Nigeria: 50 Years After Biafra

20 January 2020

Fifty years after the end of the Nigerian Civil War, I find myself wrestling with a lot of Ifs. So many roads not taken. So many things done which shouldn't have been done, and so many things left undone which ought to have been done.

If only we had developed the emotional intelligence to do a truthful review of the tragedy and document the steps, mis-steps and conspiracies that set the nation ablaze, killing 3 million people -- perhaps by now, our children would have a clear picture of what happened and know how to navigate their way out of the same bind. But see, the gongs of war are being sounded all over again by the younger generation because they really don't know the details of our earlier fratricide.

So many Ifs needle my mind.

What if 29-year-old Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and 31-year-old Emmanuel Ifeajuna (the sports hero and Zoology graduate of the University of Ibadan turned revolutionary) had not led the coup -- or even if they had led, had decided to make it bloodless? What if the killings of political personages had been truly pan-Nigerian with the Eastern Region leaders among the victims?

What if Major-General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, the most senior Nigerian soldier on whose laps the potato of power fell, had decided to imprison or execute the coupists for assassinating the political leaders -- would that have assuaged the thirst for revenge in the North?

What if the Military Governor of the West, Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, had not opted to die rather than allow the counter-coupists of July 29, 1966, execute Ironsi who was his guest of at the time, would that have changed the subsequent narrative considering that even with his sacrifice there is no street named after him in the former Eastern Region today?

What if by some transcendental intervention, a voice of reason rose up in the north to explain in those boiling days after Premier Ahmadu Bello's assassination that the coupists' action should be separated from their tribe, would it have had any effect on the general populace which believed that the coup was all an Igbo agenda and therefore every Igbo had to suffer for it as if the coup planners had had a meeting with Igbo people before setting out?

What if Premier Ahmadu Bello who had a meeting with the Western Premier Ladoke Akintola on January 13, 1966, two days before the coup, had believed his guest's story of an impending military coup and preempted the putschists before they made their move?

What if Major Nzeogwu had confided in his friend, Major Olusegun Obasanjo, who arrived Kaduna on the 13th after a course in India, that they were planning to violently overthrow the government, would his friend have been able to dissuade him?

What if the duo of Sardauna's loyalists, Brig. Samuel Ademulegun, commander of the 1st Brigade and Col Ralph Sodeinde -- Deputy Commandant of Nigerian Defence Academy whom Ademulegun usually handed over the Brigade too whenever he travelled -- had somehow managed to escape from the death squad, would the coup have been aborted and the civil war averted?

What if Nzeogwu had balked at shooting the Sardauna as his senior wife stood firmly in the line of fire, and Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu had refrained from firing through the pregnant wife of Ademulegun who stood in his way, would these senior officers have been able to rouse their troops from slumber to thwart the mission of the death squads?

What if Ironsi had not declared a unitary system of government -- the same unitary system for which he was killed but which Nigeria operates till date?

What if 32-year-old Yakubu Gowon and Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, 33, had been older, say in their 50s, would they have managed to avoid war?

What if the US had weighed in on the side of Biafra, teaming up with Biafra supporters like France, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, China, Tanzania and Israel -- would the outcome have been different?

Fifty years ago, General Gowon declared, "No victor, no vanquished" as soon as the war ended. But it is as if we are still at war. Whereas nine years after the war, the Southeast produced the nation's vice-president, the region has since receded in national relevance due to a combination of political marginalisation and self-inflicted wounds. The resultant frustration coupled with the absence of an impartial truthful account of what happened -- together with reparations where necessary, so that genuine closure could be achieved by both sides -- have led to renewed separatist agitations.

Fifty years after the war ended, has it just begun?

A second republic governor of Kaduna State, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, says Igbo people calling for separation from Nigeria are doing so because they have not had their fair share in the scheme of things in Nigeria. Musa declared that since the civil war ended, Igbo people have not been treated as co-owners of the country.

Some commentators in the North however, constantly remind the nation of the decapitation of their political leadership in 1966, even though several non-northerners were among the victims. Their anger is well founded, but enough blood has been shed on that account. It is time to move on.

We have spent half a century trying to bury the ghost of the civil war but its toes keep sticking out of the tomb. Now, let's come to terms with it in an open, impartial fashion just as South Africa came to terms with its apartheid past.

Isn't half a century enough time to live in self-delusion?

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