At this time 50 years ago, Nigerians were euphoric. The bloody and grittily fought civil war had just ended to everyone’s relief. The then head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, promptly declared that there was no victor and no vanquished.
Perhaps, he didn’t need to. All over the country, people were jubilating and welcoming erstwhile neighbours who had fled when things were badly falling apart. Even soldiers on both sides of the war were hugging each other. Some of them were buddies in the Nigerian army before the secession and they were excited to rekindle the friendship and camaraderie.
Such a fraternal end of the war astounded quite a few people around the world. It was contrary to expectations. In fact, in many European and North American capitals, the war-ending caused greater concern than the war itself. The fear was that a triumphant federal side would let loose on the Igbo in an orgy of hateful massacre, as was expected of Africans. Plans were made especially with Cameroon to open its borders to the throng of Igbo who would be fleeing to save their lives.
None of that happened. Quite the contrary. “In the history of warfare there can rarely have been such a merciful aftermath,” wrote journalist John de St. Jorre in a retrospective book, The Brothers’ War: Biafra and Nigeria. “The internal reaction was not vindictiveness, as many people had expected, but mercy and magnanimity.”
Gowon confounded detractors by declaring the triple R policy of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction. The policy was vigorously implemented, albeit with the usual shortfalls of Nigerian public affairs.
Gowon also rebuffed foreign offers of assistance. To quite a few in the world capitals, including some international relief agencies, this was another diabolical ploy to wipe out the Igbo — away from watchful saintly eyes.
With the post-war challenges of resettling and rebuilding, any aid could have helped. But it was a matter of national pride. To borrow from American vernacular, Gowon was saying, in effect, “Take your aid and shove it.”
In any case, flush with crude oil money — at least what was in the pipeline — Nigeria managed. American political scientist John J. Stremlau was quite impressed. “Despite the high degree of international interest and involvement during the conflict, Nigerian reunification was finally achieved without external assistance, foreign mediation, international peace-keeping or security guarantees,” Stremlau writes in his book The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil War 1967-1970.
This all means that Nigeria emerged from its darkest days shining brightly and holding up the torch of African dignity. Alas, the political landscape today is barely a shadow of that moment in time. Rather, the parochialism that almost inexorably led to the civil war is so much afoot.
There are quite a few dimensions of it. But the aspect most pertinent for purposes of this essay is the Igbo outcry. It has been spurred in part by the real and perceived marginalisation by the present administration. More than that it has fed on narratives of the horrors of the civil war. Not surprisingly, the narrative is almost always one-dimensional. And there is often no distinction between actual atrocities and the hell of war, to paraphrase American civil war general William T. Sherman.
In his book Coups and Earthquakes: Reporting the World for America, journalist Mort Rosemblum provides this perspective on the civil war that is worth reflecting upon:
“Neither side was right or wrong. Biafran leaders wanted to secede, and the Federal Government wanted to keep the country intact. There were mixed feelings among both. On a few fronts, Nigerian and Biafran soldiers played football together and assumed their battle positions only when officers came for inspection. On others, there was savage fighting. As in all wars, there was a complex mixture of atrocities, brotherliness, corruption, blame and suffering. But it did not come across that way.”
It is certainly not coming across that way in the current narrative. The other day, I watched a WhatsApp video of a distinguished lady —no name necessary— delivering a speech at an Igbo women’s forum. She spoke emotively about her family’s loss of lives and property. Even after the war, she couldn’t reclaim a family house in Port Harcourt, she said. It was quite touching.
But when I recovered from the emotional tug, I couldn’t help wondering about the contrary stories not told. There are the vast majority of cases in which the Igbo successfully reclaimed their property, including in the North, sometimes with accrued revenue. There were uncountable instances during the war when non-Igbo Nigerians took in Igbo refuges and helped them get back on their feet.
The whirlwind of the narrative is much like what laid the groundwork for the secession. The massacre of the Igbo in the North following the July 1966 counter-coup was, of course, the precipitating incident. But it took more than that.
“The facts of the massacres alone probably would not have been enough to produce the kind of sustained popular support that the government needed to carry the East out of the Federation,” St. Jorre writes. “It was only when their horrific detail had been hammered home in a pervasive and gifted propaganda campaign… that the East was ready both to pull out and to fight for its newly acquired independence.”
The current Igbo victimisation narrative eerily echoes that development. As I told an Igbo friend and former colleague in a texting exchange recently, such a narrative is not just politically problematic, it is also psychologically damaging to individuals and the group.
Ironically, the Igbo may well be the most integrated major ethnic group in Nigeria. It has been estimated that more Igbo live in other parts of Nigeria than in Igboland. Such dispersion is not even close for any other major ethic group, not the Hausa-Fulani, not the Yoruba, not the Ijaw, not the Efik/Ibibio. That says quite a bit about the place of the Igbo in the Nigeria enterprise.