By Tochukwu Ezukanma
To characterize a scale of mass-murder that defied the English lexicon, Raphael Lemkin coined a new word, “genocide”, from the Greek word “geno”, meaning tribe, nation or people and from the Latin word, “cide”, conjugated from “caedere” – to kill. He was writing about the Nazi policy of deliberate, systematic extermination of entire nationalities in Axis-occupied Europe. Although the forces of secession in Nigeria has endlessly bandied around the word “genocide”, there has never been any act of genocide in Nigeria.
Leading up to the civil war, there were two anti-Igbo riots in northern Nigeria in May 29th to 31st 1966, and September 29th to early October, 1966, and an anti-Igbo coup of July 29th 1966. In the two riots, about ten thousand Igbo were killed but the Biafran propaganda bumped up the figure to 30,000. And in the anti-Igbo coup, Aguiyi Ironsi and about 300 Igbo soldiers were killed. These were in reprisal to the January 15th 1966 coup by one Yoruba and four Igbo majors that killed the two most important Hausa/Fulani political leaders and four highest ranking army officers, without killing any Igbo leader; insulting of the memory of the most important northern political leader, Ahmadu Bello, by Igbo living in northern Nigeria: and Ironsi’s Decree 34. Following the September/October pogrom in the North, there was a half-hearted reprisal killing of northerners in Eastern Region; a few hundred of them died.
During the war, in some rare cases, both Nigerian and Biafran soldiers massacred civilians, either in hate or suspicion. At Asaba, the Muritala Mohammed commanded Second Division, out of hate, murdered 500 to 700 Igbo. In Ikot Ekpene, Ogoniland and other Biafran minority areas, Biafran soldiers, out of suspicion of sabotage, murdered thousands of Biafran minorities. But there was no plan or attempt, on either side, to exterminate any tribe or nation.
After the capture of Enugu by federal forces, my cousin, and her family returned to Enugu. They ran a restaurant, selling food and drinks to Nigerian soldiers and Igbo civilians. Like the Igbo that lived behind “Enemy Lines”, they lived their lives and went about their normal businesses till the end of the war. That is, as the war raged, some Igbo lived in parts of Biafra already captured by Nigerian soldiers, and the “vandals”, “genocidal maniacs” did not kill them. As the war ended, the Nigerian government, with its “genocidal policy”, released Biafran prisoners, both soldiers and civilians. Ironically, Biafra had no prisoner to release because, in our “saintliness” and “godliness”, we had killed every Nigerian soldier we ever captured. The Nigerian government had no genocidal policy, and the Nigerian army did not wantonly kill Biafran civilians. It was a fact attested to by international observers.
As in every war, people died in the Nigeria civil war. Soldiers died from two armies fighting and killing each other, and civilians died from collateral damages of war, mostly air raids and hunger. Since the Second World War, the bombing and strafing of civilian centers have been legitimate acts of warfare. Had Allied warplanes, in a sustained bombing raid, not destroyed sections of the German city of Dresden and killed about 25, 000 (some estimated 50, 000) German civilians? So, as the Nigerian Air Force bombed and strafed civilian centers in Biafra, it was in exigencies of war, not in an act of genocide. Since history, people have starved in wars. In the First World War, about 750, 000 Germans starved to death, and in the Second World War, millions of people died from hunger. TV footages of wars around the world, like in Yemen and Syria, show images of starving civilians. Was it not self-deceit for Biafrans to expect that their enemy, the Nigerian government, will feed them?
As Chukwuemeka Ojukwu finally ran away, Biafra surrendered unconditionally. And it became evident that the talk about a planned extermination of the Igbo by the Gowon government was colossal nonsense. We were pleasantly surprised by the federal forces: they were disciplined and benign; they bothered no one and killed no one.
In his book, Why the Jews rejected Jesus, David Klinghoffer, wrote that, “Widespread misinformation poisons a culture”. The lingering grip of the misinformation of the Biafran propaganda on Igbo minds is poisoning Igbo culture, psyche and mindset. The belief in the lies that, for no offense of ours, all the other ethnic groups of Nigeria, unified by their relentless hatred against us, massacred us, drove us from Nigeria and still followed us to our home region to fight us and exterminate us is psychologically ravaging the Igbo. It fills us with angry, bitterness, hate and suspicion. With the Igbo collective mind laden with so much anger, resentment, hate and distrust towards Nigeria and other Nigerians, we cannot experience the full depth and dimensions of our political life in Nigeria.
For our own good, we must start freeing ourselves from the psychological, emotional and sentimental fetters of Biafranism. Despite the intrusive availability of accurate information on the civil war, many Igbo prefer to cling to the falsehood of the Biafran propaganda. Thus, they remain captives to the past, Biafra, and giddy with the excrescence – abnormal outgrowth – of Biafra, neo-Biafranism. Neo-Biafranism is a flight into fantasy. It makes them reject a real country and grasp at a daydream country, which is a major source of our political dilemma; it enervates us, politically, and erodes our political relevance in Nigeria.
Already, our political fortune has plummeted to a lamentable low. A proud and resourceful people that once held sway across the entire spectrum of the Nigerian social life now whimper over trivialities, and prattle like political destitute and beggars. And a people, once led by one of the greatest political minds of the 20th Century, Nnamdi Azikiwe, are now being hoodwinked by a blustering ruffian, vulgar parvenu, and inexhaustible liar, Nnamdi Kanu.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes in Lagos, Nigeria
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