• Monday, July 22, 2024
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The conversation we don’t want to have about Biafra (2)

Biafra – Time to end Nigeria’s 53-year-old uncivil war

Civil War or genocide? Why it matters

Why is our awkward silence on the subject of Biafra extremely problematic? There are several reasons, but to begin with, I think it feeds into our lack of historicity, which manifests itself in our national decision making.

If it was general knowledge for example, that a certain Muhammadu Buhari was involved in the so-called counter coup of 1966 – essentially a horrendous massacre of Igbo army officers that directly led to the general pogroms that started the war – even the best efforts of marketing communications agencies in Lagos back in 2015 might not have sufficed to convince Nigerian voters that he was a suitable presidential candidate for the 21st Century.

Long after Chukwuka and Odinanka have fled or died, the sense of total impunity and the feeling of power associated with unpunished violence remain firmly rooted in those places

But I digress.

The Nigerian civil war took place between 1966 and 1970. The Kaduna pogrom mentioned at the outset happened in 2000. What connects the two events and why is it important to break the suffocating silence and delineate what happened as a war or as a genocide as many now say? Well for one thing, it’s the same people who died in both cases – innocent civilians whose crime was being born within an ethnicity called “Igbo,” which didn’t exist 200 years ago.

Assuming these “Igbos” as a group genuinely did something to warrant furious retribution – that included having their children poisoned with rations laced with rat-killer – were they again doing that something – whatever it was – in Kaduna in 2000?

Since the evidence would suggest not, that points to another motivation for the constant and continued need to massacre a specific group of unarmed civilians.

Whatever that motivation is can only be identified by those who hold it – a harmless, eyeglass-wearing Lagos yuppie like myself cannot possibly answer that question. The point however, is that to begin with, “Igbos” did nothing as a group to warrant their wholesale slaughter – both before 1966 and after 1970.

If a group of five army majors including a man named Adewale Ademoyega carried out a coup, and the response was to slaughter Mama Nneka the rice seller in Sabon Gari Market, along with her entire family and thousands of others, then the question is not “What did Mama Nneka do?” (And for the love of God, don’t say that Mama Nneka allegedly sang a song about somebody shooting somebody because if that is a capital offence, then we might as well just throw the whole country away.)

The proper question is “Who felt a need to kill Mama Nneka and why?” It is a similar situation to that of a rape victim in Nigeria who is asked what she did to provoke the aggressive penis, rather than directing a question to the penis-owning rapist. Victim blaming is a product of our toxic cultural silence – which has been fed by our 49-year silence about Nigeria’s most momentous national event.

When we ask the right questions and determine that Nigeria’s historically dreadful treatment of one of its three biggest ethnic groups is neither deserved nor justified, but is actually genocidal and irrational, then we can start making progress in our national discourse.

If we admit that something is not fair, then that makes us commit to changing it. If we forever continue rationalizing stuff like this, we are merely ensuring that Nigeria will never change the record and dance to something new.

When two elephants fight, the elephants suffer too

The usual saying makes it seem as if when two elephants fight, they get to walk away unscathed while the grass groans in distress. In reality, grass regrows rapidly, but the elephants sustain severe injuries when they use their tusks on each other.

In Nigeria’s case, one such severe injury is the moribund, obsolete and miserable Ajaokuta Steel Mill. At the planning phase, consultants recommended siting the steel mill just outside Onitsha for reasons of proximity to iron ores, cutting down the need for imports.

The Nigerian elephant delivered what it thought was a huge blow to the Biafran elephant by moving the mill to Kogi State for purely political reasons. That was over 30 years ago. Today, Ajaokuta Steel Mill remains as unused as the day it was commissioned, but with thousands of salary earners and pensioners on its books who have sat there for decades without a single productive day’s work.

Nigeria still imports every kind of steel product it needs, and the technology used at Ajaokuta is at least 20 years out of date, making Chinese steel imports cheaper than whatever it could theoretically produce today. Oh, and guess what group of people largely dominates that import industry? Yes. Clearly, it wasn’t only the grass that suffered.

Now let’s do a quick mental experiment. Inside your mind, picture the map of Nigeria. Shade the parts of the map where Igbo pogroms have been commonplace over the past 70 years.

Now select a different mental colour and shade the parts of the map that are currently suffering from near-total breakdown of security due to violence from non-state actors. Notice how you end up shading the second colour almost exactly over the first. Precisely.

This is not because of some dead-mans-curse/karma hocus pocus. There are of course numerous political and economic factors contributing to the toxicity of such spaces which cannot be explored in this article.

However, a key reason is that after decades of the Nigerian state allowing human beings to be slaughtered at the drop of a hat in those places – because said human beings are named “Chukwuka” instead of “Aliyu” – the people there have internalised and normalised such violence.

Long after Chukwuka and Odinanka have fled or died, the sense of total impunity and the feeling of power associated with unpunished violence remain firmly rooted in those places. Inevitably, such people turn their weapons on each other and continue acting out what they first practised on “Igbos.”

Read also: The conversation we don’t want to have about Biafra (1)

Southwestern Nigeria, which has managed by and large to restrain itself from such orgies of violence is unsurprisingly Nigeria’s safest, wealthiest and most stable region. This is not rocket science. As Chinua Achebe eloquently put it: “We cannot trample upon the humanity of others without devaluing our own.

”An Igbo proverb expresses this thought more starkly as “Onye ji onye n’ani ji onwe ya,” which means “He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down.”

Back when I worked in Marketing, I had a boss, Ayeni Adekunle who was fond of the Yoruba proverb “Ninu ikoko dudu l’eko funfun ti’n jade,” which means “White eko comes out of a black pot.” After 49 years of painful, injurious silence about Africa’s biggest-ever genocide, the cleansing effect of finally speaking up will be a great thing.

These conversations will be painful. I remember being gobsmacked sometime in 2017 when a colleague at work informed me that he knows people whose birth certificates read “Republic of Biafra,” because they were born during the war in a country called Biafra.

“Nigeria” to them, was simply this big bully next door trying to kill them for no reason – which by the way, is pretty accurate. So what do we do when confronted by stories that we don’t really want to hear, and that we don’t know what to do with?

The first thing is probably to listen. Just, listen. Really listen. Don’t interrupt with “Ehn. but you know they couldn’t have known that…” It’s not your story, and it’s not about you. Listen and let people tell their story.

Nigeria is not going to fall down and die if we listen to one-third of our population telling us “You know, dropping bombs on my daddy’s head because some guys we never met did something that had nothing to do with us in a place we never saw wasn’t really called for.” It’s a difficult conversation, but not a world-ending one.

Ultimately, the Igbo ethnic group is now probably Nigeria’s most widely-recognised and diffused ethnicity, with the vast majority still holding on to their Nigerian identity.

My friend Ify whom I mentioned at the outset still identifies with Nigeria and visits from time to time. Despite all that has happened, we still manage to exist and share spaces on a large scale.

Like all troubled relationships however, the first and most important step is to have the conversation.