Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Center, Abuja
Conference on Biafra: 50 Years After
25 May, 2017
Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, OON
Chief of Staff to President of the Senate, Federal Republic of Nigeria.
I am Biafran
With ten minutes to discuss the vital element of reconciliation following the defeat of Biafra and the end of the Nigerian Civil war, I have taken the liberty to tap into the broad context of this important conference to discuss reconciliation as a strategic process and goal in post-war Nigeria, and a major issue in nation-building.
The key elements of the post-war reconciliation programme derived from an enlightened leadership perspective which acknowledged the value of re-integration of former territories and populations under Biafra into a nation that had fought a reluctant civil war. They included a specific renunciation of victory in the “no –victor-no-vanquished” policy, the deliberate promotion of policies that discouraged punitive action against active rebels and populations; absorption of public servants from former rebel territories into Nigerian institutions, and the aggressive campaigns to encourage communities to re-absorb people from former rebel territories. The most effective reconciliation instrument, however, required neither legislation nor clout of the Nigerian state. It was the spontaneous and genuine responses of millions of Nigerians to move beyond a 3-year disaster by opening doors and hearts to people trapped behind hostility, as well as the courage and faith to venture into territories and locations where thousands had been murdered only for their ethnic origins.
In the disastrous collapse of a vital national asset which is our capacity to adopt versions of our history that will survive massive and sustained onslaught by ignorance, mischief and the surrender of strategic grounds by political leaders and academics, it has become difficult to remember that Nigerians achieved the unique record of reconciling with each other within the shortest period, quite possibly in recent human history.
What happened to that nation that made it possible for Easterners to return to reclaim properties in most parts of Nigeria; to resume jobs and interrupted education; to establish social relations and live secure and productive lives within a year after the war? What happened to the nation that made room for Igbo traders and businessmen to resume places of pride in Lagos, Kano and Maiduguri; the Hausa communities to re-locate back to Onitsha and Aba; and for young people to learn of the history of a potentially great nation that had derailed but found its feet in the early 1970s?
My answers to the these questions are likely to feed the dispute over every element of our history, but they are no worse than strands that feed the lower rungs of the muck that is our history by social media and miniature champions with pretensions for fighting great causes. First, the coup of January 15 1966 was never planned with secession of the East in mind. By all accounts, it was intended to address serious national challenges, not to pull parts out of the nation. It was a misadventure motivated by flawed idealism, almost juvenile approach and fatal miscalculations. It was an event that created other events and developments which compounded its disastrous consequences. Second, the Biafra option had no strong organic roots. It was the product and reaction to tragic events, and was by no means the only option available to the Igbo and other communities in the Eastern States. It is difficult to read those parts of our history which record the plans by young Northern officers to pull the North out of the federation after the successful July 1967 counter coup. Biafra represented a knee-jerk reaction from Igbo elite as it competed with other elements of the Nigerian elite following the disasters triggered by the January 1966 coup. The pace of reconciliation and reintegration was evidence of the limitations of these elite competitions, and the end of the war was treated by all Nigerians largely as an end to a tragic chapter.
The Nigerian civil war was, in many senses, also a referendum on the continued existence of the Nigerian state. The outcome was not a win or loss: it was the manner Nigerians reconciled with each other, licked wounds and moved on. But the idea of Biafra was a cause for redress and resistance and it neither began with events between 1966 and 1970, nor has it ended with them. The military that triggered the collapse of the democratic process, fought a war against itself, and led the nation through a remarkable recovery then embarked on major political re-engineering, managing an emerging rentier economy and a developing middle class.
Plunder and patronage of huge resources that were not related to direct productive activities created massive instability at elite levels. Managing the Nigerian state became fraught with crises and instability, and widening gaps between wealth and poverty began to create pockets of discontent as the leadership grappled with large urban populations living off the state and small, powerful and wealthy elite.
The Nigerian state failed to develop institutions and values that will mitigate the type of circumstances which produced Biafra and the civil war. During its long tenures in power, the military fought against itself, and discouraged the emergence of a political system which could have mediated conflicts around power and resources by the elite. At every turn, the state was challenged by problems it created. Between 1966 and 1999,the military was unable to stay outside power for longer than 4 years, a brief period which significantly highlighted the total re-integration of Igbo elite into the Nigerian political process.
The military factor in Nigerian political history has been prominent and damaging, and hopefully, will come to an end with the expiration of President Buhari’s presidency. Every major political development since January 1966 has had a major military imprint, and no leadership has emerged at the national and largely sub-national levels without the direct or discreet influence of military actors. This legacy has stunted the growth and development of democratic values and institutions, and has created multiple sources of grievances and conflicts that give the impression of Nigeria as a nation of multiple causes and few solutions.
The emergence of a political leadership without roots or linkages with a military tradition will signify a major reconciliation in the rapture which begun on January 15, 1966. The nation has survived many Biafras in the past, and it needs to come to terms with these challenges in their proper contexts. The resistance against the abortion of the elections that may have produced an Abiola presidency; the resistance of the communities in many parts of the South South against abuse and neglect; the resistance of many communities across the entire nation against neglect, attacks, abuse and marginalization; the unacceptable levels of collapse of basic infrastructure in the East; the scandalous de-industrialization and pauperization of the entire north; the disaster arising from incompetence and official collusion in the growth and development of Boko Haram insurgency; the unfolding, global-scale humanitarian disaster in the North East are all Biafran causes. In a real sense, every Nigerian is a Biafran.
There is enough depth and breadth in the Nigerian nation to survive these challenges, but it will be dangerous to be complacent. We will never live entire periods without a major cause demanding to be addressed, but we can improve our capacities to live with, and resolve them. We need to confront challenges with understanding and sensitivity, from positions that are strengthened by cohesion, concensus and willingness to compromise. The new Biafran phenomenon, for instance, needs to be looked in the eye to understand what it means or needs. Neither running away from it,locking it up or shooting at it will resolve the dispute over whether those who wish to pull all Igbo out of Nigeria have the support and mandate of all Igbo. Nor should the nation lower its voice over its stand that no group or section can muscle or shoot its way out of the nation, or re-structure Nigeria after its own image alone. Recent successes over the Boko Haram insurgency point to the value of national concensus and political will in dealing with internal challenges. The democratic process needs to be strengthened as the foundation of national unity and cohesion, and the guarantee that only a leadership which enjoys a legitimate and popular support can take difficult decisions to deal with challenges. There is not a single sensible reason why Nigerians should not discuss every element of our existence, the structures and institutions which affect us in profound ways, and even the utility of our union. It is, however important to acknowledge that every community has a right to be respected, and its participation in the search for solutions around the fundamentals of our co-existence cannot be forced or hijacked.
There are many lessons to draw from the half century after Biafra. One is that the Nigerian nation is a lot more resilient than it gets credit for in many circles, and this resilience lies in the millions of linkages in livelihoods, economy and relationships which Nigerians have built with their feet, resources, trust and lives in every inch of our nation. The second is that Nigeria will always be tested and tried by challenges arising from the manner groups feel their rights and privileges are handled either by the state itself, or by other groups. It is important therefore to strive towards creating a nation founded on democratic principles and practice, and in particular, on the rule of law. Thirdly we need to re-integrate younger Nigerians into a vision of a nation whose history has been both inspiring and challenging, but a nation which can be made to work for all. We need to liberate our history from petty hate mongers; not to put a false gloss on it, but to challenge this generation to improve where older generations have failed, and take pride in their legacies. Without this history, there is little hope of securing the firm foundations that will survive contemporary and future challenges in Nigeria.