On this day (July 6, 1967), exactly 50 years ago, my family lived in Enugu in what was then eastern Nigeria, when the Nigerian Government set out to implement its “Police Action” against the breakaway nation of Biafra. This was essentially a declaration of full-scale war that would lead to the loss of over two million lives, mostly Igbos and mostly to starvation. With military support for the Nigerian side from the likes of Britain, Egypt and Russia, the war would ultimately personify the worst in human misery and Biafra’s demise was imminent despite its gallant efforts at resistance.
That the war lasted as long as it did is a miracle, considering that Biafra had to contend with total economic blockade, a devaluation of its currency and the perpetration of a series of documented and undocumented war crimes. Preceding well-known tragedies in places like South Africa, Sierra Leone, the Sudan, Liberia and Rwanda, it is ironic that desperate steps have been taken in the past 50 years to conceal information about Biafra. But the suppression is over, what with a recent escalation in the number of voices that are determined to preserve the Biafran legacy.
For two and half years, I was a Biafran child and the spirit of Biafra will always live in me! It was a spirit of self-determination and security, and of unprecedented ingenuity, creativity, efficiency and resourcefulness. It was all the above, notwithstanding its imperfections, and a valid reason why I am extremely proud to have been nurtured by that young nation. We were not rebels; who were we rebelling against? A regime that itself was enthroned by means of a rebellion? A government that was not legitimately voted into power? We were not Biafrans because we suddenly embarked on a self-centered mission to separate from Nigeria and destroy its “glorious” oneness. Like thousands of eastern families that were chased out of northern Nigeria and, to a lesser extent, places like Lagos, Abeokuta and Ibadan, we were compelled, in fact ordered, to return to the east. We are still confused about why we were asked to leave, and why we were suddenly exposed to such venom, since we had not committed any crime. My father, our patriarch, had served diligently since enlisting in the Nigerian army in 1945, eventually serving as its first indigenous Director of Ordnance. He has never been accused of participating in or supporting any coup, or of embezzling a penny of government money. But we didn’t wait for answers to our perplexity, and left Kaduna and Lagos as we were required to. We were actually fortunate to have made it out safely; after all, there were thousands who also agreed to leave, but were slaughtered before making the trip back home.
My father and his younger brother fought conscientiously for Biafra; they never regretted and never apologized for their military roles. Like them, I also make no apologies and have absolutely no regrets or shame for being a Biafran. I remain eternally grateful for the protection that Biafra afforded my family against a ruthless enemy; Biafra was our only source of hope at the time!
Associate Professor at Michigan State University