Akin Osuntokun: Poverty of Nigeria’s history

by Akin Osuntokun

Following upon the publication of the column penultimate week titled ‘Unfounded Fears of Revanchist Igbo’ I have been inundated with requests to write a companion piece on other ethnic groups. The request was made in the mistaken notion that I deliberately set out to do an ethnographical critique of Ndigbo. Whereas I have only adopted a thematic approach in which I tended to use the dilemma of the Igbo to highlight the superficiality and inadequacies of the post-independence history of Nigeria.

It is always a risky proposition to isolate, generalise and input the character traits of a people. Yet the specialised fields of (human endeavour) anthropology, history, genetics and sociology are profitably committed to the understanding, interpretation and application of the uniqueness of national and sub-national groups. Given the abuses to which this venture is prone and had been misappropriated by genocidal maniacs down the ages, the history of civilisation and human development cautions and counsels against taking easy recourse to racial and ethnic profiling.

As I pondered the title- ‘Unfounded Fears of Revanchist Igbo’, two considerations weighed on my mind. The considerations devolved on the challenge of seeking balance between intellectual obligation and political sensitivity. The reality of course is that we hardly succeed in striking the desired balance, the golden mean so to say. Intellectual inquiry (of the Max Webber tradition) obliges you to pursue the truth wherever it leads and requires the assumption of detached objectivity regardless of sensibilities and sensitivities. It is what is called value neutrality in the liberal social science tradition.

I always have this stricture at the back of my mind even as I confess broad political and ideological bias and if there is any group of Nigerians I will consciously seek to treat with keen sensitivity – it is Ndigbo. I have read and reread several historical accounts of the civil war but I still recoil in horror anytime I am confronted with the enormity of the account of what took place in Nigeria between 1966 and 1970. The counter-coup, pogrom and the civil war represented for me a most unconscionable instance of overkill.

Against the horrific background of the counter coup and pogrom, I cannot, fundamentally, find fault with the recourse the Igbo took to secession. Beyond the inherent justification of this recourse, there is also the extenuating factor that similar consequences would not have followed were the Northern region faction of the Nigerian army to carry through their contemplation of the same course of action – residual Nigeria would have been powerless to refuse the choice.
The logic that crystallised from this historical moment (and henceforth became the motive force of Nigeria’s history) was that the definition of right and wrong became coextensive with might. I have no problem accepting the counter-coup as a balance of terror reprisal to the provocative precedence of January 1966, but the counter-coup went beyond the rationale of reprisal to the redefinition of the Nigerian association on the basis of might is right; ‘we would remain in Nigeria on our terms’.

The intermittent insistence by other Nigerians that this proposition is not acceptable has been the kernel of all the political crises Nigeria has experienced since August 1966. This status-quo endured for so long because of the protracted era of military dictatorship-which by definition is founded on the ‘might is right’ logic and it took the potential civil war situation of 1993-1998 to compel the strategic option of retreat.

Before the late General Sani Abacha died in June 1998, was the annulment of the 1993 presidential election crisis not culminating into another civil war scenario? And even now, is the country not shaping up for another showdown with substantial potential for a major armed internecine conflict? What are the chances that the loser of the two regional claimants to the presidency in the 2015 elections would not seek armed rebellion as continuation of politics by other means?

The more I interrogate the tragic turn Nigeria took in 1966 and the consequences it unleashed, the more I believe that the only thing worth celebrating about the end of the war was that Nigerians stopped killing one another-especially for those in the short lived Biafra-not that the unity of Nigeria was preserved. The unity of Nigeria that is worth celebrating is not the kind of unity that was imposed in August 1966 and was subsequently ratified and sustained by the outcome of the war.

The unity worth preserving was the one we lost in 1966 and it is not a coincidence that Nigerians were then more nationalistic than thereafter. The reason Nigeria continues to experience a desperate and debilitating struggle to capture power at the centre is that the civil war and its antecedence defined the presidency of Nigeria in terms of conquest and might is right; a war booty of leviathan proportions-to be won and used in accordance with the tenets of the 1966 model.
A little while ago, I wondered aloud whether any concerted intellectual inquiry had been instituted into the civil war-in the light of which Nigeria may be better designed and oriented. I got a response of sorts from a leading Nigerian intellectual, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, who related his participant-observer experience of an aborted effort in this direction. He recalled how such an attempt by the Nigerian government rapidly ran against the brick wall of the civil war dichotomy.

Comprising a fair representation of Nigerians, the membership of the task force appointed towards this end turned on itself and broke into the Nigeria-Biafra division-all set to relive the battle field belligerence. Hence the persistence of the conspiracy of silence on the civil war and the convenient resort to false sloganeering and make-believe in which the heroism of the Nigerian cause and forces is contrasted to the villainy of Biafra rebellion and subversion of the unity, good order and development of Nigeria.

A senior statesman and father figure (of Igbo origin) responded to the column in question as follows: “Debatable points in your column today include existence of monarchies in parts of Eastern Nigeria before advent of British colonialism and apparent exaggeration of Ndigbo influence on current administration.”

I recall this personal communication for a number of reasons. The respondent is a most distinguished Nigerian of Igbo origin and who by dint of this ethnic consanguinity reserves a vested interest in the subject under reference and who in addition equally has an intellectual mastery and expert understanding of Nigeria’s political history.
He identified a gap in my representation of pre-colonial history of Ndigbo as lacking ‘in comparable consolidated structures of elaborate system of governance as was, for instance, the case with the feudal monarchical governance authorities of the Oyo empire and the Sokoto caliphate’. I think the issue he raised was that Eastern Nigeria was not totally lacking in similar traditional monarchical governance. And he is confirmed in this observation by the evidence of the large city states of Arochukwu and Nri kingdoms which individually straddled large chunks of pre-colonial Eastern Nigeria.

This kind of intervention will post the salutary effect of requiring future recall and application of the comparative history of pre-colonial Nigerian societies (as it applies to Eastern Nigeria) a greater attention to specifics and detail. What, however, brings the poverty of the history of Nigeria into bold relief is that while the pre-independence history of Nigeria can be readily accessed and ascertained, its post-independence counterpart is shrouded and trapped in deliberate amnesia, opacity, outright distortions; and wilful ignorance.

More damaging still is the new-fangled culture of flippant individual interpretations, misappropriation and crass arrogance of ignorance. Depending on the occasion, argument and debate, it is as if every Nigerian commentator and respondent now has his or her own version of history including portions that are as recent as the preceding months and sometimes weeks.

Nothing bears better testimony to this poverty than the cavalier attitude towards the most definitive departure point for the understanding of post-independence phase of Nigeria’s history namely the coups of 1966 and the civil war.
From 1966, there has been this furtive attitude towards setting down and setting right the history of this nation-as if we have something to hide or running away from an accurate accounting of our deeds and misdeed. Is Nigerian history not significantly impoverished by the fact that neither the late Chief Emeka Odimegwu-Ojukwu nor General Yakubu Gowon deemed it fit and proper to shed light (through their memoirs) on the numerous dark patches of controversy and contention of this era?

If the counter-coup was anchored on the jungle justice of reprisal, why was it necessary to kill Governor Adekunle Fajuyi along with his targeted guest, General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi? After the murder of Ironsi, was Ojukwu not correct to insist that the next officer in rank, Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, should be the successor? Although everyone is wiser after the event but why did Ojukwu not accept the slightly watered down version of the Aburi accord and spared the Igbo of the bloodbath option of the civil war?

What was it that Gowon actually said concerning the unity of Nigeria? Did he say that the basis for unity no longer exists? Did the South-west leaders who consulted with the leadership of the Eastern region reneged on the mutual understanding that if the East goes, the West will follow? Is Nigeria now any more united and integrated than pre-1966?
Is it true that there was ever a time in the history of this nation when the ‘North’ was subsidising the Southern half? ‘That from 1914 up till the 1950s, money had to be brought from the Northern region for the Western and Eastern regions to balance their budgets’? When I inquired of the possibility of this history, shattering revelation from an eminent historian-he was stupefied, yet this claim was made by a former vice-chancellor of a ranking Nigerian university.
Increasingly, it does appear that Nigerians are becoming mutually unintelligible-where a man who directly and deliberately fostered religious division into Nigerian politics turns around to wonder what sort of people Nigerians are for finding fault with the proposition of a Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket; where the reality of National Conference suddenly became anathema to its long standing ideological proponents; where it is somehow conceivable that a President Goodluck Jonathan can be the sponsor of Boko Haram.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (0)

  1. I wish to thank you, Mr. Osuntokun for trying to balance the causes and consequences of the Nigerian Civil War. Trying as much not to offend any tribe, you completely forgot the role and the unfortunate consequences of the counter-coup and the civil war on the minority tribes in Nigeria. Be that as it may, I wish to remind you that action and reaction are never equal and opposite when it has to do with human affairs. I expect you not to talk with tongue in your chick. Let us always try to speak the truth, apportion blame where it is required to do so. Check through history all over the world, what causes war among nations begins with little disregard for little offences and disregard for individuals or groups or ethnic stocks that builds up over time. I wish to suggest to you to read again the remote cause(s) of the Rhuanda massacre between the Hutus and the Tutsis which was ignited by the suspected assassination of their President through a plane crash. Firstly if the six Majors did not strike or did a balanced job of eliminating their suspected military and political leaders among the three major tribes and if there was no deliberate act of impunity of humiliating one of the tribes that suffered most from the coup, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a counter-coup, not to talk of the events that subsequently followed – the pogrom and the war. Secondly, if there was a proper agenda and the predetermination of the proportion of representation at the Aburi meeting, there wouldn’t have been the issue of having the need to revisit the agreement. Thirdly, in your analysis, you were economical with the truth and could say that Ojukwu had a predetermined plan of what he wanted before going to the Aburi Meeting and having succeeded in getting what he wanted, he felt he had no need to attend a rescheduled meeting to revisit the Aburi Declaration, when the other party felt there was need to do so. In most of the writings on the civil war, no Igbo man ever agreed that there was any error on their part. And that is why people like me believe that General Gowon made a mistake of not imposing some penalty for waging war against your country, rather than just going straight with the 3 Rs. That is why no Igbo man will ever agree that they were at any stage at fault on the events that lead to the civil war, ab initio. This topic and many other issues were thoroughly debated on the internet last year among friends across Nigeria and in Nigerians in the diaspora. It was a heated debate which culminated in a friend of mine, Engr. Ebho Abure, and I, transforming it into a book, which we rightly titled, “History and Truth in Nigeria”. It was published by CreateSpace based in South Carolina, USA. The book is on the Amazon. I suggest that you get a copy and read it so that we can get your feel and possible comments from you. My passing shut is this: I am sure you are again watching the events that is happening in this country again – escalation of impunity, corruption, massive disregard for the rule of law, etc, etc. It is gathering momentum for the future. To prevent future explosion or implosion people like you and I must begin to cry out now that truth must stand in everything we are doing, for “a stitch in time, saves nine”. Have a wonderful time.

  2. that is a serious issue we must respect

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