A few people have asked me what my uncle kept inside for years in this post.
My uncle has now passed away (nothing to do with Biafra), but he kept a lot of things inside. He was in the civil service in the 60s and he was sent to Kano. A lot of Igbos were in the north because of civil service jobs.
Life changed in 1966 when the anti-Igbo pogroms started as a result of the assassinations of Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa.
People were marking homes that belonged to Igbos and were attacking and killing them, and my uncle was no exception. He escaped by hiding in a pit littered with corpses for 3 days. He managed to make his way to Lagos when the killing had subsided (because there was no one else to kill my mother said he told her). He made it out thanks to the help of a Hausa lorry driver who had been smuggling Igbo people out of Kano. Many Igbo people survived thanks to these lorry drivers. There had been many northerners who were not only smuggling Igbos and various southerners out, they were also hiding them in their homes.
Anyway, my uncle lost his house, his savings, his career, basically everything he had. Apart from the filthy clothes on his body, he had nothing, but he was happy to be alive.
When speaking to those who survived the pogrom (those who can speak, some still can’t), they all say the same thing. The worst part wasn’t that they lost their homes and material things, it was that some of the people killing them were civilians and in some cases, their neighbors. These were people they knew, not the army or police. It’s not that it would be right if it was the military, but the military wasn’t known for kindness or empathy so they expected cruel behavior from them. What they couldn’t (and still can’t) understand was why they were paying the price for a military coup that they had nothing to do with and why regular people were attacking and killing them in the process, people they often knew or saw around town.
Residual anger came from the fact that nothing happened to these people who committed these crimes, from murder to robbery to rape and forcefully taking property and homes. Absolutely nothing happened. Upwards of 30,000 Igbos were killed in the pogroms before the talk of secession that culminated in war, and there was no reprisal or prosecution for it. This will leave you bitter and angry for years, and justifiably so. People are still angry. They don’t tell people about it often, but the anger remains. I understand the anger.
After the war, Nnamdi Azikiwe encouraged Igbos who had fled to go back to the north if they had property there and to encourage the spirit of “one Nigeria”. Many returned as merchants and business people to Sabon Gari districts in good faith. This was in a way an effort to put the war behind them and move forward with their lives. However, it was bittersweet in some cases because when some people went back to the areas where they fled years earlier, they had to see the people that murdered their family members walking around or coming to their shops in Sabon Gari districts. It’s very hard to put things behind you, when the person that murdered your family and friends, and burned your house down is casually walking around, and probably can’t remember you, but you the victim will never forget. You know that old proverb that goes ‘the axe forgets what the tree remembers’ or something like that, it’s applicable here.
My friend’s auntie who owned a shop in Kano fainted when she saw one of the men who killed her brothers and raped her come into her shop decades later. She didn’t forget his face. You don’t forget a thing like that. She couldn’t deal with that, so she moved to Kaduna. Years later, her business was burned down during in the Ms. World riots. She had enough and moved to London with her husband.
When people talk about the war (and they usually don’t), it’s in terms of the military and what they did, but one aspect many tend to gloss over is what civilians did to other civilians. In part because many of those people are old now, and also because people are still traumatized decades later, even in their old age. Some just can’t talk about it openly. It’s too painful. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that they have outwardly held it together for so long, or rather they can present an image of holding it together.
Nigerian society is not one where people talk about trauma, or where people get therapy or counseling. Your mental state is an afterthought in Nigerian society. You’re just meant to move on or find religion. Nigeria has a lot of fractured and broken people, and some of them are our parents and elders. No one ever told them that it is okay to hurt. They just keep it inside and to themselves. Many have taken their pain to their graves, or use religion to mask their pain.
It also doesn’t help when people are not empathetic to what they had to endure. So when people like the Oba of Lagos makes threats and incendiary comments towards Igbos, for a generation of who lived through pogroms, this is not something they can just gloss over. It’s very triggering. I wonder if people fully get that or are aware. We don’t talk about things, so many are not aware of how serious some people take speech like that. They don’t understand, and sometimes I think people don’t want to understand. They think you’re whining, making a big deal out of nothing, or that you have a victim complex. You’re just supposed to “move on”, whatever that means. They don’t get it and probably never will.
Anyway, below is a video of the Asaba massacres, perpetrated by Murtala Mohammed and his men, which included Obasanjo btw. These are the narratives from people who survived. I’ve posted it before, but it is relevant. This is the sort of thing many have kept to themselves for decades.
I’m glad that videos like this exist and that people are talking about their trauma. I’d like to see other survivor narratives from places like Uli, Mbaise, Umuahia and the many other towns where serious war crimes occurred that no one ever talks about openly, as well as those who survived the pogroms prior to the war. Should they want to discuss it of course.
There are a lot of things that occurred during the war that many people aren’t aware of that will just leave you exasperated and sad. When I wrote about the case of the thousands of children that were airlifted out of Biafra, only to never return, the amount of emails and messages I got from people who had no idea was staggering. I also got some sad emails and responses from people whose siblings and relatives were some of the airlifted children. 45+ years later, they have no idea where they are or if they are alive. Some of them were infants and toddlers when they were airlifted, so they probably have no idea who they are, what their birth names are or anything about their true identities.
I remember General Benjamin Adekunle aka “Black Scorpion” saying when the Nigerian soldiers invaded Mbaise, they left nothing standing. His words were “if it moved, we killed it” or something to that effect. They laid waste to everything, including livestock. He said it with pride too which was perplexing. He seemed proud of killing helpless people. Who would be proud of such a thing, and what kind of society is Nigeria where someone can say such things openly without shame or fear of being charged with war crimes? These soldiers systemically went around killing harmless, starving civilians. Men, women and children. It’s still something I don’t understand. Why target civilians? Air bombardment and mortar shelling churches, hospitals, and orphanages? People in their homes? Burning their homes down? Raping women and young girls? It just seemed like unrestrained wickedness. You really can’t justify it under any circumstances.
Some people say “all is fair in war”, but that’s not true. War crimes and crimes against humanity exist for a reason. All is not fair in war. I’d say the mass murder of civilians, mass rape and blockades with the goal of starving babies and the elderly to death is not part of the “all is fair in war” mantra. You’d have to be an evil person to really believe that.
For the young people whose parents and older relatives rarely discuss the war, try to be empathetic towards them. It’s not an easy thing to discuss because in many cases, discussing it means they have to relive trauma that they have put in the deep recesses of their minds. I get why they don’t want to relive that. Who wants to recount mayhem, suffering, and death? So take it easy, and try to understand where they are coming from. Never push the issue. If they don’t want to talk about it, respect that. There is more than enough information on the war to read thanks to the internet.
Oddly enough, there has been a resurgence in interest about the war thanks to the internet, and books (fiction and nonfiction) like Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie and There Was a Country by Chinua Achebe. In the early 90s, you just had to hear stories from people that survived who were willing to talk.
Nigeria has not healed. Until we can openly address old wounds, expect them to continue to fester. One day we’ll get there. Hopefully.