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Eddie Iroh: The national conference and the Igbo question

by Eddie Iroh

National-Conference

How then can one avoid thrashing them out without the hindsight of the tragedy of the Civil War? That would be utter delusion, deception and denial 

It is perhaps appropriate that I begin this article with an Igbo adage. One of the most profound and timeless aphorisms of Ndigbo relates to the hen which is about to lay eggs. The Igbo say that the hen never lays eggs until it has cleared all the debris and obstacles in its path and pen. Thereafter and only then will it settle down to the business of laying eggs. The laying of eggs by the hen has profound, even mystical significance.

It is an act of procreation; of bringing forth a new generation; of producing a new future, a new posterity. The hen does not want that new creation to be born into and inherit the debilitating obstacles and shackles of the past; else it would no longer be a new creation; rather more like the snake that excides its old skin, comes out looking deceptively brand new, but deep inside it remains the poisonous, venomous creature of old.
I see the on-going National Conference like the hen laying eggs. I also see it as a collective effort to search our souls and create a new society. I see it as an attempt to find the true meaning of Nigeria in an endeavour to bring forth a new creation, a new Nigeria and a new Nigerian. And if such soul searching is to be meaningful, it should, indeed must necessarily lead to collective cleansing. But neither honest soul searching nor collective cleansing can be achieved without sincerity of purpose, without a measure of self-denial; without renunciation of old prejudices and selfish preferences. No one who is well goes to the doctor. Nigeria submitted herself to the group therapy of a National Conference because she recognises that she is unwell. She cannot therefore dictate to the doctor what he should prescribe for her. In this regard I see some reasons for concern in the statement of the conference chairman last week regarding the diametrically opposed positions of the north and the south on such critical issues like revenue allocation and resource control. If the National Conference results in each side sticking rigidly to their preconceived positions, then one is entitled to question the need for a conference that simply re-states our old claims.
But there is something more worrying, in my view. It does seem to me that, notwithstanding the intensive and extensive work done by the various committees, and in spite of the wide range of areas covered by the committees’ terms of reference, the conference still appears to be largely about bread and butter issues; about national cake: Nigeria “belongs to us”, not “we belong to Nigeria.” Whether we are discussing the environment (and the Ecological Fund that goes with it), or politics and governance (who gets power and what he does with it), one cannot help the pervading sense of foreboding that the conference will intrinsically boil down to these material issues.

I am persuaded to consider this conclusion seriously when, after a forensic examination of the various issues covered by the National Conference, I found a conspicuous absence of the Nigerian Civil War in the agenda of the conference. I found it difficult to think of any compelling argument against the inclusion of what is unarguably the single most devastating episode in the entire history of the Federal Republic, an epoch that diminished all of us, winners and losers alike. It is quite difficult for me to understand how any exercise in soul-searching can disregard what has to be the most soul-defiling, if not soul-destroying episode in the checkered history of Nigeria. It was 30 months of the most un-civil civil war.

As a prelude to the war, we saw brothers pounce on brothers; neighbours decapitate their neighbours with the machetes with which they had been cutting meat to sell to the same neighbours just the day before. In the political arena all were fair game, especially against women and children, and no weapon including starvation was considered too heinous and inhuman. In the battlefield the military finished off the job with ruthless efficiency. My elder brother was shot in the back, in cold blood after his unit surrendered in Onitsha-Owerri axis. If we are honestly seeking the truth that leads to a cleansing, it is difficult to deny that as Nigerians we still have blood on our hands. Indeed if 1966-1970 were today, many of us would have been tried at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
I believe this is why we are afraid of the truth of our tragic history. We dared not look at our hands and be comfortable with ourselves; we dared not admit to ourselves that truth must be told if we are to clean our blood-stained hands and purify our besmirched, troubled souls. That is why we appear willing to delete that episode, that “inconvenient truth” even as we seek to create a new nation with a new ethos.
But we delude ourselves by excluding the Nigerian Civil War even from our school curriculum. It was Dr. Henry Kissinger who said that the prerogative of the victor is the re-writing of history. In this manner, we are trying to re-write history, to our own eternal disadvantage, because in re-writing our history and deleting the truth, we risk making the mistake of all who fail to learn the lessons of history. There is in fact no denying that Nigeria has been living in denial right from the first step in the series of missteps that led us into a tragic and avoidable un-civil war, and which brought us to the present pass where anyone who seeks to address that tragedy in any form is immediately seen as harbouring secessionist sympathy. The result is simmering discontent occasionally expressed in terms of marginalisation, which really does not address the issue.

That denial was seen in the reaction to Chinua Achebe’s last book “There Was a Country,” which was promptly disparaged by some Nigerians including those who had not even read the book! The more recent example is the clumsy handling of the certification of the film version of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a work of fiction by a writer who was not even born at the time of the war! More than three months since its world premiere, Nigerians are still denied the chance of sharing their tragic experience, and the opportunity for self-examination, reflection and reaching their own conclusions. Those who witnessed the tragedy are deprived of the chance to learn lessons from the actions and inactions of their leaders, while those in the post-war generation like Adichie are prevented from asking questions of their forebears.
I am aware that a number of Igbo interest groups have presented memoranda to the conference staking their claims. But I believe that the Nigerian Civil War deserves to be a major item among the Terms of Reference of the conference. It should provide an opportunity for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation. But this is possible only if we are truthful to ourselves that in 44 years since the end of the Civil War, there has been neither truth nor reconciliation. This conference should be able to do what the Oputa Panel failed to do; to ask the questions whether Nigeria has actually lived up to the promise of No Victor, No Vanquished; and whether the objectives of reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation were truly, honestly pursued and achieved. And if so why are the Igbos still “moaning” about “marginalisation?”
Today, nearly half a century after, no Nigerian born after the event can claim to have a balanced account of what brought his or her country to such calamity. All they probably know are fragmented and oral accounts that General Emeka Ojukwu woke up on the 30th of May 1967, declared the secession of the old Eastern Region, and proclaimed it the Republic of Biafra. General Yakubu Gowon took “police action” to keep Nigeria one. The Igbos lost and Nigeria remained one; Ojukwu and the Igbo were the bad guys; the rebels. Gowon and the Federals were the good guys; the Nigerian Lincolns! But the truth is that even the purveyors of this laundered account know it is simplistic fallacy.

Because it has excluded the vital account of how and why what were largely military conflicts spilled into the civilian domain and claimed more than 50,000 of the lives of innocent men, women and children many of who knew next to nothing about government and who ruled or misruled Nigeria. No one will tell them that if Colonel Emmanuel Ifeajuna and his unit had made it to Enugu and assassinated Premier Michael Okpara, there would have been a “balance of deaths,” January 15, 1966 would not have been seen as an “Igbo coup,” and there would have been no need for an even bloodier revenge six months later. There is no account of why the seemingly sensible Aburi Accord, which could have staved off the bloodbath, was unilaterally jettisoned by General Gowon, leaving little room for further dialogue and opening the floodgates of murder and all manner of mayhem. And sadly, neither Gowon nor Ojukwu gave Nigerians a memoir from which we could distill some semblance of truth, if possible.
It would be “inconvenient” to admit to ourselves that the Nigerian-Biafra War was a totally avoidable conflict. All it required was something we are still grappling to find today – sincerity of purpose, selfless respect for truth no matter who truth favours. The Nigerian-Biafra War was a clear and categorical proof that we failed as a people; not one tribe, not one group, but all of us. We failed to resolve what, with hindsight, was a manageable crisis. And we may continue to fail until we can call a spade a shovel, not a digging instrument.

Today people who did not see any injustice in the Abandoned Properties saga are complaining about injustice and denial of enough share in the nation’s resources. Today, the centralised government for which Ironsi was ostensibly overthrown is what Nigeria has been operating for the past 44 years after Ironsi. And it is now one of the issues conference delegates are protesting against!
Indeed with this National Conference, we are admitting that many of the issues that brought about Biafra are still haunting the nation.

How then can one avoid thrashing them out without the hindsight of the tragedy of the Civil War? That would be utter delusion, deception and denial – the Three Ds that I often hold responsible for the troubles of Nigeria. Our tendency to look truth in the eye and look away, rather than confront it eyeball to eyeball to see if it blinks, is at the very heart of the failure of Nigeria to achieve lasting unity in diversity. Let us not continue to delude ourselves. If truth blinks, then it is not truth.

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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