By Edwin Madunagu
This series was suspended after the second part (November 15, 2012) to discharge an urgent obligation. We may now return to this series. Our narrative up to, and including, that second part appears not only historical, but also chronological. We shall retain the historical method, but will be now be more thematic than chronological. Either way, what I have said so far brings us logically to the historical period we now know as Crisis and Civil War (1966-1970), that is, the period beginning from the January 15, 1966 military coup and ending with the initial phases of post war re-integration sometime in 1970. Deliberatively proceed by means of anecdotes, questions and propositions, but never losing sight of the core objectives of this series: sketching the country “we wish to see.”
When Chinua Achebe’s latest book, There was a country: A personal history of Biafra, appeared – or, more precisely, when the news of the book’s appearance broke out – I had to quickly advise my comrades, especially the younger ones, to steer clear of the emotionally-charged controversy I expected the publication to immediately provoke. Beyond this advice – deliberately framed as advice, since leftist intervention must be made one day, sooner than later – I warned (rather than advised) that no comrade should make enemies on the basis of this book or the controversy following it, or make new friends or acquire new allies on that basis. I acted instinctively; but I later explained my reasons to myself and then to some comrades.
There are at least three reasons for my advice and warning. First, I remember the devastating and tragic impact of the Nigerian Crisis and Civil War on the Nigerian Left. This was a Civil War that officially ended in January 1970; but 13 years later, in March 1983, that war made Nigeria’s leading leftists – including frontline Marxists – literally come to blows at an international Marxist Conference (to mark the first centenary of Karl Marx’s death) in the presence of foreign delegates.
Six years later, in 1989, this same war became the decisive factor in the abortion of a “coup” hatched in Calabar to come up with a strong and united formation to confront the Ibrahim Babangida dictatorship electorally and extra-electorally. I pay attention to the Nigerian Left – which exists, I continue to repeat – because it is the only social force that can prevent a second edition of Crisis and Civil War.
One of the reasons for this resilience of the scars, pains and mere memories of the Nigerian Crisis and Civil War is that there is simply no way of mapping a genuinely revolutionary way forward for Nigeria in decades to come without encountering, and settling accounts with, that tragic incident. How do you map a way forward, without reviewing our history? How do you review Nigeria’s relatively short history without encountering the Civil War? How I wish there was a way! Going beyond the Nigerian Left: For Nigerians, in general, the controversy provoked by Achebe’s book is just a measure of the resilience of the scars, pains, and memories I am talking about. A friend and compatriot says that what I have now called “resilience” will weaken as “truth” overcomes “lies” and that he is more interested in the future. I agree, but then I say: This triumph of truth, this durable future, will be the prize for vigorous (or merciless?) confrontations with the past in all its ramifications. There is a dilemma here; yes, a dilemma.
In October/November 1978, about 15 months after the very successful Second All-Nigeria Social Conference in Zaria and barely a month after some of us (including my spouse and I) were removed from the university system over “Ali-Must-Go” struggle, we gathered in Lagos for a meeting that could have resulted in the announcement of the emergence of a united revolutionary party around a Marxist core. But that dream had collapsed even before the conference opened. Several issues were responsible; but I shall recall two of them in which I was directly involved.
In several meetings preceding the October/November meeting I had insisted that in the context of Marxist history and Marxist politics, there was a fundamental difference between the concept of Secretary of the Party and that of Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party. It was a distinction, which sought to emphasise the principles of “collectivity” and “first-among-equals” (rather than first) and guard against the substitution of leader for leadership, and eventually that leader for the masses. Supported by a comrade (now dead), I argued that our position was supported by our own history. We lost that battle.
Whereas we consciously waged this first battle – and lost – we were not aware of the reason for losing the second battle. Let me summarise it. Some of us had argued that the new attempt to re-group must be prefaced with a confrontation with the past. We could not, at that time, understand why the older comrades (I was only 32 then) so resisted what we idealistically and naively regarded as a mere formal requirement in an inaugural political declaration or announcement. Later, we knew: Our leaders did not want a reopening of the past because they did not want to re-visit, before us, what happened to the Nigerian Left and in the Nigerian Left immediately before, during and immediately after the Crisis and Civil War.
Our older comrades feared, I believe, that such discussion could end or damage that particular attempt at re-grouping. But I ask: Which is preferable: to confront the past – together with the lies, truths and half-truths, that would emerge – and risk the collapse of that particular attempt at re-grouping, or to run away from the past and face the certainty of recurrent abortions of new attempts? We also lost this second battle and many of us literally ceased to be members of the new group by the end of 1978.
The second reason I advised, and then warned, my comrades not to rush into the controversy being generated by There was a country is that the Nigerian Crisis and Civil War was very complex – with multiple, rather than, singular causation. It was over-determined, as Louis Althusser would say. I must admit at once: I feared that this controversy could become a severe test for our individual and collective revolutionary consciousness – or even for our grasp of, and reflection on, the Nigerian history. To blame the war on “tribalism” would be childishly simplistic. And to blame capitalism and imperialism for it and stop there – as I almost rudely told a comrade of my generation shortly after the controversy broke out – would be lazy, evasive, unhistorical and undialectical. Is that how you would “explain” the tragedies of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Somalia, the “Arab Spring”, DR Congo, etc?
A day after I sent out my frantic message to comrades, a young lady of about 28, of Akwa Ibom extraction, who is fully aware of my ethnic origin, whom I had known since she was 12, phoned me and asked without preamble: “Is it true that in Biafra, during the Civil War an Igbo soldier, or even a civilian, could arrest anyone and demand to know where the person came from and then summarily execute the “prisoner” if he or she was non-Igbo?” I thanked and invited her over for a chat. When she came, I placed myself as if before an inquisitor. I recounted my own personal experiences during the war, the horrors that I saw and heard then, and what I have learnt, and my further reflections, since then. I concluded in words like these: “Under the conditions I have sketched, although I am unable to confirm what has been alleged, I can say that such a thing could as well have taken place during certain periods in the war.” The girl relaxed, satisfied with my narrative. This was a girl who was born in July 1984, more than 14 years after the end of the Civil War.
Shortly after this, a younger comrade, male and much older than the young lady, and of my own ethnic extraction, called and asked me if Marxism was opposed to self-determination. Although I did not know where my comrade was “coming from”, I answered directly: No; Marxism upholds the right to self-determination philosophically and in principle. You cannot claim to be a Marxist if, confronted with this question, you hesitate to answer it categorically. But, posed as a political question, the answer is not Yes or No; the answer depends on time and space, on the concrete historical setting. I proceeded to give him two historical illustrations: the historic argument between Vladimir Lenin and Rosaline Luxembourg on the national question and the violent debate between Marxist intellectuals on both sides of the Ethiopian Civil War. We agreed to continue the discussion on this question.
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