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Fifty years of unheeded civil war lessons

Published by The Nation on Sat, 18 Jan 2020

By UnderTowIt is difficult to gauge just how sincerely Nigerians have conducted their annual talk festival on the lessons learnt from the civil war that began in 1967 and ended in 1970. But 50 years of such reflections, and despite an avalanche of organised symposia and intervening ethnic and religious skirmishes presaging danger, nothing concrete has been done to come to terms with the past, let alone understand the present or prepare for the future. The emphasis has always, it seems, been on economic development, almost as if the problems that led to the war could be framed wholly as an economic issue, or that once development occurs and is guaranteed, disagreements and misunderstandings would pale into insignificance.In the circumstance, neither development, at least on a level that satisfies the ambiguous criteria of peace, nor concrete and sensible steps have been taken to resolve the issues that divide the country and predispose it to instability. In early January 1967, after about six tumultuous months of fierce disagreement between the countrys ruling military elite, a conference was agreed for Aburi, Ghana, to tackle the misunderstanding between ethnic groups and find a way to restore peace that was lost after the coup and countercoup of 1966. The two coups were in turn followed by a severe ethnic-fuelled disturbance that led to pogrom directed against the Igbo, particularly in the northern part of the country.Though three key elements, among many peripheral others, were agreed in the course of the two-day Aburi conference, neither side to the dispute appeared satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations and the capacity of the agreement to resolve the logjam and broken trust that lingered after the coups.But despite the misgivings, the Yakubu Gowon regime still promulgated Decree 8 of 1967 to enact a far-reaching accommodation and resolution of the grievances enunciated by Emeka Ojukwu, the then Military Governor of the Eastern Region and eventual leader of the Biafra secessionist bid. It was reasoned at the time that as short-sighted as Decree 8 was, it actually largely satisfied the Igbo demands for the restoration of peace. But Col Ojukwu and his men thought otherwise.However, regardless of the failure of both the Aburi Accord and Decree 8 to restore peace and realign the country for stability and development, it was expected that after exhausting themselves in a needless war between 1967 and 1970, the countrys leaders would find ways of coming to terms with the causes and lessons of the civil war, and more crucially find a closure.Sadly, not only was that conciliatory spirit lacking in the 1960s in the heat of the upheavals that shook the republic, it was also lacking in the 1970s after the war, and is now even more lacking five decades later. The country, today, has seemed to be restored to the acrimonious default setting of the 1960s, and the disagreements between ethnic groups and religions, not to say the lack of real enthusiasm to talk peace and find solutions, have become exacerbated.Since 1970 and about five military regimes later, and an interim government and four elected presidents soon after, the culture of imposition and aversion to real democratic fundamentals have been embarrassingly evident. Worse, there is an abiding failure to understand the nature and content of the issues that predispose the country to paroxysms of rage and disagreements.Both failings are capped by a lack of leadership imagination and vision regarding what should be done to arrest the continuous drift to the precipice, and how urgent the problems confronting the country are. Consequently, and as a barometer of the intensity of the problems facing the nation, worried members of the leadership elite have warned darkly of war and the impossibility of surviving a second civil war. No one seems to pay heed.Indeed, in the past few years, the problems have worsened. Not only do the Igbo still consider themselves alienated, whether they brought it upon themselves or not, the bitterness they still nurse is seething and acidic. In addition, the power struggle that engendered animosity and deadly display of violence between ethnic groups in the 1960s is still a poignant reminder to the intractability of todays politics.Its resilience as a factor in destabilising the national ethos calls for intensive engagements between the groups and between classes. It meant that the country was yet to find a solution to its complex challenges, and the solution, as it is becoming more evident by the day, is partly or even essentially structural. In any case, it calls for discussions, for understanding, for patienceanything but living in denial and assuming incomprehensibly that the country could conceivably be cajoled into peace. If 50 years could not engender peace, why would the elite imagine that they need more time, or that they have not already run out of time'There have been debates in recent years over which political system between the Westminster model and presidential system would best serve the interest of a multiethnic and multireligious society like Nigeria. There have also been passionate discussions about whether the country could be restructured without jeopardising unity and peace. Such debates will continue until Nigerian leaders summon the courage to convoke a realistic forum to frontally tackle the issues that divide and weaken the country. The independence constitution was not perfect, but it is even harder to surmise, in light of recent experience, that constitutions since then have met the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians.The countrys leaders must summon the courage and wisdom to honestly examine the system they think they are running, whether it is a federal system or a unitary system. They must then proceed to determine whether it is not possible to find a constitutional and structural balance, or even an entirely new system, to void the feeling of alienation by any part of the country.Maintaining the status quo is absolutely not an option. The Northeast has erupted in insurgency and widespread banditry; the Southeast is in ferment; and by deliberate provocation, the government at the centre is nudging the Southwest into revolt. It is much better to acknowledge that things are not working than to be forced to find answers to the destabilisation erupting in different parts of the country. Once the government loses the initiative, it will be difficult to regain it.But it seems that the government is proceeding from the flawed premise that the bloodletting and sufferings that accompanied the civil war do not constitute enough deterrence to another conflagration. It does not, unhappily. As recent events have shown in all parts of the country, the dire and unstable situation is not being ameliorated; it is getting worse. There is no way the government can restore peace in both the rural and urban spaces of Nigeria; the problem is too deep and the fracture too unstable to answer to the leadership elites despairing palliatives.Few among the youths are deterred by the bloodletting of the past, a fact the government may just be starting to appreciate, despite its hubris. What the government may, however, not quite appreciate is that the kind of unanimity that preceded the last war and enabled the government of the day to prosecute it does not exist anymore. Nor, if a war were to break out, could any section of the country hope in this day and age to win it, given the strategic and tactical options available to potential rebels. These national shortcomings impose a great obligation upon the leaders to find and nurture the basis of Nigerian unity, rather than unwisely assume that it cannot or must not be questioned or challenged.Disturbingly, the contradictions in the country, like the dispute over the legality of Operation Amotekun, a Southwest instrument to tackle banditry and criminality in the region, are beginning to rear their heads. If the federal government glosses over the problems and continues to portray itself as a defender and promoter of sectional interest, a fresh misunderstanding as to the interpretation of the constitution may not be far-fetched.Inch by inch, and step by step, the government could start to lose credibility as well as the neutrality it sorely needs to mediate disagreements within the polity. And, who knows, apocalypse might just be around the corner, indeed much nearer than imagined. The time to talk and do something about the differences in the country is now. It is strange that 50 unstable and boisterous years after the war is not nearly a long time enough to encourage Nigerian leaders to lose all their inhibitions and take firm remedial measures to restructure and realign the country for great achievements. Is it just fear or foolishness' Or both
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