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The ghost of Biafra

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The ghost of Biafra

The ghost of Biafran secession is again stalking Nigeria and Nigerians are once more beginning to relive, reflect on and even debate the events that led to the unforgettable secessionist conflict that ostensibly ended in January 1970. By Onyekachi Wambu

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the country’s first coup. Led by an Igbo, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the 15 January 1966 anti-corruption coup provided the trigger for the Biafran civil war that engulfed Nigeria later. 

With the October 2015 arrest and detention of Nnamdi Kanu, the Biafran activist and leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, debate on what next in Nigeria is in sharp focus as people begin to take in once again the brutality and numerous reasons behind the first failed January coup which include: the mistakes of the successor military regime of General Aguiyi-Ironsi’s as he sought to abandon the weak federal system in favour of a strong unitary government; the cruel violence of the second revenge coup by Northern officers in May 1966; the attacks and murders of Igbo civilians which created the grounds for secession by Biafra; the attempts to find a political solution which would hold the country together at the Aburi conference in Ghana and which reached agreement on a loose confederal political system; the subsequent abandonment of the Aburi accords by the Nigerian government; the final descent into civil war and the large-scale humanitarian disasters in the besieged Biafra that followed; and finally the collapse of the rebel state, the terms of the surrender in 1970, and post-war reintegration of the rebel state back into Nigeria.

Reflection on each of these chapters will enable Nigeria to confront important aspects of its past which it has been reluctant to discuss. The peace in 1970, although considered magnanimous at the time, has partially unravelled. Many of the defeated Igbo have long perceived themselves discriminated against and marginalised. Two important cultural events over the last few years began the process of forcing a confrontation with the past and a refocus on the civil war – the source of many of the country’s unresolved problems. The first was the book and film of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, and the second was another book, There was a Country, the last major work of the great Chinua Achebe. Both began a new conversation amongst a generation that didn’t live through the war about the principles involved in the war, the human and material costs, the continuing issues attending the reintegration of the Igbo, and the broader issue of designing a federal constitution that strikes the right balance between the necessity for national cohesion, against the importance of regional autonomy/identity alongside local control of resources. 

Boko Haram, with their own uncompromising declaration of an independent caliphate, are raising this latter issue in an inchoate yet brutal way. Similarly, many young Igbo who were not born during the Biafra War have begun a new round of protests and agitation for an independent Biafra, fuelled by their perceived loss of power following Goodluck Jonathan’s defeat in the presidential elections. The arrest of Kanu, who for the last few years has been running a London-based Internet station, Radio Biafra, has given a new focus to this agitation. Kanu, who is slowly becoming a local hero, has been detained on charges of criminal conspiracy, intimidation and belonging to an unlawful society. The risks to the Nigerian state of this growing grievance from a key region are obvious. A wrong move can have serious consequences. It is worth recalling that Boko Haram grew from a rag-tag movement into a full- scale insurgency after its leader, Mohammed Yusuf’s, extrajudicial killing in police custody. NA

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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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