Biafra and Lagos: 50 Years After

Come Saturday (27th May), it will be exactly 50 years that Lagos State was created (along with others) by the military administration of General Yakubu Gowon to give Nigeria a 12-states structure. Instructively, four days after that historic event, on 30th May 1967 to be specific, the late Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu announced the secession of Eastern Nigeria and the establishment of a State of Biafra. Taken together, a combination of the creation of states, the military incursion into our national political affairs that precipitated the dismantling of the regional structure and the subsequent declaration of Biafra would define the unfortunate trajectory of our country in ways that nobody could have foreseen at the time.

However, if ever any proof was ever needed that we don’t learn from our mistakes, it is in the fact that the possibility of a military coup would still be subject of a national conversation in May 2017 while many communities and groups are yet to be weaned of the ideas of secession, agitation for more states etc just as hate-mongering has become the defining issue of the day.

Yet, if we are honest, it is easy to understand the cold calculations that propel such harebrained ideas—including the notion that a president who is marooned abroad, battling health challenge, would seek and win re-election—in a nation where the political elite has perfected the art of exploiting group differences to advance personal agenda. The greater challenge is that because we have failed to harness our potentials, many now romanticise the past at a time other societies are busy plotting their future.

It is in that context that we should situate the renewed clamour for Biafra by those who, disappointed with what Nigeria has become, imagine what might have been had the civil war ended with a different outcome. While I am well aware of our squandered opportunities, it may also help to look at what Southern Sudan has become today despite the promise of yesterday and the enormous sacrifices in human lives of recent years. That may help in tempering our political arithmetic with a bit of realism.

For sure, the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafra offers a rare opportunity for sober reflection on a number of issues that may be useful in dealing with contemporary national challenges. But for me, reflections about the past are useful only to the extent in which they help in advancing the future. And today in Abuja, the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, with support from the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), will be holding a one-day conference on the theme, “Memory and Nation Building – Biafra: 50 Years After”.

I am particularly interested in the outcome of the sessions, having had the benefit of sharing ideas with Ms Jackie Farris, Professor Ebere Onwudiwe and Mr Amara Nwankpa in recent weeks. One of the main objectives of the conference is to encourage all Nigerians to be aware and concerned about the humanitarian and social impacts of internal conflicts regardless of where they occur in our country. The conference is also bringing together some brilliant post-Biafra generation professionals who had no direct experience of the civil war so as to ascertain what Biafra means to them within the context of a united Nigeria.

With the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, as keynote speaker, the conference will bring together key actors like former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Ohanaeze Ndigbo President, Chief John Nnia Nwodo, former federal bureaucrat, Alhaji Ahmed Joda and a host of contemporary Nigerian voices to examine the much-touted post-war programme of “Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation” so as to glean lessons (not) learned and to explore potential social and structural interventions required to secure Nigeria’s future.

While such an enterprise is very productive, especially so we can understand the subliminal impulses that inform the actions and reactions of Igbos to contemporary Nigeria and the feeling of collective hurt that remains very strong among the people, it will be more helpful if we tackle challenge as a national one as the YarAdua Centre is trying to do. Two reports within the past ten days make such an exercise even more compelling.

First, in a report titled, Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030, a Stanford University Professor, Tony Seba, has predicted that the transportation landscape will soon change dramatically as people switch from the much-cheaper fossil-based vehicles to electric cars, thus leading to a collapse of oil prices and with it the petroleum industry. Even if the forecast that all this would happen within the next eight years seems farfetched, the fact remains that the oil economy is in the past and that we must wake up to the reality of the moment.

At about the same period that we are being warned about the futility of building our hopes on hydrocarbon resources, Oxfam released a report which provides a picture of the current state of poverty and inequalities in our country. “Nigeria is not a poor country yet millions are living in hunger”, according to the Oxfam report, which advocates that to free millions of our citizens from deprivation and want, we must build “a new political and economic system that works for everyone, not just a fortunate few.”

Quite predictably, the response of the authorities was to dismiss Oxfam while politicians like former Vice President Atiku Abubakar would continue to argue that the solution to our problem lies in restructuring our country by using the existing geo-political zones as federating units rather than the current 36 states. Atiku’s thesis, which has become rather simplistic, is that political decentralization will “help to deepen and strengthen our democracy as it will encourage more accountability. Citizens are more likely to demand accountability when governments spend their tax money rather than rent collected from an impersonal source.”

While I am quite aware of the distortions in the current federal arrangement and the impediments they create for our growth and development, it is self-deceiving to believe that once we restructure, our problem will be solved. It will not, until the wealth of the nation and the opportunities that accrue from it are available and accessible to all citizens, irrespective of their states of origin or ethnic affiliations. That will happen when we create sustainable centres of productivity and economic activity.

It is particularly noteworthy that Atiku made his statement in Lagos, a state where you see a semblance of the kind of structure we must build if we are to change this society. Lagos is by no means perfect. In fact, Lagos is another face of Nigeria in terms of corruption, cronyism, nepotism and all other social ills you can point to. But notwithstanding, Lagos has a system that works. As the state therefore marks 50 years of creation, it has a lot to celebrate while kudos must be given to a succession of can-do leaders who have, at different times, proffered practical solutions to perplexing problems. For me, two stand out: Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

By the time Jakande became governor in 1979, there were far more pupils and students in Lagos than the then structure in state could accommodate at once so the school sessions were in daily shifts. But, based on his electoral promise on which he had done his homework, Jakande was able to change that narrative while embarking on several social programmes across the state. Without any doubt, Jakande, (the only governor of his era who did not travel outside the country throughout his stewardship which lasted four years and three months) left his mark in the state.

But perhaps the man who deserves the bigger accolades is Tinubu. By the time he became governor of Lagos in 1999, the state was no different from the others, relying only on revenues from Abuja to pay salaries and patch a few roads, as some of the governors are still doing today. The first thing Tinubu did that set him apart from the others was in the choice of commissioners. He went for respected professionals in their chosen fields, men and women with impeccable credentials but of little or no electoral value.

From Olayemi Cardoso who manned the Economic Planning and Budget ministry to Idowu Sobowale put in charge of Education to Kayode Anibaba who was given the Environment and Physical Planning portfolio to Leke Pitan, his health commissioner to Olawale Edun, in charge of Finance to Lanre Towry-Coker in Housing to Dele Alake in the Information and Strategy ministry to Yemi Osinbajo in the Justice sector to Teju Phillips, Muiz Banire, Kemi Nelson and others, Tinubu was clear about his goals and how he would achieve them. Even the few small-time politicians in his cabinet at the time like Musiliu Obanikoro and Raufu Aregbesola were young, popular and enterprising. His Chief of Staff of course was a certain Lai Mohammed who was later replaced by Babatunde Raji Fashola in a cabinet that included Ben Akabueze, Tunji Bello and others.

At the end of the day, what Tinubu has shown with Lagos—and is being sustained by his successors— is that while the structure of our country may not necessarily lend itself to inclusive growth and productivity, changing that structure alone will offer little or no comfort if the system is not imbued with visionary leaders at every level. Therefore, any discussion about Biafra that will dwell merely on the atonement Nigeria has to pay—and I believe that Igbo people have not had a fair deal in our country—without envisioning how we can build a more equitable society, will be no more than an organised waste of time.

As I argued in the past, we are yet to exorcise the ghost of Biafra from our national psyche because the scars seem very deep while the more the Nigerian Project fails to work, the more the nostalgia about a “Biafran Eldorado” that exists only within the realm of imagination for some young people. That then explains why the ready solution of restructuring being taunted by politicians like Atiku is a rather lazy one that does not address the fundamental problems of Nigeria. Fewer administrative cost centres do not necessarily yield a more nationalistic and workable polity. The challenge of managing a diverse federation like ours requires much more rigour.

I am for a national conversation not only to atone for the sins of Biafra but also to canvass a more equitable union. But I refuse to buy the argument that once you substitute the six geo-political zones for the states you have addressed our problem. Three days ago, an argument at a drinking joint in a Benue State community led to wanton killings and destruction of property, an indication of the dysfunctional society that we have become. “I wonder why an argument in a drinking bar could degenerate to a bloody clash resulting in this kind of destruction”, said Governor Samuel Ortom who led members of the State Executive and Security Council to the community. But the madness in Benue is not isolated and that explains why in contrasting the essence of regression into the past as embodied in the Biafra resurgence with the possibility of a progressive modernisation of Nigeria symbolised by Lagos, even with all its imperfections, I am looking at the kind of conversation we should be having about our future.

Meanwhile, as my own contributions to the conversation on Biafra to mark the 50th declaration anniversary, I have uploaded on my web portal, five of my writings in recent years that deal with some of the issues. They include “Memories of Biafran Nightmare” which centres on my interaction with Rev Moses Iloh, head of the Biafran Red Cross during the civil war; “Still on the Biafran Nightmare”, based on my discussion with Mr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, former Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) President whose father was the Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria during the war as well as “Chinua Achebe Still speaks” which dwells on the controversy over the appointment (and rejection) of Father Peter Okpaeleke as the Catholic Bishop of Ahiara Diocese of Mbaise, Imo State. There is also “Achebe and the Biafran Memoir”, a review of “There Was a Country” and my tribute to the late Comrade Uche Chukwumerije.

All said, as we reflect on 50 years after the declaration of Biafra and what might have been, I agree with the proponents of restructuring that there are sufficient grounds to question some of the assumptions on which the unity of Nigeria is predicated, especially in the light of our serial failings. But to beat war drums at the least provocation or to continue to marginalise (in critical appointments and projects) a significant section of our country are signposts that we have not come to terms with our past and that we have not learnt enough lessons from that tragic episode in our history to say NEVER AGAIN!

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