With few memories of Biafra War, young Nigerians renew calls for independence

Frustration over slow development in southeastern Nigeria has reawakened the separatist movement, despite the fact that few remember the war first-hand – or maybe because they don’t.

Afolabi Sotunde/ Reuters
Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader Nnamdi Kanu is seen at the federal high court in Abuja, Nigeria, on January 20, 2016.

When Nigeria’s brutal Biafran War ended in 1970, Sopuru Amah’s birth was still more than two decades away. The only knowledge the 22-year-old college student has of the war comes filtered through memoir and memory – the stories he has read and those he has heard from parents and relatives who survived the three-year civil conflict, which killed more than a million people between 1967 and 1970.

But today, nearly five decades later, Mr. Amah calls himself an “ever loyal, hardcore, and unrepentant Biafran,” referring to the short-lived state whose split from Nigeria began the conflict: the Republic of Biafra, which, had it survived, would have celebrated its 50th anniversary on May 30.

Amah and thousands of other young Nigerians like him are part of a new wave of Biafran nationalism building across the country’s southeast, where they say frustration over the glacial pace of development and job creation has sparked renewed interest in a cause that long seemed consigned to the history books – one more challenge for a country battling Boko Haram in the north, and corruption throughout.

Pro-Biafra movements like the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) help Igbo remember the past, says Christopher Ejiofor, a Biafra War veteran who was an aide-de-camp to Biafra's military governor during the war. “IPOB is like a candle bearer, lighting the candle of remembrance about the ill that happened to Biafra,” he says. “With them, Biafra can never die.”

Post-war promises

Over the last decade, an alphabet soup of pro-Biafran separatist movements have emerged, including the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), the Biafra Zionist Movement (BZM), and the IPOB. Images of the Biafran flag are appearing in southern cities, with its rising sun and bars of red, black, and green plastered on cars, tricycles, and buildings.

“Biafraland is still without basic government-sponsored infrastructure and development,” says Emeka Gift, the Ivory Coast national coordinator for IPOB, referring to Nigeria’s southeast. “Biafrans have continued to be subjected to a high level of political and economic marginalization.” (IPOB has dozens of branches around the world, attempting to raise awareness and gather support from Igbos abroad.)

Since the restoration of democracy in 1999, the country has never had a president who is Igbo, one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups. Many of the region’s roads are cut apart by potholes, with government buildings crumbling.

That under-development dates back to the three-year war, many here say, which left much of the southeast in disrepair or burnt down. In 1967, after anti-Igbo massacres left more than 30,000 dead the year before, military officer Odumegwu Ojukwu declared an independent Republic of Biafra, launching the battle against Nigerian forces. More than one million people died, mostly from famine and disease after the Nigerian army blockaded Biafra.

“There was no food in the inner Biafra, people were dying of starvation,” says Mr. Ejiofor, who is also a traditional ruler here. “We were just burying people, there were mass graves everywhere. Think about every city losing thousands of people every day, children in refugee camps dying every day.”

When Biafra finally surrendered in January 1970, Nigeria’s head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, promised the war would have “no victor [and] no vanquished” and pledged a policy of reconciliation, reconstruction, and rehabilitation in the former Biafran territories: a promise known as “the three ‘r’s.”

But the memories of the war’s brutality remained fresh for many, who say the promised rebuilding and development came slowly, if at all.

“If it was put in writing, it was never put in practice,” says Ejiofor, referring to the “three ‘r’s.” “In other words, it was only a theoretical statement made to deceive people. Theoretically it may have been said, but practically it was a political gimmick.”

Lekan Oyekanmi/AP
Members of the Biafran separatist movement gathered during an event in Umuahia, Nigeria. The members are commemorating their fallen heroes 50 years after Nigeria's civil war saw more than 1 million die to create the state for the Igbo people.

Heavy-handed response

Though many people here were frustrated with the underdevelopment of the region for a long time, few protests took place during Nigeria’s most recent era of military rule. Since the installation of a democratic government, however, protests have gradually built, stoked in part by the government’s heavy-handed response. IPOB, for instance, saw a surge of popularity in late 2015 after its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, was arrested for treason.

Mr. Kanu, who also doubles as the director of the incendiary London-based internet radio station Radio Biafra, was granted bail on health grounds in late April, though he was barred from holding rallies, granting interviews, and staying in a crowd of more than 10 people.

Meanwhile, the military killed 150 peaceful Biafra protesters between August 2015 and August 2016, according to an Amnesty International investigation, in what the human rights group called a “chilling campaign” to stifle separatists.

“This deadly repression of pro-Biafra activists is further stoking tensions in the southeast of Nigeria,” Makmid Kamara, the interim director of Amnesty International Nigeria, said in a statement at the time. “The Nigerian government’s decision to send in the military to respond to pro-Biafra events seems to be in large part to blame for this excessive bloodshed.”

For the 2017 anniversary, pro-Biafra leaders have called for a stay-at-home protest. Dozens of supporters have been arrested in recent protests. 

Some aspects of the pro-Biafra movement have been charged with promoting violence. Many supporters turn to nationalist outlets like Radio Biafra, which critics have accused of hate speech for its fierce anti-Nigerian messages.

“The mission of Radio Biafra is very simple – to get Biafra, by every means necessary and possible ... including war … [and] Nigeria will be completely bombed to the ground,” Kanu warned in a 2015 broadcast. “Be prepared for that.”

Two months earlier, at the World Igbo Congress, held in Los Angeles, he told listeners that “We need guns and bullets from you people in America.”

Erasing history

But some analysts say there may also be a less-obvious reason Biafran nationalism is surging again – the slow disappearance of the country’s history from its school curricula.

For several years, history has been removed from primary and secondary school lessons as a stand-alone subject – a trend the government made official in 2009. When asked to defend its decision, the government has said that students who studied history had less market value, and typically wound up as teachers, a vocation that does not have high prestige in Nigeria.

As a result, many young people only learn about the civil war from personal recollections of survivors in their families and communities and, more recently, from outlets like Radio Biafra. Indeed, few Nigerians can remember the Biafra war at all: Only about 7 percent of the population is over age 55.

“Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, over 40 years after its end?” prominent Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, himself an Igbo, asked in his 2012 memoirs of the war, “There Was a Country.”

However, change may be afoot. The minister of education has encouraged history in school curricula, although the lower house of the legislature rejected a bill last fall to make it a compulsory subject.

For many young people here, however, the past has already invaded the present, and at least for now, the idea of a new Biafra remains a powerful source of political inspiration.  

“I pray that God will deliver us from the hands of our enemies,” says Chinedu Daniel, who completed high school last year, referring to the national government. “God will help us to achieve our struggle for freedom and restoration.” 

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