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Nigeria has failed to learn from its horrific civil war


Supporters
of the Indigenous People of Biafra march in Port Harcourt in January in
support of then-president-elect Donald Trump. (Agence
France-Presse/Getty Images)
Eromo Egbejule is a Lagos-based journalist covering West Africa. He is working on a documentary about the civil war. 
In
2006, my freshman year at the University of Nigeria, a random adventure
on campus led me to discover what many believe to be the forgotten
transmitter of Radio Biafra, the crucial voice of the breakaway
territory that was at the center of Nigeria’s brutal civil war 50 years
ago. In May 1967, General Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu declared the southeast
region of the country to be an independent republic. Radio Biafra’s
broadcasts served as a medium of trusted news for citizens of the young
nation, which featured news reports and war propaganda as Biafra battled
Nigeria for its dear life.
The secession of Biafra was Ojukwu’s
response to mass killings of Nigeria’s ethnic Igbos in northern Nigeria,
dating back to May 1953, when scores were killed in a pogrom that the
government refused to investigate. Two coups occurred in 1966, the first
one in January claimed the lives of many Northern miltary officers. The
second counter-coup left many Igbo military officials dead. On July 7,
50 years ago, the civil war between Nigeria and the breakaway state of
Biafra officially began. By 1970 when the war came to an end, over 1
million Igbos had lost their lives. Nigeria’s fragile national unity was
lost.

I
knew nothing about Biafra until I was 10 years old. What I learned was
thanks to my family’s personal library and stories my mother told me of
my maternal grandfather’s participation on the Nigerian side of the war.
Millions of Nigerian citizens born years after the war know nothing
about it or of the two coups preceding it. In our schools, there was no
education about the civil war in the history curriculum; this is even
more stunning considering the fact that the Biafran war captured
international attention at the time. Last November, legislation to make
history a core subject in our primary and secondary institutions was
shot down in parliament for semantic reasons.
We
in Nigeria learn nothing because we have refused to address the past
squarely and learn from it. Consequently, Nigeria is frequently
repeating its mistakes, with tragic consequences for its people.
Nigerian authorities have mastered the habit of ignoring the cries of
marginalized groups or subtly fueling the maltreatment of their members,
giving rise to public sympathy for demagogues who ultimately resort to
violence to gain optimum attention for their grievances.
For
example, 50 years after the civil war, the case of renewed Biafran
agitation is still being treated with kid gloves by Nigeria’s
government. Many Igbos around the world still resent the dearth of
proper federal infrastructure in the southeast and its political
marginalization since the end of the war. This resentment has helped
fuel the rise of Nnamdi Kanu, a frontline Igbo activist who has
successfully resuscitated Radio Biafra and is agitating for the
secession of the region.
In detaining him for over a year on
charges of treason before releasing him on bail, the Muhammadu Buhari
administration unwittingly galvanized massive support for Kanu and his
dubious ideology. To thousands in the southeast and an increasing number
across the Niger, hopes for Biafra 2.0 are on the rise again. Kanu has
effectively set the agenda for a fresh conversation on restructuring
Nigeria, as statesmen and regional leaders are beginning to speak up to
support fiscal federalism and a possible referendum on the independence
of Biafra. Ever the opportunist, Kanu has called for a boycott of the
governorship elections this November in the predominantly Igbo state of
Anambra, unless a referendum on Biafra is called.
In
northeastern Nigeria, the early threat of Boko Haram also was at first
ignored by successive Nigeria governments since the sect leaders
Mohammed Yusuf and Abubakar Shekau began teaching radical ideologies to
unemployed northerners. Shekau was killed extrajudicially in a Maiduguri
police station in 2009. His death unleashed a terror that has ravaged
the northeast of Nigeria ever since, with tens of thousands killed.
Yet
another example lies in Kaduna State. In December 2015 the Nigerian
army killed scores of Shia Muslims who were followers of Ibrahim
el-Zakzaky. Security forces also killed several of his sons. To this day
he and his wife remain in state detention. Observers fear that while
the more educated Shiites have yet to respond violently, there’s only so
much they can take. A vicious reaction from them could cause a ripple
effect of violence that could spur rounds of fighting in the already
troubled northern region. Like the killing of Igbos in May 1953 that no
one bothered to investigate, failing to pacify the Shiites could spell
trouble in a few years — a counter-massacre or a full-blown Shiite vs.
Sunni war.
Nigeria as a nation exists on the basis of an
ill-thought colonial decision in 1914, the terms of which may have to be
renegotiated sooner or later, especially in the face of continued
threats to national security posed by ethno-religious conflicts. As a
people, we need to discuss the feasibility of Nigeria continuing as one
“indivisible” state. Otherwise, if we continue to ignore the lessons of
history, we will keep the country locked in an endless cycle of tragedy
that could one day lead to renewed civil war. Is this a risk that
Africa’s most populous country can afford to take again?

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