Of all the ghosts that haunt the Nigerian landscape, none are more stubborn than the restless ghosts of Biafra. They used to return annually to possess their devotees. Now they have become permanent residents in our lives through the social media and on television screens in our living rooms. They have gripped the streets and now also inhabit the forests of familiar places.
Last Monday was observed as memorial day by the people of the South East. It was Biafra Day, a solemn commemoration of the day of independence in what used to be Republic of Biafra. This year, as in recent years past, various pro- Biafra groups had scrambled for headlines by routinely declaring the day a work free day. These declarations were unnecessary. The day declared itself a memorial day since the formal end of the civil war in January 1970. Since then, it has become etched in the collective memory of all the people who still see this imaginary republic as an alternative home nation.
The right to adopt a sanctuary of the mind, a destination of collective respite where the collective mind finds solace in times of tribulation remains the entitlement of every people afflicted with a bad history. The memory of Biafra, like all treasured memories of historical belonging, has been passed down the generations in the last 50 years. The force of communal remembrance of past sadness is usually fired up by experiences of in a bitter present. In recent times, a palpable uncertainty about the future of the Nigerian common patrimony has amped up the burden of a troublesome historical memory for those who see Biafra as part of their authentic identity.
In solemn observance of this year’s Biafra Day, business and official activities in major centres of the South East were paused. The markets were shut, roads deserted and the ritual of money making which drives the lives of most of these people was suspended. Any intangible force that is strong enough to stop the Igbo race to pause the reflex of money making, even for a short while, is strong enough to arouse genuine curiosity.
On the day before, which was a Sunday, some in these parts had chosen to dedicate their church services to a communion with the spirits of the dead and return to the privacy of their homes afterwards. It was not the fear of danger by errant youth or the violence of frenzied mobs that kept people indoors. If there was fear of danger, it was danger from bullets fired indiscriminately by soldiers and police men sent to disturb the peace of those who only want to be left alone. The observance of Biafra Day in some previous years had always witnessed the routine accidental discharges, deaths in cross fires or the indiscriminate shooting at crowds of people merely out in memorial procession. The police and soldiers, always citing orders from ‘above’, have tallied casualty figures that often conflict with those recorded by Amnesty International. Experience has however taught these people that it is better to stay alive to witness future memorials by simply staying home while the heavy boots of transient power trample the streets.
The assumption that it is IPOB, ESN, MASSOB or any of the other latter day partakers in the growing Biafra franchise that made this year’s Biafra Day ‘sit at home’ so effective is false. The increasing uncertainty of life in a very insecure Nigeria has contributed. The discord among Nigerians about the future of the nation itself has spread the message of separatism and imminent catastrophe widely among many Nigerians. In a time of nationwide uncertainty and insecurity, people naturally seek the warm embrace of homestead, the invisible protective wall of kindred and the reassurance of ancient beliefs and kind ancestors,
Beyond the discomforts of present day Nigeria, however, the Biafra experience hardly needs anyone’s prompting to be remembered. Official Nigeria committed a fatal error of common sense in presenting this year’s Biafra ‘sit at home’ order as a test of will with the separatist groups especially IPOB. Now that the order has been obeyed massively, the government has lost a simple avoidable psychological contest. The people of the South East obeyed the force of memory, not the orders of IPOB or the counter order of the police. Biafra Day is simply a spontaneous pause to remember those lost in a season of rage and hate.
The Biafran war remains to date the single most memorable historical event in the history of Nigeria. It was a full -blown civil war. People died in droves, an estimated 1 million, from bullets and starvation. The Igbos happen to be the one single ethnic group that bore the brunt of the war. To that extent, it has become lodged in their collective unconscious as a trauma that will not go away. It will not go away easily because the Igbo seem to have been singled out or branded by who they are for victimhood in the Nigerian experience.
Better still, the Igbos do not need anyone to remind them of Biafra or the pain that lingers in their collective heart. No one needs to remind the Jews that the Holocaust claimed 6 million of them. The blacks in South Africa do not need to be reminded that there was Apartheid and centuries of injustices and violent racist oppression. Successive generations of Japanese citizens need no one to remind them that on 6th and 9th August, 1945, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated by nuclear bombs dropped by the US, leading to the death of 85,000 and another 35,000 injured. Twenty five years after the Rwandan genocide, no one needs to remind the Tutsis that there was a genocide which led to the loss of nearly a million Tutsi lives in less than 100 days. Nor do the Australian Aborigines need anyone to remind them of their near extermination and the loss of whole generations of Aboriginal children forcefully taken away from their parents. No one can remind the African American population of the United States that there was slavery, racial discrimination, the Ku Klux Klan, public hanging of blacks or Jim Crow even in today’s America. These memories live on as determining forces of these different national histories.
Memory is the gathering place of experience. The sanctity of memory is guaranteed by the impenetrable wall of communal anguish and past injustice. You can neither decree away nor shoot down the power of a people’s memory. The collective memory of a people has a certain sanctity about it that demands that it be respected and venerated as a sacred zone. No one else can feel the hurt in my heart. You do not go there let alone allow the irrationality of transient power to tempt an invasion of the sacred place of a people’s communal memory. It is an abomination. Individual memory of past hurt is however a more restricted private place. It can only be assuaged by the passage of time and the soothing balm of love and fellowship. Not so for communal memory of hurt and historic injustice.
For a people bound by culture and kinship, a bad memory can become a place of refuge in times of tribulation in a larger community. Nigeria has spent the last fifty years consolidating a segment of the national community, the Igbos, as the ‘other’ Nigerians. Or, better still, the Igbos have unconsciously spent the last fifty years literally left out in the rain of national life. But an ethnic group remembers the past often as an enclave demarcated either by triumph or victimhood and injustice.
Nations are different. They have a more composite memory which is the sum total of all the communal memories that make up the nation.
Unlike individuals or ethnic groups, nations remember differently. The memories of a nation are also stored differently. They are either locked away in museums, frozen in monuments or celebrated in the ritual re-enactments of state ceremony. The best nations are those that confront their past boldly and appropriate even the worst episodes, nationalize and democratize them.
The difficult questions posed by national memory are best addressed and answered for the benefit of posterity. Biafra was not just a tragedy of the Igbos or the peoples that once called themselves Biafrans. It was a rude question mark on the false assumptions of Nigeria’s independence. But for fifty years, Nigeria has confined the memory of Biafra to a sectional ethnic pigeon hole. This is why each year, Nigeria marks Biafra season with special security arrangements designed for the South East. This usually takes the form of massive deployment of battle ready soldiers and policemen. To characterize these operations, Nigeria has literally exhausted the animals in the wild trying to name each special operation: ‘crocodile tears’, ‘python dance’, ‘jackal parade’ …
Through these operations, the Nigerian state repeatedly reminds these people of the violence that precipitated the war in the first place. That violence is re-enacted annually in the multiple renditions, arrests, senseless incarcerations and summary executions of innocent people. The repeated criminalization of memory is one reason why Biafra has refused to die. Each seasonal show of force, each torrent of violence, each triumphal motorcade of armed forces through the streets of areas that no longer want to be battlefields is a deliberate irritation. These shows have only renewed and rekindled the spirit of Biafra.
This year’s memorial has coincided with an atmosphere of widespread insecurity. A new Inspector General of Police had ordered a special security operation in the South East. He was ostensibly responding to a spate of criminal acts ranging from the torching of police stations to the unfortunate loss of police personnel. Reports on the ground indicate this special operation has however degenerated into an orgy of indiscriminate arrests, harassments, abuses, extra judicial killings and routine disappearances of innocent healthy male youth in the region. We are yet to see any court arraignments.
In pursuit of this policy of total pacification, we are witnessing a fundamental reversal of the principle of all internal security operations. In a democracy, the protection of life and property ought to be the overriding objective. Instead, what seems to be going on in the South East is a programmed denial of life and wanton confiscation of private property. In the process, a deeper bitterness is being sowed and etched into the hearts of a people long used to seeing themselves as ‘outsiders’ and victims of deliberate exclusion. A security strategy that deliberately endangers life, liberty and property in a specific region of the country can only heighten the sense of exclusion and worsen national insecurity.
Something even worse is happening in the anti- Biafra security operation. A certain insensitivity to the cultural peculiarities of the people is openly on display in the security template. You cannot secure a people you hardly know. Consequently, the operation is defying and defiling every thing that the Igbo hold sacred. You do not arrest or abduct a male son in the presence of his widowed mother. You do not go into a community and round up most of the adult young males and take them to an unknown destination. You thereby send a message to the community that their protective wall has been forcefully taken down. You do not manhandle the head of a family in the presence of his wife and children. These are all adversarial acts that have little to do with securing lives and property in any civilized sense. In this culture, these acts are hubristic and hard to forget.
There is however a common crime to which these random abuses are being attributed. Every youth that is arrested, killed or caused to disappear in the South East today is presumed guilty of being a member of IPOB or ESN. No need for evidence. No need for investigation. No need to file formal charges or stage court trials. The crime is established; the investigation concluded and the verdict passed. The penalty is the same: death not by judicial verdict. No one has yet shown us the membership list of IPOB or ESN or a camp with weapons or evidence of organization.
Those who want to know why Biafra will not go away in a hurry should take a trip to the South East now and observe the 2021 edition of the Pacification of the Lower Niger in progress under the supervision of our own national police and military. Since after Lord Lugard’s pacification towards the end of the 19th century, so much progress has indeed been made. The colonial maxim gun has been replaced by AK-47s and machine guns mounted on Toyota pickup trucks. The jackboots of the occupying force and their victims have not changed however. Neither has the doctrine. The power relationship remains the same: the hunters versus the hunted.
On the contrary, there is now a new attitude to national memory and history that is calling us from all over the world. It is inspired by a new model of statesmanship as well. Sensitive nations remember the crimes committed by their citizens against their fellow citizens or the atrocities which previous dispensations committed under the banner of the nation against other people or nations.
Only last Tuesday, President Joe Biden of the United States returned to Tulsa Oklahoma, the place that best captures the extreme violence of racial hatred in American history. There in 1921, white hate in an orgy of insane rage massacred hundreds of blacks, burnt down a unique business district that came to be called Black Wall Street. In returning to Tulsa, Biden went with a message of hope and reconciliation and healing. Hear Biden: “Only in remembrance do wounds heal… Great nations come to terms with the dark sides of their past.”
On 13th February 2008, my friend the then Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, got the Australian parliament to openly apologize to the Aboriginals for the injustice of the forceful abductions of their children in an unjust programme of racist acculturation. Barely a fortnight ago, President Emmanuel Macron traveled all the way to Kigali to meet Paul Kagame. His mission was to literally apologize for the negligence of France in failing to prevent or curtail the extent of Rwanda’s Hutu versus Tutsi genocide 25 years ago. Not far from there, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent a special envoy to Windhoek, Namibia, to apologize for the genocide committed by German colonial soldiers against the Herero and Namba peoples in what has come to be known as the ‘forgotten genocide’.
There is always a moral burden that leaders of nations must discharge in dealing with the bad memories of their nations either in dealing with other nations or in ugly relationships among sections of their own populace. That moral burden remains a debt overhang around the necks of successive leaders. Neither the passage of time nor changes in dispensations can obliterate the pangs of an ugly memory nor reduce the moral deficit of injustice.
Fifty years after the end of the Nigerian civil war, no Nigerian leader has found the courage to nationalize the Biafran experience as national (not Igbo ethnic) memory. None has yet found the courage to appropriate the lessons of that war and make them national assets for the avoidance of a repeat. No one has been called to account for the war crimes committed in that war. Instead, we have decorated glorified war criminals with senseless titles and fancy accolades. We have invited the same scoundrels to re-assume the mantle of national leadership as if nothing happened between 1967 and 1970. We have awarded some of them huge oil blocs and generally elevated them into a pantheon to whom the nation owes life time gratitude. No Nigerian leader, military or civilian, has found the courage to apologize openly to the Igbos for the genocide committed against them before and during the war. Instead, our leaders have all relapsed into the psychology of victor and vanquished which has now made Nigeria a land of winners and losers.
I am an unrepentant Nigerian. But do not ask me why I prefer to walk each year along Biafra Street or why the fifty year old ghosts of Biafra are doomed to return ever so frequently to torment us all.