Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 2, 2005

Biafra's independence dream rekindles

OKIGWE, Nigeria -- In its day, the Nigerian civil war was a huge international story, made bigger by the wrenching televised images of skeletal babies who accounted for many of the one million victims in the breakaway region called Biafra. The conflict, The Inquirer wrote in 1969, "has joined Vietnam and the Middle East as a world problem of dangerous importance."

The war ended 35 years ago, and today there is scant physical evidence of the futile effort to create the independent nation of Biafra. No war cemeteries, no monuments, no veterans' organizations.

Except for a small museum that contains a few fading photographs and rusting weaponry, the Nigerian government has banished memorials to the war, one of the first to be seared onto the world's consciousness by television.

Ralph Uwazuruike, who was 9 years old when the war began in 1967, says he will never forget his younger sister Mary dying in his arms from malnutrition while his mother desperately searched their village for medicine.

"So many other children died as my sister died," said Uwazuruike, 46, a lawyer.

Six years ago, Uwazuruike became fed up with what he considered the continued humiliation of the ethnic Ibo people, the dominant tribe in the eastern Nigerian region that had declared itself independent. He formed an organization called the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, daring to use the name that the Nigerian government had officially expunged from maps.

At first, not many people took MASSOB seriously. The group hung Biafra's red, green and black flags from cell-phone towers and power lines, and erected a "Welcome to Biafra" sign on a bridge crossing the Niger River. The government tore down the flags and signs and arrested MASSOB members in confrontations that sometimes became violent, even deadly.

Last August, the rest of Nigeria took notice as the outlawed group organized a one-day strike that virtually shut down Africa's most populous nation. The following month, authorities arrested 53 people at a soccer game sponsored by MASSOB, charging them with treason, punishable by death.

"At first people said, 'Look at this small boy' - they ignored me," Uwazuruike said in an interview in the organization's new headquarters here, a fortified mansion surrounded by 15-foot walls topped with tightly coiled razor wire. "But this thing is strengthening us, making us stronger every day."

Uwazuruike insisted his group is nonviolent, saying he is inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi. But the organization has some militaristic appearances. Its security forces wear camouflage fatigues. Its internal command is governed by a group called the "Biafra Liberation Front." And Uwazuruike, while talking about plans to build a museum to the civil war, refers to the 1960s conflict as the "first" Biafran war.

The Biafran secessionist movement is not the only ethnic or regional group in Nigeria clamoring for more recognition. Several groups, including the Biafrans, claim territory that sits atop the nation's oil wealth.

The existence of so many restless ethnic groups is testimony to Nigeria's precariousness 45 years after independence from Britain. Fractured along ethnic and religious lines and governed for much of its postcolonial history by oppressive military regimes, the West African nation of 130 million people has failed to develop more than a superficial sense of national identity.

With more than 250 ethnic groups - the largest are the Yorubas in the west, the Hausas in the north, and the Ibos in the east - Nigeria has plenty of potential fault lines.

But the reemergence of a Biafran secessionist movement is said to be particularly galling to President Olusegun Obasanjo, who will visit President Bush in Washington on Thursday. Obasanjo, the former head of Nigeria's armed forces, established his career fighting the Biafrans in the civil war.

MASSOB has tapped into a deep reservoir of resentment among Ibos, who say they have received few government jobs and public projects since the civil war. Many also believe the predominantly Christian Ibos are the target of violence in the Muslim north, where Ibos have settled as traders.

"Most of the world thinks the Biafran war ended in 1970, but we know it never ended," said Chidi Ofoegbu, 49, an electronics engineer in Port Harcourt who is active in the Biafran movement. "The only way we can get rid of this mess is to have a separate entity."

Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Oxford-trained soldier who led the secession bid in 1967, initially dismissed MASSOB's efforts as "infantile drama" but has changed his thinking about the group.

"The greatest thing MASSOB has done is just to demonstrate you can't wipe out the memory of Biafra," said Ojukwu, 71, who lives in the city of Enugu and suffers from faltering eyesight. He is careful to point out that he is not a member of MASSOB.

Some Ibos in the United States have organized the Biafra Foundation to channel support to MASSOB. The foundation broadcasts weekly shortwave radio programs to Nigeria from its base in Washington.

"There's no indication that the winners of the civil war are ever going to let us have a life of our own," said Emmanuel Enekwechi, the foundation president and a psychologist at the University of Iowa. "Ibo culture is being undermined."

Nigeria's civil war broke out in 1967 when Muslim Hausas in the north massacred Ibos after several military coups. Thousands of Ibos took refuge in the eastern region, and Biafra declared its independence.

The international community, fearing newly independent African nations would disintegrate into ethnic anarchy if secession were permitted in any single country, steadfastly refused to recognize Biafra. The Biafrans received some support by clandestine airlifts organized by Irish and French sympathizers. But after 32 months, Nigerian federal forces gradually encircled the separatists, and Biafra was crushed.

Ibos now regard the war with mixed feelings.

"People look back and say we were very resourceful during the war," said the Rev. John Okoye, who was a Red Cross volunteer during the conflict and is now rector of Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu.

"We didn't stand back and allow our women and children to be raped and killed," Okoye said. "We were men. It's something to look back, not with joy as such, but to say that we were able to do this without any big country supporting Biafra."

But there is little appetite for waging war again. Few Ibos say publicly that independence is the answer - partly out of fear of sounding treasonous.

"The international community will not recognize secession, so why pursue that?" said Mike Eke, a Biafra war veteran who is editor of the Sunday Statesman, a government newspaper in the city of Owerri. "The solution is to get involved in the political process."

Uwazuruike, the MASSOB chief, is vague about how the organization hopes to achieve independence nonviolently when the government of Nigeria is unlikely to grant it any other way. He said that many believe Nigeria will be unable to survive as a unified nation and that Biafra must be prepared to go on its own when that day arrives.

"People believe that Nigeria will someday break up and let us go our separate way," he said.

Ojukwu, the aging Biafran leader who ran as a presidential candidate in 2003, said secession is always an option.

"We saw the war that ended in 1970 as an interruption of our romance with freedom - an interruption," said Ojukwu, who still commands much respect among Ibos. "Our aspirations still remain." home page   
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