At exactly 10pm, the lights went off at the mega ball room of the Woodbine Hotels and Suites in Toronto, Canada. There was astounding silence and the only source of illumination in the room was from the large projector screen on the background of the nicely decorated podium.
Then quietly in procession came men and children holding lit candles and walking in a single file. As they walked in, the solemn song, Only Time, by the Irish singer Enya Paticia Brennan, enveloped the air.
As they made their way towards the podium with a wreath, pictures came on in a slideshow on the screen. They were black and white footages that showed men, women and children in different stages of pain, hunger, hurt, death and hope.
There were pictures children malnourished and in pains; there were those of mothers carrying their sick and dying babies with hope and fear in their eyes looking pleadingly at the world through the lens of the camera asking for help.
There was a picture of a man; may have been a father, brother, relation or a neighbour, carrying the burnt out corpse of a young child killed apparently in an air raid going by the plume of smoke on the picture background.
There were also pictures of gallant Biafran soldiers at different stages during the civil war in Nigeria from 1968 to 1970.
As members of the Igbo Canadian Community Association (ICCA/UMUNNA), led by their former president, Chief Chris Nsoedo, stood still, the real essence of the annual Biafra Memorial Day became clearer in the dark ballroom as the slides of pictures showed on the screen.
“Today, we gather at this Biafra Memorial Event to lay a wreath to honour the brave men and women who died while serving under the Biafra war. They Died That We May Live; In Remembrance of our Heroes past I dedicate this honour to those who rose from the ashes of genocide to build a nation n of hope. Please join me in a moment of silence in tribute to their bravery,” Nsoedo said when the lights came on.
And there was silence.
In that moment of silence people had reflections of what the Igbo people from the South East region of the present day Nigeria went through.
It was a period of death and survival; fire and bullets; hunger and famine and a total annihilation led by the Federal government of Nigeria. Men, women and children lost their lives.
Over three million were killed while the world looked away. It was genocide; it was a calculated attempt at wiping a people who had the situation brought upon them.
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old and age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. May we never ever have to face such tragedy again and May their souls through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
It was the 16th edition of the Biafra Memorial Day organized by the ICCA/UMUNNA, an annual remembrance done to pay honour and remember those three million people that lost their lives.
In his opening remark, the President of ICCA/UMUNNA, Chief Ugochukwu Okoro explained the reason behind the annual event was to continue telling the story of the inhuman treatment at their period and also to celebrate the survival of Ndigbi from that carnage.
“This memorial event is aimed at telling our story, owing that the Nigerian government appear to ignore the circumstances that took lives to the tune of that number. That part of history is facing so much suppression by the actors; unfortunately, the world also seems not concerned as well. Genocide is a crime against humanity,” he started, “The world has recognized and criticizes what happened to the Jews from the Holocaust and Rwandan genocides etc. We hope that someday the Genocide against the Biafrans will be given the recognition it deserves.
I believe that will bring healing to the pain the people faced and probably remove the injustices they still face in the country. Permit me to say that Genocide has continued to happen in Nigeria even after the war. The Army has at any slightest provocation massacred citizens without remorse.”
Okoro went further to state that no family in Igboland was not affected and lost someone during the war that happened 52 years ago.
“There is hardly any family from the Eastern part of the country that was not impacted by that genocide. Most parents watched their children die out of starvation due to food Aid blockade. My uncle narrated his experience after the war, how heartbroken it was to behold the tears of parents who came to welcome the soldiers, only to discover their own children didn’t make it,”he said and thanked friends of Ndigbo that always came for the remembrance.
“To our friends from different nationalities, your presence here, means support and helps in the healing, knowing you share in our pain. Ladies and Gentlemen, we celebrate and honour the lives of our loved ones lost in the genocide of 1967 and thereafter and affirm the bond of community, memory, and hope that sustains us in sorrow. We are all encouraged by the way the Biafrans came together to rebuild themselves. The Biafrans are a force to reckon with in any profession. The wave of academic excellence of our Children currently blowing around the world is an example of how endowed we are.”
The Chairman of the Board of Directors of the ICCA/UMUNNA, Chief Pastor Ben Allison while delivering a paper entitled, “They Died that we May live: In remembrance of our Heroes Past, gave an insightful details of what culminated to the war and the misunderstandings that have put a label on the action that initiated the war as being Igbo inspired.
“There is poignant similarity between the horrific deaths of 3 million people in Eastern Nigeria and the 800, 000 slaughter and killings of Tutsis in Rwanda. The genocide in Rwanda was sparked by the death of the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down above Kigali airport on 6 April 1994 by alleged Tutsi conspirators. The majority Hutu tribe retaliated by organizing a well-planned and coordinated systematic killings of Tutsis of all ages regardless of their innocence,” Allison explained.
“In Nigeria, a group of army officers, mostly of Igbo origin and a Yoruba officer led a coup that toppled the civilian government and killed some of the leaders of that government. No Igboleader in that civilian government was killed. The predictable result was that non-Igbo army officers, particularly from Northern Nigeria, outraged by the killing of their leaders responded first, by exterminating a large body of Igbo officers in a counter coup. More than 30, 000 civilian Igbo population in Northern Nigeria were massacred.”
Allison, who also doubles as the Board Chairman of the Nigeria Canadian Association (NCA), narrated several attempts made by the people of the then Eastern region to reconcile and avoild the looming war.
“The people of Eastern Nigeria remonstrated deeply and there were employment of bellicose political languages by both the leadership of Eastern Nigeria and the military government in Lagos. Several meetings to defuse and resolve the differences were unsuccessful. Threatened by military action by the government in Lagos, Eastern Nigeria declared itself a separate republic of Biafra leading to initial skirmishes and full-blown civil war.”
This, he said led to a total blockage of Biafra which eventually led to the death of millions of women and children.
Allison revealed the post-war strategy initiated by the Federal Government of Nigeria to keep the atrocities committed during the period of the war from history books.
“In Nigeria, the military class that won the war banned and suppressed information and open discussion about that war with the exception of the parts that glorified them. They even banned any formal teaching of the history of the Nigerian civil war in institutions of higher learning and discouraged meaningful discussions regarding it and the deaths of millions of people in Biafra.”
He called for an open conversation of what happened during the war to be had in Nigeria with the government involvement as one step towards healing the pain, anguish and sorrow still on the minds of generations of Ndigbo.
“One major way to stop the mindless killings taking place all over our dear country Nigeria today is to engage in honest and serious conversations regarding all the sad, painful, and shameful areas of our collective past and present. There is an urgent and immediate need for such conversations. But it must be a conversation guided by honesty, truth, justice, fairness, mutual respect for one another, equity, love and compassion. Finally, just like Agwu Okpanku, we hold these annual Biafra Memorial Events in order to give voice to the deaths of millions of our brethren that died in Biafra.”
In her speech, the President of the Nigeria Canadian Association (NCA) Mrs. Kemi Amusan called for a greater collaboration among Nigerians irrespective of ethnicity as a way forward in building trust again among Nigerians.
“I am happy that today in Canada we are leading by example and at the NCA we live as one family from one country. I believe that is what is needed in Nigeria to strengthen the unity we have as a country and people.”
Brampton City Councillor, Charmaine Williams, who represented the Mayor of Brampton, Patrick Brown, called on the Nigeria community to increase their participation in governance in Ontario and Canada.
“Even as we remember those that died, there is need for the Nigeria community to participate in issues that concerns governance. You have the opportunity to educate and get involved in your community and go for elective offices. That is one way of building a greater nation and encouraging great patriotism.”
There was a presentation of the annual scholarship to students who gained admission to higher learning and the 2019 recipient, Mr. Nkemdilim Onyemah was handed a cheque for $1000. The presentation was made by the former recipients of the award, Miss Chika Oruiwa. Nkemdilim, who got admitted into the University of Waterloo, was very appreciative of the honour bestowed on him and promised to make the Igbo community proud.
Highlight of the occasion was the bestowing of a Chieftaincy title of Onye Udo Ndigbo Toronto, Canada to the ICCA Board chairman, Chief Pastor Ben Allison and his wife. The honour which was done through an order from the ancient Igbo Kingdom of Nri, saw the recipient dressed in traditional chieftaincy title with his traditional fan bearing his title