By Tochukwu Ezukanma
The indigenous Igbo eschatology demands the mourning and remembrance of the dead. So, I observed Biafran Heroes’ Day on May 30th 2019. To me, the day was a solemn day of reflection and reverence: a day to reflect on the most trying period in the annals of the Igbo, the civil war, and revere the memory of all the peoples of erstwhile Biafra that died in the war. It was definitely not a day to heed Nnamdi Kanu’s instruction to intimidate and attack those that refused to observe the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) mandated sit-in. With Kanu’s thoughtless rhetoric and IPOB’s disruption of the peace in Igbo land on that day, they, instead of hallowing, hollowed the memory of the Biafran heroes.
On that day, it was imperative to appreciate the sacrifices of those young men whose lives were permanently rend apart, and their future turned bleak by the crippling and disfiguring injuries they sustained fighting for Biafra. It was a day to remember and pay tributes to those fallen heroes, who laid down their youthful lives for Biafra. I reminisced, and went down memory lane. In my mind’s eyes, I beheld Biafra: the euphoria and patriotism that greeted Ojukwu’s declaration of Biafra among the Biafran masses, and our firm belief that we will win the impending war because “God was on our side” and the “naive and ignorant” Hausa/Fulani were no match for the resourceful Igbo; the palpable despair and frustration that replaced this earlier excitement as the grim realities of war set in; the collapse of Biafra and the fear of a general massacre by the federal forces that engulfed a war-weary people; our pleasant surprise that the heavily armed but disciplined and benign federal soldiers were not marauding, murderous bravos hell-bent on the extermination of the Igbo.
I recalled the agony of parents watching their children die slowly from starvation; and the terrifying roar of war planes that bombed and strafed, and left death in their wake. I remembered some of those young men snuffed-out in the glory of their youth by the war. For example, in my village, the only child (a son) of a widow was killed in battle. Although his death was hidden from his mother, she complained of wild dreams, and talked about her premonition that her son was dead; heartbroken, she died a short while later. Another widow’s first and second sons, both university undergraduates, were army officers in the Biafran army. Both of them died in combat.
The village headmaster’s two army officer sons were killed in the war. A high ranking police officer’s medical student son died in battle, and his mother totally lost her mind. Depressed to the point of insanity, she stood disheveled on the street, begging for money. The retired divisional court clerk’s polygamous home lost three sons to the war. My mother’s immediate senior brother died in the battlefield. At the end of the war, his young wife managed to pick herself up again but his mother, my grandmother, was completely devastated by her son’s death. She did not recover from it; she wobbled on for a number of years and died. Such heart-rending narratives were ubiquitous in Biafra for so many people died in that needless and avoidable war. It is estimated that about five hundred thousand Biafran soldiers died in the war.
It was a day of introspection, deep thought, and seeking answers to questions. In addition to the evinced heroism of the Biafran army in the battlefield, Biafrans also demonstrated amazing steadfastness, fabulous resourcefulness and unmatched inventiveness in the war effort. Why did all that valor, ingenuity and sacrifice end in ignominy? Why did Biafra surrender unconditional?
Earlier, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu punished Nnamdi Azikiwe for his opposition to secession. But, as the war raged on, the need for Azikiwe and his extensive international contacts crystallized to Ojukwu; he made peace with Azikiwe. Azikiwe agreed to work for Biafra, and get her diplomatic recognitions, so that Biafra can negotiate peace from a position of relative power. Azikiwe’s diplomatic efforts resulted in the recognition of Biafra by five countries: Gabon, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Zambia and Haiti. Their recognition of Biafra worked like magic, and “Immediately, Dr Okoi Arikpo, the Nigerian Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, announced to the world that Nigeria would no longer insist on pre-conditions and that he was prepared for the peace conference table”.
Lamentably, Ojukwu refused to negotiate for peace because a negotiated settlement to the war will mean an ended to his power and exalted status: Head of State and Supreme Commander of the Biafran Armed Forces. Consequently, Azikiwe resigned as a Biafran peace envoy. In a letter to Ojukwu, he wrote, “I cannot continue as a peace envoy because you have destroyed all the vestiges and optimism for peace. You left me under the impression that if I succeeded in getting recognition, you will go to the conference table. You got recognitions, but did not go to the conference table. I am therefore going to London on exile”. A negotiated settlement to the war would have been most advantageous to Biafra because it would have brought an earlier end to the suffering and death of both Biafran soldiers and civilians. Secondly, it would have translated the valor and sacrifices of Biafrans into some concessions, for the Igbo, from the federal government.
As the war continued, Azikiwe wrote additional letters to Ojukwu urging him to negotiate and put an end to the suffering and death of the Biafrans. In one of such letters, he wrote, “Knowing that the accusation of genocide is palpably false, why would (you) continue to fool our people to believe that they are slated for slaughter. Biafran soldiers are fighting and dying from the conscientious belief that they and their people were slated for extermination. Blood is flowing freely because of this false propaganda. The killing should stop now, now. Enough is enough” Despite the continued slaughter of Biafran soldiers by the superior fire power of the Nigerian army, and the starving to death of hundreds of thousands, including children, Ojukwu refused to make peace. He kept protecting his power until Biafra was at the point of collapse, and he ran away; Biafra surrendered unconditionally.
Finally, on May 30th, 2019, I prayed that God should grant the Igbo the political perspicacity to sift out perfidious opportunists that have no qualms in gambling with Igbo lives for their own selfish ends. So that we will never again tread the path of death and destruction, following a deceiver, who, although driven by his selfishness and delusion of infallibility, masquerades as a “messiah” or “savior” of Ndi Igbo.
Ezukanma sent in this piece from Lagos, Nigeria. You can reach him via [email protected] or 0803 529 2908.