50 years ago, the war of Biafra ended, a “forgotten” conflict of history books

On January 15, 1970, this region of south-eastern Nigeria signed his surrender, putting an end to a civil war that began in the spring of 1968 and that left millions of people dead and displaced. Even today, this story constitutes a veritable “black hole” in the collective memory of the country.

Fine mustache and big smile, General Gowon (President of Nigeria, editor's note) warmly shakes hands with the official representative of the Biafran secessionists, Philip Effiong, and sends him a sound 'Welcome back, Philip', tell Young Africa. The scene takes place on January 15, 1970 at the headquarters of Dodar, near Lagos, then capital of Nigeria. It ends the war in Biafra (south-east), one of the deadliest conflicts of the 20th century, which left more than a million dead, or even two, and millions displaced.

War had started 28 months earlier, May 30, 1967 : Generals of the Igbo ethnic group, the third community in Nigeria with the Yorubas and the Hausa, had then proclaimed the independence of their province, which included around 10% of the country's inhabitants, the majority of whom were Christians. These “felt excluded from socio-political life”, reports Point, especially after the assassination in 1966 of General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, the only president of Igbo origin. At the same time, the eastern part of Nigeria “is the region richest in agricultural, mining and above all petroleum resources”. It is therefore necessarily vital for the power of Lagos, dominated by Muslims in the North.

The riches of the basement, “windfall and curse” from Nigeria, then already arouse foreign lusts : London, Washington, Moscow, the Organization of African Unity (future African Union) support Lagos, while France provides aid to Biafra, in particular by delivering arms. General de Gaulle saw this as an opportunity “to weaken an English-speaking country of which all the neighboring countries are French-speaking and, by extension, to harm the United Kingdom and the United States”, observe RFI.

There has never been a final assessment to count the victims (more than a million ?) of a conflict of rare atrocity, at the origin of a large-scale famine (in August 1968, there would have been 6 000 dead a day, according to Le Figaro !). This famine is caused by the total blockade of the secessionist region imposed by the Nigerian government since the start of the war.

Children from Biafra, undernourished, fed by a medical assistant, in a French military hospital in Libreville (Gabon), March 15, 1969 (- / AFP)

“The images broadcast by the media of malnourished children with swollen stomachs upset international opinion. Humanitarian organizations are trying to circumvent the reluctance of Lagos who suspects – rightly so – humanitarian convoys of transporting arms and pirates' are organized to bring food to the dying populations “, tell Le Figaro. Doctors, especially French, come to treat the victims. The Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) movement was founded after this war.

In 2020, Nigeria, a country of almost 200 million inhabitants, celebrates 50 years of the end of the war without a single official commemoration. “The history of our country has been very brutal, the older generation has experienced significant trauma”, confides to the AFP the Nigerian writer Diekoye Oyeyinka. “We just swept them under the carpet, as if it never existed. But without knowing the past, we will repeat the same mistakes.”

No one in Nigeria remembers these events. Except in Enugu, the former capital of the Biafran republic. There, the inhabitants did not forget January 13, 14 and 15, 1970, the days of surrender, of capitulation. Nor the famous speech of General Gowon, calling for national reconciliation and assuring that there was “neither winner nor defeated”. They also did not forget the forced exile in Côte-d'Ivoire of their leader, The colonel Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, deceased in 2011. Nor his triumphant return in 1982, after being pardoned and before being imprisoned for 10 months.

Today, Igbos continue to feel marginalized, “under occupation”. They complain of being unfairly treated by the government of Muhammadu Buhari, a former general from the north of the country. And Biafran flags are always waved here and there on the fronts of buildings or along the roads, before being destroyed by the security forces, still massively deployed.

Biafran flags are brandished on February 29, 2012 in Nwewi (south-eastern Nigeria), during a march in honor of the Biafran leader Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, who died in November 2011.
Biafran flags are brandished on February 29, 2012 in Nwewi (southeastern Nigeria), during a march in honor of the Biafran leader Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, who died in November 2011. (SUNDAY ALAMBA / AP / SIPA / AP )

The recent closure of Enugu airport and the sacking by customs of shops belonging to Igbos, at the beginning of December 2019 in Lagos, stir up this feeling of exclusion and the independentist tendencies, carried by a new generation. The Igbo separatist movements have emerged again in recent years. The most important of them being the independence movement for the indigenous peoples of Biafra (Ipob), which conducts intense propaganda campaigns on social networks. This movement was class “terrorist organization” by the authorities.

“Do not speak (from the war, note), not to write it is to leave room for an invented story and disinformation “, Patrick Utomi, a former adviser to the university, told AFPAlex Ekwueme, first Igbo vice-president (1979-1983) of the country. “Nigeria is more divided today than it ever was before the civil war. We have learned nothing”, he believes.

After years of oblivion, the current government did not reintroduce history until the last school year as a compulsory subject in school curricula. And still only for 10 to 13 year olds. “It is essential for us to build our identity and patriotic values”recognizes Sonny Echono, secretary general of the Ministry of Education, interviewed by AFP.

Problem: schools are in dire need of qualified teachers. And especially the civil war, which never had an official approved version, is still not on the program. “We have to teach it to our children”, insists Egodi Uchendu, professor of history at the University of Nsukka, the city where the fighting began in 1967. “Nigerians in the Southeast did not experience the war in the same way as in other regions of the country. We must listen to all these versions”, he adds.

The American-Nigerian journalist Chika Oduah traveled the country to collect several hundred raw testimonies of victims, witnesses or soldiers, which she then published on a archive site, Biafran War Memories. Many of the people she met told for the first time how their loved ones died. How they had to drink their own urine or live hidden for years in the forest. “An old soldier from the North broke down in tears at the death of his brother”, Told the young woman to AFP.

Soldiers of the Nigerian federal army & nbsp; patrol on November 13, 1967 & nbsp; near Calabar (southeast), the oldest port on the West African coast taken over from the Biafran secessionist forces.
Soldiers of the Nigerian federal army patrol on 13 November 1967 near Calabar (south-east), the oldest port on the West African coast taken over from the Biafran secessionist forces. (COLIN HAYNES / AFP)

She herself learned at the age of 17, when she lived in the United States, that her mother, then a child, had spent two years in a refugee camp. She had never told him before. “Everyone wanted to go ahead, think about the future, not the past”, analyzes the journalist. And to continue: “But we have to talk about it. Otherwise we will never get better.”


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