Philip Effiong announces Biafra unconditional surrender January 15, 1970.
MANY Nigerians think President Muhammadu Buhari is the leader the nation needs at a time like this. On January 15, 2020, however, he uniquely failed to live up to that expectation. For, that day was the 50th anniversary of the end of the civil war. As Number One citizen, given the challenges facing the nation on several fronts, he should have used the opportunity of that moment to set the nation on a course of genuine reconciliation.
Interestingly, January 15 every year is Nigerian Armed Forces Remembrance Day, on which the nation celebrates her fallen heroes. And as usual, this year, top officials of the federal government, led by the President and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo laid wreaths at the National Arcade in Abuja. Surprisingly, however, the government forgot, or is it ignored, the fact that on that day in 1970 officials of the breakaway Biafra Republic led by Lt. Col. Philip Effiong brought the “Instrument of Surrender” to Lagos.
That war is believed to have claimed an estimated two to three million people. Thus, the anniversary this year was a milestone on a platter of gold for the President to set the nation on the path of healing. And Nigeria needs healing because of too many festering sores, some of them dating back several decades.
However, thankfully if the government ignored the milestone, some groups, such as the Christian Aid, Nzokwu Umunna and Ndigbo Lagos, in collaboration with civil society organizations and Igbo Youth Movement Enugu, independent of each other, assembled eminent Nigerians in London, Lagos and Enugu respectively to remind us that the ship of state is adrift and we may be inexorably drifting towards another civil war.
And haven’t we been told many times by the likes of General Theophilus Danjuma that no nation survives two civil wars? At the Lambert Palace, London, David Olusoga, a historian, declared that the Nigeria-Biafra war was, without doubt, one of the most devastating post-independence conflicts in modern history.
“It caused untold sufferings on an unprecedented scale and left an indelible imprint on the Nigerian nation we know today”.
And Christian Usie, country manager of Christian Aid. observed that while fifty years on, Nigeria is flourishing on so many fronts, amid that success lies so many heart-breaking disparities.
The nation has the largest number of people, estimated at 95 million, almost 50 per cent of her population, living in extreme poverty. And that has earned us the sobriquet of the world’s “poverty capital”. As if that is not enough, there is the grave humanitarian crisis in our North east region where Boko Haram continues to wreak intolerable havoc on millions of people.
Some parts of the northwest region is besieged by bandits who not only are kidnapping people for ransom with bewildering impunity, but also engage in cattle rustling. And there is palpable fear in the North central and the South as kidnapping, ritual killings and herdsmen and farmers’ clashes have become the norm.
As if all these crises are not grave enough, there is renewed agitation among the Igbo for a Biafra Republic. That was the sole reason why Nigeria fought a 30-month civil war which ended on January 15, 1970, when General Yakubu Gowon, then military head of state, received the Instrument of Surrender.
At that occasion, the then 36-year-old head of state declared that there was “No Victor, No Vanquished”. His government moved swiftly to heal the wounds of the war by embarking on the 3Rs, Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. That should have set the country on the path of national rebirth.
Today, we only need to look at the centrifugal forces at work in the nation to get a loud testimony that while Nigerians ended the war like brothers, they failed to win the peace. The failure to earn that peace has generated mutual suspicion between ethnic groups, created a sharp divide among religious groups and made politics a deadly affair.
At the Never Again conference in Lagos, Prof. Banji Akintoye, a historian and leader of the Yoruba Council of Elders, declared: “The government is being managed in ways that make it look like an exclusive preserve of a particular minority. There seems to be an agenda being pursued to establish this minority in all sections of command in the executive, administrative, judicial and security services of this country… These situations are inevitably fostering among the peoples of the Middle Belt and the South of the country the feeling that they are being reduced to the status of conquered peoples of Nigeria”.
In an address he sent to the Lagos conference, Gowon, who for over a decade has been leading the Nigeria Prays group which he founded, appealed to Nigerians to show total commitment and patriotism to the fatherland.
He added,”To me, our Nigeria of today of over 500 ethnic groups of diverse socio-cultural and religious colourations and spread across 774 local government areas and Federal Capital Territory is worthy of your support and defence”. His stand reminds one of the popular civil war jingle, coined from Gowon’s name, “Go On With One Nigeria”.
And in an interview with the BBC, General Ibrahim Babangida, former military president, is quoted to have said, “Nigeria is better the way it’s now, all parts of the country should come together and see themselves as one and equal. As everybody knows, so many good things have happened in the country, which is indeed better for all of us”.
Their position is understandable. Both Gowon and Babangida ruled the country for a total of 17 years. While it is true that many good things have happened to Nigeria to merit at a time the “Giant of Africa” title, we have become a nation full of motion without movement.
In spite of our tremendous wealth, thanks to crude oil, the nation’s development has become stunted. Prof. Pat Utomi, a political economist, says Nigeria is the way it is today because of “leadership failure”.
As military head of state between 1967-75, Gowon achieved a lot in infrastructural development for the country. However, he succumbed to the wiles of sycophants when he failed to keep to an agenda to return the country to civil rule in 1976. He was toppled in a bloodless palace coup. And having tasted political power and seeing how sweet it was, soldiers held on to it for some 29 years broken only with short interregnums.
Under them, the corruption they claimed was the bane of the country when they intervened in January 1966 ballooned. And when Babangida assumed power in 1985, not a few Nigerians thought he would do wonderfully well in his bid to return the country to civil rule.
However, he had his own agenda. Thus he embarked on a convoluted transition programme that finally ended in a cul de sac. Although he organised the freest and fairest presidential election in the country’s annals, he annulled it. That election was won by Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, multi-billionaire businessman, whose Vice Presidential candidate was Babagana Kingibe. That was a Muslim-Muslim ticket, the like of which a Nigeria, polarised by religion, may never witness again.
Babangida squandered an opportunity to have his name written in gold. The annulment led to mass protests leading to Babangida’s “stepping aside”, and a bizarre installation of an interim government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan, who was removed 83 days later by General Sani Abacha, Babangida’s alter ego. The latter detained Abiola, who died in prison four years later, a month after his nemesis died suddenly.
The chain of events led to General Abdulsalami Abubakar assuming position as head of state. He quickly hastened a return to civil rule programme, which led to the election of General Olusegun Obasanjo(rtd.) as president in 1999. What is remarkable in the presidential election that led to Obasanjo’s emergence, was that his main opponent was Chief Olu Falae, another Yoruba man. It was a quiet admission by the powers that be of the monumental injustice done to Abiola, by not only denying him his mandate but as many people suspect, ensuring that he died in detention. His assumption of power as president on May 29, 1999, was Obasanjo’s second coming.
This time, as an elected president. Having built a formidable image as a much-respected international statesman since he left office in 1979, he imbued the nation with hope, especially when he moved swiftly to combat corruption.
Against the backdrop of his encounter with Abacha, his case was a grave to grace scenario. General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua was in the same boat with him, and believed to have been poisoned, died in prison. It is doubtful whether President Obasanjo, a Baptist asked God why He brought him back to power again. If he had, and given his clout, he should have genuinely sought answers to what was ailing the country. He did two terms, and surreptitiously tried to do a third term, which a strong opposition, led by his deputy, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, thwarted.
At his exit from office in 2007, aside the militants’ agitation in the Niger Delta for an equitable share in oil revenue and the slowly germinating insurgency in the northeast, Obasanjo left what could be reasonably called a thriving polity. But we have since then headed back to the woods. And that is where we are today, with the leadership seemingly confused as to how to get out of the quagmire.
So, fifty years hence, what would have become of Nigeria? Will the country’s future generations be chips of some of the old blocks, many of whom have lost the ability for civilised discussions on social media.
Utomi captures that dilemma thus, “Those who cannot engage in quality and constructive criticism always haul insults at others as a defence mechanism”. Will anger still be walking all over Nigeria with four legs? And will every group imaginable, ethnic, religious and others still be shouting “marginalisation”? Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, executive director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre says marginalisation is a class issue.
According to him, “marginalisation is neither religion nor ethnic rivalry but class segregation”. He argues that those who are in fact marginalised in Nigeria are the poor. “Those are the people who the northern, southern, western and eastern elites have compelled to clothe into poverty and unemployment”. Not a few would agree with Rafsanjani.
However, many Nigerians’ ire stems from the unitary federalism the nation currently operates. Thus the vociferous calls for true federalism that have been going on for several years. Balarabe Musa, former governor of the old Kaduna State in the Second Republic, in his address at the Enugu conference last month declared that, “As presently constituted the states are virtually unviable entities which are incapable of continuing to exist as viable constituent units of a federal structure”.
Thus, Balarabe advocates for a six-regional structure that would reduce the competitive pressure for power at the centre and redirect attention to regional competencies. At the same conference, Akintoye advised Igbo youths to work for restructuring the nation, rather than agitation for Biafra. He told his audience that, “The Yoruba have been calling for restructuring; it is not an ethnic struggle. Regionalism in the First Republic witnessed healthy competition for development”.
So, is President Buhari really the leader for a time like this? When his tenure ends on May 29, 2023, what legacy shall we remember him by? Will he hand over a fractious nation ripe enough to come apart at the seams? Or will he be the father of a new nation where the mustard seed of development, progress peace and unity will have been sowed which will eventually germinate into a big oak, an article of faith which all citizens will readily subscribe to?
Fifty years hence, at the 100th anniversary of the end of the civil war, will there be a Nigerian leader who will readily borrow a leaf from President Paul Kagame’s declaration at the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in April 2019 that, “Our bodies and minds bear amputations and scars, but none of us is alone. We (Nigerians) have granted ourselves a new beginning. We exist in a state of permanent commemoration, everyday, in all that we do… Today, light radiates from this place”. Fifty years hence, that is the Nigeria on my mind.
*Ayodele Akinkuotu, former Editor-in-Chief of Tell Magazine, now writes a weekly column for The ICIR