Biafra: A Toddler's Story - By Collins Onuegbu



The call for restoration of Republic of Biafra - a secessionist western African state that unilaterally declared its independence from Nigeria in May 1967 - is growing in Nigeria again. And it is tough, tense, and aggressive. Mostly by a generation that were not born during the war with Nigeria. The arrest and detention of its prominent leader for treason, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu has made the situation worse than it started. In the article below, written by Collins Onuegbu, he chronicles his own story around the civil war, and has some pointers on building a better equitable nation.

His article below:
In the first five years of my life, I swung from being a Nigerian, to being a Biafran and back to being a Nigerian again. Those five years have shaped my life up till today as a Nigerian. This year will be 50 years since the start of the Nigerian civil war, fought between Nigeria and my side of the country that had declared a Biafran Republic. I was too young to fully understand the politics of that time and the reason for the war. I have over the past decades listened to, and read the various accounts of the war. As told by both sides in the conflict. But no one has heard my own version of the Biafrans story. So I am going to tell it.

I was a two-year-old when the war started. Not sure any two-year-old remembers anything around him. I am not different. However, by the end of the war, I was 5years old. And in that period had experienced death of a parent and best friends. Had become an internally displaced person, the modern word for a refugee. I entered the war as a contented toddler and came out as a wizened orphan facing hunger and starvation.

First my father. An oil merchant who had oil mills that produced palm oil for export through Port Harcourt to Europe or wherever. He was a middle-class person by the time the war started. I did not really get to know him. My few recollection of him was glimpses of him on a sick bed. And then a ceremony in which my mother’s hair was being shaved. And lots of people in our house. They came to mourn him. I did not feel the loss then, I was about 3/4 years old now. But those hazy memories made sense as I grew older.

Then my friends. As a toddler, I had two friend who were my age. My compound was in the middle. Ursula was to the left. Emmanuel was to the right. One afternoon, Ursula and myself were walking to Emmanuel’s house. We were stopped by an elderly woman and told not to go there. We turned back. I did not understand why. I later understood that Emmanuel had died. Sometime later. Ursula also died. I have no recollection of the death of Ursula. I was told I was also sick by this period. The war period was a time of sickness and death. Soldiers were dying like flies in the war. Children, vulnerable like us died from the sickness of war. Preventable diseases that could not be treated because there was not enough medication. Some died simply from starvation.

I survived. But my two best friends died. I did not feel the loss until I became older and understood what had happened. I still have hazy memories of these two people who were the first friends I made as a child. And their death has influenced me more than I can admit.There were other memories of the war before it finally came to an end. I remember a trek that took us away from the house as the war approached. We became internally displaced running away from the war. We were housed by relatives married outside of the village. By my recollection, this was very close to the end of the war.


Image: Starved girl

I remember Ursula’s dad the day he returned from war. He did not know that my father, his benefactor had died. I saw him weeping like a child. He had a scar from a bullet wound on his head. But he survived.

I heard the rest of the story of the war as I grew older. There were stories of the exploits and bravery of the soldier who fought the war. Stories of the thousand who never made it back from the war. Stories of massacre of civilians by soldiers who could not differentiate between fellow soldiers and civilians. In my teenage years, I become conscious of the politics that followed before and after the war. Of my place in a country my fathers had fought to break away from.

In the university, I met Obasi, a child soldier. He was my roommate and told stories of personal exploits as a 14-year-old soldier. In hindsight, I think Obasi suffered from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He found it difficult to sleep. He was haunted by the imagery of war. Even though it was over a decade the war had ended then, Obasi still suffered from the images in his head. A 14-year-old, conscripted to go and kill or be killed in one of the most savage wars of the 60s.There were several like him. Some became mad and demented after their childhood experience of the war. We saw these guys growing up and concluded they were on drugs. But now I know better.

The call for restoration of Biafra is growing in Nigeria again. Mostly by a generation that were not born during the war with Nigeria. They have heard the story of their fathers but don’t want to accept being treated as second class citizens in a country that does not seem to want then. After the war, the generation that fought the war accepted defeat, went back and reintegrated into Nigeria. There was promise that the nation that survived the war would learn its lesson and build a stronger and more united country.

But in its moment of victory, Nigeria decided to punish the losers of war. Despite a program to reintegrate, the reality on the ground was a program to punish. From abandoned property issues to the creation of states, to the near wasteland the Igbos territory of Nigeria has become. While some was deliberate, some others were just because a succession of bad leaders had been unleashed on Nigeria since the end of the war. From the military buccaneers to the clueless civilians.

In punishing Biafra, Nigeria has also punished itself. Today, the general instability in the country can be traced to the balkanization of Nigeria into an unworkable structure that started with the war. It is not only the formers Biafrans who feel cheated by Nigeria, the entire country feels cheated. Our development has been stunted. There is corruption in the land because not many love Nigeria enough to fight for her. There is hunger. And there is the general feeling that Nigeria is not making progress.

There is tension all over the land. From the Niger Delta where the people are fighting to control their resources. To North East where the Boko Haram sect wants to impose its brand of Islam. From the Igbo East who want to reincarnate Biafra to Southern Kaduna and Jos, the religious fault lines of Nigeria where clashes between Moslems and Christians have led to the death of thousands.

Had Nigeria come out of the war and genuinely made efforts to address grievances that led to it, not just for the Biafrans but for everyone else, perhaps we would have had a different trajectory in our journey in the nearly fifty years the war ended.

Nigeria is not the only country that has gone to war with itself. All over Africa, the artificial boundaries created by those who conquered the continent and balkanized it for their economic gains has led to countless wars between tribes and nations that did not need to belong to the same country. Some of the wars have lasted generations and have little hope of ever ending. Some have led to separation like in Sudan and Ethiopia. In some., the nation state is held together by force, a forced unity of the unwilling waiting for the next eruption.

Nigeria had a chance to use the war to build a more equitable union by addressing the issues that led to the scramble for control of the levers of power at the center. Giving the regions some level of autonomy to determine their fate could have lessened the tensions. But it chose a centrist structure that has made the fight to share scarce resources at the center the sole reason for the union. What has happened is that except for Lagos, the rest of the country has moved to Abuja to fight for the spoils of war, the oil money that was ceded as a bounty for the war.

How long this will last is anybody’s guess. But unless we quickly retrace our steps and go to a negotiation table to renegotiate the basis of Nigeria, it’s in my opinion that the small skirmishes that have been the order of the day from the Niger Delta to the north will eventually snowball into a conflagration that may make the Biafrans war a child’s play. I hope we do not get to this. I am hopeful we will not get there. Reason I hope will prevail. But the window to have a peaceful negotiation will not remain open for ever.

In my somber moments, I still see the fleeting images of my friends, Emmanuel and Ursula. I feel the loss now that I was too young to feel when they died. But they were just a part of the forgotten statistics of the millions that died in that war. Had they lived, who knows what they would have become. And what our Nigeria could have been.

This article was reproduced with the permission from the Author, and first appeared on LinkedIn.

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I like how people who witnessed the way advocate for peaceful negotiation. Sadly, it's not going to happen. Powerful individuals who get massive benefits from the present structure of the Nigerian state will never support dialogue of any sort.