independence dream rekindles
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
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
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
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"
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
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
Ibos now regard the war with mixed
"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
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."