As a small child, I grew up knowing very little of the world outside of my fundamentalist Christian family in North America. Any knowledge I had of Africa was framed by simplistic cliches. Africans, i assumed, were black, lived in jungles, worshipped idols, and were going to hell unless white Christian missionaries from America shared the gospel with them. Africans lived in a place called "the foreign mission field," which I envisioned as a very large and literal field crowded with people dressed in colorful native clothing or none at all, all of them speaking some incomprehensible tongue yet eagerly waiting to hear about Jesus from me when I grew up and travelled to Africa as a missionary.
The reality of Africa, of course, was far more complicated and tragic than I could imagine. That reality began to impinge on my life in 1968 when I started to see photographs of the horrendous suffering and bloodshed connected with the Biafran-Nigerian War. Within two and a half years, over 3 million people died in the course of the war from massacre, starvation, disease, and violent conflict between the Nigerian government and the breakaway Biafran Republic.
The war was driven by conflict between ethnic and tribal groups that had been thrown together into the patchwork quilt of a fabricated country called "Nigeria" by the British imperialists. The stakes in the conflict were heightened by the discovery of vast oil reserves in the southern part of the country. The principal victims of the war were the Igbo people of the region of Biafra.
Jerome Agu Nwadike miraculously survived the war, and in the spring of 2011 has at last published his memoir and history of the war. His book, A Biafran Soldier‚Äôs Survival from the Jaws of Death, is Nwadike's contribution to our understanding of the vast tragedy of post-colonial Africa. He joined the Biafran Red Cross in 1967, and soon began training as a soldier in the Biafran Army. Nwadike says:
"The core training was on war tactics: maneuvering, accurate shooting, taking cover, and observing. We learned the self-defense techniques and the necessary tactics to be used in disarming the enemy in case we happen to be engaged in close combat. There was also basic training in signals and logistics. The use of password especially at night was learned. Series of mock battles were carried out to reflect the actual combat scenario. We chanted a lot of war songs, and we were eagerly looking forward to the day we shall be deployed to the battlefield. In fact, it was a call to duty, a clarion call to defend our fatherland and protect our people from being exterminated and annihilated."
From Nwadike's idealistic innocence, however, he descends into the hell of an actual war in which the lines between moral and immoral behavior are considerably fuzzier. The Nigerian government plays the role of the principal criminal, and Nwadike provides horrific details of the war tactics of the government that he justifiably calls genocidal. However, he also tells the story of a Biafran general who murdered many of his own troops to stop them from retreating in the face of a Nigerian assault.
Sadly, the Biafran-Nigerian War was a precursor to similar wars during the next half century in Angola, Congo, Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Rwanda.
Nwadike rightly concludes that the war was unnecessary and preventable:
"All the people of Nigeria, Africa, and the world at large should learn how to use dialogue in resolving conflicts and avoid waging war against one another. They need to understand that every war fought in the world is at the advantage of capitalism. An important lesson from the war should help us to live as one indivisible nation with love for all and equality for everyone so that the mistakes of the past should be clearly avoided. The easiest way to guarantee unity in the country is for the government to establish concrete programs and policies for the enhancement of the living standard of the people. In fact, there is no doubt that real unity will be achieved when people feel that they are part and parcel of the group and are capable to freely associate and belong. The destiny of Nigeria as well as that of Africa wholly lies in their hands."
I am grateful to Jerome Nwadike for returning from hell to tell the rest of us what it was like. Perhaps we'll listen to his story and be inspired to support his work for peace and justice in Nigeria.