebuilding the devastated region and sharing their everyday lives was to let Nigerians grow together again.

To this day, Nigerians from the southwest are critical of that strategy.

Senate President chief of Staff Hakeem Baba Ahmed is convinced it was successful. "I think the Nigerian people have reconciled themselves after the war," he said, adding that "however, there are a lot of issues that have arisen since the war, which challenge Nigerian unity and put Nigerian people against each other."

Ahmed says Nigerians are learning to reconcile: "Very few nations would have survived some of the problems we did."

Lasting reconciliation

But not all Nigerians share Hakeem Baba Ahmed's optimistic view. "A few years after the war, there were some gestures of reconciliation," remembered Obinna Edeh, a 27-year-old lawyer - pointing out that Alex Ekwueme, an Igbo, was named vice president in 1979. "His four years in office reintegrated the Igbo in politics," Edeh said. The lawyer, nevertheless, misses a sustainable process. Reconciliation, he said, "shouldn't depend on the discretion of the respective government."

Paddy Kemdi Njoku
Teach Nigerian history in school, urges Paddy Kemdi NjokuImage: DW/K. Gänsler

While Biafra supporters often list a lack of reconciliation as the reason for current demands for independence, Hakeem Baba Ahmed is convinced that Biafra is not the solution to the Nigerian problem at all. Biafra merely represents the fundamentals Nigerians need to address, he stressed: "Poverty, poor governance, and the economy."

Young people must get jobs, he added. "If they have jobs, it doesn't matter whether they live in the east, north or west - they will be comfortable."

Apart from dealing with the past, Paddy Kemdi Njoku urged boosting remembrance of the victims, by having additional events on or around Armed Forces Remembrance Day on July 6. Take it a step further, he said. "And pay homage to the souls of these people who unfortunately died as a result of misunderstandings of the past."