It is hard and perhaps impossible to convey to people in this country the extent of the disasters which have happened, are happening, and are impending in Nigeria. The indifference to the tragedy is in part a racial one. The magazine, Jet, last July headlined a story about the Nigeria-Biafra war with the words: “The War Between Blacks Nobody Cares About.” A struggle between black and white stirs emotions and humanitarian rhetoric and even action—as in the case of the famous Mercy Mission to Stanleyville in 1964. When white people hear of blacks killing blacks, however, there descends a curtain not so much of apathy as of coziness on the conscience: “You can’t blame us this time….”
Last year in northern Nigeria, in the Moslem towns of Kano and Kaduna and elsewhere, about 30,000 strangers—that is to say, persons originating from another region of Nigeria, the East, mainly belonging to the Ibo people—were massacred in a series of pogroms. As a result the surviving Easterners abandoned their jobs and their goods and fled back to their own region. In the chaotic conditions in which this movement of population took place no one knows exactly how many people fled. Eastern estimates put the figure at about two million. There can be no doubt that it was an exodus on a great scale and that had this movement occurred across an international frontier, it would already be classified among the great refugee problems of the twentieth century. It did not take place across an international frontier however, but from one region to another in what was still nominally one country. It was therefore “a domestic problem,” and despite its enormity it aroused far less interest and attention in this country than the fate of a few hundred people, in another African country, had done two years earlier. Those people became the object of intense international concern culminating in the Mercy Mission to Stanleyville in 1964. They were white.
In Nigeria the killing still continues. After the Northern massacres, the Ibos, a people of about eight million who form the majority of the population of the Eastern region, felt that they no longer had a place in Nigeria outside their region. This had been made grimly clear as far as the North was concerned, but even as regards the rest of the country, Ibos felt that there was no security for them in any place where there are Northern officers and Northern troops, as there are throughout the Western region and in the federal capital of Lagos. It was in these conditions that the Eastern region—perhaps unwisely but very understandably—attempted to break away from a Nigeria that most of its people could no longer regard as their country. The Military Governor of the Eastern region, Lt.-Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, an Ibo, failed in his efforts to persuade the officers from other regions who controlled the rest of the country to agree to a looser form of association between the regions. Last May he declared the independence of the Eastern Region under the name of the Republic of Biafra.
There is no doubt that this step had the enthusiastic support of almost all the Ibos. What degree of support it may have had from the minority peoples of the Eastern Region, who are subdivided into many groups, is in doubt. Both the Biafran claims that these peoples are wholeheartedly in support of Biafra and the claims made from Lagos that the minorities are longing to be liberated by Federal forces should be treated with reserve. It is relevant however that not only Ibos but all Easterners—including the minority peoples, Ibbio, Efek, Ejaw, etc.—were victims of the Northern massacres and expulsions. According to refugees, the only non-Northerners generally spared in those events were those who wore the dress and bore the distinctive face markings of the Yoruba tribe of the West.
Easterners had supplied a number of officers to the old Federal army but very few enlisted men. The bulk of the old Nigerian army, minus the Ibo officers, was therefore at the disposition of the military government in Lagos for the purpose of crushing the attempted secession of Biafra. The military government in Lagos also enjoyed universal international recognition and therefore easy access to additional armaments, which were forthcoming both from Britain and from the Soviet Union. Against this Biafra had to raise a hastily and miscellaneously armed militia, equipped with such weapons as could be obtained, with the aid of such dubious friends as the Portuguese, on the international black market in arms.
In these conditions the head of the military government in Lagos, Maj.-Gen. Yakubu Gowon, promised at the beginning of July to end the secession by “a quick surgical operation”; Western military attachés in Lagos predicted that the war would be over in a week. The war, begun in July, still continues: From a military point of view, it is a desultory, untidy, inefficient war; from a human point of view, it is a war of exceptional atrocity. The Ibos regard it as a war of extermination directed against themselves. The Lagos government officially and emphatically denies this. It points to the code of conduct issued to the armed forces at the beginning of the struggle, stressing that the operation against the East was not a religious war, or Jehad, and that its object was not “to crush the Ibos but to subdue the rebellion of Lt.-Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu and his clique.” Unfortunately this enlightenment at the top level does not penetrate very deep; a Lagos police officer was quoted last month as saying that the Ibos “must be reduced considerably in number.” In some areas outside the East which were temporarily held by Biafran forces, as at Benin and the Mid-Western region, Ibos were killed by local people with at least the acquiescence of the Federal forces: about 1,000 Ibo civilians perished at Benin in this way. In the areas of Biafra itself which have been occupied, Federal troops have been hunting and killing Ibo men—all Ibo males above the age of five according to the Ibos themselves—to the cry of “Ojukwu! Ojukwu!” No one knows how many have died, but the press reports—some of which are quoted below—leave no doubt that the war is being waged in a genocidal spirit.
Even those Americans who have shown concern about the human implications of this tragedy have difficulty in comprehending the political and social background. The Federation of Nigeria was for long presented to the American public as the most hopeful and even “stable” country in Africa; it was democratic and good and frequently contrasted with Ghana, which was authoritarian and bad. In fact the old Federation was only nominally democratic and it carried within it from the beginning more explosive possibilities than any other African state. All African states are socially and politically fragile in that their frontiers, the arbitrary products of the colonial scramble for Africa, enclose various peoples—usually called tribes—the bonds between which are quite tenuous. The most significant of these bonds, as far as the preservation of the State is concerned, is the fact of having undergone the same colonial experience. The distinctive feature of Nigeria was that the peoples of this vast and populous territory did not undergo the same colonial experience. Historically the colonial power, Great Britain, pursued two radically different policies in different parts of Nigeria: the nature of the colonial experience in Nigeria was therefore such that, far from narrowing the differences between the peoples who underwent it, it actually widened and deepened these. The South, comprising the Yoruba of the West, the Ibo of the East, and other smaller peoples, was an area in which colonial rule involved a fairly strong Westernizing influence, Christian missionary effort, and education of an English type (to which Ibos in particular took with an enthusiasm and élan which aroused resentment). In the North, on the other hand, under the formula of “indirect rule,” Britain deliberately preserved the Moslem Middle Ages, deliberately impeding Christian missionary influence and modern education.
THE MOVEMENT for Nigerian independence began in the Fifties among the Southern peoples and principally among the Ibos. The rulers of the North originally disdained and resisted this movement but later, with British advice, agreed to play their part in an independent Nigeria. The part allotted to them was the big part. On the basis of census returns, which were disputed in the South, the North had a majority in the Federal Parliament over East and West combined. But power in the North remained in the hands of feudal rulers, who were not themselves accessible to democratic control but who on the contrary controlled the electoral process. Thus the Northern representation, which dominated the Federal Parliament, consisted of the servants of the Northern feudal potentates. Nigerian democracy was therefore a sham (as was its contemporary, Ghanaian “socialism”). It was however a convenient sham from a Western point of view, since the feudal potentates who controlled the system were and had long been amenable to British guidance and were considered likely to be more amenable than the leaders of the more advanced Western and Eastern regions, left to themselves, would prove to be. So it was no accident that the Nigerian pseudo-democracy was pro-Western in orientation. The value placed in the West on this attitude was reflected in an officially encouraged tendency to take “Nigerian democracy” at its face value and to treat such of its defects as had to be acknowledged as “growing pains” in a supposed progress toward fuller democracy (as in Vietnam).
January 1966 brought the collapse of this particular illusion. In that month a group of young army officers—most, though not all, of whom were Ibos—assassinated most, though not all, of the pivotal figures of the sham democracy. These included the most eminent of the feudal potentates, the Sardauna of Sokoto and his trusted henchman, the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. From the nature of the old system—hinging as it did on the power of non-elected potentates—radical change could not have occurred without violence (as was also the case in Ghana), and all reports agree that initially the January coup was widely welcomed throughout the country. There were few, if any, to mourn what seems to have been almost universally regarded as a thoroughly corrupt and discredited regime.
Soon however it came to be recognized that the coup had operated selectively. The leading Ibo politicians who had cooperated with the Northern rulers—and had for example helped to fasten on the Western region a government not desired by most of the people of that region—had been spared. The officer who emerged from the complicated process of that coup as supreme commander and ruler of Nigeria, Major-General Ironsi, was himself an Ibo. Not surprisingly therefore the January coup soon came to be regarded as an Ibo coup and—in the North—as an Ibo coup against the North. Resentment at this was certainly among the factors that fanned the always latent anti-Ibo feeling in the North to the point where the mass massacres became possible.