Nigeria: The Cost and Curse of Biafra

by Okey Ndibe


his essay, “Going to the Territory,” the late novelist Ralph

Ellison famously made the accusation that “Americans can be

notoriously selective in the exercise of historical memory.” The

Nigerian malady is of a different kind. As I suggested earlier, as

far as the Biafran War is concerned, the Nigerian state has adopted a

stance of deliberate forgetfulness. And I am willing to wager that

this stance accounts, in large measure, for the cyclical disaster

that has become a major theme of the country’s experience.


tragic enough, if you ask me, that a country that wasted more than a

million lives and limbs in a civil war would turn around and choose

to carry on as if everything was hunky dory – thank you. It’s

worse, in my estimation, when the country’s collective

intelligentsia decides to collaborate in this project of amnesia.

It’s true that both Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, our two most

important writers, played significantly roles in the war, and have

written considerably – in a variety of genres – about it. In

addition, a few of the major actors in the war – among them Philip

Effiong and Olusegun Obasanjo – have written highly personal

accounts of it. Still, given the scale and significance of the bloody

conflict as well as the sheer enormity of the cost in lives, one is,

I think, justified in bemoaning the paucity of books on the subject.


particular, Nigeria’s professional historians – with a few

exceptions – stand accused of shirking a responsibility to explore

the war’s multi-dimensional aspects. When we consider that the

civil war in the United States – which formally ended in 1863 –

continues to generate a whole library of books each year, then we can

begin to grasp how thoroughly insouciant Nigerian historians have

been. The history of the Biafran War ought to be a staple in the

departments of history of our various universities. Ideally, the

historians engaged to teach at these universities ought to sustain

our memory of the whys and what ifs of the war.


is aware of the huge handicaps facing Nigerian scholars and

researchers. Even so, it is something of an indictment of Nigerian

academics that it took the effort of historians and forensic

anthropologists from the University of South Florida in Tampa,

Florida to begin the systematic identification of the victims of the

Asaba massacre, and to commence an oral history of the tragedy.

Nigeria’s election to ignore the lessons of its bloodiest moment

has proved extremely dangerous. On the whole, Nigerians’

understanding of their history is terribly shallow, and often shaped

or inflected by handy ethnic or sectarian stereotypes.



Roots of African American Identity, a

scintillating study of the nature and context of memory in the

forging and transformation of experience, Elizabeth Rauh Bethel

dwells on the modes of politicization of memory of the American War

of independence. She specifically explores the systematic, racist

exclusion of African Americans from the nexus of the rites of memory

pertaining to that revolutionary effort. In doing so, she makes a

point that – I think – connects with Nigeria’s experience.

Bethel writes that “in the nation of twenty-nine million, three

million African Americans had been excised from the public memory of

a war in which many of their fathers and grandfathers had fought and

some had died. At mid-century, neither the myth of the remembered

past nor the lived reality of daily life acknowledged the vital

presence of African Americans in a nation they had helped to create.”


did African Americans do? In the face of exclusion, they did not fold

their hands and bemoan their fate. Led by the inspiring William

Cooper Nell, they inaugurated the Commemorative Festival in Boston

and elsewhere in the northern states. Conceived as a corrective to

the exclusivist strain of European American remembrance of the war,

the festival sought to serve two purposes: “it celebrated a lost

African-American past, and it validated the contemporary demands of

African Americans for full and unconditional inclusion in the civic

life of the nation they had helped create.” In other words, the

festivals tried to “revise and expand the myth of the [American]

nation’s beginnings in such a fashion as to include African

Americans; and in so doing, the Commemorative Festival drew on a

long-standing African-American celebratory tradition as it

constructed an historical validation for contemporary protests

against injustice and demands for full and unconditional rights as

American citizens.”


the case of Nigeria, sadly, there appear to be two contending, but

not mutually exclusive, trends. One is the temptation to sum up the

lessons of the Biafran War as simply a demonstration of the

indestructibility of the Nigerian fabric. This posture takes several

rhetorical forms. Some – politicians, pastors, even intellectuals –

invoke the idea of divine design. They suggest that Nigeria’s shape

and constitution were mandated by God, instead of British colonialist

fiat. Subsequently, it is proposed that any effort to dismember the

entity called Nigeria would be, unquestionably, an affront to God.

Others suggest that, despite her past and continuing woes, Nigeria

remains special – and destined for greatness – on account of its

stupendous endowments in human and material resources. The other

tendency appears, even if implicitly, to prescribe forgetfulness.

Even though the war is recognized as a wound in the country’s

psyche, this attitude goes ahead to encourage Nigerians to transcend

the trauma by erasing it from their memory.


amnesia-centered creed is Nigeria’s bane. When a people cultivate

denial of an event, even a deeply traumatic one, they – at the very

least – risk blundering into the same mistakes over and over.

Nigeria continues to pay a price for its adamant refusal to take a

proper inventory of its errors – in fact, what one might call its

monumental sins. Any country that pretends that its past does not

count – or holds itself blameless – condemns itself, ultimately,

to a repetition of its tragic missteps. By contrast, a country that

consciously seeks to grasp the fault lines of its history –

especially its worst mistakes – prepares itself to make amends,

atone for its transgressions, transcend its pitfalls, and rise to its

promise and potential.


is no question in my mind – the evidence being overwhelming –

that Nigeria is a besieged space. One is aware, of course, that many

Nigerians are quick to deny it. Some of them actually invoke God in

their futile act of renunciation – they profess to “bind” all

principalities and powers that have destructive designs on Nigeria.

But all that puerile avowal does not – cannot – change the fact

that our country is today caught in a state of war. Let me rephrase

that: Nigeria is mired, not in one war but in several wars at once.

The only thing that’s missing from the portrait is, again, our

characteristic reluctance to acknowledge the stark reality: that it’s

a war – or wars – going on. If we quit playing ostrich for a

second, we should admit that the ever-volatile Niger Delta is a war

zone – and is susceptible to combustion at a moment’s notice. And

then there’s Boko Haram, an amorphous group that has coalesced

around a broad slate of causes: hostility towards Western education

and its values, a suspicion of adherents of moderate Islam, and the

rejection of the Nigerian state and its instruments. This group’s

ability to strike at will at targets in the northern part of Nigeria

bespeaks a country that – to put it mildly – is in a state of



don’t have the space or time to delve into the matter at length,

but I am convinced that Nigeria’s intractable travails have much –

if not everything – to do with the country’s unfortunate policy

of erasing the Biafran War from its memory chip. Trapped in its

self-contrived historical vacuum, Nigeria has condemned itself to

staggering, willy nilly, from one tragedy to another. Saddled by the

burden of self-designed ignorance, the country remains incapable of

apprehending the ways in which its past is exacting a harsh penalty

on its present – and dooming its future.


experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jews are bent on

ensuring, one, that the world never forgets for one moment what

happened to their fellows and, two, that no man or nation would ever

attempt again the mass extermination of Jews. After 800,000 Rwandans,

most of them Tutsis, perished within four weeks in one of the world’s

most horrific recent acts of genocide, the people of Rwanda did not

dig a grave to bury what happened. No, they opened themselves to the

brutal truth, and gleaned from it abiding lessons for transformation.

Today, Rwanda is earning global applause for its steady evolution and

progress from a moment of unspeakable horror to one of admirable

reconciliation. There are few, if any, guarantees in history, but

Rwandans are working hard to exorcise the ghost of their bloody

history – and to guard against the prospect of recurrence.


had every opportunity to set the example that a Rwanda would have

been inspired by, but chose a different path. And Nigeria has paid,

and continues to pay, the price. Let us illustrate.


the eight years that Mr. Obasanjo occupied Aso Rock, presidential

orders were given twice to the Nigerian army to attack communities of

civilians. The first attack targeted the people of Odi, Bayelsa

State, in November, 1999. Sent on the trail of alleged criminals,

soldiers razed the Odi community, killing more than 2000 unarmed

civilians. In 2001, a similar mission was sent against the people of

Zaki Biam, in Benue State. Following the murder of soldiers engaged

in peace keeping mission in the community, a contingent of the army

was dispatched on a reprisal mission. Arriving in armored cars, they

cordoned off the town and commenced a bombardment from land and air.

In the end, more than three hundred people – men, women and

children – lay dead, with near total destruction of homes in the

community. Nobody was ever held responsible for this wholesale

assault on civilians. My conjecture is that, had Nigerians

acknowledged and atoned for the massacre in Asaba, the attacks on Odi

and Zaki Biam would have been harder to contemplate and execute.


insist that the provocations that precipitated the Biafran War have

since been serially reproduced, compounded and intensified since the

end of the war. Had Nigerians allowed themselves to learn from the

Biafran War, then it is unlikely that the country would today be

saddled with the separatist rhetoric and violence that often emanates

from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the

Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, and

Boko Haram.


a recent visit to Nigeria, I had an enlightening telephone

conversation with a female politician. She suggested that Nigeria’s

deepening woes are rooted in the country’s insouciant attitude

towards those who had died in the struggle to uphold the country’s

territorial oneness. She stipulated that the nation needed to engage

in a rite of expiation, a formal recognition of the sacrifice made by

those who died on all sides, and the enactment of acts of atonement.

There were aspects of her stricture that I found unpalatable. Even

so, hers was an intriguing recommendation, and I found myself

persuaded by its broad outline. Like her, I believe that Nigerians

owe a debt of acknowledgement to the dead of the war on both sides of

the conflict.


different times and in different contexts, both Soyinka and Achebe

have expressed a pessimistic stance on Nigeria’s claim to a settled

national identity. In 1995, Soyinka stated that Nigeria was very much

in the process of searching for its “nation-being.” Achebe’s

accent was even more dour; as he told me in an interview some twenty

years ago, “Nigeria as a nation has not been founded up to now.”

I doubt that either writer has seen cause to revise his position, or

even to now be confident that Nigeria is making steady, irreversible

progress towards national-actualization.


Nigeria is to realize its promise as a cohesive community, then it

behooves her to recognize that it is the blood of those who died in

the Biafran War that stands as down payment on the project called

Nigeria. The casualties of the war, properly speaking, are the

ancestral founders of Nigeria. In spurning, dishonoring or belittling

them, we doom the prospect of Nigeria amounting to anything as a



fought a war where one of the central questions, on the surface at

least, was whether the preservation of its unity ought to be held

sacred. . Ultimately, that question was settled (if we use the logic

of the outcome of the war) by the answer that any effort to fracture

Nigeria was unacceptable, even heretical. That resolution then begs

the question: If, forty years after the end of that war, Nigeria has

not been founded (and I doubt there is any serious-minded person who

denies that the country remains an inchoate idea, its viability

constantly cast into question), then what was the point of the war?

In his highly polemical Discourse

on Colonialism, the

late Martinican scholar Aime Cesaire opens with a few declamations

aimed at Europe: “A civilization that proves incapable of solving

the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization

that closes its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken

civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery

and deceit is a dying civilization.” Replace civilization with

country, and Cesaire could have been speaking about Nigeria.


me on twitter: OkeyNdibe)

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