19 October 2011

Looking Back At Biafra, Part IV

The end of Biafra was more than the end of a failed secession. It marked the end of a struggle for a homeland for the Ibo people, then end of several colorful mercenary careers, the end of the rare Cold War-era struggle that did not feature either the US or USSR as major patrons of either side.

The five hollow-eyed travelers who stepped warily from a Nigerian Airways plane at Lagos Airport one night last week had the fugitive look of men on the run. They were driven to the Federal Palace Hotel through deserted streets heavy with the stifling heat of Africa's dry season. Next morning, after a fitful sleep, they were escorted to the Dodan military barracks in a suburb of the Nigerian capital. There, in the first formal surrender ceremonies to end a military conflict since World War II, Biafra's Major General Philip Effiong signed a document ending the bitter 31-month civil war that has raged between Nigeria and its breakaway Eastern Region.

Said Effiong, in a simple act of fealty to Major General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria's head of state and commander of its armed forces: "We are firm, we are loyal Nigerian citizens, and we accept the authority of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria. The Republic of Biafra ceases to exist." His voice sounded tired. When he finished, Gowon embraced him.

Biafra had ceased to exist two days before Effiong's formal surrender. With federal troops advancing on all fronts, General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, 36, Biafra's leader, realized that he had lost. With his family, three aides, three tons of luggage and his white Mercedes-Benz staff car, Ojukwu caught one of the last flights out of the beleaguered airstrip at Uli. The refugees were loaded aboard a Superconstellation that took off for a destination that had still not been disclosed a full week later; various reports placed Ojukwu in Lisbon; Libreville, capital of Gabon; and the Ivory Coast. His flight left Effiong in command of a crumbling region, desperately short of food and medicine and totally shorn of the will to continue its doomed rebellion.

The conflict that ended with such stunning swiftness was the first big modern war waged in Black Africa since the continent's colonies began receiving their independence. It was also one of the most devastating civil wars in modern history. At the outset, Biafra's people numbered 12 million—about two-thirds of them Ibo, the rest belonging to minority tribes (as does Effiong, who is an Ibibio). The secessionist territory covered nearly 30,000 sq. mi. and included some of Nigeria's richest land. At the close of the war, 3,500,000 people were squeezed into a devastated area of 1,500 sq. mi. As many as 2,000,000 Biafrans, many of them children, had perished. The great majority had cruelly and slowly starved to death. Another 1,250,000 Biafrans, reduced to skeletons for lack of food, may die before aid can reach them—even though at least 24,000 tons of food, enough to feed 4,000,000 people for a month, is stockpiled not far from the war zone.

Why does Biafra fas fascinate me so much? No idea. Maybe it's my Southern roots holding sympathy for another failed secession. Maybe it's because I'm not sure the Biafrans did anything wrong and that the entire was was a power-grab by the military junta that rules Nigeria. Maybe it's the way the mercenary forces have been portrayed in the works of guys like Predrick Forsythe. I still find it interesting.

By: Brant

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