Remembering my father’s Biafra: The politics of erasing history
Decades after the Nigeria-Biafra war, the truth of what happened is denied, so we forfeit the chance to learn from it.
This is how my father remembered it.
The year was 1966 and he, a bright and ambitious boy of 13 or 14 (no one could be sure because the European missionaries did not issue birth certificates to children like him whose parents refused to convert to Christianity), lived in Akpugoeze, in Nigeria’s southeastern Enugu state.
It was a town of sprawling cassava farms and towering palm trees – not a wealthy place, but one where the townsfolk worked together to build new roads and widen existing ones, to construct schools, churches, and a primary healthcare centre.
My father had just won a scholarship to study at one of the country’s finest secondary schools in Port Harcourt, 200km south. But my grandfather was sceptical. He was scared that the city that opened its mouth to the sea, would swallow his first-born son.
Soon, school would be the last thing on either of their minds.
In the markets and on the way to the stream, people had started to whisper tales about pogroms in the north. They said Igbo people – the ethnic group to which my father belonged – were being rounded up and killed in Kano, Kaduna and Sokoto, some 600-1,000km away.
When Nigeria had gained its independence from the United Kingdom on October 1, 1960, a federal constitution had divided the country into three regions, each run by one of the main ethnic groups: The Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast.
Less than six years later, there was widespread disillusionment with the government, which was perceived as corrupt and incapable of maintaining law and order.
Then on January 15, 1966, a military coup overthrew and killed Nigeria’s first prime minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner. As several of those involved were Igbo, and many of those killed were politicians from the north, it was erroneously labelled an Igbo coup. Many northerners interpreted it as an attempt to subjugate the north, which was less developed than the south.
Army commander Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, suppressed the coup but took power himself. His plan to abolish the regions and establish a unitary government further compounded northern fears that southerners would take over. A counter-coup in July saw soldiers from the north seize power as Aguiyi-Ironsi was overthrown and killed.
When news of the pogroms first began circulating in the southeast, people from the towns and villages started to trek to cities like Enugu and Onitsha, some 70km away, in search of telephones. They carried with them pieces of crisp brown paper on which their relatives who moved to the north had scribbled their numbers. They travelled in groups. Those who could not make it begged others to call the numbers for them.
They returned to their homes distraught, having learned that the telephone lines in the north were down.
Weeks later, mammy wagons began dropping people off at my father’s town – people with sunken eyes and blistered skin, some of them with missing limbs.
The homes to which these people returned erupted into squeals of delight – the relatives they had feared dead were alive. Most had nothing but near-empty bags with them. A few carried something else – the remains of relatives who had not survived the pogroms.
About 30,000 Igbo were killed in the pogroms and about one million internally displaced. Some northerners living in Igbo areas were also killed in revenge attacks.
In response to the pogroms, on May 30, 1967, Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu unilaterally declared the independent Republic of Biafra in the southeast of the country.
Then the war began.
My father and his family learned to take cover as the air rumbled with bombs, shelling, bazookas and, much later on, ogbunigwe, weapons systems mass-produced by the Republic of Biafra.
Like most boys his age, he volunteered to join the Biafran Boys – a group of child soldiers trained by the Biafran army. Few of them ever saw combat, but he never tired of telling me and my siblings about his mock wooden gun, morning drills and uniform of khaki shorts and shirt.
Decades later he would recall how he and the other boys would go to the market to bully traders into parting with their chickens and goats, groundnut and palm oil, with the same boyish excitement with which he had experienced it. He also remembered the jubilation with which they received the news that other countries – Gabon, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia – had recognised Biafra.
Occasionally, he would wonder what his life would have been like had the war never arrived and he had made it to that school in Port Harcourt.
By another name
In Nigerian history books, that period between 1966 and 1970 is called The Nigerian Civil War or The Nigerian-Biafran war. But for those of us whose families lived through it, it is an erasure of truth not to name it The Biafran Genocide.
Estimates of the death toll vary – with some putting it at more than one million and others at more than two million. Some died as a result of the fighting but most from hunger and disease after the Nigerian government imposed a land and sea blockade that resulted in famine.
In The Republic, Amarachi Iheke gives a detailed analysis of the case for and against classifying it as a genocide, arguing that whether or not you believe it to have been a genocide, the conflict exposes “blind spots in our application of international human rights norms” and that “moving forward, as part of a national reconciliation project, it is necessary we embark on critical truth-seeking around Biafra’s genocide claim”.
But the foundations of the Nigerian government’s denial were planted on January 15, 1970, when Biafra agreed to a ceasefire and the war ended. Nigeria’s Military Head of State General Yakubi Gowon declared the conflict had “no victor, no vanquished”.
But there was clearly a victor – the Nigerian government, which had regained control of the oil-rich region – and a vanquished – the people of the now-defunct Republic of Biafra, on whose land the war had been fought, whose homes had been destroyed, whose relatives had died of starvation and disease, and their descendants who would have to navigate the world with the weight of their trans-generational trauma.
Still, in keeping with Gowon’s mantra, the government began to craft its own story; one echoed in school textbooks.
In school, I learned no details of what happened in Biafra. The reality was tactfully erased from the curriculum, while those responsible were depicted as national heroes who had fought to preserve Nigeria’s unity. I tried to reconcile the colourful pictures of these “national heroes” in my Social Studies books (history was removed from the basic curriculum in 2007) with my father’s experience of the war.
When I told my classmates my father’s stories, they would look at me, their mouths open in disbelief, as though they were hearing these things for the first time. When the topic came up in class, the teacher would gloss over it as though it was something from the distant past, then conclude with a tone of “happily ever after”.
The result is a new generation of Nigerians who are either unaware of the country’s true past or have normalised it as a small price to pay to maintain the nation’s unity.
This ahistoricism follows us around in the physical and virtual worlds. Recently, during a Twitter brawl, Bello el-Rufai, the son of Kaduna State governor Nasir Ahmed el-Rufai, threatened a user he perceived to be Igbo, saying he would pass the Twitter user’s mother around to his friends, while Bello’s own mother appeared to defend her son, declaring that all was “fair in love and war”.
But for Biafrans, it is not so easy to delink his words from history. After all, 50 years ago, Igbo women were being passed around in the military camps set up in captured Biafran towns, in open-air markets, on the street or in their own homes, as their children and husbands were made to watch.
I often think of Mourid Barghouti, who in his autobiography I Saw Ramallah writes, “It is easy to blur the truth with a simple linguistic trick: start your story from ‘Secondly’.” By carefully omitting the real spark of the conflict in 1966 – the pogroms – we change the whole truth of it.
Yet sadly, this is how most Nigerians tell the story of the Biafran Genocide; disregarding its cause and pretending that it was a war to protect Nigeria’s territorial integrity instead of one fuelled by years of ethnic tensions and concerns over resource control.
But in Nigeria’s quest to erase and amend its history, it has forfeited the opportunity to learn from it – and this is something that continues to haunt us. Decades after Biafra, we have witnessed this past replicate itself in mini-episodes such as the Odi Massacre in 1991 and Zaria Massacre in 2015. And just like the Biafran Genocide, the memories of these gruesome incidents are forgotten quickly, erased and distorted, downplayed by the media, and the perpetrators are never held accountable.
But the truth is, it is impossible to erase the past, at least not completely. We may try to distort it, pretend that it never happened, but it will always be there. And for people like my father, the war will forever give shape to their lives – splitting it into a before and an after.
Immediately after the war, the Nigerian government made it a point of duty to instil a spirit of nationalism in the hearts of schoolchildren like my father. But these children had already seen first-hand what comes with challenging the notion of one Nigeria. So it was not a patriotism borne of love for one’s country but of fear. Unconsciously, my father passed this fear on to his children.
We have learned to perform our nationalism in public, to avoid speaking our languages, to show our most Nigerian selves.
My father died last year, after years spent battling health problems in a country where he could not access quality healthcare. But his life, and the memories he shared with me during years of conversations in our parlour, has left behind glimpses of a history we must never forget.
What he gave me with his stories is the knowledge that it is imperative to talk about the past, to teach it, to confront it. In that way, we learn from it, and can tell when it is being erased and distorted, or about to be recreated.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.