NIGERIA: THE COST AND CURSE OF BIAFRA
In his essay, “Going to the Territory,” the late novelist Ralph Ellison famously made the accusation that “Americans can be notoriously selective in the exercise of historical memory.” The Nigerian malady is of a different kind. As I suggested earlier, as far as the Biafran War is concerned, the Nigerian state has adopted a stance of deliberate forgetfulness. And I am willing to wager that this stance accounts, in large measure, for the cyclical disaster that has become a major theme of the country’s experience.
It’s tragic enough, if you ask me, that a country that wasted more than a million lives and limbs in a civil war would turn around and choose to carry on as if everything was hunky dory – thank you. It’s worse, in my estimation, when the country’s collective intelligentsia decides to collaborate in this project of amnesia. It’s true that both Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, our two most important writers, played significantly roles in the war, and have written considerably – in a variety of genres – about it. In addition, a few of the major actors in the war – among them Philip Effiong and Olusegun Obasanjo – have written highly personal accounts of it. Still, given the scale and significance of the bloody conflict as well as the sheer enormity of the cost in lives, one is, I think, justified in bemoaning the paucity of books on the subject.
In particular, Nigeria’s professional historians – with a few exceptions – stand accused of shirking a responsibility to explore the war’s multi-dimensional aspects. When we consider that the civil war in the United States – which formally ended in 1863 – continues to generate a whole library of books each year, then we can begin to grasp how thoroughly insouciant Nigerian historians have been. The history of the Biafran War ought to be a staple in the departments of history of our various universities. Ideally, the historians engaged to teach at these universities ought to sustain our memory of the whys and what ifs of the war.
One is aware of the huge handicaps facing Nigerian scholars and researchers. Even so, it is something of an indictment of Nigerian academics that it took the effort of historians and forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida to begin the systematic identification of the victims of the Asaba massacre, and to commence an oral history of the tragedy. Nigeria’s election to ignore the lessons of its bloodiest moment has proved extremely dangerous. On the whole, Nigerians’ understanding of their history is terribly shallow, and often shaped or inflected by handy ethnic or sectarian stereotypes.
In The Roots of African American Identity, a scintillating study of the nature and context of memory in the forging and transformation of experience, Elizabeth Rauh Bethel dwells on the modes of politicization of memory of the American War of independence. She specifically explores the systematic, racist exclusion of African Americans from the nexus of the rites of memory pertaining to that revolutionary effort. In doing so, she makes a point that – I think – connects with Nigeria’s experience. Bethel writes that “in the nation of twenty-nine million, three million African Americans had been excised from the public memory of a war in which many of their fathers and grandfathers had fought and some had died. At mid-century, neither the myth of the remembered past nor the lived reality of daily life acknowledged the vital presence of African Americans in a nation they had helped to create.”
What did African Americans do? In the face of exclusion, they did not fold their hands and bemoan their fate. Led by the inspiring William Cooper Nell, they inaugurated the Commemorative Festival in Boston and elsewhere in the northern states. Conceived as a corrective to the exclusivist strain of European American remembrance of the war, the festival sought to serve two purposes: “it celebrated a lost African-American past, and it validated the contemporary demands of African Americans for full and unconditional inclusion in the civic life of the nation they had helped create.” In other words, the festivals tried to “revise and expand the myth of the [American] nation’s beginnings in such a fashion as to include African Americans; and in so doing, the Commemorative Festival drew on a long-standing African-American celebratory tradition as it constructed an historical validation for contemporary protests against injustice and demands for full and unconditional rights as American citizens.”
In the case of Nigeria, sadly, there appear to be two contending, but not mutually exclusive, trends. One is the temptation to sum up the lessons of the Biafran War as simply a demonstration of the indestructibility of the Nigerian fabric. This posture takes several rhetorical forms. Some – politicians, pastors, even intellectuals – invoke the idea of divine design. They suggest that Nigeria’s shape and constitution were mandated by God, instead of British colonialist fiat. Subsequently, it is proposed that any effort to dismember the entity called Nigeria would be, unquestionably, an affront to God. Others suggest that, despite her past and continuing woes, Nigeria remains special – and destined for greatness – on account of its stupendous endowments in human and material resources. The other tendency appears, even if implicitly, to prescribe forgetfulness. Even though the war is recognized as a wound in the country’s psyche, this attitude goes ahead to encourage Nigerians to transcend the trauma by erasing it from their memory.
This amnesia-centered creed is Nigeria’s bane. When a people cultivate denial of an event, even a deeply traumatic one, they – at the very least – risk blundering into the same mistakes over and over. Nigeria continues to pay a price for its adamant refusal to take a proper inventory of its errors – in fact, what one might call its monumental sins. Any country that pretends that its past does not count – or holds itself blameless – condemns itself, ultimately, to a repetition of its tragic missteps. By contrast, a country that consciously seeks to grasp the fault lines of its history – especially its worst mistakes – prepares itself to make amends, atone for its transgressions, transcend its pitfalls, and rise to its promise and potential.
There is no question in my mind – the evidence being overwhelming – that Nigeria is a besieged space. One is aware, of course, that many Nigerians are quick to deny it. Some of them actually invoke God in their futile act of renunciation – they profess to “bind” all principalities and powers that have destructive designs on Nigeria. But all that puerile avowal does not – cannot – change the fact that our country is today caught in a state of war. Let me rephrase that: Nigeria is mired, not in one war but in several wars at once. The only thing that’s missing from the portrait is, again, our characteristic reluctance to acknowledge the stark reality: that it’s a war – or wars – going on. If we quit playing ostrich for a second, we should admit that the ever-volatile Niger Delta is a war zone – and is susceptible to combustion at a moment’s notice. And then there’s Boko Haram, an amorphous group that has coalesced around a broad slate of causes: hostility towards Western education and its values, a suspicion of adherents of moderate Islam, and the rejection of the Nigerian state and its instruments. This group’s ability to strike at will at targets in the northern part of Nigeria bespeaks a country that – to put it mildly – is in a state of implosion.
We don’t have the space or time to delve into the matter at length, but I am convinced that Nigeria’s intractable travails have much – if not everything – to do with the country’s unfortunate policy of erasing the Biafran War from its memory chip. Trapped in its self-contrived historical vacuum, Nigeria has condemned itself to staggering, willy nilly, from one tragedy to another. Saddled by the burden of self-designed ignorance, the country remains incapable of apprehending the ways in which its past is exacting a harsh penalty on its present – and dooming its future.
Having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, the Jews are bent on ensuring, one, that the world never forgets for one moment what happened to their fellows and, two, that no man or nation would ever attempt again the mass extermination of Jews. After 800,000 Rwandans, most of them Tutsis, perished within four weeks in one of the world’s most horrific recent acts of genocide, the people of Rwanda did not dig a grave to bury what happened. No, they opened themselves to the brutal truth, and gleaned from it abiding lessons for transformation. Today, Rwanda is earning global applause for its steady evolution and progress from a moment of unspeakable horror to one of admirable reconciliation. There are few, if any, guarantees in history, but Rwandans are working hard to exorcise the ghost of their bloody history – and to guard against the prospect of recurrence.
Nigeria had every opportunity to set the example that a Rwanda would have been inspired by, but chose a different path. And Nigeria has paid, and continues to pay, the price. Let us illustrate.
In the eight years that Mr. Obasanjo occupied Aso Rock, presidential orders were given twice to the Nigerian army to attack communities of civilians. The first attack targeted the people of Odi, Bayelsa State, in November, 1999. Sent on the trail of alleged criminals, soldiers razed the Odi community, killing more than 2000 unarmed civilians. In 2001, a similar mission was sent against the people of Zaki Biam, in Benue State. Following the murder of soldiers engaged in peace keeping mission in the community, a contingent of the army was dispatched on a reprisal mission. Arriving in armored cars, they cordoned off the town and commenced a bombardment from land and air. In the end, more than three hundred people – men, women and children – lay dead, with near total destruction of homes in the community. Nobody was ever held responsible for this wholesale assault on civilians. My conjecture is that, had Nigerians acknowledged and atoned for the massacre in Asaba, the attacks on Odi and Zaki Biam would have been harder to contemplate and execute.
I insist that the provocations that precipitated the Biafran War have since been serially reproduced, compounded and intensified since the end of the war. Had Nigerians allowed themselves to learn from the Biafran War, then it is unlikely that the country would today be saddled with the separatist rhetoric and violence that often emanates from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, and Boko Haram.
During a recent visit to Nigeria, I had an enlightening telephone conversation with a female politician. She suggested that Nigeria’s deepening woes are rooted in the country’s insouciant attitude towards those who had died in the struggle to uphold the country’s territorial oneness. She stipulated that the nation needed to engage in a rite of expiation, a formal recognition of the sacrifice made by those who died on all sides, and the enactment of acts of atonement. There were aspects of her stricture that I found unpalatable. Even so, hers was an intriguing recommendation, and I found myself persuaded by its broad outline. Like her, I believe that Nigerians owe a debt of acknowledgement to the dead of the war on both sides of the conflict.
At different times and in different contexts, both Soyinka and Achebe have expressed a pessimistic stance on Nigeria’s claim to a settled national identity. In 1995, Soyinka stated that Nigeria was very much in the process of searching for its “nation-being.” Achebe’s accent was even more dour; as he told me in an interview some twenty years ago, “Nigeria as a nation has not been founded up to now.” I doubt that either writer has seen cause to revise his position, or even to now be confident that Nigeria is making steady, irreversible progress towards national-actualization.
If Nigeria is to realize its promise as a cohesive community, then it behooves her to recognize that it is the blood of those who died in the Biafran War that stands as down payment on the project called Nigeria. The casualties of the war, properly speaking, are the ancestral founders of Nigeria. In spurning, dishonoring or belittling them, we doom the prospect of Nigeria amounting to anything as a nation.
Nigeria fought a war where one of the central questions, on the surface at least, was whether the preservation of its unity ought to be held sacred. . Ultimately, that question was settled (if we use the logic of the outcome of the war) by the answer that any effort to fracture Nigeria was unacceptable, even heretical. That resolution then begs the question: If, forty years after the end of that war, Nigeria has not been founded (and I doubt there is any serious-minded person who denies that the country remains an inchoate idea, its viability constantly cast into question), then what was the point of the war? In his highly polemical Discourse on Colonialism, the late Martinican scholar Aime Cesaire opens with a few declamations aimed at Europe: “A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that closes its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.” Replace civilization with country, and Cesaire could have been speaking about Nigeria.
(Follow me on twitter: OkeyNdibe)
Written by Okey Ndibe ([email protected]).