Ten years after the end of a bitterly fought civil war, this heartland of the Ibo tribe has made a slow, halting recovery from the ravages inflicted after declaring itself the independent state of Biafra.
Although the slow return to normality has left the Ibos with some hope for the future and a grudging acceptance that Nigeria will not be divided, they are left with the acrid bile of defeat. Many complain that the federal government has not been quick enough or generous enough in meeting the region's needs.
The central question of the civil war, repeated throughout recent African history, was whether the tenuous bonds of an infant nationalism could hold a vast country of 250 antagonistic tribes thrown together by artificial boundaries of colonial creation. Thus the victorious federal government's treatment of the vanquished Ibos is an important issue.
That theme runs through the years-long bloody conflict in Chad, the continued guerrilla insurgency in Angola and the irredentist claims of Somalia on eastern Ethiopia, while the latter continues a 19-year battle against the secessionist Eritreans in its northern regions.
Like the American civil war, Nigeria's conflict was fought over whether any part of a nation had the right to secede and, as the Spanish civil war, it was the focus of outside intervention.
A recent visit to four Ibo cities -- Port Harcourt, Aba, Owerri and Enugu -- revealed nothing of the extensive damage these cities suffered from the fighting. Major construction projects were under way and industries had been rebuilt. Yet Ibo leaders complain that they are not receiving enough federal funding for these projects and that they had to shoulder an unfair share of the war's burden.
The war revolved around Nigeria's three major tribal groups, the Yoruba of the west, the Hausa-Fulani of the north and the Ibo of the east. It began in 1967, after seven years of Nigerian independence, when the ruling coalition between the Hausa-Fulanis and the Ibos broke down and the Yorubas began rioting after rigged elections. aIn the midst of the chaos, the Army overthrew the civlian government.
The coup, however, was perceived as an Ibo effort to dominate Nigeria and a second coup followed within six months. Because of the ethnic hostilities involved in the coups, thousands of Ibos who had settled in the northern part of the country were killed and thousands of others began a mass exodus back to their homeland. The east then seceded into the breakaway state of Biafra.
The 30-month war that followed ended with the rebels' defeat at the cost of approximately 2 million lives, including an unknown number of children who starved to death.
Out of the ruins of war, Nigeria has become a nation of 19 states with a federal government modeled after the United States. The government's creation of states is an effort to break up the dominance of large ethnic blocks in different regions and defuse the fears of domination.
A sense of alienation from that nation, however, still grips some Ibos. Property confiscated during the war has yet to be returned or compensated for. Biafra's war wounded must tend for themselves or be looked after by their families. Numerous roads were left to deteriorate into rutted gulleys, easily accessible piped water remains a rare luxury for the city-dwellers and the devastated palm tree plantations -- source of the region's major revenue in pre-civil war days -- are just returning to their levels of production at independence in 1960.
Ibo politicians including Imo state Gov. Samuel Onunaka Mbakwe and Anambra Gov. Jim Nwobodo, are critical of the treatment received from the former military government and the civilian rulers who replaced it in October. They argue that they should receive rehabilitation grants that go beyond the state-by-state allocations because of the damage caused to their homeland by the war.
"Our property was denied us in all parts of the country; our bank accounts frozen; we have not regained our position in the Army; our economy was shattered; all of our land seized, and little compensation paid for the property seized," Mbakwe said. "Amnesty [granted by the federal government after the war] was for consumption of world opinion."
"The palm oil farms were destroyed for the most part," he also said. "The farmers have received no federal assistance in getting started again. They've done it on their own."
"Nwobodo is right in saying this area has been neglected," said Christian Offodile, the press officer for the opposition People's Redemption Party. "But he shouldn't flog it too much. He should give the new government a chance or he won't get the cooperation he seeks."
Despite the Ibo politicians' rhetoric, they have ways to secure funding. In October, Mbakwe declared Aba, the area's largest city, a disaster area because of its neglected roads, limited drinking water and deteriorated sewage-draining system, seeking a $720 million federal grant.
Although the government issued only $3 million for the project, it has helped turn the city around. Downtown Aba has become a traffic-jammed complex of high banks of red dirt piled along streets undergoing road reconstruction with heavy machinery and endless lines of new cement sewage pipes. Thriving roadside markets sell goat meat and large forest snails, a delicacy here.
Port Harcourt, a major center of Nigeria's booming oil industry, is also under a perpetual cloud of red dust from the road and office building construction.
Although they agree with Ibo politicians' argument that the Ibos' own industry and determination were the key for the redevelopment, some prominent Ibo scholars and businessmen also are inclined to credit the federal government.
Arthur Nwanko, who heads the Fourth Dimension Publishing Co. in Eungu, said the east suffered under military rule, "but I wouldn't write off the military government's efforts entirely."
The first governor appointed to administer the eastern region after the war, Tony Asika, succeeded "in rehabilitating 70 percent of the destroyed industries in the first three years," Nwanko said. "Askia was able to do this with very limited resources."
Federal and state money received from the federal government was distributed in the region through private construction developments and helped stimulate the economy, Nwanko added.
The Ibos have also made significant political gains since the war. Observers believe that the present political alignment between Nigerian President Shehu Shagari's National Party and the Ibo-dominated Nigerian People's Party, two of five political here, portends greater federal benefits in the future. Shagari chose an Ibo, Alex Ekwueme, to be his vice president and the Nigerian People's Party holds five of the 23 Cabinet posts.
At least one former rebel who has now become an official in Anambra says the attitude among Ibos is changing. Ben Gbulie, who was jailed following the war until 1975, said he has changed his youthful cynicism to a more optimistic vision of the future.
"There is still some lethargy among Ibos today, a fatalism left from the war," he said. "We are trying to shake that off."
But one scholar, Elizabeth Isichei, has written that since the war, the Ibos' traditionally strong communal ties have been partially broken and replaced with a "greater materialism, a greater cynicism."
There is also, Isichei says, a widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots with the position of the rich "hardening into hereditary privilege."
Publishing executive Nwanko said, however, that the Ibos are determined to rebuild their culture and cities, within the framework of the federal system.
"People realize that Nigeria cannot be divided now," he explained. "There is also an awareness that people will fight and no one will take another ethnic group for granted in the future."
"The war helped Nigeria as a nation. I think the Ibos are ready to contribute to Nigeria as a nation today."