Nigeria buries its Biafra civil war leader
On Friday, Nigerians buried the leader of the Biafra separatist rebellion, which tipped the country into a...
On Friday, Nigerians buried the leader of the Biafra separatist rebellion, which tipped the country into a 1967-70 civil war that killed an estimated one million people. The rebellion also triggered one of the first humanitarian disasters in independent Africa.
Chukwemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was draped in the green and white colours of the Nigerian flag he once rejected, and a brass band played as thousands of mourners gathered, some in t-shirts or traditional fabrics emblazoned with images of his bearded face.
Ojukwu, who declared Biafra an independent republic, was earlier given a military gun salute.
He died in November of a stroke. Traditional, non-Muslim burials in Nigeria often take place months after death.
"Ojukwu was another Moses sent to us by God," said ex-Biafran soldier Michael Ogbonna. "The world called us rebels, but today he has been vindicated. He taught us self-reliance."
President Goodluck Jonathan attended a remembrance ceremony for the war, which started with a failed coup attempt in 1966 by army officers from southeast Nigeria's Igbo tribe. A military government under Colonel Yakubu Gowon took power in a coup the next year and tried to crush the revolt.
The son of a wealthy businessman, Ojukwu was educated at Oxford and did military training in Britain before joining Nigeria's army and eventually rebelling against it.
He lost the battle to maintain southeast Nigeria as independent Biafra in a conflict which brought some of the first images of swollen-bellied African children starving to death to Western television screens.
Nigeria's first 30 years of independence from Britain in 1960 were punctuated by a series of coups and military rule that only came to an end in 1999.
The country still suffers from almost daily violence in the north. Violence stemming from ethnic and religious tensions among a population of some 160 million split roughly equally between Muslims and Christians.
Some militants in the oil producing southeast also appear to be reviving their struggle against the government, despite a 2009 amnesty.
But no recent conflicts have come close to matching the Biafra civil war in violence and brutality, and Nigerians who remember that dark period are acutely conscious of what another war would entail.
"They killed and robbed. The Igbos started up their lives again after that," said Eunice Ebe, 81, adding that Ojukwu should be remembered as a "deity" who fought for good.
Although Biafrans gained sympathy, only a few African countries recognised it as a separate nation. But France militarily backed the rebels fighting a British-backed Nigerian regime in a classic game of Anglo-French rivalry over Africa.
The civil war dragged on until early 1970, mostly as a stalemate. Some blame Ojukwu for prolonging that stalemate.
Nigeria's southeast had recently discovered vast oil wealth and was considered a key region for the unity and development of the West African state.
Ojukwu took exile in France-friendly Ivory Coast, one of the countries that recognised Biafra, after the civil war but was later pardoned and in 1999 formed the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) party, which he led until his death.
Nigeria's Igbos, one of its three biggest ethnic groups, complain they have been marginalised from politics since the war.