OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
– George Santayana, Spanish Philosopher, 1863 – 1952
Emmanuel was my father’s younger brother. He was tall, lanky and handsome with a lot of courage. My father used to say that if he was able to acquire education, he would have ended up a lawyer. This was because he was very argumentative. It was part of this nature that made him not to survive the Nigerian civil war. It was sometime in 1968. I was very young, but I could still understand and remember some of the events of that period. A day before, my dad had called all of us together including Uncle Emma, as we used to call him, to put together some of the things that we would need as we were going to move out of our house early the next morning.
My younger brother was excited as we loved to travel to see our maternal grandmother at Uburu in the present day Ebonyi State. It was explained to him that the trip we were going to embark on the next day was not like the usual trips. We were going to become refugees and going to no definite destination. We were embarking on a flight of safety. But Uncle Emma would have none of that. Why would he be running away from his house, he queried? For whom? He wondered if my dad had not read the news. Meanwhile, Uncle Emmanuel could neither read nor write but he would claim to have more information than those that were literate.
He argued that the news had it that Ojukwu had procured superior and more sophisticated ammunition that would wipe out the Nigerian army in less than one week. As we left as early as 4.30am the next day, Uncle Emma bade us goodbye and remained behind, occupying the whole compound alone. Less than two years later when the war was over and we returned, Uncle Emma was nowhere to be found. My dad was positive that he would come back some day. He never did up till this day! Neither was his body found so that at the minimum, he could be given a befitting burial. As you can tell, that is a bit of my own Biafran story.
As you read this, it is exactly fifty years since the then General Phillips Effiong of the defunct Biafra Republic surrendered to the Nigerian forces marking the end of more than 30 months of civil war between the former and the latter. Even though an official history of the civil war has yet to be published; a step that should throw more light on issues like its causes, prosecution and eventual termination, there is a whole lot of literature on the Nigerian Civil war which interested readers should avail themselves of. I will recommend particularly Chinua Achebe’s “There Was A country” to anyone who is interested. This is because it touches on the drift of this article.
The jury is still out as to whether the war was necessary or not. Depending on what side discussants belong, you are likely to hear someone say that the Biafrans were left with no option than to fight. You will also hear some say that the war was uncalled for. Any how you slice and dice it, any war that does not end on the dialogue table has actually not ended. The Korean armistice that has kept the two parts in constant state of emergency should tell you that the end of fighting is never the end of a war.
The only time you will know that a war is over is that the warring parties have agreed to sit down on the table and discuss. This only happens when the prosecution of the war has come to an end or is on its way to ending. A lot of times, the war starts after the dialogue on the table has failed. If this logic is correct, it therefore follows that every war is avoidable, if only parties are patient enough to spend more time on the dialogue table.
Again, no matter the party that wins the war, it does not end without both parties losing something valuable. So, if you start the war whole, you will certainly end with both parties returning in parts. Unfortunately, in most wars, most people come to terms with this realisation, the “morning after.”
Having fought the Nigerian Biafra Civil war, the next issue is: What did we learn from it? Before then, some people continue to hold the view that the war did not end. They argue that the declaration of “no victor, no vanquished” has remained farcical. They believe that the real victor has continued to despoil the vanquished and has converted the war to mental and psychological occupation of the vanquished. Any dispassionate observer of events in the country will agree that we don’t seem to have learnt anything from that fratricidal war.
If anything, we seem to be drawing closer and closer to the objective conditions that led to the war, over 50 years ago. Our attitudes do not show that we are ready to unite as one country despite the tons of platitudes we may preach. Our actions seem to promote our fault lines rather than bringing us more together. At every level we tend to be more concerned about pushing the frontiers of ethnic and religious intolerance while we preach One Nigeria. We seem to enjoy the divisions more than we want to unite. Our leaders, out of selfish interests, take advantage of the ignorance and poverty which they are largely responsible for in the first place, to promote religious and ethnic intolerance.
The level of intemperate language amongst our people, including those who experienced the war and its effects, has assumed a frightening dimension. So, the question remains, what lessons have we learnt? Are we sure we don’t want to go through another war so soon? How many countries have survived a second civil war? History seems to suggest none. Does anyone benefit from a war anyway, except the arms sellers and the post-war contractors?
Contrast Nigeria’s situation with that of another African country, Rwanda which was devastated by a genocidal war in the 1990s. The two major ethnic groups in the country, the Hutus and the Tutsis, disagreed. They had historically disagreed with each other though, and this must be set against a background of the divide and rule strategies of colonialism. The collapse at the negotiating table ended up in an armed conflict. From 1990, when the Tutsi rebel group “The Rwandan Patriotic Front” launched the first attack killing several Hutus, it was one attack after another until 1994 when the plane of the then President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down near Kigali Airport killing him. This led to the launch of a full-fledged genocide that took the lives of over one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. A counter offensive from the Tutsis led to the displacement of over two million Hutus to neighbouring countries particularly, Zaire. The conflict was ended in 2000 and Paul Kagame took over following the resignation of the then President, Pasteur Bizimungu.
Paul Kagame started a genuine reconciliation and rebuilding process. He ran for and won elections in 2003, 2010 and 2017.Kagame started a huge transformation of the small country of around 12million people. He abolished tribal, religious and ethnic affiliations such that Rwandans now see themselves no longer as Tutsis and Hutus but Rwandans. The economy has seen phenomenal growth like never before such that annual GDP growth has remained over 8% in recent years. Corruption has no place in the new Rwanda. Even though the economy remains small in absolute terms, life is a lot better for the ordinary Rwandan. The visionary Kagame is quickly transforming the economy from an agrarian to a knowledge economy.
Tourism has also assumed its pride of place in the economy with visitors flooding the place as the new holiday destination in Central Africa. Education is a priority sector in post war Rwanda with the healthcare sector taking a chunk of annual budgets. Rwanda ranks amongst the best in the ease of doing business index globally and in sub Saharan Africa. Its current ranking is 38 out of 190 countries compared to Nigeria at 131 which of course is an improvement from our previous 146 ranking in 2018.
Rwanda is one country that has managed its post war situation very well. Less than 20 years after its civil war, it has made tremendous improvements both in infrastructural development, political system and human development indices. All these have impacted on economic growth and perception of the country. I believe we have a lot to learn from Rwanda. And it is never too late.
I also feel that there are some positive sides of the Nigerian civil war which we have deliberately refused to recognise. We have not paid any attention to how Biafra survived under the civil war. The saying that “necessity is the mother of invention” becomes very germane here. Granted that the civil war experience had to do with hunger, disease, squalor and death, a lot of ingenuity was demonstrated by the Biafrans. An airport was built in record time by the Biafrans in Uli, in the present-day Anambra State and planes were landing and taking off safely there. At that time, it was reputed to be among the top three busiest airports in Africa.
How was that achieved? Could Nigeria have capitalized on that and could we have been the one exporting the technology to other African countries today, rather than waiting on China to build airports for us? The famous Ojukwu bunker Umuahia was built in 90 days. How about the several breakthroughs in Science and Technology? How come Biafra was able to refine crude oil to petroleum products in those days? Had we taken advantage of that skill, wouldn’t we be exporting refined petroleum products today rather than the current practice of exporting crude? Bombs and rockets were built by locals in Biafra.
The famous ‘Ogbunigwe’ and ‘Flying Multitude’ were devastating military inventions by Biafra. Aircraft were modified and adapted from passenger to fighter aircraft. Armoured Personnel Carriers were built locally, and they worked effectively. Vehicles were maintained and parts were fabricated locally. Local alternatives of food and drugs were invented. Communication equipment were designed and built by local Biafran scientists at that time and they were functional. Had we taken advantage of these developments, who knows, we may have been a truly self-reliant economy by now.
We may have been Africa’s Japan or even China today. Someone may argue that we are not looking at the political side of things and the suspicion that the Biafrans may rise again to fight if they were that integrated. We believe, however, that the suspicion is responsible for the situation of today where we are still a deeply divided country that has refused to heal 50 years after. On the contrary, that is what Kagame and his team cured by genuinely integrating everyone after the Rwandan genocidal war.
The truth is that a lot of people believe that justice and equity have not been served in this country. People feel short-changed and are just maintaining peace of the grave yard. A trip through the South-east will make you realise that there is still the feeling that the area needs more military and police surveillance as you are confronted with innumerable check points that have served more to humiliate and break the people than make them feel safer. Naturally, several of such checkpoints have also turned into extortion points that equally serve to constrain much-needed economic development in the zone. Matters have not been helped by the level of poverty and hunger in the land.
Insecurity has also dealt a fatal blow on the populace. The Boko Haram war in the North-east is all sign that all is not well. I am of the conviction that we need to sit down and talk honestly as brothers and sisters. That talk will begin with the kind of constitution and structure that will work for us. That system should be such that it will promote industry, productivity, initiatives and reduce size and cost of government amongst other things. We must build an egalitarian economy that will give equal opportunity to all. We must make progress.
Incidentally, it is 100 years since the end of the First World War. In the aftermath of that devastating war, there was the Treaty of Versailles, which was meant to be the outcome of negotiations for peace in the world. Unfortunately, the treaty was so one-sided, and the non-implementation of its humane parts were said to be part of the reasons that Hitler’s Nazism sprouted and led the world to a more devastating 2nd World War. In Nigeria, there was the agreement of ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’ and the programme of the Three Rs – Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation’. These principles, if sincerely pursued, will be to the benefit of the country and her citizens. Lasting peace comes from compromise and an atmosphere of give and take. It is important to heed this warning and we must pay attention to another Santayana observation that, ‘Only the dead have seen the end of the war.’