The Nigeria consultation: war ghosts and pepper soup

" I feel pain, agony and suffering over and over. I see useful talents wasted. I see dreams that never came true. I see events that cast a cloud over this nation. I see regrets. "

Like this young university student, whose knowledge comes only from TV and from the accounts of her parents, many Nigerians are still overwhelmed by the suffering that the 1967-1970 Biafra civil war caused. A war that was the first of its kind in many regards. It was the first post-colonial internal conflict in Africa. It was the first African conflict to mobilize massive international humanitarian aid. It was the first internal conflict in which a special code of conduct was issued for the armed forces and which resulted in a true process of reconciliation. But it was also one of the most horrible conflicts in recent world history, with casualty figures estimated as high as two million and with countless abuses committed against the civilian population.

" Soldiers forced my brother to dig a ditch, then they buried him alive in it " , remembers a primary school teacher. Still terrified, a female nurse recalls: " In our neighbourhood, combatants forced a married couple to have sex in front of them. Afterwards they shot the husband in the back " .

These and other statements were made during eight focus-group discussions on the civil war and the rules of international humanitarian law which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Nigerian Red Cross Society organized in the first two weeks of June. The discussions took place in the economic capital Lagos, the former Biafra strongholds of Enugu and Port Harcourt, and Kaduna in the country's heartland. Mothers of victims, medical staff, captured soldiers, contemporary journalists, students and teachers, together with former field commanders of both the Federal armed forces and the Biafran army expressed their feelings and opinions on topics such as the protection of civilians, the blockading of humanitarian aid and the process of reconciliation.

 Lessons from the past  

Most focus-group participants agreed that the lessons learned during the Biafra war had helped prevent other civil wars from breaking out in Nigeria. " We know what it's like and we don't want it to happen ever again " , said several former commanders and combatants. In the aftermath of the conflict, great efforts were made to reconcile the former warring parties. The country was divided into a larger number of states and more local governments were put in place, subsidies were granted for reconstruction and a general amnesty contributed to healing the rifts in Nigerian society. In order to foster better understanding between the country's numerous ethnic groups, the government set up a National Youth Service Corps programme, which still obliges young graduates to spend one year in another ethnic region of Nigeria. 

However, even 30 years after the end of the Biafra war, many questions remain open, in particular regarding the role of the international community: " First they sent weapons, then humanitarian aid. I don't understand " , said a puzzled former front-line fighter. Others have definitely shifted their priorities since the end of the war. Tired of exorcising old war ghosts, a 75 year-old woman asked the moderator of her focus group in Enugu: " How long do you plan to keep us here? I started to cook before coming. My meal is going to burn " .

Nigerian cuisine was, by the way, highly appreciated by the researchers of the Washington- based Greenberg Institute and by the foreign journalists who followed the first ten days of the consultation. Some of them literally became addicted to pepper soup, fish   stew and pounded yam. Perhaps the good fare made it easier for them to listen to the devastating stories told by members of the group.

 The Devil's work  

One of the tragedies of the Biafra war was the high number of civilian victims. " War is war, the aim is to kill everybody " , exclaimed one of the teachers grimly. However, the general feeling in the focus groups was that war should be governed by rules and that these rules should be taken into consideration at all levels of military decision-making. As a former commander put it: " We all obey orders. If they tell you to kill your father, you will even do that " . Another added: " We should not forget that war is waged against human beings. The biggest mistake I made during the civil war was that I did not regard my enemies as human beings " .

The Nigeria consultation will continue until the end of June. The focus-group discussions are to be followed by a representative survey in 12 Nigerian states and supplemented by a series of individual in-depth interviews. In addition, several leading figures of Nigerian society will be asked to give their opinions on the civil war and the rules of international humanitarian law. Meanwhile, things are crystal clear for our old lady in Enugu: " Attacking civilians is the work of the Devil " , she declared emphatically, before returning to her cooking pots.

 International Committee of the Red Cross  

 Campaign Unit  

 July 1999  

 Ref. LG 1999-112-ENG