IT is said that history repeats itself, first, as tragedy and then as farce. We are now in the farcical stage. Historical lies are fueling our latter-day war drums; threatening the fragile foundations of our sinking ship of state. We do not realize that no nation in history has survived two civil wars.
One of the biggest lies of all is that the January 1966 coup was not a tribal jamboree. It may well be that the likes of Majors Chukwuma Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna made themselves believe that their bout of ethnic cleansing was a “revolution”. But what kind of revolution was it that targeted officers and politicians almost exclusively from only one region with such coldblooded, unrepentant violence? Wise men always look to what people do rather than what they say.
The “revenge” coup by Northern officers in July 1967 was also replete with lies. Was it right or even necessary to wipe out so many Igbo officers? The Northern officers went on a killing spree in the erroneous belief that revenge has a part in politics. And the northern elites did nothing to stop the wholesale massacre that followed. Many in the North deny that they contemplated leaving the federation until the British warned them that they would end up as just another landlocked, poverty-stricken Sahelian Ruritania like Niger, Chad or Mali. I was a child at that time, but even with my child’s eye, I could see that a great evil had covered our skies like a nuclear mushroom cloud. People went berserk hunting down Ndigbo as if they were wild game in the ancient savannah. My own dear father of blessed memory did all he could to protect some of the families who fled to our modest home.
I remember a woman who gave birth on the day they had to flee. The spectacle of fear in the eyes of grown men and women haunts me to this day. It could have been prevented, but Northern leaders chose to look the other way.
Another big lie is that the entire war was an act of genocide perpetrated by Muslims against Igbo Christians. Gowon, a missionary boy from the Anglican Diocese of Wusasa, believed in his heart of hearts that the whole thing was a quarrel between brothers. He had intended to marry his beautiful Igbo heartthrob, Edith Ike, until his colleagues warned that it was impolitic in a time of belligerence to marry from the enemy. Field commanders such as Murtala Mohammed — whom Gowon nearly court-martialled — had their own ideas about the war. But Gowon himself was, and is, a statesman of moderation and compassion. His post-bellum settlement of Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction was one of the most successful post-conflict settlements in our long twentieth century.
I once challenged the young novelist Chimamanda Adichie for portraying the civil war in her Half of a Yellow Sun as though the only victims were the Biafrians. The simple demographic statistical fact is that more Nigerians died in that war than did Biafrans. Gowon resorted to conscripting underage youths from the Middle Belt. Most were unused to the primeval rainforest and were tragically mowed down in their legions.
Another big lie is that Biafra was a viable country. The vast majority of the South-South peoples were and are, opposed to it. Was Emeka Ojukwu on a personal mission to fulfil his own ambitions for power? Why did he execute Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Victor Banjo and Philip Alale as early as September 1967? Why did Nnamdi Azikiwe abandon ship in 1969? And was it true that both Nzeogwu and the poet Christopher Okigbo were set up to be killed at the war front because they were obstacles to Ojukwu’s ambition? Why did he blatantly refuse the free passage of food by humanitarian organizations that would have saved thousands from starvation?
Was the great mathematician Chike Obi wrong to dismiss him as a “gambler” who led his people to destruction for a mere ego-trip? Was Biafra indeed not another tragic moment in the long night of African tyranny? What is the current Biafra agitation all about if not a script being written by foreign powers using local agents? Had they not been prophesying ad nauseum that Nigeria would disintegrate?
In 1999, if Chief Emeka Anyaoku had wanted, he would have been the first Igbo president since the civil war. He did not want it. Ndigbo own most of the business assets in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja and other major cities. We are told that their investments in the North total more than N14 trillion. Whilst it is true that many of the recurrent cycles of religious killings in the North have a disproportionate share of Igbo victims, I submit that the idea of Igbo marginalisation is a myth. Their failure to produce a President owes less to conspiracy by the rest of Nigerians than to the fractious nature of Igbo politics itself. The geography of poverty is predominantly northern. The richest and most successful regions are the West and old East. No, Ndigbo have done more than well in Nigeria. Like everybody else, I was shocked to hear that 16 northern youth groups under the umbrella Arewa Youths Consultative Forum, AYCF, issued an ultimatum to all Igbos to quit the North before or on 1st October. One of the fattest lies of our age is the idea of one happy monolithic North. Arewa was dead and buried long ago. It died with political Sharia. Its coffin has been nailed by Boko Haram and the rampaging militias who call themselves “Fulani herdsmen”. The peoples of the Middle Belt have made it clear that the Arewa youths and their backers are on their own.
All said and done, I would appeal that we should all give peace a chance. I do not believe that Nigeria is an accidental country. On the contrary, ours is a unique national vocation and destiny. We are the symbol of the Black race. If Nigeria fails, Africa is doomed. And so will be the fate of 2 billion black peoples who look up to us, from Africa to Brazil, the Americas, Europe, Eurasia and the islands of the seas.
Acting President Yemi Osinbajo has warned that we are in a marriage. He is a Pastor for whom marriage is one of the holy sacraments of the church. But he has perhaps forgotten that there are other cultures for whom marriage is easily dissolved. All that is needed is three denouncements and she’s gone! Even the Bible does not totally rule out divorce – it can happen on grounds of adultery. As a student of history, I am aware that, for nations as for couples, there can never be a happy divorce. It will always be messy and traumatic – even violent. For better or worse, we must make this marriage work. We need patience, tolerance, wisdom and generosity.
The war drums are out because the youths are disenchanted with a system that has brought them nothing but tears, unemployment, kidnapping, genocide, structural violence and injustice. The 1999 constitution is morally illegitimate to the extent that it is not premised on “We the people…” — a contraption from the smoke-filled barracks of General Abacha’s brutal dictatorship, with its contradictions, false jurisprudence, laborious syntax and outright illegalities.
The word “restructuring” appears rather threatening to some people. But it’s clear we cannot avoid an institutional reform process going forward. What the youths demand is a new constitutional settlement embodying the deepest aspirations of all our people; anchored on a viable federalism, liberty, equality, social justice and the rule of law.
We must acknowledge that we have wronged Ndigbo and other groups in Nigeria. We must become the angels of peace and reconciliation, apostles of liberty – prophets of the Life More Abundant. This I believe to be the mandate of Heaven for a new generation of leadership.