WOMEN AND THE NIGERIAN CIVIL CONFLICT
The Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, 6 July 1967 – 15 January 1970, was an ethnic and political conflict caused by the attempted secession of the southeastern provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra. The conflict was the result of economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions mainly between the Hausas of north and the Igbo of the southeast of Nigeria. Over the two and half years of the war, 1 million civilians died from famine and fighting. The war became notorious for the starvation of some of the besieged regions during the war, and consequent claims of genocide by the largely Igbo people of the region.
MAP OF NIGERIA SHOWING THE BREAKAWAY BIAFRA REPUBLIC
The Nigerian government launched a “police action” to retake the secessionist territory. The war began on 6 July 1967 when Nigerian Federal troops advanced in two columns into Biafra. The Nigerian army offensive was through the north of Biafra led by Colonel Shuwa and the local military units were formed as the 1st Infantry Division. The division was led mostly by northern officers. After facing unexpectedly fierce resistance and high casualties, the right-hand Nigerian column advanced on the town of Nsukka which fell on 14 July, while the left-hand column made for Garkem, which was captured on 12 July. At this stage of the war, the other regions of Nigeria (the West and Mid-West) still considered the war as a confrontation between the north (mainly Hausas) against the east (mainly Igbos). But the Biafrans responded with an offensive of their own when, on 9 August, the Biafran forces moved west into the Mid-Western Nigerian region across the Niger river, passing through Benin City, until they were stopped at Ore (in present day Ondo State) just over the state boundary on 21 August, just 130 miles east of the Nigerian capital of Lagos. The Biafran attack was led by Lt. Col. Banjo, a Yoruba, with the Biafran rank of brigadier. The attack met little resistance and the Mid-West was easily taken over. This was due to the pre-secession arrangement that all soldiers should return to their regions to stop the spate of killings, in which Igbo soldiers had been major victims. The Nigerian soldiers that were supposed to defend the Mid-West state were mostly Mid-West Igbo and while some were in touch with their eastern counterparts, others resisted. General Gowon responded by asking Colonel Murtala Mohammed (who later became head of state in 1975) to form another division (the 2nd Infantry Division) to expel the Biafrans from the Mid-West, as well as defend the West side and attack Biafra from the West as well. As Nigerian forces retook the Mid-West, the Biafran military administrator declared the Republic of Benin on 19 September, though it ceased to exist the next day. (The present country of Benin, west of Nigeria, was still named Dahomey at that time.)
WOMEN IN THE CONFLICT
Even though women weren’t legally allowed to fight in the Civil War, it is estimated that somewhere around 400 women disguised themselves as men and went to war, sometimes without anyone ever discovering their true identities.
It is an accepted convention that the Civil War was a man’s fight. Images of women during that conflict center on self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies, or brave ladies maintaining the home front in the absence of their men. The men, of course, marched off to war, lived in germ-ridden camps, engaged in heinous battle, languished in appalling prison camps, and died horribly, yet heroically. This conventional picture of gender roles during the Civil War does not tell the entire story. Men were not the only ones to fight that war. Women bore arms and charged into battle, too. Like the men, there were women who lived in camp, suffered in prisons, and died for their respective causes.
Although women rarely participated in the war as combatants, women, as half of the population of the United States, experienced the war in various ways and made numerous contributions to the war effort. Women were witnesses, writers, soldiers, spies, nurses, cooks, laundresses, supporters, organizers, and mourners, among many other roles. Their perspectives and contributions are no less valuable than those of their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers who fought and died on the battlefield. Most women’s lives before, during, and immediately after the war continued to be centered around the household and family. However, social changes initiated by the war offered women the opportunity to take leadership roles at home while their husbands and fathers were away. They became more involved in public arenas such as politics, publishing, and social welfare. In addition, women’s domestic roles became more politicized during the war. Sewing, for example, took on new meaning when the shirts women stitched were destined for soldiers.
RECALLING THE WOMEN OF BIAFRA’S ROLE DURING THE BIAFRAN WAR OF SURVIVAL.
If not for the women of Biafra and their courage, the Biafran race and nation would have been completely annihilated during the Biafran War of Survival of 1967-1970. We know of no other group of women in history who suffered more than the women of Biafra, as they saw their spouses leave for war, many never to return; watched their children suffer and slowly die of starvation right in front of their eyes, and witnessed their families pine away to nothing. What agony!
No one but they can tell whence their strength and courage derive, such tenacity as would sustain them through this harrowing ordeal and allow them to rebuild and nurture to maturity and to humanity once again, present-day Biafra, from death and nothingness.
In this state of collapse of infrastructural base, hunger, disease, indiscriminate massacre leading to genocidal proportions, physical and economic assaults, and humiliations in Biafran territories, the Women largely bore the incidence in their different communities. The plight of Women in the civil war time and in the immediate post civil war days was very traumatic and one deserving pity. Igbo Women shouldered most of the excruciating pains of the civil war. They encountered horrific, terrible and dehumanizing ordeals in the hands of ‘enemy soldiers’, saboteurs and hunger related diseases.
There was ‘no regard mentality’ for the rights of women in Igbo communities by the would-be enemy soldiers, their non-combatant status in warfare notwithstanding. They were seen as mere objects of exploitation and personal gratifications. The enemy soldiers utilized the war situation to defile Igboland. Hence, Chinua Achebe observes that the civil war gave Nigeria a perfect and legitimate excuse to cast the Igbo in the role of treasonable felony, a wrecker of a nation with women bearing the greater incidence.
Considering these harrowing experiences of Igbo women during the Nigerian – Biafran civil war and its aftermath, the researcher deems it fit to carry out a study on the experience of Women in ‘Afikpo’ in the civil war period and the impacts of the war on them.
With increased British support the Nigerian federal forces launched their final offensive against the Biafrans once again on 23 December 1969 with a major thrust by the 3rd Marine Commando Division the division was commanded by Col. Olusegun Obasanjo (who later became president twice) which succeeded in splitting the Biafran enclave into two by the end of the year. The final Nigerian offensive, named “Operation Tail-Wind”, launched on 7 January 1970 with the 3rd Marine Commando Division attacking, and supported by the 1st Infantry division to the north and the 2nd Infantry division to the south. The Biafran town of Owerri fell on 9 January, and Uli fell on 11 January. Only a few days earlier, Ojukwu fled into exile by flying by plane to the Ivory Coast, leaving his deputy Philip Effiong to handle the details of the surrender to General Yakubu Gowon of the federal army on 13 January 1970. The war finally ended a few days later with the Nigerian forces advancing in the remaining Biafran held territories with little opposition.
After the war Gowon said, “The tragic chapter of violence is just ended. We are at the dawn of national reconciliation. Once again we have an opportunity to build a new nation. My dear compatriots, we must pay homage to the fallen, to the heroes who have made the supreme sacrifice that we may be able to build a nation, great in justice, fair trade, and industry.over 500,000 women were lost in the bitter armed conflict in Nigeria between 1967-970.
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8. “Nigerian Civil War”. Polynational War Memorial. Retrieved 4 January 2014.
9. “Biafra: Thirty years on”. Africa (BBC News). Retrieved 4 January 2014. “Ethnic split: At independence, Nigeria had a federal constitution comprising three regions defined by the principal ethnic groups in the country – the Hausa and Fulani in the north, Yoruba in the south-west, and Ibo in the south-east. Crowd The fighting led to famine and chaos but as the military took over in the mid-1960s, and the economic situation worsened, ethnic tensions broke out. Up to 30,000 Ibos were killed in fighting with Hausas, and around 1million refugees fled to their Ibo homeland in the east”
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