Re: History, Civil War and Our Haunted House,By M T Usman



(FILES) This picture taken on May 11, 2012 shows statesman and highly respected army commander during the Nigerian civil war retired General Mohammed Shuwa speaking about the Islamist insurgency in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria. General Shuwa was shot dead by unidentified gunmen at his Maiduguri residence on November 2, 2012.  AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEIReviewing the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s book Tactics and Strategy of A People’s Republic in the New Nigerian some forty years ago, the late Dr Tahir grandly declared the work “a welter of muddle and confusion.” I did not get to read the book then, so what I learnt of its contents came from the intense exchanges Dr Tahir’s irreverent conclusion set off among members of the country’s vibrant intellectual community. I have however perused the Nation’s In Touch column of Monday, August 22, 2013 and have no hesitation in applying
Dr Tahir’s pithy put-down, quoted above, to the viewpoint canvassed therein. A lament on the absence of history in the current curriculum of Nigeria’s secondary schools became the occasion for another excursion into the “scatological details” – ugh – of the Nigerian Civil War. The rambling write-up, liberally spiced with quotations, neglected to make a case for the re-introduction of the teaching and study of history, but veered into familiar territory, tearing into the reputations of some of Nigeria’s finest soldiers – and statesmen.
The interview with Iluyomade ran by the Nation a fortnight ago was a mix of the tragic and the comical. The tragedy was in the brazen effort of the panel of interviewers to put into Iluyomade’s mouth by asking leading questions, a practice discountenanced in courts of law. The comical part was in the follow-up answers the interviewee gave in response to further prodding. The old war-horse’s expatiation negate the one-liner answer he gave to the original question. Asked for his views on the killings of Igbos during the civil disturbances in the North in 1966, Iluyomade naturally condemned the tragic events. Pressed further by the interviewers, the questioned why such a reaction should not be expected from a people who had witnessed the decapitation of their political and military leadership. In not exact Iluyomade conceded January 15 was the original sin. It is appropriate here to ponder what the reaction have been
in the Western Region had Awolowo died in Calabar prison before his release by General Gowon in 1966.
The Battle of Ore was not won by the motley group of cooks and other tradesmen in the Army mustered and flung into the fight. They had the decisive support of “Hausa troops” hurriedly withdrawn from already very short training into what must be seen as the Nigerian equivalent of the Battle of Britain in its on the course of the conflict.
What was the point of listing the battles in which Federal forces were defeated or suffered severe reverses? All great armies have had their fair share of reverses and defeats; the important thing is they ultimately, mostly prevailed. The failed crossing at Asaba and the disaster at Abagana for the Nigerian Army had their earlier echoes in the British Army’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign and the string of defeats before El Alamein. Or even the American misadventure in Vietnam.
The reverse killings of Hausas at Asaba – an episode I admit to not being much aware of – should have been fully explained in the context of the fighting in the civil war. When did it happen? During the Biafran invasion of the Midwest? Any nexus between massacre and the more publicised one at the same town, after the liberation of the region? The animus constantly on display against the trio of Generals Gowon, Murtala Muhammed and Shuwa and the constant effort to rubbish their reputations are clearly the product of “personal prejudice.” The last out Gowon was portrayed as a bumbling commander – in chief, ignoring the maxim one can’t argue with success. For the umpteenth , Gowon was not a compromise Christian candidate for head of state. The indaba convened impromptu at the Ikeja military barracks that fateful weekend of July 29, 1966 was not about the headship of the country but whether the North remain part of Nigeria.
And those who took part in those pivotal discussions were, to re-phrase JFK, ” all Northerners.”
Gowon exercised the same level of control over Murtala and Shuwa as he did over Col Adekunle. The negative fixation with the “strategy and tactics” of Shuwa’s 1 Division is simply ludicrous. The dynamics of war require the defeat of enemy forces and taking and holding territory. Federal troops were not chasing civilians but rebel forces. Mass movement of civilians in conflict areas is normal, seeking to avoid being caught in the fighting and returning only when relative calm is restored. Igbos returning to areas liberated by 1 Division troops enjoyed peace and security as attested to by International Observers criss-crossing the war zones.
Like it or not, Gowon is Nigeria’s Abraham Lincoln. He fought a war to prevent the disintegration of his country and quashed seccession. He strove to achieve reconciliation and reconstruction. Lincoln was a statesman and so was Gowon; both sought to heal the wounds after a war between brothers. “Cunny” is not part of Gowon’s psyche. He is a Wusasa gentleman for goodness sake, their dominant character trait is earnestness.
The unwaning interest in history in the West is the product of the stock their societies place on their past, on what could be learnt from it and how it places them in the comity of nations. In the euphoric period before independence and shortly after, the study of the history of African societies was an urgent necessity in order to debunk Western theory about Africa’s lack of history before the arrival of the White Man. That was the era of prodigious output from the pioneers in the study of African history: Professors Adu Boahen, Kenneth Dike, J F Ade Ajayi, Tekena Tamuno, Dr Robert Adeleye. Their successors were Professors Obaro Ikime, Osoba, Yusuf Bala Usman, Mahdi Adamu and many others.
Perhaps governments in Africa thought the work was done so they down-graded the study of both history and geography to general studies. The need for a return to old certainties in Nigeria’s education system is never more urgent than now, and a campaign in that direction is a worthy undertaking.
M T Usman

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