By Tochukwu Ezukanma
My study and research of Nigerian history made it possible for me to extricate myself from the lingering grip of the Biafran propaganda, which still retains a powerful hold on most Igbo minds. It gave me a new perspective on Biafra and the civil war, a perspective, remarkably different from my earlier viewpoint shaped through the distorted prisms of the Biafran propaganda.
It is common place knowledge that a student who fails all his examinations is a bad student. And that a medical doctor who looses to death every patient that gets his medical attention is a bad doctor. Why then do the Igbo consider a man whose every political move ended in failure or disaster a good leader?
The January 1966 military coup took the Nigerian political crisis to new heights. It decimated the northern Nigerian leadership and brought the military into Nigerian politics. By extension, it sparked off the northern Nigerian counter coup of July ’66 and the mass murder of the Igbo in northern Nigeria and other parts of the country. There were several attempts to resolve this political crisis. As the search for peace continued, Ojukwu, as the governor of Eastern Region, refused to recognize Yakubu Gowon as the new military Head of State and repeatedly defied the Federal Government. Yet, the Federal Government did not attack Eastern Region.
It was Ojukwu’s declaration of Biafra that triggered off the civil war. The declaration of Biafra went against the advice of the Igbo political leaders and elders, especially, Nnamdi Azikiwe. Biafranism was a monumental blunder that will continue to cast a very dark shadow over Igbo land for a very long time. It was an apogee of recklessness. It was unparalleled in its disdain for reason and caution. It did not require the most rudimentary knowledge of history or politics to know that Biafra was to be a doomed enterprise.
By 1966, history had provided the instructive precedence that there could be no secession without war. Why did the Oxford educated historian ignore that incontrovertible lesson of history by declaring Biafra without preparation for the inevitable war that was to follow?
From day one, Biafra was to be a colossal waste in human effort and human lives. For Biafra was not only ill-prepared and operating from a position of extreme weakness, she could not count on any serious support from anywhere. She could not count on the support of her neighbors, the African countries, because the Organization of African Unity (OAU), as a body, was opposed to secession. The organization’s charter recognized the gross imperfections inherent in the boundaries African countries inherited from their colonial masters. However, it was opposed to the tinkering with these boundaries for whatever reason, because attempts to change the borders in respect to cultural and ethnic homogeneity or for the self-determination of national units within multinational countries will result in unprecedented upheavals in Africa.
Secondly, there were secessionist movements in a number of the African countries: Ethiopia, Sudan, Zaire, Senegal, etc. A successful secession anywhere in Africa would encourage and embolden these secessionist movements. Therefore, the generality of the African countries were opposed to secession in general, and quite naturally, to Biafra in particular.
Nigeria is within the British sphere of influence. So, Britain reserved the sole right to determine the fate of Nigeria. No Western nation could intervene in Nigeria against British interests, because they have learnt the hard way to respect the spheres of influence of the other powers. The First World War was a war of spheres of influence. It was the explosive mix of two struggles for dominance: the struggle for global dominance that pitted Germany against France and Britain, and the rivalry for control in the Balkans between the Russian and the Hapsburg (Austrian) Empires that set off the 1st World War. And from where the 1st World War ended, the 2nd World War finished off.
Not surprisingly, the United States of America invaded Panama, a sovereign nation, arrested her president and imprisoned him in the USA, without a murmur from the corridors of power of any Western Power. Panama is within the US area of geopolitical domain. Despite American’s total abandonment of Liberia (during her civil war), no major power went into Liberia to fill the American political and diplomatic void. The peace accord that ended the war in Rhodesia, a renegade British colony, later renamed Zimbabwe, was brokered by the British government. After many years of civil war, it was the British that finally determined the political fate of Sierra Leone, a former British colony. At the outbreak of the Ivorian civil war, France naturally intervened, diplomatically and militarily, in Ivory Coast, a former French colony. She has remained the only major power handling that conflict in line with her diplomatic and other interests.
Similarly, it was the prerogative of the British government to determine the political destiny of Nigeria as of 1967. And as Britain wanted Nigeria to remain a unified country, no Western Power could have acted against that British objective. Some European powers, France and Portugal, and even the United States, especially during the Nixon administration, sympathized with Biafra, but could not get involved.
A leader who chose to ignore the lessons of history, the advice of the elders, the prevailing sentiments among African countries and the global power politics was to, unavoidably, lead his people to disaster. And indisputably, Ojukwu led the Igbo to catastrophe – a quagmire of powerlessness and helplessness.
As Biafra finally collapsed, not counting the at least one million Igbo that starved to death, hundreds of thousands of youths, the cream and flower of the Igbo nation, laid dead. Igbo land lay prostrate, completely prostrate; at the feet of a battle harden army flush with victory. With a collective physiognomy that revealed raw scares of unspeakable human misery, contortions of pains and sorrow and a blank stare of despondency, the Igbo trudged out of the remaining vestiges of Biafra with their future hinging precariously at the whims of Yakubu Gowon. As for Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, he was gone. He abandoned his people and ran away to the safety and comfort of an Ivorian exile.
So, to the Igbo nation, a man who despised the advice of the Igbo political elders, ignored the lessons of history and disregarded the realities of African geopolitics and the dynamics of global power politics, and consequently, led us into disaster is our celebrated leader? And a man who had no qualms in sacrificing countless Igbo lives for the struggle, but then, abandoned the struggle, and ran for his own dear life is our hero?
If our answers to these questions are yes, then the Igbo, as a people, have lost their sense of outrage. As such, we are in need of deep introspection, profound soul searching and reorienting our value system. We are also in a desperate need to retrieve and restore our sense of outrage. For, in the words of a United States’ Senator, Daniel Moynihan, “any nation that has lost her sense of outrage is destined for extinction”.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria.