Nigeria’s Biafran Burden


is back in the news in a big way, thanks, in large measure, to the

recent death of Steve Jobs, co- founder of Apple. In a bestselling

authorized biography written by Walter Isaacson, we learn that Biafra

had something to do with Mr. Jobs’ renunciation of Christianity. To

paraphrase the story: as a 13-year-old, the late inventor

extraordinaire had confronted his Lutheran Church pastor with a

photograph of two starving Biafran children on the cover of Life


The young Steve asked his teacher whether God was aware of the plight

of the children. Once he was assured that divine omniscience implied

that God had such knowledge, Steve Jobs, there and then, announced

his divorce from Christianity.


have seen that picture that drove an impressionable teenager to sever

ties with his Christian faith. It is near-impossible to look at it

and remain composed or untouched. The eyes of the famished Biafran

babies are particularly disconcerting. In fact, there is a certain

desolate impression etched on the subjects’ faces. To view that

picture – which has been widely shown on TV and circulated on the

Internet in the brouhaha generated by Jobs’ death – is to gain a

glimpse into the ways in which the violence of war ravages the

innocence of children, terrorizes the most vulnerable, and upends

humane values.


is, I think, a paradox in the way that Steve Jobs’ death has

resurrected Biafra in the imagination of the global community. That

paradox lies in the fact that, as the world was once again tuning in

to the bloodiest tragedy in Nigeria’s history, Nigeria seemed

determined to persist with its willed amnesia. That amnesia has a

long history.


the end of the war, with the federal side’s superior firepower

triumphing, then Head of State Yakubu Gowon declared that there was

no victor, no vanquished. That announcement, seen by some as an

uncommon act of magnanimity, earned great adulation for Mr. Gowon. He

also impressed the world by proclaiming that the war-scarred country

would embark on rehabilitation, reconciliation and reconstruction.

Few of Gowon’s admirers were detained by the fact that his

(victorious) government’s actions were often at odds with its

avowed policy of nurturing healing. Two examples of this gap between

precept and practice should suffice to underscore the point.


was a policy that enabled the government to strip the erstwhile

Biafrans of their wealth. At the end of the war, the Nigerian

government implemented a policy that gave each Biafran adult twenty

pounds as so-called ex-gratia payment. This would have been a

commendable policy had the payment been designed to assist

cash-strapped Biafrans to re-enter the Nigerian economy. Instead, the

government decided that the paltry sum served as full redemption for

any financial assets owned by individual Biafrans prior to the war.

It was a self-evidently unjust policy of expropriation, and it dealt

a crippling economic blow to the guts of a people who had paid a

devastating price, with their blood and limbs, and who needed to be

bolstered in their desperate effort to re-start their lives.


was also the issue of abandoned property, a notion that matched –

if not surpassed – the ex-gratia policy in odiousness, illogicality

and patent injustice. In a move that exposed the hypocrisy of its

avowed policy of reconciliation, the Nigerian government declared

that Biafran citizens who owned property in parts of the country

outside the formerly secessionist territory had effectively

“abandoned” those assets.


emerges, then, is a portrait of a nation caught pants down at

critical moment indulged in dishonorable acts. In one breath, it was

proposed that the preservation of Nigeria’s corporate unity was an

idea worth spilling more than a million lives for, and the maiming of

even more. Yet, in another breath, the same Nigeria demonstrated

unwillingness to extend economic justice to those who had sought to

leave the union. We were told that “to keep Nigeria one was a task

that must be done.” But – that task accomplished – we were told

that the erstwhile Biafrans, now forcibly re-“Nigerianized,” were

not entitled to the ownership and enjoyment of their property and



central tragedy of Nigeria is that it has continued to carry on as if

it never fought a war – as if its very viability as a proposition

had never been contested in a war that cost more than a million

lives, limbs, and extensive wreckage of its physical space. As Dr.

Louis Okonkwo stated during the session earlier in the day, Nigeria’s

history is donut-shaped – with a huge hole in its middle. This hole

represents all the tragedies that we repress, attempt to erase, or

refuse to acknowledge. Besides, owing to the existence of this donut

history, Nigeria constantly slips and falls through the gaping hole.


is no question that federal troops massacred hundreds of innocent,

unarmed civilians in Asaba in the heady early days of the Biafran War

in October, 1967. Many other nations have witnessed similar callous,

shocking events in their history – and often on a larger scale. We

have Pol Pot’s murderous reign in Cambodia, a pogrom in which

approximately twenty percent of the Cambodian population perished;

Hitler’s campaign to exterminate the Jews; the My Lai massacre of

some 500 Vietnamese perpetrated by American soldiers, and less than a

year after the Asaba massacres; the hundreds of thousands who

perished in Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930s; and the

huge socio-economic disruptions as well as human rights abuses that

accompanied – or marked – China’s cultural revolution in the



has been both stage and victim of great acts of genocide. For more

some three centuries, a consortium of European nations laid siege on

Africa and carried out the capture, sale and enslavement of Africans,

as well as the appropriation of Africans’ land and other resources.

Adam Hochschild, in his book titled King

Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial

Africa, offers

us a grimly fascinating exploration of the savage violence that

accompanied and was authorized by imperialist incursions into the



the 1980s and 1990s, Africans and the world were horrified by the use

– in, among other places, the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the

Sudan, and Rwanda – of rape, enslavement, and the amputation of

limbs as modes of war. It is not widely recognized that those

shocking acts were virtually lifted from the bloody manual of King

Leopold 11’s gruesome and sickening pillaging of the Congo’s

human and natural resources. If this fact is not general knowledge,

it is in part because, both among Africans as well as Europeans, some

of the horrendous depredatory practices fomented and fertilized by

Euro-imperialism remain unknown or unspoken. In an effort to maximize

the harvesting of wild rubber that fed King Leopold’s depraved

appetite for profit, the Belgian potentate’s operatives were

authorized to kidnap children and women, who were then ransomed back

to their disconsolate fathers and husbands in exchange for ever

increasing amounts of rubber. Hochschild writes that, “Like the

hostage-taking, the severing of hands was deliberate policy…If a

village refused to submit to the rubber regime, state or company

troops or their allies sometimes shot everyone in sight, so that

nearby villages would get the message.” Hochschild then makes the

point that “As the rubber terror spread throughout the rain forest,

it branded people with memories that remained raw for the rest of

their lives.”


is important to underline, then, that the massacre in Asaba was far

from exceptional. The critical difference between Asaba and, say, My

Lai, is that there was some gesture to investigate what happened in

Vietnam. Ultimately, the outcome of the My Lai investigations fell

terribly short of expectations. Still bogged down in a war that

baffled the best of its military tacticians, the United States’ was

far from prepared to fully expose its unattractive underbelly. There

was no doubt that the American public was horrified by the mowing

down of defenseless Vietnamese men, women and children, even if the

soldiers who wielded the guns were spared any sanctions.


the case of the massacre in Asaba, the Nigerian state’s recourse to

silence is indefensible. At minimum, the government should admit that

its soldiers committed a gruesome act. And there may be a glimmer of

hope. A few days ago, Champion


quoted Emma Okocha, whose book, Blood

on the Niger, offers

the fullest chronicle of the massacre in Asaba and elsewhere, as

disclosing that the federal government had actually approved (but

never effected) financial compensation for the families of victims of

the massacre. If that is true, then President Goodluck Jonathan would

do well to order that such compensation be paid immediately.


so, we must state that no amount of cash can redeem a life, or fully

atone for the torment faced by survivors of casualties – those

whose lives were unjustly taken. A deeper act of restitution is

called for. And that is why the project to erect a permanent monument

to the victims of the massacre is of utmost importance. Until and

unless we provide a space to honor the memory of the innocents

executed in cold blood, for no just cause, we condemn ourselves to

the fury and bitterness of the unappeased.


column is the first part of Ndibe’s keynote at the Asaba Memorial

Park Symposium in Tampa, Florida last Saturday. The second will be

published next week)

Written by
Okey Ndibe
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