By MICHAEL RICHMOND DURU*
1. Let’s sacrifice a few minutes, let’s sieve out the facts and weigh them on the scales of objectivity and reality, since the 30th of May, Biafra Memorial Day, and particularly the modality proposed by IPOB and its manner of enforcement, have been generating reactions; lest we throw the baby away with the bathwater. While we may differ on the date and the modality of observing the Memorial Day of Biafra’s Heroes, we cannot dispute the importance of it and in particular the historical significance of the 30th of May 1967. Again, while we may differ with IPOB on any issue, we cannot fail to commend IPOB for consistently championing this noble path of honouring our heroes and making peace with our past. At a time when world leaders prefer to remain mute about the genocidal events that happened in Biafra, and at a time when the Nigerian state even criminalises mere identification with Biafra, IPOB insisted on honouring the fallen heroes of Biafra and has achieved public awareness in this regard.
2. Indeed the 30th of May is a date in history! It is a day to relive and relish the promise of Biafra — successor of the prosperous defunct Eastern Region. In 1967, it was the day the peoples of the old Eastern Nigeria did what men and women worthy of a place in memory do: to take their destiny in their own hands, to defend their land and their peoples. Thus, it is a day destined to be remembered, together with those who made history on that day! It is a day to recall the prodigy and genius of Biafra, the awe and dread of Biafra. It is a day to revive the promise and hope of Biafra — land of the rising sun. It is also a day to mourn (not weep) those women and children who starved to death because Gowon and Harold Wilson would stop at nothing to crush Biafra. It is a day to honour those brave heroes who, with crude weapons made with bare hands and with empty stomach, fought an unequal war against a horrendous enemy intent upon annihilation.
3. There were men of admirable honour who believed in Biafra across the world. The 30th of May is a day to honour them too: Bruce Baruch Mayrock, the American student who set self-ablaze at the UN headquarters in New York, to protest the genocide against Biafra; John Lennon, British musician who returned his MBA to the Queen and expressed his ‘shame’ at being British, because of Britain’s stance against Biafra; Akanu Ibiam, Biafran medical doctor who renounced his British Knighthood and returned all medals to Birmingham Palace in protest against Britain for the atrocities in Biafra; Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez, young American musicians, who performed concerts to raise money to feed starving Biafran children.
4. Steve Jobs, American media proprietor and ex-CEO of Apple, who ceased to be Christian in protest to God after reading the story of what happened in Biafra; Donald McCullin, British photographer, who snapped and preserved pictures of the Biafra genocide and never recovered from the shock of what he saw; Bernard Kouchner, French medical doctor who criticised and quit Red Cross after the partiality he saw against Biafra.
These were not Biafrans, but they stood firm for Biafra! There are also the Irish journalist John Hogan, who roused the Irish people on the plight of Biafra; the pro-Biafra British journalist Frederick Forsyth who kept track on Biafra even after the war; American lobbyist, William Bernhardt of MarkPress, who was the spokesman of Biafra; renowned Biafran novelist, Chinua Achebe, who relished Biafra till his death; Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who stood with Biafra, even at the risk of his life; the Ogwashi-Ukwu-born diplomat, Ralph Chukwu Uwechue, who renounced his post as Nigeria’s ambassador to France but served as Biafra’s ambassador to France during the war. The 30th of May redounds the glowing memory of these honourable men.
5. Again, the 30th of May is a day to thank the Irish Spiritan Missionaries, Catholic Caritas, the French Red Cross, the American group ‘Keep Biafra Alive’, Joint Church Aid, and all persons and groups who donated or organised the life-saving project code-named ‘Airlifts to Biafra’, which made 3,170 flight-trips into Biafra with tons of food that saved our people from the plan of Nigeria to exterminate all Biafrans with hunger. The 30th of May is a day to salute the humanity and patriotism of those nations who either recognised or supported Biafra: Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, the Vatican, Portugal, Israel and France. But it is also a day to remember that there were many of our people who sided with and aided those who came to kill our people; and to keep in mind that the tragedy of ‘saboteurs’ is still alive in our midst today. Let it be a day to thank God that the Biafra people not only survived the genocide and the destructions, but also the ‘Abandoned properties’ atrocity, the £20 villainy, Gowon’s 3Rs deceit, etc., and today remains the most populous and most prosperous region in Nigeria.
6. We cannot forget Biafra! We will never do so! Not even a fool will! We cannot forget the enigmatic heroes of Biafra, all of them: from combatants to infants, from the fallen to the living, from the past to the present. It is the duty of the living to keep alive the legacies of the dead. Many people think we should throw away Biafra. But no and never! Only a fool denies his past because someone told him to do so or because he believes it is ugly. But ours, the descendants of the heroes of Biafra, is a history of heroism and honour; a legacy of bravery and greatness forged with extraordinary rarity. Biafra is a tale of will and guts; of resilience and tenacity; of incredible survival-spirit and re-emergence; comparable only to the Jewish holocaust and the Jewish renaissance. Such ‘blessing’ is not a thing to be forgotten. It is a ‘mystery’ to be celebrated and immortalised.
7. Biafra has a long history behind it and we should not forget this! It began with the mass killings of people from the defunct Eastern Region of Nigeria – mostly Igbos – which goes as far back as the 22nd of June 1945, in Jos, then in the Northern Region of Nigeria. The Northerners ganged-up and massacred many Easterners, and looted or destroyed their properties, in and around Jos. This was under the watch of the British, who conspicuously did nothing about it; and thus, set a precedence of impunity yet to abate to this day. Shortly afterwards, in Kano in 1953, again hundreds of Easterners were killed; and again, nothing was done about it.
8. The trend of disaffection and attacks on people from the Eastern Region, continued after independence. Under the false guise of ‘Igbo coup’, between January and October of 1966, about 30,000 Igbos were killed in the North of Nigeria. And between January and May of 1967 another 100,000 were killed all across Nigeria, in a derisive and barbaric style. The Easterners became convinced that they were not welcomed in other parts of Nigeria and they all headed home to the East. Those who were caught as they escaped back to the East were butchered and sent home in truckloads of headless corpses. As in the past, both federal and regional governments conspicuously could not protect the Easterners. So, before one talks about ‘secession’ or blames Ojukwu for declaring Biafra, he must first learn the correct facts.
9. Generally, our people hold life to be sacred, so much so that, in many cases, they would not even kill an offender or a criminal, rather they would banish him from the land. Rather than shed blood, they would even tolerate that an offender is sold into slavery or relinquished to the gods. In spite of the moral crisis introduced into our land by the devastations of the civil war and the impoverishing economic systems of the Nigerian State, to this day, our people shrink from bloodshed. Therefore, they could not fathom it that between June 1945 and May 1967, over 200,000 Easterners were brazenly killed across Nigeria.
10. On the 4th and 5th of January 1967, the Military Government of then Eastern Nigeria tried to reach a peaceful deal with the Federal Military Government of Nigeria, at the Aburi Conference in Ghana. And indeed, a deal was made and attested to by both parties. But, sadly, as they returned to Nigeria, Yakubu Gowon, then Military Head of State, backed by infamous Britain, rescinded on his words and reneged on the Aburi Accord, to the surprise of the Eastern leaders. Recall that part of what Ojukwu achieved at Aburi was to make Nigeria a ‘Confederation’, rather than a mere ‘Federation’, not to talk of the ‘False Federation’ that it is today. The leaders of Eastern Nigeria were left with no other option than to do whatever they could to secure the lives of their people. Thus, was birthed the idea of the State of Biafra, cuing from the Bight of Biafra – a region recognised on the world map, at least since the 15th century.
11. On the 27th of May 1967, as Yakubu Gowon frantically, unilaterally moved to split Nigeria’s original 4 Regions into 12 States, in a bid to break the unity of the peoples of the Eastern Region, the leaders of the Eastern Region – chiefs, elders, and representatives of ethnic nationalities – gathered at a joint meeting of the Advisory Committee of Chiefs and Elders and the Consultative Assembly, in Enugu, where they reviewed the situation and passed a resolution unanimously mandating Lt-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, then Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, to declare the Eastern Region of Nigeria as an independent sovereign State of the name and title of “The Republic of Biafra”.
12. The resolution states “Now, therefore, in consideration of these and other facts and injustices, we, the Chiefs, Elders, and Representatives of all the twenty provinces of Eastern Nigeria, assembled in this Joint Meeting of the Advisory Committee of Chiefs and Elders and the Consultative Assembly, at Enugu this 27th day of May, 1967, hereby solemnly: Mandate His Excellency Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, to declare at the earliest practicable date Eastern Nigeria a free, sovereign, and independent state by the name and title of the Republic of Biafra.” It was unanimous and born out of necessity and exigency. It was the path of survival! It was the path of honour!
13. Three days later, on the 30th of May 1967, having been mandated by a joint consultative assembly of the leaders of the Eastern Region, Ojukwu made the following declaration: “Affirming your trust and confidence in me; having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent republic, now therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles, recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters shall henceforth be an independent sovereign State of the name and title of “the Republic of Biafra.” Thus, did the 30th of May enter the annals political history, never to be erased, but ever to be remembered.
14. In reaction to the declaration of the Republic of Biafra, the (Federal) Government in Lagos, again backed by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who felt that the operations of Shell BP in the oilfields of the Eastern Region were threatened, activated several economic blockades and political sanctions on the young Republic of Biafra, as a way to compel it to reunite with the rest of Nigeria. But this did not work, because, Gowon wanted the East to return to the union of Nigeria, but was not willing to keep to the agreements reached at Aburi in the presence of the Governors of the four Regions and representatives of the Government in Lagos. Gowon could not keep his words even after Lt. General J.A. Ankrah, Chair c c cman of the Ghana National Liberation Council and Chairman of the Aburi Conference urged him to honour the deal or withdraw from the Eastern Region.
15. Seeing that the leaders of the Eastern Region were determined to secure their people and region and would not give in to intimidation from Nigeria, on the 6th of July 1967, Gowon technically declared war by beginning police action against Biafra. Maj. Mohammed Shuwa, at about 5.30 am launched the first artillery shell at Biafran soldiers camped on the hill at Gakem, in Cross River State. Again, on seeing that the Eastern Region could be restored to Nigeria only by extensive military operations, Gowon sought further foreign military help and commenced full blown war against the combatants and peoples of the Republic of Biafra. The Biafrans never declared any war, neither did they attack anyone. They only fought to defend themselves and to secure their borders; and this is nothing but honourable!
16. The Republic of Biafra existed for only 36 days before the Nigerian State brought war upon it. Though there was the possibility of war all along, but the Republic of Biafra was not prepared for war before it came. Yet, and surprisingly the people of Biafra withstood Nigeria and her allied forces for 30 long months. It was at a great cost, but they proved themselves brave and heroic; just as our people say “Mgberede nyiri dike, ma mgberede ka ejikwa ama dike” (A great man is only overcome when taken by surprise, but it is also by a surprise event that a great man is proven). Though ill-prepared, the one-month-old tiny Biafran nation fought against two world powers: Britain and USSR as well as several other nations, who heavily supplied Nigeria with both weaponry and military personnel. Yet at the Nigerian civil war, the Biafran people taubb ght the world a lesson in tenacity, bravery and heroism. Gladly, this spirit is alive even today!
17. Though the world still fails to recognize it, during this war of oppression, Nigeria, backed by Britain and allies, executed a genocide against the people of Biafra. How did it happen? Surprised or saddened that the Biafrans withstood the federal forces for such long time, Obafemi Awolowo, former Governor of Western Nigeria, gave the infamous counsel of ‘Air-Land-and-Sea Blockade’ of Biafra. Thus, against war ethics, starvation was employed as a tool of war against all Biafrans. The Nigerian forces went to the extent of attacking relief-flights bringing food into Biafra. This led to the death of women and children in millions. It is on record that more non-combatants died in Biafra because of hunger than the combatants who died in the course of battle. It is also on record that Nigeria got an upper hand in the war, not because of military prowess but because of Awolowo’s cowardly strategy of air-land-and-sea food blockade. Probably Gowon knew that on equal grounds, he wouldn’t prevail against Biafra, and so he willingly conceded to the no-victor-no-vanquished truce. Therefore, the 30th of May is a fitting day to mourn the dead and to honour the resilience of the people and warriors of Biafra.
18. Rightly and gladly, IPOB has proposed and propagated the 30th of May, the birthday of the Republic of Biafra, as Biafra Heroes Memorial Day. We urge everyone to embrace it and to devise peaceful means of honouring the glorious legacies of the founding fathers of the defunct Republic of Biafra. Like the Jewish holocaust, the Biafra genocide is a fact of history! The fallen heroes of Biafra must be duly and reverently appeased. Providentially, fifty years after the war, the spirit of Biafra remains strong, alive and rife. Little wonder that as this nation was born, its founders prophetically dubbed it ‘the land of the rising sun’, so that darkness would never set sail upon its soil. May the light and peace of God shine upon the dead, the living and the land of Biafra! Amen!
*Fr Duru is a Catholic priest.