Dr Dozie Ikedife is the Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council of Elders of the Indigenous People of Biafra, a pro-Biafra group that only believes in diplomatic and legal means as well as contacts to get self-determination. Of course, his group has been in court with the Federal Government at Owerri Federal High Court since 2012 and the case will be heard again on December 15, 2015.
In this interview with David Onwuchekwa, Dr Ikedife went down memory lane and talked about how the Nigeria-Biafra civil war started insisting that the Nigerian government declared war on the people of Biafra who fought the war only as a last resort, having been pushed to the wall. He reflected on how the Easterners were decimated, massively slaughtered in the North, yet war was declared on them when they said they wanted to be on their own. Ikedife said the struggle continues since there are still obvious cases of marginalization of the Easterners despite General Yakubu Gowon’s declaration of Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction after the civil war.
Reflection on the genesis of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war
I will take you back a little bit. After independence, Nigeria was run by Nigerians and the expatriates were easily eased out after independence. It was a beautiful country. Abubaka Tafawa Balewa was the Prime Minister, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was the ceremonial President. There were ministers from all over the regions – Eastern, Northern and Southern later Mid-Western region was created in 1963 and Nigeria was running a parliamentary system.
Then elections in the West took place and it appears they were not successful and a lot of fighting, arson, killings and maiming took place. A sole administrator was appointed for Western Region in the person of Dr Moses Majokudumi. Eventually everything settled down.
Then in January 1966, there was a coup by the military. They planned to eliminate some civilians and the fallout was that people began to think, ah the coup was successful in Lagos, in the North but not successful in the East.
Then they started giving the interpretation that coup plotters were from the East. They now set to eliminate those they think were spared who they suspected were favoured or spared for ethnic reasons. There was a counter coup that led to the killing of General Aguiyi Ironsi and all the rest of them. Even before that, there were multiple pogroms, massive slaughtering of people from the Eastern Nigeria wherever they were especially in the North from Maiduguri to Kano to Sokoto to Jos, Yola, all over the North, Lokoja and people from the Eastern Region said okay, if you don’t want us, we will go.
Many of them came back to the East, some of them came back alive some were dead some came down just with their heads and some without their heads. After that there was a meeting between Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu the then Military Governor of the Eastern region and Hassan Katsina, the Military Governor of the North and Gowon as the Military Governor of the West. There were reassurances. Ojukwu said okay we have accepted the reassurances and they dismissed in the meeting.
Just after that agreement the worst happened. More slaughtering took place around September 1966. Then the rest of the people who had not gone left. This slaughtering even went down to the West and other parts of the country. All Easterners wherever they were moved to the East and it was clear to people from the Eastern Region that they were no more wanted in the construction called Nigeria.
They said alright we have been chased out of the country let us be on our own. University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) was renamed University of Biafra and medical students and medical teachers from Lagos and Ibadan gathered together in Enugu and a medical School was started. That is how the College of Medicine, UNN was started. All these were going on. Then there was a pressure from people of the East after consultations that we should now be on our own under a name, Biafra. There is an Igbo saying that somebody who is rejected does not reject himself (onye ajulu anagha ma obu adighi aju onweya). So, they went on and declared the Independent Republic of Biafra following that the Federal Government under General Gowon created 12 states as opposed to four regions that were there and saying that they will start a police action and that to keep Nigeria one was a task that must be done. He declared police action on Biafra, that is, he declared war on Biafra. That is how it started. It was supposed to be a police action but the determination of the Eastern region contained that, “police” for 30 months nearly three years and the Eastern Region suffered blockade, deprivation and starvation of both food and medical supply.
People were dying of kwashiorkor, malnutrition and all sorts of things. Added to that, Nigerian soldiers were called vandals. They were assisted by Great Britain, Egypt and Russia. US was sitting on the fence. France was ambivalent and so on and so forth. The Biafrans got recognition from five independent countries. They are Ivory Coast, Gabon, Tanzania and two other countries. When they (Biafrans) were almost totally eliminated they started to throw in the towel, they surrendered. That was how it ended.
And Gowon said, No Victor, NO Vanquished. Of course, there were people who were decimated and almost removed from the surface of the earth. He later introduced three Rs – Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. But this policy was not carried out because people of the former Eastern Region still see the scars of the war. Over 40 years ago, the scars are still there. If you like, I take you round and show you. So, that is that.
Avoiding the war through dialogue
Oh yes, dialogue would have stopped the war if decisions and discussions had were honoured. Jaw jaw is always better than war war.
Ojukwu fighting the war out of youthful exuberance
It is a matter of opinion. But I disagree with that totally. He did not fight the war alone. Ojukwu did not declare war. The war was declared by Nigeria against Biafra and if somebody slaps you, slaps you and slaps you again and you don’t think he is going to stop you fight back. I agree that one who fights and runs away lives to fight again. When people of the Eastern Region were being killed in other parts of the country, they ran back to their place and Nigeria declared war against them, you say it is because of youthful exuberance. That is an arrant nonsense. What about Gowon, who was about the same age mate as Ojukwu, he too was carrying out the war because of youthful exuberance. That should have been the other side of the coin.
Don’t forget that Ojukwu did not start the war. The war was declared on the people of Biafra. Let that be clear. That is the position. Don’t turn it upside down because some of the people who were there when it started are still alive. Nigeria declared war on Biafra. Ojukwu didn’t start any war. I agree that it would have been avoided if the other part had honoured what was agreed in Aburi. They almost reneged all the agreements. So, how can you be saying that Ojukwu started the war? Please, don’t say it again because it is wrong and annoying. And anybody who says it is telling a lie.
Human and material loss during the war
The loss cannot be easily calculated because some of the losses have multiplying effect. The Easterners lost their lives, they lost goodwill, they lost virtually everything. Apart from the war casualties, casualties of air raid, casualties of starvation, at the end of the war they were totally economically emasculated. The Federal Government declared that any amount of money Biafrans had in Biafran currency had no value. And any amount you return because they asked people to return the Biafran currency to the banks and local governments were also collecting at the end of the day you were given £20, no matter the amount of Biafran currency, you returned. And if you had any account in Nigerian currency then that was domiciled, either (here) in Biafran land or Nigeria forget it. That is counted as one of the wicked acts.
And soon after that of course, Nigeria started what they called indigenization that is, asking the expatriate companies to hand over, to sell to Nigerians. At that time, of course nobody from the East had any money.
So, if we can estimate what we lost, it can be put to over $4 trillion. And I think that is under calculation because I say they have multiplying effect. So, we lost everything. People, who were in the civil service lost their positions, people in army lost their positions, in the Navy, Customs, they all lost their positions. The losses went round. I personally was working in Lagos and I was forced to come back to Eastern Region and I came back and never went back to Lagos. So, I lost my job like many others. So, the loss is colossal. Many certainly lost their members, their breadwinners and sometimes the only child. So, if I say the loss is incalculable, that may even be an understatement.
What sustains struggle over 40 years after the war had been fought with weapons but could not be won?
Now it didn’t work out those years and we say okay, No Victor, No Vanquished, let’s go over into Nigeria. We went back into Nigeria. And down the line, you see all kinds of further marginalization, non-acceptance, being relegated to the background, being treated as third class or forth class Nigerians. That is part of what is resurrecting the feeling. It wasn’t that the injuries are forgotten and now being rekindled no. The provocation, the relegation, the unemployment of youths, the infrastructure that are not working, roads collapsing, light not there, we don’t talk of public water supply anymore, people live by private borehole for water, we use generator plants most often to solve our electricity problem. And the worst is unemployment. You see raging poverty and people are not happy.
And I would advise the Federal Government to view these matters seriously because it is like a bottled-up rage and we don’t want further violence.
You saw militancy in the Niger Delta Region, you see Boko Haram in the North Eastern Region, we saw MEND and we now see Biafra, MASSOB and all other pro-Biafra groups showing that they are not happy. We have a saying that a stitch in time saves nine. Let the Federal Government see what it can do to assuage the anger of those people.
Pro-Biafra groups coming together to have one voice
Yes, it is easier, faster and more productive. But you know we have a saying in political circles which says many men, many mentalities. Somebody coined it. That happened when we were having a political meeting sometime ago and we were debating and debating, one man rose up and said many men, many mentalities not minding the grammar. You will find out that we are saying one thing, that is to say, we want Biafra. The differences may be whether you want it by fighting or you want it by negotiation, through diplomatic or legal channel that is the only difference there. And we have another saying that when we are in a market and everyone begins to talk, how much do you sell, how much do you buy, that is what constitutes the market noise. If everybody is silent, then you won’t hear the market noise.
These people have one thing in common, they want Biafra. Make no mistake about this. But some would like to have it today, here and now. Some are prepared to die, to have their heads cut off so long as Biafra is actualised tomorrow. You must have to know that it will be good for all of them to come under one umbrella as a pro-Biafra group.
Look at the society today, we are talking about God. We all want to talk to God. Many of us want to go to heaven, those who believe there is heaven. Some belong to one Pentecostal group or another Pentecostal group, one religious organisation or another organisation, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Godian, name them. They are all talking about going to heaven and all are pursuing it through various channels, through various perceptions, with various dos and don’ts. So, that is that.
That shouldn’t be a deterrent. It can only be a concern. If you see these groups marching through the streets, all they say is we want Biafra, we want self-determination, we want self-determination.
Igbo have no king (Igbo enweze) adds credence to having multiple pro-Biafra groups
No, I don’t think that has had any effect in that. There is a central interest here. It is just a question of methodology, perception and all that. If you go to a river bank and you want to cross, some will say let’s jump, some will say let’s dive, others will say let’s walk and others will say let’s use the bridge. It is not a question of Igbo enweze. I don’t subscribe to that. But I agree that if they come with one mind and one voice and pursue the issue, they will get a better result.
Relationship between Supreme Council of Elders of Indigenous People of Biafra and other pro-Biafra group
Well, you were already on it when you said various groups and various groups have various methods. We had called what we called Unity Congress (UC) so that all the groups will come under one umbrella. Yes, some people came under one umbrella but some stayed outside the umbrella. That is the position. That Unity Congress was called sometime last year. (Daily Sun)