The Ghost of Biafra Still Hunts Nigeria
By: Deji Yesufu
When Chinua Achebe wrote his memoirs “There was a Country”, most literary observers knew that the sage was giving Nigeria his parting words. Achebe had served in the broadcasting arm of the defunct Biafra and for almost forty years after the last bullet was shot at that war, the man who naturally is prodigious with words will not write much on the war until his final end. The book is arguably Achebe’s most controversial work. Achebe published the book while he was safely resident in the United States of America, where he could not be constrained by the Nigerian government’s penchant to stifle free remarks on the subject of Biafra. Many people disagreed with Achebe’s conclusions but one quote that is usually attributed to him and that many people do not disagree with is a statement he made which is not even in that book. It is the remark that the fundamental problem of Nigeria is leadership. Achebe made that statement sometimes in 1981 and it is a statement that has rung true all through the history of this country.
When I was growing up, my siblings and I were often told stories about ghosts. My belief in ghosts was hinged on my absolute dread of the phenomenon. These were my first encounters with the world of the supernatural. I read somewhere that the manner a man dies dictates how events will pan out around the environment where he died. If a man dies peacefully, peace surges through his family life and envelopes circumstances after him. People will say in his memory that he is blessed indeed. If a man dies horribly, horrors follow circumstances after him. It appears his ghost never rests; it goes from place to place, disrupting events – as if calling for justice for the manner he died. On the 15th of January, 1970, the Nigerian Civil War came to an end. In a sense Biafra died that day but events that have followed the burial of this ill fated Republic shows that the ghost of that nation has not rested but has instead returned to hunt Nigeria.
When I wrote my book VICTOR BANJO, I was reacting to events around the call for secession by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), led by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu. Kanu was barely three years old when the Nigerian Civil War ended, yet he grew up with the ghost of Biafra inhabiting his spirit and compelling him to take actions against the Nigerian state. Today Kanu has successfully sold the secession story to many Ibos, especially those living outside the shores of the country. Leaving Nigeria is now an idea increasingly gaining traction in Eastern Nigeria today. Those who are familiar with events that led up to the Nigerian Civil War, and the secession call by Col. Ojukwu then, know that Igbo land does not have up to 5% of the reasons Ojukwu led Eastern Nigeria out in those days. Yet, even back in 1967, many people warned Ojukwu against leaving Nigeria. Victor Banjo, his friend, and the subject of my book, made the point that Eastern Nigeria was not militarily equipped enough to face the war arsenals of Nigeria. While Western Nigeria were not happy being “occupied” by troops from Northern Nigeria (in the 1960s the seat of power was in Lagos and Gowon needed Northern soldiers to protect him. Thus Western Nigeria was seen as “occupied” by northern troops), and was willing to leave the Nigerian union, she was not militarily capable to venture out. If Ojukwu had delayed seceding by a few months, it would have become clear to him that the war was not practical. Ojukwu however had the best trained officers in the Nigerian military of that time and he was confident that what he lacked in military armament, he could make up for in personals.
By the end of July 1967, after the first engagement with Nigerian forces at a town close to Nsukka, in the North of Biafra, more than half of these brilliant and capable men that Ojukwu was counting on had been killed at war. The war had barely commenced and Ojukwu had lost almost all his boys. Back in Enugu, at the Biafra Supreme Headquarters, tempers were frail and Ojukwu was almost removed from office as a number of Senior officers contemplated passing a vote of no confidence on his leadership. It was Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna that stood up at a meeting and gave a resounding word in support of Ojukwu’s leadership. Subsequently Ojukwu’s job was saved but Ifeajuna would loose his life; along with Victor Banjo – a story I have documented in my book (so grab a copy if you want know how Ifeajuna became Ojukwu’s enemy in a little over a month from that time).
My point in this essay is that the ghost of Biafra is hunting Nigeria and the country lacks the requisite leadership skills to temper this evil spirit that has refused to rest more than half a century after the nation of Biafra was subjugated. Nigeria entered into a thirty month war because she lacked a leadership that could help her avoid such a conflict. While granting an interview on his book “THE AGONY OF VICTORY”, retired Brigadier Alabi Isama, said that if Nigeria had had a functioning Parliament we might have avoided the conflict entirely. He said that everything that was fought out with guns, bombs and bullets at the theater of war, could easily have been debated at Parliament. But the country had no Parliament and the two countries at war were led by young men that lacked experience but where high on emotion and rhetoric.
In fact I will add that the whole conflict that led to the end of the first republic was premised on the fact that Nigeria had a leadership in the persons of Sarduana and Balewa, that were unable to handle the brilliant arguments that Awolowo and his party, the Action Group, brought to the Nigerian Parliament. Awolowo was soon clamped in jail and the nation degenerated to chaos. Nigeria has still not found the kind of leadership to exorcise her of the ghost of Biafra that continues to hunt her. Nnamdi Kanu has assumed a messianic posture in Eastern Nigeria because the country’s present leadership has no ideas on how to handle him. His present predicament of being captured and returned to Nigeria “Barau Dikko” style has only increased his cult following in Eastern Nigeria. It has not diminished it.
As Nigeria battles a ghost of her past sins, we sometimes forget as a people that real human beings perished during the Biafran War. I had a Pastor who told me in 2004 that his family are still trusting God that his elder brother will return alive from the war. That man was in his mid fifties when he told me that. No one in church dare tell him his brother was long dead. I wrote the book “VICTOR BANJO” because of the emotional attachment I got from researching the story. I sat in the office of one Banjo’s children as this dear woman told me that since there has been no official word from the Nigerian military that Victor Banjo was killed at the war, it could be that her father was still alive somewhere. She also said that even if he had been killed, it will be such a comfort to know where he was buried and to have his bones given a proper burial.
Dare Babanrisa, in a recent article, also reiterated this call to find Banjo’s bones and give this great son of Yoruba land a proper burial. A call I had made in my book on him. The fact is that the ghost of Biafra continues to hunt all of us in this country and this nation needs a kind of leadership that will pacify this ghost and give it a proper rest – an eternal one. Until this happens, the agitation for a nation of Biafra will continue. It was a nation that perished at infancy, yet its ghost will not allow a fully grown country have any peace.