By Chido Onumah
Nigeria’s celebrated novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is an interviewer’s delight, whether she is talking about Nigeria, novels, feminism or hair. A few weeks ago, she was a guest of Stephen Sackur’s HARDtalk on BBC ()where she talked about Biafra, ethnicity in Nigeria, the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War and the censorship of the movie version of her novel about the civil war, Half of a Yellow Sun.
“Nigeria as a country has never really engaged with Biafra,” Ms Adichie said in response to Stephen Sackur’s question about whether today’s Nigerians had learned enough about the important lessons of the war. “There is a lot that is unresolved about that period of our history.”
I agree with Ms. Adichie. Nigeria has not engaged with Biafra and there is a lot that is still unresolved about the civil war. But it’s not just Biafra and that tumultuous period of our history. There is a lot that is unresolved about Nigeria as a whole and many aspects of our existence as a country. Nigeria has not engaged with June 12, just as we have not engaged with Boko Haram, to mention only two of the more recent episodic convulsions that threaten the very foundation of the country.
In a sense, the Biafra experience could be a metaphor for the many unresolved problems that confront us as a country, whether we are talking about agitations by minority ethnic nationalities, the upsurge in militancy across the country, the quest for the balkanization of the country by fringe groups that go by all sorts of absurd names or the infernal resolve of a group to impose a religious code on an otherwise secular country.
“How should we make sense of Nigeria’s 21st century identity?” Stephen Sackur had asked in the introduction to his programme. Interestingly, around the time of that interview, there were rallies, amongst other troubling occurrences in Nigeria, in London and a few cities around the world in support of the Biafra renaissance.
A week earlier, some Biafra protagonists were arrested after a failed attempt to take over a radio station in the eastern city of Enugu and declare, or perhaps revive, the Republic of Biafra. It was in the same city that pro-Biafra “forces” were arrested for a daring attempt to take over the Enugu State Government House. Enugu was the first and one of the three capitals of Biafra while the secession lasted.
How do we make sense of all this? There are those who think that what we are witnessing is a necessary and passing phase in the attempt to build a nation. It may well be! But, it may also spell doom for a country that has had more than five decades to forge a “perfect union”, but has squandered each opportunity.
Clearly, as a country, we haven’t learned anything about the regrettable civil war of 1967-1970 or the other tragic events that occurred before that war. We have also not learned from the dreadful upheavals that have taken place after the war; events that have shaken the very foundation of our existence as a country.
Nigeria will disintegrate unless we collectively do something about it. Nations are not built on mere wishful thinking. No country that is run the way Nigeria is being run survives for too long. The hard truth is that there is nothing sacrosanct about Nigeria. A nation is neither an eternal nor a divinely ordained construct as is often delusively proclaimed, in the case of Nigeria, by our exceptionally depraved ruling class and their sympathisers. It comes into being at a historical juncture – through a combination of factors and forces – and can cease to be by the same logic.
Nigeria was an arbitrary creation of British colonialists who coupled disparate ethnic nationalities for economic and other reasons. Of course, many countries around the world were created through the same process and for the same reasons. The problem in the case of Nigeria, however, was that there were no attempts, at independence and subsequently, by Nigerians, the new inheritors of the contraption the British left behind, to remake the country in the image of a people who had broken the shackles of colonialism and had to build an egalitarian society; a nation of equity, social justice, the rule of law and all the fundamentals of a modern state.
How then do we move forward from the boiling cauldron – the outcome of a forced and dubious amalgam of different ethnicities, religions and cultural beliefs – to a nation of equal opportunity, shared vision and common future when we fail to learn from our history and allow primordial interests and short-term gains to stand in the way of a collective need for national survival?
Just as the colonialists intended, we have managed never to miss an opportunity to highlight the fault lines that have kept us perpetually at war with one another. And just like the colonialists, our rapacious and thieving ruling class, military and civilian, from across the country – emphasizing our fault lines – have succeeded in not only misruling us but also dividing us.
Take the simple and harmless matter of honouring the winner of the June 12, 1993, presidential election, Chief MKO Abiola, by the ongoing National Conference. That election was annulled by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, colluding with some of the vile creatures who today are the drivers of our so-called democracy. Babangida and company have yet to explain the reason for that criminal complicity.
That election showed that Nigerians could rise above ethnic and religious divisions given a purposeful and selfless leadership. Of course, it also showed that Nigeria’s ruling elite are not interested in the unity of this country beyond what they can get from it; never mind that they are always proclaiming that “The unity of Nigeria is not negotiable.”
June 12, 2014, marked the 21st anniversary of that election. Sadly, when a motion, seeking to pay tribute and give national recognition to Chief Abiola and hundreds of Nigerians who died protesting the annulment, was moved at the National Conference by Orok Duke from Cross River State, delegates were reportedly “divided along regional lines as those from southern Nigeria favoured the motion while those from the North rejected it”. And this fierce rejection of a legitimate quest for justice is recorded in a 21st century Nigeria; ironically, in a gathering consecrated to banish inequity and injustice and the multiple handmaids of Nigeria’s stillbirth.
This was an election in which the masses of the “North” ensured that Chief Abiola from Ogun State in “southern Nigeria” beat his opponent, Alhaji Bashir Tofa from Kano State in “northern Nigeria”; an election in which Abiola and his running mate, Babagana Kingibe, both Muslims, won across the length and breadth of the country.
It is heartbreaking that a representative of civil society at the National Conference that aims to address the many flashpoints of our distorted nationhood, Mallam Nasir Kura, from Kano State, was reported to have led the chorus of voices from the “North” that opposed any attempt to remember June 12, Abiola and Nigerians from all walks of life who paid the supreme sacrifice during that upheaval. For Kura and company, June 12, like its unfortunate victims, is “dead and buried”.
Make no mistake, while that rowdy session over honouring Abiola which attracted the attention of security operatives and was going to turn the confab into a WWE arena may have looked like an attempt to promote an “ethnic agenda”, accusing people of being ethnic jingoists for that action does not tell the whole story. After all, Olusegun Obasanjo, former president, chief beneficiary of the June 12 debacle and Abiola’s kinsman was – until his recent conversion, like Paul on his way to Damascus – one of the most trenchant traducers of Abiola and June 12.
To be continued.