By Nnamdi Elekwachi
- “The story that needs to be told does not forgive silence”. (Professor Okey Ndibe)
- “To sin by silence, When we should protest
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet will serve the law
And guillotine decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many…”
(From the Poem Protest by Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1850 – 1919)
In an ordinal sense and sequence, today is the fifty-third anniversary of the declaration of the short-lived Republic of Biafra, a lesson of history Nigeria repeatedly fails to draw from as it keeps sleepwalking and waking in its rather sanctimonious pretension of a “nonnegotiable” project. Put differently, Nigeria is a graveyard of history where past and even emergent events are buried, and like a graveyard, where also silence, beyond second nature, is life. Nigeria buries even histories unfolding before her eyes and under her nose.
History, sadly, is not even a subject of study at the basic levels of education (being pre-tertiary levels) in Nigeria. Nigeria eschews and sidesteps discourse in her history right from 1914 amalgamatiom, Biafra the most dreaded of it all. This is what in history we call “denialism”, and Nigeria, arguably, has been a denialist state for the last six decades since Ojukwu’s Biafra independence declaration!
So, What Should Biafra Mean to Me?
Growing up in the early 1990s, we owned a VHS (Video Home System) cassette of the Biafra War that would not stay in our house because it was termed “sensational material” or “exhibit” under extant draconian military decree. If, however, the custodians of this “exhibit” bring it in for a few trusted friends and relatives to watch, we closed all doors leading to our flat – both the kitchen and front corridor entrances – and then a household decree is instantly promulgated that no child makes any noise (not even questions were entertained) and that is if the custodians of the exhibit have approved first – through votes and vetoes/esvetos – that children see the movie. Mind you custodians here were my aunties.
The fact that we must lock ourselves behind our doors before seeing this particular movie, the fact that this video cassette was archived somewhere someone like me could not discover – figure out or find out – and the very fact that only a few outside family circle saw it all made me grow inquisitive the more on what Biafra meant to a child my age.
My Igbo people will say a burial absentee disinters the remains of the deceased from its feet rather than from the head, and so I began picking up gossipy rumours – some truths and half-truths, others mere common talk – from the streets as a poor innocent child with Biafra meaning no more than Hausa and Igbo fight for me.
I later would grow through age and studies, being able to ask questions, no holds barred, to few elders within family and friends circle. It was first, Bro Okey, an artisan, who stayed around my neighborhood and would discuss politics with me that gave me the book Nigeria and Biafra: My Story by Philip Efiong in 2004 shortly after the book was published. I had returned from Calabar where my admission did not work out the penultimate year (2002, that is) and was doing menial factory jobs, so at my leisure I visited this artisan friend who saw the enthusiasm and zeal I had for Biafra and Nigeria, even Africa all which our talk centered often. He gave me many books, some biographies, like that of Michael Okpara, Emeka – on Ojukwu by Forsyth, Obasanjo’s My Command and many others, including old newspapers. My friend would have advanced with his studies but for his father’s untimely death and his uncle’s reluctance to sponsor him all which had an otherwise effect on actualization of that dream.
But studying history at the University would change all that for me. First, it was a renowned historian, an authority in Igbo history, Sidney Emezue who would teach us what Biafra was with theories of conflict and war studies. He made it clear that he had solely elected to teach us Biafra which, sadly, was not even themed in our studies in Peace and War, a fourth year course. Prior to this time, I have never sat in a history class where Biafra was to be treated as a topic, but I was already fairly good with Biafra, my experience with Bro Okey given.
It was during NYSC that I would discover the silence and complicity of Nigerian state towards Biafra and later would understand why we had to lock our doors then just to see a movie on Biafra in the early ’90s!
At the Orientation Camp in Isele-Ukwu of Delta State, the first rule given to us was never to be heard or seen discussing Boko Haram. The camp authorities, this way, made any discourse that centres Boko Haram a haram in itself even when such discourses across ethnic lines would have helped in fostering understanding and national cohesion. Of what good use would a scheme like NYSC be to Nigeria if not as an avenue to deconstruct and deradicalize extreme youthful minds, but here were youthful Nigerian graduates being forbidden from not only enquiring into their past but equally from living in their present reality. The sins of NYSC I have already likened to censorship of thought police to thus silence us.
So much for a post-war reconstruction and reconciliation programme!
The truth though sad as with the Nigerian state is that Biafra lost the battle, surrendered and were beaten back into the fold, yet the realities of Biafra resurrect, stare Nigeria in the face each dawn in her match to nationhood afterward. Whatever politics it was that preceeded and proceeded from the aftermath of that war takes all of us back to Biafra. Today’s advocates of restructuring, true (fiscal) federalism, state police, resource control and the like seem to be reechoing: ON ABURI WE STAND! Nothing varies. Whatever happened with MKO Abiola, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ogoni eight, even all the state-sponsored mass atrocities like Odi massacre, Zakibiam, Aba, Onitsha, June 12 and its post-electoral violence in Lagos and elsewhere, etc., all were attendant corollaries of an unsettled Biafran question.
The realities of our world today means no less as with Biafra. Nigeria, same almost as with every nation of the world, was forced to declare a nationwide lockdown in a bid to curtail and contain the spread of the novel pandemic, Covid-19. While on a lockdown, from all the baselines available, Nigeria could not feed her 200 million population neither could she make enough room for palliatives for two months. Social register was manufactured and names of some millions beneficiaries of social investment programme, SIP, presidential social safety net and social security programme began to fly, yet hunger was widespread that hungry citizens took to the streets in defiance of the stay-at-home order!
Moved by empathy, President Buhari orederd the National Grain Reserves to release 70,000 metric tonnes (mt) of grain to feed the poor yet the poor remained inaccessible to government. Given the dwindling global oil price and China’s (Nigeria’s highest buyer) consumption decline, Nigeria is revising her already deficit 2020 budget to reflect realities of the volatile global oil market on which her mono-product economy bases by over 80%. Nigeria is going cap in hand seeking for loans: African Development Bank, AfDB (500 million USD); World Bank (1.5 billion dollars); International Monetary Fund (3.4 bn USD), also plans at domestic debt totalling sum 850 billion naira are underway.
The truth is, during the war, neither Biafra nor Nigeria inherited such debts the nation serviced or amortized post-1970s or any which it is still servicing.
There are huge lessons for Nigeria in Biafra and they are not to be found in silence for silence itself is never an illuminating aspect of history. Nonetheless, Nigeria must embrace the Biafran spirit of survivalism than perish in self-consuming silence. There is that air of confidence the survivors of Biafra exude today in this pandemic era; that spirit of “I have seen it all” which made a friend laugh at me saying: “During the war, shelling and pounding in addition to bullets and even diseases combined with hunger and malnutrition all were foisted on us and yet we survived. How can I not have faith that this Coronavirus shall be over someday too, just one disease?”.
That Biafra, in that short existence, was able to remodel a civilian aircraft to a military one, repurpose university laboratories for leading research centres, fabricate guns, stores and implements, fractionate crude oil to get fuel, kerosene and even to devise or better still improvise on brake oil with coconut fluid are all scientifc breakthroughs the Nigerian state successive governments have failed to tap into. Biafra was a golden age lost on Nigeria, for what then is civilization if not “response to a challenge” as my year one history cause taught me decades ago?
Biafra became a justification for the saying that “necessity is the mother of invention” or even “sweet are the uses of adversity” for no nation on God’s earth had so responded to challenges of limitation in a continually shrinking bunker-based territory as did Biafra. It marvelled old USSR that within 6 months of its separation from Nigeria a black African nation could make all the breakthroughs and exploits reached and recorded in Biafra to have exclaimed that “such a nation must be feared!”, as Emefiena Ezeani, the author of In Biafra Africa Died recalled. Then the next was the diplomatic plot to kill Biafra. Biafra represented the worst diplomatic shame to Africa for nowhere in the history of the Cold War did Russia and Britain pitch tent with one side to a conflict other than Biafra.
In the post-independence civil wars that greeted many young African nations during Cold War, nowhere did alliance of any form exist between Britain and the Soviets. For example, in the Congo D.R. Crisis, which led to death of Patrice Lumumba, the ideological blocs were torn between both sides, but during the Nigerian civil war, Britain, Achebe recalls, urged Nigeria to buy Soviet’s war jets which later were piloted by Egyptians.
Egypt? Yes, Egypt! During the war a Gowon who boasted he would bloody the heads of Biafrans in two weeks, alarmed by such resilience and resolve of Biafra, met Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser seeking assistance. Nasser took Gowon to Organization of Islamic Cooperation, OIC, membership was contracted on nonvoting level which Babangida, another war veteran, would regularise by 1986. Today, with a secular constitution (respect to section 10 of 1999 the constitution as amended) Nigeria is a member of OIC, a multilateral Islamic group formed in 1969!
Nigeria needs to bury her silence and go back to her history. Nigeria has 69 research institutes today but has yet to make any significant breakthrough in science, learning or any field whereas Biafra’s Research and Production (RAP) made scientific inroads yet to be recorded anywhere in Africa. Today, 21st century Nigeria’s major scientific task is to produce pencil and toothpicks, a million long miles away from Biafra’s milestone. Nigeria’s problem is in federal character principle and and quota system with hardly any emphasis on merit whereas, Biafra used her best humans and brains. Regrettably, countries that really healed up by shunning silence for dialogue have made enviable records of progress. May I remind you that after the Rwandan genocide of 1994 in which like Biafra the West watched from the sideline, that nation set up the Gacaca court system for reconstruction and peacebuildingqaz1u and today is a poster child for innovative ideas and breakthroughs continent-wide!
Post-Biafra years, for long, have been the Nigerian dark age in civilization instead of an otherwise golden age/era. Wars and conquests in the history of humankind have often witnessed, in most cases, cultural paradigm shift. In history we say: “Rome conquered Greece but conquered Greece took Rome captive”. Civilization historians understand that having triumphed over Greece, a perplexed Rome built upon the legacies of the former in what became Graeco-Roman civilization, the arguably best cultural prototype ever. Why didn’t Nigeria allow and avail herself lessons of Biafra?
Sometime in January of this year, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was in town – Umuahia, National War Museum, for a town hall meeting aimed at Post-Biafra reconstruction and reconciliation, as a guest I asked the Vice President how Nigeria under the present administration intends to sustain such novelty of dialogue across ethnic lines to soothe and heal a complexly broken nation and was reminded by His Excellency that the duty to preach peace lies with me! I had expected to hear of certain fora and platforms at federal level to do this but unfortunately, like they say: “Change begins with ‘me'”. This is how we evade Biafra.
Like they say in English, “boys will be boys”, it follows too that “politicians will be politicians”. The town hall meeting was scheduled for 11 am before which time guests were seated yet our Vice President arrived by some minutes to 2 Pm! Though I appreciate his articulate speech quoting Ojukwu, Achebe and Adichie, the sight of women in uniform and certain political hangers-on singing praises for major political actors belied what a Biafra talk let alone town hall meeting should be. Soon my state governor who made an equally beautiful speech announced that “the banquet”, not town hall meeting again, “continues at government house”. This was even when we all were slimming in hunger not allowed exit or entry with the dignitaries seated in the hall for security reasons, maybe. By 4 pm the governor left his citizens for a state banquet with Mr. Vice President when tax payers seated in the hall could not get water to drink. Adebayor Kings my friend was in that hall I leave him with the rest but let me state here that only 4 questions were asked some which did not get commensurate answers. How does one explain away that asked why there are no functional seaports in the south East our Vice President said it was because there were no “activities” in the East? What else qualifies for activities beyond production, services and the like? If not for the ki