n May 30th the 55 years of Biafra was marked and largely observed by the Igbo. This article is a tribute and memorial to fellow citizens who died during the first military coup, the genocide that followed and the eventual civil war that followed the declaration of Biafra which left more than a million people dead. May God give them eternal rest. Amen.
The story of Biafra and the civil war cannot be told without reference to the event of 15thJanuary, 1966. The January 15th coup was executed by a handful of military officers led by Major Ifeajuna, an Igbo from Eastern Nigeria, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu from Midwestern Nigeria and Major Adegboyega from the Western Nigeria and two others. There were also junior Northern officers who participated in the coup.
As a fallout from the coup, the North lost Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister and Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Northern Premier. Chief Akintola, who then was the Western Region Premier, was killed and likewise the Midwest born flamboyant Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh. On record, no prominent politician from the Eastern Region was killed for reasons still disputed.
The reason for the coup was ostensibly to release from prison Chief Awolowo, a Westerner and the opposition leader and install him as Nigeria’s president. The ambition of the coupists didn’t materialize as it took the intervention of Col. Emeka Ojukwu an Igbo to foil the coup in the North and another Igbo from the East, General Aguiyi Ironsi to foil the coup in the South. The heroic act of these two Igbo officers didn’t stop the fallacy of characterizing the coup as an Igbo coup.
How an entirely military affair led by some idealist officers and their collaborators from across the country that was foiled by two prominent Igbo officers became an Igbo Coup remain not just a mystery but a fallacy promoted to gain currency in Nigeria where every principle and logic applies in the opposite.
Despite the glaring contradiction in the narrative, the 1966 event triggered chains of event and in particular a genocide that left virtually all Igbo in the North dead. The Times Magazine of October 1966 captured the massacre of the Igbo in its horrific details. “The massacre began at the airport near the Fifth Battalion’s home city of Kano. A Lagos-bound jet had just arrived from London, and as the Kano passengers were escorted into the customs shed a wild-eyed soldier stormed in, brandishing a rifle and demanding ‘Ina Nyamiri?’ – the Hausa translation for ‘Where are the damned Ibo?’”
There were Ibo among the customs officers, and they dropped their chalk and fled, only to be mauled down in the main terminal by other soldiers. Screaming the blood curses of a Moslem Holy War ‘Allah Akbar’, the Hausa troops turned the airport into shambles, bayonetting Igbo workers in the bar, gunning them down in the corridors, and hauling Igbo passengers off the plane to be lined up and summarily executed. From the airport the troops fanned out through downtown Kano, hunting down Ibo at their homes and on the streets. One contingent drove their Land Rover SUVs to the railroad station where more than 100 Igbo were waiting for a train, and cut them down with automatic weapons.
The soldiers did not have to do all the killings. They were soon joined by thousands of Hausa-Fulani civilians, who rampaged through the city armed with stones, cutlasses, machetes, and home-made weapons of metal and broken glass. Crying ‘Kaffir’ and ‘Allah Akbar’ the mobs and troops invaded the Sabon Gari (strangers’ quarter) ransacking, looting and burning Igbo homes and stores and murdering their owners.
All night long and into the morning the massacre went on. Then, tired but fulfilled, the Hausa drifted back to their homes and barracks to get some breakfast and sleep. Municipal garbage trucks were sent out to collect the dead and dump them into mass graves outside the city. The death toll will never be known, but it was at least 30,000 or more.
Somehow several thousand Igbo survived the orgy, and all had the same thought: to get out of the North due to the state sponsored massacre and terrorism against them. It was the widespread terrorism against them in 1966 that led to the declaration of the Republic of Biafra and the subsequent civil war that followed. In that war, over two million died largely due to the deliberate policy of starvation as an instrument of war devised and executed by Chief Awolowo – the supposed beneficiary for whom the so-called Igbo coup of 1966 was hatched and executed.
Fifty-five years after the war, the pains and scars of the war remain. The tension between Nigeria and the Igbo remain high. The irony is that while the Igbo accepted the war was over and moved back into the Nigerian space building and giving back their all, the victorious side never fully accepted reconciliation and cessation of hostility against the Igbo making the war an unending one.
It’s a collective shame that as a nation we are unable to rise from the ashes of the war to build an all-inclusive state, nor are we able to take advantage of our diversity because of leadership problems. Successive leaders have taken turn to unleash divisive policies targeting to limit the advancement of the Igbo thereby limiting the growth and progress of Nigeria. They forgot that whatever that is our collective dream as a nation cannot come true without the full involvement of all sections of the country, and this includes total reconciliation and full reintegration of the Igbo.
Today, Nigeria’s case is further made worse by the unwritten policy of the current regime which makes the Igbo endangered and unwanted in Nigeria thereby resurrecting the spirit of Biafra and making it an attractive battle cry for the oppressed youths who rightly or wrongly believe they will be better and happier in a Biafra where no one will limit them or override their conscience.
There is so much fear, hopelessness and so much anger in the land. I pray that God may preserve this country for the benefit of our children so that they may live in peace to enjoy all that God has endowed this great nation. I make this prayer even though I know Nigeria’s hope of survival is slim because we have continued from one calamity to the other. It pains me that the lessons of the war didn’t make us better and that we are still unable to resolve our lingering issues; it pains me that our corporate togetherness is in perpetual risk; it pains me that we are the poverty capital of the world despite being blessed with the world best resources; it pains me that we are synonymous with corruption; it pains me that elections are stolen and that millions of youths are still unemployed; I am pained that nepotism and bigotry has become the hallmark of governance.
Even in my resignation and sadness, I act with love for country hoping an angel will come to unite us again. But where the task of unity is impossible for even an angel to accomplish, I pray that we do not repeat the mistake of 1966. If we cannot sit down and restructure Nigeria for good, let’s sit down and break it peacefully, let the Igbo go, let the Hausa Fulani go and let the Yoruba go their separate ways. Let’s not waste another drop of human blood in the name of keeping Nigeria one when we know deep in our hearts we are not prepared to move on as one people and truly one nation.