Nigeria/Biafra war: Survivors’ tales, 52 years after
By Olisemeka Obeche
Over a dozen millions of Igbo ethnic nationals and other minority tribes who found themselves inside and within the axis of the break-away Biafra republic lived through unprecedented man-made bloodletting, carnage and displacement during the 30-month civil war. Over half a century after, survivors of the bloody war still recount some of the worst era in their living memories.
It was on July 6, 1967, roughly 52 years ago that a federal military government headed by General Yakubu Gowon launched what was initially classified as ‘police action’ but which eventually snowballed into a full-blown civil war that lasted 30 months and cost an estimated three million lives.
The central government in Dodan Barracks, Lagos and that of the newly declared Biafra Republic carved out of the Eastern Nigeria, based in Enugu had settled for a military showdown after all efforts for a peaceful settlement of the political crisis, including the famous Aburi Accord, collapsed.
It marked the beginning of the worst era in the history of the Igbo nation as over ten million Igbos braced up for a battle for survival and independence from Nigeria. These included roughly two million who fled other parts of Nigeria in the wake of the pogrom that preceded the July 29, 1966 counter coup that led to the overthrow of the Aguiyi-Ironsi military junta and emergence of Gowon as the new helmsman,
Five weeks, or 28 days after Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the Eastern region an independent Biafra, the Nigerian forces launched a military crackdown on the rebellious state in the early hours of July 6, 1967.
The federal troops’ offensive through the north of Biafra led by Colonel Mohammed Shuwa and the local military units of the 1st Infantry Division witnessed a setback after facing unexpectedly fierce resistance and high casualties. Although, Nigerian forces managed to take over some towns like Nsukka, Gakem –Obudu, Ogoja etc. within the first week of operation, the Biafran forces responded with an offensive of their own in early August, that saw them cross the Niger River, pass through Benin City and advanced towards Lagos until they were stopped at Ore, Ondo State on 21 August, 1967.
As the Biafran troops retreated to their enclaves following the failed bid to capture Lagos, Nigeria’s superior military and political strength prevailed resulting in the crushing defeat of the rebellious republic.
However, the wanton destruction of lives and property that took place during the 30 months that federal government used both military offensive and economic blockade to quash the Biafra rebellion remains a watershed in the annals of the country’s political history. The official statistics of over three million lives perished during the civil war has more than two million of them as being on the Biafran side.
Apart from the heavy casualties suffered by the ill-trained and equipped Biafran soldiers, violent attacks against civilians caught in Biafra held villages, towns and cities by the rampaging federal troops also culminated in heavy loss of lives and property. Even ethnic minorities outside Biafra such as people of Asaba, in Delta state became victims of massacres and rape by federal soldiers, for allegedly being sympathetic to Biafra. The memory of the Asaba massacres and other horrific killings that took place during the war remains a watershed for the country.
Large portions of those that survived bullets and bomb attacks were decimated by hunger and disease as the economic blockade of Biafra sparked off famine and kwashioko. Despite Nigeria’s efforts to suppress reports about such events, the humanitarian crisis of the Biafran population during the war made international spotlight. Civilians who pulled through the terrible period owe eternal gratitude to divine providence and efforts of some religious groups and humanitarian organisations who braved the odds to supply food and other relief materials to the civilian Biafra populace.
Those who survived the heavy bombardments, gun-fire and organised massacre during the 904 days’ civil war, still look back to the dark months with horror and yet to recover from what they lost.
Accounts of civil war survivors is replete with tales of woes, suffering, losses and after-effects of the carnage. There is hardly any family in the old Eastern Region (Biafra) that did not suffer human and material losses during the war.
Although the country has since moved on, political developments fuelling renewed agitations for the establishment of an independent Biafra state has continued to call to mind the events that drove Nigeria and Biafra to war 52 years ago.
In the coming weeks and months, Orient Weekend will chronicle the accounts of people who witnessed the civil war in the Biafra territory and their reflections on the way the country has fared since the war ended.