By Ochereome Nnanna
What many of the responses to (Achebe’s book: There Was a Country) make clear, above all else, is that we remember (the events of 1966 to 1970) differently – CHIMAMANDA ADICHIE
IT is that time of the year when I like to remember the darkest days of Nigeria’s history, January 15th 1966 to January 15th 1970. For years it has been a ritual for me, for the simple reason that my life was defined, altered and in fact, retarded by it.
I am just one of the millions who lived in Nigeria’s core theatre of war as a sub-ten little boy already looking forward to the best that life could offer only to come out of the bush in January 1970 as a refugee to be plunged into a (temporary) life of destitution.
Everything we had was lost. What the enemy could not bomb they burnt or looted. In fact, we came back from our five-month habitation in the bushes to find our centuries-old compound overgrown with weeds!
Though my grandfather’s storey building (built in Abiriba in 1917) remained standing (miraculously, I must say) all the exotic furniture were looted leaving only the manila dressings in the sitting room which, I presumed, the “vandals” did not understand their worth as antique artefacts. That house still stands with people still living in it!
When Professor Chinua Achebe wrote his latest book: There Was a Country, telling his experiences through the crises and war as well as offering his personal perspectives and judgement on roles played by the central figures in the saga, it provoked a fire storm of reactions from across the divides.
It reopened dormant but suppurating emotions and generally had the three major ethnic groups and their affiliates – the Igbo East, Hausa/Fulani North and the Yoruba West at daggers-drawn, at least intellectually (thank God). No one was willing to be a “Nigerian”.
It is difficult to be a “Nigerian”, rise above primitive sentiments and deliver a fair and unbiased analysis of roles played by the various ethnic groups, sections and their leaders in the events before and after our independence in 1960.
The root cause of our problems came from the very manner in which Nigeria was amalgamated and run by the British colonialists until 1960. The country was never configured to facilitate the emergence of a nation. Structural inequalities were foisted on it to create a permanent state of flux, crises and disputations among its various stakeholders, big and small.
That was why, barely five years after independence the quarrels boiled over when the first military coup took place on January 15th 1966. Because the coup failed, it was later rationalised and branded an “Igbo coup”, based on which the course of action taken against the Igbo people between 1966 and 1970 by the federal coalition led by the North with the technical support of ex-colonial authorities, the UK, took place.
Let us assume (without necessarily conceding) that indeed the first coup was an Igbo coup. The question I would like us to reflect upon is this: which of the subsequent coups, attempted coups and even transitions from military to civilian regimes were “national” events? Sectional forces simply took over and foisted their narrow interests upon the rest of the country as “national” interests.
At no time did any leader who emerged sit down to creditably and patriotically carry every section of the country along. Even the 1999 hand over of power to General Olusegun Obasanjo by the North was meant to serve northern interests of burying June 12 and returning power back to the North.
As Chimamanda noted in the above quote-line, Nigerians will always remember 1966 to 1970 differently. Some Nigerians experienced the pain of war and lost everything. They came out of the trenches and were plunged into forty years of exclusion (marginalisation) from strategic involvement in the affairs of state.
Some Nigerians gained ascendancy, besides not even knowing what the war being fought in Eastern Nigeria was like. Some took what the Igbo fled from and fed fat on it for thirty years before they were rudely told they could not be president.
Smaller groups, which were happy to be part of the mob, in their euphoria of being “liberated” fought to “keep Nigeria One” only to find out they were mere pawns. Smaller groups from the North tried to assert their right to power but were always brutally and bloodily silenced both in the military and now in their churches while they worship and in their homes while they sleep.
For smaller groups in the South, it was their oil that the ruling class descended upon; the very true reason for which foreign powers ensured the war was fought and Igbos bumped out of reckoning.
Today, the only thing we Nigerians remember in the same light is that the country has been ruined by the post-war ruling class, who imposed mass poverty on the country, particularly the more culturally vulnerable northern masses.
And the angry, though misguided youth, has responded with militancy, terrorism, violent crimes and general disobedience to the post-war ruling class and their agents. The post-war ruling class simply factored their permanent interests into the system before handing over, just as their colonial predecessors had.
They ossified their interests in a difficult-to-amend presidential constitution which was updated in 1999. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 is still very much Decree No 24 of 1999, despite the cosmetic amendments and charade of grassroots public hearings towards its further amendment.
I have said it before, and I say it again: we need to allow the Nigerian people to draft unto themselves a new constitution that will remove traces of colonial and military self-interests; a constitution that will break with the past 99 years of external and internal imperialism; a constitution that will help us build a new nation where no one is oppressed.
Nigeria must never enter the second century in 2014 without it.