By Ochereome Nnanna
ON Sunday, December 15th 2013 at about 6.00 am, I arrived at the newly reconstructed General Aviation Terminal (GAT) of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja on my way home to begin my annual vacation. At the entrance to the departure hall, a couple of ladies smartly decked out in the charismatic uniform of the Nigerian Army, all smiles, approached me with army rosettes, offering to pin one on my shirt front. Usually, for this favour, you pay a token sum of money to support the army. The most charming military chicks around are picked for this event, which is a cherished tradition worldwide.
Instinctively, I brushed past them, not just because I was in a hurry to obtain my boarding pass to be on my way to Owerri Airport. Since I learnt about the event which it symbolises in the sad and bloody history of Nigeria, I have always shrunk from any sort of contact with the rosette and its flaunters. It brings back bitter memories which time, the greatest healer of emotional and psychological injuries, has only recently started to lay to rest after nearly fifty years. I will come back to this shortly.
After obtaining my boarding pass and checking in my luggage, I was about to get into the queue to the waiting hall when I suddenly decided to go and get the rosette. The ladies were still at their charming best when I requested for one, paid my token and went to wait for the flight to be called.
Once the Armed Forces Remembrance emblem is launched towards the end of every year, the rosette goes on “sale”. The countdown to the Armed Forces and Remembrance Day starts. In Nigeria, the event used to be staged on November 11th. In the former British Commonwealth of nations, it was simply known as the Remembrance Day to honour those who fought during the World War II. When independent Nigeria fought its own “war to keep Nigeria one”, the date was shifted to January 15th.
Now, for Nigeria as a whole, this January 15th has two sides to it: one bitter, the other one sweet. But for the section of Nigerians to which I belong, both sides of January 15th are bitter all through. Let me start with “Nigeria as a whole”. On January 15th, 1966, the army made its first foray into our political arena. The cream of the ruling party – the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) – were killed. The coup (or revolution, as its authors dubbed it) flopped, but the military was effectively in power as the civilian dispensation was completely swept out.
Soon, ethnic and religious sentiments were used to colour the way the killings were handled. It was termed an “Igbo coup”, and Igbo people were targeted for pogroms both within and outside the military barracks. A northern counter-coup was staged on July 29th 1966. Since the Federal Military Government under Col Yakubu Gowon seemed unwilling or incapable of taking steps to ensure the safety of Igbos, the Military Governor of the defunct Eastern Region, Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, yielded to pressure from his people and declared an independent Republic of Biafra. A civil war ensued between (basically) the Igbos and the North with the total backing of the rest of Nigeria, powered by Britain and most of its Western allies (except France), USSR and Egypt. On January 15th 1970, the war ended with the collapse of Biafra.
So, January 15th, for Nigeria, marks the beginning and end of an ordeal that threatened its very existence as a united nation. January 15th 1970 was a day of victory; a day when (as late singer, Sonny Okosuns put it, Nigeria “won the war of unity”.
But for those on the other side of the conflict, January 15th is a day of sorrows. Apart from ushering in massacres of defenceless and innocent Igbos in the north, and from there on to the civil war that led to the perishing of millions on both sides, it also symbolised the end of a dream. Biafra, “the Land of Freedom”, had to surrender to a mass national and international gang-up and superior firepower. It was a loss too painful to be described with words.
The most painful aspect of the January 15th phenomenon for the Igbo people was that the January 15th 1966 coup came virtually on the verge of an unfathomable economic opportunity for the defunct Eastern Region. The North had their groundnut boom; the West had their cocoa boom. Both thrived in prosperity and the East was the poorest of the regions before the war. But just before the first coup, the East was on the threshold of embracing the oil boom and would have benefited immensely as the catchment region of the boom in line with the fiscal arrangements of the 1963 constitution. The East would, by now, have been the Dubai of Africa, perhaps more!
January 15th, 1970 was, for the Igbos, the end of the shooting war and the beginning of a deeper, more insidious and evil conflict in which public policy and governmental machinery were deployed to keep them away from being relevant in the power equation. The new military class which was in charge was primarily a tool of the north with the west as their willing lackeys. Political and economic powers were centralised and neither the Igbos nor their Minority neighbours, in whose territories the oil resources were primarily situated, had a say as the oil boom enriched people far away from their region who carted its benefits to develop their home states.
The post-war Nigerian armed forces became an agent of oppression, first directed at the former Biafrans, but as other Nigerians who had played roles in the war to keep Nigeria one started asking for their shares of the loot, it was also used to pound them into the ground. The various failed coups were attempts by the Minorities of the North to assert their weight as the main cannon fodder in the war. But the Arewa-controlled army purged the alleged perpetrators mercilessly. June 12 was an attempt by a Yoruba big shot, Chief Moshood Abiola, to assert his right to rule Nigeria after he was duly voted by the electorate. The army annulled the election and murdered him in detention.
The Ogonis protested their neglect and agitated for internal autonomy to use their oil wealth to develop their land. The army rounded up nine of its leaders, including playwright, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and ignominiously hanged him.
But by 1999, the sectional Nigerian army played its last card by bringing out Olusegun Obasanjo from jail to become a surrogate president for a second time. Once he assumed office, Obasanjo rendered the sectional army into a toothless bulldog. Its capacity to plot coups and change governments on behalf of a section the country was nixed.
And since Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan assumed power, he has systematically re-professionalised the army and security agencies. It is no longer the Northern Nigerian Army but the Nigerian Army. It is no longer an ethnic or sectional cat’s paw but a dignified national institution able to defend the nation from external aggression and internal insurgency. It is now an army that any president from any part of Nigeria will feel at home to be its Commander-in-Chief. When I look at the new Nigerian Army, I can see everyone there at all levels of command, not just some people.
That is my army! And that’s why I bought the rosette.