Reflecting on the absence of a unified perspective on the Nigerian Civil War
I must have been in either Primary 4 or 5 when I first heard about the Nigerian Civil War. I’m not exactly sure how I found out, but I know it wasn’t through school. I remember asking my father about it and getting more details on what had instigated the war. I also asked my mum about life in Lagos during the war, and she said that many people were unaware of the gravity of the situation. Parties were still being organised, and life went on as if everything was fine.
However, in the East, where the war raged, things were entirely different. Numerous accounts of the war depict its wide-reaching impact within the region. Almost no one was immune to its effects. People experienced hunger, illness, injuries and death. Many lost loved ones, as well as their homes and businesses. Many survivors faced the daunting task of rebuilding their lives from scratch, as their economic positions had been severely impacted negatively. It was an arduous journey, and the wounds inflicted by the war still fester today.
The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, ravaged the South-East of Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. It pitted the Nigerian government, led by General Yakubu Gowon, against the secessionist state of Biafra, predominantly inhabited by the Igbos, and led by Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. The war was born out of a deep sense of marginalisation and oppression felt by the Igbos, who endured political exclusion, economic discrimination, and social marginalisation. These sentiments stemmed from the events following the first coup in January 1966. The coup, led by Igbo soldiers Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna, resulted in the death of prominent figures, including Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa. The coup was seen by many as an attack on certain ethnic groups, and its effects have reverberated through Nigerian society to this day.
Despite General Gowon’s declaration of “no victor, no vanquished,” the reality was different for those negatively affected by the war. Many people had to start their lives anew without any extra support. Was it realistic to expect people to move on without concerted efforts to repair the physical and emotional damages they had endured? Even today, we still witness the impact of the war, especially through the agitation for a renewed Republic of Biafra by separatist forces.
I never fully grasped the gravity of the civil war until I grew older and sought out information myself. Fortunately, my father had a few books written by some of the main participants, which allowed me to educate myself. Even now, I find that learning about the civil war is an ongoing process, as I continue to discover new information or hear different perspectives.
I had assumed that Igbo children, whose parents lived through the war, would be well acquainted with the stories. So imagine my surprise when an Igbo friend shared that he didn’t hear about the civil war until he was in his twenties! I was shocked. Both of his parents are Igbo, so why hadn’t it come up in conversation? He explained that his parents had never shared their experiences because the memories of those times were too traumatic to relive. It was simply easier to relegate those memories to the depths of their minds.
The stories of the civil war are likely not common knowledge for those who weren’t born during that period. What are the chances that many young Nigerians know that Nigeria ever experienced a war within its borders? For those who know, do they even understand all of the issues that led to the war and the after-effects? What opinion have such people formed about the civil war, if any? Do they consider the events significant enough in our national story?
I always wondered why the civil war, such a critical piece of Nigerian history, wasn’t taught in school. It was not part of any curriculum I encountered in primary or secondary school. I don’t recall it being covered in any of the general studies courses required at university either. Why have we chosen to bury this significant part of our national history and not talk about it formally?
By not officially documenting our civil war history and making it an integral part of our national narrative, we have allowed various individuals to share their versions of events. There are even people who weren’t alive during the war who claim to know the finer details. While some major players during the civil war have documented their experiences, there are still disputes over certain accounts. At this point, we should have an official position documented by certified historians who have gathered information from all sources, conducted thorough research, and formulated a unified perspective on the civil war.
Unfortunately, one of the repercussions of our national silence regarding the civil war is the emergence of individuals who romanticise the idea of a Republic of Biafra and seek to recreate it. “The Indigenous People of Biafra” (IPOB), led by Nnamdi Kanu, has been at the forefront of these agitations, gradually amassing influence across the South-East region over the years. Their negative influence can be seen in the weekly sit-at-home orders that have been enforced for several years, now extended to a two-week order to paralyse economic activities. People who defied previous orders have faced severe consequences, and unless something changes, compliance with this latest order will likely be high.
Perhaps if we stop treating the civil war as a painful memory and confront the surrounding issues, we can move towards a better future. Many people still haven’t healed from the war’s impact, and they have passed on their pain to their children. Wouldn’t an official position on the war serve as a foundation for addressing some of these issues? Addressing the civil war may also demand accountability from all those involved, and perhaps that’s why this part of our history remains undocumented and uncommunicated to future generations.
Rwanda offers a compelling example of confronting a dark past and transforming it into a catalyst for change. The nation faced its civil war, culminating in the devastating genocide. Instead of burying its history, Rwanda embraced storytelling to raise awareness and promote healing. While the effectiveness of certain measures remains debatable, Rwanda’s commitment to truth and openness has been an essential step toward national unity.
The Nigerian Civil War, with its far-reaching consequences, remains largely absent from official history and educational curricula. By recognizing the importance of documenting and teaching the civil war, we can create a foundation for addressing the lingering issues and moving toward a better future. It’s not too late. We have time to break the silence and ensure that the stories are heard, understood, and never forgotten. We owe it to ourselves to elevate the discourse. Through education and the preservation of historical records, we can build a better future. This is the way I see things today.