The quantity and quality of spoken and written commentaries on Nigeria’s civil war (note: not Biafra war!) once again point to the groundswell of an emerging national consensus. It was time for some forms of closure to the grim stories of the national tragedy of the dark years of 1966 to 1970. Any war brings scars which can hardly go away. Closure is not meant to forget but to learn how to build a nation without another round of human wastage. “Never Again Conference” organized by the Nzuko Umunna and Ndigbo Lagos, in Lagos on Monday January 13th particularly captured my imagination.
Many thanks to the organizers and participants for their patriotism, commitment, inclusiveness and constructive proposals on how to make peace and development sustainable. It would be recorded to their credit that some compatriots truly rose to obey “Nigeria’s call” and “serve our fatherland with love and strength and faith”. They chose not to forget. However thanks to democratic dispensation which offers a legitimate platform for open reflections without intimidation. It would have been unthinkable that in 1995, (25th anniversary of the end of the war!), some compatriots would dare contemplate a Never-Again -kind-Conference on Nigeria’s civil war.
Lest we forget 1990s was the decade of the worst military dictatorship. Nigerians suffocated under the military jackboots. It was a decade of uncivil wars (apology to Mahmoud Jega) with suspended civil liberties, ouster feverish cowardly military decrees and suppressed freedom of expressions. In a singular assault on August 18, 1994, Abacha dictatorship responded to the labour resistance and workers’ strike by sacking the Executive Council of NUPENG and PENGASSAN, and NLC, closed down three newspapers: the Punch, Concord group (owned by late Chief Abiola) and The Guardian while cynically allowing for “a partial lifting of the ban on politics, allowing individuals to ‘canvass political ideas’ but not to ‘form political parties for now’. Politics without political parties: there was indeed once a country! By November 1994: Professor Soyinka, key speaker at “Never Again conference” fled into exile for ‘political reasons’, on grounds of threat to life. On October 1, 1994: the dictatorship arrested and detained the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi for audaciously launching a political party, the National Conscience Party,(NCP) in Lagos.
There can only be closure if there are unfettered full disclosures about the causes and effects of the war. Today it’s seems politically correct for the chieftains of military regimes to repeat the mantra: that military fought to keep Nigeria one! But the point cannot be overstated that it was the senseless military coup of January 1966 that killed nascent democracy, sowed the first seed of disunity and subsequent carnage that followed. Late Alhaji M D Yusuf, (the third Inspector General of the Nigerian Police Force, from 1975 to 1979) has commendably documented what he called “Havoc of Military Rule” (1999). He rightly observed that the military was responsible for the civil war ( “they plunged us into a bitter civil war with great cost to lives, property and natural resources’.). No thanks to subsequent addictive military coups with attendant negative impact on military professionalism. The military (in his words) “…had to be saved from itself”! I agree with Professor Wole Soyinka, that: “One of the ways to say ‘Never Again’ is to enthrone the principles of democracy,” the Nobel Laureate said. Let’s start with the little things. First, let’s promote dialogue in place of the current impulsive diatribes.
I praise the statesmanship of Chief Asiwaju Bola Tinubu for its measured and balanced intervention on the side of democracy, dialogue, inclusion, partnership and compromise over the Amotekun controversy. It was the inability of the first Republic politicians to reason and think together (dialogue) that inspired anti-democratic forces of 1966. Secondly let’s democratize the Remembrance Day to include remembering all victims of the war that include the unarmed civilians. The casualty figure is put at some 2 million, the armed combatants are some 100,000 while the rest millions were unarmed civilians who died of starvation and blockade. Books on the civil war by different partisans can make a library.
But it’s time for an official objective account which must bring home the received wisdom that “when war begins, hell opens and that in war, all suffer defeat, even the victors”. We must move away from the most romantic and agonizing war accounts to the sobering. In the 80s, as an undergraduate Economics students, I recall the romantic cliche from the compulsory Nigerian economy course promoted by our lecturers. We were made to believe that Nigeria never borrowed to execute the war! Nigeria’s current indebtedness had its roots in the huge financial gaps engendered by massive post war reconstruction of the willfully destroyed roads, bridges and infrastructure, industries in an hitherto promising developing nation. The theatre of war was almost bombed into Stone Age while war efforts arrested development in other regions. Late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was the minister of Finance in the war cabinet of General Yakubu Gowan. He reportedly disclosed that the war cost the Federal government Nigerian pound 230 million 70 million pound foreign exchange. Nigeria’s total oil revenue in 1970 was N166.6 million, half of what was expended on war efforts. Nigeria might not have borrowed externally but it was indebted to underdevelopment that the war promoted, underdevelopment that still hunts like a spectre. We were all losers in an avoidable war.
The official message should neither be triumphant nor nostalgic for another strife. My dear friend Pat Utomi at the Lagos Never Again conference reportedly said “if the Nigerian civil war was held today, there would be no Nigeria because the mood in the international community now accepts self-determination.”. Haba! I thought we all agreed that Never Again regardless of the mood of “international community” which is ever for “self-determination” for as long as it divides and plunders the developing countries! (Just witness South Sudan) ! Chief “Emeka” Odumegwu Ojukwu who was laid to rest on the 2nd of March 2012.The then Anambra State Governor, Mr Peter Obi hit the nail on the head when he said that; “the Nigerian civil war has finally ended with the burial of Chief Emeka Ojukwu in his Nnewi country home”.
After the famous quotable Gowon; “no victor, no vanquished”, Obi’s remark was the most refreshingly profound and statesmanlike. Nigeria and Nigerians first invented the words; “Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation (in-that-order) after the civil war ended 13th of January 1970, words we later impressed on South Africans after apartheid. Posthumous tribute must go to former President Shehu Shagari. Notwithstanding the partisan pressures within his party, NPN and the opposition parties notably Zik’s NPP he nonetheless with political sagacity navigated the delicate historic balance by pardoning both former Lt Colonel Ojukwu and General Gowon (who became a victim of addictive coups) in 1981. He courageously struck off their names from the “wanted list” and allowed them home from exile to keep up adding value.
Issa Aremu, mni