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Biafra warFifty years on, Nigeria is yet to talk openly about the horrors of the Biafra war

Published 8 June 2017

The war over Biafra started on 30 May 1967, after the southeastern region of Nigeria broke away, declaring the independent Republic of Biafra. The Nigerian government refused to accept Biafra’s secession, and a bloody 30-month war ensued. Successive Nigerian governments have refused to release official figures of those who were killed, but historians estimate that there were about 100,000 military casualties, while between 500,000 and 2 million Biafran civilians died from starvation. Nigeria is still struggling with how to talk about, and remember, the 50-year old war.

In 2014, the Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) delayed the release of “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a widely publicized film adaptation of the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling novel with the same title. NFVCB feared the film, which narrates the experience of two sisters trying to stay alive during the Nigerian civil war (1967–1970), could threaten national security.

The war, which reportedly claimed between one to six million lives, is a sensitive topic in the country, and the federal government. To date, has not published the official number of those who were killed in the war.

The film director, Biyi Bandele, told the BBC that avoiding discussions about the war is the reason Nigeria is more divided today than in the pre-war years.

The war broke out when  Nigeria’s eastern region, under Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, broke away from Nigeria on 30 May 1967, declaring the establishment the Republic of Biafra. The federal government, led by General Yakubu Gowon, refused to accept Biafra’s independence, triggering a a 30-month war, which ended in 1970.

The imapct of the war has lingered to this day.

30 May has become symbolic day for some to celebrate the fallen victims of the war; while for others it has become a day to commemorate — and revive – the idea of an independent Republic of Biafra. This year, to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Biafra, several commercial areas in southeastern Nigeria shut down as pro-Biafra independence supporters staged stay-at-home demonstrations. According to a local source, even in Abuja, the Federal capital territory, pro-Biafrans did not show up for work.

Commentary about the war on Nigerian social media revealed an uncomfortable reality: the events that changed the course of Nigerian historyare widely misunderstood. Nigeria has a young population, but those old enough to have experienced the war note that young Nigerians do not have an objective view of the war; they are either demonizing or romanticizing Biafra.

There have been calls for the Nigerian government formally to discuss “the Biafra issue,” also called the “Igbo question” by the late literary giant Chinua Achebe (most Biafrans are Igbos). Some pro-Biafrans anticipate a violent secession from Nigeria, others want a #Biafrexit referendum on self-determination for southeastern Nigeria.

In addition to the fact that that there appears to be no safe space for objective discussions of the war, many questions about the war remain unanswered, creating room for suspicion and resentment which have caused people to harden their positions.

Today, many Igbo people believe the narrative that the war was a genocidal attempt against the Igbo race. Recently, however, private individuals and organizations have started taking initiatives to break the silence and educate the public. A Nigerian journalist, Patrick Egwu, published stories about war veterans, while Chika Oduah has been collecting and archiving first-hand accounts of the war. These accounts are available at www.biafranwarmemories.com; last month, an Abuja-based foundation organized a civic dialogue forum about Biafra, where the acting Nigerian President Yemi Osinbajo delivered a keynote address, in which he called for national unity.

The forum was the first of its kind approved by Nigerian government about the war. Some participants, however, were not so impressed by the depth and scope of the discussions at the forum.