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Denying the genocide

By Obi Nwakanma

The images posted on-line made me retch; and I have a steely stomach – what Seadogs would call “the liver” – for such things. Food tasted like tar in my mouth for days. Four young men – Lloyd Toku, Ugonna Obuzor, Chidiaka Biringa, and Tekena Erikena – were publicly lynched in Aluu village, near the campus of the University of Port-Harcourt. They were students of the University of Port-Harcourt.

The incident happened inside of two weeks of the massacre of Forty-five students at Mubi. The execution-style killing was done at midnight by “unknown gunmen” according to the reports in the media. We have certainly come to the newest low in Nigeria’s national culture of violence. The Nigerian psyche has been shaped by public violence from the street killings of “Wetie” in Western Nigeria, to the violent coups of 1966 and the genocidal war against Biafra.

These events happening at the crucial moment of Nigeria’s foundation have led to the mindless killings of today, from Maitasine to Boko Haram, from the Mubi executions to the lynching of the Aluu Four. The reason that it continues to happen is that few people have been brought to account for each occasion of the violence perpetrated in Nigeria.

We have lived in denial and in complicity, to the extent that Nigerians have become increasingly numb to the nature of violence. It is called repression. It is the product of unhealed trauma. Nigeria is a highly traumatized nation and trauma has zombified Nigerians. The greatest violence that continues to haunt Nigeria is the Nigerian civil war and the genocide against the Igbo. It is at the core of the Nigerian dilemma.

…The protesting students…and the victims

It is Nigeria’s greatest unresolved question. Chinua Achebe said so in his new book and rattled the snake of Nigerian apologists who have sought to diminish the truth. Last week I gave the example of the poet Odia Ofeimun. In a rather rambling and confusing interview in the Guardian, Ofeimun said Igbo leaders should be held responsible for the genocide against the Igbo. It is a provocative statement.

But the most concrete statement in his interview was his acknowledgement that, as a young reporter in Benin covering the Omo-Eboh “atrocities” tribunal, the “Nuremberging” of Mr. Giwa-Amu revealed the truth that the key leadership of the Midwest supported and aided the entry of the Biafrans into the Midwest. This was made quite clear by the brilliant Oxford-trained Solicitor-General of the Midwest who had been accused of abetting the Biafrans.

If the Biafrans arrived in Lagos with Banjo as was already the plan, and established a “Southern front” as agreed between Ojukwu and Awolowo; and if the Federal authorities had hearkened to the plea for a peaceful settlement even while the Biafran forces were still in the Midwest, the Nigerian question would have been different today. I feel particularly puzzled by Odia Ofeimun because poets should not support genocide. Poets who support atrocities lose their sacred authority to the convenience of affiliation.

The truth of the Igbo genocide is nonetheless unveiled between Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died and now Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country. I am less puzzled by the statement last week by Mr. Femi Okunnu, the youngest minister in the Gowon war cabinet. As a member of that cabinet Okunnu bears great responsibility, and owes Biafra babies like me profound apology, for there too was I among the picture of the dead and starving, but for the grace of God.

The federal war aim was to destroy Biafra, defeat secession and secure a surrender by all means necessary, including the use of selective annihilation. He knows that the Biafrans had accused the Nigerians of poisoning their food sources and made credible and verifiable claims. He knows that all the talks he led including the last one in Monrovia in 1969, were not aimed at making peace or feeding the Biafrans, in spite of the charade.

All that peace talk was a charade. The evidence abound. In fact as Gowon said to John J. Stremlau and quoted in his book, The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil war published by the Princeton University Press: “We were ready to talk [with the Biafrans] as long as the war continued. It was the only way to parry the threat of greater foreign intervention. As long as you talk people will wait.” It is thus extremely provocative to the victims of such violence to listen to these people defend atrocities.

Ofeimun claims that young Igbo and Yoruba intellectuals have been so affected by the narrative that they are incapable of cooperating for civic action. This is not true. The evidence of Igbo-Yoruba cooperation is everywhere. The likes of Ofeimun continue to insert the ethnic angle to the war debate by imagining Awolowo and his group embodying an entire Yoruba will. No. The Igbo do not accuse the Yoruba of war atrocities.

The Igbo emphasize individual responsibility, and for public accounting of genocide. Only those who support and defend the genocide are culpable. The Igbo argument has never been that the leadership of Biafra was made of saints, did not make mistakes, or had no failings.

The Igbo have argued against official policies that have victimized them in post-war Nigeria and the unwillingness of other Nigerians to acknowledge and make amends for the atrocity against the ethnic Igbo and thus make healing possible. The fear of the Igbo somehow has been made the beginning of wisdom in Nigeria. For a long time Biafra was a tabooed subject in Nigeria.

The late Agwu Okpanku was in fact detained in 1970 for his piece in the Renaissance titled, “Killing Biafra.” Strenuous effort was made to erase the war from Nigerian public memory – to squelch, harass and intimidate every attempt to bring to light the issue of genocide and war atrocities. Achebe has been lambasted for bringing up the issue of Biafra, and for resurrecting old animosities. Soyinka’s book, The Man Died was banned when it came out by the Gowon administration.

Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery situates the reason for such a move: “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.” But horror- atrocity is impossible to bury or forget. To keep denying Igbo genocide is to create oblivion, that indescribable state between intermittent and episodic amnesia. Nigeria needs to heal – to stop its culture of violence.

It is about time. To heal, Nigeria must come to terms with the roots of that culture of violence. Because perpetrators of atrocities against other Nigerians are never brought to account, and are sometimes defended by powerful voices, Nigeria continues to breed and reproduce mindless violence and other forms of lawlessness, like the extra-judicial killings at Aluu and the terrible executions at Mubi.


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