ABUJA, Nigeria — Before my grandmother died in 2010, she gave each of her 17 grandchildren a crisp one-pound note. It was an unceremonious gift, without lectures or reminiscing. She opened my hands and firmly pressed the bill into my palm. “You must keep this,” she said, before following up in Igbo: “Inugo?” Do you hear me? “Yes, Grandma,” I responded. “Thank you.”
Later, in another room, I looked at the note more closely. The bill was beautiful, with its antiquated font and soft, mint-green coloring with brown highlights.
One side had a palm tree standing tall in the center, bordered by intricate calligraphy. Across the top were the words “Republic of Biafra.”
To my grandmother, it was an invaluable offering, worth more than her thick coral necklaces or her gold embroidered George fabrics.
She wanted her grandchildren to have a piece of Biafra, the short-lived country that she and millions of others from our Igbo ethnic group had attempted to create as a refuge from the newly independent country of Nigeria, setting off the civil war of 1967-70, also known as the Biafran war.
Since relocating to Nigeria 16 months ago, I am learning anew just how complex is the history of my country. Nigeria has never really had a single national identity. Ethnic tensions existed ever since 1914, when British colonizers amalgamated more than 250 ethnic and linguistic groups into a new country.
But in the years after Nigeria declared independence in 1960, the three main ethnic groups — the Hausa-Fulani in the north, who are mostly Muslim, and the Yoruba in the southwest and Igbos in the southeast, who mostly practice Christianity or traditional religions — jockeyed for power.
In 1966, the situation exploded when a coup and counter-coup led to ethnic violence. Over 30,000 Igbos were killed between July and September of that year. In May 1967, feeling unprotected by the Nigerian government and at risk of genocide, the Igbos of the southeast declared independence. A civil war ensued.
On Jan. 15, 1970, after two and a half years of brutal fighting in which more than one million Nigerians died, Biafra ceded to Nigeria. Overnight my grandmother and other Igbos who had survived the war became Nigerian again.
The previous years were painful for my grandmother, and the process of renegotiating her identity as a Nigerian was, too. The Biafran pounds that she kept stashed away for 40 years before passing them on to her grandchildren were emblematic of an important part of my grandmother’s identity as an Igbo.
Most Nigerians of my grandmother’s generation have kept their memories of that difficult period to themselves. In the decades since the civil war, there hasn’t been any public reckoning of the ruptures that led to it. There are no national memorials, except for the poorly funded and run-down National War Museum in Umuahia, a city in the former Republic of Biafra. Besides the all-inclusive Armed Forces Remembrance Day to honor soldiers who have fought for Nigeria in conflict and war, Nigeria holds no officially sanctioned days of remembrance to honor civilian casualties.
There have been no meaningful truth and reconciliation commissions. There is little in Nigerians’ collective memory to acknowledge that we once turned against one another and divided our country in two.
The memory of Biafra, like the memory of the brutality that brought the country into being and the conflict that followed, has become a ghost haunting our country’s pretenses of national unity. From the opinions written today in daily newspapers to the vitriolic comments made by traditional rulers from some ethnic groups, it is clear that many Nigerians still hold ethnic allegiances ahead of any unified nationalism.
Nigeria’s refusal to acknowledge the most divisive part of its history is why the same fears and rivalries that created the climate for the war still fester today. There is a very real risk of history repeating itself.
In October, the Department of State Security arrested Nnamdi Kanu, a pro-Biafran independence activist. He was charged with conspiracy and being part of an illegal organization for his work with Radio Biafra, an underground radio station. In the weeks after, protests sprung up around southeastern Nigeria calling for his release — and for the region to secede once again. What began as nonviolent demonstrations turned bloody on Dec. 3, when the Joint Military Task Force, made up of army, navy, police and civil defense troops, opened fire on hundreds of protesters in the city of Onitsha in the southeastern state of Anambra. Between nine and 13 people were killed. (The number is still unclear.) Soon after, news emerged that angry protesters had set the central mosque in Onitsha on fire in retaliation.
Political leaders from both the north and the south have made halfhearted attempts to address the concerns raised by the protests. The federal government, for its part, said that they were “economic.” Last week, Mr. Kanu was released on bail but the charges against him remain in place.
Though Nigerians’ views are mixed on the separatist cause and the protesters’ tactics, many see the current agitation as symptomatic of deeper national wounds, that if unattended to could have dangerous consequences for the whole country.
“The issue of Biafra is something we can never forget, neither our children nor our great-great-grandchildren after our time because it is part of history,” Chief Joseph Achuzia, a former Biafran leader, said recently. “The problem Nigeria is facing now is the inability to come to terms with the reality.” He’s right. What a nation permits itself to remember about its past creates the boundaries by which collective identity is established.
There will never be any hope of national unity if Nigeria cannot acknowledge the tragedy of Biafra and the civil war — and deal with the consequences. There needs to be public discussion around what it means to be Nigerian and what the government can do to lead the country in experiencing itself as one nation and one people.
Ethnic groups from the north and the south fought before independence in 1960. Before the first coup, during the civil war, and after, Igbos have felt the threat of economic, social and political marginalization. The new pro-Biafran protests are led by youth who have little memory of Biafra or the brutality and horror of the civil war. And yet fears of oppression under the current government remain.
During the March 2015 presidential elections, a majority of southeastern Nigeria voted for the political party of the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan. Many Igbos feared that Mr. Jonathan’s challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim Fulani who led a military coup in 1983, would act on a latent hatred for Igbos, despite his promises to rebuild the country’s “broken walls.”
The fact that very few Igbos have been given strategic appointments in his cabinet has not quelled those concerns. Ben Nwabueze, an acclaimed academic and a co-founder of the Igbo interest group Ohaneze Ndigbo, openly accuses Mr. Buhari of favoring his fellow northerners and claims that Nigeria’s “No. 1 enemy is the North-South divide.”
I will never understand exactly what Biafra meant to my grandmother and others who lived through that time. But I do understand that Nigeria cannot continue to act as if Biafra and the civil war have no bearing on the current national climate. The silencing of history is dangerous. We remember the pains of our past not only to mourn and heal, but also to learn from them and to ensure they are not repeated.
Two years after my grandmother gave me that one-pound Biafra note, I used it as a bookmark while I read “There Was a Country,” Chinua Achebe’s memoir about the Biafran war.
It was my own attempt to mark the pages of history so important to my grandmother — and increasingly important to me as I negotiate my Nigerian identity. Our country has to learn to mark these pages, too, if we are ever to move forward.
Enuma Okoro is a writer, speaker and communications consultant based in Abuja and New York.