The volume of acrimonious commentaries received by Chinua Achebe’s recently published There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra remains unprecedented in recent time. This is partly because of the great personality behind the work. After all, this is just one of the many writings dotting the Biafra-Nigeria civil war.
The bitterness that followed this publication, evident in the combatant reviews that flooded the press, shows that ‘unity’ which remains emblazoned on Nigeria’s coat of arm, is not far from being merely cosmetic. It seems that most of the commentaries approve or disapprove the book on the basis of their authors’ ethnic leaning. This is a great disservice to truth.
In the midst of this brouhaha and after having read the book, one biased impression that requires some correction is the held position of some that the book is short of moving the nation forward, that it broods over the past. This conclusion will be decimated by an actual reading of the book. Part 4 of the book dwells on the way forward. One believes that a brighter future awaits the country should a leader, inspired by the exhortation of Achebe at this concluding part of his work, emerges.
One conviction of Achebe in this book that one thinks should be taken seriously is his wish that Nigerians study the painful years of 1967 – 1970. The Nigerian history remains incomplete without the civil war years. Studying the Biafra-Nigeria civil war in the nation’s school systems is the only future guarantee that the nation will avoid the pitfalls that led to the unfortunate carnage. Earlier in the introductory part of this book, Achebe would quote an Igbo proverb, ‘A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body’. This would find a recast in Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, who said, ‘Study the past if you would divine the future’.
It is a fact that the foundation of Nigeria is still as shaky as it was in the 1960s. Think of any of the problems that plagued the country in the first republic: corruption, nepotism, electoral fraud, ethnic/religious bigotry, violence/thuggery, imagined or real fear of domination by an ethnic group, etc. Which of these is non existent today? These maladies of the past are nothing or too little compared to their gargantuan level today, yet the nation was plunged into the instability of the 1960s that peaked in the civil war. The logical conclusion is that the violence of the 60s was just a child’s play when placed vis-à-vis the likely – God forbid! – unfolding of events should there be a trigger.
It is no news that many are not happy with the Nigerian federation. Many groups are springing up in the north and in the south purporting to defend the interest of their areas. It would interest one to note that almost all the geopolitical zones feel marginalised. None is entirely happy with the system. The Nigeria project succeeds when all the divides are content with the trends in this 1914 structure of Lord Lugard.
There is thus the need to make the federation attractive. The negotiations and debates that led to the Independence Constitutions were meant to make all comfortable with the new independent Nigeria. Although this objective was not realised, as attested to by the discontents of the 60s, it was wise of the colonial masters to recognise that one cannot foist a political union on a people. People must freely choose to be in such a union. Only this guarantees stability and longevity for such a marriage.
National dialogue, therefore, is an imperative. All interests must sit down and chat. People often fear that such a discussion might lead to the disintegration of Nigeria. Even if that happens, so be it. Nigeria as presently constituted is not an article of faith. Nigerians – since sovereignty lies with the people – can decide to dissolve this union. But as global trends show, this may seem unlikely in a roundtable discussion where everybody is treated with some respect and as equals. This is because, if well managed on the basis of transparency, honesty, equity and rule of law, large political entities – consider United states, for example – tend to guarantee prosperity.
Nigerians and their leanings (political, economic, religious etc) will gain more from a united Nigeria where all ethnic groups and interests feel secured, respected, unmarginalised and given their dues. Such a feeling appears to be lacking when other geopolitical zones, for example, appear unconcerned to the high level of poverty and illiteracy, with their attendant threat to security, in the North East and North West geopolitical zones. Such a feeling appears to be lacking when the hue and cry of many in the South East of the total collapse of federal roads in the region and of being short-changed in the number of states in the region vis-à-vis other geopolitical zones attracts no worry from other zones.
Such appears to be lacking when the cry of Lagos State in the South West of being short-changed – not getting a fair share of the huge income it generates for the federation through the Value Added Tax (VAT) – receives no attention. Does Lagos’ conviction that this is generated at the expense of strain on her infrastructure not make a logical sense? The story is not different in the South-South where people would not understand why environmental degradation and clamour for control of their God-given right to their resources would appear to receive no concern from other geopolitical zones. Such appears to be lacking when people feel discriminated against because of their religion. Few months back, the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria, through their president, Archbishop Kaigama, lamented that ‘[In most states in the north] except for places of worship that were secured during the colonial period, lands have not been officially allocated for Churches. . . Today in most of the 12 northern states, Christians are being denied the right of access to land for the building of places of worship . . . Christians are often treated as strangers and our faith presented as if it is an aberration’ (Punch of June 3, 2012).
One strongly believes that only a leadership that is courageous, selfless, upright, and corrupt free can lead and rally the entire nation to a fruitful dialogue. For trust in the leadership of the nation to be won back, these virtues are necessary. When will such a leadership in its legislative, executive and judicial dimensions emerge? God save Nigeria!
*Fr. Somadina Ibe-Ojiludu, a Catholic Priest of the Capuchin Franciscan Order, writes from 3 3 Junction, Anambra State.