Towards A More Perfect Union:
A Case for Reparation for Biafra-Era Human Rights Violation
by Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
“The loss of life from starvation continues at more than 10,000 persons per day – over 1,000,000 lives in recent months. Without emergency measures now, the number will climb to 25,000 per day within a month – and some 2,000,000 deaths by the end of the year. The New Year will only bring greater disaster to a people caught in the passion of fratricidal war, we can’t allow this to continue”
– Senator Kennedy
Growing up in Nigeria, I was aware of some aspects of the history of my great country. I knew that there was a civil war between 1967 and 1970; however, my understanding of the war was sort of limited. What I learnt was that the people from South-Eastern Nigeria decided to secede from Nigeria by forming their own republic, which they named Biafra. I also learnt that the Biafrans lost the war and that there were losses of lives on both sides of the war.
However, my narrow understanding of what actually transpired during the war took a different turn when I visited the Imperial War Museum in the United Kingdom early last year. I initially visited the Museum to attend a seminar on the contribution of Black’s to Modern Britain organised by Black History Walks. As I took a tour around the Museum, I entered into a section of the Museum, which was showcasing a multi-media presentation on genocide. As I sat down in the room, I watched various video footage and newspaper reels of past genocides such as the Holocaust, the Rwanda War, the Darfur conflict etc. I was later to discover that Biafra War was one of the world’s worst tragic events in terms of death tolls resulting from war.
After this education at the Museum, I decided to carry out further research on the Biafra War and I have now arrived at one conclusion: for Nigeria to move forward as a country, we must revisit the events of the Biafra War and address the human rights violation that took place.
In this paper, I argue for the payment of reparation by the Federal Government of Nigeria to the people of Igbo descent for the Biafra-era food blockade that resulted in the starvation and deaths of millions of people, majority of who were children.
Ahmed Sule, CFA
A lot has been documented about the Nigerian- Biafra Civil War in the form of books, video, documentaries, YouTube uploads etc. However, in most parts of Nigeria, the events that took place during the war appear to have been consigned to the dustbin of history. There is a ‘forget the past and let’s move forward’ mentality among most Nigerians with the exception of the Igbo people. This is understandable for two reasons.
First, the civil war leaves a scar on the moral fibre of Nigeria. According to Frederick Forsyth, the British novelist “the Biafra war was one of the first occasions when western consciences were awakened and deeply affronted by the level of suffering and the scale of atrocity being played out in the African continent”. Second, even though there was causalities on both sides of the conflict, the Igbo’s not only lost the war, but they also bore the brunt of the causalities. It is estimated that over three million Igbo’s died during the war out of which two million (mainly children) died from starvation resulting from the air blockade.
Before going further, I must declare my bona fides up front: I am a Nigerian of Yoruba descent on both my paternal and maternal lineage and I grew up in Lagos State. I was born as a Muslim, but I am now a practising Christian. I consider myself to be a proud and patriotic Nigerian. I strongly believe in a united Nigeria and I am against of any form of balkanisation of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, whether from the eastern, western or northern part of Nigeria. I believe that the strength of Nigeria lies in her unity and not in her fragmentation.
Present Day Nigeria
As explained previously, there is a gradual erosion of the memories of the Nigerian Civil War in most parts of Nigeria. This trend is expected to continue as the generation that experienced the civil war get older and the population of the post civil war boomers continue to increase. Conversely, the Igbo’s still bear the mental scars of the war, which has been passed down from generation to generation.
In today’s Nigeria, despite the immense contribution of the Igbo’s in arts, science, literature, music, economics etc, they are still marginalised in Nigeria. They are excluded from top strategic government positions and often bear the brunt of attacks during the various religious and tribal riots that continue to plague the country. They are also under-represented in the Federal Civil Service. Since 1966 when General Aguiyi-Ironsi was Head of State of Nigeria, no Igbo person has held the position. Furthermore, despite of the wealth generated in Nigeria, little development has come to the Igbo region of Nigeria.
A More Perfect Union
Nigeria is characterized by tribal tensions, which often explodes into mayhem affecting most parts of the country. These tensions increase the risk of fragmentation of Nigeria. To achieve a more perfect union for Nigeria, all tribes’ from the different parts of the country would need to be reconciled. Hausa’s with Igbo’s; Igbo’s with Yoruba’s; Yoruba’s with Ijaw’s etc. Furthermore, the scars resulting from the Nigerian Civil war needs to be addressed, soothed and healed.
A key strategy to achieving this healing would be to bring the Igbo’s back into the mainstream of Nigerian affairs. I believe that forty years is more than long enough time for excluding a group of 30 million people from benefiting from the ‘milk and honey’ of the land.
While the Igbo’s have paid the ultimate price for the attempt to breakaway from Nigeria, it is only fair for the Nigerian Government to also address the atrocities that took place during the three-year war, which has left a permanent emotional scar on the Igbo’s and a moral scar on the rest of the country.
To achieve a more perfect union, the issue of reparation payments for the millions of deaths resulting from the blockades during the war needs to be addressed.
A Case for Reparation
Reparation is a principle of law that refers to the obligation of the offending party to redress the damage caused to the injured party. The right to reparation for wrongful deeds has been established in international law for a long time. For instance, after the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the French Government paid war reparation for damages caused during the war. Furthermore, Germany paid reparation to Israel for the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. In 1991, the United Nations Compensation Commission was created to process claims and pay compensation for losses and damages suffered as a direct result of Iraq’s unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait.
Should the Nigerian Government pay reparation to the Igbo’s; after all the Igbo’s are part of Nigeria? Should the Igbo’s as the defeated party in the war be entitled to any form of reparation? If Biafra initiated the call to secede from Nigeria, can the Igbo’s still be entitled to reparation? These questions may be asked by a number of people and they are genuine questions to ask. In the next couple of paragraphs, I will address why the answer to all these questions should be a resounding YES.
It is a known fact that in any type of war, there will be loss of lives and the Biafra war was no exception. However, in any war there is what is known as the ‘laws of war’. During wars, a) parties in the conflict are expected to distinguish between the civilian population and combatants b) the party to the conflict, which has the injured and sick in its power is expected to take care of them.
While, I will not discuss whether the Nigerian Civil war was justified or not, I will discuss the violation of human rights that took place during the war.
During the Biafra war, there was an asymmetric skew of civilian causalities relative to combatants and majority of the causalities were the starving children of Biafra.
Due to the land-locked nature of the Biafra territory, as the war progressed, the Igbo’s found themselves surrounded by the Federal forces. As a result, it was difficult to get food supplies, medicine and clothing to the Igbo’s. An appeal by human rights agencies, the church etc for the government to relax the air and naval blockade in order to allow for the free flow of food to the civilians went unanswered. Consequently, there was an acute scarcity of protein, which began to affect majority of the civilian population of the Biafra controlled territories. The adults who could survive without protein were not seriously affected, but the children who needed it for their survival were significantly impacted. The consequence of this blockade was the prevalence of Kwashiorkor, which inflicted millions of children in the Biafra territory.
As images of the starved children were beamed throughout the world, there was a drive to get food relief to the victims trapped in this war. Unfortunately, majority of the foreign donations and supplies were unable to reach the starving children due to these blockades. As the war progressed, a number of government officials stated that starvation was a critical part of the war policy.
The air blockade was reported to have kept around 7 million people on diets that were barely above the starvation level. At the height of the blockade, on a daily basis, there were 10,000 deaths due to starvation. By the time the war ended an estimated three million people died out of which two million, majority of who where children died due to starvation. In short, the number of people who died as a result of starvation was more than those that died from bullets or bombs.
To put these numbers in perspective, at the start of the war, there were 8 million Igbo’s out of the total Nigerian population of 40-50 million. By the end of the war, the Igbo population was decimated to 5 million due to the 3 million deaths resulting from the war. This means that:
a) 37.5% of the Igbo’s died during the war i.e. almost 4 out of every 10 Igbo’s.
b) Two out of every three Igbo’s that died during the war died due to starvation
While we could trivialise these deaths by analysing it in numerical terms, we must not forget that those that died were human beings. Another tragedy of this starvation policy was the emotional and mental scars left on the surviving 5 million people and their descendants.
Besides the Nigerian Government, the British Government also played a significant role in the Civil war. Apart from supplying arms to the Federal Government, the British Government was quite apathetic regarding the plea to remove the blockade to allow the supply of food to the starving people of Biafra despite the significant influence it had over the Federal Government. Besides pursuing reparation claims against the Nigerian Government, could there be a case for pursuing similar claims against the British Government?
Form of Reparation
Having established the case for reparation for the Igbo’s, the next issue to address is the form of reparation payments.
The reparation payable to the Igbo’s should be a combination of both financial and non-financial compensation. The financial compensation could be calculated by estimating the contribution of the 2 million people who died due to starvation by projecting what they could have contributed for the remainder of their productive lives if they had lived (base figure). In addition to this, a monetary value, (which should constitute the bulk of the compensation amount) should be assigned to the psychological torture experienced by the victims and their descendants.
Once a monetary value of the reparation has been derived, there should be an offset against the damages inflicted on the Federal Government by Biafra as a result of the war as calculated below:
Gross Reparation due to the Igbo’s xx
Damages incurred by the Federal Govt (xx)
Net amount due to the Igbo’s xx
Some may argue that the Government does not have enough funds to fund such a reparation scheme. When one considers the leakage out of the system due to corruption and other wastages, then setting aside funds to ensure a more perfect union is a cause worth taking. After all, according to Global Financial Integrity, Nigeria accounted for $130bn worth of illicit financial outflows between 2008 and 2009. Closing such loopholes will go a long way in solving Nigeria’s long outstanding problems.
The non-financial component could comprise of a public apology by the government for the deaths resulting from the blockades that contributed to the food crisis. Furthermore, the government could also implement various reforms to bring the Igbo’s into the main stream of Nigeria society. In addition, the Presidency of Nigeria at the elections in 2015 and 2019 should be zoned to the Igbo’s. Then going forward, they should have the right to aspire to hold the highest office in the land and should not be denied because of their ethnicity. Moreover, strategic positions, which have been denied to the Igbo’s, should be open to suitably qualified Igbo’s where feasible.
Structure of the Igbo Reparation Scheme
The Igbo reparation scheme should be group based, as it would not be practical to compensate every Igbo person that has been adversely affected by the starvation policy of the civil war. To achieve this, an appropriate representative body to represent the interest of the Igbo’s should be set up. This body, which could be called the Igbo Reparation Committee (IRC), should negotiate for damages and reparation for victims of the starvation war policy. The committee members could comprise of Igbo’s from all walks of life including but not limited to entrepreneurs, academia, lawyers, religious leaders, community leaders etc.
Once set up, the IRC should convene an Igbo Reparation Claim Conference inviting representatives of the Federal Government. During the conference, the IRC should negotiate and agree reparation and compensation for damages caused as a result of the blockade during the civil war. The IRC should also consider pursuing claims against other external governments that had a direct or indirect influence over the blockades. The conference should also agree strategies to bring the Igbo’s into the mainstream of Nigeria Society, which should be binding on all parties.
Once the terms of the reparation has been agreed, the IRC should also be involved in the collection, administration and distribution of funds to survivors and heir to the victims of the starvation war policy. Is there any precedence for this sort of conference? A similar conference called the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany took place in the past to negotiate and agree restitution and compensation for survivors of the Holocaust and heirs of victims.
An Igbo Reparation Fund should also be set up by the IRC. The proceeds from the reparation could be invested in this fund. The committee could appoint a reputable fund manager to manage the assets of the funds. The cash flow from the fund could be used to develop infrastructure in certain parts of the East that has been neglected in addition to provide education for Igbo’s unable to afford the cost of quality education.
As we work towards making Nigeria a more perfect union, we face a lot of challenges, roadblocks and headwinds. However, as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. By addressing the Igbo question, we can begin our first major step on the long road of healing Nigeria and making her a more perfect union.
Even though I am arguing for reparation for past misdeeds, I am also conscious of the fact that NO amount of reparation can compensate for what happened to the 2 million people that died of starvation during the period 1967 to 1970.
Ahmed Sule, CFA
President Jonathan Goodluck
Prime Minister David Cameron