By Ochereome Nnanna
FROM time to time, things happen and provide us the platform to interrogate Nigeria’s chequered history and relive its bitter impact on one section or the other of the country. When, about a year ago, Professor Chinua Achebe joined his ancestors, the system virtually exploded. His views in his last book: There Was a Country, portrayed Achebe’s views about the ways the nation handled the events before, during and after the Biafra/Nigeria war. It became an occasion to reopen an old wound, which, to our shock, we discovered was still sore and suppurating rather than healed even after forty three years.
The celebration of the Centenary of Nigeria’s history on Friday, February 28th 2014 by the Federal Government was another opportunity to go down the blood-spattered memory lane of our history, particularly the stretch of it that brought about startling changes, which we are still experiencing till date. We will come to it shortly. Let me do the first things first.
The Federal Government published a list of 100 Nigerians it said were “outstanding” in the roles they played in the first 100 days of Nigeria’s existence. Of course, that list is the opinion of the Federal Government under President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. Perhaps, if another person had the privilege of occupying that position today, there might be slight variations. I daresay that the 100 “outstanding” Nigerians who will be celebrated by Diaspora Nigerians on June 27th 2014 at the Waltham Forest Town Hall, London, will definitely parade starkly different set of awardees.
The word: “outstanding” can be confusing, even misleading. Everybody on that list was outstanding, indeed; but that is not the same thing as being “saintly”. Those who criticised some individuals there probably felt that a person ought to be outstanding in a positive way to make the list. But then again, the word: “positive” can also become contentious. For instance, under the subhead: “Outstanding Promoters of Unity, Patriotism and National Development”, all nine names except the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua, were retired military generals, all nine names were also former presidents or heads of state except Lt Gen TY Danjuma.
These were people who plotted coups against our democracy, committed war crimes during the civil war, promoted sectional domination, misruled Nigeria to destitution, institutionalised corruption and looted our economy. These were people who destroyed the basis of our national unity now being branded as “promoters” of patriotism and national development simply because they found themselves at the helm of the nation’s affairs.
The most annoying name on that list is that of TY Danjuma, the man who, in a fit of regional revenge, abducted and butchered his own Supreme Commander, General Aguiyi-Ironsi. Danjuma, who is enjoying the fruits of his “labour” is a proud owner of oil blocks who has become so rich that he does not know what to do with his money. Yet, Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, the man who performed an outstanding demonstration of honour, principle, patriotism and sacrifice, by offering his life in defence of his Supreme Commander and guest, Ironsi, was omitted. Well, it is said that who win wars write histories.
This list is the history written by counter-coupists of July 1966 who promoted pogroms in Northern Nigeria, committed genocides during the civil war and went on to seize the oil resources of the former Eastern Region and Niger Delta. They can afford to thump their chests and declare themselves ”patriots”, even though in their forty one years of misrule they sowed poverty, disease, destitution, corruption, violent crimes, religious conflicts and ethnic hatred. They left behind a nation that lacked basic things like power, refineries, good roads, functional hospitals, viable educational system and what have you.
The families of the late human rights activist, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) distanced themselves from the list, saying it was Babangida; one of the “promoters of patriotism and national development” who exposed their patriarch to the dangers that led to his eventual demise. The Ransom-Kuti’s demanded an apology first for the killing of their grandmother, Mrs. Funmilayo by Obasanjo’s “Unknown soldiers” ordered by Danjuma to burn Fela’s “Kalakuta Republic”. Both Fela and mum made the 100 names, and so did Obasanjo and Danjuma. What an irony!
Professor Wole Soyinka is not a stranger to rejection of awards from the Nigerian governing establishment. He has done so twice in the past. But this time, he considered being lumped into the same list with the late General Sani Abacha as a “national insult” he was not willing to partake of. He calls Abacha a “murderer and thief of no redeeming quality”. In a rage, two of Abacha’s children went on the social media and hurled insults back at Soyinka, and mounted a spirited defence of their father. While Sadiq Abacha told Soyinka that his days as the pioneer Chairman of the Federal Roads Safety Corps (FRSC) was not exactly spotless as it witnessed the “misuse” of funds, Gumsu said she was withdrawing her respect for the Nobel Laureate.
Sadiq and his sister coming in stout defence of their demised father is understandable. What else should they do? It was for their sake that Abacha stashed away those billions. Ironically, as they badmouthed Soyinka, the United States government announced it was confiscating yet another $458 million Abacha loot. A Justice Department source, who disclosed that the funds were stashed in bank accounts in Britain, France and Jersey, described Abacha as “one of the most notorious kleptocrats in memory, who embezzled billions from the Nigerian people while millions lived in poverty”.
The Abacha family is insulated from the shame of their father’s place in Nigeria’s history because General Abacha is still regarded as a hero in many parts of Arewa North. In fact, even some southerners sometimes remember some of the good things the dictator did while alive. Though he hanged Ogoni activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the people of erstwhile backwater areas like Bayelsa, Ebonyi, Ekiti, Nasarawa, Gombe and Zamfara States are still grateful to the man for giving them their own states to enable them develop their homelands with federal allocation. Abacha is also remembered for creating the six geopolitical zones, which are now seen as potentially more viable federating units than the 36-state structure. Abacha aficionados point to the exploits of the defunct Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) which, even though it was used to enrich northern technocrats and unfairly site a large proportion of its projects in the North under General Muhammadu Buhari, its Executive Chairman, remains much talked about almost twenty years after.
Whether some of these Abacha gestures were by design or default, the fact remains that when he suddenly died on June 8th 1998, the whole nation erupted in jubilation as though Nigeria had won the FIFA World Cup. Abacha was set to remove his uniform and impose himself as president for life just before he died. He would have turned Nigeria into another Togo, Gabon and Syria, where sons inherited the presidency from their fathers. Nigerians would have lived under the servitude of the Abacha family till goodness knows when.
Abacha took Northern hegemony to its worst extreme and was ready to make war on Yorubaland to do to it what was done to the East and the Ogonis. After the fall of Abacha, the military – and the North whose interests they were pushing socio-politically and economically – became unpopular, and power shifted to the South. Power shift was the only thing that stood between Nigeria and disintegration by the time Abacha’s reign of terror was over.
I think it was a good idea to mark one hundred years of Nigeria’s experience as a country. I don’t think it was a great idea naming those 100 “outstanding Nigerians”, since the country is not yet outstanding except, in most cases, for the negative reasons. Why would such a list have a place for Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, whose preaching promoted hatred between Muslims and Christians in the North, while keeping away Dr. Alex Ekwueme, the proven most above-board public officer who ever occupied the Vice Presidency as well the greatest promoter of transition to the current democracy we are practising today between 1996 and 1998? And how many are more outstanding in Nigeria’s history than Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, ex-Biafra leader and the only non-president of Nigeria to be given a national burial by the Nigerian army?