Nigerian- Biafran War, A case of genocide? – By Tochukwu E. EZEOKE

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Why resurrect it all now. From the past. History, the old wound. The past emotions all over again. To confess to relive the same folly. To name it now so as not to repeat history in oblivion. To extract each fragment by each fragment from the word from the image another word another the reply that will not repeat history in oblivion. -Theresa Hak Kyung Cha-

One might be predisposed to ask why revisiting the war after 42 years? Anyone au fait with Nigerian politics since the end of the war will agree with me that issues that led to the conflict are still pronounced in Nigeria politics of today. It is of a candid thought without prejudice and sentiment that at this topic is discussed and there should be a national debate and reconciliation to prevent it happening again. I am fully aware of the potential of this article, even by its title, will provoke controversy. I think time has come for the truth to be told, which will bring a meaningful reconciliation, and a time to free ourselves from prejudice. The time from 1966 to 1970 was a tragic period which had deeply divided political opinions and perceptions within and outside Nigeria. This essay intends to look at what happened during the war and its genocidal implications. In avoiding issues like the Nigeria war against Biafra or sweeping it under the carpet, the divisions, resentment and rumours simmer grow and become more exploitable. This was the most painful period in Nigeria history, confronting this issue will lay to rest the ghosts that haunt the present Nigeria unity.

Genocide, an observable Fact?

Crimes can be categorised, but, why is it important to add the category of genocide to existing crimes against humanity and war crimes? According to Claudia Card, “crimes against humanity were important additions to war crimes in that, unlike war crimes, they need not be perpetrated during wartime or in connection with war, and they can be inflicted by a country against its own citizens.”[1] This implies that genocide as crime can take place without the presence of conventional war, in other words, it can take place in a time of peace. What distinguishes genocide from other mass murders? Does the loss of social vitality mean the loss of identity thereby meaning the loss of one’s existence? According to Card, “what distinguishes genocide is not that it has a different kind of victims, namely, groups (although it is convenient shorthand to speak of targeting groups). Rather the kind of harm suffered by individual victims of genocide, in virtue of their group membership, is not captured by other crime.”[2] [Raphael Lemkin, Key Writings of Raphael Lemkin on Genocide. Compiled by PreventGenocide.org, http://www.peventgenocide.org/lemkin. Online selection of Lemkin’s core work on genocide.].

According to Adam Jones “genocide is inseparable from the broad thrust of history, both ancient and modern- indeed, it is among history’s defining features, overlapping a range of central historical processes: war, imperialism, states-building, class struggle”[3] [Adam Jones, “Genocide; A Comprehensive Introduction”. (London: Routledge, 2006), p. xxi]. In other words, the concept and intent of genocide is as old as human history; it is not new within recent generations. Leo Kuper in a seminal text of genocide studies in 1981 wrote “the word is new, but the concept is ancient.”[4] [Leo Kuper, “Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century”, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), p. 9] Some scholars have argued that the act and intent of genocide could be found in the Bible. In the biblical Old Testament 1 Samuel 15: 2-3, “the LORD of host” declares: “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey”[5].

Not until after the Second World War, the observable fact of genocide in keeping with the words of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a “crime without a name.”[6] [Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, “The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and care Studies, (Yale: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 64.] The crime of genocide was named by Lemkin Raphael. Lemkin was an inexplicable Polish-Jewish jurist, a refugee from the Nazi occupied Europe, who served in the United States war Department. He campaigned as early as in the 1930s for an international convention to outlaw genocide. His determination resulted in the United Nations` convention on genocide which was convened in 1948. He did not only name the crime but he achieved in placing it in a global-historical context, and went further to demand intervention and remedial action. The word genocide as he coined it has its root from both Greek and Latin words: the Greek “genos” meaning race or tribe, and the Latin “cide”meaning killing.

According to Lemkin, “genocide” we mean the destruction of nation or an ethnic group…Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions against aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan disintegration of political and social institutions of culture language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the persona security, liberty, health, dignity, and even lives belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against a group the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in the individual capacity but as members of the national group.”[7] [see Raphael Lemkin definition of genocide at “PreventGenocide.org”]

There are obviously other scholars of genocide phenomenon and the international legal working definition as noted by the United Nations convention on genocide. Similar to what Raphael Lemkin said above, Isidor Wallinmann and Michael N. Dobkowski define genocide as, “the deliberate, organized destruction, in whole or in large part, of racial or ethnic groups by a government or its agents. It can involve not only mass murder, but also forced deportation (ethnic cleansing), systematic rape, and economic and biological subjugation”.[8] [Adam Jones, citing Isidor Wallinmann and Michael N. Dobkowski in “Genocide a Comprehensive Introduction”.2006, p. 17] Wallinmann and Dobkowski went further than Lemkin in stressing that genocide is deliberately organised against group destruction in whole or in part. Not stooping at that, Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn went further to define genocide as “a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as the group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator”.[9] [Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, “The History and Sociology of Genocide. P. 26.] In the words of Chalk and Jonassohn, the state is the primary perpetrator of the crime of genocide. This implies that since the state has the legitimate power in maintaining law and order, genocide cannot occur without her knowledge.

Jack Nusan Porter stresses that “genocide is the deliberate destruction, in whole or in part, by a government or its agents, of a racial, sexual, religious, tribal, or political minority. It can involve not only mass murder, but also starvation, forced deportation, and political economic and biological subjugation”.[10] [Adam Jones, citing Jack Nusan Port, in “Genocide a Comprehensive Introduction”. 2006, p. 16]. Porter opened up another angle to the study of genocide by adding that genocide must not be a physical extermination but can be committed through starvation and forced deportation of individuals based on the racial or ethnic belonging. For genocide to occur, people must lose their lives in a substantial number, according to Israel Charny “genocide in the generic sense means the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy, under conditions of essential defencelessness of the victim”.

United Nations Convention on Genocide

In 1948 a landmark victory in the controversial issue of genocide was made. However, “by the time the General Assembly completed its standard sitting, with the 1948 adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ‘genocide’ had a detailed and quite technical definition as a crime against the law of nation.”[11] This implies that before 1948, the crime of genocide was not recognised and perpetrators cannot be punished under the international law. The United Nations Convention on genocide outlined what is involved in genocide. In Article one of the convention it says, genocide “whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” This Article of the convention gave genocide the official recognition at the international level. Article II of the convention went further to declare that “in the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such (a) Killing member of the group (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group (c) Deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group (e) Forcibly transferring children of group to another group.”[12] [Article I of the United Nations Convention as supplied in Michael Reisman and Chris Antoniou, “The Law of War: A Comprehensive Collection of Primary Documents on International Laws Governing Armed Conflict”. (New York 1994), pp. 84-85.]

Article II of the United Nations Convention clearly stated when genocide could be said to have occurred. Comparing this working definition to the ones given by scholar of genocide, it is obvious that the key element in both is the intent to destroy in whole or in part. This does not only imply physical harm, but includes mental harm which could not be seen at a first observation. The Convention didn’t stop at stating when genocide occurs but also went further to stipulate when the crime of genocide is punishable. In Article III of the convention, the following acts shall be punishable (a) Genocide (b) Conspiracy to commit genocide (c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide (d) Attempt to commit genocide (e) Complicity in genocide.

Discussing the Articles of genocide above, it will be noted that it is a crime to plan or to goad genocide. Moreover, its criminal acts include conspiracy, direct and public incitement, attempts to commit genocide. It is also a punishable act for actions that includes the killing and actions causing death of a group. Furthermore, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to obliterate a group includes the calculated deprivation of recourses needed for the group’s physical survival, such as food, shelter, or medical services. Deprivation of the means to sustain life can be imposed through confiscation of harvests, and blockade of foodstuffs.

Did Nigeria commit Genocide against Biafra (Igbos)?

In a recent book by Prof. Chinua Achebe titled “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra”, he argues that through punitive policies, the most notorious being “starvation as a legitimate weapon of war” that Nigeria committed genocide against Biafra. Many are jumping up and down in Nigeria and around the globe in denial of Biafran Genocide. Remember the discussion on genocide above and consider for yourself with the points below and make your own conclusion if Genocide occurred in Biafra or not.

As peace talks failed, Biafra had declared her independence, but never relented in seeking negotiations for her association with Nigeria. On the 6th of July 1967 Nigeria declared war against Biafra on the basis of bringing her back to the federation that massacred her people. Most of the atrocities committed by Nigerian troops during the civil war were evidently outside the legitimate demands of combat and conquest. It was reported that what started in July 1966 against the Igbo most be completed within their territory.

Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle, a Nigeria military commanding officer was quoted (telling his troop) to “shoot anything that moves as the Nigeria army entered Biafra”. The Nigerian soldiers, in strict obedience to their genocidal objective of physical extermination, concentrated their attacks on civilian targets. Indeed their war slogan, used in daily broadcasts by government radio to motivate both the soldiers and the civilians, was an unabashed declaration of genocidal intentions: “Let us go and crush them. We will pillage their property ravish their womenfolk, murder their menfolk and complete the pogrom of 1966.”[13] [Ojukwu Odumegwu, “Biafra”, p. 228.]

This summarises the Nigerian military attitude of total and indiscriminate destruction of Biafra during the war. Colonel Adekunle was quoted as having said “I want to see no Red Cross, no Caritas, no World Council of Churches, no Pope, no Missionary and no UN Delegation. I want to prevent even one Igbo having one piece to eat before their capitulation. We shoot at everything that moves.”[14] [Benjamin Adekunle, cited in Auberon Waugh and Suzanne Conje, “Biafra, Britain’s Shame”, (London: Tonbridge Ltd, 1969). Asked what his forces would do when they overran the centre of Ibo territory, Adekunle replied; “Then we will shoot at everything, even things that don’t move.” Further on this topic, the Washington Post of 2nd July 1969 stressed that “One word now describes the policy of the Nigerian military government towards secessionist Biafra: genocide. It is ugly and extreme but it is the only word which fits Nigeria’s decision to stop the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other relief agencies, from flying food to Biafra…[15] [Washington Post, of 2nd July 1969].

Aba the heart of Igboland was indiscriminately bombed on the 24thApril 1968, William Norris writing for ‘Sunday Times London’ had the following to say under the caption “Nightmare in Biafra;

I have seen things in Biafra this week which no man should have to see. Sights to search the heart and sicken the conscience, I have seen children roasted alive, young girls torn in two by shrapnel, pregnant women eviscerated and old men blown to fragments. I have seen these things and I have seen their cause. High sounding Russian Ilynshin Jets operated by Federal Nigeria, dropping their bombs on civilian targets throughout Biafra.[16]

Nigeria under Awolowo introduce introduced blockade as a means of winning the war against Biafra. The vice chairman of the regime, Chief Awolowo was quoted; “All is fair in war and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I do not see why we should feed our enemy fat in order to fight us harder.”[17] [Auberon and Suzanne; p.14] Consequently, mass starvation and death became the order of the day in Biafra. The International Herald Tribune reported: “The supplies for Biafra are only a fraction of those stored in Lagos a waiting distribution to needy persons on the Federal side of the battle fronts… A minimum of 1,000 persons died every day in Biafra because of hunger.” The aggression against Biafra was summarised by the “Washington Post as follows:

In July, a Northern led army declared war on the Igbo/Easterners in their homeland in South-eastern Nigeria, who, out of utter shock at the pogrom unleashed against the Igbo, had concluded that Easterners/Igbo were not wanted in the Nigerian Federation and had declared the Eastern Region the independent Republic of Biafra. By the time the war ended in January 1970, more than THREE MILLION IGBO people, including over a million children had died. Many of the dead, especially children, had died of starvation, a result of the deliberate policy of the Nigerian government, which had imposed a total land, sea and air blockade of Biafra, prohibiting even food and medical deliveries to the war zone.”[18] [Washington Post (editorial) 2nd July 1969.]

When does genocide occur? According to Article II of the United Nations Convention on Genocide as discussed at the earlier, genocide will be said to have occurred when: crime is committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part to a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. To establish the fact of intention, it is difficult since it is an attitude of the mind, it could be denied, but action portrays and proves intention. By definition of whom the crime of genocide was directed at, I will want to mention that Biafra was a nation and an ethnic group that inhabit the eastern part of Nigeria. Article II of the convention went further to situate that, killing member of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. Biafra as ethnic group and nation qualifies as a group in the context of the convention definition.

Before the outbreak of the conflict, there were indications that the Easterners were not wanted in northern Nigeria. In a working federation, there ought to be no difference between Southern and Northern Nigeria. These two are one component after the amalgamation. But evidence of a speech by the Minister of Lands and Survey, Alhaji Ibrahim Musa Cashash, was illustrative of the unanimous view of members of the northern parliament when he declared:

Mr. Chairman, Sir, I do not like to take up much of the time of this House in making explanations, but I would like to assure members that having heard their demands about Ibos holding land in Northern Nigeria, my Ministry will do all It can to see that the demands of Members are met. How to do this, when to do it, all this should not be disclosed In due course, you will all see what will happen (Applause).

In the above illustration, it will be noted that this discussion took place in a parliamentary sitting. This serve as a confirmation that the pogrom of 1966 was no accident but of long hatred that the January 1966 coup gave room for manifestation. Still on this, Alhaji Usuman Liman was quoted: “What brought the Ibos into this Region? They were here since the colonial days. Had it not been for the colonial rule there would hardly been any Ibo in this Region. Now that there is no colonial rule the Ibos should go back to their region. There should be no hesitation about this matter. North is for Northerners.” This implied that Biafrans were not welcomed in the federation of Nigeria, and her ultimate destruction was paramount.

It has been argued that the Nigeria government was never aware that genocide might be an argument in the conflict. But as Auberon Waugh and Suzanne Conje stressed, “…Gowon and the British government knew that the consequences of certain actions were genocidal, in that they were resulting in the partial destruction of a national, ethnical, or racial group, and that with that knowledge persisted in those actions.”[19] [Auberon Waugh and Suzanne Conje, p. 28]. Not only did Nigeria have no defence against Biafran extermination nor does Britain have any in aiding and supplying Nigeria with weapons to annihilate Biafrans. Biafra with a population of 15 million and within three years, almost 3 million died as a result of a well calculated and planed pogrom, starvation and indiscriminate bombing of defenceless children, women and non-combatant men. Is the death of 3 million people with an established intention to destroy a group as in the case of Biafra not genocide? If not genocide, please tell me what that is?

 

 

[1] Claudia Card, “Genocide and Social Death”, in Journal of Genocide Studies. Hypatia 18.1. 2002, p. 68.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Adam Jones, “Genocide; A Comprehensive Introduction”. (London: Routledge, 2006), p. xxi

[4] Leo Kuper, “Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century”, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), p. 9

[5] Cited in Adam Jones, 2006, p. 4.

[6] Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, “The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and care Studies, (Yale: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 64.

[7] See Raphael Lemkin defining genocide at“PreventGenocide.org”

[8] Adam Jones, citing Isidor Wallinmann and Michael N. Dobkowski in “Genocide a Comprehensive Introduction”. 2006, p. 17.

[9] Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, “The History and Sociology of Genocide.P. 26.

[10] Adam Jones, citing Jack Nusan Port, in “Genocide a Comprehensive Introduction”.2006, p. 16

[11] William A. Schabas, “Genocide in International Law”, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 14.

[12] See Article II. Ibid.

[13] Ojukwu Odumegwu, “Biafra”, p. 228.

[14] Benjamin Adekunle, cited in Auberon Waugh and Suzanne Conje, p. 115.

[15] Washington Post, of 2nd July 1969.

[16] Sunday Times London, April 26, p. 12.

[17] See Auberon and Suzanne; p.14.

[18] Washington Post (editorial) 2ndJuly 1969.

[19] Auberon Waugh and Suzanne Conje, p. 121.

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1 Comment on this article. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Prof. Agba October 10, 2012 at 3:27 pm -

    Waoh, what a wonderful well researched piece of work that qualifies for a PhD discuss. Indeed, there is no doubt from this article presentated by Maazi Tochukwu Ezeoke that there is a case of genocide for the Igbos of the south East of Nigeria.
    This article has aided the discussion on my fellow Prof. Achebe on mass starvation as a weapon of war.
    My humble anticipation is that Nigeria will learn from the past and make a calculated amends with the Igbos of the south eastern Nigeria.
    Well done Maazi Tochukwu Ezeoke