Nigeria:‘Civil war is never answer to a nation’s socio-political problems’

After reminiscing about the Civil War in his article entitled: “Eight lessons history should teach Nigerians and Biafrans”, Prof. Emeka Aniagolu, an Adjunct Senior lecturer in International Studies at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, United States, says there can be no future without the past. He cautions against pushing ethnic grievances to the point of national conflagration, as doing so can never be the smartest policy option.

There is an old wise adage that “those who fail to learn the lessons of history, are likely to repeat its mistakes.” And in Nigeria, the powers-that-are, have deliberately decided to relegate or remove altogether, the study of history from the nation’s formal educational curriculum and from popular culture; with the consequence, that in Nigeria we have a strange attitude towards our country’s past – its history. An attitude that suggests that learning about it, writing about it, and instructing new generations about it in formal educational settings are largely uncalled for. Yet, our historical illiteracy is a national indulgence we can ill-afford, except at the risk of the implosion of the Nigerian federation.

A good example of this state of affairs is the Nigerian Civil War. We have, at least, two generations of Nigerians – from the end of the civil war to now (1970 to 2017: a period of nearly a half century) – who had no direct experience of the civil war, and therefore, no memory of the pain and suffering, death and destruction that was the lot of “Biafrans,” especially the Igbo, as a consequence of the civil war. Second, because we have this inexplicable, but ultimately, self-defeating “conspiracy of silence” over the civil war, those who did have direct experience of the unspeakable devastation the war wrought, have been under a voluntary “gag order” whereby they do not talk about the war, have built no monuments memorialising those who paid the supreme price during the war, or pay public tribute to the genuine heroes and heroines of the war. Where are the monuments in the cities and towns of Igboland or in other cities of Nigeria of Nigerian heroes and heroines – of the heroes and heroines of the anti-colonial nationalist struggle, of great achievements of mind and nationalist spirit, not to talk of the civil war?

Between the two sets of Nigerians – those who cannot or refuse to speak and those who, obviously, can’t hear what they are not told – Nigeria blunders on, as though the past will take care of itself, while Nigeria magically sorts out its future. But there can be no future without the past, any more than there can be a present without the very same past. The present and the future are the child and grandchild of the past, respectively.

In order for Nigeria to deal effectively with its present trials and tribulations and to forge a viable future, it must deal squarely with its past – especially its horrendous civil war; a war in which nearly three million people died as a result of violence, hunger and disease. The attitude of many Nigerians towards the then beggared victims of the war, of seeming to say to them: “get over it, the war is over, it has been over for nearly 50 years;” It is like a man who was of the habit of abusing his wife and instead of apologising to her for his past bad behaviour and mending his ways; tells his victimised spouse to “get over it, because it has been quite a while since he beat her.” Never mind that he may still be abusing her in different other ways shy of outright physical violence and that his refusal to acknowledge and apologise for his past misdeeds, is, in and of itself, a form of abuse.

No one should ever be told to “get over” the brutal killing of their loved ones, watching babies – theirs and others – starve slowly and painfully to death; or the dreadful experience of seeing mangled body parts scattered everywhere from 2,500.00 and 5,000.00 pound bombs dropped from bombers into the middle of crowded outdoor marketplaces! It is an unbelievably cruel way for a nation to deal with or fail to deal with such a dreadful past. Sometimes, you find those who take the position of “blaming the victim.” It was the fault of the Igbos for declaring Biafra. As though defending themselves and their honour was a crime. Should an intruder to your home tell you the choice of weapon you should use to defend your homestead? Did the Igbos declare your village, town or region of the country Biafra? No. They declared their own region of the country – the Eastern Region –Biafra. So, the attitude of cynical indifference and unwillingness to extend to Igbo and others who were victims of the cruel war that was waged against “Biafra,” must stop. It says more about the insensitivity, coarseness and callousness of our national society, than it says about our nobility and conscience.

One of the phenomena of that stranger-than-fiction “conspiracy of silence” over the history of Nigeria’s greatest national tragedy – its civil war – is highly politicised national “histories” that various sides and factions within the various sides, choose for their political purposes. They pick whatever historical narrative suits their political agenda or posture, and the truth and truths about the civil war, as well as the mendacities that produced that tragic fratricide gets lost in the shuffle. The feuding sides and factions pick whatever facts in and of Nigeria’s history suit their fancy, and when such cherry-picking is not possible, they simply make up their own “alternative facts.”


Still, notwithstanding the shenanigans of such charlatans and propagandists, a national history denied, distorted and/or concealed, is not the same thing as doing away with the organic, material, social forces and dynamics that produced the conditions that led to civil war in the first place. If those organic material social forces and dynamics remain operational and unattended to, they will grind the rusty iron wheels of history back into frictional motion, potentially reigniting the flames of national conflagration that very nearly consumed the nation 47-odd years ago. Here, then, are eight lessons I believe history should teach Nigerians and Biafrans.

Lesson one: Civil War is never the answer to a nation’s social and political problems. First, such a war is a war within a nation’s own body politic – which is why such wars are described as fratricides. A nation eating its own – especially, its young – has never been and will never be a recipe for peace, progress and prosperity. Second, even if in such an unfortunate fratricide, one side or the other, succeeds in winning the shooting war, it must, afterwards, take up the hard work of winning the peace. Nations must wage peace in order to avoid waging war; for even after they have engaged in the folly of waging war, they must, ultimately, engage in the much more abiding and noble enterprise of waging peace. Has Nigeria truly waged enough peace since its tragic civil war? One important measure of the successful waging of peace, is the degree of justice that accompanies the administration of law and order. For the mere enforcement of law and order, though necessary, is not the same thing as justice. The true measure of the successful waging of peace, is the institutionalisation of a system of justice. And since the waging of war is the antithesis of the waging of peace and, at any rate, does not guarantee the institutionalisation of a system of justice; it is hardly an effective strategy for achieving a just and lasting peace!

One critical point is often forgotten by those who scoff at the clamour for an institutionalised system of justice as the noise making of the “little guy” or the “loser.”

However, they forget that whatever warrant justice grants today’s petitioner, is also promised any other petitioner tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. That is why it is justice – for you, for me and for whoever else it may needs be applied. There is no Yoruba justice, Igbo justice or Hausa-Fulani justice. Justice is justice. Which is why the symbol of justice in a court of law is the blindfolded lady with a sword in one hand and an even scale in the other.

Lesson two: Being morally right is a good thing, but in the domestic and international politics of nations, it is not always, or even, mostly enough. Unfortunately, in addition to being morally right, a nation of people must also have the military wherewithal to defend itself against its adversary(ies), whether or not it is morally right. And that, in a nutshell, was “Biafra’s” predicament. Although Igbos and other non-Igbo “Biafrans” were morally right -with respect to the terrible pogroms visited on them by savage Northern Nigerian mobs; in their inherent right to self-determination and with respect to the reneging on the Aburi Accord reached in Ghana, between Yakubu Gowon and Emeka Ojukwu – they lacked the military wherewithal to successfully defend themselves against the more powerful combination of forces arrayed against them.

The predictable endgame was the defeat of Biafra by the military might of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria, not Nigeria’s moral rightness. The Federal Military Government of Nigeria, headed by Gen. Yakubu Gowon, defeated Biafra in the civil war, due to superior military might, not superior morality. Biafrans were morally right but militarily weak. Biafrans fought a heroic and gallant defense of their fatherland and motherland. They put up resistance that rightly deserves a legendary place in the annals of world history. However, at the end of the day, when all was said and done, Biafra was militarily defeated. One commentator once said: “The history of the world is littered with the corpses of nations,” sacrificed on the altar of a wide variety of ideologies and ideals. Many such nations, like Biafra, may have been morally right, but were nevertheless militarily routed despite their moral rightness. In historical antiquity, there is the example of the Roman defeat of Hannibal’s Carthage, and closer to our time, European-settler genocide perpetrated against Native Americans.

The current advocates for Biafra are potentially readying to make the same realpolitik mistake, seemingly readying to go down the same rabbit hole their forbears did; because they lack the tutelage of the brute lessons of history, even when the leader of the first Biafra – Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu – in an interview stated clearly that he did not think a second war is necessary. For example, there is scant evidence that the international geopolitical configuration of interests and forces that conspired against the first Biafra, have in any way, shape or form, changed in order to reasonably prognosticate that another Biafra will fare any better militarily than the first. The lives ofBiafrans or any other Africans, for that matter, mean nothing in the geopolitical calculations of the relevant external powers and principalities.

This is not to say that Igbo and others, with legitimate concerns over the state of the Nigerian republic, should meekly tuck their tails between their legs and submit to discrimination, intimidation, unjustified and unjustifiable episodic communal violence. Far from it! I am a strong and unyielding advocate of vigorous and sustained rightful but peaceful protest. In the courts of law; on the streets; and in the court of public opinion, the people must fight for their god-given rights and as fully-fledged Nigerian citizens. And apart from their constitutionally enshrined right to such protest and petitioning, their self-respect as proud ethno-lingual groups of people, demands it. How else can they face their children and their children’s children, if they cowed like slaves instead of standing up as free men and women, to demand what is rightly theirs?

Lesson three: I am 100 per cent certain that pressing our various ethnic grievances once more to the point of national conflagration, is not the smartest policy option – for all concerned parties.The brute facts of history cautions against such a move. If, in the mid to late 1960s, the Hausa-Fulani could make an about-face over seceding from Nigeria, under the banner of “Araba;” as a result of the timely intervention of the British High Commissioner to Nigeria and the Yoruba could walk the plank over the Abiola debacle, yet pull back from the brink of self-immolation, only to participate later in democratic election after democratic election; winning some and losing some as they go along; surely the Igbo can walk back or walk away from the doomsday scenario of another national cataclysm.

Emotionalism, however understandable, is no substitute to hardheaded empiricism. We live in a natural universe with its objective laws of physics and biochemistry, not a world ordered and moved by metaphysical forces, dubious rainmakers and money “doublers!” If an emotively rich cocktail of true courage, bombast and pious supplication were sufficient to win a war, “Biafra” would have long since been one of Africa’s sovereign republics. Since such a cocktail does not guarantee victory in war and did not in the specific case of Biafra, the rest, as the saying goes, is history. The contemporary zero-sum advocates for Biafra, must recognise that diplomacy is one of several tools in the toolkit of any interest group or nation of people. To foreclose that option altogether as a measure of their ideological fidelity is neither wise nor necessary.


Lesson four: For all sides that get caught up in a national crisis of civil unrest, armed insurgency, all out of civil war or failed state conditions; the law of “unintended consequences” awaits. Although the Federal Government under Gen. Yakubu Gowon, eventually defeated Biaframilitarily, nothing clued Gowon as to how costly – in human and material terms – his so-called “police action” would turn out to be; an outcome that became a full-blown civil war that lasted for almost three years and saw to the death of nearly three million people. ‘Gen.’ Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, for his part, could hardly have imagined the toll on Igbo lives that became the consequence of his attempt at self-preservation by means of the unilateral declaration of the independent Republic of Biafra.

The architects of religious extremism and armed insurgencies in Somalia, Northeastern Nigeria, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Congo and among others; can hardly claim victory, peace, prosperity, stability, economic development, etc, as a result of the ongoing crises they engendered. All that can be said is that death and destruction have become the constant companions of those unfortunate parts of the world. So long as peace, underpinned by justice, is not made the compelling objective by all sides, the self-perpetuating cycle of violence, death and destruction, will continue unabated.


Lesson five: Of the “big three” ethnic groups in Nigeria – the Yoruba, the Igbo and the Hausa-Fulani – only two: the Igbo and the Hausa-Fulani, are domiciled in significant numbers in each other’s ancestral lands. There are significant numbers of Hausa-Fulani in the West and in the East; a large number of Igbo in the West and in the North; but comparatively, few Yoruba in the North, and much fewer still in the East. Abuja is the exception, for Yoruba, especially civil servants and other Federal Government workers, had no other choice other than to move there when the capital of Nigeria changed from Lagos to Abuja. The two ethnic groups most likely to lose much if the current advocacy for retreat into primordial tribal enclaves comes to pass, are the Igbo – in the form of landed assets and businesses in the North and in the West; as well as many Hausa-Fulani, who have resided and traded for a long time in the East. Ironically therefore, the two ethnic groups that have the most to lose from the present agitation for separatism, are the very ones agitating most vociferously for such a scenario: the Igbo youth and the Hausa-Fulani youth.

The Yoruba have had little reason to venture out of their ancestral lands in significant numbers, compared to the Igbo and the Hausa-Fulani. Two reasons accounted for that. The first was that Lagos was Nigeria’s capital for a long time and is located in Western Nigeria. The Yoruba did not have to sojourn outside their ancestral land to have access to the corridors of power in order to benefit from the financial largesse of the Federal Government. It was holding court daily literally in their backyard. Second, the unprecedented economic windfall the Chief Obafemi Awolowo engineered in the interest of the Yoruba, soon after the end of the civil war – the Nigerian Enterprises Promotion Decree (NEPD), popularly known as the “Indigenisation Decree” – was an economic masterstroke. With that, the Yoruba were able to garner great gains in the banking and manufacturing industries of the Nigerian economy, and accumulated the largest stockholdings in the Nigerian Stock Market. The only thing the Yoruba lacked was buttressing economic empowerment with political power. For economic power while necessary is insufficient as it is, remains precarious if it is not married to political power.

Political power, on the other hand, was in Northern hands via successive military regimes. The Hausa-Fulani elite used the political power they acquired through military juntas to milk the cow of the Nigerian State. And the milk from the cow of the Nigerian state came in the form of crude oil. The conduit for milking that heifer was the Federal Government-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). It is little wonder that a particular source indicated that among other worse cases: “In December 2011, the Nigerian government permitted a forensic report conducted by KPMG to be published. The audit, commissioned by the Ministry of Finance, following concerns over NNPC’s transparency, detailed the sharp business practices in the corporation, violation of regulations, illegal deductions of funds belonging to the state, and failure to account for several billions of naira that should go to the Federation Account. Auditors found that between 2007 and 2009 alone, the NNPC over-deducted funds in subsidy claims to the tune of N28.5 billion. It has not been able to account for the sum ever since.” And while the Northern elite were not the sole beneficiaries of graft at NNPC, they got the creamiest heft of that jug of milk; and they presided over the milking of the cow as the apex decision-makers in the military regimes, for a long time since the establishment of the NNPC in 1977.

The Igbo, the third leg of Nigeria’s major ethnic triad, had been temporarily disabled, economically and politically, from a combination of the existential toll of civil war and the sleight of hand of £20.00 flat compensation, no matter how much money the person had in the bank prior to the war, Chief Obafemi Awolowo handed them, at the end of the civil war. The phenomenon of the “Indigenisation Decree” of 1972, promulgated barely two years after they returned to the Nigerian fold from the devastation of war, found them penniless, barely surviving, never mind able to grasp for the commanding heights of the economy in manufacturing, high finance and stock market trading.

They had neither economic nor political power. Still, because of their sheer numbers and their talent and grit at itinerant commerce, they could not be ignored in the political economy. Being a tenacious, enterprising and industrious lot by nature and cultural disposition, the Igbos began their long, difficult, but audacious climb back up the rungs of the economic ladder via commerce, primarily through trading; and education, their bread and butter, like the Yoruba, since the turn of the 19th century.

Within a decade or so, from the end of the war in 1970, the Igbo, slowly but surely, regained their prominent, even if not preeminent position in the local economy. They were opening banks of their own, reestablishing themselves in manufacturing, owning landed assets across the federation as well as beginning to hold their own in high finance in the economy. But, even as they rose again in the economy, political power eluded them like the Yoruba. Even as each of the two Southern major ethnic groups waxed strong economically, they remained hemmed in by the military power held by the Northern elite. And because military power is almost always a trump card, the big stick behind the throne; it rendered whatever economic power the Yoruba and the Igbo possessed precarious, because at any time, the big stick could be brought out to nullify their material possessions -monetary and otherwise. It was the same kind of fate that faced the wealthy and thriving Jewish community in Nazi Germany. Though, they were very well-educated as well as captains of industry and commerce in Germany; they were dangerously exposed, since they lacked the military power to protect themselves from the military power of the Nazi state.

The only other way the Yoruba and the Igbo, including all the other non-Hausa-Fulani ethnicities could checkmate that military trump card held by the Hausa-Fulani elite, was to attack it at its most vulnerable: its inherent lack of political legitimacy. During the civil war, the “real and present danger” of war was an unassailable justification for military rule. At the end of the war, the need for “national reconstruction and rehabilitation,” seemed a legitimate enough justification to postpone return to civilian rule – democracy – for a while longer; especially in the face of the reintegration of Biafrans back into the Nigerian fold and the double-edged sword of the Oil Boom. Still, Gen. Yakubu Gowon was constrained to set a date for “return to civilian rule in Nigeria.” When he did not keep his word on the promised date of return to civilian rule, Gen. Murtala Mohammed, the mastermind of the coup that brought Gen. Gowon to power in the first place; seized on that excuse, among others, staged a coup against Gen. Gowon and installed himself the new military Head of State.

It is arguable that the last real military coup in Nigeria, took place in 1975, with Gen. Mohammed’s overthrow of Gen. Gowon. Everything after that has been political theater, arranged and coordinated between the actors – the protagonists and the antagonists – under the charade of military coups. The Northern elite, lacking a large enough intelligentsia to spearhead and manage the manufacturing and banking industries by means of an exclusively Northern technocracy, tried to cling to political power, for as long as possible, by orchestrating the “handing over” political power from one Northern military junta to another, under the guise of military coups. But, the legitimacy issue, dogged the charade and could not be avoided or postponed indefinitely. It came to a head during the struggle for MKO Abiola’s presidential bid. The late Abiola was a knotty problem for the Northern elite and only the Yoruba could have set such a mouse trap for the Northern elite.

Abiola was wealthy, philanthropic and had an expansive, engaging personality. So, he was not wanting in terms of the pocketbook or in the realm of social grace. He was a Muslim by religious faith, so, whatever religious prejudice was normally reserved for the so-called “unbeliever” or “kafir,” could not be legitimately used against him. The late Abiola campaigned and won in most parts of the North and in virtually every part of the South. So, his bona fides with respect to a free and fair election, were unimpeachable. The only thing that Abiola could not change was the fact the ethnically he was Yoruba and a Southerner. And because the Northern elite, through the handmaiden of the military, had that trump card, it was the only one they could deal and they did.

It was the central issue of lack of political legitimacy for the military regime that created the groundswell of support for Chief Abiola’s bid for the presidency, which, from all accounts, he won fair and square. Was Abiola’s bid for the presidency of Nigeria an attempt on the part of the Yoruba to consolidate economic power with political power? The then ruling Northern military Head of State, Gen Ibrahim Babangida, for seemingly inexplicably reasons, annulled the results of that election . Did the Northern elite conclude that if Abiola became the president, albeit a freely and fairly elected one, they would be handing over to the Yoruba, the whole enchilada, as Americans are wont to say? I am convinced that now that the military trump card can no longer be played by the Northern elite, except at the high price of the creation of a fascist state; the options the Northern elite have in the face of Yoruba and Igbo economic power in the context of a democratic Nigeria are starkly two: a negotiated restructuring of Nigerian federalism or the implosion of the Nigerian state, which could well lead to another civil war.

Lesson six: Many, if not most African countries, are marooned on the island of the racist ideological construct Western powers created as a prism for viewing African humanity or alleged lack thereof. We seem unable to achieve a number of things in our own enlightened self-interest:

  • Pacifying our polities long enough for the modern development of our countries to become an irreversible material reality;
  • Producing leaders who love their people more than their own selfish interests; our inability to produce a committed nationalist elite, able to keep their hands away from the “cookie jar” of the national till, for the purpose of self-enrichment;
  • Our seeming inability to make the fine but necessary distinction between individual and communal religious faith and piety and modern national development, and hence, clearly identifying the fundamentals for the survival and prosperity of our racial kind.

Lesson seven: Our seeming tendency to be ruled by emotion rather than by reason and empirical facts. For example, if organised religions such as Christianity and Islam are such crucial factors in our national development, why are countries such as China, Japan and India that are neither Christian nor Muslim, doing so much better than those that are? The political tug-of-war between secular political parties, competing for governmental power, is headache enough. Religious divisions over spiritual, theological, canonical as well as eschatological articles of faith and dogma; are intractable, perpetual and guaranteed to confound any attempt at peaceful coexistence and rational national development. The only solution is to sequester religion away from the state, and to privatise matters of religious faith as personal matters and not matters of state. That is the unavoidable precondition for successful modern national development. Anything short of that, will wind up in a theosophical and sociopolitical quagmire.

Lesson eight: Africa is the last nail waiting to be hammered into the cover of the coffin of Western racial nostrums and imperialism. So long as many, if not most African countries, remain mired in the vicious cycle of poverty, misery, disease, ignorance, religious bigotry, extremist insurgencies, communal intolerance and violence; so long will the humanity of Africans remain suspect and cheapened, especially viewed through Western racist lenses. Asia has virtually escaped that Western racial construct, because their modern scientific and technological success has become self-evident and undeniable.  Until Africa does likewise, we will remain trapped in the West’s racist construct, with the added risk of Asians being coopted by the Western World into its racist ruse against Africans. Until African leaders realize the necessity to overcome that historical burden, and thus, put the development of their countries—of their racial kind – over and above greed, conspicuous consumption, and hence, corruption; Africa will remain the poster child of incompetence, ignorance, irrationality, brutishness and hopelessness.


Finally, I wish to emphatically point out that compromise is not cowardice. It is often very intelligent behaviour. One of the greatest guarantors of peace between the people and nations is often not love of the Biblical or Koranic kind, although it would be nice if such an ideal could be realised in our imperfect world. It is often the conscious realisation of mutual interests, or in the dangerous world of a thoroughly nuclearized Russia and the United States (US), the understanding of so-called “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).” Nations come to the simple, conscious realisation that they have far much more to lose than to gain by waging war against one another. They come to the realisation of the barbaric futility of war. So, they keep hammering away at the maintenance of law and order, at peace, tranquility and justice; because the alternative is far worse than the present conditions, imperfect though they may be. A simple, straightforward, rational, self-interested and intelligent cost-benefit calculus. Anything else is irresponsible and unworthy of true leadership. Historically, humanity’s biggest dilemma has been charlatans, demagogues and self-appointed prophets, coming along and whipping the suffering masses into emotional frenzies of false expectations and unrealisable goals and objectives. Then, they “lead” those masses to the slaughterhouse and history repeats itself all over again.

As I have stated elsewhere: “although the past is great and has much to teach us, which we can scarcely do without, the future is always greater than the past; because it harbors within its manifold, the possibility for positive change.” For no matter what we say or do, we cannot change the past. We cannot change history. What has happened has happened. The only other option open to individuals or a nation of people, is to chart a new course for the unfolding future. Can Nigeria seize the initiative, through “positive action,” for the creation of a better and brighter future?



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