Utomi, war, civil war
Professor Pat Utomi

I want to crave your indulgence to begin with a seemingly unrelated issue.

War is a horrible experience. I have experienced it, watched it in movies and read about it in books. But not all wars involve guns and bombs. Some deploy only words, yet they can be as devastating. Our country is embroiled in one right now. It is on account of that I will crave your indulgence, to begin with a seemingly unrelated caveat.

Nigeria is losing whole generation to unemployment

I often get coopted unto assignments, as I know the Co-chairs will know from meetings they have been part of, some of which I have hosted. For me these things are duty and I take some as honorary because of the punishing schedule that I, unfortunately, impose on myself. So when the leadership of NzukoUmunna asked that I be part of the committee to organize activities around 50 years of the end of the Nigerian civil war I did not anticipate that I would end up being drafted unto a co-keynote role. When that turned out being alongside Professor Wole Soyinka, the first thing that struck me was the two biggest victims of Fake news in our part of the world being asked to engaged a highly nuanced subject.

Yes, we are at war on public conversation. The theft of the identity of others whose names then get used to say things others want said, is so pervasive, and a few people, so unfortunately targets of this, that it requires an aprior disclaimer.

In recent months I have seen conjectures credited to me, then generating ad hominen tirades from agents of those who think those created stories affect their interests.

Sometimes, it is something written by some other person whose name is deleted and mine attached. At other times it’s more sophisticated in that they say you have said what you could say but have not said, so when you deny that you said it, it seems you hold to contrary position. I have even come to believe that it is those who begin attacking the person, who created the original fake news, so they can abuse the person who they have been waiting for an opportunity to insult, just so they can prevent that person’s voice in public space when they do what they want to do later.

You get so angry at these things you feel like supporting one of these bills seeking to criminalize fake news. But you realize a greater evil lurks in such a law. Sometimes, you really feel trapped. Not long ago I issued a statement that anything not from two or three Newspapers of record reported to be from me were probably 90 percent of dubious authenticity.

When Prof. Soyinka expresses similar frustration, I feel a certain kindred spirit. Fortunately for me I long ago made a point of ignoring conversation on persons rather than issues.

For an experience like the civil war from which we can learn much so that this experience never occurs again it is even more important that we speak in greater candor but that the nuances be heard write so good rather than obfuscation, and further seeds of discord, be the outcome.

With that said I would like therefore to pay tribute to the human spirit which allows broken men and women to overcome the anguish of war and construct new lives, after. With the Nigerian civil war there were saints and sinners, and there were heroes and traitors. It is not possible to talk about the war without talking about the kind of emotion in Kakadu – the musical. I remember cries of pain and gratitude in surulere, Lagos where I was when the war ended as I got ready to return to school in Ibadan. People returning from war after fleeing Lagos nearly four years earlier realizing that their Yoruba neighbour had rented out their house and dutifully saved the rent paid so that instead of £20 that was exchanged for what value they had in Biafra they had four years rent to begin again with.

Gratitude in all things to the creator and human solidarity which allowed foreigners from far, French Doctors like Bernard Kouchner, Global charities like CARITAS and neighbours near and far who helped ameliorate miseries almost unprecedented in modern human experience.

Why does it matter to reflect on that experience and 50 years since?

I think this initiative has value because war is horrible and anything that enables people learn enough from its experience to make them seek not to repeat it, does humanity a great favour. Allied to this is that managing the cessation of hostility will determine how people heal and whether it is easy to capitalize on old wounds. Few doubt that the nature of the peace treaty that ended World War I paved the way for a Hitler to emerge and made a more terrible War II to happen.

War creates its psychosis and that can affect culture in a way that people may not become immediately aware of but this may affect fundamentally a people’s way. Why, for example, were Ndigbo typically considered modest, even stereotyped as stingy, before the war, and in the post-war era have become more voluble, extravagant and showy, with significant consequences for Emotional Intelligence. I have a host of theories on that but those will not be for today.

We also need to reflect determine why war has brought scientific and allied material (commercial) progress to many societies but our scientific gains and innovation capacities remain stunted after a war in which giant scientific strides were made in the more challenged, in Biafra.

I am also very keen to reflect on the build-up to the war and factors that need to be managed differently drawing from the lessons embedded. One of great interest is emotive propaganda a worse variant of which seems increasingly to gain currency in these times.

I say frequently that the most primitive Public Sphere is one in which instead of focusing on issues and how approaching an issue differently can advance the course of society and instead, get consumed in ad hominen response that simply hopes to strip the person who has expressed a view different from the way we see the world, of their dignity.

The media of 1966/67 was dominated by such. I have faced such many times. Asked once how I deal with it I laughed. It comes from a deep down inside sense of who I am. Philosophically I see myself just a little more than nothing except for the gift of the creator’s breath in me if anything gives me measure it is my purpose. So once if I can focus on availability for the purpose I have embraced for my time of being, and there is rectitude of intention regarding my purpose, which has always been how people can cooperate to advance a just common welfare, I hardly notice the abuser. I had also long learnt to see the person who leaves the point I am and focuses on what he thinks are my imperfections as fit only for being ignored. He has rushed to the last refuge of the scoundrel.

But not many can ignore scoundrels with the spirit I have been gifted to. So a situation where public conversation is like the Goebbels pitch in World War II can be a quick path to destruction of the most precious gift of all human life with numbers that are numbing.

Revisiting Wars, such as this one can also help us find heroes that inspire to do yesterday’s impossible. Like the pilots that flew in and out of Uli-Ihiala Air Strip with literally seconds of light at night, or the Missionary Doctors, citizens that hid friends or strangers in their roofs to save their lives. These visits to a place of memory can also tell us who we are that we may know who we can become.

The word genocide entered the lexicon of the modern age from activism around the fate of Armenians in Central Europe in the early parts of the 20th Century.

In January 1997 on a very cold winter morning in Boston Massachusetts I arrived the offices of what was once the greatest newspaper in the world, The Christian Science Monitor to meet with its editors as an old friend of the house who as a graduate student in the United States between 1978-1982 contributed News Feature Articles to the Christian Science Monitor. But my vision was simple, to canvas support for a personal project, getting the International community to recognize that many weak states lack within their boundaries, institutions that can result in justice on matters quite grave, regarding a universal value, the dignity of the human person.

After my presentation at the Christian Science Monitor, in which I called for two permanent International Criminal Courts, one, a criminal court to try perpetrators of Genocide; the other to face Economic crimes, I hope the world would listen. The second was to try leaders who either through corruption or deliberate pauperizing policies, leave many in poverty or deprived of the resources or jobs that can raise their human dignity.

I did not get the warmest of reception to the ideas I canvased. I was told I was a touch idealistic. But I took it that I hit a raw nerve.

In the famous book The Four Theories of the Press, the Americans Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm concluded that press systems were basically reflective and supportive of Governmental philosophies within where they operate. Some in America were worried that such a court could be used to threaten the activities of US troops abroad.

A year and half after I left that Boston meeting, precisely on July 17, 1998, 120 nations answered half of my prayers. On that day in Rome, they signed the Rome Statute for an International Criminal Court. With that decision, for the first time in the history of mankind, the world accepted the idea of a Permanent International Criminal Court which brings about from July 1, 2002, a Permanent International Criminal Court for the purpose of ending impunity in War and outside of war, grave crimes against our shared dignity as humans, though acts of Genocide.

A number of paradoxes and ironies strike me about that Boston visit of 1997. When I began my personal campaign for an International Criminal Justice system, I was motivated by work on Institutions and Economic performance. I hardly gave any thought to what happened in Biafra which I had experienced, even though the Nigerian Civil War was possibly second only to the Jewish Holocaust under Hitler, in terms of the terrible Genocides of the 20th Century that pushed the world to pass the Rome Statute.

The second irony is that I have never managed to feel bitter about the Nigerian Civil War, even though I had so many direct effects of it. Perhaps a recall of a small bit of the direct effects will show what is peculiar that I was more motivated by a worry that impunity on the part of the politically powerful in Africa was resulting in abuses that sullied the environment of business and assured that progress and poverty eradication will be slow coming than by justice from my own experience.

My experience is actually graphic and good material for a movie script. It started before the civil war proper. The riots in Northern Nigeria that became a pogrom followed the military coup of 1966.

On the last Sunday of May in 1966, I was on a train returning to Gusau in the deep North West. While I was traveling towards Gusau my family had gone to worship at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. Protesting Military Rule and calling for a break up of Nigeria the indigenous people there invaded the church in the middle of Holy Mass. With chants of Araba, Aware. Ba mu asomilikin soldier, they attached worshipers. My mother’s arm was broken in the attack.

When I arrived Gusau, the Train Station was deserted. As I got off the Train I could see my father’s Blue Peugeot 404 across the road on the street. Beside him was his double-barreled hunting gun. I thought it peculiar he was going hunting. Instead of entering the station he waved me over.

The story gets more bizarre from there. A week later we left from the Gusau Aerodrome on a chartered light Aircraft. The image of anxious and desperate people not as fortunate as us, because my father worked for British Petroleum, who chased after that light aircraft lifting us to Kaduna, haunted me for years.

Those experiences resulted eventually in the outbreak of civil war. I was a student at Christ the Kings College in Onitsha when in July 1967 the shooting war began. A few months after, Nigeria Federal Forces advancing into Asaba capped a slaughter of Ibos that left a trail from Benin, Warri and across the Midwest, with cold blooded execution of thousands who had gathered to sing songs of welcome to the troops. I have a friend who survived by playing dead under weight of his father and brother who were cut down and lost their lives as the bullets rained down their lethal power and blood soaked the white celebration “otogwu” they all wore. When darkness came he got up from under the bodies and made for the bush.

I had managed myself to cross from Onitsha, where I was in school, after discussions with my uncles on what was best. The oldest of my male cousins signed up with the Biafra Army. We never saw him alive again. I crossed the Niger by canoe in the cover of darkness. And never saw again the uncle I had discussed what I was best to do. On the other side, a few miles from the killing fields of Asaba, the people had fled the towns into the bush where nomadic life seemed safer. My Grandfather, a World War II veteran in his 70s saw no reason to do so.

An eye witness saw a teenage soldier use him for target practice, abandoning his corpse in the front porch of his small house.

I was “captured” coming out of the bush to cross the road. We were lined up, men to the left, women to right. This pre-execution routine in the Asaba massacre. Then something happened.

Another group of Federal soldiers caught up with the ones asking us “where are ze rest of ze rebels” before the execution of the men. I still recall I felt no fear, no horror, just resigned to fate. The newly arrived troops challenged our captor and a fight broke out between them. We ended up in the Refugee camp at St. Patricks College Asaba. A few weeks later I was reunited with my family in Lagos, and enrolled in school in Ibadan. So for half of the civil war I viewed it from a telescope from far away Ibadan and Lagos.

I get a big sense of dejavous when I hear people talk about the insurgency in the Northeast of Nigeria today, in Lagos, like a distant nuisance. That was how we came to see the rest of the civil war from Lagos. Take away Radio and TV reporting of its mingled with the motivation military song and the calls on General Gowon to (Go on with one Nigeria), Biafra was a far off foreign war, in Lagos.

Having had the privilege not too many had of seeing it from inside Biafra, in the theatre from the other side, and far from the theatre, my memories of the war are typically broader than those of many of my contemporaries. In it must be rooted my passions surely. But I have never managed to fully understand why I have never felt any bitterness. Realizing that I canvased for an international system of justice without thinking of justice for the second-worst genocide of the 20th century shook me, after the Rome statutes were passed.

But I could begin to rationalize it as I reflected years after. Having seen it from all sides, even so young in my teens. Through the course of my life’s journey, I have been routinely described as passionately Nigerian. Why and how is it possible that I don’t feel pain or anger of what I had experienced so personally.

It is perhaps because seeing things from all sides enabled me discover a shared humanity abused by the ambition a few powerful people whose egos wasted million lives.

If for me the first of the harvest of paradoxes of the Nigerian civil war is my “failure” to be bitter the second has to be Nigeria’s inability to learn lessons from an unnecessary war from which we were all vanquished.

The slogan from this time, 50 years ago was “No victor no vanquished”. But that motto is a lie we were all greatly diminished, all vanquished by it and today act like we would like to be all vanquished again, not necessary from the territory called Biafra but from Nigeria writ large.

Nigeria’s inability to have learnt and institutionalized lessons from the civil war is perhaps one of the greatest cases of leadership failure in modern human history. Even that is a paradox. The end of civil war was marked by some great leadership initiatives.

Yes, there may be reason to quarrel with £20 as the optimum value for what people brought from Biafra but the idea of No Victor Vanquished and the 3Rs of Reconciliation, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction propelled a momentum of healing unprecedented in conflict termination. Politically, the presence and role of UkpabiAsika, in the Gowon team and the elections of 1997 set a remarkable pace.

I was fortunate as a young person to be named to a Presidential Advisory Role in the Shagari government. Being quite precocious I enjoyed ambushing President Shagari when he came out from his office, to smoke. With Abba Daboh, his Chief Press Secretary, we would chat him up on issues. That enabled me see a Nationalist that Press Reports seldom threw up.

It was no surprise that those who removed President Shagari brewed a poisoned chalice which so many years later has brought Nigeria more divided today than it was during a civil war thought to have been Genocidal.

Had Dr. Alex Ekwueme served as President of Nigeria in 1987 the ghost of the civil war would have been buried for good. But those who overthrew President Shagari have wittingly or and unwittingly continued to resurrect the ghost of Biafra, discussions in the North Central, issues of religious freedom or it lack, deepening poverty and so on, as a result of poor leadership.

These have cumulated in deep distrust in society. These distrusts have compounded the process of policy choices and deepened the challenge of economic development and the quality of life of the Nigerian people.

Only a few days ago I was writing about this distrust in a chapter for a new book I am currently working on. What I wrote should be of interest here.

To summarize my thoughts there, I was making the point about trust between stakeholder groups including those who govern and those who are governed. Noted that there is a problem of cynical youth who dismiss everybody in the arena as either a thieve or driven only by self-interest because of the examples they see, the limitation in their own ability to have sound rational public conversation of the type Jurgen Habermas, the contemporary German philosopher considers necessary for the Public Sphere in modern democracy. Included is the fact that  their education is challenged, compared to what many of us were exposed to as undergraduates; and the problem of media economics and state capture which has constrained freedom of expression in today’s media; and even creeping forces of fascism and medieval thinking in many people in positions of political power at a time when Nigerians are faced with a grab for raw power and money from politicians as they have never seen before, in the face of weaker institutions and diminishing checks and balances in the system of social organization in place. All these contribute to this environment of distrust.

Once I arrived Lagos in 1968 all we were concerned with was James Brown’s records and partying. It was hard to tell who was Igbo, Yoruba or Kanuri for that matter. But today, even without a war going on a visit to social media unveils a flow of vitriol and hate speech that you wonder.

So why did we party across the so-called divides when a shooting war Was on and the youth of today are really shooting at each other in a time of peace and Democracy. And how did that affect how many   in my generation who suffered so much from the horrors of war never become so embittered and those who were born decades after the war hate so much on all sides, North vs West; North vs East; East verse West etc.

In my view, a huge failure of leadership is responsible.


I recalled being interviewed the two days after   the Coup of December 31, 1983, by the New York Times Correspondent Clifford May III. That interview reported in the New York Times of January 8, 1984 quoted me as saying that those who sacked Shagari Government may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Whereas in the Balkans hatreds from communal feuds can go for a thousand years with   vendettas and Civil Wars from one generation to another many in Nigeria forget the horrors of the war because of the leadership of Gowon and Shagari teams. As I said earlier, had the coup of   1983 not disrupted the flow and Dr. Ekwueme had become President in 1987 the Ghost of Biafra would have been buried for good.

Post Shagari national leadership was in constant equivocation about the Nigerian experience and tried to bury memories rather than profit from lessons it threw up.

Let look at examples elsewhere. War often puts pressure on science to help facilitate waging war. This usually results in technology that is transformed into wealth creation. The Americans became a significant commercial power from the science of World War II by appropriating German Science and Scientists in addition to their own. In Biafra, PRODA, the project research and development Agency advanced innovation after war we failed to convert.

Rwanda is speeding ahead on many fronts because it confronted its demons after the Genocide and built that remarkable memorial which recalls the horrors of the experience in vioid color, audio, video, and scripting, so that it can be visited after often enough to reinforce the clarion call of Never Again.  But leadership in Nigeria failed to do such and decades after continues to treat   the South East as occupied Territory.

It is leadership that points a way forward from such experiences. The absence of such leadership in contemporary Nigerian experience, compared to Paul Kagame in Rwanda has left us with so much agro animosity among young people.

To move forward we must begin to rethink the current form of   socio-political and economic organization in Nigeria. It is possible to think and act win-win and elevate the dignity of all. With a modus Vivendi that looks that way I have no doubt that Nigeria will ultimately live the dream of its founding fathers that current Nigeria offers.


The critical question is why does Nigeria wobbles so badly in spite of experience that should be driving it forward and what can be done about it.  I think we can list the reasons to include:

  1. A mistaken view that Nigeria is about how   much more you can extract from the national   cake. A cake to eat makes poor tomorrow but producing makes rich always. Check out Spain experience in history for illustration.
  2. Merit matters. Nigerian essence sadly has become about the democratization of mediocrity. Affirmative action that some are educationally backward has been abused for excessive cronyism that has devalued the Nigeria way and its institutions and made corruption the purpose of public life.
  3. The collapse of culture which has reduced human purpose to primitive accumulation of power and money often through criminal privatization of the commonwealth has hurt Nigeria badly. Public life must become about service and advanced of the Common Good.
  4. The loss of a sense for the principle of subsidiarity that government and Authority be decentralized so it is at levels closet to the people where they can feel it be able to hold it accountable.

A distant government in some far off place like Abuja; Alausa or Enugu creates a moral distance in the civic culture which Peter Ekeh captures well in his essay on the Two Public. It has made corruption endemic.

  1. The overburdening of people by an   expensive and pompous state. Government needs to be cheaper, simpler, more ethical and more sensitive to extent circumstances.
  2. The thinking, learning, projecting, and planning state as an imperative of   this age.  We live in a time of the Fourth Industrial revolution but the government of Nigeria cannot seem to plan because of a mismatch   of talents, values, and purpose. So the country flounders.
  3. The Grand Norm must be rewritten and political party systems reformed.


If the ghost of Biafra is not to return.  And it does not have to be from the South East. Some books titles are telling here.  ChidoOnuma’s tell us we are all Biafrans now. Another tells us that Biafra, Africa died. If the ghost of Biafra which can rise   from frustrated youth in the South West, Niger Delta, and several parts of the North who were the first to call for the breakup of Nigeria in the charts of Arab, Aware; is   not   to rise we have to urgently develop a work programme to tackle these several points Nigeria may suffer much from facing to learn from the lessons of the civil war.  May God help us as we try. The slogan that Nigeria must be one and indivisible is meaningless in contemporary logic. The Americans have enshrined the right to secede in their own constitution but few expect a move for secession that will succeed. That provision, however, pressures those in power to act to advance the good of all.

The principle of non- interference in the internal affairs of countries which took root in the Peace of Westphalia after 100years of religious wars in Europe in 1648 set the tone for the basic of this inviolable right to keep Nigeria one. But the   Genocides of the 20th century set the human community on a different course. Beginning with the universal declaration of human Right of the UN the right of self-determination began   to short the fore.

APC, Buhari are threats to national unity – PDP

Political   Parties and leadership orientation must be such that   politicians know that if they do not act justly people will be justified to seek to leave   that Union. Just like divorce was unheard of a hundred years ago in the America family but is now the norm, self-determination is the rising norm in Nation States. Constitutions, Political Parties and Governance must reflect that.


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