The Biafra Story - Page 16

The use of the comparison with Japan refers to the population. Rarely among Africans, they have the gift of unceasing hard work. In the factories the workers turn in more man-hours per year than elsewhere, and in the farms the peasants produce more yield per acre than in any other country. It may be that nature’s necessity has bred these traits; but they are also backed by the ancient traditions of the people. In Biafra personal success has always been regarded as meritorious; a successful man is admired and respected. There is no hereditary office or title. When a man dies his success in life, his honours, his prestige and his authority are buried with him. His sons must fend for themselves on the basis of equal competition with the other young men of the society.

The Biafrans are avid for education and particularly for qualification in one of the technical professions. It is not unusual to find a situation like this: a village carpenter has five sons. The father works from dawn till dusk; the mother has a stall in the market; the four junior sons sell matches, newspapers, red peppers, all so that the senior son can go through college. When he is qualified he is duty-bound to pay the way through college of the second brother; after which the pair will pay for the education of the third, fourth and fifth. The carpenter may die a carpenter, but may leave five qualified sons. For most Biafrans no sacrifice is too much for education.

Communes of village farmers will club together to build a structure in their village – not a recreation centre, swimming pool or stadium, but a school. A village that has a school has prestige.

Because they are convinced that ‘no condition is permanent in this world’ (an Ibo motto) they are adaptable to a degree and prepared to learn new ways. Where others, notably the Muslim communities of Africa, are content to accept their poverty or backwardness as the will of Allah, the Biafran sees both as a challenge to his God-given talents. The difference in attitude is cardinal, for it spells the difference between a society where Western influence will never truly take root, and where investment capital will seldom bear fruit, and a society destined to succeed.

Ironically it is their hard work and their success that have contributed to make the Biafrans so unpopular in Nigeria, and notably in the North. Other characteristics are adduced to explain the antipathy they manage to generate; they are pushful, uppity and aggressive say the detractors; ambitious and energetic say the defenders. They are money-loving and mercenary says one school; canny and thrifty says the other. Clannish and unscrupulous in grabbing advantages, say some; united and quick to realize the advantages of education, say others.

The reference to Manchester refers to their flair for trade. Rather than work for a boss on a salaried wage scale the Biafran would prefer to save for years, then buy his own lock-up shop. This he will keep open all hours of the day and night so long as there is a chance of a customer. Having profited, he will plough the money back into the enterprise, buy a brick-built shop, then a store, then a chain of shops. With several thousands in the bank, he can be found going about on a bicycle. Throughout Africa one will find Arab traders (Lebanese or Syrian), or Indians. These peoples have wandered across the world with their talent for trade, under-cutting local traders and driving them to the wall. But they will never be found where the Biafrans operate.

The reference to Israel refers obviously to the persecutions that have touched them sooner or later wherever they have set up shop. Mr Legum’s reference to the gathering in of the exiles into Israel after the last war was perhaps closer than he realized at the time; having got their backs to the wall the Biafrans have now got nowhere else to go. That is why they prefer to die in their homeland than give in and live (the survivors among them) like the Wandering Jew. Colonel Ojukwu once told correspondents: ‘What you see here is the end of a long road; a road that started in the far North and has led finally here into the Ibo heart-land. It is the road to the slaughterhouse.’*

‘Kuwait’ refers to the oil beneath Biafra. It has been postulated that if the Biafrans had had as their homeland a region of semidesert and scrub they would have been allowed to depart from Nigeria with cries of ‘Good riddance’ in their ears. One foreign businessman remarked succinctly during a discussion about this war ‘It’s an oil war’, and felt obliged to say no more. Beneath Biafra lies an ocean of oil, the purest in the world. You can run Biafran crude straight into a diesel lorry and it will work. Approximately one tenth of this field lies in neighbouring Cameroon, about three tenths in Nigeria. The remaining six tenths lie under Biafra.

The government of Biafra is a disappointment to those who come seeking a totalitarian military dictatorship. Colonel Ojukwu rules with a surprisingly light hand, but this is incumbent on any man who rules the Biafrans. They do not take kindly to government without consultation. Soon after taking power as Military Governor in January 1966 Ojukwu realized he had to have a closer line to the broad masses of the people, partly because of their characteristics and partly through his own predilections.

He could not reconstitute the discredited Assembly of the old politicians, and General Ironsi was against (for the moment) other forms of assembly, preferring to let the Military Régime find its feet first. So Ojukwu quietly began drawing up plans for a return to civilian rule, or at least a joint consultative body through which the people could let their wishes be known to the Military Governor and in which he could seek the wishes of the people.

After the coup of July he got his chance and the plans went ahead. From each of the twenty-nine Divisions of the Region he asked for four nominated representatives and six popular delegates. The nominated posts, although named by his Office, were ex officio nominations, such as the Divisional Administrator, the Divisional Secretary, etc. The six popular delegates were chosen by the people through village and clan chiefs, and the ‘Leaders of Thought conferences. This gave him 290 persons. To these he asked for another forty-five representatives of the professions to be added. Delegates were chosen and sent from the Trade Unions, the Teachers’ Conference, the Bar Association, the Farmers’ Union, several other sections of the community, and, most important, the Market Traders’ Association – imposing and outspoken Market Mammies who had kept the British in order in 1929 when they led the Aba riots.

This group formed the Consultative Assembly, and was soon regarded, with the Advisory Council of Chiefs and Elders, as the parliament of Biafra. Colonel Ojukwu has since taken no major decision without consulting them, and has inevitably followed their wishes on national policy. For immediate administration he has the Executive Council which meets every week and of which only one member other than Colonel Ojukwu is in the Armed Forces.

From its first meeting on 31 August 1966, thirty-three days after the Gowon coup, the Assembly was consulted at every stage of the road to partition. In view of subsequent claims that the Ibos dragged the non-Ibo minorities unwillingly into their act of separation, it is significant that of the 335 members of the Assembly 165 are non-Ibo minority group men as against 169 Ibo-speaking members. This gives the minorities a higher proportional representation in the Assembly than their respective populations inside the country.

The decision to mandate Colonel Ojukwu to pull out of Nigeria nine months after the first meeting was unanimous. Far from being unwilling victims of Ibo domination and from being coerced into partition against their will, the tribal representatives of the minorities had their full say, and were a

ctive participants in the policy to pull out. Without doubt there were those among all groups who did not agree with the decisions, and a number of these have since been used by the Nigerians as spokesmen to claim a great degree of oppression inflicted by the Ibos against the minorities. But those who travelled or lived among the minority groups at the time noticed not only that the opposition appeared to be comparatively small, but that the same spirit of effervescence that marked partition in Ibo-land was also to be observed in the minority areas.

The minority regions fell first to the advancing Federal Army, being the peripheral areas of Biafra, and quite a lot of changing of sides took place. This is habitual when lands are conquered by armies at war. For most people, seeing the Biafran Army pull out and the Nigerian Army march in, to lift the right hand and cry ‘One Nigeria’ was more a gesture of self-preservation than of political conviction.

Nor were collaborators hard to find. By and large the leaders among the minority groups, having given their allegiance to Biafra, were forced to flee to escape persecution when the Federals came in. This left vacant good jobs, houses, offices, cars, privileges. It was not difficult for the Nigerians to find other local people to fill these vacancies on the condition of full collaboration with the occupying forces. But an examination of the men who now fill the posts allocated to local people under the Nigerian rule will normally reveal that they were very small fry when their more talented kinsmen ran the province for Biafra.

Immediately after conquest many local people stayed behind in the minority areas, converted by previous Federal publicity to the view that Biafra had been a mistake and that cooperation with the Nigerian Army would be better. Some of these local dignitaries sincerely believed in their conversion; others saw self-advancement or self-enrichment from the property of the dead or fled leaders of yesterday. But since the midsummer of 1968 more and more reports have come into Biafra of a growing dissatisfaction with life under the conquerors.

Very often the biggest wave of refugees into unoccupied Biafra came not with the fall of a province, but a few weeks later when the Nigerian Army’s methods had been tasted. Later still more alienation of the local leaders took place, as the Federal soldiers killed goats, chickens, cattle and pigs for their own kitchens; harvested unripe yam and cassava crops for their own diets; took local girls and used them as they wished; stopped protests at this behaviour by punitive raids against the protestors; forced villagers to watch public executions of honoured village chiefs and local elders; closed down schools and turned them into barracks for the army; enriched themselves in black market deals in relief food supposed to be destined for the needy; looted desirable property and sent it back home; and generally let it be known that they were there to stay and intended to live off the land, and live well.

Before the summer an increasing number of chiefs were sending emissaries through the lines to Ojukwu, convinced by now, if not before, that his rule was infinitely preferable to that of the Nigerians. One of the reasons why Colonel Ojukwu’s rule was appreciated – there had certainly been grievances under the former rule of the politicians – was the change in status of the minorities. When the politicians were in power the Ibo-speaking groups dominated the Assembly and some minority areas felt neglected in the apportionment of funds, facilities and investment. Colonel Ojukwu stopped that.

One of the first proposals of the Consultative Assembly was for the abolition of the British-drawn twenty-nine Divisions and their replacement by twenty provinces, the boundaries to be drawn along tribal and linguistic lines. The Proposal came from Mr Okoi Arikpo, one of the members for Ugep, a minority area inhabited by one of the smallest groups, the Ekoi. If there had been such a thing as Ibo domination’ so widely referred to in Nigerian propaganda since the war started, this idea would have cut it to the bone, since the plan also called for a wide degree of autonomy within each province, and eight of the twenty provinces had non-Ibo majorities inside them. Yet the plan was hailed by the Assembly (with its Ibo majority), welcomed by Colonel Ojukwu and it soon became law.

On the basis of this Mr Arikpo told Ojukwu that he deserved a ministerial post, but the latter thought otherwise. Arikpo then disappeared to Lagos where he is now Commissioner for Foreign Affairs.

Not that Ojukwu has anything against minority men in top posts; on the contrary, minority spokesmen have a greater say in government than ever in the previous history of the Eastern Region. The Chief of General Staff and acting Head of State in the absence of Colonel Ojukwu, Major-General Philip Effiong, is an Efik. The Chief Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, Mr N. U. Akpan, is an Ibibio. The Commissioner for Special Duties, one of Colonel Ojukwu’s closest confidants, Dr S. J. Cookey, is a Rivers man, as is Mr Ignatius Kogbara, Biafran representative in London. The Executive Council, the foreign missions, the ministerial posts, the civil service, the peace negotiating teams, have all been heavily staffed with minority men.

Ironically the massacres of 1966 and the similarly brutal treatment accorded during the present war by the Nigerian Army to Ibo and non-Ibo populations has done more to weld Biafra into a single nation than any other factor. The displacement of millions of refugees, the intermingling, the common suffering, the collective impoverishment, have together done what other African leaders have been trying to do for years; they have created a nation out of a collection of peoples.

* Colonel Ojukwu to James Wilde and the author, Umuahia, 17 August 1968.


Thirty Months of Fighting

Never in modern history has a war been fought between armies of such disparity in strength and firepower as the Nigeria–Biafra conflict. On the one hand has been the Nigerian Army, a monstrous agglomeration of over 85,000 men armed to the teeth with modern weapons, whose government has had uninhibited access to the armouries of at least two major powers and several smaller ones, which has been endowed with limitless supplies of bullets, mortars, machine guns, rifles, grenades, bazookas, guns, shells and armoured cars. This has been supported by numerous foreign personnel of technical experience who have concerned themselves with the efficiency of radio communications, transport, vehicle maintenance, support weapons, training programmes, military intelligence, combat techniques and services. To these have been added several scores of professional mercenaries, Soviet non-commissioned officers for operation of the support weapons, and ample replenishments of lorries, trucks, jeeps, low-loaders, fuel, transport planes and ships, engineering and bridge-building equipment, generators and river-boats. The war effort of this machine has been backed by a merciless air force of jet fighters and bombers armed with cannon, rockets and bombs, and a navy equipped with frigates, gun-boats, escorts, landing craft, barges, ferries and tugs. The personnel have been lavishly supplied with boots, belts, uniforms, helmets, shovels, pouches, food, beer and cigarettes.

Facing it has been in the Biafran Army, a volunteer force representing less than one in ten of those who have presented themselves at the recruiting booths for service. Manpower has never been the problem. It has been that of arming those prepared to fight. Totally blockaded for over eighteen months, the Biafran Army has managed to keep going on an average, at least for the first sixteen months, on two or sometimes one ten-ton plane-load of arms and ammunition per week. The standard infantry weapon has been the reconditioned Mauser bolt-action rifle, supported by small quantities of machine pistols, sub-machine guns, light and heavy machine guns, and pistols. Mortar barrels and bombs, artillery pieces and shells, have been minimal, bazookas almost non-existent.

Forty per cent of the Biafran fighting manpower is equipped with captured Nigerian equipment, including an assortment of highly-prized armoured cars taken when their crews were caught unawares and ran away. Also contributing to the firepower have been home-made rockets, land-mines, anti-personnel mines, stand-cannon, booby-traps and Molotov cocktails, and to the defence have been added devices such as tank-pits, tree-trunks and pointed stakes.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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