Like many Nigerians, I loathe commenting publicly about the ethnic restiveness in Nigeria. That disposition is not born of ambivalence. And I’m not uncaring about such troubling developments in our dear country. But, I have a foreboding sense that our national elite, having elected to play coy, have expediently contracted schizophrenic amnesia on some critical national issues, especially, those with historical overtone. Reading through commentaries in the media about events of 1966 and the civil war, left me convinced of the great disservice our leaders continue to do to Nigeria.
It’s beyond irony that a nation which took a heady policy decision to redact history from its school curriculum would deploy so much energy and resources in remembering and marking the 50th anniversary of the military intervention in Nigeria on 15 January, 1966, and the consequent legacies of that event, which includes a civil war, when all remain incontestable historical benchmarks. Such contradictions snub our national history, which is not a one-off event, but long annals of occurrences — positive and negative.
It’s also curious how certain individuals have in dissembling ways, continued to frame and reframe those heady events of 1966 and the unintended consequences, a visceral 30-months civil war. In many instances, the chosen narratives are beguilingly devious as they delude. They are also dubious since they signify missed opportunities and lessons not learned. Most, reveal that the “no victor, no vanquished doctrine” proclaimed with the best intention, have since been rendered vacuous by revisionists. Some commentaries on both sides of the divide are so obtuse, they manifest malice aforethought. Still, one expects well-meaning Nigerians, especially those in leadership positions and policymakers, to be asking hard-headed questions with problem-solving in mind. Rather, those commentators who mount the soapbox elect to play to the gallery. The result of our failure to place the civil war and related events in their proper historical context means that our war recriminations will continue, endlessly. In the true Socratic fashion, perhaps the modality of choice for our esteemed leaders is to seek solutions by asking question, beginning with, What if?
What if the world had characterized the Biafran war as genocide or ethnic cleansing like it did in Rwanda and Bosnia?
What if, Nigeria’s tail-hump that now constitutes the south-south geopolitical zone had not played turncoat in 1967 and stayed true the secession effort?
What if we had agreed on a common narrative about the Civil War, so that our children, regardless of ethnicity, can learn that their grandparents and parents made mistakes, which led to Nigerians going to war against each other?
What if Nigeria had embarked on post-war Truth and Reconciliation Commission like post-apartheid South Africa did?
What if a northern-dominated military had not ended the Shagari administration prematurely in 1983, thus truncating the possibility of an Igbo, namely Dr. Alex Ekwueme emerging as Shagari’s successor and Nigeria’s President on the completion of Shagari’s second tenure?
What if the Awolowo-Umeadi south-south and Christain-Christain or the Abiola-Kingibe south-north and Muslim-Muslim presidential tickets had respectively succeeded?
What if Obasanjo had not been plucked from prison as the “trusted hand” and in 2003 chaperoned into the Nigeria Presidency, under the aegis of the PDP, again over Dr. Alex Ekwueme?
What if the Eastern secession attempt had been framed entirely as a religious cause, thus mimicking the ongoing Boko Haram campaign to annex Nigerian territories and turn them into parts of its Caliphate?
What if Igbo businessmen had been sufficiently untrusting of the Nigerian complex and promise and thus invested their wealth in East Nigeria and not in Abuja, Kano, Jos, Lagos, and Zamfara?
What if we all agreed that events of 1966 were of national significance; what does it commonly represent to Nigerians?
What if the Igbo had, like the Hausa-Fulani ruled Nigeria for most of fifty-five years of independence? What if?
Some of these historical questions are very emotive and ostensibly provocative. But they speak eloquently to the deep chasm in our frank and diligent discourse of pressing national issues? The answers to all the ‘What Ifs’ are essential and critical components of our national history, which we openly repudiate, but seek to celebrate marginally, in recalling and marking suitable segments. Something is inherently dubious, if not duplicitous in this approach, since it not only sectionalizes national attitude, it forecloses on collective response and action. Indeed, it gives impetus to ethnic disparity, exclusivity and prevailing dichotomies.
Luckily, every past and present Nigerian leader is blessed with family. How would any of them respond to a family crisis, in which a child or two claim to be ‘less loved than the others’? Elemental as this may sound, the national challenges we face are not ahistorical, neither are they apolitical. Our challenge is that our leaders, past and present, and indeed our national elite, are comfortable in situations that serve their convenience and as such, are indifferently inured to the pains of various parts of the nation. Hence, many fail to sense and appreciate secular challenges and the unmet needs that are routinely compounded into one word; marginalization. Still, every part of Nigeria has a marginalization peeve.
Advancing Nigeria politically and developmentally is a shared responsibility. So too, is leading Nigeria and sharing its resources and burdens. We all seek change. But change is tangible because it’s behavioral – and consists of thinking, body language, utterances and actions. Paradoxically, to many of our leaders, nationhood, egalitarian society, equity and justice, remain mere theoretical constructs. That, amongst others, is the crux of our national and governance challenge. Then, there are those who have coveted the role of being the vociferous mouthpiece of the majority and the ‘victors.’ They malign and belittle their compatriots, accusing them of ingratitude, unbridled ambition and of being the ‘aggressors’ and ‘transgressors’. These are igniting and dangerous fighting words; and hardly the language of reconciliation, unity and nation-building. Clearly, our leaders are constrained by their restricted worldview, otherwise, they have ample case studies globally, of how best to handle ethnic agitations and claims to self-determination, without turning such claims and responses to them into variants of national adversities and watersheds warranting the use of force. Government must respond to agitations in appropriate and proportional manner. Forcible squelching on peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, diminish our democracy, blight our nation and portray our leaders in bad light.
In the absence of history and rising official incongruity toward ordered liberties, some Nigerians including President Muhamadu Buhari have asked the question: What Do the Igbo Want? That, presumably, is a rhetorical question. It has to be. Contextually, it’s a question related to every facet of Nigeria. What does Boko Haram want? What do the Niger Delta militants want? What do IPOB agitators want? What does the Middle Belt want? What do the Hausa/Fulani want? What do Egbesu Boys want? And Afenifere? Differently, each seeks equity and due attention to their needs.
In the absence of history, it will remain a worthy footnote that those who worked hard and fought to “Keep Nigeria One”, are retrospectively, in attitude and practice, the very persons who are dismantling the legacy they fought for. It is their discordant attitude that stokes ‘Biafran’ recidivism and the embers of a separatist agitation long buried. Hence, it would be delusional to think as some do, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo, that the notion of Biafra is dead. Not exactly. ‘Biafra’ is the metaphor for all that is wrong with Nigeria; insensitivity, injustice, neglect, exclusion, disrespect, disequilibria and executive comeuppance. Oddly, if today a plebiscite on Biafra were held, it would not pass among the Igbo. Why? Igbo entrepreneurs are inanely invested in Nigeria; more so in other parts of Nigeria than in the former ‘Biafran’ enclave. So it rankles to be major contributors to a national project; yet not have a voice in that project.
Nigeria remains a nation steeped in schizophrenic amnesia. As long as we revel in our idiosyncratic disposition of being averse to critical national discourse and introspective policymaking, we will continue to court agitation, dissension and protestations. More so, as such rights are constitutionally guaranteed. Our leaders need to, as a matter of policy, begin to reframe their thinking and public utterances related to the commonweal. We can’t spend enormous amount of time and resources on a national confab only to shelve its conclusions. We need to think outside the box, on policies and modalities for handling atypical circumstances and demands for ‘change’. Moving the nation forward requires nonstop open and honest dialogue. Finally, we must of necessity revisit how we handle our national history and past incidents.
Obaze, MD/CEO of Selonnes Consult, is a strategic public policy adviser and immediate past Secretary to the Anambra State Government.