The conversation that America is (re)starting to have about reparations triggers thoughts about igbo people and the Nigerian civil war specifically. These thoughts are drawn out because but it is incredible just how many marginalized groups have been overwhelming suppressed throughout our checkered history. Igbo people suffered during the war but poor people, women, minority ethnic and sexuality groups have been consistently on the receiving end of brutality.
The case of homophobia is particularly interesting because it appears to me that homophobia is a relatively modern thing in Nigerian history (especially Southern Nigeria). Do not forget that Christianity only came into Nigeria in the late 1880s and that means that there was a battle for spirituality throughout the 1900s.
If you notice, most of the Nollywood media always portrayed juju and Christianity together but locked in battle. As though they were fighting for a societal winner. That media is a direct result of the fact that our parents are really the first generation of Nigerians that were born into a “Christian [Southern] Society”, which might be why as our generation replaced their generation, the dominant media portrayal of Christianity no longer has that intensity and Nollywood content has largely navigated away from the metaphysical. Anyway, I have digressed enough.
So back to the war. The general argument is that Nigeria and Biafra were at war and all actions are justified in war and that could be fair but what is war, really? War is declaration of intent, is it not? You say/do something and I am saying that what you have done is unacceptable and I am willing to die for this. If we take it down to personal levels, war would basically be the equivalent of a fight between two people but on a massive scale (so, more people are fighting on the side of either of them). So when soldiers sign up for war, they are effectively saying I think this particular war is worth dying for which is why we have a favorable view of soldiers because they are basically fighting for an ideal.
This is why I think that soldiers should be the most enlightened citizens in the country because they are essentially the personification of the ideal of that country, right? So an American soldier should have been able to say, “No I don’t want to fight (or continue to fight) this Iraqi war because I do not (or no longer) believe it is a just war to fight” and they should have been able to say this without being accused of being anti-American. Right? Because being anti-Iraqi war is not necessarily anti-American.
Plato touches on this sentiment in the Republic when he advocates for the enlightenment of the guardian class. I think soldiers must obviously be of that class as well, if we must equip men and women to make decisions of life or death in the field of war then we must also equip their minds with the tools to enable them decide if that war is really just or not. And if I’m being honest, denying them this appears to me to be immoral.
That is why it is immoral to deliberately kill civilians in war because they have not opted into that ideal of “this is worth dying for” and so should be left out of the conflict. Of course, in reality this is not applicable because even though morality is objective and an injustice in one place must necessarily be an injustice everywhere, not all countries live by these rules and so, in war, there is always this conflict between idealism and reality.
Civil wars are a different thing though because we are all bound by the same constitutional sovereignty and ideals. It is a unique position where the participants of the war are subject to the same ideals/rules and this allows us to judge the participants of a civil war with the same idealistic gavel.
When the Nigerian civil war started, the war was actually a fight between the Nigerian military and the Biafran military. Not the Nigerian people and the Biafran people. This is important because when Ojukwu declared Biafra an independent state, that was not a declaration of war. That was a diplomatic situation and should have been handled as such even though I am well aware that the situation they found themselves in did not lend itself to diplomacy. The appointed representative of a section of the country was essentially saying that they did not like the terms they had been living under and would like to start afresh.
This is important to note because neither Ojukwu nor Gowon were elected representatives and so they did not necessarily represent the views of the public. What is clear though is that Ojukwu was essentially saying that he believed that the environment that Igbo people found themselves in was not conducive for any kind of growth. There was a clear lack of equality in the Nigerian union and he was not okay with that. Now, this is not a strange situation. The North also threatened secession, TWICE (’57 and ’66, if I’m not mistaken. The South West as well and minority groups had been trying to get out of the thumb of the three ‘majority’ ethnic groups in Nigeria. So there was clearly a view by everyone in Nigerian society that our union was unequal but instead of making deliberate efforts to enshrine the concepts of liberty, equality and justice in order to soothe these feelings, we had a civil war.
Of course, Gowon and Ojukwu are military men and so were treating themselves as such. It is possible that Gowon would probably have considered Ojukwu an enemy combatant and also a mutineer seeing as Ojukwu was technically in the military.
What could have happened is that the Nigerian government perhaps should have organized a referendum asking Biafrans, “This man that has called himself your representative has said that you want to leave this our union, is it true??” and the people will vote or not. Of course, this would invalidate both of their authorities so it’s clear why that wasn’t even brought up.
By declaring war, Ojukwu and Gowon set their respective armies against each other. Because neither the Nigerian people nor the Biafran people had a say in whether or not this entrance into war would be made, they should not have been made to bear the brunt of decisions that had nothing to do with them. So any deliberate attempts to hurt Nigerian and Biafran civilians was an affront to the humanity of Nigerians and an attack on the Nigerian union that Gowon was supposedly trying to keep intact.
When, after the war, Igbo people did not have their properties returned, that was a direct affront to the Nigerian union and the philosophy of human dignity, liberty, equality and justice. When Biafran soldiers forced young boys to fight for the cause, that was an affront to the Biafran people as well, even though it was inflicted by the Biafran military. It is ironic to be fighting a battle for independence and liberty and then forcing people to fight for that idea. If you had to force people to fight then maybe, it was not as generally accepted as you thought and another method could've been sought. These affronts to human dignity were numerous and committed by members of both the Nigerian and Biafran militaries.
Even now, we are not even entirely sure about the real extent of some parts of how history. The truth is still obscured and we are walking into to hyper connected future but without the benefit of knowing the truth about our history. How can can we then rectify the errors of the past? If we cannot accept that giving Igbo people 20 naira, people that had homes they built from scratch — if we cannot accept that giving them 20 naira/pounds is unjust, then we are worse than I even thought.
And it’s not just Igbo people that have seen the worse side of this Nigerian union. Nigerian women are assaulted at ridiculous rate. Only recently, a Nigerian Senator was caught on camera assaulting a female employee of a sex store and that is only one of numerous cases where Nigerian women are seen as inferior. Homophobia is practically law and people are certainly unable to live their truth in their own homes . Money is the currency of dignity in Nigeria and the extent of that mentality is shown clearly in the extent to which Nigerians are willing to resort to crime and extreme practices in order to secure a brighter future for them and their children.
All these groups have suffered injustices in this Nigerian union and if we do not properly understand how and why, how can we ever hope to fix it?
This is why I think we must have these very hard conversations not only about our history and how we interact with it but about ourselves, our identities and the nature of our union so that it can have a firmer understanding our union and our place in it. We might not have the strongest union but we owe it to ourselves and the generations that come after to be more deliberate in perfecting our union in pursuit of that most beautiful creed that liberty is inherent in humanity and we are all created equal, entitled to liberty, equality and justice in the pursuit of happiness.