Never again – The Nation

  • 50 years after the civil war, desire for sustainable peace and unity must not be left at the level of wishes

In January 13, Nigerians gathered in Lagos to remember 50 years of the end of Nigeria-Biafra War that claimed over two million lives. The conference, “Never Again: Nigerian Civil War 50 Years After” was organised by a group of civil society organisations.

Under the coordination of Nzuko Umunna and Ndigbo Lagos, the conference organisers invited cultural leaders across the country as royal fathers of the day: Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe; Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III; Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi; Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II; Tor Tiv, Prof. James Ayatse; Olu of Warri, Ogiame Ikenwoli and Oba of Lagos, Oba Rilwan Akiolu.

Speakers at the conference harped on one theme: the striking similarities between the country’s situation today and those that led to war 53 years ago.

Here are short quotes from many of the speakers:

1) General Yakubu Gowon: “I urge all Nigerians to ensure that we avert another civil war in Nigeria.”

2) Wole Soyinka: “Any time that leadership, on whichever side, is about to repeat yet again the ultimate folly of sacrificing two and a half million lives on the altar of Absolutes, any absolute, we should borrow that credo, paint them on prayer scrolls, flood the skies in their millions with kites and balloons on which those words are inscribed: African Lives Matter!”

3) Senator Banji Akintoye: “The character of the affairs of our country these days, and the prevailing mood among us Nigerians, are chillingly similar to the character of the affairs of our country in the months leading to our civil war.”

4) Major-General Obi Umahi: “Nigeria has never been riddled with mutual suspicion and disunity as we are today …”Besides, life is cheap and threats of insecurity can almost be touched. We cannot afford to allow this to continue.”

5) Prof Anya O. Anya: “We haven’t learned lessons from our past. Germany fought a war and in less than 30 years after, became the strongest economy. Losing a war doesn’t mean economic backwardness.”

In summary, the major tropes and themes of the conference were captured by the contribution of Coordinator of Nzuko Umunna, Mr. Ngozi Odumako: “Have we truly rehabilitated? Have we truly reconstructed? Have we truly reintegrated? … As I call on all to forgive and heal, we must remind ourselves too that healing and forgiveness can only be deeply achieved through justice, fairness, peace, prosperity, progress and development.”

Even though the conference was not attended by many of the invited cultural leaders from the Northeast and the Northwest, the opportunity for reflection the conference provided could not have come at a better time. We commend the organisers.

However, attention needs to be given to the absence of traditional leaders from two of the six regions that need to benefit from discussion of the country’s past that remains relevant to the future of the country.

A dialogue on the country’s history since 1960 should concern leaders from all geopolitical zones, if the right lessons are to be learnt.

Like reflections on the 75th anniversary of World War II, the anniversary of the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s civil war is bound to raise issues that require further reflection beyond the venue of the Never Again conference.

January 13, 1970 was a day of paradox that should attract the interest of all patriots. It marked the end of a national tragedy and the beginning of an ethos of excitement and hope for both sides of a violent conflict, captured by the mantra of No Victor, No Vanquished and the famous three Rs of the Gowon regime: reconstruction, reconciliation and rehabilitation after a war that General Gowon now remembers as not unavoidable.

Even though many of the presentations at the conference may sound as grandstanding to some people, there is no doubt that many hard truths came out of the discussions.

For General Gowon, the head of state under whom the war was started and ended to have warned leaders and citizens to do everything possible to avert another war, there are signs even at high places that things are not normal with the country, 50 years after the civil war.

Doubtless, many of the circumstances in the late 1960s that served as remote and immediate causes of the war seem to have lurked around since 1970. Those who came to power—military and civilian—after the end of the war till today do not seem to have learned enough from the events of the 1960s that led to the war.

For example, the political culture that preceded the first and second military coups of 1966 is still very much with the country.

The compulsive centralisation of governance structures at the expense of protection of the country’s diversity, by the decapitation of the government of old Western Nigeria between 1962 and 1965; violence against people of other regions in the months before the war;  continued militarisation of the democratic process after the war; discouragement of de-militarisation of the polity since 1999; and intolerance of diversity are lessons that still require attention today.

In addition, our political culture has not outgrown the constraints that made the civil war happen in 1967. Put mildly, citizens remain even in 2020 afraid that peace, harmony, and stability are under threat in a way to remind those with a sense of history to fear for the country’s future. It should be worrisome that even half a century after the end of the war, the then head of state, like many of the conferees,  is still worried about threats to national unity, when Rwanda has transitioned into a modern republic just 25 years after its era of genocide.

Nigeria has promises to be an asset not only to Africa but to the entire world, as the largest concentration of Black people in a resource-rich country. It cannot avoid not to learn from its civil war, if it is to move forward. Its political and cultural leaders must commit irrevocably to unfettered federal democracy with which the country started before the war; a duly negotiated people’s constitution, balanced sharing of responsibility and sovereignty between national and subnational governments and, in particular, a culture of tolerance of diversity that sustains and strengthens modern federal democracies, such as Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Austria, Germany, the United States of America, South Africa, to name a few.

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