There are no extraordinary men… just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.
The nation is about to be taken down painful and quarrelous memory lanes in the next few weeks. Eight out of every ten Nigerians who have only heard of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, Akintola, Maimalari, Nzeogwu, Ironsi and the 30 months civil war, will soon hear conflicting versions of villany and heroism, injuries and injustices, winners and losers and how the cumulative lessons of the last fifty years should be read. Those who will tell the tales will have their jobs complicated not just because there will be other voices disputing their versions, but because fifty years since the nation was violently launched on a radically different trajectory that has shaped its essentials, there are recent events and developments that suggest that we have not moved on at all. Some voices will remind us that history has many versions, and they will display massive distances between 1966 and 2016.
Fifty years after the murder of leaders from the North and West, an act that has had attributed to it, every ill in Nigeria since then by many Nigerians (and upheld by some as an act of supreme courage and patriotism even if informed by unforgivable naivety), the illigimate product of that treasonable act, the Biafra misadventure, is being exhumed. It is difficult in retrospect to remember that Nzegwu and his compatriots never envisaged killing Northern and Western leaders as a means of seceding from Nigeria by Igbo and other communities in the former Eastern Nigeria today. By all accounts, their motives were to purge a Nigerian nation they saw as exhibiting crippling limitations that were curable. Biafra was not what they wanted; and no matter what you think of them, they were not, certainly at the onset, irredentists. Two generations since 1966, a group of Igbo people want to opt out of the nation. Many other Nigerians say they will not stand in their way anymore.
Fifty years ago, a poorly-conceived and executed act of violence against the Nigerian state and people turned out to be more instrumental in changing the basic structure and future of the nation than any other event. Regional and ethnic factors which had always been major players in Nigerian politics were thrust even more prominently into the heart of a nation that was attempting to come to terms with inclusiveness as an indispenseable element of the democratic process. Northerners will be reminded of the unjust killing of their leaders and the reaction of military officers from the region who wrested power back spilling more blood; led the nation through major structural changes; won a civil war and engineered a unique and successful post-war reconciliation. Much of the narratives from the northern end will potray a people wronged and injured, but people nonetheless who stood firmly (and died in their thousands) in support of a united Nigeria. A few voices will be raised in lamentation over the failure of the ‘North’ to recapture its past glory and pace in addressing the needs of its people. Blame for this will be located at the tragic events of January 15, 1966.
Western leaders and elders will hold up victims and fallen heroes, and an inventory of sacrifices and losses the region made in the struggle to preserve Nigeria. There will be loud but familiar lamentations over the failure of the federal system to achieve its true essence, and this will be visited on a military that shaped a plural nation after its own image, and refusal of elites from other parts of Nigeria to adopt a progressive and fairer version of a federal system. Voices from the West in support of a Nigerian nation as presently structured will be mooted, and there will be a split in the ranks of leaders and elders over whether to celebrate or condemn the state and record of the Nigerian nation fifty years since 1966.
Elites from many communities in the south-south will recall the agony of being marginalized and victimized in circumstances they were marginal in influencing. Some elements from a region which has acquired a major clout since 1966 may recall playing second fiddle to the Igbo; northern political brinkmanship that gave some of them some of their own space before 1966; the deliberate efforts to liberate their territories from Biafra which resulted in prolongation of the life of the war and, the efforts made since then to give them some autonomy and greater political relevance by the military after the war.
By an uncanny coincidence, agitations for Biafra are being more loudly re-engineered almost 50 years after the tragic events of January 1966. The pattern of results in the elections of March this year suggest that most Igbo political elites have shut out the rest of Nigeria. This will be case until there is proof that the 150,000 votes which President Buhari garnered in all the five eastern states were genuinely expressions of the will of Igbo voters. If votes by the APC candidate are a poor yardstick by which to measure the degree to which Igbo elite feel the need to chart their own course in the political arena, the resurgence of agitations for Biafra by Igbo generations unborn in 1970 is threatening to exclude them entirely from Igbo or Nigerian politics. In any case, it is safe to say that these are not the easiest of times for Igbo leaders, political or otherwise. The impending cacophony that will meet the 50 years since the historic breach of the rights of Nigerians to live under a democratic system will make sitting on fences more hazardous. Perhaps millions of Igbo people scattered over every inch of Nigeria earning their living in peace may also raise their voices in the din over whether Nigeria has a place for them.
We will be reminded once again that arguments over justice and equity are as old as Nigeria, and violent attempts to redress perceived wrongs have always created additional wrongs. The nation has a long way to go in addressing any group’s basic grievances. It will, in fact, never entirely succeed in doing this. But it has deep roots in all our lives, even in areas that cry the loudest over marginalization. Few Nigerians will accept that entire sections can just walk away, or bomb and shoot their ways out of the nation because it is neither feasible nor acceptable. It is not feasible because our history and the way the we live has made very Nigerian, Igbo and Kanuri and Fulani. It is not acceptable because it is a solution that will create worse problems. This country that many young Nigerians treat with contempt has paid its dues to exist as one united nation, and will pay more if it becomes necessary. When we are done with arguing over January 15, 2016, it will be useful to re-visit the need to teach younger Nigerians their history. This will be the only guarantee that a few of them will not be tempted to destroy a legacy every generation of Nigerians have helped build, since 1914; and teach them that 1966 was just a major milestone in an inevitably difficult, but ultimately rewarding journey.
I am stepping into the very large shoes of my friend and brother, Malam Adamu Adamu in taking over this column. I join others in praying to Allah Subhanahu Wa Taala to guide him in his well – deserved elevated position of Minister of Education.