The Biafran resistance finally collapsed and its leadership and forces surrendered 50 years ago. The armistice and the usual paper work were concluded with effusions of pious declarations of “no victor, no vanquished.” That ceremony marked the end of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970. The strategy for the future and the healing process was based on the so-called 3Rs: Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. These sounded so reasonable and soothing to keep nervous Biafrans, many of whom contemplated suicide over capitulation, from creating further complications on the path of peace. It seems easy today, but 50 years ago it required a great deal of will power for defeated Biafrans to return to a Nigeria that shoved them out 30 months prior.
And when all is said and done, Biafra would have been inconceivable without the pogroms of May to October 1966. The disingenuous counter argument has been that without January 15, there would have been no genocide. Such false comparisons paralyse rational discussion on two grounds. The Igbo people are not a conspiring lot. After 50 years of the closest investigations there has not been a shred of evidence of an Igbo conspiracy, grand or minor, against Northern leaders.
Again, the identities of the dissidents of January 15 are well known. To set up machinery for mass killing of poor traders, artisans and otherwise ordinary people who were in Northern Nigeria to make a living, because of the bungling of inept coup plotters, denotes a deep-seated aversion.
By October 1966 it was apparent that Eastern Nigerians, especially the Igbo, were no longer protected by the ordinary and general laws of Northern Nigeria. And universal principles of self-survival, therefore, dictated their resistance. But it was apparent that the Igbo neither bargained for nor did they prepare for a war. The last ditch effort to stave off war was the Aburi Accords which were dishonoured with impunity without deigning to disguise what was manifestly a public display of the arrogance of power.
Worse, the post-war strategy was not designed to reintegrate the Igbo. The abandoned property policy, in which all Igbo property in Port Harcourt was declared abandoned and, therefore, expropriated, has no precedent in world history. The Nazis never seized the lawful property of the Jews, even as they shipped them off to the gas chambers. Even in the Balkans, during the years of ethnic cleansing, there is no equivalent. And how could a citizen be said to have abandoned his property in his own country? The economics of offering 20 Nigerian pounds for every bank account in Biafra was cynical to say the least.
The calculated pauperization of Igbo ensured their exclusion from the economy’s commanding heights for so long that, 50 years after the war, the region is still limping, beset by mass poverty, bad roads, fewer infrastructural facilities and leading to the pressure on young Igbos to undertake risky trades and emigration. The tendency to ‘forget’ the Igbo in major national projects like gas pipeline, railway routes, federal appointments and so on keep reminding Igbo youth of marginalization leading to further agitation for Biafra 50 years after its surrender.
How could Nigeria heal when issues that led to the war were not addressed? Those who perpetrated the pogroms of 1966 never had an opportunity to apologise to their victims, as happened in Rwanda. Some property seized in Port Harcourt were not returned to their rightful owners. The Oputa Panel was set up to vent on the enormities of military rule.
An even bigger panel was required to review the events leading to a political maelstrom and war, which claimed the lives of about three million citizens. It was as if the surrender of Biafra had resolved all outstanding issues.
The contrast with Rwanda is truly remarkable. Rwanda rose from a 100-day genocide to now become Africa’s model state, a pacesetter in development, in gender equality (it has more females in its national legislature than males). It devoted time and resources to true reconciliation. It has abolished ethnic differentiation and has made forgiveness a national duty.
Today, Nigeria seems more divided than it was 50 years ago. Our sense of insecurity has worsened, given the prevalence of insurgency, banditry, kidnapping, robbery, the depredations of herdsmen and cultism. The religious divide is sharp. Igbo are so alienated that they have been excluded from positions of power.
It is a poor testimony to Nigeria’s statecraft that the remote and immediate causes of the war are still staring us on the face demonstrating that we have not learnt the lessons. A majority of Igbo youths and most adults feel like a vanquished people. Remarks by Northern leaders on the situation of the Igbo are a reminder of how some of the northern elite think of the Igbo. But a new healing process must be attempted. It is still not too late.
The 3Rs must be implemented. It is not too late either. The existence of organisations such as the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), the Biafra Independence Movement (BIM) and motley of Biafra revanchists are a reflection of the discontent and the unwillingness to accept a poorly managed peace, 50 years after the war.