The slogan of federal leader Yakubu Gowom at the time of the Nigerian civil war was: “To keep Nigeria as one is a task that must be done.” How true have Nigerians been to this principle – so far?
One powerful talk at a TEDXEuston conference held in London in November was by Jerome Okolo. It went to the heart of the issue about Africans being honest with ourselves, particularly how we build trust in our diverse countries. It got a standing ovation.
Okolo considered the importance of revisiting the Biafran war in order to understand what has gone wrong in Nigeria and what lessons have been learned – for example, the continuing violence and impunity of the British-created Nigerian state, which is more interested in extracting resources than nurturing and protecting people.
He traced the pogroms and massacres of Igbo and other Easterners, especially after Nigeria’s second coup in 1966. The impunity of the era triggered the Biafran war and the declaration of independence by Chukwuemeka Ojukwu in May 1967.
By coincidence, as Okolo delivered his speech, word came in that Ojukwu had died that morning. The ending of an era makes it even more important to look back truthfully to learn the real lessons as we seek to heal hatreds and rebuild trust. I need to declare and interest. I was a child on the Biafran side during the war and lost close relatives, including my father.
At the end of the war, I thought the major lesson was the importance of keeping the country together – to repeat federal leader, Yakubu Gowon’s slogan: “To keep Nigeria as one os a task that must be done.”
Olusegun Obasanjo, who received the instruments of surrender, has cited defeating the Biafrans and maintaining Nigeria’s territorial integrity as his outstanding contribution to the nation. Establishing this important principle could perhaps, in the end, rationalise the one to two million deaths and the destruction wrought by the civil war. Except that four decades later, this principle didn’t seem to matter at all to Nigerians, and was casually abandoned as a group of Nigerians on the Bakassi island were handed over to Cameroon, by the same Obasanjo.
To make matters worse, the Bakassi people wanted to remain Nigerian. So Nigeria fights a war where millions who no longer want to be Nigerian are attacked, blockaded, starved, and shot into submission (supported incidentally by the British), but hands over to Cameroon a group of Nigerians who begged and cried to remain Nigerian. Where was the outcry from Gowon – given his “task that must be done”? Or from the rest of the Nigerians who supported the principles behind the civil war?
The ease with which Bakassi was handed over was shocking and showed in reality that there has been little learnt from the war. There were no great principles at stake, and as a result thouse who died, ultimately died for nothing. These things are painful to bear especially when I consider all the deaths, including my father’s. The violence and impunity that created the conditions for the war are with us still. Ask Ken Saro Wiwa who, although an Easterner, supported the federal side in the war. Three decades later, the state would kill him, too, with impunity.
The state would carry on destroying other Nigerians – Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Dele Giwa, Kudirat Abiola, Pa Rawane, Shehu Yar’Adua, Moshood Abiola, the citizens of the towns of Zaki-Biam and Odi, the people of the Niger Delta, and so many more.
Perhaps as Nigerians, we should truthfully accept that since 1966 the state has been captured by a group of political army officers (the most prominent of which are Chukwuma Nzeogwu, Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon, Ojukwu, Murtala Mohammed, Theophilus Danjuma, Obasanjo, Shehu Yar’Adua, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha). Some were reluctant, others principled, they frequently fought and quarrelled amongst themselves, but we, as Nigerians, have been their captives and playthings ever since.