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By John Daniel Obioma
This piece is not intended to tell the story of the Biafran war or its subjugated people, a story that is already common knowledge in books, documentaries, films and even from surviving veterans. Rather, the Boko Haram insurgency has thrown-up a compelling reflection on the dynamics of that avoidable war and who the real enemies of Nigeria are.
Much as the Nzeogwu coup of January 15, 1966 was hailed nationwide as a redeeming intervention, at least to rid the country of stinking corruption and insecurity (as is the case now), it was still seen in some sections as an Igbo coup. The reason was that no prominent Igbo leader/politician was assassinated by the coupists; whereas other groups suffered casualties. To give vent to this claim, the military Head of State who did a lot to foil the coup, General Aguiyi Ironsi, also an Igbo, did not punish the coupists as expected. Worse still, he adopted Decree 24 of May 1966 which made Nigeria a unitary entity. By this, the Northern group felt particularly offended as it saw the new decree as a deliberate ploy to put the administration of the North under the more educationally advantaged South. However, as events truly unfolded later it became obvious that neither the coupists nor Ironsi had any interest in recolonising Nigeria for the Igbo.
Notwithstanding, the aggrieved Northern group in the army prosecuted a counter-coup on July 29, 1966 as a revenge mission for their leaders killed in January and in pursuit of a Northern agenda to perpetuate themselves in power, as a matter of birthright. Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon was chosen as the leader of government and Head of State.
The counter-coup was particularly targeted against Igbo officers in the army who were methodically eliminated. While that was going on, Igbo civilians resident in the North were similarly extirpated. In fact, between July 29, 1966 and May 1967, thousands of Igbos were daily massacred in cold blood in the North; others fled back to the East maimed. The Igbo became endangered specie in their own country while the federal government under Gowon did nothing to protect them.
The situation degenerated to the extent that Igbo Leaders of Thought saw the urgent need to declare a unilateral political protection for the Igbo, since it seemed they were no longer needed in the Nigerian Union. That was the birth of the defunct Republic of Biafra. It was not an Ojukwu creation, he was rather invited to head the secession. Contrary to uninformed opinion, Ojukwu’s refusal to recognise Gowon’s government, based on the former’s argument that leadership in the military should be predicated on seniority, was not the actual cause of the secession. However, it contributed in heating-up the polity and swaying allegiance politically and militarily. This impasse led to the conference in Aburi Ghana, (at the instance of Gen. Joseph Ankrah) where Nigerian military leaders unanimously agreed to save the Union and move the country forward, by upholding the confederal structure of the country; an arrangement that would have guaranteed security and competitive development of the integral units.
In the ensuing war, the Igbo nation was battered and pounded, losing nearly two million souls. Forty-four years after the war, the Igbo have not yet been reintegrated into Nigeria. They are still targets of xenophobic attacks, especially in the North. Biafran war pensioners have not been paid a dime. The Igbo have never produced a president in Nigeria and they are reduced to only 5 states whereas other zones have 6 or 7.
On the other hand, the Boko Haram coup d’état against the federal government was executed in 2009. They want federal government to do away with Western education and all its institutions/agencies because it breeds corruption and retards human values. And if government would not do that, it should allow the North or part of it to be declared an Islamic Republic where Islam would be practised in its purest standard and government would be run as incorruptibly as possible. To the Bokos, that’s the only way to satisfy them and ensure peace in Nigeria. These were seen as outrageous demands, deliberately drafted to be rejected; so not many people gave them any chance of survival. At this early stage, no prominent Northerner or group came forward to denounce Boko Haram or condemn their treasonable agenda or disown their attachment to Islam – “a religion of peace”. The reason was obvious: Boko Haram was a creation of Northern political elite to wrest power back to the region by all means. That’s why, when Boko Haram offensive started mainly against the “talakawa”, non-indigenes and public infrastructure, nobody bathed an eye-lid, until the “crocodile began to eat its own eggs”.
Armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), members of the religious sect are no more selective in their destructive madness. Thus, innocent market women/children; school children sleeping “peacefully” in their dormitories; candidates sitting for JAMB exams; football fans watching the game at viewing centres, motorists/ commuters at the bus terminals; Christians in their churches and Muslims in their mosques, have been wasted by the unconscionable Boko Haram. A sum total of all these to the hundreds of soldiers, policemen and other security personnel that have lost their lives, including many banks, schools and government institutions that have been destroyed or closed down in the North-east, show that it is a real war situation, prompting many Western countries to declare the North-east and Plateau State as no-go-areas to their nationals.
Regrettably, the federal government has not been responding to the war challenge with the ‘seriousness’ it deserves. First, its willingness to have a dialogue and offer amnesty to Boko Haram was bluntly rejected by the latter. Also, the state of emergency declared in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states by government is as laughable as it is ineffectual. How can such a measure be in place while members of Boko Haram still overrun the villagers on daily basis, burning their houses, extorting money and food from them, raping, killing and forcefully recruiting their young men into the sect.
Most painfully, where were the security operatives when Boko Haram members travelled with trucks to abduct about 234 female students from their hostel, an operation that lasted for some hours, before travelling back with their “loot” to the Sambisa forest – a place already well known as their base. And why were the so-called security operatives unable to launch a rescue operation for the poor girls until concerned parents and foreign countries began to mount pressure. Indeed, nobody is saying that government or the president abducted those girls. But as the father and chief security officer of the nation, those girls are the president’s daughters and something has to be done to bring them back alive. Recall that after September 11, 2001, the USA forces displayed patriotic courage by pursuing the Al-Qaeda attackers to the Afghanistan mountains, their base. Though they did not win the battle, they did not relent until Osama bin Laden was finally killed.
President Goodluck Jonathan declared total war on the Boko Haram terrorists on May 29, 2014, five years after the sect took over the North-east, killing both government forces and civilians in their thousands. Even at that, two weeks after the declaration, the Sambisa forest has not yet been recaptured by government. Instead, Boko Haram has been enraged the more into sporadic bombing at different locations in the North, killing people in their hundreds. The insurgents have now hoisted their flag at Ashigashiya in Gwoza Local Government Area of Bornu State, a place they have carved out of Nigeria as their new headquarters and independent enclave.
The federal government ought to know that in international/intergroup relations, there is nothing like a small enemy. An enemy (of the state) is an enemy. There is nothing like a small war; war is war. Boko Haram has committed more than enough crime against the state, nature, humanity, culture/tradition and against God. Taking stock of the dastardly atrocities committed by Boko Haram terrorists since 2010, and comparing them with the Biafra’s alleged crime of self-preservation from extermination, the federal government has a compelling need to apologise to the South-Eastern states. Even now, the scenario appears cloudy and uncertain. The federal government has declared “total” war against the insurgents and their collaborators in the armed forces. It is at the same time considering the services of professional negotiators to free the Chibok girls as well as promising amnesty to the terrorists. Amnesty after so much carnage and international condemnation will surely set a more dangerous precedence. Only time will tell how it goes.
Obioma is an Associate Editor with The Economy magazine