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Nigerians remember their forgotten war

16 January 2020

CHRISTIAN AID/ADAM FINCH

David Olusoga

David Olusoga

THE Nigerian Civil War was “one of the great tragedies of the 20th century”, the historian Professor David Olusoga said at a Christian Aid event on Wednesday to mark 50 years to the day the end of the war.

The war, also called the Biafran War, was fought between Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra between 1967 and the 1970s. It caused a famine in Biafra, which claimed the lives of between 500,000 and two million civilians.

It still “casts a shadow over some areas of life” in Nigeria, Christian Aid’s country director for Nigeria, Charles Usie, said on Wednesday.

At the event, held at Lambeth Palace, Mr Usie said that the world needed a “just, equitable and peaceful” Nigeria; and he called for help to put the country on the right track.

Christian Aid’s chief executive, Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, addressed the gathering, which included members of the Nigerian diaspora in the UK. “We need you. We need your creativity, we need your success, we need your influence, we need your contacts. We need you to put a fire underneath us so that we can do more.”

Professor Olusoga, who is Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, and was born in Lagos 16 days after the war ended, said: “It was a horrific event — one of the one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. And the fissures, the divisions that it opened up . . . pre-existed independence, and they haven’t entirely gone away.

“Nigeria is still a country that has an enormous task of trying to work out how you create a multi-ethnic state. Now, so does Britain. Britain’s a multi-ethnic state, facing the awesome possibility of a secessionist movement from Scotland, facing the possibility of a united Ireland. . . So this is not unique to Nigeria.

“But what is unique to Nigeria is the level of ethnic diversity. By some calculations, Nigeria has more than 250 ethnic groups and languages. By some calculations, it has more than 300. It is one of the most ethnically diverse places on this planet.

“So, when you take a part of the world like that, and you draw artificial borders over it, you create countries with terrible, inbuilt tensions. Independent Nigeria’s greatest failing is that we didn’t foresee the dangers. We didn’t confront the dangers of those tensions head-on before we had a disaster like that. Those tensions were always there.”

Also present at the event was Brian Sheen, one of the original team members of the humanitarian mission that Christian Aid sent to Nigeria in 1968, whose images featured in a short film shown at Lambeth.

CHRISTIAN AID/ADAM FINCHChristian Aid’s chief executive, Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, with Brian Sheen

Mr Usie said: “As a nation, we have the world’s largest number of people in extreme poverty; and the grave humanitarian crisis in our north-east region continues to wreak intolerable damage on millions of people. In a country blessed with riches, this is nothing short of a scandal.

“During the Biafran War, images of children suffering from malnutrition sparked outcry and action across the world. As we commemorate this moment in history, I would hope that the news that 95 million Nigerians are living in extreme poverty will once again spark outcry and action, both here and overseas.”

Professor Olusoga said: “Not only is it one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, it has what one historian described as a faultline — a religious faultline running through it, between north and south. It has the problems that come with oil.

“The oil is a mixed blessing. It creates enormous wealth, but that wealth also creates tensions of its own. Nigeria has faced all sorts of enormous challenges as independent. To me, its biggest challenge is that it remains incredibly unequal in terms of distribution of wealth.”

He reflected on the present awareness of the war. “I think it’s been forgotten, because no one comes out of it looking good. Britain was involved in the war as much as its interests, particularly petroleum interests, determined it would be.

“Nigeria doesn’t come out of the war very well, because of the awful effect of the blockade [by the federal forces, which triggered the famine in Biafra], and the ways in which the army in some parts, and on some occasions, in some places, went out of control.”

He went on: “I think it’s been forgotten because there’s a tendency in the West to see what happens in Africa as some sort of feature of Africa, something innate to Africa. Very often, this is called the ‘Heart of Darkness’ syndrome. Africa is this continent where these terrible things happen; that’s just the way it is; we shouldn’t think that Africa was part of the world like other nations. We don’t analyse African wars. We don’t analyse African politics, as if it were real politics — and it is. Nigeria’s problems are problems faced by other countries. And it’s very dangerous to imagine that things that happen in Africa are unique to Africa.

“As I said, we’re in a country that’s facing its own ethnic divisions: the referendums — the three referendums of the last decade — have created enormous divisions in Britain. We are not immune from those forces. So that tendency to dismiss African affairs as something atavistic is quite dangerous for both Africa and for the onlooker on Africa.”

Asked why so many people were still living in poverty in Nigeria, despite its being one of the richest countries in Africa, Professor Olusoga said that it was too easy to simply blame colonialism. But, he said, “Nigeria’s economic systems were devised in order to extract wealth from the country.

“You don’t build empires as an act of benevolence and of welfare. You do them to extract money, and that was inherited at independence. That’s a fundamental problem.”

He concluded: “I don’t think a nation can truly address poverty until women are given control of their reproductive rights; where unless and until education is made available to all not based on gender. And I don’t think you can possibly have peace in a country that doesn’t regard inequality of that magnitude as a national crisis. That’s Nigeria’s national crisis.

“That’s what every government should be confronting. That’s what the petroleum world should be being used to address. That’s why education should be the number-one driver of policy in Nigeria, because that background of ever-present inequality should be seen as an immediate crisis.”

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