By Martin Ezimano
From the beginning, Biafra was a child of desperation. All postwar accounts by the leaders of Biafra, military and civilian alike leave no doubt that the Igbo, hounded and killed in every other part of Nigeria, in desperation, had to run back to his own land.
In going back to his own land, he still nursed hope that perhaps, the vampire that had suddenly taken wings, baying for Igbo blood would somehow be reined in and destroyed as a pre-assurance to him that he was still wanted in the Nigerian arrangement.
It was this hope that birthed Igbo willingness, inspite of the harrowing killings, to participate in the several discussions and consultations and negotiations — a signal example is the failed Aburi Conference.
It was when all these proved futile that Biafra was born in desperation for the survival of a peoples threatened with extermination.
It was Biafra, contrary to popular misconception, that the supreme storyteller Chinua Achebe had in mind in choosing the title THERE WAS A COUNTRY. The book tells the story of the peoples experience with that child of desperation, the early hopes, the promise, the bursts of achievement, the disillusionment, the shattering of expectations…. and finally the demise of that child.
“At the end of the thirty-month war Biafra was a vast smoldering rubble. The headcount at the end of the war was perhaps three million dead, which was approximately 20 percent of the entire population. This high proportion was mostly children. The cost in human lives made it one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history.
The sequelae of wars often begin with an armistice. The suffering and humanitarian disaster left in the wake of war’s destruction goes on long after the weapons are silenced — for months and years. Entire towns and villages, schools and farms in Biafra were destroyed. Roads and the rural areas were littered with landmines that continued to maim and kill unsuspecting pedestrians well after the hostilities had ended. Many people had lost all that they owned. Loved ones in the thousands were reported missing by families. There were stories of scores of suicide. This was not just a case of Ani, or the land and its protector, the land goddess, “bleeding,” as my people would describe catastrophic events of this nature. It was worse: a case of Ani nearly “exsanguinating to death.”
Such was the unspeakable tragedy of Biafra.
After Biafra happened, the Nigerian government of Yakubu Gowon made a noble pronouncement of “No victor, no vanquished” And further announced a program of three Rs: Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. A better instance of magnanimity in victory humanity had never before seen! Until the lie was given to these declarations by the program of Igbo pauperization as captured in the twenty pound policy.
Perhaps the only believable miracle in Nigeria is the fantastic bounce-back by Nd’Igbo after the happening of Biafra. Without government patronage, with zero foreign donations, Nd’Igbo rebuilt their home and country. (Compare and contrast, if you will, with the bambialla beggars-bowl-in-hand approach to the rebuilding of the North East after its self inflicted destruction by Boko Haram).
Nd’Igbo carried their trade to the furthest reaches of Nigeria. This dynamic diaspora of Nd’Igbo remains the greatest ethnic affirmation of faith in the country.
A sad footnote to this glowing testimony is that Igboland today is wracked by internal crisis of such a magnitude that it is wiping out all this glorious story of postwar recovery.
And strangely enough, this ongoing tragedy is being enacted in that selfsame name of Biafra!
When a terrible happening befalls an Igbo, upon surviving that happening he is won’t to make a statement that is at one and the same time a prayer.
Ozoemena. May this tragedy never be repeated.
Ozoemena therefore is most fitting as the last word in this long essay.
But before we utter that final line of departure, let us share this little folklore.
Once upon a time, there lived a couple in a certain village. Such a harmonious couple the village had never seen, the man and wife went everywhere together and did everything together. In their astonishment at this total oneness of this couple the villagers soon found an answer in the name they gave the couple: ejima (twins). Their reasoning was that only twins, who having known each other in the world-before-birth, could have this compatibility in spirit.
But the Igbo say: o nwero onye nke ya zulu oke (nobody’s story is all joy and no pain). For this otherwise joyful couple, their only pain was the wife’s childlessness.
But so knit together were they that even in this, the man insisted that it was not the wife but they that were childless thus effectively shutting the door on those unsolicited counselors who were waiting to come and give him advice on how to prove his manhood.
However, Africa not being Europe where a cat or dog can be pretended to be a replacement for the human warmth of one’s own flesh and blood offspring, the man and wife one day set out to solve this problem.
Somewhere in a distant land lived a great dibia (traditional priest) whose renown rested mostly on his facility of providing succour to the childless. To this anya-na-afu-mmuo (spiritualist) the couple went.
Barely had they arrived and sat down than Dibia Oyiumuaka divulged to them the cause of their visit:
“Umu m nno (welcome my children). Akwa a na-ebelu nwa n’uwa erika.”
To the couple, this was the sign that their feet had led them to the final place….but Oyiumuaka’s next words shattered their self-congratulation.
“You have come on a bad day, a very very bad day. My stock of good children is finished, the woman that took the last just left yesterday.
I have to go to ani-mmuo (land of the spirits) to restock and this will be after this planting and harvest season. So you have to go and return ‘aro ozo’ (another season).”
The couple were distraught by this news. Disappointment just when they were thinking their troubles were over. The man looked at his wife, held her and said: “Obi m, nsogbu adiro ya. It is no big deal. We shall go and return next season when Oyiumuaka has restocked. We’ve waited this long, a little more time will not kill us.”
But the wife, her face a river of tears, replied:
“Obi m, biko e wena iwe. Don’t be angry but I have to contradict you this once. I cannot bear the taunts of your brother’s wives anymore. Or the mockeries of other women when umu ada gather in assembly.
Obi m, biko, my mind is that we take whatever child is available. Even if it is not good, let it wipe this shame off my face. And who knows, with good nurture and love, that which is not good can become good”.
“Ada”, interjected Oyiumuaka, “the only child left in my stock is irredeemably bad. No amount of good can stop him from being bad”
“Nna anyi, biko I want him like that. Biko.”
Well, the husband, not one to resist his wife’s tears or pleas agreed and Dibia Oyiumuaka did the necessary rites and told them to go home.
“When you arrive home, go in to your wife on the next Eke. In nine moons, you shall receive your result.”
And so the couple went home.
The man did as he was directed by the Dibia.
In nine moons, true to Oyiumuaka’s words, the cry of baby birth was heard in their hut. Behold! A baby boy whose handsomeness, even as an infant was beyond compare.
AdaIgbo, for that was the woman’s name had finally found fulfilment. For what is a woman without a child? A man in a pretender’s body!
AdaIgbo brought out all the love she had piled in the storerooms of her heart all those years of childlessness and lavished them on her baby.
And the boy grew and flourished in the love of his mother and the affection and protection of his father.
And the boy showed early signs of great promise, indeed he never gave his parents those sleepless nights that little babies are wont to torment with.
By his second year, the boy’s feet were firmly on the ground and he walked and ran with surefootedness beyond his years. And he displayed such incredible physical strength that saw him challenging and beating up children three years his elder.
A prodigy if ever there was one.
But….in all these happy signs, AdaIgbo and her husband noticed one troubling trait in their child.
He was given to extreme cruelty.
It was observed that the little boy derived special delight in killing…. by beheading!
By three years, he would catch flies and separate their heads from their bodies.
At the age of four, he graduated to lizards.
By seven, the boy was a terror to the neighborhood chickens, any that strayed into his parents’ compound was sure to be rendered headless.
At twelve, his surgical practice started covering the bigger animals: goats, sheep, rams.
And so AdaIgbo and her husband, now again the subject of censure by the village, decided to return to Dibia Oyiumuaka. When they arrived, they were met with sad news.
Oyiumuaka had joined the ancestors.
AdaIgbo and her husband reluctantly returned to the village.
And the village was not as they left it just two days earlier. Several headless corpses had been found in the bush by a returning hunter.
One of the headless was the eldest male in the umunna, the only position nearest to a king since Igbo republican spirit notoriously abominates communal kingship.
Yes, Ogbuefi Nnanyelugo was lying headless and dead.
And their son could not be found.
The paths of the village was deserted.
It was a lonely walk home for the couple.
It was a quiet home as none of them could utter a word to each other, so heavy was their grief. And regret.
The couple went to sleep that day eating nothing. The next morning’s cock crow, which heralded the storming of their compound by enraged youths, still did not see them stir.
Dike, the leader of the youths, further incensed by the total silence in response to their chants of war dashed forward, raised his muscular leg, sent the door of their sleeping hut crashing down and rushed in in one fluid movement.
And screamed and staggered out.
Dike, eyes like one who had seen spirits, wordlessly passed his still chanting colleagues and departed the compound.
Okwudili, Dike’s friend rushed into the hut and what was heard next was:
“Alu o! Alu o!” (Abomination).
The rest of the youths rushed in as a body and the bedlam was as had never before been seen in the village. Or again ever since.
For on the mud floor, headless, were the lifeless bodies of AdaIgbo and her husband.
A tualu omalu, o malu….
OZO E MENA.
Martin Ezimano is a civil rights attorney and litigation expert.