When tit for tat and targeted killings of Easterners forced Emeka Ojukwu, a Colonel in the Nigerian Army and military administrator of Eastern Nigeria, to unilaterally declare the independent Republic of Biafra Nigeria advanced to the precipice. What followed was a 30-month barrage of killing fields concentrated in Igbo territories.
Official figures from international agencies have put the number of civilians who perished with that civil war at 1 million. Equally, the war claimed the best minds and human capital of that part of the Nigerian society. Photographs of starving children with huge distended stomachs from protein deficiency emerged, sparking outrage around the world then.
There was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission setup after that brutal civil war that came to a peaceful end in 1970 by the two young and brilliant military leaders of Nigeria and the renegade Biafra. Igbos began to return to the north and post-civil war era witnessed unprecedented levels of inter-marriages between indigenes of the two warring sides.
Johnson and I grew up together as inseparable friends. Johnson, a proud Igbo and I were not born during that brutal civil war. In fact, Johnson like me was born in the north. We were not perturbed by Nigerian leaders that decided not to teach us the history of the civil war. I was not obliged to apologize to Johnson or him apologizing to me for the grave mistakes of our parents, we shared everything and grew up happily.
Johnson, could speak my local dialect Pabur or Bura better than I could ever attempt. He introduced me to one of my most favourite African menus, an Igbo delicacy, the oha soup. He would wait for my arrival before having his lunch. In effect, we regularly ate together. In 1989 my late sister met and fell in love with a young Igbo man from Abakiliki (in) my home town, and they got married in 1990. I now have an Igbo nephew and two nieces’ two of whom have since returned to the South East and one is currently living with my parents in Borno.
I am still nostalgic of my days in Obiagu, in Enugu where each evening I strolled from Obiagu to Uwani then to Ogbete market, making acquaintance with Hausa and Kanuri smoked-fish traders that felt at home in the region then. As a boy, I befriended several Igbo boys and girls. I believe they are now men and women like me today. Sadly, it is increasingly becoming difficult for our children to enjoy such co-existence in Nigeria.
In a recent email, Johnson had this to say to me: “Until quite recently, when unfolding events in the Northern parts of Nigeria compelled me to relocate to the Southern parts, I have always regarded the north as home. I had induced myself into an alluring contemplation of growing old in the North and dying in my dotage amongst friends and relations. While enamored of these delusive thoughts it had never crossed my mind that Northern Nigeria would in a space of a few years be turned into something as unimaginably frightful as what is in evidence today.”
My friend and thousands of his kinsmen including my nephew and nieces have been forcefully uprooted from the North by the gale of destructive forces that is sweeping through Northern Nigeria. The families that have inter-married with Southerners in the north, and many kind hearted northern Muslims and Christians that are in the majority cannot even protect themselves, let alone, Igbos from the clutches of Boko Haram violence and other pockets of violence in the region.
Johnson’s connection to his origin, Eastern Nigeria is at best tenuous since he only stayed there occasionally, mostly during Christmas and other family engagements. He has moved to Asaba in Delta State. Recently, when I planned to visit him he expressed serious concerns about my safety. The same thing applies in Borno, where Johnson grew up and graduated as an excellent Mass Communication student in the University of Maiduguri.
This grave danger is not limited to the likes of Johnson who is a Christian and Igbo. My parents are both from Borno but Christians and are therefore in as much at grave danger each day as just any Christian from the Southern part of Nigeria. What is more confusing to me is, as a Muslim I am not spared either, as long as Muslims do not share the Boko Haram doctrine there is no difference between Ahmad and Johnson.
The kind of violence in northern Nigeria today is not about Igbos that led to the Nigerian civil war or about Christian and Muslims, or sectarian or ethnic violence. This violence is like a wildfire, it destroys everything in its path. No sectional leader can save us, only and only a selfless and unifying Nigerian leader can curb this tide of violence.
Recently, when some of us from Borno were crying for lack of empathy from the entire country over the increasing abductions and genocide in our troubled region, an online mob mostly from the South on social media said, ‘northerners are paying for the genocide of Igbo kids that were left to starve to death in their hundreds of thousands. Sadly, most of the perpetrators and victims of recent violence in the north served by Boko Haram know nothing or have nothing to do with the misdeeds of Nigeria over Biafra.
Northerners are not doing Igbos any favours either for welcoming them in the north, the Igbos have contributed to the economy and provided economic opportunities more than most northern political leaders have ever done. The reliance of one region for agricultural produce, land and another for trade and resources would have been sufficient to turn Nigeria into a united and strong economic giant were it not for bad leaders.
The same way relocation to the southern axis of the country has given Johnson a strong feeling of displacement. The same way I might feel for inability to freely walk the streets of Enugu as I did decades ago. For Johnson, ‘Northern Nigeria would always be home to me despite all the troubles that have beset the area in recent times.’ For me, Chinasa, Sandra and Graham are so dear to me that I can do anything to protect them in as much as they can go to any length to do same. Come to think of it, I am a Muslim with Christian parents and siblings, who is an uncle to 3 Igbos, and who was brought to journalism, my source of livelihood by two remarkable Igbos; Uche Ezechukwu and Obiora Chukwumba.
Johnson concluded his mail to me with the following words, ‘My earliest reminiscences when I became conscious of myself was of running round in Biu with boys of my own age about whom we had the most wonderful experiences replete with conviviality and camaraderie. All my bosom friends were Bura boys of which Ahmad Salkida happens to be one of them. There was an air of quiet acceptance of each other’s way of life. This recent feeling of mutual distrust between adherents of these two religions was then alien, and Ahmad, I think we must find ways to reverse this ugly trend.’