Opinions and Facts
Opinions are not lacking when it comes to the issue of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War. There are fictional and non-fictional books themed around it. Personal stories have been passed down. Articles written and papers presented. The Civil War has inspired poetry, produced movies, and it has led to even more disputes.
What seems lacking, however, are agreed facts. Despite the abundance of literature on Biafra, the issue is still as divisive in 2016 Nigeria, as it was in 1967. Yes, we know who shot whom and when. But we are yet to simplify these accounts into a logical narrative of cause and effect without expressing justification or blame.
This is, principally, because political decisions in this country have always been tied to the perspectives and personality of the Ogas at the top—and rarely to institutions or systems—and so it is very difficult to reach objective facts about the Civil War (or any other political issue) without seeming to pass value judgments—positive or negative—on the actors involved, some of whom still shape aspects of Nigeria’s politics today.
Consequently, it has been safer for successive federal and state governments to adopt a deliberate or subconscious policy of ignoring the causes and effects of the Civil War in official administration. The Civil War is rarely referenced and almost never discussed by government. It is treated like a nightmare whose vestigial memory is best ignored in view of the sunny day ahead.
Six Blind Men
The adverse effect of this attitude is that some fifty years later, there is still collective ignorance on the facts of the war.
It is, therefore, not surprising that, to a fair number of my Yoruba acquaintances, the Civil War was a “bad thing”, but no more socio-politically significant than a violent student protest in the ‘70s. To other non-Igbo Nigerians, generally, Biafra was mainly a nuisance affair that, like Boko Haram today, threatened the sovereignty of Nigeria and was justifiably dealt with by the Federal Government. Whereas, to a number of my Igbo acquaintances, the Civil War was simply the African version of the Holocaust.
These are all perceptions promoted by a wealth of opinions and a dearth of facts. None of these perceptions is absolutely correct, and none is absolutely false. Worse, because the direct consequences of the Civil War have been overtaken by events that have now become historical in their own right, the need for re-examination is undervalued. More importantly, since the days of the Civil War, all sections of the country have been jointly involved—in varying degrees—in a never-ending stream of almost equally lamentable economic and political misfortunes.
And so, a number of non-Igbo Nigerians are baffled by the current pro-Biafra agitations. They do not see any socio-economic justifications for a renewed agitation. Afterall, is Abeokuta any better developed than Aba? Has Awka been more marginalised by the Federal Government than Birnin-Kebbi? Are Igbo (and the miscellany of ethnicities of the South-East and South-South erroneously identified with the Igbo) generally poorer than the Hausa?
Nigerians measure individual success by material progress, and when they see the containers in Apapa Port, the shops in Alaba, the shareholdings of banks and high finance, they are satisfied that the Igbo have had their fair share of the national cake, and any purported underdevelopment in “Biafra” is the fault of the Igbo elite.
A Painful Memory
Nevertheless, the Biafran discontent as expressed today isn’t about building roads and bridges—at least, not literally—nor about access to business or finance, but about Nigeria steadfastly dismissing the humanitarian injustices done to the Igbo (and their neighbouring ethnicities) from the pre-War pogrom to the post-Civil War nonchalance. Biafra agitators want the Nigerian government to sit-up, and agree that: Yes, there was a country and everyone involved bungled it very stupidly. This may look like a little thing to ask, but the Nigerian government is notorious for not apologising.
This point may be difficult to grasp for the non-Igbo Nigerian, but it is a hurt and anger that is real to many people—and directed at the current concept of the Nigerian nation. They were hurt by Nigeria and nobody cared afterwards. This hurt—and its accompanying anger—is passed down with every generation of Nigerian Igbo. The descendants of the Biafrans, no matter how prosperous they seem now, are still rankled.
Yet, as an older acquaintance recently reminded me, others were hurt too. Significant individuals (like Wole Soyinka) were imprisoned by the Gowon administration. A power-high and paranoid Ojukwu ordered the execution of Emmanuel Ifeajuna (the first African international gold medallist), Victor Banjo, Phillip Alale and Sam Agbam in unclear circumstances. Ethnicities like the Efik, the Qua in Calabar were allegedly massacred by Ojukwu’s soldiers because he suspected they were saboteurs to the Biafra cause. There were also the Benin people and others who suffered loss of life or property simply for being ethnic minorities in a war involving major ethnicities.
The argument for reconsidering Biafra is not about justifying the reckless, and often criminal, decisions of the Nigerian and Biafran leaders, but it is about placing a value on Nigerian lives—whether “Biafran Nigerian” or “Nigerian Nigerian.” President Shagari may have pardoned Ojukwu, but when will the people pardon the actions of Gowon, Obasanjo, Murtala, and other actors?
Opportunists and Opportunities
Still, it is no wonder that a lot of people want to forget those days in a hurry. But the dead refuse to stay dead. And there are people like Nnamdi Kanu willing to profit from their ghosts.
We should not conflate arguments about reconsidering Biafra with the antics of folks like Kanu. These ones are hypocritical demagogues, playing on the sentiments of their audience for personal advancement. Yet, the sentiments they profit from are serious socio-psychological ones that a concerned government should create space to address. The rapidness with which Kanu built an audience, alone, is weighty enough to make a concerned government pause.
Yes, some people are merely annoyed that these issues have resurfaced under President Buhari’s administration and consider it to be a deliberate attempt to “make the country ungovernable” for the current President. Yes, I agree that Biafran sentiments were subdued under the former administration and, maybe, a misguided sense of ethnocentrism has resurfaced it. But, inconvenient timing is not enough justification to dismiss a social issue.
It Is Not Too Late
Human life is sacred, and Biafra requires some reconsideration—some national remembrance, some educational policy or official catharsis—from us, today’s citizens of the surviving entity Nigeria. Biafra requires our reconsideration of the administrative indecisions, malice, ignorance, vengeance, pride and foolishness on all sides that aggregated into the Civil War.
Reconsidering Biafra is not just for the protesters in Port Harcourt or the people broadcasting hate-speech on Radio Biafra. It is for the appreciation of the everyday Igbo women and men, as well as the other South-East and South-South ethnicities, for the surviving families of the victims of the Civil War, for all of them who still contribute to the economic and social success of Nigeria in different ways.
We keep getting upset that the Nigerian government is generally careless about the deaths of innocent civilians: the killings in Southern Kaduna, the ethnic clashes in the Middle-Belt, the victims of miscellaneous police murders, the Immigration recruitment stampede, Boko Haram victims, aviation crashes, and so on. But this official nonchalance was encouraged when we, the people, sanctioned the murders of the country’s first leaders, the ethnic “cleansing” in the North, and then—till date—we allowed the deaths of over two million Nigerians to be swept aside as collateral damage.
We have to start taking our right to life seriously. We have to recognise that this nonchalance to civilian death is a problem. And then, we may be healed from the burdensome memories of the Civil War.
I have been reliably informed that there are records of the events that shaped the Civil War in what is now the Office of the Secretary-General of the Federation, as well as the E “Special Branch” Department of the Nigerian Police—now known as the SSS. Hopefully, one day, the government in Abuja—as part of a healing process—will release enough of the letters, executive orders and other documents that decided the fate of millions and thus enable us to accurately document our history, and reach an objective and settled understanding of the guided and misguided events of 1966-1970.
But, for now, Abuja is unbothered about Biafra. Abuja is never bothered by anything. If something gets bothersome, Abuja simply sends in the Army.
That is Abuja’s M.O.
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