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Latest update : 2017-09-01

Shadow of Nigeria’s Biafra war still looms large, 50 years on

On May 30, 1967, General Emeka Ojukwu declared Nigeria’s southeastern Biafra region an independent state, sparking what would become a bloody civil war that claimed more than one million lives. Fifty years on, many veterans from both sides of the conflict have taken their stories to the grave, but FRANCE 24 managed to meet with some who shared their memories of bravery, desertion and near-death experiences.

The first shots of the Biafra war were exchanged in Obudu, a provincial town in southeast Nigeria. Today, Obudu is a sleepy tropical backwater that harbours few signs of a brutal civil war. But in most families, there is someone who remembers how the war divided the town, which back then straddled the border between Nigeria and Biafra.

At the beginning of the conflict, the people of Obudu supported the Biafrans out of geographical convenience. But by the end of the war, after seeing upwards of a million civilians die of starvation, many young men from the town deserted the Biafran army to become informers for the Nigerian military, helping them to ultimately win the war.

The interests of foreign powers played out during the war, with Britain arming the Nigerians. The French and Russians sold guns and ammunition to the Biafrans, while the Swedish aristocrat and aviator Carl Gustaf von Rosen helped establish the Biafran Air Force. Tanks and unexploded ordnance still litter the countryside of southeastern Nigeria. Over 300 people have been killed by landmines since the guns fell silent 50 years ago.

The Biafrans manufactured landmines, rockets and hand grenades, contributing to one of the most sophisticated indigenous weapons programmes in Africa's history. But instead of harnessing that ingenuity for industrial development like Germany and Japan did, the Nigerian authorities let that knowledge go to waste.

Above all, Biafra will be remembered not for the Biafrans' military ingenuity nor for the Nigerians' military might -- but for the humanitarian fallout. Millions of people around the world watched the horrors of enforced starvation play out on their television screens. These were the first images of malnourished African children that people had ever seen. The notion of international humanitarian aid as we now know it was born out of the deaths of one million Biafrans.

By Rosie COLLYER , Moïse GOMIS

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