That war ended on a principle of “no victor and no vanquished,” although the death toll was extremely high on the Biafran side. According to some estimates, the war, which lasted from July 1, 1967 to January 15, 1970, claimed between one and three million lives, mostly starving Biafran women and children as Nigerian forces enforced a naval blockade of the Bight of Biafra to cut off the major line of vital supplies and weapons, and to break the will of the people of Biafra to secede from the federal government in Lagos.
Eulogising “The People’s General” at the national funeral service held at the Enugu Stadium on March I, 2012, former Ghanaian President, Flight Lieutenant, Jerry Rawlings said “the Nigerian civil war saw two great Nigerians fighting for the same thing from the opposite sides, one for the dignity of Nigeria and the other for the unity of Nigeria.’’
His two Nigerians were General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, President of Biafra 1966 - 1970 and the man he had flown in to bury, and General Yakubu “Jack” Dan-Yumma Gowon, Head of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria – 1966-1975 – whose firm belief in unity is credited with keeping Nigeria one at a very trying moment. There is no country in Africa that went through cycles of military coups than Nigeria.
Ojukwu, one of the first graduates to join the military in Nigeria, had been serving in the north and was appointed military governor of Eastern Nigeria by General Aguyi Ironsi, an Igbo following the January 1966 military coup. A counter coup in July brought in General Gowon, a Christian from Plateau State, also known as the “Middle Belt,” which has produced by far more generals than any other part of Nigeria.
History, it would appear, had conspired to put the two men at the centre of their country’s destiny. Although they fought on “opposite sides,” the two generals, it is said, retained unbending respect for each other. Reportedly, General Ojukwu always addressed General Gowon simply as “Jack” and my sources say if there is a person whose spirit was truly shattered by the passing of General Ojukwu, then that man is none other than General “Jack” Gowon!
It is not my intention to revisit here the reasons for the Nigerian civil war but suffice to say that after the counter coup of July 1966, Igbos were singled out and targeted for wanton murder in Northern Nigeria, apparently for no other reason than envy for their highly industrious way of life. At first the Nigerians sought reconciliation but after three failed conferences in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia, the “People’s the Republic of Biafra on May 30 and General Gowon declared civil war on July 1, 1967.
The rest is history. In spite of what happened, General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu remained a highly revered leader of his people, earning such traditional titles as “Ikemba Nnewi” – The Strength of his people of Nnewi – his ancestral village, “Eze Ndigbo” – King of the Igbos and “Dike Di Oranma” – The Warrior that is loved by his people. General Ojukwu’s father, Sir Louis Ojukwu was Nigeria’s richest man and tried to frustrate his son from joining the army but to no avail.
General Ojukwu is said to have fought the Biafra war with wealth inherited from his father, which is what made him even more endeared to his people. The General unfortunately has died at a time of reemerging scenes akin to what he fought against. He once said he would fight again only if…He has died with that if, but we all know he stood for equality and social justice as opposed to the marginalization of his people.
Nigeria, a highly multiethnic and multi creed society paid a very high price for tampering with its unity. The question is: Does the current generation keep the lesson of Biafra in mind even as Africa seeks continental unity? The answer might be surprisingly “a highly qualified yes.” The casualty of course, is African unity. There is still very little mutual respect among the various ethnic communities that make up the many culturally distinct communities of Africa and even much less so with the Arab north.
Unity in Africa can never be wished but as the experience of Biafra clearly demonstrates that unity is sowed in the heavy price of blood. When years go by, it is easy to forget but I am reminded of the words of an ex-Biafran army colonel Joseph Achuzia, who was popularly known during that war as “Air Raid.”
Also speaking at the funeral of his former Commander-in- Chief, Colonel Achuzia said Biafra is a “spiritual ideology,” which he still believed in. Such is the legacy of the man, who it is said, also cursed Chief Obafemi Awolowo to never ever become president of Nigeria, the executed environmentalist Ken Saro Wiwa for betraying the Biafra cause and also held low regard for Dr Namdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s independence ceremonial president, who observers say could have made the Republic of Biafra to happen without bloodshed.