The Biafra war and the age of Pestilence

The Biafra War and the Age of Pestilence

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

When is the heinous crime of “genocide” not “genocide”? Perhaps, when everyone of the targeted national, racial, religious, or regional population is not yet exterminated. Henceforth, “genocide” appears to be the case when it can be demonstrated that the population under attack has been totally destroyed… So, to prove that genocide has occurred, there must be no survivors…

In the case of the Sudan, according to the report of the February 2005 UN investigating commission on the character of the slaughter of the African population in the Dafur region by the Khartoum-based Arab regime and its Janjaweed militia allies,(1) such an outcome hasn’t yet occurred – therefore, there is “no genocide”; at least not yet. Instead, there have been what the commission categorises, quite curiously, as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” committed by the regime. For the UN, Khartoum has apparently not yet crossed that “dreadful” threshold into the realm of completing its designated mission, its “final solution”, in Dafur. Until this happens, the Dafur report acknowledges that 70,000 Dafuri have been killed during the war waged on them by Khartoum while two million others have been forced into exile,(2) many of them into the neighbouring state of Chad. Equally contradictorily, or so it appears, the UN notes that the “killing of civilians, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillaging and enforced displacement”(3) are taking place in Dafur. So, even though these appalling crimes have been indisputably and systematically carried out against the Dafuri, as a people, by the Sudanese state and its allies, it is extraordinary that the UN does not think that these “amount to genocide”.(4)

During the recent UN general assembly’s commemoratory session on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp where millions of Jews, Romany and others were annihilated by Nazi Germany’s campaign of genocide, several commentators speculated whether the UN could have stopped this crime if the organisation had been in existence then. They didn’t need to spend too much time reminiscing on the hypothetical. All they needed was to examine the UN record in confronting genocide in the post-1945 world and they would have concluded, without any equivocations, that the organisation’s performance was dismally disappointing. The current UN attempt to cover up the genocide in Dafur would therefore be seen as consistent with this sordid history of inaction, rather than the bizarre exception that it might otherwise seem.

In 1966, soon after the world commemorated the 21st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and made the customary solemn declaration of “Never, Never Again”, Hausa-Fulani emirs, muslim clerics and intellectuals, military officers, politicians and other public figures in Nigeria defiled that season of reflection, commiseration and hope. They planned and executed the first phase of the Igbo genocide, the foundational genocide in post-conquest Africa.(5) This genocide established the precedent for the killing fields that would snake across the African landscape in the subsequent 40 years. A total of 100,000 Igbo were massacred across northern Nigeria and elsewhere in the country, with the total connivance of the central government in Lagos headed by Colonel Yakubu Gowon during the months of May-October 1966. Most were killed in their houses, offices, businesses, schools, colleges and hospitals, as well as those who were attacked at railway stations and on trains, bus stations and buses, airports and in cars, lorries and on foot as they sought to escape the pogrom for their homeland in eastern Nigeria. Thousands of others sustained horrific injuries; many were maimed for life.

Because they had opposed the liberation of Nigeria from British occupation, which the Igbo had resisted since the 1940s, the Hausa-Fulani had been assured the supreme political role in post-conquest Nigeria.(6) As a result, the main thrust of Hausa-Fulani politics assumed that the Igbo constituted the principal “obstacle” to the perpetuation of Hausa-Fulani sociopolitical hegemony in Nigeria.(7) Hence, the planning and execution of the genocide.

There was extensive coverage of the Igbo genocide in the international media throughout its course. The UN, under its then secretary-general U Thant, never unequivocally condemned this atrocity. U Thant consistently maintained that it was a “Nigerian internal affair”, a cue seized upon with relish by the Organisation of African Unity which continued to trumpet this shameful line throughout the slaughter. No efforts were made by the UN to stop the killings or bring the perpetrators to justice. On the contrary, U Thant repeatedly thwarted several Igbo initiatives, as well as those of others, formally to table the subject for discussion at the UN Security Council. U Thant’s intention throughout this tragedy was to protect the interests of the Nigerian state, even though its leadership had come to power through a violent coup d’état. As for the welfare of the 1.5 million survivors of the initial massacres who fled to their Igbo homeland, neither the UN nor the Gowon junta gave support to the massive rehabilitation programme that the Igbo themselves embarked upon to integrate the returnees in society between October 1966 and June 1967.

Apparently emboldened by the scant criticism from the UN (and indeed from most of the countries of the world) for its 1966 murderous escapades, the Nigerian state expanded the territorial range of its genocidal campaign on the Igbo by attacking Biafra, Igboland, in 1967. Essentially this inaugurated the second phase of the genocide which would last until January 1970. Three million Igbo, a quarter of the nation’s total population—half as many people as were killed in the Nazi concentration camps—were slaughtered under the eyes of the "civilised" world.

Not-“Area Boys”
The Nigerian campaign was unabashedly supported by leading and influential officials of the state, including Obafemi Awolowo, the deputy chair of the federal cabinet and finance minister, who consistently declared openly that it was “justifiable” to starve the Igbo to death as part of the Nigerian military strategy to overrun Biafra. Most Biafran casualties, particularly children and the elderly, were indeed people who starved to death as a result of the Nigerian strategy. The Awolowoist credo became the guiding principle of the third marine division of the Nigerian army, a notorious death squad that operated in southern Biafra at the time, particularly after the Biafran resistance had virtually frozen the Nigerian advance in the north. Most of the officers and men of the squad were recruited largely from western Nigeria, Awolowo’s homeland, including Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo (current Nigerian head of state) who was one of the commanders of the unit.

Just like their Hausa-Fulani counterparts, and the Nazis who had established the precedent from which these Nigerian state officials now operated most enthusiastically, Awolowo and his associates (civilian and military alike) would have regarded themselves as “very cultured” – they surely read the Bible, as well as Shakespeare, Milton, Burke, Paine, Hobbes, Rousseau, Achebe, Okigbo and they listened to Dairo, Beethoven, Olaiya, Handel, and so on. Just as in Nazi Germany, the Nigerian planners of genocide demonstrated clearly that genocidal “theorists” and colonels and generals were often calm, well-educated, cold-blooded practitioners, who were more likely to be dressed in agbada, babariga, 2-piece suit, asho-oke or lace, rather than raggedly-attired, barely-educated miscreants. They were neither alimajiri nor the dishevelled “area boys” that abound in many Nigerian towns and cities.

The UN never challenged Awolowo and his “theorists” and field commanders for proselytising the crime of genocide so brazenly. Just as it had shown callous indifference during the first phase of the Igbo genocide, the UN neither condemned nor intervened to stop the massacres that went on in Biafra for 30 months. Key countries that belonged to the UN, including Britain, Nigeria’s principal arms supplier, the then Soviet Union, which equipped the Nigerian air force, and the states of the Arab and muslim World (particularly Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and Chad), supported Nigeria to the hilt, furnishing it with the assorted weapons it needed to accomplish its goal. British and Soviet experts were on the ground to advise the Nigerians on the use of the weapon-systems that their countries had made available for the mission, and Egyptian pilots (reeling from their defeat by Israel in the recently concluded Six-Day War) flew Nigerian combat aircraft and were involved in the savage bombing and straffing of Biafran cities and villages—targeting refugee centres, hospitals, schools, churches, markets, farms, trains, buses, cars, lorries and communication infrastructure.

The UN’s inability to stop the Igbo genocide was the clearest example to date that the world had learnt little from the Jewish genocide of the 1940s. The apparent triumph of genocidal state officials in Nigeria, with heavyweight support from some of the major international powers, made nonsense of the lofty declarations on the crime of genocide which the UN itself had enunciated soon after it came into being following the Jewish genocide. In effect, the Nigerian operators inaugurated, as state policy, the politics of liquidation of people or peoples that were regarded as “political opponents”. It is this politics of the genocide-state that has remained the singular hallmark of Nigerian political development since then, with all-too-familiar calamitous consequences. All Nigerian heads of state and several key state/quasi-state officials since mid-1966 were active in the planning or the execution of the varying features of the Igbo genocide.

Equally, the response of most African countries to the genocide was similar to the UN’s: it was considered a “Nigerian internal affair”. For those countries closely allied to Britain, the Soviet Union, or the Arab World, they were often vociferous in their open support for the Nigerian state action against the Igbo, with some of them actually supplying weapons or combat personnel to fight alongside the perpetrators. Only very few leaders such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire voiced their criticism of the slaughter of the Igbo, and warned of the deleterious consequences on the future development of Africa if the genocide was not halted and its organisers punished.(8)

Precisely because the perpetrators of the Igbo genocide appeared to have been let off the hook for their crimes by the rest of Africa, and the wider world, Africa didn’t wait very long before its inaction and/or collaboration with the goals of the politics of the genocide-state in Nigeria metamorphosed violently beyond the Nigerian frontiers. Leaders elsewhere on the continent waged their own versions of the liquidation of “opponents” as ruthlessly and horrifically as they could, à la Nigeria, because they expected no sanctions from either their African colleagues or from the international community. Soon, the killing fields from Igboland expanded across the continent as the following haunting milestones of slaughter illustrate: Uganda, Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Southern Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan. Twelve million were killed in these 13 countries. Added to the three million Igbo dead, Africa has had the gruesome tally of 15 million people murdered by its genocide-states in the past 40 years.

The Igbo, the Tutsi, the Dafuri and all those other Africans who have been the victims of the genocide-state have been largely left to defend themselves if they can. The indifference of the UN and the rest of the world to the terror of the African genocide-state is palpable. The present UN effort to exonerate the Sudan from its genocide in Dafur by foisting on Africa a pseudo-hierarchical schema of definitions that casts doubt on what constitutes this “crime against humanity” is itself a crime against humanity. For the United Nations, this represents the organisation's descent to its lowest ebb yet. That this has occurred when the UN is led by an African further underscores the burden of this tragedy. According to the dreadful logic of the UN declaration on Dafur, the crime of genocide will only be ascertained once population has ceased to exist. Tufia kwa!

To live in the typical African “nation state” at the moment is to live in the most oppressively centralised state in the world that denies most peoples in constituent nations their fundamental human rights. This has been a debilitating legacy for most Africans since the European powers created these states during their occupation of the continent. It was, and still remains a conqueror’s and a conquest state, having clobbered together peoples of varying political, cultural, religious and ideational heritage with no identifiably-embracing organic transnational sensibility, save an ensemble or organisation capable only of rationalising the exploitation of the continent’s critical natural resources for the benefit of capitalists in the Western World.

It cannot be overstated that it is the African genocide-state that is the current bane of African social existence. It is what constitutes the firestorm of the emergency that threatens the very survival of the African. It is not the “debt”, “poverty”, HIV/Aids/other diseases and the myriad of socio-economic indices often reeled off in many a commentary. For instance, contrary to the understandable sincerity of purpose in Nelson Mandela’s recent call on the West to cancel all Africa’s “debt”, coupled with the infusion of US$50 billion worth of Western capital to the continent in he next decade,(9) and the British government’s own high-powered but essentially gestural political rhetoric on the subject during the July 2005 G8 summit in Scotland, Africans do not require financial assistance in their bid to dismantle the genocide-state on their continent. Africa, presently, remains one of humanity’s most endowed continents. It is not poor. It is rich in human and non-human capacity, with the latter incorporating a vast array of mineralogical and agricultural resources that outstrip the potentials of most other continents of the world. It is pertinent to note that despite all the noisy propaganda of “Western aid” to Africa, African emigrants in the Americas, Europe and Asia now dispatch more money to Africa annually than all the “Western aid” to the continent combined. In 2003, according to the World Bank, African emigrants sent to Africa the impressive sum of US$200 billion(10) – invested directly in their home communities. This is 40 times the sum of “Western aid” in real terms in the same year – i.e. when the pervasive “overheads” attendant to the latter are accounted for. It is interesting that the source of the information of the instrumental role of African emigrants in current external capital transfers to Africa comes from the same World Bank which, in alliance with the International Monetary Fund and the string of African regimes in the past 30 years, contributed to the virtual destruction of the African economy in its so-called “structural adjustment programme” of the era.(11) One of the consequences of this programme was the dramatic flight of the African middle classes, who make up a significant proportion of the 12 million-strong Africans who left the continent in the past 15 years. Thus, Africa’s pressing problem in the past 40 years has not been “poverty” as it is often uncritically portrayed, but how to husband phenomenal resources, human and non-human, for the express benefit of the peoples, and how to manage this at the same time as dismantling the genocide-states that threaten annihilation to African existence.(12)

What Africa needs urgently from Western countries is simply that they withdraw their support for the continuing existence of the African genocide-state. This state’s ontological mission is to kill – and it surely accomplishes this most viciously, as we have shown on Biafra. This state will lead Africa nowhere but to perdition. Biafra casts a distinct, enveloping shadow over contemporary Africa’s quest to formulate a way forward. It was in Biafra that barely 10 years after the African restoration of independence, Africans fundamentally challenged the efficacy of this state to cope with the exigencies of multinationality, multiculturality and redevelpment in the aftermath of a devastating external conquest and occupation. Without the massive arms support that Nigeria received from Britain especially, it is highly improbable that Nigeria would have been able to pursue its second phase of the Igbo genocide. Nigeria did not have an arms manufacturing capacity to embark on this enterprise, and forty years on, Nigeria still does not have such an internal military capability. One immediate move that the West and the rest of the world can make to support African peoples’ ongoing efforts to rid themselves of the genocide-state is to ban all arms sales to Africa. This must be comprehensive and not fudged. The African genocide-state requires the deadly array of arms ever streaming into its arsenal from the West and elsewhere to terrorise the people(s) in its territory. This is one of the enduring lessons of the Igbo genocide and Biafra.

An arms ban on such key states as Nigeria, the Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, would radically advance the current quest by their peoples to construct democratic and extensively decentralised new state forms that guarantee and safeguard human rights, equality and freedom for individuals and peoples – alternatives to the extant genocide-state. Africans know very well that there are alternatives to the genocide-state. They have both the vision and the capacity to create these alternatives. This is the way forward for Africa. As for the West, a ban on all arms to Africa forthwith will enhance these alternative African state constructions tremendously. Such a ban will in no way entail any complicated budgeting for a new fund allocation from the Western taxpayer. Not one dollar nor euro nor pound would be spent. It also does not require agonising G7/G8/Davos Annual World Economics Forum-style gatherings to implement either. Each government simply takes its decision after a cabinet meeting. For Britain, for instance, which is currently the premier arms-exporter to Africa, earning it the handsome sum of £1 billion in 2004,(13) a total arms-ban on Africa could perhaps be that golden opportunity that it has always sought to permanently erase the “scars of Africa” from its “conscience” which Prime Minister Tony Blair has harped upon for many years.

(1)United Nations, UN News Service, New York, 1 February 2005.
(2) Other estimates however put the number of Darfuri murdered so far by the Sudanese government and its allies significantly much higher than the 70,000 UN figure – between 300,000 and 340,000 killed. See, for instance, BBC, (last accessed 16 February 2005).
(3)UN News Service, 1 February 2005.
(5)Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Conflict and Intervention in Africa (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1990), pp. 11-12.
(6)Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, African Literature in Defence of History (Dakar: African Renaissance, 2001), pp. 126-132.
(7)Ibid., pp. 112-117.
(8)Ekwe-Ekwe, Conflict and Intervention, pp. 54-55.
(9) BBC, (last accessed 5 February 2005)
(10)World Bank, ‘Migrant Labor Remittances in Africa,’ Africa Regional Working Paper Series, No. 64, November 2003, p.12.
(11)Ekwe-Ekwe, African Literature in Defence of History, pp. 3-7. See also Soren Ambrose, “Challenging the IMF, Intellectually and Politically,” International Herald Tribune, Paris, 29 April 1998.
(12)Ekwe-Ekwe, African Literature in Defence of History, especially chapter 5.
(13)The Observer, London, 12 June 2005.



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