Biafra: This Country Never Learns

Desperately starved Biafra children from the Obafemi Awolowo orchestrated economic blockade and Yakubu Gowon's-led genocidal campaign against the Igbo Nation. Image: Hulton Deitsch Collection, January 1970.


I wanted to start this article about a dead body but I dithered. Let me tell you another story. Until 3 years ago, I used to work for a corporate law firm in Lagos. It was my first job after the National Youth Service and it taught me how to be a man. I met a man Ganiyu Tam (name withheld), he was one of the finest lawyers I have ever met. He was brilliant and affable, and spoke the best English I ever heard anyone speak.

He was best mates with one of the founding partners of my firm and our paths crossed when his firm collaborated with my former employees in a Federal government debt recovery matter against an indigenous construction company. I thought Ganiyu was the greatest lawyer alive and I was always pumped whenever he had to travel down from Jos to Lagos for our court hearings. After court he would tap me on the shoulder and tell me about morality and the law and why the other lawyer’s technical submissions were unconscionable. He was a technical lawyer too but he would also tell me to look beyond technicality to the spirit of the law.

On one of those days after court, I asked him if he was from Plateau state and he said yes and for a second, his surname triggered a memory.

‘Tam Sir? Are you related to Colonel Tam from the Nzeogwu coup story?’. And he said ‘ Yes, I was barely 5 when they came to take my father away’.

Ganiyu was a child of a Nigerian Military commander who lost his life during the first coup in January 15 1966. He told me about his siblings. One of his sisters was now a judge in the Court of Appeal. I then told him that my grandfather during the last days of the Biafran war was Acting Provost Marshall of Biafra. Ganiyu said his mother had recently met with the Igbo Nigerian officer (a man who, at that time, was a regular visitor to their family home in Ikoyi), who abducted and murdered his father, and that she prayed for him and forgave him.

This is a story of love, blood, betrayal, and forgiveness. Ganiyu had no hate in his heart, though there was pain. Driving out of Ikoyi to Victoria Island, and seated side by side was the son of a murdered Northern Military Colonel and the grandson of a Biafran Provost Marshall. It was surreal. In the throes of depression and disillusionment I left the corporate law firm in Lagos and set up a criminal appellate defense law firm in Owerri, but I still always remember Ganiyu in my prayers.

Big Al and Chikezie

My grandfather Captain Alphonsus Nwadike (real name) was a Nigerian military officer who later fought on the Biafran side during the civil war. Big Al was over 6’3 tall, and remarkably handsome, and also saw action in Congo as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the 60s. He was tipped off, a night before the counter coup, by his best friend Captain Usman Biu, who overheard some of the Northern soldiers saying ‘Tomorrow, Nwadike wey like to play draft, I go use dagger tear that him belly’.

Big Al left Kaduna late in the night on the eve of the counter coup. Of the military police and trained in military intelligence, he made the journey by bush paths from Kaduna to Makurdi, for days, before boarding the train to Enugu. It was later he heard that Igbo people who went to board the train from Kaduna were all murdered in cold blood at the train station and at different stops along the way.

When the Biafran war ended and Big Al returned to the village, his family and kinsmen all gathered and were throwing sand on him to make sure he wasn’t a ghost. They hadn’t seen him in months. Barely months after the war ended, Captain Usman made the trip from Jos to Owerri in a military truck filled with food and cloths. The villagers on seeing the military truck took to their heels. They didn’t want to fight another war. Big Al came out in the middle of the town’s square, thinking he was going to be rearrested again, having been detained in Enugu at the end of the war and released after a few months. Big Al looked and saw his best friend Usman Biu with a truck of food and cloths, and they held each other and cried and cried until there was no more tears.

Big Al died in 1996, he had diabetes and couldn’t afford insulin injections regularly. He trained 2 of his sons to become university graduates, but he didn’t live long enough to see his favorite son my father, Chief Batos Chikezie Nwadike fiercely oppose Biafran separatists and be on the ballot and poll over 50,000 votes as a candidate in the 2011 Nigerian Presidential elections. I wonder what he would have thought about his son’s 3 decade activism for a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction (what he calls Igbo Presidency) and fuller inclusion of the Igbo in the Nigerian political process.

Big Al lost everything but he didn’t teach his children to hate and I have never for a single day heard my father utter a word of tribal hate. In 2003, my father as a political adviser to the late Chuba Okadigbo crisscrossed the entire nation campaigning with Muhammadu Buhari in the hope that it will one day pave the way for an Igbo President. He scoffs sometimes at my Marxist interpretation of Nigerian politics. My father believes in the Nigerian dream and wants Igbos to be a part of that tapestry.

Bruce Mayrock

About a month ago, I was driving back home in the dead of the night. On Wetheral road, Owerri, I saw a dead body. A car sped in front of me. I slowed down a bit. I almost stopped. I thought about so many things. This is Nigeria. I sped off too. Human life means nothing in Nigeria. You can get mass murdered for throwing stones. Seeing dead bodies or hearing reports of violent deaths has become routine. We are now tuned out of death. Hundreds of people die violently and only a whimper by crazed un-woke people on Twitter, disrupting more important conversations on celebrity gossips and culture wars.

Bruce Mayrock was a 20 year old American student. He saw pictures of dead bodies and kwashiorkor Biafran children and he was thoroughly repulsed. Bruce reportedly wrote articles to the United States president and other leading government figures advocating for an end to the genocide and the Biafran blockade. He thought nobody was listening. So he went to the United Nations office in New York and set himself on fire. He died from the burns on May 30, 1969. He wanted people to listen.

He was carrying a cardboard sign which he wrote ‘ You must stop the genocide… Please save 9 million Biafrans’. Bruce Mayrock is interred at a grave in Mount Ararat Cemetery, Sulfolk county, New York.

The Biafran Genocide

2 million people died in the Biafran Genocide, the overwhelming majority were children and women and not combatants. They died mostly from Nigerian war planes flying low and intently strafing civilian populations and starvation from a total blockade, the Nigerian government preventing aid organizations from bringing in food and medicine to civilians. Most people didn’t die fighting, they died trying to live.

In Nigeria, the death of 2 million people is a controversial issue. People start their arguments with ‘No matter how you feel about the Biafran war…’ How in the world do you feel about 2 million deaths? How do you feel about a genocide? We have become a nation of cowards, afraid of a dark brooding past. The effrontery to sweep a genocide under the carpet.

When Biyi Bandele’s movie adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of Yellow Sun was due to open, the government censored it and kept delaying its release. There was some talk about an airport scene in the movie which the government wanted cut. What happened at the airport in Kano is a historical fact and was documented by the Times of London of 7th October, 1966. It was a massacre in Northern Nigeria and at the end of the Pogrom, 30 thousand people had been murdered in cold blood by civilian and military mobs.

I also recall the outrage that greeted Chinua Achebe’s release of his book — ’There was a Country’. It was unprecedented and I have never seen a thing like that. In his book, the late Bard had harsh words for the misguided Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, the quixotic January coup plotters, and the charismatic Chief Obafemi Awolowo, among others. Chief Awolowo is on record to have owned up to orchestrating the starvation policy. In view of the genocidal outcomes of the policy, there wasn’t really much to argue about. To my greatest surprise, intellectuals were falling over themselves to defend Chief Awolowo, a man of their tribe and to disparage Achebe as an Igbo ethnic jingoist. I never regained my respect for so called Nigerian intellectuals but a few. I had read ‘The Man Died’ and I knew Wole Soyinka was a witness of truth and that was enough for me.

For another insidious group, discussing the civil war is a chance to remind everyone of the atrocities committed by Biafra against other ethnic minorities within its enclave. ‘Both sides committed atrocities so can’t you see they both cancel each other.’ I remember my days in the University of Lagos and how a beautiful UK trained lecturer in discussing the Nigerian civil war, sought to wrap it up around this narrative of equal blame and atrocities on both sides.

This is not suggest that ethnic minorities did not suffer acts of discrimination, violence and deaths at the hands of renegade Biafran soldiers. But I am yet to read any serious evidence of authorized mass killings of ethnic minorities by the then Biafran government. There is often talk of forced conscription and relocations but none of that was unique to ethnic minorities in Biafra, it was equally applicable to Igbos. The real story rather is that, during the war, in Asaba, in the then Mid-Western Region, a Nigerian Military Commander, Murtala Muhammad called all the male indigenes of the town for a meeting and shot every single one of them in cold blood. And that all over Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Delta and Cross River, there are Biafran veterans, men who fought for what was their country at that time. Okokon Idem and Phillip Effiong.

I have no right to say my pain is bigger than yours. But in the Nigerian context, the atrocities on both sides talking point is often a pretext to justify and downplay the Biafran genocide. I agree though that this view is debatable.

This Country Never Learns

Following Nigerian politics in recent times, one feels like we are right back to where we started from. I have never seen this level of polarization. We have a president who in words and deeds has shown himself incapable of unifying. However, now we have even bigger problems than regurgitating gruesome tales of millions of Igbo killed over 50 years ago. We are faced with a deadly Islamic insurgency and general insecurity all across the country. The truth is that this country never learns. We never learnt from the Civil War and we are not going to learn from this Boko Haram uprising. The civil war was about an elite power tussle, disinformation, ethnic rivalry, a lack of national identity and government misrule. Boko Haram is about poverty, public distrust in government and religious extremism.

In a country that survived a genocide, hundreds of Shitte Muslims, Nigerian citizens, were murdered in cold blood for the crime of blocking the army chief from using a public road and we had a vigorous debate on whether the deaths were justified. A foolish debate. We merely replaced the Igbos with the Shittes. And the standard had fallen from murdering the head of the regional government and his family to merely blocking a public road.

How much will a national apology from the Federal government about the infanticidal turn the civil war took and a national Biafran war memorial day, go in healing old wounds. My guess is that it will aid rather than exacerbate. The sweeping under the carpet is what has allowed Nnamdi Kanu to continue to wear designer suits, living lavishly in Tel Alviv, while aligning himself with the racist right wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who gets a kick from murdering Palestinian children and enforcing a total blockade and an open air prison in Gaza. An irony lost on the lily levered Kanu.

Maybe we can begin to have a conversation about true federalism and government accountability rather than using prebendalism and sectionalism as an over arching governing policy. How about a conversation about how we can create and promote a national identity and eradicate poverty. These are tough issues but in Nigeria we like easy answers. The intellectuals and urban class are complicit. My guess is that things will remain the same. Sorrow, tears and blood, dem regular trademark.