A debt That Must Be Paid
MAY 30, 1967, civil war broke out in the country we all know today as Nigeria; by January 15, 1970, 30 and some months of gory violence later, the war came to an end. The Nigerian Civil war, also acclaimed as the Biafran war, was fuelled by the attempt of the majorly Igbo Easterners to secede from the country Nigeria. The Igbos gave as their justifications, several malicious acts targeted against them as an ethnic group such as the pogrom that claimed over 30,000 lives, the then federal government's refusal to protect the Easterners as well as convincing evidence of the government's assent to the murder of her eastern citizens. The Nigerian government condemned the secession as illegal and unconstitutional; they argued that Nigeria was one and the attempt of the Igbos to secede was not only injurious to that oneness but would also be, if allowed, a catalyst for the secession of other ethnic groups thereby creating an extensive disintegration of the nascent republic. And war broke out between the Easterners who called themselves the People's Republic of Biafra and the Nigerian government. Casualties at the end numbered well over two million on the Biafran side and over 200,000 on the Nigerian government's side.
In the year 1861, civil war broke out in the country we all know today as the United States of America; by the year 1865, forty and some months of gory violence later, the war came to an end. The American Civil war originated from the attempted secession of the Southern states from the Union called the United States of America. The Southern states, which were largely pro-slavery, felt threatened by the domination of the anti-slavery Northerners in the 1860 elections leading to the overwhelming victory of a Northerner, Abraham Lincoln in the presidential polls. They argued that based on the compact theory, they were bound to the Union only as a confederacy of sorts which retained its sovereignty and therefore was legally right to exit the union. The Northerners of course refused; they argued that the constitution had stipulated the union of the states as a perpetual one so secession was not only illegal but a violation of the essence of the American republic. And war broke out between the Southern states, which had formed themselves into the Confederate States of America and the Northern states which were called the Union. Casualties at the end numbered about 360,000 on the Union's side and about 260,000 on the side of the rebel Confederacy.
For the two scenarios compared above, the similarities end there. From 1865 to 1900 (thirty-five years after the end of the Civil war), the United States became the world's foremost industrial nation. It emerged as the leader in meatpacking, in production of timber and steel, and in the mining of coal, iron, gold, and silver. Overall, the nation experienced a stunning explosion in the scale of industry and in the pace of production. On the other hand, from 1970 to 2013 (43 years after the end of the Civil war), Nigeria remains at the lower rungs of the lists that matter while ruling on those that don't.
While many reasons have been listed as culprits for the administrative malaise that has troubled post-war Nigeria persistently, one reason has lain low, careful to stay out of the way of ongoing discourse while harbouring perhaps the greatest secret to the solution of the Nigerian problem. That one reason is a crime committed by key-players of the 1960s and 1970s against the progeny of the Nigerian nation - their failure to preserve memories and lessons of the Biafran war.
Many people today, urged on by contemporary schools of thought, will preach a total annihilation of past experiences in favour of the present and hence, future; ditto 'throw away the burdens of the past so that you may herald the treasures of the now and future!' But the wisdom in that approach is yet to be seen. The past influences the present just as much, if not more, than the future does. Albert Einstein noted, 'The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion'. With every passing second, the future becomes the present and the present, the past all within such short intervals of time that George Calin further posited that 'There's no present. There's only the immediate future and the recent past'.
Therein lies the secret of the richness of the American culture today. In the United States, children are taught about the civil war as early as the third grade, the Nigerian equivalent of Primary three. These children are taught to understand the institution of slavery prior to the Civil war and its principal role in the breakout of the war, explain the reason(s) for the states' secession, and outline the course of the war among many other requirements. In an article published by Education news, '(teachers) uses props like milk-cartons for boats and blue marbles for cannonballs to illustrate battles…' and field trips are taken to any of the Civil war sites, which have all been preserved. In Yale university, History 119 - The Civil war and Reconstruction Era, 1845 - 1877 is a course taught to freshmen twice a week for 50 minutes; it is also made available as an 'Open Yale course' on the internet for downloads by whoever is interested. It would be needless recounting the series of books, movies, documentaries, etc that are available with war accounts from both sides of the conflict. The US government went a step further by taking pains to preserve sites where some of the most eventful battles were fought and today, those sites are unique walk-through museums, which also earn the country revenue.
This publication is not an effusive idolization of the US; if at this point you think it is then unfortunately but not for the first time, you have missed the point. Late Prof. Chinua Achebe's There was a country is a book that was trailed by perhaps just as many harsh criticisms as it was by acclamations. One subject of one too many heated debates is the role played by the late Obafemi Awolowo in the starving of Biafrans, as alleged by Achebe. In arguing either side of this issue, Nigerians missed the point again. Achebe understood the relevance of written history in the building of any nation. As he noted in his introduction to the novel, 'it is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grand-children, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria's story, Biafra story, our story, my story'. Over time since the end of the war, the same has been done by others who played parts in this momentous conflict. Nigerians like Olusegun Obasanjo, Joe Achuzia, Wole Soyinka, Alexander Madiebo, David Ejoor, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and even foreigners such as Frederick Forsyth, Holger Ehling, Laurie Wiseberg among others belong to this class. Unfortunately though, these men and women will have wasted their energies if the Nigerians for whom these books have been written continue to approach them with the sole aim of finding ammunition for inter-ethnic attacks.
The point right now should not be who was most wronged or which group of people must apologize to the other. The point right now should be about learning the truth exactly as it happened because with the objective learning of this truth comes acceptance, then reconciliation and eventually, a reconstruction agenda. Regrettably, the possibility of acquiring this undiluted truth has progressively dimmed as the currents of time have swept away many artefacts, landmarks and symbols. But late is not the end and nearly is a word that is yet to kill a bird.
The government needs to stop banning movies and books about the war just because they 'threaten national unity and integration'. We must realize that the real threat to national unity and integration is a student writing his West African Secondary School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE) whose response to a question regarding the extent of his knowledge of the Nigerian Civil war is 'ummm…I don't really know much shaa but it was a very bad war'. The real threat to national unity and integration is the absence of any landmark in honour of the brave soldiers (Biafran and Nigerian) who fought gallantly and died in Uzuakoli, Calabar, Abagana and Owerri. The war museum that was barely scrapped together at Umuahia deteriorates everyday fibber by fibber and the 'Old soldiers' day' celebrated yearly on the 15th of January has about as much influence on the Nigerian populace as does the ant on the hide of the elephant. These are the real threats to national unity and integration.
This reconstruction project is an all-encompassing one, which must either be taken on wholeheartedly or not at all. The pervading bugs of white-elephant projects and ghost organizations must not be allowed near this sacred task. Historians worth their salt need to be engaged by the government in a fact-finding mission; every document or artefact belonging to those thirty months of conflict must be collected and preserved. The 'Biafran pound' frames, Nigerian army uniforms and Ogbunigwe at the National war museum in Umuahia need to be dusted off, shined and showcased in glass with renewed pride. Gen. Yakubu Gowon continuously appears in recent news pleading for the attainment of a peaceful Nigeria but he is yet to publish a documentation of his personal memories of the war, as principal an actor as he was in the affair. Well here's a way he can start. Every day, so many neglected old men and women die, enriching the soil of the graveyard with the precious stories that are our history. The documentation of such memories is not a nicety to be engaged in at one's leisure, we must understand; such a task is a mandatory assignment placed upon the actor by the gnarled hands of history. It is a task of so much importance that I envisage the Creator stopping whoever fails at it from proceeding beyond heaven's gates. Because separated from their history, a people cease to exist.
The climax of this reconstruction agenda would be attained when all of this knowledge and wealth of experiences have been collected together and are then fed to every Nigerian child. From as early as primary education, the Nigerian child should be fed information and facts about the war that played no less than a crucial role in the molding of the country he or she has been born into. The NYSC (which was indeed created as a healing balm for post-war Nigeria in 1973) could be employed as the culmination of these lessons. The information taught would include the facts of events leading up to the war starting with pre-colonial Nigeria to the coup and pogroms of 1966; the reason(s) for the break-out of the war; the primary and secondary actors of the conflict, the various roles they played and the significances thereof; a timeline chronicling all significant events that occurred during the war; post-war attempts at reconstruction, why and how such attempts failed and the relevance thereof to the country's present situation.
Author of this article: By Chisom Ojukwu