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The long shadow of Biafra lingers over Nigeria

The Biafra War led to the deaths of at least 1-2 million people in just 30 months — many of them children. January 15 marks 50 years since the end of the brutal conflict. The consequences can still be felt today.

Uchenna Chikwendu rarely speaks about the Biafra War. The 67-year-old lives in Enugu, the provincial capital of the state of the same name in eastern Nigeria. She was a teenager during the civil war, which began in July 1967 and ended on January 15, 1970.

But there’s one thing she can’t forget: “We had to trek so much because there were no vehicles then. If you had a car you had to [hide] it otherwise the army would take it from you.”

Any errands had to be done on foot: “We had to walk through narrow paths in the bush to go to the market. We left at around 3 a.m. so by around 5 a.m. we were in the markets. So we would shop quickly and then come back, hiding, so that they wouldn’t see us.”

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Uchenna Chikwendu rarely speaks about her experiences during the Biafra War

Nigeria, a country made up of more than 250 ethnic groups, became independent of Great Britain in 1960. Even then, it had a population of more than 45 million, predominantly Hausa and Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the west and Igbos in the east.

It wasn’t long before the groups started to engage in a struggle for power and resources and other disagreements.

Two coups took place in 1966: First, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi seized power after Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a Hausa, was killed by mutinous soldiers. Six months later, a counter-coup — often called the “July Rematch” — took place, involving mostly generals from the north.

On May 30, 1967, the military governor of Nigeria’s eastern region, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, declared the region to be independent following violent ethnic riots.

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Ogbete Market street in Nigeria

Perception versus reality

But the statistics paint a different picture: In the 2015 national development index for example — the latest available edition — the geopolitical eastern and southern parts of the country are further ahead in terms of education, gender equality and poverty reduction compared to the north.

Osaghae says this is often where perception and reality drift apart: “Many people from the southeast do not know the north at all. In their opinion, the north still gets the lion’s share of the resources.”

The main point of contention — as it was before the war — is the oil which comes from the southeast.

The war has only has a limited influence on Nigeria’s foreign policy today. Biafra has only been recognized by a handful of countries, including Tanzania, Gabon and Ivory Coast. The Vatican also lent its support.

Numerous Christian aid organizations, including Caritas International and the Germany-based Diakonisches Werk, carried out airlifts to deliver supplies to the starving population of Biafra at the height of the conflict.

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An old airplane on display in the war museum in Umuahia

“The American government was trying to mediate between Nigeria and the pope at the end of the war in January 1970,” Nicholas Omenka, a Catholic priest and history professor at the University of Abia State, told DW. “So, the antagonism lasted just briefly. The Vatican and the Church were the very first people who helped rebuild Nigeria.”

New allies

Nevertheless, the Biafra crisis also led to new international alliances. During the Cold War, Great Britain and the Soviet Union jointly supported Nigeria.

“The civil war made it possible for Nigeria to look towards Russia and the Eastern Block for arms,” says Osaghae. An alliance which has lasted to this day: “When Boko Haram came and it was getting difficult to get arms from the usual allies, a repeat of the civil war was about to happen.”

Picture showing a Biafran demonstration on July 1968

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