Igbo, non-Igbo relive civil war experiences
How minutes fly into hours and days and later years is amazing. Many who saw and took part in the internecine and sanguinary war that tore the nation in shreds and still leaves its scars in the minds of a particular part of the country feel amazed that it is already 40 years since it wound to close.
Children born immediately after the war are already parents and have advanced into great minds and characters. But as the years add, the pains of the war fade because time is a healing balm.
Saturday Sun reasoned that 40 years is like a landmark on the war taking cognizance of the impacts it made in the history of the nation. From our interview sources, the history of Nigeria so far is one pivoted on that war of 30 months that cost the nation about two million lives and inflicted on its psyche an enduring gorge that has remained a borderline of disintegration of forces that should have united into a strong nation.
A participant on the Biafran side said: “A sharp knife was put at the middle of the nation’s heart. The wound remains unhealed, but it has been covered by flesh over time giving the impression that it is no longer there. Every now and then, the sharp pains still remind the owner of the heart that the wound is still open and hurting. I feel for myself that I might not see the healing of the wound, which I witnessed its infliction. I participated in it. We saw extermination gazing us in the face and as human beings all we had left was to fight as means of survival. That we did and gallantly. I still remain proud that it was better and wiser we fought than fold our arms and watch the unrelenting mad crowd of killers reduce our number everyday because they were unrepentant.”
There are thousands of the accounts of the war in every research step one takes. The books on our shelves, the sites on the World Wide Web (www) all narrate the war – causes, course and end. Regarding the prosecution and the methods applied, there could be variants according to the angle the narrator is coming from. But on the cause, the accounts agree that the January 15, 1966 coup brewed bad blood. That the July 1966 counter coup was worse and fallout of the earlier disturbances.
The earlier coup received ethnic coloration because of the pattern of killing. Most of the victims came from a part of the nation, while a part had no major victims. That the reprisal attack and decimation of soldiers of eastern Nigeria extraction by northern soldiers which started in Abeokuta on July 28, 1966 and culminated in another mass killing in Ikeja and later Kaduna the following day made the January coup a mere appetizer. While 15 persons were killed in January including the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa and Premier of Northern Region, Sir Ahmade Bello, 214 soldiers of South Eastern Nigeria fell to the firepower of the northern soldiers between July 28 and 29 in Abeokuta, Ikeja, Ibadan and Kaduna.
Of much interest in the January 15 coup is the role of Major Chukwuma Patrick Kaduna Nzeogwu who was reputed to be the leader of the five or nine majors that played the central role. The interest in Nzeogwu is the fact that he was an Igbo like most of the other majors. An account to disabuse the mind of history on the ethnic bias and dominance of the Igbo in the team said: “Igbo were the majority in the top ranks of the army then. So, it was not abnormal that the coupists were mainly Igbo soldiers.”
Although Nzeogwu was of Igbo parents, he was born and bred in Kaduna and hence his name ‘Kaduna’.
Max Siollun account from www.kwenu.com partly drawn from Frederick Forsyth book noted: “Some claim that Nzeogwu’s participation in the January 1966 coup was part of a grand Igbo agenda to “dominate” the country. This argument overlooks the fact that Nzeogwu was an Igbo in name only. Nzeogwu was born in the Northern Region’s capital of Kaduna to Igbo immigrant parents from the Mid-West Region. Such was his family’s affinity to the city of Nzeogwu’s birth that they and his military colleagues called him “Kaduna.” When not in his army uniform he wore northern mufti and frequently referred to himself as “a northerner. Nzeogwu spoke fluent Hausa “like a native”. In fact, his command of Hausa was better than his command of Igbo.”
Prior to days of blood
It was just two months after that raid in the army that led to the death of the Head of State Maj. Gen. JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi and the military governor of Western Nigeria, Col. Adekunle Fajuyi that the North staged the main blood cuddling massacre. If they felt pained about the assassination of their two prominent leaders in January, which was understandable, they also felt the killing of Ironsi, also a big shot from the East and over 200 others were not enough to assuage the feelings of revenge. They capped their vengeance with the mass genocide of close to 50,000 eastern civilians in the North between September and October 1966.
The killing, according to accounts, made over two million easterners residents in the North refugees. It was horrible reading historians who documented how headless bodies kept flowing down South from the North.
A wikipedia record noted that after the success of the counter coup that had 214 South East victims, the North had scored a vital point and had the feeling that they could go on with more killings at a time a man form their region was in charge, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon. The resultant effect was the massacre of the Igbo in two months. The casualty list is put between 30,000 and 50,000.
“In the aftermath of the counter coup, there were pogroms in the North where soldiers, officers and civilians were killed. It was estimated that more than 30,000 out of the 13 million people of Igbo ethnic origin lost their lives. This led to a large influx of refugees from the North, about 1.8 million heading to the south east.
Several peace accords especially the one held at Aburi, Ghana (the Aburi Accord) collapsed and the shooting war followed. When attempts like the Aburi Accord failed, Ojukwu regarded it as both a failure by Gowon to keep to the spirit of the agreement, and lack of integrity on the side of Nigeria military government in the negotiations toward a united Nigeria.”
The book by Ambassador Raph Uwechue on the war recounted that the real reason Biafra through Ojukwu felt it should act to protect itself was Gowon’s indifference and silence in the face of the killing of tens of thousands of easterners. While the eastern Nigeria government doled out £1m for the rehabilitation of the army of about two million refugees flowing down from the North after the pogrom Gowon dropped mere paltry £300,000 pounds which he said meant about two shillings and some few pens for each refugee. “At a time the council of Obas of the West were sympathetic of the carnage, Gowon in his silence endorsed the act. Self -defence was the only thing left for the East, and therefore the declaration of a state where its people would be safe since the federal government approved of their massacre.”
On July 6, 1967, the war proper started. It commenced with what Gowon had called police action. But it later took a serious dimension when blockades were introduced and full military troops moved into the East from the North. “Biafra had no alternative but to find a way to defend itself from the advancing federal troops. That involved setting up an army in a hurry”, as another account, recalled which went to war to defend the territory. “By the time the Biafran troops pushed far into the West region few months into hostilities, Gowon realized that he had to do something pretty fast. At this time, he employed full and brute force of indiscriminate blockade and bombing of civilian territories after the consent of Russia and Britain supplied it airplanes to bomb Biafran territories”.
What happened in the 30 months of the war is not a story for a volume of a book.
It would come in volumes. And about over 50 accounts in books and on the internet contacted have varying details of callous and savage butchering of civilians, the seizure and freezing of accounts, raiding of towns to massacre civilians, assembling of natives for random shooting, starving of children to death and many other gory details. In piecemeal, Nigeria kept dropping and shrinking the expanse of Biafra until about Christmas of 1969 when it became so glaring that Biafra had lost the struggle. On January 10, 1970, Ojukwu, the Biafran leader escaped with his family members to Ivory Coast while three days after, the war was declared ended. It was on January 15 that Maj. Gen, Phillip Effiong handed over the documents of surrender to Nigeria.
On October 7, 1967, the federal troops had captured the heart of the Biafra territory through Murtala Mohammed, the same man who headed the cleansing of the Nigeria Army of Igbo officers three months earlier in Abeokuta and Lagos. He saw himself in Asaba, an Igbo territory across the Niger. There he committed what chroniclers called “class atrocity against mankind.” His acts there would only equal the bestial horror Pol Pot of Cambodia staged against his people as head of government. All the reports of the Asaba genocide say Mohammed had summoned Asaba natives to the town square by threat and hook and separated the women from men.
While one account say Mohammed lowered his target to boys of six years, another said it was 10 years age limit. But the agreement in all accounts was that in a swift, he had ordered his soldiers to shoot and kill 500 Asaba natives in less than one hour. As if that was not enough, he proceeded to Onitsha with the same men and killed 300 worshippers in an Apostolic Church.
During the sitting of the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa Commission of Human Rights Violations in 2001, it was reported that in Abuja, the then head of State Gen. Gowon apologized for the atrocities committed during the war, including the Asaba Massacre.
But in the same commission, General Officer Commanding (GOC) Two Division of the Army during the civil war, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Haruna said that he had no regret for the Asaba massacre in which over 500 Igbo men were killed by his troops. Haruna’s statement was on October 10.
Wikipedia documents also noted that whereas the Nigeria side suffered a casualty of 200,000 soldiers and civilians, Biafra lost one million lives (among whom are civilians mostly and soldiers) But there are other sources that hold the Biafran territory lost not less than 2.5m lives in all.
When the war was called off, the Federal Government of Nigeria declared that there was no victor and no vanquished. The statement was meant to persuade the parties to come together back as a nation and forge ahead.
According to Mr. Ernie Onwumere who Saturday Sun spoke with, the statement was more of rhetoric than any meaningful pronouncement from a government meant to re-unite a war torn nation and bandage the wounds. “After the statement, I don’t think any Nigerian that values the truth can say for certain that there were decisive steps to go beyond the words in mending fences.
“What brought Nigeria into coup and counter coup was the gross abuse of office by public office holders. We fought a bloody war, returned to sanity, yet the evil that drove us into killing each other has worsened. The government gets worse everyday and provocations still abound that may still lead to war but for caution and the lingering bad memory of the events of 44 to 40 years ago. I don’t think Nigeria gained from that war otherwise we would have been a different nation that respects the rights and dignity of citizens and value our unity. So, I can say the 40 years post-civil war are years of provocation and reminders that the nation has no plans to move forward to development.”