The angel of history and the ghost of Biafra

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By Obadiah Mailafia

WEDNESDAY, January 15, marks 50 years to the day when our tragic civil war was formally ended. That was the day that Colonel Philip Effiong and his men brought the articles of surrender to Yakubu Gowon at Dodan Barracks, Lagos. Gowon famously declared that there were”no victor, no vanquished”. January 15, 1966 was also the date the first military putsch led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu took place, setting a chain of events that culminated in a civil war that lasted from 1967 to 1970.

As a child I recall when, in the thick of night, dozens of Igbo families turned up at my parents’ modest home in the parsonage in Murya. One of the women had just put to bed. Daddy did all he could to protect them from a wicked pogrom that consumed the souls of more than a hundred thousand defenceless Igbo people. I have never seen such fear in the eyes of grown men. After barely a week, my parents received death threats. In the thick of midnight, the refugees tearfully disappeared into the bowels of the primeval savannah. Never to be seen again. Their memory still haunts me to this day.

The debate on whether the January coup was an “Igbo coup” or a nationalist uprising is a spurious binary question. The fact is, it was both. The leaders of the January putsch were Igbo: Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna and their friends were genuine patriots. But the thing was also one-sided in execution. The North felt justifiably aggrieved because their leaders were the main victims. Most of the cabinet and advisers of the new Ironsi regime were of Igbo extraction. His Decree No. 34 which created a new unitary system intensified Northern fears.

In July 1966, Northern officers struck in a “revenge coup”. Rumours had been rife that Northern officers were about to be wiped out. The lot fell on a 31-year-old colonel Yakubu (Jack) Danyumma Gowon. He confesses that he accepted the heavy yoke only after long, agonising prayers.

Destiny prepared Yakubu Gowon for the singular role of keeping our country together. The son of Anglican missionary parents born in Wusasa in 1934, he was an outstanding student of the famous Barewa College. He had intended to become an engineer or teacher, but his British teachers persuaded him to join the army. He attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst where he acquitted himself with distinction.

Gowon was engaged to an attractive young Igbo woman, with whom he has a son. Unfortunately, his colleagues told him it was impolitic to marry from the enemy. Contrary to popular misrepresentations, Yakubu Gowon never waged a genocidal war against Biafra. He saw it as a quarrel between brothers. This cannot be said of field commanders such as Murtala Mohammed and Benjamin Adekunle. But he remains remorseful about all the blood that was shed. He and Awolowo have been blamed for the economic blockade that might have cost the lives of a million Biafrans. But consider the counter-factual: what would have happened if the war had lasted for five or more years.

History will absolve Yakubu Gowon. He is the Abraham of modern Nigeria; a man of compassion, justice and restraint. God-fearing and incorruptible. He towers heads and shoulders above all our leaders, past and present. History will one day declare him to be the greatest leader this country has ever produced.

Biafra is dead, but its ghost continues to haunt our country like a phantom that refuses to go away. Ever since 1970, there has been an unwritten conspiracy that no Igbo man can be trusted to assume the high magistracy of our federal republic. It is an affront to the highly gifted Ndigbo, with their ingenuity, sagacity and can-do spirit. Part of the problem is that Ndigbo themselves have been their own worst enemies. Betrayal is common among them.

The people of the Blessed Cyprian Iwene Tansi and the venerable Cardinal Francis Arinze have become a godless people who put money before anything else. There is no guarantee that the people will still be united if they were given Biafra on a platter. Their presumptuous attitudes have also alienated the Ijaw and other South-South minorities who do not want to hear the name of Biafra. I am sorry to be so harsh. I speak as a friend of Ndigbo. Only a genuine friend can tell you unpalatable home truths.

Biafra was a tragic misadventure. Neither Gowon nor Ojukwu expected what they regarded as a skirmish to end up in a war that took the lives of millions. But then it is in the nature of human conflict that it is capable of assuming a dynamic of its own while moving into unforeseen directions. Ojukwu’s ego stood on the way of a genuine settlement. He saw himself as this golden boy from a wealthy family who drove a Rolls Royce as an Oxford undergraduate. He saw Gowon as an ignorant peasant boy from the rustic backwaters of the North. He under-estimated the man to his tragic discomfiture. A man with a lion heart, Gowon spoke little but carried a big stick.

Ojukwu took his people on a tragic misadventure in the single-minded pursuit of personal power. With such great constitutional theorists as Kalu Ezera, Edwin Nwogugu and B. O. Nwabueze, why didn’t Biafra operate a viable constitution? Was Biafra just another African autocracy anchored on personal rule? Was it true that Nzeogwu was set up to be killed at the war front because he was seen as a threat? Were Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Victor Banjo, Philip Alale and Sam executed because they differed with Ikemba on political policy? Why did he abandon his people at their hour of defeat in such a cowardly manner?

Albert Einstein observed that “God does not play dice with the universe”. God did not make mistake in placing the Igbo people among us. There is no one to rival their commercial acumen. My own people always say that wherever you go and you don’t find Igbo people there, leave the place immediately! Nigeria will not be Nigeria without Ndigbo.

I can understand the anger of Nnamdi Kanu and his IPOB movement. A jihadist government that operates on the basis of exclusion and virulent discrimination provides a rationale for resistance and rebellion. Matthew Hassan Kukah, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, is right when he says that our government has created the atmosphere that provides fertile ground for the murderous activities of Boko Haram. Ndigbo continue to suffer disproportionately whenever some Northerners resume the madness of their ritual bloodbaths.

This coming Wednesday I will kneel down before every Igbo man and woman I meet and I will ask him or her to forgive us for the horrendous crimes we have committed against them and against God and Humanity. The ghost of Biafra will not go to rest until we treat Ndigbo with fairness and justice.

In the words of the German-Jewish literary theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin: “His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, and his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.

“The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress”.


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