BIAFRA. First week of January 1968. Fifteen-year-old Nnaemeka Ezeaku listened as the sounds of gunshots and explosions drew closer to his home in Awka, the capital city of southeastern Anambra State.
Although Nigeria’s civil war had been raging for six months, it had never come this close.
Ezeaku’s family stayed glued to the radio, listening for updates on military advances. The rumor mill steadily delivered an alternative version of the conflict, which fleeing refugees confirmed. By 2 o’clock one afternoon, his whole community began walking with no destination in mind except to find refuge from the conflict.
Ezeaku—who was home from boarding school for the Christmas holiday—placed his still-packed suitcase on his head and joined his fleeing family. It was two years before he returned, and then only after witnessing killings, fighting as a child soldier, and sustaining a bullet wound.
THE CIVIL WAR ERUPTED shortly after Nigeria’s southeast declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra. The move followed unresolved grievances and a failed peace accord. The background is complicated. The Igbo ethnic group is one of three major ethnic groups in a country with some 250. They predominate in the southeast, the Hausas predominate in the north, while the Yorubas represent the majority in the southwest.
In 1966, a failed coup led mostly by southeastern Igbo Christian officials resulted in the death of the northern prime minister as well as 30 other northern Muslim leaders. In a subsequent countercoup, northern soldiers killed thousands of Igbos who lived in the country’s northern region. On May 30, 1967, southeastern leader Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu in a broadcast address declared Biafra an independent nation.
Biafra carved out the southeast as its territory, set up the Bank of Biafra, and created its own emblem: A red, black, and green striped flag with an image of a rising sun. Nigeria vowed to crush the rebellion in the southeast, a region that held a vast amount of the country’s oil resources. On July 6, 1967, Nigerian forces attacked Biafran forces.
The war led to the deaths of between 1 million and 10 million persons, many dying from starvation in the new landlocked nation. Fifty years later, residents of the southeast still complain of marginalization in Nigeria, and many still seek self-determination.