Nigeria and Biafra’s Wasted Memory, By Okey Ndibe
Much is often made of the hundreds of billions of dollars that Nigeria has frittered away since huge deposits of crude oil were discovered within its boundaries. A contemptible, uncreative elite, its obsession with conspicuous consumption matched by its inability to produce anything of value, has overseen Nigeria’s obscene, record-setting squandermania.
This elite’s legendary greed and mindless accumulation were able to fester and thrive because of the near-absence of sustained resistance by their victims—especially students, workers, and peasants. Yes, Nigeria has become a particular mess because of its long history of mediocre leadership. But of equal significance—the other part of the equation—is the failure of Nigerians to demand of those who preside over their affairs.
This point deserves to be stressed. On my way to the airport to travel to Toronto to deliver this talk, I tuned my car radio to America’s National Public Radio. Fortuitously, the station was interviewing a Nigerian-born guest, Olu Oguibe. Responding to one question, Oguibe, who is a professor of arts at the University of Connecticut, disclosed that he had become dubious of Chinua Achebe’s thesis that the trouble with Nigeria—in the late novelist’s words—“is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.” Oguibe said he had come to question Achebe’s implied exoneration of the Nigerian followership. For him—and I am increasingly persuaded by the argument—Nigerians have consistently got the leadership they deserve.
For all the cash that Nigeria has thrown to the wind, I’d suggest that the country’s greater tragedy is its refusal to be instructed by the lessons of the Biafran War. And this particular tragedy began just moments after the cessation of the civil war.
Yakubu Gowon’s declaration that there were no victors and no vanquished was, on the face of it, noble. Yet, the government’s post-war policies did not always conform to the government’s lofty sentiment. For one, the idea that the erstwhile Biafrans were not automatically entitled to the houses they owned, before the war, in different parts of Nigeria was at odds with the logic of “no victor, no vanquished.” In many cases, the Nigerians who held such homes in trust were honorable enough to return them to their original legitimate owners as soon as hostilities ceased. In other cases, the government deemed the properties “abandoned,” thus enabling usurpers to snatch them permanently from their true owners.
It was, in the context of the war, a grave anomaly. It did not make sense to force a people to return to the fold of a country they had renounced—only to turn around and stipulate their alienation from the assets they owned before their attempted secession.
The government’s policy of paying every former Biafran a mere twenty pounds as full redemption for any financial assets they held prior to the war was, quite simply, unjust. Like the notion of abandoned property, that financial policy mocked the very idea of insisting on Biafrans’ (forcible) re-incorporation into the entity called Nigeria. What was the point of forcing a people to re-enter an unhappy, abusive and unjust relationship?
It can be argued that, more than any other ethnic group in Nigeria, the Igbo, who formed the core of Biafra, had come closest to embracing the promise and possibility of a Nigerian nation. They had been more willing than most to venture beyond their enclave, dispersing and settling in different parts of Nigeria. They made the effort to learn the languages of the areas where they settled, to build homes, and to participate—to a great extent—in the lives of their hosts. In a sense, then, they had been more willing than most to accept the prospect of an evolving trans-ethnic community, and to do their bit to make that community—in other words, Nigeria—a viable one.
When a group so passionate about testing the viability of Nigeria feels such wrenched sense of injustice as to demand a divorce, then there is cause for sober reflection. More than two million people perished in a war to uphold the sanctity of the space called Nigeria. The casualties of that war paid with their blood for Nigeria to germinate, flower, and grow. Alas, post-war Nigeria chose to erase the memory of their great sacrifice. It never seized the opportunity to ask necessary questions about the meaning of this name—Nigeria—in whose name so many lives were cut short, so many more bodies maimed.
Instead, Nigeria returned to its old, reckless ways. It proceeded as if the war had never happened, as if so many lives had not been lost. That return to business as usual—the business being an unjust dispensation—meant that those who had died in the fight for one Nigeria constituted a colossal—betrayed—waste.
The prolonged economic exploitation of the people of the oil-rich Niger Delta would not have happened if Nigeria had learned the right lessons from the Biafran War. The writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni compatriots were unjustly hanged in 1995 because Nigeria had conveniently forgotten the import of Biafra. The 1999 massacre of the unarmed residents of Odi in Bayelsa State was, at bottom, an aftermath of a country gripped by amnesia about Biafra. The 2001 slaughter of the people of Zaki Biam in Benue State was possible in a climate in which Biafra had not registered in Nigeria’s memory. If Biafra counted in Nigeria’s memory, then the country’s leaders would have awakened sooner to the horrors of Boko Haram’s decimation of innocents in several northern states.
More than fifty years after Nigeria’s “Independence” from Britain, few, if any, Nigerians can say with confidence that they know what it means to be called citizens of Nigeria. Nigerian prisons overflow with so-called citizens being held without trial. Human Rights Watch and other international monitoring organizations have reported a fact that’s so morbidly clear to Nigerians: that law enforcement agents in Nigeria carry out widespread extra-judicial executions. Nigerians vote in elections with no guarantee that their votes will count. Instead, a coalition of “powerful” godfathers, electoral officials, security agents and judges conspires to normalize a culture of electoral fraud.
If any idea animates Nigeria, it is this: that the state exists to enable and empower a tiny coterie to steal to their greed’s content. That’s why the ostensible war against corruption is a joke, taken to new ludicrous heights by President Goodluck Jonathan who has taken up the odd semantic task of splitting hairs between “stealing” and “corruption.” The preservation of a Nigeria that remains safe for embezzlers is, from all indications, an urgent mission. If you’re in doubt, consider that Nigeria’s yawn-inducing national conference is loaded with ex-convicts, pardoned convicts, vacated convicts, and should-be convicts.
As currently constituted, Nigeria does not stand a chance of surviving. It is far from a nation. It is, at best, a collection of strange bedfellows whose elite is bound by a common—looting—interest. At the inauguration of the so-called national confab, President Jonathan declared that the corporate unity of Nigeria was not open to negotiation.
It is a misguided stipulation. It is an ineffectual response to the spate of renunciations of Nigeria by groups in different parts of the country. Let me be clear: I have not given up on the idea of Nigeria, but Nigeria as now constituted is little more than an irritant. And I have the hunch that Nigeria can no longer get away with forcing itself on people. Unless all the groups within Nigeria elect to work, across ethnic, cultural and sectarian lines, to found a nation, it is going to be extraordinary hard (and costly) to maintain the lie of one destiny.
There is no more urgent question facing all Nigerians than contemplating whether we desire to work towards being one. The emphasis is on “work,” for the process of building a nation is an arduous, painful, conscious undertaking. It is only after this fundamental question is confronted—and answered—that Nigerians can tackle such other questions as the terms of our engagement, the irreducible content of citizenship, and the central ideas that shape our lives.
This whole declaration of the given-ness of Nigeria amounts to a false affirmation of Nigeria’s viability. At best, it represents a wish by those with their lips to the trough of the treasury to perpetuate an entity that has always been a cash cow for the few at the expense of the millions of distressed Nigerians.
This is the second and concluding part of my reflections. Please follow me on twitter @okeyndibe