– The Sun News

War in Nigeria: Victory remains elusive, 50 years on

On July 6, 1967, civil war broke out in Nigeria between the country’s military and the forces of Biafra, an independent republic proclaimed by ex-Nigerian military officer, Odumegwu Ojukwu, on May 30 of that year. The war killed more than one million people, many of whom died from starvation. It ended in January 1970 with the reintegration of Biafra into Nigeria.

Malnutrition, Red Cross, kwashiorkor, relief flights, genocide, the Uli airstrip used by Biafran planes to elude the Nigerian blockade, mercenaries, the Aburi accord that broke down and led to war – these are some of the memory triggers of the Nigerian civil war of secession that we would like to re-assign. Over a million lives perished – a shameful proportion of them children – mostly through starvation and aerial bombardment. The Nigerian Federal Government, committed to the doctrine of oneness, had boasted that the conflict would last no longer than three weeks of “police action.” We had learnt much from the politics of other nations, but apparently not from history; the war lasted more than two years.

Tormented by the image of a herd of human lemmings, rushing to their doom, as a young writer, I made the “treasonable” statement, warning that the secessionist state, Biafra, could never be defeated. The simplistic rendition of that conviction in most minds – certainly in the minds of the then-ruling military and its elite support – was that this applied merely to the physical field of combat. Thus it was regarded, as a psychological offensive against the federal side, an attempt to demoralise its soldiers while boosting the war spirit of the enemy. That “enemy” had also boasted that no force in black Africa could defeat them.

My visit to the Biafran enclave in October 1966 resulted in arrest and detention. During interrogation, I insisted that my statement was meant, as a counter to the surge of emotive nationalism and a slavish sanctification of colonial boundaries. Biafra was, therefore, an expression of that rejection and its replacement with a people’s self-constitutive rights. This specific challenge owed its genesis to memory at its rawest, the memory of ethnic cleansing, whose remedy could not be sought rationally in a campaign of subjugation against an already traumatised community.

One question, rhetorical in tone, stuck in my mind for long afterwards. It went thus: “Why should you take it on yourself to make such a statement? Is it because you’re a writer? Who are you to take a contrary stance to the government?” I replied to myself that I had learned to listen. The young man countered that he was on the side of history, and Biafra would be crushed. Not quite, as it turned out. The Biafrans were indeed defeated on the battlefield, but crushed?

Today, most Nigerians know better. Biafra has not been defeated. If anyone was left in any doubt about this, the last work of my late colleague, Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country, has left us re-thinking. New generation writers, born long after that brutal war, have inherited and continue to propagate the Biafran doctrine, an article of faith among the Igbo populace, even among those who pay lip-service to a united nation. Millions remain sworn to uphold it. Many have died at the hands of the police and the military as succeeding guardians of that legacy troop out to reclaim it in defiant manifestations. Amnesty International estimated that, at least, 150 pro-Biafra activists have been killed since August 2015. Some of their leaders, including the director of their official mouthpiece, Radio Biafra, remain on trial for alleged subversion and treason. Others have gone underground.

The war is not over, only the tactics have changed. One could claim that a project of internal secession is unfolding, one that skirts the peripheries of Nigerian laws, testing what they permit, and daring what they do not. As for the victorious side, analysts continue to cite the lingering consequences of the war of secession among the main causes of the nation’s instability, alongside contemporary factors, such as mismanagement of petroleum resources, corruption, visionless leadership, etc.

Today, secession simmers openly, and is moving steadily beyond rhetoric. It has already taken on a dangerous complement – ejection. A number of combative youth organisations in the northern part of Nigeria recently called for the expulsion of the Igbo from their lands for daring once again to talk about secession. Mainstream leaders have disowned them, but some support has been voiced by individuals within the same adult cadre, including its intelligentsia. Debate is intense, often acrimonious. Sadly, however, one is left with a feeling that most participants in this discourse shy away from a fundamental component of nation being, one that transcends the Biafran will to corporate existence. That principle virtually gasps for air under the wishfully terminal mantra that goes: “The unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable.”

I have never understood how this is supposed to differ from the dogma of certain religious strains that declare conversion from faith to be an act of apostasy, punishable by death. Nationality, like religion, is only another construct into which one is either born, or acquires by accident or indoctrination. Those who insist on the divine right of nation over a people’s choice seem unaware that they box themselves into the same doctrinaire mould of mere habit, just like religion. In the Nigerian instance, however, the matter is even more troubling.

Since the absolutists of nation indivisibility are not ignorant of the histories of other nations and are immersed daily under evidence of the assertive factor of negotiation – be it in the language of arms and violence or the conference table – since they know full well that this process straddles pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial histories, such speakers unconsciously imply that Africans are sub-citizens of the real world and are not entitled to make their own choices, even in this modern age. This smacks of an inferiority complex, if not of a slavish indoctrination, when we additionally consider how today’s Africa came to be, a land mass of constitutive units that were largely determined by alien interests, and thus, hold possibilities of fatal flaws.

Also requiring contestation is the implicit equation of supreme sacrifice with supreme entitlement: Those who say, “we have shed our blood for Nigerian unity, and will not stand by and watch it dismantled.”

My observation is that in civil warfare – indeed, in most kinds of warfare – civilians pay the higher price in lives, possessions and dignity. We need, therefore, to eliminate the distracting lament of professionals of violence and confront, in its own right, the issue of the collective volition of any human grouping.

        To be continued tomorrow


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  1. Peter Okeke 17th July 2017 at 10:19 am

    It is indeed a rare treat to read the mind of a legendary writer, a poet and a Nobel laureate Nigeria has a unique blessing to have as one of our own. Prof weaves ideas like a craft man that takes one on an intricate yet fascinating journey of prosaic logics with sounds, rhythms and echoes of reverberating tested truths. It is a rare privilege to read the erudite professor not just in the past works but in his present brilliant delivery of words works to reshape the mind and daringly steer the vehicle of foggy ideas of our times in the right direction. More of his present works are needed for the refreshing of the mind in literary foray.

  2. Ezekiel Okeke 17th July 2017 at 1:09 pm

    As I have long said, the war did not end in 1970, it ends now and Republic Of Biafra is the victor and will defend the God given victory with Diplomacy Or War. Deadline with Nigeria is October 1st 2017 with Diplomacy or War. God Is With Us!!!

  3. Benjamin Kish 18th July 2017 at 1:18 am

    The hypocrisy of south west Nigeria once again playing out, I read professor Whole Soyinka’s article shortly after his one time pre war and post civil war era friend Chinua Achebe eleased his book of all books THERE WAS A COUNTRY.
    Soyinka lambasted him posturing that Achebe shouldn’t have released the book when he did.
    Soyinka did not prove to us the new generation of Biafra his claim of being jailed for two years gir condemning Mr. Gowon’s military juntas for their atrocities against Biafran people, in fact, his out bust betrayed his claims and attracted south east and South south barrage of tongue lashing.
    All he wrote here is like trying to remind the Biafrans that he too suffered for us but forgot whom we are Igbo Biafrans.
    45-to 50 years, after, killing, burning and economic strangulation of Igbo Biafrans continued but Wole Soyinka did not deem it fit to riseup and defend the people he claim to have went to jail for their sake.
    Soyinka is a Nigeria, believed in one Nigeria, supported the rots in one Nigeria and has worked assiduously for hausa-fulani murderous jihadist to maintain political power and control the Biafrans oil and other mineral resources in Biafraland as a conquered territory.

  4. vitalis chikwe 19th July 2017 at 11:15 am

    Prof. Wole Soyinka is as lucid as ever. Since the call for a sit-at-home is the opium that breaks the hearts of Northern blood suckers and vampires like Ango Abdullhahi and his poster boy, Yerima, the next one in 2018 will be thunderous and earthshaking. Biafra nationals who want to stay in the desert of North will be compelled to join, just to attract more blood pressures among the pathological haters of Biafra.

    Since a sit-at-home in the East where the wise men always come from, can give serious wounds and injuries on the Northern killers of children and pregnant women, the next of its kind would be done in Kano, Kaduna and Lagos state. That done, I doubt if the like of Ango Abdullahi, Yakassai, Yerima and their corhorts can survive it because already High Blood Pressure has taken the greater part of their lives.

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