Nigeria presidential spokesman Reuben Abati has issued a statement on the death of former Biafra military chief of state Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, characterizing Ojukwu’s death as “a great national loss.” The statement also recalled Ojukwu’s leadership of Biafra and subsequently “his commitment to reconciliation and the full reintegration of his people into a united and progressive Nigeria.”
More than forty years after the civil war, ethnic and religious tensions persist in Nigeria, though the fault lines are somewhat different from those in Ojukwu’s time. Now, it is the North that is discontented and the locus of radical Islamic groups such as Boko Haram, not Ojukwu’s East.
Jonathan’s praise of fellow Christian and southerner Ojukwu can be seen as an effort to “let bygones be bygones” with respect to the civil war. On the other hand, Jonathan’s critics in the North are likely to see it as a presidential effort to consolidate the South and East against their region. In any event, Nigeria’s friends hope that Jonathan will demonstrate similar sensitivity and outreach to the predominately Muslim North that he is showing toward former supporters of Biafra.
Ojukwu was military chief of state of Biafra during the 1967 civil war. The predominately Igbo Biafra sought to establish itself as an independent state following a series of military coups and ethnic and religious pogroms in the North, especially against Igbo Christians. While the U.S. government favored the preservation of Nigerian national unity, many American college campuses hosted fervent Biafra supporters. Among American youth, the cause of Biafra was often linked with support for the civil rights movement in the United States and opposition to the Vietnam war. Nigeria went “over the brink” during the civil war, with deaths predominately from hunger and disease likely numbering more than one million. For many Americans, a starving Biafra child became the poster for the suffering caused by African civil wars.
After the defeat of Biafra, Ojukwu spent thirteen years in exile, returning only when he was pardoned by civilian president Shehu Shagari. Oxford educated and from the late colonial elite, Ojukwu’s critics accuse him of needlessly prolonging the civil war in part to gratify his own ego. Nevertheless, after his return from exile, he re-established himself as an important leader of the Igbo people, though never a national kingmaker.
Following the civil war, the Nigerian federal government pursued a policy of national reconciliation called “no winners, no losers.” Among the major Nigerian ethnic groups the Igbo have done well in business and professional occupations. However, they have never held the presidency and there is a pervasive sense of grievance that they have been de facto excluded from the highest political and military positions in the federal government. The Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) reflects Igbo nostalgia for what an independent Biafra might have been, and its specter on occasion can still keep federal officials in Abuja awake at night, resulting in heavy-handed crackdowns.