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"We're cripples like ourhomeland...."
Anger, resentment simmer in Nigeria over plight of BiafraVeterans
ENUGU, Nigeria (AP) -- Broken soldiers at the side of the road,they are the rejected remnants of a catastrophic civil war nobodywants to remember, but few can forget. In wheelchairs and propped upon crutches, a dozen Ibo tribesmen -- veterans of the Biafran war of30 years ago -- come every day to sit by the curb of a two-lanehighway on the outskirts of Biafra's erstwhile capital, Enugu. Theyhave nowhere else to go.
They gave their legs and their arms, and by the hundreds ofthousands their compatriots gave their lives for an independence fromNigeria that lasted only 31 months. In return, they say, they gotnothing. For Nigeria's military dictatorship, the Republic of Biafrais a bad memory best left in the past. But the underlying rage, thatsame sense of betrayal that provoked the secessionist war in 1967, isalive and simmering among the largely Christian Ibos of southeasternNigeria. "Look at me,'' says Francis (N)joku, a former foot soldierin the Biafran People's Army. He leans forward in his rustingwheelchair and points at calloused stubs where his legs once were."None of us can walk. We're cripples like our homeland.''
It's a lament that echoes Ibo sentiments as old as independentNigeria. A country of ethnic fault lines, Nigeria has had limitedsuccess in incorporating diverse and often jealous (ethnic) groupsunder one flag. Economic problems are making the task increasinglydifficult, and the ethnic rift is again spreading.
Under the five-year dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha, a northernMuslim, Nigeria's economy is in disarray. Corruption dictates inplace of fair competition. Patronage contracts doled out to the loyaldetermine success in the private sector.
The prospects are particularly grim for the Ibos, whoselong-standing enmity with Nigeria's northern Muslim tribes persists.A generation after the Biafran war, Ibos complain that their oil-richland is exploited by Abacha's regime while they are neglected andtreated like an underclass.
Although Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil-producingcountries, little of its $4.5 billion in yearly oil revenue has beenput toward nation-building. The Ibo homelands, known casually here as"Iboland,'' sit but have seen scant returns.
"The federal government always wanted what was in Iboland, butthey never wanted the Iboman,'' says Joseph Akani, 54. A war veteranparalyzed from the waist down, he smartly snaps his hand to his browin a military salute to passing motorists from the side of the Enuguhighway.
Ibos have virtually no representation in the upper echelons ofNigeria's government.
If the presidential election goes forward later this year, theIbos, who account for about one of every four Nigerians, willinfluence voting in only two of the country's 30 states. In Onitsha,the sprawling Ibo market town along the Niger River, electricityservice is sporadic, roads are in disrepair and most people live insubsistence poverty.
The bitterness sounded by the veterans on the roadside isshared by many in their community. "We're treated like second-classcitizens,'' says businessman Casper Muba. "If Biafra had survived,could you imagine? We could have built a wonderful state with theresources God has given us. Instead it is taken from us andwasted.''
Biafra was conceived in early 1966 when five young army officersfrom the Ibo tribe toppled the national government in a violent coup,killing the premier and kidnapping several senior cabinetministers.
For the northern Muslim tribes, the uprising signaled an Iboconspiracy to wrest control of the entire country. Old suspicions andethnic hatreds boiled over and bloodletting began. When it was over,tens of thousands of Ibo migrants living in the north had beenmassacred and their churches burned. Bodies lined the side of therailway linking the Ibo's south with the Hausa north.
More than 1 million Ibos across the country returned to theirtribal homelands to heed the call of their leader, Gen. OdumegwuOjukwu, for an independence struggle.
Describing the Ibo killings as "a premeditated and deliberate act,diabolical in concept and maniacal in execution,'' Ojukwu proclaimeda sovereign Republic of Biafra for the Ibo people in May 1967.
More than a million people were killed or died of starvation inthe three-year civil war that followed, before Biafra surrendered inignominious defeat to government troops in 1970.
Today, the Biafra war veterans, like most Ibos, must fend forthemselves. "Just look at what our land has,'' says Benson Nwonoh, aformer teacher who joined the Biafran People's Army to defend hishomeland. "All the states of Iboland have oil, but we have nothing.They cannot even give us working wheelchairs.''
A metal fragment from a hand grenade lodged in Nwonoh's skull backin 1968. Left partially paralyzed, he lives with about 120 otherveterans at a small camp near the side of the Enugu highway. "Thegovernment just abandoned us,'' he says. "Nothing has changed. Theysay they want reconciliation, they want peace, but they give usnothing.'' By Ian Stewart/AP/May 11, 1998
ODUMEGWU EMEKA OJUKWU: "It was simply a choice between Biafra and enslavement! And, here's why we chose Biafra"
Biafra-Nigeria war and history to get fresh, critical look from a survivor
'Biafra: History has no Mercy' - a preliminary note by Chido Nwangwu