Nigeria and THE LESSONS OF BIAFRA

Posted by Emmanuel Chigozie Osuchukwu | 22 January 2013 | 7,780 times

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Nigeria is currently awash with the fallout of events that defined its contemporary existence. Two different books that dealt with the same subject matter are at the centre of it all. One was written by the world renowned story teller, Chinua Achebe and titled ‘There was a Country’. The other, ‘1966 Crisis and the Evolution of Nigerian Politics’ was written by me – a relatively unknown author, but all the same a political analyst. The two books as most reviewers and discerning commentators have noted, have a striking resemblance in terms of their subject matter and perception of Nigeria. Achebe said that ‘There was a Country’ implying that the country Nigeria died at some point. I said in my book that the country, Nigeria bequeathed to us by our founding fathers symbolically in 1960 died in 1966. Both Achebe and I are therefore of the view that contemporary Nigeria is a new construction that emerged from the ethnic conflagration of 1966 and this view is so fundamental to Nigeria’s current woes that it has obviously rattled some people’s sensitivities.

The two books dealt extensively with the 1966 crisis sparked off by the military coup of January 15th 1966. My book dealt extensively with the socio-historical background and the sequence of events that led to the massacre of the Igbos in Nigeria. Accepted or not, the massacre of the Igbos constitutes one of Africa’s most gruesome events, comparable only to the Rwandan experience.  46 years later, as I said in my book, it remains a festering sore in Nigeria’s conscience.

I have taken a good look to identify who is rattled: Like most Nigerian issues we often leave the substance and concern ourselves with peripherals. The irony of the whole reaction is that it is hardly coming from the region that instigated and, in fact, stands accused of the genocidal action against the Igbos. Rather small but vocal commentators from the South West of Nigeria are misguiding a great opportunity to sit back and reflect on our past and our miserable and fragile present. It is being reduced to an ethnic squabble and amazingly the issue of one man, Chief Awolowo, who was actually mentioned in only a paragraph of a 300-page book.

I have carefully reflected on both books and will endeavour to discuss dispassionately why all the fuss about the civil war, almost 43 years after the event. I will not bother to review the numerous reactions to the two books and particularly Achebe’s ‘There was a country’. However I will cite Odia Ofeimun’s reaction to Achebe’s book because it encapsulates the major trends in most of the commentaries in Nigeria’s media.

‘Forty years after the civil war, you would expect that some formal, academic decorum would be brought into play to sift mere folklore and propaganda from genuine history. But not so for those who do not care about the consequences of the falsehoods that they trade. They continue to pump myths that treat their own people as cannon fodder in their elite search for visibility, meal tickets and upward mobility in the Nigerian spoils system. Rather than lower the frenzy of war-time 'huge lies' that were crafted for the purpose of shoring up combat morale, they increase the tempo. I mean: postwar reconstruction should normally forge the necessity for returnees from the war to accede to normal life rather than lose their everyday good sense in contemplation of events that never happened or pursuing enemies who were never there. Better, it ought to be expected, for those who must apportion blame and exact responsibility, to work at a dogged sifting of fact from fiction, relieving the innocent of life-threatening charges, in the manner of the Jews who, after the Second World War sought to establish who were responsible for the pogroms before they pressed implacable charges. Unfortunately, 40 years does not seem to have been enough in the Nigerian case. Those who organized the pogrom are lionized as patriots by champions of the Biafran cause. Those who sought lasting answers away from blind rampage are demonized as villains. The rest of us are all left mired in the ghastly incomprehension that led to the war. Those for whom the civil war was not a lived, but a narrated experience, are made to re-experience it as nightmare, showing how much of an effort of mind needs to be made to strip the past of sheer mush. As it happens, every such effort continues to be waylaid by the sheerness of war propaganda that has been turned into post-war authoritative history. It is often offered by participants in the war who, like Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu himself, will not give up civil war reflexes that ruined millions.’

I have chosen this piece to raise the salient points implicit in most of the reviews –

Why are the Igbos still talking of the civil war 42 years after.

The Igbos believe in their own propaganda or what is commonly referred to as Ojukwu’s propaganda and as such the true genesis of the war is a figment of Igbo imagination.

The Igbos fought a futile one man instigated war – the war of a power hungry ego-maniac called Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.

The war was a civil and brotherly war devoid of the horrors of war.

There was a successful reintegration of the Igbos after the war and therefore no need to talk about it again.

Well, the simple truth is that Nigeria is living a lie hence we are easily rattled each time that the truth swept under the carpet is opened up. Both Achebe and I are consciously or unconsciously stepping over the dirt Nigeria has swept under the carpet and unfortunately the house is stinking terribly that you can’t avoid shouting that the house needs to be cleaned up.

Odia Ofeimun, like many other commentators, went on to reduce Achebe’s book to a tribal discourse and in the process lost the real essence of the book. It is interesting that my book, ‘1966 Crisis and the Evolution of Nigerian Politics’ is yet to be characterized as an ethnic dust raiser but it shares similar fundamental precepts as Achebe’s ‘There was a Country’.

If we purge our minds of our narrow ethnic mindsets we may be able to reflect on the serious issues raised by the two books. In doing so I will crisscross the two books to bring out the real issues they raised.

Both ‘There was a Country’ and ‘1966 Crisis and the Evolution of Nigerian Politics’ agreed that before the 15th January 1966 coup something was certainly wrong with Nigeria. All I would say here is that the true story of the 15th January 1966 coup remains a mystery. It remains a mystery because certain known facts of that coup do not lead to a conclusive evidence of an Igbo coup. Apart from the lopsided pattern of the killings it will be difficult to sustain the argument of Igbo plot to dominate Nigeria. The ring leader of the coup, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, apart from name, is hardly an Igbo. Born and bred in Kaduna he was virtually a Northerner. The Nigerian military officer corps then was predominantly Igbo. There is a very high possibility that the middle officer corps were aware of the political turmoil in the country. The coup was possibly their response to the political situation just as military intervention was fashionable in the third world in the 1960s. Unfortunately the coup was suppressed by the senior military officers headed by Gen. Ironsi, an Igbo man also. This stopped the young officers in their ultimate objective of installing Chief Obafemi Awolowo as the President of Nigeria, if we go by the equally suppressed account of Major Ifeajuna – one of the ring leaders. 

In any event our ethnic bogey took over and the rest is the ugly history we are still wallowing in. I will not bother to rehash the sequence of events that culminated in the horrendous massacre of the Igbos in Northern Nigeria. The facts are detailed in my book but suffice to say that once the tribal sentiments kicked in ordinary and vulnerable children, men and women were massacred in their tens of thousands. If the bloodthirsty soldiers had killed our political leaders and or themselves, Nigeria may be different today. In any case the harrowing point is that the Federal Government did nothing about the massacres. Nobody was punished for such genocidal act. As I said in my book, Nigeria is today worse off because the events of 1966 have given a lot of Nigerians the conviction that violence is a legitimate means of achieving political goals.

It is amazing that supposedly intelligent sounding Nigerians are asking why the Igbos are still talking of the massacre and the resultant war. Yes, they are still talking about it because the Igbos were and are badly traumatised. The nation they called theirs brutalised them. They were massacred, pushed away to their ancestral homes and dispossessed of property and positions they worked hard to acquire. The civil war forcefully and brutally asked them to shut up and stop crying for what happened to them. Unfortunately, you can smack a child but you cannot stop him from crying. The so-called no victor, no vanquished post war policy was a cosmetic exercise that masked the true agony suffered by the Igbos. Unfortunately, again, only those who directly witnessed the war can appreciate the horror of the war called a civil war. The whole episode was not brought to a proper closure but as a resilient and highly resourceful people the Igbos sort of moved on. But it did not end there. Since the end of the war, the Igbos constantly constitute the sacrificial lambs of Nigeria, even for the sins of others. Even the sin of a European cartoonist who supposedly insulted Mohammed was a valid reason to descend on Igbo life and property. Presently there is hardly any Igbo town that has not buried their son or daughter killed in the Boko Haram insurgency and these are terrible reminders.

The two books are vital to Nigeria’s progress because they detailed the history of tribal resentments and the negative if not fatal implications of ethnic stereotyping. The war happened because of the ethnic interpretation of the events of 1966. It also happened because it involved the Igbos who by 1966 had made very gigantic strides in the emerging Nigerian nation to the consternation of other Nigerians. The Igbos therefore suffered for what they represented in Nigeria and those challenges remain unresolved and hunting contemporary Nigeria to a point of threatening its very existence.  

Those who reduced Achebe’s book to a simple controversy about comments on Awolowo or commentators who see my book merely as another book from the Igbo stable missed the point. I do not see any of the books as a celebration of Biafra or the output of sulking Igbos but as a lamentation of Nigeria’s pitiable state. If Nigeria is in a healthy, welcoming state, may be but just may be all will be forgotten.

Like or loathe the Igbos there is something about them and they evidently possess those tremendous qualities that have built great nations in history. Let’s purge our minds of our tribal mindsets and we shall agree that the Igbos possess the great values of adventure, hard work, competition and thrift. These are essential prerequisites of modern nation building. In killing the Igbos in 1966 Nigeria killed these values that can build a great nation. Take Abuja as an example of current reality. I would dare say that without the Igbos Abuja may not be a thriving and shining edifice that it is today. In 2007 Nasir el-Rufai, the FCT Minister confirmed that the Igbos own 73% of the properties in Abuja. The fact is that when the new Abuja was conceptualised it was the Igbos who turned up enthusiastically in the barren territory that is Abuja city today. The rest is history but let’s hope they won’t be dispossessed one day. Again look at Kano. Despite their horrid pre- and post-war experiences, the Igbos turned up and within two decades and contributed significantly to make Kano a thriving and business capital of the North. When the perennial Northern rioting and killings became intolerable they relocated Southwards en-masse with the resultant collapse of Northern economy. This fact has been lost to many Northern apologists who continually believe that their economy was mischievously destroyed by Obasanjo. Lagos, the no-man’s land of Nigeria became the beneficiary of Northern hostility. Today, without the benefit of reliable statistics I can guess confidently that the Igbos command about 60% of the economic activities of Lagos. I stand to be contradicted. The significant point is that if we are able to move away from our primitive tribal mindset, we may be able to appreciate those values that can serve the nation a good purpose. Instead, we are continually preoccupied with negative stereotyping that can only contribute to our socio-economic stagnation and communal tensions.

The civil war was not motivated by any idealistic factors. It was simply a tribal conflict between initially the Northern Region - a region with starkly contrasting socio-political values from the Igbos. The Western region made a calculated political decision and joined forces with the North. The war was then coated in national colours. It was only this bit of Achebe’s book that has incensed some Yorubas. The sensitivity is unnecessary. If we had actually reflected objectively and not dissipated our energy chasing shadows we would read from both books the salient view that Nigeria in their pursuit of the Igbos stripped the country bare of any discernible value systems and unwittingly enthroned mediocrity, dependency and an extremely disastrous patronage system.

I made it quite clear in my book that contemporary Nigeria is a shame to who ever dreamt of and subscribed to the idea of the Nigeria project of the 1960s. The Igbos were at the forefront of Nigerian nationalism. The Igbos were and still unrepentant believers in one big and united nation called Nigeria. They have paid dearly for that belief and I am yet to see any other tribe in Nigeria to rival the Igbos in this respect. I have no regret in saying in my book that the Nigeria bequeathed to us on 1st October 1960 died in 1966. It is not a sulking Igboman or a Biafran diehard talking. It is the view of a true citizen lamenting over what has happened to his country. It is not the Igbo people providing the evidence that Nigeria is presently tottering on the fringes of a failed state. It is not the Igbos who are actually bearing arms and trying to blow the country to bits. Yes the Igbos have their enormous social problems but they are not the Niger Delta militants, Boko Haram or Middle Belt combatants.

When respectable Igbos talk of Biafra they do so as a matter of challenge to Nigeria. That is the message I got from Achebe’s book.

The challenge of Biafra is clearly evident in Achebe’s book. Biafra was overcome by the combined efforts of Britain, Soviet Union and United States of America. The Biafran war was the rare occasion where all the super powers for reasons sketchily touched on by Achebe fought on the same side. Biafra to their credit and to the surprise of many fought back for almost three years.  Again Biafran ingenuity and resourcefulness remains a big challenge to Nigeria. Despite the overwhelming odds:

Biafra built and operated two airports and one of them, Uli airport operated about 50 flights every night and thus making it one of the busiest airports in Africa at the time. Obasanjo unwittingly acknowledged this feat as his photograph standing on the runway of Uli airport commands centre stage in his book, My Command.

Biafra built and operated a functional refinery that served the enclave till the end of the war

Biafra designed and built functional and highly acclaimed weapons of war.

Biafra maintained one of the most effective global information services. It is claimed that the Biafran propaganda machine was second only to that of the German Third Reich.

Biafra maintained an effective administrative system and despite the extreme hardship and chaotic situations there was no breakdown of law and order.

I thought these were salient points highlighted in Achebe’s book but missed out by those who were simply blinded by narrow ethnic considerations. The challenge of Biafra is not very much about the accomplishments of Biafra.

It is about what Nigeria is today and what we expect the country to be. Look around and we have cause to be embarrassed and concerned. We have no national railways, national airlines, national shipping lines, etc. We can hardly generate enough electricity to power our homes and our mediocre industrial sector. We import even toothpicks and cooking pots. We import petroleum products and every year we give contracts to foreign firms to service our hardly functional refineries. The list is endless.

In the context of the Nigeria project as envisioned in the 1950s and 1960s we have failed. It is not just disgruntled Nigerians saying it. Several international agencies have said so. We are either on the borderline of a failed state or we are listed on top of any imaginable negative statistics – corruption, road traffic accidents, maternal and child mortality, etc. As a country immune to bloodshed we have failed to recognise that we are living in a country that has shed so much blood and continues to do so without any visible signs that we are ready to stop. We live in a country where it has become increasingly difficult to define what it means to be a citizen of Nigeria unless one is living in his village and has no intention of going outside his or her hamlet. The hope we had of leading Africa and being the showcase of African civilisation is rapidly disappearing from our reach. Today it is difficult for Nigerians to understand what Nigeria stands for. For the more intellectually inclined what is our defining national philosophy? In part three of my book, ‘1966 Crisis and the Evolution of Nigerian Politics’ I made an attempt to articulate potentially viable social democratic philosophy that could elevate our national discourse above the currently disastrous ethnic posturing that has destroyed our nation. It is a matter of conjecture if anyone would listen.

My main concern about Nigeria is that we are heading towards implosion, if I can borrow the language of the undeniably knowledgeable American CIA. To retrieve ourselves from the brink of disaster we need to retrace our steps and identify where things started going wrong. This is the crux of the two books. Anyone inputting any insidious intention or mischief into the books is either afflicted by our dysfunctional ethnic bigotry or is living in a make-belief Nigeria.

Look at Nigeria today and judge if they have done a good job. I doubt it. We seriously need a period of reflection and introspection.  Some of the reactions to Achebe’s book epitomises the Nigerian understanding of the Biafran tragedy and its serious effects on the Nigerian nation. Those who jumped into an unnecessary controversy between Achebe and Awolowo missed the point and diverting our opportunity to introspect and reflect on a sinking ship. Let’s consider the salient points coming from the two books. Could a nation that pursued a policy of extermination by blockade and hunger that cost over a million lives be genuinely good friends at the end of the conflict unless with very positively constructive steps to assuage feelings of hurt? In wars it is understandable that abnormal steps are taken to win the war but it has dire implications when it is a war between supposedly fellow citizens who are now expected to live in the same country. Genocide against the Igbos is not a fictional imagination. It can be found in numerous international accounts as both Achebe and I have quoted. As I said earlier, Nigeria ended the war with a festering sore on its conscience. As Othman Dan Fodio said, only the truth would heal such wounds. Interestingly, Odia Ofeimun mentioned Israel in the extract above but failed to mention that all those responsible for the massacre of the Jews are still hunted and dealt with till today. Those who participated in the Rwandan massacre were caught and tried in the international court in Hague. The Jews have neither forgotten nor relented in their efforts to bring to justices all those who participated in the Jewish pogrom. Rwanda is hailed as an example of proper reconciliation and currently enjoying socio-economic stability. In Nigeria, there was no commission of enquiry. Nobody was punished for the pogrom. The ring leaders became heroes and also the financial and political beneficiaries of our sordid era.

The Northern geo-political military group won the power tussle in 1966 and as I said in my book were an avenging mob and hardly a nationalistic group. They eventually consolidated an unchallenged political supremacy albeit from a narrow sectional mindset. Reading between the two books, the tragedy of Nigeria is that those who had the monopoly of constructing contemporary Nigeria in 1966 were the region that reluctantly agreed to our independence from Britain; opposed a unified Nigeria; and always hesitant in living with and accommodating other Nigerians. They also proceeded to construct a new Nigeria that we live in today. This is not an anti-Northern rhetoric but I am sure that Nigeria would be a better place if it had been constructed with a more balanced input from its constituent parts. Now I am not sure who is arguing for what. Who wants Nigeria restructured hands up? Who wants Nigeria dismembered hands up? Who is shooting or bombing Nigeria, hands up. Who is shouting marginalisation, hands up?  Who is saying if we don’t rule, Nigeria must end hands up? How many of those questions and answers are exclusive to the Igbos?

The truth is that Nigeria ended the war that was anything but civil in 1970 having brutally subdued a part of the country irrespective of their legitimate feelings of hurt and injustices. Political arrangements that were neither discussed nor agreed were put in place. Many of them were borne out of the exigencies of the time but many were cynical, unfair and definitely unjust. In this respect Nigeria is today paying a big price and indicating a nation in a forced marriage. The biggest problem with forced marriages is that neither husband nor wife is happy because the wife is virtually a slave and the husband never gets the best out of his wife. With time either they learn to live with each other or one of the partners and sometimes both, will run out of patience and end it all in whatever manner possible. 

The key question in my book is what Nigeria would look like today if our destiny has not always been in the hands of primitive tribesmen dressed in military camouflage or flamboyant local regalia. The response in my book is that we would probably recognise that we are all human beings with common needs and interests irrespective of tribe or religion. We would then disagree with each other on how to address our needs. This would be normal because agreements and disagreements on how to achieve political objectives is the true essence of politics and has nothing to do with tribe. Our politicians will then cut alliances across the ethnic divides and according to what truly divides politicians in modern political systems – political ideologies. Before that can happen, Nigeria as a matter of priority needs to revisit its history and address serious political imbalances heating up our political landscape. Let’s begin to talk and sincerely I would add. Otherwise it may be too late to retrieve the country from the brink.

Emmanuel Chigozie Osuchukwu is a London-based writer. He can be reached via  emmanuelosu@hotmail.com


Source: News Express

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