In 1991, while “surfing” the cable network in my living room in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, I happened onto a rare TV documentary on the Nigerian civil war. I refer to the film as “rare” because until then, I had never seen anything on video that recorded any aspect of the civil war. This is not to say that there is none. But I had never, (and still have never) seen another film – an actual footage – of the war.
A few years later (1999), when the genocide in Kosovo got to a head and I had to go there and see the carnage for myself, I began to connect the dots between the Nigerian civil war footage that I saw and the plights of the Kosovars that were being ethnically cleansed from the old Yugoslavia. But what brought the picture closer home for me was the Rwandan genocide, where the victims were black, like the Igbo people of Nigeria.
Prior to watching that documentary, I never could understand the anger (sometimes concealed and sometimes very obvious) of many of my Igbo friends, at the rest of Nigeria, and particularly at the Yoruba people, of which extraction I belong. We would engage each other in interminable debates about how the Igbos were marginalized (their position), and how they had equal opportunities as any other ethnic group in Nigeria (my position).
But after seeing the documentary, I “wised” up rather quickly. At the unintended risk of whipping up old sentiments, I must describe some of the gory scenes in the film.
There were burnt-down schools, hospitals, homes, farms and livestock. I saw bombed out bridges and roads. I saw children, scantily clad or completely naked, boys and girls, rummaging through debris for food and clothing, while charred dead bodies of people they knew (some of them relatives) littered their surroundings. I saw adults, many of them also scantily clad, scrapping off meat from carcasses of long dead and bloated animals. The Voice-Over in the documentary explained that many of the people ate their food raw, including the meat they got from dead animals, and that some of the victims actually had to eat meat that they knew was human.
Watching the documentary, I felt sick to my stomach. This was not a movie. The people shown were not actors and actresses. These were fellow Nigerians. This was real life between 1966 and 1970 in Eastern Nigeria when, as a young boy, I enjoyed the relative safety of my parents’ home in the Northern city of Zaria. I have since asked myself the question: if those people in the documentary had been Yoruba people; if the footage had been that of the outskirts of Ibadan, would I forgive those that unleashed such pain and degradation on my people? The answer, to tell the truth, has always been an emphatic “No.”
I know that the argument can probably be made that in war you do what you have to do to win. After all, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, knowing full well the extent of havoc it would wreak. But that was a war with foreign people – the Japanese – who shared nothing in culture with the Americans. The Igbos were (and of course, still are) brothers and sisters to the rest of Nigerians.
The pain that is inflicted on the Igbo people has continued unabated with the recent one being the wholesale massacre of Igbo people which was carried out in the North under the guise of the so-called reaction to the prophet Mohammed cartoons. News reports claimed that they killed “Christians” in the North. Rubbish. They did not kill any Yoruba Christian in the North, unless one was mistaken for Igbo. And there probably were more Yoruba Christians than there were Igbo Christians in Northern Nigeria. They killed only those that looked like they were Igbo.
What did the Igbos have to do with the cartoons? Did they sponsor the Danish and other European newspapers that published the offending images? Yet they were hacked to death by Moslems in the North. If I were an Igbo man who did not feel like I was welcomed in Nigeria in 1965, 1966, 1970, and in 1980, 1983, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2004 – all years that one excuse or the other was contrived to attempt an extermination of my people – would I feel like I was a Nigerian in 2006 when we had something akin to a pogrom going on again in the North against my people?
I now know that many of my Igbo friends, those of them in my age bracket, who had lived in the East during the war, and whose arguments I had dismissed as unreasonable, are probably the kids I saw on that film. They were better people than me for being able to maintain their sanity and contain their anger as we debated the issues, for I would have consistently lost mine.
I recall the several heated and angry arguments the Yorubas had all over their several meeting points in the US, particularly on the East Coast corridor of New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington DC and Baltimore, when Babangida annulled Abiola’s election. I recall how many calls for secession were made by otherwise reasonable Yorubas at many of the meetings and conferences I attended. As the General Secretary of the Nigeria Democratic Awareness Committee (NDAC) Baltimore Chapter, one of the numerous pro-democracy organizations before NADECO (and now PRONACO) was formed, I recall meetings attended by such highly placed Yoruba leaders like a retired 3-star general, former Federal ministers and influential social critics, during which assurances were made that the Yorubas would break away if Abiola was not allowed to rule. I recall the appearance of a world famous Nigerian playwright at an evening speaking event in a Maryland suburb hotel, during which he spoke of an impending Armageddon if Abacha did not step down for Abiola. I recall visiting Chief Enahoro, in the company of the NDAC president, at a hotel also in Maryland, where he had sought refuge after failed attempts to assassinate him by agents of Abacha for championing the de-annulment of Abiola’s election.
Putting together the activities of the Yoruba leaders as they fought for “the actualization of June 12”, I could not help but juxtapose them with the activities of Igbo leaders immediately preceding the declaration of Biafra. I was sure that had Abiola and Abacha not died, the Yorubas might have declared an Oduduwa country.
The interregnum of a Yoruba man (Ernest Shonekan) in a sham arrangement did not assuage the feelings of the Yorubas. And when Abubakar took over after Abacha’s death, the Yorubas continued to clamor for the presidency. That struggle culminated in the Obasanjo presidency.
With Obasanjo having ruled Nigeria for seven years (it will be eight if he is not impeached or overthrown by the military before 2007 – add to that the three years he ruled from 1976 to 1979 after Murtala was assassinated, and add to that Shonekan’s three months, or so), the Yorubas cannot claim to be marginalized anymore. The Hausa/Fulani cannot make a convincing case for marginalization either, having ruled Nigeria for the better part of its history. But having had none of their own rule Nigeria since Ironsi, the Igbos have a good argument if they cry marginalization.
Given the sacrifices that the Igbos have made for a better Nigeria; given the gnashing of teeth that accompanied their pogroms in the North; given the human and material waste that they suffered during the civil war, given their economic and entrepreneurial contributions and given the unflinching support that they have given to those that have ruled Nigeria since Ironsi, the Igbos should be demanding to lead Nigeria today as stridently as the Yorubas did after the annulment of Abiola’s election. It is their right and I fully support it.
However, out of sheer tepidity, most of the Igbo politicians, with the possible exception of Governor Orji Kalu, are too afraid to claim their right. The Igbo political commentators have not done better either. Everybody is afraid that he/she will be suspected of pl
anning another Biafra. Those that claim the Igbo right do so only in muffled tones and in whispers. The Igbo political/cultural group – Ohanaeze Ndigbo – that should be in the fore-front of the fight is busy battling its own fratricidal struggles. Even when the Igbo Governors tried to meet a few days ago, Orji Uzo Kalu of Abia State told them he was not interested. Those that attended only managed to issue a communiqué that was tantamount to a cap-in-hand begging for the East to be considered in 2007.
Prominent Igbo leaders have all been intimidated out of contention. Everybody is already assuming that Nigeria is not ready for an Igbo presidency, so they have now given up and are instead lining up sheepishly behind a “South-South” (read Delta people) president come 2007.
Did anybody think the Yorubas were going to be given the presidency in 1999 just by asking? No. The Yorubas had to make a case for it and then they had to fight for it. If the Igbos think the presidency will rotate counterclockwise from the West to the South-South, to the South East, and then to the East, they will be in for a rude shock, because by then, Nigerians will have become politically matured enough to elect the “best” person, not the “zoned” person.
Another fear that Igbos have, as espoused in some of my recent conversations with my Igbo friends, is the fact that they do not have a credible Igbo leader, someone around whom the entire Igbo people could converge. Nonsense, I say. I can list no fewer than 200 names of credible and capable Igbo leaders. And since Nigerians have now caught the governors-for-president fever, why don’t we start with governors Peter Obi (Anambra), Sam Egwu (Ebonyi), Uzo Kalu, (Abia), Chimaroke Nnamani (Enugu) and Achike Udenwa (Imo)?
Take a look at Obasanjo. He did not even win his ward in Abeokuta in 1999! But allowing one of their people (Obasanjo) to rule has tempered the Yoruba agitation for the presidency and will indeed shut them up for a long time.
Some of my Igbo friends who agreed with me that there are many potential presidential candidates among the Igbos bring up a different problem though. They argue that the next Nigerian president should be a retired army general like Obasanjo. Their point is that for the immediate future, only someone with a good knowledge of the military can contain the egos of our soldiers. Only someone that has enjoyed a high level of respect and has commanded a significant section of the army, and has earned the trust and admiration of the men and women under his command can prevent a coup. They point out that decent and capable men like Emeka Anyaoku, Ben Nwabueze, Ralph Obiora, and Alex Ekwueme would be overthrown by the military the very day that they are sworn in.
There is a point to that argument. But I think Obasanjo is well on the way to transforming our military from the irresponsible power-grabber and power-drunk outfit that it was, to a truly professional military, peopled by men and women who only want to protect the territorial integrity of their country. I think the leadership of our military has accepted their complete subordination to civilian oversight. All we need is an equally matured civilian leadership that will consult the military, deal with them with respect and not take their subordination for granted.
Besides, the Igbos do not have a large pool of retired military men (those that were senior enough to have held important command positions) from which they can choose a presidential candidate that would be sellable to the rest of the country. This is because after the end of the civil war and the famous declaration that there was “No Victor and No Vanquished,” the Nigerian military treated Igbo soldiers like lepers. Not only were they constantly derided and ostracized because of suspicions that they might try to secede again, they were (and still are, to some extent) treated as second-class soldiers in the country for which they and their people shed so much blood in that documentary that I saw. Although the victorious Federal government announced bold steps to re-integrate the officers and men of Biafra into the Nigerian Army, none of them was trusted enough to be given any position of serious responsibility. They were not given the same opportunities as their Nigerian counterparts to train abroad and show their leadership capabilities. Hence, they got stuck in the same rank until they retired in frustration. The result was that throughout the nine years of Gowon’s regime, the three years of Murtala-Obasanjo’s regime, the eight years of Babangida’s regime and the five years of Abacha’s regime, no Igbo officer rose to a position of prominence and importance in the Nigerian Army and stayed there for an appreciable length of time. It did not help that virtually all the important military installations were situated in the North where Igbos, passionately hated by Hausas, dared not reside.
Even during the civilian era of Shehu Shagari (1979 – 1983) when an Igbo man – Alex Ekwueme – was vice president, it was quietly understood by Ekwueme and all the power brokers in the NPN that he (Ekwueme) was not expected to vie for the presidency even if Shagari had been allowed to complete his second term in 1987.
This systematic marginalization of the Igbos has successfully cowed many of them into submission (another surrender if you will), to the rest of the country. They seem to me to have accepted the second fiddle role in the scheme of things in Nigeria. And this should not be the case. The Igbos represent a major segment of Nigeria without which Nigeria will not be same. They should be accorded the rights and privileges that are commensurate with their economic and social influence in Nigeria. If the presidency goes to the Igbos in 2007, the so-called re-integration and re-habilitation of the Igbos that was begun after the civil war will have been completed. Only then will it be justifiable to tell the Igbos, like the Yorubas and the Hausas, to keep their mouths shut for a while as other ethnic groups take their turns governing Nigeria. Only then would the Igbo killers in the North, those that have sworn that no Kafir (infidel) from the East would govern them, come to accept the fact that Igbo people are Nigerians too. Umaru Dikko once said that only over his dead body would a Northerner serve under a Southerner. Vice President Atiku Abubakar is a Northerner. He has been serving under Olusegun Obasanjo, a Southerner, for a while. Nigeria is blazing a new trail.
Should Nigeria be electing its presidents based on zoning systems rather than competence? I think it is naïve to expect that at this still nascent stage of our democracy, our presidents should be elected based SOLELY on competence. We are not Europe and we are not America. We are not nearly as linguistically (and therefore ethnically) homogenous as the Europeans and the Americans. We have problems that are unique to us by virtue of the nature of our society. We should continue to tweak our democracy until it is suitable for our purposes. I think we can get a competent candidate even in a zonal arrangement. Does anybody think that George Bush was the best qualified candidate when he was elected? I don’t think so. Let us zone the presidency to the East this time.