The Biafra Story - Page 15

Determined to dissolve all political and other ties between you and the former Federal Republic of Nigeria;

Prepared to enter into such association, treaty or alliance with any sovereign state within the former Federal Republic of Nigeria and elsewhere on such terms and conditions as best to subserve your common good;

Affirming your trust and confidence in me;

Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic,


With these words the Eastern Region of Nigeria entered into a self-stated independence, and the word ‘Biafra’ entered the contemporary political vocabulary – in the view of most political observers at that time, only temporarily.

Three sentiments dominated the outlook of the people of Biafra. Firstly a deep sense not of rebellion, but of rejection, and this feeling lasts until today. For the Biafrans, they did not leave Nigeria but were chased out of it. They firmly believe that the impulse of separation came from the Nigerian side. For most of them it was the shattering of the illusions of their lifetime that after being the foremost of the ‘One Nigeria’ actors and thinkers, it was finally they who were not wanted. The subsequent attempt of Nigeria to hammer them back into the c

ountry has always appeared illogical – among other things. They are convinced that there is no place for them inside Nigeria as equal citizens with the Nigerians; that the latter do not want them as people, but only their land for the oil it bears and the riches it can produce. They are convinced that it was the Nigerians, not they, who broke the bond that links the contractual society whereby the citizenry have a duty of loyalty to government, which government repays with a guarantee of the protection of life, liberty and property. They remain convinced the only role they could ever play in Nigeria henceforth would be that of victim in the first instance and workslaves ever after; ironically, despite protestations to the contrary from General Gowon (he had in the meanwhile promoted himself to Major-General), the behaviour of the Nigerian Army, numerous statements from senior Lagos officials, and the propaganda from Kaduna, far from assuaging this fear, have completely confirmed it.

Secondly the Biafrans felt and still feel an utter mistrust for anything the Lagos Government may say or promise to do. Here again precedent gives succour to their belief, for General Gowon has repeatedly shown over the past eighteen months that he cannot impose his will on his army or air force commanders, nor they theirs on the troops in the line. Repeated pledges from Gowon that the soldiers would behave decently, that the air force would desist from bombing civilian centres, have turned out to be hot air. As a result all peace proposals based on a ‘Hand over your guns and then we’ll be nice to you’ promise from the Federal side have met with complete disbelief. As for future constitutional guarantees of safety inside Nigeria, lately offered by Gowon and heavily backed by Britain, the Biafrans reply that they had these guarantees in the Constitution of Nigeria before, but they did not change anything during 1966. This mistrust makes any peace formula proposed by the present Nigerian régime highly unlikely to succeed.

Thirdly the Biafrans were possessed of a deeply held conviction that the advent of the Nigerian Army into their land would mean the execution of another pogrom of such massive proportions that it would constitute genocide, that in the planning of the Northern rulers (hence of the Lagos Government) the Biafrans were destined for extinction once and for all, and that the North, avid for the oil royalties of the coast, would continue Balewa’s promised ‘interrupted march to the sea’ over their dead bodies. Outside, this fear was contemptuously put down to ‘Ojukwu’s propaganda’, particularly in British Government circles. The subsequent months, far from robbing this fear of its base, confirmed it in the eyes of most Biafrans without a word being necessary from Colonel Ojukwu.

A number of explanations were immediately postulated to explain the breakaway of Biafra from Nigeria, and were subsequently presented to the world by Lagos, London and correspondents of what might be called the ‘establishment press’. One was that Biafra was ‘Ojukwu’s revolt’, the attempt by a single man, backed by a small clique of army officers and civil servants, to create a rebel state through motivations of ambition and personal greed. The facts soon invalidated this explanation, though it is still clung to in a few corners. For one thing the Biafran leadership, in contrast to the people, understood the magnitude of the task that had been undertaken, the risks involved, and most of them had given up positions of power to return home and live in more straitened circumstances in the service of Biafra. It was clear to all of them that the road to ease and luxury, power and prestige, lay in cooperation with the powers-that-be, that is, Lagos. Colonel Ojukwu, if he had chosen to cooperate with Gowon against the wishes of the Eastern people, could have kept his fortune, enjoyed a high position in Nigeria and probably still kept his Governorship of the East, not as a popular leader but as a hated quisling surrounded by Federal Army soldiers. Alternatively, if power had been his motivation, he could have bided his time, intrigued with other Southern leaders among whom he had considerable standing, nursed into being a new Southern Army, and led his own coup at a later date. With his acumen he would probably have been more successful as a coup leader than those who led the previous two insurrections.

For another thing, the unanimity among notable men of Eastern origin in supporting the Biafran cause indicated fairly soon that they believed in the justice of the cause. Hundreds of Easterners who had made the top in their various professions, at home and abroad, offered their services, which they would not have done to an ambitious colonel willing to risk the ruin of his people for his own advancement. Later, when Gowon sought Governors for the three states he had created in the former Eastern Region, he was unable to find a single man of note to take the jobs. For the Ibo East Central State he had to pick an obscure lecturer in social studies from Ibadan University, Mr Ukpabi Asika, who was disowned by his entire family (the ultimate shame in Africa). For the Rivers State Gowon had to boost a twentyfive-year-old junior naval officer, Alfred Spiff, to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He too was disowned by the Spiffs of Port Harcourt. For the Southeastern State Gowon chose a Mr Essuene, a totally unknown junior officer from Lagos who had not seen his home region in years.

And lastly, the performance of the Biafran people in defending their own land, which even their worst enemies have been forced to admit has been remarkable, indicated that they believed in what they were doing. A single officer or group of officers, bullying a lukewarm, half-hearted, reluctant folk into rebellion would never have been able to keep control as the sufferings of the people passed all known levels in Africa. Such a potentate would long ago have seen his kingdom overrun by the Federal Army as the reluctant defenders threw down their weapons and ran. More likely, such a man would long since have fallen to a coup based on popular resentment of the pass into which he had led the people. This has not happened; the Biafrans have fought tooth and claw for every inch of their country while on the home front there has not been a single anti-Government riot, something it would have been impossible to prevent had the people been disgruntled; for, as the British found out in the late twenties, when Biafrans are discontented they permit their feelings to be known.

Another excuse sought to explain the Biafran obduracy was that it was due to ‘Ojukwu’s propaganda’. This is still being bandied about in some places. While it might have been possible by shrewd manipulation of the public relations media to sway the broad mass of the populace (for a while) it is difficult to imagine the host of top-grade brains who have offered to serve Biafra in far less important capacities than they previously enjoyed being deceived by smooth propaganda. Such men include former President Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, former Premier Dr Michael Okpara, former civilian Governor of the East Dr Francis Ibiam, former Judge of the World Court Sir Louis Mbanefo, former vice-Chancellor of Ibadan University Professor Kenneth Dike, and men like Professor Eni Njoku, probably one of the finest academic minds ever to come from Africa. Added to these must be a host of academics, lawyers, teachers, doctors, surgeons, administrators, businessmen, engineers and civil servants. General Gowon would have loved to have been able to show the world one defector among the men listed above.

Within a few months of the declaration of independence, a remarkable array of forces had ranged themselves to crush the new country. General Gowon launched the Federal Army behind the slogan ‘To Keep Nigeria One – Is a Job That Must be Done’. Phrases like ‘One Nigeria’, ‘to preserve the territorial integrity of Nigeria’ and ‘crush the revolt’ were soon bandied about, though little constructive thought appears to have been done by anyone to consider a lasting solution beyond the slogans. Dark hints of the immediate balkanization of Africa were mentioned, seemingly without reference to the breakaway from Britain of the Republic of Ireland which miraculously failed to bring about the balkanization of Europe. ‘Secession’ was roundly condemned, though no one bothered to mention that partition had for years been an accepted political formula where two distinct populations had proved to be incompatible.

Nigeria received immediate backing from a number of countries, notably ‘Socialist’ Britain, Fascist Spain and Communist Russia. These three countries still provide the milita

ry wherewithal for the execution of the biggest bloodbath in Africa’s history.

But on 30 May 1967 all this was a part of the unrevealed future. Seeing that war was imminent, both sides went forward with feverish preparations, the Biafrans to defend themselves, the Nigerians to bring about a quick finish to what they regarded as a childishly easy task. The first shells were fired over Biafra’s northern border at dawn on 6 July.

* West Africa, 24 December 1966.

* The Leaders of Thought were first summoned under the Ironsi régime to advise each military Governor on local affairs and feeling. They comprised leading figures in the professions, business, commerce, administration and the chiefs and elders. But they were nominated by the Governors; hence Ojukwu preferred to listen to the popularly mandated members of the Consultative Assembly, which did not exist anywhere else.

* Nigerian Crisis, Vol. 6, pp. 11–15.

* Schwarz, op. cit., p. 227.

* West Africa, 13 May 1967.


The Fight To Survive



The Character of Biafra

In area Biafra is not large, about 29,000 square miles. Yet in most other statistics it comes in the top three in Africa. The population is the most dense in Africa, over 440 to the square mile. In every sense it is the most developed country in the continent, with more industry, the highest per capita income, the highest purchasing power, the greatest density of roads, schools, hospitals, business houses and factories in Africa.

In potential it has been variously described as the Japan, the Israel, the Manchester, and the Kuwait of this continent. Each appellation refers to one of the many facets that cause surprise to the visitor who thought all Africa was uniformly backward. Years of under-exploitation, as factories, investment and public services were sited elsewhere in Nigeria, though often staffed by Easterners, left the Eastern Region a long way short of its full development potential. Even in the south the major petroleum companies failed to boost oil production to its potential, preferring to keep the oil fields there ticking over as a useful reserve while Arabian fields were sucked dry.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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