Nearly two million people died because of that cataclysmic event. It was a dark period, and the scars, both physical and emotional are still felt by people today. That’s the reality of war. Even a war that very few people have ever heard of. The war began with a coup, but to understand the war, we must know the story of a people largely lost in the pages of history. My grandfather fought as a volunteer in that war, seeing action in major battles and suffering many injuries. He was of those people whose history has faded, and this story belongs in part to him.
The Igbo are community of over 60 million people who trace their lineage to ancient Israel. They occupy about 16,000 square miles of territory in the rain forests of present-day Nigeria in West Africa. Considering themselves to be descendants of several of the Twelve Tribes of Israel; Gad, Zebulon, Dan, Levi, Judah, Ephraim, and Manasseh, the Igbo share many cultural and similarities in religious practice with their Jewish brethren. They follow and adhere to the Laws of the Torah. For example, every male child born to the Igbo is circumcised on the eighth day after birth according to Jewish law.
Their culture is molded by the practice of “Omenana” which means “Laws of the Land,” whose origins can be traced back to the laws given to the people of Israel on mount Sinai.
This cultural foundation of Omenana promotes collective achievement, development, and individual brilliance. As a result of these cultural values, the Igbo have been among the most educated groups in Nigeria. Today, there are more than three million Igbo living in the United States, with many having degrees in higher education.
While there is cultural depth and richness among the people, there still remain many scars from the past and a yearning for sovereignty in their Land. My family is a representative of the devastating experiences of so many Igbo families over the last several decades at the hands of the Nigerian government. My grandfather was born during the early years of British colonial rule in Biafra, the region inhabited by the Igbo. His father, my great-grandfather before him, was a priest in Omenana (Igbo religion), this tradition was passed down to him by his father. At the time of the colonial experience (1914-1960), Igbo traditional practices were labelled an archaic set of practices and deemed to be paganism, as the British colonialists introduced Christianity and began their efforts to convert the Igbo. While my grandfather remained in the practice of Omenana till his death, my father was converted to Christianity as a small child prior to Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960, seven years before the start of the Biafra war.
The Biafra war lasted from 1967 to 1970. The coup that started the war took place on January 15, 1966, led by junior military officers of Igbo extraction. The immediate reasons for the first coup, however, concerned the nationwide disillusionment with the corrupt and selfish politicians, as well as with their inability to maintain law and order and guarantee the safety of lives and property. During the initial stages, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu (an Igbo) and others who masterminded the coup, were hailed as national heroes. But the pattern of killings in the coup gave it a partisan appearance; they killed the prime minister, the premier of the northern region and senior military officers of the north. Soon after, a counter-coup was staged as a reprisal, killing the Igbo military head of state Aguiyi Ironsi, as well as other Igbo military officers stationed in the north.
From June to October 1966, a premeditated and well-planned pogrom executed by marauding northerners and military officers of the Nigerian army killed an estimated 30,000 Igbos, half of them children, and caused more than a million to flee to the eastern region. This coordinated attack awaited the right spark, and the attempted coup was the perfect fit.
My grandfather and his family suffered much during the war. My grandmother nearly lost her life by a stray bullet fired by an enemy rifle. My father, who was a small child at the time, was raised in an unstable and dangerous circumstances and was forced to make lots of sacrifices. At the onset of the war, his family was actively moving from one location to the other, continually displaced due to the conflict. Whenever a serious fighting began nearby, they would quickly move to another place. Primarily due to the famine and starvation in the land, children died in high numbers and were tagged as the “Biafra babies” by the international media.
These catastrophes led the Igbo to declare their separation from the rest of the nation on May 30, 1967. A bright, young Sandhurst-trained and Oxford educated military officer named Odumegwu Ojukwu led the movement. The Igbo were the majority in the eastern region of Nigeria, the Biafra. With the declaration of Biafran independence, the Igbo found themselves in middle of a full-blown war, as the regional minority tribes were divided in their support. The minorities feared an Igbo dominance in the eastern region would give them control over the lucrative oil production in the minority areas, which played a vital strategic role.
The Nigerian government’s main supporters were the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, while France, Israel, and a few other countries supported Biafra. Britain and the Soviets aided the Nigerians with heavy supplies of weaponry; these armaments were crucial in shifting the advantages of the war internationally for political support of Biafra and its French-aligned former colonies of Gabon and the Ivory coast recognized Biafra’s independence. Israel had its parliament, the “Knesset,” publicly debate this issue on July 17 and 22, 1968. In August of 1968, the Israeli air force covertly sent twelve tons of food aid to a nearby site outside of the Biafran airspace. Soon after, Israel arranged to make clandestine weapons shipments to Biafra using Ivory coast transport planes.
The United Nations was silent and deferred to local bodies such as the Organization of African Unity for policy, advice, and guidance. The Biafran leadership had expected the United Nations to be more involved in sanctioning the Nigerian government and leading humanitarian efforts on ground, but none of these expectations were realized. In October 1969, when Ojukwu reached out desperately to the UN to mediate a cease-fire as prelude to peace negotiations, his pleas were met with a deafening silence.
In 1970, the Biafra movement surrendered, and the territory was reintegrated back into Nigeria. The reconstruction efforts of the eastern region were championed by the hardworking and industrious Igbo men and women as the Nigerian government was uninterested in investing in any infrastructural rebuilding in the former Biafra region.
The movement for independence was subdued for several decades until its resurrection by the contemporary Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) in 1999, led by an Indian-trained lawyer, Ralph Uwazuruike. The group agitates for peaceful secession of Biafra from Nigeria.
There have been attempts by the federal government to stifle their agenda by detaining activists and supporters alike without trial. Protests have erupted and resulted in the deaths of many, with others critically injured. Since 2015, secessionists protests have met a brutal response by the Nigerian security forces; more than 150 people were killed at pro-Biafra rallies between August 2015 and August 2016 according to Amnesty international.
South-eastern Nigeria is mainly inhabited by the ethnic Igbo people, who often complain of marginalization, accusing successive governments of failing to develop their areas. In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of support for a breakaway state of Biafra led by another secessionist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), founded in 2012 by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, a pro-Biafra independent activist based in the UK. Its mission is to rekindle the spirit of Igbo independence and patriotism.
My grandfather survived the war and returned to our local village amid widespread jubilation. He was a war survivor and veteran alongside his fellow Igbo brethren with whom had served. One of my maternal uncles had to be flown to Gabon by Caritas international relief-flight evacuation team, which at the time was actively involved in the Biafran humanitarian aid. Every Igbo family has a story of devastation and sacrifice to tell from the Biafra war.
At the end of the conflict, my entire family reunited with the exception of those we had lost in the fighting. To this day, we remain grateful for their devotion and sacrifice. We love and cherish these individuals, who fought barefoot and barely clothed. They slept on dirt roads and in thick forests. There was no shelter. There was nowhere to hide. They marched off to the war fronts courageously and fearlessly. They made a choice to put their lives on the line to serve and defend our land. They deserve to be remembered and to be celebrated.
It is for the sake of future of the Igbos, for our children and grand-children, that I feel it is important to tell Biafra’s little-known story. It is our story. It is my story.
The Biafra war, represents more than a fight for freedom. It was a fulfillment of prophecy, a connecting link between the Igbos and their Jewish brethren, who share the same struggles for survival, security, and sovereignty.
I call on our Jewish brothers to seek out their brethren in West Africa, extending a handshake of love to strengthen our unity, as what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
Let us remember that as one people, we have a legacy of the World’s greatest prophets, philosophers, and intellectuals. We must join hands and stand up against those who perpetuate bigotry, hatred, and violence against our brothers and sisters because of their race and religion. We can come together to support each other, knowing that our cause is strong, in order to create a bright future for us all.
King Joe Izimah is a writer, activist, speaker and entrepreneur. As an Igbo, he considers himself an Israelite. And had repeatedly called for the reunification of both houses of Israel. He has written articles on the need for a return to the Igbo culture and religion (Omenana). As an adherent of Omenana culture and Judaism, he has continuously advocated for the resurrection of authentic Omenana amongst the Igbo, who left the religion for Christianity at dawn of colonial British rule.