NIGERIA AND THE MISSING CENOTAPH: 50 YEARS AFTER THE POGROM
his article is about remembering the dead. It is about the ‘spiritual-mystical’ bond and relationship which exist between the living and dead members of any given society or family. No society can survive or make any positive progress without maintaining a harmonious respectful relationship with its dead members – ancestral communion. The communion of the living and the dead is very central to the teachings of our African Traditional Religion (ATR) and Christian tradition as well as Islam.
In fact, a society that does not honor its dead members, neglects to respect the communion between the living and the dead, has no future. A failure on the part of those who are still living in the flesh to honor their dead (the living-dead (ancestors) could spell doom for the living themselves and their nation. This is so, especially, when such dead members of the society happened to be innocent victims of an insidious orchestrated man’s inhumanity to his fellow human beings – ethnic-hate and cleansing as witnessed during the Biafra Pogrom and the Nigeria–Biafra War (1967-1970) caused by the pogrom itself. In this case, as we learnt in ATR, the living have a sacred obligation to appease the dead and reestablish the ancestral communion.
The fact on the ground today convinces one that man’s inhumanity to his fellow human beings has not ceased even 50 years after the Biafra War in Nigeria. The culture of ethnic-hate and cleansing, which resulted in the massacre of over three million innocent children, women and men, especially of Igbo extraction has not ceased in Nigeria. Rather, it has remained an entrenched culture in the Nigeria political landscape, sustained by successive federal governments through lopsided policies and marginalization.
All this explains why 50 years after the Biafra Pogrom and Civil War no serious attempt has been made till date by the government of Nigeria and its leadership to set aside a day in a year for an annual remembrance and honoring of the innocent victims of the pogrom and the Civil War. The Nigerian government after the Civil War banned the teaching of history in schools as a way of wiping out the memory of the Biafra Pogrom and the atrocities of the three-year Civil War. The government prohibited its citizens from mentioning or even using the name “Biafra” in any way, at all. Until the upsurge of the new generation of pro-Biafra youth movements, it was a taboo to pronounce that name “Biafra” in public in Nigeria. Till date, the decree out-lawing the name “Biafra” in Nigeria is still in force.
Both federal and states’ governments of those cities where Biafran people were massacred and killed in their thousands during the pogrom and the Civil War, have not yet thought it wise to set-aside any particular date of the year for an annual remembrance and honoring of those innocent victims of the Biafra Pogrom and Civil War. The Nigerian-state is yet to consider it a necessity and set aside a day each year for annual remembrance of the victims of the Biafra Pogrom and Civil War.
Moreover, just like the federal government, no state government in Nigeria where the Biafra Pogrom took place has built any monument – cenotaph or epitaph to honor these innocent victims of pogrom and the Civil War. Not even the government of any states in Igboland has mustered the initiative and courage to do so.
The other day, 25 May 2017, some prominent Nigerians, including the Vice-President and former military generals who took part in the pogrom and the Civil War atrocities, gathered at an Abuja center to celebrate what they termed “50 Years after Biafra.” Though they invited the President-General of Ohaneze Ndigbo, it was obvious from the speeches delivered that day that the Abuja gathering lacks a lot in content and context. If it deserves to be called anything at all, it could only best be described a gathering and celebration of victors over their vanquished. Apart from the well-articulated speech of the President-General of Ohaneze Ndigbo, all other speakers at the conference either talked about sharing a “national cake” (that is, spoilt from the land of the vanquished), or the usual game of blaming the victims of the pogrom as the architects of their own fate. There was no sign of “mea culpa” for the pogrom and atrocities of the Civil War on the part of the people who committed these most inhuman crimes against the Igbos.
Otherwise, why was there no mention by any of the speakers at the Abuja conference of 25 May 2017, of how to honor the innocent victims of the pogrom and the Biafra War? How come it that no speaker at the Abuja conference thought it wise to ask the federal and state governments of Nigeria to institute an annual public holiday for remembrance of those innocent victims of the pogrom and the Civil War? Why was none of the speakers at the Abuja conference concerned about the fact that up-till now there is no single monument – cenotaphs or epitaphs erected by the government of Nigeria to honor those innocent victims of the pogrom and Civil War?
Moreover, why did the organizers of the Abuja conference not invite any of the leaders of the new face of pro-Biafra movements, the young Biafran leaders, most of whom have been imprisoned, incarcerated by the Nigerian government because of their un-comprising stance for self-determination of their people? Why were the invitees at the Abuja conference, mainly drawn from among those who never believed in the ideals of this new-face of Biafra agitation? None of the invitees at the Abuja conference discussed the question of self-determination of indigenous peoples and the need for honoring innocent victims of violence.
Accept or reject it, it is to the credit of these new generations of young pro-Biafra agitators that Nigeria is beginning to come to grips with its lopsided leadership style and dysfunctional political structure, especially, with regard to the federal government relationship with, and treatment of Igbo people since after the war in 1970. Thanks to the new generations of Igbo youth – the pro-Biafra movements, who have chosen May 30, each year to remember and honor the victims of the pogrom, the name Biafra has come back to dominate the Nigerian political discourse. In line with our religious traditions and beliefs in ancestral communion with the living (for followers of ATR) and communion of Saints in heaven with the living (for Christians), the gestures of these new generations of our young people, their collective resolve to honor and remember the dead, innocent victims of violence meted against their people, is commendable.
Instead of harassing these young people, Nigerian governments should own up such initiative of honoring the innocent victims of Biafra Pogrom. Nigerian military and police should stop harassing and killing the pro-Biafra Igbo youth whenever they gather to honor their dead and victims of Biafra Pogrom. The federal government and states’ governments in Eastern Nigeria in particular, should provide the needed leadership, take over the celebration from the youth, make it a national event and public holiday, dedicate May 30, every year for this all-important event. Build cenotaphs and epitaphs – centers and monuments where people could gather each year, on May 30, or when the need arises, to honor these innocent victims of violence. Members of the pro-Biafra youth movements have already shown the leadership in this regard. The government could take it up and show that it is a good idea to honor the dead and victims of violence and terrorism.
This is what the Europeans do at Auschwitz every year, where they honor the innocent victims of the World War II. It is also what the State of Israel does at the “Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem, in remembrance of the six million of their innocent people killed by the brutal Nazi regime in Germany during the World War II. The Armenians do the same to honor their people, massacred by the Turkish Ottoman hegemony dreamers of yesteryears, about a hundred years ago. The Rwandans are beginning to do the same, in remembrance of the victims of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC, is designed, above all, to honor not only America’s brave soldiers, but also serves as a cenotaph of America’s “mea culpa” for the Vietnam War atrocities. All over civilized world, there are monuments – cenotaphs and epitaphs to commemorate and honor innocent victims of war and violence.
The question is: why can’t we do the same in Nigeria with regard to the innocent victims of Biafra Pogrom? Why can’t the government of Nigeria build cenotaphs and epitaphs in honor of these innocent victims of Biafra pogrom?
It is only in so doing that we can begin the real journey towards nation-building. Without spiritual reconciliation between the living and the dead, the society itself has no meaning and future, because it is wallowing in illusion and superficiality. Spiritual reconciliation with the dead members of the society is the bedrock for nation-building. This aspect of reestablishing spiritual equilibrium between the living and the dead is very fundamental in nation-building. A people or nation not founded on its ancestral memory – of honoring their dead, especially, when such dead members are innocent victims of violence, has no fibre or substance. Such a nation has no solid foundations and prospects for the future. In Christian theology, we say: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Those big cities in northern Nigeria and elsewhere, where the pogrom that led to the Civil War took place should deem it necessary to identify those spots in their land where the blood of innocent victims were shed. The fact is that the land of Nigeria is infested with blood of the innocent, and the country is yet to cleanse itself, make restitution and seek the face of God. Without sounding superstitious or unpatriotic, this was the case with the blood of the biblical Abel, the Jewish male-children ordered killed by Pharaoh in Egypt in their mothers’ wombs, and the “holy innocents” killed by Herod in the New Testament as he sought to eliminate the newly born King, Jesus Christ.
Today, the blood of innocent victims of the Biafra Pogrom and Civil War atrocities, is crying for vengeance on the Nigerian state! Something urgent needs to be done, otherwise, the present and future generations of our land will know no peace and tranquility. We need to appease the dead and on our knees, seek the face of God, ask forgiveness, and begin to rebuild our lives and society all-over again.
Have we ever wondered why is it that 50 years after Biafra Pogrom, the massacre and killings of innocent victims through violence in Nigeria, instead of decreasing, is increasing on daily basis? The Boko Haram Islamic militant group and the Fulani Herdsmen militia activities are the nightmares ravaging the country today. Federal government through its army, police and other security agencies appeared to be protecting these murderous terrorist groups in Nigeria for ethnic and religious interests. Although, the ultimate purpose is power and continued political domination of the rest of the country by privileged few from Northern Nigeria. Nobody seems to care about the security of poor innocent Nigerians!
Otherwise, how is it that up-till now none of the members of these terrorist groups – Boko Haram and Fulani Herdsmen militia, had been arrested or brought to book by the government. This is despite all the open atrocities they have unleashed on innocent citizens, especially, in the last two years. Why does federal government of Nigeria appeared to be providing protection to these terrorist groups, leaving aside innocent victims of their outrageous terrorist activities? Is this not the repeat of what led to the Biafra War?
Moreover, why is that the federal government is always very reluctant to visit and commiserate with various communities – victims of the Fulani Herdsmen militia violent activities? Is this not a continued culture of disrespect and neglect of the dead, especially, those innocent victims killed through violence, ethnic and religious terrorism?
Again, why is it that up-till now we have not deemed it necessary to erect cenotaphs and epitaphs in honor of these recent innocent victims of violence in Nigeria? The victims of Boko Haram and Fulani Herdsmen militia. Perhaps, it is because nothing has been done to honor our dead, those innocent victims killed through violence and terrorism, that the shedding of blood – killing of human beings, seems to have no meaning again for the present generation of Nigerians, especially, those at the helm of affairs. Nigeria as a nation-state appears to have lost the sense of sacredness of human life. Life has no meaning again for most of those invested with leadership role in the country. That is why they do not care at all when their citizens are massacred in large numbesr through violence, government security outfits such as the army and police or by the terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and Fulani Herdsmen militia. It is now very unsafe to live and work in Nigeria where the life of common man has no value anymore.
The fact is those railway stations, airports, bus stations, army barracks, police stations, churches and mosques of those cities in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere, where these innocent victims from Eastern Nigeria met their waterloo when they ran for refuge in such places during the pogrom, should be identified. Cenotaphs and epitaphs should be erected in such places in honor of the victims of the pogrom. Because instead of extending refuge and protection to the fleeing victims of genocide, the natives, army and police in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere, during the pogrom, turned against these helpless people from Eastern Nigeria and massacred them in their thousands and hundreds. They killed their fellow ‘citizens’ on mass for no just reason.
We should not forget that on African continent in general, the scenario is almost the same. Because instead of addressing the Biafra question creatively and objectively early in time, the leadership of the continent, OAU (now African Union), world powers and the United Nations all kept silent. Till date, the silence of OAU and the United Nations as millions of Biafrans were massacred by the Nigeria troops backed by Great Britain sophisticated weapons, has remained a mystery to many people of good conscience. African leaders and international community chose silence on the Biafra War and by so doing are accomplices of the pogrom.
Unfortunately, it is because the world powers and international community had failed to address the Biafra question, which was first of its kind in the post-independent Africa, that is why we have gotten the Rwandan Genocide almost thirty years after the Biafra. Again, because African leadership and the world power had failed to address the Biafra pogrom, that is why we have gotten the Darfur and South Sudan genocides after Rwanda. Presently, the continent is witnessing with helplessness, similar situations in Southern Cameroun and Central African Republic. This is not to mention the intractable case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others.
For the Nigerian case, it was obvious that the Biafra War was not a conventional one. The then Nigerian federal government backed by Great Britain with its highly sophisticated weapons, deliberately targeted civilian objectives throughout the war in Biafra-land. The first bomb Nigeria federal troop assisted by the British dropped at the City of Onitsha in Eastern Nigeria at the early stages of the war was at the ever-busy Onitsha Main Market. Few weeks later, the same federal troops and their allied bombed the busy Otu-Ocha market at Aguleri at the heart of the Eke Market-day when the place was full of innocent civilians.
Since majority of Igbo people are traders, market places assumed an important target for the Nigerian federal troops. The Calabar, Owerri, Aba markets, etc., became theatres of the air raids and bombings of the federal troops and their foreign allied forces throughout the war. Again, in what has remained beyond human imagination, the ordinary civilians at Asaba, who came out in large numbers to welcome the federal troops and declare their support for One-Nigeria, were greeted with mortars of massacre bombs and artilleries by the invading federal troops.
All these show that the federal government of Nigeria and its allies throughout the war period were simply out to wipe out Igbo race from the face of the earth or at least reduce their population as much as possible. No wonder, one Colonel Adekunle, in-charge of federal army battalion in Port Harcourt during the war, said that if he sees anything moving, that is, any living object in Biafra, he would kill it.
To top it all, the federal government introduced the policy of blockade and starvation against the people in the Biafra enclave. As a result, many Biafra children died of kwashioko caused by the blockade and starvation policy. It is said that more people died during the war in Biafra from starvation than from the bullets of the enemy. Most painfully, at the end of the war in 1970, instead of seeking restitution and working for full-integration of the Igbo into the mainstream of Nigeria, the federal government of Nigeria began a new agenda of economic impoverishment and pauperization of Igbo people.
The property of the Igbos, which they had left behind in other parts of the country because of the war, were confiscated and declared abandoned property, especially, in the Old Rivers State, after the war. In addition, the federal government frozen all bank accounts of the Igbo, allowing them, each, to collect only a mere £20 (twenty pounds), no matter what one had deposited in the bank.
This is still the fate of the Igbo in Nigeria today. Since after the war, Igboland has been under military and police occupation, economic stagnation and political exclusion of the people from the Nigerian socio-political and economic landscape. Added here is the ongoing rampaging Fulani Herdsmen militia that have taken over almost every nook and corner of Igboland. Some, have rightly or wrongly, called all these, a new face of the Biafra pogrom.
Again, Nigeria is yet to make restitution for these most inexplicable crimes against humanity committed against Igbo people. No nation can move forward without making restitution in all its ramifications for crimes of this magnitude.
Till date, Nigerian state and government have not acknowledged those atrocities committed against Igbo people, make restitutions for the wrong done to the people. I think we can start from here:
The government should begin the process of restitution and spiritual reconciliation with the Igbo. It should start with erecting of national monuments – cenotaphs or epitaphs in those cities and market places where innocent people were bombed in their thousands by the federal troops during the war.
There is yet no particular date or day of the year set apart by the government for annual remembrance of these innocent victims of the war, as well as the new victims of the Fulani Herdsmen militia. The federal government, together with states’ governments in Eastern Nigeria and those other states where the pogrom took place, should choose a day as a public national holiday for annual remembrance and honoring of these innocent victims of the pogrom and Civil War.
The question is: how is it that up-till now none of the army generals that participated in the pogrom and Civil War against the people of Eastern Nigeria has deemed it necessary to tender sincere apology to the survivors of the pogrom and the Civil War atrocities? Rather what one hears often from them is that if another occasion calls again, they are prepared to kill more of the Igbos than they did between 1967 and 1970. At Oputa Panel, some of the army generals who took part in the pogrom were invited to come and testify but they refused. Those who came up, however, said they had nothing to regret or confess. For them, the atrocities they committed against the Igbo were in order of things and if given another opportunity they were prepared to do more.
Till date, these ex-army generals, who participated in the Biafra pogrom, have been at the helm of affairs of the federal government of Nigeria. They are still ruling the country. Their policy of exclusion and impunity against people from the former war-theatre zone of Biafra-land has not changed, except that there is no open combat hostilities as before.
Our starting point is on spiritual communion that exists between the living and the dead; that the living cannot move forward without a harmonious relationship with their ancestors who had sacrificed and shed their blood for the present generation to be alive. The past labor and sacrifices of our forebears, the most inhuman acts of violence they endured for the present generation to be alive, must not be in vain. They deserve respect and honor on the part of the living. It is by so doing that the living begins the work of rebuilding the shattered society and nation.
All this means that the pro-Biafra youths who have started this journey in respect of the victims of the Biafra pogrom, are more in tune with the spirit of their ancestors than the so-called older generations who are yet to embrace this spiritual renewal and reconciliation process. In this context, it is important to point out that the youth need not to have been born during the war or even experience it before they could qualify to speak about the historical plight and subjugation their ancestors went through. They participated in every inch of the plight and experience of their ancestors. “Who are, is what we were, and who were, is what we are”, so the goes a saying!
It was because of today’s youth that their ancestors had lived and died in the first place. Through their ancestors, the youth of today participated in that Biafra war and shared in all the experiences of their ancestors who fought, were killed or survived the war. The war was fought that future generations would live in peace, freedom and tranquility. If these things are not available to the youth of today, that means that the battle is not yet won.
The present generation of Igbo youth have every right therefore, to claim that they have inherited the battle of their fathers. The spirit of their fathers, innocent victims of violence and subjugation, have arisen anew in them. For the youth, the battle continues, until freedom is theirs. This is the path chosen by the youth of today. Through it, they wish to initiate the process for nation-building, spiritual reconciliation and dialogue with their history, past and present for the sake of the future.
The integration of both the dead and visible living members of the society, in fact, the survived innocent victims of violence into the mainstream of the society is key to nation-building and healing. Honoring innocent victims of violence should be made a priority of both the federal and states’ governments. The youth are already showing the light. Let no one extinguish it. Otherwise, we could anger the Creator!
Fr. Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic priest. He lives in Rome, where he is professor of missiology (mission theology) in the Pontifical University.