Book review by Osita Ebiem
The Nigerian Civil War: The Memoirs of an Unsung Biafran Commando, a book by Matthew Uzukwu is an important book. It is published in 2016 by Feli Publishing Maryland, USA and available at www.amazon.com for $15. The book tells the story of the Biafran War from the perspective of a Biafran soldier, John Ude who fought on many fronts against the unwarranted Nigerian war of aggression against Biafra. It is clear from the book that every Biafran soldier believed in the justness of the fight till the end – an indication that the philosophy of the war was clearly communicated to the people. To all Biafrans and by all honest definitions of the word; the war was genocide. Therefore, the fighters clearly wanted to survive a certain death. Ude and the rest of Biafran soldiers fought to stop genocide. In trying to prevent the death of a people Ude and others like him gave everything they got – their very life.
The book is a faith kept by the author who painstakingly took down notes as a high school student from the oral narrations of Ude’s personal recollections of his experiences during the war. The book is well-written and an easy-read with many pages of pictures of the principal participants in the war as well as those of many kwashiorkor victims and war refugees in Biafra. It’s a book of 166 pages that catches the interest of the reader right from start and can be finished within the space of a few lunch breaks. It is a historical narration of how Biafrans successfully used ingenuity to prosecute a war of survival and ran a functional society while going through the greatest of trials. Basic social services such as law courts, electricity, fuel supplies and the post office worked till the very end of the Biafran ordeal. It was because the post office worked in Biafra that John Ude’s life was spared at the tail end of the war when he was wrongly taken for a deserter. The lesson here is that when a society works as it should, it does not only enhance the quality of living in all aspects for the citizens, lives are often saved when it matters the most, even in seemingly unrelated areas.
Ude and all the other Biafran soldiers distinguished themselves in the fields of war and successfully prevented an intended total genocide against Igbo people. They made history. And after nearly fifty years, Matthew Uzukwu wrote to preserve the history of their courage and to inspire for all time any group of people who may have to go through a similar unjust Biafran experience. But sometimes there have often been debates about; between the soldier and the historian, who does more service for humanity. This must have informed David Ben-Gurion’s conclusion. In a tone obviously meant to disparage the historian and raise the status and prestige of the soldier above the historian, Ben-Gurion said that “History is not written, history is created.”
But there will be no history at all without the historian. If a great tree falls in the forest and no one was there to hear the fall, it would never have made any sound. At the dawn of creation, physicists believe that there was a big bang that exploded to give existence to everything there is in the universe today. The fact is that the explosion which is supposed to be the one sound that spanned the entire universe at the beginning of time did not make any sound at all because there was no sentient being to hear the sound at the time. So, history is created by the soldier but history must be written by the writer for it to even exist. John Ude did his part by fighting to prevent genocide and Matthew Uzukwu has written the story to prevent a future occurrence of genocides against Igbo people. One of the highlights of the night in Washington DC area where the book was presented to the public on June 19, 2016 was the vote of thanks which was delivered by Uzukwu’s teenage daughter Chinwe. She thanked the guests who were gathered to support the father for writing the book. For many of us who were there the vote of thanks was two ways and we could not have been less grateful.
My major quarrel with the book is in the title. Unfortunately, most Igbo scholars have fallen into the trap of accepting without any examination the fallacy sold by the British and Nigerians, of thinking of the war as a “civil war.” But the truth is that there was no civil war in Nigeria until the Nigeria versus Boko Haram war which started less than ten years ago. On the contrary, Biafra versus Nigeria war was not a civil war. The standard definition of civil wars is that the war is fought within the physical geographical confines of a state. It is usually fought between or among several contending groups in the country. But this is not the case with the Biafran Nigerian conflict of 1967 to 1970. The war officially began on the 6th of July, 1967. That was the date on which Nigeria first fired the first bullet in the war of aggression which it waged against Biafra.July 6 date is important when proving that the Biafra-Nigeria War was not a civil war. The war was GENOCIDE. The purpose of deliberately distorting the historical facts about the war by the concerned players in the war (the British and Nigerians) is to make less the weight of the crime which they jointly committed against the Igbo.
On the 30th of May, 1967 the people of the former Eastern Region of Nigeria exercising their fundamental human right to self-determination and independence unilaterally declared their freedom and independence from Nigeria. The step the people took was the best option that they had at the time and they had every right to do what they did. Prior to this date, for a period of about one year, starting from May 29, 1966, the government of Nigeria and its citizens unremorsefully and without relent carried out a systematic program of pogrom against the Igbo population and the other ethnic peoples of the former Eastern Region. By the time of Biafrans declaration of independence, more than 100,000 Igbo and other southeasterners had been murdered. The independent declaration was an effort that the people embarked on as the last resort. They justifiably pursued their basic human right to self-defense and right to life. By the conclusion of that war, over 3.5 million Biafrans were unjustly murdered by the Nigerian state.
The truth about the Biafran War is that Nigeria waged a war of aggression against another sovereign independent state which had been in existence for almost two months. At this point, all responsible governments and leaders would have engaged in using diplomacy and negotiations to prevent any further loss of lives.
Fifty years afterward, given all the prevailing events in Nigeria’s political space, just as Biafra was right in 1967, it has remained so up till this writing in 2016. And that is partly some of the things that the reader may not find in the book. The author also failed to address appropriately the cause of the war. There is no doubt that Igbo officers dominated the rank of those who carried out the first coup d’état of January 1966 but he should have explained to the reader more about the reasons for the coup. He should have let the reader know that the coup was an attempt to save Nigeria from the suffocating Islamic bigotry and heavily corrupt political leadership of the central government of the Prime Minister and the Premier of the Northern Region.
The writer failed to tell the reader that the coup was also carried out partly to prevent the federal government’s planned “walloping of the Western Region” and to install in power the populist Obafemi Awolowo who was then serving a prison sentence for planning a coup d’état against the government. The author should have let the reader know that Ifeajuna/Nzeogwu coup d’état of January, 1966 was carried out to prevent the federal government of Nigeria’s declared intention to “wallop” or wipe out the Yoruba people of Western Region. If the author had done that he would have in that same vein established that John Ude and all Biafrans fought Biafra War to prevent the federal government of Nigeria’s declared intention and systematic program of wanting to exterminate the Igbo whom they considered to be the source of all the problems of Nigeria.