Legacy of Nigeria civil war remembered at Christian Aid reception

PEOPLE in Nigeria and Britain “must take time for reflection and remembrance of the Biafran War”, historian David Olusoga has said at a Christian Aid reception marking 50 years since the end of Nigerian’s deadly civil conflict.

David Olusoga OBE  – the British-Nigerian historian, writer and broadcaster – made these remarks at a reception in Lambeth Palace, London, which took place on January 15, half a century to the day the Nigeria-Biafra War ended.

The Christian Aid event brought together people of influence from the Nigerian diaspora – across politics, charity, media, arts, business and faith – to explore ways to unite to pursue a just, equitable and peaceful Nigeria.

In his keynote address, Mr Olusoga reflected on conflict’s legacy. He said:

“Nigeria is a nation with over 250 ethnic groups. By some methods of calculation, it has over 300 ethnic groups. Forged together by the British Empire from three separate colonies it was always, more than any nation on the continent, going to face profound challenges when it came to adhering to the borders left behind by the British Empire. Borders that made no reference to ethnicity or history.

“In the first decade of independence those tensions overwhelmed the nation and the national leadership profoundly failed, and we must confront that… Nigeria like many nations, including the one we stand in today, struggles even today with the challenge of being a multi-ethnic state… How nations deal with those profound challenges remains one of the biggest questions we face in the 21st century.

“But the failures of Nigeria in the 1960s sprang from the historic failures from early decades, including some of those of British rule – and they created and exacerbated the divisions from which the crisis of 50 years ago sprang. Those divisions, we have to accept, continue: how could they not? And there are other legacies. One that is often overlooked is that in the fields farmed by some of the poorest communities in the south-east remain unexploded ordnance and landmines.”

Legacy of Nigeria civil war remembered at Christian Aid reception
Christian Aid CEO Amanda Khozi Mukwashi with Brian Sheen, who was part of Christian Aid’s 1968 relief effort. Credit: Christian Aid/Adam Finch

The Biafran War (1967-1970) was fought over the formation of the state of Biafra, made up of states in Nigeria’s Eastern Region who declared their independence in May 1967.  The conflict claimed the lives of as many as three million Biafran civilians who died of starvation, disease and injury.

Mr Olusoga told guests at the Christian Aid reception that it was “entirely right” that the 50-year milestone was being marked not just across Nigeria, but also in Britain, given the “shared history” between the two countries. “That history, that interconnectedness, that shared past is the reason why today, in both Britain and in Nigeria, we must take time for reflection and remembrance of the Biafran War,” he said.

Legacy of Nigeria civil war remembered at Christian Aid reception
Guests at the event included British actress and singer Victoria Ekanoye, left, who performed. Credit: Christian Aid/Adam Finch

He added: “The war was one that involved Britain, not just as the historical colonial power but as a nation that in multiple ways was drawn into the conflict. The British Government, and British companies… are found on the pages of any proper history of that conflict… And British aid agencies, such as Christian Aid, played a critical role in trying to assist the millions whose lives were thrown into chaos by the war. The death tolls would almost certainly have been higher had those aid agencies not sent their teams to Nigeria.”

Today, an estimated 95 million Nigerians live in extreme poverty, while insecurity and violence in the north-east of the country has displaced millions of people. Christian Aid’s Nigeria programme has been providing life-saving emergency relief to affected communities, reaching more than 400,000 women, children and men over the past three years.

Speaking at the reception, Christian Aid’s Nigeria country manager Charles Usie reflected on the current crisis. He said: “The reality is that 50 years after the Biafran War, we still have people in Nigeria who are dependent on food aid and who, without food rations, will suffer and die. Right now there are many Nigerians who feel that is appalling and unacceptable.

“Irrespective of tribe or religion we must accompany people through their suffering: we shouldn’t allow people to go through those trials and suffering… Poverty is more than just a technical term, it’s a deprivation of human existence and it’s unacceptable at this time in Nigeria. Our futures are bound together, and now is the time to take action. We need to work together to bring Nigeria to the place where we think it should be.”

Echoing this theme, Christian Aid’s CEO Amanda Khozi Mukwashi encouraged those present to work together with the charity to create a Nigeria where all citizens can thrive and live free of poverty, violence and inequality.

She said: “For Africa to develop and progress, Africans have to be at the heart of the solutions. They have to be at the heart of the energy; they have to be at the heart of the driving seat of where Africa is going … I’m convinced that we need to do it with Nigerians: together in collaboration, in partnership, in solidarity.”

To mark the 50th anniversary a new Christian Aid film, ‘Brian in Biafra’, was screened at the reception. The film tells the story of Brian Sheen, a member of a 1968 Christian Aid medical team who travelled to Nigeria to help Biafrans caught up in the conflict. Mr Sheen was a special guest at the reception, which closed with a musical performance from former Coronation Street actor Victoria Ekanoye.