Lessons from Nigeria’s civil war, 38 years after
TODAY, July 6, 2008, marks the anniversary – in fact the 41st, of the Nigerian civil war. The war which officially consumed some 2 million Nigerians, mainly Ibo, ended in 1970 after Gen. Philip Effiong (who died about a year ago), surrendered, on behalf of the failed secessionist Republic Biafra, to then Col. Olusegun Obasanjo. Obasanjo, who had, a few months earlier, and in still controversial circumstances, taken over command of the dreaded Third Marine Commando, the arrowhead of the foray of the Nigerian military into the Biafran heartland, from the equally dreaded and controversial strongman of the unit – the one and only gallant Col. Benjamin Adekunle, alias Black Scorpion. Col. Effiong had to surrender to the Federal troops, following massive military losses by the poorly kitted but otherwise well motivated Biafran military. This was after the ultimate leader of the Biafran military and President of the fledgling Biafran Republic, Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Oxford University trained graduate and son of business tycoon, Chief Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu of the Ojukwu business dynasty fame. As is now history, Ojukwu fled, according to reports via the Anaebele (land of mercy) airstrip in Uli, after the Federal troops closed in on him, following massive territorial gains on all sectors of the various battles of the war. In apparent grief, the Biafran war propaganda machine, led by Okokon Ndem, (now late), a former chieftain of the National Orientation Agency (NOA), had to collapse and wind up, after the Nigerian Air force planes flew sorties into the heartlands of Ibo land, and the infantry troops followed up, on land, with Soviet –made Saladin assault tanks which spewed mortar fire with deadly ceaselessness. As is history, the war ended after Biafra capitulated and its leaders lost the appetite for a war that, in the light of our present-day experience, needed not to have been fought in the first instance. Accounts differ as to the specifics of what led to the Biafran military capitulation and the associated victory of the Nigerian military. But in spite of the diversities in the accounts of the true circumstances of the end of the war, three years after the first bullet was fired on July 6, 1967 in what is now modern Cross River State, there are certain lessons that were inherent in the conflict. And what are the lessons? Naturally, the first is the fact of our lackadaisical attitude as a people, to the issues that eventually bog us down. The war began as a direct effect of the country’s first military putsch. That coup, led by black Africa’s first military intelligence officer, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu was meant to address the emerging culture of corruption and generic ineptitude by Nigeria’s elite political and other leaders. But the coup, in spite of its positive motivation and the patriotic desires of its planners, failed to meet national aspiration in its execution. The still inexplicable haphazard execution of the plot, especially in the then Eastern Region, led to the introduction of the ethnic element into its politics and implementation. This suspicion grew thicker, especially after the military President (Nigeria’s first military Head of State), Major General Julius Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi – Ironsi, showed conflicting signals in the handling of the January majors (the coup plot arrowheads, led by Kaduna Nzeogwu). The majors had earned diverse perception in national opinion: they were heroes in the south, but were perceived as traitors and ethnic campaigners in the north especially its oligarchic leadership. Besides, the majors were immensely popular in the military. The depth of misfiring over the coup and Ironsi’s handling of the issues relating to its execution, especially the jailing of the majors, led to what is now popularly called the ‘return match’ of July 29, 1967. In that coup (of July) the north took apparent revenge on the system, when its elements, including Theophilus Danjuma, and Murtala Ramat Muhammed, executed the Head of State, Aguiyi Ironsi, alongside Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, in Ibadan. Fajuyi, gallant chip of the old block that he is had reportedly told the coupists that if Gen. Aguiyi – Ironsi, who was then visiting the Western Region where he then held court, he would not stand idly by. Ironsi was his guest, professional senior and Head of State, and therefore he must be killed first, if the coupists must execute the Head of State as they threatened. Fajuyi and Aguiyi-Ironsi were executed by the coupists and their bodies were later found in shallow graves in Ibadan by the police. Once they were through with the executions, the coupists shouted ‘araba’ (meaning freedom in Hausa), and were about to declare their Republic (secede) before British government officials allegedly advised them against it, and instead, to seize advantage of the political leverage inherent in their demographic superiority (population) over the south. This was how Col. Yakubu Gowon was made the Head of State, after northern interests voted for him over Murtala (who was then said to be more temperamental over all else, including Brigadier Ogundipe (a Yoruba), who was then the most senior officer in the military and the natural choice of successor to Aguiyi-Ironsi) consolidated the ethnic element in Nigeria’s polity that still dogs us as a nation till date. The introduction of the ethnic element into the polity and the subjugation of quality (merit) in the appointment of public officers (Gowon in relation to Ogundipe, Ojukwu and others that were more suitable and senior to him), remain with us till today, and constitute a major hindrance to the excellence of the Nigerian projects. The war itself was laced with hard lessons for the country. The pogrom and other factors that led to it constitute a lesson which we have, quite unfortunately, not properly put in perspective, appreciate it and resolve it. The Zango Kataf crisis; the religious/ethnic crisis, the subsisting ethnic dichotomy are symptoms of our failure to imbibe the lesson inherent in the pogrom and related matters and the variables that triggered them. Even in a related sense, the fractious inter-ethnic relations call to question the rationale for the killing of 2 million compatriots in a war meant, in a broad sense, to bridge ethnic disharmony and enhance national unity. Is Nigeria more united, today, compared to the 1960s and 1970s? The war itself, as bad as it was, also triggered our survivalist instincts, as a people. For instance, the Federal Government prosecuted the war without borrowing money. This is a feat compared to our heavy debt burden in post war life (until the debt pardon). The question is how did we lose the capacity for efficient management as was inherent in the deployment of the national treasury in the war years by the late sage and management wizard, Obafemi Awolowo? The prosecution of the war itself, especially on the Biafran side, equally had a lesson: the Biafrans were able, doing the war, to reform crude (using buckets, deploying their practical knowledge of the scientific formula of fractional distillation), to provide petrol and other fuels for their war efforts. They equally fabricated the crude bucket-based missile technology (called Ogbunigwe – meaning the mass killer or mass destroyer); the remote controlled electric-based weapon system (the sure battery) and built the armoured vehicle (the Red Devil). Now, what did we do with these technologies? Is this not lamentable, considering that the Biafran Ogbunigwe (missile) which could reach several kilometres from launch site was only a few years younger than the scud the Soviet built straight flying missile which the Iraqis used to terrorize Israel (it landed 35 such missiles in different parts of Israel during the first Iraq war)? Is it not regrettable that long after we developed a missile system, the Defence Industries Corporation (DIC), Kaduna, is now only building riffles, rocket propellers and other low calibre guns, when India and Pakistan (to who we were more advanced, technologically) are nuclear powers, even when they are far less endowed than Nigeria? Why do we slip, even when we occasionally stumble on breakthroughs? And then this: we have not learnt anything from the futility of the war, and its lesson that sheer brute force alone cannot usher in enduring mutual confidence and harmony. The country’s leaders have not learnt the lesson inherent in the war, its causes. This is the core reason they still treat core national crises as immaterial. This is the reason we have had the Zangon/Kataf crisis: the religious crises in Kano, Bauchi, Onitsha, etc, the Ogoni crisis; the electoral frauds called 1999, 2003 and 2007 general elections; the subsisting ethnic distrust; the OIC issues and the related national disquiet; the annulment of June 12, 1993 Presidential election; the control and funding of the Nigeria Police Force and the security agencies and its military; the Niger Delta issue; resource control; sovereign national conference and agitation for state police forces. Can we ever learn useful lessons from our past? Can we?