By Banji Ojewale
One should not forget that the war of 1967-1970 taught everyone, even the victors, a lesson: You cannot massacre a people or destroy their property, even an ethnic minority (without a response)… If you do, they will fight, because they have no choice but to fight. – Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu (1933-2011) Biafra War leader.
In both modern and ancient times, we have inspiring annals of nations which emerged from devastating civil wars and grave turmoil and never remained the same again. They destroyed old roads that could tempt them into bigger caves of crisis. Then they embarked upon a long and engaging construction of great bridges that connected their people to a bright and hopeful future. These overhead stretches ensured the society wouldn’t return to the bitter past that gave nothing but anguish and despondency.
If we spare ourselves a throwback too deep into the past, we can simply settle for two African nations of contemporary times and prove our point that you don’t come out of a life-threatening storm and still be at the mercy of deadly winds.
Rwanda went through a genocidal tide that consumed a third of the population in 1994. A writer says the crisis plunged the land into a “cataclysmic wasteland.” But today the country has been redefined by a united people and selfless leadership that is building bridges of true reconciliation, reconstruction, rehabilitation and reintegration. Its president, Paul Kagame, has brought forth a new society from ashes to beauty. An observer concludes: “Rwanda is easily the safest, least corrupt, best groomed nation in the region… In other ways, the image is a fantasy…” The motto in Rwanda is: ‘never again’. They’ve allowed the harsh winds of war to whip them away from the past into the future. They keep singing: once bitten, forever shy.
Go to Ethiopia and you will find the same ashes-to-beauty story. After a succession of ‘creeping revolutions’, as the bloody military coups in the Horn of Africa came to be known, Ethiopia fell into the league of the continent’s failing countries. But when visionary leaders lay hold on such circumstances, they sail on the crest of adversarial torrents to turn the tide to favour their people and society. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been one such leader. His government has made Ethiopia “overtake Kenya as the economic giant of East Africa.” The International Monetary Fund says the country’s “economy since 2015 has been on an upward trajectory since the government moved to modernize its roads, railway and power plants. They are on cue to have Africa’s biggest hydroelectric dam upon the completion of work on the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam. Even though landlocked, the country continues to make giant strides in trying to industrialise.” It wasn’t a surprise that the country’s PM won the coveted Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, owing to his effort in pulling Ethiopia from an internecine war with Eritrea to peace and thence into full blast postwar reconciliation and development.
Now, Nigeria has had its own scorching civil war, which ought to have taught us lessons on how to build bridges on which to walk into progress. Hundreds of thousands, millions indeed, lost their souls in the secessionist bid by Biafra. Many more were maimed, while several more incalculable losses were incurred in the conflict. 50 years after the inferno that nearly brought down our rattletrap structure, we can’t identify any bridge we’ve erected to take us away from the graves of those cut down by the sanguinary conflagration. We’ve been standing at the spot we were in January 1970, when the Biafra War ended. Other nations concluded their hostilities, whether domestic or external, and moved on, improving the lot of their citizens. They didn’t mock the departed as we do when we fail to improve the society they were slain for.
50 years after Biafra, the wraith of Biafra hasn’t gone home. Every day it threatens us. All what gave birth to this abiku is alive in our politics, in our economy, in our lifestyle, in our homes, in our schools. Is it a coincidence that six state governments in the South-West of Nigeria are declaring that they have no confidence in the security apparatus of the central administration and that they are pushing for an independent machinery to protect their people? Is it a coincidence that this is taking place in January, the month marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nigerian Civil War? There was this ambience that preceded the war – insecurity, corruption, nepotism, mutual fear among the ‘federating’ units, toxic politics followed by inane military rule, ethnicity, official contempt for the masses, poverty, social discontent, marginalisation of sections of the nation, unchecked violence, dismantling of the principles of federalism for an extenuated and disfigured one, religious extremism etc. The question is: can we notice that we still have these as our backcloth today some five decades after our Civil War? Military rule is missing in the murderous mix. But you know Esau’s hands and Jacob’s voice. These are bridges we shouldn’t have retained after the war. When we bulldozed the physical bridges in Biafraland, we should have also razed the more dangerous ones threatening wilder Biafras, scores of years later.
But we have lacked great leaders to exploit the conflict to go for broke over a radical reordering of Nigeria. Of course, there have been several other missteps in the wake of numerous opportunistic national challenges.
Elsewhere, the war would have produced an Abraham Lincoln with a masterly Gettysburg dirge to inspire the mourning folks to look beyond the seeming helplessness and death around them. Surrounded by fallen servicemen and grieving citizens at the dedication of the cemetery for the slain during the American Civil War in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered one of man’s greatest speeches, where he said your duty in crisis was to honour those the crisis had claimed by abolishing what brought about the challenges. He made the point that “in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground… It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…”
In our case after we mowed Biafra down and all its great promise of giving the black race a home-grown technology whose fetuses we saw during the war – a mobile radio station, locally-made rockets with launchers and bombs, improvised refineries etc. we did not dedicate to the “great task remaining before us,” namely destroying the bridge to Biafra. We have put up more. To honour those who fought for the land we must begin to pull down those structures that seem to be taking us down the war alley again. Wars, avoidable or unavoidable, are challenges not meant to crush us. They are to guide us into Eldorado as they did for others: Vietnam, South Korea, Rwanda, Ethiopia etc.
Banji Ojewale writes from Ota, Ogun State.