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A land of scars

On the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s brutal civil war, the calls for separation remain

Uboha Damia, a 75-year-old Biafra veteran, commemorates the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s civil war in Umuahia, Nigeria. Lekan Oyekanmi/AP

A land of scars
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BIAFRA. First week of January 1968. Fifteen-year-old Nnaemeka Ezeaku listened as the sounds of gunshots and explosions drew closer to his home in Awka, the capital city of southeastern Anambra State.

Although Nigeria’s civil war had been raging for six months, it had never come this close.

Ezeaku’s family stayed glued to the radio, listening for updates on military advances. The rumor mill steadily delivered an alternative version of the conflict, which fleeing refugees confirmed. By 2 o’clock one afternoon, his whole community began walking with no destination in mind except to find refuge from the conflict.

Ezeaku—who was home from boarding school for the Christmas holiday—placed his still-packed suitcase on his head and joined his fleeing family. It was two years before he returned, and then only after witnessing killings, fighting as a child soldier, and sustaining a bullet wound.

THE CIVIL WAR ERUPTED shortly after Nigeria’s southeast declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra. The move followed unresolved grievances and a failed peace accord. The background is complicated. The Igbo ethnic group is one of three major ethnic groups in a country with some 250. They predominate in the southeast, the Hausas predominate in the north, while the Yorubas represent the majority in the southwest.

In 1966, a failed coup led mostly by southeastern Igbo Christian officials resulted in the death of the northern prime minister as well as 30 other northern Muslim leaders. In a subsequent countercoup, northern soldiers killed thousands of Igbos who lived in the country’s northern region. On May 30, 1967, southeastern leader Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu in a broadcast address declared Biafra an independent nation.

Biafra carved out the southeast as its territory, set up the Bank of Biafra, and created its own emblem: A red, black, and green striped flag with an image of a rising sun. Nigeria vowed to crush the rebellion in the southeast, a region that held a vast amount of the country’s oil resources. On July 6, 1967, Nigerian forces attacked Biafran forces.

The war led to the deaths of between 1 million and 10 million persons, many dying from starvation in the new landlocked nation. Fifty years later, residents of the southeast still complain of marginalization in Nigeria, and many still seek self-determination.

NIGERIAN TROOPS RECEIVED WEAPONS from the United Kingdom. The United States considered the conflict an “internal problem” in which it could not interfere. With more money, men, and arms, Nigeria closed off access to aid and slowly starved the people.

“Planes would come and bomb marketplaces and schools,” Ezeaku said. “You see people you know dead.”

Desperate Biafrans carved out a secret runway along Uli expressway in Anambra State. War veteran Patrick Ekemann said Biafrans lit hurricane lamps along both sides of the highway to enable relief planes to land at night. “Once it landed, it would be taxied to a corner where palm fronds would hide it and they’d off-load.”

As the war intensified, the Biafran army conscripted people into its tiny 7,000-man force. Ezeaku and his cousin joined a medical team, but in late 1968, Biafran soldiers dragooned Ezeaku and six other boys to the front lines as they were returning from visiting their families. During one of the battles, Ezeaku took a bullet to his right leg. Back he went to the medical station.

AS THE WAR CONTINUED, images of starving children drew global attention. The July 12, 1968, cover of Life pictured two starving children from Biafra with sunken eyes. French medical workers responded to these starvation scenes by setting up Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). British war photojournalist Don McCullin in 1969 took a photo of an emaciated albino boy leaning on one knee and clutching a corned beef tin with his other hand. In his autobiography, Unreasonable Behavior, McCullin detailed the encounter, which brought him to tears: “He looked hardly human, as if a tiny skeleton had somehow stayed alive. … If I could, I would take this day out of my life, demolish the memory of it.”

On Jan. 7, 1970, 2½ years after war began, the Nigerian army staged its final offensive. After less than a day, the Biafran troops surrendered. One week later, Biafra signed surrender papers in Lagos, Nigeria’s capital city at the time. The Nigerian government declared “no victor, no vanquished,” and reunited the country.

When Ezeaku returned home, he found the area filled with rubble. His family home remained standing, but Nigerian troops had turned it into a shelter. Other returnees rebuilt and eked out survival as increased aid reached them. His uncle’s house became the relief center as people from the community took turns cooking. The malnourished children received two meals each day: “It’s not something we would wish for anybody to see.”

FIFTY YEARS LATER, young people from the southeast are still demanding self-determination. In July, thousands abandoned their businesses and crowded the highways in one southeastern city to welcome Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement. Cars and motorcycles followed his convoy, chanting solidarity songs and waving the Biafran flag. “I have come to declare Ebonyi a Biafra state, and when next I come, I will shut down the state for three days,” Kanu said.

The movement has changed in the past 50 years: IPOB maintains a website and active social media accounts. Kanu in 2009 started Radio Biafra, a shortwave and internet broadcast station, during his studies at London Metropolitan University. But Nigerian authorities have shown little tolerance for the group. Security officials arrested Kanu in 2015 and released him in May. They banned him from hosting interviews or rallies. Amnesty International accused the army of killing 150 mainly IPOB supporters during nonviolent meetings and marches between August 2015 and August 2016. Kanu is now calling on Igbos to boycott the November governorship elections in Anambra State unless the government addresses their request for an independence referendum.

The new agitators are mostly younger people like Nnwabunnwane Maduako, a cab driver in Abuja. He streams Radio Biafra on a daily basis and admits he no longer listens as much to Nigerian media. Maduako’s father fought for Biafra in the civil war, but the 42-year-old wasn’t born until five years after it ended. He said the southeasterners are marginalized, and listed grievances: No Igbo man has become president since the war. Nigerians can only collect visas from Abuja and Lagos states in the north and west. No federal road in the southeast is functional. “Seeing all these things makes me annoyed,” Maduako said.

While southeasterners want either self-determination or a change in government structure to bring more resources to the southeast, on July 26 the Nigerian Senate voted against devolving more powers to the states.

Nnamdi Obasi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, witnessed the civil war as a child in Abia State. He remembers hiding in the bush when the Nigerian Armed Forces bombed churches, school buildings, and marketplaces. Obasi refers to the call for self-determination as a “tall task,” since the Nigerian government is not budging and the former Biafran region now includes states that have dissociated themselves from the movement. But he called on the government to abandon its “hard-line approach” and remain open to dialogue on reorganizing the country’s federal political structure.

Ezeaku, now a 65-year-old engineer with four adult children, said injustice in Nigeria is widespread, but he doesn’t see self-determination as the solution. He still identifies as a Biafran, but in a different way: “Biafra is a state of mind, not the territory. It’s fairness to everybody in the country we call our own.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter and deputy global desk chief. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.



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