The Emir of Kano HRH Alhaji Muhammadu Sanusi II was recently quoted as warning that “Nigeria may experience a repeat of the January 15 1966 military coup if some parts of the country continue in violence and disunity.” The revered Emir reportedly made the remarks on Thursday, January 14 at the 50th commemoration of the death of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello. The Emir was also quoted as condemning “the situation where some individuals were trying to rewrite history by portraying themselves as the victims instead of the aggressors” (The Herald, January 15 2016).
I believe the Emir was referring to the current agitation for Biafra by groups such as Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigenous Peoples Republic of Biafra (IPOB). In fact one of my friends from the North often jokes that though the Igbos (who made up the overwhelming majority in the defunct Republic of Biafra) lost the war, they have managed to dominate the narratives about the Civil War and by so doing turned on its head the aphorism that history is written from the perspective of the winners. Following from this, some have called for the history of the Civil War to be taught “truthfully.”
My aim in this piece is not to challenge the Emir’s condemnation of “the situation where some individuals were trying to rewrite history by portraying themselves as the victims instead of the aggressors” but rather to show that for every piece of our history, there are contending narratives and that people on opposite sides of an ugly event often remember differently and therefore will often interpret that event, including the apportioning of blame about it, differently.
It is for the above reason that social scientists argue that truth is relative, that what we call “the truth”, is in fact socially constructed and experiential rather than an ‘objective reality’ or an immutable fact. Following from this, historiography (the art of history construction) is never neutral in the ideological, philosophical and political contestations in any plural society. I am sure if Hitler were to be given an opportunity to write about the history of the Second World War his version of “the truth” will be manifestly different from the current dominant account about that ugly chapter in world history. Researchers sometimes try to arrive at ‘objective truth’ by doing content analyses of the different contending narratives of an event. Even at this some will question whether neutrality (and hence objectivity) is possible in social research. Truth is like the story of the seven blind men who were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the huge animal. Each of the blind men had a different notion of how the animal looked depending on which part of the elephant he felt
I will below summarize the contending versions of the first military coup, the counter coup and the Civil War and the events it triggered:
Contending narratives on the January 15 1966 coup
There are a few facts about the coup which are not deniable: it was extremely bloody, which it didn’t need to be even if the soldiers wanted to overthrow the civilian government. The ring leaders were mostly Igbo and Christians. Of the five Majors that conspired and carried out the coup, only one, Major Ademulegun was not Igbo. While the key political leaders from the North and some from the West, were brutally murdered, Igbo political leaders were spared. Again it was argued that Major-General Ironsi who became Head of State following the coup did nothing to punish the coup plotters because they were his fellow Igbo.
Those who try to deny the ethnic (and religious) character of the coup argue that the conspiratorial nature of coups explains why coup plotters often recruit from their close-knit groups (ethnic, regional or religious) and that subsequent coups in the country followed the same pattern. It is also argued that if the coup was a conspiracy by Igbo officers, it was also botched by Igbo officers – Ironsi in Lagos and Ojukwu in Kano.
What seems to be obvious is that there remains bitterness in the North and the West against the Igbos for that ‘Igbo coup’ that killed many of the political leaders of the other region but spared Igbo political leaders.
July 1966 coup
If the coup of January 1966 was lopsided, the Northern revenge coup of July 1966 was even more so. Not only was Ironsi killed in a brutal manner, several Igbo military officers were killed. Then came the pogrom, which killed tens of thousands of Igbos, and which continued even after Gowon had firmly established himself as the Head of State after the death of Ironsi.
While there is a consensus that the Northern counter coup of July 1966 and the anti-Igbo pogrom that followed were disproportional in their grotesqueness to the sins of the January 15 1966 coup makers, their defenders argue that reactions are rarely equal to the original actions, and that Igbos living in the North did not show humility after the January 15 1966 coup.
What seems obvious is that much of the Igbo anger about the civil war is focused on stories of the pogrom following the counter coup of 1966.
What caused the war?
Depending on which side you are, explanations of what caused the civil war differ. For many on the federal side, the war was simply caused by the decision of people of the former Eastern Nigeria to secede from Nigeria under the Republic of Biafra and the decision of the rest of the country to fight to keep Nigeria one. For most Igbos, the Civil War was simply a war of self-preservation caused by the pogrom against the Igbos in the North.
Obviously these two narratives are simplistic. They are at best trigger events. Historians and political scientists will often talk about the remote and proximate (immediate) causes of war. Wars they say are caused by small things but never because of small things.
The Civil War and After
On the prosecution of the war, the narratives again differ: while those who fought on the federal side would blame Ojukwu’s ‘intransigence’ for the duration of the war, Igbos would say that without Ojukwu declaring the war the pogrom would have continued until every Igbo was wiped out.
Again while some Igbos will remember Kwashiokor, and some post war policies like the Indigenization Decree ( which enabled other ethnic groups to buy into choice foreign companies at a time they were pauperized) and the policy of giving each Igbo with a bank account the sum of GBP20 irrespective of the amount the person had in the bank, the rest of the country would argue that the war was prosecuted as humanely as possible and that Gowon’s policy of ‘No Victor No Vanquished’ was without parallel in history. They will also remind the Igbos that just nine years after the end of the Civil War an Igbo man became the Vice President of the country and Speaker of the House of Representatives, that after the war Igbo properties in all parts of the country (except Port Harcourt) were returned to them, that they were reintegrated into the country and that they currently thrive in virtually all aspects of human endeavour in all parts of the country. Following from this when some Igbos complain of marginalization, they will often counter with “who is marginalizing whom”?
The point of the above is that we all remember differently.
Just as some Africans demand for reparation or apology from Europe and the Arabs for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and trans-Saharan slave trade respectively (meaning asking current leaders of the European and Arab world to pay for the sins of their ancestors), I have often wondered whether it will help the cause of national reconciliation if the Igbos should apologise to the North and the West for the January 15 1966 coup while the North should apologise to the Igbos for the anti-Igbo pogrom of 1966?
For the Civil War itself and the events after, I believe we have to remember that war is a dirty business, and that as hurtful as that era may be to some people, the country simply has to face its past and transcend it. I believe that if we can get past the events of January 15 1966 and the pogrom that followed the counter coup we will have made a big progress.