The angel of history and the ghost of Biafra

Thursday 15 January 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”.

It feels rather spooky that January 15 was also the date when, in 1966, the first military putsch led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu snuffed life out of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa,  Premier of the North, Ahmadu Bello, and senior military officers, most of them Northerners. That singular event set out a chain of reactions that culminated in civil war from 1967 to 1970.

I remember those tragic events rather vividly, even as a child. In the thick of night dozens of Igbo families turned up at my parents’ modest home in the parsonage in Murya. One of the fleeing 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 left us and disappeared into the bowels of the ancient 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. We cannot run away from the fact that the predominant leaders of the January putsch were Igbo: Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna and their friends were genuine patriots, but they executed a one-sided coup. The North felt justifiably aggrieved because it was mainly their own leaders that were victims. The putschists were never tried or punished. There was, on the contrary, a feeling of triumphalism. 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 merely intensified the fears of the North.

In July 1966, Northern officers struck in what has been described as a “revenge coup”.

Many of the dramatis personae believe they were acting in preemptive self-defence.

Rumours had been rife that northern officers were about to be wiped out. The revenge was inevitably venomous.

The lot fell on a 31 year old colonel by the name of Yakubu (Jack) Danyumma Gowon. He confesses that he accepted the heavy yoke only after long, agonising prayers.

God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.

Destiny prepared Yakubu Gowon for this singular role of keeping our country together. Without him there would be no Nigeria today. The son of Anglican missionary parents born in Wusasa in 1934, he is a son of the Middle Belt.

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. They saw in him the potential of an outstanding commander. He later attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst where he acquitted himself with distinction.

It is a well-known fact that Gowon was engaged to marry a highly 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 the popular misrepresentations, Yakubu Gowon did not wilfully wage a genocidal war against Biafra. He saw it as a quarrel between brothers.

This may not have been true of his field commanders such as Murtala Mohammed and Benjamin Adekunle (Black Scorpion).

I am close to Baba Yakubu Gowon and I know his heart. He is deeply sorry and remorseful for the waste in human lives that took place in Biafra. He and Awolowo have been blamed for the economic blockade that might have cost the lives of a million Biafrans. But economists will always argue about the theory of the counterfactual – about what would have been the real cost if the war had continued for five or more years.

Obviously millions more would have perished on both sides. I believe that history will absolve Yakubu Gowon. He is the Abraham of modern Nigeria; a man of compassion, justice and restraint. He was and is, a totally incorruptible and God-fearing leader. None of his successors can even remotely approach his moral stature. 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 all 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 personal ego was an obstacle to peace. He saw himself as this golden boy from a wealthy family who drove a Rolls Royce as a student at Oxford University.

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.

Did Biafra have a constitution? Was Biafra a democracy or was it just another African autocracy anchored on personal one-man rule? Was it true that Nzeogwu was deliberately set up to be killed at the war front because he was seen as a threat? And did he execute Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Victor Banjo, Philip Alale and Sam Agbam by firing squad because they differed with him on the course of 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 an Igbo man, 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 our Northerners resume the madness of their ritual bloodbaths.

This coming Thursday 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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