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When is Genocide Not Genocide?
by Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe
February 26, 2005

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When is the heinous crime of “genocide” not “genocide”? Perhaps, when everyone of the targeted national, racial, religious, or regional population is not yet exterminated. Henceforth, “genocide” appears to be the case when it can be demonstrated that the population under attack has been totally destroyed. To prove that genocide has occurred, there must be no survivors.

In the case of the Sudan, according to the report of the just-concluded UN investigating commission on the character of the slaughter of the African population in the Dafur region by the Khartoum-based Arab regime and its Janjaweed militia allies, such an outcome hasn’t yet occurred – therefore, there is “no genocide”; at least not yet. Instead, there have been what the commission categorizes, quite curiously, as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” committed by the regime. For the UN, Khartoum has apparently not yet crossed that “dreadful” threshold into the realm of completing its designated mission, its “final solution”, in Dafur. Until this happens, the Dafur report meanwhile acknowledges that 70,000 Darfuri have been killed during the war waged on them by Khartoum while two million others have been forced into exile, many of them in the neighboring state of Chad. Equally contradictorily, or so it appears, the UN notes that the “killing of civilians, enforced disappearances, destruction of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillaging and enforced displacement” are taking place in Dafur. So, even though these appalling crimes have been indisputably and systematically carried out against the Dafuri, as a people, by the Sudanese state and its allies, it is extraordinary that the UN does not think that these “amount to genocide.”

During the recent UN general assembly’s commemoratory session on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp where millions of Jews, Romany and others were annihilated by Nazi Germany’s campaign of genocide, several commentators speculated whether the UN could have stopped this crime if the organization had been in existence then. They didn’t need to spend too much time speculating on what would have, at best, been reminiscing on the hypothetical. All they needed was examine the UN record in confronting genocide in the post-1945 world and they would have concluded, without any equivocations, that the organization’s performance was glaringly pathetic and dismally disappointing. The current UN attempt to desperately cover up the genocide, yes genocide, in Dafur, would therefore be seen as consistent with this sordid history of inaction, rather than the bizarre exception that it might otherwise seem.


In 1966, soon after the world commemorated the 21st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and made the customary solemn declaration of “Never, Never Again”, Hausa-Fulani emirs, clerics, intellectuals, military officers, politicians and other public figures in Nigeria defiled that season of reflection, commiseration and hope. They planned and executed the first phase of the Igbo genocide, the foundational genocide in post-conquest Africa. This genocide became the clearing site for the haunting killing fields that would snake across the African landscape in the subsequent 40 years. A total of 100,000 Igbo were massacred across northern Nigeria and elsewhere in the country, with the total connivance of the central government in Lagos headed by Colonel Yakubu Gowon.  Just as their Nazi counterparts, the perpetrators of the Igbo genocide would claim to be “very cultured” people: for instance, they read the Koran, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, Shakespeare, and other great world literature. Even though they had strenuously opposed the liberation of Nigeria from British occupation, which the Igbo had spearheaded and sustained, the Hausa-Fulani had been assured the supreme political role in post-conquest Nigeria, thanks to the British-inflected settlement of “withdrawal” from the country worked out in the second half of the 1950s. As a result, the main thrust of Hausa-Fulani politics always operated on the premise that the Igbo constituted the principal “obstacle” to the perpetuation of Hausa-Fulani sociopolitical hegemony in Nigeria.

There was an extensive coverage of the Igbo genocide in the international media throughout the course of its occurrence between May and September of 1966. The UN, under its then Secretary-General U Thant, never condemned this atrocity unequivocally. U Thant consistently maintained that it was a “Nigerian internal affair”, a cue seized upon with relish by the OAU, the African regional organization affiliated to the UN, which continued to trumpet this shameful line throughout the slaughter. No efforts were made by the UN to stop the killings or bring the perpetrators to justice. On the contrary, U Thant repeatedly thwarted several Igbo initiatives, as well as those of others, to table the subject of the carnage formally for discussion at the UN, especially its Security Council. U Thant’s intention throughout this tragedy was to protect the interests of the Nigerian state, even at a time when its leadership had come to power through a murderous coup d’état. As for the welfare of the 1.5 million survivors of these initial massacres who fled to their Igbo homeland, neither the UN nor the Gowon junta played any supportive role in the massive rehabilitation programme that the Igbo themselves embarked upon to integrate the returnees in society between October 1966 and June 1967.

Apparently emboldened by the scant criticism from the UN (and indeed from most of the countries of the world) for its 1966 murderous escapades, the Nigerian state expanded the territorial range of its genocidal campaign on the Igbo by attacking Biafra, Igboland, in 1967. Essentially, this inaugurated the second phase of the genocide which would go on till January 1970. Three million Igbo or a quarter of the nation’s total population were slaughtered during the period.

Not-“Area Boys”

The Nigerian campaign was unabashedly supported defiantly by leading and influential officials of the state including Obafemi Awolowo, the deputy chair of the war cabinet and finance minister, who declared openly that it was “justifiable” to starve the Igbo to death as part of the Nigerian military strategy to overrun Biafra. Most Biafran casualties, particularly children and the elderly, were indeed people who starved to death as a result of the Nigerian strategy. The Awolowoist credo became the guiding principle of the third marine division of the Nigerian army, a notorious death squad that operated in southern Biafra at the time, particularly after the Biafran resistance had virtually frozen the Nigerian advances along its northern provinces. Most of the officers and men of the squad were recruited largely from western Nigeria, Awolowo’s homeland, including Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo (current Nigerian head of state) who was one of the commanders of the unit.

Just as their Hausa-Fulani counterparts, and the Nazis who had established the precedent from which these Nigerian state mafia now operated most enthusiastically, Awolowo and his associates (civilian and military alike) would have regarded themselves as “very cultured” – they surely read the Bible, as well as Shakespeare, Milton, Burke, Paine, Hobbes, Rousseau, Achebe, Okigbo, etc., etc. They listened to Dairo, Beethoven, Olaiya, Handel, Benson, Mozart, Bach, Okonta, Ellington, Onyia, Lawson, Ukwu, Osadebe, Mensah, Armstrong, Basie… Just as in Nazi Germany, the Nigerian planners of genocide demonstrated clearly that genocidist “theorists” and colonels and generals were often calm, well-educated, cold-blooded practitioners who were more likely to be dressed in agbada, babariga, two-piece suit, asho-oke or lace, rather than raggedly-attired, barely-educated miscreants. They were neither alimajiri nor “area boys”! 

The UN never challenged Awolowo and his collaborators of “theorists” and field commanders for proselytising the crime of genocide so brazenly. Similar to its callous indifference during the first phase of the Igbo genocide, the UN did not condemn nor intervene to stop the massacres that went on in Biafra for 30 months. Besides, key countries that belonged to the world organisation including Britain, the then Soviet Union (ironical, considering that its forces had freed the Auschwitz death camp 22 years earlier!), and the states of the Arab World (particularly Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan), supported Nigeria to the hilt, ploughing it with weapons of mass destruction. British and Soviet experts were on the ground to advise the Nigerians on the use of ranges of weapon-systems that their countries had made available for the mission, and Egyptian pilots (reeling from their spectacular defeat by Israel in the recently concluded Six-Day War) flew Nigerian combat aircraft and were involved in the savage bombing and strafing of Biafran cities and villages – targeting refugee centres, hospitals, schools, churches, markets, farms, trains, buses, cars, lorries, and communication infrastructure indiscriminately.



The UN’s inability to stop the Igbo genocide was the clearest example to date that the world had learnt little from the Jewish genocide of the 1940s. The apparent triumph of genocidist state officials in Nigeria, with heavyweight support from some of the major international powers of the day, and no censure whatsoever from the UN, made nonsense of the lofty declarations on the crime of genocide which the UN itself had enunciated soon after it came into being following the Jewish genocide. In effect, the Nigerian operators inaugurated, as state policy, the politics of liquidation of people or peoples or person or persons that were regarded as “political opponents”. It is this politics of the genocide-state that has remained the singular hallmark of Nigerian political development since then, with the calamitous consequences that abound. All Nigerian heads of state and several key state/quasi-state officials since mid-1966 were activist operatives in the planning or the execution of the varying features and junctures of the Igbo genocide.

Equally, the position of most African countries at the time to this genocide was similar to the UN’s: it was considered a “Nigerian internal affair”. For those countries closely allied to Britain, the Soviet Union, or the Arab World, they were often vociferous in their open support for the Nigerian state enterprise on the Igbo, with some of them actually supplying weapons or combat personnel to fight alongside the perpetrators. Only very few leaders such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire voiced their criticism of the slaughter of the Igbo, and warned of the deleterious consequences on the future development of Africa if the genocide was not halted and its organizers punished.

Precisely because the perpetrators of the Igbo genocide appeared to have been let off the hook of culpability for their crimes by the rest of Africa, and the wider world, Africa didn’t wait very long before its inaction and/or collaboration with the goals of the politics of the genocide-state in Nigeria metamorphosed violently beyond the Nigerian frontiers. Leaders elsewhere on the continent waged their own versions of the liquidation of “opponents” as ruthlessly and horrifically as they could, à la Nigeria, because they expected no sanctions from either their African colleagues or from the international community. Soon, the killing fields from Igboland expanded almost inexorably across the continent as the following haunting milestones of slaughter during the epoch illustrate: Uganda, Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Southern Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan. Twelve million were killed in these 13 countries. Added to the three million Igbo dead, Africa has had the gruesome tally of 15 million people murdered by its genocide-states in the past 40 years.

The Igbo, the Tutsi, the Dafuri and all those other Africans who have been the victims of the genocide-state have been largely left on their own to defend themselves if they can. The indifference of the UN and the rest of the world to the terror of the African genocide-state is hugely palpable. The present UN effort to exonerate the Sudan from its genocide in Dafur by foisting on Africa a pseudo-hierarchical schema of definitions that casts doubt on what this “crime against humanity” constitutes or approximates to, is itself a crime against humanity. For the United Nations, this represents a shattering crash of the organization to its lowest ebb of shame yet. That this has occurred when the UN is led by an African further underscores the burden of this tragedy. According to the dreadful logic of the UN declaration on Dafur, the crime of genocide would hence be ascertained whilst the targeted population has ceased to exist. Tufia kwa!

It cannot be overstated that it is the African genocide-state that is the bane of African social existence currently. It is what constitutes the firestorm of the emergency that threatens the very survival of the African. It is not the “debt”, “poverty”, HIV/Aids/other diseases and the myriad of socio-economic indices often reeled off in many a commentary. For instance, contrary to the understandable sincerity of purpose in Nelson Mandela’s recent call to the West to cancel all Africa’s “debt”, coupled with the infusion of $500 billion worth of Western capital to the continent in he next decade, and the British government’s own high-powered but essentially gestural political rhetoric on the subject, Africans do not require a single dollar note from the West in their bid to dismantle the genocide-state on their continent. All they need from the West and indeed any others genuinely interested in African goodwill is simply to withdraw their support for the continuing existence of the African genocide-state. As we have shown, this state’s ontological mission is to kill – and it surely accomplishes this most viciously. This state will lead Africa nowhere but to perdition.




One immediate move that the West and the rest of the world can make to support African peoples’ ongoing efforts to rid themselves of the genocide-state is to ban all arms sales and transfers to Africa. This must be comprehensive and not fudged. The African genocide-state requires the deadly array of arms ever streaming into its arsenal from the West and elsewhere to exist and terrorize the people(s) in its territory. Nothing else. An arms ban on such key states as Nigeria, the Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, would radically advance the current hectic quest on the ground by the peoples to construct democratic and extensive decentralized states – alternatives to the extant genocide-state. For the West, a ban on all arms to Africa forthwith will in no way entail any complicated budgeting for a new fund allocation from the taxpayer. Not one dollar nor euro nor pound would be spent. Not in the least at all. It does not require agonizing G7/G8 meetings or Davos/NEPAD-style gatherings to implement either. Each government simply takes its decision after a cabinet meeting. For Britain, for instance, which is currently the premier arms-exporter to African genocide-states worth millions and millions of pounds annually to its treasury, a total arms-ban on Africa could perhaps be that golden opportunity that it has always sought to permanently erase the “scars of Africa” from its “conscience” which Prime Minister Blair has harped upon for quite a while.

Africa, presently, remains one of humanity’s most endowed continents. It is not poor. Despite all the noisy propaganda of “Western aid” to the continent, African émigrés in the Americas and Europe now dispatch more money to Africa annually than all the “Western aid” combined. Last year, the émigrés sent to Africa $US15 billion. This was thrice the sum of “Western aid” in real terms -- i.e. when the pervasive “overheads” attendant to the latter were accounted for. As everyone knows, whatever dollar gets through to the African scene subsequently is largely sequestrated by its fugacious leaderships. In contrast, the $US15 billion from Africans overseas were invested directly for the benefit of the people. These funds literally took care of the feeding, clothing, housing, education, healthcare and other social needs of relatives and indeed the wider community. As for a more direct focus on the resources in the homeland itself, the African profile is formidable for its possibilities, but for the scandalous mismanagement of the genocide-state. Africa has been a net exporter of capital to the West since 1981. It has exported the gargantuan sum of $US550 billion in total since then. This year, 2005, it will transfer US$150 billion in this manner to the West. Most of this capital outlay goes to service its so-called “debts” to the West, contracted corruptively by its murderous and thieving leaderships. Additionally, these leaderships and their aides will transfer US$30-50 billion to their private accounts and extensive investment ventures in the West during the course of the year. Just as it exterminates its peoples, the genocide-state also lays waste its non-human resources. These enormous funds wrenched from society would readily have provided a comprehensive health programme across the continent, established schools, colleges, and skills-training opportunities, constructed an integrative communication network, and finally, transformed the agricultural sector to abolish the scourge of malnutrition, hunger and starvation.

Africa has the resources to carryout the societal transformation that it requires without the input from abroad, especially the West, which is often trumpeted so uncritically. The problem has been how to husband such huge resources, human and non-human, for the express benefit of the peoples at a time when the strategic goal for change is to dismantle the architecture of annihilation posed to African existence by its genocide-states. Africans know very well that there are alternatives to the genocide-state. They have both the vision and the capacity to create these alternatives. This is what the resistance, with all the pain, has been about in the past 40 years.

Professor Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe is a leading scholar on conflicts and change in contemporary Africa. He can be reached at: