It has been allowed to progressively degenerate into a sickening annual ritual. The Armed Forces Remembrance Day marked annually on January 15 is a hollow ritual indulged in for the heck of it. It means nothing to a nation famous for its refusal to learn lessons from its past in order to correct its current course.
I am willing to bet that most of us are usually reminded of the day only when young male and female soldiers accost us at airports and other public places and want to pin red ribbons on our clothes in return for putting some money in their piggy banks. That is all there is to it today, sadly.
The armed forces remembrance day was not an original Nigerian concept. It was introduced by the British colonial authorities to honour Commonwealth soldiers who fought in World War I and II. All British Commonwealth countries observed it on December 11. Nigeria adopted it, domesticated it and moved it to January 15, the day our civil war ended in 1970, to honour our own heroes who paid the supreme sacrifice to protect the house built by Lord Lugard from being demolished by forces by unleashed by my-tribe-first nature of our national politics.
January 15, 1970, should mean much more to us in Nigeria than a mere ritual of honouring our heroes. It should be more than remembering our compatriots who fought to save our country from the Golgotha. It should also celebrate a nation that overcame. It was the day the civil war ended and Nigerians who became Biafrans became ex-Biafrans and Nigerians again.
January 15 marks two major events in our national history. On January 15, 1966, the five majors and one captain struck, killing some of our political leaders and their own very senior officers in the army. With January 15, 1966, the gun made its bloody entry into our national politics and changed its architecture. You have the gun, you grab the power. And the soldiers did just that and informed us in a dawn broadcast each time they replaced the agbada politicians with the khaki politicians for the simple but warped logic that the man who has the gun is wiser, more competent and more patriotic. The power inherent in the gun being an intoxicating lethal brew, soldiers too turned the guns against one another to replace one set of their comrades with a new set with, arguably, less palm oil on their hands.
Oyenusi and the other pioneer armed robbers took the power of the gun to another level. If the gun could be used to change governments, it could also be used to forcefully appropriate other people’s money and other personal property.
We remember January 15, 1970 but we try to push January 15, 1966, to the back of our minds. It is a day that recommends its being seen in the history books, not talked about. But we cannot make such a neat choice between the two dates. We must take them together. One led to the other. If January 15, 1966 did not happen, January 15, 1970 would certainly not have happened. Sure, the politicians would have continued to bicker but no one would have summoned the gun to resolve their problems or led us down the dangerous path of a bloody civil war.
Because of January 15, 1966, our country did not just face a critical existential threat to it, it also actually nearly ceased to be. Lord Lugard would have squirmed in his grave. January 15, 1966, was a serious challenge to our nation and our efforts at nation-building. We cannot deny that there were problems; nor can we deny that the majors believed they had their own unique solutions to them.
In my view, and a humble one at that, January 15, 1966, is a more important date in our national history. It remade Nigeria in the image of its successive rulers in khaki or agbada. It changed our country for ever. It took us to the gutter. It redefined the way we do our political and social business. It led to the balkanization of the country into 36 dependent states pretending to be the constituent units of the federation. It led to the current anomaly of our stifling centralized federalism and every problem associated with a federal system operated like a unitary system.
On the other hand, January 15, 1970, was a promise. It offered us a promise that with the end of the civil war, a new nation would arise, like the phoenix, from the ashes of our past mistakes and the death and destruction of the civil war. January 15, 1970 did not, therefore, just mark the day that the threat to our country was blown away into the Bight of Biafra, it also marked the day the nation promised to renew itself. It was not a small promise. It was a huge promise. My take is that we are where we are because January 15, 1970 has largely failed to deliver on its sacred promise.
A new nation in which, in the immortal words of our national anthem, no one is oppressed, has so far not risen from those ashes. After January 15, 1970, we allowed the politicians in khaki to lock up democracy and take us through the dizzying trauma of experimenting with our nation-building. Those experiments, however well-intentioned they might have been, brought us more problems than solutions to the problems that January 15, 1966, confronted us with. It would be naive, I think, for anyone to deny that we have more problems and more confusion in the system than before the majors struck. The process of nation-building appears to have been largely stymied by ethno-religious competitions for power at the center. It should worry us that, to borrow the words of General Yakubu Gowon, we have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing all these years. It should worry us that we are still casting about and sabotaging ourselves in our hypocritical commitment to building a strong and egalitarian nation. Our elections continue to be a source of national shame. Now, the right of the people to freely elect their leaders has become the responsibility of the law courts. Eradicating corruption was rated as number one in the agenda of the majors. It was one of Gowon’s nine-point programme in 1974. President Buhari made it his singular obsession. But check the records and you see that the sound of you hear, not unlike the roar of a lion, is corruption laughing at the hypocrisy of it all.
A few years ago, at the height of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra agitation led by Nnamdi Kanu, I met with a good friend of mine, a two-star retired general. A fine gentleman who had achieved so much in life and whose opinions I usually find reflective and respectable. He was a military governor, army divisional commander and a minister in the Babangida administration. He capped his sterling public service with a stint in the senate. He has seen it all and done it all.
I needed to tap his brains to help me see my way clearly through something that kept me wondering about the reason for the agitation for Biafra by young Igbo people who had the luck not to have been born early enough to witness or experience the trauma and the destruction of the 30-month civil war. Kanu was preceded by Ralph Uwazuruike. I wondered if the agitators were pressure groups or merely young men seeking some means to hug the limelight.
My question to him was: did these agitations have to do with what the Nigerian state should have done but failed to do after the civil war to make our country a country for all Nigerians? In the course of our discussion it occurred to me that he had not given some serious thoughts to my question. I would not blame him. It has been 50 years since the war ended. It is time enough for our country to grow up and appreciate its peculiarities and peculiar challenges as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation. But what has changed in the critical half century of our national history? This generation of Nigerians ought to rightly expect to inherit a new country that offers them opportunities for self-actualization and in which individual progress does not owe to his tribe or religion or a godfather.