BY EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO
“In Nigerian history books, that period between 1966 and 1970 is called The Nigerian Civil War or The Nigerian-Biafran war. But for those of us whose families lived through it, it is an erasure of truth not to name it The Biafran Genocide” – Innocent Chizaram IIo
Buckingham Palace England had in the late afternoon of Thursday, September 8th 2022 announced the passage of the British Monarch thus: “The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon. The king and the Queen consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow”’.
The above was so simple and humbling an announcement of the death of the World’s most powerful and rich Monarch of Great Britain. She ruled Great Britain for 70 years and was head of the Commonwealth of Nations for that amount of time.
However, before she died, this was how the British Prime Minister Ms Liz Truss had told the world about the worrying health situation of the Queen: “The whole Country will be deeply concerned by the news from Buckingham palace this lunchtime. My thoughts- and the thoughts of people across the United Kingdom- are with her majesty the Queen and her family at this time.”
Similar emotional sentiments rang out from the White House and offices of Heads of governments from around the World with prayers being offered for “God to save the Queen.”
But these positive and prayerful wishes for the queen did not sit well with a certain Nigerian-born but United States-based University teacher Professor Uju Anya who dramatically wished the Queen an excruciating death.
She wrote on her Twitter page thus: “I heard the chief Monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.”
The tweet has since been deleted for violating “Twitter rules”.
Besides, in another tweet, she referenced the rumoured role of the British empire in supplying the Nigerian government with arms and ammunition during the nation’s civil war which spanned 1967 – 1970.
“If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star,” she wrote, following the announcement of the Queen’s death.
Understandably, Professor Uju Anya’s tweets drew the attention of many including Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, who quoted the post and wrote, “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow.”
Shockingly, the Aide to President Buhari, Bashir Ahmed, also tweeted, “Don’t know that Uju Anya until I saw some of her tweets for the first time on my timeline this evening, her tweets about late Queen Elizabeth II were so unfortunately unnecessary.” I wrote shockingly because President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration is highly divisive, sectional and nepotistic and so much of his administrative styles are flashbacks of what led to that despicable war for which Professor Uju Anya critiqued in her tweets.
In another tweet, @novieverest wrote, “You can condemn slavery and colonisation without being an Uju Anya. Her statement was terrible and you can’t defend it. It is that simple.”
However, many others defended the Professor for speaking out against the colonial legacy of the British Empire under the late Queen.
Stating that Anya’s tweets are a reflection of the unspoken sentiments of many, @vickkingsley wrote, “the thing with Uju Anya’s tweet is, a lot of people feel exactly the way she feels but she was bold enough to state it. Even those who feel the same way as she is are all dragging her. Uju Anya is the villain now but you have had massive disdain for the British government, and colonialism.”
“I stand with Uju Anya. The level of sympathy for Queen Elizabeth who died peacefully is over, levelling the sympathy given to Africans who died as a result of colonialism because there was no social media,” @Philosophiero1 tweeted.
Carnegie Mellon University, the American institution in which Anya lectures also released a statement distancing itself from the professor’s comments.
“We do not condone the offensive and objectionable message posted by Uju Anya today on her personal social media account.
“Free expression is core to the mission of higher education, however, the views shared do not represent the values of the institution, nor the standard of discourse we seek to foster,” the statement read.
Writing further about this would require that this writer states clearly that the comments of Professor Uju Anya were inappropriate and not well timed and properly presented. Also, there is the immediate question of whether the Queen as the Monarch could have influenced the policies churned out by the Prime ministers of that epoch.
Historically, Sir Winston Churchill was a British statesman who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945, during the Second World War, and again from 1951 to 1955
James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, was a British politician who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice, from October 1964 to June 1970, and again from March 1974 to April 1976.
I deliberately went down a historical lane to list out the individuals that headed the government of Britain around and about the time that the bloody civil war took place in Nigeria during which time considerable incidents that could be considered war crimes were committed by the Nigerian side when schools, markets and churches were bombed leading to hundreds of thousands of fatalities made up of children, women and the aged in the then Biafra Republic. Unfortunately, the United Nations more than anyone else should be blamed for the apparent silence over these war crimes just as the British Government and not just the Monarch should be called out.
Also, the accusations made by professor Uju Anya against the queen who has now died can be subjected to a lot of interrogation based on the reality of the situation that the monarch in Britain is only just the head of state but not the head of government just as the elected parliament headed by the prime minister or head of government were responsible for carrying out the policies of government.
So how did professor Anya reach her conclusion?
Besides, as Africans and indeed as Igbo, our culture forbids us from speaking ill of the sick, the dying and especially the dead.
But basically, in as much as I dissociate myself from the views expressed by professor Uju Anya, one objective achieved by her inauspicious tweets on the late Queen Elizabeth of England is that it reignited debates around the propriety, rightness or otherwise of the role played by the government of Britain during the period of that war in Nigeria between 1967 to late 1969.
Also, the World’s media are now focusing so much attention on the issues of genocide that took place in Nigeria at that time.
These debates raging as a result of the tweets by the United States-based professor have also compelled some inquisitive-minded Nigerian youngsters to try to ascertain what truly happened to make effort to read broadly on the subject matters of that war.
As is known that successive governments in Nigeria have failed to allow school children have unfettered access to historical accounts of that war.
Sometime around May 2020, Mr Innocent Chizaram IIo who lives in Lagos published a piece in Al Jazeera on what he calls the truth of what happened is denied so we forfeit the chance to learn from it.
The sum total of his essay aforementioned can be presented thus:
“In Nigerian history books, that period between 1966 and 1970 is called The Nigerian Civil War or The Nigerian-Biafran war. But for those of us whose families lived through it, it is an erasure of truth not to name it The Biafran Genocide”
Estimates of the death toll vary – with some putting it at more than one million and others at more than two million. Some died as a result of the fighting but most from hunger and disease after the Nigerian government imposed a land and sea blockade that resulted in famine.
In The Republic, Amarachi Iheke gives a detailed analysis of the case for and against classifying it as a genocide, arguing that whether or not you believe it to have been a genocide, the conflict exposes “blind spots in our application of international human rights norms” and that “moving forward, as part of a national reconciliation project, we must embark on critical truth-seeking around Biafra’s genocide claim”.
But the foundations of the Nigerian government’s denial were planted on January 15, 1970, when Biafra agreed to a ceasefire and the war ended. Nigeria’s Military Head of State General Yakubu Gowon declared the conflict had “no victor, no vanquished”.
“But there was clearly a victor – the Nigerian government, which had regained control of the oil-rich region – and a vanquished – the people of the now-defunct Republic of Biafra, on whose land the war had been fought, whose homes had been destroyed, whose relatives had died of starvation and disease, and their descendants who would have to navigate the world with the weight of their trans-generational trauma”.
“Still, in keeping with Gowon’s mantra, the government began to craft its own story; one echoed in school textbooks.
In school, I learned no details of what happened in Biafra. The reality was tactfully erased from the curriculum, while those responsible were depicted as national heroes who had fought to preserve Nigeria’s unity. I tried to reconcile the colourful pictures of these “national heroes” in my Social Studies books (history was removed from the basic curriculum in 2007) with my father’s experience of the war”.
I must confess that as someone born to Igbo parents who witnessed and participated in that war, I was similarly denied access in the school to properly documented historical accounts of that war.
Just as the aforementioned essayist stated in his piece published by Aljazeera, most kids from the former Eastern region could only learn about what happened during that war from our parents.
Then on the side of the British, there have also been a lot of backlashes that characterised the support that the British government gave to Nigeria during that war.
Frederick Forsyth is a British journalist who covered the war and he recently authored a piece titled: “Buried for 50 years: Britain’s shameful role in the Biafra war.”
He wrote thus: “It is a good thing to be proud of one’s country, and I am – most of the time. But it would be impossible to scan the centuries of Britain’s history without coming across a few incidents that evoke not pride but shame. Among those, I would list is the creation by British officialdom in South Africa of the concentration camp, to persecute the families of Boers. Add to that the Amritsar massacre of 1919 and the Hola camps set up and run during the struggle against Mau Mau”.
“But there is one truly disgusting policy practised by our officialdom during the lifetime of anyone over 50, and one word will suffice: Biafra.
“This referred to the civil war in Nigeria that ended 50 years ago this month. It stemmed from the decision of the people of the eastern region of that already riot-racked country to strike for independence as the Republic of Biafra. As I learned when I got there as a BBC correspondent, the Biafrans, mostly the Igbo people, had their reasons.
“The federal government in Lagos was a brutal military dictatorship that came to power in 1966 in a bloodbath. During and following that coup, the northern and western regions were swept by a pogrom in which thousands of resident Igbo were slaughtered. The federal government lifted not a finger to help. It was led by an affable British-educated colonel, Yakubu Gowon. But he was a puppet. The true rulers were a group of northern Nigerian colonels. The crisis deepened, and in early 1967 eastern Nigeria, harbouring about 1.8 million refugees, sought restitution. A British-organised conference was held in Ghana and a concordat agreed. But Gowon, returning home, was flatly contradicted by the colonels, who tore up his terms and reneged on the lot. In April the Eastern Region formally seceded and on 7 July, the federal government declared war.”
“Biafra was led by the Eastern Region’s Oxford-educated former military governor, “Emeka” Ojukwu. London, ignoring all evidence that it was Lagos that reneged on the deal, denounced the secession, made no attempt to mediate and declared total support for Nigeria.
I arrived in the Biafra capital of Enugu on the third day of the war. In London, I had been copiously briefed by Gerald Watrous, head of the BBC’s West Africa Service. What I did not know was that he was the obedient servant of the government’s Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO), which believed every word of its high commissioner in Lagos, David Hunt. It took two days in Enugu to realise that everything I had been told was utter garbage.
I had been briefed that the brilliant Nigerian army would suppress the rebellion in two weeks, four at the most. Fortunately, the deputy high commissioner in Enugu, Jim Parker, told me what was really happening. It became clear that the rubbish believed by the CRO and the BBC stemmed from our high commissioner in Lagos. A racist and a snob, Hunt expected Africans to leap to attention when he entered the room – which Gowon did. At their single prewar meeting, Ojukwu did not. Hunt loathed him at once”. These thoughts of Frederick Forsyth a British is about the same kind of rejection of the role of Great Britain in the Nigerian versus Biafran war.
The Guardian of Britain wrote that “Nigeria is haunted by Biafran war” and averred thus: “Chinua Achebe’s new book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra emerges into this landscape of memory and remembrance, 42 years after the war ended. In the book Achebe, a few weeks before his 82nd birthday finally sets out to tell the story of his Biafra. The format he adopts is novel – involving a rambling mix of anecdotes, summarised histories, analysis, reportage, declamation and haunting poetry. In some ways, reading the book feels like I imagine spending an hour or two chatting with the distinguished novelist might.”
“He roams from the story of how Nigeria came to be, to his schooldays and burgeoning friendships with prominent figures like the poet Christopher Okigbo, whose presence looms large through the book. Interspersing the historical account is the story of his father, one of the early Igbo converts to Christianity, and his experiences growing up with newly Christian, trailblazing parents caught between the old traditions and cosmology of the Igbo people and the new Christianity. The personal glimpses into his early life are hugely enjoyable and indeed tantalising – often outlined so succinctly, that he leaves the reader greedy for more detail”.
This continues until the latter part of the book, when he begins to describe the counter-coup of July 1966, the massacres of Igbos that followed the coup, the failed attempts at negotiating peace and the subsequent declaration of independence and the harrowing consequences that followed.”
“Achebe, as is his right, does not pull any punches, although he does make some concessions to alternative points of view, especially in relation to the legacy of colonialism and the moral imperative on writers to produce committed literature. He is less conciliatory on the question of whether the actions of the Federal Government of Nigeria during the war constituted war crimes and, possibly, genocide. He is scrupulous in naming the officers and individuals responsible, and where possible provide their viewpoints based on news and other reports.”
From all these, what has emerged from the controversial tweets of Professor Uju Anya is that in as much as it is uncharitable and inappropriate, the lesson to learn is that there is a whole lot of work that Nigeria needs to do to provide lasting redress to the injustices of the war years and far more to be done by Western powers on the issues around slavery and colonialism.
The ramblings by the special assistant on new media to President Buhari in reaction to Professor Uju Anya’s tweets are totally disjointed, illogical and laughable.
This is because his boss President Buhari is perhaps the only President of Nigeria that has carried out apartheid and divisive policies against the South that reechoed the wounds inflicted by that war of the late. Imagine a President of Nigeria of today who had to borrow over 2 billion USD from China just to build a Railway line to the Niger Republic but failed to build the same in all of the old Eastern regions. So why is the young boy working for the Octogenarian President Muhammadu Buhari angry that Professor Uju Anya wrote tweets against the British Monarchy for aiding and abetting genocides during the Biafran and Nigerian war when his boss the President has implemented policies that aren’t different from carrying out economic genocides against South East of Nigeria?
EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA (HURIWA) and one-time National commissioner of the NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF NIGERIA.