Nigeria: 50 Years Ago, The War Of Biafra Ended, A "Forgotten" Conflict In History Books

Malnourished Biafran children fed by a French medical personnel inside the French Hospital in Libreville, Gabon March 15, 1969. "The images in the media of malnourished children in the belly swollen disrupt international opinion Humanitarian organizations attempt to bypass Lagos reluctance suspects. - rightly -. Humanitarian convoys carrying weapons and mercenaries Of ' vols- pirates' are organized to bring food to the dying populations , " says Le Figaro . Doctors, especially French, come to treat the victims. The Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) movement was founded after this war.Image: AFP

On January 15, 1970, this region of south-eastern Nigeria signed his surrender, ending a civil war that started in the spring of 1968 and that left millions of people dead and displaced. Even today, this history constitutes a veritable "black hole" in the collective memory of the country.

"A fine mustache and a big smile, General Gowon (President of Nigeria, editor's note) warmly shakes hands with the official representative of the Biafran secessionists, Philip Effiong, and sends him a sonorous 'Welcome back, Philip', " says Jeune Afrique . The scene takes place on January 15, 1970 at the headquarters of Dodar, near Lagos, then capital of Nigeria. It ends the war in Biafra (south-east), one of the deadliest conflicts of the 20th century, which left more than a million people dead, or even two, and millions displaced.

Conflict of rare atrocity

The war had started 28 months earlier, on May 30, 1967 : generals of the Igbo ethnic group, the third community of Nigeria with the Yorubas and the Hausas, had then proclaimed the independence of their province which included about 10% of the inhabitants of the countries, mostly Christians. They "felt excluded from socio-political life" , reports Le Point , especially after the assassination in 1966 of General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, the only president of Igbo origin. At the same time, the eastern part of Nigeria "is the region richest in agricultural, mining and above all petroleum resources" . It is therefore necessarily vital for the power of Lagos, dominated by Muslims in the North.

The riches of the underground, "manna and curse" of Nigeria, then already stir up foreign lusts : London, Washington, Moscow, the Organization of African Unity (future African Union) support Lagos, while France brings its aid to Biafra, in particular by delivering weapons. General de Gaulle saw it as an opportunity "to weaken an English-speaking country of which all the neighboring countries are French-speaking and, by extension, to harm the United Kingdom and the United States," observes RFI .

There has never been a final assessment to count the victims (more than a million ?) Of a conflict of rare atrocity, at the origin of a large-scale famine (in August 1968, there would have had 6,000 deaths per day, according to Le Figaro !). This famine is caused by the total blockade of the secessionist region imposed by the Nigerian government since the start of the war.

The trauma of war passed over in silence

In 2020, Nigeria, a country of nearly 200 million inhabitants, celebrates 50 years of the end of the war without a single official commemoration. "The history of our country has been very brutal, the older generation has experienced significant trauma" , confides to AFP the Nigerian writer Diekoye Oyeyinka . "We just swept them under the carpet, as if it never existed. But without knowing the past, we will repeat the same mistakes."

No one in Nigeria remembers these events. Except in Enugu, the former capital of the Biafran republic. There, the inhabitants did not forget January 13, 14 and 15, 1970, the days of surrender, of capitulation. Nor the famous speech by General Gowon, calling for national reconciliation and ensuring that there was "neither winner nor defeated" . They also did not forget the forced exile in Ivory Coast of their leader, Colonel Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu , who died in 2011. Nor his triumphant return in 1982, after being pardoned and before being imprisoned for 10 months.
New separatist movements

Today, the Igbos continue to feel marginalized, "under occupation". They complain of being unfairly treated by the government of Muhammadu Buhari, a former general from the north of the country. And Biafran flags are always waved here and there on the fronts of buildings or along the roads, before being destroyed by the security forces, still massively deployed.

The recent closure of Enugu airport and the sacking by customs of shops belonging to Igbos, at the beginning of December 2019 in Lagos, are fueling this feeling of exclusion and the independentist tendencies, carried by a new generation. The Igbo separatist movements have emerged again in recent years. The most important of them being the Independence Movement for the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra ( Ipob ), which carries out intense propaganda campaigns on social networks. This movement has been classified as a "terrorist organization" by the authorities.

"Not to speak (of the war, editor's note) , not to write it, is to leave room for an invented story and disinformation", explained to the AFP the university Patrick Utomi, former adviser of Alex Ekwueme, first vice-president igbo (1979-1983) of the country. "Nigeria is today more divided than it ever was before the civil war. We have learned nothing ," he said.

A truncated history

After years of oblivion, the current government did not reintroduce history until the last school year as a compulsory subject in school curricula. And still only for 10 to 13 year olds. "It is essential for us to build our identity and patriotic values" , recognizes Sonny Echono, secretary general of the Ministry of Education, interviewed by AFP.

Problem: schools are in dire need of qualified teachers. And especially the civil war, which never had an official approved version, is still not on the program. "We must teach it to our children," insists Egodi Uchendu, a history professor at the university of Nsukka, the city where the fighting began in 1967. "Nigerians in the South East did not experience the war of the same way as in other regions of the country. You have to listen to all these versions, "he added.

" We have to talk about it. Otherwise we will never get better"

American-Nigerian journalist Chika Oduah has traveled the country to collect several hundred raw testimonies from victims, witnesses or soldiers, which she then publishes on an archive site, Biafran War Memories . Many of the people she met told for the first time how their loved ones died. How they had to drink their own urine or live hidden for years in the forest. "An old soldier from the North broke down in tears at the death of his brother," the young woman told AFP.

She herself learned at the age of 17, when she lived in the United States, that her mother, then a child, had spent two years in a refugee camp. She had never told him before. "Everyone wanted to go ahead, think about the future, not the past," said the journalist. And to continue: "But we have to talk about it. Otherwise we will never get better."




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