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Still on the Biafran Nightmares…

31 Jan 2013

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The Verdict according to Olusegun Adeniyi. Email, olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

Last week, I failed to heed my own counsel by dabbling into “Biafra”, a hot-potato topic on which reason has taken flight on virtually all sides. But by rendering the account of my meeting with Rev. Moses Iloh, I also brought out some of the suppressed issues that our country may have to deal with if we are to achieve lasting reconciliation via truth, and really move forward. I have heard phrases like “let’s move on”, “let sleeping dogs lie” and other fanciful clichés in our pretence that we do not have truly critical issues. But we do have issues and until we successfully deal with them, sleeping dogs may only be pretending to sleep, and it will be difficult to build a virile and united nation. That much was evident in my conversation with the former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN following the publication of my piece last week.

To the extent that we are all products of our backgrounds and cultures, the idea that somebody is a “detribalized Nigerian” is a big fraud as no such human species exists in our country today. But virtually everyone uses this delusionary phrase to describe himself or herself and people who he or she likes. In truth, however, it is a futile attempt to gloss over our diversity which could actually be a source of strength. That national hypocrisy indeed accounts for most of our problems since it is very convenient for a great majority to defend narrow/parochial interests within their various closets, notwithstanding public posturing to the contrary.

With so much bigotry from some Nigerians who cannot get out of the mode of using stereotypes in describing the “other side,” and with nobody or anything considered sacred, it is very obvious that pursuing the Biafran story is not worth the trouble for me. But when Agbakoba called that he felt pained by Rev. Iloh’s account of how his car was seized by the late Justice Agbakoba, I could not but listen to him. My conversation with the younger Agbakoba will therefore serve as my own closure on Biafra.

Agbakoba, who described Rev Iloh as someone for whom he has tremendous respect, felt the old man, who knew him and his family very well, should not have rendered his account in such a manner as to create erroneous impression about the Agbakobas and the Biafran war. “I was also involved in the civil war-- I was a Biafran soldier. I fought in the war so I am very familiar with some of the issues which Rev. Iloh discussed. One day I will write my own memoir as a Biafran soldier,” he said. Agbakoba, however, sees in Iloh’s account (which he said flows from Achebe’s book), within the context of a failure on the part of Nigeria’s leadership to heal the wounds caused by the civil war. He argued that the whole Biafran tragedy, for which his family also suffered, started “from a distorted account of a failed coup d’etat which was definitely not caused by the Igbo man. Because as far as I am concerned, the only connection that we had in relation to Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu being an Igbo man, was his name. His accent, his domicile and idiosyncrasies were totally northern. So, for reasons best known to him and his colleagues, they staged a coup d’ etat and it did not succeed. But what Igbos got for that was massive killings. We were in the North then and were actually part of the last people to cross the River Benue in Makurdi. I was on the last train.”

I am sure not many people, especially in the North, will agree with Agbakoba’s interpretation, which is also Achebe's thesis, that the 1966 coup d’etat was not an ethnic conspiracy. The fact that a section of the country saw it differently led to a pogrom against the Igbos in the North and ultimately a civil war. For Agbakoba, however, what is important in all these disputations is to find a leader who would have the courage to bring all the issues to the table, so that the nation could have a closure. “If we do not have a closure, the Achebe story, whether it is true or not, will continue be told and retold by people like Rev. Iloh. He is now in his 80s and he feels embittered. I, as a younger Igbo man, do not have that kind of bitterness but I understand the issues that he has raised. Anyone who has read Chimamanda’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ will see all the account of the civil war and the atrocities that were committed therein. They are not things that can easily be forgiven by the older generation of Igbos.”

Most of the national upheavals in our polity, according to Agbakoba, stem from the failure to successfully close the Biafran chapter in our history. And the only way to do that “is to recognise that Nigeria suffers a major structural defect; which was one of the main issues that came out of the Aburi Accord--that we are too diverse to build a very centrifugal type of federation. We need to recognize our differences, manage them and give ourselves the necessary space to stay in our corner. Since that has not happened, you will continue to have these occasional challenges and schisms that we saw in the story of your encounter with Rev. Moses Iloh.” I suspect that advocates of Sovereign National Conference will agree with the SAN on this score.

Agbakoba also shared with me interesting perspectives about some of the things that were happening in the course of the civil war when Biafra received relief materials from several countries. These materials, he said, were received and distributed by the Red Cross. “I used to travel with my uncle, the late Ben Agbakoba, who was a very senior police officer to Ihiala and Uli. I used to see when the lights would go out and all planes would land and discharge relief materials. I saw what was happening there so Biafra was not one Angelic place.”

On the report about his father, Agbakoba said it was unfair of Rev. Iloh not to remember several other encounters he had with the former Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria. “Even when he admitted knowing my father from Jos, I thought the old man would have recalled that as the leader of the Mine Workers' union, he enjoyed the support of my father who was their legal adviser and always offered them free legal service. Rev Iloh also conveniently forgot that my father was also the first environmental lawyer who organised a team of lawyers that fought the white colonialists in respect of the gully that developed in Jos as a result of the tin mining activities. Rev. Iloh should have recalled all these things and not only the issue of his car. He should have also recalled that my father was the first person who led the boycott of Plateau Club because of its apartheid policy against Nigerians, before he built his own club which was called Plateau International Club. These are all major contributions which my father made to the socio-economic and political development of our country. It was as a result of my fathers’ work, back then that led the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir, Ahmadu Bello, to rename The Florence Nightingale Place after my father, changing it to The Agbakoba Place. These are what Rev Iloh should have remembered and not bring out an issue about the seizure of his car which was done by my father in his capacity as the Red Cross Chairman for Eastern Nigeria at the time.”

Agbakoba further insisted there was a gap in the Iloh’s account. “That Rev. Moses Iloh was a very respected national officer of the Nigerian Red Cross Movement before the war was not in doubt and when he came to Biafra he organized the Biafran Red Cross and took charge of the structure. But then the old man did not disclose who he displaced on the way, because there would have been people there before he came,” he said.

On the issue of Iloh’s seized car, Agbakoba said the moment Biafra collapsed, many people simply disappeared with government properties and it was the responsibility of his father to account for everything belonging to Red Cross. “While Sir Adetokunbo Ademola was then the president of the Nigerian Red Cross Society, in keeping with the tradition, the Chief Justices of the States or Regions became patrons of the Red Cross. It was for that reason that my father was appointed first the administrator to take charge of the Red Cross in Eastern Nigeria, and later the Chairman. My father did not remove Rev. Iloh and there are many witnesses that can attest to that. At the end of the war, I was a first hand witness to the fact that there was massive looting of government properties even when there was a directive for people to hand over official properties. In fact my uncle, Major Mike Agbakoba who had been charged with the responsibility of producing petrol for Biafra, had about two or three government cars which he returned. Another uncle of mine, Colonel Dan Agbakoba, also had government cars which he returned to the field site where the government of East Central State directed that they be returned to. It was however an open secret back then that many people did not return their vehicles. It was in that context that my father intervened to retrieve all the properties of judicial officials in the region. Since he also had responsibility for the Red Cross and Rev Iloh had not returned his vehicle, that was why he retrieved it in the manner he did, assuming the tale of the Enugu street drama told you by the old man is accurate.”

The true story, according to Agbakoba, is that the Nigerian Red Cross society in Lagos (and not Ukpabi Asika) was in control of the Red Cross Movement in Nigeria “and that was how my father became the chairman of the Red Cross and Rev. Iloh, who was then the Biafran head, simply had to return his vehicle.”

I knew when I agreed to recount Rev Iloh’s story last week that by delving into the roles of individuals, controversies were inevitable. On the Nigerian civil war, everybody who is aged 50 and above and lived in Biafra is literally a walking history. That perhaps explained why Professor Chinua Achebe subtitled his book, “A Personal History of Biafra”. But the real essence of my intervention was to draw the attention of critical stakeholders in the Nigerian Project to some of the unresolved issues of national integration. Ironically, what the Iloh/Agbakoba brush underlines is the fact that even in the short-lived Biafra, there were intra-elite frictions.

Well, will the controversy ever end? I don't think so, as new perspectives will keep emerging. Although Iloh's account went beyond the Red Cross issue, we now have at least another side to the story. And I am done with Biafra!

Bombshell from el-Rufai

I may not know all the issues in my book on the Yar’Adua years that rankled President Olusegun Obasanjo after reading it but I at least know one because he voiced it openly in the presence of someone who told me: that I made allusion to the fact that he sought a third term in office. He told the person, as he has always done publicly, that he never sought a third term in office. Now all the intrigues, the blackmail, and the bribery surrounding the failed attempt have been laid bare by Obasanjo’s own former minister and insider, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai in his memoir, “The Accidental Public Servant”.

Ordinarily, when a book exceeds 300 pages I usually find it difficult reading through but el-Rufai’s book is about 700 pages yet I could not put it down until I finished, after getting an advance copy from him last week. From the foreword by Pastor Tunde Bakare to how el-Rufai entered public service to his days at the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) and finally his role as Federal Capital Territory Minister (where he was saddled with several other responsibilities), the story is riveting. But what most people will find interesting is the political dimension of the narrative, from the failed third term bid of Obasanjo to the emergence of the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as president; the enthronement of Dr Goodluck Jonathan and how Obasanjo courted and baited Major General Muhammadu Buhari in the course of the 2011 presidential election, ostensibly to get at President Jonathan. The last one is a tale that will interest those who are making permutations towards 2015 and looking in the direction of the former president for support!

What is striking about the book is not only that el-Rufai refused to hold hostages but also that he named names and exposed several shady deals while making damning character judgements of most people with whom he worked or had contact with. For sure, there are people out there who will join issues with him, that is assuming some do not head for the law courts! There is a long narrative on how Obasanjo handled his succession and an even longer one on the person of the successor. But the fact that el-Rufai was an avowed enemy of the late President Yar’Adua, also leaves question marks on what he wrote about him.

In dealing with the issues of governance, el-Rufai brought to bear his own experience and the frustrations that often come with trying to make a change in a society like ours. In the process, he also possibly broke some laws as he explained in the role he played at the formative stage of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), even if he hid under the cover of then Vice President Atiku Abubakar. What I, however, found most interesting in the book is the account of the negotiations for bribe between him and two senators in the weeks leading to his ministerial confirmation hearing at the Senate in 2003. It is a most fascinating account but I leave this bit for readers:
The next day I met with the vice president and told him what had happened. “I am grateful to you and the president for considering me worthy of being in the federal cabinet but if this is what it takes to be confirmed, then I am out of this game, I cannot do it” I said.
“Do not worry,” Atiku said. “...(the senator’s name withheld by me) is so greedy, he loves money so much that if you put 1,000 Naira in the mouth of a lion, he will try to take it even though he knows that the lion will probably eat him up in the process...”

The book is well-written in a flowing prose, but by rendering the account in the publish-and-be-damned manner he did, el-Rufai has thrown down the gauntlet to many people and on so many issues. The weeks ahead are bound to be interesting once the copies hit the market.

Now, I am almost sure that most of the people who saw the headline to this piece would have concluded that it is about a certain re-tweet by el-Rufai on Monday which he regretted thereafter. I have read several reactions to it and my position is that while Christians can be angry (as the Bible actually enjoins), they do not have the liberty to sin. How to balance the two on issues like this is the challenge. But Uche Eze Nkatta Idika has spoken for those who truly contend for the faith and are not simply playing religious politics: “A true Christian will always realize that the Battle is of The Lord. He was called a glutton, a friend of tax collectors, a sympathizer of prostitute, yet, He never responded with insults...”
It’s time for Christians to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

PROFILE IN COURAGE

Last Friday, Member Feese graduated and received her masters' degree in Poverty and Development from the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. At the ceremony, Mr Lawrence Haddad, the Director of International Development Studies (IDS) said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, with the support of the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor I just want to say a few words about this graduand, Member Feese. On August 26, 2011 a bomb exploded in the UN building in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. It killed 21 people and wounded nearly a hundred more. Member Feese was one of those wounded. She was waiting to get some data for her Masters Dissertation. Member spent months in hospital in recovery. But one year later she came back to her studies and back to Sussex. During her rehabilitation, I got to know Member and her wonderfully supportive family. During this time she has become an inspiration for me and for so many of us at IDS and the wider Sussex community. Why an inspiration? Because while she was wounded in the attack, she was not bowed. Her determination to finish her degree and her commitment to learning have been extraordinary. And her commitment to international development is stronger than ever. She is now working in the Central Bank of Nigeria and has established her own NGO in Nigeria, Team Member. Member, we salute your courage and we are all proud to be part of Team Member.”


I cannot agree more. Congrats to Member and her family and friends not just for the courage to trudge on, but also for the unusual generousity of spirit that accommodates redirecting a personal adversity to a cause greater than the self.

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