Prof. Ebere Onwudiwe, an economist and a political scientist was part of those that put together the conference on “Memory & Nation Building, Biafra: 50 Years After”, recently held at the Yar’Adua Center in Abuja , under the sponsorship of Ford Foundation, Open Society Initiative for West Africa (Osiwa) and the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation.
He noted that the failure of the 3 Rs (Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reconciliation, a government policy after the civil war), was responsible for the emergence of Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) and Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) .
What’s the whole idea of the conference, Biafra at 50?
Biafra is a historical fact. Mentioning the word Biafra or even discussing it as we did at the conference should not be done under the table. The history of the civil war is part of the history of Nigeria. Therefore, we saw a need for a national conversation on the country’s most weighty calamity since self-rule. To keep avoiding a national discussion of Biafra is not very smart because it amounts to sweeping a significant portion of national history under the rug.
A society that studiously pretends that a huge and catastrophic part of its history did not happen in a mindless effort to hide it from its younger generations is investing on the repeat of that history. I believe strongly that Nigeria cannot survive another Biafra. This informed the third reason for our conference that is encapsulated in the question: Why are people still agitating for Biafra?
So tell us why people are still agitating for Biafra?
In a sense, this is a primary focus of the conference. You will notice that the most important panel of the conference was focused on the famous Three Rs of the Gowon administration at the end of the war. That panel is aptly entitled: ‘Reconciliation, Reconstruction, and Rehabilitation: What Have We Learned?’
You see, the failure of Nigeria to vigorously and successfully implement the Three Rs policy is in partly responsible for the MASSOB and IPOB uprisings of today. A smart country should be having a real epiphany right about now with what’s contemporaneously happening in the North -east because if you fail also to keep the promises of rebuilding that region after the devastation of Boko Haram, if you let the hopes invested in the promise of that rebuilding die like the Three Rs, you can also be sure that the children in IDPs today will grow up and ask questions. Their disagreements then with the state will be by a feeling of deprivation as IPOB feels today.
Is it safe to say then that the Federal Government has failed the Biafrans?
Haba, I don’t know what is safe to say; you have to go to the DSS for that. (Laughs). But let me remind you that Nigeria’s original goal of the civil war was to preserve the country. Remember also that the operative equivalent slogan then said that, ‘To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done.’
The military defeat of secession only achieved that goal in half. The other half is the war of re-integration that can only happen in the battlefields of policy making and actual implementation where the most effective weapons are the soft tools of reason, justice and fairness. Nigeria seems to have lost this part of the war.
But this is not a permanent condition. It is totally reversible. It can win by plugging all the cracks on the wall of national integration for all Nigerians. We cannot win this war by behaving like Ostrich, by hiding our heads in the sand and thinking from the other exposed end that everything is honkey-dory; that the system is fair to everyone and that all those protesting injustice are all IPOBs and noise makers. That’s a great, great mistake. The system must listen to the truly wise among its elites not to the justice-impervious and muscle-flexing buffoons among us.
You had another panel termed “Post-Biafra Generation: Securing Our Future,” what’s that all about?
It is about focusing on the Nigeria of tomorrow by citizens many of whose lives lie in the future. The panelists there are all post-Biafrans. They were neither Nigerians nor Biafrans during the civil war. You know why? They simply did not exist then, period. It is from these ranks, this age bracket that IPOB is born. If they are children of Ndigbo such as my own magnificent offspring, they should not receive the Shylock treatment from Nigeria.
They were not Biafrans, were they? They are Biafrans only by discrimination, by injustice, by unfairness, by thoughtless attribution and subsequent retribution! When you deny them true equality they don’t rationalize it and try to understand it as price for Biafra. No. They take it personally; they join IPOB. I remember a brilliant essay on restructuring Nigeria by the current Emir of Kano some years ago where he gave this same exact warning. Agree with emir or not, he is a wise man. This country ought to listen to its wise men and women rather than harass and gag them.
But some say that your conference is an Abuja elite affair that did not deal with the yearnings and grievances the sufferings in Igbo land?
Let me say first of all that Ndigbo are not the only victims of the Biafran war. People of the present day South-south in Delta, Bayelsa, Cross River, Rivers and Akwa Ibom also bore the brunt of that conflict in significant measures. In any case, the conference was not to preach to the choir. We wanted a conference that will address where we go from here as Nigerians. And you will agree with me that the Yar A’dua Center, the organizers of the conference did a great job of it. We are not pretending that it was a cure all conference. This in fact is the second conference on Biafra that I have been part of. The first one was at the University of Ibadan. Gen. Gowon was there. Gen. Effiong was there, plus other significant participants in government such as Chief Richard Akinjide and noted journalist of that era like the late MCK Ajuluchuku, and many academics. Also please note that as we speak, there are many other conferences to mark the 50th year of Biafra in universities around the world with themes emphasizing memory, the atrocities of the war and the like. These are all good. It is, in fact, good enough that we are able to hold the conference on Biafra in Abuja in the first place. I wonder if this could even have happened in previous administrations with a sitting acting President in participation.
So really, this conference was not an Abuja affair. It was a veritable Nigerian event designed to bring to the consciousness of the whole country the need to win the Biafran war in all fronts, and then, move on to a collective great future. A situation where a grandfatherly person like Chief Iwuanyanwu who saw the war up close can be moved 50 years on to recently say, ‘I am a Biafran’ should make this country think. This is why we focused on the three Rs to address a major part of what IPOB and MASSOB are protesting.