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close this bookCountry Report Nigeria - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 56 p.)
close this folderThe war experience
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentRegional conflict
View the documentThe chaos of war


Nigeria's civil war was a conventional war fought in the south-eastern part of the country, known during the secessionist period as the Republic of Biafra. The war yielded two very different experiences: one for those close to the violence and fighting, and one for those removed from the conflict. But the war has made an impression on every person in Nigeria, no matter where they lived, or even if they were not alive at the time.

Unlike most of the participants in the People on War project, the people of Nigeria view war through a long lens, backwards through time. Among the respondents in the ICRC survey in Nigeria, all of whom were over the age of 18, only 34 per cent were age 10 or older at the end of the war; 43 per cent of those surveyed were born after the cease-fire was declared in January 1970.5 While the citizens of Colombia, Somalia or Afghanistan can relate stories of war remembered from youth, adulthood or even from past weeks and months, for the citizens of Nigeria, direct experience of war is either a distant memory or a lesson to be learned from history books, television or stories passed down from grandfathers and aunts, retired neighbours and distant kin.

5Forty-five per cent of Nigeria's 110 million people are under the age of 14; only 3 per cent are over the age of 65.

There is no doubt, however, that the 1967-1970 Biafran war made an impression on those born after its end. It still shapes Nigerian life, as focus groups, in-depth interviews and survey results reveal; the long-term consequences of the war range from the overt, such as the string of military governments that have dominated Nigerian political life since the war, to the subtle tensions that still linger on today. As one journalist commented, "Nigeria has been [in peace] almost 30 years, three decades, and we still have Biafra war effects." (FG, journalists, Lagos)

Many Nigerians' concept of war and the rules that govern it comes not from direct experience of violence and bloodshed, but rather from direct experience of the consequences - displacement, poverty, and mistrust born of exaggeration or simple fear. Their responses offer a unique perspective on a war a generation past.

Regional conflict

Nigeria's 30-month civil war ranks as one of the bloodiest African conflicts of the 20th century. The physical destruction and trauma associated with the war - the shelling of villages, displacement of populations, air bombardment and bitter fighting between combatants - was generally confined to the country's south-eastern region.6 Not surprisingly, then, a relatively small percentage of Nigerians lived in areas affected by the fighting - only 37 per cent claim the war took place in an area where they lived.

6 The south-eastern region in the survey, encompassing what was known from 1967-1970 as the Republic of Biafra, is defined as the following states within the Federal Republic of Nigeria: Bayelsa, Imo, Rivers, Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi, Abia, Akwa Ibom and Cross River.

Participants in the focus groups and in-depth interviews repeatedly stressed the regional partisanship when describing the history of the war. Regardless of their point of view, they generally characterized the war as a vain attempt by outnumbered Biafrans to gain independence from the rest of Nigeria, whose population dominated the upper echelons of the military and Federal government.

[The Biafrans] felt they are being eliminated in the north, then of course there was the 1966 coup, the first coup in the country... the north felt the purpose of this coup was to eliminate their leaders... (IDI, former journalist, Lagos)

[W]hat was known as south-eastern Nigeria, [the] south-eastern region was fighting the rest of Nigeria. (FG, former Biafran field commanders, Enugu) They [the Biafrans] believe they were betrayed. This is something they started as a group, eventually they ended up fighting alone because it was to be [the] north against the south but eventually it ended the south-easterners fighting alone. (IDI, female student, Lagos)

The survey reveals a wide gulf between the south-eastern region and the rest of Nigeria. The south-east, encompassing what for two and half years was known as the Republic of Biafra, bore the physical brunt of the war. While south-easterners constitute a plurality of those surveyed with 41 per cent, they make up a solid majority of those who experienced the horrors of war firsthand.

Sixty-eight per cent of south-easterners report that the war took place where they lived versus 16 per cent of those who live elsewhere in the country. Of south-easterners, 68 per cent lost contact with a close relative (compared with 22 per cent of those living in other regions); 59 per cent suffered the death of a family member (compared with 17 per cent of those surveyed in other regions); and 19 per cent were tortured (compared with 4 per cent in the rest of the country).

South-easterners also experienced the negative consequences of the war with greater frequency. While 62 per cent of those living outside the south-eastern region report that none of the 13 possible negative effects befell them, only 14 per cent of south-easterners can say the same. Conversely, 38 per cent of south-easterners experienced eight or more of the negative effects, compared with only 3 per cent of those living outside the area.

Indeed, the frequency with which south-easterners suffered the negative effects of the war is often orders of magnitude greater than for those living elsewhere. The ratio of south-easterners to people in the rest of the country who knew someone well who was raped is more than six to one (47 per cent compared with 7 per cent), and for those who were tortured, more than four to one (19 per cent to 4 per cent). In fact, for the 13 possible negative effects of war, in no category does this ratio drop below three to one. (See Figure 1.)

The concentration of the war in the south-east is also evident when it comes to who did the actual fighting. While 9 per cent of Nigerians as a whole were combatants, more than twice as many south-easterners were combatants as those who live in the rest of Nigeria (13 per cent and 6 per cent, respectively).

Although the physical effects of the war were concentrated in one section of Nigeria, all Nigerians surveyed describe their personal experience of the war in negative terms, even if they were not alive at the time of the actual conflict. Despite the fact that the war was confined to one area - almost half of Nigerians say the war took place "somewhere else" (45 per cent) - only 1 per cent of respondents characterize it as "remote". Fifty-six per cent found the war to be "disruptive", 55 per cent describe it as "horrible" and 21 per cent as "hateful". (See Figure 2.)

The extent to which the Biafran war has permeated Nigerian society at all levels is also evidenced by the small number of respondents (2 per cent) who did not have an opinion or could not answer the question at all. Clearly, almost every Nigerian who participated in the survey has strong opinions about the war that once convulsed the country.

The chaos of war

Participants from all levels of Nigerian society and of all ages related traumatic experiences of war: the rules of everyday life were suspended and reality was turned upside down. A teacher in Port Harcourt recounted how she witnessed a mother decapitated by a mortar shell while holding her children. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt) A scholar, now living in Lagos, told of how he watched in horror as a helpless victim had acid poured on his body. (IDI, scholar, Lagos)

FIGURE 1 The war experience (per cent of total population responding)7

7Respondents were asked to identify which of 13 experiences "happened to you personally" as a consequence of the war. These experiences covered a range of physical and psychological effects, from imprisonment to property damage to feeling humiliated. Figure 1 also indicates the percentage of respondents who say they were combatants, lived in an area where the war took place or lived under enemy control.

Focus group participants also related tragically surreal events brought on by the conflict. A former Federal Army commander described how his troops refused to believe a war had actually broken out, that is, until their defecting compatriots fired on them during a drill. "That was how the shooting started, just like a joke." (FG, former Federal Army commanders, Kaduna) An artist who served in the Federal Army described how his unit was cut off and had to fight its way out of enemy territory with heavy casualties, only to learn that the war had ended four weeks previously. (IDI, artist, Lagos)

Participants in the focus groups told stories of terrible cruelty. A medical worker from Port Harcourt described how combatants forced captives to lie on their backs and stare into the sun. They also gave accounts of the reportedly widespread practice of burying people alive.

The worst thing I remember and could never forget, the Biafran soldiers asked my brother-in-law to dig a trench and ordered him to go inside They dug two, they were two, they ordered the other man to use the shovel to cover it. We were watching. They buried him alive, and after that they ordered the brother to enter the next one and they covered it too. I can never forget it in my life. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt)

Yes sir. They buried the man alive. He dug the ground himself and they put him inside. (FG, medical workers, Port Harcourt)

Rape also was used as a fearsome and widespread weapon to terrorize civilians.

Many girls were captured by the Nigerian army, including married women. At times they raped the women in front of their husbands. If you talked they would shoot you. (FG, teachers, Port Harcourt)

When you get home as a farmer, you discover your wife has been raped, you are not a happy man. You are annoyed and you feel disappointed... You come back and meet them raped, you will never be a happy father again. (IDI, farmer, Lagos)

I noticed a man and his wife, they met each other in the presence of soldiers. [Moderator: Oh, they were asked to perform intercourse?] Yes. [In the presence of soldiers?] Yes. The soldiers asked them to do it in their presence. After the man climbed on top of the woman, they shot him. (FG, medical workers, Port Harcourt)

Yes, they burn them alive. Then the women, they will bring them, lie them down, then before they burn the men, they would ask them to rape the women, then after they would burn them. (FG, female students, Enugu)

The young girls of those days, there was none that was not raped by force... (FG, women who lost children during the war, Enugu)

FIGURE 2 Personal description of the war (per cent of total population responding)

While many participants had strong opinions as to the roots of the conflict and the events that led up to it - geopolitics, economic need or ethnic discord - many Nigerians simply described a society that spun out of control. A former Biafran commander described the war as "genocide" (FG, former Biafran field commanders, Enugu) and a Red Cross volunteer described life as "survival of the fittest. There was no food, no money... so we have to fight for a living." (IDI, Nigerian Red Cross volunteer, Lagos) For those caught up in the fighting, it was a time of unfathomable wickedness. As one woman put it, the time of the war was an "[a]bomination, the work of the devil". (FG, women who lost children during the war, Enugu)

Respondents also detailed the effects of the war that went beyond actual fighting and bloodshed. In both focus group locations in what used to be Biafran territory (Enugu and Port Harcourt), they recounted stories of disease and starvation.8 For many people in the world outside Nigeria, this was the face of the Biafran war: makeshift camps teeming with sweltering and malnourished displaced people.

8The malady known as kwashiorkor - a condition stemming from lack of dietary protein that causes the sufferer's skin to scale and turn red, hair to thin and fall out before he or she dies of malnutrition - is mentioned in every focus group.

This underlying context, formed of both direct war experiences and impressions of war gleaned from other sources, provided the setting for an examination of Nigerians' attitudes towards war and the manner in which they think it should be fought. As has been seen, the physical manifestations of the Biafran war took a devastating toll on those living in the south-east - both on those alive during the conflict and those born afterwards. And although little of the fighting took place in the areas in which they lived, residents of other parts of Nigeria clearly exhibit strong feelings on the topic of war.