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Biafra, June 12, Boko Haram and the future of Nigeria

Saturday 26 November 2016, by siawi3


Chido Onumah

Jul 03, 2014

As a nation, Nigeria doesn’t work. The many crises of the past and current ones provide the evidence. The national conference called to discuss the way forward is yet another failed opportunity. The future of Africa’s giant looks pretty grim

Nigeria’s celebrated novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is an interviewer’s delight, whether she is talking about Nigeria, novels, feminism or hair. A few weeks ago, she was a guest of Stephen Sackur’s HARDtalk on BBC where she talked about Biafra, ethnicity in Nigeria, the Nigeria-Biafra civil war and the censorship of the movie version of her novel about the civil war, Half of a Yellow Sun.

‘Nigeria as a country has never really engaged with Biafra,’ Ms Adichie said in response to Stephen Sackur’s question about whether today’s Nigerians had learned enough about the important lessons of the war. ‘There is a lot that is unresolved about that period of our history.’

I agree with Ms. Adichie. Nigeria has not engaged with Biafra and there is a lot that is still unresolved about the civil war. But it’s not just Biafra and that tumultuous period of our history. There is a lot that is unresolved about Nigeria as a whole and many aspects of our existence as a country. Nigeria has not engaged with June 12, just as we have not engaged with Boko Haram, to mention only two of the more recent episodic convulsions that threaten the very foundation of the country.

In a sense, the Biafra experience could be a metaphor for the many unresolved problems that confront us as a country, whether we are talking about agitations by minority ethnic nationalities, the upsurge in militancy across the country, the quest for the balkanization of the country by fringe groups that go by all sorts of absurd names or the infernal resolve of a group to impose a religious code on an otherwise secular country.

‘How should we make sense of Nigeria’s 21st century identity?’ Stephen Sackur had asked in the introduction to his programme. Interestingly, around the time of that interview, there were rallies, amongst other troubling occurrences in Nigeria, in London and a few cities around the world in support of the Biafra renaissance.

A week earlier, some Biafra protagonists were arrested after a failed attempt to take over a radio station in the eastern city of Enugu and declare, or perhaps revive, the Republic of Biafra. It was in the same city that pro-Biafra ‘forces’ were arrested for a daring attempt to take over the Enugu State Government House. Enugu was the first and one of the three capitals of Biafra while the secession lasted.

How do we make sense of all this? There are those who think that what we are witnessing is a necessary and passing phase in the attempt to build a nation. It may well be! But, it may also spell doom for a country that has had more than five decades to forge a ‘perfect union’, but has squandered each opportunity.

Clearly, as a country, we haven’t learned anything about the regrettable civil war of 1967-1970 or the other tragic events that occurred before that war. We have also not learned from the dreadful upheavals that have taken place after the war; events that have shaken the very foundation of our existence as a country.

Nigeria will disintegrate unless we collectively do something about it. Nations are not built on mere wishful thinking. No country that is run the way Nigeria is being run survives for too long. The hard truth is that there is nothing sacrosanct about Nigeria. A nation is neither an eternal nor a divinely ordained construct as is often delusively proclaimed, in the case of Nigeria, by our exceptionally depraved ruling class and their sympathisers. It comes into being at a historical juncture – through a combination of factors and forces – and can cease to be by the same logic.

Nigeria was an arbitrary creation of British colonialists who coupled disparate ethnic nationalities for economic and other reasons. Of course, many countries around the world were created through the same process and for the same reasons. The problem in the case of Nigeria, however, was that there were no attempts, at independence and subsequently, by Nigerians, the new inheritors of the contraption the British left behind, to remake the country in the image of a people who had broken the shackles of colonialism and had to build an egalitarian society; a nation of equity, social justice, the rule of law and all the fundamentals of a modern state.

How then do we move forward from the boiling cauldron – the outcome of a forced and dubious amalgam of different ethnicities, religions and cultural beliefs – to a nation of equal opportunity, shared vision and common future when we fail to learn from our history and allow primordial interests and short-term gains to stand in the way of a collective need for national survival?

Just as the colonialists intended, we have managed never to miss an opportunity to highlight the fault lines that have kept us perpetually at war with one another. And just like the colonialists, our rapacious and thieving ruling class, military and civilian, from across the country – emphasizing our fault lines – have succeeded in not only misruling us but also dividing us.

Take the simple and harmless matter of honouring the winner of the June 12, 1993, presidential election, Chief MKO Abiola, by the ongoing National Conference. That election was annulled by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, colluding with some of the vile creatures who today are the drivers of our so-called democracy. Babangida and company have yet to explain the reason for that criminal complicity.

That election showed that Nigerians could rise above ethnic and religious divisions given a purposeful and selfless leadership. Of course, it also showed that Nigeria’s ruling elite are not interested in the unity of this country beyond what they can get from it; never mind that they are always proclaiming that ‘The unity of Nigeria is not negotiable.’

June 12, 2014, marked the 21st anniversary of that election. Sadly, when a motion, seeking to pay tribute and give national recognition to Chief Abiola and hundreds of Nigerians who died protesting the annulment, was moved at the National Conference by Orok Duke from Cross River State, delegates were reportedly ‘divided along regional lines as those from southern Nigeria favoured the motion while those from the North rejected it’. And this fierce rejection of a legitimate quest for justice is recorded in a 21st century Nigeria; ironically, in a gathering consecrated to banish inequity and injustice and the multiple handmaids of Nigeria’s stillbirth.

This was an election in which the masses of the ‘North’ ensured that Chief Abiola from Ogun State in ‘southern Nigeria’ beat his opponent, Alhaji Bashir Tofa from Kano State in ‘northern Nigeria’; an election in which Abiola and his running mate, Babagana Kingibe, both Muslims, won across the length and breadth of the country.

It is heartbreaking that a representative of civil society at the National Conference that aims to address the many flashpoints of our distorted nationhood, Mallam Nasir Kura, from Kano State, was reported to have led the chorus of voices from the ‘North’ that opposed any attempt to remember June 12, Abiola and Nigerians from all walks of life who paid the supreme sacrifice during that upheaval. For Kura and company, June 12, like its unfortunate victims, is ‘dead and buried’.

Make no mistake, while that rowdy session over honouring Abiola which attracted the attention of security operatives and was going to turn the confab into a WWE arena may have looked like an attempt to promote an ‘ethnic agenda’, accusing people of being ethnic jingoists for that action does not tell the whole story. After all, Olusegun Obasanjo, former president, chief beneficiary of the June 12 debacle and Abiola’s kinsman was – until his recent conversion, like Paul on his way to Damascus – one of the most trenchant traducers of Abiola and June 12.

For a people in search of a meaningful national identity, I worry when we miss any opportunity – no matter how insignificant – to solidify the bonds of nationhood. I feel personally disappointed by the role of my long-time comrade and friend, Nasir Kura, but I do not despair. Clearly, those who have appropriated political power as well as those who have had the privilege of overseeing the affairs of the country have been our greatest undoing.

Some of us held out hope – the visible shortcomings notwithstanding – that the National Conference would offer an opportunity to focus on the fundamental defects of Nigeria. That optimism was based on the belief that if we took away the other options – descent into anarchy and perhaps another civil war or a revolutionary upheaval – a ‘peaceful’ national dialogue was the way to go.

As it turns out, we may have to look beyond the current National Conference. Clearly, the conference has lost focus, relegating its fundamental task which is to define (indeed, redefine is the word) the terms of our corporate existence – terms that would then be passed to Nigerians to finally decide on. Once there is collective understanding and agreement on what our co-existence entails (the structure of the country, including what the federating units should be, the structure of governance and power as well as fiscal relations between the units) other things – health and educational structure, corruption, rule of law, etc – can then follow.

Why is it that we are unwilling to address the fundamental question of our existence as a country, considering our history and the seeming lack of agreement on what the future should look like? It seems, for us in Nigeria, that we want to make an omelette without breaking eggs. If we can’t agree on how to co-exist peacefully, then we must find an amicable way to ‘dissolve’ this union. Truth is that if we don’t, and allow these crises to fester, Nigeria will sooner or later dissolve like sugar in a tea cup and the consequences will be grave for all parties.

There have been many flashpoints in the turbulent history of Nigeria. I think, however, that three issues – without attempting to downplay others like the Tiv Riots of 1960 and 1964, the 12-Day Revolution of Isaac Adaka Boro in 1966, the murder of the Ogoni 9 by the Nigerian state in 1995 – stand out: the civil war, the June 12 crisis and the current onslaught by Boko Haram. And each time we think we have laid the threat to rest, it rears its ugly head. Yet, we hide our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, hoping against hope that somehow our fault lines and the tension they generate will vanish overnight.

There were reasons for Biafra, even if there are disagreements about what precipitated the internecine civil war that followed and how the crisis and its aftermath were managed. There were reasons for the annulment of the presidential election of June 12, 1993, no matter how unconscionable we think the annulment was. There are reasons for the actions of Boko Haram, even if we find its activities loathsome.

Part of the narrative of the Nigerian tragedy is economic. The near collapse of the Nigerian state and its structures, particularly security and law enforcement – a phenomenon rooted in many years of bad leadership and corruption – has not only bred poverty, alienation and disillusionment of the masses across the country; it has turned the country into a carcass and a veritable meal for vultures of every hue. And each day, there are new vultures ready to feast on this carcass.

But, if we focus on the preceding, we miss the big picture. For me, the underlying reason for the flashpoints in Nigeria is that we have not come to a collective agreement about what Nigeria is or what it should be. And until we do, we will not be able to make progress as a country. Nigerians did not create Nigeria. So, if we want to make it work, if we want to counter the different centrifugal forces that seek to rip it at the seams, we must go back to fundamentals. We were handed an unjust and skewed state. Our first task ought to be how to fix the distortion.

Nobody could have put this dilemma better than the former attorney-general of the federation, late Chief Bola Ige, who noted in his 1998 speech titled Towards the Beckoning Glory of the 21st Century: that ‘There are two basic questions that must be answered by all of us Nigerians. One, do we want to remain as one country? Two, if the answer is yes, under what conditions?’

There is no need for equivocation. Like Chief Ige, I believe strongly that ‘we’ have to answer these questions. Except that for me, in the 21st century, after 100 years of amalgamation and 54 years of independence, the ‘we’ do not necessarily have to be the ‘we’ that existed before 1914, but the ‘we’ that have called Nigeria the Motherland in the last 100 years. I have argued repeatedly that we can build civic nationalities where ethnic nationalities currently exist. All it takes is sacrifice and willingness to make it work.

There are those who assume, wrongly, that the first part of the question is taken for granted; that after 100 years of marriage and 54 years of raising a family there is no need to question the sanctity of a marriage whether it is working for the partners or not. Unfortunately, while we can make the analogy, we must face the reality that the amalgamation of Nigeria is different in many ways from a marriage between two lovers.

In the case of Nigeria, it was a forced marriage as is the practice amongst some families in the country; the lovers had no say or the opportunity to understand each other, much less appreciate and love each other. While it works in some cases, in our own case, it hasn’t worked and like many forced marriages, the parents (the colonialists) got their desire while the couples (Nigerians) are left with the hope that their problems and disagreements will sort themselves out.

Perhaps, if the citizens of the different federating units in 1914 were involved in the creation of Nigeria, they would have decided the terms of their co-existence and would have long gotten used to their obligations in the union. The fallouts of this seeming lack of accountability are Biafra, June 12 and Boko Haram, amongst others; each event leading to further disaffection and division in the country.

Like Chief Ige, ‘I do not belong to the group of Nigerians deluding themselves that we can keep Nigeria forever as it is.’ If we can’t and do not want to live together as a people, we should be open and honest enough to sit at a table for an open discussion on the way forward.

I don’t wish for a national conference that is convoked – usually by a foreign power or ‘the international community’ – when parties to a conflict have exhausted every bloody option, but that is the road Nigeria is travelling currently; a road of ‘mutually assured destruction’.

Chido Onumah is Coordinator, African Centre for Media & Information Literacy, Abuja, Nigeria.